HINDSIGHT By F. Sionil Jose, PhilStar |
MANILA, 6/3/07 — Manila Men in the New World: Filipino Migration to Mexico and the Americas from the 16th Century, By Floro L. Mercene, with a foreword by Serafin D. Quiazon, University of the Philippines Press
For the last 400 years, the Filipino viajero has been ranging the world this much is on the record. What is not, of course, could be much more because our country is an archipelago and our people have had a long tradition of maritime adventurism. After all, the early travelers were not known as Filipinos the term came to be used only recently, scarcely more than just a hundred years ago. Hundreds of our countrymen have gone to the sea by the Manila galleons those sterling examples of Filipino craftsmanship in ships built of Philippine hardwood in the shipyards of Cavite, Pangasinan and the Bicol region. These first travelers were known as Manila men and the ships on which they sailed were known as the nao de China, sailing between Acapulco in Mexico and Manila, in a trade in Asian goods that were brought to Mexico, then transshipped to Europe, in exchange for the South American silver and the European goods which reached us from Mexico. The end of the galleon trade in 1815 shortly after which Mexico achieved its independence from Spain did not halt the Filipino diaspora it continued, onward to this very day when such a migration has ballooned into millions of overseas Filipino workers whose remittances have kept afloat a profligate and inefficient government.
As Mercene narrates it, his fascination with this migration started in the United States in 1986 when he edited a couple of newspapers in Los Angeles. Before migrating, he was a reporter at the defunct Evening News and the Philippine News Service and was also copy editor for the Agence France Presse and, after journalism, press officer of the Philippine Tourist and Travel Association and director for public relations. In Los Angeles, he interviewed William Bill Mason, a historian of the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History. Mason, a fixture among the small band of Asian journalists in Los Angeles, told him he had come across in his researches hundreds of Filipino names in church and municipal records in Mexico. That started it.
A little bit more about this extraordinary journalist. Floro Mercene is a newspapermans newspaperman; with his five decades of journalism experience, and work as a government functionary, he can identify where the push buttons in government are, the backdoors and the trapdoors in the corridors of power and the sometimes slimy creatures that inhabit its dark and musty crevices. He has dined with the high and the mighty, listened to their most secret conversations, is privy to some of the horrendous secrets that cannot be vented in the open, and is a virtual encyclopedia as well of those shining moments and characters in our recent past. One of his sterling attributes, which any journalist should be equipped with, is memory a fastidious and eclectic memory to which a journalist can hie back when he needs to retrieve those nuggets that enlighten and enrich our present.
Mercenes findings are extremely interesting and enlightening. Long before California was settled by the immigrants from the East in search of gold and land, Filipinos or China men as they were then mistakenly called were already there in pockets, usually in the company of the Spanish missionaries who opened missions in the West Coast from their bases in Mexico.
They also settled in New Orleans as reported by Lafcadio Hearn who went on to Japan to establish his reputation as a chronicler of Japanese life. Mercene traces the circuitous route they took from Mexico to the new land where they sank roots, developed communities and eventually got absorbed by the local population.
It was not difficult to locate them; in some places in Mexico, their family names stood out Maganda, for instance, was an immediate giveaway.
More than the story of the galleons, Mercene goes into aspects of history that are not taken up by most historians; for instance, he also recounts how Filipinos got involved with the American Civil war and, beyond that momentous event in American history, how they joined the whaling fleets that ranged the Arctic.
The traffic was not one-way; Mexicans also came to the Philippines in the 250 years that the galleons plied the Pacific. After all, it was from Mexico that the Spaniards colonized the Philippines. Most of the functionaries, the military men from the middle of the 18th century onwards were actually Mexicans, creoles, or native Indians. It was also to the Philippines that the Spanish rulers exiled recalcitrant Mexicans.
It is this type of retentive and total recall that Mercene has used in writing this book of the viajeros in our distant and not-so distant past. What he has done is to not only record the outreach of the Filipino immigrant but to illustrate as well his impact on the places he has visited and how this outreach may be used in furthering the knowledge and possibilities of our development and the building of a collective memory so crucial in the formation of a national consciousness.
There are quite a few things that are left unsaid in this book and this is what Mexico now means to us, what the Mexican experience could teach us. To my mind, what is important is how the Mexicans became a nation, how they achieved their independence from Spain way ahead of us and how the indigenous population influenced the culture and the nationalism of Mexico itself, the Mexican revolution that eventually united the people. Worthwhile investigating, too, are the attempts of the Mexicans to achieve social justice through land reform and to develop themselves, free from the constricting influence of its giant neighbor to the north.
So much for the nostalgia which will help explain the past; now a look to the future by first reviewing a recent past.
Reading Mercenes delightful recollections brought back memories of the 50s when I was a staff member of the old Manila Times Sunday Magazine.
I had convinced my editor, the late Primitivo Mauricio, and the lady boss of the Manila Times, Ms. Isabel Roces, to permit me to go to the South on a protracted jaunt with our navy.
I had made the acquaintance of our first post-war naval officers, Commodore Jose N. Francisco, Capt. Charlie Albert, and Commander Ramon Alcaraz. Yes, they would be happy to take a young writer on their regular patrol cruises in the South, and even as far as the Batanes our northernmost frontier.
I made several such trips and once, I even spent a fortnight with the Ensign Alejandro Melchor; he had just returned from Annapolis, spoke with a thick American accent. I joined him in Zamboanga in a small patrol craft, with a crew of 18. We roamed those waters of Sulu. I wanted to see the firing of those twin Bofors on the deck, and he obliged as his men targeted an uninhabited island.
While on such trips, I learned much about our Navy, about shipping in the South. We sailed to Sandakan in North Borneo, now Sabah. North Borneo then was under British jurisdiction. People from the Sulu archipelago traded with Sandakan freely, without restrictions and without visas.
The Navy was supposed to apprehend smugglers; they told me this was almost impossible, for the smugglers they were actually regular traders who had been at it for centuries could outrace the secondhand naval boats in their powerful kumpits with outboard motors.
I was then reading a bit of history, the Dutch seaborne empire, the British expansion with its privateers and powerful navy, and of course, much earlier, the pioneering voyages of Columbus and Ferdinand Magellan.
It is so obvious one look at the map and we know that as an archipelago, we need a maritime industry, a navy to patrol our shoreline, longer than that of the United States, not just to facilitate trade between our islands but to weld together such diverse peoples into a nation.
At the time, too, I met two shipping biggies Miguel Magsaysay of Magsaysay Lines, and Carlos Fernandez of Compaña Maritima. Charlie Fernandez lorded it over at the Philippine Columbian Club the man was a book lover and he had built the Columbian library with the help of Mauro Garcia, the bibliographer. Mike Magsaysay loved books, too.
I told them both of my travels on Navy ships, and on occasion on those old FS tubs that were then our commercial mainstay in the inter-island trade. On those World War II ships, there were few amenities and passengers slept in cots on deck.
Why didnt we build our own ships? That famous book, The Manila Galleon, had just been published; those mighty galleons, the best in maritime history, were built by Filipinos.
We called him admiral Tomas Cloma the man who discovered Freedom Land, the Spratleys. He took