Monday, October 23, 2006

Century of Filipinos in America

"With much reverence, Wells Fargo celebrates 100 years of Filipino presence in the United States" announced the full-color back page ad of the souvenir magazine of the Filipino Centennial Gala Dinner & Ball held on October 21 at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. The theme of a century of Filipino immigration to America ran throughout the evening's gala program - in the speeches, messages and proclamations. They were all well-intentioned but they were also historically wrong.

According to the organizers, the Filipino century in America began with the arrival of 15 Filipino contract workers ("Sacadas") in Hawaii on December 20, 1906.

But there has been a Filipino presence in America since October 18, 1587 when "Luzon indios" first landed in Morro Bay, California while serving under Spanish Captain Pedro de Unamuno aboard the Spanish galleon, Nuestra Senora de Buen Esperanza. This historical fact was documented in H.R. Wagner's Unamuno's Voyage to California in 1587, published in the Quarterly of the California Historical Society (July 1923), which translated to English the ship logs of Unamuno. There is also a bronze marker in Morro Bay commemorating this historical event.

In his official message in the souvenir magazine, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom acknowledged this historical event: "Since 1587," he wrote, "the arrival of the first immigrants from the Philippines to what is now Morro Bay" has shown the rich diversity of California.

But Mayor Newsom was incorrect in referring to them as "immigrants". They were more like tourists without visas who were exploring the new land for their Spanish overlords in 1587. Unfortunately, the "California indios" discovered their presence and kicked them out, killing one unnamed Luzon indio in the process.

One official at the Gala, who recognized the Morro Bay Luzon indios' arrival , explained that the celebration was about 100 years of "continuous immigration" of Filipinos to America. If that is the criteria, then the arrival of the Manilamen in Louisiana will satisfy that definition because the mariners (sailors) who settled there continuously arrived in American ports, jumped ship, and settled in Filipino enclaves in America.

The Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS), in its website (, recognizes 1763 as the year the Manilamen arrived and settled in the marshlands of Louisiana. This contention was based on the book, Filipinos in Louisiana, written by Marina Espina, a former FANHS national president, who in turn based it on a book, Dixie, which was written in 1977 by Larry Bartlett. In it, he wrote:

"The year was 1763, and the schooner had unloaded its cargo at the Spanish provincial capital of New Orleans. Then its crew of Filipino sailors jumped ship and fled into the nearby cypress swamp...."

Espina accepted Bartlett's thesis and reported that she found evidence of Filipino mariners jumping ship off Acapulco, Mexico during the Manila-Acapulco Galleon Trade. According to Espina, they then crossed the Gulf of Mexico and migrated to the bayous of Louisiana and other gulf ports. There they established Saint Malo and six other Manilamen settlements: the Manila Village on Barataria Bay; Alombro Canal and Camp Dewey in Plaquemines Parish; and Leon Rojas, Bayou Cholas, and Bassa Bassa in Jefferson Parish.

Based on this contention, at its Hawaii national conference in June of this year, FANHS celebrated the 243rd anniversary of Filipino presence in the United States.

While there is no doubt that Manilamen settled in the Louisiana bayous, there is a genuine dispute as to when they first established the first Filipino settlement, Saint Malo Village, in the St. Bernard Parish swamplands outside New Orleans.

On March 31,1883, Harper Weekly published an eyewitness account of a Filipino village in Louisiana written by noted American writer, Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904). Hearn lived in New Orleans from 1876 to 1887 and wrote extensively for Harper Weekly about the diverse communities of people who lived in Louisiana.

In Saint Malo: A Lacustrine Village in Louisiana, Hearn wrote of a community of about 100 "cinnamon-colored" Manilamen (no women) who lived by fishing and catching alligators. They spoke Spanish and a Philippine language, most likely Tagalog as he referred to the men as "Tagalas" from the Philippine Islands. The Tagalas sent money back to their families in the Philippines and urged their townmates to join them so that they could replenish their settlements.

According to Hearn, the swamp dwellers had regular contacts with the city of New Orleans, where some of their families lived. They even formed an association there called La Union Philipina.

The Manilamen of Saint Malo were even credited with starting the dried shrimp industry in Louisiana, employing the methods commonly used in the Philippines. Saint Malo was destroyed by a hurricane in 1915 while Manila Village, the last of seven Filipino villages, was washed away by Hurricane Betsy in 1965.

When he interviewed Padre Carpio, the oldest Manilaman of Saint Malo, Hearn learned that his village had been in existence for a little more than 50 years.

A little more than 50 years from 1882, when Hearn visited Saint Malo, would place the date of the founding of the oldest settlement in Louisiana at about 1830, which would mean we should be celebrating our 176th anniversary, give or take a year, in 2006.

While Espina contends that the settlers of Saint Malo were sailors who jumped ship in Acapulco, this would be unlikely if they came after 1830 because the Manila-Acapulco Galleon Trade ended in 1815.

It is more likely that the Filipinos who settled in those seven villages were mariners who jumped ship off New Orleans as there were, even then, hundreds, if not thousands of Filipinos working in commercial ships traversing the globe. In an editorial that appeared in La Solidaridad in February of 1892, Graciano Lopez-Jaena noted the existence of Filipino mariner communities in European ports as well as in New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco and New Orleans.

Illustrados like Lopez-Jaena studied in Spain but how did they get there from the Philippines? One of them, Philippine national hero Dr. Jose Rizal, returned to Spain in 1888 by way of the United States in a ship route that took him from Manila to Hongkong to Yokohama and then to San Francisco (May 2-4, 1888) where he then took a train to New York and a ship from there to London and then on to the continent. Many Filipino illustrados, like Rizal, may have passed through a similar route to get to Spain. It is likely that many of them may have decided to study in the United States.

Some of them studied in New Orleans where a local newspaper in 1883 printed an announcement of the formation of the Hispano Filipino Associacion de Nueva Orleans.

We can celebrate our 419th (from Morro Bay in 1587), our 243rd (FANHS-Espina from 1763), or our 176th (Lafcadio Hearn's account - about 1830). But the 100th anniversary of Filipino presence in America?

We not only have shortchanged our history, we are also undermining our numbers in America. In Mayor Newsom's message, he states that there are "now over two million Americans who identify their ancestry as Filipinos". Mel Orpilla's essay in the souvenir magazine claims that there are "two and a half million Filipinos" in America, based on the 2000 US census which reported that there are about 2.43 M Filipinos in the US.

But that 2000 Census figure did not include the estimated .5-M Filipinos who were out of status in 2000 who never bothered to register for fear of discovery by immigration authorities. It has also been six years since the 2000 census. Adding at least 40,000 new legal immigrants a year and the increase in TNTs would put our actual numbers in the US at 3.5 million.

Let's get our history and demographics right.

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