Generations of Americans have grown up learning a dominant national narrative about migration. In schools, teachers told them that the first British first settlers to their country created the Virginia colony of Jamestown in 1607.
Countless students also heard about passengers on the Mayflower. These British exiles created a Puritan colony in 1620 in what is now Massachusetts.
But very few who attended U.S. or Canadian schools know the date of the first documented landing of Filipinos in the continental United States. This migration actually occurred 33 years before that famous Mayflower voyage.
Some of the Filipinos joined a priest who disembarked. After reaching the shore, they met Indigenous residents.
When the Indigenous people allegedly tried to capture the priest, a battle ensued. That left one Spaniard and one Filipino dead.
The Nuestra Señora de Buena Esperanza was part of trans-Pacific galleon trade between Spanish-ruled Mexico and Spain’s colonial territories in East Asia.
Eight years later, there was another documented migration of Filipinos along the California coast. They were onboard a Manila galleon, the San Agustin, which became shipwrecked at Point Reyes. This is northwest of what’s now San Francisco.
Migration linked to exploration
The Vancouver-based president of the NPC3 National Pilipino Canadian Cultural Centre, Leonora Angeles, feels that this history of Filipino migration has not received nearly as much attention that it deserves.
In an interview with Pancouver, Angeles also talked about how four Filipinos ended up with the Tlingit First Nation. Their traditional territory covers parts of northwestern B.C., Yukon, and Alaska.
These Filipinos sailed up the coast of B.C. on the Malaspina Expedition, which reached Alaska in the late 18th century.
Angeles is director of the UBC Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice. She noted that the Tuscan-born explorer, Alejandro Malaspina, trained these Filipinos to document the Alaska coastline on behalf of the government of Spain. He sailed all the way up from Chile to Acapulco, and then northward.
“He brought a smaller crew to Alaska,” Angeles said. “But of course, these four men did not go back to Chile.”
Theatre work depicted life of Flores
The first recorded Filipino to immigrate to Canada was Benson Flores. He settled on Bowen Island near West Vancouver in 1861.
Flores later created the first boat-rental business in Snug Cove. Journalist Joseph Lopez told his story in a 2021 Canadian Filipino Net article.
Last summer, in partnership with the Southeast Asian Cultural Heritage Society of B.C., NPC3 presented a devised theatre production on the life of Flores called buto/buto: bones are seeds. The cast also dramatized stories of the Filipinos who arrived on the Malaspina Expedition.
University of Manitoba assistant theatre professor Dennis Desuyo Gupa directed buto/buto. The B.C. Arts Council and the Canada Council for the Arts provided financial support.
It was such a success that NPC3 hopes to re-stage the production.
“We are hoping to apply for funding once again to restage buto/buto in Surrey and New Westminster, and maybe in Victoria on the island,” Angeles said.
Rizal left lasting mark
The society is inspired by the Philippine national hero, José Rizal, who was born in 1861 to a Filipino father and Chinese mother. Prior to studying medicine in Germany, he did postgraduate work at the University of Madrid.
In addition to being an ophthalmologist, he wrote poetry and novels. He also frequently criticized the Catholic Church for its complicity in Spanish colonialism in the Philippines, resulting in his execution by Spanish authorities at the age of 36.
Angeles said that Rizal, like many other members of the Filipino diaspora, was initially an international student. In addition to studying and working in Europe, he also practised medicine in Hong Kong.
“He was an OFW—an Overseas Filipino Worker,” Angeles maintained.
She remains deeply affected by one of Rizal’s most famous poems, “Song of the Traveller”. In it, he focuses on the loneliness that comes with being away from his motherland for so long.
“For me, that speaks to the imagination and to the hopes and dreams of every Filipino, including Ben Flores,” Angeles said. “This is the interesting thing: Ben Flores landed on Bowen Island on the same year José Rizal was born.”
As the president of NPC3, Angeles worries that artists in the Filipino diaspora are struggling to have their voices heard. Some face additional challenges because of the high cost of living in Metro Vancouver and their need to send extra money to support relatives in the Philippines.
“We would like to create a big tent for many immigrant arts and culture groups,” Angeles said. “You know, to see Filipino organizations—and Filipino artists and cultural workers—as good partners that have something to contribute, not just for our own community but for other communities beyond Filipinos.”
NPC3 aims to unite underrepresented artists
She acknowledged that Tobi Reyes, a Filipino Canadian developer, is working with the Mabuhay House Society and NDP MLA Mable Elmore to create a provincial Filipino cultural centre. Angeles said that she will be happy if NPC3 can run programs through this centre, which will offer meeting space to community groups and possibly a museum.
But over the long term, she would also like to see another centre dedicated exclusively to arts and culture with performance space for shows like buto buto and personal space for artists.
NPC3 began discussions about a year ago with people who work at the City of Vancouver on social policy and arts and culture. It’s conceivable that this type of facility could be created with the help of a community-amenity contribution in association with a rezoning application.
Eventually, NPC3 would like to open satellite centres in other cities with large numbers of Filipino Canadians, including the Guildford area of Surrey. Under Canada Revenue Agency rules, the society could quality for charitable status if it can demonstrate that it’s advancing education.
“We’d like to educate Canadians about Filipino arts and culture but at the same time see the power of arts and culture to make our communities stronger and Vancouver as a vibrant destination for arts and culture—and, of course, Canada as a stronger nation,” Angeles declared. “So, we’ll see how it goes.”