The Forgotten Amerasians
Unwanted in their mothers’ country, unwelcome in their fathers’ homeland, Filipino Amerasians are still in search of a home.
“Do you know your father?” I asked him.
It was a humid, rainy night in Angeles City, some 50 miles north of Manila. I was aboard a jeepney on my way home after partying with friends during a recent trip to the Philippines. He was also a passenger on that jeepney, the most popular mode of public transportation in the Philippines that were originally made from U.S. military jeeps left over from World War II – one of the more visible and enduring vestiges of American military presence in the Philippines.
“My mother is a Filipino, and my father is an American,” Eric said, as he lowered his gaze and kept it fixed on the jeepney floor. He started shaking his head and said he has no recollection of his father, although he often wondered about him — where he lives, if he is still alive, or if he remembers him or if he knew that he existed at all.
His father is a U.S. serviceman, one of the hundreds of thousands of American military men who were stationed in the Philippines since 1898 when the U.S. became the new colonial master of the former Spanish colony. Eric is what Nobel Prize for literature awardee Pearl Buck called an “Amerasian” — born of Asian mothers and sired and abandoned by their American soldier-fathers who were momentarily posted in countries that were either stages or hosts to U.S. military adventures.
The Pearl S. Buck Foundation once estimated that there are between 76,000 and 136,000 half-American children — and that is despite an infant-mortality rate of up to 50 percent in some areas — in the Philippines, Thailand, Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.
In the Philippines alone, there are around 52,000 Amerasians, at least 5,000 of them in Angeles City, the site of the former Clark Air Base, which together with Subic Naval Base in Olongapo City, were the two biggest U.S. military facilities outside the United States. Their number could actually balloon up 250,000, to include second and third generation descendants across the Philippines, according to a recent study of Michigan State University.
“’Increasingly, the prostitutes are Amerasian, children of prostitutes caught in a cycle that transcends generations,’ stated a study by the National Mobilization for Survival, an organization that campaigns against foreign military bases.”
Both Clark and Subic, and all the other U.S. facilities in the Philippines, closed down in 1991, thus ending an almost century-long American military presence in the country. The bases may be gone (at least, for now), but they left behind a living legacy – Filipino Amerasians, “souvenir babies” of American military servicemen who were stationed in the Philippines during the decades the U.S. Navy and Air Force had bases in that Asian country.
These are some of their stories.
Eric’s blend of Asian and Caucasian features makes him stand out in a crowd. He was in his early 20s, and we were on the same jeepney that rainy night in Angeles City. I struck up a conversation with him.
Growing up without a father was tough, he said. And because he was abandoned by his father, Eric became the object of discrimination and bullying. In a predominantly conservative Catholic country like the Philippines, being illegitimate and being a child of a prostitute are two guarantees that one will be treated with extreme prejudice.
Eric said he did not have a chance to change his fate because he was too poor to even go to school.
Left with nothing to survive, Eric used his unique looks to make a living — he turned to prostitution. “This is the only thing I know to do. I have no choice. If I had a choice, I wouldn’t be doing this,” he said.
“I still hope my life will change,” he added.
I wanted to learn more about his story but the jeepney came to a stop and it was time for me to get off. I handed him a pack of otap (local sweet biscuit) that I had with me from the party earlier and his hands clung to them as if they were his lifeline. He thanked me quietly. I could feel his sad eyes followed me as I got off the jeepney.
That fleeting encounter with Eric led me to my own journey — to find out more about Filipino Amerasians, to find more people like Eric and to find ways I could help to alleviate their plight.
I met Ally’s mother, Susana, via a Facebook page created by a group of Amerasians based in the Philippines. Susana was pleading for help to find Ally’s father in the U.S.
Ally is a bubbly 10-year-old Amerasian whose father is African American. She and her mother live in Magalang, Pampanga, a remote and isolated town east of Angeles City. She was in contact with her father for about two years but their communication suddenly stopped.
Susana works in the Balibago district of Angeles City known for its night life; in particular, sleazy bars and prostitution. Angeles City used to host the Clark Air Force Base, while Olongapo City was where the former U.S. Subic Naval Base was located.
Both bases were used as staging grounds for U.S. military offensives during the Korean War in the 50s, the Vietnam War in the 60s and the 70s and the Gulf War in the early 90s. And both bases also served as the unofficial rest and recreation hubs of U.S. navymen and airmen during these wars.
The sex industry grew and thrived around these bases – the result of the American servicemen’s leisure dollars coming face-to-face with the Filipinos’ abject poverty.
Ally attends a public school in her small village, and without financial help, she does not stand a chance of going to college. She might not have a choice but to follow in her mother’s footsteps.
“Increasingly, the prostitutes are Amerasian, children of prostitutes caught in a cycle that transcends generations,” stated a study by the National Mobilization for Survival, an organization that campaigns against foreign military bases.
Ally is hoping her father would step up and take care of her. She handed me a greeting card addressed to her father. “In case you see my father in the States, would you please give this to him?”
I still have the card, and I wonder what Ally’s message is for her father. I guess it’s probably another daughter’s wish to see her father again.
John Nicole’s Story
“Hindi ko po alam (I do now know),” John answered in Tagalog when I asked him if he knows where his father lives.
John Nicole, 6, was a blond-haired boy who I found wandering around the slums of Angeles City.
He lives in a rat-infested hut that he shares with his extended family. He strikes me as another young Amerasian who may not be able to afford proper education. His long-lost father’s potential paternal acknowledgment may be his only chance of a better life.
Harold is 22 years old and lives in Olongapo City, where the U.S. former Subic Naval Base used to be.
He has a photocopy of his father’s old American passport, and continues to hope that he will be able to meet him. He said he learned that his father lives in San Diego, California.
Harold is so determined to meet his father that he applied for a visa to enter the United States three times. Each time, his application was denied by the U.S. Embassy in Manila.
Filipino Amerasians like Harold need an affidavit of paternal acknowledgment from their fathers before they can be recognized and granted American citizenship. But the American fathers must do that before the children turn 18. Most Filipino Amerasians like Harold, however, have aged out with no paternal acknowledgment and end up being already too old to claim U.S. citizenship. (Remember that the military bases in the Philippines shut down nearly 25 years ago.)
Again, like most of the Filipino Amerasians, Harold never had the opportunity or the resources to go to college. He is pinning his hope on a once-upon-a-time ticket to the American Dream – that of joining the United States Navy. The U.S. Navy used to recruit Filipinos since the end of the Spanish-American War in the early 1900s. But when the bases closed with the end of the military bases agreement between the countries in 1991, the U.S. stopped the practice.
Harold’s dream, however, will remain just that – a dream.
Katherine is a 38-year-old mother of two but has never met her father.
She has no recollection of her father, saying the only memory she has of her father is a faded photograph that she keeps in her wallet.
“This is the only moment I could be close to my father,” she, said while looking at the almost ghostly image of her father in the picture.
Like many of the abandoned souvenir children of American servicemen, Katherine also wishes to come to the United States and search for her father. “I have been searching and searching for him on the internet, but there are so many men with his name. If I was in the U.S., I think it would be easier,” she said as her voice trembled and her eyes teared up.
“I hope that one day I can knock on my father’s door, and that he will open the door for me. I just want to give him a hug and say, ‘hello’. And then my life will be complete.”
Discrimination and exclusion
There are tens of thousands more like Eric, Harold, Katherine, John and Ally. A study made by the Center for Women Studies of the University of the Philippines said that many Amerasians have been victims of abuse and even domestic violence. The findings cited cases of racial, gender and class discrimination against Amerasian children and youth committed by strangers, peers, classmates, teachers and even family members.
Black Amerasians seem to suffer more from racial and class discrimination than their white counterparts. According to one estimate, a quarter of Amerasians in the Philippines are of African-American descent. White female Amerasians, meanwhile, are highly vulnerable to sexual harassment, the study said.
In many cases, these children abandoned by their fathers were subsequently abandoned by their mothers, who were unable to care for them or too ashamed to keep them. Some were raised by other family members or adopted by foster parents. Many grow up in poverty.
The majority were likely to be out of work, homeless, have alcohol, drug or familial abuse problems, as well as “identity confusion, unresolved grief issues over the loss of their fathers, social isolation and low self-esteem,” according to a 2010 study by the Philippine Amerasian Research Institute.
Double discrimination, extra exclusion
In 1982, the U.S. Congress passed the Amerasian Act of 1982, which gave preferential immigration to children from Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Kampuchea and Thailand. G.I. babies from the Philippines, and those from Japan and Taiwan, however, were excluded. There was no explanation given.
There were efforts in Congress to rectify the omission. A Philippine-based organization providing services and advocacy for Amerasians filed a complaint before Congress on behalf of the Amerasians. From 1997 to 2001, the late Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii tried to introduce an amendment to the Immigration Act to include Japan and the Philippines.
But the Senate judiciary committee blocked the attempts at each and every turn. For this Senate committee, Filipino Amerasians were not victims of discrimination, that they were conceived from illicit affairs and prostitution, and that, unlike Amerasians in South Korea and Vietnam, they were born during peacetime or away from a war zone.
But many of those who I have talked to, media accounts and case studies by research, academic and not-for-profit service organizations clearly show that Filipino Amerasians do suffer discrimination, prejudice, and hatred.
Sure, there have been no wars in the Philippines post-World War II, but these military bases in the Philippines played strategic roles in the U.S. wars in Korea, Vietnam, and the Persian Gulf. These U.S. military facilities in the Philippines served as staging grounds, launching pads of the U.S. troops in all its wars since the second World War. It also provided safe encampment for war-weary troops. War is a specter that hovers above these bases, and they are considered not in a ‘war zone’?
Another question: Are the circumstances of one’s birth – that is, being born out of wedlock or being born out of prostitution – enough reasons to deny a person of his or her rights to citizenship?
In the meantime, the only way Filipino Amerasians can become citizens is if their fathers claim them. But it’s too late for most of them.
Unwanted in their mothers’ country and unwelcome in their fathers’ homeland, Filipino children of American servicemen are still in search of a home.