Filipinos fathered by US soldiers fight for justice
‘Amerasians’ fear history may repeat itself if American troops return to their shores as part of Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia’
Sunshine Lichauco de Leon in Manila
Jennifer Stephen, a second generation Amerasian. Photograph: Sunshine de Leon for the Guardian
They call them “Amerasians”, a throwback to a time when America had soldiers in the Philippines, and some of those soldiers had local girlfriends.
Most of their mothers worked as “bar girls” in the rest and recreation areas surrounding sprawling American naval and air force bases. When US troops left 20 years ago, they left behind the product of their liaisons with these Filipino women: thousands of infants who would grow up never knowing their American fathers. Many were abandoned by their mothers, who were financially unable or too ashamed to keep them.
Now, this generation of second-class citizens are starting to find their voice, after a lifetime of discrimination, bullying and worse. They are also eager to point out that with America once again taking a close interest in the Pacific and likely to rotate soldiers through the Philippines as part of its “pivot to Asia”, history may be about to repeat itself.
The majority of Amerasians – an estimated 52,000 people were fathered by Americans during the long military association with the country – grew up in extreme poverty, raised by family members or guardians. They experienced intense levels of discrimination for being illegitimate, mixed race, or the children of prostitutes. Many were unable to finish high school, lacked the skills to find work or were denied jobs because of their skin colour.
Michelle Zavala Nunag, 28, said: “People assume that if you’re Amerasian your mother worked in a bar – and that you will be just like her.” Working in a bar in the Philippines can be a euphemism for prostitution.
“Black Amerasians” – those fathered by African-American soldiers – suffered the most extreme prejudice. Brenda Moreno, 43, does not know the names of either of her parents. As a child, she hid at home because she felt ashamed. Moreno said: “They always call me ‘nigger’. When I was younger I told everyone I wanted to change my blood so I could be white.”
Forced to leave school at age 10, she feels imprisoned by the circumstances of her birth: “I can’t find a good job because I can’t go to school. I am just always working as a housemaid,” she said. “How can I change my life? I am just trying my best.”
Anthony Dizon, 28, believes his ethnicity is the reason he was turned down for a job at a supermarket: “I feel so bad, so hurt. Why don’t they give me an opportunity? We are not monkeys or aliens – we are Filipinos.”
The country’s racism has deep roots, strengthened by its colonial history, according to Alex Magno, professor of political science at the University of the Philippines. “We long ago considered the Malayo-Polynesian tribes superior and the Negrito tribes inferior,” he said. “Hispanic culture merely reinforced that prejudice with its Eurocentric paradigm. Superimpose Hollywood. The standard of beauty is fair skin, tall nose, straight hair.”
Growing up with constant rejection and economic hardship has scarred many. A 2010 study by Dr Peter Kutschera, director of the Philippine Amerasian Research Institute, concluded: “The clear majority of Amerasians live in abject poverty, including high incidence of joblessness or underemployment, homelessness or housing insecurity, alcohol, drug or familial abuse, identity confusion, unresolved grief issues over the loss of their fathers, social isolation and low self-esteem.”
The Obama administration has made it clear it considers Asia its pre-eminent strategic consideration, and it is expected that more US warships will pass through Subic Bay, the site of the former US naval base a few hours north of Manila, as America seeks to bolster and utilise its traditional allies in the region.
“It’s not good,” said Moreno as she watched ships coming into Subic Bay’s port. She is worried “there will be more of them in the bar. And more Amerasians.”
Second generation Amerasian Jennifer Stephens, 27, feels forgotten by both the US and Philippine government: “I am not against US troops – I just think the Philippine government should come up with an agreement that they have to be responsible for what they are doing.”
Many Amerasians dream of finding their fathers and going to America, a land they believe offers their birthright, opportunity and acceptance. Dizon said: “I dream to touch the sun of America because there, we belong.”
But current legislation does not make that an easy option. In 1982, the US Congress passed the Amerasian immigration act, giving preferential immigration status to Amerasian children born during the Vietnam war in Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. The Philippines remains forgotten. The only way Filipino Amerasians can become citizens is if their fathers claim them – but most don’t even know their father’s name.
“War sometimes has unexpected consequences,” said Emma Rossi Landi, co-producer of Left by the Ship, a documentary about Filipino Amerasians that examines their fight for respect in a bigger geopolitical picture. “Children who are left behind, whose lives are shaped by the situation they were born into, which they could not avoid and are not responsible for. Why do women and children pay the biggest price of global politics?”
With the re-election of a mixed-race US president, many Amerasians feel this is a good time to fight for their rights. “We are hoping there will be a discussion even just to open the issue,” says Aida Santos, managing director of Wedpro, the NGO that has helped the Amerasians form an advocacy group, United Philippine Amerasians. She said: “There are more Amerasians than the eye can see. They need shelter, education, training, jobs.”
Stories of hardship
Ashley Descalier‘s mother, who met her US military father while working in a bar, left Ashley with relatives at birth. Half-African American, she remembers a childhood of discrimination: “They would tell me I am ugly because my skin is dark, I was always crying when I got home.”
Dropping out of school at age 10 and pregnant at age 16, she found herself stepping into the cycle she had been born into: “I worked in a bar for three years. I did not have a choice – I do not have an education and I had to earn money for my son.”
She said: “I thought maybe it’s our destiny. Sometimes it was hard – I really needed money so I forced myself to go with them.”
But now she says she is one of the lucky ones. Her father, whom she had only known by name, contacted her through Facebook and is now trying to get the documentation to be reunited with his daughter and grandson. She said: “I asked him if he accepts me as his daughter and if I could call him Dad and he said yes. I can’t stop crying. I really wanted to hug him.”
Jennifer Stephen, 27 is a second-generation Amerasian. Her grandfather was a black US air force pilot, her grandmother a Filipina working in a bar around the Clark airbase during the 1960s.
Poverty led Jennifer’s “black Amerasian” mother to also work in a bar at age 14 and by 15 she was pregnant – Jennifer’s father a white American air force pilot whose name she did not even know. Jennifer says: “When I was younger, I thought I would end up working in a bar.” She recalls the pain of a childhood teased for her skin colour and where she came from: “When they see you are Amerasian, they say you are bad. I once punched a classmate because he told whole class my mom was a prostitute. They told me I was a mushroom – just popped out from nothing.” She says she wishes people would see Amerasians as human beings: “It’s not our fault being in this situation. You have to understand that we too have feelings. We too feel pain.”
Kevin Bardos is one of the few who know the names of their fathers – his is a US air force pilot from Texas, who he says knew about him: “My father even gave me my name – he and my mother exchanged letters until she was three months pregnant, then he stopped writing.” Now 22, Bardos finished high school and dreams of having the money to attend college. He admits life has been easier for him as a “white Amerasian”. “I was always voted as president or as a leader in school because they think my colour makes me a person who can manage.”
But the sting of abandonment lingers. He said: “I have not looked for my father because he never looked for me. It’s not my job – if he wants to see me, he has my address.”
He adds: “And If I ever did see him, I would ask him one question. Why? Why did you not come back and find me?”