The thread of Filipino-American history began on October 15, 1587, when the first Filipinos arrived on US shores aboard Spanish colonial ships. In the late 2000’s, California and Hawaii started to celebrate Filipino-American History Month in October to commemorate this arrival, and the US Congress proclaimed this month nationally in 2009. Now this is one of the many occasions in which our country honors various racial and ethnic groups, trying to remedy the fact that we typically and primarily recognize the contributions of white notables and white culture. As such, October has become the occasion for Filipino-American groups to hold festivals, remember history, and celebrate heritage.
As the spouse of one Filipina and the father of another, I have experienced something of Filipino culture over the past 20 years. As a white man who grew up in a nearly all-white community in Wisconsin, Filipino culture operates outside me and around me, but not within me. In many respects and to my own shame, I still know relatively little about Filipino culture and history. I can cook some of the dishes — my in-laws have tell me I make a mean adobo — but I don’t know Tagalog and can give you only a rudimentary accounting of Filipino geography and events. As a result, I had to research most of the information on which this essay is based.
Filipinos came to the lands that became this country nearly 450 years ago and have been contributing to American culture ever since. This fact alone gives lie to the claim that this is a white country made for white people, not even acknowledging the Native peoples who have been here for tens of thousands of years and the African peoples brought here by force. The only time that this land was “racially pure” — whatever that means — was before white people first came here. Since that time, we have been interacting, relating, and procreating across groups, however much some people don’t want that to be true or want to prevent it. And we white people have often wanted to prevent it.
So Filipinos first came here because of Spain’s colonization of both Latin America and the Philippines and the immigration of people between them. Then, after the Spanish-American War at the close of the 19th century, America became the Philippines’ colonizer. Filipinos started their second wave of immigration to the US, with many of them immigrating to California to work as farmworkers in the 1920s and 1930s. From the 1930s through the 1960s, the Filipino farmworkers — known as manongs after a title of respect from Ilocano, a Filipino dialect — agitated for better working conditions, culminating in the Delano Grape Strike, starting in 1965. Larry Itliong, a Filipino labor leader, led Filipino farmworkers in walking off the job. Itliong joined with Cesar Chavez, the Latino labor organizer, to direct the strike over the course of the next 5 years, until the United Farm Workers finally gained a contract with the growers.
This is just one example of Filipino-Americans as one of many racial and ethnic groups who have built this country and who are fighting for this same country to acknowledge their contributions. As a society, many of us may have made some strides in recognizing that our history is not just about the contributions of straight white men, but we have so much farther to go, and we white people need to be so much more resilient in hearing and telling this story. This real story of America — the struggles, the ways that white people have tried to deny all peoples of color, the occasional white antiracist who breaks through, the triumph and brilliance of people of color in spite of this white opposition — it is vital that we tell this story. It is vital first because it is true, and it is vital next because it is beautiful. Would you rather have a cloth of bleached white that tears when you first touch it, or would you rather have a resilient, breathtaking cloth of many colors, woven together in intricate, enduring knots? I hope that this October, we can celebrate the threads woven into this cloth by our Filipino siblings from throughout our history, and do so much better at celebrating the multiplicity of those threads on every day of the year.
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