Why Filipino American History Month is Celebrated in October?

Jhemmylrut Teng

Philippine and U.S. flags(Source: Adobe Stack)

October in the United States became an official month to celebrate Filipino-American history. Through the years, the Filipinos population continuously increase in the U.S., mainly in the field of medicine. But their presence in the country didn't appear out of thin air.

The strong relationship between the U.S. and the Philippines had a huge implication on why Filipinos dubbed America their second home.

1587 First Landing: Morro Bay, California

In the 16th century, when the Kingdom of Spain was still one of the most powerful lands in the world, they ruled monopoly in trade goods connecting the eastern and western hemispheres. Spain's Gallon Trade was traveling from Manila, Philippines to Acapulco, Mexico. Both nations then were colonies of Spain.

On October 18, 1587, the Spanish ship Nuestra Señora de Buena Esperanza headed by Pedro Unamuno entered California's Morro Bay. Unamuno sent a landing party to shore, part of the team was a couple of Filipinos dubbed then as "Luzon Indians" they served as scouts and carried swords as protection against Native Americans.

According to the book of Sarah Frank about Filipinos in America, she stated that one of the Filipinos in the landing party was killed by the natives.

"The landing party took official possession of the area for Spain by putting up a cross made of branches. The group was attacked by Native Americans, however, and one of the Filipinos was killed. Heavy fog rolled in, and Unamuno and his crew gave up further exploration of that part of the California coast. The first Filipino immigrants to create a permanent settlement in the United States did not arrive until 1763."

1700s First Wave: Settlements in Louisiana

Illustration of St. Malo in Harper’s Weekly, ca., 1883(Source: babel.hathitrust.org)

As early as the 16th century, many Filipino sailors and indentured servants jumped out of ships and settled across the land that is now Mexico and Louisiana. They were placed under different racial categories that only added to their mystery. In Mexico, they were often listed as Indios Chinos (Chinese natives), while in Louisiana, they were called Manilamen.

In the 1760s, during the Spanish rule, Filipinos were the first Asians to settle in the coastal areas of the Louisiana region and made their homes on the shores of Lake Borgne, east of New Orleans.

Eight to ten generations later, Filipinos are well-assimilated into the state of Louisiana, and new immigrants from the Philippines arrive annually as well, making this group of Louisiana residents one of the state’s oldest and newest inhabitants.

These Manilamen were islanders, therefore, they were well able to utilize their seafood-harvesting skills for fishing and shrimping in Louisiana’s coastal waters.

On barrier islands and coastal marshes, these Filipino communities living in Saint Malo built houses made from wood and palmetto fronds which resembled their traditional Bahay Kubo of the Philippines.

Filipinos were used to tropical typhoons of Southeast Asia; therefore, these Manilamen were prepared to deal with the raging hurricanes from the Gulf of Mexico. However, in 1915 the village of Saint Malo was destroyed by a Category 4 hurricane that swept through New Orleans.

1898: Spanish American War and Filipino-American War

In the latter part of the 19th century, Spain's power was weakening due to series of wars the kingdom participated such as the Peninsular War, wherein it participated in the conflict together with the United Kingdom and Portugal against France's invasion. Spain also experienced civil war inside its borders known as the Carlist War. Hence, its colonies from Southern America, the Caribbean, and the Asia Pacific like Cuba and the Philippines started to retaliate and wanted their independence.

During this time, American businessmen had an interest in investing in the Caribbean and Asia. Because of the revolt, American investments in Cuban sugar among others faced tremendous losses and uncertainties. Therefore, these firms pressed Congress and McKinley to seek an end to the mutiny.

While tension increased among the Cubans and Spanish Government, popular support of intervention began to spring up in the United States. Many Americans likened the Cuban revolt to the American Revolution, and they viewed the Spanish Government as a tyrannical oppressor. Even large newspapers circulation in the country such as Joseph Pulitzer of the New York World and William Randolph Hearst of the New York Journal vested in Yellow journalism, highlighting the situation in Cuba, that piqued the American public interest for the United States to intervene in the uprising.

President McKinley got his government involved by negotiating with the Spanish government, which the latter kept rejecting. However, rebel leaders believed that continue the conflict with the Spaniards would encourage the United States more to participate which would soon lead to their independence.

Even though there were Cubans crying for independence, there were still those Spain's loyalists. These two crashing factions led to U.S. consul Fitzhugh Lee's request for the U.S. State Department to send a U.S. warship to Cuba, which McKinley granted.

Spanish-American War

When the USS Maine was docked at the Havana harbor, it got sank after suffering from a massive explosion. The incident was blamed on the Spanish government, and it became a trigger point for America to declare against Spain.

What happened in Cuba, didn't stay in Cuba. American forces were also transported to Southeast Asia, to combat the Spaniards in Manila.

Filipinos on their own already winning the battle against their conquerors. They managed to encircle Manila and slowly waiting for the Spanish soldiers and their people to starve and surrender. In the midst of the standoff, the Americans came as an ally for the Filipino revolutionaries and gave courtesy to the new leader of possible Philippine government.

On one hand, inland, the Spaniards were surrounded by angry natives, on the other hand, in water, the U.S. fleet was on standby. The Spaniards were trapped in Manila.

Until they've decided to mischievously negotiate with the Americans for a mock battle to lure the natives. Between Filipinos and Americans, Spaniards preferred to surrender to their co-white race than their former brown slaves.

The mock battle occurred, and Spain surrendered to the Americans, while Filipinos celebrated believing that similar to Cuba, they too already an independent state. Little they knew that they were bought and transferred to a new colonial master - the Americans.

The U.S. and Spain mock battle(Source: Wikipedia)

Filipino-American War

To finally end the war between the U.S. and Spain, a milestone agreement was signed in Paris by all involved parties.

Since the Americans won the war, the treaty's term included that Spain must relinquish most of its colonies, such as Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. However, only Cuba became an independent country, while Guam and Puerto Rico became American territories.

Since Manila, Philippines was considered by the Spanish Crown as their ideal colony, they didn't surrender the archipelago without a price. The United States then bought the Philippines from Spain for 20 million dollars.

During the signing of the Treaty of Paris, Filipinos had no participation, albeit their lives were on the negotiation table. They thought Americans were good friends because similar to their situation, Americans were also once a colony of Great Britain, and they fought for their freedom.

Until they found out, Americans were actually the new masters. According to historians... the United States needed the Philippines to access East Asia for opening trade with China. Because at that time, amid the industrial revolution, American businesses needed to get out of their borders to sell their products. And acquiring the Philippines was the most logical and the most strategic move.

Filipinos felt betrayed and turned their weapons against the Americans. For two years, the Filipino-American War happened. But the Filipinos lost terribly with a casualty of over 200,000 people. The natives had no high-caliber equipment compared to the American soldiers.

The country was conquered by the United States at the beginning of the 20th century. Making the Philipines part of the U.S.

1900s Second Wave: Hawaii, California, and Alaska

Technically, Filipinos at that time were considered American citizens. And compared to their Asian counterparts in America like the Chinse, Japanese, and Koreans who were then suffering due to the anti-Asian campaign - Filipinos were treated a bit well.

As many East Asians were started to lose their job or heading back to their respective home country, the Filipinos started coming into the U.S. to augment the much-needed workforce in the agricultural sector.

The Sakadas

The Sakadas were Filipino men imported from the Philippines, most of them were from the northern part of the country, known as the Ilocanos. They were hired by the Hawaii Sugar Planters Association to work in the sugarcane and pineapple fields. Around 250,000 Filipinos were estimated to work in Hawaii from 1906 to 1946.

The word Sakadas means low-paid import laborers. It really does describe the Filipinos role and situation at that time. These people were working a dollar for a 10-hour workday, six days per week. At some point they these Sakadas went on strike because of their poor condition, but they paid a high price for doing so. Some of them lost their jobs, and some were killed.

About one-half of the Sakadas who came to Hawaii returned to the Philippines or moved to the U.S. mainland, and the other half remained in Hawaii and are the original “ramot,” or roots, of the Filipino community, which is now the second-largest ethnic group in the state.

The Sakadas' decades of plight only paid off in 1946 because of the leadership of the International Longshoremen and Warehouse Union. Apart from the Filipinos, their cry was joined by other migrant workers like the Japanese.

Sakadas working in the sugarcane field in Hawaii(Source: Rappler)

The Manongs

Similar to the Sakadas, the Manongs, young Filipino men, were recruited in rural parts of the Philippines to work in California's farm fields like in Delano. From the 1920s to 1930s, about 100,000 Filipino Manongs were recruited and shipped to the U.S. to be farmworkers.

Their situation was not different from their brethren in Hawaii, the Manongs were also paid less compared to their white counterparts as well as the Latinos.

The Manongs were also engaged in several brawls in California because their presence was loathed by many mainland Americans, believing that these Filipinos, another wave of Asians in the country stole their jobs.

Many Manongs thought that they were American citizens because the Philippines was the U.S. commonwealth, but the unwelcoming behavior towards them in America caught them in a reality that they were considered as "others."

In 1965, the Manongs went on strike, it was known in the history of America as the Delano Grape Strike. These Manongs, headed by Larry Itliong, encouraged the Latinos to join their battle for better treatment of migrant farmworkers in the country, and they succeeded.

Larry Itlong (left photo) was the Filipino manong leader of the Delano Grape Strike, ca. 1965(Source: NPR)

The Alaskeros

Like their brothers, 1,000 single men from the Philippines arrived in Alaska in the early 20th century to work in the state's commercial fishing industry and salmon canneries. Filipinos were used to humid tropical weather, and living in an environment where the normal temperature is below zero was a struggle. What makes it worst is being considered as migrant laborers or outsiders. They were treated much poorly compared to other workers.

According to the book of Thelma Buchholdt, she describes how white workers were housed in heated compounds, while Filipino workers often had to put up with living in cramped, unheated spaces without showers or proper hygiene facilities, and were fed meager meals of fish and rice.

In 1933, these Alaskeros formed the Cannery Workers’ and Farm Labors’ Union Local 18257. With a motto of "Unity is Strength," these Alaskeros worked toward a just system after noticing they were only hired for the least desirable jobs.

However, in terms of discrimination, the Alaskeros were treated better compared to their brothers in the mainland. It's because Asian settlements in the area were already established before they arrived.

Alaskeros working in the commercial fishing industry in Alaska(Source: University of Washington Libraries)

The Pensionados

Not all Filipinos who migrated to America were labor workers. There were also those intelligent students called the pensionados, they were given scholarships by the U.S. government to attend Ivy League schools in the country.

In 1903, the United States Congress passed the Pensionado Act, this law established scholarship programs for Filipinos. The program hoped to prepare the Philippines for self-governance and present a positive image of Filipinos to the rest of the United States.

From the initial 100 students, the program provided education in the United States to around 500 students. Their U.S. education was believed to help these Filipinos to become influential members of the Philippine society with many of the alumni of the program going on to work for the government in the Philippine Islands.

Due to their success, other immigrants from the Philippines, especially those who can afford it, followed to be educated in the United States, in excess of 14,000. These non-pensioned students ended up permanently residing in the United States. In 1943, the Pensionado Act was ended, and the Fulbright scholarship came into place.

Original batch of Filipino pensionados from 1903, taken in 1904, at Sta. Barbara, California.(Source: Views from the Pampang)

1940s Third Wave: World War Two

The Philippine Commonwealth Army (PCA) was created by Philippine Commonwealth Act Number 1 was approved on December 21, 1935. With the threat of war with Japan imminent, on July 26, 1941, a new command in the Far East was created, known as the United States Army Forces Far East (USAFFE). On the same date, President of the United States Franklin D. Roosevelt issued a Presidential Order, which called the PCA into the service of the Armed Forces of the United States.

The order did not mandate all the military forces of the Philippine government into the service of the United States Armed Forces. Only those units and personnel indicated in orders issued by a general officer of the U.S. Army were mobilized and made an integral part of USAFFE.

After the surrender of American forces in the Philippines in May 1942 to Imperial Japan, independent guerrilla groups, composed of both civilian and military personnel, began to form throughout the Philippines islands. Many of these groups worked under the control of General Douglas MacArthur's General Headquarters, Southwest Pacific Area.

These Filipino soldiers were promised naturalization, veterans benefits, and military decorations by the U.S. government.

Align with this military recruitment, the War Brides Act was passed in 1945, which allow the spouses and children of Filipino servicemen who became citizens, as well as those of white GI’s, to join them in the U.S., under non-quota status. This became a catalyst for the U.S.’ Filipino population.

Naturalization ceremony at Camp Beale on February 20, 1943(Source: Wikipedia)

1965 Fourth Wave: Filipino Nurses

Filipinos in America had to deal with series of immigration laws imposed by the government. Due to the rising discrimination against Asians, the U.S. government imposed the Tydings-McDuffie Act in 1934, which limits the Filipino immigrants' quota to 50 persons per year.

By 1946, post-World War Two era, the quota for Filipinos increased to 100 annually due to the Luce-Celler Act. Accordingly, in 1965, with the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which eliminated the racially selected quota systems, the increase in immigration from many countries, including the Philippines, skyrocketed.

The U.S. demand for medical workers, especially nurses, started since the Philippines was still the U.S. commonwealth. Many tropical diseases were foreign to American medical staff that was sent to the Philipines, therefore, the local women were trained to be first aiders.

Nursing class of 1929, St. Paul’s Hospital, Intramuros, Manila, Philippines(Source: University of Southern California)

After the Second World War, nurses in the U.S. quit due to the lack of support from the government. Since the war is over, the funding dried up. However, instead of improving the nurses' wages, the U.S. opened its borders to foreign nurses to take the job that Americans wouldn’t want to. Washington didn’t look far; they decided to hire more Filipino nurses because they were already undergone American nursing training.

In 1965, sending nurses to America became also a business in the Philippines. By the 1970s, Philippine President Ferdinand Ederline Marcos shipped more laborers abroad, and the nation's economy survives because of this strategy as the country earns from the Overseas Filipino Workers' remittances.

During the '90s, around 20,000 Filipino nurses are sent to the United States. Currently, Filipinos in the country are over 4 million population, and many of them are in California and New York.

Why October?

The Filipino-American history month is celebrated every October to commemorate the first landing of Filipinos in the U.S. continent. It is also the birth month of Larry Itliong, Filipino communities in California as well as in Hawaii celebrate this occasion.

In 1991, Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS) board of trustees proposed the first annual Filipino American History Month to commence in October 1992. But it was only in 2006 when the State of California finally recognized and included it on its celebration calendar.

In October 2009, the Senate of the 111th Congress passed a resolution recognizing Filipino American History Month. And in November 2009, Congress passed the resolution (H. RES. 780), officially recognizing October as Filipino American History Month nationwide.

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I am a PR officer and a professional journalist with a master's degree in international development. I write history, geopolitics, food, and culture. Since I am a member of the API community, I make sure to highlight our stories to promote diversity and create awareness for cultural understanding.


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