KDP – Union of Democratic Filipinos’ Rich History Illuminated in New Website: Interview with KDP Leader Melinda Paras

Interview by Rocky Garcia with Eddie Wong.  Posted May 9, 2023.

Introduction:  In September 2022, the KDP Legacy Website was launched offering a comprehensive look at one of the most significant organizations in the Filipino American community and in the American Left. The website not only highlights the many organizing drives KDP conducted for Filipino American rights in the US but also shows how it became a driving force in opposing the Marcos dictatorship in the U.S.  Spoken word artist and educator Rocky Garcia conducted the interview with Melinda Paras, who served on KDP’s National Executive Board and created the KDP Legacy website with Jaime Geaga. The interview was conducted on February 17, 2023 and has been edited for length.

Home page of www.kdplegacy.org.

Rocky: Why did Filipino Americans lean more towards conservatism after World War Two?

Melinda: Well, it’s important to understand that first the whole country leaned toward conservatism, so it wasn’t just the Filipinos. World War II was a unitary moment for most Americans. The Japanese Americans didn’t get to get included in that unity moment, but most Americans were united in support of the war. Post-war US imperialism was riding very high, you know, “the strongest country in the world,” had the atom bomb, so in the 50s people believed what the government said. If the government said, “Don’t worry, these nuclear test zones are safe” to the people in Nevada and the US soldiers in the Marshall Islands, people accepted that. People were all lied to; there was a belief that the US government would tell them the truth. We enter the 60s  with a whole counterculture of young people, realizing that the US government lied and that it was not really protecting their interests.

You have to put it in the context of the anti-Vietnam War Movement and the Civil Rights Movement where you have whole pockets of resistance. But it was battling a culture of the 50s and the Filipino community was part of that. Filipinos were grateful that the US helped get rid of the Japanese.  The Japanese occupation was very bad. And even though the US occupation was bad, too, that was a generation earlier. So anyway, with all that you saw the leadership in the Filipino community being pretty conservative. And the KDP’s big battle was to create a different current that said, “No, we’re not being treated fairly in this country. We have to oppose discrimination and what the US is doing in the Philippines with supporting Marcos. That has to be opposed.” So anyway, I wouldn’t say that the Filipino community was uniquely conservative in that area.

Rocky: Right.

Melinda: It was part of a conservative force in the country that the KDP then was a part of resisting.

Rocky: There’s just so much that happened at that time to a generation of young people. They had no idea what to do with it, and a lot of them were children of immigrants too.

In 1971, you all started the newspaper Kalayaan.  At that time, were you still in the Philippines or did you come over here already?

Melinda: I went to the Philippines in 1970, so I was in the Philippines. The hallmark of the protests at that time was the Diliman Commune. I was arrested during martial law.

Rocky: Did you hear about Kalayaan in the Philippines?

Melinda: No, not really. I was pretty occupied with what was going on there, and honestly, we didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about the Filipino movement in the US. I probably should have, but I was trying to learn and understand better what was going on there and do my part. So, I didn’t get exposed to the US. I did briefly before I went to the Philippines.

Let me backtrack a little. I was on the second Venceremos Brigade in Cuba which was 1969 or 1970, and there were two Filipinos on that brigade: Bill Sorro, who is from the International Hotel in San Francisco and Nemescio Domingo, Silme Domingo’s older brother. They were in Cuba with me, so I found out there were other Filipino activists in the US, which I did not know. I grew up in Wisconsin and I had no idea. I actually hitchhiked to San Francisco and went to the International Hotel, and I think I painted a wall there because they were doing renovations.

But you know I didn’t meet the leaders of that movement at that time. I looked at what was going on in the Philippines, and I was, well, there’s a revolution going on in the Philippines and so I decided to go there. So, all this to say after martial law was declared, I came back and Filipinos across the country had mobilized in response to martial law, and so there were actual nationwide connections and organizing going on.

What had been a mostly Filipino American kind of student activism in the West Coast and Filipino immigrants on the East Coast, Midwest and also in the West Coast who had been active in the Philippines, got connected to the National Democratic Movement there.  All that connected up into the anti- martial law movement.

I was deported from the Philippines, and I had been incarcerated there. There was so little information trickling out about what was going on that the movement in the US sponsored me on a national speaking tour. So, I got to go around the country telling people what was going on in the Philippines and what martial law was like.

Rocky: So, when you came back, you saw the organization happened while you were gone, in response to what was happening in the Philippines?

Melinda: Especially in response to martial law. I mean, the Kalayaan (Collective) was a force in San Francisco, but it didn’t really have national connections. Not until martial law, because Filipinos in the US saw the need for organization.

Rocky: When you came back, they saw you as a source of information. They put you on the tour to speak, which compared to nowadays, people can get information just from Internet videos, misinformation as well.

Melinda: Well, there was no Internet. No Internet and the press was all shut down in the Philippines. So, for weeks, there were no newspapers, no TV stations and no radio. No one knew what was going on, because there was no press.

Rocky: So, your speaking engagements was where people were getting the information. I’m sure martial law was world news and that’s kind of how a lot of people in the US found out, but it wasn’t until people like you came and did these speaking tours that people were exposed to what was really happening.

Melinda: Yeah, people got more information, and it was important.  So let me just say, you know, Marcos did a lot to try and create the image that his martial law was a very….

Rocky: Good?

Melinda: A good martial law. You know, it was just instilling discipline because the Filipinos are so undisciplined, and we needed to just have more discipline and like Singapore where you need a kind of a strong authoritarian ruler. When Marcos came, Mayor Dianne Feinstein gave him the key to San Francisco. So, you know what I mean?  Liberal people thought Marcos was not a bad dictator.

Rocky: At the same time, his wife was trying to make the image civilized and artful, right?

Melinda: Yes, yes, all of that. When the Beatles went to the Philippines, they got so freaked out and horrified – these people are dictators and they’re going to kill us. And it was true. The Marcos really went after them because they wanted the Beatles to play for some party and they didn’t go. So there was an image being portrayed, but, of course, it was a false image. Our movement had to break through that and tell people how things really were. And that took years.

Eddie Wong: I have a quick follow up question. How did you go from being raised in Wisconsin to going to the Philippines? Were you going to study there? How did you get involved in the movement there?

Melinda: Well, I had been involved in the anti-war movement in the US and I have been to Cuba, right? So, I’m in Cuba and they have they have real news broadcasts in Cuba in English, and I was hearing about the First Quarter Storm/Sigwa ng Unang Sangkapat in the Philippines, which were the big student demonstrations that the police broke up and killed a number of students.

Photo of Diliman Commune, 1971 from Bulatlat.com

So, I was already an activist, but I wasn’t an activist in the Filipino community or in the Filipino movement. So, I’m 17 at the time and I’m going to go to school in the Philippines. I have family there and so my grandfather paid for my ticket, and I had a place to stay.

I did enroll in the University of the Philippines which was the hotbed of activism. There were constant protests and military incursions into the university, so it was hard to actually even be a student there. But it was a great place to connect up with the movement. It was a little hard at first; people viewed Americans arriving wanting to be involved a little suspiciously, but the University of Wisconsin and had some relationship with the University of the Philippines. And there were a lot of Filipino professors and students at the University of Wisconsin, and some of them knew my family. So gratefully when the activist said, “Who is this person? Are they CIA?” They would say, “Oh no, we know her family; they’re not. She’s an activist.” So, I got accepted.

Eddie: Did you speak Tagalog at the time?

Melinda: No, that was my worst problem. Some people have natural ability with languages, and I am not one of them. In the Philippines, a lot of people, especially in the cities, speak English. The language of instruction in schools is English. All my cousins wanted to speak English with me, and I’m trying to learn Tagalog. So, I’m trying to talk to them in Tagalog, but they wanted to speak English with me; so, it was hard.

And after martial law was declared, I had been there for about two years. I was getting better at Tagalog but honestly my choice at that time was to try and be underground in the cities or move into a new People’s Army unit in the countryside. I was living in Zimbales, so I knew what that was like, and it was too dangerous because I stuck out.

First of all, I hadn’t come out yet as a dyke. I was wearing blue jeans and T-shirts, and I wasn’t wearing a dress and my Tagalog wasn’t that great. And in the rural areas, people gossip, and they’d be like “Oh, there’s an American” and the government and the military would find out way too quickly that I was there. I would endanger people if I did that. So, I went underground in Manila, but that was very hard at the time. Even though the movement knew what martial law was…You think you’re prepared, but you’re not really that prepared for martial law. It’s like another universe. It’s like you have a set of rules and you think this is how things work, and then all of a sudden, all the rules are gone and you have no place to connect to people. No way to find out what’s going on. It was very hard. The movement was hit very hard, especially for the first year or two of martial law.

Melinda Paras. Photo by Stephen Jaffe from early 1970s.

Rocky:  So, with the anti-imperialist movement when and how were you all exposed to Marxist theory? Was it before you went to the Philippines? Was it just common knowledge back then?

Melinda: Before I went to the Philippines, I was involved with activists. I had been to Cuba. I studied some Marx and some Lenin and also some Mao Tse Tung, but when I got to the Philippines, people made me lead discussion groups on philosophy. Okay, I’m only one step in front of anybody, but I had at least read those books. .

Rocky: But Filipinos probably weren’t too exposed to that stuff back then, though.

Melinda: Oh no. By 1970 with the First Quarter Storm, big student movements arose. There was a central leadership. Jose Maria Sison became chairman of the re-established Communist Party (CPP) and it was leading 100 different organizations: student groups, workers groups, peasant groups and all in a fairly unified fashion. I had come from the movement in the US where there was just a lot of divisions, a lot of sectarianism with 20 different major left groups all hating each other. And in the Philippines, it was pretty unified. When people were trying to study Marx and Lenin, the party was heavily influenced by Maoism. The little Red Book was easier to read than the collected works of Lenin. So, there were kind of a lot of shortcuts about how people learned Marxism. When I came back to the US and then in KDP, when we studied Marxism, it was much more substantial.

Rocky: What? How come? Did the American students connect with it on a different level or just different cultural understandings?

Melinda: Maybe because we weren’t in a life and death situation, we had more emotional or intellectual space.

Rocky: The US privilege.

Melinda: Yeah, probably it was US privilege which isn’t to say that comrades in the Philippines weren’t trying to do those studies, but it was not the best conditions.

Rocky: Right.

Melinda: You just couldn’t go down to the bookstore and buy those books or even organize. There was a curfew in the Philippines.

Rocky: Right, and I’m assuming students were just organizing 24/7 here in the US.

Melinda: Well, the curfew wasn’t the worst part. Just all of the offices, all of the headquarters of all the groups, were all raided and everyone there were arrested. So just connecting with each other was a challenge. People didn’t have telephones; you don’t have Internet. You have to communicate with each other and in written documents that were passed by couriers who would have to travel on a bus to another province taking three days to get there and then connect up with some group there. I mean it’s very difficult, very difficult to organize. We didn’t have the Internet yet, but we had telephones and we could connect that way. Although in that era, there were long distance charges. Now your cellphone is free, and all the long distance is free. But in those days, you would have to keep your calls short because you were paying by the minute to AT&T.

Demonstrators march from Congress to Presidential Palace on Jan. 30, 1970. Photo from Sunday News Magazine.

Rocky: One of the things that I read on your website that says the secret to the organization’s viability was its constant detached analysis of the conditions that define its community in order to change them through progressive political activity. So of course, you all are fighting for the Philippine movement and the anti-martial law movement. But we come to this thing, this concept that you all prided yourself in, which was the dual line program and fighting for both what’s happening here to Filipinos in the US and then, of course, what’s happening in the Philippines. I think it’s interesting to me that you didn’t even know when you were in the Philippines, how much organization was going on in the US.

Melinda: Well, it hadn’t been going on very long when I came back. So let me just say it was only two months old or three months old.

Rocky: But that begs the question too, because when I go to rallies and protests, even when I was a student, I wondered how much the people in the Philippines were actually absorbing and feeling, getting exposed to what we’re doing because we get criticized all the time that we’re not doing anything,  or the we don’t care about what’s going on in the Philippines, which is a common stereotype of Fil Ams. So once KDP was organized, people in the Philippines…

Melinda: Knew what it was doing. I do want to say that during that era I don’t think anyone thought we weren’t doing much.

There was at some point, not in the early stages, but a little bit later on, some concerns that came from the movement in the Philippines. Not the whole movement, but leadership in the movement saying maybe organizing about things in the US was a distraction and maybe we should be doing 100% for the Philippines. We believed that just wasn’t a good understanding of the nature of the Filipino community in the US; you couldn’t sink deep roots in terms of even opposition to the Marcos regime without taking on and acknowledging situations that Filipinos were facing in the US. So, we had divergences of opinion on that.

And then it also developed on international and foreign policy questions and on the issue of the Aquino run for presidency where the movement decided to abstain from those elections and we believed that the huge mass of the people were going to bat for Aquino, unseating Marcos. And in my opinion, it’s what lost the Communist Party in the Philippines a lot of its base among people because at that moment the Communist Party had really been leading a lot of the resistance. But it believed that People’s War was the only way in which you could unseat the dictator. And after Ninoy Aquino was murdered and his widow elected to run for president against Marcos, that caught the imagination of the vast majority of Filipinos, especially all those who had been anti- martial law. Also, when Vietnam invaded Cambodia, the Philippine Communist Party supported Pol Pot. And we were like, “No that’s really not someone to get behind.” So those three things all cumulatively led to the Philippine movement not really liking KDP anymore.

Corazon Aquino, then an opposition presidential candidate, waves to thousands of supporters in Manila on Jan. 27, 1986. Val Rodriguez / AP. Photo from NBC News.

The biggest challenge for KDP was building trust. Building the trust to say we can be one organization and one leadership body, and it will represent both (anti-martial law work and work for Filipino American rights) and most of the immigrant communities moved to that position. In Chicago, some KDP people, not all of them, but several of them, were not trusting. Over time, we worked with them, and I think they came to see that the KDP was really a huge force battling the Marcos dictatorship. The KDP proved itself to be a pretty significant force in trying to whittle down US support for Marcos and that’s what was holding Marcos up. The Marcos army was trained and equipped by the US armed forces.  At the end when Aquino clearly had won the election and people rose up not in a People’s War model, but in an urban insurrection model. What was critical was that the military stood aside.

Rocky: Peaceful protest.

Melinda: Yeah, peaceful protests.  There were tanks in the streets and the soldiers wouldn’t fire. It was critical and we believe it was because the US had given a signal to the military to say we can’t support Marcos anymore.

Rocky: Oh wow, it wasn’t even on their own. At first you would think it was because they wouldn’t fire on the Filipino people.

Melinda: No, they had fired on people before.

Rocky: You think it’s such a heartwarming story, but then it’s just no, the US be like, “No, don’t do that. Don’t listen to him anymore.” That goes back to the relationship between the two countries.

Eddie: I think many people don’t realize how big KDP actually was and your website tells about organizing in Honolulu, SF, LA, Seattle, DC, all over the place. What do you think drove people to embrace KDP?

Melinda: I would say that the unity around opposing the Marcos dictatorship was instrumental in pushing people to have national organization. You had local study groups and local organizing efforts but there has to be a reason to have a national organization. It takes a lot of work. There’s no trust between people. You have to build that trust.  When you have an exigent circumstance like the declaration of martial law, it pushes people to unify nationally very quickly and in shockingly little time. The first anti-martial law organization was formed within a week and the KDP was formed in under a year later.

And then how did KDP get mass support? I think we did really good organizing work. I mean we, KDP, were leaders at PACE (Philippine American Collegiate Endeavor) and PAA (Pilipino American Alliance), all of the Filipino student organizations on campuses, trade unions like the ILWU (International Longshore and Warehouse Union). Filipino KDP members were leaders in the ILWU and later in the SEIU (Service Employees International Union). KDP members were leading many of these efforts. It would attract particularly young, progressive Filipinos looking for answers, looking to be involved, wanting to be socially relevant. A lot of the things, Rocky, that young Filipinos are looking for today, but KDP gave people a home for that.

KDP demonstration against Marcos dictatorship. Photo from KDP Legacy website.

Rocky: Did you have any activists from the generation before you, or was it mostly young people?

Melinda: We did. In the 30s, there were Filipino leaders in the Communist Party. They were organizing in the U.S. You know that the United Farm Workers Union was started by Filipinos, right? After the 50s, the Communist Party USA broke up a lot, but those communists were still around and they actually joined KDP. So KDP had 70 year old members who would go out and sell the newspaper and mostly talk story. They would tell stories of their organizing days.

Rocky: I know one thing that KDP strived to do was fighting for the rights of Filipino nurses.

Melinda: The U.S. needed health professionals, but they didn’t want them to be treated equally. So, they would create extra steps like special exams for the foreign trained nurse graduates, FNGs. Many immigrant Filipino health professionals had to work in a job classification under what they were trained for. The LVNs (Licensed Vocational Nurses) were poorly paid. They were actually RNs (Registered Nurses). Because of discrimination Filipino engineers would become janitors in the U.S.

One of KDP’s largest campaigns was to free Narciso and Perez, two Filipino nurses who were falsely accused of murder. An FBI investigation into the poisoning deaths of 10 patients at the Ann Arbor Michigan VA Hospital led to charging Filipino nurses Filipina Narciso and Leonora Perez with murder in 1975. The case was racially charged with accusations of Filipina nurses conspiring to murder US veterans at a time when immigration rates of Asians was high. KDP helped to lead many community protests in support of the nurses’ innocence across the country, such as this one in San Francisco, 1977. Because of the prosecution’s prejudicial presentation of the case and lack of evidence, charges were dropped after a retrial. – from KDP Legacy website.

Rocky: It sounds to me that back then the KDP was one of the only things that gave Filipino Americans a political identity. We had an immigrant identity, we had a professional identity, and even artistic and cultural identity.

Melinda: Although I have to say that KDP also was a big part of developing the cultural identity as well. KDP did a lot in the cultural field.

Rocky: I have noted cultural production. You put on a lot of shows.

Melinda: A lot of original plays. And they were being performed here in Berkeley at Zellerbach Auditorium. So top rate, high production quality with progressive messages and that drew Filipino students into work with us.

Rocky: And did you have other things in the newspaper as well, like poems?

Melinda: Yeah, eventually there was a cultural page, poetry and photographs. KDP really was very conscious about developing a progressive cultural movement in the community as well.

Rocky: That’s why Eddie brought this to me, to bring the attention to my generation of students, because it’s the blueprint that we don’t even know about. We’ve been following a Filipino American student activist organizational tradition, from generations ago that we even didn’t know about, and it connects even to the 30s and even to the United Farm Workers union. That’s not necessarily ancient history. It’s our generation, but it was a long time ago. Yeah, almost 100 years.

Melinda: Good point. Yeah, the 30s was almost a 100 years ago.

Eddie: How did you train people, both in the organizing work and in the cultural work? That’s the staggering thing that people don’t know because you had thousands of people involved with KDP, not hundreds.

Melinda: Well, hundreds were in the core, but thousands were involved in the campaigns and the efforts. One of my favorite campaigns was the Christmas caroling campaign because everyone almost had to sing. I mean, there were a handful of people who were kind of disqualified because they can’t hold a tune. Don’t be part of our group (chuckles). But we would have 6 teams, 10 teams in a city and each team with 5 to 7 people. You have to have a guitarist and we would go visit people’s houses at Christmas time. Filipinos love Christmas. It’s very big and we would ask people to host a little party with their friends, their relatives, and we would come and sing Christmas carols and revolutionary songs. And we were training hundreds of people in these singing groups. Like I said, with a few exceptions, almost everyone was part of one of these groups, and every Christmas we would go out for a month. Every weekend we would do three gigs a night. You can’t go to a Filipino household that’s hosting a party and not eat. You have to eat at each place and then go to the next one and sing again and eat again and by the time you get to the third one you are really stuffed. You have to pretend you’re eating something, but it really involves hundreds of people.

Image from Center for the Study of Political Graphics.

And then the other thing is the big productions, Isuda Ti Imuna (They Who Were First) that was at UCLA. That was a very big one. Those productions would involve 50 people. You would have the cast, probably about 20 people, but then you would have another 20 people doing lights and sound. They were quite large-scale productions and there might have been in the Isuda production, a core of five KDP members, but then there’d be another 30 or 40 students from a, from a PACE or a PAA or from the Filipino student organization at UCLA who were part of that production. And it just exposed a really large number of Filipinos to the progressive movement.

Rocky: I have to ask this logistical and practical question: how did you pay for the newspaper? Was it  crowdfunded?

Melinda: We didn’t have crowdfunding. Everybody paid dues.

Rocky: Yeah, but no one was paid either.

Melinda: No, some of the leadership were paid. I was a paid staff person, but our pay was $200.00 a month. Some of us would deliver pizzas from Domino’s or something because $200 a month was very hard to live on. I don’t think there were more than 10 paid staff people and everyone else had jobs. When you think you’re in a revolutionary period, you ask people to make sacrifices.

We transferred people across the country. We asked some people to leave school. A lot of people put their careers on hold. A lot of KDP members made sacrifices.

Rocky: That’s an interesting way of putting things. This time in someone’s life where they are organizing and being an activist, some people will call it a phase because in college they have no responsibilities, no kids.

Melinda: Our members had kids. KDP had one of the most advanced childcare systems in the country. We had a rule that every single meeting would have childcare provided. Every single meeting. We had rotating shifts and everyone did a shift. And that was very important because the majority of the leadership in KDP and the majority of the organization was women. So the rule about childcare was really fundamental to making sure women had access to leadership positions.

Eddie: Have you gotten reaction to the website from younger generations?

Melinda: Yeah, a little bit. A website is a kind of a funny animal. I think you can do more in terms of interactiveness. Jaime and I, who were really kind of the driving forces of putting the website out, we just wanted to make sure the stuff got digitized and it got up. KDP’s materials are all at up at the University of Washington. And they’re sitting in bankers’ boxes. An academic who’s writing their thesis on Filipinos in the 70s could go comb through the archives, but nobody else is going to see that stuff.

First, you’ve got to make it digital before the paper falls apart, because some of this paper is 50 years old and it’s sitting in the bankers’ boxes, deteriorating. I got a big scanner so I could scan Ang Katapunan and we just wanted to make sure that the history didn’t get lost. If you google KDP, you can now find it and it’s really taken the last year to do that. We’ll think a little more about how to have more interaction with people.  But this is the 50th anniversary since the founding of KDP, so we’re having a big event in July. So, you’ll see that up on our website : save the date July 1st at the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Kensington.

Rocky: Why do you think US born Filipinos have that desire to be part of the progressive movement?

Melinda: This is a familiar story with the Asian Pacific Islander communities in the US. When you’re API and growing up in the US, you get told you’re not American. So, the first thing people ask is where are you from? And the answer is not Wisconsin. You’re not part of America and so if you’re Filipino American growing up in the US and I think this is also true for Chinese Americans and Vietnamese Americans at a certain point you say, well, I wonder what that other part of me is because I’m not really being accepted as an American. So, what’s the Filipino part? How can I connect up with that? And I think that identity process was true for really almost all people of color communities in the US. Similarly, people organize in the Puerto Rican community in the US, but then people would also want to know what’s going on in Puerto Rico. And you had a great relationship with these other ethnicities and organizations, right?

Rocky: And did you? What were some of the different collaborations you might have had back in the day?

Melinda: You know, we worked together with the Panthers, with the Brown Berets, and then there were left organizations in Chinatown in San Francisco, LRS (League of Revolutionary Struggle) and IWK (I Wor Kuen). We worked at the International Hotel with a lot of those organizations. And the despotic regimes in Chile and Iran were happening around the same time as the Marcos dictatorship, and so we had a lot of relationships with the Chilean movement and the Iranian movement. And then you had also El Salvador and Nicaragua, too.

It was a movement of hundreds of thousands of people. We had to find ways that we could work together, but there were differences and sometimes we fought with each other. It was not all one, big happy family.

Melinda Paras. Photo from Shanti Projects website.

Rocky: Did you face challenges navigating KDP as a queer woman?

Melinda: First of all, there were queer people in the leadership of KDP, and I don’t think that was true of any of the other organizations. There were definitely queer people in them, but mostly people were closeted. But in KDP we had a fair number of leaders who were queer and it was known to the organization. Now, I would say that we were still kind of semi-closeted in that we weren’t very public about it.  That really changed when the AIDS epidemic hit because when it hit, if you were political and you were queer, you had to be out. It was just wrong to watch the scale of homophobia. And so there was kind of a collective process of all the queer people in KDP becoming more publicly out and getting involved and responding to the AIDS epidemic. The good news is the Filipino community is not a very homophobic community. I would say there’s a far more openness about gay relationships in the Philippines than most other countries.

Rocky: That leads to my next question about how involved was religion in KDP? Did people go to church? Did you guys denounce it?

Melinda:  We didn’t denounce it. We would go there to sell newspapers.

Rocky: To all the Filipinos there.

Melinda:  Yeah, Filipinos were going to church and we would sell newspapers outside. Some comrades might have been going to church. I don’t think they talked about it very much. We didn’t go out of our way to denounce it.

Rocky: I would see homophobia would come from Catholicism.

Melinda:  It should, but Filipinos are funny about the church. Yes, they’re Catholic, but then they are not terribly into women being forced to positions of subservience. Filipino women are a very tough group.

Rocky: Yeah, for sure.

Melinda: People took their Catholicism with a grain of salt. They took the parts that they wanted and hey, the other parts about divorce, abortion and homosexuality, they kind of just ignore those parts and then still go on Sunday…

Rocky: and do communion (laughs). There’s a whole section on the website about the June 1, 1981 the assassinations that happened in Seattle. First, how did you hear about it and second, what was the initial reaction? And then how did you all build upon that?

Melinda: First of all, we knew that the Marcos government was conducting surveillance.

Rocky: But also, the US government too, the FBI?

Melinda: Yeah, actually CIA. So, my documents were from the Naval Intelligence Service (NIS), but everyone knew that the CIA operated under the NIS in the US. So, what does the Naval intelligence has to do with surveilling my house? Why?  I have nothing to do with the Navy.

Rocky: Was this because of the US government’s relationship with Marcos? The FBI they had eyes on a lot of people at the time.

Melinda: They’re surveilling Martin Luther King. Why not us? We were aware that it was a danger, but we had no thought that they would actually execute KDP members in the United States. We were surprised. And so, when the phone calls went out. We had to do a political response, but we also had to institute security measures.

Rocky: Did you get guns?

Melinda: Well, we got Kevlar vests and we had to wear vests because we didn’t know what the scale of this was going to be. Is this just the first wave? Are they going to go after the rest of the people on the list? So, we had to have measures of protection. The biggest question was they were murdered in the union hall and our comrades that night had to decide what they were going to do. And when you listen to the Seattle people’s stories on the website, they decided we had to go back because going back in to the union hall even when it meant that they were facing possible death. The dispatch position had been won by KDP by Gene Viernes and dispatch was how the corruption occurred in the union, because you would have to pay to be dispatched.

The union president was a Marcos ally, and he had a group of thugs who worked the Union to scam people and to make money. So, getting these jobs in Seattle were important to a lot of Filipinos for jobs in Alaska in the canneries. The union would dispatch people and you had to pay the dispatcher to get a job. So, Gene had won the dispatcher position away from these thugs. The day that he was supposed to begin dispatch was the day he and Silme were murdered. So that the team gathered that night and said, “What are we going to do? And they said, “We’re going back in tomorrow. I’m going to go in the hall and we’re going to start the dispatch process in a fair and democratic way.” And they did it with two or three people with the dispatchers the next day.

But it was an incredibly brave moment for the comrades who were involved in that union work. And then it was agreed, Terry Mast, who was the widow of Silme Domingo, would run for president of the union. And so, once again, they were challenging the forces that had murdered Gene and Silme. So those were the first responses in Seattle. But the second thing is they built a really significant movement in Seattle. This was a movement that was very broad, even broader than most of KDP’s work that involved really thousands of people in Seattle to go out on their marches, to make demands for investigations that culminated in having the Marcoses brought to trial. And this was a very rare moment to have a dictator be tried in the United States for murder.

Rocky: And found guilty.

Melinda: And found guilty in a civil suit. It changed Seattle. There was a KDP reunion up in Seattle last year and the comrades hosted a community dinner. There were probably 1000 people there. I was fairly astounded. I don’t think we could have had that in in Oakland or San Francisco. So, I think it really changed the progressive movement in Seattle as a whole, and not just the Filipino community. And I’m not sure that we had that impact in any other city in the country. We were part of the movement, but we weren’t the center of gravity of the whole movement. And in Seattle they were the center of gravity of the whole movement, and they changed the progressive movement in this city until today.

“While Silme and Gene are not in this picture, in the struggle for justice women played the major role in all the work especially in the Committee for Justice and the union. Here is a picture of that leadership in a picture taken at the memorial for Silme and Gene after the murders. Terri Mast went on to lead the union, Elaine Ko and myself led the CJDV [Committee for Justice for Domingo and Viernes], Leni Marin and Emma Catague led the work in Seattle in the Filipino community.” – Cindy Domingo. Photo of Emma Catague, Elaine Ko, Terri Mast, Leni Marin, Cindy Domingo. Courtesy of John Stamets/Alaskero Foundation seen at Stanford Libraries website.

Rocky: I think the most one of the more important things that I learned from this conversation with you and it is that you refer to KDP not as an organization but as a whole movement. Just because the organization disbanded, the whole movement continued through different organizations and through different things like ethnic studies and Pilipino Cultural Night and all the cultural production that happens from the 80s down.  You started from scratch almost,

Melinda: Yeah, almost.

Rocky: Especially in the toughest times too, KDP was the center point of Filipino American and diasporic activism.

Melinda: Well, we hope to make it accessible to your generation and very glad that you’re ready to take up the cause.

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Interviewer’s Bio:  Rocky Garcia is rapper, spoken word artist, and educator in the SF Bay Area.  Check out his 2020 album “Filipinos in Space.”

Interviewer’s Bio:  Eddie Wong is a longtime political and cultural activist in the Asian American movement. He is the editor/publisher of East Wind ezine.

Additional video resource: Our Generation’s Time: the Legacy of Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes

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