SAPAHM Guest: Chris Mariano on Air, Sea, and Birth: How the Filipino Community Has Grown in Alaska

Hi friends! Please welcome first time guest Chris Mariano to ALBTALBS! I really hope you take the time not only to read what is said, but also think about the history, and [cross] cultural aspects. <3

Air, Sea, and Birth: How the Filipino Community Has Grown in Alaska

Wired Differently by Chris Mariano Book CoverIn downtown Juneau, a raven takes about six hops to get from one wall of flowers to the other. He is watching, waiting, from his spot. To call his tiny public space a park would be an exaggeration; the droves of tourists descending from the cruise ships might easily dismiss it as a traffic junction. But this is Manila Square, a little piece of (my) home 5,898 miles away from an eponymous city, belonging just as much to the ravens and the wild Alaskan landscape as it does to the many Filipinos who have come to Juneau ‘by air, by sea, or by birth.’

By Air

Many Asians know the drill. When visiting another person’s home, it is more polite to leave your shoes by the door. Wait for house slippers. Offer to go barefoot, even. This is how you show your respect.

I wonder if other immigrants feel this way, too. Like you’ve left your shoes by the door, next to the life you used to lead. You can walk through this new house knowing where the cutlery and the best china are kept—maybe you even have permission to bring them out and host your own dinner party—but you know better. You’ll always feel like a guest too paranoid about overstaying her welcome.

I feel it sharply here in Alaska. Its people are warm even in the coldest weather, but the land can never be subdued into domesticity or familiarity. From fur trappers to gold prospectors to salmon canners to oil drillers, many people, including Asians, have come to Alaska seeking fortune or adventure or escape. My own family has chosen to live in Juneau—papers in hand, figurative shoes by that invisible threshold but somehow clinging to most of the baggage we’ve accumulated over the years. And while our migration story is rather common, it still amazes me that so many Filipinos would leave a home in the tropics to settle in a place known for its long and dark winters.

Filipinos are now the largest group with Asian ancestry in Alaska. The 2015 American Community Survey estimates that there are 29,929 Filipinos living in the state. Maybe that’s just a drop in the bucket compared to the number of Filipinos in states like California or Hawaii, but perhaps the idea of uprooting your life to move an ocean away is a shared experience in itself.

we build dreams out of paper/ rest our lives out of thin sheets, poet Barbra Ramos writes in her poem “Passports” (TAYO Literary Magazine, Issue 4) As an immigrant, I often ask myself, “What kind of dreams? What kind of lives? What do we allow ourselves to settle for? What do we allow ourselves to claim?”

By Sea

Cover (Story) Girl by Chris Mariano Book CoverIn Thelma Buccholdt’s often-cited resource Filipinos in Alaska: 1788-1958, the earliest record of a Filipino in Alaska was an unnamed seaman on a merchant ship that bartered with Alaskan natives in 1788, though there is no record of him having stayed.

It wasn’t until the growth of the salmon canning industry that the Filipino population slowly but steadily increased here. Canneries found it profitable to expand, but recruiting manpower would prove to be difficult. The salmon season demanded round-the-clock labor, in what could often be harsh and miserable circumstances. The industry began to lean on cheap Chinese labor, already being contracted through exploitative means even before the turn of the century. By 1902, around 5,300 of over 13,000 cannery workers in Alaska were Chinese.

How telling is it that the response to an emerging Chinese workforce was not to improve labor conditions that will encourage workers to consider jobs in canning or to hone necessary skills but instead to call for more restrictive immigration legislation? Chinese immigration was suspended, and those who had already been in the country were prohibited from naturalization. The 1924 Johnson-Reed Immigration Act comprehensively barred all other “Asiatics” except for Filipinos—at least, to a point.

By the First World War, demand for canned salmon had soared. The industry saw that they had jobs that no one wanted and those that wanted it couldn’t work for it. So they recruited elsewhere. They recruited laborers already working in Hawaii’s sugar plantations. They recruited college students who were looking for a way to stay in the country until fall started. They found Filipinos, who didn’t mind the low wages and the work hours but who, unlike their other Asian counterparts, belonged to a nation that was then a United States territory. By 1928, there were 3,916 Filipinos working in the canneries, even more than the combined total of Japanese and Chinese workers. They called themselves Alaskeros, and they not only became the principal workforce in the salmon canning industry but union labor leaders in their own right as well.

By Birth

While being a US territory may have granted Filipinos a bit more mobility during the late 1920s and early 1930s compared to other Asian nationalities, this did not last. It also did not mean that Filipinos were exempt from the discrimination and institutional racism faced by other Asians. Many Alaskeros were not afraid to lend their voices to the cause. They organized themselves and fought for the rights of cannery workers. Others fought against anti-miscegenation laws that prohibited inter-racial relationships. I often find myself in awe of their courage, to stand up and claim something that was your due.

Some writers find it easier to give voice to their own experiences. To me, the opposite is true. It is harder to write of the challenges I face. So instead I turn to Filipino poetry, and their struggle has given birth to words that guide and inspire me.

On days when I need to gather my strength:

Go back, hisses the parent of the child to the high school teacher who can do mathematics in more than one language. Sometimes my hands are hot, my hands are cold. They’ve counted and counted and now they’ve run out of lives to give away for free. Through it all the moon keeps coming closer, blooming larger: wineskin filled with bullets or poems or hail. Something is coming. Or something is here. We are told this is the best time to sing.

– from Tipping Point, by Luisa Igloria (Via Negativa)

On days when I feel that yes, maybe I can live here after all:

When my friends decide
they’ve had enough of America
they start longing for the odor
of fish sauce, the silky texture
of newly cooked rice, warmer weather,
the privilege of cursing
in their own tongue.


Someday I will send everyone a card
with nothing on it, only
the calligraphy
of a river, and in the back
with invisible ink I will say:
Forgive my happiness,
I have betrayed you all.

– from Enough, by Eric Gamalinda

Promdi Heart Anthology Book CoverI only hope there is enough poetry to last me through the summer, through the changing seasons. The raven flies away, content for now that its place is unchallenged, but it leaves me wondering if there is a word for a longing to be acknowledged. I wonder if I will ever get to put my feet up while I think.

Buchholdt, Thelma. Filipinos in Alaska: 1788-1958. Aboriginal Press, 1996.
Guimary, Donald. Marumina Trabaho: A History of Labor in Alaska’s Salmon Canning Industry. iUniverse, 2006.
Kramer, Paul A. The Blood of Government: Race, Empire, the United States, and the Philippines. The University of North Carolina Press, 2006.
Poems Mentioned:
Enough, by Eric Gamalinda
Tipping Point, by Luisa Igloria
Passports, by Barbra Ramos

Thank you so very much for sharing with us, today, Chris. What a beautiful, poignant post – and we so much information. <3

3 thoughts on “SAPAHM Guest: Chris Mariano on Air, Sea, and Birth: How the Filipino Community Has Grown in Alaska

  1. Katje

    This was beautiful, especially the poetry. Thank you so much for sharing. I’m always intrigued by how the diaspora moves and where it moves.


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