Special: Traveling to find lost heritage

9NEWS storyteller Nelson Garcia shares parts of his experience in the rediscovering his heritage in the Philippines

KUSA - 9NEWS reporter Nelson Garcia travels to reconnect with his heritage. Here is a recount of his travels.

Lost Heritage: U.S., Philippine history intertwine

Before getting deeper into my own history. Let me share with you a little bit of history of the Philippines.

At the Manila-American cemetery where more than 17,000 American and Filipino solders are buried after making the ultimate sacrifice during World War II.

This cemetery is an example of how the U.S. and Philippines have been allies, some say brothers, for a very long time. Within the quiet, well-manicured grounds, you can find the names of Filipino soldiers side-by-side American ones. From 1898 to 1946, the Philippines was an American territory...

Veterans like Greg Canono joined World War II... not to fight for the Philippines, but to fight for America.

"I'm the first on the firing line," Canono said.

He lives in Aurora now and his memories of combat still remain strong -- even 70-plus years later.

"That evening, fighting again. We again engaged the Japanese," Canono said.

Decades before Frank Francone moved to Lakewood, he commanded American and Filipino soldiers.

When I was in the Philippines, I was a 19-year-old kid," Francone said. "I was assigned to the 12th Division of the Philippine Scouts."

"The United States depended greatly on the Philippine effort during World War II," Francone said.

The Philippines served as a foothold for the U.S. Military for this entire region.

"And, these Filipinos, though they were fighting some in country, they were also fighting like in New Guinea, Australia, all those other places," Mike Simbre, said.

From inside his Aurora home, Simbre is helping to get Filipino World War II veterans recognized by the U.S Government.

"They have been waiting 75 years and they're dying off daily," Simbre said.

Though many are buried here next to American soldiers... they were never officially honored for their sacrifice until Congress finally approved it in 2015.

"They were actually out there doing the fighting and they were defending our protection, our freedom here in this country," Francone said.

The Philippines is known for the Bataan Death March where the Japanese abused and killed American and Filipino soldiers as they walked halfway across the country.

Canono escaped the Death March.

"I see the cornfield higher than myself. I jump and just keep on running zig zag," Canono said.

The Philippines was lost for some time during World War II to the Japanese prompting General Douglas MacArthur's famous promise, "I shall return" a return made possible by Filipino soldiers fighting the occupiers using hit and run tactics.

"It was through the effort of those guerilla troops that they were able to get the intelligence," Francone said.

Eventually, the Philippines won its independence with help from the United States.

That's what the people buried here died for -- both American and Filipino. They fought for freedom together.
That's why when you drive around, almost all the signs are in English, almost all the people speak it.
The U.S. and the Philippines are two countries whose histories are tied together through sacrifice and blood.

Poverty in the Philippines

Driving around Manila, you can see a vast difference in life and socio-economic status. The Philippines is like a lot of third world countries where the rich are very rich and the poor are very poor with a middle class that is basically non-existent. But, that is where my mother's family comes from.
 
Emerging from a place that's hard to find in the Philippines, Charlie Garcia details life growing up middle class next door to my mom on a nearby island called Mindoro.
 
"Her father is the brother of my mother. That's why we're first cousins," Charlie said. "Ate Bella (my mother) is a very nice person, very kind to us."
 
As we cruise through Manila, we are reminded about the realities of being in a third-world country.
 
"I would still say that there's some middle income families around," Charlie said.
 
If the middle class exists, it doesn't exist in the sprawling slums of Manila..
 
"Poverty is a big issue in the Philippines, not all of us can be rich. When you're poor, aside from luck, you really have to work hard to make it big," Charile said.
 
In one world, high-rise condominiums and hotels fill the skyline with blocks and blocks of restaurants, shops, and cafes. In another world, families with young kids sleep on cardboard in the street. In one world, armed guards line every street projecting security and stability. In another world, a young child, maybe 3, can be seen just wandering alone in the median of a crowded roadway.
 
One world  -- pools and playtime. Another world, some believe are being targeted by police.
 
Amnesty International pubished this report called "If you are poor, you are killed." In 2016, Rodrigo Duterte was elected President. During a controversial election not so different from ours... the former prosecutor declared war on drug dealers.If you click through the internet, you can find image after image of police killings in the Philippines by what some describe as roving death squads. In less than a year, the Philippine government estimates more than 7,000 people were killed.
 
Amnesty Interational investigated 59 of those deaths and say that corruption, misinformation, and evidence-planting led to the murders of innocent people. They call the war on drugs a violation of human rights.
 
The Duterte administration denies wrongdoing saying the country is now safer. But, the President says he will punish any police officers who abuse their power and position.
 
No matter what you believe, the world of the poor is one that so many are trying to escape and often times it comes down to going overseas to find work, Uncle Charlie says, because there's no work here.
 
"It's always a dream of every Filipino to work abroad and if there's an opportunity to do it, then we'll be happy for each person that is able to go there, for sure, generally speaking, they will have a better life," Charlie said.
 
That's why my mom and Uncle Charile's sister came to the United States for a better life and to help everyone else.
 
"Sooner or later, true to our wishes, we received a lot of stuff from them. We were happy receiving stuff from them," Charlie said. 

 

Driving around Manila, you can see the slums. Many of these people are squatters building makeshift tin homes on property belonging to someone else. Escaping this means survival for the ones lucky enough to leave the country.

Traffic & Travel in the Philippines

Boarding the plane preparing for the long 15-hour flight is something unusual for me and new for my 15-year-old daughter Myria.

We are going to the Philippines because she has been invited to play for the U15 Philippines national soccer team. So, I decided to take this opportunity to reconnect with my past and my heritage.

I grew up as a first-generation American. My parents came over from the Philippines just a few years before I was born. But, growing up, I did not learn to speak the language of the Philippines and I never had a strong connection to traditions and customs of the native land of my parents.

The journey across the world takes us three planes, three countries, three airports.

I made this trip once before --going to the chain of 7,000 islands located south of Japan on the western edge of the Pacific Ocean. I was 8 years old with my mother.

I remember bits and pieces of that trip;  meeting my great grandmother;  being in a country in the midst of a rising revolution; and riding a carabao --  a water buffalo.

But, this time as an adult, I want to have a different experience... one that helps me appreciate the personality of the Philippines.

We are greeted by my Dad's Cousin Pablo Salangang. We call him Uncle Pabs.

"You have plenty of relatives here," Uncle Pabs, said.

The first thing you notice when arriving in Manila is the traffic and the driving.

"It's different," Myria said.

There seem to be no rules. Drivers change lanes by physically blocking the car in that lane. Motorcycles and scooters cut in and out of traffic like they don't want to live a long time. Uncle Pabs owns one of the largest driving schools in Metro Manila.

"You have to drive like a Filipino because you will not survive Manila if you drive like an American," Uncle Pabs said.

Metro Manila is home to 13-million people, all packed in, overcrowded. Most intersections don't even have any signs to control it. Drivers just go when they can.

For those who don't want to drive they can take one of the iconic Filipino traditions called the Jeepney. People jump in when they can and jump off when it's going slow enough. Not only are they a mode of travel... they are considered to be works of art.

"You try riding one huh? You experience all the Philippine way of traveling," Uncle Pabs said.

We are staying in a place called Bonafacio Global City. This is a more affluent area with high rise condos on every block.

"When you are inside, you don't feel like you are in the Philippines because of the buildings. You don't see the poor area," Uncle Pabs said.

We don't see what we will later learn is the heart and heartbreak of this nation of 100 million people.

 

Growing up as a Filipino-American

The reason why I am in the Philippines is actually thanks to my daughter Myria. We are both dual citizens and she has been invited to play for the U15 Philippine National Soccer team. While watching what's going on in the field, I find some perspective on the sidelines through other parents who understand my desire to find my lost heritage.

The path to my past is found along side a soccer field -- alongside the life of people like Reygie Cera.

"I grew up here, moved to the States when I was 16," Cera said.

Cera is here to support his daughter Viviana who was also invited to join the national soccer team. Cera lives in Nevada now. He is a proud U.S.Marine. But, before all this, he grew in a northern Philippine province called Pangasinan. Like many Filipino families, his was split apart by the need to make money overseas.

"My parents moved to Hawaii when I was 9 years old," Cera said.

He was left behind with his four siblings while his parents found work to support the family in the Philippines.

My mom and dad moved to the United States after college to financially support their families back home, too, because that's the Filipino way.

"That's what we do here. We sacrifice," Cera said.

As I was growing up, my parents didn't teach me to speak Tagalog, the main language of the Philippines.

We focused on fitting in with everyone else in the northwest suburbs of Chicago.

"It's a way of Filipino parents from here, from the Philippines to show that they have to live the American way," Cera said.

Looking back now, I feel disconnected from my heritage stuck somewhere between being fully Filipino and fully American.

"I was born in the Philippines and I went to America when I was 11," Margette Hill said.

Hill is also on the sidelines watching her daughter Malina. She says no one is really to blame for the way our parents chose to raise us.

"Maybe because they feel like, you know, you're in America, this is your home. You're born in America, you're raised in America. You're an American," Hill said.

Her mother raised her in California with her new husband whom Hill considers to be her real father, but something was missing.

"I wanted to learn all the tradition and the culture so I can pass it down to my kids. So, it doesn't just stop with me," Hill said. "So, I educated myself. I came to the Philippines after I got married. I wanted to experience and also I looked for my biological dad."

Hill says he left her and her mom when she was 5-years-old. She wanted to reconnect with something real, not just heritage.

'I felt incomplete. I wanted to know where I came from," Hill said.

When she found him, Hill says her perspective on life changed.
 
"Yes, I'm a lot happier, a lot happier that I met my biological father. It was very difficult before, but I do, I feel complete," Hill said.

Hill and her family moved to the Philippines from California last year.

Her daughter Malina is going to high school here so she can learn what it means to be Filipino..

"That's why it's so important to get my kids to know my culture and that's why I brought my daughter here to go to school to learn the language," Hill said.

So, Hill and Cera both understand why my trip to the Philippines is more than just to sit along side of a soccer field.

"I appreciate it. I know how to live the hard life. A lot of people in the States don't really know how hard it it is to live overseas," Cera said.

Hill says learning one's history is important.

"I was born here and I was raised here till I was 11. So, there was a lot of things that I carried with me and I took with me when I migrated whereas you for example. You were born. You were raised. You don't know anything," Hill said. "So, I don't feel like you've lost or you're missing something. But, I do feel that maybe it doesn't hurt or be curious about it and research it because you are Filipino."

Traveling to find lost heritage

Most people come to the Philippines to see the amazing sights, the beaches, the sunsets, the history.
 
But, my Dad's cousin, Pablo Salangsang, is showing me the part I want to see most -- my own family's past...
 
"When you're father was still studying and working in Manila, they used to reside here in Espana," Salangsang said.
 
I share my Dad's name, he is the original Nelson Garcia. My Uncle Pabs is taking to me meet his original family and I am nervous. These are siblings I didn't know existed for a very long time.
 
 
As I walk in the front door, I wasn't sure what to expect.  I meet Andy Garcia, my half brother who is almost exactly one year older than me. He is coincidentally wearing a Bears shirt. I grew up in Chicago.
 
Then, I meet my oldest brother Francoise who now identifies as a woman with a new name, Kim.
 
This is a big moment for me, punctuated by an amazing hands-only Filipino feast. In one instant, I have gained two people who are essentially as closely blood-related to me as anyone can be.
Andy and Kim were born in Vietnam where my dad worked during the war.
 
"When I opened this album, very many photos our our dad," Andy said.
 
As the fighting drew near, my dad was forced to leave and shortly after came to America leaving his first family behind.
Andy, Kim, and their mother Mai moved to the Philippines and lived with my aunts and uncles waiting for the day for our dad to return.
 
"In fact, as a young boy, every time I see the airplane passing through at our place, our apartment in Cubao, I would run to the window very fast and shout, 'Papa Nel, Papa Nel'," Andy said.
 
Andy didn't know about me and my sister till he was 8 years old when he saw his mom reading a letter.
 
"And, then she was reading it. She found out that my father has another family," Andy said, "She started crying and that's the time that I found out also. Ah, I said like that. So, that's what really happened."
 
Over time, Andy and Kim found a father figure in a local priest, Monsignor Nguyen Van Tai.
 
"You know this priest for me. He's a saint cause he took care of a lot of kids just like us," Andy said,
 
Their mother became a successful broadcaster for Radio Veritas in Manila.
 
"She has been a radio announcer since 1980 until this day," Andy said.
 
Kim doesn't want to talk about our dad. Andy has long gotten over being angry. Our father is overall a good man who knows that he made mistakes in the past.
 
"Even though, he didn't ask our forgiveness, I forgive him," Andy said.
 
Andy has kids of his own now. What is important is that my daughter Myria has a new aunt and uncle. I have two new nieces.
 
"All of us here are family cause we just need to accept the fact," Andy said.
 
I have more of my heritage, more of myself than I have ever had before.
 
"I'm really happy that I meet you. When I was really young, I was really looking forward to this day," Andy said.

 

Me too.

© 2017 KUSA-TV


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