124 years after Buffalo Bill visited Maine, artists honor the show’s forgotten Filipino actors

DOVER-FOXCROFT — A historic Maine theater’s marquee is displaying the names of Filipino performers who were part of the iconic “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” show that visited the state in 1900.

William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody led the outdoor entertainment show that began touring the country in 1883 and promised “a year’s visit West in three hours.” It included vignettes of western adventures with cowboys, Native Americans and a stampede of buffalo, featuring Cody as the star. Among the hundreds of actors were Filipinos and other minorities, many of whose stories were not acknowledged.

More than 120 years later, the names of eight Filipinos who were part of the show in 1899 and 1900 are in lights, strikingly displayed on theater marquees across the country, including the Center Theatre in Dover-Foxcroft. The project honors them and draws a historical connection between the Wild West show and the untold stories of the performers who passed through town.

Bangor Daily News photo/Linda Coan O’Kresik
PERFORMERS’ NAMES — Yumi Janairo Roth, Jessamine Batario and Emmanuel David hung the names of three Filipino performers on the marquee of the Center Theatre in Dover-Foxcroft. “We Are Coming” is the project that unearths the forgotten history of Filipino performers in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show that visited the state in 1900.

The installation, which went up Jan 16, is the fifth in a project from two artist-scholars in residence at Colby College’s Lunder Institute of American Art.

Yumi Janairo Roth and Emmanuel David, professors at the University of Colorado Boulder, were interested in the presence of Filipinos in the American West. Their curiosity led them to a project that unearths the forgotten history of Filipinos who rode in the “Congress of Rough Riders of the World” during the Philippine-American War.

“These performers were always on the sidelines,” David said. “They were on the edge of the performance, the back-ups to William F. ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody, who was front and center. We were interested in inverting the logic of who takes center stage.”

“Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” performed in Dover-Foxcroft in June 1900, before the two towns became one. It also made stops in Augusta, Bangor, Biddeford, Lewiston and Portland that year.

Bangor Daily News photo/Linda Coan O’Kresik
MARQUEE LETTERS — Jessamine Batario, Colby College Museum of Art, and Emmanuel David, a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, arrange letters on the sidewalk before hanging names of Filipino performers on the marquee of the Center Theatre.

Geronimo Ynosincio, Felix Alcantara and Ysidora Alcantara joined the show in 1899. Five performers — Lorenzo Eman, Filimon Ermoso, Ysidoro Constantino, Gregorio Azarraga and Eustaquio Caliz — came on in 1900.

Also on the marquee is the project’s name, “We Are Coming.” It riffs on a poster from 1900 that announces the show’s arrival. It depicts Cody’s face in the midst of stomping buffalo, with the words “I am coming.”

The performance was the preeminent Wild West show of the era, and Cody was so famous that the poster didn’t need his name, Roth said. But she and David wanted to shift the narrative away from a single white figure, so “we” is meant to be expansive, and there are different ways to interpret the project. 

“The ‘we’ refers to not only the Filipino performers, but all the other performers who may have been in the show behind Cody. It also refers to me and Yumi, and how the history of the performers is tied to our history,” David said, noting each of them has a parent who is Filipino. “It’s open in that way.”

“We” also stands for ethnic and racial groups who might be immigrating to a place like the United States. It’s part of a larger history and critique of who is included in national belonging, he said.

The project began to take shape when David, while flipping through albums documenting the show, came across a photograph of an unnamed Filipino performer that sparked his interest.

He and Roth poured over scrapbooks and newspaper clippings about the show, which was meticulously documented by Nate Salsbury, the show’s business manager. Eventually they discovered the names of the seven men and one woman in the show’s 1899 program.

David, who teaches women and gender studies, and Roth, who teaches art sculpture and post-studio practice, wanted to reconstruct the history and present it in a way that was visually interesting. It was Roth’s idea to make the performers the headliners, which is how vintage theater marquees came into play.

“We Are Coming” launched in Boulder, Colorado. It then appeared in Cody, Wyoming; Los, Angeles, California; and Denver, Colorado. The ongoing project is on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, where it is rotating the names of the Filipino performers.

David and Roth will also tell the story in a forthcoming article in the Journal of Asian American Studies. 

While visiting Dover-Foxcroft last week, they met with leaders of the historical society, whose intimate knowledge of the town helped further the story, Roth said. She and David were even able to retrace the parade route that passed through town. While “We Are Coming” is largely based on their research, new details have emerged along the way as they met local keepers of history.

They found that weeks after the Treaty of Paris was ratified in 1899, “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West”  opened at Madison Square Garden. After its defeat in the Spanish-American War, Spain ceded the Philippines to the United States, after which fighting broke out and the Philippine-American War ensued.

An audience of roughly 20,000 people applauded in New York, but when the Filipinos entered the arena they received boos and hisses, David said.

“It must have been difficult, and in some ways terrifying, to be a group of people from a country that is actively at war with the United States,” he said.

While the performers experienced racism and other obstacles, they also had moments of collective solidarity, he said. Roth noted that news reporters would ask them for their opinions about the war. 

The project extends beyond the performers’ roles in “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” because their lives were not defined by the show. Birth records, travel paperwork and final resting places are among the details uncovered.

Roth hopes those driving or walking by the Center Theatre are curious enough to learn more. Sometimes a moment of contemplation about the names and their declaration of arrival is enough, she said. Others might see it as a window to global migration. They might think deeper about the Filipino diaspora and its local connections, both past and present, David said.

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