Celine Navarro (1904–1932): Why We Must #DigUpHerStory
BY CELINE PARREÑAS SHIMIZU
Adulteress, heroine, traitor or prey? In 1932, mother of four Celine Navarro was buried alive by her immigrant Filipinx community in Northern California. The Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley collects numerous articles documenting the global fascination with Celine Navarro’s story in newspapers from London to Singapore and Los Angeles to New York in the 1930s. These articles about what is now a largely unknown story about the largest Asian American ethnic group in California today compelled me to find out what happened beyond the lewd headlines of “Wife Buried Alive By Secret Cult,” so we can further understand who we are as Americans and how such a story could happen here.
Today, the notion of identifying racism at the foundation of American history is attacked such as in the diatribes against Ethnic Studies and Critical Race Theory as un-American. Ethnic Studies validates the study of people of color in the United States, including the creation of knowledge about lives disappeared in history. Critical Race Theory asserts the importance of the lenses of race, class, gender and sexuality so we can better understand how structural forces organize our experiences. How did things get set up this way? Only by confronting the meaning of what happened to her, which is the method of Ethnic Studies, can we recognize how Celine Navarro’s story is thoroughly and truly American, which is the goal of Critical Race Theory.
Not only does the presence of Filipinx in the U.S. expose America’s colonizing power, but the story of Celine Navarro reveals the economic and physical segregation, racist violence and gendered brutality that Filipinx experienced in the law, popular culture and everyday life of the U.S. during the earlier twentieth century. At the time, signs of “No Filipinos or Dogs Allowed” perched on restaurant and hotel doors on the West Coast where the population of Filipinx rose.
Digging up hidden history shows the multi-faceted dimensions of our ancestral past. In Celine Navarro’s case — I found four stories emerge from the archive. Adulteress: a wanton woman.
Two days after her body was found on April 1, 1933, The New York Times reported that she was accused of committing adultery against her sick husband from whom she also stole money. This is the main storyline that persisted across the decades: in the new land, the community who experienced rampant racism disciplined her as a bad woman in response to their racialization.
Knowing the intensity of racism experienced by Filipinx at the time, to construct Celine Navarro as a sexually liberated woman fleeing a bad situation or pursuing her own unmet desires opened up a new narrative in Filipinx history for me. The disparate gender ratio enabled her pick of men to explore her romantic and sexual options. Her fate would then belong to what feminist social scientist Sylvia Federici describes as a community’s reorganization of itself through the disciplining of women.
Community historians — like Alex Fabros who first published her story in Filipinas Magazine in 1997 — knew Celine Navarro as a ghost story that was dispelled by his San Francisco State Ethnic Studies students who found her in the archive like I did. Filipino American National Historical Society Executive Director Dorothy Cordova followed Celine’s story for the past fifty years as part of her own pioneering work of documenting women’s stories in the Filipinx diaspora. She says Celine’s story is a mystery — there is so much we do not know beyond the headlines.
Indeed, Filipinx historians told a different story from the media. Heroine: she courageously stood up and spoke out. To sociologist of immigration Rick Baldoz and the late historian of Filipinx America Dawn Mabalon, Celine Navarro was a pioneer of the #metoo movement for speaking up against domestic violence in her community. She served as a witness in the trial of four Filipinx men who beat up another Filipinx man who was saving a young white woman from her abusive Filipinx husband. Her testimony led to the imprisonment of these men who were members of her fraternal organization. This betrayal meant she had to be punished as a traitor to a community that was deemed ineligible to citizenship due to their construction as innately primitive.
From her own family, however, a different Celine emerges: scaredy-cat girl. In 1990, Celine Navarro’s sisters, both in their 80s, traveled from California to Washington State to tell community historians Dorothy and Fred Cordova their sister’s story with urgency, as if she just died yesterday. They insisted she was sexually victimized by a community leader in ways that her husband encouraged. In this version, her sisters described her struggles to support her family, including her husband. They called him “a stupid man” who did not buy her clothes nor a proper car to transport their kids. Instead, he bought a motorcycle and rode up and down the coast without care. In their story, she was prey to men’s sexual wants and ambitions, enabled by the women around them.
Eighty-eight years since her tragic death, Celine Navarro’s many descendants today — of different mixed Filipinx, Latinx, Black heritage — celebrate her strength and courage for saving them, her children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. In the face of her victimization, she somehow someway enabled their own lives. Whether adulteress, heroine, traitor or prey, her descendants’ gratitude for her sacrifice, her strength, and her endurance is palpably thick and true — for she made them American in her actions. Celine’s is an American story we must dig up so as to recognize and celebrate her contribution to their and our lives, whether adulteress, heroine, traitor or prey.
Former CCSRE Faculty Fellow and MTL Alumna, Celine Parreñas Shimizu is Professor and Director of the School of Cinema at San Francisco State University. Her new film THE CELINE ARCHIVE screens internationally at Reel Sisters of the Diaspora: Women of Color Film Festival at reelsisters.org now until November 17, 2020.
For more information, go to www.celinearchive.com