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TRAVAILS, TRIUMPHS, AND JOYS OF A FILIPINO-AMERICAN – A PERSONAL STORY (by: Carl B. Montano, Ph. D)


*An Image of Success or Triumph*

I retired from the College of Business of Lamar University in June 2012. For my 32 years of dedicated service, Lamar bestowed me with the honor of Distinguished Emeritus Professor of Economics. On the wall of our home in Atascocita (Humble) hang two framed diplomas – my wife’s and above it, my own. Both state “Michigan State University” “Doctor of Philosophy”. As to fields, my wife’s is in Sociology, and mine is in Agricultural Economics.

On the shelf lying beside the Lamar University plaque is a blue box containing a gold medal. One side of the medal states, “TOGETHER WE CAN MAKE A WORLD OF DIFFERENCE”. And the other side proclaims, “ANTI-DEFAMATION LEAGUE OF B’NAI B’RITH HONORS DR. CARL B. MONTANO”. Beside the medal is a copy of a faded program titled, “The 10 People Who Made A World of Difference Awards” “A WORLD OF DIFFERENCE – A Campaign Against Prejudice” “7 p.m. Thursday, June 13, 1991, The Montagne Center, Lamar University, Beaumont, Texas” “A World of Difference is a media-education campaign to fight prejudice sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, E.I. du Pont Nemours & Co., St. Elizabeth Hospital, Rogers Brothers, Gulf States Utilities, the Beaumont Enterprise and KBMT-TV/Channel 12. It seeks to promote healthy attitudes toward racial, religious and ethnic diversity among people.”

Our three children are all grown and on their own as married or single. All of them went through our Public School system in Beaumont, especially West Brook High School. Our eldest, Anton, got his JD degree from Cornell University Law School in New York, LLM in Law & Taxation from the University of Alabama, and is now a practicing lawyer in Houston. Our daughter, Karina, obtained her BS in Theatre from Lamar University, works as physical fitness Instructor of YMCA in downtown Houston and dabbles in acting for Catastrophic Theatre (along with her HISD school teacher husband, Noel). Our youngest son, Karlo, graduated from UT Austin in Communications (Radio, TV, Film), lives in Austin, and runs his own business as a Sound Producer for movies, documentaries, and advertisements.

So, on the surface, it looks like I am a successful Filipino-American parent and professional in the United States. But how I got to where I am now has been a long and arduous journey, guided by a strong faith in God, through twists and turns, and peaks and valleys of life. And let’s face it. Anywhere one lives in this world today - Philippines, U.S., India, China, Jamaica, or Timbuktu -- life never runs out of challenges or problems. When we stumble or make mistakes, what matters is how we get up, learn from our mistakes, and persevere.


Beginnings of the Journey to a New Country.

I came to the U.S. in June 1974 on a Fellowship from A/D/C (Agricultural Development Council, which later became Heifer International) to pursue a Ph.D. in Agricultural

Economics at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan. My Port of Entry was Anchorage, Alaska, since I was headed to the Economics Institute in Boulder, Colorado, where scholars from around the world underwent a nine-week orientation to the American society and graduate schools.

June in Anchorage, Alaska was still cold for me. There were snow-capped mountains around. I took connecting flights to Seattle, and eventually to Denver. The flight to Denver was rough and I noticed passengers buying liquor in the plane, I suppose to be able to sleep through a bumpy ride over the mountain ranges. By the time I boarded the bus at Denver International Airport bound for Boulder, it was already about 8:00 p.m., yet the sun was still up as though it was only 5:00 p.m. in the Philippines. I had only $20 in my pocket throughout this trip, but I tipped the driver $1 for helping me load my luggage. I’m used to doing that in Manila International Airport (in pesos of course).

How did my journey in this new country begin?

I was born in Odiongan, Janiuay, Iloilo, Philippines on May 28, 1946, after the end of WWII. My father, Antonio Montano, was a native of Janiuay, and my mother was from Altavas, Aklan (used to be part of Capiz). I grew up bilingual, fluent in Ilonggo, Janiuay kinaray-a, and Aklanon dialects. Added to that language fluency later in college was English and Tagalog.

Both my parents were educated at Central Philippine University (CPU), a Christian School in Jaro, Iloilo founded by American Baptist missionaries. My father was a Pastor and my mother was a Nurse.

After graduating in the Summer of 1968 with a BSA (Soil Science) degree from the University of the Philippines at Los Banos, I was immediately employed by the Soils Department as a Soils Lab Instructor, who now and then would alternate in the lectures. The findings of my undergraduate thesis in Soil Chemistry, on “Lime Needs of Some Philippine Soils”, was published in the Philippine Agriculturist scientific journal.

I spent my next two years as an IRRI (International Rice Research Institute) Research Scholar, enabling me to pursue an MS in Agricultural Economics, also at UPLB. Once again, the result of my MS Thesis, on the response of rice yield to nitrogen fertilizer, as affected by solar energy (or sunlight), was published in the Philippine Economic Journal. I taught for a year at UPLB Dept. of Ag. Economics prior to moving to UP Diliman School of Economics, where I was employed as a Research Associate of Dr. Mahar Mangahas, the present Director of the Social Weather Station (SWS) in the Philippines.

A year later, I joined the newly established Agrarian Reform Institute (ARI) at UP Diliman as a Training Specialist. A year later, when ARI was transferred to UPLB, I went along and later became the Academic Secretary of the Institute and Consultant to the Dept. of Agrarian Reform of the Philippine Government. ARI was my base when I was awarded a fellowship by ADC in 1974 to pursue my Ph.D. in Agricultural Economics at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan.


Travails of Filipino Newcomers to the United States

During our first year of living in East Lansing, Michigan, we stayed in the Married Housing apartments within the MSU campus. The first challenge we experienced was lack of jeepneys and tricycles to ride on for short-distance travel like shopping for groceries. There are small grocery stores within walking distance. But bigger ones which provide more varieties of goods usually at a discount or much cheaper prices are usually located in the Malls. One would need a ride to get to them. While the university has a school bus system that makes regular rounds every 15 minutes, that transportation service is confined to the campus. Meanwhile, the City of East Lansing also has city buses that make rounds around town, but they only stop at limited spots on the MSU campus. Thus, we missed the commuting convenience afforded by our tricycles and jeepneys.

Fortunately, we have Filipino friends among graduate students on campus. We hitched ride with them to go shopping now and then. Eventually, by the second semester, we managed to loan money from the credit union to buy our first, used car. It was a gas-guzzler of a V-8 engine which we acquired right at the beginning of the Energy Crisis when never again would one see the price of gasoline as low as 25 cents a gallon! But that is another story.

For those of us who partly grew up in the Philippines before coming to the US, our intonation in speaking the English language may sound strange to native speakers, and could create difficulty in class, meetings or other occasions. Some may have difficulty understanding us, especially if we speak too fast. We ourselves experience the same difficulty in listening to spoken English of British, French, Southeast Texan, Nigerian, Chinese, South Korean, etc. speakers because our hearing takes a while to be attuned to other dictions of the English language. And for many of us who matured in the Philippines, changing our dictions to match the local style may be virtually impossible, unless we take an intensive training to be like the radio or TV reporter.

The thing to do is try to imitate the local diction to be more understandable, especially for those of us who teach and who desire to be an effective communicator. There are actors/actresses who can easily mimic the speaking style of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, or Donald Trump! If you are one of those who are facing this challenge, be comforted by the fact that the problem is reciprocal: Every person has a given voice and speaking style, and for as long as the grammar is right and understandable, everybody tries to live with it. You can observe this in international forums like the UN. Delegates from countries like Russia, China, or Cuba prefer to speak on their own language and native diction, but there is an interpreter into English who speaks clearly and slowly for everyone to understand.

As far as using English as a universal language for business or entering graduate schools in the U.S., Filipinos are noted for passing their TOEFL(Test of English as a Foreign Language) tests in one try. We have good training in English in schools then; I don’t know about now – when I hear people speak “taglish”, a combination of tagalog and English – even news reporters on TV!

Personally, I did not experience racial discrimination at all here in the U.S. Filipinos have a long history and tradition of breaking free and independent. And I am always of the opinion that “There can only be masters if there are slaves”, meaning, you can only be discriminated against if you allow it. In the Philippines, as Christians, we do not discriminate against foreigners. We are taught to love our neighbors as ourselves, including Muslims for that matter. For instance, I recall that I have had Muslim classmates and friends in college, as well as graduate schools. I know for a fact that at Silliman University in Dumaguete City, Philippines (founded by American Presbyterians), there are many Muslim students. Some notable graduates have gone on to become leaders in their Muslim-dominated regions in Mindanao, or served as Congressmen and Senators in the national government.

Of keen interest to me were TV news reports at the height of the fairly recent Marawi War between ISIS and the Philippine Army. Several Muslim families in the area sheltered and hid their Christian neighbors from the death gangs of ISIS. Evidently, Muslims and Christians lived harmoniously for decades in Marawi before ISIS (Muslim extremists) entered and fomented trouble and war in the area.

With regard to religious discrimination, one advantage Filipinos have in the U.S. is that we came from “The only Christian nation in Asia”. So, we feel comfortable attending catholic church, or Methodist Church, or Baptist Church. And there are many of these in East Lansing. I myself grew up in a Christian family in the Philippines. My grandparents were Roman Catholics; and so were my parents before they became protestants (Baptists) at CPU, a school established by American (Southern?) Baptist missionaries.


The challenges and joys of Filipino-Americans – A Personal Account

Before coming to the US in June 1974, I knew a lot already about the US and its people. My interactions with Americans in the Philippines since childhood have been positive and uplifting. My own parents, who both studied at Central Philippine University in Jaro, Iloilo, had an unbreakable Christian bond with an American missionary, Miss Ruth Harris. She came from Van Nuys, California and became Secretary of the Iloilo Mission Hospital. Miss Harris was a student mentor to a Theology working student, Antonio Montano, and a nursing student, Purificacion Borres. Miss Harris acted as a matchmaker to these two, and later became sponsor of their wedding. When they became my parents, Miss Harris became like my own Grandmother, calling her “Lola Ruth”.

When the Japanese overran the Philippines in WWII, lives of American missionaries, including Lola Ruth, were in danger. My parents hid Lola Ruth in our farm in Odiongan during the Japanese occupation. Unlike the 10 American missionaries who were martyred by the Japanese soldiers in Tapaz, Capiz, Lola Ruth was safely hidden in our farm in “Punod”, the valley of Odiongan plateau. She lived through the ordeal until peace time when she rejoined the staff of CPU, with all the sensitive documents in a trunk (possibly including US dollars) in tact (My father buried it underground in a secret location.)

I came to the US with high expectations because I know the US is a more developed economy compared to the Philippines. Its democratic institutions have had longer years to mature, unlike the Philippines at the time – when observers saw the Philippines still as an experiment in democracy.

One of the things that I liked most, and is immediately noticeable, living in the US for the first time: Food is cheap. Basic food stuffs like eggs, bread, fruits and vegetables, and so on are cheap in proportion to one’s family budget. I would learn later as an Agricultural Economics major that this is a reflection of the highly productive and efficient agricultural sector of the US –dubbed at the time as “The bread basket of the world”.

Another enduring strength that I noticed about the U.S. is its Justice System. No one, not even the President, is above the law. In the Philippines, corruption even at the top of the political system is rampant, and there are many unsolved crimes. The wheels of justice grind very slowly, if ever. By contrast, every US citizen has an equal opportunity to pursue the American Dream in this land of the free and the hope of the brave. The blessings of justice and liberty is for all the people, not just the privileged.

The most pivotal and inspiring moment in my life and career here in the U.S. occurred when I was already working as an Assistant Professor at Lamar University. My J-1 (Exchange Visitor) visa has expired and before I could renew it, I had to have a waiver of the two-year physical presence requirement obtained from our Department of Foreign Affairs. The whole process of obtaining such a waiver was highly bureaucratic, expensive (e.g., Although the Philippine government never spent a cent to financially support me during my Fellowship, since ADC shouldered everything as a grant to an individual Fellow, I was asked to reimburse all the expenses involved throughout my Fellowship by way of requiring me to sign a contract to return afterwards and serve the country.) and very time consuming. By 1986, five years into my career at Lamar, I was still, technically, an “illegal alien”.

It was scary and uncertain times for me and my family. If the waiver and documentations do not work out, there was a possibility for us to be deported to the Philippines as illegal aliens overstaying in the U.S. By the Grace of God, just when the waiver documents were being finalized, after my Father-in-Law paid $5,000 on my behalf to cover the reimbursements demanded, the 1986 Amnesty law was passed under President Reagan. We qualified under its provisions! So, that law saved us from being deported! I obtained my provisional “green card”, and in 1996, I became an American citizen.

I rose through the ranks at Lamar starting from Assistant Professor in 1981 to Full Professor when I retired in 2012. Salary-wise, I started off with an $18,000.00 per year salary. By the time I retired, I was a six-figure income earner – Of course, this includes teaching overload. If I were into this career only for the money, I would have been long gone for another, more lucrative, job in the private sector. I truly enjoyed teaching and working closely with my students. I have endeavored to know each of them personally – Even today, I would occasionally bump into one in Wal Mart or some social occasion, still remembering their faces; they likewise remember me. I always started the semester with personal introductions, which broke the ice, so to speak. I joked a lot, and my students seemed to enjoy my sense of humor. Because Economics can be a very boring subject like History, it takes a lot of creativity to become an effective teacher. The advent of the computer, power points, computer graphics, and online learning have helped a lot.

I tried to live a balance life, allocating my time between teaching and research, professional development, advising student organizations, community civic affairs, and spiritual growth. I have been singing Bass in our church choir at St. Andrews Presbyterian Church. I freed my schedule for choir practice every Wednesday evening. To me, singing spiritual songs was a respite from job stress. It was equivalent to eating nutritious food – the spiritual music nourishes and refreshes my soul.

I grew in my teaching career by joining professional groups and participating in seminars and conferences either as attendee, paper presenter, or discussant. I served as an officer when called for. For instance, I was President of the Southwestern Economics Society (SES) in 1998-99. I also served as Chairman of the American Society for Quality (ASQ) Southeast Texas Section 1420. I was instrumental in the establishment of the Lamar University Student Branch of ASQ, and for several years, served as the Faculty Advisor of this recognized campus organization. Also, I spearheaded the establishment of the VICTOR A. ZALOOM LEADERSHIP IN QUALITY SCHOLARSHIP at Lamar University. Incidentally, while a Faculty Member in the College of Business, I also helped in the establishment of the PABT Scholarship at Lamar.

A high point in my community service was receiving the “WORLD OF DIFFERENCE AWARD” in 1991, mentioned at the beginning of this article. It was the recognition of my community service with the Beaumont International Seaman’s Center, and above all, for my part in the organization of the Philippine Association of Southeast Texas (PASET). PASET later morphed separately into the Philippine Association of Beaumont Texas (PABT) and the Philippine-American Council (PAC) in Port Arthur. In less than a year of existence of PASET, with me as the Chairman of the Board, the Beaumont and Port Arthur groups decided to split, disagreeing to cement their unity by merging their finances. To me, this was a reflection of regionalism back in the mother country. Historically, this regionalism tendency was a major reason it took the country a long time to unite against Spain. Historians conceded this weakness to the fact that the island groups constituting regions in the Philippines are physically separated by the ocean, along with differences in their languages/dialects and local cultural practices

Nevertheless, PABT-- created to promote harmony and cooperation among ethnic groups, and to preserve the best in American and Filipino cultures -- successfully participated in the Beaumont Sesquicentennial celebration, including the city’s first Ethnic Heritage festival. The Beaumont City Council recognized PABT’s contribution to the area’s ethnic diversity and quality of life by a proclamation on Oct. 6, 1987.

Today, recapitulating about my becoming a Filipino-American, I can cite many things that I can enjoy, and I will not trade it for the world. First, we can go back and forth to our homeland where we enjoy year-round tropical fruits of various kinds like mango, lanzones, rambutan, mangosteen, etc. and all kinds of native foods. Just thinking of them make me salivate. Second, if one decides to live in the home country part of the time, household help is easy to find and cheap in dollar terms (even among relatives; it is one way to receive help, reciprocated in return with money for education, etc.). Third, spending social security benefits (US$) in the Philippines goes a long way to support retirement and vacation trips. Fourth, dual citizenship is now available to Filipino-Americans, enabling them to buy properties and invest in their home country, contributing to economic development. Lastly, at the same time, if one needs sophisticated medical procedure that is unavailable in the Philippines, one can seek for it here in the U.S.



Advice for Young Filipino-Americans in the U.S.

When we came to Beaumont in 1981 to start my job as Assistant Professor of Economics in the College of Business at Lamar University, I was sought after to talk about Martial Law under then President Marcos in the Philippines, and also especially the Agrarian Reform Program there. I had most up-to-date knowledge of the Philippine situation then, coming from ARI in UP Los Banos, and former Technical Consultant to the Department of Agrarian Reform. In fact, I was on leave without pay from ARI when I came to the US on J-1 Visa (Exchange Visitor) and official passport (red instead of black cover). The Agrarian Reform Program Under Martial Law in the Philippines was the subject of my Ph.D. dissertation at MSU. People asked me about Martial Law how bad it was and so on. I had to tell the truth: While the objectives of Agrarian Reform were laudable, I did not like the military abuses, assassination squads, and most of all, Marcos’ ill-gotten wealth, graft and corruption at the top of the government and the Marcos Oligarchy. In one interview, it was election time in the US. So, I made sure to encourage Americans to vote. I made them realized how it is when you lose your freedom: of speech and the Press (which was suppressed under Martial Law) and especially to vote (under Martial Law, there are no elections; Congress was abolished, and Laws were issued by Decrees. Agrarian Reform Under Martial Law in the Philippines was Presidential Decree (PD) 27 declared on September 21, 1972.)

Our Filipino Youth today, especially those who are depressed. Take heart! You live in a free country. Just think about those freedom-seeking wave of asylum seekers from Guatemala, Honduras, etc. in Central America who are flocking at the Southern Border of the US. They are fleeing from oppression and violence in their home countries. Many Filipinos fled the Philippines during the dark days of Martial Law. They were seeking freedom and justice. Not everyone had the chance. You – you are free to pursue the American Dream. Don’t any one bully you or look down on you because you do not look like them or speak like them. You enjoy the blessings of liberty just like anyone else. Most other families in your community are themselves immigrants or descendants of immigrants – since this country is built by immigrants. Vanish your inferiority complex because you are a Filipino-American. In fact, you should be proud of your heritage! Your forebears fought for independence from Spain which colonized the country for more than 300 years! Then, we fought the Americans who bought your country from Spain in 1898 Treaty of Paris. Philippines became a US Commonwealth, like Puerto Rico now, for 50 years until gaining independence in 1946 to become The Republic of the Philippines. More than any other country, where immigrants to this country are coming from, such as India, China, Nigeria, Vietnam, & so-on, the Philippines has had the longest cultural ties (i.e., familial, religious, educational, etc.) with the U.S. This is one strong reason why Filipinos in the U.S. (i.e., Filipino-Americans) should feel very much at home, like in the Philippines (just as Americans feel at home living in the Philippines!).

As Christians, your faith in God should give you strength and hope in times of trouble. This verse from the Holy Bible has always been a source of comfort for me: “Those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up wings like eagles. They shall run and not be weary. They shall walk and not faint.”

I believe that the ADC Fellowship was God’s answer to my prayers. Never in my wildest dreams have I seen myself coming to the U.S. and more so, live here as a U.S. citizen. There was only one slot available for the whole country when I applied for the ADC Fellowship. What is the odd of being chosen? I did not know how many applicants were there in all. All I know is you’ll never win unless you try. Or perhaps, I happened to be in the right place (ARI in UPLB) at the right time (Agrarian Reform is a relatively new field in the Philippine Colleges. The country was lacking a Ph.D. expert on it.)

Another prayer answered was when God miraculously saved my life. In 2003, an angiogram performed by my Cardiologist showed that I had a 100% blockage in one heart artery. I asked, “How come I am still alive, Doc.” He said that I am lucky to have developed collateral arteries that served as a natural by-pass. My physical activity (I did all the mowing of our big yard back then, as well as gardening) contributed to the development of the collateral arteries. That was a stunning news!

Then, in 2013, at St. Luke’s Heart Center in Houston, my heart surgeon, Dr. Ross Reul, successfully by-passed the same artery, along with another one, giving me a brand-new life – all done while my heart was beating and I was not attached to a heart-lung machine. After my recovery and while removing the open-heart surgery stitches, assisting nurses joked: “Your heart is good as new, guaranteed for another 20 years”.

You and your family must have just celebrated Easter recently. Keep the message of Easter in your heart. We have a Living God who loves us first, even when we are yet sinners, so that we can love others in return. He conquered death so that we may live. Jesus Christ wants us to have life, and have it more abundantly.

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