War Brides

By Carolyn Jung
Mercury News Staff Writer

Picture of Mom Fangonilo
Click on the photographs she's holding to get a bigger picture.

MORE than a half-century ago, the chances of Filipino-American men finding wives were dismal. Immigration patterns had created a lopsided situation in which single Filipino-American men outnumbered eligible Filipino-American women 40 to 1. And state laws banning interracial marriage condemned most to lives of unmarried anguish.

Then World War II gave many of these men a chance to serve their country and their heart. The Allied invasion of Leyte, the pivotal battle to liberate the Philippines during the war, also became a defining moment when hundreds of Filipino-American U.S. soldiers met the young Filipino women they would marry.

With cultural divides and an average age difference of 20 years, these unions often didn't start out smoothly. But they endured. And they formed the foundation of communities here, particularly in the Bay Area, where there are 261,273 people of Filipino ancestry, the second-largest concentration in the country.

These couples settled in the Bay Area to labor on farms, work in the burgeoning electronics industry and keep alive traditions from their native land.

Most of the men have since died, and many of their wives have remarried. But the women say they always will cherish the memories of their first love.

On Saturday, Northside Community Center will host a concert at the San Jose Buddhist Church Betsuin to honor the experiences of these war brides in commemoration of today's 51st anniversary of the Leyte landing.

One couple's story

This year would have been Victor and Gregoria Fangonilo's golden wedding anniversary had he not died four years ago at the age of 76. His Palo Alto wife still remembers fondly how they met on Leyte when a cousin dragged her to a GI camp to return some uniforms an aunt had altered.

``While I was standing outside a tent, I saw so many Filipino officers. I couldn't believe they were all in the Army. They started whistling at us,'' she said, blushing even today.

Victor, an Army supply sergeant, walked out of the tent and introduced himself. He was 33; she just 17.

One day while she was minding her cousin's store, Victor dropped by. He told her he was going downtown, but he was headed the wrong way. Later, she realized he had really come to see her. Indeed, after they had met, he had bet his sergeant $20 that he would marry her.

Even after being sent to another island, he wrote every week. ``They were love letters so beautiful that I had to read them many times,'' she said.

Much to her dismay, she fell in love. She was scared because she'd heard that American soldiers who married Filipino women deserted them when they were transferred back to the United States. But that didn't happen in this case. The couple married in the Philippines eight months after they met.

Like many war brides, Gregoria didn't want to leave behind the world she knew in the Philippines to come to the United States. But in 1947, a year after they married, she was on a ship with 177 other Filipino war brides headed for San Francisco.

While many Filipino men emigrated to the United States in the 1920s and 1930s for work and educational opportunities, Filipino women were not encouraged to make the journey, said Alex S. Fabros Jr., executive director of the Filipino American Experience Research Project at San Francisco State University.

That left a U.S. population imbalance just as the war's devastating effects in the Philippines resulted in the death of many young men and a surplus of single young women, he added.

Complicating matters were this country's anti-miscegenation statutes. The colony of Maryland passed the first law against interracial marriage in 1661, aimed at preventing black-white marriages. Eventually, such laws existed in 38 states. In 1905, they were extended to prohibit marriages between whites and Asians.

Unlawful until 1948

Only in 1948 were such laws declared unconstitutional in California, and not until 1967 were all such statutes finally done away with in the United States.

The immigration of these war brides had a profound impact on California, Fabros said. Before 1940, there were 1,502 Filipino women in the state. A decade later, that figure had jumped to 5,141, he said.

Similarly, in 1940 there were 5,327 married Filipino-American men in California. By 1950, there were 17,660, Fabros said.

``It gave us our communities here because the women wanted to settle down and start families,'' Fabros said. ``Through cooking, dances and storytelling, the women also helped preserve the culture.''

While the Fangonilos' marriage was a mutual decision, Sally Panis, 69, of San Jose found herself in a far different predicament.

Her uncle, who worked in a GI camp, introduced her to Valentine Sabado, an Army gunner. Panis was 19. Sabado was 40.

``My mother was three years older than him,'' she said of her widowed mother. ``I told him to marry my mother.''

But her uncle had other plans. ``My uncle said if I didn't marry him, he would shoot me,'' Panis said. ``He told me that twice. I was scared.''

So she married Sabado in 1947, three months after they met, and she came to the United States two years later.

``I wanted to go home,'' Panis said. ``For three months, I cried. He kept saying I would get used to it.''

She did, growing to love her husband's kindness and even temper. He died in 1957 of a brain hemorrhage while she was pregnant with their fourth child. A week after he was buried, the baby was born. After being on welfare for a few years, she got a job as a hotel housekeeper that she kept for 26 years.

The war brides' lives often were hard. Pacita Partolan Caballes, 71, of Palo Alto came to the United States in 1947 after two years of separation from her husband, Army Cpl. Ramon Partolan, while he saved enough money to pay for her passage.

Banana leaves for shoes

Caballes had been so poor in the Philippines that she owned only one dress and wore banana leaves for shoes. Seeing how destitute the family was, Partolan brought them Army bread, rice and vegetables.

Although she hardly knew him, her mother urged her to marry him because he had been so kind.

Life in the United States wasn't much easier for a while. For a time, as they raised flowers with the Fangonilos, the couple lived in a house with no water and ate wild mustard for food. Even when they had saved enough to buy a nice house, they faced discrimination from real estate agents who steered them to East Palo Alto when they wanted to live in Palo Alto, Caballes recalled.

But she always had faith, she said, largely because of her husband, who stood by her as they raised six children before he died of cancer in 1985 at age 77.

``Coming here as a war bride was a risk,'' Caballes said. ``I didn't know what would happen to me. But I realized that if you have a husband who is good and supportive, there's no problem that can't be solved.''

IF YOU'RE INTERESTED The ``Golden Stars'' concert to honor Filipino-American war brides will be at 5 p.m. Saturday at the San Jose Buddhist Church Betsuin, 640 N. Fifth St. Tickets are $10 each. For more information, call the Northside Community Center at (408) 271-7315.
Published 10/20/95 in the San Jose Mercury News.