First published in Filipinas Magazine, August 1996.
The men were members of the Gran Oriente Filipino Masonic fraternity in the Philippines who sought to continue the organization when they immigrated to America. They pooled their earnings to purchase a building in the city’s historic South Park neighborhood. The three-story Victorian they bought served as a meeting hall and provided housing for members who worked in San Francisco and those visiting from the Central Valley.
Such foresight gave them a San Francisco foothold which still exists today. Unlike San Francisco’s Manilatown, which was pulverized in 1977 with the forceful eviction of Filipino elderly from the International Hotel which was subsequently demolished, the Gran Oriente Filipino Hotel remains safely obscure.
The hotel at 106 South Park Street is wedged between a chic restaurant and a hip café in a neighborhood popular with photographers and multimedia artists. Patrons of the café and nearby restaurants often peek through the window of the Gran Oriente, which has a sort of oddball existence in the increasingly fashionable area. But the hotel was there first, and now elderly Filipino residents stroll harmoniously among yuppies. Just ten years ago, South Park was a depressed area. Although one of San Francisco’s oldest, most historic quarters, it had become a hangout for drug-runners and a burden to the city.
John Ricafort Sr., 89, has seen the neighborhood go through many changes. He arrived from the Philippines in 1928 and joined the Gran Oriente the following year. He became the organization’s grand secretary, a position he’s held ever since.
Ricafort worked in San Francisco. Most members, however, worked out of town. Soon, other California lodges were established in Salinas, Stockton and Sacramento.
“Most of our members happened to be farm laborers,” Ricafort said.
By 1940, the Gran Oriente in the United States had 700 members, with lodges throughout California, Hawaii, and in the cities of Seattle, Phoenix, New York and Newark. Then still connected to Manila’s Gran Oriente, each member paid $9 in annual dues to the Philippines apart from the local dues. They decided to break from the homeland. “We just cut the rope between us,” Ricafort said.
With 700 members each paying $25 in annual dues, the fraternity had a sizable budget. They acquired an eight-unit apartment and a lodge across from the hotel in 1940, paying $26,000 cash. They still own those buildings today.
Shortly after World War II began, the Gran Oriente purchased a 15-acre property in Morgan Hill for $9,000 from Japanese Americans destined for concentration camps. The members erected a Masonic temple and installed a swimming pool, basketball court and tennis court at the site. “Everything was there for the enjoyment of our members,” Ricafort said. “Every July 4th, we had a reunion for everybody, outsider, brother or sister. There was free food and everything.”
Members’ plans to retire at Morgan Hill were shattered in 1967. “There was a big storm that ruined the whole place,” Ricafort said. The property was sold for $300,000. “When we sold that place, everybody felt bad. That was our enjoyment.”
Since the sale, the organization hasn’t purchased any new property and retains a cash flow of about $350,000. Meanwhile, the values of the three South Park buildings have skyrocketed. Ricafort’s daughter, Amelia Ricafort Fields, who manages the hotel, said that when the area became gentrified, they were offered $800,000 for the apartment building alone. The Gran Oriente has more than $2 million in property assets, in a neighborhood where a flat rents out for $2,000 a month.
There hasn’t been any recent bid for the properties. “If it wasn’t an organization, maybe investors would have approached us,” Fields said. “But they know it’s a Filipino organization for low-income people. That’s probably one of the reasons they haven’t asked.”
For now, the fraternity has no intentions of selling anything at South Park. “This was their property when they first came,” said the 58-year-old Fields. “They started here helping people and they still are. It’s not their purpose to make a lot of money.”
That philosophy gives the elderly tenants an affordable haven. The 24 hotel rooms are filled by long-term Filipino residents who pay from $185 per month for a basic room to $350 per month for a larger unit. Across the street, the eight-unit apartment complex houses mostly Filipino families.
Fields was “totally surprised” when the neighborhood gentrified during the past ten years. “It’s wonderful for the tenants because it’s much safer for them.”
But how long will the Gran Oriente Filipino survive? Declining membership due to the deaths of aging members and failure to attract younger ones has closed many lodges. According to Ricafort, ten to 15 of the elderly members die each year. In January one of the founding members, Indalecio Lachica, a resident of the hotel since 1921, died at the age of 91. Of the 300 members in lodges in San Francisco, San Jose and Seattle, 25 are below age 50, and most of them are sons of elderly members.
“That’s why we’re looking for young members,” Ricafort said. “They are the ones who’ll take care of the Gran Oriente Filipino when we all die.”
Ricafort is optimistic that younger members will carry on the tradition of serving fraternity members in times of sickness, providing support and companionship, promoting Filipino culture and following the Masonic creed. “We’re happy we can get those young members,” Ricafort said, “because they’ll be responsible when we’re all gone.”
Nevertheless, getting into the organization isn’t easy. The governing body is leery of those with ulterior motives. “There are so many instigators,” Ricafort said. “They try to grab our organization. They want to grab all this property from us.”
Although the fraternity is only open to men, members need not be Filipino. Some members are Caucasian. To encourage participation from the members’ wives and families, the East West Ladies Chapter was formed to sponsor social activities and fundraising programs. Local lodges meet once every two months and the entire organization convenes each July in San Francisco.
The Gran Oriente chooses to remain low-key. “They’ve pretty much just kept to themselves,” Fields said. “They aren’t out there to advertise.”
“The Gran Oriente Filipino has a reputation for taking care of people,” said artist Reanne Estrada of Diwa Arts, a group that has collaborated with the lodge in the past. “They take care of each other.”
Eddie Foronda is a free-lance photographer based in San Francisco, California.
More on the Gran Oriente Filipino: Save the Gran Oriente as a Filipino Heritage Site