Long Distance Podcast Connects Filipinos Across the Diaspora

Long Distance podcast host and creator Paola Mardo conducts an interview in L.A.'s historic Filipinotown.  (Courtesy of Patrick Epino)

California is home to one of the largest populations of Filipinos in the world outside of the Filipines, so it’s fitting that a California-based producer is the first to start a podcast dedicated to stories of the Filipino diaspora. Long Distance  moves beyond typical immigrant narratives to share thoughtful tales of love, loss, history, and humor. In its first season, the podcast featured stories about a hate crime in Stockton, a Filipina American rapper’s immigrant journey, and an undocumented couple's love story in Los Angeles. Long Distance is also one of six podcasts selected for the first cohort of the Google/PRX Podcast creator program.

The California Report Magazine’s host Sasha Khokha sat down with Long Distance's producer and host Paola Mardo in Los Angeles. What follows are excerpts of their conversation, edited for brevity and clarity.

What made you want to start a podcast focused on the Filipino-American experience?

I was born in L.A. but I grew up in the Philippines, the Bay Area, and Kuala Lumpur.  So when I moved back to L.A. after college,  I got really interested in just learning more about the community here. If you drive around L.A., there are all these signs that say “Historic Filipinotown.”  I wanted to know what that meant. So I started interviewing people in the Historic Filipinotown community to learn more about their stories. And as I started listening,  I realized I could relate to their stories because of our diaspora connection. I decided to make a podcast about the diaspora that includes stories about places like Historic Filipinotown, but also other parts of the country and the world.

L to R: Carlene Sobrino Bonnivier takes a break from trying to pick strawberries in Salinas, California circa 1970s; Gregory Villanueva, age 8, hangs his hand-washed socks on a clothesline in the backyard of his family’s home. His family had just moved from the Temple-Beaudry area in Historic Filipinotown to El Sereno in East Los Angeles. Paola Mardo interviewed these families for an episode on LA's historic Filipinotown. (Couresy Paola Mardo)
The Little Manila Center in Stockton, California, after it was vandalized in what Filipino leaders consider a hate crime. (Courtesy of Patrick Epino)

How does a story about a tiki bar fit  into a podcast about the Filipino diaspora?

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I’ve always wanted to know about the first Filipinos who came to Los Angeles, and what life was like for them. I caught a glimpse of this life in a book called “Filipinos in Hollywood,” by Carina Montoya. It’s where I found a photograph of Ray Buhen, behind

Photo of Ray Buhen at the Tiki Ti in Los Angeles. (Courtesy of Patrick Epino)

a bamboo bar, serving a crowd of white men and women. Ray looks proud — happy even, — as if he’s thinking, "Hey, I’m living the American dream."

I  wanted to know more about his story. So I spent some time in tiki bars, with Ray’s son, and with tiki aficionados and experts. I talked with Pacific Islander artists and activists. What I ended up finding was a lot more than just a little-known chapter in Filipino and American history. The story of tiki touches on a lot of issues we're still struggling with in America today: the difference between appreciating and appropriating culture, race and pop culture, escapism and the American dream.

Last year, you produced a story for The California Report about  a couple who had been high school sweethearts in the Philippines, and were reunited in L.A. four decades later. How did you update their story for the podcast?

[Terry and Jun] were high school sweethearts separated after graduation and then reconnected 40 years later. One of them was living in Saudi Arabia as an overseas Filipino worker (OFW). And one of them was living in Los Angeles. After restarting their relationship on social media, they finally reconnected in Los Angeles at the airport. They were afraid to marry because they were undocumented, and didn’t want to attract attention. But after the first story aired, we stayed in touch.

Terry and Jun dance at their wedding, four decades after they were childhood sweethearts. (Courtesy of Paola Mardo)

Terry told me last year that she got her visa, and she and Jun were finally going to get married. They wanted to kind of seal that love and celebrate it through a wedding where they invited close friends and family. And it was really sweet.

You guys have a lot of listener engagement. Who’s your audience?

When we first started back in October, the people listening were mostly millennials — a lot of Filipino Americans but also Filipinos all over the world. We have listeners in Saudi Arabia, Australia, Singapore, even the Philippines, which surprised me because podcasting in the Philippines is still growing — it’s not too popular of a medium yet. I wasn't sure if they'd be interested in stories about people who left the country, left the homeland. But I've gotten emails from people from the Philippines who are very interested to know this because we touch on stories and even histories that they don't learn at school in the Philippines.

What’s coming up in Season Two of Long Distance?   

We did one-on-one interviews with listeners  about what they want to hear more. Folks are telling us they want more history, more stories about the LGBT community. And more about food. We’re hoping to take the show beyond California stories and start talking to Filipinos across the U.S., even abroad.

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