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Proud of his Bicol Roots, An American Searches Identity

By Juan Escandor Jr.

(First of the Two-Part Series)

Proud of his roots thousands of miles from the country where he grew up, an American searched for his identity that goes back to the town of Gubat in the province of Sorsogon where the sole connection to his family heritage never returned back after leaving this coastal town when the Second World War ended in 1945.

Robert Yelton Robb at the Philippine Free Press office before WWII.

Donald Pribor, now 54, has always been proud of his Filipino roots because of the stories his mother shared to him and his siblings, even though he grew up in Toledo, Ohio which was not a culturally diverse state with 81 percent White population and only .01 percent Filipino from 1.7 percent Asian population based on the United States Census (2010).

“Our mestiza mother raised us with stories of the Philippines and of the Second World War. We ate Asian food several times a week. A rice cooker and soy sauce were constant companions at the dinner table.  After Grandpa died, Lola came to live with us. Her appearance, her peculiar accent and her sometimes strange ways of acting set her apart from the parents and grandparents of our schoolmates” he noted.

Couple Elvira Escandor Camara and Robert Yelton Robb and their children Diane (at the back), Roberto and Antonia.

Pribor knew that her grandmother and his mother were from the Philippines, but he lamented that neither of them ever taught them to be proud of their Filipino heritage.  

“It was better to be proud of our Grandpa’s Scottish heritage. Lola even bought me a book about the Scottish kings and queens when I had my 12th birthday,” he said.

Pribor’s maternal grandfather, Robert Yelton Robb, was a journalist working for the Philippine Free Press when the war broke out.

Born in rural Illinois in 1907, Robb’s parents were both doctors. His Grandpa’s father had immigrated to the United States from Scotland and his mother was one of the first women doctors in Illinois. But his Scottish maternal great grandfather died when his grandfather was only a year old because of injuries he suffered from slipping on the ice during the winter. So, his Grandpa was the only child raised by his working mother.

Donald Pribor and cousin Aileen Escandor Camara

Pribor’s grandfather graduated with journalism degree from the University of Illinois in Champagne-Urbana. When he finished his studies, he was unable to find work in the United States because the Great Depression had devastated the economy. His Grandpa had heard about the possibility of teaching English in the Philippines. He applied for the work and was assigned to teach at Sorsogon Provincial High School.

His Lola Elvira Escandor Camara, one of the seven Camara siblings born to a wealthy Chinese-Filipino businessman Don Santiago Camara and Aquilina Escandor, of Gubat Sorsogon, in the early 20th century, was a very beautiful, vivacious and talented young woman. She played the piano, sang, and directed drama productions at Sorsogon Provincial High School.

Pribor’s Grandpa was teaching English in the same department as his Lola, and soon he began courting her until she fell in love and they decided to get married.

Their relationship was very unusual for the times in the United States where White people could not legally marry non-Whites, and Catholics in any country were discouraged from marrying Protestants.

Pribor’s Lola was not White and his Grandpa was not Catholic, so that, their relationship met with the disapproval of both his Lola’s parents and his Grandpa’s mother. In fact, his grandmother’s father had wanted to marry her off to a wealthy Chinese business man. To avoid this fate, his Lola and Grandpa eloped and were married civilly. Only later did they have a Catholic wedding.

Camara, born in 1905, was two years older than Robb.

Pribor’s Lola grew up speaking Spanish and Bikol. His Bicolana grandmother must have been a very strong-willed girl because she made the decision to go and study English at the University of the Philippines in Manila. No one in her family finished college and women were expected to go to a Catholic girl’s school and then get married.

That was in the 1920s when the American colonial order was firmly established in the Philippines and Spanish was being pushed out as language and culture. The Americans imposed English as a unifying national language at the expense of the Spanish.

Pribor’s Lola must have felt that she was the cutting edge of all that was ‘modern’ and up-to-date.

His mother Diane, who was born in Sorsogon Provincial Hospital in 1933, was the eldest among three children of Robb and Camara. She studied at St. Scholastica’ College in Malate District after their family transferred to Manila from Sorsogon because of Robb’s work with the Philippine Free Press.

Pribor’s grandfather’s work exposed the family to a glamorous life in the 1930s in the neighborhood of Malate, which was then full of foreigners, artists and upper-middle class Manileños.

His maternal grandparents hobnobbed with many musicians, Filipino and American politicians like Manuel L. Quezon and Douglas MacArthur. His Lola and Grandpa were frequently at events at the Manila Hotel. Musical parties with participation of Filipino and American jazz musicians were held in his grandparents’ home.

The idyll of Pribor’s family came to an end with the beginning of hostilities between Japan and the United States. His grandmother, mother and an aunt, Antonia, who was born in Manila, were sent back to Gubat to hide from the Japanese forces.

Pribor’s family left the Philippines in March 1945, after the Battle of Manila, and no one ever returned. Her Lola never saw her Filipino family again---she never spoke Bikol again. When he arrived in Manila, 68 years had gone by since someone from the Filipino-American family set foot on Filipino soil again.

When the Robb-Camara family arrived in the United States, they were welcomed by the press and her grandmother shared before the Americans what the family had gone through in the Philippines during the Japanese occupation.

Pribor’s family story is beautiful, romantic, dramatic and tragic---a mirror of the Filipino history in the 20th century. Their story can’t be understood without grappling with the complex nature of the relationship between the United States and the Philippines.

“When I was 22, two months after I finished college, I had a strange dream. I found myself in the middle of a green jungle in the tropics and I knew I was in the Bicol region of the Philippines,” he revealed.

Narrating his strange dream, Pribor found himself walking in the jungle with bright green vegetation all around him, a blue sky above and a sensation of intense heat. Then, he suddenly came upon a Spanish colonial style church that looked like the pictures of Mexican Baroque churches that he had seen in books. But the church in his dream was in ruins and half buried in the ground. He described the church with only the top portion of the walls were above the ground and a tall tower stands on one side of the church while the entire ruin was covered with vines, bushes and other vegetation. 

He swears he had seen any picture depicting Bicol when he had that strange dream.

Like many Americans who are in their prime and yet to settle down, Pribor had many adventures in his life like living in Mexico City, Brazil and Paraguay in South America. But he said he never forgot that strange dream.

“After Lola died in 1998, she appeared to me in dreams. I was with her in the Philippines, traveling to Gubat to visit her brothers. In those dreams, I felt a tremendous longing for the Philippines, great sadness and excitement,” he relates.

In 2005, he came back to the United States to settle down and decided to move to the San Francisco Bay Area because most of his family were there and the weather is warmer than the Midwest where he had lived most of my adult life in the United States.

“For the first time in my life, I lived in a place where Asian cultures are very present and where there is a large and visible Filipino population. As I made friends with Filipinos and Filipino-Americans, I felt a growing pride in my heritage. I learned how to cook adobo and pancit, how to sing in Tagalog. I even found new friends from Bicol and from Sorsogon,” Pribor said.

Diane (Pribor’s mother) and friend Luz Flestado met after more than 60 years.

Inside him, he said, a curiosity grew to learn about my family’s past and about the culture that shaped his mother and grandmother. 

Pribor’s turning point was in January 2010 when he went to San Francisco State University to take an exam of his Spanish and English competency because he was hoping to enroll in the program at SF State which trains students to become Spanish-English legal and medical interpreters.

After taking the exam, he decided to investigate the university book store. While perusing sections of the store, he found an entire book shelf dedicated to books written by Filipinos and Filipino-Americans.

Pribor paged through various books and found authors talking about their experience of coming to terms with their Filipino heritage. So many things that he read struck a chord in him because they mirrored his own family experience. And he found that a common thread in the writings were the themes of erasure of memory and historical amnesia. Filipino-Americans are invisible to the larger American society and the history of the relationship between the Philippines and the United States has been erased, he said.

“I sat on the floor by the bookshelf and cried---the grief and anguish that I had perceived all my life in my family was real. We had been subjected to a profound and cruel brain-washing on the part of the dominant American culture. Our Filipino past and our Filipino-American present had been deliberately covered up, ‘white-washed’”. (Second Part: The Trip to the Philippines Confronts the Past)


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