For my father, Phillip or Bob, it is a journey of firsts. His first trip to Asia. His first time to the Philippines. His first meeting with his relatives in the Philippines. His opportunity to visit the hometown of his father, Felipe Bonifacio Rabaja.
That hometown is Ballesteros, Cagayan.
My grandfather was born May 10, 1894, the eldest son of Flaviano and Eugenia (nee Bonifacio) Rabaja. He was born under Spanish rule, which shortly changed over to American governance. He grew up in the province, living for a while in the Cagayan towns of Ballesteros, Abulug, and Aparri and, finally, in Luzon’s big city, Manila. In 1925, he boarded the U.S.S. James Madison, and made his way to the U.S., landing in Seattle. He was just shy of his 31st birthday. He worked as a laborer, barber, and finally settled as a factory-line worker, making GMC trucks in Pontiac, Michigan. He worked hard, married an American, and had five children, my aunts and uncles. Their fourth child and eldest son is my father. My grandfather became an American citizen in 1947.
My father did not have it easy growing up. They were never well off, and had some hard scrabble times; but he excelled in school and athletics, winning a full scholarship to college. He, too, worked for the automotive industries, in management for more than 30 years. He and my mother raised all six of their children in a world that was much better. In my early childhood, my grandfather lived with us, and I have only a few memories of him.
My grandfather died in 1975, having never returned to the Philippines. For years, whenever we traveled, the first thing my family would do is check the phone book for any Rabaja. We never found a single entry. Then a long-forgotten letter changed that. The letter, sent in 1983 from the Philippines, was from my Uncle Rustico and Aunt Vita. It was tucked into a box on a shelf in a closet, where it had been long lost. It told me where to look, and what a bounty! Facebook allowed the once lost diaspora of Rabajas to find one another. We found one another in California, Canada, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Australia, and the Middle East. My sister and a cousin lived only 30 miles apart! My father had first cousins he knew nothing of. For me, second cousins out to see the world!
My sister Carol and I first visited the Philippines in 2015. We knew nary a soul when we landed, but left as family, when more than 300 people attended the first Rabaja grand family reunion. It fed my desire to know more, and to come full circle home to Ballesteros.
When we arrived at the airport in Manila, we were joined by my Aunt Rose, who is my father’s sister, and her daughter Teri and her family, all of whom made the journey up to Ballesteros with us. After a one-hour plane ride and two-and-a-half-hour road trip past carabaos, rice fields, small towns, and the Cagayan River, which is the longest in the Philippines, we arrived in Ballesteros on a late afternoon. Awesome! Ballesteros is a bustling place!
We stayed near the sentro (town center), which kept us close to all the action. Everyone was friendly, if not a bit curious. My father, unfamiliar with jeepneys, tricycles, and scooters, was surprised at the number of people traveling back and forth, going along with their business. He marveled at the tiny stores and roadside grills. We visited the townhall, the People’s Park, and up and down the thoroughfare, Rizal Street. A trip to the market place amazed us with the wonderful bounty of fruits, rice, vegetables, and supplies for daily needs. Oddly enough, they seemed to know we were coming, noting we were “Rabaja clan” as we passed. We had the pleasure of trying the shellfish gakka, which is immortalized in the children’s book, Ballesteros on My Mind: My Hometown in the Philippines. We read the book in the U.S. My daughter Libby specially enjoyed the gakka. “I love it!” she exclaimed. “It’s so sweet and salty!” She was right because the gakkas were quickly eaten up. The same response was bestowed on the local cuisine, especially the patupat (rice cake), longganisa (sausage) and pork patatim (stewed pork-leg knuckles). We played on the gorgeous black-sand beach my grandfather had walked 100 years before. We splashed in the surf. We gathered a tiny bit of sand to remember it by.
Eventually, more than 40 relatives came to see us. “Hell, Bob! I’m your cousin!” “Our fathers were brothers!” “You’re my American family!” We laughed and hugged and took more pictures than I ever had. After those precious few days, we returned to Manila, for the formal reunion in Binangonan, Rizal, having completed our reunion with the Rabaja clan of Ballesteros. It was an achievement, that there was a total of 13 Rabajas on our side from the U.S. who attended the grand reunion. It’s not certain my father will ever be able to travel so far again, or if anyone will ever venture to our corner of the world; but one thing is certain: family bonds don’t break!
And we love Ballesteros forever and a day!
David R. Rabaja, D.O., is the shortest son of the second generation of Rabajas in the U.S. Originally brought up in Michigan, he is now a wholly proud Floridian, who hasn’t forgotten his roots. Since the Long Ranger was taken, he became a surgeon instead. In practice for almost 20 years, he is father to five children, none of whom wants to be a medical doctor. He is husband to his beautiful wife, Jenny, who talked him into joining Facebook and discovering all the relatives they now know. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.