Ex-mail-order bride’s winding path to the American Dream
SAN FRANCISCO – Fog rolls in on a cool summer evening as the sun sets over the North Beach district. The golden light of the dying day caresses the buildings as night approaches on Broadway, the city’s historic red light district. Perched on top of a hill between Kearny and Montgomery streets is the only Filipino-owned building in North Beach, a cross between neoclassical and art deco architecture. This is the story of that building’s immigrant owner.
I press the buzzer. Soon the big metal doors clank open. Out comes Francesca Valdez who is dressed in microclimate attire replete with a white down jacket and a scarf. She welcomes me with open arms and disarming charm.
After dinner, at her favorite Japanese restaurant across the street, we settle down inside Broadway Studios. Over ice cream, a bar of chocolate and red wine, she tells me her story that is wrought with history, the immigrant experience and the effects of American colonization on the Philippines and the Filipino psyche.
Our conversation is intermittently interrupted by phone calls of clients wanting to book the place for their events. Voted as one of the Top 12 Venues for Conferences and Corporate Events in San Francisco, Broadway Studios, and its sister venue downstairs called Fame Venue, are her testaments to success.
A firm believer in creative manifestation and having a life surrounded with “guardian angels,” Valdez had not, at first, dreamt of coming to America; yet later she turned her American dream into reality. But it all began as a nightmare. “I had $20 cash, cleaning supplies and a gun to my head.”
She came to the United States in 1974 at 20 as a mail-order bride at the height of martial law under the Marcos dictatorship. At a time of uncertainty and a seemingly bleak future, her parents had decided to marry her off for an undisclosed sum as a way out of the country. After all it was, and still is, a belief that life will always be better in America.
“Life in Pandacan, Manila was confusing because we were in Martial Law. You could hear the tanks while you slept. My parents agreed to marry me off because there was no future there.”
It was her aunt, a farm worker in Washington who had also come to America as a mail-order bride, who had arranged the marriage to an older American who was looking for a wife.
“I met him once when he came to the Philippines to pick me, that’s it. My three sisters and I were lined up in our living room for him to choose from. I was the youngest. And, of course, he wanted the youngest. Then they put me on a plane to come here, and he picked me up from the airport.”
What turned out to be an abusive marriage lasted only three months. “Because I would have ended up dead.” She fled from her abusive ex-husband when he was off on a business trip. The opportunity came when a repairman from Pacific Bell came over to fix a broken telephone at their place.
“He looked at me and I was black-eyed and beaten up. He asked me, ‘What’s wrong?’ and I said, ‘I just came here… my parents married me off… and my husband pointed a gun at me last night and beat me up.’”
The man turned out to be one of her “guardian angels.” He gave her $20 and told her to go to the Greyhound Depot on 8th and Bryant streets here in San Francisco (now apartment buildings). “He picked me up in a green pick up truck, took me to Folsom and 13th streets and gave me a room. He didn’t want me to pay rent until I found a job.”
Her ex-husband called her aunt, relatives and parents to look for her. “It was months before they really knew where I was. But I heard that he was looking for me because he wanted to deport me. Then I found out the he filed for a divorce.”
Control of her life
Valdez decided to no longer be a victim of circumstance and took control of her life. During the day she went to school to learn shorthand and typing and then went to work in the afternoon.
This eventually led to a stream of odd jobs such as being a secretary for the chief investigator of the Public Defenders Office at the San Francisco Police Department and a bookkeeper at a real estate company in Menlo Park where she met another “guardian angel” who told her that she would be a good real estate agent.
“Go get your real estate license and I will pay for it.” She did and eventually worked for a real estate company in Daly City for five years.
On the side, she did one of the things she loved to do, which was modeling. A stunning five foot seven inches with modeling experience in the Philippines, Valdez applied to a modeling agency in San Francisco. She did fashion shows for local designers.
In 1976 she modeled for Filipino American designer Thomas West at the legendary Mabuhay Gardens. That was when she first met Ness Aquino, the owner of the club. Little did she know they would later encounter each other again in a different circumstance.
This led to her creation of the San Francisco Modeling Company, situated at the Belli Building, which she ran for five years until another miserable twist in her life caused her to abandon her business and question her fate.
“I was overseeing 60 to 100 models and performers and holding fashion shows.” The stress and pressure of the job overtook her and she contracted a severe case of alopecia areata, which caused her to go completely bald. This prompted her to do some soul searching–“Who am I? What is more important in life?”
She learned the concept of karma–“The cause and effect you put in your life. The difference between right and wrong and what you want; changing pretty much you’re lifestyle.”
She chanted, meditated for a year for her hair to grow back. “In the process I visualized to give back by teaching others the art of body language and visualization.”
Expanding her program to cater not just to the modeling industry led her to teach a course at Stanford University, having been hired purely based on her experience. Self-taught and arguably a pioneer of a then growing industry that deals with nonverbal communication, the idea to teach body language came to her after reading a book by the renowned psychologist Albert Mehrabian.
“He said that 93 percent of what you convey is nonverbal.” Valdez designed an exercise program in the art of body language known as Modelcize. “I saw a need in the modeling industry. They didn’t know how to ‘move.’”
Caballeros de Dimasalang
In her search for a new studio to continue teaching her body language seminars, she met another “guardian angel.” A member of the Filipino Masonic group Caballeros de Dimasalang had asked her for help with their building in North Beach: the historic 435 and 443 Broadway.
Established on December 14, 1920 in San Francisco, Caballeros Dimasalang (CDA), named in honor of Philippine national hero Dr. Jose Rizal, whose pseudonym was Dimas-alang, drew their rituals and protocol from its founder Pedro Loreto’s experience with Masonry–a practice that was banned under Spanish rule but was revived and flourished under American rule.
Fighting the deportation of Filipino workers during the Depression and building a house in San Francisco for low-income Filipino families is among its many legacies. The organization’s vision was to project a collective voice of Filipinos and present a unified image of the group to the outside world.
Before it was bought by CDA in 1945, the building was the site of the Italian Supper Club. The building was constructed in 1919 as the Garibaldi Hall and went through its many transformations beginning in the 1940s.
Punk rock venue
Its most famous incarnation at 443 Broadway was the Mabuhay Gardens. Also known as The Fab Mab or simply The Mab, it was originally a Filipino restaurant and club that featured many Filipino celebrities.
Owned by Ness Aquino, it became a celebrated venue for punk and new wave bands starting in the late ‘70s. Among the famous artists and bands that performed there were the Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, Devo, Blondie, The Police, The Go-Go’s, Motörhead, The Jim Caroll Band, Patti Smith, Whoopi Goldberg and Robin Williams. It closed in 1986.
In 1989 Valdez was approached by a Dimasalang member to clean up a room and kick out all of the delinquent tenants. “This building was rundown and abandoned. The tenants were not paying rent and they almost lost the building.”
One of the tenants was Ness Aquino. “I did not have any clue that I would come back to this building and kick him out. Mabuhay Gardens was shut down. Nothing was going on, but he just held on to it. No income… It took me three years to kick him out.”
In 1993 she became a tenant with a business partner and opened a nightclub called Arte at 435 Broadway. But her relationship with her business partner soured when the business became plagued with problems. She walked away from it in 1996.
She then worked as an office property manager in one of the apartment buildings in Daly City. There she met another “guardian angel.” “I was broke and my officemate gave me $300 and told me to go back to the building.”
Things usually do not turn out as we had planned them to be and, more often than not, it is always for the better. Such is the case with Valdez and the building. “I gravitated to this building because of the history, the architecture and it was Filipino-owned. I wanted to have a body language studio but it did not end up that way.”
She took the money that was given to her and spent $70 for a relationship ad in the pink section of the San Francisco Chronicle. “I put an ad in there that said, ‘Asian beauty with care, charisma and creativity looking for a beau. Preferably European, six foot plus, physically and financially fit.’ She had 40 phone calls. “One phone call was from another ‘guardian angel,’ Howard, who became a friend. He gave me $25,000 seed money to reopen as Broadway Studios.”
When she came back to the building it was empty. She walked in armed with cleaning supplies. “There was pigeon shit all over… smelly… I had to clean it up, ako lang mag-isa (all by myself).” In 1998 Valdez met her now business partner, Karl Preskot, who hails from Prague, Czech Republic.
In 2001 their landlord wanted to sell the building. Having had the first right to make an offer and fueled by the strength of having survived challenging experiences in the past, Valdez and Karl Preskot gave an offer for the full price and raised the money.
“I didn’t have the money when I wrote the offer. But when I was introduced to this building, I then had a bigger mission or calling.” Her business now boasts clients such as HBO with Dave Chappelle, George Lopez, Boz Scaggs, Netflix, Hulu, Salesforce, including many venture capitalist and start-ups.
Temple of joy
“I call myself more of a custodian or a warden of this building which I call a temple of joy. It was bestowed upon me to take care of this temple. Whatever it takes to keep it alive and whoever walks through that door has to be happy when they’re here and when they leave.”
The Broadway Studios that began as a nightclub has now evolved into a venue for special events. “I have now Fortune 500 clients who trust me in manifesting their creative wish list venue.”
In 2012, with the help of more “guardian angels,” her sister Elvira Shirk and her husband Paul Shirk, she expanded her business with FAME (Fashion, Art, Music, Events) Venue at 443 Broadway, the former location of the Mabuhay Gardens.
Against sex abuse, trafficking
An advocate against sexual abuse and sex trafficking of women in the Philippines, her conviction comes from her experience as a mail-order bride. “I don’t wish anyone to go through what I went through.”
The issue has been a part of her life. Before she left the Philippines, she sold lingerie to earn extra cash, which later led to producing fashion shows in Clark Air Base, a then-U.S. Military facility in Angeles City, where she first glimpsed this disconcerting reality.
“Americans came there as it was a haven for young Filipino ladies.” This has followed her to the present. “My experience in the past keeps popping up in my face. All these girls that I see on Broadway who have to resort to sexual acts for money… It reminds me of the oppressed young children in the Philippines who have either to be married to someone or sold to someone because they’re poor… I was in that situation before. Luckily I was able to get away from it. Some people, they end up dead.”
Francesca Valdez is currently producing a documentary, “Coming to America,” about her and her family’s struggles and triumphs as a way to generate awareness and inspiration in others.
“Our family story will be an awakening on how we came here and the hardships that we went through. I am grateful that I live in San Francisco. It’s a beautiful city. I wish there was another way for me to come here than being married to somebody I didn’t know. What I had to face to almost lose my life… I didn’t know the hardships of finding a job, knowing who you are, your support group, living conditions, those are real challenges.”
As a successful entrepreneur, she offers this advice to others, most especially to blossoming women entrepreneurs: “I think success is not attained by how much money you have or the wealth that you have acquired but the joyfulness you have within, and share it with others. And besides having good communication skills, to recognize that there’s somebody higher beside your self. A higher source that guides and helps you to manifest miracles.”
Broadway Studios. 435 Broadway, San Francisco. www.broadwayvenue.com
Fame Venue. 443 Broadway, San Francisco. www.famevenue.com
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