I’ve been thinking a lot about race these days. I’ve thought about it more in the last few weeks than I probably have my entire life. Particularly, the intersectional solidarity that can be found between Black and Filipino Americans; my own family’s history in this country; and the colonial ties threaded throughout.
Written by Alina Fontanilla
I grew up in a very heavily assimilated Filipino American family. So my upbringing didn’t feel very Filipino at all. I used to always say that I was as American as apple pie and baseball, because my grandparents had lived here longer than they lived in the Philippines and I simply couldn’t relate. I understand now that saying something like that is colonial mentality.
I am a San Francisco Filipino, which is a legacy in itself. I am a product of American imperialism. I am a direct descendant of the Manong Generation.
“Manong” is Ilocano for “older brother” and refers to the first wave of Filipino immigrants who populated California, Hawaii, Washington, and Alaska in the '20s and '30s. My grandfather was Mateo “Matt” Fontanilla. He was 23 when he arrived in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1926. Matt Fontanilla was a Manong.
At the time, the Philippines was a U.S. territory and mass migration began as mostly young, single men came over in search of a better life. Filipinos were distinct from other Asian immigrants due to American influences that had permeated the Philippines thanks to U.S. colonization. “The United States was viewed as a beacon of success, wealth, and opportunities - all aspects that were absent in the Philippines due to the economic, social, and political hardships that many people faced.” Due to their newfound status as U.S. Nationals, Filipinos did not see themselves as aliens when they immigrated over, just brave souls hoping to make it in the land of opportunity. In my grandfather's own words: “I am going to the United States because I want to promote my daily living. I am honest and peaceful.”
These men took up agricultural, factory, and service jobs. They were recruited for their reliability, resilience, and work ethic - and they were exploited and subject to harsh conditions and low pay, working as little as 10 cents an hour for 10 hours a day.
It was the onset of the Great Depression, and anti-Asian sentiment in the U.S. was growing. Filipinos and other immigrants were blamed for the lack of work available and subject to race-based violence despite the fact that they, too, had lost their own jobs. Anti-Filipino riots started occurring along the West Coast, with the KKK terrorizing Filipinos in the Yakima Valley of Washington or, most notably, the Watsonville riots of 1930, when a mob of 500 armed white men and youths descended onto a Filipino dance club with the intent to "rescue" the white women inside and burn the place to the ground. The ensuing five days of riots saw hunting parties comprised of white and Hispanic men dragging Filipinos from their homes; beating them close to death; flinging them into the river from a bridge; and blowing up Filipino labor camps, often with the complicity of local law enforcement.
I can’t say that I know what exactly my grandfather’s experience was during this period, just that he arrived in the United States at a difficult time to be anything other than white in this country. It breaks my heart to think of him in any of these circumstances.
From 1942 to 1945, my grandfather served during World War II in the messman branch, a racially segregated branch of the U.S. Navy. Responsible for feeding and serving officers, the messman branch was composed almost exclusively of Black Americans (Doris Miller, a Black American hero at Pearl Harbor, was also ranked Cook Third Class like my grandfather), along with Filipinos, Chinese, and other foreign nationals recruited overseas. White sailors did not serve in the messman branch.
“This attracted criticism from civil rights leaders during the war, and the Roosevelt administration was under some pressure to address the inequality. Some steps were taken throughout the war, but the navy’s leadership proved resistant to major change.”
In 1963, shortly after my grandmother migrated over, my grandfather became a first-time father at the ripe age of 60. Anti-miscegenation laws had passed in order to prevent interracial marriage. This was difficult for Manongs in that "due to gender bias in immigration policy and hiring practices, of the 30,000 Filipino laborers following the cycle of seasonal farm work, only 1 in 14 were women.” So they were forced to seek companionship outside of their ethnic community, usually with white women, which greatly incensed white men. While some Filipinos decided to carry on defiantly with their interracial relationships in secret, many Manongs lived to be bachelors well into their twilight years. I can only infer that this is why my grandfather got started so late.
'm almost embarrassed to admit that I'm learning a lot of this for the first time. But for the first time, I finally feel like I’m connected to something in history. I remember watching the recent Off Broadway musical Here Lies Love, about former First Lady of the Philippines Imelda Marcos and the People Power Revolution which brought about the end of a 20-year dictatorship and the restoration of democracy in the Philippines. I remember feeling so emotional seeing “my history” being played out... and then realizing that both of my grandparents were already long into their lives in America when those events took place. It was a weird feeling. Like, if THIS isn’t my history, if my history isn’t rooted in the Motherland, then what IS my history?
My grandfather’s legacy has been here all along. My grandfather’s legacy is Filipino American history. And I understand that it is my duty to educate myself and begin healing the generational trauma of colonialism placed upon my family. “Colonialism demands ignorance and assimilation to work.” Fuck that. I refuse to remain ignorant to my own legacy.
http://ucifilam.blogspot.com/2009/11/manong-generation-paving-way-for-future.html https://www.npca.org/articles/1555-remembering-the-manongs-and-story-of-the-filipino-farm-w orker-movement https://fanhs10.com/history/manong.html https://www.uniform-reference.net/insignia/usn/usn_ww2_enl_steward.html