Filipino Americans in New York: Proof of our Existence Prior to 1965
By Dr. Kevin Nadal, FANHS-MNY President
When young people are taught about the history of Filipinos in the United States, they typically learn a few things. First, we are taught about the “Manila Men” who landed in Moro Bay, California in 1587, and how they later formed settlements in the bayous of Louisiana in the late 1700s. We also learn about pensionados, or sponsored students, who came to the US to attain their college education. Most people will discover the history of the United Farm Workers, perhaps read Carlos Bulosan’s classic America is in the Heart, and learn about how anti-miscegenation laws prevented Filipinos from marrying their romantic partners of other races. Finally, it may common for people may hear about how there was an influx of professionals who immigrated to the US after the passing of the Asian Immigration Act of 1965.
While our history has included the Filipinos who were put on display in the St. Louis Fair in 1904 to those who immigrated to the fish canneries of Alaska or the sugarcane plantations in Hawai’i, there often is little talk about the history of Filipinos in New York. New York is currently one of the most celebrated and powerful states in our union, yet, many people may not know that it is also the state with the third largest population of Filipino Americans in the United States (following California and Hawai’i).
As a Calipinoy (a word I’ve created to describe Filipinos in California, in the same way that “Nuyorican” describes Puerto Ricans in New York), I can admit that I never really knew that there was much of a history of Fil-Ams in the NY. While I knew that I had a large family in Queens, and I even attended a FIND conference as an undergrad, I falsely believed that the West Coast was the home of most of Filipino American History. Because my New York family comprised only of post-1965 immigrants (as opposed to my California family which included “Old Timers” and farmworkers), I assumed that this form of immigration was the extent of Fil-Am history in NY. However, as I’ve slowly become a Pinoyorker over the past 10 years, I’ve learned that this is simply not the case.
Through FANHS and my talks with a lot of native New Yorkers, I was able to discover that New York has indeed held a rich history of Filipino Americans. I found out that Jose Rizal visited New York City during one of his travels to the US. I learned that there were pensionados who studied at NYU, Columbia, and Cornell. I heard about how Filipino navy and military officers who came to New York after World War II, and I found out that there was an even a Filipino restaurant in Brooklyn during the 1930s. However, while I knew that all of these things were true, I wished that I had seen pictures to help me visualize their experiences.
In January 2011, I was set to travel to Seattle for a psychology conference that I attended annually. Anytime I am in the area, it is necessary for me to visit Uncle Fred and Auntie Dorothy Cordova, not only to catch up on life, but to gain knowledge from these walking history books. During my trip, I made a point to go to the FANHS national archives and to uncover anything related to pre-1965 Filipinos in New York, particularly those in New York City.
To begin my search, Auntie Dorothy pointed out a publication called the “Filipino Student Bulletin.” This monthly newsletter, which was first published in February 1923, was printed by the Committee on Friendly Relations among Foreign Students, and their address was 347 Madison Avenue, New York City! What is now the headquarters of the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) was once the workplace of Filipino pensionados who gathered information and “news” from other pensionados from across the country. Students from all over the country (including Kansas, Idaho, and Kentucky) sent in pictures and updates to the editors of this bulletin, allowing for these kababayan (countrymen and women) to remain connected in their new land. This newsletter was published once a month or so, for about 15 years, and it clearly documented that there were Filipinos not just on the West Coast, but from the Midwest, the South, and even the East Coast.
What excited me the most about my search was discovering the pictures from Filipino students in New York City. In fact, there were two pictures that I came across that were the most meaningful to me. First, I found a picture from 1923, of Filipina students at Columbia University- my alma mater! I even discovered that these women received their diplomas (mostly in home economics) from Teachers College- the school of education and the building that I resided for most of my days while I attained my Ph.D. I felt some connection knowing that these young women had likely roamed the same halls that I had.
A second picture that was dear to my heart was a group photo of the “San Esteban Circle of New York City” from 1931. It was a photo with 24 young pinoys in their classy zoot suits and slicked back hair, and it reminded me of many of the other photos I had seen of my grandfather’s generation. The picture made me feel happy as it represented that no matter where they were in the world that pinoys knew how to come together, establish communities, and remain connected as a people. And it especially made me smile because the fashion was timeless.
My search for uncovering the history of Filipino Americans in New York is far from over, and I hope to find much more information in the near future. I hope that people will join me in this quest to reveal this history, so that we can teach our future generations that pinays and pinoys did indeed make New York what it is today.