All in one place

Filipinos find community at Vallejo's Seafood City Plaza

Fairfield Daily Republic ©

Seafood City, a strip mall packed with fast-food restaurants and myriad stores selling cardboard boxes, skin whiteners and fresh-baked pastries, is a place where 61-year-old Jay Jimenez feels at home.

The Filipino native, having had his share of challenges in life, volunteers inside the Bayanihan Center, a 1,500 square-foot area whose name refers to a spirit of communal unity.

On an almost daily basis, he assists community members in this place that offers meeting space, computers, TV, art and books, amid the savoring smell of Pan de Sal from Baleros Bakery across the way and Smart Remittance-Cargo-Travel next door, a place where packaged American goods are sent to the Philippines via Balikbayan boxes.

He blithely admits he spends countless hours in this indoor plaza, located on the corner of Redwood Street and Sonoma Boulevard; a result of living alone in the nearby senior apartments coupled with an early retirement, and rather enjoys it.

Jimenez will often run into his friends at the center plus, he adds, frequently visits DJ Restaurant where $3.75 can buy a large portion of meat accompanied with rice and soup.

"I'm big and I love to eat, but I can not finish when they put two dishes on the plate," he cares to admit with a slight accent. Jimenez then holds his round belly with his two large hands, laughs and says, "I'm already like this!"
Jimenez is one of many - including a martial artist and shop owner - who represent the Filipino culture inside Seafood City mall.

The mall attracts a portion of the 21 percent of Filipinos in Vallejo's population of 116,760 residents and is a place where Asian and Philippine products can be found.

But the 3-year-old plaza is more than a shopping center. It supplies a familiar feeling to shoppers of the Philippines, provides a central location for the Filipino community to convene and, more importantly, engenders an environment that fosters a culture to continue.

Smelly fish

Jimenez loves to shop for smelly fish.

Inside the market, which shares the plaza's name, Jimenez stands in the fish department and inhales the pungent aroma before staring at the various fresh fish on display. A constant beep generated by nearby cash registers accompanies his every word.

"Look at the shrimp. It's $3.99 a pound with the head attached. That's cheap," he says, then picks up a large shrimp. "You know, there are recipes that you need the head. But look at these on the other side - the body is small, no head and it's expensive. The ones with the head are better."

He continues to walk through the large fish department, glancing at prices and at times, nodding his head as if silently approving its cost.

"Don't buy a dead crab, they're not fresh," he hastily says and continues to shop.

Jimenez is careful of his daily menu. In the past seven years, he has had one stroke and two open heart surgeries.

"But I'm a healthy man. I can still have kids," he proudly says.

Jimenez has been in the United States for 36 years, having come to this country from the Philippines at the age of 25, and yet has never seen a plaza like this one, he tells in a scratchy voice with a large, embracing smile.

"It's a real Filipino center with Filipino products and food," he says. "It has Seafood City Market from the Philippines, ChowKing (fast food), Red Ribbon (bakery) and Max of Manila (restaurant). We have everything we need here."

He wipes his dark eyes, which he says will water because of old age, and takes a breath before speaking.

"Yes, there is everything we need here," he utters.

When Jimenez came to America, he had big dreams for himself coupled by an even bigger ambition.

"It's a big thing In the Philippines to say you're coming to America," he says, his "r" in the word America rolling off his tongue. "They think America is paradise, they think the dollar goes far."

He gives a wry smile, makes a clicking sound with his mouth and drops his eyes for a moment.

"I also thought this was paradise but it's hard work," he admits. "I thought at age 35 I would be retired but that didn't happen. Yup, it's different."

But, he quickly adds, he was able to do what he wanted in America, such as own a life insurance agency where he supervised 55 agents.

"I helped them to pass the California license and they did well," he says and sighs. "But once you're health hits you, you're done."

After two marriages and divorces, Jimenez is proud to say he has six daughters. The corners of his mouth seem to reach for his eyes in his beaming smile.

"I'm Filipino, you know? We like to have a lot of kids," he says.

Grandmaster Ver Villasin

The seeds were sowed generations ago.

Grandmaster Ver Villasin, dressed in black and holding two sticks, has martial arts in his blood. He has no choice. It's been passed down from the legacy of his father, Great Grandmaster Jose Villasin, who mastered the techniques and philosophy of the Balintawak Arnis system. And now, inside the Bayanihan Center, he too teaches the art to more than 20 students on a weekly basis.

Balintawak is a style of Filipino martial arts that teaches single stick fencing in a dueling format. It was developed by the late Venancio "Anciong" Bacon during the 1950s in Cebu City, central Philippines, from earlier Filipino styles such as Doce Pares.

"I have been doing this since I was 8 years old," says Villasin, who is now in his '50s and came to the States in 1972. "I promised my dad to spread the art throughout the world and to hand down the legacy to someone who is worthy enough to follow the principals, legacy and philosophy."

Villasin stands in position as five students, all of various ages, are ready to challenge him. One-by-one, he takes them on, creating a form of dance with his swift hand movements and steadfast feet.

"It's so natural to me like the air you breathe, it becomes impartial to your body," he says and remarks that his school, the Balintawak Arnis Academy, Villasin, is the only one in California.

"It's like water to me, like one of the components of my body," he adds. "This has made me so confident. I walk, breathe and talk the mastery of Balintawak."

Villasin is also helping to continue the culture of the Filipino martial arts. As he instructs the students with their movements, he embodies the culture and history of the Filipino people through dialogue, so that his students can preserve the essence of the culture for future generations.

"We want to cultivate the art, which is a tradition of the community," he says.


Jimenez walks into the Barong & Formal shop, just outside the Seafood City indoor mall, and a beatific look appears in his eyes, as if the memories of a particular time had lodged in his throat.

"These are worn during weddings and special occasions," he says, and picks out one of the many barongs hanging inside the moderate-sized shop. "Look at this one. Isn't it nice?"

Barong Tagalog, a lightweight embroidered formal garment of the Philippines and worn untucked, is a tradition that dates back to the Spanish Colonial era. It is said by some Filipinos that barongs were made of thin fabric so that the Spaniards could assure that the wearer was not bearing a weapon under the garment.

"We were under Spanish rule for 100 years!" Jimenez says loudly as he looks at the price of one shirt ($99).

The owner, Raquel Arriola, opened this store in 2003 because she knew the area housed a plethora of Filipinos.

"I knew they didn't have this kind of store here," the sharp-looking petite woman says and smiles. "People come here from as far as Nevada and Santa Rosa to buy barongs for their weddings - even if they're marrying a white person."

Arriola came to the States 13 years ago to be closer to her family. Today, she has four shops in the Seafood City mall, including a video store, home decoration shop and a fine jewelry kiosk.

"I had a good life in the Philippines, but I did this for my children," she admits.

Outside, where numerous people, mostly Filipinos, bustle on the sidewalk in pursuit of empanadas, fresh fish or fried chicken, Jimenez looks at his watch and hurries off.

"I've got to be back in the Bayanihan Center in case someone needs me," he says before leaving.