Banquet Speech

October 2, 2010

by Grace Yeh

Thank you to the organizers, Central Coast Filipino Coalition and FANHS, for inviting me and for making possible this celebration to remember Filipino American history. I am truly honored to speak to you on this occasion. Over the last year, I have met so many passionate, resourceful, generous, and truly sweet Filipinos on the Central coast, who have taught me so much about building communities, especially through sharing stories and remembering the lives and the contributions of Filipino Americans to this region. And now here I am, invited to say some words to you about Filipino American history. It is quite a daunting, for what I have learned is that no one knows more about this history than you do.

What I would like to do is share with you some of my experiences researching local Filipino American history and what I learned in the process. The most significant lesson I learned is that, for various reasons that I’ll explain, it is a challenge to write history from the perspective of a minority. I will address the reasons why Filipino American history tends to be forgotten, especially in this region. This task of remembering our past is important for a more inclusive history tells us who counts as an American.

When I first moved to San Luis Obispo 3 years ago to teach Asian American studies courses at Cal Poly, it was quickly pointed out to me that this area has a rich Chinese and Japanese American history, as well as a Native American and Mexican American history. Another professor even pointed out that an African American community settled in SLO during WWII. One person reminded me that the Central coast was the setting for a significant portion of Carlos Bulosan’s novel, America is in the Heart, and from his novel, I knew that Filipinos were here as field laborers during the 1930s. But beyond Bulosan’s account, I was still haunted by this question: why were Filipinos forgotten? I started to ask around—at the county historical society and other faculty at Cal Poly—to see if anyone knew anything about Filipino Americans, but I could find no one who could point out any enduring landmarks or records about these men that worked the land and that engaged in the struggle between labor and capital.

This was true until I met the right people. I was invited by South County Historical Society to help with an exhibit on Filipino American history in Pismo, and I was excited to take on the project because I wanted to know more about Filipino American history in the region. Beyond the P.I. Market in Pismo, we began with no knowledge about the local community. Then, through someone who knew someone who knew someone, we quickly discovered an amazing network of individuals and organizations who are the keepers of a rich Filipino American history here—a history that is not necessarily easy to find but that was certainly not lost. The efforts culminated in an exhibit called Routes and Roots: Cultivating Filipino American History on the Central Coast, which opened last March. The exhibit not only looked at the PI Market, but ended up covering the history of the Filipino community that began with the old-timers, those Filipinos who came in the 1920s and 1930s, their living and working conditions as farm laborers, and the community that then developed after WWII when Filipina women began arriving in significant numbers.

Especially helpful were Joe and Margie Talaugon, who founded the amazing Guadalupe Cultural Arts and Education Center. I met local Filipino farming families, like the Betita, Labastida, and Domingo families, and many other families who came out to see the exhibit, Routes and Roots, and share their stories. The women of the P.I. Market shared their stories with us and with my students, not only about their husbands, but also about what it was like for Filipina women to arrive to the U.S. after WWII when U.S. attitudes toward Filipinos had improved. There were many organizations and their current and past presidents that shared their knowledge, like the Filipino communities in Santa Maria and Grover Beach and the Loonanon Pioneers. Rosalie Marquez deserves special thanks for her tireless efforts to preserve Filipino American history and for heading the local chapter of FANHS.

Now to return to the question, why are Filipinos forgotten—this list of those who remember and who shared this history with us provides one clue. Most of the people that gave us resources and knowledge about local Filipinos were the widows and the children of these oldtimers. In other words, for the most part, we—meaning all Americans—have left the effort of remembering and preserving local Filipino history to those few families who, through actually somewhat unusual circumstances, remained in this area. And why should only the wives and children remember this history? This is not just history for Filipinos, the story of Filipinos is American history and all of us, no matter our race or ethnicity, should know it and take care of it.

We should keep in mind that this forgetting is tied to how, because of various laws and labor practices, most of the Filipinos who were here are no longer here or did not leave behind families. Filipina women were scarce in the U.S. before WWII, and the laws in California prevented Filipino men from marrying outside their race, so that many of the men remained bachelors and thus left no wives or children to whom to pass on their stories. Filipinos also disappeared from the Central Coast because, in the years since Filipinos dominated the labor force on local vegetable farms, Mexicans have been recruited instead. Furthermore, it was the intention of the U.S. Congress, when it passed the 1935 Repatriation Act, to remove Filipinos from the U.S. From the U.S. government’s perspective, no one should have stayed who could tell the story of what it was like to be brown back then.

There’s another reason why I think Filipino American history tends to be forgotten, which has to do with the economic motivations that brought Filipinos to the U.S. in the first place. What brought Filipinos to Morro Bay in 1587? What brought the first large wave of Filipino migrants to the U.S. in the 1920s? The reasons are related to the creation of power for the few at the expense of the many.

The marker at Morro Rock, which FANHS put up in 1995, not only stands against the forgetting of Filipinos’ long history and presence in the U.S., reminding us that they are part of and integral to the U.S.; this marker also stands as a reminder that Filipino presence in the U.S. is a part of the legacy of imperialism. The significance of October for this remembrance of Filipino history is that it was in this month, in the year 1587, when the first documented landing of Filipinos—or Luzones Indios—occurred just north of here, at Morro Bay. Though these Filipinos did not stay (the encounter was one of conflict between the Native Americans and the Filipino and Spanish crewmen, who were here with Spanish explorer, Unamuno), it is not a wild coincidence that this landing happened here and that there happened to be Filipinos aboard the ship. It was the beginning Spanish imperialism in the Philippine Islands and in the Americas—the economic, political, and cultural subjugation of Filipinos and Native Americans by Spain. Imperialism undermines a people’s right to self-determination and self-definition. Who you are, where you belong, and what you can do is decided for you for the benefit of the imperialists. Imperialism is always accompanied by the attempt to erase the memory of one’s culture and history.

Fast-forward 350 years later, and the first wave of Filipino settlers to the United States begins, because the Philippines is now under U.S. imperialist rule. Given Filipinos’ status as U.S. nationals, American agricultural industries recruit Filipinos because Asian and European laborers have previously been barred from entering the U.S. About two-thirds of Filipinos in the U.S. at this time worked in the fields. The other one-third worked mostly in domestic service and as cannery workers. Thus, again, the context for Filipino presence in the U.S. was shaped by the drive to create wealth on the backs of a colonized people. And history, written—as we know—by victors and by those with power, tends to overlook the struggles and sacrifices of the poor, the laboring class, and the ones deemed “un-American.”

So what was life like for Filipinos then? In the exhibit, we tried to give a sense of the living and working conditions of a migrant field laborer, and to acknowledge the place of the old-timers in shaping the Central Coast. Most of the men who worked in agriculture followed the crops. Jobs would last as long as a planting or harvesting of a particular crop. The crops that grew on the Central Coast, especially peas, often had very short harvest seasons. Not only did this mean that the men would have to leave to find another job, it also meant that their living conditions here tended to be worse. Growers, who only needed to house workers for a few months out of the year, had little incentive to maintain housing or create better living conditions.

This understanding of the living and working conditions came mostly from the California Commission on Housing and Immigration, who conducted inspections of labor camps and left tons of documentation of their conditions. The other way to easily find documentation of what life was like for the old-timers was through the newspaper, but the news tended to feature Filipinos in one of 3 ways: as a labor menace threatening strikes, as a social menace (Filipinos would only be featured if they were involved in some crime or if they were involved with white women), and as boxers in the sports section of the newspaper.

Government records and mainstream news provide us with material to construct a Filipino American history, but they also tend to overlook the perspectives of Filipinos themselves and give quite a limited understanding of Filipino American lives. How did they deal with life’s challenges? How did they create a sense of home in the U.S.? What made them happy or laugh? What did they celebrate? Did they long for family, for the Philippines? What did they talk about with their friends? How did they try to remake the world around them?

This version of history doesn’t come from the top-down, and we need a history that is created from the bottom-up, from individual memories. These memories—which you possess about your own life experiences and those of your friends, your community, and your kin—this needs to be part of American history. Because if you don’t tell your story, someone else, someone more powerful and who can stand to gain from your erasure, will do it for you. Sharing these stories, the everyday acts of storytelling, is the one way each of us can fight against forgetting and against exclusion from America’s complicated yet rich past. Thus, I commend FANHS, the Central Coast Filipino Organization, the many local Filipino community organizations, and all of you gathered here today, for recognizing and celebrating the contributions of Filipino Americans and for your continued efforts to preserve and share your heritage and your history.

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