BY LUCIA ENRIQUEZ
Peter Jamero’s newly published memoir, “Growing Up Brown,” talks about early Filipino American history. He was born in 1930 at a Filipino farm worker’s camp run by his parents in California, surrounded by 80-100 workers housed and fed by his family. He overcame a language barrier and became a precocious and popular young man in high school. Despite many early achievements he experienced discrimination. Undeterred, he went on to join the Navy and took on broader and riskier opportunities when he got out. He started a family and at the same time went on to graduate school. Then he rose up to the executive ranks in government and played a prominent role in the Filipino community in Seattle in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
An enthusiastic and raucous audience received Peter Jamero at a talk and reading at the University Bookstore in Seattle last August. I sat with him prior to the reading to talk about things he learned from his experiences, how he overcame the lack of opportunities and ended up trailblazing an amazing career.
LE: Tell me about growing up in the camp. We hear a lot about the “manongs” (first-generation Filipino farm workers who came over in the ‘20s and ‘30s) but most of the stories are about single men, not about families who actually ran their own camps.
PJ: There’s the misconception that the “manong” generation were all single. Many of them were, but a lot of them were married, including women from the Philippines. And my father was fortunately one of them. And there were also a lot of mixed kids. Those of us in the “Bridge Generation” (the children of the farm workers) considered those mixed kids as Filipino. If they hung out with us and said they were Filipino, that’s all that was necessary. We didn’t make the distinction that was prevalent at that time of regionalization, where people identified as Visayan, or Ilocano or whatever. We just simply felt that in our generation, if they were Filipino they were Filipino. And we didn’t go beyond that. We didn’t question whether they had a white mother or a black mother or whatever.
At the same time we were Filipino. Our belief system was Filipino. Our cultural way of life was Filipino. People spoke different dialects, but that didn’t matter. Our identity was Filipino, there was no doubt in our minds about that, and that’s the way we continue to feel.
LE: It was startling to read about your experience meeting white people for the first time. To you it was a strange encounter because most of the people you knew were Filipino, and that you consider English a second language.
PJ: It’s hard today to imagine the situation then, but we were isolated. But the country at that time wasn’t as heavily populated. And so we were not unusual in that sense. I think most ethnic groups hung together, but in our case because were not like the prevalent white folks, there was more of a reason for us to be on our own or to be by ourselves. And so it was true, I had no idea that there was an overwhelming number of white people in this country. Until I went to school, of course, and found out that, indeed, the United States of America was a lot bigger than the farm country that I was familiar with. And so that was a big awakening for me.
LE: You describe your many responsibilities at camp. It seemed like a city almost, like a little town.
PJ: In many ways it was. We had a little store there, a “sari-sari” (variety) store that my mother ran. We were pretty independent in terms of preparing our own food, we slaughtered our own chickens and our own “baboy” (pigs or hogs), grew our own vegetables. But lots of families in those days were doing that same thing. What was unusual was that we had to provide for 80-100 people, most of whom were single men.
LE: Was it then unusual for you to go to school, having come from camp?
PJ: Very unusual. I was the only one in school then who came from that situation.
LE: So you had the acculturation at camp, and a different acculturation in school. In spite of that you did very well. In high school you write that you were class president, then student body vice president.
PJ: That was my naïveté. I believed what they tried to teach us in this country about equality. Discrimination wasn’t something I experienced until high school. It isn’t like that today obviously, but that was an awakening. I think you read in there about one of my teachers saying to me when I signed up for college prep that my kind belongs in agriculture or machine shop.
LE: That must have been devastating.
PJ: Very devastating. You may also remember what I put in the book, especially after the prom, where here I thought I was so popular that I wouldn’t have a problem getting a prom date. I was very wrong. I tried to wash my color. It didn’t come off.
LE: What kept you going despite these kinds of experiences?
PJ: I got pretty good guidance from my mother in particular, who was a teacher in the Philippines, and very much believed in the ideals of this country. And, of course, a number of teachers who were very supportive of me as well. They were not only supportive, but very helpful in trying to show me other aspects. They didn’t necessarily know the hurt I went through but they believed in me as an individual. I went through some bitter things, but that was not necessarily all of my experience. The good experiences I had with my classmates were sustaining.
LE: Tell me about the people in the camps. Did some of them take other jobs, or did they tend to stay as farm workers and migrate?
PJ: Most of them – not because they preferred it that way – died as farm workers. Which meant that if they were fortunate enough to live till they were in their 60s and 70s, they were still farm workers. It was not because they were not educated, and did not have the desire to do something else. It was because the opportunities were not there.
The doors were not entirely very open to us, and we were American citizens. So you can imagine that people who came from the Philippines had even greater problems in trying to make it in mainstream employment. Don’t forget there were no laws there that would protect you against discrimination and things like that. In fact, those laws didn’t protect me for most of my career. They didn’t come into being in this country until the ‘60s. And by the ‘60s, I was already in my 30s-40s, so there were no legal protections for people of color.
I chose to look at those events where I experienced discrimination as learning experiences. Some people go through events and become bitter. I don’t look at it that way, and my wife and I try to raise our children that way. We were very clear with the kids. Understand racism, know how to deal with discrimination. But never, never use it as an excuse. It’s an easy cop-out to say well, I didn’t get that job because I was Filipino. I never really did that.
LE: What would you like new immigrants from the Philippines to learn from your history?
PJ: What I would hope they’ll learn is that what they may be going through in trying to make it in this country – and this is a tough country – there’s nothing easy here even today. The history ought to teach them that they’re really not alone, and haven’t been. What they’re going through is similar in a lot of ways to what other people are going through. That’s what I mean by understanding history.
One thing I like to say at book readings is that, despite the things I’ve gone through, I truly appreciate that only in America could the things that I’ve been able to accomplish happen. I come from peasant stock in the Philippines. I wouldn’t have been able to do this in the Philippines. I know the old country ways, and I know this country.
Newly arrived immigrants – the thing that I hope they would do is they would turn to people like us who’ve gone through some of this. We can help. We can at least tell them, don’t feel alone. These are the ways I’ve handled it. They (immigrants) ought not to put us down because we can’t speak Tagalog. That’s the least thing they ought to be concerned about.
Whether we speak Tagalog or not, the blood that goes through our veins is the same as theirs. We don’t see them as different. They ought not to see us as different. .