Filing the Lane, Here and Abroad: Filipino American Identity and Basketball

Ceremonial ball toss for the opening of the Philippine Basketball Association in 1975 | Photo: wikipedia

[Editor’s Note: Happy Asian Pacific American Heritage Month! ToM will be bringing forth several articles on Asian American history and culture over the next three weeks. Be sure to check out our previous post on masculinity, femininity, and Asian American basketball in 20th century California here.]

“We played in the barrios too and the whole town would come to watch us,” fifteen year old Los Angeles native and Filipino American basketball player Gabe Abe Pagtama told journalists in 1992. “The one bad thing over there is the mosquitoes. We had to make small fires in the hotel rooms to drive them out.” Pagtama and his Los Angeles-area teammates traveled to the Philippines to take part in a series of exhibition games organized by the Fil-Am Youth Sports Foundation. The tour had been a success, suturing ties between adolescent SoCal Filipino American basketball players and their ancestral homeland. In fact, several players had even received scholarship offers from Filipino Universities looking to recruit the young cagers.

The 1992 trip represented the culmination of efforts for Filipino American basketball fans in and around Los Angeles. Only five years earlier, in 1987, a group of Filipino Americans organized the Film-Am Youth Basketball League for greater Los Angeles. Worried about Filipino American youngsters falling under the sway of gangs, drug use, and a variety of other dangers associated with the inner city, basketball, as with so many other ethnic groups, was seen as a means to prevent wayward youngsters from falling prey to such attractions. Six years after its foundation, and one year after the tour of the Philippines, Hoopstown International formed to further develop basketball talent within the league.

“To be honest, we did this because we wanted to promote Filipino players,” coach Jeff Berina, director of basketball operations, told The Philippine Star in 2004. However, as Berina related the league and Hoopstown’s original intent, the reality proved much different. By the mid-2000s, African American and Filipino American players frequented Hoopstown camps, further evidence of the long ties between Asian and African Americans. Girls too signed up. By exploring basketball through the lens of Filipino Americans, differences between Asian American communities in terms of class, race, and tenure all come to the fore, while also demonstrating the numerous ways Asian American communities absorbed basketball and its varying meanings.

Class and Ethnicity in Asian American Basketball

In comparison to Chinese and Japanese American basketball leagues that can trace their histories back to the early twentieth century, Filipino American leagues developed more recently. While the Filipino American community in Southern California stretches back to the 1920s and 1930s, and in some cases earlier, they lack the tenure of their more established counterparts.

As colonial subjects under U.S. authority, Filipinos could migrate to the U.S., while immigration law, particularly between 1917 and 1924, more or less prohibited other Asians from doing so. Filipino immigration declined from 1934 to 1944, since U.S. officials, having put the territory on the path to independence, also placed limits on new arrivals. WWII, The Hart Celler Immigration Act of 1965, and increased U.S. military engagements in Southeast and East Asia reestablished immigration from the two regions.

Though represented less in popular culture than other Asian Americans, according to a 2012 Pew survey, Filipino-Americans make up nearly 20 percent of the nation’s Asian American population, with 2.8 million living in the U.S. as of 2010; two thirds of that number live in the American West. Like their Japanese American peers, whose rates of out marriage — roughly 65 percent for newlyweds from 2008-2010 — eclipse all other Asian ethnicities, Filipino Americans come in second at 48 percent. Economically, Filipino Americans earn an annual individual income of $43,000, $5,000 less than the overall average for Asian Americans, but $3,000 higher than the general U.S. standard. If one counts households however, Filipino American families rank second among Asian Americans, earning $75,000, with only Indian Americans earning more on household basis. As a point of reference, all U.S. households combined earn roughly $50,000 annually.

Though post-WWII Model Minority tropes presented Asians as an apolitical, uniform mass of quiet middle class exceptionalism, the struggles of Southeast Asian Americans often go ignored. Unlike Japanese Americans, who remain the only Asian American ethnicity with greater numbers of American-born citizens than those originating elsewhere, almost 70 percent of the Filipino American population was born abroad. Undoubtedly, the arc of Filipino American migration to and their collective material conditions in the U.S. differs markedly from that of Koreans, Japanese, and Chinese.

While 21st century economic globalization shapes all migration, Filipinos in particular have long ridden the crests of global trade abroad. From the illustrados, who traveled to Spain under Spanish colonial rule for access to European educational institutions, to the university students who came to America in the early 1900s hoping to improve their job prospects at home and abroad, Filipino migration long unfolded under the auspices of imperialism.

Labor markets too have long drawn Filipinos to American shores. In the 1930s, over 30,000 field laborers migrated to California in search of work, finding employment in multiracial work gangs all across the state. In the post 1965 world, notably over the last twenty years, the percentage of Filipinos working outside of the archipelago reached 10 percent. 1 Frequently working in domestic service — think housekeeper Wendy Ponce in the 2012 documentary “Queen of Versailles” — or medical care, in nursing especially, Filipinas found themselves looking abroad for work. In the early 1970s, contract laborers from the Philippines totaled around 50,000. By 1981, it had boomed to 266,243, and in 1994, it reached 700,000. Of these emigrants, 60 percent are women. 2 Remittances to the Philippines have increased accordingly, notes Rhacel Salazar Parrenas. Even today, 52% of Filipino Americans told researchers they send remittances to the Philippines. In contrast, only 12 percent and 16 percent of Japanese and Korean Americans made the same claim, respectively.

Along with connections to military service via enlistment or marriage, California emerged as a popular destination. Carson in Los Angeles, Daly City outside San Francisco, and National City near San Diego serve as three prominent Filipino American enclaves today.

Carson is home to a large Filipino American population and a monument of Filipino national hero Jose Rizal, the first of its kind in the nation | Photo:

With this in mind, the late creation of Filipino American basketball leagues makes sense. Of course, maintaining a strictly Asian American league has become more fraught over time. In recent years, Asian American basketball leagues have come under fire. Created during eras of segregation and meant to help maintain ethnic cohesion, Asian American leagues focused exclusively, as admitted by Berina earlier as late the 1990s, on one ethnicity.

Japanese American leagues in particular began to draw negative attention in the early 2000s. One of the largest of such leagues, the Community Youth Council (CYC) endured public scrutiny after expelling a Mexican American player because of his lack of Asian heritage. Seen as a “reservoir of culture,” some Japanese Americans believed the leagues needed to maintain their cultural significance, as out marriage, geographic dispersion, and low immigration rates impacted the ethnic group to a greater extent than other Asian Americans. At the time, board member Yoshi Haria admitted they encouraged teams to “Keep it Japanese American” or, at the very least, “Asian American,” but also acknowledged the tenuous legal ground such positions rested. “If we were sued [successfully], we would fold.” 3

Still, within the Japanese American community, not everyone agreed on ethnic exclusivity. “We live out in Santa Clarita,” father and former league participant, Bobby Uchiomo told the Los Angeles Times during the controversy. “We tell [our son] to watch out for skinheads and stuff … but he really learned a lot about racial prejudice from the CYC.” 4

The shifting American demography took its toll on some team’s ethnic make up. Often, churches organize squads, but due to population movements, congregations change. Some congregations’ demographics have transformed from majority Japanese American to an amalgam of ethnicities. In such cases, the CYC, hoping to avoid legal fights, makes exceptions. For example, take the case of Evergreen Baptist Church. The church originated in Boyle Heights and consisted of primarily Japanese American parishoners. However, as Boyle Heights transitioned into a predominantly Mexican American community, and Asian Americans moved to San Gabriel Valley and elsewhere, the church followed. Relocating to South El Monte, the new congregation grew far more multicultural; Chinese Americans had now become the largest constituency among regular parishoners. Wanting to continue to compete in the CYC, Evergreen Church sought out and received an exemption. 5

Beyond ethnic chauvinism, some observers have lobbed more class-based criticisms against the leagues. Perhaps as much a product of modern youth sports infrastructure, which emphasizes that young athletes focus on one sport intensely and with almost professional dedication, some have accused leagues of being too expensive for working class Asian Americans. While a competitive league can cost up to $8,000, even a typical recreation league, like the San Jose CYS, can run parents $400 per season, which remains a significant sum for families scrapping by. Then again, many leagues provide waivers or offer lifetime membership fees, paid once, that can be as low as $5, enabling more working class families to participate. 6 Moreover, run as non-profits, many leagues reinvest any profits into the league itself, which keeps expenses down and participation high. Christina Chin, a sociologist working on Sport and Asian American identity, spent eighteen months interviewing and observing Southern California Japanese American (JA) leagues. From her perspective, these leagues remain a bargain and for the most part widely accessible, when compared with most youth athletics today.

CYC All Star Team | Photo: CYC Basketball

The Filipino American Exception

While the popularity of basketball among Asian Americans seems undeniable, the sport means different things to various groups, some of which relates to issues of immigration, imperialism, and twenty first century globalization. Filipino Americans serve as a prime example. As former imperial subjects of the United States, Filipinos and Filipino Americans have a special, perhaps even tortured relationship to America. While occupied by U.S. forces for over 40 years, the Philippines in the 1930s saw immense interest in basketball. Endorsed by colonial officials, baseball and basketball became popular sports. Success in international basketball quickly followed: the Philippines won nine of the first ten Far Eastern games (a precursor to the Asian Games), and performed well at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

When the U.S. passed the Philippines Independence Act in 1934, promising to grant the colony sovereignty by 1944, basketball helped connect its disparate population. Divided among a vast archipelago and consisting of numerous ethnicities, religions, and interracial/interethnic identities, “[b]asketball became a major source of Philippine pride and bonding,” noted Rafe Bartholomew in his 2010 work, “Pacific Rims: Beermen, Ballin in Flip Flops, and the Philippines’ Unlikely Love Affair with Basketball.” Basketball even became a means to exact retribution from the Japanese for WWII, as postwar international competitions between the two sides served as a form of catharsis for Filipinos.

Unlike Japanese and Chinese Americans, who adopted the sport in America, Filipino Americans saw it become a central aspect of their native culture. Established in 1975, the Philippines Basketball Association (PBA) stands as the second oldest professional basketball league in the world (only the NBA is older), and remains one of the world’s most competitive leagues.

Many Filipino Americans, due in part to the hybridity of Filipino culture and their ancestral connection to the Philippines through grandparents and others, have been able to find work and thrive in the PBA. In 2006-2007, the champion Alaska Aces featured four Filipino American players. Guard Mike Cortez hailed from Carson, starring on his local high school team as a teenager, and had emerged as a premier PBA player at his position. Jeff Cariaso, one of the Alaskan Aces’ key players during their 2008 championship run, was born and raised in San Francisco. Reserve guard Alvin Castro grew up in Los Angeles, and Nic Belasco, whose grandfather had migrated to California in the 1930s as part of the 30,000 Filipino laborers who worked in the state’s agricultural fields, grew up in Stockton, CA.

The SoCal connection extended to their opponent in the 2006-2007 finals, Talk ‘N Text. Born in the Philippines, Mac Mac Cardona, one of the team’s premier players, had settled in California via an impressive story of grit and immigration. His mother had escaped domestic service in Greece and settled in Los Angeles; soon after she married and sent for her son, who had survived by shuttling between relatives and selling cigarettes on the streets of Manila. Eventually settling in Carson, Cardona — unlike Mike Cortez, who had been a star player at Carson High — took the “And1” street approach, opting to work at Jack in the Box while running in every pick-up game around the neighborhood, before returning to the Philippines and eventually ascending to the professional level. 7 Even today, Filipino American players often harbor PBA dreams. 8 The use of American imports — each team is allowed one non-Filipino import, usually a former college standout, many of whom are black — highlights the transnational connections between the U.S., notably African American culture, and the massive archipelago.

Talk ‘N’ Text of the PBA

Professional basketball offers a means to ascend the Filipino social ladder in ways that it doesn’t elsewhere. Former PBA players go on to elected office, television and film stardom, or business success. For boys, basketball serves as a right of passage, strategy for achieving masculinity, and a way to bypass economic barriers; everybody plays and watches the sport, from the poorest Manila trader to its wealthiest businessman. Unlike NBA games in America, where fans in attendance hail from the middle and upper classes exclusively, in the Philippines games draw from a wide cross section of society economically, politically and socially. “That’s the male entry into a larger sphere,” Filipino academic Michael Tan notes. “And it’s part of Filipino masculinity. The wider your sphere of influences, the better, so basketball is there to make friends, build alliances. It even crosses class barriers.”

According to Constancio Arnaldo Jr, a co-editor (with Christina Chin and Stanley Thangaraj) of the forthcoming anthology “Asian American Sporting Cultures,” Filipino basketball shapes masculinity, notably in the way it incorporates black culture. Arnaldo, an anthropologist who explores how sporting cultures, particularly in the space of Southern California, inform Filipino American identity, notes how Filipino-American team uniforms adopt the aesthetics of the NBA — a league clearly associated with blackness, more so than any of the other major American sports — but with tattoos and team names that identify them as Filipino. Designed using NBA templates, many feature the Philippines stitched into the fabrics. Team names like the Funky Fresh Boys, Mermen, and Mambas abound. “Strategically placing the Philippine flag and sun on their uniforms demonstrates an identity rooted in the transnational flow of goods, commodities, currency and exchange,” points out Arnaldo. Moreover, players often employ family members traveling to and from the islands to have uniforms made in the Philippines, bringing the finished product to the States upon their return. Teams save money, but also simultaneously create physical and metaphorical connections to America and Southeast Asia.

In this way, the intersection of black and Asian American culture should come as little surprise. Of course, this relationship has, in moments, been fraught with tension. “Asian Americans are perpetuating white racism in the United States, as they allow white America to hold up the ‘successful’ Oriental image before other minority groups as the model to emulate,” Asian American activist Amy Uyematsu told listeners in 1969. “White America justifies the blacks’ position by showing that other non-whites — yellow people — have been able to ‘adapt’ to the system. The truth underlying both the yellows’ history and that of the blacks has been distorted. In addition, the claim that black citizens must ‘prove their rights to equality’ is fundamentally racist.”

Clearly, Asian Americans’ place between the theoretical whiteness of the “model minority” myth and racial blackness, has weighed on the minds of both communities. Activists of earlier periods, like Uyematsu, rejected such tropes, even if more middle class elements of Asian American communities embraced them. While many have focused on the distance and rupture between the two communities, others, like Vijay Prashad in “Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting,” and here in Intersections, have examined cultural ties and overlap between Asian and African Americans.

Retro PBA Jerseys | Photo: Purveyor

Grantland’s Jay Caspian Kang made a similar point regarding Tawainese American Jeremy Lin and broader Asian American culture in 2012. As a fifteen-year old Lin had opened a Xanga account under the handle “chinkballa,” an appropriation of an ethnic slurred aimed at Asians and slang often associated with African American culture. For Asian Americans, U.S. culture placed them between the white/black binary that still largely defines conversations about race. “Like many of the Asian American kids of my generation stuck somewhere between white and black,” reflected Kang, “I filled the vacant parts of my identity with basketball and hip-hop.” Few spaces reveal this overlap like basketball.

Other scholars have noted similar dynamics at work with South Asians. In his study of South Asian American basketball players and leagues in Atlanta and Chicago, Stanley Thangaraj documents the use of “basketball cool,” based largely on the aesthetics of black urban culture, as a means to express South Asian American male masculinity. SoCal Filipino American basketball players, and one could certainly argue some of their Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese counterparts, deploy this “basketball cool” as a connection to “urban blackness.” Uniforms, as argued by Arnaldo, provide a level of “Filipino street credibility” not dissimilar from Thangaraj’s idea of “basketball cool.”

Despite cultural differences, South, Southeast, and East Asians share hopes for social mobility. In 2012, amid “Linsanity”, Vidya Pradhan, a journalist for the South Asian American magazine Indian Currents, asked “Where is the Desi Jeremy Lin?”, a clear acknowledgment that cultural differences between Asian ethnicities did not prevent each from viewing their own circumstances from the vantage point of others. 9

“They found the hoop in the ruins of their obliterated neighborhood,” A.P. correspondent Todd Pitman wrote in the wake of the devastating Typhoon Haiyan that had struck the islands last year. “They propped up the backboard with broken wood beams and rusty nails scavenged from vast mounds of storm-blasted homes.” Undaunted by the horror of natural disaster, one of the first things Filipinos did was to resume their love of basketball. Dealing with disaster, pointed out Elizabeth Protacio de Castro, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Philippines in Manila, had become second nature. At home in the U.S. and abroad, basketball continues to occupy a central place in Filipino American lives, no less than other Asian Americans, but uniquely their own, and perhaps, in its own way, uniquely American.
1 Rafe Bartolomew, Pacific Rims: Beermen, Ballin’ in Flip Flops, and the Philippines’ Unlikely Love Affair with Basketball, (New York: New American Library, 2010)
2 Rhacel Salazar Parrenas, “Asian Immigrant Women and Global Restructuring, 1970s – 1990s”, in Asian American Studies Now, Eds. Jen Yu – Wen Shen Wu and Thomas C. Chen, (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2010), pg. 356.
3 Solomon Moore, “The Courts of Ethnic Identity”, Los Angeles Times, 14 July 2000.
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid.
6 John Sammon, “JA Basketball Evolves, but not Elitist Cult, Experts Say”, Nikkei West, 25 December 2013, pg. 5.
7 Rafe Bartolomew, Pacific Rims: Beermen, Ballin’ in Flip Flops, and the Philippines’ Unlikely Love Affair with Basketball, (New York: New American Library, 2010)
8 Jannelle So, “Start ‘Em Young”, The Philippine Star, 14 September 2004.
9 Vidya Pradhan, “Where is the Desi Jeremy Lin?”. Indian Currents, May 1, 2012.

This article appeared originally on the KCET Departures website under the Intersections column.