I celebrated Filipino American History Month last night by cooking the Filipino vegetable stew, pinakbet–my amok vegan version anchored with that gorgeous furrowed gourd, a/k/a ampalaya in Tagalog. You might know it as bitter melon.
It’s not a melon, really; it’s the opposite of honeydew. Nor is it food for the Gods exactly. But its name is appropriate for the story of our lives.
What better food to celebrate Filipino American History Month, which few really know much about. That’s even though it’s all worth knowing. The Philippines was America’s first colony, after the U.S. debut imperial military victory, the Philippine American War. That’s a shame-filled saga where an estimated 1 million Filipino civilians died, something those of us who live in the world’s leading democracy ought to know about, don’t you think?
And once we cross October 15th, we should have it all, because the month is ours alone. No more sharing from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15 with Hispanic Heritage Month, though 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.
It’s the reason I look down on my relatives who insist on saying our surname the Spanish way, as in “Gee-Yer-mo” and not the Filipino way, “Gill-Yer-mo.” How you pronounce the “double L” is the mark of one’s willingness to break free of colonial mentality.
But perhaps, like my American-born relatives, you say “who cares,” “big deal,” and “what’s the difference?”
Does it really matter? Sure it does, if you are worth your weight in Filipinoness.
So I take seriously this time of year. The end of Hispanic Heritage Month and the start of the non-shared part of the month, when October is all Filipino American History, all the time.
And I see it everywhere. The Atlanta Braves playing the Dodgers last night? The Braves catcher, Travis D’Arnaud, is half-Filipino. George Takei and William Shatner currently may be sparring about Blue Origin, but did you know that our Japanese American hero Takei was playing Sulu, a character in Star Trek lore who is half-Japanese/half-Filipino. Sort of like the Green Hornet’s Kato, who was Filipino in the story but made famous on TV by Chinese American Bruce Lee.
The Filipino bits are all around us.
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.
And, of course, it’s always worthwhile to repeat the reason of the season.
THE KEY OCTOBER DATE: OCT. 18
It was on Oct. 18, 1587, that 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.
It is our origin story.
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.
“So we knew about it in ’72,” Gonzales said. 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.
His 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. Was it Morro Bay?
BUT IT DID HAPPEN IN CALIFORNIA SOMEWHERE
Gonzales says what’s missing from the logs is any mention of a large Gibraltar-ish rock that is a hallmark of Morro Bay.
Last year, Gonzales’ colleague, Alex Fabros, 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, possibly Half Moon Bay.
The criticism, however, does not negate the logs of Unamuno. Until there’s an earlier date, the Filipinos are a documented part of a new world landing in 1587. First.
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, win a bar bet over who came first with your favorite know-it-all.
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.
Filipinos were on North American soil in 1587 on Oct. 18.
It’s documented. It counts. It’s our history.
Sure, no one really knows it but that’s all right.
I made enough bitter melon to go around.
See Emil’s vlog on www.amok.com. Watch him live @2pm Pacific on Facebook Live or on YouTube; Twitter @emilamok. He’ll talk about Filipino American History Month and have a comment on the death of Colin Powell.