Filipinx American History: A Celebration of Community, Activism, and Persistence

Spanish Colonial Era

Between 1565 and 1898, the Philippine Islands were ruled as a colony of the Spanish empire. The Filipino diaspora was a product of Spanish imperial rule, as Spain’s demand for labor led them to move Filipina/o/xs across their global empire. As sailors, slaves, and servants, they were exploited to build riches for European empires. But Filipina/o/xs brought to work in distant lands often built strong communities and developed strategies that allowed them to resist the demands of their colonizers. Filipina/o/xs who lived and worked outside of the Philippines during Spanish rule formed not only the foundation of the modern Filipino diaspora, but helped to shape the construction of the Filipino nation. 

This is a depiction of the port of Acapulco, on the Pacific Coast of Mexico, drawn by a European artist in the seventeenth century. Between the late 1500s and early 1800s, Spain would send a large ship, called a galleon, to bring trade goods from Manila to Acapulco. In addition to the exchange of goods, the galleons also led to an exchange of people. Many Spaniards enslaved indigenous people of the Philippines and brought them to Mexico, where they were referred to as “chinos,” the Spanish word for “Chinese.” Some enslaved “chinos” worked as personal servants to Spanish enslavers, while others were forced to work in obrajes, or textile mills. Many enslaved “chinos” developed a sophisticated understanding of the Spanish legal system and were able to sue for their freedom. 


These images depict scenes of daily life in the community of St. Malo, Louisiana in the 1880s. St. Malo was a fishing community located in the marshes near New Orleans, Louisiana that was built by Filipino sailors. In the nineteenth century, many Filipino men served as sailors on British, Spanish, and American ships that brought trade goods to the Philippines. Many of these sailors, known as “manilamen,” were recruited against their will and mistreated by the ship’s captains. As a result, many of the manilamen chose to desert and create their own communities in remote places like St. Malo, where they could have more control over their lives. St. Malo is an example of the ways that the formation of Filipino communities has been a way to resist the power of colonialism. 

This plaque commemorates the visit of Dr. Jose Rizal to San Francisco in 1888. After publishing the anti-colonial novel, Noli Me Tangere, Rizal came to the United States to escape the persecution of the Spanish government. Arriving in San Francisco from Hong Kong, Rizal and the ship’s other passengers were forced to quarantine for six days, one of many tactics U.S. officials used to discourage Chinese immigration. On his trip across the United States, Rizal also saw the ways that African Americans and Native Americans were treated by whites. Rizal understood that the struggle against racism in the United States was similar to the Filipino struggle against Spanish colonialism in the Philippines. After seeing a performance of American Indians in a Wild West Show, he formed a Filipino independence group called “los indios bravos” (“the brave Indians”). Jose Rizal’s visit to America demonstrates that Filipino anticolonial movements have always been connected to the struggles of other marginalized peoples. 


Harvey Barkin, “Rizal in America: He Was Not Impressed,” Positively Filipino

Michael Menor Salgarolo, “Journeys to St. Malo: A History of Filipino Louisiana,” Rethinking History 25(1), 77-114.

Tatiana Seijas, Asian Slaves in Colonial Mexico: From Chinos to Indians (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014)

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