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Collecting Family Stories,
Saving Filipino American History

Host of Americans of Filipino Descent - FAQs

To Virginia Kipp,
Where ever you are,
Hope to find you soon.

A Manila-born Filipino man struggles to care for his two young daughters after his wife dies. The promise of a new life in the Los Angeles area helps him decide to join several others making this same move, but all does not go as planned for him. First one, then both of his daughters succumb to serious illness and die. Left all alone, he pursues his delayed dream and finally reaches Los Angeles, only to find that the job and housing previously arranged for him had been given to someone else. Luckily, there is a good job that needs his skills in nearby Santa Barbara, so he settles there, where he spends the rest of his life.

This may sound like any current Filipino OFW (Overseas Foreign Worker) story you hear these days, but Antonio Miranda —whose life I just summarized for you—settled in Santa Barbara in 1783, over 220 years ago. You can visit his gravesite in the Chapel of the Presidio State Historical Park in downtown Santa Barbara, California.

Deja Vu

"Ang hindi marunong lumingon sa pinanggalingan, hindi makakarating sa paroroonan."

"Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it."

Our many Filipino organizations bestow honors on the latest Filipino success stories, but most of us know little about Filipinos who came to the United States before us, fifty and even more years ago. Resources on the history of Filipinos in America are easily available from the Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS), their National Pinoy Archives (NPA) in Seattle, Washington, their Filipino American National Museum in Stockton, California, and from their 25 FANHS chapters across the U.S.

These earlier Filipinos in America successfully overcame many obstacles hard to even imagine today. These obstacles included laws against marriage to non-Filipinos, college degrees that did not lead to career jobs, and other unwelcome signs that clearly stated "Positively No Filipinos Allowed".

It is their struggle for a better life for themselves and their families that have made it easier for the rest of us. If we do not know and embrace our own history, how can we expect non-Filipinos to understand us? It is not surprising therefore that some refer to Filipino American history, albeit in jest, as "a best kept secret".

The history of Filipinos in America consists of our Filipino family stories, whether blood related or not. Carlos Bulosan, perhaps our most preeminent Filipino American writer, found the stories of the manongs (Filipino old-timers) he met to be so compelling that he crammed these within his biographical novel, America is in the Heart (Harcourt Brace, 1946).

Meet Isidro Canlas

One similarly compelling story is that of Isidro Canlas, who was born in Bacolor, Pampanga in the Philippines on May 15, 1887. Isidro's story is not as common as those of the sakadas (contract farm workers) as preserved by the Filipino-American Historical Society of Hawaii and the eFil: Filipino Digital Archives and History Center of Hawaii, or of the pensionados (college students) as told by their progeny, such as Professor Barbara Posadas of Northern Illinois University. However, Isidro's story provides a good case study, not only to identify the sources for tracing Filipino American ancestry, but also to shed light on the societal barriers that these ancestors faced in their coming to America.

It was by chance that I learned of Isidro Canlas, who first came to the United States in 1905—first to Buffalo, New York, then after a move to Denver, Colorado for a few years, settled in Long Beach, California in 1910. I was doing some library research into early Long Beach history in old newspapers, when the microfilm rolled slowly over a page with the headline, "Native Filipino Was First to Register for Uncle Sam in Long Beach Precinct No.19". This newspaper article, which appeared in the June 5, 1917 issue of the Long Beach Press (now the Press-Telegram), revealed a lengthy interview with a very articulate Isidro Canlas.

clipping from Long Beach Press, June 5, 1917

Isidro told those newspaper readers in 1917 about his initial skepticism of the Yankee rule in the Philippines when he was just a child of 10. But he also told them about how he learned to love the freedom of living under the American flag. For this reason he wanted to serve that flag and be the first to answer Uncle Sam's call and to register at his local Long Beach precinct for the WWI draft in 1917. Isidro awoke at 3 a.m. on June 5th to make sure he was No.1 on the first day of World War 1 draft registration in the United States, and he accomplished this. I have located his registration card (see below) in the World War I Draft Registrations database, with the number one clearly at the top of the first page, and Isidro's signature boldly inscribed at the bottom.

WWI Draft Registration Card

Coming to America

Isidro's journey to America started more than twelve years earlier in the Philippines, when his ebullient personality drew him to the American soldiers in Manila, and they to him. Isidro started to work for George H. Fuller, an American soldier who was the founder and editor of American Freedom, an English-language newspaper in Manila. It was with Fuller in 1905 that Isidro first traveled to America and landed in Buffalo, New York, where Fuller returned home to be a banker.

Much of 1905 remains on a research to-do list, because still to be located is the name of the ship that brought Isidro over the Pacific Ocean. This information can be found by using the Immigrant and Passenger Arrivals database of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

Also needed are local researchers in New York state to find information on how Isidro spent his year in Buffalo and why he left there. Nevertheless, Isidro does tell us in his 1917 newspaper interview that in 1906, he did move to Denver, Colorado, to work for another former American soldier, George M. LaShell, who had a building supplies company.

On a trip to Denver for a library conference, I connected with Elnora Mercado, a retired librarian and member of the Filipino American Community of Colorado, whose research found Isidro listed in the 1908 city directory for Denver in the holdings of the Denver Public Library, Ballenger & Richards 36th edition Denver City Directory, 1908, page 277. We learn from his listing that he was also going to school in Denver, as his listing says he was a student, and that he lived in rented rooms at 3010 Lawrence Street.

1908 Denver City Directory

The U.S. Census Bureau is a good resource, but does not release information on individuals, see their document, Genealogy FAQ. Some genealogical organizations, such as FamilySearch.org and Ancestry.com, provide fee-based access to their online databases, which include U.S. Census records more than 75 years old.

The U.S. Census for 1910 found 20-year old Isidro still living in Denver, but he was then a renter at 251 E. 29th Street. Still single, he was employed as a laborer, apparently with LaShell.

Unlawful in Love

The year 1910 is also when Isidro leaves Denver, he accompanies LaShell's move to Long Beach, California. Isidro was still working for LaShell when his picture first appeared in the Long Beach Press newspaper on June 5th, 1917. His picture appeared a second time in the same newspaper a month later, when Isidro planned to marry his Mexican girlfriend, Lydia Davalos.

Laws, as late as 1967 in some states, prohibited race mixing; this included California. Filipinos and Mexicans were not considered in the same race. These anti-miscegenation laws, explained by Barbara C. Cruz and Michael J. Benson in their paper The American Melting Pot? Miscegenation Laws in the United States,were especially unfair to Filipinos, who were a population predominantly of men during these early years. A family and home ownership were often elusive American dreams to Filipinos who had fewer rights than citizens, as the Philippines was a U.S. colony and their status was merely that of "nationals".

The follow-up article in the July 5 th, 1917 issue of the Long Beach Press, tells us that friends Isidro made in Long Beach rallied to help him get a marriage license despite the existing law. According to the newspaper report, Isidro's employer LaShell and others accompanied Isidro to the county seat in Los Angeles to plead his case, but to no avail. Many Filipinos seeking a legal marriage in those days went to other states that had no anti-miscegenation laws on their books. Isidro and Lydia went to Tijuana to get married, then returned to Long Beach.

Bloom Where You are Planted

Isidro did not let obstacles keep him from his American Dream. The U.S. Census for 1920 found Isidro and Lydia renting a house at 1225 St. Louis Street in Long Beach. He was 29 and she was 22. They lived in a community of single family homes, next to neighbors with children. They were still childless, but lived comfortably by themselves in their own rented house. The 1920 Census record lists Isidro as a laborer in the wholesale industry, so perhaps he was still working for LaShell's building supplies company.

By the time the U.S. Census of 1930 came around, Isidro had joined the ranks of management, as he was listed as a foreman for a cement plant. Isidro had also moved his family to a house at 1330 Rose Avenue which they owned—a house that the census recorded as being worth $7,000. The year 1930 was the midst of the Great Depression, and $7,000 was a lot of money for that time. Isidro, evidently, had attained the American dream of home ownership, and this, at a time when others found this dream elusive, not just because money was scarce during the Depression, but also due to communities with racially restrictive covenants.

It is even more exciting to learn that by 1930 Isidro was a father. His daughter Virginia was listed as 8 years old in the U.S. Census of 1930. A check of the California Birth Index database tells us that one Virginia L. Canlas, whose mother's maiden name was Davalos, was born in Los Angeles County on October 3, 1921.

At the ripe old age of 82, almost 65 years since he first set foot in the United States, Isidro Canlas died on October 22, 1969 in Long Beach. Isidro was evidently a stable family man, as he still owned his house on Rose Avenue at the time of his death, some 40 years of home ownership. He left behind his wife of 52 years, Lydia, and his daughter Virginia, who by then was married and listed as Virginia Kipp in Isidro's obituary notice published in the Long Beach Press-Telegram of October 23, 1969.

obituary notice in Long Beach Press-Telegram, October 23, 1969

Virginia Kipp (nee Canlas) buried both her "Papa" and her "Mama" (years later in 1985) in the Sunnyside Cemetery on Willow Street in Long Beach. Their gravesite which can be found using the Internet site Find A Grave is located just inside the main gate, turn left and look under the first Magnolia tree on your left.

grave marker

Virginia is not currently in the Social Security Death Index database, so the assumption is that she is still alive and among us. Please help find Virginia. There are people in Long Beach, California, who would like to locate Virginia, and this includes a member of the city council. Long Beach was incorporated as a city in 1897, and Isidro settled there early in its history, so Virginia belongs to a pioneer family.

Although his was not a life of fame and fortune, Isidro was blessed with a full life, a long marriage, and a loving family. It would be a fitting tribute to celebrate a life of quiet success, not in small part due to his good nature, hard work and optimistic outlook in life.

We Are Family

Let's look forward to many more Filipino family stories becoming part of our Filipino American history. Let's embrace every opportunity to celebrate Filipino lives, because whether they are related to us by blood or not, we all belong to one big Filipino American family. Let's make sure our family memories go as far back as possible.

We rob ourselves of our history when we celebrate former Mets baseball slugger Benny Agbayani without also acknowledging the achievements of Bobby Balcena, born in San Pedro, California, who was playing professional baseball when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. Bobby was a respected member of the Pacific Coast League's 1955 championship team, Seattle Rainiers, and even played briefly in the major leagues for the Cincinnati Reds in 1956, before returning to the PCL.

Let's applaud the success of our musicians like Apl of the Black Eyed Peas, without forgetting the Rocky Fellers, who took their song "Killer Joe" from clubs across the U.S. and TV appearances to #16 on the chart of the Billboard Top 100 in 1963. Recently I attended the funeral service for one of the brothers who were the Rocky Fellers, Antonio A. Maligmat. Let's not wait until they are dead and gone to embrace the living legends who are our Filipino American ancestors.

Let us hunger for our family stories dating back over 400 years to the experiences of sea-faring Filipinos on the Manila Galleons, stories of Filipinos in America before and after Antonio Miranda's time. Let us tell and re-tell these stories, because they are OUR family stories as Filipino Americans.

© Eloisa Gomez Borah

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