The Struggle Between Citizenship and Freedom

Last week our class examined the Young Lords Party and the fight to free the colony—ahem, “unincorporated territory”—Puerto Rico from the United States. This ongoing struggle is stretched out as the status has changed to commonwealth and protests still arise from the ashes of prior movements calling for complete independence. The case of the Philippines offers a different story.

The Philippines were gained by the United States at the same time as Puerto Rico through the signing of the Treaty of Paris of 1898 following the Spanish-American War. Officially declared the first commonwealth of the United States in 1935, the Philippines had a relatively short history under the direction of the US government with its full independence being gained in 1946.[1] The reasons for terminating the jurisdiction over the Philippines were primarily economical, as the United States had been going through the Great Depression.

During the period of 1906 and 1935, many Filipinos migrated to Hawai’i, the West Coast, and even Alaska looking for jobs. Typically, those who relocated in Hawai’i worked on sugar plantations, while farms were a popular settlement for the West Coast migrants. Additionally, several Filipino men served the United States during World War II.[2] Despite these actions, Filipinos—like other minorities and immigrants—found it difficult to obtain equal opportunities and citizenship in the United States.

Photograph included in Singgalot depicting immigrants working in agricultural jobs.

Singgalot: The Ties that Bind is an exhibition created by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program that deals with the relationship between the United States and the Philippines. Beginning with the first trans-oceanic trade missions between Manila and Acapulco in the 1500s, the exhibition highlights the period of United States control, while exploring how Filipinos had to adjust their lives after immigrating and becoming US citizens.[3] The exhibition was designed to share and preserve Filipino cultural heritage, and commemorate the roles that this community played to promote civil rights. Focusing on imagery rather than objects, the exhibition is comprised of thirty panels featuring documents and photographs depicting early migrants to recent leaders who have challenged class and gender boundaries.

In 2000, Navy Captain Eleanor “Connie” Mariano, Medical Corps, was promoted to Rear Admiral, the highest military rank occupied by a Filipino American. This promotion displays the values and equal rights Filipinos were fighting for.

This exhibition demonstrates several themes in common with other Asian Americans and immigrant groups. Constituting the second largest Asian American group in the United States, Filipinos came to find better opportunities for themselves and their families. Despite the hard work and little pay, waves of migrants came. Once the Immigration Act of 1965 was enacted, Asian American communities knew that they had to improve their lives and demand equal rights if they were going to sustain the new waves of Asian immigrants. It was particularly difficult for Asian Americans during this time due to the stigma placed on them by previous generations that carried over to a time in which other Americans were starting to get their first interactions with this new immigrant group.

The exhibition does well in representing Filipino communities, their cultural practices, political involvement, and their issues, however the panels’ information seem limited. If the exhibition could have obtained and shared more oral histories, such as those by civil rights activists gathered by the Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project, visitors may feel more connected to the topic. I think that this works well as a traveling exhibit, but with added sensory elements, this exhibition could generate more engagement and dialogue about current issues such as the status of Puerto Rico.

Mural created by Philippine-born artist Eliseo Silva (b. 1972) located in Historic Filipinotown, Los Angeles. The mural, like the Singgalot exhibit, celebrates the leadership and achievements of Filipinos.

Resources:

[1] “Territorial Acquisitions of the United States.” National Atlas Home Page. United States Department of the Interior, 27 Jan. 2011. Accessed 16 May 2011. http://www.nationalatlas.gov/mld/usacqup.html.

[2] “Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service – About the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service’s mission, history, and goals.” Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service: History, Art, and Science Exhibitions. Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program, 2008. Accessed 16 May 2011. http://www.sites.si.edu/exhibitions/exhibits/singgalot_filipinos_in_america/main.htm#itinerar.

[3] “Singgalot (The Ties That Bind): Filipinos in America, from Colonial Subjects to Citizens.” The Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program and the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, 2008. Accessed 16 May 2011.http://www.sites.si.edu/exhibitions/singgalot.pdf.

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