From the Bay to the Bayou: 10 places that are steeped in Filipino American history
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There are four million Filipinos in the United States, the third-largest Asian Pacific American (APA) group in the country.
Yet the legacy of this community is often left out of American history books despite their long presence in the U.S.
To help highlight their enduring history and important contributions to the country, the Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS) designated October as Filipino American History Month. And U.S. House and Senate resolutions recognized October as Filipino American History Month in 2009.
This year’s theme is 50 Years Since the First Young Filipino People’s Far West Convention, which brought more than 300 participants to Seattle University in 1971 and has been considered the beginning of the Filipino American movement.
As you travel around the United States, here are 10 places you probably didn’t know were steeped in Filipino American history. (Note: this is not a complete nor final list and represents only a fraction of key historical sites important to Filipino American History.)
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Morro Bay, California
Place of interest: Coleman Park
According to historians, Morro Bay is the location of the earliest documented account of Filipino presence in what is now the United States. At least seven “Luzon Indios”’ were on board the Spanish ship Nuestra Senora de Buena Esperanza, Our Lady of Good Hope, led by Spaniard Pedro de Unamuno, according to research by UCLA researcher Eloisa Gomez Borah.
The ship was part of the Manila Galleon trades and was on its way to Acapulco, Mexico, when it docked in what is present-day Morro Bay in Central California.
There is a historical site marker located in Coleman Park to mark the galleon’s landing on October 18, 1587. (This historical moment is the reason FANHS chose October as Filipino American History Month.)
Place of interest: SOMA Pilipinas – San Francisco’s Filipino Cultural Heritage District
As a way to honor the more than 120 years of Filipino American history in the City by the Bay, in 2016 the city of San Francisco recognized SOMA Pilipinas as a Filipino Cultural Heritage District. The one and a half mile district is bounded by Market, Brannan, Second and Eleventh streets and is home to several landmarks and community organizations including Victoria Manalo Draves Park (named after the first Asian American gold medalist), Bindlestiff Studios, Kapwa Gardens, Bayanihan Center, Center for Asian American Media and Yerba Buena Gardens.
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And at the historic Palace Hotel, a category 7 Marriott property through their Luxury Collection Hotel, there is a plaque outside commemorating Jose Rizal, a physician, writer, polymath and nationalist considered a national hero of the Philippines. Rizal stayed at the hotel May 4 to 6, 1888, as part of his only trip to the U.S.
You will find many statues and markers commemorating Rizal all over the world, especially where there’s a large Filipino community.
Place of Interest: Filipino American National Museum
In 1994, FANHS selected Stockton, located in California’s Central Valley, for its museum which showcases the contributions that Filipino Americans have made to the United States.
Filipinos have a long history with Stockton, which was home to the largest population of Filipinos in the world outside of the Philippines from 1920s to 1960s, according to research by the late historian Dawn Bohulano Mabalon who documented the Filipino community’s history in her book “Little Manila Is In the Heart.”
Many Filipinos were recruited for agricultural jobs for the Central Valley while facing discrimination and racism. Many of the workers lived in the Little Manila neighborhood comprising a four-block area bounded by Main Street to Lafayette and El Dorado streets.
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With the construction of the Crosstown Freeway, the majority of original “Little Manila” was destroyed in the early 1970s. Mabalon and Dillion Delvo co-founded Little Manila Rising in response to further developments that would destroy the Little Manila historic site. You can learn more about this history at the museum.
Places of Interest: Paulo Agbayani Retirement Village at Forty Acres, Filipino Community Hall
Delano and the farmworkers movement are often mentioned together. But do you know the history behind one of the most pivotal labor movements that took place in this farming city?
The Delano Grape Strike in the 1960s gave birth to the United Farm Workers union. The UFW became a reality after the merger of two unions — the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) led by Filipino Larry Itliong and the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), led by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta.
AWOC members (which were mostly Filipinos) voted to start a Delano strike on Sept. 8, 1965, at the Filipino Community Hall. The NFWA walked out on Sept. 16, 1965, eight days after the Filipinos.
“It was basically put up or shut up,” Paul Chavez, son of Cesar Chavez told me when I was reporting a story about the 40th anniversary of the strike for The Press-Enterprise newspaper in 2005. “They went out and basically forced everyone into action. That credit belongs to the Filipinos – the brothers.”
Filipinos’ contributions to the movement have not received the same level of recognition as the NFWA. There have been more initiatives to help preserve this vital part of history from naming of schools, books to musicals.
Volunteers and the UFW built the Paolo Agbayani Village in Delano for retired Filipino farmworkers in the 1970s to provide a place for manongs, or older Filipino men, during their retirement. Many of the original Filipino workers died unmarried, childless and alone due to a state law from 1880 to 1948 that outlawed interracial marriage.
Today you can visit the Village, now a National Historic Landmark. It sits on Forty Acres, the site of the UFW headquarters.
Place of Interest: Historic Filipinotown
During the early 20th century, Filipinos who arrived in Los Angeles first settled in the area in what is now present day Little Tokyo and Bunker Hill in downtown LA. Due to post-WWII redevelopment, the community later shifted to the area off of the Temple-Beverly corridor.
In 2002, the city of Los Angeles designated the area bounded by Glendale Boulevard, 101 Freeway, Hoover Street and Beverly Boulevard as Historic Filipinotown. Throughout the area, there is signage with Filipino designs and architecture.
Several Filipino community groups — including Search to Involve Pilipino Americans (SIPA), Filipino American Services Group, Inc. (FASGI), Filipino American Community of Los Angeles, Inc. (FACLA) and Pilipino Workers Center (PWC) all call Historic Filipinotown home.
While the area still has Filipino Americans living within its borders, over the decades, the Filipino community has spread across the Los Angeles county region. The current population of Historic Filipinotown is now majority Latino.
There are several key landmarks within Historic Filipinotown that are significant to Filipino American history including Filipino Christian Church and St. Columban Filipino Catholic Church, Filipino American World War II Veterans Memorial and the Gintong Kasaysayan, Gintong Pamana (A Glorious History, A Golden Legacy) mural.
Painted by artist Eliseo Art Silva, this massive mural was unveiled in 1995 and is located in Unidad Park. It depicts the story of Filipino and Filipino American history.
Related: The best times to visit Los Angeles
The Emerald City has a rich Filipino American History that can be traced to the workers who came to Seattle in the early 1900s who often visited the taxi dance halls and what is now present-day Chinatown International District.
In 2012, a kiosk commemorating Filipino Americans in Chinatown International District was built at southeast Corner of S King Street and 6th Avenue S.
In Beacon Hill, Jose Rizal bridge and Park was dedicated in the 1970s and features a bust of Rizal, murals and views of Puget Sound to the Seattle skyline.
“A community exists here, you just have to go find it and search for it…,” said Dennis Perez, a FANHS Seattle member who has been giving friends tours of Filipino American sites. “Be curious and be curious to explore.”
Seattle was also the point of entry for writer Carlos Bulosan, who wrote “America is in the Heart.” Bulosan serves an important role in Filipino American history as the voice of a generation of immigrants who came to the U.S. for a better life. He also wrote the essay that accompanies Norman Rockwell’s painting, “Freedom from Want” in the Saturday Evening Post.
Saint Malo, Louisiana
Historical Marker: Los Isleños Museum Complex
Louisiana, while best known for New Orleans, Mardi Gras and jazz, also is home to the beginning of an often omitted part of American history.
“There could be an argument made that the St. Malo settlement is the beginning of Asian American history. These early settlers in Louisiana who came in and found a home in the swamp are kind of hidden from a lot of people. The locals knew who they were there, but Louisiana was so multicultural and people forget how significant New Orleans was in the United States,” said Randy Gonzales, an English professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
Gonzales is a fourth-generation Filipino American who has been researching the history of Filipinos in Louisiana.
“It was one of the major ports in the United States at the time. So there’s a lot of traffic coming to New Orleans and and and especially from Spanish speaking areas and Spanish ships. There was an opportunity for Filipinos who were seamen along with the Manila Galleon Trade. But also Filipinos just started going out working the seas from in the Atlantic all across the world,” he said.
According to early settlers accounts, they place Filipino seamen, also known as Manila men, as residing along the Bayou St. Malo in the 1830s (but the exact dates of origin are still up for debate). In 2019, a marker was placed at the Los Isleños Museum Complex at 1345 Bayou Road, St. Bernard Parish. If you do plan visiting, Gonzales recommends renting a car to get there.
Another location related to Filipino American History and commemorating a Manila village key to the shrimp drying business is located in the area of the town of Jean Lafitte, about 30 minutes south of New Orleans. However Gonzales recommends not visiting Lafitte currently as it is still reeling from the impact of Hurricane Ida that tore through the area in August 2021.
In 1904, St. Louis was the site of the World’s Fair, a global exhibition of the latest innovations at the time. It was also the site of a human exhibit featuring 1,200 Filipinos who were brought to the U.S. for the fair’s Philippine Village, which exploited indigenous people, putting on a living display for fairgoers.
It’s that history that Filipino American artist Janna Langholz is trying to preserve. Langholz who was born and raised in St. Louis remembers that the 1904 World’s Fair was mentioned in school as part of a unit on Missouri history, but she didn’t learn about the Philippine Village until she was older and doing her own independent research.
Since 2015, Langholz has been showing her friends and other artists around the former 47-acre Philippine Village site (located in what is now the city of Clayton near Forest Park), but only started offering guided walks to the public after getting a “Philippine Village Historic Site” sign made.
“As an artist I also consider my sign to be a ‘permanent’ historical marker in a way, even though it’s mobile. I’m committed to being at the site of the Philippine Village and am not going anywhere, so even after more formal plans are made I will continue to walk around with the sign,” she said.
She is currently working with Clayton to place a memorial and or historical markers in the Demun and Wydown neighborhoods.
“I think for those who didn’t know the back story, most people have been shocked and outraged to learn what happened here in 1904. Although most people are aware to some extent of the Philippine Village having existed, there’s a lot of misinformation and myths surrounding it,” Langholz said. “Being here in the site itself, people also realize how big of an exhibit it was.”
Like with most World Fairs of that era, many of the buildings constructed for it were torn down after it was over, but there are some that still remain such as St. Louis Palace of Fine Arts which is now the St. Louis Art Museum and “flight cage” aviary at the St. Louis Zoo. Forest Park was the main fairgrounds for the 1904 World’s Fair.
“I hope that visitors will take away a better understanding of the people who passed through the Philippine Village in 1904, what they experienced here, and how the impacts of the St. Louis World’s Fair continue into the present day,” she said.
If interested in taking a guided walk with Langholz, reach out on instagram @jannanonymous.
Woodside, Queens, New York
Place of interest: Mabuhay mural
The largest concentration of Filipino businesses in the New York City area is located at at Roosevelt Avenue between 63rd and 71st streets. Here you’ll find Filipino restaurants, bakeries and community organizations such as Little Manila Queens Bayanihan Arts. But Filipino American History is spread throughout New York City’s five boroughs. According to FANHS’s metropolitan New York chapter, Filipino social clubs were organized in the city as early as 1927.
Many Filipino immigrants post-1965, settled in several ethnic enclaves in Queens’ neighborhoods of Woodside, Jackson Heights and Jamaica according to FANHS.
In 2020, a mural with the word “Mabuhay” (which means long live in Tagalog) was unveiled on the south east corner of 69th Street and Roosevelt Avenue.
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Place of interest: Alab ng Puso mural
Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love, is not just known for its cheesesteaks and Rocky.
In 1912, Filipino navy personnel helped to form the Filipino American Association of Philadelphia, Inc. (FAAPI) in response to the racism they encountered. The Filipinos of Greater Philadelphia book documents this history in the city.
It is also the site of the first outdoor Filipino mural on the East Coast — “Alab ng Puso” (My heart’s fire), located on Bustleton Avenue. Unveiled in 2013, and painted by Eliseo Art Silva (who also painted the Gintong Kasaysayan, Gintong Pamana mural in Historic Filipinotown in Los Angeles) the 22-foot tall mural depicts 100 years of Filipinos in Greater Philadelphia and Filipino American history.
Filipino American history is everywhere regardless if there’s an official marker or not, and this list is just the beginning.
There are Filipino communities with rich and deep histories in places such as Hawaii, Alaska, New Jersey, Washington D.C., San Diego, Chicago, Houston, Orlando, Portland, Oregon and many other places across America.
More and more places are now recognizing the contributions of Filipino with historical markers like Virginia Beach, Virginia, which will get a marker honoring Filipinos in the U.S. Navy.
No matter where you end up traveling, you’ll find many major cities across the United States hold a significant place in Filipino American history — American history.
Featured photo by Leezel Tanglao/The Points Guy.
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