Celebrating Filipino American History Month with Maria Alvarez Stroud and her novel Brave Crossings: A Journey In Between A Filipino View of American History
Maria Alvarez Stroud
By Jonathan Gramling
In the 1890s, the Spanish world empire began to crumble and essentially ended with the Spanish American War that began with the sinking of the USS Maine in Cuba’s Havana Harbor. The war ended with the U.S. taking control of Puerto Rico, Guam and The Philippines. And while the U.S. had supported the Filipino push for independence at this time, their role changed in The Philippines with the Treaty of Paris in 1898 and almost overnight, the Americans turned from liberator to conqueror.
“The Philippines were ruled by Spain,” said Maria Alvarez Stroud, author of Brave Crossing: A Journey In Between. “They were a colony for about 350 years. And what they brought was Catholicism. The highest class people were in the religious realm. They tended to be the rulers more than anything. He brought that with him. What happened was America helped free The Philippines and turned around and were the new ‘landlord.’ And so my father was very Spanish. His father was even more Spanish, a towering Spaniard. My father came from an upper class family in The Philippines. The Spaniards were smart. They said, ‘If you marry into the Filipino family, we will give you land. We will honor you. You will be in a good position.’ When that changed, that changed for my grandfather and his son. They were no longer in grace in The Philippines.”
With his prospects dim in The Philippines, Stroud’s father decided to emigrate to the U.S. in 1916 and landed in Chicago.
“It was the best thing for him to come to the United States,” Stroud said. “He thought he was leaving war behind. He thought he was leaving disease behind because they had had the cholera pandemic in The Philippines. And look what he came to. Right after the race riots came the pandemic. And so 100 years ago, where are we today? Are we still having race riots? Are we having a pandemic? For people coming from other countries, especially Filipinos, there were 128 Filipinos living in Chicago when he lived there. He had no community. He was pretty much on his own.”
Stroud’s father didn’t quite fit in anywhere. He was of color, but he wasn’t Black of White. As Stroud puts it, he was “in between.”
And Stroud uses the vehicle of historical fiction to tell the story of her father and his journey to tell the story of Filipinos in America and reveal a history untouched, for the most part, by American media.
“This story is written in the epistolary format, which means it is all letters, journals, notes and telegrams,” Stroud said. “I did that on purpose so that someone could really feel when he is writing what it really feels like to not be accepted, to not be trusted, to have fingers pointed at you. In Chicago, he wasn’t allowed in restaurants. They had never seen people that he looked like, so he was mistaken for Black. Again, I think that plays out today.”
Stroud’s father went to medical school and did his residency at St. Mary’s Hospital in Madison. And as fate would have it, he spent his medical career in rural Wisconsin where he again spent most of his life being in between.
“He settled in Galesville,” Stroud said. “It’s an actual city. It’s about 20 miles north of La Crosse. It’s a very rural area. When he moved there, the town was about 750 people. Now it’s a whopping 1,200 people. My father was asked by a person who fell in love with his internship in another place. My father was convinced he would be a doctor in Galesville for six months. He left after six months because he wanted to become a surgeon. The town’s doctor died and they literally begged him to come back. That is really crazy when you think about small town Wisconsin in that era and somewhat still today. He was the only Spanish-Filipino there. I’m sure no one had seen someone from The Philippines before.”
While Stroud’s father played an important role in that community, it doesn’t mean he was accepted socially. At first, in some ways, he was a necessary evil. In some ways, he didn’t leave the Chicago that he left behind.
“I think my father, at first, exemplified the anger and all of the grieving stages in order to get acceptance,” Stroud said. “He realized that it doesn’t matter what color you are. If he was going to be who he wanted to be, he needed to see people as just a person. I think we are still struggling with that so much. And so for me, it is a story of hope because he was able to face one adversarial situation after another.”
And eventually, the town embraced him.
“My father was eventually accepted socially,” Stroud said. “And I think that is to his credit in his quiet, friendly manner. He had this smile that covered his face. And he is a very good listener. I think he gradually won them over, which is a testament to his determination and his resilience. As one of my siblings points out, not everyone was happy about him being there. He ended up doing house calls all the way to Arcadia, which is 15 miles away. He provided free care to migrant workers. It was something that he really believed was important. He was not a rich man.”
Growing up, Stroud didn’t really know her father.
“He was a very quiet man,” Stroud said. “He was very silent about where he came from. And I didn’t understand him hardly at all until I was 17-years-old and we went to The Philippines and I saw a completely different person. I went, ‘Oh, this is who you are.’”
Writing Brave Crossing has allowed Stroud to understand her father better by understanding more the historical and social context he lived his life. And she feels that knowledge will shed light on a side of race relations in the U.S.
“Every community of color has faced its issues migrating to America,” Stroud said. “Now we have Muslims going through the same thing. And now we have any Asian looking person being attacked. That’s why I think reading and writing historical novels is really important. No one is going to sit down and read a history book. But when you can make it come alive with people who actually existed, I think people understand the story a lot better. I think they can relate to it. We have all been somewhere where we felt like, ’I don’t belong here.’”
Through her father’s story, Stroud has come to understand her own history and place in the context of American history. Join her on the journey.
Brave Crossings: A Journey In Between can be purchase at Little Creek Press, Amazon and local bookstores. Find out more about Brave Crossings and Maria Alvarez Stroud at https:/www.mariaalvarezstroud.com.