My Recommended Reads for Filipino American History Month

By Candy Gourlay

It's Filipino American History Month! I didn't know this until @sueYAHollywood referenced books by me and my fellow middle grade author Erin Kelly on the Hollywood News Source blog. Thanks, Sue!

The Filipino American community is the second largest Asian American population in the United States (19.7 percent of all Asian Americans according to a 2010 census).

In 2015, I had the privilege of appearing in the Filipino American International Literary Festival in San Francisco.

The moment when a talented young reader surprised me with a wonderful gift after my presentation in San Francisco in 2015. Hi, Dani!

I don't travel in the United States much and I had somehow assumed that Filipino Americans would be identical to Filipinos back home. But the Filipino faces combined with very American accents took some getting used to. Even so I could see that there was such a strong identification with our distant homeland. And yet, as Edwin Lozada, president of the Philippine American Writer's Association, told me: 'I feel so Filipino when I'm in America. But feel so American when I'm visiting the Philippines!'

So today, in honour of my Filipino American friends and readers, I'd like to share some of the books I've recently been reading (and re-reading) about the Philippines and our relationship with the world around us. I hope you find it interesting!

[I know there has been a lot of anti-American rhetoric coming from our President of a Hundred Days, recently. This piece is not about that. Our relationship with America will always be far more complicated than a few blustering headlines.]

Note: Over a period of time I have edited and added to this article to add to the value of this post. 

Over the Edge of the World: Magellan's Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe by Laurence Bergreen

As a child, I was taught about the 'discovery' of the Philippines in the 1520s by Spain in complete isolation. There was no effort to ground the story in the world context. My history teachers imagined costumed Spaniards in shining armour and muscled but passive natives bowing before the cross. Laurence Bergreen's account of Magellan's journey is nail-biting (once you get over the first few chapters when he's trying to get his journey going). Magellan crosses the Atlantic and after much hardship, including a mutiny, lots of penguin-eating, bad weather, he discovers a passage to the ocean on the other side of the Americas. It's so peaceful, he names it the Pacific Ocean, but the journey across is far from peaceful. After more death and suffering and massacreing an island or two they arrive in the Philippines where, after an out of character impulse to show off, Magellan meets his death at the hands of islanders. If you're ever in England, do visit the Mary Rose Museum, which exhibits a treasure trove of objects from a ship of about the same period. If, like me, you are trying to imagine what that encounter must have been like between a peaceful tribal people and medieval Europeans, you might want to watch an excellent film Even the Rain, set in Bolivia which explores that clash of cultures.

The Bontoc Igorot by Albert Ernest Jenks / Death Stalks the Philippine Wilds by Maude Huntley Jenks

Albert Jenks was an anthropologist from Michigan who lived in the Philippine Highlands with his new wife for six months in 1901 meticulously documenting every detail of the Bontoc people, who at the time were still head-hunters (Manila was like a European city, but just a few hours ride outside the city, there were tribes and villages of diverse persuasions). The Bontoc Igorot, now out of copyright, is widely available as a free text online. Though Jenks' manuscript is littered with casual racism and annoying superiority, this is a rare, detailed record that I've found incredibly helpful for my current work-in-progress. Soon after I read it, I discovered that there was also a book by Jenks' wife, Maude, about their time in the Philippines, published much later, posthumously, based on her diaries and letters by a friend, who gave it the sensational title Death Stalks the Philippine Wilds. Where Albert records, measures and dispassionately describes the Bontoc people, Maude's account has far more interesting and human accounts of the people they met. Though like her husband's book, casual racism permeates the text, Maude becomes quite fond of the mountain people she meets, especially the children who work in her household (pictured is one of her houseboys, Pitapit). Unlike Albert's scientific account, she mentions fascinating contemporary details - the uncanny musical ability of Filipinos, singing and playing instruments everywhere, the cholera epidemic sweeping the Philippines, American teachers arriving like missionaries with no idea of the culture they are about to encounter, and before they finally leave the country, the Jenks' embark on an extraordinary visit to Mindanao, where American soldiers are struggling to pacify muslim communities.

Innocents Abroad by Jonathan Zimmerman

How were Filipinos so thoroughly seduced by American culture? Writes Zimmerman: 'Unlike other world powers which used force to subdue their conquered populations, the United States would rely on education.' Waves -- generations, even -- of young, idealistic Americans sailed to the Philippines,
under the auspices of volunteer agencies like the Peace Corps. When I was growing up, my parents (born in the 1930s) sang the praises of American teachers they had encountered in their youth, who all seemed to be of extraordinarily vivacious character and noble purpose. Innocents Abroad references the title of Mark Twain's The Innocents Abroad, an account of a trip to the Old World in 1869. But Zimmerman tells the story of almost 200,000 Americans who served in the developing world, 'putting a human face on America as it assumed new powers and prominence on the global stage' -- in fact, he writes, 'teachers began to ask whether America was special -- and why, if at all, the rest of the world should imitate it.' In the Philippines, we groan about our colonial mentality. How did we get it? This book provides a clue: like children in schools everywhere, we couldn't help but love our teachers.

Whose Fair? Experience, Memory and the History of the Great St Louis Exposition by James Gilbert

Gilbert focuses on the St Louis World's Fair of 1904 for his examination of memory and history. This is meaningful to us Filipinos because the fair's top exhibit, was a 43-hectare 'reservation' devoted to the Philippines, in which people representing nine tribes were exhibited according to their level of primitivism: with Visayans as most civilised, and Negritos as most savage. In 1904, photography was widely practiced and disseminated, and the fair has an incredible photographic record. It was also the first time ordinary Americans encountered Filipinos - previously, we were just the subject of news reports from faraway datelines. Gilbert discusses a photograph taken by Jessie Tarbox Beals, titled 'Mrs. Wilkins, Teaching an Igorrote Boy the Cake Walk".  It was an 'anomaly', Gilbert said ... this was 1904, and a half naked boy dancing with a Victorian lady begs many explanations. I cannot say that the World Fair of 1904 made any impact on the world at large. It certainly had a lasting impact on Filipino identity in the United States. In 1914, the Philippine Assembly passed a law banning the photographing, display, ownership or use of any photographs of nude or semi-nude Filipinos, a second law banned taking Filipinos out of the country for exhibition. To this day we struggle to shrug off the Fair's portrayal of Filipinos as ignorant savages in need of civilising. If the subject of the representation of tribal Filipinos in the turn of that century interests you, you must read this pdf article Dean Worcester's Photographs and American Perceptions of the Philippines by Mark Rice, discussing the impact of newly ubiquitous photography on American attitudes to their new colony. Mark Rice has also written a book with the exciting title Dean Worcester's Fantasy Islands, I haven't read it but will let you know what I think once I procure a copy. The World Fair of 1904 and other fairs is studied in All the World's a Fair by Robert Rydell, exploring how American world fairs were a declaration of America's new status as an empire builder. There is also a book about the St Louis fair written from the point of view of Filipinos, 1904 World's Fair: the Filipino Experience by Jose D Fermin.

America is in the Heart by Carlos Bulosan

Carlos Bulosan was a Filipino of peasant origin who, like many Filipinos of the pre-war generation found himself transported to America to do farm work. His writing is undecorated but hugely affecting. There is a too brief account of his life in the Philippines which describes a shocking family event, when the guests at his brother's wedding accuses the bride of not being a virgin and actually physically attacks the family. 'Then they tied him to the tree, beside his bride, and the angry peasants, who had been his good friends and neighbors a moment ago, began throwing stones at them.' It sets the context of Bulosan's departure from a homeland steeped in a medieval mindset, superstition, and poverty to the Land of Hope and Glory. The book recounts Bulosan's bleak journey into the American dream as an itinerant worker, racially and physically abused, the degradation of fellow workers who steal from each other and sleep with prostitutes. It is a series of somewhat unstructured vignettes, almost like diary entries, telling of loneliness and disappointment, and of shame that the big dream turned out to be a lie. This is the origin story of the Filipino American, but every Filipino would do well to know it.

In Our Image: America's Empire in the Philippines by Stanley Karnow

Every few years, I read Stanley Karnow's story of the Philippines' relationship with the United States (now that I've got a digital version, it's not such a heavy read). He prefaces it with the statement, 'this is not a history of the Philippines as much as it is the story of America's only major colonial experience'. The book is framed by the fall of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos and the rise of housewife Cory Aquino to the presidency, and as a journalist from that era, the book'sa name-checking is filled with a (to me) familiar cast of characters. Today some are still going strong, others are no longer remembered in the short memories of my countrymen. Nevertheless, this is an invaluable resource for anyone wanting to fill in gaps in their knowledge our history. From the same period, there's also America's Boy by James Hamilton-Paterson, who describes how Ferdinand Marcos realised that the key to power was gaming America's interest in the Philippines. It is beautifully written too because the author is a novelist and not a historian. I also enjoyed reading A History of the Philippines From Indios Bravos to Filipinos by Luis H. Francia, who has a lovely turn of phrase, though when the book ended, I wanted more.

Subversive Lives by Susan Quimpo and Nathan Quimpo

Those who know my maiden name will wonder if I'm related to the Quimpo siblings who penned this memoir. Yes, indeed, they are my cousins ... and that image of Susan on the cover was a photo I took when she was performing with an activist street group. But unlike my brave cousins, I belonged to the part of the population who went to work, went to school, went to bed, without suffering the slings and arrows of the dictatorship. I had 10 cousins in that family, and in this memoir they tell the story of their battle against the Marcos dictatorship -- and the devastating consequences: two murdered, three tortured, two fled to the other side of the world.  The memoir is a terrific snapshot of 1960s - 1970s Philippines, and the messy aftermath of the People Power revolution in 1986 that led to a split within the revolution. In his foreword, Vicente Rafael, professor of history at the University of Washington, writes: "(These) stories remind us of the personal costs and the daily heroism of those who joined the movement... they also bring forth its messy and unresolved legacies; of sons alienated from their father; daughters abused and victimized by the military and deluded by a religious cult; brothers lost to the war; friends betrayed, comrades purged, and revolutionary affection soured and then destroyed by intractable ideological differences. Such stories are much less about an unfinished revolution as they are about an inconclusive one."

Marcos Martial Law: Never Again by Raissa Robles

One of the astonishing developments in the Philippines is the return to grace of the Marcos family, for whom the word 'kleptocracy' was coined in the eighties. Turns out our nation has failed to make sure our children know the truth about the Marcos years. On my social media feeds from the Philippines there are jaw-dropping declarations from young people that the Marcos era was a good time for the Philippines. The journalist Raissa Robles has decided to correct this gap with Marcos Martial Law: Never Again. This is the story of a nation betrayed – how the shiny 'New Society' created by the Marcos dictatorship concealed a shocking theatre of terror and torture. Robles interviews not just the victims but courageously questions their alleged torturers and cross checks allegations. Everything is footnoted, appended. Robles stays away from the spotlight and yet her inquiring voice is always there, clearly at great personal cost, asking the difficult questions, verifying facts, leaving no obfuscation unexamined. It could not have been an easy task, Philippine social media is virulent with abusive trolls calling for the return to power of the Marcoses. The accounts are harrowing, many perpetrators are at large (in one anecdote, an ex torture victim now in government recognises her torturer in Congress, now retired from the military and also in government) the martial law story clearly remains unfinished. One of the military men in the book laughs, 'We had so much power!' Marcos's end came when the genie he'd unleashed turned against him in an attempted military coup. Today, the genie is out again as the 'War on drugs' claims thousands of lives. This is an important book, not just for the victims whose voices deserve to be heard, but for the generations who deserve to know the truth. It is a stoic refusal to forget and a singular act of courage.

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