The Filipino Mafia: A Study of Filipino Solidarity in the United States Navy from the 1950s to the Present

Image of Beatrice Windorski This paper was written by Beatrice Millan-Windorski and was awarded the Civil Resistance Prize by the History Department in 2023. It was written for History 345: Military History of the United States taught by Professor John Hall. Beatrice  is a third-year student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who is majoring in History and International Relations with a certificate in Southeast Asian Studies. She is a scholar of Filipino descent and is particularly interested in the extraction of Filipino labor in the U.S. Armed Forces and acts of resistance by these servicemen in response to unequal working conditions. She is currently expanding this research paper into her senior thesis and conducting interviews with former Filipino stewards in order to expand the Filipino-American historic canon.

A secretive network seems omnipresent on almost every U.S. Naval vessel circling the world’s oceans. A network of individuals that seeks to provide lumpia, pancit, and a sense of community and support to its members. This clandestine band of U.S. sailors is called the “Filipino Mafia,” a name jokingly whispered in a hushed tone by U.S. Navy veteran, Anthropology Ph.D. candidate, and University of Wisconsin-Madison Filipino instructor, Richard Nicolas.[1] Memes of the “Filipino Mafia” plaster countless Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, and TikTok videos. Their presence is confirmed by non-Filipino active-duty sailors such as a Naval Intel Officer, who feasted on plates of longganisa and tapsilog during his time aboard the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln.[2]

Given that Filipinos comprise only 1.5 percent of the overall United States population, the question arises of why there is such a strong presence of support and solidarity amongst Filipino servicemen, a presence that is perceptible to even non-Filipino members of the Navy.[3] The answer is far more serious than what is being served for breakfast. The development of a strong Filipino identity within the U.S. Navy lies in the need for solidarity as a consequence of how Filipino labor was racialized in the navy from the 1950s-1970s, the continued resistance to this designation, and the development of strong support systems tailored to the unique economic needs of Filipino sailors.

The Civil Rights Movement in the post-World War II era caused a crisis in menial labor within the U.S. Navy. As Black servicemen demanded equal working conditions, the navy turned to the Philippines to fill the labor shortage. Due to the island nation’s status as a former colony, the precedent of tapping Filipino labor had already been established. The Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 designated Filipinos as being the only exception for new immigration from Asian countries.[4] Consequently, Filipinos filled various labor roles, particularly as agricultural workers on the West Coast of the continental United States and Hawaii.[5] The commodification of this labor pool extended to the U.S. Armed Forces, as the Philippine Scouts helped America win the bloody and brutal war in the Pacific Theater, sometimes at one-third the pay rate of American regulars.[6] Furthermore, Article XXVII of the 1947 Military Base Agreement allowed for the continued intake of Filipino nationals into the U.S. Armed Forces.[7]

A multitude of factors contributed to young Filipino men enlisting in droves. Namely, a lack of job opportunities in the languishing economy of the Philippines during the decades following independence and the allure of the American Dream. U.S. Navy veteran Proceso “Paulie” Paligutan recalled the veneer of American naval bases which existed near his home:

I was in Olongapo, a navy town. The town of Olongapo, you can see the difference when you go inside the base. It’s well streamlined—it’s clean, you know? When you go outside the gate to the town, it’s back to ‘Filipino style.’ [laughs] There’s no order! Even the smell inside the base… it’s different.[8]

Young Filipino men, even those who were college educated, applied en masse in the hopes of creating a better life for themselves and their families. At Sangley Point in 1970, just 2,000 applicants were selected out of a pool of over 100,000.[9] However, these dreams would prove elusive, as recruiters failed to mention what work Filipinos would be performing and many applicants did not even know what the term “steward” meant.[10]

Despite these men longing for a life of adventure, many found themselves saddled with the lowest naval rating, regardless of their scores on the General Classification Test. Filipino U.S. Navy veteran Sergio Norombaba lamented, “I didn’t see anybody from our group that were able to go to a different rating than steward …To me, [the GCT] was a bogus classification.”[11] This appeared to be a universal experience for Filipinos during these decades, with Master Chief Ricardo Sanvictores noting of his steward position, “When we first joined the navy, that’s where they put us. Just as a steward. After boot camp, they assigned us as steward.”[12] During their four-to-six-year enlistment periods, Filipinos quickly discovered that there was no hope for upward mobility in their ratings. Since these men were recruited as Filipino nationals and not U.S. citizens, they were barred from promotions due to security concerns relating to classified information in accordance with the Bureau of Naval Personnel Instruction 1440.5C.[13]

To add insult to injury, Filipino enlistees quickly discovered that the position of steward was more domesticated than they hoped. Antonio Javier described his training as “a domesticated type of job—housekeeping, or something like that. I didn’t know that’s part of the job. When you think about it, it feels like a woman’s job.”[14] The official justification for such work was outlined in Stewardsman Training Manual: “Men of the Navy who follow the steward profession are responsible for the comfort and well-being of naval officers … By allowing officers to devote their time to the technical affairs of the ship, the Steward Branch contributes to the efficiency and safety of the ship as a whole.”[15] Despite this line of work supposedly centering around the efficiency of operations on naval ships, stewards often found themselves serving wives and girlfriends, with some even being sequestered to the personal homes of senior officers to perform domestic duties. When describing his time as a steward for Admiral John S. McCain Jr., Sanvictores recalled “We do everything in the house, we clean the house, we cook, and serve the dinner.”[16]

Years of menial labor with no clear path towards promotion like their American counterparts took a toll on many Filipino stewards. Mental health issues among Filipino servicemen were so disproportionately high that the issue was investigated in the American Journal of Psychiatry article “Between Two Worlds: Filipinos in the U.S. Navy,” by naval officers Lt. Donald Duff and Cdr. Ransom J. Arthur. This attempt at understanding the damaged psyche of Filipino stewards concluded that the rise of mental illness was a consequence of their native cultural influences on values, child-rearing, and culture shock. In order to remedy these issues, the authors recommended “rapid acculturation” to American culture and customs rather than delving into the issues that stemmed from service as a steward.[17]

However, Filipino stewards did not take their lack of mobility or promotion sitting down. Many stewards engaged in acts of resistance that ranged from small-scale acts of disobedience in response to racial insults, to large-scale labor strikes. Furthermore, Filipinos refused to abandon their culture despite efforts to promote “rapid acculturation,” by engaging in resistant activities and building internal support networks. U.S. Navy veteran Benjamin Tongson described one incident in which a lieutenant refused to call him by his name, instead referring to him as “Stew.” Rather than continuing to accept such disregard, Tongson replied,

Oh, sir. I didn’t know you were talking to me … I thought you were looking for someone named Stew. As you can see on my uniform, my name is Tongson. The name my parents gave me, my Christian name, is Benjamin. If you called me by those names, I would have responded to you.[18]

This small act of standing up for himself earned Tongson a verbal assault peppered with vulgar language by the lieutenant. Acts of self-respect by Filipino servicemen in response to targeted language were often met with negative reactions, but such defiance nonetheless continued.

Filipinos not only made an effort to stand up for themselves but also formed solidarity networks to look out for one another as a means to resist racism. Jaime “Jim” Ebalo recalled, “My co-Filipinos [are] always in trouble … in the bar. [The whites are] calling us monkeys. Some guys don’t like to hear that … Sometimes there’s a fight. We wait until the guy stepped into the parking lot, then we gang up on him.”[19] Recognizing the risks associated with addressing racism levied by White servicemen, Filipinos banded together to address such acts of prejudice. In an interview with Antonio Bitonio, he described his veteran father Macario’s strong bonds with his countrymen, “He had many friends, especially when he joined the Navy because most of the Filipinos that joined the Navy with him became lifelong friends.”[20] These strong friendships were a necessity for perseverance in the face of prejudice by non-Filipino servicemen and for building a sense of community while living abroad.

Such outspoken resistance came in spite of the perceived docility of Filipinos, which was seen as the solution to the Navy’s labor problem in the wake of the Civil Rights era. Asian men were racialized as friendly and amenable, in contrast with their more outspoken African American counterparts. In the 1970 Washington Post article “The Colonial Remnant: How the U.S Navy Solves the ‘Servant Problem,’” journalist Timothy Ingram asserts that “The Filipinos themselves are unlikely to pressure the Navy for reform. They generally regard obligations of friendship as inviolate matters of honor and rarely question authority.” The article cited one Filipino serviceman who was seemingly resigned to his fate. “I can’t complain,” he lamented. “No one forced me to join. But it’s too bad I can’t get training I can use.”[21] Many Filipinos prudently recognized it would not be economically feasible to return to the Philippines to diminished opportunities, but such conditions do not negate the fact that many of their duties extended far beyond their official assignments. Nonetheless, the article concludes “Even if they were inclined to activism, Filipinos are foreigners in the military service. They have no vote and no congressman, and they would have a difficult time forcing democratic reforms up the chain of command.”[22] Under such conditions, it appeared that Filipinos must contend with the hand they drew with no path for recourse. Such realities were demonstrative of the benefits of recruiting non-American labor for the lowest rungs of the U.S. Navy.

Despite these conditions, Filipino stewards became the masters of their own fates, engaging in larger-scale organized resistance that would eventually culminate in the U.S. Navy reforming their rating systems. In 1960, at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London Connecticut, mounting frustrations reverberated among stewards and mess attendants. These men were tasked with serving cadets, just out of high school, despite being college graduates themselves and spending many years serving superior officers. Additional outrage fermented since continued demands for rice to be included in their rations were denied, despite being an inexpensive request. Such grievances eventually culminated in a mass walkout and refusal of service. Ortiz recalled the event, “One day, we decided we [didn’t] want to serve the cadets. We were mad, we were tired of being steward[s] …so we decided, ‘Hey, let’s walk out of here’ … It [had] something to do with the food too, because sometimes they just served us the leftovers …whatever was the cheapest one to feed us.”[23] This act of solidarity had a tangible impact on the academy, as cadets experienced a missing breakfast with nobody to serve them due to Filipino stewards and mess attendants walking out en masse.

The labor strike in New London resulted in precipitable change. Javier recounted his interaction with the base Admiral:

The Admiral of the base comes in and says, ‘What’s happening, boys?’ And some of us [said], ‘Well, Admiral, all we wanted is to have rice with our meal. That’s our request. [The Admiral replied], What else do you need?’ ‘Well, Admiral, that’s all we wanted.’ [The Admiral then said], ‘Okay, boys, you go back to work, and I promise you you’re going to have your rice. … And so …we have the rice for lunch. Not only do we have the rice, they assigned one cook just to cook the kind of food we like.[24]

While the inclusion of rice and other Filipino dishes is seemingly insignificant, food is an integral part of Filipino culture. The demands for dishes that reminded Filipino servicemen of their home country also reflect a refusal to fully culturally assimilate, as naval leaders like Lt. Duff and Cdr. Ransom had hoped.

Compounding this success, Filipino disobedience reverberated to the upper echelons of the navy, resulting in concrete policy change. The impacts included the U.S. Navy amending its outdated race-based rating system in 1971 and the steward rating eventually being eliminated in 1975.[25] Filipino nationals quickly filled fifty-six of the eighty-seven available ratings in the U.S. Navy.[26] Many of the previously quoted men enjoyed promotions as a result of the widespread disobedience of Filipino stewards, finally being recognized for their merit rather than their race. Paulie Paligutan eventually rose to the rank of senior chief.[27] Bert Amano achieved the rank of warrant officer.[28] Ricardo Sanvictores ascended to the rank of E-9, Master Chief Petty Officer, serving seven different U.S. presidents spanning from Richard Nixon to George Bush Jr.[29]

Due to the sacrifices of Filipino stewards who served from the 1950s-1970s and their continued resistance to being condemned to racialized labor, the modern U.S. Navy is a vastly different environment for Filipinos. Richard Nicolas served in the navy from 2008 to 2013, five years after immigrating to the United States for increased job opportunities. His initial rating was that of an aviation machinist mate, a technical position that was not open to previous generations of Filipino nationals.[30] He continued to fill “a lot of roles, especially leadership roles, because that’s how the military trained their personnel.” Due to the Naval reforms of the 1970s, he quickly shot through the ranks, “I started managing programs [with] oil, anything related to … the aircraft, because I work[ed] in C 130, Hercules aircraft, and at the end of my career, on my fifth year, I’m already a training Petty Officer.”[31]

Throughout his service, Nicolas encountered many Filipinos, “I met a lot of Filipinos, it seems like they’re almost everywhere, occupying … different positions in the armed forces.”[32] The increased presence of Filipinos, however, did not mean Nicolas did not experience difficulties during his service. One particular challenge was the culture shock of integrating in a community that was vastly different from his own. “I started meeting people with different personalities than me, I’m a conservative dude from the village in the Philippines.” He continued that some racialized dynamics of power still existed to a limited extent, “It is also intimidating that I’m a brown person and getting into this command. It’s full of white leadership folks.”[33] However, he theorized that the development of a “Filipino Mafia” was an effort to adapt to and respond to the culture shocks of joining the U.S. Navy as a Filipino national. “If you miss your culture so much … you will always go to your comfort level … there’s a sense of huge camaraderie, and solidarity among Filipinos, especially in the ship. That’s why you hear a lot of this term, the ‘Filipino Mafia.’”[34] The presence of this informal network harkens back to the unbreakable friendships between Filipinos formed by earlier generations of naval stewards.

The material aspect of the “Filipino Mafia” manifests itself through food as a connection to the culture left behind. Nicolas continued, “They cook each other food and then the culture invites people together because [of] the food you share[d] when you were a kid.”[35] The sharing of food now extends to non-Filipinos. Manila-native Chief Culinary Specialist Ferdinand de los Santos stated with pride that the “5,500 sailors [of the U.S.S. George Washington] had taken on Filipino favorites like adobo, pancit, chopsuey and lumpiang shanghai, so much so that the dishes have become regulars on the warship’s menu.”[36] This is a consequence of how Filipino food is prepared and enjoyed, “You can’t help but to congregate over festivals and holidays, through similar behaviors,” recalled Nicholas, adding that “we start[ed] to invite other white folks, black folks … our food is meant to be feasted.”[37] The significant presence of Filipino food on naval ships reflects the progress made since the era of stewards. Rather than engaging in a protracted struggle for rice rations, cultural food is now shared widely with all members of the crew.

Another important function of Filipino kinship networks is assistance with promotions due to the economic realities many Filipinos still face. According to Nicolas, “Filipinos sometimes start helping each other … I think that can’t be helped if you came from a culture where you’re supposed to help other people … So as one of the older Filipino chiefs … they help younger Filipinos.”[38] A driving factor of these promotions are the importance of economic remittances to the Philippines. A financial remittance is the money sent from an overseas Filipino worker to support their families back home since wages and currency strength are higher in many foreign countries, particularly the United States.[39] In Nicolas’ experience, this is a driving factor in such promotions since Filipinos needed “to send more money back home, because we know that we’re not working for ourselves … we still need to send money to our parents, to our mothers. Even though I’ve been out of the military for almost 10 years. I still send money to my parents, I never stopped.”[40] Economic remittances are a continuation of the tradition that Filipino stewards engaged in since, despite the profession’s drawbacks, a steward wage was still higher than what was available to them through jobs in the Philippines. As Filipinos gain higher leadership positions in the U.S. Navy, the need for remittances to economically support families persists. Filipino leaders understand this economic reality and accordingly choose to support their kababayan [countrymen].

The roles occupied by Filipinos in the U.S. Navy have drastically changed within the past fifty years, but the support systems developed by previous generations of stewards still manifest themselves as the “Filipino Mafia.” While now being an inside joke of many in the Navy, the informal network has a long and storied history. Droves of young Filipino men clamored for limited positions in the Navy in the hopes that they could create a better, more financially stable life for their families. The sacrifices of stewards enduring racialized labor with little hope for promotion paved the way for Filipinos to ascend to the upper echelons of the naval command. In defiance of being categorized as an exploitable and docile labor force that could replace Black stewards, Filipinos forced the U.S. Navy to implement necessary reforms to its rating system through their organized acts of disobedience. Further, they supported one another at every level in the face of racial discrimination. The tradition of mutual aid and economic support of families persists to this day and is a driving force behind the kinship bonds formed between Filipino servicemen. Thousands of Filipino stewards paved the way for a shining future for successive generations of Filipinos through their hard work, sacrifices, and dissent.

[1] Richard Nicolas, interviewed by Bea Millan-Windorski, Madison, Wisconsin, November 2022, Badger Veterans Oral History Project.

[2] U.S. Naval Officer, text message to author, October 2022.

[3]Filipino Demographics,” Stanford Ethnogeriatrics, Stanford University Madison.

[4] Taihei Okada, “Underside of Independence Politics Filipino Reactions to Anti-Filipino Riots in the United States,” Philippine Studies: Historical & Ethnographic Viewpoints 60, no. 3 (September: 2012): 307-335.

[5] Ibid., 321.

[6] Army Historical Foundation, “The Philippine Scouts,” On Point 6, no. 1 (Spring: 2000): 6.

[7] P. James Paligutan, “American Dream Deferred: An Oral History of Filipino Servants in the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard, 1952–1974,” Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 90, Number 2, pp. 237. Note on Paligutan: the author of this essay draws significantly from this text, as it is the only comprehensive collection of interviews with Filipino servicemen from the stewardship era. The author of this paper contacted and received permission from Paligutan to significantly draw upon the oral history interviews he conducted.

[8] Proceso “Paulie” Paligutan, interview by P. James Paligutan, San Diego, Calif., December

[9] Timothy Ingram “The Floating PlantationWashington Monthly (October 1970), 18.

[10] Paligutan, “American Dream Deferred,” 241.

[11] Sergio Norombaba, interview by P. James Paligutan, San Diego, Calif, February 2003.

[12] Ricardo J. Sanvictores Collection (AFC/2001/001/94789), Veterans History Project, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.

[13] Paligutan, “American Dream Deferred,” 242.

[14] Antonio “Tony” Javier, interview by P. James Paligutan, San Diego, Calif., January 2003.

[15] Paligutan, “American Dream Deferred,” 244.

[16] Sanvictores Interview, 2014.

[17] Paligutan, “American Dream Deferred,” 252.

[18] Miguel Ortiz, “From Stewards to Pandemic Leaders, the Evolution of the Filipino-American Sailor,” We Are The Mighty, September 17, 2022.

[19] Jaime “Jim” Ebalo interview, interview by P. James Paligutan, 2012.

[20] Macario Bitonio interview, interview by Robin Williams.

[21] Timothy H. Ingram, “A ‘Colonial Remnant’: How the US Navy Solves the ‘Servant Problem,’” Washington Post, 1970.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ortiz interview, 2003.

[24] Javier interview, 2003.

[25] Paligutan, “American Dream Deferred,” 257.

[26] Yen Le Espiritu, Filipino American Lives (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995), 16.

[27] Paligutan, “American Dream Deferred,” 258.

[28] Ibid., 259.

[29] Don Moore, “Master Chief Sanvictores served 7 Presidents, 4-star Admiral during 44 year career,” War Tales – Charlotte Sun.

[30] Nicolas Interview, 2022.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Tarra Quismundo, “US Navy feasts on adobo, pansit, lumpia, chopsuey,” Inquirer.Net, October 26, 2012.

[37] Nicolas Interview, 2022.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Robert M. Burgess and V. Haskar, “Migration and Foreign Remittances in the Philippines,” International Monetary Fund, June 1, 2005.

[40] Nicolas Interview, 2022.