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One Woman's Attempt To Preserve Filipino American History In Chicago

Eighty-two-year-old Estrella Alamar made it her mission to preserve and share the history of Filipino Americans in Chicago.
Posted at 4:19 PM, Apr 28, 2019

Eighty-two-year-old Estrella Alamar has boxes and boxes of photos and artifacts of Filipino Americans throughout the years. Some date back to the 1920s. Alamar has documented Filipino American history in Chicago. 

Alamar and her husband self-funded a Filipino American museum in Chicago in 1999. It closed after three years due to lack of financing. Her home now houses the artifacts.

"We were a minority within a minority, there's very little known about the Filipinos," Alamar said. "And because of the extent of history that, we have, through the pictures and through the papers that my parents collected, we have the root of the foundation of what our history is here in Chicago. ... Who would get to know about this history if someone did not start to show it." 

The Philippines and the U.S. have an intertwined history. After 300 years of Spanish colonial rule, Filipino rebels and Americans joined forces to defeat Spain in the Spanish American War in 1898. The Philippines became an American colony and they became U.S. nationals. But Filipino rebels wanted independence from any colonial rule, including America. They declared war on America, the Philippine American War, but lost in 1902. The three-year struggle resulted in the deaths of 4,000 Americans and more than 20,000 Filipinos. Waves of Filipinos arrived in America as government sponsored students or pensionados and laborers after the war.   

"Through photographs you can get a summary of what the community is like in the visual history of showing pictures," Alamar said. "This is somebody that worked as a bellboy in one of the well-known hotels here in Hyde Park."

Filipinos settled in Garfield Park, Hyde Park and the Near North Side of Chicago. There weren't a lot of Filipina women in Chicago in the early 1900s, so it was difficult for Filipino men to find Filipina wives.

"You see that the women like the Filipino men. They were polite. ... They were charming. ... The Caucasian men saw their women being attracted to the Filipinos. And, you know, at that time, there was the prejudice against Filipinos," Alamar said. 

Illinois allowed interracial marriages in 1874, but the discrimination lasted much longer than that.

"There is that animosity within the families when they would get married. Some of them were not accepted and it was hard to find apartments," Alamar said.

Alamar was born in Chicago and has seen the evolution of the Filipino community firsthand.

Alamar: "This is another picture in the '20s or early '30s — my dad with another provincial man. They were attracted to coming here. Those that came from the province they said, 'You've got to come here you know, Tino. Tino is my father's name. Tino, this is the place that we have to be.'"Cat: "Why Chicago?"Alamar: "It was already developing as a city and those who were in California started out in the farms and so to get their education they started going to different areas: New York, Chicago, Detroit and Washington, D.C."

"During my father's time and my mother's time, they were just working working Filipinos — restaurants, elevator boys, working in the hotels. So they were a working class nature but they came here, their main goal was to come here. Good education." 

Because of her want to preserve that history, Alamar strung a collection of photographs and published one of the first Filipino American pictorial books in Chicago. It's the first of its kind from the publisher and it has inspired other Filipino American books throughout various cities. A majority of the pictures in Alamar's book are of every day Filipino Americans in Chicago throughout the years, but it also focuses on larger contributions from people like engineer Benito Piit who helped build the Baha'i Temple and the Conrad Hilton Hotel. 

Cat: "What was it like growing up as a second-generation Filipino American?"Alamar: "We were American. It's interesting at that time, you didn't consider yourselves Filipino American, you know, not until the '60s. We were really American. And we didn't know the language. Our parents were not interested in teaching us the language because there's no need to learn it."

Assimilation may have played a part in Filipino Americans not learning the languages of the Philippines. But Alamar ensures that this history continues on. 

"Filipinos who came here, their education was to advance themselves in their occupations," Alamar said. "They didn't have that much grounding in history. And so it's taken a long time for them to recognize that history that we do have as a transition to the history of the Philippines. And it's through your generation, that this awareness is coming about."