How I came to America after my graduation from medical school shall be told.
However, before I do that, I need to share with everyone the history of Filipino migration to the United States, a country where all men are created equal and where there exists the fundamental inalienable rights for freedom and justice. I do realize that I shall delve into the history of Filipino migrations to America and therefore away from my personal life story. It is, however, an opening of how I came to America, a very similar story for thousands of Filipino doctors and other professionals. It will be of significant information to the younger generations of Filipino descent to learn about this history.
In the early years Filipinos were called the “forgotten Asian Americans.” The history of how they came to the U.S. was never kept alive among the Filipino-Americans of today. What appears to some to be underlying confusion underscores the fact that so little is known about the history of Filipinos in America. So much research still remains to be done before the rich, multi-faceted, and long history of Filipinos in America can fully unfold for students and everyone else to learn. As new and newly uncovered information is found, previous conclusions need to be revisited.
In San Diego County, Filipino Americans comprise the largest Asian Pacific Islander group. It is stated that Filipinos in the State of California are about 2 million making it the second largest minority group. Yet in the past, as Filipino Americans, we remained invisible to mainstream society. How often did we chance upon Filipinos in books, in magazines, on television, or on the radio then? Now, we see changes.
Some amusing comments from the Northern California Pilipino American Students organization attest to this: “We are hidden in the shadows of our Pacific Islander brothers and sisters. If possible, we would like to be able to tell our friends and neighbors that there is more to being a Filipino than just lumpia (egg-roll) and pancit (rice noodle). We want to be able to tell our friends and family that we have a unique Asian Pacific Islander heritage. A heritage that reflects our being Filipino. A heritage that goes deep into the hearts of all Pinoys, whether we speak English or Tagalog, whether we were born in America or in the Philippines, or whether we eat “kare-kare”(ox-tail dish with peanuts) and “pinakbet”(Ilocano vegetable dish), or hamburgers and french fries. We want to be able to tell our friends that our history is no mystery.” This observation dates back to the 60s & 70s. It had changed since then.
As a matter of fact when I have shared this subject with my cousin, Dr. Lourdes Burgos , here’s what she had said: “I am bothered, however, by the fact that they feel that they are hidden in the shadows of our Pacific Islander brothers and sisters.”
“Here in the East Coast, most of the Filipinos are Doctors, Nurses, MedTech, and Physical therapists. They are working in hospitals and are earning a reasonable income that puts them in the upper middle class. There are very few Pacific Islanders here and we are therefore elevated to the level of Medical Experts, a title most other ethnic groups covet. I was not aware that we are hidden in a group who just eat lumpia, pancit, pinakbet, without much to be proud about. I therefore beg to be forgiven for being so proud. I have been respected as a high-class pediatrician ever since I arrived here and I dare say that our history as Filipinos in the East is not the same as in the West. (No offense to you, of course, considering that you are a doctor who trained in Chicago but migrated to California).” The preceding astute and fulsome comments are true in fact.
Indeed, as Filipino Americans, we need to tell our story and when it all began.
In my review of this particular subject, I believe it will be of significant interest to relate this history to everyone reading my memoir.
Since the early 1900’s, successive waves of Filipinos have migrated to other countries in search of employment opportunities. Mass migration, however, began at the beginning of the 20th century when the demand for labor in the plantations of Hawaii and farmlands of California attracted thousands of mostly male laborers.
The movement of agricultural workers later expanded to California and to Washington and Alaska to work in fish canneries. This migration was reduced to 50 persons a year following the Tydings-McDuffie Act of 1934. Its main purpose was to exclude Filipinos because they were perceived as a social problem, disease carriers, and an economical threat. The American attitude toward Filipinos changed with the onset of World War II. It was offset by the United States Navy’s recruitment of Filipinos who were exempt from the aforementioned quota.
Successive waves of Filipino migrants followed in the 1960s, who were largely professional workers. They were Filipino nurses, doctors, and medical technicians who filled in the skill gaps in the United States.
Even before the 1900s, there were earlier Spanish-speaking Filipinos that were not truly immigrants but were transplanted to America by accident and appropriately called “accident immigrants,” .i.e., not to serve for the labor demands of America but for Spain. It was not until 1898, when the U.S. acquired the Philippine territory at the end of the Spanish-American regime, that true immigration to the United States began.
The earliest recorded presence of Filipinos in what is today the United States occurred in October 1587, when mariners under Spanish command landed in Morro Bay, California. The earliest permanent Filipino Americans to arrive in the New World landed in 1763 and made their first permanent settlement in the bayous and marshes of Louisiana. As sailors and navigators on board the Spanish galleons, Filipinos — also known as “Manilamen” or Spanish-speaking Filipinos — jumped ship to escape the brutality of their Spanish masters. They built houses on stilts along the gulf ports of New Orleans and were the first in the United States to introduce the sun-drying process of shrimps. They created settlements such as Saint Malo, Louisiana and Manila Village in Barataria Bay. More details are narrated below.
I will try to be brief and will categorize and organize the different types of Filipinos who came to America. With the passage of time, categories may change from one type to another. This is evident among the Filipinos coming to the North American continent. We see that different classes of Filipinos arrived in the U.S., each class having its own set of goals and objectives. The one common denominator that has drawn these people here is the demand for Filipino labor supply. It was this factor that bound the early Filipinos who were called the “Manilamen”, the “pensionados” (with pension grants from the Philippine government), and the “manongs” (Filipino men in their senior years), and later on the two other distinct groups of Filipino recruits: those in the U.S Navy and Filipino medical graduates and other professionals. To be complete, here is the list :
· Crew on sailing ships during the Manila-Acapulco Galleon like trade servant women and concubines on galleons
· Chieftains exiled to New Spain
Merchant Mariners 1830- (for American ships)
· Pensionados 1903- (Filipino students)
· Sakadas 1906- (contract workers in Hawaii)
· Alaskeros (workers in Alaska fisheries)
· Steamship Crew (for Cunard Lines and others)
· U.S. Navy recruits
· WWII military recruits
· War brides (after WWII)
· Post 1965 professionals (doctors, nurses, etc.)
· Mail order brides
The list above can be grouped into four “waves” of immigrants
The Manilamen (considered to be the First Wave)
Filipinos had settled in North America before the American Revolution. As the Spanish galleons starting in 1565 left the port of Cebu, Philippines, bound for Acapulco, Mexico, the Manila-Acapulco trade route was born. Among the crewmembers of the Philippine-made Spanish galleons were Spanish-speaking Filipinos known as the Manilamen. Many of the sailors were subjected to force hard labor for the galleon service. While their ships were in port in Hawaii, Guam, Acapulco, and New Orleans, a few of them were able to escape the brutal conditions imposed by their Spanish masters.
Some of the Manilamen eventually settled in the French Louisiana territory where they began to build settlements. The oldest and longest was St. Malo, a small community that numbered about one hundred. St. Malo was a free republic inside French Louisiana. At its height, three to four hundred people lived there.
Other settlements like St. Malo sprouted in other areas. In the early 1900s a Filipino community leader revealed that in the New Orleans community alone there were over two thousand Manilamen, and the Louisiana outside of New Orleans was home to several hundred Filipinos. During the War of 1812, Filipinos from Manila Village (near New Orleans) were among the “Batarians” who fought against the British with Jean Lafitte in the Battle of New Orleans.
The Pensionados (Filipinos getting Philippine government grants/pension) and Manongs. Considered to be the Second Wave.
From 1900-1940 the second wave of immigrants showed up on American shores. The first group was perhaps the only group that came from America’s demands for Filipino labor. These were the pensionados. They were sons and daughters of rich, influential families who came to the U.S. specifically to obtain a college education. They were given Philippine government grants and fellowships, known as government pensions, hence the term “pensionados”. They were to return to the Philippines upon completion of their academic work. Because of their small number in American campuses and were in the U.S. temporarily, they did not pose a threat to the majority of white Americans. One author described the white Americans’ attitude regarding the early pensionados as such.
Beginning in the early 1900’s, “pensionados” portrayed that identification with an image of being well-mannered, well groomed, and knowledgeable of white American etiquette. Since the early pensionados did not experience much prejudice and discrimination, they came back to the Philippines with glowing reports and unrealistic views of mainstream American culture. These false impressions gave false hopes and expectations to the second group of immigrant laborers known as the “manongs” (old timers).
The demand for Filipino labor began with the Gentlemen’s Agreement ratified between the United States and Japan in 1907. The agreement was intended to limit the number of Japanese in the U.S. by restricting its number of immigrants. The Exclusion Act of 1924 barred the Japanese from further immigration. These actions led to a labor supply crisis for the sugar cane and pineapple plantations in Hawaii and for the farms in the mainland. Agents for labor started a recruitment program to bring Filipinos to the United States. Steamship companies were instrumental in transporting these immigrants.
Besides the economic condition of the Philippines, other factors influenced the Filipino migration. The American public schools also played an important factor. The American virtues set forth in the American textbooks that were being used in the Philippines made some boys dissatisfied with the economic condition in their country and they became desirous to go to America.
The positive reports of the early pensionados, coupled with the fact that the first labor immigrants found it fairly easy to find work in the U.S. and were sending back money to their families with glowing reports, turned the Second Wave of immigrants from a trickle of a few hundred men arriving each year to a few thousand in the 1920’s.
Many Filipinos saw their fellow countrymen who had left for the United States, mostly by joining the United States military, return to their hometowns to retire after working for several years. They came back as heroes with money in their pockets and an elevated status in their community. This impression, combined with the glowing reports of the early immigrants, led to a prevailing attitude of prospective immigrants that they were going to America and also come back as heroes to their families and neighbors.
Mass migration, however, began at the beginning of the 20th century when the demand for labor in the plantations of Hawaii and farmlands of California attracted thousands of mostly male laborers.
The Filipino immigrants were not like the two earlier groups of Asians—the Chinese and Japanese. Although most of the early Asians came as laborers, the most striking difference was that the Chinese and Japanese stayed as a cohesive group and settled in specific areas, whereas the Filipinos were transients, moving from city to city and from farm to farm. The reason that Filipinos never settled into specific areas was that they considered their immigration to the U.S. to be only temporary. Since the Philippines were a United States Territory at the time, there was no need for a passport or immigration papers. The only thing that one needed was enough money to buy a ticket. Between 1920 and 1930, eighty percent of those entering the U.S. were between sixteen and thirty years old, seventy-seven percent of them unmarried. Because they believed that they were going back to the Philippines, they saw no need to transplant their culture and build communities.
Here’s the scenario: Upon arrival in the mainland, the new immigrant was shocked by the reality of American life. He faced prejudice and discrimination for the first time, something that he rarely experienced back home. He also found that the low wages were not what he expected and the cost of living ate up much of what he earned.
At first, the new arrivals tried to find jobs as soon as possible, which meant working in the fields. Filipinos were known to specialize in “stoop” labor like cutting asparagus. For instance, the lettuce industry in the Watsonville district of California was largely created by Filipino labor.
Not all Filipino immigrants came in search of money. Others had dreams of completing their education in the U. S., hoping to find work and do their schooling at the same time. Unfortunately, unlike the pensionados, these immigrants were unprepared for the education system in America. Some lacked the basic skills to enter a university and became discouraged, while others simply lacked the money.
Dr. Roberto Vallanga described what happened to many of them: “As the years passed, their dreams of completing their education were thwarted; finding employment to support themselves became the objective. They were drawn into a lifestyle out of necessity against their will…a life molded not by laziness or an unwillingness to better themselves but by social and economic conditions in America.”
“Some were able to finish a university education. For example, Camilo V. was able to obtain an MBA degree from the University of Southern California (U.S.C.) in the 1930’s, but because of the well of prejudice, he was only able to get a job as chauffer. (But as a happy ending, when his employer passed away he willed his car to Camilo.)
”The Second Wave of Filipinos who intended to work temporarily in the U.S. discovered the harsh truth of American reality. Like the other previous immigrants, they also fell for the “American Dream” trap. Some were able to return to the Philippines as heroes, but the vast majority could not bear to return home as failures.”
The Filipinos Navy men (considered the Third Wave)
The “manongs” came mostly between 1900 thru 1940 while the professional class did not arrive until the end of the 1950’s. When the Philippines became a U.S. territory, Filipinos had constantly been members of the U.S. military and the merchant marines. Article 27 of the Base Agreement, signed after the Philippines was given independence, allowed provisions for “special relations” between the U.S. Navy and Philippine nationals. The U.S. had no other agreement like this with any other country in the world. The provisions were mutually independent. The U.S. military bases in the Philippines were not necessarily required to recruit Filipinos nor were the Filipinos required to serve in the U.S. military in order for the bases to continue to exist.
The economic pressures in the Philippines drove the men into the Navy. In the past, the Filipinos recruited by the Navy were only allowed to serve as stewards. This can probably be explained by the United States’ colonial experience with the Philippines. However, the American attitude toward the Filipinos changed with the onset of World War II.
This began the Third Wave of Filipino immigration (1945-1965). Filipinos from the Philippines joined the U.S. Navy to fight against the Japanese. Filipinos were allowed to join the navy because they were so-called “nationals”. They were not U.S. citizens, nor were they illegal aliens. The following statement was taken from Ramon J. Farolan who wrote: From Stewards to Admirals: Filipinos in the U.S. Navy published in Asian Journal, on Jul 21, 2003.
Nothing to disparage, I truly praise the Filipino navy men. In the navy, many Filipinos were given the label as “Stewardsman”. As stewards, Filipinos in the U.S. Navy cooked, cleaned, shined shoes, washed and swabbed the decks of naval ships and naval bases across America and the entire world. Despite their status, Filipinos fought side-by-side with the American soldiers for freedom against the Japanese.
In my research, my friend Leo Sicat in San Diego was quoted in one of the articles entitled, Filipino American Lives. Leo Sicat was a college student at the University of the Philippines described the indignity he felt in the Steward School.
“ At the school we were taught how to cook and baked, how to set the table, and how to position the glass and the cup. They basically taught us the job of a waitress. I was almost a chemical engineer, and I came to the United States just to become a steward.”
Finally the restrictions for Filipino Navy were lifted in the ‘70s and they could become officers of the U.S. Navy up to the highest rank position. In l985, Commander Tem E. Bugarin became the first Filipino to command a surface ship of the line when he assumed command of USS Saginaw, LST1188. There are now hundreds of Filipino officers in the U.S. Navy.
The Navy immigrants were a more cohesive group than the early manongs. Before the Philippines got its independence, those who joined the Navy had the original intent to return to the Philippines. However, after the Philippines’ independence, many of them had the new attitude of permanently emigrating to the U.S. They felt that they had better advantages if they remained here since the U.S. Navy treated Filipino retirees better in the States than in the Philippines. The U.S. Navy’s recruitment of Filipinos, who were exempted from the established quota, brought a heavy wave of immigrants to the U.S. Thus, Filipino-American communities developed around United States Navy bases whose impact can still be seen today.
Philippine Medical Graduates and other professionals (considered to be the Fourth Wave)
The Fourth Wave of Filipino Immigration began after the passing of the Immigration Act of 1965 and continues to the present day. This allowed the entry of as many as 20,000 immigrants annually. One of the most identifiable groups in this wave of immigrants represented the medical profession. During the late 1950’s and early 1960’s the U.S. was in critical supply of technical people, especially in the medical services. Again, Filipinos were actively recruited from the Philippines in order to fill the labor demands of the U.S.
Other groups of Filipino immigrants during these years were from the professional class…doctors, nurses, engineers, lawyers, as well as the Navy men. The United States opened its doors to professionals under the “third preference” status.
Have you heard of “brain drain?” The Fourth Wave had this impact on the Philippines with the exodus of professionals leaving the country to come to the United States. These professional immigrants were very similar to the “manongs” who came seventy years earlier. They were mostly single, young, and were scattered throughout the U.S. moving to a job first and subsequently forming a Filipino community. The main difference is that after 1962’s change in immigration guidelines they knew they were here to stay.
Now it is a fact that Filipinos have been in America for quite some time. Yet one might persistently ask, “Who are the Filipino Americans? What makes them appear different, yet one and the same?”
My son Roy admits that he is a second-generation Filipino. He has an interesting point of view that goes like this: “Of course being American-born, I am more biased towards the American culture but as to which of the two cultures I truly belong to, I claim neither one. As a Filipino, I am the first son of a successful doctor who holds much respect within the Filipino community. I am proud to be a Filipino-American…” I assume he is linking his public persona to being an American and his private feeling of identification to being a Filipino.
It is very unfortunate that many American-born children of Filipinos do not see themselves in the American mainstream or in the Filipino community because of this “invisibility.” They lack a certain voice reminding them that they, too, are Filipino. This may be one of the reasons they act more American than Filipino.
There has been a significant change in the lives of the last wave of Filipino immigrants in this country. The Filipino American community is the second largest Asian American group in the United States. Filipino Americans are also the largest subgroup of overseas Filipinos. The “American Dream” is very much alive.
The U.S. Census Bureau in its 2007 American Community Survey identified approximately 3.1 million as “Filipino” alone, or in any combination. The census also found out that about 80% of Filipino-American communities are United States citizens. Also in 2007, the U.S. State Department estimated the size of the Filipino American community at 4 million or 1.5% of the United States population.
According to the American Physicians Association, based on the Census in 2005, there were 19,000 Philippine-trained practicing physicians in the U.S.
The above story, written in chronological order, explains how I was able to come to this country. I have been lucky enough just in time for the Fourth Wave Filipinos going to America. I came under the Educational Council For Foreign Medical Graduates (ECFMG). The next chapter increased the clarity of image of what is an “American Dream.”