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Filipino Americans

The Filipino-American community in New Mexico often points out the Philippines-New Mexico connection, which details a similar colonial history and shared experiences. New Mexico is one among several states that is home to a strong and active Filipino-American community that works to preserve the history and culture of the islands of the Philippines.



Beginning in the 16th century, the Philippine Islands were ruled by Spain. The earliest immigrants from the Philippines were often merchants who traveled on Spanish ships to parts of North America. Many young Filipino men also served as crewmen on Spanish ships and in the 1580s Filipinos arrived at Morro Bay in California. However, it was not until after the Spanish-American War that large-scale Filipino immigration to the mainland U.S. would begin.

In 1898, the Philippines officially became a U.S. colony when the United States defeated Spain in the Spanish-American War. The islands of Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippine Islands, all of which had previously been ruled by Spain, were sold to the United States for a total of twenty million dollars. Filipinos would continue to struggle for independence until the passage of the Tydings-McDuffie Act in 1935. This act made the Philippines a self-governing commonwealth of the United States.

World War II in the Philippines
World War II would change the Philippines forever. When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, the Philippines was attacked only a day later. During the attack, the 200th (and later the “war-born” 515th) Coast Artillery of the New Mexico National Guard, already in the Philippines, fought admirably to resist the Japanese forces. Over 1800 New Mexicans fought in the Philippines, but less than half returned home. In 1942, Corregidor and Bataan, the last united Filipino-American strongholds, were surrendered to the Japanese.

The Bataan Death March is one of the most horrific events in Filipino history. Beginning on April 9, 1942, over 70,000 Filipinos and Americans, including many New Mexicans, were forced to endure the horrific march to prisoner of war camps. The Filipino and American troops, already injured and starving, were forced to march over 65 miles through sweltering, disease-infested jungle. On the march, they were starved, subjected to random beatings, and tortured. Many were executed along the way.

Those who survived this tragic and horrific period in history have contributed their heroic stories to several historical books and documentaries. As a tribute to these New Mexicans a memorial was erected in the New Mexico Bataan Memorial Park. There is also a Bataan Memorial Park in Las Cruces and a Museum and Library in Santa Fe. In addition, for over twenty years, New Mexicans have gathered annually on White Sands Missile Range to march through the desert in commemoration of the men who lost their lives and those who survived the Bataan Death March.

The Philippines remained under Japanese rule until 1945. One year earlier, on October 20, 1944 General Douglas MacArthur returned to the Philippines to defeat the Japanese forces. Upon his arrival, the bloody battle for the Philippines began. After a year, and the deaths of over one million Filipinos, many of whom were civilians, MacArthur’s troops liberated the Philippines.

The Philippines was declared an independent nation on July 4, 1946, and officially adopted the name the Republic of the Philippines. Today, Philippine Independence Day is celebrated on June 12, which also commemorates the day that the Philippines won independence from Spain in 1898.



Filipino Immigration to the United States

After the Spanish-American War, the United States Congress passed the Pensionado Act. This act allowed outstanding Filipino students to travel to the U.S. on government scholarships to pursue higher education. The students, who were called pensionados, were both men and women. Other Filipino students who came to the United States were from wealthier families and were sent to the U.S. by their parents to take advantage of educational opportunities. While some pensionados returned to the Philippines, others remained in the U.S. for the rest of their lives and went on to become leaders of the Filipino-American community. (1)

Another group of Filipinos were recruited by the Hawaiian Sugar Planters Association to work in the Hawaiian sugar plantations. In 1906, 15 Filipinos would be the first among their countrymen to travel to Hawaii. In the following decades, immigration to Hawaii increased. Between 1911 and 1920, an estimated 3,000 Filipinos arrived in Hawaii each year.

Starting in the 1920s, a large number of Filipinos also began arriving in California to work as agricultural laborers. Most were young, uneducated men. By 1930, over 30,000 Filipinos lived in California. Some of these men found their way to Washington, Oregon, and Alaska. In 1933 these men formed the first Filipino-led union ever organized in the United States: the Cannery Workers’ and Farm Labors’ Union Local 18257. Based in Seattle, it was organized by "Alaskeros," Filipinos who worked in the Alaska salmon canneries each summer and in the harvest fields of Washington, Oregon, and California in the other seasons. The Filipino laborers continued to become involved in union causes in both California and Alaska. In 1956, Larry Dulay Itliong founded the Filipino Farm Labor Union in California, the precursor to the United Farm Workers which was headed by Cesar Chavez.

All over the U.S. and in many parts of California, labor competition led to racial hatred and violence. A Filipino community in Exeter, California was attacked by a mob of hundreds and the workers were forcibly driven out of their homes. Similar occurrences followed in Watsonville, Stockton, San Jose, and San Francisco, California. In 1929, the California legislature attempted on several occasions to pass legislation to end Filipino immigration but could not because the Philippines was still officially a U.S. territory. (2)

Filipino immigration to the U.S. would increase dramatically after the Immigration Act of 1965. In the decades following the act, hundreds of thousands of Filipinos would immigrate, many as trained doctors, nurses, and other professionals. Today, Filipinos are one of the fastest growing Asian communities in the United States. 

Filipinos in New Mexico

The Philippines and New Mexico share a unique historical connection, partly because of a shared colonial history, but also because of the Bataan Death March. Many New Mexicans lost their lives in the Battle for the Philippines, and those who returned often maintained close personal ties with the Philippines for the rest of their lives. Some New Mexicans who served were able to bring their Filipino wives back to New Mexico because of the War Brides Act of 1945. In addition, some servicemen adopted Filipino children and brought them back to the United States.

Filipinos began coming to New Mexico before World War II, and many arrived to work in agriculture. As early as 1910 the U.S. Census for New Mexico reported that ten Filipino immigrants were living in New Mexico. According to the Rio Grande Chapter of the Filipino American National Historical Society, large numbers of Filipinos arrived in New Mexico between 1920 and 1977. Most of them traveled from other parts of the U.S. and worked on lettuce and carrot fields in the cities of Grants, Los Lunas, Moriarty, Estancia, and Jemez Springs. (3) Today, over 5,000 Filipinos live in New Mexico.

Contemporary Filipinos in Albuquerque

Like all Asian groups, Filipinos in Albuquerque are very diverse. Some were born in New Mexico and had parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents who came to New Mexico as agricultural workers. Many are professionals who were born in the Philippines and came to New Mexico for jobs. A newer group of Filipino immigrants to New Mexico are doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals.

Celia Tomlinson
Celia Tomlinson is a very accomplished engineer and businesswoman in Albuquerque. She was born in the Philippines, where, after overcoming obstacles such as absolute poverty and gender discrimination, she earned a diploma in civil engineering.

In 1968, the United States government called for trained professionals from other countries to immigrate to the United States to fill a skilled labor shortage caused by the Vietnam War. Celia Tomlinson came to the United States under this program with only her diploma and $300.

After coming to the United States, Celia Tomlinson would have to again overcome many of the barriers she faced in the Philippines. But, in 1970, she became the first woman in New Mexico to be registered as a professional engineer. In 1983, she was the first female engineer to serve as a member of the State Board of Registration of Professional Engineers and Surveyors. Also in 1983, with only $2000 and workers hired from the unemployment line, Celia founded Rhombus Professional Associates, Inc. Over the years, Rhombus has evolved into a major full service engineering and environmental consulting firm that has worked on many projects in New Mexico and around the country.

Among the many honors she has received, in 1999 Celia was a recipient of the Governor’s Award for Outstanding Women in New Mexico. She has also published her autobiography “Don’t Ever Tell Me You Can’t.”

Dr. Adelamar “Dely” Alcantara
Dr. Dely Alcantara came to New Mexico in 1988 after growing up in the Philippines and spending many years as a graduate student in Hawaii. She is a senior research scientist and demographer at the University of New Mexico.

In 2001, Dely was elected president of the Bataan-Corregidor Memorial Foundation of New Mexico. She successfully lobbied the State Legislature and the City of Albuquerque for the funding necessary to complete a Bataan-Corregidor Memorial in Bataan Memorial Park at Lomas Blvd. and Tulane Dr. NE. The memorial, which consists of 12 granite columns bearing the names of the 1800 New Mexicans who fought in the Philippines in the New Mexico 200th and 515th Coast Artillery Units, was dedicated in April 2002 - the 60th anniversary of the Bataan Death March.

In 2004, Dely was a recipient of the Governor’s Award for Outstanding Women in New Mexico. She was the founder of the Rio Grande Chapter of the Filipino American National Historical Society and the New Mexico Asian Family Center. She has also been very active in the Asian American Association of New Mexico.

Tessie Ordoña Greenfield
Tessie was born in Butuan City in the Philippines. After spending several years in advertising, communications, and scriptwriting, she became enchanted with the power of using puppets to educate children. In the late 1970s, she founded the “Alsa Balutan Puppet Group” in Manila and preformed shows for all children whether they lived in the poorest tenement or the richest neighborhoods. Tessie continued her study of puppetry and was sponsored by the British Council to study puppetry in London. In the 1980s, Tessie moved to New Mexico to work at White Sands. She continued to expand her puppetry shows to include a television show.

Tessie continues to use puppets both as an educational tool for children and as a way to preserve and celebrate Filipino history and folklore. Through her company Kidstale, she has produced several puppetry DVDs of Filipino tales in both English and Tagalog.


Filipino Culture in New Mexico 

Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS), Rio Grande Chapter
The Rio Grande Chapter of the Filipino American National Historical Society, founded in 1998, seeks to promote “understanding, education, enlightenment, appreciation and enrichment through the identification, gathering, preservation, and dissemination of the history and culture of Filipino Americans in the United States.” (4)

FANHS sponsors the biennial “Pamana Heritage Awards.” These awards are given out to members of the Filipino-American community in New Mexico for special achievements in areas such as community service, educational contributions, and professional success.

Filipino American Foundation of New Mexico
The Filipino-American Foundation of New Mexico (FAFNM) promotes “the recognition and maintenance of the distinctive values and historical heritage of Filipinos while striving to enhance the well-being of Filipinos through education, health, and economic services.” The FAFNM co-sponsors the annual Santacruzan. (5)

The Santacruzan is a religious celebration that commemorates St. Helena’s finding of the Holy Cross. In Albuquerque, the Santacruzan is usually held in May and is celebrated at the Old Town Plaza. This event starts with a mass held in the San Felipe de Neri Church, followed by a procession around the plaza and festivities including music, dancing, and a dinner that features traditional Filipino food.

The Kulintang is an instrument from the Maguindanao region of the Philippines. It consists of a set of eight metal gong kettles in graduated sizes that are laid horizontally on a rack. It is played by striking the gongs with wooden sticks. A full Kulintang ensemble also has four other instruments including differently pitched hanging gongs and a drum that is used to keep time. The Kulintang Ensemble of Albuquerque performs traditional songs on these instruments.

The Filipino Cultural Dance Group is a group of young dancers between the ages of four and seventeen who perform traditional Filipino dances at events and venues all over Albuquerque. Their dances include: tinikling (bamboo dance), planting rice, itik-itik (duck dance), salakot (hat dance), and Kuratsa. (6)



1.  Grace Mateo, “Filipino Migration to the United States.”
2. Mateo.
3. Alcantara, Dely and Tessie J. Ordoña Greenfield. “The Philippines-New Mexico Connection and the Filipino Migration to New Mexico.” Filipino American National Historical Society, Rio Grande Chapter. April 2005.
4. Filipino American National Historical Society Rio Grande Chapter:
5. Filipino American Foundation of New Mexico:
6. Filipino Cultural Dance Group:

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