Filipino martial arts isn’t as widely known, but that could be changing

Gregory Manalo was in the midst of a personal renaissance in the late 1990s when he discovered Filipino martial arts (FMA).

“I didn’t find eskrima,” he told NBC Asian America, referring to a style of Filipino martial arts. “Eskrima found me.”

For Manalo, who has been training in FMA for about 25 years and teaches it in the San Francisco Bay Area, FMA was an entry point into learning more about his identity as a Filipino American that allowed him to tap into his culture and ancestry. He said performing moves makes him feel meditative and empowered.

“By training, we’re evoking and connecting with our ancestry that go back centuries,” Manalo said. “And just knowing that I can be directly tapped in by doing these movements is real meaningful for me.”

Filipino martial arts aren’t as widely known as other Asian martial arts such as karate and kung fu, but they’ve been practiced in the United States for decades. Yet even with less visibility than other martial arts, some practitioners say they see signs of FMA gaining popularity and are hopeful that it will continue to become more widely known.

FMA instructors who spoke with NBC Asian America all pointed out that the martial art can be seen in Hollywood films including the Bourne films, “The Book of Eli,” “Daredevil,” “Dune” and the Star Wars series “The Mandalorian.”

“I think in the last 10 to 20 years, we realized that in order for Filipino martial arts to grow and to proliferate, we all need to work together and learn from each other and share our arts,” said Mel Orpilla, a historian and martial artist who has been practicing FMA for more than two decades.

Joseph Bautista, a Filipino martial arts instructor at Eskabo Daan in San Francisco and practitioner for more than 30 years, said the changes he’s seen in FMA throughout the last 20 years, including more instructors willing to teach it more widely, makes him hopeful about its future. Orpilla said the featuring of FMA in Hollywood, the ability to share it more widely through social media, and the increase of FMA seminars and tournaments in Northern California have also been helpful.

Orpilla said that Filipino American martial artist Dan Inosanto, known for being one of Bruce Lee’s training partners, is a critical figure in FMA. He added that Inosanto taught Lee the FMA used in a dungeon scene of the 1974 film “Enter the Dragon.”

“The teaching methodology of Filipino martial arts is the basis for teaching choreography when it comes to weapons, or stand up punching and kicking,” said Elrik Jundis, who has trained in FMA for more than 30 years and has done extensive research on it. “That’s the bread and butter of all Hollywood action movies.”

There are three main styles of FMA: eskrima, arnis and kali. While there are nuances among the three, they’re often used interchangeably, said Elrik Jundis, who has trained in FMA for more than 30 years and has done extensive research on it. It’s a martial art that’s unique from others because training immediately begins with weapons, whereas others such as karate and taekwondo start out empty handed, Orpilla said.

“[A] Filipino martial artist’s main purpose in a fight is to end it as quickly and efficiently as possible using offensive, defensive and counterattack movements depending on the weapons being used and their fighting distance to each other,” he said.

Despite its presence in Hollywood, FMA isn’t more popularly known for a number of reasons. Orpilla said that practicing the martial art was banned in the Philippines during Spanish colonial rule from 1521 to 1898 because they did not want Filipinos to use it to revolt.

Jundis also noted that more popular Asian martial arts have roots in countries that have had a longstanding national identity.

Meanwhile, the concept of what it means to be Filipino is still forming, he said. The Philippines has been an independent country for less than a century. It gained independence in 1946 after nearly 400 years of colonial rule under Spain and the United States.

Bautista said that the Philippine islands operated separately rather than as a single country prior to Spanish colonization. Orpilla said that the islands were vulnerable to invasion from other countries and had to fight to protect themselves, their tribes and families.

Jundis added that FMA isn’t as big of an organized sport the way martial arts like taekwondo and judo are — both of which are categories at the Olympics.

He also said that specifics about the history and origins of FMA vary depending on who is asked due to a lack of documentation.

The popularity of FMA occurred in the United States rather than in the Philippines, practitioners and historians told NBC Asian America. It’s not clear exactly where or when in the U.S. it started, but they said its presence in the U.S. is linked to the immigration of Filipino plantation workers in the early 20th century. They also said that FMA was first taught publicly in Stockton, a city in California’s Central Valley, which birthed a number of grandmasters of the martial art, including Inosanto.

Orpilla said that another reason knowledge of FMA isn’t so widespread is because it historically has been kept within families, and people did not want to teach it to others.

“I don’t know about Filipino martial arts in the mainstream in my lifetime, but [there’s] been a good push towards Filipino martial arts,” Bautista said.

FMA is also gaining traction beyond the United States. Manalo said one of his instructors has held seminars on it in Europe, where he said it has been well received.

For Manalo, FMA has not only been a way to protect himself, but a fulfilling practice and a source of pride for his culture.

“To know that we have something and say this was ours made me feel proud because a lot of people all over the world at this point valued Filipino martial arts, specifically the knife fighting and sword fighting,” he said. “It was something that people recognize in a world where people don’t even know who Filipinos are. It was a good entry point to really just dive deep into history, culture, arts and practice.”

Angelia S. Rico

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