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Pledging allegiance

Filipino-American family preserves own heritage, helps Utah compatriots get U.S. citizenship

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OGDEN — For more than half a century, Silvestre "Sam" Macavinta refused to become a United States citizen. He had been in the United States since 1928 but had never applied for permanent residency. Every year, with his wife's help, he renewed his alien card at the immigration office.

Baffled, his kids would ask him why he was not an American citizen. "What for?" he would counter. "I can go to the store and buy anything I want."

Truth is, about all he could read or write was his name, having dropped out of school in the third grade.

He was not alone. There were at least two others in the local Filipino community who did not want to bother with an application they could neither read nor fill out.

When fellow Filipino Nolasco "Noli" Baldazo heard about their situation, he helped them until they could pledge allegiance to their adopted homeland.

Nineteen years ago, on June 25, Macavinta, Carmino Tabura and Frank Bolastig, all in their 70s then, became U.S. citizens.

The three "old-timers," as Baldazo fondly refers to them, have since passed away, most recently Macavinta in 1999. Baldazo, 68, lives in Ogden with his wife, Mila. Macavinta was dubbed "Sam" by an employer who had difficulty pronouncing his first name. Born in 1910 on Panay Island in the central Philippines, he traveled to Seattle in 1928 and then settled in Utah in the spring of 1941 to work as a tenant farmer.

His widow, Virginia, described him as friendly. "His home was open to anybody. He shared whatever he grew and helped others in getting jobs."

Tabura lived on a farm in the outskirts of Roy.

"He was a quiet man," Baldazo said, reminiscing. "He wouldn't talk to you unless you talked to him first. He raised a lot of roosters. You could hear them crowing in the early morning hours."

Bolastig lived in the basement of his employer's farmhouse, not far from Baldazo's house. "He was happy-go-lucky, always smiling and telling jokes," said Baldazo.

Baldazo was introduced to the threesome by fellow Filipino and Ogden-resident Fred Javier, who would invite Baldazo, his wife and their four children to Filipino picnics and gatherings in the Ogden area.

Baldazo went to Logan in 1968 to pursue his master's and doctorate degrees in bio-meteorology at Utah State University, completing his Ph.D. in 1974.

"Back then, there were no Filipinos in Logan except students," Baldazo recalled. "We were eager to go on these picnics. We called Sam and the other 'old-timers.' Most of them were farmers." Others were skilled in a trade.

In 1973, Baldazo and his family moved to Ogden, as his wife had gotten a job teaching at an Ogden public school. "Why don't you teach in the public schools so we can be together?" she suggested. "It (will also be) good for the family," referring to their schedules coinciding with their children's.

After wrestling with the decision over many "sleepless nights," Baldazo turned down several offers to teach at universities outside Utah. "We determined then that Utah was the best place to raise our family," Mila explained.

So Baldazo completed training for a teaching certificate in a physical science/math composite and went on to teach high-school-level math and physical science for the Salt Lake City School District for nearly 20 years.

Meanwhile, he and his family were getting more involved in Filipino community leadership. In 1977, he was elected the first president of the Philippine American Association of Utah (PAAU). As PAAU president, Baldazo was privy to the concerns of his compatriots. He said that when he discovered the three men who did not have their U.S. citizenship, but who had been in the United States since the 1920s, he was astonished. "Why in the world were they not U.S. citizens? Hey, if I deserved to be one, then (they) deserved it more." He and his family were sworn in as U.S. citizens in the 1976 bicentennial ceremony.

When Baldazo asked Virginia Macavinta why she never applied for her husband, she said, "He's a hard-headed bull."

"Obviously, if you don't know how to read and write, you won't just jump if you can get away with not becoming (a naturalized citizen)," Baldazo said. "You talk to these guys, you think they're going to open up to you? You don't just go, 'Hi, I'm Noli Baldazo, I came from Utah State University.' They would never have entertained me. They (thought), 'These guys are college-educated, we're just farm help.' "

So he found some common ground.

Like them, he loved to garden. He shared with them seeds of plants indigenous to the Philippines. And he told them, "My father, Jose Baldazo, was a farmer. He didn't know how to read and write." Noli Baldazo was born the sixth of eight children in a village five miles from Santa Rosa, in the Philippine province of Nueva Ecija. "My father could have gone to school as a child but never did." Baldazo's early years seemed to point him down the same path.

He was 9 years old when World War II broke out. His family evacuated to nearby Bulacan, abruptly halting his schooling. Then the Japanese invaded the Philippines, and the Baldazos went back to their farm, only to evacuate once again, due to guerrilla warfare in their hometown.

Although the Japanese required children to go to school, Baldazo said, he did not because he "needed to help take care of the farm." The brief regime did not enforce that regulation on their island.

With Philippine liberation from the Japanese in 1944, Baldazo's family moved back to Santa Rosa, where he resumed his studies. He was accelerated several grades, finishing high school, and then spent two years in university work. He joined the Philippine Air Force Flying School, enlisting as an airman for a year.

His first big career break came in 1956, when a friend talked him into taking a position he was vacating, that of weather observer. Two years later, he married Milagros "Mila" Belarmino.

Baldazo said that despite the demands of a full-time job and family, he went to school at night because he believed, "If I did not have a degree, I would not progress." In 1966, he received a B.A. in mathematics from San Pablo College.

In 1967, he came to the United States on an atmospheric-sciences graduate assistantship at Colorado State University (CSU), Fort Collins. He transferred to USU a year later.

How did an illiterate farmer inspire his son to attain such an advanced education? "He did not want (his children) to be like him," Baldazo said. "Not that farming was bad, but he had asthma. Allergies and farming do not mix. He wanted a better life for us." Having established an easy friendship with the three older men, Baldazo set out to convince them to apply for naturalization.

"I bugged them," he admitted, chuckling.

With someone to finally give them that extra push, they agreed. Baldazo filled out and sent in their citizenship applications. Using a citizenship preparation book, he would quiz them: Who was the first U.S. president? What are the three branches of government?

"At the (citizenship) interview, I had the privilege of being with them as their 'interpreter' because the (officer) thought they did not speak English very well. To be honest, they probably spoke English better than I did," Baldazo recalled.

He said the interviewer did not ask too many questions.

"These people deserved to be citizens after living in the U.S. for more than 50 years. It would have been rude and cruel to impose on these people who (hardly) went to school."

Five years after Macavinta was naturalized as a U.S. citizen, he voted in the presidential elections. Virginia said he was "thrilled. He told me, 'For the first time I get to choose who I want.' " The Baldazos have accumulated an extensive list of accomplishments over the years, but they rank helping the old-timers as one of the most satisfying.

"We still call and visit with our senior-citizen (friends) to see how they are and to share with them our garden harvest," Baldazo said.

Since retiring in 1996, the Baldazos have kept busy with volunteer work, travel and caring for their grandchildren. During the interview for this story, Mila flitted from the living room to the kitchen, where she was helping a granddaughter prepare for the Asian Festival fashion show, slated for the next weekend.

Mila summed up her family's philosophy: "Despite our being U.S. citizens, we can preserve our cultural heritage through our community involvement."

Jewel Punzalan Allen, Philippine-born and raised, became a U.S. citizen in 1997. She lives in West Valley. E-MAIL: jpallen@networld.com