A community-driven digitization project aims to share the cultural history of the Filipino community emanating from different perspectives and nontraditional formats. The sweeping story begins with a 1587 landing of the Spanish galleon Nuestra Señora de Esperanza at Morro Rock whose landing party consisted of Filipino seamen sent to the California shore to claim the land for the Spanish king, and progresses through the many generations and love stories of Filipinos living on the Central Coast.
Grace Yeh, associate professor of Ethnic Studies at California Polytechnic State University, embarked on an ambitious initiative last spring to digitize the personal records of local families from underrepresented communities and make them publicly available online. Her Re/Collecting project (Re/Co for short) is part of a national and global archival renaissance to push cultural objects out from under the stewardship of academic institutions and museums and into the public domain.
In a shift from the traditional archival paradigm, the Re/Co project exists entirely and solely online. The collections are community-created and in a sense, community-curated. Working with a small cadre of Cal Poly students and armed with laptops, scanners, and digital video cameras, Yeh has been orchestrating "field collecting days," embedding herself in the coastal communities of Japanese and Filipino populations to document their collective memory.
The grassroots Re/Co project Yeh devised digitizes on the spot photographs, letters, objects, and oral histories. The originals remain with the owner -- in their native formats such as family albums and mementos held sacredly in weathered keepsake boxes stored in garages and closets inside the private homes of their caretakers. The digital surrogates are processed by students and Yeh herself, and subsequently added to the Re/Co archive. "We do not ask for any donations of their original physical objects only permission to digitize and make them publicly available," shared Yeh. "The families who share the materials personally select what they wish to have scanned and added to the archive," explained Yeh. "This was a niche I could fill. As a scholar, I was unable to locate the coastal Filipino history in institutions like history centers, historical societies, and [library] special collections."
"So far we have set up scanning days and interview booths at community gatherings like the Loonanon Pioneers reunion and in some cases, house calls direct to the homes of Filipino families in our community," described Yeh. She has also partnered with curatorial experts to provide the families with information on how to best preserve their family papers and photographs once the records have been scanned.
Yeh sees the Re/Co project and her role not so much as a gatekeeper, but a crosswalk to the collective memory of a community often marginalized in the history of the Central Coast. Her project was born out of her need as a professor teaching Asian American Studies courses, to access primary source materials on the regional population of Filipino and Japanese Americans.
"I read Carlos Bulosan's autobiographical novel where he chronicles the Filipino experience from Alaska and Seattle to Los Angeles. He describes many places in our region, Pismo Beach, Nipomo, Guadalupe, and other local cities. I didn't make a real connection of his ties to our area until I moved to San Luis Obispo to teach Asian American studies at Cal Poly," said Yeh. "I could teach generalizations of the Asian American experience or I could tie the curriculum directly with the local region. I began to seek out records that supported Bulosan's tales in our county, but only found newspaper articles and governmental reports such as labor camp inspection records. There were no primary source papers documenting the Filipino first-hand perspective."
It wasn't until Yeh collaborated with the South County Historical Society in Arroyo Grande California, to produce a temporary exhibit, that the important manuscript collections giving voice to the Filipino community were uncovered. "I started connecting with the families through the exhibit. Family after family provided so many photographs and oral accounts of their lives here. The history was there, it was just in private hands of the families. Once the exhibit came down, so did the history. I asked myself 'one year from now would anyone know this history exists?' The papers were a point of access to the individual stories."
Immigration, a Love Story
This past Labor Day weekend, Yeh and project volunteers set up a Re/Co booth at the Loonanon Pioneers annual fiesta barbecue in Santa Maria, California. The annual celebration is a tradition that began with Filipinos who came in the 1920s and 1930s to the U.S. from Loon on the island of Bohol in the Philippines and settled in the Santa Maria Valley. Rosalie Salutan Marquez is on hand to assist with the Re/Co activities and share her delicate and treasured box of love letters that document the courtship of her parents.
Serving as a cultural veteran and mentor to the younger generation of Filipino Americans living on the Central Coast, Marquez in many ways is the visionary for the preservation and dissemination of her community's heritage. As president of the Filipino American National Historical Society Central Coast Chapter, she has collected stories from the Manong and Manang generation of Filipinos as well as the stories of many of the wives and children. She compiled them into a self-published book filled with transcribed oral accounts and photographs of the community in their everyday lives on the Central Coast.
Marquez's conversations about her heritage are peppered with reminiscences of many of the Filipino men who have since passed away. "There are so many inspiring stories amongst the hard lives the men faced here on the coast. There was much discrimination and poverty, and they were unmarried with little hope of finding a wife on the mainland. Many of these men had loved to tell stories and paint a picture of their lives that pointed out their triumphs to overcome so much hardship. They did so through laughter and bonding with the closest thing to family they had, which was the other men who shared in their sacrifices and heartaches."
Under the gazebo in Santa Maria's Fairpark at the Loonanon Pioneers fiesta, the Re/Co scanning day is in full swing. Marquez takes time out of the flurry of activities to speak with Mark Lapiz. Both Marquez and Lapiz represent the same second generation of Filipinos on the Central Coast, although there is a almost 25-year age gap between them.
The intragenerational gap reflects the complex history of the Filipino community on the Central Coast. Both their fathers were part of the Manong generation of Filipino men who immigrated to the U.S. during the American colonial period when Filipinos were considered U.S. Nationals, and were unimpeded from immigrating to the U.S. by the 1917 Immigration Act that restricted other Asians. Yet in California they did not hold the same rights as citizens -- Filipinos were unable to own land and were faced with many discriminatory laws and segregation in public venues such as restaurants and theaters.
The immigration laws at this time were not extended to women. As a result Filipinas were few and far between on the Central Coast. In all actuality in the 1930's there were 14 Filipino men for every one Filipina woman. This coupled with the 1926 California anti-miscegenation laws, which forbade Filipinos from marrying white women or other races outside their own, many Filipino men married secretly or remained unmarried until decades later, when laws changed.
Mark Lapiz's father Apolonio Lapiz came to the Central Coast in the late 1920s to work as a farm laborer. Impeded by immigration laws, Apolonio Lapiz was unable to marry until he was in his mid-50s, when in 1964 he traveled back to the Philippines specifically to find a wife. He met, courted, and married a much younger 26-year-old Arcadia Lapiz in a short two-week span. She had to wait a year to immigrate to the United States, where they finally were able to raise their family in the Santa Maria Valley.
Rosalie Salutan Marquez's Filipino father Santiago "Jimmie" Salutan met his Mexican American wife Mary Olvera at a farm labor camp in Lompoc in the 1930s. During this time roughly 100,000 Filipinos -- predominantly young, single men came to the U.S. to work in the fields. Prevented by the California interracial marriage laws, Jimmie Salutan was unable to legally wed his future wife, due to her Mexican heritage. The couple courted secretly through letters, which document their elopement to Yuma, Arizona. They returned to the Central Coast but were ostracized by his wife's family due to their interracial marriage, yet they did find matrimonial kinship amongst the other married families within the Filipino community.
What has emerged from the Re/Co project are the love stories of this Central Coast community. "Their love stories reveal the constrained circumstances that marked Filipino American lives as well as the intimate bonds -- of marriage, family, and community--forged under such circumstances," described Yeh in a presentation given last May. "What struck me in interviewing these women on their love stories was that while the topic of marriage was central to the interviews, there were also side stories about other kinds of love that undergird their lives in the United States."
Mark Lapiz was able to move beyond the surface of his ancestral heritage and make a stronger deeper connection to the collective memory of his tight knit Filipino community. "It was like peeling back layers," described Lapiz. "Before my understanding of our history was just based on historic dates, legislation...it was black and white. What I soon discovered was there lacked a colorful memory contained in stories...the personal narrative of my ancestors."
It was during his undergraduate coursework in college that Lapiz read Ronald Takaki's "Strangers From a Different Shore" - a seminal book that shed light on unanswered questions Lapiz had about his father. "I read the first chapter of Tataki's book and the light goes on. Everything began to make sense, why my dad was so much older... why he came to the States in 1929 and why he didn't go back to the Philippines until the 1960s," recalled Lapiz.
"Now that my dad has passed on...I look at the gifts he left me and they are intangible. He modeled a way of life that I hope to carry into the future with my own son. His investment in life was his friends, his community... being there for one another. He was so wealthy-- whether he knew it or not," Lapiz said fondly. "Forming a bonds in America and his community was pivotal for my dad. He celebrated his birthday twice. His 'American' birthday when he became a legal citizen in 1986 and his 'Filipino' birthday-- his actual birth in the Philippines."
Objects of Affection
Yeh is most challenged now with taking the archive online. She has been collaborating with technicians and computer scientists to customize an open source tool called Omeka and transform it into a customized online digital archive rich with descriptive entries of the photographs and objects digitized from the personal archives of the families. Most of the backend work includes data entry like adding keywords and narrative descriptions to assist with meaningful searchability.
The collection has amassed hundreds of digital scans in addition to individual family oral histories captured on digital video and audio. The collection documents many of the cultural practices of the Filipino immigrant experience: photographs of first communions, weddings, picnics, fraternal organizations, sharecropping, and images centered on distinct Filipino cultural pastimes such as cockfighting and boxing.
An outcome of the digital archive is an upcoming exhibit "Filipino Love Stories: Objects of Affection." Funded in part by a Cal Humanities grant, the exhibit will be in collaboration with Cal Poly's Kennedy Library and the Cal Poly Liberal Arts and Engineering Studies program. It will take two forms: an online presence on the Re/Co digital archive and a traveling exhibit making its debut in spring 2014.
"This exhibit will focus on objects of affection as a way to examine social, political, and cultural dynamics in the local Filipino community from 1920-1970," shared Yeh. "Objects of affection also suggest that our connections to others, what creates social connections, are mediated by various 'technologies': old and new media like letters or text messages, by governmental apparati like laws on interracial marriages or citizenship, and by social mechanisms like family dynamics or religious practice," explained Yeh.
"Forgetfulness is not known"
Written in a delicate hand inscribed on the back of a very small photograph enclosed in a love letter Jimmie Salutan wrote to his prospective bride is the phrase: "Forgetfulness is not known."
"When he marries and starts a family, Jimmie realizes the possibility that forgetfulness is not known, as it is his eldest daughter [Rosalie Salutan Marquez] who inherits and then shares the story of this pioneer generation. I read this line that Jimmie sends to his sweetheart as a reminder that how we remember, like how we love, is fundamental to creating and sustaining communities," concluded Yeh.
Read more about Re/Collecting days.
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The Balikbayan Box
Balikbayan boxes contain items destined for the loved ones that Filipino families in Los Angeles and beyond left behind in their homeland. The image of a balikbayan box appears in the new video installation "Perpetual Peace" by contemporary artist Michelle Dizon at 18th Street Arts Center.
Top Image: From a photo album documenting the courtship of Santiago "Jimmie" Salutan and Mary Olvera Salutan. | Photo: Catherine Trujillo.
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