The Travails of Early Filipinos In America

Filipino cutting lettuce, Salinas, California (Photo by Dorothea Lange)

The Filipino immigrant who comes to the United States today will likely find for himself that it is "the land of the free, home of the brave" and that he is free to settle down anywhere. At the turn of the 20th century, however, the U.S. was a much different world than it is today, especially for “Orientals.”

It was then a land exclusively for the Caucasian race or immigrants from European countries. Those coming from Asia were subjected to denigrating and humiliating laws, social hostility and racial discrimination as deterrent for them to come to the country. 

Caucasians dreaded the "Yellow Peril," and officials, among other actions, banned interracial marriages between Orientals and white women primarily to preserve their ethnic purity and as a defense against the hybridization of Oriental blood into the White race. 

A certain Judge Rohrback in California described Filipinos as ‘little brown men ten years removed from the bolo and breechcloth.’

"Try as we will," wrote a Filipino student at the University of Chicago at the time, "we cannot become Americans. We may go to extreme to identify ourselves with the ways of the Americans, straightening our noses, dressing like Americans in the latest fashion, pasting our faces with bleaching cream...but, always the psychology persists that we do not belong" here.

In the book Strangers From Different Shores (New York: Penguin Books U.S.A, Inc., 1989) by Ronald Takaki, PhD., the author chronicles the travails, humiliation and degradation of Filipino immigrants and other Asian ethnic groups in the United States prior to World War II. Here are some painful facts:

Ronald Takaki's "Strangers from a Different Shore" (Source:

U.S. Nationals

The Filipino population in mainland U.S.A was 406 in 1910; it rose to 5,603 in 1920 and jumped to 45,208 in 1930. This rapid increase can be explained by the fact that Filipinos were governed directly by U.S. government and were considered U.S. nationals hence, not subject to immigration restrictions unlike other ethnic groups. 

However, during this period, the only jobs opened to them were domestic services, fishing industry in Alaska, and agriculture. In the words of a hotel manager in San Jose, Filipinos were good servants because "they were susceptible to flattery, servile and eternally patient and submissive and have a wholehearted willingness to serve others" especially Anglos. 

"I had to crawl on my knees and wear my mask of docility," writes a Filipino, " to please my white employer or I lose my job." In 1930 mainland U.S.A., Filipinos were janitors, valets, kitchen helpers, pantry men, dishwashers and all kinds of service boys—chamber boys, houseboys, elevator boys, bellboys and busboys. Other than that, they were jobless. 

Filipinos were often derisively called ‘googoos’ or ‘monkeys,’ and women who associated with them were labeled ‘nigger lovers.’

Preferred for Short Stature

In agriculture, shorter men like Filipinos were preferred because they could get down on their hands and knees and work all day long, stooping over for a measly pay unlike the taller Anglos who would always demand more. "Brown-skinned Filipinos were not affected by the heat and dust of the farms," said Frank Waterman of the California State Employment Agency in a 1930 interview. 

In the fishing industry in Alaska, they were recruited in Seattle or San Francisco for a season of seven months, cleaning salmon and packing them in boxes, working six days a week from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. or longer as long as there were more salmon to pack. In 1912, they earned an average of $163 a season, but they took home only $34.58 after the contractor deducted $128.42 for food and other expenses. Flat broke, they had no other recourse but to borrow again and again from heartless contractors who took advantage of their misery. And the cycle of deprivation went on and on.

Filipinos were often stereotyped and were derisively called "googoos" or "monkeys," which had the same connotation as “niggers,” and women who associated with them were labeled "nigger lovers." Those who came to the U.S. at this time would quickly discover that they were "little brown brothers" only in the Philippines, not in continental U.S.A. The Filipino "is just the same as the manure that we put on the land...he is not our little brown brother, no brother at all—he is not our social equal," said the secretary of an agriculture association in an interview. A certain Judge Rohrback in California described Filipinos as "little brown men ten years removed from the bolo and breechcloth." The Stockton Record editorialized that Filipinos are "not Caucasians hence cannot be assimilated and miscegenation would be unthinkable." 

"Positively No Filipinos Allowed" at this Stockton, California hotel (Source: Filipino American National Historical Society)

Social Pariahs

Filipinos were barred in public places such as hotels, restaurants, schools, public parks and the like. Neither could they own property or marry white women. In fact, in December 1929, a young Filipino was arrested and jailed in San Francisco simply because he was seen escorting a white woman in public. It was only the intercession of the woman's mother, who claimed that the couple was together with her approval, that the man was released from prison.

There was one area where the Pinoys reportedly excelled—sexual prowess (the word Pinoy may have come from the Cebuano term "sunoy" meaning cock, which is noted for its sexual aggressiveness). "The love-making of the Filipino is primitive, even heathenish...more elaborate," said a deputy labor commissioner, "like hot little rabbits and many of these white women like them for this reason." Unlike the Chinese or Japanese men, who generally mingled with their own kind, Pinoys desired white women, preferably blondes. For this reason they were the hated most by white males, who subjected them to harassment and physical harm, just like what the Ku Klux Klan did to blacks in the south. 

Filipino cannery workers in Alaska (Source: Alaska State Library Historical Collections)

Real Motive for Independence

The presence of Filipinos in greater numbers was a constant threat to white racial purity, particularly in California and Oregon. In the absence of Filipino women, Pinoys frequented brothels, bars and dance halls, which, it was feared, would likely result in "hybridizing of the bottom of the lower racial stocks, a new mulatto—an American mestizo," said Dr. David P. Barrows, former President of University of California, testifying in Congress. 

What could be done to avoid the emergence of an American mulatto?

The Tydings-McDuffie Law was passed to protect the country from the peaceful penetration of another colored race. Sen. Millard Tydings, author of the law said, "It is illogical to have an immigration policy to exclude Japanese and Chinese and permit Filipino en mass to come to the country … (thereby), increasing the opportunity for more racial prejudice and bad feelings of all kinds." Under the law, Filipino immigration to the U.S. was limited to only 50 persons each year.

Many Filipinos have been made to believe in the altruistic dimensions of U.S. colonial policy in the Philippines, and that the recognition of Philippine independence under the Tydings-McDuffie Law was primarily motivated by America’s lofty aim of spreading and upholding the ideals of democracy—not xenophobia motivated by the racist goal of perpetuating the purity of the white race.


Virgil N. de la Victoria is a former history professor and chairman of the Department of History, University of San Carlos, Cebu City. A Fulbright scholar, he has done extensive research on the resistance movement against the Japanese imperial forces in Negros Island during World War II. He retired as Eligibility Supervisor of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Social Services.