Emil Guillermo: When history makes news for Chinatown, Asian Americans, and Filipino Americans

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History usually stays in the past because much of it is hurtful, bad stuff. Society is all too willing to let it stay buried, the deeper the better. That is, until someone decides it’s just too immoral to continue to ignore it all. And then the history comes alive, and makes news.

That’s happening on a number of fronts for Asian Americans these days.

For example, in California, home to the largest Asian American population in the country, San Jose has had five Chinatowns in its history, the earliest in 1866. Why five? Because the Chinese were chased out from one location to the next. The racism before the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 kept the Chinese on the move. Last week, the San Jose City Council realized it was time to acknowledge how the Chinese were subjected to“acts of fundamental injustice, terror, cruelty and brutality.”

It only took them 155 years to apologize.

But it’s still relevant in our new Covid-era of Asian American hate, in which one community organization has logged more than 9,000 transgressions of AAPI hate since the pandemic began.

The council’s apology also comes in the same week of a court appearance by Robert Aaron Long, the so-called Atlanta spa shooter charged with killing eight people, six of whom were Asian American women. Long, who has already been convicted of the first four murders in a county northwest of Atlanta, pleaded not guilty to killing the remaining four Korean American women in Atlanta. What’s the thinking? The first four are enough? Or maybe he was sane for the first set and insane for the final four? Perhaps it’s due to the Fulton County DA seeking hate crime charges. Long’s next appearance is Nov. 30.

Juxtaposed with the Chinatown apology, the historical context is clearer as we understand just how deep xenophobic hate toward Asians runs in America.

Recently, I performed a true story in a spoken word slam contest at the Unity Weekend celebrating Harvard Alumni of Color. That meeting was historic in itself, with 2,000 alums meeting virtually.

The story I told was about how my 18-year old self got crushed by my freshman crush in college. White woman, Filipino guy. What a concept in 1973, right?

But getting rejected was enough to allow self-doubt to creep in and destroy my confidence. How did I overcome it?

It wasn’t easy. History helped. I took a course in Asian history and convinced a visiting professor to let me study Asian American immigration, specifically Filipino Americans. There were no textbooks. I had to go deep into the library stacks to find unpublished theses written in the 1950s. I discovered how thousands of Filipino men like my father were allowed to come to America as colonized nationals. Not slaves. But not citizens either. They were let in to be a labor force, not start families.

Few Filipino women were allowed to enter. And that became a problem as anti-miscegenation laws prevented any race-mixing with whites. The law mostly targeted black and white unions, but among Asians, it was the gregarious Filipinos who drew the most ire and jealousy. In the California of the ’20s and ’30s, Filipinos seen with white women were violently beaten, some even lynched and murdered. It is a history most people still don’t know. At the time, I wasn’t aware how It took courage to be a Filipino in America.

That’s the history behind my story. You can see me as well as other tellers in the link below.

But here’s where history makes the news. Our history.

On the same week I performed my story as one of the winners of the alumni slam contest, Harvard coincidentally announced it was expanding its Asian American history offerings significantly with $45 million in foundational support.

It’s money primarily from 1990s-era Asian American alums from the college and business school. They’re people for whom contributing to a $39 billion endowment makes sense. Harvard could have funded it if it chose to. But it took alums who’ve made a mint to take a leadership role to fund Asian American history programs and full professorships.

Someone had to do it.

When Asian Americans are around 25 percent of the Harvard student population, it’s a disgrace when our history is not taken seriously as an academic pursuit.

Consider that Asian American studies has thrived for more than 50 years in higher ed, first at San Francisco State and its College of Ethnic Studies, and then throughout the University of California system. It was about time.

An Asian American friend of mine on the Harvard faculty told me last year that Harvard was like a big elephant that moves slowly, if at all.

Last week, with a major push from Asian American donors, the school made history with our history.

And then the elephant moved forward.

In 2017, I wrote a column in which I asked the question, “If Filipinos were here first, shouldn’t this be the United States of the Philippines?”

Historical records show that Filipinos were part of a three-day landing party of the Spanish explorer Pedro de Unamuno in what was Morro Bay, California on Oct. 18, 1587.

That’s 20 years before the Jamestown colony. And 33 years before Plymouth Rock. Of course, the indigenous natives were here first to greet them all.

But on the west coast, the Filipinos were first. And that’s got to count for something.

That’s why in October, the Filipino National Historical Society commemorates the month as “Filipino American History Month.” We don’t get to name the whole country. We don’t get much credit at all. But in what is now the continental U.S., we were the actual first non-natives to set foot in California. The proof is in the history as written by Eloisa Gomez Borah, a UCLA research librarian and a trustee at FANHS, and published in UCLA’s Amerasia Journal in 1996.

I’ll have more about this throughout the month when I will be celebrating my Filipino-ness. And you should too.

See the Unity Weekend Story slam winners here. (I’m at 23:00 minutes in.)

And see me/hear me talk about this column and more on my micro-talk show for AAPI, on my Facebook page, and on Facebook Watch; also seen on my YouTube channel. M-F, Live at 2p Pacific. Catch the recordings here.

Image by AALDEF

Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator. Updates at Follow Emil on Twitter, and like his Facebook page.

The views expressed in his blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF’s views or policies.

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