Vallejo man a living example of a century of Filipinos in the U.S.

Fairfield Daily Republic ©

VALLEJO - Nazario Orpilla's soft and slow shuffle across his living room floor, echoed by his 100 years of life, mark the last steps for the Filipino Manongs in America.

They are the group of men who left the Philippines during a 28-year span in hopes of finding a better job, a better life in America. It began with 15 men who arrived in Hawaii to work the sugar plantations a century ago this year and lasted until 1934, after thousands migrated to the United States to find employment as laborers with low-paying jobs.

Orpilla, a man whose flawless skin belies his age, was one of them. He arrived to America in 1926 off a Pacific-Canadian Oceanliner where his brother paid a fare of $300. He worked at a battery factory, a Korean restaurant in San Francisco, served in World War II where he supervised 60 Filipino stewards and finally, spent his remaining work days at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard until 1974.

He is one of the last survivors from an era where Filipinos were paid $16 a month to labor in the fields and support their family; the last of the men who at the time, left their homeland to sleep in boarding houses and work seven days a week in exchange for a life in America.

To see this man, who admits to having a hearing problem but otherwise "feels good," one would not know the tribulations he faced in California decades ago. Beneath his warm look, memories of fishing in San Pablo with friends mixed with moments of discrimination drift through his mind and remain alive.

"It was a long time ago when I came to America," Orpilla says slowly, his voice somewhat shaky but his memory quite steady. "There were very few Filipinos here at the time. They were working in a farm in Salinas or as farm workers in some other groves. We were called the Manongs, but all my friends in Vallejo are now gone."

The Filipino history in America began a century ago. And it continues to evolve.

Century ties

"One who does not know where he came from does not know where he is going," according to an old Filipino proverb.

Mel Orpilla, Nazario's son and middle child, had no concept of his father's significance in this country's history. He laughs at himself when reflecting on his earlier years and appears somewhat embarrassed.

"It hit me in 1985 when I was taking an Asian/American history class at Sacramento State University. I had no idea of the Filipino history and we started learning their experiences in this country. They showed us photos like the ones we had in our family photo album," he says. "That's when it hit me like a ton of bricks. I felt like someone opened my eyes for the first time."

The experience left him dumbfounded yet angry toward the public school system.

"We were taught the standard American history, we didn't learn about all the people of America, like the Chinese who helped build the railroads," he says of the schools in Vallejo. "But by not learning about our presence in America for the past century, it shows that our history has no value in this country."

Orpilla, a writer, lecturer and photographer, continues to discuss his Filipino culture and mentions an imposed quota of 50 Filipinos allowed to enter America each year after 1934.

"That ended the wave of immigration and was a way to control how many Filipinos came into this country," he said.

By 1946, the quota was raised to 100. There would be one more revision when the 1965 Immigration Act raised the number to 20,000 immigrants per year, per nation.

But along the way, Orpilla says, Filipinos faced racial issues in America.

"There were laws passed after 1932 that said Filipinos could no longer own property, they couldn't vote, couldn't live in white residential areas, couldn't work civil service jobs, couldn't own a business and could not marry whites," he says and adds the laws were in effect until after the end of World War II.

"Growing up I didn't' know the significance of what my father and his colleagues experienced during the '20s and '30s and the racism," he continues. "My father doesn't talk about it."


Nazario Orpilla's neighborhood, lined with small houses on narrow streets, shows signs of a place that once held dreams.

"Vallejo was a nice, quiet place long ago," says Nazario's wife, Ofelia, 72, as she sits by her husband. "We had stores downtown but they closed them all. Now we just have Mervyn's."

The neighborhood was a predominantly black area, according to Mel Orpilla, when his father purchased the house in Vallejo 46 years ago; the same house where today Nazario's great-grandchildren spend time playing outside.

"Mare Island began hiring Filipinos and blacks during the '20s and '30s to work as laborers. Because of that, the blacks and Filipinos were relegated to lower-paying jobs," he says. "They lived in the same segregated neighborhood and a lot of them married each other. Later, neighborhoods like these were affordable so that even if you had a low-paying job, you could afford a house."

Nazario, who still rakes the leaves in his familiar back yard, sits on his brown leather recliner and gives a faint smile. His wife leans over and patiently talks to him; something she's been doing for their 47 years of marriage.

Every now and then, his dark eyes become fixated on hers, perhaps recalling vivid memories. They smile at each other. Their decades together have obviously formed intimate ties.

When asked of the secret to his longevity, Nazario sits forward on his lazy chair. His thin lips curl at the end.

"I love my family and my friends," he says.

Reach Andrea E. Garcia at 427-6953 or