Celestino’s Crusades

Celestino Tagimacruz Alfafara's fight to own property is a landmark case in Filipino American history. (Photo courtesy of Lisa Melnick)


In June 1929 Celestino Tagimacruz Alfafara (May 19, 1898-December 12, 1990) left his home in Carcar, Cebu, bound for San Francisco. Having earned his bachelor of laws degree from the National University of Manila in 1925, he wanted to pursue his life’s ambition of going to Harvard University for his master of laws degree, then to Oxford, England, to study the Parliamentary form of government. After that he wanted to go to Sorbonne, France, to study diplomacy. He said all this was, “in order to equip myself to fulfill my life’s ambition to fight the cause of the underdog in the Philippine House of Commons.”

These ideals were never realized, but they served as the driving force behind Alfafara’s 60 years of service to the Filipino-American community that is thriving today. 

Perhaps Celestino Alfafara is best known for the victorious test case he filed in 1945 that went all the way to the California State Supreme Court, Alfafara v. Fross, through which Filipinos gained the right to own property in California. In June 1944 he had entered into a contract to purchase a parcel of property for $65.00 in San Mateo County. The owner of the property, Bernice Fross, refused to convey the property to him, citing the Alien Land Act of 1921. He successfully challenged and won the case because he was not an alien, but a U.S. National (Common Destiny: Filipino American Generations, Juanita Tamayo Lott, 2006).

For all his large presence in life, his passage from this world was quiet and unheralded.

Rodel Rodis, in his article, “Were Filipinos Aliens in the U.S.?” (Inquirer Global Nation, July 2013) wrote of State Supreme Court Justice Shenk’s decision: “Shenk noted that under the Nationality Code of 1940, the right to become a US citizen ‘shall extend only to white persons, persons of African nativity or descent, and descendants of races indigenous to the Western Hemisphere’ and to those ‘native-born Filipinos’ who served in the US military. Since Celestino never served in the US military, Shenk wrote, he was ineligible for citizenship.”

But Shenk also wrote, “it is likewise clear that the plaintiff is not an alien” because an “alien” is judicially defined to be a person who owes allegiance to a foreign government. According to Shenk, “the United States is now exercising and, since April 11, 1899, has exercised sovereignty over the Philippine Islands.” On that day, Shenk asserted, the Filipino became, not an alien, but a “national of the United States” – “a person who, though not a citizen of the United States, owes permanent allegiance to the United States.”

“Now let me go into the actual cases which I have handled,” Alfafara wrote in his journal. “I bought a home at 3965 Sacramento Street, San Francisco, California. I could not put it in my name, because I was not a citizen. I fought this in the Superior Court of Judge Elmer Robinson. The defendant was Bernice Fross. We agreed that it would be a test case. Just as we agreed, the case was elevated to the California Supreme Court. Even State Attorney General’s opinion was in my favor. So the decision of Judge Elmer Robinson was upheld by the Supreme Court.” (Personal diary entry, circa September, 1979)

Alfafara's handwritten journal entry regarding his case on his right to acquire property in San Mateo (Photo courtesy of Lisa Melnick)

In 1931 Alfafara joined the Caballeros de Dimas-Alang, a fraternal order modeled after the Masons. He belonged first to the Regidor Lodge of Stockton then transferred to the Rizal Lodge in Salinas, where he was appointed Prosecutor for the CDA. He served in this capacity from 1931-1932. Then in 1943 he was appointed Grand Master of the Caballeros de Dimas-Alang for what would be the first of four terms: 1943-1946; 1946-1949; 1952-1955; 1955-1958. [photo of him with Dimas-Alang hat]

Alfafara as Grand Marshall of Caballeros De Dimas-Alang (Photo courtesy of Lisa Melnick)

In Little Manila is in the Heart: the Making of the Filipina/o American Community in Stockton, California (Duke University Press, 2013), author/historian/professor Dawn Bohulano Mabalon writes, “In the 1950s, letters streamed back and forth between the CDA and the Archdiocese of San Francisco, with the church questioning the fraternity’s relationship to freemasonry. The CDA’s powerful and articulate grand master, San Francisco-based lawyer Celestino Alfafara, maintained that the CDA was not Masonic; rather, they were a patriotic organization dedicated to Philippine political independence and the preservation of Philippine language and culture, and they only copied Masonic insignia and regalia.”

Also in 1931 Alfafara, an eloquent writer, established The Pen, a monthly magazine published in Stockton, California. In the same year, he became the vice-president of the United Visayas of San Francisco, a Filipino social club, which was “a major contributor to the construction of the Philippine Pavillion at the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition/World’s Fair. (Filipinos in San Francisco, Arcadia Publishing, 2011) 

Alfafara established the monthly magazine, "The Pen," in Stockton, California (Photo courtesy of Lisa Melnick)

During the same 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition/World’s Fair at Treasure Island in San Francisco, California, security staff circulated among the crowds broadcasting, “Beware of Filipino Pickpockets.” It was Alfafara, in his capacity as president of the Filipino Community of San Francisco (1938-1940), who submitted a formal protest, backed by the Philippine Resident Commissioner in Washington, D.C., resulting in the police ceasing to mention “Filipino” in this derogatory context. (Personal diary, 1979)

The minute he set foot in the United States, Alfafara walked the walk of a crusader, dedicating his life to fostering pride in the contributions of Filipino pioneers. Yet, for all of his large presence in life, his passage from this world was quiet and unheralded. 

Alfafara (second from right) and the officers of United Visayas of San Francisco (Photo courtesy of Lisa Melnick)

Celestino T. Alfafara was my grandfather. As a child, I was aware of neither the important positions he held nor of his numerous accomplishments on behalf of the Filipino-American community. For me, his greatness manifested itself in the magnificent way he loved and cared for me and my brother, especially in the last years of my mother’s serious illness, which finally claimed her in 1965. His greatness for me was made of the stuff that puts the “grand” in Grandpa. 

One of my mentors, Dr. Albert Acena, once told me, “We must write the stories of our pioneers; otherwise, they will disappear from our history forever.” Let this story keep alive the memory of one of our great Filipino-American luminaries.

Lisa Suguitan Melnick

Lisa Suguitan Melnick

Lisa Suguitan Melnick is a professor at College of San Mateo, in California. She inherited her grandfather’s original documents from her late uncle, also named Celestino, who had diligently compiled them in albums and boxes. For her book-in-progress, Lisa invites any readers who had connection with Celestino T. Alfafara to contribute their personal stories and memories via e-mail: M2LIS@aol.com