The Filipino and Dabawenyo as immigrant and world citizen

The history of Filipino immigrants abroad highlights the continuing journey of Pinoys who, since time immemorial, have depicted themselves as ‘citizens of the world’, a race whose resiliency has positively enhanced the character of the Philippine archipelago and its population.

Filipinos under Spanish colonial rule crossed seas while working as indispensable peons in galleons, some of them—the mariners, that is—jumpd ship to seek greener pasture in a foreign land known as North America.

As early as 1587, sixty-six years after explorer Ferdinand Magellan arrived in the country, Filipinos, dubbed as the Luzonians, set foot in Morro Bay, California, USA, opening a settlement that would forever introduce the Filipinos to North America.

This historic visit was followed by three other future migrations in 1595, 1720, and 1763, the year the first permanent Filipino settlement in the continent was established. Filipino cultural legacy and imprints, over the centuries, have become markers in the way this new colony of immigrants were shaping American history.

In the war of 1812, several Filipinos from Manila Village, New Orleans, fought against the British in the Battle of New Orleans. Later, Filipino as conscripts in the 1861-65 American Civil War became part of the Confederate Forces of America.

Although Filipinos are notorious for their regionalist character at home, abroad they usually band together like brothers and support causes that keep Filipinism, forming a solid clique that has characterized today’s generation of Filipino immigrants in the American hemisphere.

As early as 1870, the first generation Pinoys in the US started associating by forming the Sociedad de Beneficencia de los Hispanos Filipinos. Twelve years later, the arrival of the first Filipino immigrants in Liverpool, England (home of the Beatles and the Queen), chiefly sailors, was recorded.

By 1912, the Filipino Association of Philadelphia, now known as Filipino American Association of Philadelphia, Inc., was organized and became the oldest Filipino organization in the US.


The ease Filipinos adapt to western life is an immigration story that has diluted many aspects of American life. Under American rule, the first Filipino pensionados were sent to the US in 1903 on government scholarship.

Three years later, the first Filipino overseas laborers, the sacadas, traveled to Hawaii to work in pineapple plantations. Others were hired to do harvest jobs in Washington asparagus farms, while others opted to work in Alaskan canneries.

The story of migration and the rise of active Filipino settlements developed hand in hand through the decades. In 1910, Vicente Lim became the first Filipino to attend the West Point. Seven years later, the Philippine National Guard was congregated in the federal service.

In 1911, the Pinoys, labeled as Malays, were included in Nevada’s miscegenation law.

But abuse, violation of rights, and labor exploitations would transform the Filipino immigrants into a fighting clique. In 1919, the Filipino Labor Federation demanded higher wages and better working conditions for the sacadas. Labor unions were organized and strategic strikes to improve working and living conditions of Filipinos were launched.

In asserting nerve, the Filipino Workers’ Union, in 1924, shuttered sixteen sugar plantations. This display of resolve gave rise to anti-Filipino riots in Yakima ValleyWashingtonExeter, California; and Watsonville and other rural communities in California.

As the anti-Filipino sentiment spread, the Stockton Filipino Center was bombed.

Gaining honor

The struggle for Filipinos to be known for what they are, especially in highlighting their heritage and role in American society eventually yielded positive results in law and juriprudence.

In 1933, the Supreme Court of California came out with a verdict allowing the marriage between a Filipino and a white woman. In 1941, the Washington Supreme Court ruled as illegal the Anti-Alien Land Law of 1937 banning Filipino Americans from owning land.

Conversely, in 1942, in response to the call of US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, around 260 thousand Filipino and Filipino-American soldiers fought with American soldiers in World War II. As a result, over 57 thousand were killed in action and thousands more were injured. In recognition of their contribution, the war veterans, just recently, were honoured with a Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor bestowed by the United States Congress

After World War II, with the exodus to the US became an option for thousands of Filipinos. Foreign and US-born Filipinos started to make their marks in politics, military service, judiciary, information technology, local governance, arts, theatre and entertainment, literature, and in other engagements. Migration Information Source, in its 2015 post, reported:

“Filipino immigrants constitute one of the largest foreign-born groups in the United States. Since 1990, the Philippines has been consistently among the top five countries of origin, and was the fourth largest in 2013, accounting for 4.5 percent of the 41.3 million total immigrant population in the United States.”

Dabawenyos in ‘exile’

Above all other countries, the US has always been the favorite destination of Pinoy immigrants. Some Filipinos, those born, raised and educated in Davao City, through personal endeavors, have established a name for themselves there.

An alumnus of the Ford Academy of the Arts, Davao-born Bienvenido ‘Bones’ Bañez, Jr. is the only Filipino surreal artist included in the Encyclopedia of Fantastic & Surrealistic & Symbolist & Visionary Artists. A student of the father of modern Philippine art Victorio C. Edades Jr., he is an artist in residence at the Vermont Studio Center, USA and was a winner of the Asian Fellowship Painting Competition.

Davao-born John Butiu has worked in more two dozen animated films, among them Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 1 and 2, Surfs Up, and Chronicles of Narnia. As an animator, he has been holding lectures on 3D animation around the world and has given a series of talks in art colleges around Tokyo, Osaka, Fukuoka and Nagoya.

Born and raised in Davao, Leo Balayon, who played for Ateneo de Davao’s basketball team, became coach of Bethesda University, a college from Anaheim, California, in 2016. The school’s Bethesda Flames became the only member of the National Christian College Athletic Association to defeat a Division One school in the United States.

Outside the US, former Davao residents have excelled in fields that in the past were considered impossible to crack. Jasmine B. Lee, a former student of Ateneo de Davao University, was elected in 2012 as proportional representative in South Korea’s National Assembly, the first non-ethnic Korean and naturalized South Korean to become a legislator.

Winner of the Crystal Kite Award for Europe (2011) and the British Isles and Ireland (2014), Davao-born Candy Quimpo Gourlay is the author of Tall Story (2010) which won the country’s National Children’s Book Award of the Philippines in 2012. She used to write for Mr & Ms Special Edition before migrating to England.

Born in Malalag, Davao del Sur, Raulito ‘Jojo’ Seriña, a fashion and celebrity photographer, earned his Masters in Technology on a scholarship in Australia where he lived and worked independently. Some of his camera works have been featured in the global celebrity publication Elle and he has photographed Hollywood icons.

Cultural envoys

Whether overseas worker (OFW) or immigrant (permanent resident), Filipinos, in recent decades, have become cultural envoys showcasing their roots in ways the previous generations hardly thought would be crystallized by being ubiquitous.

Worldwide, Filipinos are found in nearly 150 countries, a testament to the resiliency of a people who have always love travel as a way of finding their place under the sun. From the desert lands of Africa to the frigid zones of Canada, there’s no arguing a Filipino can be found there.

In the past few years, home-grown Davao talents have braved the global musical scene, both choral and individual, and came home triumphant. From ‘X Factor’ tilts to talent contests in many countries around the world, the unmistakable Filipino singer always leaves a mark.

The Himig Singers, in 1997, won the grand prize in the 26th International Youth and Music Festival in Vienna, Austria while the all-girl Voices from Davao snared in 2014 gold and silver medals in the folklore and children’s choir categories during the 6th Grand Prix Pattaya International Choir Competition in Thailand.

Just recently, the University of Mindanao Chorale took home the title in the 13th Busan Choral Festival and Competition Grand Prix held in South Korea last September. Last year, the same group became the first Filipino group to win gold in the Oriental Concertus held in Singapore.

In summary, the Filipinos, particularly, have become the cultural envoys.

‘Homing pigeons’

A sociologist once depicted Filipino immigrants as ‘homing pigeons’, those that have found permanent residency abroad, have built career and fortune, and are earning pensions and benefits from foreign governments, visiting or returning home when opportunity shows itself.

We prefer to call ourselves, though, as balikbayan, a returnee to the homeland.

The heart of Filipino-ness stands out in the way a Pinoy values family ties, something that’s obviously more intense compared to similar behaviour in other nationalities.

Close familial alliance is not only defined as a strong sense of togetherness but the fuel that binds us as a nuclear family. To a Filipino, a family is life and foundation, a trait that permeates many facets of our being Filipino.

A website put up by a Filipino seafood resto in the US, has its take on why we leave town and in the future return to retire with the family around us:

“Every Filipino living abroad has their own reason for leaving their beloved country. Like any other nationalities in general, most people move somewhere for a better quality of life. Some migrate due to better work opportunities; others want to follow a certain career path, while some want to live the American dream. And there are the certain few, who are lucky enough to be able to bring their loved ones with them. But no matter what reason they have, we cannot deny the fact that most of these Filipinos would rather stay in the Philippines if things were a lot better.”

As the adage goes: ‘Home is where the heart is!”