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My American father

I was born in Larap, a dusty mining town in Camarines Norte, in 1938; the name has since been changed from Larap to Jose Panganiban. My father worked in a mining company, possibly the defunct Philippine Iron Mines—the only one operating in Larap at that time, according to someone at the Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ Mines and Geosciences Bureau in Daraga, Albay—which belonged to an American company called Luzon Stevedoring (Lusteveco). Later, my father became a skipper in one of its tugboats named Narwal, and he died in Bongabon, Mindoro, while the boat was docked there. Lusteveco ceased operations sometime in 1986.

My father was the original “foreignoy”: He even changed his name from Philip to Felipe, but no one ever called him Ipe. He was still Philip to everyone who knew him, like my mother’s relatives and town mates. I don’t think he had any desire to turn us, his five children, into Americans, so we never spoke about it.

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All that time my sisters and I lived in some parts of Bicol, mostly in Guinobatan, Albay, at my uncle’s house, and in Libon, at my aunt’s house, our American father visited occasionally. Everyone called him the “Amerikano.” At the Larap mines, houses were provided for the Americans and their families, and my mother ran a sari-sari store and my three older sisters went to school there. I grew up knowing I had an American father, but it held no special meaning for me at that time.

My father was over six feet tall, lanky and handsome, and he spoke a smattering of the Bicol language. His problem-solving technique consisted of uttering the words “bako” (no) or “dae” (none.) One need not go any further. His favorite pastime was singing the song “Rancho Grande” while strumming his guitar. He had a small dog called Quinto who stayed mostly by his side, and when this dog chased my eldest sister Esperanza around the block, he smacked her instead of the dog.

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Fast-forward to 2005: I asked someone whose travel company processes US-visa applications before submission to the US Embassy about the wisdom of pursuing a case for citizenship, and he said it was going to be madugo (very difficult). He said the pictures I had showed him of my father and over a dozen foreigners did not mean they were Americans; they could have been Russians or other nationals. He said it was what the US Embassy people would tell me, meaning I wouldn’t be able to prove anything by the pictures. I thought that in the 1930s or 1940s, it was very doubtful that a US company would hire people aside from their very own nationals. But I dropped the idea because I was just trying to prove a point and I didn’t really have the funds, time and energy to pursue a seemingly lost cause. It would have been a useless endeavor, anyway, because of the Amerasian Immigration Act of 1982.

I was reminded of all these when I read Danny Petilla’s “Amerasians in Leyte chasing fading dreams” (Front Page, 3/10/14). Jaime Noveda’s case is far from mine, as is the case of Ronnie Philips Ulbrichts and his brothers. The Ulbrichts are the children of a living, breathing American father named Rudy Carl Ulbrichts, who was once a US Air Force serviceman at Clark Air Base in Angeles City and who is now in a nursing home in Minnesota in the United States. Rudy Carl Ulbrichts’ children could have done a lot for him. Father and sons could have spent many happy years together, instead of the very American way of the father just sitting in a nursing home, losing his mind and spirit, and waiting to die (or, to put it nicely, to pass on to another world). But as Mr. Petilla wrote, they and thousands of others are victims of a law called the Amerasian Immigration Act of 1982, which bars Japanese and Filipinos from joining their American fathers and becoming US citizens.

About a year ago, half of a lesbian couple was granted a fiance visa so that they could marry and be together in the United States. I am very happy for them, but where is the logic? No one has considered awarding the same blessing to parents and children (blood-related) and to spouses who have been separated for many years. I hope that the new knight in shining armor in the person of Christopher Lapinig, who has taken up the fight upon the death of US Sen. Daniel Inouye, will not give up but continue what the latter has started, to urge the US government to revive the cause for Filipino-Americans in parallel to President Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia” policy.

Americans are known worldwide as a very kind and compassionate people, but from what I know about their laws and the people in government who pass them, their hearts are made of wood, if not of stone.

I wish to thank Danny Petilla for writing about our Amerasian brothers and sisters. I hope many more will clench their fists and raise a cry to high heavens to rectify the injustice of singling out our Filipino-American kababayan and to help them achieve their dreams—if not for themselves, then for their children.

Shirley Wilson de las Alas, 75, lives in Makati City. She says: “Thousands of people who are not Americans by blood reside in the United States and enjoy life as US citizens, but thousands more like me who are Americans by virtue of our parents being Americans are denied our rights. But many of us dream on. My heart goes out to those who should have been with their American fathers and who long to be recognized as Americans. I hope my story can help them a bit.”

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TAGS: Albay, Camarines Norte, Carl Ulbrichts, Daraga, Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Jose Panganiban, Lusteveco, Luzon Stevedoring, Mines and Geosciences Bureau, mining, Mining town, Philippine Iron Mines, Ronnie Philips Ulbrichts, The Ulbrichts
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