Like many, it’s been hard to gather words.
My relationship with America and racial identity has been complicated, to say the least.
I carry both a Filipino and an American passport. I’ve proudly represented both countries on the international stage.
As a light-skinned Filipino, I write this with much thought and reflection. I’ve lived most of my life in the Philippines (at least 25 years in Manila). I now call New York my second home.
I write this with Filipinos in mind. Especially those who may object to the protests. Most especially, those who have been echoing and protecting the U.S. president’s rhetoric. And the people who have been saying “I understand why but…”
The words in this post are mine and do not reflect the opinions of the organizations I serve.
I believe it is essential to recognize our own privilege and the subtle ways that minorities have been pitted against each other. Ultimately, having us perpetuate systemic racism.
It is essential to remember our place in history and the context from where we stand, lest we repeat the mistakes of our forefathers and mothers.
And while events unfold in the U.S. and around the world, I believe we should use that history to build empathy and understanding.
I am not a historian. I’m an educator first and foremost. But I shall try my best to create an accurate account with questions that we can ask ourselves. Because it is our responsibility to search within and outside of ourselves.
On June 12, we will be celebrating Philippine independence.
In 1898, a group of 20 to 30-year-olds did the seemingly impossible. After years of battle, internal struggle, and self-organizing, they exhausted Spanish efforts of control. This ended over 330 years of Spanish rule.
An Act of Declaration of Independence was created and was signed by 98 people. An American colonel with no official role in the Philippines was one of those witnesses.
We, as a people, declared our independence.
And on August 1, it was promulgated by an organized government. These efforts were supported and recognized by revolutionary forces and organizations operating at national, regional, and municipal levels to provide social services to civilians (ibid).
Manila was still occupied by starving Spanish troops.
In that same month of August 1898, Spain and America (with the help of a Belgian consul) met secretly to ratify the Treaty of Paris.
America’s willingness to negotiate with Spain reflected their attitude towards Native Americans and Africans at the time. Spain, because of their troops and citizens’ situation on the ground, was more than willing to step to the table. The Spanish governer-general in occupied Manila explained:
(Note: It is hard to pin down if the Governor-General used these exact words or if the statement was recounted by an American official explaining the situation. Either way, the American public was already accustomed to seeing the word “nigger” to refer to Filipinos – as captured in the image below from a California newspaper in 1902. It was also a common practice among American soldiers to use this as a slur.
In this document, America purchased the independent people and islands of the Philippines from Spain for $20 Million. (This agreement also ceded Cuba and Puerto Rico)
There was no Filipino at that table. We had no voice.
A mock battle of Manila Bay was carefully staged so that Americans could claim we were liberated. It was a theatrical battle to create the white man as our savior. The plan was to have a bloodless battle.
Teodoro Agoncillo, a Filipino historian, wrote:
“The few casualties on both sides in the phony attack were due to some ‘actors’ bungling their ‘lines,’ or possibly to the fact that very few officers were let in on the charade.”
In total, there were six American casualties and 49 Spanish. Primarily because Filipino revolutionaries joined storming America troops thinking that it was all real.
The Spanish surrendered, and symbolically handed over Manila to America. This led to the Philippine-American War, which lasted for a little over three years.
In that short period, American troops would commit unspeakable atrocities and massacres (some might even say genocide) to our civilians.
The U.S. Department of State recognizes that time “resulted in the death of over 4,200 American and over 20,000 Filipino combatants. As many as 200,000 Filipino civilians died from violence, famine, and disease.”
American soldiers would loot and plunder homes. A captain boasted, “I have six horses and three carriages in my yard, and enough small plunder for a family of six.”
In recent history, Trump would brag about one of those atrocities against Filipino Muslims in the south and call them terrorists (incorrectly recounting the events).
Some American soldiers would recognize the injustice of this aggression. A soldier named Ellis of the 20th Kansas would write home saying,
“They will never surrender until their whole race is exterminated. They are fighting for a good cause, and the Americans should be the last of all nations to transgress upon such rights. Their independence is dearer to them than life, as ours was in years gone by, and is today. They should have their independence, and would have had it if those who make the laws in America had not been so slow in deciding the Philippine question.” (emphasis added)
Public opinion in America reflected the sentiment above. To persuade the public, in 1902, President Roosevelt would justify colonial violence by casting it as a race war saying that war honored the flag and symbolized,
“the triumph of civilization over forces which stand for the black chaos of savagery and barbarism.”
Within those three years, there were arguments among the Philippine government on whether they should surrender to the American occupation and their superior weaponry. (I believe it is important to note that at the helm were 30-year-olds already exhausted by war and the generational trauma of injustice.)
General Antonio Luna, the leader of military operations, advocated for independence. Early on, he and other generals would suggest guerilla warfare (a tactic that would later be effective for the Vietnamese defending against American aggression). The acting president and commander, disagreed.
General Luna’s opinion to continue fighting and use these tactics was opposed by members of the cabinet who made political maneuvers to create distrust with the president.
He was later assassinated by the president’s men at the age of 32. In my opinion, that act of assassination would be repeated as a culture of “Filipino vs. Filipino” and political patronage that haunts us until today.
His death created enough disorder to establish a military advantage for the Americans. Even an American General would acknowledge the importance of this loss by saying he was the only General that the Filipinos had.
(Luna’s role in the Philippine-American was captured in a recent film now available on Netflix)
Reports of his (gruesome) death were facilitated by the same cabinet members who sowed distrust. The excuse given was that he fought back when he was to be arrested.
This reasoning has been used in many instances around the world to justify state violence and brutality. It is also an eerily familiar explanation given for the deaths happening in the Philippine government’s drug war, and frightening trend with the passing of the anti-terror bill.
It would be later noted that these cabinet members (many wealthy and landed) were American collaborators with vested interests. The First Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Felipe Buencamino, is quoted saying to the U.S. Congress,
“I am an American and all the money in the Philippines, the air, the light, and the sun I consider American.”
These collaborators were appointed powerful positions in the new councils formed by the American occupation securing their political and economic power.
The Philippines remained a colony of the United States for almost 50 years.
The U.S. decided we would be an American Commonwealth in 1944, but World War 2 broke out.
Already overextended, America chose to grant the Filipino people independence.
In an almost bitterly poetic end, the American government listened to the same white racist antagonism that they stoked four decades before. “White agricultural entrepreneurs” were afraid that Filipinos were stealing jobs and undercutting with exports.
Filipino soldiers who pledged allegiance and fought alongside the U.S were also promised U.S. citizenship and veteran’s benefits.
But in 1946, the same year the Philippines was granted independence, President Truman would sign a law to strip these soldiers of citizenship and the benefits they were promised. Which can be also interpreted as yielding to white supremacist rhetoric of the time.
It was only in 2009 that President Obama signed a stimulus law that would remunerate these soldiers. Many of them in their late 80’s.
History has many more examples of injustice and racism.
The Watsonville Riots in California (1930), where roughly 500 white men would hunt down Filipino laborers because they danced with white women. This would eventually lead to the death of 22-year-old Fermin Tobera.
Only 7 men were convicted of inciting violence, in the end, given either probation or only 30 days in jail. There was no conviction for the murder.
Dancehalls would be a point of controversy for white communities. They served as a place of racial acceptance for young Filipino men and sometimes interracial relationships with working-class white women who would charge a nickel for a dance.
This was unacceptable for the white population. Instead of punishing white men for the violence, it would lead to police surveillance, the blaming of Filipinos, and the banning of Asian men at these halls on the grounds of protecting Christian values in the 1940s. (Another important item to note is this was with the backdrop of Jazz another historically black movement that was opposed by white communities)
Ironically, in a personal account of one of these women comparing Filipino patrons’ behavior with white men: “white men, as a rule, are the worst offenders where getting fresh with the girls is concerned.”
It’s easy to say that things have changed after our independence. I pose the question, “Why?”
It’s important for Filipinos to recognize that this change has a lot to do with the Civil Rights Movement in the 1940s-60s.
Not because of a drastic change in how white people would approach race but because the white supremacist narrative would try to suppress protests by comparing Asians with black populations as a “model minority”. (Read the attached link to learn more about the research showing that upward mobility and education was not a significant factor)
Almost as if they were saying, “Look at them. They know their place. They are behaving.”
And as immigrants trying to assimilate, it was easy for people to fall into that trap. It still is.
And, of course, micro-aggressions and workplace racism still exist. A study as late as 2008 said has a positive association with creating poor health outcomes in Filipino workers.
And today, we have the less prominent but still existent, COVID-racism.
History has shown us that, for minorities, triumphing against inequity and injustice comes at considerable cost. And those same victories take an unreasonable amount of time and effort.
Like in 1965. Larry Itliong, despite violent racism preventing him from getting the education to be a lawyer, became a Filipino labor leader. He would mobilize farmworkers (including Mexican workers led by Cesar Chaves) and initiate strikes for increased pay and safe work conditions.
It took a five-year strike, uniting with another minority group, and a global boycott on table grapes for their dignity to be recognized.
As protests and justifiable anger rises in the U.S. and around the world, I ask you to look within.
I ask you to use our own history as a backdrop and ask these questions with compassion:
How much of America has really changed? How often are we dealing with the same issues?
To what degree have I been racist (even subtly) against black people?
Have I allowed distrust propagated by other people’s narratives, especially those of a privileged position, cloud my judgment when interacting with persons of color?
Have I accepted that I am also a person of color? Have I been an ally?
Have I allowed racism, from individual to systemic, to persist?
Who benefits from things staying the same?
What place of privilege do I have that informs my opinion?
Who benefits when the ability of persons of color to vote (especially in black communities) is being suppressed?
Have I registered to vote?
Have I reviewed all the candidates regardless of partisanship?
Have I used a critical lens to evaluate them, especially those I support?
Have I taken the time to understand the historical backdrop that has created this frustration and rage in black communities?
Upon answering these questions, I implore you to read this comprehensive series called “Welcome to police brutality. Time to play your part in the fight for racial equity”, this article on “A Timeline of Events That Led to the 2020 ‘Fed Up’-rising” and these anti-racism resources.
Just because we haven’t experienced, learned, seen, or perceived something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist or that they are simply isolated cases.
Don’t let the pervasive narratives of the past control our actions and create a wedge with other persons of color, today.
In these divisive times, when people say they want to unite us but act otherwise, these aren’t just words.
In the same way, in the words of Kesiena Boom, “being an ally is a verb, not a noun.”
No more empty words. No more separation.
Let the way we choose our leaders, join in support, and live our lives speak for what we hold valuable and true.