Culling Truths from Old Writings on October Fil-Am Heritage Month
By Marivir R. Montebon
New York City – – The month of October, through the celebration of the Fil-Am Heritage, in the US normally brings to focus how tumultuous the relationship of America and the Philippines had been. As the only American colonial country in Asia, the friendship and diplomacy between our two countries did not happen overnight. In fact, the relationship was written in blood and sealed with treachery, typical of how colonialists encroach themselves for power over a people.
From the ancient history of the Philippine diaspora, dating back to the Galleon trade, the currently unrecognized WWII Filipino veterans, and to the trafficking of women and men in modern times, that relationship is woven by dreams for a better life and the nightmares of the quench for justice.
Ours is a story of colonial truth. East met West for the first time, in recorded diasporic history, on October 18, 1587, and the journey for the betterment of ourselves and our families continues, with the same outlook for decent and dignified life.
How far have we gone? Have we really gone that far?
The First Asians to Cross the Pacific
It was because of pain that we as Asians decided to cross the Pacific Ocean as early as 1587, for we had to escape the tyranny of colonialist Spain. In fact, the first Philippine diaspora was 50 years earlier than the establishment of the first English settlement of Jamestown in California.
During the Manila-Acapulco Galleon Trade from 1565 to 1815, the earliest Filipino immigrants reached Morro Bay, California. The galleon fleet, which included Filipino sea farers called “Luzon Indios” (Luzon Indians), was sent in conquest by the Spanish king, according to a research study by the California State University (CSU) in Chico.
In 1763, Filipino immigrants settled in the bayous and marshes of Louisiana. They were known as “Manilamen” or Spanish-speaking Filipinos who fled their galleons due to the brutality of their Spanish masters.
They built stilt houses along the gulf ports of New Orleans and pioneered in the US the sun-drying process of shrimp.
During the War of 1812, Filipinos from Manila Village (near New Orleans) became warriors in defense of their second home. According to the CSU study, the Filipinos were among the “Batarians” who took part in the Battle of New Orleans against British invaders.
This was how the first wave of Filipino immigration into the United States looked like.
Two Month Old Glorious Freedom
On the home front, the colonial relationship of America and the Philippines had its legal basis upon the signing of the Treaty of Paris which ceded the Philippines to America by Spain on December 10, 1898.
I write in particularity the experience of my own hometown Cebu in the most bloody, but silenced history of revolutions waged by Cebuanos in winning our freedom as a people. I stand with great honor writing about my great paternal grandfather Arcadio Maxilom who led the Cebu revolution, alongside the fallen heroes Andres Bonifacio and Pantaleon Villegas (Leon Kilat) of the Katipunan (society).
Excerpts from my first book, Retracing Our Roots: A Journey into Cebu’s Precolonial and Colonial Past (2000):
Cebu experienced freedom from colonial power at the turn of the century for only two months and five days. That is, from December 16, 1898 to February 21, 1899.
December 16, 1898 – when the forces of General Arcadio Maxilom took full control of the city from the Spanish colonizers. And until February 21, 1899 when the Americans came to our shore very easily and ordered our leaders to surrender or else the city would be bombarded by virtue of the Treaty of Paris.
Historian Renato Constantino asserts that the katipuneros had put an end to the Spanish rule because of the overwhelming support among the people. The Spaniards, under Gen. Adolfo Montero, gave up El Pardo, the seat of government established by the guerrillas. They peacefully moved to Fort San Pedro (the Spanish walled city) after a simple turn-over rite. The Spaniards left Cebu on December 24, 1898 and sailed to Zamboanga.
At the Fort, the Philippine flag was hoisted for the first time, making the Christmas of 1898 a celebration like no other. Food was abundant. The revolutionaries roamed around the city and visited friends and family. But behind that pompous celebration, an undercurrent was building up.
It took the Americans to subjugate Cebu in less than two days, because of a weak, divided leadership.
The leaders engaged in a long and heated discussion whether to accept American rule or to fight. The older, city-based, wealthier Cebuanos postulated that immediate resistance was futile and costly. They said the Cebuanos were battle weary and lacked resources against the superior weaponry of the Americans.
The younger leaders, mostly belonging to the military who fought against Spain, proposed that the city be burned as a prelude to armed resistance.
The meeting was concluded with the position of the moderates prevailing – surrender under protest to the Americans.
In defiance, Maxilom set up his own headquarters in El Pardo which inevitably divided the local leadership.
The forces led by Maxilom eventually lost to American duplicity. US President William McKinley’s “benevolent assimilation” strategy was gaining ground, side by side with its tactic on “forcible repression” to expand its clout in Asia.
In the midst of unimaginable military reprisal and the demoralization caused by treachery, Maxilom surrendered to Brig. Gen. Robert Hughes in exchange for amnesty and safeguard of his political and civil rights on October 27, 1901.
Maxilom died in Cebu City after having been bedridden for a long time in 1924. His burial at the Old Carretta cemetery was attended by prominent people in the city and General Emilio Aguinaldo came to Cebu to pay respect to the Cebuano who was among the last to fight when everything else had fallen.
The fight against colonialists Spain and America was not an exclusive affair of men. Women too took significant roles in these bloody upheavals.
In Retracing Our Roots, the late local historian and one time city councilor Jovito Abellana lends a sketchy memory of three women whom his father Gregorio, a katipunero, described as having been actively involved in the anti-Spanish and anti-American wars in Cebu.
There was Paulina Padilla who lived in San Nicolas in what is now the corner of C. Padilla and Carlock Streets. She was both a house- and storekeeper who kept an eye in the movements of the Spaniards.
“Siya kadtong magbantay sa lihok sa Katsila. Mora bag espionage ang iyang trabaho alang sa rebolusyon,” says Abellana. (She was the look-out for the Spaniards. Her work seemed like being a spy for the revolution).
Abellana also remembers Januaria Abella and Herminigilda Vestil of Mambaling. Abella supplied food, clothes, and medicine to the katipuneros while Vestil did a rather risky job of supplying arms to the gerilyistas.
Vestil, who belonged to a wealthy family in San Nicolas, would walk all the way from her home in Mabolo to solicit all sorts of firearms and farm implements from her Spanish relatives.
At times when the firearms were not given for free, Vestil would buy them through a go- between. And she would wear a very large skirt where she’d keep all the armaments as she walks back to San Nicolas.
“She was a very tough woman. When the American soldiers discovered that she was a courier of the secret society, she eluded arrest by striking an American soldier with an iron bar. They were never able to capture her,” remembers Abellana.
Vestil also served as the lookout when the guerillas decided to assassinate Pablo Mejia along Magallanes Street. Mejia was identified as a local leader who sided with the Americans.
Continued Waves of Migration
Modern day diaspora continues for the same reason as the ancient sea farers had, to escape the pain of the inequities in the Philippines.
Today, however, the diaspora has the face of the Filipina.
Filipino women rank among the highest in the world who leave their countries in search of greener pastures in America and other foreign lands. They leave the country as future brides, nurses, teachers, caregivers, and even prostituted women, only to become mostly voiceless and faceless in the labor market.
The $30 billion in annual remittances to the Philippines is courtesy of the woman who had to leave her home and children to put food on the table and clothe the children and pay for their education.
Rooting Out Our Age Old Entrapment
As transnational feminist and renowned Filipina novelist Ninotchka Rosca puts it: the answer to our problems in the Philippines is right inside our land, right inside of us. We have to look at our past and understand how colonialism has destroyed us till now.
In a lecture on the violence against women at Montclair University in New Jersey in October last year, Rosca noted that Christianity indoctrinated the natives that life is painful and full of misery and systematically took away the rights of women.
Rosca, founder of the transnational feminist group AF3IRM, said the encomienda system outrightly replaced the leadership of women in the farms. Women, once priestesses, healers, and teachers, were relegated to the homes, to give birth as much as they can for labor supply. Or to the convent, as nuns or domestic managers.
This perfect subversion of the rights of women led to babaylan revolts all over the archipelago. The babaylan was persecuted and banished.
For more than 300 years, the perfection of the foreign intruder was best expressed in recreating the psyche of a subservient woman and forgetting the spiritual leadership of the babaylan.
Rosca brought her lecture to full circle using the myth of the Ibong Adarna (ibon means bird). But unlike how the popular legend, written in poetry by the famous Francisco Baltazar, imparts hope and solution that the bird brings (it has to be captured by the three princes and a feather be brought to cure their ailing father), Rosca pleaded her audience to kill the Adarna myth.
The journey of the three princes to foreign lands in search of the Ibong Adarna, is so much like the Filipino diaspora, she said. Jose Rizal went to study in Europe to bring in fresh ideas to the revolution of the Philippines. Filipinos must seek greener pastures abroad to give bright future to the children. But that is not the answer, postulates Rosca.
“We go around the world, trying to look for solutions to our problems in the country. But the answer is right there, all the time. We only need to learn the story of our past and revive the feminism of the babaylan. Hence, we will fully empower and balance our society.”
In mid-October this year, Rosca and a delegation of transnational feminists will gather in a 25th anniversary celebration and women’s summit in Los Angeles dubbed as Women on the Wave. In this predominantly Filipina-led gathering, about 300 women leaders of color of AF3IRM will look back at the gains and challenges of women’s movements in reclaiming socioeconomic, cultural, and political power and equality in the US and around the world.