Updated: Nov 16, 2020
Written by Nadine Tuazon
Graphics by Sandra Tsang
Filipinos have been a part of this country long before American History textbooks recall the arrival of the first English settlers. Dating back to October 18, 1597, the first FIlipinos arrived in Morro Bay, CA. 433 years later, we now celebrate the large impact that Filipinos have had on the United States. Despite the deep history that Filipinos share with America, the Filipino American legacy is oftentimes overlooked or remains unspoken and unknown. But through the adversity, Filipino Americans continue to be resilient and proud.
At the end of the 19th century, the Philippines was subject to U.S. colonial rule after the Spanish-American War. American control over the Philippines forced Filipinos to adopt the beliefs of their colonizer which still influences the culture today. English educational programs were enforced due to the beliefs that they would help cultivate relations between the U.S. and the Philippines as well as help the development of the Philippines through the colonizer tactic of “benevolent assimilation.” English quickly became one of the official languages of the Philippines. The United States continued to govern over the Philippines until they gradually gained political freedom in 1934 and independence in 1946.
The U.S. occupancy of the Philippines catalyzed a large wave of Filipino immigration to the United States due to the growing need for cheap laborers. These Filipino workers, referred to as the “manongs,” came to America in search of work and the pursuit of the “American Dream.” Instead, the manongs were met with discrimination, unfair wages, and racial hostility. Larry Itliong was the visionary leader that sparked the first Delano grape strike in 1965. Itliong appealed to Cesar Chavez to create solidarity between their two working groups and Mexican Americans joined the strike alongside Filipino Americans. These two unions came together to form what would become the United Farm Workers, co-founded by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. Filipino Americans became organizers in labor rights and civil rights movements, supporting the fight for equality. The presence of Filipinos in the U.S. continues only to get stronger.
Today, Filipino Americans make up the second largest Asian American group and continue to advocate for Filipino American representation and visibility as creators, activists, politicians, artists, and professionals. As a Filipina American myself, I hope we continue to raise awareness by learning and sharing our history to foster the conversation for justice and recognition.
As part of Silk Club’s Filipino American History Month series, here are four more Filipino artists and activists that have made lasting impacts through their work. Ingat kayong lahat (you all take care!) and happy Filipino American History Month!
At 15 years old, Larry Itliong immigrated to the United States and began working as a farm worker and laborer in Alaska and states along the West Coast. He aspired to be attorney, but was faced with impoverishment and racial discrimination. Self-taught in law, he became a labor leader and union organizer to fight for underserved communities by speaking out against oppressive working conditions. With many successful labor organizations, Itliong was asked to travel to Delano to convince Filipino grape workers and local families to organize and join the union. His leadership and support led to the merging of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee and National Farm Workers Association, which later became the United Farm Workers. Larry Itliong’s work brought together marginalized communities and inspired them to stand together to push for the rights of farm workers. We continue to share his story and honor his memory to shine light on the Filipino American history that is often hidden from our textbooks.
Scientist by day and rapper by night, Ruby Ibarra embodies the idea of someone who can do it all. When she’s not working as a quality control scientist for COVID-19 test kits and vaccines, Ruby is working with her band, The Balikbayans, and performing at sold out shows. She entered the music industry in 2012, drawing influence from artists like Wu-Tang Clan and Lauryn Hill. Ibarra tries to incorporate her cultural heritage and experiences as an immigrant into her music and consciously chooses to rap in Tagalog, English, and Waray— the dialect of her hometown Tacloban. By inspiring listeners to be proud of their identities, Ruby Ibarra continues to create representation for Filipino Americans and women in the music industry.
Dedicated to preserving the rich history of Filipino Americans in California, Dawn Bohulano Mabalon spent her career as a professor, historian, author, and advocate to keep the stories of her community alive. Born and raised in Stockton, California, Mabalon strived to raise awareness for the vibrant Filipino American history of her hometown, which was dubbed as the Little Manila community. Little Manila was home to the largest population of Filipinos outside of the Philippines from the 1920s to 1960s. In danger of demolition, Dawn and her partner Dillon Delvo founded Little Manila Rising to advocate for the historic preservation of the last standing buildings from the Manong/Manang Generation. Even after her passing in 2018, Dawn Mabalon leaves behind a growing nonprofit organization dedicated to teaching the youth about their collective history and empowering the community and its future.
Geena Rocero is an accomplished model, producer, and activist who uses her platform to advocate for transgender equality and visibility. Rocero moved to the United States to pursue her career in modeling and worked with Rimmel Cosmetics, Hanes, and other fashion and beauty companies; at the time, she was not open about her trangender identity. Taking control of her own narrative, Geena shared her own experience with womanhood and publicly came out for the first time during her incredible TED Talk in 2014. Six years later, she has launched her own production company called Gender Proud that shares the stories of the transgender community and advocates for the creation of a universal right to change one's name and gender marker without having to undergo any surgeries that may not be wanted or necessary.