by Anjuli Grantham
October is Filipino American History Month and serves as a yearly opportunity for Alaskans to consider the important role that those of Filipino descent play both now and in the history of the state.
From Manila men who sailed aboard 18th and 19th century voyages of exploration within Alaska’s waters, to those that laid cable aboard the Burnside and served in the US Navy and US Coast Guard, the history of Filipinos in Alaska is decidedly a salty one.
Yet when examined numerically, the bulk of Filipinos came to Alaska not as part of the military, but as part of the cannery crew. The history of Filipino seafood processors in Alaska cannot be extricated from the global events that brought them to the United States. In this short radio piece, Christine Marasigan of the Filipino American National Historical Society describes that the origin of the Filipino cannery worker in Alaska is based on American military action in the Philippines.
When the United States laid claim to the Philippines following the 1898 Spanish-American War, the formerly Spanish territory became the property of the United States. Filipinos were not considered US citizens due to the racist policies of the United States, but they were American nationals. This nebulous legal status meant that Filipinos could travel to the United States without a passport and could work in the nation, but they had no other rights that accompanied citizenship.
As far as Alaska salmon packers were concerned, the timing of the Spanish-American War was ideal. The packers were in need of a cheap, flexible labor force who could step in to replace the aging Chinese cannery workers who previously were the mainstay of the industry. (After the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, Chinese immigration was severely restricted.) A few young Filipino “Alaskeros,” as they became known, started arriving at Alaska’s canneries soon after the Spanish-American War. Within a few decades, Filipinos came to dominate the cannery work force. Most cannery workers returned to San Francisco or Seattle at the end of the season, but some Filipino cannery workers stayed in Alaska and married local women, particularly in Southeast Alaska.
To find books and articles about labor in Alaska’s canneries, including works that highlight the experience of Filipino cannery workers, please look here. Additionally, to learn more about the experiences of a group of Filipino cannery workers who worked in Larsen Bay in 1915, please listen to this radio show.