Border Crossers: First Came the Americans

adapted from Home Bound: Filipino American Lives across Cultures, Communities, and Countries by Yen Le Espiritu

October is Filipino-American History Month, commemorating the landing of “Luzones Indios” at what is now Morro Bay, California on October 18, 1587. Today, we recognize the many valuable contributions Filipinos have made, and the important role they continue to play, as a vital part of American society.

Visit the Filipino-American National Historical Society and hashtags #FAHM and #FAHM2017 for more information on Filipino-American history throughout the month; you can also check out last year’s Filipino-American History Month post featuring Gary Okihiro’s American History Unbound.


Filipinos went to the United States because Americans went first to the Philippines. In other words, Filipino migration to the United States must be understood within the context of U.S. imperialism in the Philippines and in Asia. In 1898, in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War, the United States brutally took possession of the Philippines over native opposition and uprising, thereby extending its “Manifest Destiny” to Pacific Asia. The often-ignored Philippine-American War (1899–1902) resulted in the death of about a million Filipinos, the violent destruction of the nationalist forces, and the U.S. territorial annexation of the Philippines—ostensibly to prepare the archipelago for eventual independence.

The U.S. occupation infiltrated all segments of Philippine society. Politically, the colonial government structured the Philippine government after that of the United States. It was to win over the existing leadership of the Philippines and to pacify Filipino nationalists that the United States adopted the policy of Filipinization: the gradual substitution of Filipino personnel for American administrators and clerks in the colonial government. As early as 1900, Filipinos began assuming positions in the municipal, provincial, and later, in the national governments. However, Americans still controlled the strategic positions that allowed them to formulate and implement policies. Under U.S. colonial rule, the Philippine national economy changed significantly. Foremost among these changes was the further development of the agricultural export economy (begun under Spanish rule), with sugar in the lead, and the growing dependence on imports for such basic necessities as rice and textiles. By its tariff regulations and the subsequent “free trade” between the two countries, the United States fostered this export-import policy and kept the Philippines an unindustrialized export economy—a condition that depleted the country’s economic resources and propelled the eventual migration of many Filipinos.

As a civilian government replaced military rule, the cultural Americanization of the Philippine population became an integral part of the process of colonization. Convinced that education, rather than outright military suppression, was the more effective means to pacify the Filipinos, U.S. colonizers introduced a universal public education and revamped Philippine educational institutions and curricula using the American system as its model and English as the language of instruction. When the Philippine Commission took over civil governance of the Philippines, it kept English as the primary medium of instruction. Filipino historian Renato Constantino contends that through this educational policy, the colonial educational system became an instrument of assimilation or Americanization. With the use of U.S. textbooks, “young Filipinos began learning not a new language but a new culture. Education became miseducation because it began to de-Filipinize the youth, taught them to regard American culture as superior to any other, and American society as the model par excellence for Philippine society.”

Whereas U.S. invasion, annexation, and subjugation of the Philippines have left indelible moral and physical marks on the country and its people, these violent acts have been largely erased from American public memory or obscured by public myths about U.S. benevolence and the “civilizing mission” in the Philippines. But the facts of imperialism are not erasable. The enduring legacies of U.S. empire are present in the Philippine economy, its political structure, its educational system, and its cultural institutions— all of which continue to be dominated or influenced by the United States. The impact of the U.S. empire on Filipinos is also very much present in the United States—perhaps most visible in the presence of large Filipino American communities. Linking U.S. (neo)colonial subjugation of Filipinos in the Philippines to the fate of Filipinos in the United States, Oscar Campomanes insists that “the consequences of [the] inaugural moment of U.S. Philippine relations for latter-day U.S. Filipinos are manifold and extend to their politics or forms of recognition and emergence.”


Yen Le Espiritu is Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of California, San Diego. She is the author of the award-winning Home Bound: Filipino American Lives across Cultures, Communities, and Countries and Body Counts: The Vietnam War and Militarized Refugees.


Filipino American History Month

Mabuhay, and happy Filipino American History Month!

From the 16th century “Luzones Indios” who arrived on the Spanish galleon Nuestra Senora de Esparanza at present Morro Bay, California, to the labor organizers who led worker’s strikes alongside Cesar Chavez in the 1960s, Filipinos have been an integral part of American history. Every October– in recognition of that first landing on October 18, 1587– we commemorate the important role that they play in the history of the United States.

Sakadas Juan Baloran, Juan Pagoyo, Cipriano Barragado, and Julio Silga, n.d. Courtesy of Hawaiʻi State Archives.
Sakadas Juan Baloran, Juan Pagoyo, Cipriano Barragado, and Julio Silga, n.d. Courtesy of Hawaiʻi State Archives.

Since the early 1900s, Filipino-Americans, particularly in Hawaii, California and throughout the rest of the west coast, have been leaders in labor movements that sought to mobilize and unite Filipinos, Asians, and Pacific Islander laborers. Overcoming the divides of language, religion, and regionalism, they emerged with a strong Filipino– and Filipino-American– identity in their new nation. Prof. Gary Okihiro details Filipino-led labor movements in Hawaii in American History Unbound

Following the 1909 strike, the HSPA [Hawaiian Sugar Planters’ Association] recruited increasing numbers of Filipinos to remove the “belligerent” Japanese and to keep them in their “proper place.” But as their numbers grew and they were confronted with the same conditions of oppression and exploitation, Filipino workers rose up against the planter class. They initiated the 1920 strike that was subsequently supported by Pablo Manlapit and his Filipino Labor Union and then the Federation of Japanese Labor…

They launched the strikes of 1924–25, which cost many lives and led to the banishment of Manlapit from the territory. As before, their main goal was higher wages, but they also demanded other progressive reforms, such as an eight-hour day (as opposed to the prevailing ten hours), equal pay for men and women engaged in the same work, overtime pay and double pay for working on Sundays and holidays, and recognition of the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively.

Once again, the planters ignored the workers and began a campaign of intimidation, targeting the leaders. The Philippine colonial governor appointed a conservative resident labor commissioner to Hawaiʻi and pointedly warned Manlapit to refrain from striking. Thus Filipino workers’ strikes for equality challenged two U.S. colonial regimes, that in the Philippines and the oligarchy of the territory.

Despite the Philippine labor commissioner’s intervention, Manlapit issued a manifesto on January 2, 1924 warning of an impending strike, and on March 14 he declared “a silent strike, staying on the job, but doing only enough work to earn the wages.” He appealed “to all races and nationalities on the sugar plantations to join the strike. It is a strike for American standards and American ideals.” The High Wages Movement claimed ten thousand members, which represented about half of the Filipino plantation workforce and a quarter of the total.

Okihiro also shares the story of Riz Raymundo, an eleven-year-old girl born in Modesto, CA, who grew up in the 1930s. Her diary captures her childhood recollections of the Filipino strikes of 1924-25, including life in a “strike camp” following her family’s displacement from their Waipahu plantation home:

Strike Camp, Middle Street, Honolulu, May 10, 1924.

Dear Diary:

We just arrive here today, here, at the “Strike Camp.” There are so many Filipinos here, married-couples and unmarried men. They’re from all parts of Oahu. There are five other young girls here too. I became friends with two of them already. Their first names are Esperanza and Victoria. They are, both, very nice girls. They showed me the place around here, as soon as we settled, I mean, found our sleeping quarters. You see, we all live in one big house, and so all we did was put curtains around our bed, and that will have to serve as our room for how long, we don’t know. I guess we have to stay here until this strike is over. And Manlapit is going to feed the whole crowd. We’re suppose to go down to his office, every other day to get our ration of food. Gosh I hope this strike won’t last long. You see, Diary, Mr. Manlapit wanted the Plantation to give the laborers $2.00 a day and eight hours work. I certainly hope Manlapit wins, ‘cause then it will be for our own good.¹

Though ultimately unsuccessful, culminating in the tragic Battle of Hanapepe, these early labor strikes reflected an early willingness to protest and fight for worker’s rights in the face of prejudice and oppression– predating the Delano grape strike by more than 60 years.

Visit the Filipino-American Historical Society for more information on Filipino-American history throughout the month, and learn more about the contributions Filipinos, Pacific Islanders, and other Asian-Americans have made to American history in Okihiro’s American History Unbound.


¹ Angeles Monrayo Raymundo, diary excerpts, Lost Generation: Filipino Journal 1, no. 1 (1991): 31-40.