Dr. Erwin Tiongson displays an old photo onscreen of the Filipinos in exile in the U.S. led by Manuel Quezon, who was president of the Commonwealth of the Philippines from 1935 until his death in 1944. The photo was taken in Ashburn, Virginia, in June 1942 during the 16th birthday of his son, Manuel L. Quezon, Jr.

Whenever he finds spare time and during weekends, Dr. Erwin Tiongson, a full-time Filipino-American economics professor at Georgetown University, conducts walking tours in Washington, D.C. He passionately shares aspects of Philippine-American history that unfolded in the U.S. capital, hoping these stories will earn recognition in historical accounts and secure a prominent spot in museums.

Dr. Tiongson, originally from Solano, Nueva Vizcaya, and now a long-time resident of the district, has authored a book titled “Philippine-American Heritage in Washington, D.C.” out of this personal passion project. The book, which he started around the pandemic time, brought together a rich collection of stories drawn from community archives, interviews with living relatives of principal historical figures, and entries from journals.

On April 22, he sat down with a group of Philippine journalists participating in the three-week Friends, Partners, and Allies Program funded by the U.S. Embassy in Manila at the CRDF office in Arlington, Virginia. He discussed his 12-year effort to elevate Philippine-American history, which he believes should be recognized not only by Filipinos but by a broader audience.

He began with a disclaimer that he is not a professional but a community historian, before exploring the Philippine-American heritage in Washington, D.C., starting his narrative from 1898, which marked the end of Spanish rule in the Philippines and the beginning of the Spanish-American War.

“This would have been around springtime in 1898, culminating in the Treaty of Paris in December 1898, which then led to the U.S. taking over the Philippines,” he said, before stating that a war occurred from 1899 to 1902 between the two countries.

History textbooks in the U.S. hardly mentions this, according to him, that’s why it is important “to remind ourselves” that it was the historical context of the ties that the U.S. and the Philippines share.

Although the war was violent—killing an estimated 5,000 to 7,000 American soldiers, 20,000 Filipino soldiers, and up to 200,000 civilians—Dr. Tiongson stated it started the relationship between the two nations.

“Young people today have no conception of this part of history,” he said.

Commonwealth government
The Commonwealth government was established in 1935, initiating a 10-year plan to prepare for independence. But with the onset of World War II, this process was disrupted.

He mentioned that not many people know that for two and a half years, the entire Philippine government was exiled in Washington, D.C., led by Manuel Quezon, Sergio Osmeña, Carlos Romulo Sr., and other cabinet members.

“They actually lived here; they were exiled,” Dr. Tiongson said, noting that it was interesting how elementary schools back home in earlier days would describe 1946 as the year the U.S. finally recognized the Philippines’ independence when it had already declared it.

“Those are very different things. It’s our claim to have always been independent since 1898, since [Emilio] Aguinaldo] declared independence, except that it wasn’t fully recognized until July 4, 1946. That’s why we’re celebrating the 125th year recently because our declaration of independence goes back to 1898,” he added.

He stressed the importance of understanding this aspect of history, as outlined in his book, to fully comprehend the origins of the relationship between the country and the U.S., which involved not just independence but also Filipino cultural heritage.

He not only leads groups of people to a selection of noteworthy places in Washington, D.C., but he also shows them old photographs, prints, and other small artifacts he has accumulated in the course of his research.

Dr. Tiongson’s collection of historical photos and materials highlights his dedication to promoting Philippine-American history in the U.S. In the photo on the left, Carlos Romulo is captured after lowering and inverting the Philippine flag—placing the blue on top—to signify the end of World War II. The flag held personal significance as it was hand-made and given to Romulo by the mother and sister of his friend, American Captain Harold Shumate, who died in Cabanatuan. The lower right photo shows the original press release of this historical event in August 1945, which is with Dr. Tiongson.

Philippine Constabulary Band
In the early 1900s, about 83 gifted musicians from all over the Philippines were formed into a group. They performed in Washington, D.C., and became very popular. John Philip Sousa, an American composer and conductor known mainly for his iconic battle hymns, was impressed by the Philippine Constabulary Band.

“He thought that when he closed his eyes—while he was conducting them—he thought he was conducting his own band. That’s how good they were,” he expressed.

The musical band, which played to large audiences even through snowstorms, was brought by William Howard Taft, who had previously served as the governor-general of the Philippines and later became president of the U.S., leveraging his executive experience in the country.

Dr. Tiongson pointed out that this was another part of Philippine history that many people are unaware of, especially since it played a role in promoting the cultural heritage of the Filipinos to the Americans.

It’s necessary to correct, he emphasized, the narrative taught in schools that the Philippines was “civilized” by the U.S. Instead, he argued, the relationship between the two countries should be considered “mutually transformative.”

“If we haven’t been looking at it that way, I think that’s partly the reason why my family and I put together this project—is to reexamine these ties,” he said.

“I was born and raised in Solano, and in our grade school, I was thought to believe that the U.S. basically created institutions in the Philippines, and the derogatory term is sometimes ‘civilized the Philippines.’ I think another way to think about this relationship is how mutually transformative it has been,” he added.

The old framework suggesting that the Philippines was merely taught how to create institutions is incorrect. Dr. Tiongson asserted that Americans also learned from their experiences in the Philippines, which influenced and changed their way of life when they brought these experiences back to their own country.

Luneta-like park in Washington, D.C.
Based on his research, it remains a little-known fact that First Lady Helen Taft was inspired by Luneta Park in the Philippines and introduced the concept to Washington, D.C., which lacked a public park at the time.

The First Lady, whose diary he found, had a deep affection for Luneta, frequently visiting the spot to enjoy the band’s performances.

“When she was still living in Manila, she loved going to Luneta. And she remembered going to Luneta to listen to the band play. She said, ‘Maybe Washington, D.C., needs something like a Luneta. Wala pang park noon dito. So, she said, ‘What if I create something like Luneta, and then we can have live bands perform here?'” Dr. Tiongson said.

An area near the Potomac River, now popular for its cherry blossom trees, was landscaped and transformed into West Potomac Park. This river is an important waterway that flows into the Chesapeake Bay and spans over 400 miles through the states of West Virginia, Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia.

The Potomac River played a significant role in American history and is an integral part of the natural landscape of the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C. Known for its beautiful landscapes and recreational opportunities, the area surrounding the Potomac River is also home to scenic parks, which feature landmarks such as the Lincoln Memorial and the Jefferson Memorial.

“The first to perform [in the West Potomac Park] is the Philippine Constabulary Band. I use this because it is a nice story, it’s uplifting, it’s inspiring, and in a very literal way, I’d like to tell you that we literally transformed Washington, D.C., as early as 1909,” he elaborated.

“My family and I, we’ve been writing about it—we’re trying to raise awareness about it. Ang sikat dito yong cherry blossoms, those were gifts from Japan, but where you can find the cherry blossoms now, that’s West Potomac Park. So, they were donated after they created the park that was made to look like Luneta,” he added.

It’s fine that the area is now known for its cherry blossoms, Dr. Tiongson said, but many Americans have forgotten that before the trees were donated by Japan in 1912, a new park inspired by Luneta was developed there, prompting the gift.

Over the years, as they gathered narratives about Philippine-American history, they amassed “hundreds” of accounts and identified places that they could link to Philippine cultural heritage. Initially, they named 30 locations with intriguing backgrounds that, with sufficient documentation, they could connect to this history.

“Since then, my family and I, we’ve been taking people on walking tours (…) kasama ang mga anak ko, si Nicholas at saka si Rafael, may speaking part sila, and we do it pro bono—we don’t charge anybody, we just want to raise awareness of all these aspects of Philippine-American history,” Dr. Tiongson explained.

Filipinos in exile
He also shared the story of K Street, where there’s a small building that Quezon lived in when he was exiled to the U.S. during the war, from 1909 to 1916. At the time, Quezon served as the resident commissioner, which meant he was a non-voting member of the U.S. Congress.

“Again, not very well known na may Filipino member sa U.S. Congress during this colonial period, and Manuel Quezon was one of them,” he said.

Quezon was influential during his tenure that he effectively lobbied the entire U.S. Congress to support the Jones Law, which established the first fully elected Philippine legislature, served as the country’s constitution, and provided a framework for a more autonomous government.

“He, himself, never saw the Philippines become free because he died in exile in New York,” Dr. Tiongson said, adding Quezon would often go to Ashburn, Virginia, as he has difficulty breathing in Washington, D.C., due to his tuberculosis.

Quezon was first buried in Arlington, Virginia, before his remains were brought back to the Philippines after the war.

“Can you imagine? The destinies of the U.S. and the Philippines are so intertwined that once upon a time, the remains of our president were actually buried here,” he stated.

Other prominent Filipino men in exile included then Vice President Osmeña, who led a frugal life and walked about a mile and a half to his office; journalist, editor, and statesman Romulo, who won the Pulitzer prize for his pre-war reporting on Japan and was president of the UN General Assembly; Arturo Rotor, a medical doctor, classically-trained musician, prize-winning author, and secretary to the Commonwealth; and Jesus Villamor, who trained U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower to become a pilot.

Dr. Tiongson said that Filipinas who made a significant impact during the war included Emma Rotor and Sofia de Veyra.

Emma was Arturo Rotor’s wife, and although she maintained a quiet presence at the time, she was a math teacher and physics major who was recruited to help develop a secret weapon that would become one of the first smart bombs in the U.S.

“In fact, some people think that it’s as important as the atomic bomb. Ang gagaling nila,” he said.

On the other hand, De Veyra was an author of many textbooks and a leader of the suffrage movement. She served as a cultural ambassador, traveling around the U.S. in the 1920s to give illustrated lectures that aimed to correct Americans’ misconceptions about the Philippines.

“All their stereotypes about the Philippines, she would address those by giving presentations that was known as illustrated lecture,” he stated. De Veyra used a stereograph to show 3D images.

Family project
Why is Dr. Tiongson’s family so passionate about their work?

From 2009 to 2011, Dr. Tiongson said his family returned to Nueva Vizcaya because his father fell ill. After two years, when they returned to the U.S., they asked themselves what they could teach their children about their cultural heritage in a way that wouldn’t feel forced.

“It’s not just memorizing names, but make it something organic na they can go and visit a place and say I know that something important happened here. Just walks away from where we live, there is something important,” he said.

He said further that it’s not just in Washington, D.C. where the histories of the Philippines and the U.S. intertwine; there are also substantial connections in Boston and San Francisco. However, since they live in the district and he has a day job, they are currently focusing their efforts there.

Dr. Tiongson said he has plans of donating his materials to libraries, and every summer, he goes back to the Philippines to set up some of these donations.

“The work never stops. I’ve been telling friends, I teach economics at Georgetown, if I retire now and if all I do is to write about everything I found, I will never finish. That’s how much materials we have,” stated Dr. Tiongson.

In partnership with the Philippine Embassy, Dr. Tiongson developed a map providing a self-guided tour of historical sites in downtown Washington, D.C.

He said the initiative seeks to showcase and safeguard the Filipino heritage for future generations.