Thursday, January 31, 2013


What started off as a summer archeological expedition by University of Maryland graduate students in Annapolis has unearthed artifacts that's provided a glimpse of early Filipino settlements in the East Coast.

The migration of thousands of Filipino farm workers and laborers to Hawaii and the West Coast in the early 1900s is well-documented. PBS recently produced a documentary about how some Spanish galleon crew members jumped ship in the 1760s and formed a Filipino hamlet in the Louisiana bayous – where their descendants still live today, making them the oldest continuous settlement of Asians in America.

(Photo from UMD archive)

But little is known about the Filipinos who opted to trek east. That’s why this UMD project, led by archeologist Mark Leone and Fil-Am graduate student Kathrina Aben, feels so exciting to me.

They have already dug up old homes in Annapolis, the seat of Maryland and home to the US Naval Academy which is where this tale starts.

Commodore George Dewey spent just a couple of hours demolishing the Spanish flotilla in Manila Bay, paving the way for US conquest of the islands. There they found an abundance of skilled manpower, recruiting Filipinos to be interns, firemen, construction workers, cooks and the innocuous stewards (a job description that would take early Filipino immigrants all the way to the White House).

Aben believes as many as 200 of them were brought to Annapolis in the early 1900s (by 1915 or 1916, she said some Filipinos actually got to study in the Naval Academy).

The Filipinos’ arrival raised tensions in the community, she revealed, because of perceptions they were out to steal jobs from Whites and that era’s other minority group, the African Americans. In fact, it was this conflict that first drew the attention of UMD researchers.

Some of those early Filipino settlers are apparently still alive and have been interviewed by the students. Aben reported that their testimonies revealed the deep racism – even violence – and discrimination they endured but also somehow overcame.

They formed clubs, opened restaurants which advertised “Hawaiian food” even though the food was unmistakably Filipino (patrons probably didn’t know any better) and engaged in sports.

Many ended up marrying Black women because in the 19th to early 20th century there weren't many Filipinas in the East and perhaps more significantly, African Americans and Filipinos faced similar discrimination from the White-dominated city.  Those who refused to be tied by those restrictions, moved to other states where they could love any woman.

Another group of UMD students are conducting an archeological dig at the home of James Holliday, a former slave who purchased the property on 99 East Street in 1850 and passed it to descendants, who’s believed to include granddaughter Eleanor Briscoe Portilla – who married Filipino cook Cosme Portilla in 1919.

The dig has revealed dressmaking supplies, toys and other relics. The excavation has already altered conventional understanding of that community, that it was upper class and white. It now appears to be more diverse, a place where Filipinos, African-Americans and Jews lived in close proximity of each other.

Aben hopes further finds could shed more light on those Filipino pioneers. "This research remains relevant and important to the Filipinos still living in Annapolis and the overall Filipino diaspora in the US.”

All the time and resources UMD is investing in this endeavor can be taken as indication of the impact these early Filipino settlers had on Annapolis and indeed on the state itself. It’s a story that’s still unraveling. But I’m just curious, where else will we find relics left behind by early Filipinos in America?

Wednesday, January 30, 2013


“Now’s the time,” President Obama declared as he unveiled his vision of immigration reform in Las Vegas the other day.

Just a day earlier, a bipartisan group of senators – the “Gang of Eight” – bared their blueprint for comprehensive immigration changes. It was, according to, the biggest bipartisan push since an earlier attempt died in the Senate in 2007.

Last year’s elections cast the die for Congress to finally tackle immigration reform. Latinos (75 percent) and Asians (77 percent) helped fuel Obama’s win over GOP rival Mitt Romney – and where they mattered, paved the way for Democratic victories in congressional races.

The Asian American Legal Defense & Education Fund (AALDEF) exit poll showed 65 percent of Fil-Ams went for the President – bigger than the 50 percent who voted for him in 2008 – despite earlier projections Fil-Ams were leaning towards Romney.

And for these voters, comprehensive immigration reform was a major concern: about 34 percent of Asian Americans polled said they “strongly support” and 31 percent “support” comprehensive immigration, including a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants (another survey suggested 51 percent of all Americans held a similar sentiment).

The Republican Party has often been vilified in the immigration debate. Their vehement opposition to any form of amnesty, including the DREAM Act and opening a path to citizenship, has eroded support among minorities. The recent election results appear to buttress this.

The GOP is trying hard to reconcile with the changing demographics. Many party stalwarts see immigration reform as a way of regaining relevance. Still, while the Senate looks ready to work on an immigration bill, the House, with its tea party constituency, could slog its way to the finish line or another debacle.

The “Gang of 8” proposal would overhaul the legal immigration system and create a pathway to citizenship that is being tied to more effective border enforcement. It would expand e-Verify and stiffen penalties for violating businesses.

“Of particular interest to the Filipino American community is ensuring that earned citizenship is available for DREAMers, decreasing the backlog in the family-sponsored immigration system, especially for Filipino World War II veterans, and promoting immigrant integration in the community,” said KAYA spokesperson Melissa Josue.

Like most minorities, Fil-Ams view immigration reforms from different prisms. There is the generational divide. The DREAM Act aims to legalize the stay of young undocumented immigrations brought here by parents who may be undocumented themselves.

Others, as Melissa mentioned, are more concerned how reforms can erase the huge backlog of petitions for love ones left behind in the Philippines – a waiting period of at least 24 years for married sons and daughters for instance.

About a third of Fil-Ams are opposed or have no position on immigration reform (compared to 43 percent of Chinese Americans), according to the 2012 AALDEF exit poll.

Speaking with some of these skeptics, I found a common anxiety, a fear that ill conduct might be rewarded.  “Why should those who ‘jump the line’ be rewarded at the expense of those who’ve followed the rules and are still waiting for the opportunity to come and live in America?” they asked.

Republicans want to establish a committee that will give the green light when the border with Mexico is “truly secure” and trigger mechanisms to open the pathway to citizenship for about 11 million undocumented immigrants. And there lays, as political pundit Roger Simon coined it, the “900-pound immigration gorilla”.

Democrats are wary. President Obama has said undocumented aliens can work their way to earn American citizenship by paying taxes, obeying laws, settling fines and perhaps most importantly, for them to go back at the end of the line. That has to be the key.

It’s become apparent, especially during his inaugural address, that the President views comprehensive immigration reform as part of a wider social justice agenda. It’s about sharing a slice of the American Dream, it’s about fairness, it’s about taking the best and brightest and putting them to work here, it’s about re-uniting families.

But if all that doesn’t work, we can always revert to the cold reality of the prevailing political calculus. As New York Sen. Chuck Schumer put it – “There’s more political risk in opposing immigration reform than supporting it.” So here’s to 2014.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013


I guess it’s safe to say Lt. Cmdr. Mark Rice won’t be stepping aboard the bridge in the foreseeable future, unless of course he was being forced to walk the plank.

He was the skipper of the USS Guardian, a sophisticated mine-hunter that ran aground on Tubbataha Reef last Jan. 17, allegedly a victim of faulty satellite-produced maps.

She’s been stuck there ever since, her fiberglass-reinforced wooden hull punctured by the razor-like corals and taking in water; a bogey for conservationists and militants in Manila and worse – at least for the US – an embarrassment for what is arguably the most advanced navy in the world.

I can almost see the grimace from my navy friends when they see the report on ABC News today that the US Navy will cut her up so she can be removed from the reef, a marine sanctuary and UNESCO World Heritage Site.

My navy friends – still pining for the days when the Philippines rode high across our seas – can only forlornly look as the 23-year-old Avenger-class minesweeper (a virtual infant by Philippine Navy standards) is destined for the scrapyard.

US 7th Fleet spokesman Capt. Darryn James was quoted by ABC News that cutting the ship into pieces was the only way to get it out without further hurting the reef – which experts say has already suffered significant damage. Two heavy-lift ships will take about a month to extricate the stricken Guardian.

On the one hand, this is testament to America’s fealty to the environment. “I greatly regret any damage this incident has caused to Tubbataha Reef,” said Vice Adm. Scott Swift, commander of the US Pacific Fleet, “We know the significance of the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park and its importance as a World Heritage Site. Its protection is vital and we take seriously our obligations to protect and preserve the maritime environment.”

But according to the US Navy’s own assessment, the ship was so badly damaged that forcibly tugging it from her coral perch might have broken her up anyway.

How can the Guardian’s master, with all the electronics aboard – including presumably the latest sonar technology which is the bread-and-butter of any anti-mine warfare vessel – have gotten it so wrong?

At the peak of the Philippine Navy in the 1960s and 1970s, my navy friends told me that they frequently bested their US Navy counterparts during “war games” held in waters that China now insists is theirs and theirs alone.

Filipinos, they boasted, have sharper seamanship skills. I’m not sure if our Malayo-Polynesian DNA had anything to do with it; but chatting with former Navy chief Vice Adm. Alex Pama in Falls Church last year, I got the impression that these skills – more than anything else – is what they wanted to recapture as they modernize.

Poor seamanship could have led the Guardian to sail too close to Tubbataha Reef, with its breathtaking atolls, coral walls and migratory marine life, perhaps like the moth lured by the flame.

Experts say about a thousand square meters of the sanctuary has been damaged by the Guardian, although that is largely a “guesstimate” at least until the Guardian can be extricated. The US will be fined P25,000 (about $6,100) for each square meter of affected coral plus P300,000 (about $80,000) for trespassing on the marine sanctuary. Under Philippine laws, destruction of the reefs also carried a prison term of 3 to 6 years but the government agreed not to invoke that proviso.

The incident is a litmus test for the two longtime allies, especially as the US executes the pivot to Asia. In an exercise of cost-benefit analysis, what is the price of the America’s mantle of security for countries like the Philippines that stand vulnerable to China’s bullying on her western frontier – the South China Sea?  

It may just be a case of a ship stuck on precious real estate but the Guardian mishap has revealed the delicate dance the Philippines must do to keep its seas.