Is It Critical Race Theory to Know Filipino American History?

October is Filipino American History month. Not heritage, history. Not Critical Race Theory. Just the real history of America’s involvement with Filipino nationals and American Filipino citizens.

It’s a diverse country’s history. And surprise, most people know little about it.

Once we cross October 15, the month is no longer shared with Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs for thirty days from Sept. 15. Admittedly, Filipinos have a lot of Spanish heritage to rinse through: Surnames, Catholicism, oily, greasy, meat-based food just to name the most obvious. It’s enough to make one rebel against the more than nearly four centuries (centuries!!) of Spanish colonial rule in the Philippines. Emil GuillermoEmil Guillermo

And that brings us to a key intersection. After the Spanish American War, the U.S. bought the Philippines for $20 million. But the Philippines quickly established a republic and fought the U.S. in the Philippines-American War.  It’s a shame-filled saga where an estimated 1 million Filipino civilians lost their lives and their country, which was to become America’s first colony. 

Now that’s something those of us who live in the world’s leading democracy ought to know about.

It’s somehow fitting that General Colin Powell died during Filipino American History month because he was known as a fighter who addressed  historical omission. One of his personal causes was the recognition of the Buffalo Soldiers—the African American cavalry outfit that fought Native Americans. For their valor, their reward was to be sent to the Philippines-American War. But the group knew something was wrong with America’s imperial war.

The most famous Buffalo Solder is David Fagen, who was pushed by empathy and racism to join the Filipino guerrillas.

That’s another story. But definitely a chapter in the broad sense of Filipino American history.

How the month was started

The Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS) began the push to remember October in 1991. But it wasn’t until 2009 that the U.S. Congress, by virtue of House and Senate resolutions, officially recognized Filipino American History Month.

As to why October, its’s all about October 18, 1587.

That’s when the Filipinos beat the Pilgrims.

On that day, the very first Filipinos–known as “Luzones Indios” traveling in a Spanish galleon headed by Pedro De Unamuno–came ashore on the central coast of California. In Morro Bay, near San Luis Obispo, a rock heralds the arrival of the first Filipinos to the continental U.S., 434 years ago.

Daniel Phil Gonzales, Filipino American History/ Asian American Studies professor in the College of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State University, told me he first heard about the Unamuno landing in the early 1970s. That’s when there was real curiosity whether this was the first known contact of Filipinos with the New World.

Gonzales told me he never pursued it further because at the time, he was headed toward a legal career and figured someone would run with the information.

The research of Unamuno’s ship logs didn’t get wider mention until 1996.

That’s when UCLA’s Amerasia Journal published an analysis by Eloisa Gomez Borah, a librarian and a one-time trustee of FANHS. She makes the case for a Filipino presence, telling the story of how Unamuno was part of a Spanish expedition led by Francisco Gali in 1584. When Gali died, Unamuno lost command of the two ships he inherited after taking a side trip to Macao. Stranded in Asia, Unamuno was finally able to buy another boat, described by Borah as a “single-deck three-masted vessel” named Nuestra Senora de Buena Esperanza.

Unamuno’s good fortune of being in Asia meant he picked up a working crew, mostly from the Philippines. On July 12, 1587, Unamuno headed for points east and made a brief three-day land excursion between Oct.18-20 in what turned out to be a foray onto California’s central coast.

The logs also reveal the presence of at least eight Filipinos identified as “Yndios Luzones,” or Luzon Indians from the northern Philippines island of Luzon.

They were jacks-of-all-trade seamen, seen as the brawny manpower of the ship. On Sunday, Oct. 18, after anchoring off the California coast in a place called Puerto San Lucas, Unamuno formed a landing party. Twelve armed soldiers led by Father Martin Ignacio de Loyola, cross in hand, went ashore. In front of the priest were two Filipinos armed with swords and shields.

Being fodder comes with privilege.

The Filipinos were first.

On day one, the expedition climbed two hills, saw no settlements or people, and took possession of the land for the King of Spain.

Day two was unremarkable. But then on day three, Oct. 20, the expedition encountered violence. The log revealed natives tried to kidnap the ship’s barber, at which point a violent exchange ensued. One soldier was killed, but so was one unnamed Filipino, by a javelin, his blood spilled in the New World.

Unamuno didn’t stay long. He left by daybreak on Oct. 21 for Acapulco.

Borah said the unique evidence of a Filipino presence is too often obscured when historians fail to identify or differentiate among non-Europeans in their crew. Filipinos didn’t write the history, but they were undeniably part of the story. They were present. They were on the ship.

And until there’s an earlier date, the Filipinos are a documented part of a new world landing in the America’s 1587.

Of course, there were Native Americans already here. But among Asians, it was the Filipinos who appear to be first on American soil.

Remember that later next month, when people make a big deal about the Pilgrims and their rock in Plymouth, Massachusetts. During Thanksgiving, you can win a bar bet with your favorite know-it-all over who came first.

When the Pilgrims landed in Dec. 1620, the Filipinos had already touched base on the other side of the American continent, 33 years earlier in Morro Bay.

Who’s on First? The Filipinos.

That’s the little known history that FANHS continues to celebrate, and it is the basis for the entire month of October to be known as Filipino American History Month.

Emil Guillermo is a journalist and commentator. He writes for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. He vlogs at www.amok.com. You can follow him on Twitter @emilamok.