Philippines and San Francisco

At CounterPULSE last night we had our 3rd Spring Talk, rediscovering the Philippine-US War, delving into some of the sordid details (that read like today’s news!) and setting off cacophonous echoes through 100 years of a history that we haven’t learned, and ARE repeating! Abe Ignacio went first, he is the co-author of the remarkable and indispensable The Forbidden Book. You should definitely get a copy of this beautiful volume; I guarantee it will blow your mind with excellent full color graphic reproductions of the most amazingly racist cartoons you can imagine. One thing he emphasized in his talk, illustrated by the images he helped collect, is the way racism in the U.S. shaped the portrayal of Filipinos in the popular media. Not only are Filipinos routinely presented as black and brown pre-literate, animist savages, even famous U.S. politicians and writers (like Mark Twain) who opposed the annexation and conquest of the Philippine archipelago are presented as black, childish, womanly, and so on.

The reality is that the Philippines had been fighting for their independence for several years before the U.S. entered into war with Spain, and had already declared their independence prior to the U.S. defeat of the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay. The U.S. could not have defeated the Spanish garrison in Manila without the land forces of the Filipino army, but once the surrender was sure, the U.S. negotiated a ‘sale’ of the Philippines from Spain and took over the entire country. Then, two days before the U.S. Senate was to vote on the annexation of the Philippines, a vote that was expected to lose due to widespread popular opposition to the United States becoming a European-style imperial power, U.S. soldiers opened fire on some Filipino regulars crossing a bridge. When they responded in kind, a small battle ensued. Cables were sent to Washington DC in time to sway some senators’ votes, so that the annexation of the Philippines was passed by one vote.

MC Canlas described the disputed discourses of this war, what its proper name is or should be (there are a half dozen variations, but the official history still usually calls it the “Spanish-American War”; the Library of Congress in 1998, on the 100-year anniversary of its beginning, changed it card catalogue system to call it the Philippine-American War, but many still want to change it further, to “US” instead of American), when it started, how long it lasted (till Teddy Roosevelt declared “mission accomplished” in 1902? or 1913 when the “pacification” finally led to a cessation of overt hostilities? or 1946 when the Philippines were granted formal independence? or 1990 when the U.S. military bases were finally removed?), and how many died (16,000 Filipino troops to a quarter million civilians to over a million!).

Oscar Penaranda and Estella Habal filled in the colonial history, emphasizing the way the colonization drove thousands of the conquered to the “homeland”–the U.S.–and how the bitter hatred of the U.S. was finally reversed after decades of skewed history, public education etc. Oscar described how a lot of what he’s learned about the war, and the ongoing resistance during the 20th century did not come from books at all, but primarily through oral story-telling by those that lived it. Even the basic self-understanding of many Filipinos was challenged, as the speakers laid out how there had been public education already early in the 19th century, that Filipinos had been largely Catholic for centuries (and Muslim too), and the notion that the Philippines had been a backward place needing the “benefits of Civilization” (as Mark Twain sarcastically put it) was precisely wrong.

The economic forces that pulled Filipino men to the cane fields of Hawaii and California’s Central Valley were described, as was the rise of Manilatown along Kearny Street. The Filipino community that made its winter home (mostly men since women weren’t allowed to emigrate until much later) at the edge of old downtown was slowly and then rapidly evicted in the post-WWII era as San Francisco’s role as a world HQ city gained momentum. The infamous ‘negro removal’ of urban redevelopment was applied too to the Filipino community, culminating in the brutal eviction after a ten year battle of the International Hotel in 1977. Estella Habal spoke about how that epic and famous struggle has been erased from our history, and argued that it was largely because it was a Filipino-led effort.

I offered the further thought that it was also because the enormous political energy channeled through this fight led to the passage of meaningful rent control in San Francisco, something many of us are still directly benefitting from. But like so many other parts of our lives, the history of how it came to be is carefully omitted from popular memory, all the easier to keep us trapped in isolated impotence.

Additionally, the removal of the physical evidence of popular struggles is part of the enforcement of amnesia in this culture more generally. Physiclal places, landmarks, are a key part of how we form and hold memories. In a city like SF where the landscape is constantly being “renewed” and redesigned, it is increasingly difficult to hold memories associated with neighborhoods, buildings, and communities that simply no longer exist. As I have found repeatedly while conducting my bicycle tours (more coming soon) it’s very strange to re-tell stories in situ but where the only real link between the past and present is our imaginations. Which in its own way reinforces one of my favorite sayings about history: History is a creative act in the present.

1 comment to Philippines and San Francisco

  • Jym

    =v= I think I first learned of these issues from James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me. I had them in mind in response to the toppling of the G.W. Bush statue in Union Square not long ago. :^)

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