Washington State Legislature designates October as Filipino American History Month on May 7, 2019.

  • By Rita Cipalla
  • Posted 6/03/2024
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 23004
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On May 7, 2019, Washington Governor Jay Inslee signs into law Senate Bill 5865, proclaiming October to be Filipino American History Month. The designation comes nearly a decade after the U. S. Congress passed a similar resolution in November 2009. The month of October is chosen to acknowledge the earliest documented proof of the arrival of Filipinos in the continental United States – at Morro Bay, California -- on October 18, 1587. Helping pave the way for the new law was the Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS), an organization founded by Seattle activists Fred and Dorothy Cordova to document, preserve, and promote the history of Filipino Americans, the third-largest Asian American group in the nation. In 1991, the FANHS board of trustees passed its own resolution proclaiming October as a month to reflect on the history and achievements of Filipino Americans.  Other individuals and organizations followed suit, creating their own commemorative events and activities while lobbying federal and state governments to pass a similar designation.

A Dedicated Month

Seattle activists Fred (1931-2013) and Dorothy (b. 1932) Cordova were at the forefront of national efforts to preserve the history and culture of Filipino Americans, and improve the daily lives and future prospects of the Filipino American community. In 1982, the couple cofounded the Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS) as a way to conduct research, gather and disseminate Filipino American history, and promote understanding and cultural awareness. It was the FANHS board of trustees in 1991 who passed a resolution proclaiming October to be Filipino American History Month, which was celebrated for the first time the following year.

Soon Filipino American community groups, student organizations, and regional FANHS chapters were scheduling activities and events during the month. The first state to declare Filipino American History Month was California, whose legislature passed a proclamation in 2006. Hawaii followed two years later. In 2009, the U.S. Congress designated October Filipino American History Month, and in 2015, President Barack Obama (b. 1961) became the first president to celebrate Filipino American History Month in the White House.  

For years, Washington state relied on annual resolutions or gubernatorial proclamations to recognize Filipino Americano History Month; about 100 legislative bills focused on making the designation permanent died in committee before a vote could be taken. Then in 2019, a bill cosponsored by 11 state senators from both parties sailed through the Washington State Legislature unopposed. The bill referenced the long history of Filipino Americans in America "whose heritage spans a colonial, political, economic, and cultural relationship with the United States. The legislature further finds that the prominence of Filipino and Filipino American population in Washington state warrants official commemoration of the history and heritage of Filipino Americans. Therefore the legislature intends to designate the month of October as Filipino American history month, a period of commemoration that highlights the contributions of Filipino Americans to Washington state and the United States" (2019 Wash. Laws, ch. 283). The bill was signed into law by Governor Jay Inslee on May 7, 2019, with an effective date of July 28, 2019.

October was selected because it was the month in which the first recorded Filipino Americans set foot in the continental U.S. On October 18, 1587, a Spanish ship landed near Morro Bay on the central California coast, looking to restock its food and water supplies. Two Filipino crew members were sent ahead as scouts. In a later clash on shore with Native Americans, a Filipino and a Spaniard were killed.

Filipino Americans in Washington

In 2019, Filipino Americans were the third-largest Asian American group in the nation, after Chinese and Asian Indian Americans, comprising about 19 percent of the Asian American population. In 2018, California had the largest percentage of Filipino Americans; Washington, with about 178,000 residents who identified as Filipino, was fourth. In 2019, an estimated 115,000 Filipino Americans lived in Seattle, one of the top 10 U.S. cities for this ethnic group.

Over the generations, Filipino Americans have contributed significantly to the economic, cultural, and social fabric of Washington and were key players in protest movements and resistance efforts. "Washington is scattered with cities and towns rich in Filipino American history. Famed writer and poet Carlos Bulosan worked as a labor organizer in Seattle’s Chinatown, and documented racism against Filipinos there in the 1930s. From pool halls in Seattle to farms in Yakima, Filipino Americans organized labor movements and won battles for their rights and dignity. From Fort Lewis in Pierce County, from which Filipino Americans deployed to fight in every major U.S. war, to working in the Bremerton shipyard, they made their mark on military history" (Robinson).

Dolores Sibonga (b. 1931), Washington’s first Filipina American lawyer, served on the Seattle City Council from 1978-1992; she ran unsuccessfully for Seattle mayor in 1989. A broadcast journalist, she and her husband Martin owned the community newspaper, Filipino Forum. Labor activist Velma Veloria (b. 1950) was the first Filipina in the continental United States to serve as a state legislator. As a Washington representative, she served South Seattle’s 11th District for 12 years. Civil rights activist Bob Santos (1934-2016), a regional HUD director from 1994-2001, worked tirelessly on behalf of Seattle’s International District, where he developed a community heritage preservation plan and instituted culturally appropriate social services for elderly residents, among other contributions.  

Fred and Dorothy Cordova

Fred and Dorothy Cordova collaborated for more than 50 years on numerous community, social, and youth projects. Dorothy Cordova was born in Seattle in 1932, Fred in Selma, California, in 1931. They met in 1948 when Dorothy was a high school senior and Fred was enrolled at Seattle University. After graduating from Seattle U., both with sociology degrees, they married in 1953 and raised eight children. Fred began his career as a sports editor at the Catholic Northwest Progress, and was later an information officer at the University of Washington. Dorothy put her sociology training to use by researching the problems faced by Asian Americans, and later documented the intertwining histories of Seattle’s Central District.

In 1957, while still in their 20s, they cofounded Filipino Youth Activities (FYA) to promote healthier activity options for young Filipinos in Seattle. Two years later, they created the FYA Drill Team, whose precision moves drawn from traditional Filipino dances not only won numerous national awards but also instilled cultural pride in its young team members. They wrote community grants and advocated for legislation that would put immigrant bilingual teachers into Seattle public schools, and they helped open the door for doctors trained in the Philippines to practice medicine in the U.S. In 1971, the Young Filipino Peoples’ Far West Convention, held at Seattle University and led by Dorothy Cordova, brought together more than 300 Filipino youth who spent the weekend discussing issues important to them, from ethnic studies to martial arts. More than 50 years later, this early meeting is considered the beginning of the national Filipino American movement.  

The Seattle offices of the Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS), located at Immaculate Conception Church in the Central District, house the extensive National Pinoy Archives, one of the largest collections of documents, photographs, memorabilia, and materials related to Filipino American history. As of 2022, FANHS has grown to include 40 chapters nationwide and maintains a small museum in Stockton, California.

When the FANHS board of trustees proclaimed the first Filipino American History Month in 1991, it was important to Dorothy Cordova that it was Filipino history being recognized, not just heritage or culture. "We’re not here to entertain you. We’re here to show you that we’ve been here a long time, and we’ve done something worthwhile here. And that we suffered like other minorities, but we’ve endured, and we’re proud Americans" (Robinson).


HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Filipino Americans in Seattle" (by Cynthia Mejia-Giudici); “Santos, Robert ‘Bob’ Nicholas (1934-2016)” (by Frank Chesley); “Delores Sibonga Becomes First Filipina American to be Admitted to the Washington State Bar on October 18, 1973” (by David Wilma); “Delores Sibonga, Filipina American Lawyer, is Appointed to the Seattle City Council in August 1978” (by Cynthia Mejia-Giudici); “Velma Veloria is Elected to the Washington State Legislature on November 3, 1992” (by Cynthia Mejia-Giudici); www.historylink.org (accessed March 6, 2024); Nancy Bartley, “Fred Cordova, 82, Proud Advocate for Filipino Community,” The Seattle Times, January 9, 2014, p. B-2; Erik Lacitis, “Seattle’s Keeper of Filipino American History is an 87-year-old Volunteer, and Replacing Her May Prove Difficult,” Ibid., November 3, 2019 (www.seattletimes.com); Abby Budiman and Neil G. Ruiz, “Key Facts about Asian Origin Groups in the U. S.,” Pew Research Center, April 29, 2021, website accessed March 8, 2024 (https://www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2021/04/29/key-facts-about-asian-origin-groups-in-the-u-s/); Ritchel Mendiola, “Pew Research: Over 4.2M Filipino Americans in the US,” Asian Journal, May 5, 2021, website accessed March 6, 2024 (https://asianjournal.com/usa/dateline-usa/pew-research-over-4-2m-filipino-americans-in-the-us/); “New Census Data: More than 4 Million Filipinos in the U.S.,” Inquirer.net, September 17, 2018, website accessed March 8, 2024 (https://usa.inquirer.net/15493/new-census-data-4-million-filipinos-us); Fred and Dorothy Cordova, Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project, University of Washington, website accessed March 4, 2024 (https://depts.washington.edu/civilr/cordovas.htm); Chetanya Robinson, “After a ‘One-Man Effort’ over Nine Years, October is Filipino American History Month in Washington,” International Examiner, May 2, 2019 (https://iexaminer.org/after-a-one-man-effort-over-nine-years-october-is-filipino-american-history-month-in-Washington/); Maria Batayola, “When an Icon Turns 90: Celebrating Auntie Dorothy,” International Examiner, February 4, 2022 (https://iexaminer.org/when-an-icon-turns-90-celebrating-auntie-dorothy/); About Filipino American History Month, Filipino American National Historical Society, website accessed March 6, 2024 (http://fanhs-national.org/filam/); 2019 Wash. Laws, ch. 283 (https://lawfilesext.leg.wa.gov/biennium/2019-20/Pdf/Bills/Session%20Laws/Senate/5865.SL.pdf?q=20240306084416).

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