In the 1940s, Domingo Entrada was a young teenager in southern Leyte, Philippines, where he spent many afternoons near the U.S. military base in Tacloban. Like most Filipinos, Domingo was from a poor family, so the soldiers gave him money for fetching water or running simple tasks. Years later, when he became a father, he told his children about the kindness of Americans.
“We would sit down for dinner and he would tell us how the Americans had taken such good care of him. He talked about it all the time,” Virgilia Entrada Kelly, Domingo’s oldest daughter, said from her Lake Charles home. “I didn’t care much about coming to America then. I just wanted to leave Sogod and get a job.”
In Sogod, a rural fishing village surrounded by a clearwater bay, jungled mountains and thick vegetation, the 10-person Entrada family lived in a one-bedroom home with bamboo walls and a roof made of nipa leaves. Drinking water was provided by a community pump. The bay and river were used to wash clothes and take baths. In the Philippines, where the vast majority of residents still live in poverty, luxuries were scarce, “but no matter how hard life was, people were always singing, dancing, eating and laughing. It’s a very close community, a very close culture. You are around people all the time.”
In 1972, 22-year-old Virgilia left Sogod for a job in the more industrialized city of Ologapo, near the Subic Bay U.S. Naval Base, where she met a young officer named Dennis Kelly, a Kansas native. Soon after they met, Dennis was released from duty and sent back to Kansas, where he started writing letters. After months of courting through the mail, Virgilia boarded a plane to Kansas on a fiancée visa in February 1973.
“The first thing that struck me about the States was how quiet it was. There were no people outside. Also, the snow. I didn’t like the snow at all,” said Virgilia, whose native country experiences tropical climate year-round. On her wedding day on February 17, 1973, there was a snowstorm.
Life in America took some adjustment. At first, Virgilia was scared and lonely, unaccustomed to so much space with so few people. Because English is one of the national languages of the Philippines, she spoke it fluently, but with an obvious accent. She had no problem getting jobs, but co-workers – “some, not all,” she says – treated her differently. They didn’t take her seriously, assumed she couldn’t understand them, or patronized her. She made friends, but soon learned that things worked much differently in the States – whereas Filipinos from her village visited each other freely and spoke openly, Americans valued their privacy. There were other small glitches in her transition, as well: she instinctively took off her shoes before entering people’s homes; she sometimes used the wrong English words during conversations; and she longed for some of the familiar comforts of home, especially at Christmastime.
“When I was a girl in the Philippines, Christmas was a big celebration. All the poor people came together to cook, share, go caroling, and go to church. There were no gifts exchanged. It was just a time when everyone could come together. It didn’t matter whether you were rich or poor, because Christmas was something everyone could celebrate,” she said. “When I first experienced Christmas here, it was so quiet, and it was all about spending money.”
She also had trouble with the food. The staple items of her diet in Sogod consisted of rice, fish and vegetables – no one had refrigeration, much less frozen food. In her American kitchen, however, Virgilia had to teach herself how to defrost and prepare meals with new ingredients. She also found it difficult to adjust to the amount of food available. “I couldn’t believe that there were appetizers and salads before the meal even came. I saw all that extra food and thought about how much was being wasted.” Laughing, she adds, “I even asked Dennis if I could have a baby pig so I could feed it my leftovers instead of throwing them away. He told me that Americans didn’t do that unless they lived in the country.”
In the early 1980s, the Kellys moved to Lake Charles with their two daughters. Virgilia adjusted quickly to Southern life, which she considered far livelier, more comfortable and friendlier compared to the Midwest. In 1987, she was able to arrange for her parents to come to the States from Sogod. After years of hearing her father talk fondly about Americans and his dream to come to America, it was one of her most important goals. Domingo worked as a carpenter and made enough money to send three of Virgilia’s sisters to college in the Philippines. He also used some of the money to build a water pump for residents of a nearby village.
It’s been more than 30 years since Virgilia first stepped off the plane in America. She is now Americanized, but has never let go of her Filipino roots or her native pride. Now 60 years old, she plans to eventually retire to her native village. “I love America. I’m so grateful for what this country has given me, but there’s no place like home. There never is,” she said. “Sooner or later, all of us find our way home. Doesn’t matter who you are.”
This piece was first published in the May 2009 issue of Thrive magazine.