Six years ago, a nine-by-six block area below Market Street was christened SoMa Pilipinas, San Francisco's Filipino Cultural Heritage District.
The neighborhood is not the first in SF that Filipinos and their descendants have claimed as their own. For more than 50 years, Manilatown, a 10-block radius around Kearny, Bush, and Jackson Streets—pulsing with Filipino culture, business and daily life—thrived downtown. But when urban redevelopment displaced thousands of its residents in the 1970s, many relocated to the then gritty-but-affordable area between 2nd and 11th streets south of Market.
When gentrification came for SoMa in the 2010s, the FIlipino community did what they couldn't 50 years before. They fought back.
"Filipinos stood up and were like you're not going to displace us again, you've already displaced us once, this is our home," says Gina Mariko Rosales, founder of Pinayista, a nonprofit connecting Filipina entrepreneurs and doers. She is also a cofounder of Undiscovered SF, a creative night market in SoMa Pilipinas, and an event-planner extraordinaire through Make it Mariko.
"So in 2016, the City of San Francisco officially recognized SoMa Pilipinas as the Filipino Cultural Heritage District, and it was one of the first cultural districts designated by the California Arts Council as a state designation."
Rosales didn't start out as a warrior for the Filipino community. Born and raised in the Bay Area, she took pride in her Filipino and Japanese heritage but didn't see a place for herself among the activists and cultural promoters. "I was that person that would walk by the Filipino table. I wasn't necessarily involved in Filipino activities," she says.
But everything changed in 2011 when Rosales' cousin, just three months her junior, took his life. "It was just such an unexpected blow," she remembers. "I made a pact to myself that I wanted to spend my life doing things I was proud of." She had a top-notch job at Google but, after seven years with the company, she had come to the realization that her corporate work was not what she wanted people to remember at her funeral.
Against the advice of her parents, Rosales left the tech giant and launched Make it Mariko, an event planning company staffed entirely by women of color. Not long after, the newly minted entrepreneur attended a meeting about the development of the SoMa Pilipinas Cultural District and saw an opportunity to use her skills. "Why don't you let me throw a launch party so everyone else can feel the pride that I'm feeling that we have our own cultural district," she suggested. And there it was, the place in the community she didn't know she'd been looking for.
With nonprofit Kultivate Labs, Rosales cofounded a new venture, Undiscovered SF, to jumpstart public awareness of SoMa Pilipinas and generate new economic and cultural opportunities for community members. "Undiscovered SF is our love letter to FIlipino culture and community but also through the lens of hip hop and pop culture."
Gina Mariko Rosales (center) and other Pinays at the 2020 Pinayista Summit.(Come Plum)
Her first year, 2017, Rosales didn't know many Filipino entrepreneurs in the Bay Area and the least visible among them were Pinays (pronounced pih-nais), women of Filipina heritage. "I knew three other women of color who owned businesses at the time I started Make it Mariko. I didn't see entrepreneurship as a space that was welcoming me. I didn't have anyone to look up to," she explains. "So I got together with a few of the Pinays I knew and said, let's put together a list. We could only come up with 50 people." They tossed around the idea of a happy hour to bring them all together but Rosales' inner event planner spoke up. They organized a conference, instead.
That day, at the first Pinayista Summit, 130 Pinays showed up. The event was hugely transformative, propelled by the concept of Pinayism, a "radical Pinay sisterhood" developed by SF State professor Dr. Allyson Tintiangco-Cubales that connects Filipina women and provides mentorship and support. Four years on, Pinayista has become a full-fledged nonprofit community collective with a mission to "build sisterhood in the hustle."
At this October's Summit, 364 Filipina women attended three days of presentations, panels, and group activities virtually and in person. "In other spaces we are not allowed to be our real selves," says Rosales. "Pinayista is our space to be real. We had community panels, we had more than 20 breakouts where people could choose their own adventure, and lightning talks by eight powerful and inspiring Pinays that came to tell honest stories."
The 2021 Pinayista Summit(Melissa de Mata)
They even did a sound bath guided by queer Pinay duo AstraLogik. "We know how intense and traumatic the past 18 months have been and how much all the Pinays are holding. We needed to create a space for us to heal and be held," Rosales explains. It was a powerful experience. "The sound bath from Astralogik gave me messages from my ancestors that I needed to hear," commented one attendee, Arlene Daus-Magbual.
While the year's biggest Pinayista event is now in the rearview, Undiscovered SF's is just about to get started. On Saturday, October 16th, their fifth annual event takes place in the SoMa Pilipinas Cultural District. With Covid still in the air, instead of doing a single large-scale event this year, the group has organized a Culture Crawl at 10 outdoor and indoor spaces for shopping, dining, dancing, and connecting with Filipino culture. There will be live music at Mint Plaza, community booths and karaoke at Jessie West, and vendors set up in front of the Westfield SF Centre.
It's a long way to come in just a handful of years but, Rosales says, "we've really just begun. So many people out there, people of color, we're born into this society that we're told we're less than. But the only way that we can find power is to believe in our ideas and support each other. That's really the power of community coming together."
// Undiscovered SF Culture Crawl 2021 takes place from noon to 6pm on October 16th in the SoMA Pilipinas Filipino Cultural District, undiscoveredsf.com.