Victorio Velasco, Pioneer of Filipino-American Journalism
 

by Erik Luthy

 

When Seattle’s Filipino American community began to develop in the 1920s, one notable characteristic was the heavy use of journalism and writing.  In the decades that followed, the community was responsible for the publication of countless journals and newspapers.  These publications focused on numerous topics, from labor issues to daily gossip to politics to international issues of concern to the local Filipino population. Through journalism, Seattle's Filipino Americans strengthened their community, explored identity, and organized to overcome obstacles.

The central figure in Filipino American community journalism in the Northwest was Victorio A. Velasco, who immigrated to the United States in 1924. Velasco edited, wrote, and published more newspapers, newsletters, poems, pamphlets, speeches, and other writings than it is reasonable to outline in detail, and in so doing became, for all intents and purposes, the William Randolph Hearst of Filipino American journalism. Today Velasco is best known for The Filipino Forum, the Seattle-based weekly he founded in 1928 and edited and published until his death in 1968.  Mark Mabanag has written a research report for this website on the "Filipino Forum: The Founding Years"  and Michael S. Brown has written an important dissertation that serves as a more complete biography of Victorio Velasco. Here I explore Velasco's early years in America and examine the newspapers he wrote for and edited prior to the Filipino Forum. Velasco’s early years help to outline exactly who he was and provide an understanding of how he helped pioneer Filipino American journalism. These years also reveal how Velasco’s views evolved over time, from the mild, apolitical tone of the Philippine Seattle Colonist to the more assertive politics of the Philippine American Review.[1]

            Velasco was born in the Philippines in 1902, just four years after the country had had come under US control at the end of the Spanish-American War. Growing up, Velasco learned to write and speak English as a second language. His generation was one of the first to receive an American-style education. He studied at the College of the Philippines in Sampaluc, where he received his Bachelors degree. After graduating he began working for the Manila Tribune and The Philippine Herald, but due to encouragement from American teachers in the Philippines, Velasco decided to come to the U.S. in order to further his education and career.[2] He left the Philippines on April 12th, 1924 and sailed a long route that took him to Eastern China, Hong Kong, Japan and finally, weeks later, to Seattle.[3]

When Velasco arrived in the United States he did not immediately go to school. He first worked for nearly a year in order to raise enough money to pay for his education. Even though Velasco had more education than the majority of his white counterparts in the United States he was unable to find a job as a journalist due to his race.[4] Instead, he worked in Seattle as a domestic servant and in Alaska in the salmon canneries. The work he received in Seattle was often sporadic and did not pay well. Due to racial stereotypes and discrimination, the only jobs available to even educated Filipinos were positions as houseboys or in various forms of manual labor.[5] Many times he was fired with little to no warning on dubious grounds. As a result, he was forced to rely heavily on cannery work in order to stay ahead on his finances. Although the working conditions in the canneries were often deplorable, Velasco was encouraged by the amount of money he was able to earn in America. On his first trip up to Alaska he wrote in his diary, “Received my first earned dollar in America. Received $7.50 for working ten hours the other day. Was laughing at the easy job and easy money. $7.50 for 10 hours! In the Philippines it takes a month for a police man to earn what I did for barely ten hours of easy work. Such is the better prospect of life in this beautiful country.””[6] Thus, despite the fact that he was being discriminated against and forced to work long, unpleasant hours packing fish, Velasco managed to keep a very positive outlook.

Despite the barriers posed by racism and financial difficulties, Velasco was determined to become a journalist in America. Unable to find work at any of the mainstream newspapers, Velasco became an editor for the Philippine Seattle Colonist. Published from 1924-1927, the Colonist represents the beginning of a series of papers that document Velasco's maturation and evolution as a writer and a community leader. It was published in Seattle on a weekly to monthly basis and consisted of five to ten pages.  Unfortunately, it had a rather small readership, which was unable to support it for very long.

The tone of The Philippine Seattle Colonist was relatively mild in regards to racial inequality, the demands of labor, or the issue of Philippine independence. Although the Colonist professed an interest in confronting these issues, it instead largely skirted them in favor of light Filipino-related community news without any major political substance. The paper's stance on Philippine independence appears to represent a detachment from political conditions there. Considering Velasco's initial patriotic impressions of America and the paper's tenuous financial position, it is easy to see where the conciliatory tone of the paper came from. 

An article on the Filipino holiday of Rizal Day in the January 7, 1927 issue of the Colonist provides an example of the paper's timidity on the issue of Philippine independence.[7] Jose Rizal was a brilliant Filipino revolutionary who had written several novels arguing for Philippine independence during the era of Spanish rule. Despite his nonviolent platform, the Spanish had Rizal exiled. During the revolution from Spain, Rizal returned to the Philippines to support nonviolence but was shot for sedition by the Spanish-controlled government. After that point, Rizal became a national hero and an emblem of Philippine independence.[8] In an article titled “1926 Rizal Day Biggest Ever,”[9] the Colonist noted, “The coronation ceremonies were impressive and majestic.  After a beautiful selection by the Filipino band of the U.S.S Holland, directed by L.C. Mateo, the sound of trumpets heralded the coming of the queen to her court.”[10] Not once did the Colonist discuss how the festivities organized by the US navy were symbolic of an act of submission on a day celebrating a man known for his struggle for Philippine independence, or that such an act was analogous to the current relationship between the Philippines and the U.S. Coverage of a holiday celebrating the independent spirit of the Philippines would have been an excellent opportunity for the newspaper to discuss the ongoing debate over independence from the U.S. during that period. Seeing as Velasco was the principle editor of the paper, it is likely that this tone reflected his overall perception and outlook as a Filipino American. When considering the obstacles he had to face in order to make a living it is curious that he did not write more forcefully about major issues such as discrimination and independence. While Velasco worked on The Colonist he attempted to use it to bring together the Filipino community and help them to celebrate their presence in the United States. Nevertheless, when looking at the editorial stance Velasco set for the Colonist, the major characteristic that stands out is one of complacency and contentment.

Even as he worked on the Colonist, Velasco continued to work in various forms of manual labor and domestic service. He picked fruit in Eastern Washington, was a houseboy, worked in the canneries, and of course continued to write. He also continued his education. On his second trip to Alaska in 1926 he stopped in Bellingham, WA and talked with a representative of the Bellingham Normal School, which would later become Western Washington University. The following fall Velasco began attending the school and over his very brief stay pushed forward with his journalism career in the United States. During the fall of 1926 he became the president of the Scribes Club and managing editor of the Club's newsletter, The Red Arrow. The Red Arrow was a student newsletter published with varying regularity and discussing literary comings and goings at the school. There is no evidence that the newsletter cost anything or that it had a large readership. In addition, Velasco edited The Weekly Messenger, an informational newsletter geared for the entire student body. All of this is remarkable considering that Velasco was also a full-time student.[11] The following quarter Velasco transferred to the University of Washington, where he continued to write and edit articles for the Philippine Seattle Colonist.

             As a Filipino American journalist, Velasco faced many challenges getting the papers he worked for off the ground. It was very difficult to find businesses willing to purchase advertisements in a paper geared toward a small population that was constantly in transit. Subscribers were also hard to come by for the same reasons. When Velasco was forced to work in Alaska one quarter instead of attend the University of Washington, a friend wrote him that she was concerned that the Philippine Seattle Colonist would likely not survive his absence.[12]

One of the ways that Velasco and other Filipino journalists overcame these barriers was by forming a sort of writers and journalists support network. According to Brown, “the two Velasco brothers and the other Filipino journalists worked in concert … by exchanging information.”[13] Looking over the Filipino newspapers produced during the era, many of them have the same people working on them. Not only did Filipino journalists exchange job opportunities but they also shared stories for publication and advice. Thus, though the Filipino community faced barriers as a result of their ethnicity they also were able to use ethnic ties as a way to rally themselves and work together as a community.

Velasco continued to work on a number of different Filipino community newspapers after the Colonist shut down in 1927. The Chomly Spectator was a small cannery newsletter written and edited by Asian cannery workers. Published roughly every two weeks, the format of the newsletter was a stack of loose-leaf eight and a half by eleven sheets of paper, often featuring a hand-drawn cover. The Chomly Spectator discussed a variety of topics, including relations with white foremen and the expected fish harvest. Velasco also contributed to the Seagull News, another small cannery newsletter with a circulation limited to the workers of the cannery where Velasco was employed and friends and associates of Velasco. According to Brown, during this period Velasco also worked on two other community newspapers about which little is known, The Filipino American and The Informer.

The Philippine American Review was the largest newspaper Velasco worked on between the Colonist and the Filipino Forum. The Philippine American Review was published by Roma Trias on a monthly basis by the Review Publishing Company from 1928 to 1930. Typically seven to eight pages in length, the monthly often began with a letter from the editor about the condition of the Philippines and the newspaper. It would then have five or six stories about any number of topics in the Filipino community. It would often end with some poetry or a comic section. One significant difference between the Colonist and The Philippine American Review was that the Review was printed while the Colonist was most likely mimeographed

The most significant difference between The Philippine American Review and the Colonist, however, was the Review's willingness to confront controversial political issues such as ethnic tension, labor, equality, and Philippine independence. When characterizing this paper it is easy to say that The Philippine American Review lived up to its promise to provided a “frank, sincere, and honest-to-goodness discussion of the Philippine problem.” [14] Velasco made a distinct effort to provide an equitable and balanced perspective on the issues. For example, in an article about whether or not the Filipino Senate President should cooperate with the new US governor of the Philippines, Velasco not only acknowledged the relationship between the U.S. and the Philippines but also expressed an opinion on this relationship. The article reads, “Governor General Stimson and Senate President Quezon by working together will accelerate the progress of the country; separately, they will hamper and retard its development.” Here Velasco showed that he felt the best interests of the Philippines as well as of the United States would be served through cooperation. As noted previously, The Colonist did not make any effort to note or express an opinion on political issues facing the Filipino people. [15]

Considering the progression from The Colonist to The Philippine American Review, Velasco appears to have developed a new, more assertive perspective and a new angle to sell to his readers. It is impossible to tell exactly why, but one contributing factor may have been related to his continued inability find mainstream employment. During this period he continued to go up to Alaska during the summers and work grueling hours for little pay in the fish canneries. Velasco wrote to a friend, “The Rainy and dreary days that we have here most of the time only add to the gloomy depression of our spirits.  Day in and day out we tread the self-same old beaten path—from our bunk house to the cannery, and back. The rattle of the cans that we make, the deafening noise of the machines, the unpleasant odor of gas, the clouds of suffocating smoke… all these are ours to endure...”[16] Velasco was clearly frustrated by the need to work in the canneries and put up with these conditions on the basis of race and not inherent qualification. For this reason, it is not hard to see why Velasco’s tone changed from The Colonist to The Philippine American Review. By the late 1920s, Velasco had grown into an understanding of his freedom to express his opinion. As he became progressively more aware of the fact that America was not a perfect utopia in which everyone was treated equally; his writing became more and more pointed and openly critical of American policy. 

That being said, Velasco did make a conscious effort to provide a full and well-rounded perspective on the issues. In fact, in The Philippine American Review Velasco published articles from other newspapers that supported an anti-independence agenda. In one such article the writer argued that it was in the best interests of the Philippines to be “under strict military rule.”[17] The Philippine American Review did not provide any commentary on these articles but simply by publishing them it demonstrated a desire to discuss all sides of the issue and an interest in providing a full, uncensored account of the issues and challenges facing the Filipino people.

            In 1930 the Philippine American Review became the Philippine Review and took on a new staff and a new magazine format with a far more upscale look. Instead of being the editor, as he was for The Philippine American Review, Velasco simply wrote for the Philippine Review. The paper was about ten to fifteen pages in length and was published monthly for ten cents a copy, which was relatively expensive for the times.  It was owned by Vicente Naeva.

            When looking at the development of Velasco’s Journalism The Philippine Review represents where Velasco began to put what was really on his mind down in writing.  The main difference between the two newspapers was that the Philippine Review took a much stronger stance on independence. The Philippine American Review had supported independence, but was willing to make certain concessions to the United States in order to facilitate that goal. In contrast, the Philippine Review unabashedly promoted immediate independence, and offered up only limited interest for further discussion of the issue. Thus, while the Philippine American Review represented an immigrant community strongly identifying with its adopted nation, the Philippine Review spoke for a faction of the Filipino American population that felt decidedly separate from the United States. In contrast to the Philippine American Review, the Philippine Review resisted assimilation into American culture and was ambivalent about cooperation between the U.S. and the Philippines. Just the difference in titles reveals the shift between the newspapers with regard to the issue. By eliminating the "American" part of the title, the Philippine Review made a strong statement in favor of immediate independence. The Philippine Review’s perspective on independence and its discussion of conditions in the canneries, Filipino education, and discrimination demonstrated that it was focused first and foremost on promoting Filipino interests. 

            The shift between the two papers demonstrates Velasco’s own developing views on independence and cooperation with America. According to a 1931 article in the Philippine Review, “From the venerable Aguinaldo down to the children in the primary school room, we have not been able to find a Filipino, living in his own country who is not in favor of independence”[18] This statement shows that Velasco saw himself as very connected to his Filipino counterparts and that he felt there was universal sentiment amongst Filipinos in support of independence. In its support for the Philippines, the newspaper showed that these Filipinos had retained their ethnic identity to the point where they were no longer willing to capitulate to any U.S. demands.[19] By the early 1930s, Velasco felt that if the United States did not grant immediate independence it demonstrated the intention of the U.S. never to grant Filipinos independence. As the Philippine Review argued, “the mere setting of a date for future independence of the islands gives the Philippine people no opportunity to express their views. Furthermore it is manifest from the hearings that the fixing of a deferred date from Philippine independence is regarded as a plan to make impossible the ultimate granting of such a proposal.[20]” This stance on the part of the newspaper shows that Velasco felt the Filipino people were being victimized by the United States’ continued backpedaling on Philippine independence.

            The Philippine Review also took strong stances on labor disputes and discrimination, further demonstrating Velasco’s determination to confront Filipino problems and not passively watch issues that he felt strongly about slip away. In the early 1930s many Filipinos worked in Alaska during the summers. Yet the process of getting a job in Alaska often meant going to an office filled with other Filipinos and fighting in vain for a fair wage. Most Filipinos received entry-level jobs, while the Chinese often ran or even owned the canneries, and controlled all hiring. Wherever Filipinos competed with whites they received lower wages and longer hours.[21] As the Philippine Review reported, “the line between jobs open and not open to Orientals and Filipinos is tightly drawn. Neither work performed nor wages earned by the latter have so far proved attractive to American itinerant workers.”[22] By publicizing and protesting the discrimination against Filipino workers, the Philippine Review showed its concern for the Filipino community and its desire to improve their condition. 

            Velasco continued to edit and write for the Philippine Review even after he began publishing the Filipino Forum. Of all the papers that Velasco worked on prior to the Forum, The Philippine Review had probably the greatest significance because it was while writing for the Review that Velasco came into his own as a writer and developed the political sentiments that would inform his later work at the Filipino Forum. The Filipino Forum became one the most successful and influential Filipino newspapers in the United States. 

            Looking over this short but important period of Velasco’s life, it is clear that he was, first and foremost, a writer. He wrote constantly everywhere he went, newsletters pamphlets, papers, speeches, and poetry. Through his writing he gives us a glimpse of both his own life and the comings and goings of the Filipino community in the Pacific Northwest. Whether or not he was writing to a large subscription base or to family friends, he never ceased writing and he never ceased using his writing to unite and inform the community. Despite the barriers of racial discrimination and financial hardship, Velasco became a major force in Filipino journalism and a crucial leader in the ongoing struggle for economic and social justice for Filipino-Americans. Ironically, it was this same passion for writing that ultimately resulted in his early death. Velasco was in Alaska in the summer of 1968, working, as he had most summers during the previous four decades, in the salmon canneries. When a fire broke out in his bunkhouse, Velasco and the other men scrambled to safety, but then Velasco realized that he had forgotten his precious typewriter. He dove back into the flaming structure, but did not make it back out. He died as he had lived:  a journalist to the very end.

Copyright (c) 2006 Erik Luthy
HSTAA 105 Winter 2006; HIST 499 Fall 2006


[1] Michael S. Brown, "Victorio Acosta Velasco: Asian American Activist" (Ph.D. dissertation, Washington State University, 2003). Many of the sources for this report are from the Victorio A. Velasco Collection, Acc #1435, Special Collections, University of Washington.

[2] Brown, “Victorio Velasco,” 15

[3] Brown, “Victorio Velasco,” 37-38

[4] Brown, “Victorio Velasco,”

[5] Brown, “Victorio Velasco,” 38

[6] Special Collections

[7] “How the Popularity Contest was Won”, “1926 Rizal Day Biggest Ever” Philippine Seattle Review, January 7, 1927

[8] “Our Philippine Problem” By Henry Parker Willis, Published by Arno Press and The New York Times, 1905

[9] “1926 Rizal Day Biggest Ever” Philippine Seattle Review, January 7, 1927

[10] “1926 Rizal Day Biggest Ever” Philippine Seattle Review, January 7, 1927

[11] Brown, “Victorio Velasco,” 84

[12] Brown, “Victorio Velasco,” 45

[13] Brown, “Victorio Velasco,” 104

[14] “Why Every Filipino Should Cooperate in an Alert Organ of Opinion” Philippine American Review, Page 1

[15] “A Military Adviser” Philippine American Review, Page 7

[16] Brown, “Victorio Velasco,” 41

[17] “A Military Adviser” Philippine American Review, Page 7

[18] “The Philippines” Philippine Review, February1931, 6

[19] “The Philippines” Philippine Review, February1931, 6

[20] “The Philippines” Philippine Review, February1931, 6

[21] The Philippine Review page 10

[22] The Philippine Review page 10

 

Although he devoted his life to journalism, Victorio Velasco earned part of his living working with other Filipino men in the Alaska canneries. Photo: FAHNS. See our Special Section Filipino Cannery Unionism Across Three Generations 1930s-1980s  which includes articles, photos, and documents.

[click to enlarge articles]


Philippine Seattle Colonist 1924-1927

The Colonist may have been Seattle's first Filipino American periodical. Velasco did not own the mimeographed Colonist, but he served as editor for at least one year. Few issues survive. Below


Filipino Forum 1928-1968

Velasco is best known as the editor and publisher of the Filipino Forum which he founded in 1928 and maintained until his death in 1968. Below is a 1928 article by Velasco describing the race prejudice that Filipino students faced at what is now Western Washington University.

See The Filipino Forum: The Founding Years 1928-1930 by Mark Mabanag


Philippine-American Review 1928-1930

Even as he published his own Filipino Forum, Velasco served as editor of the better funded monthly, Philippine-American Review which was owned and published by Roma Trias.

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[Click above to read the remained of this article]


Philippine Review 1930-1932

When Victor Naeva took over and renamed the monthly, he gave it a slicker look and a tougher political tone. Velasco, no longer editor, continued to write for the Philippine Review.

Above June 1931; below July 1931

Below the February 1931 issue reports on violence against Filipinos near Kent, WA and a proposed immigration law. The July issue examined a California court decision regarding intermarriage and the legal racial status of Filipinos.

July 1931


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