Professors’ conceptual art shines spotlight on those who existed at the margins of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West shows
Filipinos might not be the first people to come to mind when one thinks of the American West, but two University of Colorado Boulder professors are looking to change that through art.
Emmanuel David, associate professor of women and gender studies, and Yumi Janairo Roth, professor of art, both Filipino-American, have been at work to ensure Filipinos’ place in American history is secure.
It all started a couple of summers ago when the two were talking about their respective research and discovered they had a shared interest in the role of Filipinos in the American West.
They continued to meet and began focusing on something that happened in 1899. That’s when American showman William “Buffalo Bill” Cody hired three Filipinos to join his famed Wild West shows and to work as part of the Rough Riders. Their names were Ysidora Alcantara, Felix Alcantara and Geronimo Ynosincio.
They performed in parades, grand reviews and in plays where various races were often pitted against one another, David said.
The trio’s timing of joining the shows wasn’t ideal. The Philippine-American War was just beginning, and their research suggests the Filipino actors were sometimes booed and heckled when they appeared on stage.
It’s believed the Filipinos worked with Buffalo Bill’s shows in 1899 and 1900, but some information points to their being employed beyond 1900.
To celebrate their legacy, David and Roth developed a conceptual art project called “We Are Coming,” using the same language often associated with Buffalo Bill's show posters announcing the show’s arrival.
If you saw those words, and that face, you knew you were in for something spectacular, Roth told the Cody Enterprise, a paper founded by Buffalo Bill, ahead of the project. But, she adds, many people who put on those shows have been lost to history, including the Filipino Rough Riders.
“Their stories have been sidelined again and again because the focus tends to center around conventional mythologies of the American West, including a sustained focus on the character of Buffalo Bill Cody himself,” Roth said.
“Thus, our project about the Filipino Rough Riders is part of an effort to decenter the usual characters and focus on those who existed at the margins of the show.”
Through our research, we have attempted to give the Filipinos more dimension and to understand their full lives. … So much of history is told from the perspective of the dominant groups, and our project looks to decenter those conventional narratives."
David and Roth delivered talks on the topic for the College of Arts and Sciences Honors Program’s distinguished lecture series in March 2021, and the panel revisiting 19th Century Asian American history for the Association for Asian American Studies in April of 2021.
Since then, the professors have worked with theaters to get the Filipinos’ names listed on marquees. In August of 2022, the names appeared at the Boulder Theater, and in September of 2022, the Cody Theatre in Cody, Wyoming also listed the names.
In addition to the art exhibitions, Roth and David’s work on the project also includes an academic paper and a book.
“We Are Coming,” which is funded by a research and innovation seed grant from CU Boulder’s Office of the Provost and the President’s Fund for the Humanities from CU System Office of Academic Affairs, will continue to appear in other towns and cities that hosted Buffalo Bill's shows.
“Filipinos figured prominently in the imaginaries of the American West. However, they were often portrayed in negative and stereotypical ways,” said David, adding:
“Through our research, we have attempted to give the Filipinos more dimension and to understand their full lives. The first step is to name them, and the project attempts to name them. … So much of history is told from the perspective of the dominant groups, and our project looks to decenter those conventional narratives.”