Posts tagged accessories
Asmbly Hall: Deep Roots, Strong Branches

“When we first opened up the shop, it was just a business to us. But we think it's evolved into something much greater than that.”

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Posted at the register of their Fillmore Street storefront, its walls lined with local accolades, Tricia and Ron Benitez of Asmbly Hall (located at 1850 Fillmore Street) speak with a quiet confidence that reflects their steady approach to retail, and also helps maintain a mellow energy for their toddler daughter, Harlow. After six years in the upscale Fillmore shopping district, they’ve learned the importance of striking a balance between keeping it real and keeping it cool.

“This area of Fillmore Street has been kind of high-end and affluent. And I think we knew what kind of business that we wanted to open: something that was accessible, a little bit easier on the price point, somewhere we could see ourselves shopping, and we didn't see that in this neighborhood. So I think it was also trying to fill in a little niche that was missing. We felt like, 'We're young and we're hip and we don't want to break the bank, and we don't feel like there's a shop for us in this neighborhood, so why don't we just put one there?’” Tricia says.

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With years of combined retail expertise between them, Ron and Tricia’s brainchild quickly blossomed into the space that is Asmbly Hall — a space specially curated to present local brands and rare, artisan-made products at prices that are friendly to everyone in the neighborhood. In this way, Asmbly Hall is a continuation of the legacy of small business ownership in Tricia’s family, former grocers in Vallejo and the South of Market.

“My grandparents owned a Filipino grocery store — Evangelista Grocery — in Vallejo, and then they expanded into South City and San Francisco, in the SOMA on 8th and Howard, which my dad took over in the '70s. We were one of the first Asian-American grocery stores here in the Bay Area, and we imported fish, fruit, and treats from The Philippines. So from a young age, when i was a child, my brother and I would be brought to the store -- we were shop kids. But I think the nice thing about that grocery store that we also see here at Asmbly Hall is that we see return customers, and then a lot of people who are customers become friends,” Tricia says

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Continuing the legacy of business ownership is something that Ron and Tricia both feel is important not just for their own family, but for the Filipino-American community at large — especially as younger generations look more and more to less traditional career routes.

“My father was in the Navy and my mom was a nurse, so I had a pretty traditional upbringing, and that's probably what a lot of people might think of when they think of a Filipino family. And so being a small business owner is I think very empowering for this generation of Filipino-Americans to step out of the comfort zone and take risks and know that there are other career opportunities out there to help make a positive impact on your community and your neighborhood,” Ron says.

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For Ron and Tricia, this means supporting an ever-growing roster of local vendors and Filipino-owned operations, reinforcing the values of community and cooperative competition that Asmbly Hall stands for.

“We’re proud to sell locally-made knits, neckties, and bow ties by Ronnie Escalante, accessories and textiles ranging from laptop cases and bags to rugs and footwear by Ilano, and of course, our own Asmbly Hall locally-made and printed tees and sweatshirts and cut & sew jackets. We’re also proud to present the work of local artists like Lee Queza and Jeramie Tolentino and Gem Mateo. It’s a diverse range of styles and we’re happy to be the spot where all these ideas can gather.”

With six years firmly under their belts, Asmbly Hall is doubling down on positively impacting their community, and they see Undiscovered SF as a key site for fostering the community and culture that will sustain future Filipino-American generations.

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“I think Undiscovered is a great way for people of our generation and younger to see what kinds of avenues are out there for them to touch. So it's really a community, cultural experience -- we've met Filipino people from all over the Bay Area, from Canada, from Chicago, all parts of the United States, and it’s really encouraging to connect with them and see how inspired they are and enthusiastic they are about their own projects. Now that we have Harlow, to see a Filipino-American cultural district that's growing and will be there for the next generation, for her generation to have something and somewhere to feel her roots and see her identity, and go somewhere it's a distinct space for her culture, I think that's important for us to be a part of and help grow,” Tricia says.

The Art of Warriors

“We don’t do interviews.”

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Seated around a shady, cutty picnic table on the southern edge of Lake Merritt in their hometown of Oakland, Aaron Jurell Sarmiento and Joe Aquilizan of Bayani Art — the East Bay collective that exclusively produces and promotes work documenting Filipino resistance — discuss why it’s so difficult to find media coverage of their project, which has grown into a relative phenomenon in Filipino communities across the globe, from Daly City to Saudi Arabia to Canada. They feel that every articulation and movement of Bayani Art should be intentional and purposeful, like a warrior in battle, and Joe and Aaron Jurell don’t see interviews — or recognition of any kind, for that matter — as a functional part of their work.

“I see us as ghostwriters. We're not concerned with image. We only care about creating a vehicle that takes people to a different awareness about themselves and their history. And the people that see the work, it's up to them to decide what direction they pilot that vehicle. We don't want to force anything on anyone. We're just sharing these histories and artworks because of the liberation and sense of self they’ve given us,” Aaron Jurell says.

Joe nods in agreement, then segues into a brief anecdote about their latest design featuring Rajah Sulayman, who led a revolt against Spanish invaders in 1574. For Joe and Aaron Jurell, Bayani Art should always reflect a secure and empowered sense of Filipino identity, based around a vast store of knowledge of the history of the islands that the pair have cultivated through serious study. Their proficiency in the narrative of the Filipino people has been strengthened over seven intensive years at Bayani Art, but for both Joe and Aaron Jurell — like many Filipino-Americans — the search for identity has certainly been much longer.

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“Before we started Bayani Art, someone asked me about Filipino history, and I couldn't answer. I was so embarrassed that I could recite the history of another country, but I didn't know my own country's history. I felt like, “I need to know who I am.” And I realized it was almost impossible to find any accurate histories of our people — and that I wanted to find them. I think it's time for our people to realize that we have made major contributions to world history, and I feel like it's partly our responsibility to bring those stories to light. We need to know the stories of our warriors, the Bayanis who defended our people. Just the opportunity itself to learn about our true history is a huge motivator for why we do what we do,” Joe says.

Aaron Jurell continues, explaining how the pain and struggle associated with much of Filipino history requires him to constantly let down his guard in order for the lessons of history to be fully expressed in the work.

“We are just two brown men trying to do the right thing. What makes Bayani Art special is that we use our people’s history, our struggle, our flaws, to our advantage. Everything that has ‘Bad,’ written all over it, we’ve learned to use that to our advantage. Learning to be vulnerable and explore the struggle and resistance of our people, and sharing what that did for us, is what makes the project meaningful. The simple exchange of giving someone a shirt, you don't know how much joy that gives me to share our history. All people deserve to feel that joy,” he says.

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And as pupils of history, Bayani Art’s major preoccupation is to properly honor the stories of the heroes and heroines of the Philippines. Each design is essentially an academic exercise, requiring exhaustive research and dialogue with the artists as well as expert historians and elders, ensuring that each piece produced by Bayani Art is an artifact consistent with the long legacy of Filipino power.

“The Katipunan hat -- which is sold out already -- took half a year to create. That's a long damn time. Designs like that don’t just come out of thin air. We meet with the artists, discuss what’s possible. And once it's completed and approved from a visual standpoint, we send it to the historians and my historian friends will look at it and tell me, "No, fix this, this isn't accurate," so it goes back and forth, back and forth. That's how a design can take six months,” Joe says.

“And sometimes, six months might not even be enough time. There are designs we've released that we could have spent 10 years refining and perfecting. When you're dealing with the material we are dealing with, taking that time and being delicate with the histories is absolutely necessary. Absolutely,” Aaron Jurell says.

Both Joe and Aaron Jurell understand the stories that Bayani Art tells as part of a lineage of Filipino resistance that extends to the present day — the ongoing legacy of a warrior people, expressed through art that preserves the beauty and honor of their struggle. 

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“Doing this project has helped me understand myself more. I've become a better human being because of Bayani Art. I’ve become a better father. Bayani Art has taught me so much about who I am and where I come from. We're just trying to communicate with our people, and inspire our people. That's what our people need, from generation to generation. Our children need to always learn more about who they are,” Joe says.

And they feel that Undiscovered SF is a perfect platform for that learning to continue growing and flourishing in the Filipino community.

“Our people need to find a way back to ourselves, and knowing our true history is a big first step to getting to where we need to be. The new generation is really doing it. Doing Undiscovered SF, it's something amazing and different, where you’re seeing such an emphasis and pride around the simple fact of being Filipino — just being Filipino. We're honored to be a part of it. Seven years is a long time to be doing this, and we've never seen an event like Undiscovered SF,” Aaron Jurell says.