Take me to St. Louis, Take me to the Fair!

- John L. Silva () - October 31, 2004 - 12:00am
THIS YEAR IS THE CENTENARY OF THE ST. LOUIS World’s Fair held in St. Louis, Missouri to commemorate the Louisiana Purchase. There have been events held in the United States to remember the most extensive anthropological exhibit ever assembled and the National Museum of the Philippines will soon have its own artifact and pictorial exhibit of the fair.

Of the over 2,000 "native peoples" from around the world brought to St. Louis, close to 1,500 were Filipinos–men, women and children–from the Bagobo, Benguet, Suyoc Igorot, Tinguian, and Negrito tribes along with Moslem and Visayan peoples and a complete Philippine Constabulary band. Whole villages were built for these tribal peoples along with large replicas of the Walled City, the Manila Cathedral, the España Bridge, and Filipino-Hispanic inspired buildings to house the thousands of artifacts and commercial products from the former American colony.

The various tribes chosen were in keeping with the American government’s desire to show that the vast majority of the natives, except the Visayans, were "savages" and was a good enough reason to continue the American occupation of the islands, which only several years before had to be fought and conquered by 126,000 American soldiers in a four-year war resulting in over 250,000 Filipino civilian casualties. (In comparison, there are now 130,000 US Army personnel in the current Iraq debacle.)

The complex of buildings and villages devoted to Filipinos was called the Philippine Reservation, just like the term American Indian reservation. In fact, outside the Philippine reservation, the other tribes in their own mini-reservations at the fair were the Apache, Comanche, Navajo, Pawnee, Acoma Pueblo, Rosebud Sioux and half a dozen other Native American tribes.

I found my first extensive research and photographic material of the Filipino tribes in St. Louis 30 years ago at the Bureau of Indian Affairs files in the Library of Congress, an interesting coincidence since we were also classified as Indios by the preceding colonial power.

I was an angry young man, smoldering away in the Library’s reading room, looking at photographs showing an array of tribal people being gawked at and ridiculed. The most haunting is that of Datu Bolong, who was made to pose with his long hair down on one side and wearing a beautiful beaded shirt and pants. He looked androgynous, evoking public curiosity on whether he was a man or a woman.

Antonio, Chief of the Bontoc Igorots, would be stripped of his distinction with a typewriter resting on his lap, the subtext being that civilization had eluded him. The midgets Juan and and his sister Martina from Capiz were one of the most photographed couples in the whole fair. At 24 and 21 inches respectively, they were pictorial grist for the thousands of postcards and snapshots of them in a height obsessed society.

Over 40 years before, young Filipino students studying in Madrid–one of them Jose Rizal–bewailed the death due to pneumonia of Basalia, a Moslem woman from Jolo who, along with a group of Igorots, were sent as human displays for the Madrid Universal Exposition of 1887. In a letter to his friend Ferdi-nand Blumentritt, Rizal wrote how his "heart is very sad… and would like to cry". He added that the natives complained of having been sent to Madrid "…unwillingly, deceived and forced." He ruefully noted that "I have done everything possible to prevent the carrying out of this degradation of men of my race, but I have not succeeded."

The exhibition of Filipinos at St. Louis also had its share of detractors. Angry Filipino voices in Manila editorials were indignant at the daily dog roasting and eating held at the fair’s Igorot village. Their ire was directed at Dean Worcester, a zoologist who was the Philippine Secretary of the Interior from 1900 to 1913. Worcester, whose descriptions of Negritos were "not far above the anthropoid apes…and absolutely incapable of civilization," made the decision to send the tribes to St. Louis.

A hundred years have passed and this country has sent its representatives–"natives" or otherwise–to World’s Fairs and Expositions in Washington State (1909), San Francisco (1915 and 1939), New York (1964), Osaka (1970) Washington DC (1998) and other smaller fairs in between.

In my first findings of St. Louis related Filipino photographs, it wasn’t difficult raising an accusing finger at all the former colonizers for having subjected our selected native peoples to the indignities they suffered. But now, as a republic of some vintage, it is still "sad" as Rizal noted, that the indignities still remain.

At the National Museum, children still snicker and howl at the sight of Igorots and Mangyans in their loin cloths. Advertisements today are relentless in selling whitening soaps so that a whole pasty country can disassociate themselves from its "dark," "primitive," and peasant roots. In Mindanao, the Lumad (non-Moslem) children have drop-out and illiteracy rates twice or three times that of the rest of the country. As for the Moslems who regaled American visitors a centennial ago with their proud culture and their history of defiance, today, this Christian republic has bombed their communities, destroyed their mosques, and rendered hundreds of thousands homeless and begging in Manila’s Roxas Boulevard.

Since my first research, I’ve learned and read more about the Filipino participation at the St. Louis World’s Fair. There’s an account from a grandchild of a Bagobo who tells how his grandfather came back and became the village storyteller, recounting tales of glass bulbs from a ceiling that lit a room, and horseless carriages that carried people and moved. A Mangyan woman recounts her grandmother writing in her script, on a bamboo stalk, a note missing her boyfriend and hoping they would meet again. There were also tragedies. The midget Juan did not return to Capiz and instead died in Florida in 1907.

Many of the photographs I found of the St. Louis participants had them gazing directly at the camera. With thousands of early Kodak cameras clicking at them every day for the six months they were on display, these Filipinos had become adept at the camera’s need. They learned to speak to it.

One hundred years later, their poignant anguish, forced smiles, and strained nobility remain in these fragile albumen images.

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