Looking south from Jersey City you can see Ellis Island, the gateway of most of the immigrants in this country. Being of Filipino ancestry we have few ties to Ellis Island but further south and connected to a much earlier point in history is the magnificent Verrazano Bridge, the longest single span bridge in the world. Just who was this Verrazano? He will serve as my reference timeline.
Just a few years after Columbus rediscovered America, European explorers followed the westward trail. In 1512 Balboa crossed the Isthmus of Panama and re-discovered the huge Pacific Ocean, confirming that the new American continental land was not the Indian Continent, as Columbus mistakenly thought. Numerous new explorers raced to find a passage through the big continent.
Sailing under the French flag, Giovanni De Verrazano discovered the entrance to the Hudson valley in the 1520s. At this point of history Hudson Valley was still untouched by the European settlers. Verrazano had been commissioned by the French government to chart a North American passage to the Continental divide.
In 1519, a few years before Verrazano's discovery, Ferdinand Magellan sailed from Spain on his famous westward voyage around the world. Unlike Verrazano, he was looking for a Southern passage through the Americas to the Pacific. The polyglot crew had stopped at Brazil to replenish supplies and spend their winter on solid ground before venturing down to the tip of South American. There was nothing significant about the landing except that among the crew was Enrique, a Malay from the Philippines who was a supernumerary listed as the Armada's interpreter. He was first brought to Spain by Magellan as a slave while he was staying in the Malacca. By landing in Brazil, he became the first Filipino to reach the American mainland. While in Brazil the ship was met by an Indian woman who presented a seven year old boy to Carvahall (senior officer) the boy's father. Carvahal had earlier been in Brazil under the Portuguese Crown. Magellan easily acknowledged the boy and allowed him to join the expedition with his father. At the point when the ships landed in the Philippines, the young Carvahal became the first person of American origin to reach the Philippines and Enrique was the first person to circumnavigate the world. It was not what he said but how he said it.
According to Pigafetta " we saw a small boat..With 8 men in it" Those who manned it were obviously interested in the 3 strange ships, but the boat approached hesitantly, and Enrique shouted a greeting to them in his native dialect. While in Homonhon Island, he and the native visitors had had no single word in common, and he had undoubtedly supposed that the same would be true here. To his surprise, however, they replied in the tongue in which he had spoken. "They immediately understood him," Pigafetta tells us.
Stefan Zweig wrote in the Biography of of Magellan :
Now came the wonder. The Islanders surrounded Enrique chattering and shouting, and the Malay slave was dumbfounded, for they understood much of what they were saying. He understood their questions. It was a good many years since he was snatched from his home, a good many years since he had last heard a word of his native speech. What an amazing moment, one of the remarkable in the history of mankind! For the first time since our planet begun to spin upon its axis and to circle in its orbit, a living man, himself circling that planet, had got back to his homeland. No matter that he was underling, a slave, for his significance lies in his fate and not his personality. He is known to us by his slave-name Enrique; but we know, likewise, that he was torn from his home upon the island of Sumatra, was bought by Magellan in Malacca, was taken by his master to India, to Africa, and to Lisbon; traveled thence to Brazil and to Petagonia; and first of all the population of the world, transversing the oceans, circling the globe, he returned to the region where men spoke a familiar tongue. Having made acquaintance on the way with hundred of people and tribes and races, each of which had different way of communicating thought, he had got then back to his folk, whom he could understand and who could understand him.
One of Magellan's pilots reports in his log-book that Enrique celebrated his return to a land where his mother tongue could at long last be understood by allowing himself a drunken spree as soon as he set foot ashore. His taste buds still remembered arrack (rice wine) and tuba (palm wine, which the art of making was later brought back to Mexico by the Spaniards).
Enrique elected to stay in the Philippines in 1521, becoming the first "Balikbayan." The ship Victoria, with only 18 men onboard, struggled back to Spain and became the first ship to circumnavigate the world. The ship however was not made into a historic relic but, rather, was refitted to make two more trips to America. On her second voyage she failed to return to Europe for she sunk with all hands under the Atlantic Ocean.
The Spanish colony extended around the world from Mexico to the Philippines. The longest continuous trading routes existed from 1565 to 1812 between these two countries. The famous Manila Galleon ships brought gold and Oriental goods from the Orient and silver back for almost quarter of millenium. The crew was mostly Filipinos who came to America. The first known Filipino was a certain Rodriguez, who is now considered one of the founding fathers of Los Angeles.
Had Mark Twain continued his saga of Huck Finn to the end of the Mississippi River, the young character would have met the strange community of Badjao dwellers in the marshland of Louisiana. Instead, an eccentric writer of macabre genre wrote about these Manilamen. Lafcadio Hearn, almost at the same time Huckleberry Finn was published, wrote the story in an article in the Harper's Weekly in Mar 31, 1883. He, along with a painter, went down to the meandering land created by great Mississippi River.
The group of Badjao houses were sketched and their lives were described by the author. The settler were former sailors from the Manila Galleon who jumped ship in Mexico. The author was so fascinated by the people he had met that he wrote a another fictional novel (CHITA) using Tagalog words. He later adopted the Oriental Philosophy, moved to Japan, changed his name and devoted his soul to the Japanese society.
When the United States purchased the Louisiana territory and double United States territory, neither Lewis and Clark nor the US government was aware that they were also acquiring these settlers, who lived in houses on stilts as did their ancestors in the southern Philippines. They were our pioneers and the traces of Badjaos are all gone now. The composite sketches of the houses of these seafarers, who became fishers, shrimpers, and crocodile catchers of the bayous, can be seen. I enhanced the pictures and you can download them. Hang it them your living room and challenge anyone to figure it out- as to how, when and where?
That was our first settlement in this country. A couple of years ago I went to New Orleans in search of our Jamestown. The wind of time and flow of the river has been constantly changing the shape of the bayous. It is hard for me to romance our beginning, it was harsh as the elements. They are submerged in the gulf and American history.
Today thousands of Filipinos have settled in the Jersey City. They are all the children of the great seafaring Nomads of the Pacific. They will be carrying the spirit of adventure wherever they go. This is what Dr.Jose Rizal said when he found himself away from his homeland. It is the "wandering Malay lust" in our blood.
Nestor Palugod Enriquez
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