Uncle Femio, the original OFW
Many years ago as a young boy, I joined my father Modesto Farolan when he was posted as the country’s first consul general to Honolulu shortly after the grant of independence in 1946. It was shortly after the end of World War II and I remember Hawaii not as the 50th State of the American Union but as the Territory of Hawaii, TH for short. The official and personal mail we got were all addressed to the Philippine Consulate General, Honolulu, TH. School for me and my older brother Benny was St. Mary’s, run by the Brothers of Mary, a Catholic group whose other school in California was the scene of an old and popular movie, “The Bells of St. Mary” starring Bing Crosby and others. Here I learned to play and appreciate the American game of football, and through the years, have maintained a continuing interest in the game that is usually covered by YouTube or SKYcable.
While many of the early Filipinos who migrated to Hawaii stayed on as workers on pineapple and sugarcane plantations all over the Islands, there were others who sailed on to California to labor on vegetable farms, especially during the harvest season.
Eufemio Cariaga was 18 years old when he arrived in the US from Ilocos Norte with only the shirt on his back and a few belongings. It was 1928 and the Philippines was an American possession and so one didn’t have to line up for a US visa. If you had the cash, all you had to do was buy a ticket for space on a ship and like many restless Ilocanos searching for adventure and greener pastures, he decided to try his luck in California. There was no consulate or embassy that he could run to for help in case of trouble. He had no money and very little education, but he was willing to work and his instincts for survival kept him away from danger. There were not too many opportunities open for him but soon he developed skills as a cook working in one restaurant after another.
In 1941, he joined the Berkeley Country Club in El Cerrito, California, but shortly after, he left his job as a cook to enlist in the Navy when war broke out in the Pacific. He took part in the campaign to liberate the Philippines and when the conflict finally came to an end, he asked for a few days off to visit his old hometown. Here he met my aunt Rizalina, the youngest sister of my mother. After a grand wedding where his US Navy blues made him the toast of the town, Cariaga returned to the US and a few months later, my aunt followed, becoming one of the first war brides to go to the US from the Pacific theater of operations.
Uncle Femio resumed work at the Berkeley Country Club, this time as a locker room attendant, cleaning golf shoes and taking care of the needs of the club members. By then, the club had been taken over by a new group and renamed the Mira Vista Country Club. For 28 years, he was a fixture of the club, known to everyone as “Tommy.” On reaching his 65th birthday, Tommy Cariaga was honored at a testimonial dinner by the club members. More than 300 persons attended the event to pay tribute to the man who had become the club’s most reliable employee. At dinner, Tommy was awarded a set of golf clubs, a gold wrist watch, a check to help soften the transition to retirement, and most significant of all, honorary lifetime membership in the club. Cariaga used to say, “If I had two pennies for every pair of golf shoes that I cleaned, I would really have a fortune today.” On what he earned and saved, Tommy was able to provide a good education for his two boys, Eufemio Jr. and Rudy, own a comfortable home, and drive a family car, all fully paid. When my late brother Marciano was a student at the University of California, Berkeley, and his allowance from the Philippines would be late mainly because of foreign exchange problems, it was Uncle Femio who would bail him out with a small loan.
At age 85, while driving home from part-time work with school children, he suffered a stroke from which he never recovered. He was remembered by relatives and friends as a humble man with a quick wit and an easy, friendly smile. Others saw him as the embodiment of the virtues of hard work, thrift, and tenacity that are the marks of the people from his region. I remember him as the original Filipino overseas worker who left his country in search for a better life and overcoming his limitations, made possible the American Dream that has captivated the hearts and minds of many of our people.
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