Memories of Auntie Isabel Navarro (November 19, 1928 – July 18, 2012)
© by Emily P. Lawsin
My mother’s last remaining sister, Isabel Navarro, passed away peacefully in Seattle last week at the age of 83. After a short hospitalization, she died from a sudden blood infection. Auntie Isabel, or “Auntie Chebeng”, as my cousins called her, was the feistiest Pinay I have ever known. Born on November, 19, 1928, in Tondo, a tough town in Manila, Philippines, she came of age at the onset of World War II. She was the pioneer Pinay, the first woman of our family to immigrate to Seattle in November of 1948. She spent the next 30 years bringing her parents, two sisters, two brothers, and their children to Seattle. For that, and so much more, we are eternally grateful.
In 1991, when I was doing research on Filipina American women, Auntie Isabel was kind enough to drive to my parents’ house in the south end of Seattle so I could interview her. I emphasize the driving part because she was also the first Pinay I knew who actually did drive, as my mother, their other sister, and my grandmother did not. Any student who has taken my Oral History Interviewing Methods class has heard of my Auntie Isabel. She is one of the examples I use when I recommend interviewing women in a quiet, private room, without men around. I often retell how Auntie Isabel told me her story in our living room, as my father, who NEVER lifted a finger when it came to chores, was all of a sudden banging dishes around in the adjoining kitchen, yelling answers like, “Tell her, tell her! You know, your Auntie was the one who taught the war brides how to make lumpia wrappers from scratch so they could sell it as a fundraiser! Tell her!” I adored Auntie Isabel because she was the only woman I knew who could stand up to my sometimes-belligerent (and hard-of-hearing) father. “Ah, yeah, yeah, yeah, shut up already!” she yelled back at him. Imagine trying to transcribe all of that.
In the interview, Auntie Isabel told me about growing up in Tondo during World War II. She said, “I was like the ‘achay’ of the family. You know what ‘achay’ is? Like maid. . . My eldest sister was working at the cigar factory, my other sister got married and left home at 16, my two brothers were still young, so I had to take care of them and then have lunch and dinner ready when my parents came home.”
When I asked Auntie Isabel how she met Juan Ordonia, an Ilocano manong from Seattle, who was a Master Sergeant in the U.S. Army, she said,
“Well, actually when I was 16 years old, in 1945. . . my responsibility was going to the market and buying the food. . . no means of refrigeration, so. . . Nora, my older sister, went with me at that time we went to the market. The market is at least about three. . .or two miles from our place. . . . To go to the market, we had to pass [my old] school. . . Rizal Elementary School. And then we cross the bridge, [to] the Pritil Market. . . coming back, I met my future husband. . . He was attached to the P-CAU they call it, capital P, capital C, capital A, capital U. I don’t know what it stands for, but. . . he was stationed out there. They took Rizal Elementary School to be their headquarters. And he was on guard at the time. So we passed him by. . . [almost everyday]. . .”
Indeed, many Filipino American soldiers served in the PCAU, Philippine Civil Affairs Units, which were stationed in 30 provinces for “mop-up operations” during World War II.
When I asked Auntie Isabel about their wedding, she continued,
“[He] proposed to my mom and my dad that he wants to marry me, then all this process. . . it’s a big meeting, you know. . . They agreed, so they set up the wedding. At the time, Manila was just recovering from the war and there’s no clothes to be had. And so my wedding dress was made out of a parachute. It’s a white parachute. I had a short dress and I was married at Santa Monica Church, June 10th, 1945.”
Meanwhile, one population study showed that before the war, males comprised an overwhelming 95 percent of all Filipinos in the State of Washington. By 1935, exclusion laws and immigration quotas had limited Filipino migration to the U.S. to only 50 per year. However, this all changed with the passage of the War Brides Act of 1945, which temporarily waived quota restrictions for alien spouses and dependents of servicemen. Auntie Isabel was one of these war brides that helped the Filipino population of Seattle triple in size in the post-war period.
After giving birth to her first child, Josie, and completing rounds of exams and applications through the American Red Cross, Auntie Isabel landed in Seattle aboard a military transport ship in November, 1948. They lived among other Filipinos and veterans in the Central District of Seattle. She and Uncle Johnny eventually bought a house on Capitol Hill, where the Gene Lynn School of Nursing at Seattle University currently stands. In 1949, Auntie Isabel became a founding member of the Philippine War Brides Association of Seattle, an organization that is still in existence. She claimed that the organization was conceived of and founded in her house, during a party, of course.
Auntie Isabel gave birth to three more children in Seattle: Elizabeth, John, and Carmen. When I asked Auntie how she managed to survive with all these kids and none of her family around, she said that it was hard to do at first. She said, “I had to perfect my English. So you know what I did? I used to turn the radio on and listen to country music on the radio. I would imitate and repeat everything they said. That’s right, that’s how I did it.” I laughed, finally realizing why she had such a twang to her voice and why she always spoke English instead of her native Tagalog to us.
Still, Auntie was lonesome and used to write her parents in the Philippines of how homesick she was. After ten years, she convinced her elder sister, Nora Español, to move to Seattle with her army husband and children. A few years later, my mother Emma, decided to visit. Auntie Isabel introduced her to Uncle Johnny’s cousin, Leandro Floresca; they fell in love and my mother stayed. In the 1960s and 1970s, after a change in immigration laws, Auntie Isabel successfully petitioned her parents, her brothers Junior and Felipe, and their wives and children, to all move to Seattle.
Auntie Isabel and Uncle Johnny, who was 20 years her senior, eventually divorced and she later remarried; this was another way that Auntie was ahead of her time, as divorce was largely frowned upon in the Filipino community. In her interview, she said that she and Uncle Johnny were better friends after they split and that she was there when he died. She joked, “That son-of-a-gun got me back by dying on my birthday. I will never forget it.”
Auntie Isabel said she had originally intended to go to school to become a nurse, even at one point working as a nurse’s aid. She worked many different jobs, moved to West Seattle, and eventually retired from a successful career at the Seattle branch of HUD (Housing Urban Development), where she got my sister a job. In the early days of her retirement, Auntie loved to travel to California, Reno, and Vegas. All of us cousins remember how Auntie Isabel loved to dance and show off her “sexy legs”. She would drink whiskey on the rocks with the fellas and laugh loud, slapping her leg like a cowgirl. The fellas would all show their legs too. Then she would laugh and lecture them in her Taglish: half Tagalog, half English, with a twang.
When she first got a mobile phone (with free long distance), Auntie Isabel would call me in Detroit to check on me. We would tsismis about recipes, celebrities, and the latest fashions. She would tell me the latest local news, as she read the Seattle Times religiously. In her later years, she slowed down and became more of a hermit, but she still loved spending time with her eight grand children, nine great-grandchildren, and her most recent great-great grandchild, taking our family now into its 5th generation.
When my mother was in a coma four years ago, my cousins kept vigil with us at the hospital for three weeks. On the night before my mother passed, the staff let us stay in a room with recliners set up for our family across from my mom’s room. That night, Auntie Isabel stayed up with us, talking story about my mom late into the night. She said she hated seeing her sister go like this. Then she shook her finger at us and said, “Hey, when it’s my time, I don’t want none of this gud damn sheeit. And if you don’t listen, I will come back and pull on your toe, you hear? I want you all to stick together and have a party.” Then she leaned back and started snoring. We were so cramped in that little room, Auntie Isabel’s big toe was in my cousin Carmen Espanol’s face. Carmen took a photo – two actually, one with flash – and we all slapped our legs, laughing. Auntie did too.
Maraming salamat po, thank you so much, Auntie Chebeng, for a lifetime of love and laughter. Thank you for all you did to bring and keep our family together. Minamahal kita. We love you and will miss you very much.
Obituary, Published in The Seattle Times on July 25, 2012:
Isabel P. Navarro
November 19, 1928 – July 18, 2012
Isabel passed away peacefully at the age of 83. She was born on 11/19/1928 in Tondo, Manila, Philippines and is survived by her four children, Josie Whitehead (Stephen Banks), Elizabeth (Paul) Trias, John (Laurie) Ordonia and Carmen Ordonia-Lindal (Martin Lindal). She is also survived by a brother, Sergio Porcincula Jr. along with 8 grandchildren, 9 great grandchildren and one great-great grandchild as well as numerous nieces and nephews. She was preceded in death by her sisters Nora Espanol, Emma Lawsin and her brother Felipe Porcincula.
At her request, there will be no viewing. Funeral services will be held at Evergreen Washelli, 11111 Aurora Ave. North, Seattle, WA. A Rosary will be held on Friday, July 27, 2012 at 7:00 PM with a Mass of the Christian burial to be held in the Chapel on Saturday, 7/28/2012 at 12:30 PM followed by entombment at the Washelli Mausoleum.
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July 27, 2012