Filipino-American population thrives in Alaska

Photo Illustration by Vicente Capala

All it takes is one. Like other Asian and Pacific Islander groups, one Filipino-American in Alaska today could turn into one Filipino-American with dozens of relatives in Alaska the next.

“A recent US census report said that by 2025, one in four people in Alaska will be Filipino,” said EJ David, UAA assistant psychology professor.

Recently released U.S. Census figures indicate that there are 19,394 Filipinos in Alaska, with about a 53 percent increase since 1990. They are the largest Asian population statewide. Alaska has the fourth-largest Filipino population in the United States.

There are more than 2.5 million Filipinos in the United States today, a 38 percent increase from 10 years ago. These figures, however, only represent counts of “Filipino alone” responses to the 2010 census survey. With “mixed-race Filipino” figures added, the total estimated number of Filipinos in the US tops 3.5 million.

David is part of a group called Alaskero Partnership Organizers (APO), American Filipinos who are UAA faculty and community members focused on increasing vitality and visibility of Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders. They are gearing up for their “Alaskero Fiesta,” a celebration of Filipino-American History Month set for Oct. 5 in the UAA Student Union.

The acronym APO spells out the Filipino word “apo,” which means both elder and grandchild in the Tagalog dialect.

“It’s the whole idea of past and future. We’re highlighting our deep roots and then we’re in the present when we talk about our research and how we are trying to bridge the gap and pave the way for the future,” said Joy Chavez Mapaye, UAA assistant journalism professor and member of APO.

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The deep roots Mapaye refers to is the long history Filipinos have in Alaska and the other United States. Filipinos first came to Alaska in 1788 as crew aboard fur trade vessels. Filipino sailors first came to the continent in 1587 before the United States was a country.

Still, even with a long history in both Alaska and the other United States, some often wonder why Filipinos would leave the lush tropical islands for such distant lands. Simply put, family and opportunity are among some of the main reasons.

Some people are surprised to learn that Filipino-Americans have such deep roots in the country. Young Filipinos are as equally surprised to learn this about their own people.

Mariecris Gatlabayan is a young Filipino who is an assistant professor archivist in Library Science with Archives and Special Collections at the UAA/APU Consortium Library. She recalled an experience while studying a “Filipino-American History” course taught by an older Filipino-American couple, Fred and Dorothy Cordova.

“My mind froze. The Cordovas had no accent — in fact, they sounded very much like the people on ‘Leave it to Beaver,’” Gatlabayan said. “I was used to my generation being the first generation to grow up in America. And here were these old Filipino people who looked more Filipino than me and felt as American as apple pie.”

Christine Marasigan, legislative staffer to Senator Kevin Meyer and treasurer for the Filipino-American National Historical Society, always remembers to recognize her Filipino elders while looking towards the future.

“We wouldn’t be able to do this if there weren’t people before us to knock down closed doors, and we have to hold that door open for someone else,” Marasigan said. “People have done it before; we can do it again.”

The idea of connecting past present and future comes full-circle with many thriving Filipino-Americans of all generations in Alaska and the other United States.

No matter where they are in life, many Filipinos remember an old Tagalog proverb by late Filipino writer, Jose Rizal. “Ang hindi marunong lumingon sa pinanggalingan ay hindi makararating sa paroroonan,” which means, “He who does not know how to look back at where he came from will never get to his destination.”