He Was The Most Positively Pinoy

Fred Cordova was the founding president of the Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS). This is the last photo taken of him by author Rodel Rodis. (Photo by Rodel Rodis)

If Positively Filipino ever conducted a contest to determine which Filipino among the 13 million in the diaspora best exemplified the online magazine’s message of positive Filipino-ness, it would be Fred Cordova, hands down.

Unfortunately, “Uncle Fred,” as he is popularly known to several generations of Filipino Americans, wouldn’t be able to personally pick up his Most Positively Pinoy Award. On December 21, 2013, Fred died in Seattle, Washington, at the age of 82, after suffering a massive stroke — his third. 

On January 11, 2014, more than 1,500 people packed the Immaculate Conception Church in Seattle to pay their final respects to the man known fondly as the Father of Filipino American History.

Fred was the founding president of the Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS), which was formed in 1982 and now boasts 30 active chapters throughout the US. It holds national conferences biennially — two years ago in Albuquerque, New Mexico, this year in San Diego and in 2016 in New York City. 

It was Fred who pushed FANHS to popularize what had been a historical tidbit known only to a few California historians  — that Filipinos (known then as Indios Luzones) landed in Morro Bay, California, on October 18, 1587 from the ship Nuestra Señora de Esperanza under Spanish the captain Pedro de Unamuno. 

Fred pushed for a resolution calling for October to be observed as Filipino American History Month in the US.

Anglo-Saxon Americans, even the newly arrived ones, take pride that their ancestors, sailing on the Mayflower, landed on Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts in 1620. So now Filipinos can also proudly beat their chests that their ancestors landed in California 133 years earlier than the WASP Pilgrims did.  

But Fred was not satisfied with just mere historical recognition. In 1991 he pushed for a FANHS resolution calling for October to be observed as Filipino American History Month in the US. To this end, FANHS lobbied to place a historical marker in Morro Bay to commemorate the landing of Filipinos there. On October 21, 1995, Morro Bay City Mayor William Yates officially dedicated the FANHS historical marker in his city. In 2009 California officially declared October as Filipino American History Month and, a year later, the US Congress followed suit.

This all started as Fred’s dream. “It just came to him that other American ethnic groups have their own months to celebrate their culture and Filipinos deserve to have one too,” recalled Dorothy Cordova, his wife and life partner for 60 years. 

Morro Bay commemorative plaque (Photo courtesy of Rodel Rodis)

In 1912 Fred’s mother, Margarita Pilar, crossed the ocean to be a farm worker in Hawaii at the age of 12 (“She told people she was already 13,” recalled Fred’s brother Phil). In Hawaii, Margarita met and married fellow farm worker Jose Ventura and bore him three sons. After Ventura abandoned her and returned to the Philippines, Margarita met and fell in love with another Filipino farm worker, Gerardo Umali. The relationship resulted in the birth of Frederick Umali on June 3, 1932 in Selma, California. 

Fearful that their young son would be viewed as a child born out of wedlock, Fred’s parents asked their close friends, Leoncio and Lucia Cordova, immigrant farm labor contractors, to adopt Fred, and they agreed. Though they gave Fred their love and their name, they never hid from Fred the identity of his true parents. 

At Fred’s funeral, his older brother, Phil Ventura, recalled the first time he met Fred, in 1942, when their mother died. He saw the ten-year-old kid “dressed like Little Lord Fauntleroy” attending the funeral. Fred was introduced to him as the brother he never knew.

Fred grew up with the Cordova family in Stockton at a time of racial hostility towards Filipinos (“dog eaters!”). There is the famous photo of the lobby of a seedy hotel in Stockton, which displayed the sign “Positively no Filipinos allowed,” the words that inspired the name of this online magazine.

After graduating from a Stockton high school, Fred briefly considered becoming a priest but decided instead to move to Seattle to attend a Jesuit school, Seattle University (SU). It was in college that Fred met his match in the beautiful and brainy Dorothy Laigo. Together they formed a campus group called the Pinoy Club.

Sketch of Fred and Dorothy Cordova at their wedding (Photo from the Cordova Memorabilia Exhibit)

Young Fred Cordova and the father who adopted him, Leoncio Cordova(Photo from the Cordova Memorabilia Exhibit)

After graduating from SU with a degree in communications in 1952, Fred worked as a copy boy/reporter/editorial secretary at the Seattle Post Intelligencer and as sports editor of the Catholic Northwest Progress. He would later work as director of public information at Seattle University in 1966 and as manager of news and information at the University of Washington in 1974, a post he held until he retired in 2000. Fred also found time to serve as associate professor at the University of Washington, teaching Filipino American history and culture.

Fred and Dorothy were married in 1953, and raised a family of eight kids: Anthony, Damian, Timoteo, Cecilia, Margarita, Dominic, Dion and Bibiana. They also have 17 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. As Fred and Dorothy are second-generation Filipinos in the US, their great-grandchildren are fifth-generation Fil-Ams.

Even though their hands were full raising their kids, Fred and Dorothy still found time to form the Filipino Youth Activities (FYA) of Seattle to provide after-school programs for Filipino American children. In 1959 they created the award-winning FYA Drill Team, which regularly performed in state fairs and at halftime in sports competitions. The kids were dressed in native Filipino Muslim attire as they performed precision drill movements to the beat of native Philippine drums and gongs.

Fred may be known as the eminent teacher of Filipino American history, but it was Philippine history that Fred taught his FYA kids. He wanted them to grow up to be proud of their roots so no one could ever look down on them.

The Cordova family (Photo from the Cordova Memorabilia Exhibit)

At Fred’s funeral service, former drill team member Betty Ragudos, now a grandmother, recalled the time in 1961 when the team members were racially taunted as “ching chong Chinamen” during a performance at a state fair because “the hicks in the sticks” did not even know what Filipinos were. Some better informed racists would taunt them as “dirty Flips.”

Always, Fred would counsel his kids to ignore the taunts and not lose their composure — “just focus on your steps and moves.”

At the funeral service, Betty asked everyone who had ever been a member of the FYA Drill Team to stand up, and more than 100 of them did, a few already in their sixties, all fondly bidding adieu to the man who made them proud to be Filipino.

In 1971 Fred and Dorothy thought the time was ripe to call for a conference of Filipino Americans throughout the West Coast who were involved in the “Filipino identity movement.” Their brainchild, the “Young Filipino People’s Far West Convention,” was held at Seattle University in August of 1971 with the theme “Quest for Emergence.” The conference drew close to 400 Fil-Am delegates from all over the West Coast, the first of what became an annual event from 1971 through 1976. It moved year to year from Seattle to San Diego, Stockton, San Jose, Los Angeles and finally Berkeley, where it ran its course. 

FYA Drill Team (Photo from the collection of Flora Lopez)

On November 26, 1982, Fred and Dorothy founded the Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS) in Seattle as a community-based organization “to promote understanding, education, enlightenment, appreciation and enrichment through the identification, gathering, preservation and dissemination of the history and culture of Filipino Americans in the United States.” It also aimed “to present Filipino American history and to support scholarly research and artistic works which reflect that rich past.” 

“I conceived of FANHS as a research organization,” Dorothy recalled, “but Fred wanted FANHS to have working chapters throughout the US, with members doing research in their own locales about the local history of Filipinos.

One FANHS member, Marina Espina, wrote “The Filipinos of Louisiana” about the Filipino settlements that were established in the Louisiana bayous of Barataria Bay in 1763. An article about them entitled “The Mahogany-Colored Manilamen of Louisiana” was written by Lafcadio Hearn and appeared in Harper’s magazine in 1885.  

Fred Cordova's "Filipinos: Forgotten Asian Americans – a Pictorial Essay/1763-circa- 1963" (Photo courtesy of Rodel Rodis)

Fred wrote “Filipinos: Forgotten Asian Americans — a Pictorial Essay/1763-circa- 1963,” which was initially published in 1983 and has seen multiple printings. In his book, Fred describes four waves of Filipino immigration to America: First Wave, before 1906; Second Wave, 1906-1945; Third Wave, 1945-1965 and the Fourth Wave, after 1965. 

The first FANHS Board of Trustees, with 27 members from 12 states, convened on November 1, 1986. Fred Cordova, the founding president of FANHS, proposed and secured approval for the creation of the National Pinoy Archives (NPA). 

When I visited Fred in Seattle in 2007, I reviewed his files on labor leader Larry Itliong. A friend, Bert Caoili, dropped me off at the office and met Fred. After shaking his hand, Fred told him about his NPA file. Bert was shocked to see that Fred had compiled a file — three folders thick — on Bert including a 20-year-old souvenir magazine from when he served as president of the Filipino Community of Seattle. Bert was so excited to realize that sometime in the future, long after he has passed on, someone may look up his NPA file and learn all about him. There was an extra bounce in Bert’s step when he left the NPA office that afternoon.

Author Rodel Rodis remembers Fred Cordova (Photo courtesy of Rodel Rodis)

I have known Fred for 42 years, ever since I attended his Far West Convention in 1971. When I visited Seattle, I would often stay at his home and spend hours discussing the history of Filipinos in America. When I married my life partner Edna in July of 1979, Fred and Dorothy flew down from Seattle to serve as our principal wedding sponsors. I joined FANHS when it was formed and served on the FANHS Board of Trustees.

When Fred suffered his first stroke in 1988 while speaking in San Jose, my wife and I rushed over to the Alexian Brothers Hospital to be with him. It wasn’t his time to go yet, so he survived and suffered two more strokes in the next 25 years.

Fred was a devout Catholic and a regular parishioner at his local Immaculate Conception parish for 50 years. In 2003 he was ordained Deacon of the Archdiocese of Seattle and he visited Filipino families throughout the city to minister to their spiritual needs. At his church, he set up an altar for the two Filipino saints, San Lorenzo Ruiz and San Pedro Calungsod.

Nine priests, including the Archbishop of Seattle, concelebrated the funeral mass for Frederic Cordova on January 11. Despite heavy rain, more than 1,200 people filled the church pews, with an additional 300 huddled in the social hall below and another 100 squeezed in the balcony above, all to pay their final respects to the man who made Filipinos in America proud of their history and heritage in the Philippines and in the United States.  

Fred was most positively Pinoy.

Rodel Rodis

Rodel Rodis

Rodel Rodis is a California attorney who is the General Counsel of the National Federation of Filipino American Associations (NaFFAA) and previously served for 18 years as an elected member of the San Francisco Community College Board. He taught Philippine History and the History of Pilipinos in America at San Francisco State University and currently writes a syndicated weekly column in the Philippine News and in Inquirer.net.