Penman No. 312: Recovering Fil-Am History

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Penman for Monday, July 23, 2018

 

I WAS in Chicago two weeks ago to keynote the 17thBiennial Conference of the Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS), and it was an opportunity not only to catch up with old friends from my time as a graduate student in the American Midwest but also, and more importantly, to have a sense of where the study of Filipino-American history is going.

With 33 chapters now spanning the US from Hawaii to the East Coast, FANHS has become one of the most visible and important Fil-Am organizations (we typically still hyphenate the term but many Filipino Americans no longer do), devoted to recovering, preserving, and promoting the history of Filipinos and their descendants all over that vast country.

It’s a history that dates back to at least October 1587, when the Nuestra Señora de Buena Esperanza dropped anchor off what’s now known as Morro Bay, midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. On its crew were several luzones indios; today they would simply be called Filipinos. Some men went onshore, and one Filipino was killed by Indians.

Since then, over three million Filipinos have either made that journey, or were born in America to Filipino parents, and in each one of them is inscribed a history of struggle, adaptation, acceptance, resistance, and all degrees of complex responses in between. And as the Filipino population in America has expanded, so have Filipino communities, such as that seminal one that was started by runaway Filipino sailors in New Orleans in the 1760s, which grew into a “Manila Village” that was sadly wiped out by a hurricane in 1915.

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I’d first heard about the Lousiana Pinoys from Jim and Isabel Kenny who produced a fascinating documentary about them in 1992 titled “Dancing the Shrimp” (a reference to the way Filipinos dried shrimp—and grew the shrimp industry—in Louisiana by stepping or dancing on them to music). In Chicago, I was happy to meet Marina Estrella Espina, a pioneering researcher, librarian, and author whose 1988 book Filipinos in Louisiana (New Orleans: AF LaBorde & Sons, 1988) laid much of the groundwork for further studies as the Kennys’ and that of younger scholars like the poet Randy Gonzales, who also grew up in New Orleans but lived for many years in Dubai. Now in her 80s, Marina excited the audience by announcing that she had found proof that Filipinos had settled in Louisiana even earlier than previously thought, and that she was working on a book chronicling Filipino journeys around the world.

From Alameda, California and local historian and Boholano Bob Balandra came the story of the Bohol Circle, a club formed there in 1936 by 16 Filipino immigrants seeking and providing support for each other in a difficult time. Some later joined the 2ndFilipino Infantry Regiment, which fought in the Pacific. Bob and his compatriots are trying to get that historic club and its clubhouse recognized with an official street name.

Elsewhere, the 300 participants in the FAHNS conference spoke on and listened to such topics as community-university partnerships in Alaska; Filipina-American marriages in the Philippine-American War; getting out the Fil-Am vote; the sakadas of Hawaii; Filipino nurses in Illinois; and decolonization and visual art. Film screenings by the noted filmmaker Nick Deocampo and the “Dreamland” team of Claire Miranda, Katrin Escay, and Moshe Ladanga complemented the lectures. Dr. Dorothy Cordova, one of the society’s founders along with her late husband Fred, graced the event. I was particularly glad to meet old friends from the University of Michigan, Dr. Romy Aquino and his wife Necie, and from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Princess Emraida Kiram, whom I hadn’t seen in years.

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A special feature was the unveiling of a mural depicting the Louisiana experience, produced by the Durian Collective composed of artists Leonard Aguinaldo, Darby Alcoseba, Manny Garibay, Jun Impas, Otto Neri, Orley Ypon, and Art Zamora, who were assisted by Fil-Am cultural advocate Almi Astudillo-Gilles.

Over more than 30 years, FAHNS has become a true community of shared personal, academic, and cultural interests, and has the potential to become a formidable force in American politics, especially at a time when immigration and human rights have become threatened once again by the new regime. But as with many communities, unity of vision and purpose is always a challenge, which was why this year’s conference focused on the theme of “Community for Cohesion and Collaboration.”

In my keynote, I suggested that “The only community that will last for our country and people will be one based on an appreciation and acceptance of a common stake in the Filipino future, based on truth, reason, and fairness or inclusivity.

“Under normal circumstances, you and I would not even think twice about this idea, which is almost a motherhood statement. But these are times in which truth, reason, and fairness seem to be in precariously short supply, and the notion of ‘a common stake’ an increasingly nebulous one.

“If we lack a sense of a common stake in a shared future, it may be because we lacked a sense of a common stake in the past. We like to think that we share a history, but the history of our poor is very different from that of our rich.”

And so the conference went, looking back into our past for a glimpse of the future.

Penman No. 175: Filipinos at the Field Museum

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Penman for Monday, November 23, 2015

 

 

AS MANILA got busy with preparations and lockdowns for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, Beng and I flew out to Chicago for the culmination of a cross-continental initiative of another kind: the Art and Anthropology project hosted by the Field Museum and funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

A few months ago, sometime in August, five Filipino-American artists (Jennifer Buckler, Elisa Racelis Boughner, Cesar Conde, Joel Javier, and Trisha Oralie Martin) came over to Manila to work with their homegrown counterparts on a large mural (technically a free-standing painting) featuring objects from the Field Museum’s vast collection of Philippine anthropological artifacts. That phase was hosted locally by the Erehwon Art Center in Quezon City, on the board of whose foundation Beng (aka June Poticar Dalisay, the painter and art conservator) sits as Vice President.

This October, the five Filipino artists (Leonardo Aguinaldo, Florentino Impas, Jr., Emmanuel Garibay, Jason Moss, and Othoniel Neri) went to Chicago to do the same thing—working collaboratively with the Fil-Ams on a 28’ x 7’ mural at the Field Museum, locating ancient Filipino artifacts in a more contemporary and inevitably globalized context.

The moving spirit behind this project was the indefatigable Dr. Almira Astudillo Gilles, a Chicago-based Filipino-American cultural scholar and activist who also happens to be a prizewinning writer and presidential awardee for her work as an overseas Filipino. Inspired by the Philippine artifacts at the Field Museum, Almi—the only Filipino research associate at the Field—had secured a grant from the prestigious MacArthur Foundation for the project, which both the foundation and the museum acknowledged to be groundbreaking in many ways.

Better known for its so-called “genius grants” awarded to outstanding individuals, the MacArthur Foundation rarely provides funding for large institutions like the Field Museum, Almi says, but they saw in her proposal an opportunity to spur not just a trans-Pacific collaboration among artists but also a dialogue with the past. And there was no better host in the US for this project than the venerable Field Museum, whose collection of indigenous Philippine archaeological and ethnographic materials—numbering around 10,000 objects, most of them brought over by museum expeditions to the islands at the early part of the 20th century—is one of the world’s most comprehensive.

The mural produced by the artists in Chicago—which will be on display at the Field for six months since its formal unveiling last November 7—is both a celebration and indictment of our rich and complicated history, invoking all manner of element from the archetypal bulol and the revolutionary KKK (a symbol that predictably sparked some controversy, given its American context) to McDonald’s and Tito, Vic & Joey.

For the artists themselves, the collaboration was a rich, if sometimes unavoidably difficult, learning experience—learning about themselves, about each other, about art-making, about the mutable meanings of “Filipino” over time and space. Prior to the project, some of the Fil-Ams had never been to the Philippines, and some of the Filipinos had never been to America; that alone ensured sufficient provocation in their approach to the task at hand. The collaborative aspect itself was a challenge, given the need to manage and balance each artist’s individuality with some overarching purpose or design. But in the end, as Joel Javier would tell me, despite all the dialectics involved, it was “a once-in-a-lifetime experience” that every participant—chosen by a jury in each country—would have signed up for.

Our sortie into the Field Museum—a place I’ve visited quite a few times over the past two decades, but can never exhaust, like the Smithsonian—was made even more special by a private tour arranged for us by Almi Gilles into the heart of the Philippine collection itself, in the underground vaults of the Field. As a certified museum rat and armchair adventurer, I took it as an invitation to die and go to heaven; the closest I hope to get to Indiana Jones was to wear his hat, which I wore on the appointed day.

We were met at the museum by co-curator Alpha Sadcopen, a young Filipino-American woman with roots in the northern highlands; she held the key to the collection, and led us into a large room where shelf upon shelf of tribal and cultural artifacts—baskets, textiles, weapons, utensils, body decorations, etc.—were preserved, most of them never likely to be put on display outside. “I could feel a shiver down my spine,” Beng would tell me later, and I certainly did myself, walking past the priceless objects, and discerning in each one of them a pair of hands, a face, a story.

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As if that peek into our material past wasn’t a treat enough, Almi then led us down a few more corridors to meet with another titan of Philippine studies—the renowned zoologist Dr. Lawrence Heaney, curator and head of the museum’s Division of Mammals. Larry began studying the wildlife of the Philippines in 1981, a lifelong passion that has resulted in the discovery of dozens of previously unknown mammalian species, in many landmark publications, and in the establishment, with Larry’s Filipino colleagues, of the Wildlife Conservation Society of the Philippines.

We often think of world-class scientists as surly, self-absorbed individuals who can’t relate to anything beyond what they see in their microscopes and telescopes, but Larry defies that stereotype. You couldn’t have met a nicer man, and one who chose not only to sound the usual alarm about our threatened environment, but also to emphasize the positive and the possible. “Hectare for hectare, the Philippines is the world’s richest place for endemism,” he told us, cradling what seemed to be a huge rat saved from a 1946 expedition to Luzon, “and there certainly are serious threats to Philippine wildlife, but we’ve also noticed some bright spots. For example, the growth of overseas jobs for many Filipinos—despite its social costs—has also eased the pressures on the environment and on wildlife in many rural communities.” Dr. Heaney is coming over to Manila next year to launch another book, and I’ll be sure to be there.

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And what’s next for Almi Gilles? She’s looking skyward, into the connections between Philippine anthropology and astronomy. Her colleagues at the museum seem thrilled by the idea, and so are we.

For more pictures of the Philippine collection at the Field Museum, see here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/penmanila/albums/72157660699359089.