Filipinos have a long history of serving in the U.S. Armed Forces, dating back to 1901 when former President William McKinley authorized their enlistment in the U.S. Insular Force.
The recruitment of Filipinos into the U.S. Navy began in 1947 through the U.S.-Philippine Military Bases Agreement, which allowed them to enlist under the U.S. Navy Philippine Enlistment Program at Naval Station Subic Bay in the Philippines without needing U.S. immigrant credentials. They initially served as guides, mess attendants, musicians and engineers, aiding gunboat commanders in local areas.
By the program’s end in 1992, approximately 35,000 Filipinos had joined the Navy, including Gerardo Soriano, the father of director, writer and producer Chris Soriano.
“He grew up poor, and he didn’t know anything about America,” Chris tells NextShark, noting that his father was stationed in San Diego, where he met his mother, who was a nurse. Growing up, he had always felt that Filipino sailors were underrepresented in movies despite their significant role in the Navy. His father’s experience as a sailor eventually inspired him to showcase their stories in his latest film, “The Master Chief.”
“I didn’t see enough Filipino sailors in the U.S. being represented in the movies even though we are a huge component of the Navy,” Chris says. “My dad served in the Navy as a storekeeper — the character that I’m playing in this movie — so I felt that I wanted to do something to put more of us on the screen. The most rewarding aspect of production was being able to represent who my dad was. It’s a story of living the American dream and doing what you love, but also paying a tribute to your father all at the same time.”
“The Master Chief” follows a young Filipino sailor who enlists in the U.S. Navy, driven by dreams of a brighter future. However, he discovers that the voyage is far from ordinary as he is confronted with the stark reality of racial tension aboard the ship.
The military drama film is based on true stories and experiences of Filipino sailors, including the concept of the “Filipino Mafia,” which refers to the camaraderie among them. It pays tribute to the resilience and unspoken bonds that characterize the Filipino experience. To ensure accurate portrayal, Chris sat down with many Filipino sailors in the Navy.
“They gave me stories of Filipino elders calling Filipino Americans ‘coconut’ as a playful joke, meaning you’re brown on the outside, but white on the inside,” Chris shares. “They also dropped the term ‘Filipino Mafia,’ and it was almost apparent based on the white sailors and Black sailors. Everybody knew what this Filipino Mafia was. It was a real thing. We are some of the humblest stay-in-our-lane types of people, but in the Navy, we all of a sudden have muscle? So I said, ‘There’s a story to be told here.’”
In time for Filipino American History Month and Veterans Day, Chris elaborates on how Filipinos maintain a sense of unity and community on the ship — similar to the Filipino value of “pakikisama” (companionship/solidarity). This sense of togetherness is reflected in the film and showcases the enduring cultural values of Filipinos, even in an unfamiliar environment like the Navy. Chris hopes audiences can recognize the importance of diverse stories, and he encourages Filipinos to watch the film and feel proud of the representation it offers.
“Filipinos play a big role in our American culture and building America,” he says. “Our stories deserve to be heard. Through ‘The Master Chief,’ we could tell another side of the Navy that was never really represented, and those are the Filipinos that helped create a strong system for the Navy.”
Chris hints at a part two in the works. “The Master Chief” is out in theaters nationwide on Nov. 10.
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