Editor’s Note: In celebration of Filipinx American History Month, scholar and filmmaker Celine Parreñas Shimizu discusses her new film, The Celine Archive, set for international release October 15th
THE MAKING OF THE CELINE ARCHIVE MOVIE by Celine Parreñas Shimizu
Celine Navarro, a 28-year old immigrant mother of four, was buried alive by her Filipinx American community in Northern California in 1932. When I first encountered her story in the 1990s, not much was known about Filipinx American women in the earlier 20th century. Scholars attributed the lack of attention paid to women to sheer numbers. They were outnumbered by men at 1:14 among a new California population thirty to forty thousand strong in the 1920s and 1930s. Today, Filipinx are the largest Asian American group in California. What does it mean for Californians not to know her story? What does it mean that she is unknown by women interested in fathoming the lives of our pioneering foremothers?
When we were undergraduates at Berkeley in the 1990s, my sister Rhacel Parreñas, now a renowned sociologist, found Celine’s story in the Bancroft Library archives while researching white women considered “trash’ and Filipinx men regarded as “brown monkeys” in the earlier 20th century. These two marginalized groups forged alliance in the taxi dance halls when Filipinx were lynched and their rooming houses torched in towns like Stockton, where they were segregated from whites. Eugenics and anti-miscegenation laws meant their interracial ties could lead to death. Filipinx American history, dominated by men, meant finding Celine in the archives was rare, particularly a Filipinx immigrant woman with the French name we share.
For years, my sister would tease me, saying that this woman with my name is a ghost haunting me in particular. As immigrants ourselves, we carried in us the particularly frightening myths about Filipinx female ghosts who fly around with impaled bodies, attacking people at night. I encountered this thread of Celine Navarro as a ghost beyond my own family. I would meet others in the Filipinx community in California who told me they experienced Celine’s story as a fearsome tale told during bedtime rituals. Filipinx Americans growing up in the Central Valley would come across old-timers whispering about a woman buried alive, with her hand sticking out of the ground. Accounts of a disheveled and dirty woman clad in white, walking the Sacramento Delta’s rugged roadways arose. Hers was seemingly an eerie malevolent ghost story that traveled to California in the Filipinx diaspora. I began to collect paintings of Filipinx female ghosts as a tribute to her. Daring to look at them, I trained myself to confront rather than fear her story.
As a filmmaker and a film scholar working on gender, race, sexuality, and transnationalism, Celine Navarro’s story stayed with me for more than two decades as a movie I wanted to make. I began scouring the archives myself while a professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara. The stories in the archive were vivid and cinematic. A group of Filipinx women and men accused her of adultery and kidnapped her, made her crawl on beans, then picked stones out of a bag to decide who would start throwing them at her. Celine and her husband were part of the fraternal organization that killed her. The membership records document all their names together on the rosters.
News of the trial of Celine Navarro’s indicted killers traveled the world from Los Angeles to New York to London and Singapore. Fascination about the growing number of Filipinx in America fueled interest in her story because the debates about their inability to assimilate dominated the era. The media reflected a national fear of Filipinx and their essential otherness: headlines used words like voodoo ritual, strange cult, weird trial, jungle justice, and kangaroo court.
The primary story that emerged across global media was one of her as an adulteress who betrayed her sick husband, then perversely punished by a bizarre community who considered her a traitor to their moral code. Was she a wanton woman who followed her own code, picking from the plentiful abundance of men, and thus deserved punishment? The group accused of killing her was acquitted. I learned that the organization collected funds from their members to defend her indicted killers. They defended them within the context of disproving their perceived incompatibility with citizenship, sacrificing not only Celine’s life but her very story.
Little did I know that Celine Navarro herself traveled to nearby Ventura right before she died, visited her sisters and told them about her fraught life. I would drive by the La Conchita neighborhood where they lived, not knowing such an important part of her story transpired there. In the audio recordings, her sisters shared how Celine was hunted down by a man who desired her and whose wife hated her. Celine’s husband encouraged her to comply. According to her sisters, she was not an adulteress or a traitor but prey: a “scaredy-cat, timid girl” neglected by her husband.
Scholars disclosed that she was a heroine, a pioneer of the #metoo movement, in how she testified against a group of men who beat up another man for protecting a white woman from her husband, a known abuser in the community. Her testimony sent four Filipinx men to San Quentin, gaining the community’s ire, for they were determined to uphold loyalty and secrecy during a time of intense racial ostracism. How does this story of her heroic courage reconcile with her as an adulteress, traitor, victim, or prey? And how do these different versions matter in her story?
Celine’s own family remembers her sacrifice: she was killed unjustly by her community and how her own choices made theirs happen. While Celine’s sisters lived long lives, I did not meet them. Through the film, I met her family, who fervently honors her today. In 2012, my sister and I were featured speakers at the Los Angeles Echo Park Library at an event attended by hundreds of Filipinx Americans. I talked about my desire to make a film about a woman Celine Navarro and someone in the audience who knew the family approached me. Soon I met Celine Navarro’s niece. Her mother, Celine’s youngest sister, was still alive. My film, originally a narrative drama, became a documentary because I could ask questions about her death’s impact on the people who cared the most.
Suddenly, however, my youngest son Lakas, an exuberant, energetic, and loving child, unexpectedly died within 24 hours from a common virus that attacked his heart. Everything changed. Time changed. My world flattened. Around this time, Celine’s youngest sister died too. Since Lakas’ death, the question of how a family who encounters the sudden death of a loved one continues to live, and even thrive, is something I think about every day. How does the next generation remember the loss and feel the transformative suffering that the unexpected death of a loved one brings to the family?
As part of my grief work, I began working on the film again, knowing that there are two things I want to achieve. Celine’s story can too easily be told salaciously, and to do so, about a community already criminalized and perverted in history and popular culture would be unjust. I wanted to dig up Celine Navarro’s story to examine intergenerational trauma that would ultimately reconstitute her, flesh her back to life through film. She deserves a place in history that regularly recounts stories about the racism Filipinx encounter but suppresses the sexism the community perpetrates.
What is stunning about Celine’s story is how it maps the timeline of Filipinx American history of the last century. Celine arrived in the US in 1918 and up until her death in 1932, traveled regularly between the Philippines and the US at a time of Asian exclusion. Unlike other Asians, Filipinx were considered nationals and provided a leading source of cheap labor. She first dropped her kids in the Philippines as her husband’s condition worsened and her own experiences with the fraternal organization escalated. She was kidnapped and tortured at least twice. The third time was when she returned to Stockton to transport her dying husband. She instead experiences incomprehensibly final brutality. Their kids orphaned, and Filipinx re-classified in 1934’s Tydings-McDuffie Act, her descendants were unable to return until after 1965.
Celine’s story also rewrites how we understand and practice belonging within a community. Whenever I see fellow Filipinx Americans, conversations ensue where we try to see if we are related or share the same regional roots or find the best Filipinx place nearby to eat. For Celine’s family, to see other Filipinx is to ask if they were part of the group of people who killed their matriarch, the one who traveled to America and started her American family. Thus, bringing her story and the experiences of her family to light challenges the concept of a cohesive ethnic community.
Lastly, Celine’s life shows how women in early Filipinx American history were actional. Her mother Juana Montayre traveled from the Philippines as a widow with three daughters in 1918. Their actions explode the primary narrative that men were the ones who traversed continents to move to the U.S. Celine’s own story, whether adulteress, traitor, heroine, or prey shows she was an actional woman throughout her life. She moved here, lived a life with various versions of bravery and endurance, and finally saved her children before her death. The multitudes that compose her descendants are Filipinx, Black, Latinx, queer, and more—they look like America and are Americans.
Celine Navarro’s story is considered a haunting, not by her family who lives with her story, but by Filipinx Americans who keep hush-hush, diminishing the violence she experienced by calling her a ghost, or simply refusing the truths of her story. Celine Navarro sheds light on the experiences of women in Filipinx American history. My new film THE CELINE ARCHIVE is a documentary about one family remembering their loved one, historians and scholars like Alex Fabros, Dorothy Cordova, Dawn Mabalon, Rick Baldoz and community members and cultural workers like Leticia Perez, Dillon Delvo, Jean Vengua and Chris Castro sharing their knowledge to teach a bigger story about Filipinx American lives and the unfinished mysteries that we hold in our collective American story. Racism is not the primary force that structured their community. Within it, misogyny transpired that Celine Navarro’s life and death make known.
Celine Parreñas Shimizu is Professor and Director of the School of Cinema at San Francisco State University. The award-winning documentary THE CELINE ARCHIVE screens at CAAMFest across California on October 14-18, internationally at the LA Femme International Film Festival on October 15-16, and nationally at the San Diego Asian Film Festival on October 23-31, 2020. It will also screen at the Reel Sisters of the Diaspora: Women of Color Film Festival, among many other national and international film festivals. For more information, please go to www.celinearchive.com.
For more information please visit https://celinearchive.wordpress.com/
Bay Area Premiere: CAAMFest
See a conversation with Director Celine Shimizu, Historian Catherine Choy and Poet Jean Vengua after every screening. Tickets on sale October 5, 2020
OCTOBER 23 – 31
National Premiere: San Diego Asian Film Festival