In her book “Filipinos in Puget Sound,” Dorothy Laigo Cordova — historian and executive director of the Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS) — shares the history of Filipino Americans through over 230 archival photographs and decades of research. Here, Cordova reflects further.
As early as 1906, Filipinos were immigrating to Puget Sound to work in salmon canneries, lumber mills, restaurants and other labor-intensive jobs. What drew Filipinos to this region and why did many settle in the Northwest?
Dorothy Cordova: Seattle is the closest American port to the Far East so ships would land here. In 1909, the first Filipino family to live in Seattle was the Jenkins family (Rufina Clemente Jenkins, a Filipina war bride, married Sgt. Frank Jenkins, a Buffalo soldier). Sgt. Jenkins was stationed in Fort Lawton in Magnolia, Wash. and their family settled there. But before 1909, there were Filipinos in the Northwest who were already laying cables between the mainland and Alaska. Some of the earlier Filipinos were servants of Americans returning to the United States. Many came for jobs so they can send money home. Some came to continue their education, for family reunification, or because they were young and wanted adventure.
The 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition at the University of Washington brought the Igorots, an ethnic cultural minority from the mountain provinces in the Philippines. The Igorots were depicted as savages and were called “wild people headhunters from the Philippines” which as a result fostered negative attitudes toward people of Filipino descent even decades later. Why was the Igorot Village recreated in 2009 for the centennial anniversary of the Exposition?
DC: It was my idea. Right before the 2006 FANHS Conference in Hawaii, I got called in by King County to read proposals and several groups were going for grants to recreate the Igorot Village. I thought, “What do they know about Filipinos? Are they just going to perpetuate the myth that was here after the 1909 Exposition? The Igorot people were portrayed subhuman almost.” By this time, I made friends with members of the BIBAK (acronym for Benguet, Ifugao, Bontoc, Apayao and Kalinga — the provinces of the northern Philippines along the Cordillera mountain range home to indigenous cultural groups collectively called the Igorots) who every summer would gather at the Cascade foothills for a weekend celebration of their culture. I approached them about the centennial anniversary of the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition and told them, “I would like to recreate the village, but this time show the real culture of the Philippines and show you in the light where you determine who you really are.” The BIBAK group took ownership of the recreation of the Igorot Village. That’s why we did it, to set the record straight. It was to correct a hundred years of misconception. I was very upset that a group of young Filipino Americans who didn’t understand the discrimination people had gone through decades after the 1909 Exposition would protest without asking.
In 1957, a group of young second-generation Filipino Americans started the Filipino Youth Activities of Seattle (FYA) which would provide “wholesome leisure time activities for Filipino American youth.” How has the FYA evolved in the last 53 years?
DC: In the beginning it was all volunteer-run. We didn’t have an office; we had activities wherever we could find a space. After submitting a grant proposal, we were able to rent a small office space at Seattle University and expand the programs. Besides the drill team and folk dancing, we had spelling bees, glee club, teen club, basketball club and other activities for the teens. Over the years, we changed from a purely volunteer organization to a nonprofit with a staff that worked close to nothing. We also added an immigrant specialist to take care of the needs of new Filipino immigrants. This is when FYA started to change from working with children and youth to serving adults and families. We were the first Asian agency to get funding from United Way in 1972. Our theme was “from womb to tomb.” In the late 1960s and 70s, the young men we had in our program had gone to Vietnam and came back in body bags. So we didn’t want the young men we were working with to go. We were taking part in protests. The 70s were crazy days — exciting but crazy. We were working with the kids seven days a week. It mellowed out in the 80s. In the 90s, we worked a lot with youth with problems and who were in gangs. Eventually, a lot of people got tired, but they were still doing good things. Pinoy Teach was started (a K-12 multicultural curriculum about Philippine and Filipino American history and culture). Now, the drill team is FYA. The old FYA as a social service agency lives on in people’s memories.
This summer, FANHS celebrated its 27th year with a biennial national conference drawing nearly 500 people from around the country. With chapters throughout the United States, from New York to Vallejo and a national office in Seattle, what is the organization’s vision in the next decade and onward?
DC: We still have only one mission and it’s a good one: It’s to collect, document, share and disseminate the Filipino American history. It’s so simple.
Do you have a succession plan?
DC: I get asked that every week. When we started we were in our 50s (co-founded with husband Fred Cordova, ordained deacon by the Archdiocese of Seattle), and now we’re in our 70s. Of course, we do. But do we have someone in mind? No. The good thing is that FANHS has a board of trustees and chapters around the country. But what do we do with all this? (She looks around the office.) That’s the big question. And the successor has to be really dedicated. For 27 years, I’ve done it for free.
With over 4 million people of Filipino descent around the country (reported by the U.S. Census Bureau from the 2007 American Community Survey), the Filipino American community is the second largest Asian American group in the United States. Filipinos have been in this country for over 247 years with the first permanent Filipino settlement in 1763 in Saint Malo, a small fishing village in Louisiana. What should Filipinos be most proud of and what work lies ahead?
DC: I think we are people who have never really been given credit for what we’ve done. I’m proud that people are starting to pay attention to the fact that we have contributed to this country. At one time we fed the country—during the 1930s and 40s working in the canneries and working in the fields. Our Filipino veterans courageously fought for the United States during World War II. There are a lot of things to be proud of. We’ve survived. We’re joyful. We’re different people. Some have asked, “Do you like being Filipino?” I say, “Yeah, I do. I’m glad I’m Filipino.”
“Filipinos in Puget Sound” was published in 2009 by Arcadia Publishing. The book is available at the Filipino American National Historical Society, Wing Luke Museum Marketplace, Barnes and Noble and through www.arcadiapublishing.com.