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Filipinos Helped Shape America of Today

By | October 10, 2011

Both the U.S. and State Legislature have declared October as Filipino- American History Month. Yet with so much happening in the news, and with plenty at stake both in our nation and state, it is easy to overlook the importance of this occasion. But let us just pause for a moment to think about Filipino-American history.

Filipinos have been part of American history for many centuries. The first Filipinos landed on the continent in 1587, several decades before the Pilgrims arrived. Before our Founding Fathers declared independence from the Brits, a group of Filipinos had already settled in Louisiana. More than a century before Alaska became a state, Filipinos had already made it here, engaging in fur trade with Alaska Natives.

Filipino-Americans have made significant contributions to our nation. In the early 1920s, many Filipinos, called the manongs, left their native country and their family to work in the plantations of Hawaii and California and the fisheries of Washington and Alaska. During WWII, Filipinos, both here and in the Philippines, fought with and for the U.S. to help protect our freedom and secure peace in our world. In the late ’60s and ’70s, many Filipino professionals left their native country to help fill the workforce of our rapidly growing technology and health industry. As the families of the manongs, veterans and professionals grew, their family members took on the critical jobs that helped in the development of our nation’s health and economy. Filipino-Americans worked in the health field, service industry, hospitality, technology, education, government, armed forces and construction, among many others.

The U.S. certainly provided plenty of opportunities to Filipino-Americans so that they could achieve the American dream. Rear Admiral Connie Mariano is a Filipino-American who served as President Clinton’s physician. Chef Cristeta Comerford is also a Filipino-American who has been the White House Executive Chef since President George W. Bush. Thelma Buchholdt of Alaska was the first Filipino-American state legislator and Benjamin Cayetano of Hawaii was the first Filipino-American governor. Rapper Apl.de.ap of the Black Eyed Peas and actor Lou Diamond Phillips are Filipino Americans. The Los Angeles Rams’ MVP and Pro Bowl quarterback, Roman Gabriel, and NBA coach Erik Spoelstra of the Miami Heat are both Filipino-Americans. Those are just a few Filipino-American notables; there are many more that can fill the pages of a phone book.

Despite the success of some Filipino-Americans, let us not lose sight, however, that America was not and is not always a “land of milk and honey” for many Filipino-Americans. The manongs faced much discrimination and injustice. In the 1930s in California, they were not allowed to marry Caucasians. It was also not uncommon for them to see the sign, “No Filipinos Allowed,” on the windows and doors of some business establishments in parts of California. Those who worked in plantations and fisheries faced poor working conditions and did not receive decent pay. Although such blatant forms of discrimination and injustice do not seem to exist today, discrimination and injustice are still problems faced by Filipino Americans. In my recent research study with my colleagues among Filipino-American youth and adults in Anchorage, many still express that they have been subjects of negative stereotypes, racism and discrimination in their schools and workplaces.

Celebrating Filipino-American History Month is important. It is a remembrance and commemoration long overdue to a group of people referred to by Dr. Fred Cordova as the “Forgotten Asian- Americans” and who have significantly contributed to our nation for centuries. Moreover, history validates our existence as a community. And since history is part of the culture that defines us, awareness of history is the first step to cultural tolerance and appreciation, which is in turn a precursor to healing racism and eliminating discrimination.

We invite you to learn more and celebrate Filipino-American History Month at UAA.

A flier of upcoming events is available here.

About Gabriel M. Garcia

Dr. Gabriel Garcia is a Philippine-born, Alaska-grown Assistant Professor of Public Health at University of Alaska Anchorage.  He completed his PhD in Public Health with a minor in Anthropology at UCLA.  His research interests include Filipino health and experience, racial and ethnic health disparities, and Asian and Pacific Islander health.

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