The Philippines' forgotten generation
- 20 May 2014
- From the section Asia
The United States military is set to return to the Philippines 22 years after being evicted. The imminent arrival of US forces has renewed focus on the thousands of "Amerasians" fathered by US military personnel. Aya Lowe went in search of this forgotten generation.
Mary-Jane Stephens lives in a gritty one-room house with her three children and three grandchildren. Two sprawling mattresses pushed together make up the sleeping area, while one stove, sofa and TV make up the rest of the household.
She "worked the bars" in the red-light district that grew up around the major US military bases north of Manila established following World War Two.
She now dedicates her time to taking care of the grandchildren. Her children don't earn much, but they keep the family in food and water.
In the more than two decades that the bases were operating, hundreds of thousands of US servicemen were stationed at the naval and air force facilities or passed through on their way to conflicts in the region such as the Vietnam and Korean Wars.
Many struck up relationships with local women, many of whom, like Mary-Jane, struck up relationships with Americans.
"When you meet them, they make you believe it's love and that it's going to last forever, but then they just leave," the 41-year-old says.
Each of her children has a different father. Each one was a US serviceman.
There are now an estimated quarter of a million Amerasians in the Philippines who can trace their heritage back to US servicemen, a relationship that now stretches back several generations.
Most are clustered around Angeles and Olongapo, towns north of the capital close to the Subic naval base and Clark airbase.
Mary-Jane Stephens herself was born to a Filipina and a US serviceman. And just like her own children, she doesn't know who her father was.
"My father was a black American. My mother worked behind a bar and that's where she met my father," she says.
"They were living together for a bit, but they didn't get married because my grandmother didn't approve of the relationship. So he left.
"When I was about 10 or 11 years old I tried looking for him, but I forgot his middle name so couldn't find him."
In the Philippines' predominantly conservative Catholic society, Amerasian children were often discriminated against for being illegitimate, mixed-race, or the children of prostitutes.
Many were also abandoned by their mothers, who were unable to bring them up or too ashamed to keep them.
As a result, many grew up in poverty, raised by other family members or adopted by foster parents.
A recent study of the community by the Philippine Amerasian Research Institute painted a grim picture.
The majority, the 2010 report said, lived in "abject poverty", were likely to be out of work, homeless, have alcohol, drug or familial abuse problems, as well as "identity confusion, unresolved grief issues over the loss of their fathers, social isolation and low self-esteem".
Those children fathered by African-Americans suffered the most prejudice. According to one estimate, a quarter of Amerasians in the Philippines are of African-American descent.
Many say they have been denied jobs purely because of their skin colour.
"It wasn't easy growing up being a different colour from everyone else," says Ashley Descalier, 23, who is of African-American and Philippine heritage.
"People deny you work simply because of the colour of your skin."
It was the same for Mary-Jane. "When you're dark they call you names like negro or baluta," she says. "When you grow up you get used to it."
Many Amerasians still dream of finding their fathers. However, in most cases, the search has proved nearly impossible. Even if they did, it is another task to persuade their long-lost father to acknowledge paternity.
Christine Jackson, 20, was one of the lucky few who re-connected with her father.
Her mother, Ana, met a US marine from Michigan when she was 20. By the time he ended his tour and left for the US, Ana was pregnant.
At the age of 17, Christine set about searching for him online, eventually finding his profile on Facebook, and sent him a message.
"I didn't want to check my account for days because I was scared that he wouldn't write back," she recalls.
"Eventually my friends told me he was trying to get through to me by writing on my wall. I was so happy when I found out he wanted to know me. We've been in touch since then."
However, even if a father accepts paternity, US legislation does not make it easy to acquire American citizenship.
In 1982, US Congress passed a law giving preferential immigration status to Amerasian children born in Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos but not the Philippines.
The only way Philippine Amerasians can become citizens is if their fathers file paternity claims before they turn 18.
Since the military bases closed over 20 years ago, most of the children are already too old to claim citizenship.
History repeating itself
The impending return of the US military has not been universally welcome.
After all, the Philippine government took advantage of the damage wrought by a 1991 volcanic explosion, which wrecked Clark airbase and buried Subic Bay under 1ft (30cm) of dust, not to renew the leases on the facilities.
Echoes of that anti-colonial feeling were seen in violent demonstrations that erupted outside the US embassy in Manila to protest against the agreement, part of Washington's "pivot" to Asia.
The Philippine government has a long-running territorial dispute with Beijing in the South China Sea and covets US protection, while Washington is keen to project military force throughout the region.
These new bases will not be permanent nor will large number of US troops be stationed in the Philippines.
However, Amerasians fear the consequences of this new agreement creating a repetition of history.
"It was 22 years ago when the US bases were pulled out," stated the United Philippine Amerasians campaign group.
"Most of us didn't get to meet our fathers. And now that the bases are coming back, thousands of Filipino-Amerasians are expected to be born."
About the author: Based in Manila, Aya Lowe writes business, travel and human interest stories around Southeast Asia and the Middle East.