Why We Remember 1587 As We Bid One Last Goodbye To Filipino American History Month

by Emil Guillermo

Before we get all thankful in November, let us honor again the reason why October was officially designated Filipino American History Month by FANHS, the Filipino American National Historical Society.

It all happened in 1587, on Oct. 18.

On that very day, the first Filipinos from Asia landed in America. And they didn’t grab a thing. At least, not for themselves. They even gave food and clothing, as peace offerings to their fellow “Yndios.”

Sure, the Filipinos were just working stiffs for the Spanish colonizers, but they were present.

And please note that 1587 is 33 years before 1620.

That would be the time of the much-ballyhooed Pilgrims, who landed on a rock in Massachusetts and forgot it first belonged to the Native Americans.

Despite the egregious oversight, we still make much ado of those Mayflower folks in November.

And those first Filipinos? Do we all eat Filipino food on Thanksgiving? Adobo? Pancit? Vegan lechon? Nope.

In fact, few people know about the Filipinos as being first in anything except maybe in the number of young girl singers in TV song competitions.

But we should make a big deal of Oct. 18, 1587, the day Pedro De Unamuno sailing for Spain landed on Morro Bay, close to San Luis Obispo on the Central Coast of California.

While Unamuno, not a Filipino, is only partially obscured in history, the Filipino parts of the story are almost totally eviscerated from memory.

That changed with the original research of Unamuno’s logs published in the University of California-Los Angeles’ Amerasia Journal in 1996 by Eloisa Gomez Borah, a librarian and a trustee of FANHS.

She makes the case for the First Filipinos, telling the story of how Unamuno was part of a Spanish expedition led by Francisco Gali in 1584. When Gali died, Unamuno lost command of the two ships he inherited after taking a side trip to Macao.

Stranded in Asia, Unamuno was finally able to buy another boat, described by Borah as “a single-deck three-masted vessel” named Nuestra Senora de Buena Esperanza.

His deckhands and brawn were mostly Filipinos.

On July 12, 1587, Unamuno headed for points east and was at sea until the end of his voyage on November 22, 1587, in Acapulco, Mexico.

But there was a brief three-day land excursion between October 18 and 20 that turned out to be the northern California coast.

Unamuno sailed with the Franciscan Father Martin Ignacio de Loyola, nephew of the founder of the Jesuit order, a few priests, and soldiers.

The logs also reveal the presence of at least eight Filipinos identified as “Yndios Luzones,” or Luzon Indians from the northern Philippines island of Luzon.

They were jacks-of-all-trade seamen, seen as the brawny manpower of the ship. In an email exchange, Borah told me too often they were left off the logs.

“Filipinos present on these early explorations and trade ships were overlooked in captains’ logs,” Borah said. “Even in Captain Unamuno’s log, which I chose because he did mention “Indios Luzones,” documenting the presence of Filipino natives was inconsistent, as my count in the article provides the proof.”

Borah counted “Yndios” appearing in the logs 42 times in total. In 23 times, it was a reference to the native Californians encountered, but 19 times it described the crew.

But they mattered on Sunday, October 18. That’s when Unamuno, after anchoring off the California coast in a place he called Puerto San Lucas, formed a landing party.

It was 12 armed soldiers led by Father Martin Ignacio de Loyola, cross in hand. But even before the cross, up ahead of them all were two Filipinos armed with swords and shields.

It was their typical formation. Filipinos were the first to step foot on land.

On the first day, the expedition climbed two hills, saw no settlements or people, and took possession of the land for the King of Spain.

On the second day, October 19, eight Filipino scouts led Loyala and 12 soldiers for further exploration.

It was on the third day, October 20, that the expedition encountered violence. But not before there was an effort from the ship’s barber and some Filipinos to make a peace offering of food and clothing.

Borah said all was good until the Native Americans tried to kidnap the barber, and that’s when a violent exchange ensued. The log noted one soldier was killed, but so was one unnamed Filipino, by a javelin, his blood spilled on American soil.

Unamuno didn’t stay long. He left for Acapulco by daybreak on October 21.

The significance of three days?

Borah calls it the unique evidence of a Filipino presence that is too often obscured when historians fail to identify or differentiate among non-Europeans in their crew.

“Filipino natives, among the non-white Indios of that era, did not write the logs or the letters to the king or any other contemporary documents,” Borah wrote me in an email exchange.

“However, Filipino Indios were 4 out of 5 who worked the Spanish galleons (Schurz, 1939) in crossing the Pacific for 250 years, and they were the advance guard in the land expeditions and provided the information evidenced in Captain Unamuno’s log.”

It’s part of history that no one seems to know about.

I just came back from a Harvard Asian American alumni gathering and mentioned in passing about 1587.

Not one person I talked to had even heard about it.

And yet of all the Asian Americans, Filipinos were in North America first and left empty-handed after three October days in 1587 in California.

Do you want to win a few bar bets this month? Just ask about who the first Asians, documented in historical logs, to come to America.

It was the Filipinos. They didn’t stay and create a community. But they stepped foot in North America and spilled blood.

It’s because of them we remember October as Filipino American History Month.

If you forgot about it this year, don’t worry, Filipino American History Month happens every year. Just remember, if we don’t trumpet the facts, no one will know about it. And no one will care.

Self-erasure is unbecoming. Let people know who the first Asians were to come to America.

The Filipinos. In 1587.

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EMIL GUILLERMO is a journalist and commentator. He was the First Filipino to host a national news show when he was host of NPR’s “All Things Considered,” in 1989. He does a micro-talk show on www.amok.com

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