When Hilario Met Sally: The Fight Against Anti-Miscegenation Laws

Bachelors’ club dinner parties were occasions for manongs to show off their girlfriends and dates. (Source: FANHS Stockton, Pangasinan Association of Los Angeles)

The simple act of falling in love is a right we take for granted today. Whom we love and how we love is no longer questioned for the most part; nor is the race of the object of our affections a major legal barrier. For the manong generation of 70 years ago, however, the right to fall in love was one of the battles in their long fight for civil rights in this country.

White America has had a long history of trying to separate the races to preserve the purity of the “white race.” Over the years, whenever it was perceived that white women were in danger of being “despoiled” by men of other races, white gentlemen came to the rescue by passing anti-miscegenation laws.

Before anti-miscegenation laws were ruled unconstitutional in 1967, they were in effect in 38 states. If the letter of the law was not enough to keep the races apart, midnight “necktie parties” enforced the moral judgment of white society.

Maryland passed the first anti-miscegenation law in 1661 aimed at preventing African Americans and Native Americans from marrying white women. It did not, of course, prohibit white men from exploiting non-white women. 

Before the Manongs

By 1765, Filipino Indios who had escaped from Spanish servitude were finding their way to the bayous of Southern Louisiana. Although most of these men were from the Visayan region of the Philippines, collectively they were called “Manilamen.” Louisiana, under U.S. rule after 1803, enacted laws barring marriages between African Americans, Native Americans and Caucasians. Filipinos were considered “white” and were free to court white women. Their children were mestizos (mixed blood). In the early 1900s, a few “mail-order brides” arrived from the Philippines and married these Filipino Cajuns.

Prof. Marina E. Espina has documented the family of Felipe Madrigal, a sailor who served in the Atlantic trade between Europe and the U.S. in 1850. He married Bridgett Nugent, an Irish immigrant. They settled in New Orleans just before the start of the Civil War. Over the next 145 years, that union created ten generations of Filipino Americans of various cultural and racial backgrounds living throughout the U.S.

Pensionados, or government-sponsored men and women students, arrived in the early 1900s to study U.S. history and government as future colonial bureaucrats and teachers. Because pensionados were perceived to be members of the ruling elite in the Philippines, the few mixed marriages that occurred between Filipino men and white women were not a major issue. Antonio Torres, George Washington University law school graduate of 1905, returned to the Philippines with his American wife. He later organized two companies of the national guard in 1906.

It was not until 1967 that all anti-interracial marriage laws in the United States were deemed unconstitutional.

The Hawaiian Sugar Plantation Association began recruiting workers from the Philippines in 1906 when mainland agitation against the flood of “Oriental heathens” cut off their labor sources in Asia. These men, called sakadas, came to work for three years and were entitled to return tickets at the end of their stint. The majority of the sakadas were bachelors, and few Filipino women came with them. 

By 1920, Hawaii had become a cultural and racial melting pot. Mixed marriages between the “pure white” stock of residents was discouraged, but there was a large “mixed” population that the sakadas could choose from for companionship and marriage. Successful sakadas who chose not to return to the Philippines brought their families to Hawaii to settle on the sugar plantations. Their children also entered the pool of eligible marriage partners. Although few Filipino women married outside the Filipino circle, some did.

A Vision of America

The first manongs arrived in the mainland to replace the Japanese and Chinese field workers in California around 1910. Unlike the sakadas in Hawaii, the manongs came as independent workers and had to pay their own way to the U.S.

These young Filipino men had a vision of an America where all men and women were equal under the law. Opportunities to succeed were only limited by one’s own ambition. These were the lessons taught in their classrooms by American teachers. They also had seen white American men dating Filipinas in the Philippines, and they, too, looked forward to dating American women in the U.S. 

By working hard and saving their money, they planned to return to their barrios to buy a piece of land, marry their sweethearts and raise a family. But because they were forced to compete against other ethnic labor groups, they often had to accept sub-standard wages. It was enough to live on but not enough to buy their dreams of success at home. Their dreams died hard.

The majority of the manongs were bachelors. By the 1940s there were fewer then 3,000 Filipino families in the U.S., and many of these were racially mixed families. In the towns and cities across the U.S., and especially along the Pacific coast, where there were large concentrations of Filipinos, there was always a shortage of Filipina women. The bachelor manongs, however, found fulfillment elsewhere.

One of the most popular groups to choose from were Japanese women, the daughters of Isei immigrant farmers. The manongs must have impressed the Japanese women greatly to cause many of them to reject the strong Japanese dislike of “Gai-jins” (foreigners). C. Sales wrote in the January 29, 1934 issue of the Philippine Mail of a young Romeo-and-Juliet couple. Silvestre, a Filipino, and Alice Taneka were engaged to be married. When her family tried to force her to break off their engagement, they committed double suicide.

In April 1942, Lt. Gen. John L. Dewitt, Western defense commander, ordered the Japanese on the West Coast into concentration camps. Miguel Ignacio, secretary of the Filipino Community of San Francisco, called attention to several American-born Japanese women, citizens of the United States, who had Filipino husbands. But as far as Dewitt was concerned, the women and children would remain in the camps for the duration of the war. Many of these Filipino husbands went on to serve in the 1st & 2nd Filipino U.S. Infantry Regiments, defending the nation whose racist policies held their families hostage.

The attention lonely Filipino manongs lavished on white women, as in this beach scene in the ’30s, incensed many white men. (Source: "Letters in Exile" Asian Studies Center, 1976)


The few Filipinas of marrying age were courted with fervor by the manongs. Many studies suggested a ratio of 14 males to 1 female. In reality the ratio of males to marriageable Filipinas was closer to 40 to 1. One Rosita Dionisio was the toast of Stockton society in 1934 when she was crowned queen of the annual Dimas Alang convention. She received proposals from hundreds of eligible bachelors and selected Jesus Tabasa, a successful farm labor contractor from Watsonville, California to be her husband.

Bachelors’ clubs sprang up throughout California. Their dinner parties were an opportunity for the men to show off their women. As long as the Filipinos focused their attention on other Asian women or excluded groups, white society did not object.

As the manongs followed the crops through the rich agricultural valleys of California, they became a perceived threat to white America’s moral values and to the chastity of the latter’s daughters. In October 1929 in Exeter, white youths objected to the attention that Filipino men lavished on white girls. Heated words were exchanged, and knives flashed. An angry mob chased the Filipinos out of town.

The Exeter incident was followed by the Watsonville Riot in January 1930. The presence of white taxi-dance women at the Filipino club house at Palm Beach incensed the whites in nearby Watsonville. The police stood by as white thugs attacked the manongs and only came to their rescue after Fermin Tobera, a young farm worker, was killed.

In the cities, taxi-dance halls attracted the manongs. For ten cents a dance, a young man could hold a beautiful woman in his arms for a few moments and forget the hardships of America. The women were often first generation immigrants from Europe. In Chicago, Filipinos fell in love and married Polish women, in Boston, Irish women and in New York, Italians. 

Court Cases

In California, the local authorities applied state anti-miscegenation laws on Filipinos. The original laws were written to prevent the marriage of Caucasians and African Americans. In 1880, Section 69 of the California Civil Code was amended to include Mongolians. In a series of court cases, the manongs argued that they were not Mongolians but Malaysians, and therefore the laws did not apply to them.

Henry Empeno documented the efforts of Los Angeles County in the ’20s and ’30s to deprive Filipinos of their civil rights through racist interpretations of the law. For example, Timothy S. Yatko, Jr. was charged with the first-degree murder of a white man he had caught in bed with his white wife. In order for his wife to testify against her husband, their marriage had to be invalidated. The defense argued that the state law did not specifically exclude Malaysians or Filipinos from marrying whites, and that the marriage was valid. Judge Carlos S. Hardy, however, agreed with the prosecution that “...the dominant race of the country has a perfect right to exclude other races from equal rights with its own people...the Filipino is a Malay and...the Malay is a Mongolian. Hence... intermarriage between a Filipino and a Caucasian would be void.” Yatko was tried, found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to life imprisonment at San Quentin State Prison.

Alejo Filomeno and Jessie Chaverria (with daughter Mary Ester) had to go to New Mexico to get married. (Source: Mary Ester Filomeno Collection, FAX-RP, San Francisco)

The California Court of Appeals ruling on Salvador Roldan v. Los Angeles, confirmed the classification of Filipinos as Malaysians. Roldan was denied a license to marry Marjorie Rogers by the L.A. county clerk. The L.A. county superior court ordered the clerk to issue a license. L.A. county appealed the decision to the California Court of Appeals. On January 27, 1933, the Court ruled that Filipinos were indeed Malaysians and were not prohibited under the laws of 1880 to marry whites.

The victory was short-lived when on August 21, 1933 Gov. James Rolph signed two bills into law that retroactively invalidated all white marriages with non-whites. The law specifically mentioned the Malay race for exclusion under section 69 of the anti-miscegenation law.

Honeymoon Express

Filipinos who wanted to get married traveled to states that did not have any racial barriers. When Alejo P. Filomeno proposed to Jessie Chavarria, a Mexican woman from Texas, they had to drive to Gallup, New Mexico to get married. This was a route of the “honeymoon express” in 1943-1944, which members of the 1st & 2nd Filipino Infantry Regiments had to take to marry their white sweethearts. 

In 1948, the California Supreme Court held that the state’s anti-miscegenation laws were unconstitutional and said that “restricting marriage solely on the basis of race violated the equal protection clause under the U.S. Constitution.”

It was not until 1967 that all anti-interracial marriage laws in the United States were deemed unconstitutional. It came too late to spare Col. Leon Punsalan the embarrassment of having to move the site of his daughter’s wedding to a white American. Punsalan had commanded the 1st Battalion, 1st Filipino Infantry Regiment in combat against Japanese forces in 1945 and was a U.S. citizen. Because they were residents of Virginia which prohibited interracial marriages, Col. Punsalan had to move the wedding to Washington, D.C.

It has been less than 28 years since all barriers to interracial union were torn down in this country. For some people, interracial dating or marriage is still objectionable, a crime that cries out for a return to the old days. It’s easy to take for granted the right to fall in love with a person of another race or culture; but as the recent passage of Proposition 187 in California demonstrated, there are those who would force us back into the courts to fight the old battles once again. When you kiss your loved one on Valentine’s Day, remember the likes of Manong Alejo and Auntie Jessie, and what they had to overcome to have each other. 


Reprinted from Filipinas Magazine, February 1995.


Alex S. Fabros, Jr.

Alex S. Fabros, Jr.

Alex S. Fabros, Jr. is a retired Philippine American Military History professor.