WHEN Joey Tabaco of Ronkonkoma was growing up in his native Queens, his Filipino roots remained a largely unexplored subject.
“Back in the 1950s and ’60s, your job as a kid was to assimilate,” said Mr. Tabaco, 62, whose parents came from the Philippines. “There were no meeting places for Filipinos.” As a result, he said, he and others like him grew up “basically American,” but “trying to learn about their heritage.”
For Mr. Tabaco, who works as a weather observer at Long Island MacArthur Airport, the search extended well into adulthood. Now he is sharing that heritage as a part-time volunteer in the Charles B. Wang Center at Stony Brook University, ready to help visitors navigate their way through “Singgalot — The Ties That Bind: Filipinos in America, From Colonial Subjects to Citizens.” An exhibition of nearly 100 images, historical documents and illustrations reproduced on a series of panels, “Singgalot” will be on view at the Wang Center through April 22.
Organized by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, “Singgalot” (the word in the Tagaloglanguage of the Philippines loosely translates to “the ties that bind”) depicts the long and often tortuous road traveled by Filipinos in this country over more than two centuries. Today, Filipinos are among the largest Asian-American groups: According to a 2010 survey by the Census Bureau, an estimated 2.5 million people of unmixed Filipino origin live in this country. (The exhibition began traveling in 2008 and is making its 12th and last stop here.)
The often tangled ties that bind the two countries include a fractious history. Spain ceded the Philippines, a longtime colony, to the United States after the Spanish-American War in 1898. The Philippines, however, had declared its independence that same year, and the transfer to American domination touched off the bloody three-year Philippine-American War.
In “Singgalot,” somber images of the period document the fledgling republic’s resistance to American control. In one 1899 photo, Filipino rebels are sprawled dead in a trench; in another, American soldiers, rifles at the ready, kneel in battle in Manila. (The rebellion was quelled in 1902, though sporadic resistance continued until 1913, and the Philippines did not achieve independence from the United States until 1946.)
By the time of the Spanish-American War, some Filipinos had already long been settled in Louisiana, building houses on stilts along the Gulf coast and living as shrimpers; vintage photos show the settlers “dancing the shrimp” — stepping on their catch to remove the shrimp from their shells.
Such disparate reflections of the Filipino-American past are typical of the exhibition, which not only documents the hardships often endured by Filipinos on these (as well as their own) shores, but also celebrates Filipino-American culture.
In the spirit of that celebration, “Singgalot” will be complemented by two free receptions with Filipino-oriented comedy, dance, music and refreshments. On March 3 at 3 p.m., the comedians Rex Navarrete of Portland, Ore., and Air Tabigue of Ronkonkoma will perform at a community reception. (Those who wish to attend should respond by e-mail to email@example.com.)
On March 8 at 6 p.m., another reception, organized for the university but also open to the public, will feature the comedian Kevin Nadal, along with Koba, a hip-hop artist, and others. Dr. Nadal, of New York City, who has a Ph.D. in counseling psychology from Columbia University, will do stand-up and storytelling about the “cultural divide between the immigrant parents and aunties and uncles, and the American-born experience, like me,” he said in a telephone interview.
That divide is sometimes breached in surprising fashion: Dr. Nadal’s mother, he said, may be generally conservative in her ways, but “I just think it’s funny that she knows who Kim Kardashian is.” (Dr. Nadal wears numerous hats: He is also an associate professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and the president of the metropolitan New York chapter of the Filipino American National Historical Society.)
The special events will wrap up on March 13 at 7 p.m. with a “Pinoyorker” panel about the Filipino experience in New York, also at the Wang Center.
As for the exhibition itself, perhaps the strangest images depict a 47-acre “Philippine Village,” including thatched huts and “natives” in loincloths, at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. It exemplifies the conflicting American sentiments toward Filipino and other Asian immigrants during a good part of the past century. On the one hand, the World’s Fair display was the American government’s first opportunity to present Filipino “progress” under American rule. (Some Filipinos participating in the fair were college students.) On the other, it added to prevailing concepts of white supremacy.
The exhibition tracks the various waves of Filipino immigration in the face of periodically virulent anti-Asian sentiment. There are photos of Filipino laborers in the agribusinesses of Hawaii and California and the fish canneries of Alaska starting in the early 20th century. The United States Navy also provided employment for Filipinos, mostly as cooks and in menial positions.
Later images show Filipino-Americans fighting in the United States military during World War II, contributing to the arts and the medical professions, and adopting roles as citizen-activists.
Perhaps most emblematic of the Filipino journey is the photo of Eleanor Mariano, also known as Connie, a career naval officer who was chief White House physician from 1994 to 2001, being promoted in 2000 to rear admiral — the highest military rank occupied by a Filipino-American at that time.
Dr. Mariano’s father was a naval steward, a job that included serving food and beverages, and the exhibition quotes her as saying, “I came to the White House by way of the kitchen.” Now, she said, “Filipino-Americans in the Navy no longer have to go through the kitchen, the back door or the garage.”