Born in San Pedro, California on August 28, 1932, Vangie grew up in a mixed neighborhood, on the outskirts of Chinatown, in West Oakland. Nevertheless, she says that her strength and presence as a community activist comes from a solid rooting in the Filipino culture. Spending a day with Evangeline “Vangie” Canonizado Buell confirmed what endears her to us: she is simply a treasure.
LSM: Your maternal grandfather, Ernest Stokes, was an African American Buffalo Soldier stationed in the Philippines during both the Spanish-American and Philippine-American wars. How was it growing up one-quarter African American?
VANGIE: We didn’t really grow up in the culture. My grandfather died when I was four. And he was so immersed in the Philippine culture because he married two Filipino women, first my grandmother, who died, and then my step-grandmother. He lived in the village from 1898-1928. He was immersed in the culture; he loved it, and he spoke several of the dialects fluently. So when you ask if I remember my African American background, no, not really because I grew up in the Filipino culture.
My mother was half-Filipina/half black, but she grew up in the Philippines so her culture was Filipino. She didn’t know black culture because she wasn’t raised here, and she didn’t know black food because it wasn’t available in the Philippines.
They made us feel very proud to be both Filipino and African American–we called it “Nĕgro” at that time. Because she married my grandfather, a Buffalo Soldier, my grandmother wanted us to know that history, that background. She always made us feel proud that we were part Nĕgro.
In terms of learning about black culture, I learned it in school because I went to school with black kids who were from the South. Although I am one quarter black, the kids didn’t see me as a black girl: I had long straight hair. They saw me as… strange, because I didn’t look like them. “Where did you get that straight hair?” they’d ask. And they would dunk it in the ink well. Eventually I got to be friendly with the kids, but growing up, in terms of being black, no, I grew up being Filipino. Tagalog was my first language, which I learned from both my mom and my dad.
Behind your warm, approachable personality lives a very strong spirit. Did you ever display anger over some of the hardships?
No, I’m not bitter about experiences of discrimination and prejudice, especially in the workplace, because both my grandmother and my dad made us feel good about ourselves. My father said, “You have two strikes against you--being a woman and being brown. So you must be excellent in order to be average.” My grandmother encouraged us to learn how to do things with our hands, not just our minds--everything from cooking to doing dishes, to cleaning up the toilets. Nothing was beneath us, and nothing was above us. We were equal. Yeah, I was angry when things did happen, especially if they happened to my children, but I didn’t want to hold bitterness.
Who were your most revered family role models when you were growing up?
My step-grandmother, Roberta Dungca, the second wife of Grandpa Stokes. After he died, she remarried. When I was seven, my younger sister Rosita and I went to live with her. She, then in her early thirties, told us, “You cannot call me ‘Auntie’. Out of respect for your late grandfather, I want you to call me Grandma.” She raised us two plus our cousin Rosario. We addressed her second husband as “Uncle.” Though she couldn’t read or write, I witnessed her get her citizenship. Thus, she paved the way for us. She wanted to be here in the U.S., raising us. Grandma knew she would never return to the Philippines and determined to make the best of it.
Also, I had very supportive husbands--all three of them. Even though I divorced my first husband Hank, he was supportive of me all the way until he died. He gave our kids everything they wanted including music education. He was always present at their school. Hank was very conscientious in terms of raising children who were “half,” making sure they had a good upbringing.
Were there any difficult experiences raising your three daughters, who are half Scot-Irish, three-eighths Filipina, one eighth African American?
They were labeled as “Other” because they were mixed. There weren’t many mixed children in Berkeley back in the ‘50s and ‘60s. The Mexican kids had their clubs, the African American kids had theirs, but where did my kids fit in? They didn’t fit in with the Caucasians who said, “No you look different and you have darker skin.” So they had to wrestle with that. I think they did a good job.
Of all of your stellar accomplishments, is there one that was of particular significance to you?
My work at Consumer’s Coop in Berkeley. I started at the Kiddie Korral Children’s Center and moved up the ladder to Program Director of the Education Department. My duties included membership activities; information on consumerism, i.e., through creating cookbooks, running food festivals, educating the public about different food cultures. I planned from scratch the largest black history festival, attended by 3,000 people. I helped the Coop raise $75,000 for the Delano farm workers and arranged the caravans for delivering food to them.
I taught guitar classes for twenty-five years to 2,000-3,000 students, many of whom went on to have successful musical careers. One of my students even became the guitarist for Jerry Garcia! We also held the Coop Hootenanny.
Vangie has been honored as one of the 100 Most Influential Women in the U.S. and was celebrated recently as (S)hero & Legend by the Filipino Women's Network. Currently, she continues her legacy by nurturing ethnic pride in Filipinos living in the U.S. through their stories, via her latest project, the sequel to Seven Card Stud with Seven Manangs Wild. Vangie's projects continue to exemplify her belief that "one's self-esteem is greatly influenced by ethnic pride in history and culture and is understood as it is handed down in stories from past generations to the next generation.”
Lisa Suguitan Melnick is a professor at the College of San Mateo and teaches in both the Language Arts and Kinesiology divisions. Her life illuminates the symbiotic relationship between learning and teaching; thus, she thrives best as a student of something at all times. In 2012, she visited the Philippines. Lisa’s travel log at http://sampaguitablog.blogspot.com and her writing projects at http://alyssumblog.blogspot.com.