COURTESY BRIAN MCMURROW
A Philippine flag flies in Manila, where Filipino Americans from the Visayan Community of Hawaii Inc. searched their roots.
Families reconnect in Philippines
Hawaii residents on a tour find relatives and explore their roots
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Teary-eyed, Maggie Bolosan recalled her recent visit to the Philippines, describing it as blessing. Growing up in Hawaii, she felt far removed from her ancestry.
"We are so Americanized, we weren't close to our roots," she said.
Bolosan was part of a January tour group of the United Visayan Community of Hawaii Inc., comprising 27 individuals from Hawaii, and including Bolosan's sister from California.
"We met over 60 families on my dad's side. They were so gracious, kind and unbelievable. I felt close to home," she said. "As I get older, I want to know my roots. It's like a different world that you didn't know existed."
During the meeting, she searched their faces for familiar features. The experience presented a new sense of pride in her ethnicity. "I'm proud to be a Filipina. ... I'm 100 percent pinay."
Before, she said, "It was something that I'd never boast about."
Since returning to Hawaii, Bolosan has purchased phone cards with the intention of staying in touch.
COURTESY GEORGE CARPENTER
Benjamin Arcamo Sr. at the American Cemetery in Manila, where he discovered his two uncles' names on a memorial wall for fallen soldiers of World War II.
It was what George and Freda Carpenter had hoped for. The pair, along with Richard and Letecia Ancog, organized the trip after they learned that many UVC members had negative opinions of the Philippines.
"They expressed reservations for a number of reasons: They didn't speak the language, didn't know anybody, were afraid of the security situation and had concerns about sanitation and health," said George Carpenter, a Caucasian who is strongly rooted in the Filipino community. He attends Visayan classes and makes regular trips to the Philippines to visit his wife's family.
The couple was able to bring their daughter back to see the land of her ancestors before she died, and started the group after seeing the value of such tours to family members on both sides of the divide.
For Carpenter the highlight of the trip was watching the travelers connect with relatives. Along the way, the group also learned more about their culture during visits to Magellan's cross in Cebu, the Basilica of Sto, the Blood Compact monument and a cruise along the Loboc River.
The tour participants also learned a lot about each other in the process, becoming like a family, Bolosan said.
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Benjamin Arcamo Sr. feels grateful that his father was one of the sakadas who came from the Philippines to work on the plantations.
"I grew up in Kona, on the Big Island. I was fortunate to live here with all of the luxuries."
In the Philippines there are two kinds of people," he explained. "You are either rich or poor."
And, although he appreciates the Hawaiian Islands and all they have to offer, he wanted to find and reconnect with relatives in his homeland. Arcamo joined members of the United Visayan Community of Hawaii who embarked on a tour to revisit their roots in January.
The beauty of the Philippines fascinated him. From the picturesque mountains and lakes to historical forts and monuments, the experience was both peaceful and educational, he said.
"My dad had come to work on the plantations in Hawaii. We went to visit his hometown of Bohol, and I met a quite a few of my cousins," he said. "Some were doctors, engineers and lawyers; others were unfortunate and poor."
Arcamo also had a "chicken skin" experience during a visit to the American Cemetery in Manila. He found the names of two of his uncles imprinted on the wall. "They were captured by the Japanese in Manila, tortured and killed," he said. "I felt a kind of satisfaction, seeing the name that I carried, too."
Another highlight for Arcamo was sampling the lechon. "Every time they had a party, we had roast pig," he said. "Big ones and suckling, they were everywhere."
COURTESY VICTORIA CARACOL
Alex Bantilan, second from right, visits with relatives he found on the Philippine island of Siquijor.
Alex Bantilan didn't go to visit a new place. His sole intention was locating family members. He found dozens of his relatives on the island of Siquijor. He was pleased that they had careers as lawyers, doctors and engineers. A small local airport also sported his family name.
"I was so happy to have found relatives on my mother's side. There were a million questions I would have liked to ask if there were more time," he said. "I would definitely return and spend more time with them."
Bantilan also found that one of his cousins living in the Philippines works part time in San Francisco, where he often spends time visiting his children.
"I grew up on Maui. Now, after 73 years, I finally know where my mom and dad lived."
In addition to the family reunions, the group had an opportunity to get a taste of the local culture, from eating at restaurants that served food on banana leaves atop bamboo tables to stays in local-style, non-chain hotels. The group even visited a (caged) 27-foot python, one of the creatures found in the Philippines.
"The trip was designed to allow them to experience what it was like to live in the Philippines ... get a glimpse of how their parents and grandparents grew up," said George Carpenter, one of the tour's organizers.
"After exploring the areas, we were glad to have seen and experienced what was going on in the place of our ancestors. The poverty was something else," said Victoria Caracol, referring to having seen slums, children naked in public and public urination.
"I hope my children, grandchildren and great grandchildren can see and experience what those people in the Philippines are going through. It made me more aware of how lucky we are to live in Hawaii," Caracol said.