Working in three old Seattle classrooms filled with dozens of cardboard file boxes brimming with hundreds and hundreds of files, Dorothy Cordova, at 87, is the keeper of the Filipino stories.

She comes in five days a week — sometimes six — working from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., at no salary.

All those stories, so many of them compelling, and “I’m the repository,” says “Auntie Dorothy,” as many know her.

Cordova works out of the ground floor of what once was Immaculate Conception School on 18th Avenue, but these days also used by the private Lake Washington Girls Middle School. 

She knows the building well. She was a student there in the early 1940s when it was a Catholic school.

Cordova can reach into any of the files and leaf through Filipino history,  like stories of the harrowing voyage many made from the Philippines to the U.S. in a crowded ship from which those who died were thrown overboard. Or about the Filipino workers, overwhelmingly male, who came here in the early 1900s, and in trying to find female companionship in Seattle frequented the taxi dance halls in Pioneer Square and what is now the Chinatown International District.

Dorothy Cordova founded the Filipino American National Historical Society with her husband in 1982.
Historical campaign posters of Filipino candidates line the wall above boxes of photos and documents. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)
Dorothy Cordova founded the Filipino American National Historical Society with her husband in 1982. Historical campaign posters of Filipino candidates line the wall above boxes of photos and documents. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)

The files are at the Filipino American National Historical Society that Cordova and her late husband, Fred Cordova, founded in 1982.

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Her husband, aka “Uncle Fred,” died in 2014. A former reporter at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Catholic Northwest Progress, he ended up head of public information at the University of Washington. He was among those who pushed Washington state to declare October Filipino American History Month, a bill finally signed into law on May 7.

The chair and desk that he used in one of the old classrooms at the historical society still sit there.

“I still talk to him but he doesn’t answer, but what the heck,” says Cordova.

A photo from the Rizal Social Club, taken in May 1933. (courtesy of Filipino American National Historical Society)
A photo from the Rizal Social Club, taken in May 1933. (courtesy of Filipino American National Historical Society)

That story about the death voyage is in a word-for-word transcription from a 1975 interview of Chris Mensalvas, then 65, from a project that Cordova did for the state archives. It’s among hundreds of scraps of Filipino history in her files.

Mensalvas, now deceased, tells about being an 18-year-old in 1928 and sailing on a ship to Seattle. He remembers that 50 of the 500 young Filipino men died during the voyage.

Mensalvas says he and the others had listened to the recruiters for stoop labor in U.S. farms — in Hawaii, or on the West Coast — or maybe canneries in Alaska.

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“ ‘Come on, there’s good life over there. You people have no good life here,’ ” Mensalvas remembers them saying.

Filipino soldiers recite the Oath of Allegiance to become U.S. citizens during World War II. (courtesy of Filipino American National Historical Society)
Filipino soldiers recite the Oath of Allegiance to become U.S. citizens during World War II. (courtesy of Filipino American National Historical Society)

The pay at the farms ended up at 25 cents an hour, $3.75 in today’s dollars.

The 500 men were crammed into steerage, the cheapest rate to travel. Conditions were crowded, dark and unsanitary.

Meals consisted often of “slop,” Mensalvas remembers. “Disease, all those types of things. I would go and see where these guys were dumped over into the water, those who died.”

Mensalvas would become a union activist, through the 1950s, heading the Filipino American-led cannery workers union.

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The typed transcription, done on old-style heat-transfer paper, is fading. That’s something else that Cordova has to make sure is done. Digitize those records.

Dorothy Cordova says she’s in this photograph; she’s the woman on the left in the row of photos in front of the stage. The binder she’s flipping through documents neighborhoods. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)
Dorothy Cordova says she’s in this photograph; she’s the woman on the left in the row of photos in front of the stage. The binder she’s flipping through documents neighborhoods. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)

In the nearly four decades since the Cordovas founded the historical society, it has grown to 36 chapters all over the country. The group has a small museum in Stockton, California, where a large number of Filipinos immigrated to work in the San Joaquin Valley fields.

Cordova met her husband at Seattle University while both were studying sociology. The couple were married for 60 years and had eight children.

She and the trustees of the historical society have to face her age.

And that means looking to hire someone to replace Cordova, and finding the funding for a job she is willing to do for free. “The board is trying to figure out the best way,” says Mariecris Gatlabayan, one of the trustees.

Impossible to replace, however, will be Cordova’s detailed recollections of those times, and her ability to find a file from memory.

In 1910, there were fewer than 3,000 Filipino Americans.

By 1930, 50,000 Filipinos had arrived on the U.S. mainland, according to the history book “The New Immigrants, Filipino Americans,” by Jon Sterngrass. That’s in addition to the 125,000 who worked as sakadas, the Tagalog term for contract workers, to hoe, weed, cut and load in Hawaiian sugar and pineapple fields from sunrise to sunset, writes Sterngrass.

The Philippines were then governed as an American territory after the Philippine-American War of 1899, and Filipinos were considered American nationals.

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Very few Filipino women were part of the initial migration to the U.S. which was “94% male,” says Cordova.

“Sometimes you have five, 10 guys in one room in Chinatown. You could sleep on the floor, whatever,” Cordova says about life for some of them, as they lived on seasonal work.

Many dressed nattily, using money they saved to buy a suit with padded shoulders and wide lapels that were favored by Hollywood actors in the 1920s and ’30s.

“They put their money into clothes. They couldn’t buy property because back then there was a law that said Asian aliens couldn’t buy property,” she says.

The Filipino men faced physical attacks, both during their social outings and at work.

In another 1975 interview, Mariano Bellio Angeles, then 70, recalls Filipino men being attacked in the early 1930s in downtown Seattle if they were seen with a white woman.

Angeles enlisted when World War II broke out and was assigned to the medical detachment of the 1st Filipino Infantry Regiment.

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The Filipino soldiers were asked to become U. S. citizens. Angeles refused.

“I resented that” because of the way he had been treated, he says.

In an interview that same year, Jesus R. Yambao, then 77, remembers life for Filipino farmworkers.

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In 1934, says Yambao, “I was working on a farm there in Kent. Riots and everything like that,” and he adds, similar encounters in “Yakima, Kent, Orting.”

Part of it was racial, says Cordova. “They didn’t want Filipinos there. They were brown. I honestly believe that part of it was that Filipinos were socializing with white women, which was a no-no. And some had the audacity to marry white women.

“The only ones who were welcoming to the Filipinos were the Native American leaders,” she said.

In 2015, there were 3.9 million Filipino Americans in the U. S., according to the Pew Research Center.  That’s 1.3% of the total U.S. population.

“The term we use is ‘forgotten Asian Americans,’ which we are,” says Cordova. “There was very little written about us.”

She says her husband used to carry a measuring tape with him, and when visiting a library, would measure how much space the books on Filipinos took up in the stacks.

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At the UW, “It was 3 to 5 inches,” she says.

These days, says Cordova, there are young Filipino Americans who are looking to find their heritage.

On a recent afternoon, CJ Molo, 19, a third-year sociology student at Seattle University, is looking through old issues of a local biweekly newspaper called Filipino Forum, published from 1929 to 1969. Initially, it was a typewritten sheet that was mimeographed.

For a project, Molo is looking for ads from Filipino businesses to create a kiosk in the Chinatown International District showing that this ethnic group was here, too.

Auntie Dorothy is glad to help.

She’s still here, all those files at her fingertips.