Editor’s Note: This article appeared originally on South Jersey’s Courier Post Newspaper on a Wednesday, July 12, 1989. That was some 28 years ago and how our Council have moved on and progressed because of “trail-blazing Pinoys who dared and mind you: they did! Originally we thought of posting this article on October which is observed nationally as Filipino-American History Month. Please share us your views at the end of the article.
By: Kevin Gonzales, Courier-Post Staff | Filipino-Americans in South Jersey and Philadelphia call Pedro Supelana “Godfather.” As imporant as this Marlton resident may be in the Delaware Valley, Supelana’s influence is even more vast.
On Aug. 31, 1964, a U.S. Court of Appeals decision allowed Supelana to become the first Filipino serviceman to be naturalized as a U.S. citizen. It set a precedent that has allowed many others to become citizens.
His fight for citizenship began when he fraudently enlisted as a steward in the U.S. Navy in 1954. Rules prohibited Filipino married men from becoming stewards. In 1950, when he first applied, Supelana had been single. Four years later, he had a wife and three children.
He hid his marriage, seeing an opportunity to serve his government through naval service. A statute limiting the service of Filipino males in the Navy to stewardship was institutionalized racism.
“It was a job that could be done by people with-out high school diplomas,” said Supelana. “Many were college graduates, very over-qualified. Having those people working in the kitchens and shining shoes was an insult to their professions and to the people.”
Impeccably dressed in a stylish suit, his bold red tie in contrast to a crisp white shirt, Supelana speaks in soft, measured tones. His manner and bearing suggest he does not have to shout to be heard.
- This photo was given to Drs. Alex and Elsie Almario by Pedro Supelana. Please help us identify the event and also the personalities in the photo.
Supelana’s tale is a classic immigrant’s story of hustle and drive. When he came to this country as a steward, he earned $70 a month. He needed to send $200 a month home to support his wife and children. To get that money, he worked extra jobs.
Supelana was the head cook and bottle washer for a petty officer’s club, serving as many as 300 people an evening. He convinced the instructor to loan him his lectures. Supelana taped the pages of those lectures to the kitchen walls in various locations. As he cooked or washed dishes, he would read the lectures at the same time.
He kept his married status a secret, knowing he could be deported if it became known. That led to some harassment from other Navy personnel.
“They would ask me to join them when they went out at nights and set me up with dates. But how could I? I was working all the time and besides, I was married. They called me a sissy, a queer.
“The words come out dispassionately. A brief scowl is the only hint of embarrassment. Supelana evenutally did confess the truth of his marital status. Because of his exemplary work, the Chief of Naval Personnel allowed him to stay in the counry.
He was transferred to the Pentagon, working with the Navy’s chief of information. At nights he worked for the Colonial Penn Insurance Group. The quality of his work was so impressive, he was offered a job by the company. “I told them I could not accept because once I left the Navy, I would be sent back to the Philippines.”
After working through the Congress and later the Secretary of the Navy to get private authorization to allow him citizenship, the company hired a law-yer to fight for him in court. It took four years to win the case. After leaving the Navy, Supelana came to Philadelphia, working for Hawthorne Advertising in Philadelphia. He later founded his own business, Cosmopolitan Advertising Inc.
Supelana uses his position in the business community to continue fighting for other Filipino-Americans. He battles against discrimination in Philadelphia as one of the 13 members of the Mayor’s Advisory Board for Asians. He is also heading up efforts to get full veterans benefits for Filipinos who fought for the U.S. in World War II.
His next goal is establishing a cultural center for Filipino-Americans. “I try to help people because of all the people who helped me,” said the man who has been supporting himself since he was 6.
“I have this dream of accomplishing something by helping people.”