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How Filipinos Are Remaking The Look -- And Taste -- Of The Inland Empire

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By Dorian Merina

Filipinos have emerged as the top Asian group in the Inland Empire, passing other groups, such as Chinese and Vietnamese, that make up the majority of Asians in nearby Los Angeles and Orange counties. The shift in demographics is remaking a vast region usually known more for its rural farmland and miles of freeways.

"There are, in fact, Asian immigrants here," said Karthick Ramakrishnan, director of the Center for Social Innovation at the University of California, Riverside, a fact, he noted, that is commonly overlooked.

"We need to think about what we're doing to cater to the needs, and also to harness the talent, of these populations," he said.

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In April, Ramakrishnan's group released the first in-depth look at immigrants in the region, which is made up of San Bernardino and Riverside counties. It found that there are nearly 1 million immigrants in the area, spread out over a massive 27 million square miles. Filipinos make up the largest group -- about 33 percent, of Asians. They're followed by Chinese, at 22 percent (Korean, Vietnamese and Indian populations each account for 10 percent).

"Starting in the 1960s when you had a significant shortage in nurses, Filipino nurses ended up being very important to the health care sector and we see that reflected here in the Filipino American population," Ramakrishnan said.

(Courtesy UC Riverside Center for Social Innovation)

But the story of Filipinos stretches even further back. Filipinos first arrived in the early 1920s to work in agriculture alongside South Asians. Korean and Japanese immigrants had already gained a foothold in the thriving agriculture sector. Over the decades, Filipinos also developed strong ties to military in the area.

But that history is often overlooked, said Michelle Magalong, an associate director at UCR's Center for Social Innovation, who worked on the study. She hopes it dispels the stereotypes that she and other Filipinos often run into.

"As much as I feel we have a presence here, I think people still mistake us for different ethnicities, different races, and also that we're new, we're not educated, we're not proficient English speakers," Magalong said. "So, it's still a lot of work that needs to be done."

There are other obstacles, too. The expansive geography makes access to services -- such as translation assistance or legal aid -- tough for many immigrants. And many residents, drawn by affordable housing, still maintain employment in the more populated areas to the west, adding hours of commuting time.

That's time away from families and from neighborhoods. As a result, many pockets of immigrant communities in the Inland Empire lack the dynamic business districts that distinguish other areas of Southern California.

But that could be changing.

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Today, the growing visibility of Filipinos can be seen in Chino, where a stretch of restaurants featuring Filipino food, both traditional and new, dots Edison Avenue, just off the 71 Freeway.

The trend is here to stay, said Ginger Dimapasok, co-owner of Cafe 86. When she opened her doors in 2014, she decided to draw on her Filipino roots to develop an entire line of baked goods that feature ube, a purple yam popular in her home country.

"It was really a risk we took," said Dimapasok, who opened the cafe with her husband. "We even had apprehensions about how the heck do we meet overhead? Do you think 10 people will come today? Do you think we'll sell $100 worth of stuff today?"

But ube turned out to be a big hit and is now the signature flavor of her cafe. There's an ube cinnamon role. An ube truffle. Even an ube milkshake that's a top seller. Soon after opening, word spread and Instagram feeds filled with purple goodies.

"It was really word of mouth," she recalled. "It was very, very surprising."

In just four years, her one store grew to four. And she's gone from eight employees to nearly 100. She goes through about six crates of ube each week. Today, more and more non-Filipinos are also walking through her doors.

That kind of growth is one sign of how far the community has come, said Joan Frost, 41, who moved to Temecula in the early 1990s after her father retired from the U.S. military. She remembers feeling isolated in high school.

"Back in the day there was maybe even just ten Asians," she said.

So she became president of the pan-Asian club and her family joined a local prayer group, called Santo Niño, to connect with other Filipinos. Since then, a lot has changed. Many of her new neighbors come for the affordable homes and good schools, she said. And her 9-year-old son's class is much more diverse.

"It's good, we're seeing people settling their roots here, building their families here so they can have a really good future," she said.

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