In October 2021, I decided to dive into Filipino American History Month through an illustration series. Here are a few highlights from the early 1900’s.

Immigration of Filipino Nurses, 1903

The first wave of Filipino nursing immigrants arrived in the US via the Exchange Visitors Program, a post-WWII effort to fill nursing staff shortages in the US. The US specifically targeted the Filipino nurses because they had already been trained in American medical practices when the Philippines was a US colony.

The second wave happened in the 60’s. Hospitals were still facing shortages, so the US enacted the Immigration and Nationality Act, allowing anyone around the world to apply for work visas. Filipino nurses arrived partly due to US recruitment efforts, but also because Philippines government (under Marcos) strongly encouraged it.

The Philippines economy was in a recession, so Marcos promoted the export of Filipino labor around the world, especially the US. This was so the Filipino workers would earn more money overseas and send money back to their families in the Philippines. The Philippines then became the largest exporter of nurses in the world. Today, 1/3 of all foreign-born nurses in the US are Filipino.

Like many of the Filipino labor movements in the US, they faced discrimination, organized, and fought for better working conditions. As we know, they continue to be on the front lines of American healthcare to this day!

“Empire of Care” by Catherine Ceniza Choy is a quality resource on this subject!


Dr. Encarnacion Alzona, Pensionada

Dr. Encarnacion Alzona was the first ever Filipino woman to earn a Ph.D. (Columbia University, 1923) thanks to the US-Philippine Pensionado program. This was a scholarship fund for selected Filipinos to get a college education in the US. (It was a US effort towards pacification after the Philippine-American War.)

Prior to her Ph.D., she earned a master’s degree in history from the University of the Philippines, where her thesis was a historical survey of the school education of women. She later went on to speak on and write books to help start the women’s suffrage movement in the Philippines (a US colony at the time).

She’s known for writing ”A History of Education in the Philippines” and “The Filipino Woman: Her Social, Economic and Political Status.” Suffrage was finally granted to Filipino women in 1937.


The Manongs, 1920’s

Manongs hauling pineapples

In my own family, I found out years ago that I have a relative who went to work in the pineapple fields of Hawaii in the early twentieth century. This was a time of massive migration to the US to work on farms.

The first wave of Filipino farm workers in the US called themselves the Manongs (“older brother” in the Ilocano dialect). Significant names to know in the farm worker movement are Fred Abad and Larry Itilong, who organized and fought for fair treatment right alongside Cesar Chavez.

(The old photo is not of my relative. It’s a reference picture I used, from the Center for Labor Education & Research, University of Hawaii.)


Carlos Bulosan (1913-1956), Writer & Activist

Here is Carlos Bulosan. Born in 1913, he’s known for his writing about life as an immigrant to the USA. His best known novel is “America is in the Heart.”

He worked on various farms on the West Coast, from Seattle to Southern California. Due to rampant racism, pay was low and working conditions were brutal. He even got tuberculosis.

Towards the end of his life, Carlos got involved in labor activism, which put him on the FBI’s watch list. He passed away in Seattle in 1956 due to malnutrition. In the wake of his untimely death, he left us a legacy of insight into the early Filipino immigrant experience.


Pedro Flores & The Yo-Yo, 1928

The word “yóyo” means “come and go” in Tagalog. Filipino American business man, Pedro Flores, created the first commercially sold yo-yo’s in the US in the late 1920’s. He started and ran the Yo-yo Manufacturing Company before selling the company and trademark to Duncan.


The Watsonville Riots, 1930

Stop AAPI Hate. Watsonville Riots of 1930

This one isn’t happy, but even the darker parts of history are important for us to process and learn from.

Many people lost their jobs during the Great Depression. Stressful times cause people to blame their problems on a scapegoat. In 1930 Watsonville, CA, the Filipino farm worker men were that scapegoat. Town leaders called them a “menace,” and demanded they be deported so “white people who have inherited this country for themselves and their offspring could live.”

Racial tensions were on the rise because the Filipinos retained their jobs, which included extremely long hours and back-breaking labor, all for pennies.

In addition, because Filipino women were not allowed to immigrate to the US, the men set their sights on marrying the local white women, whom they met when they attended dances downtown. Unsurprisingly, this didn’t fly, and it sparked the infamous Watsonville riots of 1930.

A mob dragged farm workers out of the dance halls and their homes to beat them. Some were thrown off a bridge. 22-year-old farm worker Fermin Tobera was shot and killed in his home as he slept. No one was convicted for his murder.

Watsonville sparked more anti-Filipino violence across other towns and cities in California, as well as a law against interracial marriages between Filipinos and white residents.

It wasn’t until Sept. 2011 that the California legislature issued an apology for these events.