The Filipino American communities in the United States gather together twice a year to celebrate history and heritage – first in June to commemorate Philippine independence and again in October to celebrate Filipino American History Month.
History books taught us that the Philippines declared independence from Spain in June 12, 1898 but not a lot of people know why the Fil-Am communities celebrate history month every October.
Well, this is due to the first recorded presence of Filipinos in the United States. It was October 18, 1587 when the “Luzones Indios” came ashore from the Spanish galleon Nuestra Senora de Esparanza and landed at what is now Morro Bay, California.
The late Dr. Fred Cordova, who along with his wife Dorothy founded Filipino American National Historical Society, first introduced October as Filipino American History Month in 1992 with a resolution from the FANHS National Board of Trustees.
“The Cordovas wanted to commemorate Filipino-American history and they wanted the contributions of the Filipino-American community to the United States be highlighted,” said Dr. Kevin Nadal, FANHS National Trustee. “Somewhere, people started mistaking it as Heritage Month and people started to make it about the Philippines – which is great, but the month is really meant to be about Filipino American history.”
October as Filipino American History Month
In November of 2009, both the United States House of Representatives and Senate passed laws – House Resolution 780 and Senate Resolution 298 respectively, officially recognizing October as Filipino American History Month in the United States. Various states, counties and cities in the U.S. have since followed suit and have established proclamations and resolutions declaring observance of Filipino American History Month in their regions.
The White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (WHIAAPI) and the White House Office of Public Engagement (OPE) will host a Celebration of Filipino American History Month (FAHM) beginning on Friday, October 2, 2015 at the White House. The Celebration will kick off FAHM and will feature discussions with Administration officials and prominent Filipino Americans, as well as performances by distinguished Filipino American artists.
The Philippine Consulate General New York, in cooperation with some Filipino American community organizations such as Philippine-American Friendship Committee (PAFCOM) and Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS-NJ) began Filipino American History Month Celebration with a program at the New Jersey City University.
Earlier this week, the Filipino American Press Club of New York met with officials of FANHS New York for a ‘kapihan’ discussing, among others the celebration of history month and the publication of the new book Filipinos in New York edited by Dr. Nadal.
Filipinos in New York
‘Filipinos in New York’ is the third book on Filipinos in the east coast by Arcadia Publishing, the first two were Philadelphia and Washington, DC.
Dr. Nadal said he wanted to come up with the book when they began back in 2009 to revive FANHS New York and recruit new members. The New York chapter of the organization was founded by author Ronnie Alejandro.
They began by discussing among their members what their lives were as Filipino Americans and native New Yorkers. They shared their immigration histories and gathered as many photographs as they could, which they then added to the archival research Nadal himself did.
There were already Filipinos in New York as early as the 1900s who came to the United States as pensionados or scholars of the US government. Nadal also shared that he knew Filipino seafarers who arrived in the New York in the 1920s and settled near the Brooklyn Navy Yards.
“We also found that there were Filipinos who were put on display in one of the amusement parks at Coney Island in 1911. I didn’t know that happened. I had known about the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904 but we didn’t know this also happened in New York,” he explained.
Nadal moved to New York in 2002 to pursue his doctoral studies at Columbia University. He realized then that most Filipino American studies focused on communities in the West Coast and Hawaii so he made it a point to learn more about the experiences of the Filipinos on the east coast.
Among the interesting things that Nadal uncovered was Dr. Jose Rizal’s trip to New York in 1888, where he stayed at the Fifth Avenue Hotel (now the building where Eataly is). It was here where the Philippine national hero wrote about how he was impressed with the buildings. He even drew a sketch of the Brooklyn Bridge, which had just been built a few years earlier.
Then there is also this discovery of what could be the oldest documented Filipino restaurant not just in New York but in the entire United States. It was called Manila Karihan Restaurant located on Sands Street near the Brooklyn Navy Yards.
“The book covers a lot of different times in history and it really was a community effort,” Nadal said, thanking FANHS members and contributors to the book. “We have members whose parents came to the United States at different times from the 1930s, 1940s and post 1965 covering a wide span of history. It is fascinating how it all came together.”
Dolores Fernandez’s father, Pio Fernandez immigrated to the United States in the late 1930s after joining the US Army and serving directly under Gen. Douglas MacArthur as a houseboy or personal valet. The book revealed that Fernandez, who was originally from Baybay, Leyte, traveled on 10 different ships before finally landing in New York City.
“My father left the Philippines with Gen. MacArthur, and travelled around the world with him for five years,” Fernandez shared. “He left the service after that and became a merchant marine where he traveled again. He met my mother, a Scandinavian woman who was much younger than him and here I am.”
It was a very difficult time for them then, according to Fernandez, first because of his age and second, because he was not Caucasian.
“Her family disowned her. She was not permitted to bring him or me to their home in Brooklyn for many years. We had to sit in the car while she visited her parents,” she recalled. “I had no idea it was an issue. We would play in the car and he would teach me songs like ‘Planting rice is never fun…’”
The family caved in later when they realized that Pio Fernandez was a good man so they caved in.
Her father taught her about her Filipino culture and heritage by telling her stories of his homeland and by bringing her to the social gatherings that time. Growing up, Fernandez joined community beauty pageants and various events where men would wear their barongs and women their kimonos and ternos.
Joey Tabaco’s father was an industrial arts teacher by day but he also worked as a houseboy for American officers after the war. He found a magazine where he worked and that magazine had an ad that wanted Filipinos to work for the then just established United Nations. He applied and because he was multi-lingual and he knew how to type, he was accepted for the job. He arrived in the United States in 1946.
Cecile Sison’s mother Cecilia Espinosa landed on the cover of the book. It was taken back in 1952 in Times Square, specifically the place where TKTS and the red stairs are now located. Ms. Espinosa was in New York to study her masters in chemistry at Columbia University.
The book tells more than just the stories of Dolores, Joey and Cecile and their families’ immigration to the United States.
It also tells the hitherto unknown stories of Cerefino Garcia, a Filipino boxer who lived in New York in the 1930s to 1940s, and won a world middleweight title at Madison Square Garden in October 1939; or conjoined twins Lucio and Simplico Godino who worked as a side show act at Coney Island when they were 11 years old; or Carlos P. Romulo’s letter to his grandfather written in Spanish dated September 14, 1919 lamenting the fact that the cost of living in New York is high and he is paying ten dollars a week for a small room and about two to three dollars a day for meals.
Some things don’t change, even after almost a century later.