Musicians, poets keep Filipino spirit alive, relive Sunday Jump tradition 80 years hence

Authors Carlene Bonnivier and Gerald Gubatan read from their anthology to patrons of Sunday Jump. Photos by Eddy Gana

Authors Carlene Bonnivier and Gerald Gubatan read from their anthology to patrons of Sunday Jump. Photos by Eddy Gana

By Carlene Sobrino Bonnivier

Editor’s Note: Sunday Jump, a literary gathering is held twice a month at the Traveler’s/Tribal Cafe in Historic Filipino Town. Sunday Jump meets in the evening, every first and third Sunday of the month, at 1651 West Temple Street. It’s about a block away from one of the residences listed (at 1714-1/2 West Temple) by the F.B.I. in 1941 for Carlos Bulosan (“America is in the Heart”). In 1941, author Carlene Sobrino Bonnivier was just a year old and had already moved from Bunker Hill to Burlington Avenue, just one block away from Bulosan.

The Tribal Cafe, where the Sunday Jump rocks the pillars of Temple Street twice a month, used to be The Traveler’s Cafe, and it has traveled through both space and time.

It is now about a mile from its original location on Temple near Figueroa and, much more remarkable, it has traveled through about 80 years of Filipino-American history.

In the 1940s and early ‘50s, my mother and older sister and I lived closer to where today’s Traveler’s/Tribal Cafe is located (at Temple near Union), but even if the Cafe had been there in those days, we would never have gone to a Filipino restaurant by ourselves; we were always with the young Filipino men who playfully called themselves “the boys” (and are now our treasured ‘manongs’).

The uncles (as the children addressed them) were so happy to come by the house where we lived on Temple and Burlington and, later on Temple and Westlake. They would join my mother in the kitchen and cook Filipino food or sit in the living room making jokes and playing poker all evening.

Sometimes my uncles picked us up and took us out to eat, and that almost always meant going to the (original) Traveler’s Cafe. It was a magical place. Usually, it was after we ate a pork adobo or ‘pinakbet’ meal that they would clear a table for me, put music on the juke box, and then pretend to talk me into performing even though they knew I loved to tap dance and could hardly wait. They also pretended that my performances were wonderful, laughing at the right places, applauding at the end, and throwing coins or handing me dollar bills.

Many of my uncles had been to war under the American flag, but none of them could marry Caucasians (from 1913 to 1948, 30 out of the then 48 States, had anti-miscegenation laws); nor could they own a home or business (in their own name); certainly they couldn’t vote. I can see now how relaxing it must have been, just visiting my mother’s house with children running around, or simply socializing at the Traveler’s Cafe, meeting up with their compadres, not being harassed or even judged. It must have felt good to remember what it was like to be treated with dignity, to feel like a normal human being who belonged somewhere besides the servants quarters, the bunk house, or one of the barren rooms in the nearby boarding houses on Bunker Hill.

In the 1960s or ‘70s, some time after I left California and had given up my career in “show business,” the Traveler’s Cafe moved to Temple near Union and, some years later, changed its name to the Tribal Cafe where it continued to serve the aging ‘manong’ population who had been displaced by downtown redevelopment. By then, the original Traveler’s Cafe had been bulldozed to make way for the Hollywood Freeway.

In the 1970s, the Cafe became a hang-out for singer-songwriter Tom Waits who lived around the corner. By the 1980s, the Cafe had gone dormant until 2005 when it experienced a rebirth after the proprietor, Joshua Josue, opened the Tribal Cafe.

The Sunday Jump audience of millennial generation FilAms: ‘Thank you, Larry Itliong’

The Sunday Jump audience of millennial generation FilAms: ‘Thank you, Larry Itliong’

It’s Fall, 2014: The Impresario of Sunday Jump, Eddy Gana, a millennial generation Filipino American, had invited me and Gerald Gubatan (my friend and a co-editor of the anthology, Filipinotown) to join the poetry group that was performing at the Tribal Cafe. I’d been there once before, but I’d never heard of a Filipino vegan/vegetarian restaurant and really wasn’t sure what I’d find on the menu. I noted with a great deal of pleasure that the Tribal Cafe’s philosophy (stated on the menu) was to offer food that was healthy but still affordable. My eyes raced down the menu, looking for something familiar, and I found it: Adobo. It was a chicken adobo sandwich. To go with it, I ordered a fresh ginger lemonade. Everything was wonderful! Fresh and delicious.

On this particular evening, I studied the Cafe more closely before I went in, and even with the memory of how delicious AND healthy the meal was I’d had there a few months before, it seemed a little foreboding.

A large assortment of colored canopies covered the top half of the front window. There were words in large white letters across every one of the them, sort of shouting out the various items on the menu; in addition, the tall signs against the building or sitting on the street, were also covered with words. Large plants added to the crowded atmosphere that was apparently intended to convey the feeling of a village in the jungle. “Will the natives be friendly? Will they accept me?” I’m worried that I’m too old for these kids and that maybe my poetry was outdated. It was not the way the restaurant looked; it was my own fear of not being appropriate. My uncles would have called it “being backward” or they would honestly wonder aloud: “Filipinos can go there?”

Sometimes they tried to joke about it. They’d make playful, sometimes cutting, but still loving comments to each other, remarking on skin color or accents or lack of education. They especially targeted Uncle Baltazar. He was Bontoc. They called him the “Head Hunter” and said he’d have to work for his dinner (chopping off heads, I guessed). They did, all of them, have to be aware and on the look-out in those days. So, even though they could work in a place like Clifton’s Cafeteria downtown, they had to be careful when they went there to eat to be sure they did not “parade” themselves. If they felt any swagger in their step, they’d better leave it at the door.

Now I needed some swagger, so I picked it up, placed it in my step and walked in. It was dark inside, but I peered through the gloom, saw there were already more than a few people there and then my eyes were drawn to the one well-lighted spot: two large paintings of white skulls on black backgrounds were grinning their bare-teeth at me. I smiled, thinking that maybe Uncle Baltazar had walked in the door with me and was getting a laugh out of the paintings. Certainly he wouldn’t be afraid of those skulls.

I saw my friend, Gerald, and joined him at his table. Gerald’s age was somewhere between everybody else’s in the room and mine, so I had a sort of bridge to the young crowd. We were deciding what pieces to read from our Filipinotown anthology when Eddy came by and welcomed us warmly. He seemed genuinely happy that we were there and would perform. I relaxed a little bit more. Then, Eddy left the table, went front and center, and talked about what he and his co-founders expected to achieve through the Sunday Jump. He indicated a sign on the wall, just to the right of the skulls that said: “Express, Not Impress.”

It’s not about the snaps and claps, it’s about sharing the love of your art.

Free Speech, Not Hate Speech. It’s not about putting people down, it’s about uplifting our community.”

Then he elaborated briefly on the philosophy of Sunday Jump and began the performances with his composition: “A Letter to Manong Larry Itliong.”

The first sentence was, “Thank you.” Beautiful. As he continued to thank Larry Itliong, listing all the things we have to be grateful for because of him, the words, the cadence, the undeniable sincerity, pierced my heart. This young man, half a century after Itliong had led Filipino farmworkers in a labor strike in Delano, felt personally connected to the man he addressed directly, saying, “You didn’t just pick grapes. You picked fights with an agricultural industry.” As I listened to Eddy, it was as if nothing was lost, nothing broken, all was well and strong.

There were fine performers there that night: musicians, singers, comedians and, of course, spoken word poets. Some of them went out of their way to acknowledge Gerald and me and to thank us for coming and sharing our poems.

I was especially touched by one young woman, Nessa Rica, a singer and composer, who, in a very sweet and resonating voice, told us that she had taken courses in Asian American Studies at UCLA in which Filipinotown was mentioned. She said it was a privilege to meet living people who had experienced the events of those days that she’d only read about before. Now, she said, she felt so much more connected to where she was, here, at the Sunday Jump, at the Tribal Cafe, in Historic Filipinotown.

Me, too, because of all that went before during that evening, but especially because of her, because of Eddy Gana, because of Gerald Gubatan and all the culture-bearers, because of the 80 years of the Traveler’s/Tribal Cafe and the countless number of Filipinos who came here to this safe haven, this oasis, this small village in the jungle, to eat and drink and laugh and be together, and, years ago, to get news from home. My connection to Temple Street grows suddenly deeper and more immediate as Gerald and I stand in front of the young audience who, we see, honor their heritage while using new forms of expression to keep the spirit of the community vibrant and alive.

I begin my poem: “Filipinotown! What was it? What is it?”

In the same moment that I ask that question, I am thrown back to a time when I danced on the tables and was applauded by my uncles whose lives were so hard but who handled it all with such style and grace and I feel, now, the same presence of ‘kapwa’ is here in this room as it was back when I was child. ‘Kapwa,’ a term I learned late in life but felt so many times: the feeling of connection, the sense that what happens to you, happens to me, who you are is who I am. We are part of a larger, great culture that knows itself through its connections to each other.

I just barely made it to the last line of my own poem before my voice broke. I paused, then said in near whisper: Filipinotown “is in our compadres…in each other, learning America, finding a place in the scheme of things.”

This was Sunday Jump at the Tribal Cafe. I was home again.

Gerald G. Gubatan and Gregory Villanueva contributed to this story. “Filipinotown: Voices from Los Angeles” by Carlene Sobrino Bonnivier, Gerald G. Gubatan, and Gregory Villanueva is now available at

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