Thursday, December 6, 2012

The arrival of is a welcome and fresh e-publication.  I'm excited, honored, joyful, that my piece Eat All You Can is chosen among their many entertaining offerings in their soft launch edition.  Check it out:

Would you LIKE to see more?   Thank you!

Friday, September 21, 2012

This is the first time, and perhaps last time (due to loss of funding) that the CSM President's Lecture Series has featured writers within its own community.  Let me consolidate all the implication, frustration, and jubilation around that statement and just say, Wow. It's about fuckin' time.

Friday, July 20, 2012

                                                      Pio de Cano, Jr., me, Albert Acena

Presentation at the 14th Biennial Conference of the Filipino-American National Historical Society

 I appreciate the interest in reading the text of my presentation entitled, "The Sky is the Limit: The Legacy of Celestino T. Alfafara". It was presented at the FANHS Biennial Conference in Albuquerque, NM, on June 29, 2012, with co-presenters Pio de Cano, Jr. and Albert Acena

Introduction (SLIDE 1: TITLE PAGE)
Good morning. My name is Lisa Suguitan Melnick. I am the granddaughter of Celestino T. Alfafara.  His daughter, Anita Alfafara Suguitan, was my mother.  Let me share with you how it is that I got here to present the following material to you today.  In 2005, my grandfather’s scrapbooks, photographs, and primary documents from his 60 years in public service were gifted to me by my Auntie Tusa Alfafara, the widow of my uncle, also named Celestino.    At that time, Auntie Tusa said to me, “Lisa, among the kids, since you’re the one who likes to write, I think you’ll be the one to find a way to preserve these materials and your grandfather’s legacy.
For several years I left the boxes virtually untouched and fingered through one or two pamphlets, or private letters now and then.   I felt both overwhelmed and honored. In that order.    I realized what a great responsibility and challenge to share this material that I had been offered.  I had no idea where to begin.
So, what did I do? I packed everything back up and put most of it away.
Unlike courageous pioneers like my grandfather, Celestino T. Alfafara, Mr. Pio  de Cano both Sr, and Jr.,  as well as our moderator- a mentor of mine, Albert Acena, I, myself, have just recently stepped up as a keeper of the flame.    And here I am.  As I mentioned at the beginning I was gifted with the photos and documents I’m about to share with all of you today.  Allow me to give proper credit to my Uncle, the late Celestino M. Alfafara, who before his passing in 2005, had compiled most of his father’s work.


Fast forward five years to 2011, and the publication of the book Filipinos in San Francisco.  Al Acena, former dean of the social science division at the College of San Mateo, connected me to Dawn Bohulano Mabalon, historian and associate professor at San Francisco State University – my alma mater.  Dawn, in turn,  put me together with Evelyn Luluquisen of the Manilatown Heritage Foundation.  
During the book launch at the San Francisco Main Public Library, Professor Dan Gonzalez of San Francisco State University unexpectedly invited me up to the podium to say a few words.  If I remember correctly, Danny’s impromptu invitation occurred because my grandfather appears in the front cover photo of Filipinos in San Francisco, and seeing me in the audience while the book’s front cover was projected on the screen, he decided to invite me up to say a few words.  Now, since I am a college professor, and have stood in front of-probably- hundreds of groups of students – one would think that it would be a no-brainer to walk up to the podium, relate one significant highlight in my grandfather, Celestino T. Alfafara’s  sixty –year span of active service to building and strengthening  the Filipino-American community.  Right?  But no, instead I became completely overwhelmed.  All I could ramble about was a sweet, but irrelevant childhood memory during my visits with my grandfather at his home at 3965 Sacramento Street!  Well, after the book launch event ended, one of my aunties came over and scolded me, saying something to the effect that… your grandfather was the one who won the rights for Filipinos to own property here in California; he was President of the Caballeros de Dimas-Alang; he was President of the Filipino Community of San Francisco !  You should have shared one of those things, NOT a childhood memory!
Thus, it is even more of a sweet privilege to be here today – to make the story right – for my aunties!


This morning I am going to begin with talking about the 1945 California Supreme Court Case, Celestino Alfafara v. Bernice Fross in which my grandfather won the rights for Filipinos to own property in California.   His case followed that of Mr. Pio de Cano’s achievement four years prior, in Washington State.  After that,  we will then work backwards and cover just the first twenty years of Celestino Alfafara’s accomplishments leading up to his test case in the California Supreme Court.

In June, 1944 Celestino Alfafara had entered into a contract to purchase a parcel of property for $65.00 in San Mateo County. $65.00 ! ! You can’t even buy a pup tent for that price anymore. The owner of the property, Bernice Fross, refused to convey the property to him citing the Alien Land Act of 1921. He successfully challenged and won the case because he was not an alien, but a U.S. National. (Common Destiny: Filipino American Generations, Juanita Tamayo Lott, 2006)

Would someone in the audience like to explain the basics of the Alien Land Law 1921? 
[The new law was directed at the state’s Japanese population and ushered in a new era of government-sponsored white supremacy. This new law in fact went further than the constitutional prohibition by taking away the right to lease or rent land. Introduced into the Legislature in 1920 by Miller Freeman’s Anti-Japanese League of Washington and the American Legion, this law was similar to a law passed in California that year that was designed to tighten California’s 1913 Alien Land Laws.]
Here, I’d like to read an account, written by Celestino Alfafara, in his own handwriting.  There is no date on the document, but it was written- in long hand – on the back of what looked like leftover invitations to an event called “The 15th of September”, in Burbank California, in the year 1979. (show document in hand).
From page 5 of handwritten journal entitled,”The Discriminations Against the Filipino Pioneer Immigrants”, a piece which turned out to be a 38-page handwritten account.


“Now let me go into the actual cases which I have handled.  I bought a home at 3965 Sacramento Street, San Francisco, California.  I could not put it in my name, because I was not a citizen.  I fought this in the Superior Court of Judge Elmer Robinson.  The defendant was Bernice Fross.  We agreed that it would be a test case.  Just as we agreed, the case was elevated to the California Supreme Court.  Even State Attorney General’s opinion was in my favor.  So the decision of Judge Elmer Robinson was upheld by the Supreme Court.”

There are two conflicting facts between this personal account as well as ones I heard from my relatives.  1) the property in question was not in San Mateo Country but in San Francisco; 3965 Sacramento Street, to be exact. 2) Though my grandfather won the case, the house was purchased by his wife Juanita Cayton, who was a citizen.

Alfafara v. Fross was a test case in the California Supreme Court.   What does this mean “test case”?
[test case: a legal action whose outcome is likely to set a precedent, or test the constitutionality of a statute.]
Likely to set a precedent.    In reality,  Celestino T. Alfafara’s life’s endeavors set many precedents.

In February of this year, I visited the Philippines for the very first time with Oscar Peñaranda who has dubbed the trips he organizes for Fil-Ams like me, “The Al Robles Express, Lakbay-Loob”.  During the one month trip, we visited five provinces, including two trips to Cebu, Celestino Alfafara’s birthplace.  Thanks to Oscar Peñaranda’s arrangement, I was able to meet with relatives from Carcar, and hear stories firsthand.  Even though Celestino Alfafara had left the Philippines in 1929, and returned for a visit only once again in 1949, my cousins remember the same big presence of him that I, my brother and American born cousins also experienced!  My meeting with my relatives in the Philippines filled me in a way that is very easy to describe.  In just one evening with family I had never met, my own spirit took multi-dimensional shape, and all that I had known about my grandfather, their uncle, was blessed by their confirmation. The best way to bring together that experience and today’s topic is for me to share with you the events in my grandfather’s life of service to the Filipino American community PRIOR to this case.  A timeline will make it easy to lay out the dates around which my Philippine- born cousins wove their stories around the table that magical evening.


1925  Celestino T. Alfafara earns his Bachelor of Laws Degree from the National University of Manila.
1929  Arrives June 4 at San Francisco, from the Philippines. His life’s ambition was to “Go to Harvard University to take his Master of Laws degree; then to Oxford, England, to study the Parliamentary form of government. After that he would go to Sorbonne, France, to study Diplomacy.”  He said that all this was, “in order to equip myself to fulfill my life’s ambition to fight the cause of the underdog in the Philippine House of Commons.”
            Vice -President of the United Visayas of San Francisco, a Filipino social club.
1931  Joins Caballeros de Dimas Alang, first the Regidor Lodge of Stockton, and then transfers to the Rizal Lodge in Salinas.
August –Is appointed as Prosecutor for the Caballeros de Dimas Alang – Rizal Lodge of Salinas. He serves in this capacity from 1931-1932.
            In the same year he is drafted to Grand Auditor position from 1931-33.
            September-- he starts The Pen publication.
1932  June – my mother, Anita, is born.   (presenter’s personal reference to connect you, the audience to how precious this project became. My mother passed away in 1965, at the young age of 33.)
1933  Is appointed Junior Warden of the Rizal Lodge.  He also completes his term as Grand Auditor.
1938  Is elected President of the Filipino Community of San Francisco 1938-1940.
            Is re-appointed as Grand Prosecutor of the CDA as well as becoming the Associate Editor of the Dimas-Alang Review.
1939  Significant event during the Golden Gate International Expedition when CTA filed a formal protest against loudspeaker announcements to “Beware of Filipino Pickpockets.”  Read Grandpa’s pages 17-21
1943  Is appointed Grand Master of the Caballeros de Dimas Alang for what would be the first of four terms: 1943-1946; 1946-1949; 1952-1955; 1955-1958.

The resolution in the slide comes from the 127-page document entitled, “Records and Proceedings of the Third Filipino Inter-Community Conference”, held in Oakland, Calfornia, June27-29, 1941; p. 22-23

The last line reads, “The above resolution was temporarily tabled.
My point in showing this document is that it took four years between the conceptualization of the idea during this 1941 conference until Celestino T. Alfafara’s actualization of bringing this test case to the California Supreme Court in May, 1945.
It reflects Resilience in the face of many obstacles.
The theme of the 2012 FANHS Conference is “Resilience: A Filipino Legacy in a Global Community.”   As I have studied the seven boxes of my grandfather’s photos, documents, personal correspondences, and through personal interviews, it occurred to me that Reslilience is a quality that must be possessed by more than just the one in the Spotlight. 

SLIDE 7: 2 PHOTOS, 1930 AND 1938, ROLES

What about the family members?  Among my uncle’s chronicling of Celestino Alfafara’s many exemplary contributions, I discovered references to strain on family relations.  For example, when my grandfather returned to the Philippines in 1949, he wrote to my grandmother, Juanita about his intentions to run as Representative of the 3rd District of Cebu.  .   In the same year he returned from the Philippines, disillusioned and disappointed with Philippine politics.

SLIDE 8: 1950 FAMILY PHOTO: my mother, Celestino, Juanita, Uncle Cel

Soon after, my grandmother also divorced my grandfather, disappointed that he would forsake providing for his family in favor of politics.  She remarried.  Eventually they did get back together, four years later.


In personal interview, I learned that my Uncle Cel did not relate to the work my grandfather, his father was doing.  From his point of view as a youngster growing up, he and my mother went from meeting to meeting, following their father around as he advocated for and lead the Filipino community.  He sometimes expressed resentment for being deprived of more normal teenaged years.
Thus, I feel that Resilience – being able to carry this forward by maintaining one’s own life in the absence of one’s family member – deserves proper recognition as part of the Filipino Legacy.  As I go through the photos, keepsakes, personal letters, and notes, one important idea I am discovering is that extraordinary service for the good of one’s community costs personal sacrifice.  I wish this fact to become part of the record of my grandfather’s legacy too, in recognition of the family members’ whose contributions also existed, although outside the spotlight.

For the purposes of today’s topic I limited my presentation to Celestino  Alfafara’s involvement with the community PRIOR to the landmark case in which he won the rights for Filipino-Americans to own property in California.  He would go on to serve for forty-one more years before his death on December 12, 1990, in Los Angeles.
As a postscript: I am currently co-authoring a book about my grandfather, with focus on his service as President of the Caballeros de Dimas Alang, and personal anecdotes about him from family, acquaintances, friends.  If by chance, there is anyone here who knew my grandfather, I would welcome the opportunity to talk with you! 
This has been just one snapshot in a very full and illustrious album.  I hope I have given all of you an insightful picture of the significant and courageous contributions of Celestino T. Alfafara.
Thank you.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

I will be reading this piece for the Women on Writers appearance on the Literary Stage at the San Mateo County Fair on Sunday, June 16, 2012.  It is the fifth sketch in my new work-in-progress, Four Flip Flops and the House that Fried Chicken Built.

Four Flip-Flops and the House that Fried Chicken Built
Story #5: Beep-beep Bahala na (what will be will be)
© Lisa Suguitan Melnick

Our first orientation to Philippine traffic happens on Araneta Street in the old town center of Bacolod, a lovely provincial metropolis also known as “The City of Smiles.” Brown-eyed, dark-haired, smooth-skinned, we four American-born Filipinos – known as Fil-Ams-- blend in and feel so comfortable because we are surrounded by others who look just like us.  Or, should I say, we look very much like them?  The mundane task of crossing a street is bringing out the clumsy foreigner in me here in my ancestral homeland.  I try my best to appear familiar, at least imitating the ease with which people weave in and out between so many honking cars, jeepneys, pedi- cabs, taxis and vans whose drivers randomly “beep-beep”  their horns for no apparent reason. 
It is Day 3 of our first time arrival in the Philippines and the Question of the Day is:  What is the meaning of the beep?
I force my feet forward, command my body to refrain from rearing back and halting like a Frankenstein doll when a car comes within half a meter of my face. The driver’s window is so close that I could actually whisper in his ear!  But instead he speaks. “Ah, you are not from around here.” He smiles.  Eye-to-eye, here in the middle of the road, we look at each other and laugh.
 Many novel kinds of vehicles approach: jeepneys dressed up with Mercedes Benz insignias or adorned with full-length portraits of Mother Mary on one side of the door and Jesus on the other; or a loved one’s name- Marie or Meynard- shimmers on chrome in the sunlight; pedi-cabs, three- deep and swerving about like swarming mosquitoes; delivery trucks spewing black exhaust in answer to grinding gears. All of them beep continuously in staggered staccato patterns whether in intersections or not.  Drivers beep while turning left into a two- lane street that morphs into a three-lane, and then bottlenecks into one-lane.  Then, “beep-beep” again when they’ve finished turning.
Within three days of my arrival I already discover that the Philippine Islands are a bright, vibrant place.  In an e-mail from California, a cousin of mine who was born in the Philippines but has lived in the U.S. for over twenty years writes, “The Philippines is a feast for the senses, isn’t it?” 
“Yes, indeed,” I answer out loud as I read at her message in Bacolod’s internet café, joyful that her e-mail echoes what I have just freshly discovered. The Philippines offers a banquet of bright tastes, lush green surroundings, exploding aromas and gentle fragrances. I am aware that there is still so much more to experience.
But for today, I just wanna know: what is the meaning of the beep? 
Well I can tell you what it is Not.  It is not a warning that the driver of the vehicle has any intention whatsoever of hitting you.  In the Philippines, vehicles and people move along, well, not relaxed but more in cooperation with each other.   Still I was surprised that I never witnessed anyone getting hit but maybe it’s good that I didn’t watch the news.
Crossing the street is like a dance. Our guide, Oscar, says that the pedestrians and vehicles move in harmony. If there is a space, one of them moves to fill that space.  If there’s no space, they wait.  Yes, the cars, like the people, are stereotypically equipped with rhythm and good timing.
Thus, at this point, my take on the meaning of the beep?  “I’m not beeping at you.  I’m beeping just because …I’m alive.” 
One month later, now in Metro Manila, I feel ten times more closed in by the crazy cacophony of horns and farting exhaust from the jeepneys and cars and scooters and pedi-cabs. A feast for the senses? Yes, but I’m beyond being able to digest any more noise. If I had known the incredible level of intensity of the Manila streets, I might not have attempted this adventure alone, from Makati to Cubao one day.  If I knew what I was doing, the 7.3 kilometer trip might take about an hour, but I’ve already been gone for three hours! Sweating and facing nightfall, I decide I’d better text my companions to tell them I’m running a little late.  Alas, my cell phone reads, “Low-batt.”
While I stand on the corner thinking about what to do next, the noise envelops me. The thoroughfare is four-lanes wide moving in three different directions with no painted lines, with signaled intersections but no crosswalk. I step out into the street and pull back. I do this a few times. Oh my God I’m roadkill.   I must calm myself, get my rhythm. First, I have to filter out the noise!  Sigh. What/ is the meaning of the beep?  I breathe.   Whatis /the meaning of the beep? Breathe.  What/ Is/The meaning/ Of the beep/?  One foot. In front of. The other. One foot. In front of. The other.  After six false starts, I still can’t see a way to get all the way across to the MRT station without getting sandwiched in by metal.
I decide to walk back half a block to ask the armed guard in front of a Mini-Stop market, “Guard, where can I cross?” 
“Ah, you are not from around here,” he yells above the traffic.
 “You can cross over there.” He motions me back toward the stop light where I’d already been standing for ten minutes, gripped by the incessant flow of heat, exhaust, vehicles, and shouting jeepney drivers.  
I am so close to asking him to use the rifle that’s slung around his shoulder to stop traffic for me just for a minute so that I can cross the street!  If he walks in front of the cars and waves his rifle around, you know, as if he’s just lightly directing them, like with a smile and a shrug, will the drivers at least pause and not overreact to the weapon?  Hmmm.
Instead, I say, “Okay, Salamat po (thank you),” and I walk away, using the rhythm of the words to keep me visibly NOT like someone who “is NOT from around here.” Ay nako. What/ is the meaning of the beep?  
I can’t help but look back at the guard, hoping he’ll confirm that I will get across this time.   He is looking.  And he smiles. He motions again, coaxing me toward the crosswalk, as if to say, “Go ahead.  You can cross there.  You are not going to die today.”
Much has occurred since my last post at the beginning of the year.  I traveled to the Philippines for the first time in mid-February.  Three weeks later, I celebrated my 56th birthday in Davao, Mindanao, at De Bonte Koe European Restaurant with the travel group: Vanessa, Nena, Kathy, and our guide, Oscar Penaranda.  When the program finished in mid-March, I continued on to Tokyo, Japan, where my husband's family lives.  Though I had seen my mother-in-law the previous summer, it had been seven years since I saw the rest of the family.  Thus, when I went to the Philippines, my husband said, "You really should visit the family in Japan; after all, you ARE in the same time zone."  True.  And I'm so glad I did.

Since my return, I have begun two new writing projects.  One is a piece on my maternal grandfather, Celestino T. Alfafara who had a great impact on ensuring the future of Filipino-Americans through his extensive community activism.  Please stay tuned for updates as the project gets under way.  The second piece is a series of sketches, currently called, Four Flip-Flops and the House that Fried Chicken Built.  Several people ranging from colleagues in higher education as well as fellow writers have inquired about recent writing.  It is time that I shared what I've been doing since my return from the Philippines.  I hope you enjoy.  Feedback is always welcomed and appreciated.

Meanwhile, I will continue to work off the crispy pata and pinakbet w/ way too much bagoong that I consumed during my month long visit to the Motherland.

Thank you for your visit to my website.
Lisa Suguitan Melnick

If you'd like to see the travel blog - the fodder for the new stuff, please go to