Filipino martial arts are not so widely known, but that may change

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

“I did not find escrima,” he told NBC Asian America, referring to a style of Filipino martial arts. “Eskrima found me.”

For Manalo, who has trained with the FMA for about 25 years and teaches it in the San Francisco Bay Area, the FMA was a gateway to learning more about his identity as a Filipino American that enabled him to exploit his culture and ancestry. He said that performing movements makes him feel meditative and strengthened.

“By training, we evoke and connect with our ancestry, which goes back centuries,” Manalo said. “And just knowing that I can be directly exploited by performing these movements is really meaningful to me.”

Filipino martial arts are not as commonly known as other Asian martial arts such as karate and kung fu, but they have been practiced in the United States for decades. But even with less visibility than other martial arts, some practitioners say they see signs that the FMA is gaining popularity and hope it will continue to become more widely known.

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

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

Joseph Bautista, a Philippine martial arts instructor at Eskabo Daan in San Francisco and practicing for more than 30 years, said the changes he has seen in the FMA over the past 20 years, including several instructors willing to teach the broader , makes him hopeful about its future. Orpilla said the presentation of the FMA in Hollywood, the ability to share it more widely through social media, and the rise of FMA seminars and tournaments in Northern California have also been helpful.

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

“The teaching method of Filipino martial arts is the basis of teaching choreography when it comes to weapons, or getting up with punches and kicks,” said Elrik Jundis, who has trained at the FMA for more than 30 years and has researched it. “There’s bread and butter in every Hollywood action movie.”

There are three main styles of FMA: eskrima, arnis and kali. Although there are nuances among the three, they are often used interchangeably, said Elrik Jundis, who has trained at the FMA for more than 30 years and has researched it. It is a martial art that is unique from others because training immediately begins with weapons, while others like karate and taekwondo start empty-handed, Orpilla said.

“[A] The main purpose of the Philippine martial arts in a fight is to end it as quickly and efficiently as possible with the help of offensive, defensive and counter-attacking movements depending on the weapons used and their combat distance to each other, ”he said.

Despite its presence in Hollywood, the FMA is no longer popularly known for a number of reasons. Orpilla said that martial arts were banned in the Philippines under Spanish colonial rule from 1521 to 1898 because they did not want the Filipinos to use it to revolt.

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

Meanwhile, the concept of what it means to be Filipino is still being formed, 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 the Philippine islands functioned separately rather than as a single country before Spanish colonization. Orpilla said the islands were vulnerable to invasion from other countries and had to fight to protect themselves, their tribes and families.

Jundis added that the FMA is not as big an organized sport as martial arts like taekwondo and judo are – both of which are categories at the Olympics.

He also said the details of the FMA’s history and origins vary depending on who is being asked due to lack of documentation.

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

Orpilla said another reason why knowledge of the FMA is not so widespread is that it has historically been kept within families and people did not want to teach it to others.

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

The FMA is also gaining ground 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, the FMA has not only been a way of protecting himself, but a satisfying practice and a source of pride for his culture.

“Knowing that we have something and saying that this was ours made me feel proud because a lot of people around the world at this time appreciated Filipino martial arts, especially knife fights and sword fights,” he said. “It was something people recognize in a world where people do not even know who Filipinos are. It was a great entrance to really just dive deep into history, culture, art and practice.”

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