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When St. Louis loved Dem Filipinos

By Ricky Toledo and Chito Vijandre, The Philippine STAR Published May 26, 2024 9:29 am

On April 27, the day that Floy Quintos died, a new exhibit opened at the Missouri History Museum about the infamous 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair which inspired the esteemed playwright’s St. Louis Loves Dem Filipinos, set amidst the backdrop of the exposition’s display of 1,107 Filipinos from different ethnic groups for visitors to gawk at in what has come to be described as the largest human zoo in history.

There couldn’t have been a more spectacular attraction during a time when the United States’ imperialist ambitions were bolstered by racist stereotypes. The whole exposition itself, featuring 60 foreign nations and 43 US states in over 1,500 buildings on 1,200 acres, celebrated the “civilization” of the continent in a “Babylon of the New World,” as named by the civic booster and impresario, Logan Uriah Reavis. It was indeed a Babylonian gathering-in of all the peoples, things, and knowledge of the known world, and just like the Babylon remembered by the Israelites in the Old Testament, “it presented itself to the world in the splendor of its boundless ambition, but rotten at the core,” according to Walter Johnson, professor at Harvard University. 

A scene from St. Louis Loves Dem Filipinos by Floy Quintos at UP starring Eugene Domingo as Momayon and Ronnie Lazaro as Datu Bulan on a ship en route to the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair

Johnson observes that the city’s own imperial history and aspirations framed the fair, using anthropology in tandem with an evolutionary perspective rooted in white superiority. Around 10,000 people from different parts of the world were brought to the exposition to be exhibited for seven months in ersatz reconstructions of their native habitats. The 47-acre Philippine Reservation was the most popular attraction as well as a prized ideological showcase.

“Young Spartan” by Ria Unson, 2021

The United States was given control of the Philippines after the Spanish-American War but the new colony resisted after having declared independence, fighting US annexation in the 1899-1902 Philippine-American War. The fair was the perfect venue to show off America’s new conquest and to justify “The White Man’s Burden” by displaying Igorots who were labeled as “headhunters” and “dogeaters,” in need of reformation and education.

Scale model of 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair at the Missouri History Museum

They were considered “primitive” together with the apache of the American Southwest and the Congolese represented by Ota Benga, who was displayed as a “cannibal” showing off teeth that were sharpened when he was a child. The anthropologist Albert Jenks believed that the Igorots were the most uncivilized tribe in the Philippines and to convince fairgoers that this was so, they were forced to cook and eat dogs even if they didn’t do this regularly back home. Beside them, as a counterpoint, was the Visayan Village with Christianized ladies in traje de mestiza while craftsmen were weaving and embroidering piña.

The opening day of the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair

Descendants of some of the expo’s Igorots were interviewed by Jessica Soho last year and one of them, named Leonardo, expressed dismay at how his forebears were treated and how the dogeating was sensationalized and taken out of context: “They didn’t respect our customs and traditions. They didn’t know that this only happened on very specific occasions, like as an offering when someone got into an accident.” 

Ad for human exhibits from the Philippines

As if the human zoo wasn’t bad enough, the bodies of those who died from pneumonia and other diseases were even used for experiments. The brain of Maura, an 18-year-old Igorot who died en route to the fair (just like Momayon in Floy’s play) was kept at the Smithsonian as part of the Racial Brain Collection, a project of the Physical Anthropology chair Aleš Hrdlička, who wanted to prove that colored people’s mental capacities are inferior to those of whites. Twenty-three of the 255 brain specimens belonged to Filipinos. An article in reported last August that the Smithsonian’s spokesperson, Linda St. Thomas, finally promised to repatriate the remains of Filipinos that it acquired for research without consent from 1904-1941.

The Igorot Village in the Philippine Reservation

The more fortunate ones who survived, like 12-year-old Antero Cabrera from Bontoc, ended up traveling the world as part of other anthropological exhibits. Others stayed on to pursue “The American Dream.”

Part of the exhibit actually features “Young Spartan,” the artwork of one of the descendants, Ria Unson, whose great grandfather Ramon Ochoa worked as a waiter and guide at the Philippine Reservation. He served as an example of what a “civilized” Filipino could become, later going to school in Oswego, N.Y., where he became totally Americanized. Ria followed suit, immigrating to the US and now living in St. Louis.

The Igorots on display for fair visitors

Ria’s work, painted on a newspaper clipping about an Igorot boy who is taught how to use a typewriter, is based on a photograph of her uncle, Ramon Unson, her great grandfather’s namesake. It is her way of “reclaiming the narrative,” explaining that her family’s story “shows how effective the exposition was as a tactic of psychological warfare, deployed to erase the country’s native cultures and colonize them with American values. The fair was also designed to teach capitalism as a form of racial progress.” She observes how William Taft, then Governor-General of the Philippines, called the fair “a great influence in completing the pacification of the Philippines” and that invading the islands “created a new market for American goods, opened access to the archipelago’s natural resources, and provided a chance to ‘civilize’ more laborers, while still denying its people any benefits of US citizenship.”

Women and a child in traje de mestiza attire in the Visayan section

Even their own citizens, however, were denied benefits. The exhibit explains how the World’s Fair was “where a vendor might have created the ice cream cone, but it was also where vendors might not have served Black people.” Linda Young Nance, a native of St. Louis who is the historian for the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs and helped create a digital walking tour and video of the Black experience at the fair, related how the National Association for Colored Women boycotted the expo in 1904 after several members were treated poorly, even denied cups of water. 

The people of Mindanao

Although the fair was wonderful in many ways, Linda worries that some people in St. Louis, which has a long history of racial division, may not be prepared to hear the complete story: “They may learn something, though. They also get to know that we are a city that is working toward including everybody and stories of all of us that are here. If you don’t keep working toward equity, you’ll never get it.”