From Manongs to Pinay Domestic Workers: The Changing Face of Filipino Migration to the US

Filipino migration to the US has changed over time, but the intersection of labor and gender in the formation of the Filipino diaspora continues.

2 months ago

Latest Podcast Rooftop Koreans Are Not Your Daddy — ft. Pix ('Escape From Plan A' Ep. 198)
by Plan A Editors

Banner photo description: A Filipino farmworker cutting cauliflower near Santa Maria, CA during the 1930s (source: New York Public Library)

“What is a manong?”

On the first day of my Introduction to Filipino American Studies class, my professor had every student in the small lecture hall introduce themselves and answer the question, “What is a manong?”  

The class had a range of positionalities, from Filipino Americans who were active in the university’s Filipino student organization to non-Filipinos who were fulfilling course requirements for the Asian American Studies major.  One non-Filipino student was unfamiliar with the term and thought it meant “friend.”  Another student, the president of the main Filipino student organization on campus talked about the manongs (old-timer Filipino immigrants) and the importance of manongs such as Larry Itliong and Philip Vera Cruz in the farmworkers’ movement.  

When it was my turn to speak, I brought up how the word “manong” is an Ilocano word meant to address older brothers.  Can you imagine if we called manongs the “kuyas” (the Tagalog word for older brother) instead?  The word “manong” being used to refer to old-timer Filipino immigrants not only brings up the fact that Filipino migrant workers from a century ago hail from various provinces and ethnolinguistic groups in the Philippines, it also reminds us that migration from the Philippines has always been gendered.  

It is important to acknowledge them as manongs, not only to honor their sacrifices, but also to debunk the stereotype that West Coast Filipino Americans have lived in the United States for multiple generations.  This article discusses the gendered aspects of migration that explain this historical context, because dwelling on the history of Filipino migration in the West Coast diverts our attention away from advocating for the most vulnerable Filipino Americans today: undocumented immigrants and migrant workers.

The intersection of gender and immigration is rooted in US imperialism and capitalism.  According to Catherine Ceniza Choy, author of Empire of Care, the United States fabricated “separate spheres” of work between men and women.  For instance, nursing and domestic labor became designated for women, whereas US agricultural businesses preferred male bachelor laborers.  In the words of Swiss novelist Max Frisch,

“We wanted workers… but we got people instead.”  

Although Frisch’s quote refers to migration into Europe, the same can be said about US immigration policy, specifically their desire to import migrant workers rather than immigrant families.

Manongs: Older Brothers and Old-timer Migrant Workers

The United States intentionally created “bachelor societies” by having primarily young male migrants work in the fields—80% of Filipino immigrants were less than 30 years old, and 94% of Filipino immigrants in the US mainland were male in the 1930s.  Meanwhile, gendered xenophobia in the US combined with patriarchal views on unmarried women in the Philippines resulted in the lack of Filipino American women in the West Coast.

Given that the manongs in the West Coast were a primarily bachelor society, the chance of finding a third-, fourth-, or fifth-generation Filipino American is rare.  The manongs were also a transient community.  They had to move throughout the West Coast and Alaska following the various seasons of harvest, so it was difficult for Filipinos to form long-standing ethnic enclaves during the 20th century.  For instance, according to Linda España-Maram, author of Creating Masculinity in Los Angeles, the Filipino population in Stockton fluctuated between 3,000 in the winter and over 8,000 during the harvest season.  This is why Little Manila in Stockton and Historic Filipinotown in Los Angeles were barely recognized about 20 years ago.  These enclaves preserve the history of the manongs and are distinct from the contemporary Filipino American suburban communities in California.  

In these areas historically, specifically in taxi dance halls where the manongs danced with white women as their main interaction with the opposite sex, Filipino men were seen as a threat to white masculinity.  This resulted in the Watsonville Riots, where white mobs violently shot at Filipinos at taxi dance halls and attempted to murder Filipinos sleeping in their bunkers.  A white mob also bombed the Filipino Federation Building in Stockton.  Filipino patrons were banned from taxi dance halls by the 1940s and were forbidden from marrying white women due to anti-miscegenation laws.  Therefore, it was difficult for migrant workers from a century ago, such as the manongs, to form families that span multiple generations.

Manongs dressed up outside of work (source: OZY and Filipino American National Historical Society)

Although there are organizations that honor the presence of Filipino Americans in US history, it is erroneous to assume that the entire Filipino diaspora has direct ties to this history, especially in the West Coast.  Before and during the Great Depression, Filipinos that came to the US in large numbers solely due to their colonial position as US “nationals” were not subject to the strict immigration quotas that effectively halted migration from other parts of Asia, but also were prohibited from becoming naturalized US citizens.  

During the Great Depression, acts of anti-Asian racism such as the Watsonville Riots were instrumental in the US ratifying the Tydings-McDuffie Act.  While this legislation was intended to grant the Philippines independence from the US over the next 10 years, it also meant that Filipinos in the US would be subject to the strict immigration quotas that had already halted migration from other parts of Asia for decades.

Pinay Migration to the US: Mothers, Aunts, and Older Sisters

Filipino women were only able to migrate to the United States in relatively large numbers after World War II, following the enactment of the War Brides Act of 1945.  As a result, Filipino Americans who are third-, fourth-, or fifth-generation immigrants are far more likely to descend from military families than from the manongs.  

The vast majority of the Filipino diaspora wouldn’t exist in the United States today without the Hart-Celler Act, also known as the Immigration Act of 1965.  This legislation dismantled immigration quotas and allowed for family reunification, but its main purpose was to prioritize the migration of professionals such as nurses.  As mentioned earlier, the US intentionally created “separate spheres” between various types of labor.  While being “outside” was ascribed to men, being “inside” and providing “care” became categorized as women’s work.

During the latter half of the 20th century, the United States no longer looked to the Philippines to fulfill its need for farmworkers, but needed to adress its nursing shortage instead.  In turn, the Hart-Celler Act particularly encouraged female Filipino migration, whereas Asian Exclusion and sexism initially kept female Filipino immigrants at home and in the Philippines.

The family reunification aspect of this legislation allowed immigrant women to sponsor family members to migrate with them to the United States.  In turn, not only is there a generational divide between pre- and post-1965 migration from the Philippines, there is also a significant disconnect between the manongs and contemporary Filipino immigrants today in terms of socioeconomic status and gender.

The Changing Face of Migration

Migration from the Phillipines has increased exponentially over the past five decades, so there are far more first-generation, 1.5-generation, and/or undocumented Filipino immigrants in the United States.  That is not to say that third, fourth and fifth generations of Filipino Americans do not exist, but they certainly do not comprise the entire West Coast Filipino diaspora.  It is relatively uncommon for Filipino Americans to have great-grandparents or even grandparents that migrated to the West Coast.  

US-born Filipino Americans are still likely to have at least one parent who is an immigrant due to the manongs being primarily bachelor societies.  In other words, one can be third-generation Filipino American on one side of the family and be second-generation on the other side of the family simultaneously.  For instance, the late Professor Dawn Mabalon’s father directly migrated from the Phillipines, even though her paternal grandfather was a manong.  Immigration continues to be an important issue in the Filipino American community, despite the United States’ and specifically California and Hawaii’s histories of early migrant labor.

Additionally, the stereotype of Filipino Americans living in the West Coast for multiple generations erases the rich history of the US Filipino diaspora outside of the West Coast. New York City has a legacy of pre-1965 Filipino migration that most New Yorkers and/or Filipino Americans are completely unaware of.  Personally, I also never knew about Filipino Americans in Louisiana whose ancestors migrated before the 1900s until I saw Renee Tajima-Peña’s documentary My America… or Honk if You Love Buddha during college.  

Moreover, perpetuating the idea that West Coast Filipino communities are large solely because of earlier migration flows minimizes the issues affecting contemporary Filipino migrants, from undocumented immigrants to OFWs (overseas Filipino workers), including those with J-1 visas in the United States.

Lolita Lledo, Associate Director, Pilipino Workers Center (source: Rappler)

It is important to for us to listen to and advocate for the Filipino migrants of today.  Although the diaspora has grown exponentially over the past few decades, migrant labor continues to be gendered.  Whereas patriarchal values kept Filipino women in the Philippines before 1965, labor export policies starting with the Marcos regime and the concept of OFWs being bagong bayani or “new heroes” have pushed Pinays out of the Philippines in order to provide for their families.  

Nursing may be considered a reputable profession, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, but Filipino migrant workers also exist in other gendered industries that are not deemed as “professional.”  Workers in K–12 teaching, hospitality, and domestic work are disproportionately female.  In other industries such as construction work and seafaring, OFWs are disproportionately male.  

With this continuation of “separate spheres” of work and increasingly strict immigration policies worldwide, the class divide among the Filipino diaspora has grown significantly.  Dwelling on the history of Filipino migration in certain parts of the United States or “who came here first” takes away from advocating for the most vulnerable parts of the Filipino diaspora today.  That said, I’ll always remember the manongs, but I hope that we can support contemporary Filipino migrant workers who are the most vulnerable in our community due to COVID-19.


Support J-1 workers by filling out this petition.

Resources about Filipino immigrants:

·      Nurses and human trafficking

·      COVERAGE, a documentary about undocumented immigrants and healthcare

·      Delano Manongs (documentary)

·      Philippines: A History of Migration by Rappler


Like this article by Emilie Tumale?

Become a Plan A Patreon to support our writers!

  • Bonus podcast episodes
  • Patron-only Discord server

Want to know why we started a Patreon? Click here

Emilie Tumale

Published 2 months ago