We Asian Americans are in excess of 20 million people. But do we count? Do we show up anywhere?
That’s our unique political conundrum. And it doesn’t matter if you’re newly arrived, or born here, or a multi-race Asian. Does it mean anything to be Asian American if we don’t show up?
I mean in political polls, including the one that counts– the ballot box. And because the political is a reflection of our social and cultural existence, do we show up in life at the workplace, or in the fun places like the arts, on TV, or the movies?
In Asian American surveys, representation in movies and TV actually is a thing that people mention as a political issue–like health care and the economy. When we don’t see ourselves, do we matter in America?
The answer to the question is “No.”
Not enough. A live action “Mulan” isn’t the answer to our invisibility.
This last weekend, we are seeing more. It’s like actor/comedian Ken Jeong has become the point guard for our team. He’s a key character in “Crazy Rich Asians,” which had its TV premiere on basic cable this weekend. Who hasn’t seen that movie yet? Only an Asian American living under a rock, right? But then that’s where most people generally place us.
If “show biz” has become a way for us to “show up” bigger, Jeong has been the master. This weekend, not only did he have “Crazy..,” he was on all those Fox promos for the singing game shows he’s on, the ones that cost a lot less than episodic drama or comedies in these Covid times. And he was a main character with actor Jimmy O. Yang on “The Opening Act,” a new movie about a comic’s life, written and directed by Steve Byrne, the funniest unknown mainstream Asian American comedian out there (He’s part Korean).
We’re showing up.
We’re also showing up where it matters at the polls.
This past weekend, I was the only Asian American reporter attending a discussion on voter suppression and people of color. It was there I picked up this tidbit from APIAVote’s Christine Chen.
In the most recent count, 31.2 percent of AAPI voters who have already voted in 2020 did not vote in 2016. In other words, they were all new voters. Compare that with new voters across the board: 27.3 percent Hispanic; 21.8 percent Native American; 20.6 percent Black voters; and 17.3 percent White voters. All of them didn’t vote in 2016, but in 2020, they’re showing up. And showing up early, according to an Oct. 9 analysis by Catalist, the DC voter database firm
Could it be the pandemic? The National Asian American Voter survey indicated people are concerned about everything from economics to the surge in anti-Asian violence. We are showing up.
I may have missed a boat in my lifetime, but I’ve never missed a vote.
I’m one of the 70 percent of Asian Americans in California who have become absentee or mail-in voters. It’s convenient and in the pandemic, it’s safe.
But with all the hot rhetoric about mail-in ballots being spoiled, contested, lost, or maybe not even counted at all, I did the patriotic thing.
I eschewed the drop-off box in my town and drove 30 miles to the county building. Once there, I masked up, went through the metal detector, remained six feet apart in an elevator, and went into a socially distanced registrar’s office, limited to seven voters at a time. There was no line in my California precinct. Not at 2 in the afternoon. But I did it. I voted early and once.
I still had to pay attention to whether my black mark was black enough on my ballot. And I had to figure out the propositions, and whether “YES” really meant “YES” and not “NO.” Even English speakers need translators. It never fails. I always leave the polling place thinking, “It’s not that easy. How are others faring?”
So give yourself time. Get translation help if you need it. Vote early. Vote once. And then believe our system of democracy will prevail. It will when you show up.
FILIPINO AMERICAN HISTORY CONTROVERSY
Showing up in the history books matters too, which is why it’s a good thing that I’m being stopped by people who greet me with “Happy Filipino American History Month!”
We’ve made it a thing. There’s even the hashtag #FAHM
In 1991, the Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS) began the special commemoration of October, but it wasn’t until 2009 that the U.S. Congress by virtue of House and Senate resolutions officially recognized Filipino American History Month.
The significance of October is clear. It was on Oct. 18, 1587, that the very first Filipinos–known as “Luzones Indios” traveling in a Spanish galleon—came ashore on the central coast of California. In Morro Bay, near San Luis Obispo, a sign heralds the arrival of the first Filipinos to the continental U.S., 433 years ago.
That’s the origin story. But it does come with controversy.
This week, in my role as museum director of the Filipino American National History Museum, I spoke with Daniel Phil Gonzales, an Asian American Studies professor in the College of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State University on the FANHS Museum Virtual Popup.
Gonzales told me that before he became focused on history, he was acquiring his J.D. and preparing for a legal career. That’s when he was asked by a mainstream scholar in Europe about the Unamuno voyage.
Gonzales was ashamed to admit he had been sent around 30 pages of photocopied material in 1972, one of which noted a simple question if the Unamuno landing was the first known contact of Filipinos with the New World?
“I simply said yes, so we knew about it in ’72,” Gonzales said. He never pursued it because at the time, he was pursuing a different academic path and figured someone would run with the information.
But 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.
But the virtue of starting out in Asia was his pickup of a stalwart working crew, mostly from the Philippines.
EASTWARD TO CALIFORNIA
On July 12, 1587, Unamuno headed for points east and made a brief three-day land excursion between October 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. In an email exchange, Borah told me too often they were left off the logs.
But they mattered on Sunday, October 18. That’s when Unamuno, after anchoring off the California coast in a place he called Puerto San Lucas, formed a landing party.
It was 12 armed soldiers led by Father Martin Ignacio de Loyola, cross in hand. 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, October 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 October 21 for Acapulco.
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THREE DAYS
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. But was it Morro Bay?
Gonzales says what’s missing from the logs is any mention of a large Gibraltar-ish rock that is a hallmark of Morro Bay.
When I talked to Gonzales’ colleague, Alex Fabros, he was even more critical of the latitude and longitude markings on the log and questioned if a sextant was properly used. As a sailor, Fabros duplicated the effort and said it was more likely not Morro Bay, but a place a bit north, and still in California.
The plaque may not exactly be at the right place, but it doesn’t take away the fact that Filipinos were documented in the new world in 1587.
433 years later, our inquiry and curiosity are still there. The winners may write the history, but those who were present also get a shot at being more than footnotes.
Of course, there were Native Americans already here. But among Asians, it was the Filipinos who were first.
Remember that in November when we fuss over the Mayflower and another rock in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Filipinos came 33 years before them on the west coast. Maybe it’s time to give thanks to Unamuno, the unnamed barber, and the “Indios Luzones,” especially the one who shed blood and died.
It’s the reason Filipino American History Month is celebrated every October.
We showed up. And we won’t be explained away.