Reliving Delano history through Edmundo Lubaton, the last of the Filipino pioneers

The author and Lubaton hold up a copy of Filipinotown magazine

The author and Lubaton hold up a copy of Filipinotown magazine

By Carlene Sobrino Bonnivier

Editor’s note: The 40th Celebration of Agbayani Village on June 21, brought in many Angelenos to Delano, site of the Great Grape Strike of 1965. The author was one of the visitors. She marks her visit with a poignant encounter with the last of two Filipinos living in the Agbayani village, home to retired farmers from the historic era.

I’m driving down the north end of the Grapevine. Outside my window, long shadows cascade down into the folds of the hills, joining the straight lines of the shadows cast by the trees. Strange duplications of shapes that reflect and define what’s there by what’s not. Scruffy California Oaks now line the highway. Then the eucalyptus, elegant ladies, are at their side, allowing their silver-green boas to ruffle loosely around them.

I reach Delano and turn off the 99 onto Garces Highway. I’m looking for the Filipinos, for the men I knew in the San Fernando Valley when I was a child. The ones who loved farming even though they did not have the legal right to own a farm (or a business or a house; neither were they allowed to marry white women).

My white father married my Filipino mother in the Philippines and brought her to California. He died two weeks before I was born, so we lived where Filipinos were allowed to live in Los Angeles in the 1940s. During the summer, my mother would take me out to Uncle Henry Pukay’s farm in the San Fernando Valley. There were tall eucalyptus trees there, too. They towered over the giant valves of the irrigation system. Uncle Henry often woke me up before dawn to “help” turn on the water. He would look at me and say, “So peaceful here.”

In the early evening we’d all sit outside and eat blackberries or strawberries. Just before the sun went down, the horizon would fill with pastel clouds. They gathered together, stretching out languid arms, soft pink and dark purple, orange and gold.

I turn into the dirt road with a sign at the entrance: “Forty Acres” and I see a man standing out front. He tells me there are only two Filipinos living there now.

“Look” he said. I followed his eyes to a small red car coming up the road. The man turned and pointed to an apartment at the far end of the building, near the fields. “That’s his place.”

I headed for it.

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The Paulo Agbayani Retirement Village (top); discussions on Delano history. Photos by Evangeline Rodriguez of TheFilamLA.

The Paulo Agbayani Retirement Village (top); discussions on Delano history. Photos by Evangeline Rodriguez of TheFilamLA.

The man is stocky, carrying big boxes with apparent ease over to a tattered office chair on wheels. He’ll use it like a wheel barrow. A white Ho Chi Minh beard is on his chin and a straw hat on his head. He’s wearing simple clothes, work pants and a T-shirt. Surprised to see me walking toward him, he straightens, alert.

“Hello,” I say.
“Hello” he answers, a little wary.
“Are you Filipino?”
“Yes,” he says, “Why?”
“I am part Filipino, and I am here because tomorrow––”
“You are here for the fiesta?”
“Yes. And I found you because I want to give you a copy of my book. It’s about Filipinos in Los Angeles.”

He is puzzled, but gracious, inviting me to sit. Quickly he joins me.

“My name is Edmundo Lubaton,” he announces as he reaches into one of the boxes and pulls out a big bag of plums. He offers them to me. I take one. He smiles, opens the book and relaxes back into his chair.

“This is you!” he points to the page with my photo on it.
“Yes.”
“Let’s take a picture.” He jumps up. “I’ll bring it to the newspaper.” He presses my book to his chest as I take our photo. Suddenly his joy turns to sadness.

“What is it?”
“I had a wife. She was very pretty, too, like you.” He grows shy for a moment. “She left me. I haven’t been able to think very well since then. I came back here to be peaceful.”
“I had an uncle who had to leave his farm in San Fernando. The owner sold it. He moved to Los Angeles to be a gardener. It wasn’t right for him.”
“What happened to him?”
I had never cried over this, but now I feel tears in my throat. “Within a few months he had a heart attack and died.”

Edmundo’s response is surprisingly matter of fact. “This I understand.”
I look out at the twilight sky. There they are, gathered at the horizon: Pastel clouds, stretching out languid arms, soft pink and dark purple, orange and gold. We sit and talk and eat plums till dark.

Carlene Sobrino Bonnivier was born in Los Angeles and grew up in the downtown area now known as Historic Filipinotown. She has written articles for The Los Angeles Times, The Washington (D.C.) Star, Sacramento Magazine, The (Denver) Rocky Mountain News, The (Denver) Straight Creek Journal, Stars and Stripes, and Our Own Voice e-zine. From 2007 to 2009 she taught Writing at the University of California in Irvine. Previously she taught English and Culture at the University of San Francisco, the University of Denver, and at Johns Hopkins. She has also taught Language Arts and Philosophy in Malaysia, Singapore, Spain, Germany, and Japan. Before her career as a teacher and writer, Bonnivier worked as an administrative assistant in the U.S. Congress, on a special project for Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and in the White House Press Office. In 2013, she co-authored the anthology, “Filipinotown – Voices from Los Angeles.”

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