There has been much excitement in New York over the recent discoveries of two long-lost paintings of one of America’s great Black painters, Jacob Lawrence. Both paintings are part of a series called “Struggle: From the History of the American People” done between 1954 and 1956.
The latest “lost and found” painting, which had been hanging in the living room of a nurse for two decades, is entitled “The Emigrants 1821-1830 (106,308),” referring to a statistic Lawrence dug up while doing research for the “Struggle” series; the 106,308 being the number of immigrants admitted to the States during that decade in the 19th century.
Lawrence’s depiction of blacks, women and American Indians in his painted American history led museums and other public institutions to turn down his applications to exhibit the paintings.
“Emigrants” struck me first because the painting itself is powerful, depicting a woman nursing her child and a man holding a flowerpot with a red rose, which is the US’ official flower. The title also caught my attention because I hadn’t realized that, that early in the 19th century, the US had already taken in so many immigrants. Lawrence uses the word “émigré,” which means people planning on a permanent transfer, often as refugees.
I am sure there were more émigrés, more refugees, who entered the US, undocumented, including Filipinos. I thought of the Manila Galleon, which plied the Pacific bringing goods from Manila to Acapulco in Mexico from 1565 to 1815, with at least one voyage each year.
Besides goods, we might forget there were people in these ships, what we would call Filipinos today but at that time were the “indios.” They were our original overseas seafarers, and it was inevitable some would jump ship at various stop-overs in the Manila Galleon route.
Perhaps the oldest Filipino colony in the United States is the one in a bayou in Louisiana, called Saint Malo, started by sailors who escaped from the Manila Galleon around 1763. Were they “tago nang tago” (TNT), to use the 20th century coined word for undocumented migrants? Probably not considering they’ve thrived with several generations now. But for decades they could not become American citizens either, because a law passed in 1790 limited US citizenship to “free white persons.”
Filipino migration to the United States grew in the 20th century with mixed lots, from Ilocanos working in the sugar plantations of Hawaii, to the brain drain of doctors and nurses. Many faced discrimination, including anti-miscegenation laws that banned marrying white Americans.
Gains in civil rights for people of color in the States moved forward in the second half of the 20th century, only to regress in the Trump era, which has become more vicious for Asians, who are blamed for COVID-19. Filipino-American Noel Quintana, 61, was attacked last month in the New York subway, his face slashed with a box cutter. He cried out for help but no one responded. The assailant, ironically, was African-American, which will further stoke anti-black feelings among Filipino-Americans.
We have to be more conscious about how all humans are really migrants. All humans are descended from people who came out of Africa and spread throughout the world, “racial” differences coming about from adaptation to different environments. The adaptation has included rich cultural variations. The United States’ strength comes from its ethnic diversity, people from all over contributing to the arts, science, technology.
I’m going to end with a light but intoxicating story of transpacific cultural exchange. “The Manila Galleon: Crossing the Atlantic” edited by the late senator Edgardo Angara with Jose Maria Cariño and Sonia Pinto Ner, features a less well known story, written by Paulina Machuca, about forced migration involving Filipinos who were imported into the state of Colima on the Pacific coast of Mexico, one of the stop-overs of the Manila Galleon before Acapulco. The Filipinos worked in coconut palm plantations in Colima and introduced an alcoholic drink made from coconut.
No, not fiery lambanog but a milder one, tuba. Tuba compuesta is still found in Colima, mixed with chopped fruit and served cold as a refreshment.
Machuca mentions kinutel, a drink popular in the Visayas and Mindanao and made out of tuba, eggs, oranges, and chocolate. Mexicans have always been more adventurous with their chocolate, made with all kinds of spices. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Manila Galleon might have something to do with this kinutel, which was introduced to me (without oranges) by Catholic nuns when I worked in Mindanao in the 1970s.
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