Cold? Yes. Isolated? Sure. But Alaska's Filipinos Thrive

Cold? Yes. Isolated? Sure. But Alaska's Filipinos Thrive

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ANCHORAGE, Alaska—The smell of fried mackerel permeates the crisp air. Platters of freshly cooked pancit, lumpia and chicken adobo are neatly displayed on the table. And several customers, mostly dressed in work clothes, are holding Styrofoam plates and lining up for a $7.95 buffet of traditional Filipino dishes.

Lunchtime at RJ’s Pastries and Bread, the only Filipino restaurant in downtown Anchorage, seems to be a mini reunion for many Filipino immigrants here.

The food isn't the only attraction; they also gather to share stories. Some speak in English, Tagalog, or Taglish—a combination of the two languages. Others, who happen to be from the same town or province in the Philippines, are just excited to chat in their regional dialects.

In recent years, Filipinos have flocked to the “Last Frontier” for jobs, tax benefits and other financial perks. As a tradeoff, they live far from family and friends back in their home country and disconnected from the lower 48 states.

Despite this, Filipinos here have made a life in a state where the sun shines endlessly during summer’s peak, and temperatures, in some parts, drop below freezing in the winter.

“People think we live in an igloo and Alaska is always covered with snow,” says Susan Dickinson, a Filipina nurse who is married to a white American. “But we’re just like anyone who lives in other states. We drive, we go to the mall…it’s a normal life.”

Despite the state’s seasonal frigid temperatures, Filipinos born and raised in a tropical climate have learned to adapt to their new environment.

Dickinson, who has lived in Alaska for more than a decade, says that during the summer solstice, she finds herself gardening or playing Frisbee with her kids at 2:00 a.m.

“Sometimes, if we could not sleep, we take a long hike. We have great hiking trails,” says Emma Muñoz, a housewife and volunteer in the Filipino community in Anchorage. “By the time we get back at 4:00 a.m., we’re pretty much tired and ready to go to bed. The sun is still up, though.”

On the flipside, Filipinos also have to adjust to the Alaskan winters, which brings subzero weather and only three to four hours of sunlight a day.

“Life goes on for all of us,” says Nez Danguilan, a retiree who used to work as a construction contractor for the U.S. military and now produces a local Filipino-American TV show. “I don’t go out too often. But when I do, I have three layers of clothes—and a jacket.”

Nick Noceda, 46, who works for an oil and gas company in Anchorage, says that he makes sure to save his vacation time at work. In winter, he goes to a warmer state for a week to escape from the cold blues.

“I usually go to Nevada. I stay in Las Vegas,” he says in Tagalog. “Of course, I gamble a little and enjoy the desert.”

Historically, Filipinos began to settle in Alaska long before its statehood. In her book “Filipinos in Alaska: 1788-1958,” Filipino-American author Thelma Buchholt chronicles the first Filipino to set foot in the territory: an unnamed seaman who, in 1788, came aboard a merchant ship that was involved in the sea otter fur trade.

Less than a century later, American whaling ships started to hire and bring Filipino workers to the Alaskan Arctic, near Point Hope. But it wasn’t until the early 1900s, Buchholt writes, that Filipino cannery workers known as “Alaskeros,” began to live permanently in the state.

According to the Filipino-American National Historical Society in Seattle, before Alaska achieved statehood in 1959, several hundred Filipinos resided there.

Currently, Alaska is home to about 15,000 Filipinos, who make up the largest Asian ethnic group among the state's 700,000 residents. They work in all settings: military bases, canneries, oil refineries, hospitals, retail stores, and government and nonprofit offices.

What's more, Filipino workers keep coming. A booming healthcare sector for much of the past decade, as well as the attractive tax benefits offered by the state, has brought an influx of Filipinos from other states.

“When I heard about the job opportunities here, a decent standard of living, and the yearly dividend checks to residents, I didn’t have second thoughts to move,” says Hanna Serrano, a licensed practical nurse who recently moved to Anchorage after a couple of years in Phoenix.

Alaska does not have state income or sales taxes, and it directs oil industry profits into a fund that it distributes once a year to residents in the form of a dividend check—an average about $1,000-$1,200. Even the state’s jobless rate, hovering around 7.7 percent, is lower than the national current average of 9.6 percent.

“If you work hard in Alaska, it’s not hard to save money," Serrano adds. "There are many Filipinos, especially those who have been living here for a long time, who own several properties,” .

As more Filipinos are attracted by Alaska’s economic climate, they turn to cultural traditions and comforts to thrive in their adopted land.

By 1:30 p.m. at RJ’s restaurant in Anchorage, the platters of Filipino dishes are almost empty. With conversations still vibrant, the customers are already having their dessert, a puffy rice cake with grated coconut on top. A waitress passes out glasses of homemade iced tapioca juice.

“Wow, this lunch is really special,” a Filipina customer says loudly in Tagalog. “I’m very full. It would be nice to have a little siesta afterwards, just like the way we do it in the Philippines.”