poetry & tsismis: emily's blog

December 15, 2011

Tomasa Parinasan Balberona (1923-2011), Filipina Pioneer of Detroit

Remembering Tomasa Parinasan Balberona, Filipina Pioneer of Detroit

(December 29, 1923 – December 8, 2011)

© by Emily P. Lawsin with Joseph A. Galura

    It is with deep sadness that we share the news that Tomasa Parinasan Balberona, one of the three women narrators of our book Filipino Women in Detroit: 1945-1955, died last Thursday, December 8, at the age of 87. As one of the first Filipinas to immigrate to Detroit in 1947 under the Fiancées Act, which temporarily waived immigration quota restrictions for alien fiancées or fiancés of armed forces personnel, she was a pioneer in the local Filipino American community.

Tomasa, or “Aunt Masy” (pronounced “MAH-see”), as she was affectionately known, was born on December 29, 1923, in a rural area of Cebu City, Philippines. The eldest daughter of seven, her father was a farmer and carpenter, who, with her mother, protected their family when World War II erupted in their hometown. After the war ended, Aunt Masy took shorthand and typing classes, and one day accompanied her sister to the nearby camp to do laundry for American servicemen stationed near their province. There, she met Homer Sheppard, who had just arrived in the Philippines after serving in New Guinea. Homer courted Masy, slipping letters to her in his shirt pockets via her sister. After a year, Masy moved to the barrio of Esperanza, on Camotes Island, to finish school and worked as a first grade teacher. Meanwhile, Homer continued mailing letters to her two or three times a week, even after he was discharged and had returned to his previous job at Ford Motor Company in Dearborn. He asked her to marry him and move to Michigan and after much contemplation, she agreed.

In a 2001 interview with University of Michigan undergraduate Elizabeth Varas, Aunt Masy recounted her immigration story by saying, 

My parents were in Cebu. I did not tell them [that I was leaving]. . . because I know they are not going to let me go.  And I cried, because it is not the right way to do it.  But (laughs) I wanted to go to the United States, to be with my husband-to-be.  So, I left.  I was so brave, traveling alone.  I had all my papers ready because the Philippine Red Cross help me and the American Red Cross, also. . .  I took the Pan American World Airways.  It’s a big plane but it is propeller type. . . It takes a long time.  We stopped on almost every island from Guam to Wake Island to Midway to Honolulu to San Francisco. . .  It’s a long trip, it’s a long trip, honey.  I slept in San Francisco at the YWCA, free.  I did not have any money.  Well, I had money but I didn’t want to spend it.  Then I arrived in Willow Run Airport.  It is not Romulus, it is not big Metro Airport, it is Willow Run, close to Ann Arbor.  So I was there and I called my husband-to-be to pick me up. He didn’t know whether I was Downtown. . . or at the airport, so he went Downtown. That is quite a ways from Dearborn and then he went to Willow Run. . .  I arrived at his brother’s house in Royal Oak. . . early morning, about five o’clock. I stayed with his sister, his brother and family for two weeks, while our papers were being processed so we could get married. And, July 25, 1947, we got married at Most Holy Trinity Church, Sixth and Porter, Downtown [Detroit].

A patriotic person, Aunt Masy never wanted to admit that racism existed in America, even as she remembered tales of being questioned of her ethnic identity when she first arrived. “They thought I was from Hawai’i because of my brown skin,” she said. Instead, Aunt Masy found happiness in making new friends and creating community. When new Filipina/o immigrants would arrive in the area, she and her husband would pick them up, drive them around, and host them in their home in Detroit. They lovingly connected local Filipina/os together in the post-World War II period, when there were few families in the area.

In 1952, Tomasa and five of her friends founded the Filipino Women’s Club of Detroit, a mutual aid, social-civic organization that provided scholarships to students and promoted Filipino and Asian American culture. Tomasa was elected President twice of the Filipino Women’s Club, proudly co-sponsoring events like Rizal Day Banquets in the 1950s, Christmas parties with folk dancing at the International Institute in the 1960s, and the annual Far Eastern Festival on Detroit’s riverfront in the 1970s.

In our book, Filipino Women in Detroit: 1945-1955, Joseph Galura remembers fond memories of his childhood in a photo spread titled “I Saw Masy Kissing Santa Claus,” as Masy’s husband always dressed up as Santa for the Club’s annual Christmas party. Joseph states, “As a young child, I remember asking Aunt Masy why she and Uncle Homer didn’t have any children.”

“You are all my children,” she replied, “the children of the Filipino American community.”

Indeed, Aunt Masy was the “ninang”, godmother, to two-dozen Filipino American children. Moreover, as a housewife, she would raise money by sewing wedding gowns and tailoring ternos – intricate Philippine ball gowns with butterfly sleeves – for Detroit area relatives and friends, then send the money back to the Philippines so her niece could go to school.

After Homer Sheppard died in May of 1974, Masy remarried a widower, Victor Goloyugo, a year later in 1975. Victor was a Filipino American commercial artist in Detroit, whose painting of Jose Rizal now graces the main hall of the Philippine American Community Center of Michigan. Masy and Vic were married 18 years until his death in 1993.

Tired of being lonesome, Masy traveled the world. In 1994, on a visit to Singapore and the Philippines, her god-niece introduced her to Lolito Balberona, who had been working for the Central Bank in the Philippines. Masy remembered, “When I meet him, I said, ‘Oh my goodness, you are such a young man, what are you trying to do, tease me?'”

“Age doesn’t matter,” Lito replied, smitten. Lito courted her, called, and wrote letters to Masy, even from Australia. On another one of Masy’s visits to the Philippines, she married Lito in a small ceremony in November, 1998, and she brought him to Detroit. (They just celebrated their 13th Wedding Anniversary this past Thanksgiving.)

Aunt Masy was disgnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease in 2006, yet she insisted to Lito that they continue to travel, returning often to the Philippines to see her relatives. Lito fondly states, “She was petite, but strong, proud, and independent, even in her last few months. I loved her so much.”

When we launched our book in 2002, Aunt Masy and  Lito  traveled with us and the other narrators of the book, her longtime friends Rosalina Regala and Isabel Galura, to the Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS) Conference in Los Angeles, with over 500 people in attendance. As audience members posed with them in pictures and asked for their autographs, Aunt Masy said, “Thank you for this. I feel like a rock star.”

We thank you, Aunt Masy, for sharing your journeys and paving the way for future generations of Filipino Americans in Michigan.

In addition to her husband (Lolito Balberona of Detroit), Tomasa is survived by her sister, Vicenta Laurito, of the Philippines, her nieces Dolores Ramia of Maryland, and Milagros Lictawa of St. Clair Shores, grandnieces Charissa Ramia of Maryland, Naimi McAndrew of Louisiana, and Rey (Tess) Parinasan of St. Clair Shores, and several great-grandnephews/nieces and relatives all over the world.

A Funeral Mass will be held for Tomasa Balberona at 10:00 AM this Saturday, December 17, 2011, at St. Clement Catholic Church, 5275 Kenilworth, Dearborn, Michigan.

* * *

Emily P. Lawsin and Joseph A. Galura teach at the University of Michigan and are the co-authors of Filipino Women in Detroit:  1945-1955, Oral Histories from the Filipino American Oral History Project of Michigan. Emily is a Trustee of the Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS) and Joseph is the President of the FANHS Michigan Chapter.   

OralHistoryProject (at) umich (dot) edu 


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