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Thursday, December 16, 2004


By Greg B. Macabenta
The Filipino Diaspora

(This new column is déjà vu for Greg Macabenta. His first byline in a national publication was in The Manila Times almost half a century ago. He was barely 16 and a journalism freshman in UST’s Philets. His professor in News Writing, Joe Bautista, then editor in chief of The Manila Times, assigned him to cover the visit to the university of  the historian Arnold Toynbee. Macabenta got a byline and the fabulous sum of ten pesos for his effort.

Now based in the San Francisco Bay Area, Macabenta owns and manages an ethnic advertising agency, publishes and edits a Filipino newspaper, and is national vice-chair of the National Federation of Filipino American Associations, the principal advocate of Filipino interests in the US. Before moving to America, he was president and CEO of Advertising & Marketing Associates, a leading Makati ad agency.)

Some things you’ll never read about in the history books:

•  Natives of Las Islas Filipinas were crossing the Pacific Ocean to the New World over half a century before the Mayflower crossed the Atlantic. They were crewmen in the Spanish galleons that sailed from Manila to Acapulco in the course of the Galleon Trade, from 1565 to 1815.

•  Antonio Miranda Rodriguez, an Indio-Chino (which was how natives of Las Islas Filipinas were called), was a Poblador, a member of the expedition that was dispatched from Mexico to found El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Angeles de Porciuncula—now better known as the seat of Hollywood and the home of the LA Lakers.

But the marker at Olvera Park, where the names of the founders of LA are listed, does not include Rodriguez. He wasn’t present on foundation day because he had to remain in Loreto, in Baja, California, to take care of his dying daughter.

Two years later, he became the armorer of the Presidio of Santa Barbara, where he died of an illness. There is a marker in his honor in the Presidio chapel.

•  But for the vagaries of fate and history, President George W. Bush would not have been a Texan but a Filipino. You see, the Lone Star State was originally named Nueva Filipinas by its Spanish colonizers.

Now, Alamo na.

•  There is reason to believe that Filipinos helped Andrew Jackson’s forces fight the British in the Battle of New Orleans. According to research done by the historian Carlos Quirino, the Pinoys were crewmen of Jean Baptiste Lafitte, the pirate who helped Jackson win that pivotal skirmish.

•  At any rate, Filipino sailors had a settlement in the marshes of Louisiana, near New Orleans in the late 1700s. The American journalist and world traveler, Lafcadio Hearn, came upon the remains of the settlement in 1883 and wrote about it in the magazine, Harper’s Weekly. He opined that the settlement had been in existence 50 years earlier.

However, Marina Espina, a librarian at the University of New Orleans, found evidence that the settlement had been founded much, much earlier—at about the time of the Louisiana purchase.

I came upon these and many other interesting facts, conjectures and, quite possibly, tall tales when my family and I decided to move to America back in 1986. I wanted to have some kind of anchor for our existence in that big land. Not being sure what that anchor would be, I took a chance on doing research in the library at the US Embassy in Manila.

What I found were articles written by Carlos Quirino for the Graphic back in the 1930s. Among them was a piece about the “Manila Men of St. Malo.” These were the small, brown-skinned sailors from Las Islas Filipinas that Lafcadio Hearn had written about. They had reportedly been conscripted for the Galleon Trade, had decided to jump ship upon arriving in Mexico, and had made their way to the marshes of Louisiana, via the Gulf of Mexico, to establish the settlement that Hearn had come upon.

Aha! So Filipinos had been in the New World and in what would become the United States of America much earlier than the American colonization of the Philippines at the turn of the century.

You can’t imagine the kind of high that this gave me. And whenever I told fellow Pinoys about it, a glow of pride invariably lighted up their faces.

As soon as I had a chance, I went to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., and secured a copy of the original Hearn article. When I learned about Marina Espina and her research, I flew to New Orleans to interview her. She also introduced me to the Burtanog family, whose presence in America went back eight generations.

The eldest of the clan was Lilian Martinez Burtanog, past 80 and, according to her, four generations removed from the first member of her family to go to America, a sailor from Cebu named Felipe Madrigal.

What struck me was that Lilian’s two children, being fifth generation and never having seen “the islands,” meaning the Philippines, declared that they were “Filipinos,” when I asked them how they identified themselves.

“I’m the only Filipino in the New Orleans police force,” said one of them.

I couldn’t help telling them about many FOP’s (fresh off the plane) from Manila who no longer wanted to be associated with the land of their birth.

At any rate, my fascination with Filipino roots in America and the dispersal of our people across the seas had firmly taken hold. I resolved to dig some more and to follow whatever leads came my way.

These are the things I will write about in this corner.

From the hazardous journey of sailors on board the galleons, braving the Pacific Ocean, to the even more dangerous trek of OFWs across the highways of Iraq and other Middle Eastern destinations; from the hospitals and clinics all over America and England, where Filipino nurses are the linchpin of the health-care system, to the homes of wealthy Europeans and Asians, where the term “domestic” has come to mean “Filipina”; and from the crowded one-room apartments in California where aging Filipino World War II veterans wait vainly for “justice and equity,” to the schoolrooms in Texas and other states where Filipino teachers are doing a Thomasites-in-reverse, the saga of the Global Pinoy reads like an epic soap opera, replete with cliff hangers and comedy relief.

Abangan ang susunod na kabanata . . .

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