NAGA CITY—American Donald Pribor rode the train back to Manila from Naga City in late October last year. He had just been to Gubat town in Sorsogon, retracing the route taken by his kinfolk during World War II and completing a journey of experiencing his Filipino roots.
The 45-year-old Pribor, who was born in the United States and grew up there, is holding on to the memories of his relatives who had lived in Sorsogon and Manila before and during the war until they returned to the United States after the liberation of the Philippines from Japanese forces in 1945.
His mother, Diane, who was only 9 years old when the war reached Manila in 1942, told him the tale of her family’s train journey to Bicol from the Paco station to escape from the Japanese as their grandfather was left behind to report on the war in the Philippines for the Associated Press.
“My family was thrust into a coach overcrowded with panic-stricken people from all walks of life. My mother remembers seeing a woman screaming in agony as she gave birth in the coach, and she said an old Chinese man covered her with his coat so she wouldn’t see the woman in labor,” Pribor narrated to the Inquirer at the Philippine National Railways station in Naga.
In e-mail correspondences with the Inquirer over the last few months after he went back to the United States, Pribor said his maternal grandfather, Robert Yelton Robb, was a journalist working for the Philippine Free Press when the war broke out.
Robb was married to Elvira Escandor Camara, one of the seven Camara siblings born to a wealthy Chinese-Filipino businessman, Don Santiago Camara, and Aquilina Escandor, of Gubat, Sorsogon, in the early 20th century. They met and fell in love while they were teaching English at Sorsogon Provincial High School in the early 1930s.
But both parents disapproved of their union, Pribor said.
Robb, born in 1907, hailed from Illinois and graduated with a journalism degree from University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana during the Great Depression. He migrated to the Philippines to work as an English teacher in high school.
Camara, born in 1905, was two years older than Robb.
“My Lola (Camara) grew up speaking Spanish as well as Bicol. Lola must have been a strong-willed girl because she made the decision to go and study English at the University of the Philippines in Manila. No one in her family had ever gone to college and women were expected to go to a Catholic girl’s finishing school and then get married,” Pribor narrated.
That was in the 1920s, he said, when the American colonial order was firmly established in the Philippines and Spanish was being pushed out as language and culture. The Americans imposed English as a unifying national language at the expense of Spanish.
“My Lola must have felt that she was on the cutting edge of all that was ‘modern’ and up-to-date,” Pribor gushed.
His mother, Diane, who was born in Sorsogon Provincial Hospital in 1933, was the eldest among the three children of Robb and Camara. She studied elementary education at St. Scholastica’s College in Malate District after their family transferred to Manila from Sorsogon because of Robb’s work with the Philippine Free Press.
Life of glam
Pribor said his mother recalled that because of her grandfather’s work, she lived a glamorous life in the 1930s in the neighborhood of Malate, which was then full of foreigners, artists and upper-middle class Manileños.
“My maternal grandparents hobnobbed with many musicians and both Filipino and American politicians like Manuel L. Quezon and Douglas MacArthur. Mom remembers that Lola and Grandpa were frequently at events at Manila Hotel. She also remembers that her parents had musical parties at home with the participation of Filipino and American jazz musicians,” he said.
The idyll of Pribor’s family came to an end with the beginning of hostilities between Japan and United States. His grandmother, mother and an aunt Antonia, who was born in Manila, were sent by train to Gubat town to hide from the Japanese forces.
“Our family left the Philippines in March 1945, after the Battle of Manila, and no one ever returned. Lola never saw her Filipino family again—she never spoke Bicol again. When I arrived in Manila, 68 years had gone by since someone from my Filipino-American family set foot on Filipino soil,” Pribor confessed.
When the Camara-Robb family arrived in the United States, they were welcomed by the press and her grandmother shared before a crowd of Americans what the family had gone through in the Philippines during the Japanese occupation.
“My family’s story is beautiful, romantic, dramatic and tragic—a mirror of Filipino history in the 20th century. Our story can’t be understood without grappling with the complex nature of the relationship between the United States and the Philippines,” Pribor said.
Life in Ohio
He said he grew up in Toledo, Ohio, in the 1970s, which he described as not a culturally diverse state even today. A 2010 US census indicated an overwhelmingly dominant population of white Americans at 81 percent and Asian population a mere 1.7 percent and a negligible Filipino population of only 0.01 percent.
“Our mestiza mother raised us with stories of the Philippines and of World War II. We ate Asian food several times a week. A rice cooker and soy sauce were constant companions at the dinner table.” Pribor recalled.
“After Grandpa died, Lola came to live with us. Her appearance, her peculiar accent and her sometimes strange ways of acting set her apart from the parents and grandparents of our schoolmates. We knew that she and Mom were from the Philippines, but neither of them ever taught us to be proud of our Filipino heritage. It was better to be proud of our Grandpa’s Scottish heritage. Lola even bought me a book about the Scottish kings and queens when I had my 12th birthday.”
He said he had been adventurous and went to live in Mexico City for five years and later in Brazil and Paraguay in South America. But he never forgot this dream of coming to the Philippines.
After his Filipina grandmother died in 1998, he said she appeared to him in dreams. In one dream, he was with her in the Philippines, traveling to Gubat to visit her brothers. “I felt a tremendous longing for the Philippines, great sadness and excitement.”
San Francisco stay
In 2005, he came back to the United States to settle down. He decided to move to the San Francisco Bay Area because most of his family is there and it is warmer than the Midwest, where he had lived most of his adult life in the United States.
For the first time in his life, he said he lived in a place where Asian cultures are very present and where there is a large and visible Filipino population.
As he made friends with Filipinos and Filipino-Americans, he felt a growing pride in his Filipino heritage. He learned how to cook adobo and pancit, and how to sing in Tagalog. He even found new friends from Bicol and from Sorsogon.
A curiosity grew in him to learn about his family’s past and about the culture that shaped his mother and grandmother.
Pribor said his turning point was in January 2010, when he went to San Francisco State University to take an exam for Spanish and English competency. He was hoping to enroll in a program which trains students to become Spanish-English legal and medical interpreters.
After taking the exam, he decided to investigate the university bookstore and found an entire book shelf dedicated to books written by Filipinos and Filipino-Americans. He leafed through various books and found authors talking about their experience of coming to terms with their Filipino heritage.
So many things he had read struck a chord in him because these mirrored his own experience with his family. And a common thread in the writings were the themes of erasure of memory and historical amnesia.
Filipino-Americans are invisible to the larger American society and the history of the relationship between the Philippines and the United States has been erased, he said.
“I sat on the floor by the bookshelf and cried—the grief and anguish that I had perceived all my life in my family was real. We had been subject to a profound and cruel brain-washing on the part of the dominant American culture. Our Filipino past and our Filipino-American present had been deliberately covered up—whitewashed,” Pribor said.
(The author is a distant relative of Donald Pribor.)