Beginnings of Jacksonville’s Filipino community

Chief Petty Officer Armando Aman in the kitchen at Naval Air Station Jacksonville in 1986. Like many Filipinos in Jacksonville, he came to the city while serving in the U.S. Navy. Courtesy of the Jacksonville Public Library.

The story of Jacksonville’s Filipino community is one that exists in estimates and approximations. Four waves of Filipino immigrants are identified in the United States’ general history. The first wave ran from the arrival of the first Filipino immigrants in New Orleans until the Spanish-American War in 1898. Large groups of farm laborers arrived between 1924-1934, with 150,000 Filipinos settling on the West Coast and in Hawaii. A smaller wave arrived from 1934-1965, after the passage of a nondiscriminatory immigration act by Congress, and more than 250,000 Filipinos arrived on the fourth wave, from 1966-1976.

Early census records make finding the exact date of Jacksonville’s first Filipino migrant a complicated one. The city’s 1940s records have no category for Filipinos specifically, but show 18 people recorded under the “other” category, which at the time largely comprised Asians. In Jacksonville’s 1950 census, 210 people were recorded under this “other” category.

The Abrajano family. Cesar and Ancia are featured in the front, with Mr. and Mrs. Domingo Miclat (parents of Ancia) in the back. Courtesy of the Jacksonville Public Library.

This increase reflects what community members said in newspaper clippings from Jacksonville’s past: the first wave of Filipino immigrants to Jacksonville began in the 1940s as a result of heavy enlistment of Filipinos in the U.S. Navy during World War II. At the time, the U.S. Navy offered Filipinos a path to American citizenship, and the creation of Naval Air Station Jacksonville in 1940 and Naval Station Mayport in 1942 made Jacksonville a major naval center. By the 1950s, 90% of North Florida’s Filipino population was linked in some way to the American military. By the late 1980s, 60% of this community still depended on the military for their livelihoods.

Even while the Filipino community was expanding at an explosive rate in the 80s and 90s, no two sources agree on their exact numbers. One article estimates Jacksonville’s Filipino community to have been 7,000 in 1988, while another estimates 15,000 Filipinos in the city in 1994. Yet another article counts 20,000 Filipino-Americans living in Jacksonville in June 1994, although the 2000 Census put the number at 15,000. The 2010 Census counted 25,033 Filipinos in the Jacksonville area, a figure community members felt was more accurate. This makes it the largest Filipino community and Florida and among the largest in the Southeast.

These discrepancies may have been caused by a number of factors, including ineffective counting, the adoption of Anglicized names on the part of Filipino migrants, and mixed-race descendants not choosing to identify as Filipino in the census. Regardless of the inconsistencies in counting Jacksonville’s Filipino population, it is clear that both back then and today, Filipinos are one of the city’s largest ethnic groups.

Filipinos in the U.S. Navy

Cover of Jacksonville Today, May 1988 edition. Courtesy of the Jacksonville Public Library.

In May 1988, Jacksonville Today published a special issue covering a brief history of the Filipinos in Jacksonville, alongside personal stories from individual Filipino immigrants residing in the city at the time. In the magazine’s issue, Cesar Abrajano tells his story: he came from a “very, very, very poor family,” and decided he would come to the United States “because of economics.” Abrajano did not see any personal chance for economic advancement in the Philippines, and so, at 9:30 in the morning on December 5, 1945, he was sworn into the U.S. Navy. Barely two hours later Abrajano was “already washing dishes, pots and pans,” as he recalls that “Filipinos and Blacks were relegated to the lowest jobs in the United States Navy.”

Filipino World War II veterans take their oath of allegiance as U.S. citizens during an inaugural naturalization ceremony in Manila in 1993. Courtesy of the Jacksonville Public Library.

Pio Claudio shares a similar experience, commenting that when he joined the American Navy in 1946, he was automatically made a steward, which was the case for any Filipino during that time. Claudio observed that “if you were a Filipino, you could become a chief, but you would still be a steward. Still a servant.” Antonio Romero remembers these conditions changing in the 1960s, when, after the Philippine government protested the treatment of Filipino sailors, the U.S. Navy allowed expanded opportunities for them.

Next page: Another wave of Filipino immigration to Jacksonville