Filipino Migration to the U.S.

Filipino Migration to the United States

Even prior to the U.S. annexation of the Philippines, there was already a Filipino community in Louisiana. However, it was the American colonization of the Philippines which paved the way for an exodus of Filipinos to the United States. There were two types of Filipinos who went to the United States. One type was comprised of the educated and, initially, middle class Filipinos who came as pensionados, or government scholars, for the purpose of furthering their education and training in the U.S. The second type were poor Filipinos who came as a cheap migrating labor supply for Hawaii plantations, California farms, and the Alaska fishing industry. While most of the pensionados went home after several years of schooling, most of the Filipino migrant workers eventually made the U.S. their new homeland. The collective experiences of the pensionados and migrant workers constitute the early history of the Filipino Americans, and they occupy a significant niche in the history of Filipino diaspora.

Louisiana Community

The earliest Filipino settlement in the United States was the Manila men of the Saint Malo village, Louisiana. Called the Louisiana community, the settlers were Filipino sailors who jumped from the Spanish vessels plying the famous Manila-Acapulco galleon trade during the Spanish colonization of the Philippines. While the galleon was docked in the west coast of Mexico, many Filipinos escaped the oppressive colonial conditions and traveled east to Vera Cruz where they boarded another ship or traveled by land until Louisiana. An 1883 Harper’s Weekly report on the Louisiana community noted the presence of this Manila community which it dated at that time to be over fifty years, and which comprised of about a dozen small huts raised above the swamps. Almost entirely men, these Filipinos lived by fishing and catching alligators. They were said to speak Spanish and a Philippine language, most probably Tagalog since they were referred to in the report as Tagalas from the Philippine Islands. They were believed to have eventually assimilated that to date the Saint Malo village is no longer in existence.


Political tutelage was one of the goals set forth by the U.S. when it acquired the Philippines. One reason for training Filipinos in lessons of self-rule was to create a pool of qualified, highly educated civil servants emboding the American ideals. Thus, in 1903, through the passage of the Pensionado Act, qualified Filipino students could be sent to the United States to further their education. These students were called pensionados since they were scholars studying at the expense of the colonial government.

In the first decade of the American rule, pensionados, some of whom were women, were chosen from the wealthy, Filipino elite. It was members of this same privileged class who were able to acquire education during the late Spanish period. However, as the free and compulsory American colonial educational system took root in the Philippines, educational opportunities were democratized. As a result, many of the later pensionados were young and intelligent government employees who were not necessarily wealthy. Becoming a pensionado was prestigious, and it promised a bright future as well. Upon their return to the Philippines, pensionados were given promotions or better job opportunities in the colonial bureaucracy.

Not all Filipino students in the United States were pensionados. In the 1920s, most of them were sent by their wealthy parents for schooling. Others who did not have that distinguished background found jobs and were self-supporting. While many of these students stayed in the U.S. for good, most of them returned home. These U.S.-schooled students, especially the pensionados, were often accused of bringing home an American accent and a condescending attitude brought about by having been Americanized.