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Cultivating Pride in Filipinx History, Culture, and Identity with Legacy Filipino Martial Arts

Photo: Andre Canta
Joseph Bautista poses for a photo in front of a Bayani Art mural with icons of Philippine and Filipinx American history. Artist Tata Ponsi Alfonso's illustrations can also be found in a number of children's books written by Robin Kitana Aquilizan of Bayani Art. Tattooers Lane Wilcken and Kristian Kabuay contributed to the design of the Legacy FMA logo. Photo: Andre Canta

The sounds emanating from Legacy Filipino Martial Arts immediately command your attention. Drums beat in rhythm to the voices of children counting loudly in Tagalog. Feet stomp in synchronized cadence to clacking rattan sticks. Instructors guide students through scaffolded drills punctuated by quickening percussive tempos. Each aspect of the training sessions feels deliberately connected.

Under the guidance of founder Joseph Bautista, Legacy Filipino Martial Arts (Legacy FMA) is growing into a hub of holistic Philippine and Filipinx American cultural and historical education. Master Bautista established Legacy FMA in Daly City’s Westlake neighborhood in June 2022. He deploys several decades of martial arts expertise to provide students with the cultural knowledge and representation he yearned for in his East Bay upbringing.

“I grew up not being proud of being Filipino. I had no reason to be proud. I wasn’t told what we did, what we had, or what we contributed to the world. I think a lot of people share that sentiment,” Bautista said.

FMA rectified Bautista’s initial assumptions about his identity.

“Filipino martial arts tied in a lot of good things for me – getting close to my ancestral roots, learning from my culture, and becoming a more well-rounded martial artist,” he said.

Drawing on his experience with FMA, Bautista founded Legacy FMA to engage in the complex work of decolonial education. He views FMA as a useful tool in helping students tap into their heritage and address the needs of diasporic generations experiencing disconnections generated by transpacific migration and settler colonialism. However, this work is not without its detractors.

“Legacy comes from a hybrid of different Filipino American martial arts systems,” Bautista said, emphasizing how tensions surrounding FMA reflect biases among Philippine practitioners toward overseas Filipinx. “Filipinos in the Philippines don’t regard Filipino martial arts being taught [in the United States] as Filipino martial arts. They don’t regard us as Filipino sometimes.”

Ironically, the proliferation of FMA in the United States in the early 20th century depended on Philippine masters sharing their knowledge. Grandmaster Ernesto Presas, Maestro Santiago “Sonny” Umpad, Great Grandmaster Angel Cabales, and others shared their regionally distinct FMA styles with U.S. practitioners. This informs Legacy FMA’s incorporation of techniques from the northern, central, and southern Philippines. Bautista displays each contributor’s role in Legacy FMA’s pedagogy in a prominently placed family tree inside the school.

Bautista makes Legacy FMA’s ethos and mission visible to anyone who enters the school. Students are exposed to heritage and history at every turn.

“When you go to our place, you will see things that most people don’t ever really see,” Bautista said. “If you’re a martial artist, you’d be hard-pressed to find a standalone Filipino martial arts school. I’d be hard-pressed to find a martial artist that has seen a Filipino martial arts logo on the floor and the wall.”

Bautista has a point. FMA schools in the United States are generally housed within other disciplines’ academies, shared community centers, or instructors’ homes. Having a clearly defined, committed space solely for FMA is already rare, but Legacy FMA’s lessons extend past self-defense or fitness. The school’s two main training areas also serve as hubs of expansive cultural learning where students are immersed in language, history, and music.

Bautista emphasized the teamwork necessary to build lasting infrastructures of care and knowledge. He actively seeks out people willing to share their talents, time, and expertise.

“I got to meet a lot of Filipino culture bearers. I got introduced to the music, food, the writing style, historians, artists, you name it,” Bautista said.

Legacy FMA is its community. And the community is dedicated to growing the school’s potential.

Each culture bearer Bautista invites to collaborate on the development of the space makes indelible impacts on the literal face of the school. Tattooers Lane Wilcken and Kristian Kabuay were consulted on the precolonial tattoo designs featured in the academy’s logo. The creators of Bayani Art crafted a mural featuring historical icons like Gabriela Silang, Lapu Lapu, José Rizal, and Francisco “Pancho Villa” Guilledo. Jeff Quintano’s Baybayin workbooks are used in a budding language and writing program taught by an expert student of Bautista’s. The Parangal Dance Company advises FMA instructors on how to play traditional rhythms on precolonial Philippine instruments.

Legacy FMA’s collection of instruments compliments displayed weapons, shields, and farming tools — some replicas, some genuine artifacts — that Bautista allows students to use during immersive training sessions. Students are also encouraged to peruse the school’s diverse library of Filipinx American children’s books, young adult literature, and history texts.

“Growing up, I didn’t see books that have anything to do with Filipinos,” Bautista said. “I like to push it because I feel it’s important for [Legacy FMA students] to identify that, hey, we’re important enough to have something in literature. We’re important enough to be on screen.”

This emphasis on representation and exposure to Filipinx American cultural expressions reveals the intentionality behind everything Legacy FMA does for the generations of students and families it serves. Bautista emphasizes engaging community members on their terms.

“Most people would think that I’m the only one making all the decisions, but the reality is I seek advice from many people here because they’re part of the community. It only makes sense to include their thoughts, worries, and opinions,” Bautista said.

This deferment to and reliance on its community of students and teachers is where Legacy FMA extends beyond a martial arts school. Legacy FMA teaches, trains, and incorporates into its leadership structure students and teachers embedded in the deep histories of Bay Area Filipinx American community solidarity and growth. Several students are instructors for the Philippine American Collegiate Endeavor (PACE) at San Francisco State University. PACE is rooted in the 1968 student strikes calling for ethnic studies curriculum in higher education.

Other Legacy FMA students are connected to Longfellow Elementary School and Bessie Carmichael School, which serve the needs of San Francisco’s Filipinx American communities with extensive language and history programs. These programs are committed to developing the youth’s understanding of the significance of Filipinx American culture.

A father of an eight-month-old, Bautista intends to instill a cultural fluency he and so many others lacked growing up.

“I want my next generation to know more than I did,” he said. “The Filipinos that train Filipino martial arts are working together now more than I’ve seen before. We’ll need to standardize the idea of promoting each other. If we just all find what is most interesting to us and help pass along that information, we’ll be sitting pretty.”

Bautista acknowledged the progress and admitted that increasing cooperation is just one of many indeterminate steps. But he believes the work is too important to let up.

In regards to the urgency of their mission, Bautista put it simply: “Our identity is at stake.”

“One outcome I hope to see is for people to learn self-defense. The second is for people to learn about Filipino culture even if they aren’t Filipino. Third, is for FMA to be just as known and respected as the other mainstream martial arts and to help propagate it,” Bautista said.

True to its name, Legacy FMA is planting the seeds of intensive cultural (re)connections and providing an inspirational model for others to follow suit.

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