Filipino American History, 425 Years and Counting

Nurses from the Philippines, working in Philadelphia, visit Washington, D.C. in May of 1968. | Photo courtesy of: Loreta G. Trinidad

The month of October is National Arts & Humanities Month. It's also Breast Cancer Awareness Month. As well as Domestic Violence Awareness Month, LGBT History Month, and Fair Trade Month.

But for some 3.4 million Americans of Philippine ancestry, October is Filipino American History Month. For it was 425 years ago on this day -- October 18, 1587 -- that the first Filipinos, or "Luzon Indios" as we were known back then, arrived in what is now the United States on a Spanish galleon near Morro Bay, CA -- some 33 years before Pilgrims from England arrived at Plymouth Rock.

For someone customarily weary after a 13-hour Boeing 747 ride from Manila, I couldn't even fathom what those 16th-century early Filipinos were thinking about when they completed their trans-Pacific voyage, much less arriving on a seemingly alien shore. I'm quite sure making history was the farthest thing from their minds.

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A historical marker in Morro Bay commemorates the spot where the first Filipinos arrived in North America in October, 1587. | Photo: Elson Trinidad


When Filipino Americans refer to their history, usually the pre-World War II-era literary works of Carlos Bulosan or the accounts of the manongs who labored in the farms and factories of the U.S. west coast are recalled. But our history isn't just limited to people who wrote or were written about in books. History is much, much closer than that.

My own parents came to the United States separately in the late 1960s, not so much as to "have a better life," but because there were jobs waiting for them across the ocean. My mother, a nurse, arrived in Philadelphia to work at a hospital there. My father, a chemical engineer, eventually found a laboratory position here in Los Angeles after working a few retail jobs to get by. Both of them were the direct beneficiaries of the Immigration and Nationality Act that president Lyndon Johnson signed in 1965. Likewise, the parents of nearly everyone in my generation directly benefitted from that same law. No doubt the majority of Filipinos in America today wouldn't even exist without the so-called "Brain Drain" generation of young educated professionals who arrived here in the 1960s. They made history.

I even made some Filipino American history of my own -- without even realizing it, without really doing anything actually (well, aside from crying); I was the first member of my family to be born in the United States. And everything I do, like it or not, continues to be a part of that history.

Filipinos are a unique -- and some might say unusual -- ingredient in the proverbial American melting pot: At first glance, we look like most other Asians, or Pacific Islanders. On paper most of us could qualify as Latinos. When heard, our most common dialect is basically Malay peppered with pidgin Spanish.

Because of all that, cultural identity is a big part of the Filipino American ethos. We beam with pride at and even live vicariously through the mainstream successes of boxer Manny Paquiao, singer Charice, or any Hollywood celebrity which may or may not have actual Filipino blood, in varying fractions thereof. Their victories somehow become our victories. Which is true to an extent, but the real Filipino American history is made by everyday people. The students, the seniors, the soldiers, the caregivers, the nurses, the accountants, the teachers. the artists.

To my fellow Filipino Americans out there: Keep on making history, but don't forget to share it. Not just with the young, but with those who aren't even aware of our history. Through that, you make the mundane notable and the routine significant. For Bulosan was just a laborer until he wrote about his experience. The Filipino American veterans who fought alongside U.S. forces in World War II were just soldiers and guerrillas until they shared their war stories. I just shared some of my history in the past nine paragraphs, and now it's your turn.

About the Author

Elson Trinidad is the Filipino kid who grew up listening to black music in an Armenian neighborhood where people spoke Spanish and ate Thai food.
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