First, yellowing pictures and old news clippings from the 1920s and 1930s were passed from hand to eager hand. One photograph showed nattily dressed Filipinos coaxing wooden yoyos of all sizes into creative twists and spins. In another, the young Shirley Temple, sausage curls and all, looked up at Albert Viernes, a Filipino, doing the “Cat’s Cradle” with his yoyo.
Then these pictures came alive as none other than Viernes himself and Federico Urian, another “oldtimer,” took over the floor for an amazing yoyo demonstration.
The oldtimers unerringly swung their yoyos “Over the Falls” and “Around the World” as third and fourth-generation Filipino Americans let out exclamations of astonished pleasure.
Viernes and Urian narrated how, for themselves and other Filipino boys looking for employment during the Depression years, the toy that in precolonial times was used for felling game in the forests became their unlikely passport to popularity. The audience was thrilled by the old men’s skills; it was also tantalized by the little-known tidbit that the yoyo originated in the Philippines.
Viernes and Urian were among the wave of Filipinos who came to the United States in the first quarter of the century in pursuit of the American Dream. The still sprightly 83-year-old Urian helped found the Filipino Club of Chicago in the ’30s. He and many tireless community leaders helped acquire the two-story Rizal Center in 1962. Urian was also instrumental in setting up the Ang Balita community newspaper and the Bagumbayan Credit Union, which is still housed in the basement of the Center.
Urian left his hometown on Camalaniugan, Cagayan one morning in March 1929, at the summons of his older brother, Tito, who had left earlier to seek his fortune in America and was by then working in Chicago for $7.00 a week—much more than several months’ salary in the Philippines at that time. Tito wanted to give his 18-year-old brother Fred (who was the valedictorian of his class from fourth to seventh grades and had always dreamed of becoming an engineer) a chance to study in America. After the long journey aboard a commercial marine vessel, Fred reunited with his brother and was quickly welcomed into the Filipino community of young men.
More than 129 Filipino students were attending Crane Junior College. But it was 1929, years before the 1935 immigration law that limited the number of Filipinos coming to America to fifty per year. While the undercurrents of hostility led the postcolonial Filipino writer Carlos Bulosan to pen his famous words, “Yes, I feel like the criminal running away from a crime I did not commit; and the crime is that I am a Filipino in America,” these young students continued to keep their hopes alive, hopes of finishing school and eventually returning to the Philippines as teachers. They peeled potatoes or scrubbed pots and pans in diners, while steering clear of signs that warned, “No Dogs or Filipinos Allowed.”
The 1929 Depression crushed the young men’s hopes. Urian’s daughter, Teresita, writes in a draft of her father’s biography: “Many became disheartened and felt like failures. Some decided to settle down with American wives and raised families, cutting all communication from their families in the Philippines because they were ashamed. Some tried to bury their feelings of being a failure (in) gambling and drinking. Many vowed they would never marry American women because of what they came to believe Americans were. Instead they patiently waited for Pinays to arrive. Some Pinays arrived initially in 1946, but (they) were mostly ‘war brides;’ ...Pinay nurses often thought they were too good for these ‘Pinoy pioneers.’”
It was in the Depression that the “yoyo years” began for Urian, Viernes and a few other young Pinoys. Urian recalls another young Filipino student named Pedro Flores, who lived and worked in Los Angeles as an elevator operator, and who used to take out his yoyo and play with it during noon breaks. He unfailingly attracted a crowd of children who began to clamor for yoyos of their own.
The hotel manager Flores worked for came up with the idea of commercializing the yoyo. The demand grew, but Flores was unable to keep up with it. The Duncan Toys Company heard of this and offered to purchase the yoyo patent from Flores. The terms included hiring Flores and his brother Brinio as “campaign managers.”
The Flores brothers traveled to Chicago in 1932 and there taught 30 Filipino students, including Urian, seven basic yoyo tricks which they eventually performed as sales representatives for Duncan in the windows of five-and-dime stores such as Woolworth’s and Kresge’s. The Filipinos also explained the yoyo’s origins and how it worked. They gave classes to children and adults alike. Needless to say, there was plenty of press coverage.
Originally made of three pieces of wood, the yoyo was soon turned on a lathe from a single piece of wood. Then Duncan, and later Royal Top, introduced plastic yoyos with different designs.
Yoyo tournaments were held in towns all over the Midwest, and Urian and the other Pinoys traveled extensively demonstrating their yoyo skills (one memorable trick even had Urian balancing on a surfboard). The young Pinoys had the time of their lives rubbing elbows with celebrities who came to see the latest craze.
Yet Urian could not help feeling depressed, convinced that being educated he was meant for better things. A stop in Detroit, Michigan led to a job as a tool-and-die machinist at an aircraft plant. Returning to Chicago, he worked for another aircraft company and then, from 1950 to 1959, for Ford, producing tools for new jet engines. At Ford, Urian became involved in labor activism, even getting elected as a committee member for the United Auto Workers. From 1959 to 1974, already married with four children, Urian worked with the Latini Machine Company.
The yoyo craze died down and was briefly revived in the late ’50s. The toy has earned a niche in America’s pastime hall of fame, much like the pez candy dispenser.
Today, Urian spends his time tending to his family, his backyard garden and the Filipino community in Chicago. Urian muses long and lovingly over boxfuls of memorabilia, testaments to a very full life that has been enriched by his constant efforts at making sure that Filipinos in America would never again inhabit that sphere of virtual invisibility to which they were once consigned.
Literary critic Epifanio San Juan, Jr. says that Filipinos today make up perhaps the largest segment of the Asian American population “and yet their creative force for social renewal is still repressed and unacknowledged.” So next time you see a yoyo spinning in the air, descending a length of string and climbing up again, be aware that we started that craze and that you are witnessing a familiar metaphor for that famous indomitable spirit we call our own.
Originally published in Filipinas Magazine, April 1994. Federico Urian passed away in 1999, Albert Viernes, Sr. in 2002.
Luisa A. Igloria (www.luisaigloria.com) is a poet, professor, and current director of the MFA Creative Writing Program at Old Dominion University. Originally from Baguio, she is the author of Ode to the Heart Smaller Than a Pencil Eraser (selected by Mark Doty for the 2014 May Swenson Prize), Night Willow (Phoenicia Publishing, Montreal; 2014), (University of Santo Tomas Publishing House, 2013), and 10 other books.