Filipino Americans in Seattle

  • By Cynthia Mejia-Giudici
  • Posted 12/03/1998
  • Essay 409
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With an estimated population of 30,000 (in the late 1990s), the Filipino American community forms the largest group of Asian Americans in the Seattle area. Beginning with the first known Filipino resident in 1883, waves of Filipino immigrants arrived in dynamic relationship with the status of the Philippines (from colony to independence). They often faced discrimination and hardship, as described by the Filipino poet and writer Carlos Bulosan (1911?-1956). Filipinos have contributed to the area's arts, business, and political leadership. In 1979, Delores Sibonga (b. 1931) became the first member of the Seattle City Council of Filipino ancestry. President Bill Clinton appointed Bob Santos (b. 1934) as regional representative of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. In 1992, Velma Veloria won election to the Washington State Legislature from Seattle's 11th District, making her the highest-ranking elected official of Filipino ancestry in the country at the time.

Waves of Immigration

According to Fred Cordova, local historian and author of Filipino Americans: Forgotten Asian Americans, Filipinos came to America in four waves:

  • First wave: Before 1906
  • Second wave: 1906-1945
  • Third wave: 1945-1965
  • Fourth wave: After 1965

The first known Filipino in the Seattle area worked at the Port Blakely Lumber Mill on Bainbridge Island in Washington Territory around 1883. His name was Manilla, as in the largest city in the Philippines.

The Philippines became an American territory in 1898, following the Spanish American War. In November 1903, the United States government passed the Pensionado Act, providing funds for Filipino students to study in America. By 1912, 209 Filipino students had graduated from American college or university programs. The University of Washington enrolled the highest number of Filipinos of any institution in the United States.

The "Sakada" system launched the second wave of Filipino immigrants in 1906. Sakadas were plantation workers contracted to work in the sugar and pineapple fields of Hawaii. In the same year, in Seattle, the U.S. government hired 40 Filipinos to work aboard the steamship Burnside to lay cable in the Pacific. When their contract ended, several of these Filipinos decided to stay, thus becoming the first "permanent" Filipino residents of Seattle. The 1910 census recorded 17 Filipino residents in Washington. These included Rufina Clemente Jenkins, wife of U.S. Army Cavalry Sergeant Francis Jenkens, who in 1909 lived with her family in Fort Lawton in what is now Discovery Park in Seattle. She was the first Filipino war bride to move to the city.

Education and Organization

Although the Asian Exclusion Act of 1924 severely curtailed immigration of Chinese and Japanese to the United States, it did not affect Filipinos. Because the Philippines was a territory of the United States, Filipinos had the unique status of "nationals," rather than "aliens." They were not required to carry a passport and could enter the country without restrictions. Attracted by employment and educational opportunities, they became the fastest growing Asian population in Washington, taking the place of the barred Chinese and Japanese workers on railroads, in canneries, and on farms.

In the Philippines, word spread of job opportunities in Washington. By 1924, there were enough Filipino students enrolled at the University of Washington to support a publication, The Seattle Colonist. In 1928, 58 UW students approached Filipino businessmen to acquire a clubhouse. In 1929, members adopted the name Seattle Filipino Community Clubhouse. It incorporated in 1933.

Numerous other community organizations formed in the 1920s and 1930s. Some were social clubs, others were religious societies, and some brought together people who had immigrated from the same region of the Philippines. In 1935, in anticipation of the establishment of the Commonwealth of the Philippines, Seattle Filipinos organized a banquet to be held on November 15, 1935, the inauguration of the commonwealth. The organizers decided also to form the Philippine Commonwealth Council of Seattle (PCCS), a sort of umbrella organization that brought together the many smaller Filipino clubs and other organizations to promote the interests of the Philippines and the Filipino American community. In the coming decades the FCS would support a legal challenge to a ban on Filipinos' ownership of land, develop cultural and youth programs, work closely with the Philippines consulate, and serve as a liaison between Seattle's Filipino Americans and local government.

By 1928, Filipinos showed signs of assimilation in Seattle. Filipino entrepreneurs opened restaurants and pool halls. The Filipino Forum was published in the city as the "independent organ of the Filipino community in the Pacific Northwest." Yet Filipinos still encountered widespread discrimination and resentment.

Scapegoating and Discrimination

Despite some successes, newcomers frequently found themselves relegated to work as houseboys in hotels and residences, stoop laborers in the fields, and as "Alaskeros" (cannery workers) doing menial labor. In 1928, white residents of Dryden and Wenatchee told Filipino workers to leave town or face violence. Mob riots victimized some. Elsewhere in Central Washington, white ranchers who employed Filipinos faced threats of lynching.

After arriving in Seattle, 339 Filipinos who had been exposed to spinal meningitis were quarantined in Port Townsend for two weeks. A Seattle Times article stated: "Seattle should not be a dumping ground for the carriers of an epidemic disease." Soon after, the Seattle City Council apparently responded favorably to a petition to limit the immigration of Filipinos into the city. However, the duration and extent of this limit is uncertain. Two years later, the Surgeon General wrote in a letter that the prevalence of spinal meningitis on ships from Asia could not be traced to Filipinos.

The Thirties

By 1930, 3,480 Filipinos lived in Washington, including 1,600 in Seattle. This number included a diverse cross-section of society, including professionals, businessmen, students, families, and a number of second-generation Filipinos. Filipino musical performers, such as Seattle's Moonlight Serenaders, traveled up and down the West Coast. Filipinos frequented taxi dance halls and held popular boxing matches. However, the Great Depression afflicted Filipinos as it did many others. In Seattle's multi-racial Hooverville, or Depression camp, a shanty town constructed by otherwise homeless people, two Filipinos won seats on the "city council."

During the 1930s, anti-Filipino sentiment throughout the United States was strong. Several attempts in Congress to limit immigration failed. However, in 1934, the Tydings-McDuffie Act promised independence to the Philippines in 10 years and, of more immediate significance, changed the status of Filipinos from "nationals" to "aliens," limiting the number accepted into the country to 50 per year. In 1935, the Filipino Repatriation Act passed. The Act called for the government to pressure Filipinos to return by offering them free passage back to the Philippines. By the time the repatriation program was declared unconstitutional in 1940, some 2,190 Filipinos had returned to the Philippines. By that year, the Filipino population in Washington had dipped to 2,222 from 3,480 the decade before.

When World War II began, Filipinos, eager to show support, rushed to join the military. In 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) granted U.S. citizenship to enlistees, resulting in many new Filipino American citizens. Filipinos also showed their support by buying $107,925 worth of War Bonds. Culminating the second wave of immigration, the War Brides Act of 1945 permitted Filipino veterans to bring their wives and children to the United State. In 1946, President Harry S. Truman signed the Filipino Naturalization Bill, enabling Filipinos to become citizens. In the same year, on July 4, the Philippines gained its independence. To celebrate this, Filipinos in Seattle began an annual tradition of picnics at Pinoy Point in Seward Park. The picnic's date was later changed to June 12 in recognition of the declaration of the Philippine Republic's independence from Spain in 1898.

The 1950s and 1960s saw continued growth of the Filipino community. By 1957, Governor Albert Rosellini recognized its rise to prominence by breaking precedence and attending a luncheon at the Washington Hotel hosted by the Filipino American Citizens League.

In 1965, the Congress amended the Nationality Act, lifting national quotas. Independent nations outside the Western Hemisphere were allowed to send up to 20,000 emigrants to the United States per year. The huge influx of Filipinos marked the end of the third wave.

During the 1940s, the PCCS had changed its name to the Filipino Community of Seattle, Inc.(FCS). In 1965 the FCS purchased the Empire Bowling Alley on Empire Way S (now Martin Luther King Jr. Way S), providing the FCS with its first permanent home. By the late 1990s the building needed renovations and the organization needed more room. Supported by grants, member donations, and fundrasing activities, FCS carried out a renovation and expansion project that was completed in 2008.

Challenges and notable achievements have marked the fourth wave of immigrants. Recently arrived Filipinos have struggled to adjust to a new country and culture, adding pressure to the family structure. Filipino gangs (or gang "wannabes") have been blamed for drive-by shootings like that of Melissa Fernandez outside Seattle's Ballard High School in 1994. Domestic violence in the form of murder-suicide has afflicted the Filipino American community. In response, Filipino Americans have organized workshops on domestic violence and raised funds for the families of victims. Yet, according to the Seattle Police Department, the Filipino American community remains unique in being virtually free of child abuse.

Eminent Filipinos

Many achievements, including several firsts, marked the 1980s and 1990s. In 1979, Delores Sibonga became the first member of the Seattle City Council of Filipino ancestry. President Bill Clinton appointed Bob Santos, a Filipino, as regional representative of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. In 1992, Velma Veloria won election to the Washington State Legislature from Seattle's 11th District. And Alex Tizon and Byron Acohido of The Seattle Times won Pulitzer Prizes in 1996 for their reporting on fraud in Indian housing programs (Tizon) and on airplane safety (Acohido).


Ursula Barboza, "Filipinos in Seattle" in the 11th Anniversary Special Program of the Northwest Asian Weekly (Seattle, 1994); Carlos Bulosan, America is in the Heart: A Personal History (Seattle: University of Washington Press, [1943] 1973); Fred Cordova, Filipinos: Forgotten Asian Americans: A Pictorial Essay 1763-circa 1963 (Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt, 1983); "Filipinos in the Pacific Northwest," 1952-l982 Commemorative Yearbook (Filipino American Intercommunity Council of the Pacific Northwest, 1982); Hyung-chan Kim and Cynthia C. Mejia, The Filipinos in America 1898-1974: A Chronology and Fact Book (Dobbs Ferry NY: Oceana Publications, Inc. 1976); Gail Nomura, "Washington's Asian/Pacific American Communities," in Peoples of Washington: Perspectives on Cultural Diversity ed. by Sid White and S.E. Solberg (Pullman: Washington State University Press, 1989); Symbol of Filipino Identity: Glimpses of "Pinoy Life in the Pacific Northwest ed. by Diony Corsilles (Seattle: Magiting Corp., 1983); Edward and Elizabeth Burke, Seattle’s Other History: Our Asian American Heritage (Seattle: Profanity Hill Press, 1979); Ruth Pelz, The Washington Story: A History of Our State (Seattle: Seattle Public Schools, 1988); Fred Cordova, “Pista Sa Nayon 1993: A Commentary,” Pista Review: Official 1993 Seafair Pista Sa Nayon Program (Seattle: Pista Sa Nayon, 1993); “Anti-Filipino Feeling Flares Up in Raids,” Auburn Globe Republican, Auburn, Washington, May 8, 1930; Chuck Taylor, “Seattle Times Wins Two Pulitzer Prizes,” The Seattle Times, April 7, 1997; E.V. Vic Bacho, "History of the Filipino Community of Seattle," in Pamana: Half-a-Century of Filipino Community Life in the Emerald City (Seattle: Filipino Community of Seattle, Inc., 1986?), 13-68; Fred Cordova, "The Community in Seattle," in Pamana II (Seattle: Filipino Community of Seattle, Inc., n.d.), 14-21; C.N. Rigor, "President's Past: The Marks That They Leave," in Pamana: Half-a-Century of Filipino Community Life in the Emerald City  (Seattle: Filipino Community of Seattle, Inc., 1986?), 69-123. Note: This essay was expanded on September 7, 2010.

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