USA: Our heroic ‘Manongs’ largely forgotten

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Our heroic ‘Manongs’ largely forgotten
By Dionesio C. Grava

Another Filipino American Heritage Month drew to a close. May we take a look back on the 425 years of recorded history of our people in the U.S. and their contributions to the economic, cultural and social enhancement of this country.

It is easy enough to romanticize the fact that our ancestors had carved the first Asian imprints here long time ago. The Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS) has even a specific date, Oct. 18, 1587, the day that some of our people landed in Morro Bay near San Francisco. They were part of the crew who accompanied a landing party of the Spanish galleon Nuestra Senora de Buena Esperanza. Eight years later Filipino sailors were also aboard in the San Agustin when it was shipwrecked near Point Reyes in San Francisco Bay.

“El Pueblo de la Reyna de los Angeles,” today’s City of Los Angeles, was established at a time when California was under Spain in 1781 by 44 “pobladores” or settlers sent from Mexico. Among those enlisted to be an original settler was Antonio Miranda who, according to historians William and Roberta Mason, was a native of Manila. However, Miranda’s daughter was stricken with smallpox when the expedition reached the Port of Loreto in Baja, California, forcing him to remain behind. Not until two years later was Miranda able to proceed with his journey but being a creditable gunsmith, he was instead sent by authorities to Santa Barbara — now a resort city about 95 miles northwest of Los Angeles — as a soldier and armorer.

A research by Thelma Buchholdt indicates that the earliest accounts of “Manilla men” reaching Alaska’s shores were crew members of the merchant ships Iphigenia, Eleanora, Fair American and the Gustavus III which bartered for sea otter furs in 1788. Later in 1791 Filipino seamen were aboard the Spanish ships Descubierta and the Atrevida seeking the Northwest Passage. Less than a century later, American whaling ships also brought Filipinos to the Alaskan Arctic. In the early 1900s Filipino cannery workers (the “Alaskeros”) began to live permanently in Alaska.

Sometime in 1793 an article in the national magazine, Harper’s Weekly, detailed the story of the “Manila Men” and their 50-year-old village named St. Malo on the outskirts of New Orleans, Louisiana. The majority of early Filipino Americans were part of the crew of Spanish galleons that regularly plowed the seas between Manila and Acapulco at a time when the Philippines was a colony of Spain. The difficulties of long sea travel back to Manila prompted many of them to jump ship and in the process became immigrants many, many years before other nationals started arriving in this country.

Rizal in the age of racism

In a letter to Mariano Ponce dated July 27, 1888 Jose Rizal complained that Customs officials were excessively strict with passengers of a boat he was in that arrived in San Francisco. He was en route from Japan to his second visit in Europe at that time. Rizal wrote that they were quarantined “in spite of the clearance given by the American Consul, of not having had a single case of illness aboard, and of the telegram of the governor of Hong Kong declaring that port free from epidemic.”

Our future national hero noted that on the same day of their arrival, “they unloaded 700 bales of silk without fumigating them; the ship’s doctor went ashore; many customs employees and an American doctor from the hospital for cholera victims came on board… Afterwards, passengers of the first class were allowed to land; the Japanese and Chinese in the 2nd and 3rd classes remained in quarantine for an indefinite period.”

Rizal was in the U.S. from April 28 to May 16, 1888 and had stopovers in New York and Chicago. He had opportunity to observe the state of racism in the U.S. then. “Undoubtedly,” he said, “America is a great country, but it still has many defects. There is no real civil liberty. In some states, the Negro cannot marry a white woman, nor a Negress a white man. Because of their hatred for the Chinese, other Asiatics, like the Japanese, being confused with them, are likewise disliked by the ignorant Americans.

That was the state of affairs in those times when government-sponsored students (“pensionados” 1903-1924) arrived to seek education in the U.S. shortly after Spain ceded its former colony under the Treaty of Paris. The Filipinos had become U.S. citizens but that didn’t spare them from racial discrimination.

Belinda A. Aquino and Federico V. Magdalena traced the Filipino roots in Hawaii starting with the arrival of 15 contract laborers or “sakadas” of the Hawaiian Sugar Planters Association in 1906. More came until 1934, men and women doing backbreaking, cheap labor in the plantations. They could not break their contracts, had harsh living and working conditions, unfair labor practices, social rejection, educational neglect, political disenfranchisement, violence in the workplace and overworked.

The “Manongs”

A great influx of Filipino farm workers also occurred in the mainland in the 1920’s after anti-Asian immigration laws had barred the continued importation of Japanese laborers then working the California fields, according to an article in the New York Times. Part of the story of these “Manongs” (Pilipino for elder brothers) was also narrated by the office of California Assembly member Luis A. Alejo (D-Salinas) in a resolution (ACR 74) dated Aug. 22, 2011 apologizing for the nearly 100 years of discrimination toward Filipinos and Filipino Americans. The resolution was passed unanimously by the state’s Senate and Congress.

Assembly member Alejo wrote: “During this period, school segregation and anti-miscegenation laws were the norm, as were tight quotas on Filipino immigration, even though the Philippines was under the sovereignty of the United States until the end of World War II. Locally, tensions boiled over and led to the ‘Watsonville anti-Filipino riots’ of 1930, which resulted in the death of Filipino laborer Fermin Tobera. The riots soon spread to other cities including Salinas, San Jose, San Francisco, and Stockton… Filipino Americans have a proud history of hard work and perseverance. California, however, does not have as proud a history regarding its treatment of Filipino Americans.”

On October 8, President Obama was in Delano, California, to unveil the three-acre Cesar Chavez national monument site that includes a visitor’s center, Chavez’s preserved office, a memorial garden and Chavez’s gravesite. The grounds also include the house where Chavez lived for the last 22 years of his life. Already his legacy is memorialized in books, paintings, public facilities, streets and edifices. A Lewis and Clark ship of the U.S. Navy is named after him and a Chavez biopic is in the making. There is even a state holiday in his name and now this museum.

Chavez, a Mexican-American, is primarily honored for his participation in the historical labor action called the Delano Grape Strike, something that was actually initiated and steadfastly pursued by some 1,500 Filipino farm workers who protested their deplorable living conditions and low wages at that time.

From Wikipedia: “The strike began when the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, mostly Filipino farm workers in Delano, California, led by Philip Vera Cruz, Larry Itliong, Benjamin Gines and Pete Velasco, walked off the farms of area table-grape growers, demanding wages equal to the federal minimum wage.

As a result of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee’s decision to strike against Delano grape growers on September 8, 1965, Chavez held a conference in the Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, on September 16 which is the Mexican Independence Day, in order to allow the National Farm Workers Association to decide for themselves whether or not to join the struggle at Delano.”

The name of another Filipino leader is not mentioned above: Andy Imutan. Posting in the website of the United Farm Workers of America (UFW), Mr. Imutan said, “The whole movement began in Coachella that same summer [of 1965]. That’s when a group of Filipino workers went on strike demanding that their wages be increased from $1.10 an hour as well as better living conditions. Finally, after 10 days of picketing we finally accomplished what we had set out to do.”

As a result of that initial protest the workers’ wages were increased by 30 cents an hour. But more than the victory, their was great joy among them in having won over the powerful growers at a time when unfair labor practices and discrimination against minorities were the rules. The Filipino workers continued their activism in the farms of Delano. Eventually the Filipino and Mexican groups merged forming the UFW in August 1966 and the Delano Grape Strike is now a part of American history

It is ironic that while Chavez has attained legendary status throughout the U.S. at the back of the ground-breaking role of the Filipino workers, only a few groups such as FANHS and the Los Angeles Filipino Association of City Employees (LAFACE) care enough to celebrate anniversaries of that historic event. For example, Filipinos in Carson, California, with the support of city officials decided to give a tribute to Itliong in connection with Filipino American Heritage Month that just ended but according to a report, not even 50 attended. Other than the above-cited resolution by legislators of California last year and another resolution of the Los Angeles City Council dated Sept. 8, 2010 bearing an identical topic, to a large extent our heroic “Manongs” are not known by the rest of Americans.

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