How I am Celebrating Pilipino American History Month

by carlo de la cruz

On September 10, 2009, the California legislature announced its unanimous approval of Senate Concurrent Resolution 48, which officially recognizes October as Pilipino American History Month. Authored by Senator Leland Yee, D-San Francisco/San Mateo, the resolution marks October 18, 1857 as the earliest documented instance of Pilipino presence in the continental United States. Meanwhile, the Filipino American National Historical Society (FAHNS) acknowledges 1763 as the year of the first Pilipino permanent settlement in the United States, with the establishment of the St. Malo Parish community in Louisiana—ascertaining the centuries of pre-colonial presence Pilipinos have had in the country.

During the month of October several events will take place to recognize and honor the contributions, legacies, and stories of the Pilipino American community. Established in 1988 by FAHNS, Pilipino American History Month symbolizes the need and importance to promote awareness and understanding of Pilipino Americans in a multicultural American historical narrative.

But it is not only the need to contextualize the stories of Pilipino Americans in the larger American history that is important. As Pilipino Americans we must continue to write our own stories and narrative while being critical of our legacies in a political, cultural, and social context. For hundreds of years the history of the Philippines, Pilipinos and Pilipino Americans has literally been written for us. Even today, our community struggles to combat the hegemony of the colonial narrative that has framed our history for centuries.

The building which houses the Asian American Studies & Ethnic Studies program, for instance, takes its name from a Philippine imperialist, David Prescott Barrows. Barrows served as the Secretary of Education for the Philippines government—a U.S. colony at the time—and played an instrumental role in writing and framing the history of the Philippines, a narrative which included descriptions of Pilipinos as the “little brown brother of the Americans.” It is ironic that the very disciplines that create alternative narratives for Ethnic peoples must be housed within a building named after the man that wrote the original colonial history for the Philippines.

As a people, we will always carry that colonial history with us, and we must not forget or deny its existence. But we must also never be complacent and believe that the legacies and consequences of that colonial history are gone. Even today, as Pilipino Americans celebrate the 246th anniversary of Pilipinos settling in America and the 21st anniversary of FAHM, we as a community continue to struggle. It is vital for us to not only recognize the struggles we’ve faced as a community historically, but presently as well. The struggle for full benefits for Pilipino WWII veterans is not over, nor is the struggle to gain adequate protection and recognition of hate crimes committed against people of color. Pilipino American History Month must be a time when we do more than reflect upon the histories of our people and our community. We must be engaged and critical of current policies and politics that continue to adversely affect our community, such as the privatization and exclusion of people of color from public institutions like UC Berkeley.

This Pilipino American Heritage Month, I plan to celebrate by becoming engaged with issues that continue to affect our community, and other historically marginalized communities. By simply being critical of the past, and without engaging in current politics, we fail to uphold the legacy that our ancestors forged so bravely with their tired and calloused hands.