One Love Story Behind Marriage Rights: The Roldan Family
By Susie Ling with Bryan Roldan. Posted July 20, 2022
This is a story about a Filipino American who fell in love. He met her at Brookside tennis courts in Pasadena. She was beautiful and a talented pianist. He was striking in his tennis whites; he had dreams of medical school. Her name was Marjorie Rogers, and his name was Salvador Roldan. He asked her out. She had to lend him the two dollars for their first date as he really didn’t have the money. By 1931, they were ready to get married. The problem was that he was Filipino and she was White – and interracial marriage was illegal in California. Like so many other couples, Salvador and Marjorie knew what was right for them. This is the story behind Roldan v. Los Angeles County, 129 Cal. App. 267, 268-69 (1933) – which helped paved the road for our marriage rights.
Marjorie Rogers and Salvador Roldan, 1931. Photo courtesy of Bryan Roldan.
In his later court testimony, Salvador described his attempt to get a marriage license in June of 1931: “I applied for a license in the County of Los Angeles and it was denied. She [Marjorie] was not present when I applied for the license. I asked for an application blank required by law, and they asked me whether I was Filipino, and I stated ‘I am a Filipino.’ They asked me also whether I was white, or yellow, or brown, or red. They asked me also whether she was an American, and I told them that she was an English girl. I did not tell them anything further about her. They did ask me if she was white and I said ‘yes.’ Then they told me that I could not have a license. They did not tell me why, and I didn’t ask them. They merely denied me the license, and I walked away”.
Salvador Roldan was born in Narvacan, Ilocos Sur in 1900. Philippines had just become an American territory, and many Ilocanos were being recruited to migrate as experienced sugar cane workers. Salvador’s brother, Jose, picked pineapple in Hawaii before opening a successful bakery. Salvador came to the Los Angeles area in 1925, hoping to become a student like the pensionados. In the Philippines, Filipinos were being taught American English curriculum and the “American Dream.” Instead, Salvador became a “houseboy.” Like other Asians, Salvador was hired to cook, clean, and chauffeur. Bryan Roldan, now 79, said of his father, “Actually, Dad said he didn’t have a driver’s license…” Filipinos in urban domestic service had it easier than their brethren farmworkers from Washington to Arizona, or the fishermen especially in Alaskan canneries. Salvador had earlier worked the California fields for 10 cents for each hour of a 10- to 15-hour day. The Filipino bachelors would meet at the Pasadena Masonic Lodge, Nilad Lodge #31, and support each other.
Salvador with his employers, Pasadena circa 1930. Photo courtesy of Bryan Roldan.
Marjorie was born in 1904 in Ladywood, Warwickshire (now, Birmingham). Her father, Vernon, was one of 14 children; she had two siblings. She immigrated in 1929 to make it in the Hollywood movies. “My mom played the piano for the silent movies, but I was not one of her better pupils,” shared Bryan.
With the Great Depression, Filipinos became the scapegoat and target of much racial hostility. On January 19, 1930, a mob of over 500 Whites in Watsonville, California chased and attacked Filipinos in surrounding communities after Filipinos were seen dancing with White woman at a newly opened dance hall. Taxi dance halls served the heavily Filipino bachelor society. For ten cents, they could partner with a dancer for one minute. Marjorie must have known about the 1930 Watsonville Riot. Salvador probably knew about the many other anti-Filipino incidents in Yakima, White River Valley, Delano, Exeter, San Francisco, San Jose, Turlock, Stockton, and elsewhere.
When their marriage license was denied in 1931, Salvador and Marjorie decided to find an attorney. They got Gladys Root, a recent graduate from USC, and later, a successful and flamboyant criminal defense attorney. The first California legislature in 1850 banned interracial marriage – although most Californios or Chicanos were of mixed racial heritage. In 1905, the statute was amended to read “no license must be issued authorizing the marriage of a white person with a negro, mulatto, or Mongolian.”
Attorney Root in Roldan v. L.A. County petitioned for a writ of mandamus on August 18, 1931 against the county clerk. On January 7, 1933, Superior Court Judge Walter Gates granted the writ as he considered Filipinos not to be “Mongolians” but “Malay.” The “scientific argument” used was that “Mongolians” were really yellow Chinese, while Filipinos were classified as brown “Malay”. On March 27th, the California Supreme Court decided they would not hear an appeal. Salvador and Marjorie got their marriage license on April 10th.
Filipino student club at Pasadena Junior College, 1935 Yearbook.
But the California State Legislature got involved. On March 15th, the State Senate voted unanimously to pass Bills 175 and 176. The bills included “Malay” in anti-miscegenation laws, and vindictively invalidated – retroactively – all marriages between Whites and non-Whites, including “Malays.” On April 5th, the State Assembly unanimously concurred – except for one dissent. The dissent was from Frederick Roberts, the first known African American in the California Legislature. Governor James Rolph quickly signed the two Bills.
Bryan Roldan said, “So in the eyes of the State, Mom and Dad’s marriage lasted from April 10, 1933 to August 20, 1933. It was a bizarre legislative mandate, highlighting the almost hysterical lengths people would go to in order to achieve racial purity.”
In 1933, major newspapers carried the story of the Roldans on the front page. But Bryan said his parents didn’t talk about their notoriety all the time he was growing up. He said his parents focused on paying the mortgage and raising their family. His father loved America, and volunteered in his 40’s to serve in the National Guard during World War II, “as the Army would not accept him for his flat feet.” Salvador applied for naturalized citizenship in 1956, although Marjorie insisted on retaining her British citizenship.
It was later in the 1948 case of Perez v. Sharp that the California Supreme Court declared that bans on interracial marriage violated the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. Andrea Perez, a Mexican American, fell in love with Sylvester Davis, an African American, while both were working in a defense factory. Perez and Davis had been earlier denied a marriage license from County Clerk Sharp. In 1967 Loving v. Virginia, the United States Supreme Court unanimously struck down anti-miscegenation laws. The Loving couple had earlier both been sentenced to a year in prison for violating Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924.
Salvador served as a chef for decades in many Pasadena establishments including the Pasadena Cafeteria, Francois and Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He and Marjorie had two children, Janet and Bryan. The Roldans lived at 109 Valley Street, a racially mixed neighborhood in West Pasadena. Bryan Roldan explained, “In the 1950s, there was a Black family that lived to our right, and a Russian family to our left. A Mexican family lived across from us, and a Japanese family lived down the block.” Bryan is now a retired health care administrator. He said, “Dad was fun-loving. He liked food and family. He was always humble and never grumbled. Mom had that English sense of wry humor”. Bryan and his sister did not grow up with much Filipino culture, but he is trying to connect with his Filipino and English relatives now.
Salvador lived to 75; Marjorie saw her 100th birthday. On August 16, 2016, the California State Assembly formally acknowledged and apologized to the Roldan family and presented Members Resolution 1781, honoring Salvador and Marjorie for their commitment towards civil rights.
The Roldan family in 2016 in the State Assembly. Photos courtesy of Bryan Roldan.
Author’s bio: Susie Ling lives in Monrovia and teaches Asian American studies at Pasadena City College. She was born in Taiwan and raised in the Philippines.
Bryan Roldan is the son of Salvador and Marjorie Roldan. He is a retired health care administrator.