October 17, 2012, Brooklyn, NY
I believe that one of the best ways to commemorate October as Filipino-American History Month is to acknowledge the great contributions of many Filipino farm workers such as Larry Itliong, Philip Vera Cruz, Carlos Bulosan and many others who migrated to the US during the turn of the 20th century and at the same time give our highest salutations to the farmers and peasants in the Philippines as they commemorate the same month of October as Peasant Month.
If October is the month Filipinos in the US celebrate Filipino-American History, in the Philippines October is dedicated to the commemoration of the Filipino peasants and farmers’ struggle for genuine agrarian reform.
We must never forget that the Filipino peoples’ struggle for independence that eventually gave birth to a nation has always been tied to our ancestor’s struggle for land.
Since the successful conquest of Miguel Lopez de Legazpi that began the period of Spanish colonization of the Philippines in 1565 to the eventual declaration of Philippine Independence at the balcony of Emilio Aguinaldo’s family mansion in Kawit, Cavite on June 12, 1898; the lives of many Filipino martyrs were sacrificed and the blood of countless revolutionaries offered primarily because of the continuing fight over the right to till the land and ultimately the right to the land itself.
Early revolts in Philippine history from Rajah Sulayman of Tondo to Magalat during the 16th century; from Sumoroy of Samar to the Maniago and Malong revolts of Central Luzon in 17th century; from Dagohoy of Bohol to Diego and Gabriela Silang of Ilocos during the 18th century; and eventually the establishment of the anti-feudal and anti-colonial revolutionary nationalist and democratic movement of the Katipunan led by Andres Bonifacio: all have been in one way or another was either in defense of their own land or was caused by the Filipino peoples desire for justice and the determination to fight over the right to till the land and to determine the rightful owners of the land.
As a matter of fact—in addition to the well-known theory of the First Filipinos in the Americas being workers who “jumped ship” during the “Galleon trade”—some historical records indicate that some of the early Filipinos sent to the Americas (Mexico) as exiles were in fact leaders and members of the various revolts in the Philippines who prior to the Katipunan, were merely fighting for land and not even contemplating any nationalist or patriotic struggle against the Spanish crown—kind of like Dr, Jose Rizal. He simply wanted to have the right to their ancestral land that was taken by the Spaniards as reflected on his very own novels. They have no desire for national sovereignty, but they desire land ownership.
When the Americans subjugated the Philippines and stole our independence under the claws of US imperialism at the turn of the 20th century along with Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and portions of the West Indies through the historic December 10, 1898 Treaty of Paris, the Filipino peoples struggle for land further raged on. From the likes of General Gregorio del Pilar who valiantly led the Katipunan revolutionary forces against the US troops occupying the Philippines to the heroic leadership of Macario Sakay; the Filipino revolutionaries continued the armed revolution. Let us not forget the “Massacre of Balangiga” in Samar that nearly wiped out all US troops in the island prompting the US Military General Jacob Smith to order the killing of all Filipinos “over the age of ten”. Such armed resistance even further escalated with the fierce battles launched by our Bangsamoro brothers and sisters in Mindanao, the southern part of the Philippines.
Eventually the Philippines became a Commonwealth. As a direct colony, the US was met with remarkable armed resistance that was too costly for the US to sustain. The Philippine-American war—a war that was never acknowledge as such in the pages of US history, but rather dismissed as a mere “insurrection”—was also met with resistance from one of the first anti-war movements in the US that included former US President Grover Cleveland, prominent author Mark Twain and big businessman Andrew Carnegie.
It was during the commonwealth era that many Filipinos started to migrate to the US as farm workers in Hawaii, California, Oregon, Washington and other parts of the US. It was because of them brave farmers and the sons of farmers who were seeking literally greener pasteur and opportunity to farm—because their own ancestral lands were dominated by greedy landlords and foreigners—that we have a reason to commemorate “Filipino-American History Month.”
Under the US commonwealth Filipino farmers in the US and Filipino farmers and workers in the Philippines both contributed to the continuing resistance of the Filipino people against foreign domination and occupation as well as the fight for land. The participation of Filipino farm workers and other workers—including merchant marines and seafarers in the East Coast—with various labor unions in the US led to the connection with the Communist Party of the USA (CPUSA).
Eventually the Communist Party of the Philippine Islands (CPPI) was established by the Filipino labor leaders along with contributions from some Filipino workers and labor representatives from the US. Both the CPPI and the Socialist Party of the Philippines (SPP) continued to fight for labor and land reforms as well demand for national independence from the US.
When World War II broke out and the Japanese attacked the Philippines shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 8, 1941, it was the merger of the CPPI and the SPP that formed the only resistance army against the Japanese called the HUKBALAHAP (Hukbong Bayan Laban sa Hapon or Peoples Army Against Japan)
Meanwhile in the US, the Filipino farm workers, unable to go back home to join the Communist-led resistance army opted to join the US army. The turn out of Filipinos volunteering to enlist lead to the historic formation of the first and only all-Filipino Infantry Regiment in the US Army. The massive number of Filipinos enlisting to join the fight against Japanese occupation and in defense of their motherland the Philippines as their patriotic duty was so unprecedented that a 2nd Infantry Regiment was also established.
The US military and the Government of the Commonwealth of the Philippines under Manuel Quezon went on exile in Australia together with Gen. Douglas Mac Arthur prompting his famous words “I shall return”. Remnants of the United States Armed Forces in the Far East (USAFFE) also formed guerilla units with Filipino volunteers—these are the “manongs” who up to this day are still fighting for their just recognition and compensation from the US government.
Even after World War II, it must be noted that a section of the HUKBALAHAP continued to fight an armed resistance with the issue of land reform and distribution as their main agenda. The armed conflict that is directly rooted to the issue of land continued to further escalate until the election of President Ferdinand Marcos and the re-establishment of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and the formation of the New Peoples’ Army (NPA) in the 1960s.
Under President Ferdinand Marcos in the 1960s to the 1970s the Philippines saw yet another massive migration of Filipinos abroad, particularly to the US. Many refer to the period as “brain drain” due to the fact that instead of cheap labor and farm workers, the Filipinos leaving the country to work abroad are the professionally trained and skilled workers such as doctors, nurses, teachers and lawyers. This was the beginning of the Philippine Labor Export Program (LEP). Another major reason we are commemorating Filipino-American History month.
Marcos’ declaration of Martial Law in the Philippines on September 21, 1972 added another page on the Filipino-American History. Many among the middle and upper classes who are opposed to Marcos were either forced or voluntarily went to exile in the US. Filipino-Americans marked this period of history with an enthusiastic show of force that contributed to the rich tradition of community organizing and activism. Across the US, various anti-Martial Law and anti-Marcos organizations and alliances were formed. Filipinos in the US participated in various political actions against the war in Vietnam alongside other Asian Americans, Black Nationalists, Puerto Rican activists and other leftists and radicals.
Filipinos in the US are also known to be good and well-respected union organizers and leaders. Aside of course from farm workers’ union leaders such as Philip Vera Cruz and Larry Itliong, we can never forget the names of Gene Viernes and Silme Domingo, both union leaders of the Local 37 of the International Longshoremen’s and Warehouse Union (ILWU) who were assassinated upon the order of President Ferdinand Marcos for supporting the Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU or May First Movement), a militant Trade Union and Labor Center in the Philippines and for participating actively within the anti-Marcos/anti-martial law movement in the US.
The contribution of professional Filipinos in the US society and economy must never overshadow the equally great contributions of Filipino farm workers and laborers for they paved the road for them. They were the first ones to fight tooth and nail to establish labor unions that will protect their jobs. They were among the first to endure the horrifying effects of racism and discrimination. They were also the hardworking, low educated sons and daughters of farmers from the Philippines. They are directly rooted and tied to the land. They belong to the majority of the Philippine population of which are no less than 75%.
Meanwhile the sons and daughters of the big landlords, hacienda owners and feudal masters in the Philippines enjoyed the benefits of being US scholars aka “pensionados” studying law, economics, political science, business management, etc. at the most prestigious universities in the US such as Harvard, Yale, Columbia, U Penn and others. Many of the “pensionados” or scholars only came to the US to study and then went back to the Philippines to become the new set of politicians to replace the Americans. Their descendants continue to enjoy such privileges in the said universities and continue to dominate Philippine electoral politics known as “political dynasties”. They have no stake in claiming Filipino-American Historical legacy in my opinion.
And as we celebrate the great contributions of all the Filipino farm workers, laborers and the skilled professionals in the US on this month of October, we must also pay tribute, honor and salute the Filipino farmers and peasants in the Philippines as they commemorate the Peasant Month and the continuing quest and demand for genuine agrarian reform.
We can give honor to the most famous and successful Filipino-American politicians, businessmen, philanthropists, academics, scholars, doctors, lawyers, actors and actresses, musicians, artists, health workers, etc. and I support that they should be recognized. But as soon as we forget our roots, our ancestors—the Filipino farmers—then we are forgetting our real history. The Filipino-American history will never depart and will never be separated from the history of the Filipino people in the Philippines no matter how successful Filipinos become in the US.
The Filipino farmer, whether they toiled in the Philippines and shed blood on the streets of Taft Avenue or on the bridge of Mendiola to the gates of Hacienda Luisita or that Filipino farmer in the US who suffered from attacks and disrespect from their very own farm workers union they helped built and established with their own blood sweat and tears—that farmer, that Filipino farmer stateside or not is a hero and their cause we must never ever forget.
Gary Labao is a member of the NY Committee for Human Rights in the Philippines (NYCHRP) and Regional Council member of BAYAN USA-North East. In the Philippines he was a former member of the PINALAKAS-KA (Pinag-isang Lakas ng Kabataan sa Kanayunan) the youth arm of Alyansa ng Magbubukid sa Bulakan (Peasant Alliance of Bulacan) 1988-89; Secretary General of Bulacan Students Assembly-League of Filipino Students, 1989-1990; Youth Representative BAYAN-Bulacan, 1989-1990; Secretary General of College Editors Guild of the Philippines (CEGP) Bulacan Chapter 1989-1992.