I was disappointed, however, that the article made no mention of him among other Filipinos at the time. So, I emailed Butch and he forwarded my comment to Erwin. The reply from Erwin and his wife, Titchie (Teresa Carandang), came swiftly and with even more information after researching through US Congress records – that my grandfather indeed served as Commissioner from 1917- 1923. As proof, I emailed to them an original old family photo of my grandfather’s family seated informally on the lawn in front of the house that became their home for six years in Washington, DC. On the photo was written in Spanish “Mayo 20, 1917”; the family had just arrived three months before. My father, Manuel, was just a young boy of eight then, with siblings Jesus, Lourdes and little Mary.
Start of a Beautiful Friendship
Thus began our regular exchange of historical vignettes and memorabilia across the Pacific, and a new friendship developed over shared interest in Philippine history and heritage. And, to my amazement, Titchie emailed me a current photo of her posing in front of that very house as it stands today, and she held the copy of the original photo I sent, for comparison. They had traced the address of the house from the US Congress directory. Now, how’s that for accurate record-keeping for over a century? There was the house, looking the same and well-preserved, with its stately white columns on the front porch as in the century-old photo. It’s wonderful how Americans preserve their old buildings and homes, honoring their heritage. That should say something about our own people’s pathetic regard for our heritage and the penchant for demolishing even heritage sites and historical buildings to give way to yet another mall. Seeing that house one day for myself was instantly added to my bucket list.
From then on, I was fascinated by the passion by which husband-and-wife team Erwin and Titchie pursue their hobby called Philippines on the Potomac Project. They want to focus on places in Washington, DC that they felt had significance to Philippine-American history and culture. They also want their sons, Nicolas and Rafael, to appreciate their Philippine roots and heritage by showing them the historical landmarks in the city where they live. Erwin, a former professor at the Ateneo de Manila, is now professor at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service in Washington, DC, and Titchie is a free-lance writer.
Three Years later
Fast forward to April 2017. My family and I made a brief visit to the US to visit some relatives. The trip took us on a hectic schedule from the West to the East Coast, the little time we could spare from work. The Tiongsons had invited us to visit them if and when we were ever in the area, so they could show us these historical landmarks on the Potomac. Having a few days in New York, we seized the opportunity to visit Washington, DC, even if all we could spare was a full day, and the Tiongsons welcomed us. Titchie was there to immediately meet us, from nearby Fairfax. We lost no time and rode to a beautiful old tree-lined street and looked up the address:
2610 Cathedral Ave., Woodley Park, Washington, D.C.
There it was – a quaint, stately three-storey house standing among a row of similar well-preserved houses. My thoughts were immediately transported to a century past. I felt a warm feeling as I gazed in awe at the house. I had already decided days before, that I would ring the door bell and hope the occupants would be polite, and I would tell them the history of that house. But no one was home, not even the neighbor, that Thursday afternoon. There was a small note taped near the door bell, indicating that there was an apartment on each floor. I peeked through the glass panel beside the front door and saw old burnished wood panel walls, posts and the staircase at the first floor. I imagined my dad and his three siblings running around, and my prim and proper Grandma Sofia always admonishing them to behave.
The house stood proud with white pillars. And on the front porch was a set of chairs on one side. My friend back in New York had told me to press my hands on the walls and pillars and I would feel a special connection to my father’s family. The feeling was so surreal and inexplicable. I closed my eyes and prayed to my long-gone family and thanked God for this very special moment. I also made sure my daughter Pat and ten-year-old granddaughter Tina celebrated this moment to appreciate their unique family heritage.
There’s More – an Exhibit
As if this experience was not enough, Titchie had another treat for us. She took us to the University of Maryland’s Hombake Library, where she and Erwin had mounted a “traveling” exhibit, initially set up at the Philippine Embassy upon the suggestion of then-Ambassador Joey Cuisia and wife, Vicky. It was in observance of women’s suffrage, and this special exhibit highlighted the Washington Home of the Philippine Women’s Suffrage Movement during the early 1920s. It celebrated extraordinary women and their ties to Washington during that era. At a time when women were relegated to raising children and keeping house, this was testament to the strong Filipino women who performed their family duties yet carved their own paths and pursued missions outside the home.
So it was that Sofia de Veyra, wife of Commissioner Jaime, was also at the forefront to plea for Philippine independence, and fight for women’s right to vote, along with Mercedes Tiongson Sandiko, Clemencia Lopez, Pura Villanueva Kalaw, Aurora Quezon, Ines Villa Gonzalez and Pilar Hidalgo Lim. Sofia de Veyra was a devoted wife and mother, yet she still made her mark in various advocacies from nutrition to education, organizing women’s clubs and her tireless involvement in civic and political affairs. Truly ahead of her time and a leading Asian woman of that period. These women blazed the trail for future generations of women who would also play critical roles in the country’s history and political landscape.
It was with awe, pride, and immense joy that I viewed this exhibit, realizing how the formidable work of this group of early Filipino women was recognized and honored far away from home, and even to this day. That 24-hour trip to Washington, DC was one of the most memorable and precious days of my life. We will be eternally grateful to true patriots like Erwin and Titchie, who bring to the fore the true worth of the Filipino through their relentless research. This historical sojourn has both humbled and changed us. It has made us appreciate the hard work our forebears underwent to win for us the freedom and rights we enjoy today. Let us do them justice and not take these freedoms for granted.
All Part of a Plan
In retrospect, I now firmly believe that the unseen hand of my grandma orchestrated all these events to come together the way they did—from that chance reading of the article, to forging the special friendship with the Carandangs, culminating in this incredible trip that transported us back to a by-gone era. This chance Washington, DC trip presented itself and compelled us to make this visit to that Washington house now, exactly a hundred years later. And how fortuitous that this very special exhibit was also being held at this time. This was no coincidence, and the experience has been priceless for my family, leaving me ecstatic. And now I am convinced my grandmother Sofia continues to love and guide her family and country! Sofia was born 141 years ago on Sept. 30, 1876, but her legacy and influence endure to this day. This is not just my personal story. This is actually a story of our journey as a nation.
For more about Sofia de Veyra: http://www.positivelyfilipino.com/magazine/the-thoroughly-modern-sofia-de-veyra?rq=sofia%20de%20veyra
Teresa “Binggay” de Veyra Montilla is a granddaughter of Sofia de Veyra. She resides with lawyer-husband Noel, in Quezon City, retired from corporate life, and now an active senior in community and civic endeavors.