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Were Filipinos ‘aliens’ in the US?


Joe Alfafara

The last time I spoke with Joe Alfafara was at the funeral of the mother of his life partner, Anita. I had known Joe for more than 20 years but that lunch conversation, which turned out to be our last, was our most expansive in years. We talked about his life, and about his father, Isidro, and about his uncle, Celestino, both of whom immigrated to the US in 1929.

Joe died quite suddenly of a heart attack on June 23, one month shy of his 66th birthday, and we never did get to finish our discussion about his Uncle Cel whom he greatly admired. He was going to search for photos of his uncle who died in 1989 at the age of 90. I promised him I would one day write about his uncle’s historical achievement. So here it is, Joe.

Celestino Alfafara is celebrated in Filipino American history lore as the man who won “the California Supreme Court decision allowing aliens the right to own real property.” In the most recent conference of the Filipino American National Historical Society in Albuquerque, New Mexico in June 2012, “The Legacy of Celestino T. Alfafara” was the focus of the plenary on “Fighting Anti-Alien Property Laws”.

Before Alfafara, the only way Filipinos could own property in California was if they collectively purchased it in the name of their fraternal organizations like the Caballeros de Dimasalang the Gran Oriente Filipino and the Legionarios del Trabajadores.

When I read the text of the Alfafara California Supreme Court decision that was decided on May 22, 1945, I was surprised to learn that it was not based on a violation of the “equal protection” clause of the US Constitution. In fact, the California Supreme Court specifically ruled that its decision did not violate the Alien Land Act, a state initiative passed by California voters in 1920 barring aliens from acquiring real property in the state.

Celestino and Isidro Alfafara arrived in the US in 1929 when they were already about 30, unlike most of the 125,000 younger Filipinos who immigrated to the US from 1908 to 1925. It was their misfortune to enter the US job market just as the Great Depression was driving poor whites from Oklahoma and other Midwest states to compete with Filipinos and Mexicans for the lowest paying farm worker jobs available in California.

Joe Alfafara

Too old to enlist in the US military, Celestino and Isidro endured years of working in intermittent seasonal labor in the fields of Hawaii and California, as cannery workers in Washington and Alaska and as bus boys, janitors, cooks, and other hard jobs. What sustained them was their dream to one day own their own piece of land.

That opportunity came to Celestino in June of 1944 when he found a piece of property in San Mateo County that was on the market for $65. He made a written offer to the seller, Bernice Fross, who signed the purchase agreement. But after Celestino handed her the money, Fross changed her mind and refused to transfer the property to Celestino. So he sued for specific performance of the contract.

At the court trial of the contract dispute, Fross argued that it was unlawful for her to sell her land to an alien. The judge concluded, however, that Celestino “is not an alien and is not barred or prohibited from holding or receiving real property in the State of California by the Alien Property Initiative Act of 1920.”

Fross appealed the lower court decision all the way to the California Supreme Court. On May 22, 1945, Associate Justice John Wesley Shenk penned the unanimous decision of the court.

Under the California Constitution of 1849, Shenk wrote, the right of to acquire property was an “inalienable” right, a right that was also to be enjoyed by “foreigners who are, or who may hereafter become, bona fide residents of this state.” A 1913 law extended this right to include “aliens eligible to citizenship.”

PHOTO from

In 1920, through the state initiative process, the Alien Land Act was adopted which barred the taking and holding of real property by aliens ineligible to citizenship.

As Justice Shenk explained, “under the laws of this state and of the United States, the plaintiff is entitled to acquire and possess real property unless he is an alien, and is ineligible to citizenship. The two factors must concur. In other words, he must not only be an alien but he must also be ineligible to citizenship (to) be excluded from the right to acquire and hold property in this state.”

Shenk noted that under the Nationality Code of 1940, the right to become a US citizen “shall extend only to white persons, persons of African nativity or descent, and descendants of races indigenous to the Western Hemisphere” and to those “native-born Filipinos” who served in the US military. Since Celestino never served in the US military, Shenk wrote, he was ineligible for citizenship.

But, he also wrote, “it is likewise clear that the plaintiff is not an alien” because an “alien” is judicially defined to be a person who owes allegiance to a foreign government.

According to Shenk, “the United States is now exercising and, since April 11, 1899, has exercised sovereignty over the Philippine Islands.” On that day, Shenk asserted, the Filipino became, not an alien, but a “national of the United States” – “a person who, though not a citizen of the United States, owes permanent allegiance to the United States.”

Since Celestino was not an “alien”, he could purchase property in California. Bernice Floss was ordered by the Supreme Court to sell her property to him. And that’s how history was made.

(Rodel Rodis taught Philippine History and the History of Pilipinos in America at San Francisco State University and at Laney College. He is now an attorney in private practice and can be reached by email at or by regular mail at the Law Offices of Rodel Rodis at 2429 Ocean Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94127 or call 415334.7800).

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  • joboni96

    mr rodis

    write also about those that fought for the
    recognition of ph professionals in california

  • boybakal

    Very interesting.
    Nice to read stories of old timers.

    At that time, the Philippines was a Commonwealth of America.
    Filipinos might not be called alien but citizens of the commonwealth of the US.
    They have more rights…like owning properties in the US.

    • Diepor

      The Commonwealth of the Philippines administered the Philippines from 1935 until 1946, aside from a period of exile in 1942 to 1945 when Japan occupied the country. It replaced the Insular Government, a U.S. territorial government, and was established by the Tydings–McDuffie Act. The Commonwealth was designed as a transitional administration, and it prepared the country for independence.

      • ilove_us

        Kung under US Commonwealth government pa rin tayo. Siguro di tayo naghihirap… Di tayo binababoy ng ibang bansa.

  • boybakal

    Were Filipinos ‘aliens’ in the US?….Agree….they were Aliens in a way that they were alienated to some basic rights.

  • Cue_Vas

    Thanks to Celestino, our congressmen, senators, generals can now buy second third fourth homes in California. LOL.

  • The Factory

    Wow…Amazing story. Who knew?!

  • PurpleDaisy13

    re: “a person who, though not a citizen of the United States, owes permanent allegiance to the United States.”

    Great defense on behalf of Celestino Alfafara.

    The Philippine Independence Act which mandates All Filipinos to owe their Allegiance to the United States made Filipinos non-aliens. Thus, allows Filipinos the right to own land property in California.

  • 7Rodel77

    I was in my 20’s, I decided to go to the Filipino American Community
    Hall on California Street in San Francisco. Having never been there, I
    walked in looking around in wonderment at the structure and thinking of
    all the events and beauty contests that took place in that wonderful
    building. While roaming around I ran into a man, dressed rather dapper,
    sitting in the corner of the large room. He had jet black hair (most
    likely from a good dying) and he was dressed in a suit and tie befitting
    of a “night out on the town”. Our eyes met and I was instantly drawn
    to him. I followed my instincts and I continued walking toward him. He
    introduced himself: Celestino Alfafara. He asked me why I was there,
    and I responded that I had never been to the Filipino American Community
    Hall and wanted to visit. He said there’s a lot of history in this
    building….and that started a long romance with a history I knew little
    about, and with a man…manong, Mr. Celestino Alfafara. I would come
    back to the Hall at least 2 -3 times a week and we would resume my
    history lesson where last we left off. Well, as time went on, I found
    it difficult to come to the Hall, and so we would talk on the phone
    every so often. I lost contact with Mr. Alfafara mid year, only to find
    out that he was very sick. I was sad about his health, but grateful
    that I had the opportunity to meet him. He did tell me about the
    landmark decision, but never let on that it was he who battled it out to
    win the right to own property in the State of California. I think
    about him every once in a while; his smile, his laughter, and his
    knowledge of Filipino American history in the State of California. He
    was truly a great man.

  • Hannah Blake

    “as cannery workers in Washington and Alaska and as bus boys, janitors, cooks, and other hard jobs.”

    no wonder other nations has a very low regard to us Filipinos!

    Sabi nga ng mga intsik sa Hong Kong noong manalo mga Azkals natin, “Sons of Slaves!”

    • boybakal

      Sons of Slaves….I like that….it means we are the true children of God.
      We are the descendants of Moses.

    • siegfeil

      correct ka diyan pero I call it ‘ Paid Slaves’ that’s how it is with our political leaders siphoning all the money to themselves. The Chinese tycoons enslaving our countrymen there through contractual jobs, there is no escape. maski sa U.S. most Filipinos (not all) ends up in menial job particularly the new immigrants, unless may connection ka na U.S. a relative or friend helps you etc. In actual work environment in U.S. its no hanky panky an employee is always required to move very fast given a 30 minutes meal break for 8 hrs work, its like slavery, lalo na kung white or other nationality ang boss mo. kaya lang the dollar is always the ‘consuelo’ it is 43 times higher than the peso. kung sana hindi greedy ang mga political leaders natin who take charge of people’s money ok na ok diyan. Its like in Moses day when after they fled Egypt, about 50% of the slaves complained said ‘ we were better off in Egypt because we were given food and shelter’. Survival lang talaga!!!!

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