Filipinos in Kansas City Through the Years: A Historical Perspective
by Dr. Lillian Pardo

In one form or another, a Filipino "association" has existed as long as there has been Filipinos in the greater Kansas City area. A historical perspective of Filipino pioneers through the years will make us appreciate their valuable contributions that led to the efforts of others to our current status.

Part 1: The Early Years

The first known social gathering of Filipinos occurred on December 30, 1917 at the Muehlebach Hotel in Kansas City to celebrate a Rizal Day Banquet.

In 1922 two Filipino clubs were organized: "The Kansas Citian Filipino Club" and the "The Filipino Triangular Club."

By 1937, as listed in an invitation to a Philippine-American Banquet held at the Baltimore Hotel, there were four groups: the Filipino Triangular Club (Juan Baysa, president); the Filipino Progressive Club (L. Almodovar, president); the Filipino Community Club (directors Macario Abenoja, C. Desierto, G.M. Lucas, Frank Pascual, J. Sablay, L. Sarmiento, and B. Valdez); and the Filipino Captains of the U.S. Army, who were officers at the Staff College in Fort Leavenworth.

Early in 1940, during World War II, ten Filipino Jesuit priests were evacuated from Rome to St. Mary's College in St. Mary's, Kansas. They had a historic photo taken with then Philippine Commonwealth President Manuel Quezon. The Jesuit Fathers also organized the Filipino-American Catholic Club in 1941, with a committee of five as the founding members: Alex Nagtalon, Sofronio Calica, Celestino Gomez and Juan Baysa.

By 1948, after World War II, the members of the only surviving club, The Triangular Club, reorganized and was absorbed by the Bataan Post #584 of the American Legion. Their first commander was Sgt. Alex Nagtalon. He subsequently moved to Arizona in 1950. After he left Dr. Celestino Gomez loyally accepted the leadership of the Post and did so for 27 years.

The story of a people’s struggle for survival often gets lost unless someone is committed to the preservation of heritage. Juan Baysa in his lifetime, was committed to this historical preservation. He is the source of most of the information of the early Filipinos in Kansas City as profiled above.

I first met Mr. Baysa during my early years in Kansas City in the early 1960s. I remember him with a camera on hand and copies of the photos sent to us and others, with dates, names and places. I had the distinct pleasure of going over this accumulated memorabilia with his niece and sister-in-law, who were kind enough to share this valuable collection with me. These archives are reminders of the community spirit and the social instincts that bind us.

Part 2: The "Brain Drain" of the 1960s

In the 1950s-1960s postwar United States, a building boom occurred, which included new hospitals. Thus a shortage of nurses and physicians occurred. This phenomenon brought many Filipino graduates and trainees in the medical field under the Exchange Visitors Program. Despite the requirement to return to their country of origin after their training, many decided to stay, partly because of the shortage of medical personnel, but largely because of economic opportunity.

The concentration of Filipinos in Kansas City during those years became the impetus to incorporate the organization of Filipinos. Dr. Edilberto Lorenzo spearheaded the movement, and in 1968 with other the founding board of directors, Dr. Manuel Pardo, Dr. Arnulfo Sulit, and Mr. William R. Ick, the Filipino Association of Greater Kansas City, Inc. was born.

Foremost of the Association's goals were: to promote and preserve the Filipino cultural heritage, to foster closer relationships and understanding between the Filipinos and others in the community, and to educate the community about our cultural heritage. By then, the Bataan Memorial Post was still active, and many joint activities were held with the "new" Filipino Association.

1971 marked the birth of the Association newsletter, the Tambuli. Dr. Franklin B. Farrales, in March of that year, wrote an essay about why the newsletter should be called Tambuli – that it symbolized the call that brought people from everywhere together. To this date, Tambuli continues to publish the news and views of the Association.

In 1972 the dance troupe Sinagtala, which means "starlight," was formed by the Association. Manny De Leon, a former Bayanihan dancer, became the director and choreographer. The local Star Magazine featured Sinagtala in their cover story of November 26, 1972. Stars were born with that issue: the Tinikling was a full page color photo in the magazine. It was a very exciting time. Sinagtala's first public performance was for the Rizal Day celebration of the Bataan Memorial Post. The first generation of Sinagtala performers were now in full swing. They became feature entertainment in all four Fiesta Filipina and Festival Asia events at Crown Center, from 1977 to 1982. The first Fiesta Filipina co-chairs were Dr. Tony Racela and Dr. Rudy Fidelino. It was a smashing success; it lasted three more years, until Festival Asia was organized, which included other Asian countries.

The culmination of years of fundraising activities allowed the Association in 1978 to acquire property in Overland Park, which we called the Philippine House. In 1988 fire struck the Philippine House, alleged to be arson. The dastardly act left our dreams up in smoke. But we rebuilt, and our hope for a bigger and better Filipino Cultural Center was rekindled. It would become an exhibit area, a rehearsal studio, an education facility, and most of all, a meeting place for the Filipino-American community.

The dream lives because hope never dies.

Part 3: The Second Generation Hyphenated Americans

The first Sampaguita Debutantes Ball of 1982 was the formal social milestone that marked the introduction of the second generation Filipino Americans to Kansas City society. The debutantes and their escorts were children who were mostly born here in the United States of Filipino parents. The co-chairs of the event, Dr. Mila Tiojanco and Mrs. Shirley Sulit, left no stone unturned to make that event truly a cultural happening. The youth of the Association were proud to be part of it and proud of the cultural heritage that the event symbolized.

A decade later the second Sampaguita Debutantes Ball was held, chaired by Dr. Andrietta Enriquez. The second group of debutantes and their escorts organized themselves after the ball and formed the Filipino Youth Group. In both instances the participants of the ball were active Sinagtala dancers, recognized scholars, and active in school and in their communities.

To instill in this youth the pride of the Filipino cultural heritage takes twists and turns. It does not happen in an instant; it happens with patience and time. It happens only with a self-realization and awakening that they are different, but wanting in their desire to be the same as their friends and classmates. Soon, they appreciate the traditions and value systems that Filipino families uphold – educational attainment, dignity of labor, and filial respect.

Years from now, they will be the community leaders who will set the direction of this Association. What remains to be seen is in what shape, form, or texture it will be. But for the moment, there is much to celebrate. There is much to celebrate in the leadership of this Association, who brought us up to this level of accomplishments. There is much to celebrate in our youth, as we encourage them to assure the perpetuity of the legacy – to take pride and to promote and preserve our cultural heritage. We must all heed the call to be together, for we share a common bond that must grow stronger with every passing year.