In 1904, the St. Louis World’s Fair unfolded in splendor in Missouri, to celebrate the Louisiana Purchase. At the fairgrounds, America exhibited its colonies and its vassals, the Philippines Islands among them. One of the sensations of the imperialistic fair were the “savages” on display—human exhibits of ethnic people—not as individuals, but as nameless stereotypes. The Filipinos represented the biggest group, and as such bore the ogles, stares and the brunt of unflattering comments from the press. Bagobos, Moros, Visayans, Igorots—and yes, Negritos, came to America to lend interest to the Fair, but instead aroused feelings of racism and prejudice.
A newspaper editor, J.W, Buel, wrote specifically of the Negritos: “These aborigines of the islands are among the lowest order of human beings”. Other accounts described them as “savages”, “primitives” and “monkey-like”, who could not count above 5 and had limited speech. Capitalizing on the prevailing prejudices of the time, another paper, The Post Dispatch, reported that Negritos “attracted attention due to their assumed African ancestry”. American anthropologists were quick to predict that the Negritos were doomed to extinction.
At the Negrito Village, 41 Negritos replicated their lives in the Philippines, going around with their bows and arrows, climbing trees, weaving palm baskets , singing and dancing for the crowds. They posed for souvenir pictures—racist photographs, actually, not unlike the photo above, taken in Porac at a company outing, 25 years after the end of the Fair.
The picture came with a few others from someone who had perhaps worked for Dna. Teodora Salgado Ullmann, a rich sugar planter and a businesswoman from San Fernando, Pampanga. A widow, she had remarried a French-German merchant who had settled in the Philippines, Don Benito Ullmann. The picture shows a naked Negrito, stoic and emotionless, poised to shoot with his rattan bow and arrow, standing on a pile of boulders. He is surrounded by smiling male tourists, some in derisive poses. The man on the left seems ready to throw a bag on the poor Negrito’s face. The kneeling man directly in front holds a hat, as if to catch something from the Negrito’s loincloth. Big Boss has a hand on his shoulder. Behind the group are more people, watching with detached amusement.
We can never find out the circumstances behind this photo shoot. Perhaps, the Negrito, strayed from the forests of Porac and stumbled upon these revelers. Was he paid a few centavos to pose for this shot? A small plate of picnic food? Was he a willing participant? Did he swallow his pride, perform a dance, chant a song or climb a tree for the group’s entertainment—just like what his forebears did at the fair?
But one thing is certain. Prejudice is not the domain of Westerners. Filipinos too are capable of cruelty and racism. We call dark-skinned people “baluga”, while children of mixed Filipino-American Africans, we insultingly call “nog-nog”. In contrast, we praise the beauty of Fil-Am whites as a blessing to our race—“gumanda ang lahi”—a better breed, thanks to white genes.
Close to home, we treat Negritos and other people of color and ethnicity differently. When a Negrito sits next to us on a jeepney, we look the other way. We cringe when a Negrito vendor tugs at our sleeves. We look at them as dirty and diseased, avoid them like the plague. We think that as part of a minority group, they rightfully deserve our minor attention. And then we blame them for not being able to integrate with the rest of Philippine society.
After all these years, there has never been a significant in the improvement of our human kindness quotient. Charity doesn’t begin home, but in the heart.