It was born in the Philippines but I would say that the United States is the second home of arnis, escrima and kali collectively known as Filipino martial arts (FMA).
Transplanted mainly through various waves of migration, the FMA has established deep roots in America. The growth, evolution and mutation of the FMA in the US are incomparable to any other nations where Philippine martial arts were also exported.
The FMA could have been exported to the US much earlier than the known exodus of Filipino farm laborers to California and Hawaii during the turn of the 20th century.
The book Manila Men in the New World: Filipino Migration to Mexico and the Americas from the Sixteenth Century by Floro L. Mercene tells that prior to the influx of farm worker from the Philippines to America during the said period, Filipino mariners under a Spanish command landed in Morro Bay, California in October 1587.
It is amazing to realize that Filipinos have reached the New World (what would become the United States of America) much earlier than the American colonization of the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century.
Lafcadio Hearn, an American journalist wrote an article in the March 31, 1883 issue of Harper’s Weekly about a Filipino settlement in Saint Malo, Louisiana. The settlers of the community that were called “Manilamen,” were believed to be the roots of Filipinos in America. Hearn at that time believed that the settlement was already in existence for 50-years however, extensive research conducted by Marina Espina, a librarian at the University of New Orleans revealed that it could have existed earlier.
Espina in 1988 published the results of her studies in a book titled Filipinos in Louisiana (A. F. Laborde & Sons, New Orleans, Louisiana, 1988).
Hearn described the Manilamen as seasoned fishermen who were robust and polite and could speak in Tagalog and Spanish. A part of the article reads: “Most of them are cinnamon-colored men; a few are glossily yellow, like that bronze into which a small proportion of gold is worked by the molder. Their features are irregular without being actually repulsive; some have the cheek-bones very prominent and the eyes of several are set slightly aslant. The hair is generally intensely black and straight, but with some individuals it is curly and browner. In Manila there are several varieties of the Malay race, and these Louisiana settlers represent more than one type. None of them appeared tall; the greater number were under-sized, but all well knit, and supple s fresh-water eels. Their hands and feet were small; their movements quick and easy, but sailorly likewise, as of men accustomed to walk upon rocking decks in rough weather. They speak the Spanish language; and a Malay dialect is also used among them.”
Evidences have been found that a number of Filipinos even participated in the American Civil War. This was proven by the research conducted by Nestor Palugod Enriquez, a retired US Navy personnel turned Filipino American historian. Enriquez located the specific names of Filipino volunteers on the following records: the Massachusetts State Rosters, Military Images magazine, original muster rolls at the National Archives, the New Hampshire Rosters (issued by State Adjutant General.
Pension—Pension Records, National Archives, Washington, D.C.) and the Naval Rendezvous Reports (available at the National Archives, Washington, D.C.). There is a high probability that those early Filipinos in America may have had used their skills in arnis, escrima and kali in that war.
But the biggest part of the FMA migration in the US most probably occurred at the beginning of the 20th century when many Filipino men filled in the demand for workers in the plantations of Hawaii and the farmlands of California. Many FMA pioneers in America like Angel Cabales, Juanito Lacoste and Leo Giron were at one time or another worked as farm laborers in Hawaii and California. A part of Dan Inosanto’s book The Filipino Martial Arts, narrates of how Cabales made it to the US, it reads, “Cabales left the Philippines in 1939 and joined a crew of a cargo ship that took him to distant ports of the world. Each port, each foreign dock brought a new set of adventures and with them a knowledge of survival. After working in Alaska, Cabales wandered from county to county in California. He ultimately joined the Filipino farm laborers around Stockton where he now lives.”
Mark Wiley, in his book Filipino Martial Culture tells how Giron arrived in America, “Like other Filipinos who relocated in the United States, Giron did so by way of boat.
He traveled on the President Lincoln and docked in San Francisco on November 17, 1926. Soon thereafter he relocated to Stockton, California, and took work cutting celery and asparagus for seventeen and a half cents an hour. The hourly wage at that time was thirty-five cents an hour.”
Perhaps one of the most notable early public demonstrations of the FMA in the US was that of the late Grandmaster Ben Largusa. Largusa, a disciple of juego todo champion Floro Villabrille performed at the historic Ed Parker Long Beach Karate International in 1964. Bruce Lee performed there too and Parker recalled in one of his writings before he passed away that Lee and Largusa impressed the other masters who were present in the event.
In 1966, Cabales opened the first public escrima academy in the US in Stockton, California.
Then came global recognition via the medium of cinema. Inosanto briefly but spectacularly introduced the FMA to moviegoers worldwide through the film The Game of Death starring the legendary Lee. Known as Lee’s protégé, Inosanto was responsible in introducing the late founder of jeet kune do to escrima specifically the use of the tabak toyok or nunchaku. With an international superstar like Lee picking up escrima sticks, the FMA was finally included in the world map of martial arts. Few would argue that this film is an important landmark in the history of the FMA and much of the FMA’s popularity today, it owe to Inosanto’s film works.