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COLUMN ONE

Filipinos' hip-hop anthem

Allan Pineda of the Black Eyed Peas honored his homeland with a rap in Tagalog. `Bebot' has become a surprise phenomenon.

November 22, 2006|David Pierson | Times Staff Writer

Hey, man, all of you listen

to me

Here comes the real Filipino

Came from the barrio -- Sapang Bato

Went to L.A. and labored

In order to help my mother

Because life is so hard

But the disposition's still bright.

---

SO begins the story of Allan Pineda, a member of the hip-hop band the Black Eyed Peas, who two years ago wrote a song about his journey from a poverty-stricken district in the Philippines to Los Angeles' Atwater Village.

The lyrics were personal, written entirely in Tagalog, the dominant language of the Philippines. Pineda wanted to recount his experience as a Filipino American but wasn't sure how much the song would resonate with others -- especially the Black Eyed Peas' teenage fan base.

The song, "Bebot" (Tagalog slang for "hot chick"), appeared on the Black Eyed Peas' multiplatinum-selling album, "Monkey Business," released in June 2005. The album contained several chart-toppers, but "Bebot" -- as Pineda expected -- wasn't one of them.

But over the last year, "Bebot" has become a phenomenon in ways Pineda, 31, said he could never have imagined.

The musical story of his immigrant experience has become an unlikely rallying cry in California's Filipino American community.

With its choppy beat and shouting chorus of "Filipino! Filipino!," the song became a showstopper at weddings and birthday parties. Teenagers -- many of whom don't even speak Tagalog -- choreographed dance routines to it.

But it was the lyrics, not the beat, that had lasting resonance.

The Filipino American community is famous for putting its cultural identity behind assimilation. Though they're the second-largest Asian group in California behind the Chinese, they have never established set "Filipino" neighborhoods -- the equivalent of Monterey Park for Chinese Americans or Little Saigon for Vietnamese Americans. There is a historic Filipinotown west of downtown L.A., but the U.S. census found that less than 15% of its residents are actually Filipino.

Many Filipinos arrive in the United States speaking English, immediately making assimilation easier.

"Part of the problem is we blend in so well," said Winston Emano, an executive at an L.A.-based public relations firm and a community activist. "We have a rapid rate of assimilation. Put a Filipino in Antarctica, and in one month they'll be one with the penguins."

For Emano and others, "Bebot" is a vibrant reminder of their cultural past, an easy-to-digest history of their shared experience.

"It's a cultural bridge," Emano said. "Kids say, 'Hey, he's talking in my parents' language.' "

Pineda was surprised by the passions "Bebot" stirred. So, early this year, he financed two music videos for the song.

The first paid homage to Stockton's Little Manila, which was the largest Filipino community outside the Philippines in the 1930s and '40s. It showed how migrant workers toiled to provide money for their families back home and offered a glimpse of the racism early immigrants encountered.

The second video showed Pineda's early days hanging out in L.A. with his bandmates and mostly Filipino American friends.

The videos were big hits among Filipinos, who plastered Web links to them on MySpace and YouTube.

But Pineda now had a bigger goal. Though his record label felt the videos had limited prospects because they were sung in Tagalog, he hoped to prove the label wrong. He wanted the videos to air on MTV and VH1.

"There's still a struggle," Pineda said. "We just got to keep trying."

When eating, we use our hands

What we eat, chicken adobo

The balut being sold at the

corner

Share the glass already

My friend, let's start drinking.

PINEDA grew up in a slum outside Angeles City on the island of Luzon. His mother was Filipino. He never met his father, who was an American in the U.S. Air Force, Pineda said.

His first connection to the U.S. came when a charity group found him an American sponsor, who started sending him the equivalent of 7 cents a day to help pay for food. Pineda had problems with his eyes, so his sponsor -- a lawyer named Joe Ben Hudgens -- wanted to adopt him so he could receive better medical care in the U.S.

His mother agreed, and after seven years of waiting, he arrived to live with Hudgens, a deputy Los Angeles County counsel. It was 1989; Pineda was 14.

Hudgens was living in the Wilshire district at the time but decided to look for a neighborhood where there were mostly Filipinos. The best he could find was a block in Atwater Village, a diverse section of northeast L.A. that included some Filipinos.

"I didn't want him to be lonely. I suppose I was thinking, 'Let the neighborhood help raise him like they do in the Philippines,' " said Hudgens, now 69.

Hudgens, a single parent who spent long hours at work, encouraged Pineda to have friends over any time. Soon, they were practicing rap and dancing.

"I still don't quite know how all this happened," Hudgens said of Pineda's fame. "He has a performer's instinct. He loves to entertain."

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