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My Grandfather, A Killer

The author's grandfather, Vicente Guerra, is pictured in a mugshot from San Quentin State Prison. He was sentenced to five years to life for the 1931 murder of Joseph Retotar.
California State Archives
The author's grandfather, Vicente Guerra, is pictured in a mugshot from San Quentin State Prison. He was sentenced to five years to life for the 1931 murder of Joseph Retotar.

My Grandfather, A Killer
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On rare occasions, Dad and I would get together for lunch. It was 2014, and I had just started a job at NPR. Dad was retired and lived 60 miles away.

From what I remember, we ate dim sum, which meant driving through the heart of downtown Los Angeles, the massive skyscrapers glistening in the afternoon sun.


It was quiet in the car. I was thinking about how Mom and Dad used to make this commute to LA every day for work. Two hours in the morning, two hours at night.

Dad interrupted my thoughts, pointing to a building on the side of the freeway.

"Did you know that my dad killed somebody in that place?"

"Wait, what?" I responded, almost missing the moment.

I never met my grandfather, Lolo Vicente, but I'd heard stories about him. On our living room wall, there's a picture of him. He was handsome. Dad said he was strict, but he never talked about him coming to America, much less that he killed someone. When I asked Dad why it had taken him so long to tell me, he said it's because I never asked.


A million thoughts raced through my head. Lolo was in America? Why was Lolo in America? Who did he kill? Did he go to prison?

But the main question tugging at me was what this all meant for the story of my family's history in America.

The murder had suddenly shattered my view of the quintessential immigrant narrative — the story my parents embodied. They both came to the United States from the Philippines in the 1980s looking for a better life. Dad became a citizen; Mom, a green card holder. They worked hard, bought a house in the suburbs and raised three children.

My grandfather had taken a darker path. The fact that this violence was a part of my American story scared me. I hated how it might feed into the false narrative that immigrants drive up crime rates. The story also enticed me. I needed to find answers to my questions.

This is the story of my Lolo — which means "grandfather" in Tagalog, a language native to the Philippines. The reason I'm here is because of him.

America's "little brown brothers"

When I first found Lolo's mug shot, I thought he looked handsome. He was only 24, with soft features and slick black hair.

He had come to America six years earlier, in 1926. He grew up poor in a small province in the Philippines and was part of a mass migration that, by one estimate, brought 150,000 Filipinos to America between 1907 and 1930. These were mostly single young men who boarded steamships to travel thousands of miles from the Philippines to the United States.

At the time, it was relatively easy to immigrate to the U.S. from the Philippines, which in the 1930s was still a U.S. territory. The agricultural sector needed cheap labor, and Filipinos, who were considered noncitizen nationals, fulfilled that role.

While most of these Filipinos worked in farming, men like my grandfather ended up in cities as low-wage domestic workers. In Los Angeles, he became a "houseboy." Family lore said he cleaned house for actor George Raft, who appeared in the original Scarface.

For newly arrived immigrants like Lolo, life in America was hard, and the reception was not always warm. Filipino men were known as America's "little brown brothers," a phrase coined by William Howard Taft, who before winning the White House in the 1908 election, served as the first American governor-general of the Philippines.

White America's view could be summed up in a 1929 Los Angeles Times op-ed titled "The Filipino Invasion." The author describes Filipinos as "good boys, most of them trained on battleships or as houseboys to neatness, cleanliness and quiet courtesy."

I can only imagine how emasculating this must have felt for Lolo and other young Filipino men. But you wouldn't be able to tell by looking at photographs of them from the time. Outside of work they wore fedoras, pressed zoot suits and shiny wingtip shoes.

Anthony Ocampo, a sociologist at California State Polytechnic University and author of the book The Latinos of Asia: How Filipino Americans Break the Rules of Race, said dressing like that offered a form of mental self-preservation.

"I think part of the reason they did that is because having traveled 7,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean, being able to present themselves in that way gave them some sort of dignity," Ocampo said. "That the journey was worth it."

Of course, it wasn't strictly about self-preservation, said Ocampo. They also did it to attract women, especially at the local taxi-dance halls, where men could hire women to dance with them. The dance halls gave immigrants an outlet to socialize with one another and spend some of their hard-earned money — typically 10 cents per dance — in hopes of finding some companionship.

The women were usually white, and given racist attitudes and miscegenation laws, that dynamic would eventually spark violence against the Filipino community by white men enraged over the influx of migrant laborers in the area.

The most notorious incident happened in Watsonville, an agricultural community in Northern California. In 1930, a mob of about 500 white men and youth opened fire at a dance hall popular with the local Filipino community where white women were being employed. Over five days, roaming mobs assaulted Filipinos with pistols, clubs and whips. They dragged Filipinos from their homes and beat them. Filipinos were thrown off bridges. One man, Fermin Tobera, 22, was shot to death.

"I was out to run the Filipinos out of the country," one participant told the Oakland Tribune. "We're going to get rid of them, that's what."

The murder

The next year, a woman would again be at the center of violence involving Filipinos. This time, it involved my Lolo.

To this day, no one in my family can say for certain what drove my grandfather to murder. But according to an Associated Press report dated Sept. 23, 1931, it all had to do with "an American girl." The headline of the story read, "Oriental Killed, One Shot in Love Feud."

According to my dad, Lolo was in a restaurant bathroom when two men cornered him and slit his neck, leaving Lolo bleeding and facedown on a toilet. Someone found Lolo and was able to get help.

Dad doesn't know what prompted the attack, but he remembers the scar that it left on the back of Lolo's neck.

After his recovery, Lolo went looking for his attackers, and one day, while cruising the streets of a busy downtown corridor, Lolo spotted two men leaving a theater. He told a friend to get the car ready. Lolo had a gun and was set on revenge.

The shooting took place close to a popular dance hall where Filipinos hung out, near city hall. His victims were John Lopez, shot in the leg, and Joseph Retotar, a Filipino, who died.

Records for the two men are hard to come by. Based on what I could find, Retotar was about the same age as Lolo. And that love feud? While the article suggests it was over an American, no one in the family can say for sure.

For years I agonized. If only I had her name or the details of the others involved, then just maybe I could figure out what really happened. It had to be in the case file. I went to the Los Angeles County Hall of Records to look for it, but when the archivist took the decades-old microfilm out of its box, it fell apart. This mystery woman was now a ghost on decrepit microfilm.

Return to the Philippines

Lolo was caught, tried by a jury and found guilty of second-degree murder. He was sentenced to five years to life at San Quentin State Prison.

He was out in seven years. Dad said Lolo talked about marking his cell with chalk every year he spent there. When he was released, he took his hand, swiped the chalk marks off the wall and cried aloud, "Goodbye!"

It's unclear why Lolo was released from prison so early, but a handwritten note in his prison records offers a clue. It appears to read, "repat Paroled 5/5/39."

"Repat" is a likely reference to the government's efforts to repatriate Filipinos under a 1935 law signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in response to anger among white workers about Filipino men taking U.S. jobs. The measure came a year after the Tydings-McDuffie Act — a law that set the Philippines on the path to independence but that also reclassified Filipinos already in the U.S. as "aliens." Taken together, the two laws were blamed for separating Filipino families, given that Tydings-McDuffie capped Filipino immigration at 50 people per year, making it near impossible for anyone who was repatriated to return.

As Lolo was heading back to the Philippines in 1939, World War II was raging in Europe. In the Pacific, Japanese forces had taken over several Chinese cities. The U.S. was on guard — its interests in the Philippines could be next.

Lolo's niece, my Tita Letty Francisco, remembers that the war may be the reason for Lolo's parole. Back then, it was common for prisoners to be recruited to fight the Japanese.

In 1941, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Within hours, it invaded the Philippines. Lolo became a second lieutenant in the guerrilla army fighting the Japanese alongside U.S. forces. He even got a new nickname. Instead of Vicente Guerra, they called him Vicente Bakal.

"Bakal is iron," said Tita Letty. She said he could be loving toward his family, but when it came to war, Lolo showed no remorse for killing the Japanese. She remembers Lolo's fury after the Japanese bombed the home he shared with the woman he ended up marrying in the Philippines, Lola Isabel. He'd even brag about how many lives he took, she said.

But according to Dad, there was at least one death that troubled Lolo.

It was the time he was tasked with killing a Filipina who had been accused of working as an informant for the Japanese. She was labeled a "Makapili," the name Filipinos gave those who aided the Japanese.

During the war, the Japanese would take informants, place bags over their heads, cut two holes for their eyes and ask them to identify Filipinos. Once identified, the Japanese would shoot.

Lolo's secret mission to kill this woman meant he couldn't use a gun, because it would make noise, so he and others used a piece of wood.

" ' They keep hitting her and hitting her, and she won't die,' " Dad remembered Lolo telling him.

"So what they did, they just digged a hole. But when they put her there, she's still alive. So they keep hitting her," Dad said, his tone solemn like I imagine Lolo's must have been when recounting the story.

After that, Lolo asked his boss to transfer him to another assignment. He couldn't take it anymore.

When I think back on this story, it makes me angry. How could he have killed someone so brutally? Even if it was in the service of his country.

Dad takes me back to reality.

"This is war," he said. "What did you expect?"

The enforcer

It was about five years after our car ride that Dad and I went to where the murder took place in downtown LA. The street corner looks like a restored loft with some shops. It's loud, bustling. Traffic and construction noise fills the air. In one direction, I see homeless men. In another, a man on a dockless scooter riding by.

It's here, almost a century ago, that Lolo's life in America took a turn.

Dad's silent, taking it all in. My thoughts are elsewhere, and I wonder how Lolo's environment shaped his actions. Did life in America encourage the worst in him? Turn him more angry? More violent? What if he had never come to the U.S.? Would he have avoided all the bloodshed? Or was it all inevitable?

I think about another influence in Lolo's life, Ted Lewin. He was an American who built one of the biggest gaming operations in Manila. In a 1959 profile, Time magazine described Lewin, saying he had "a taste for dark shirts, penthouses, air-conditioned Cadillacs and shadowy wheelings and dealings. In and out of Manila, in the past two decades, he has turned many a fast peso."

Lolo worked for Lewin as an enforcer.

"When they see something or they found out something in the casino that you are cheating, they would beat the hell out of them," said Dad.

Dad said Lolo would tell him stories about taking a hammer and smashing each finger of a cheater's hand.

Lolo became a top boss for Lewin. He was feared and respected. When Lewin was forced out of the trade by the Philippine government, Lolo took his experience and used it to establish his own businesses.

He had a fleet of taxis and operated distilleries. Ever the hustler, he at one point took a job at customs, where he accepted bribes for letting folks smuggle goods into the islands.

This allowed him to give his kids the opportunity to attend college in the Philippines, drive nice cars and establish political and business connections.

Dad used that to build his own business selling electronics in the Philippines. It did well at first but then fell into bankruptcy. He looked at America and saw a second chance. And thanks in part to Lolo's war service, Dad was eventually able to gain citizenship.

He's retired now, after 40 years in manufacturing. He and my mom worked all the time, and because of that, my family enjoyed full bellies and college educations. The quintessential American Dream.

My family, my country

I asked Dad why his life in America was so different from Lolo's. He said it's because each generation will be better off than the one before it.

"Remember during [his] time, they are all illiterate. They didn't go to high school," Dad said.

"You go to another country, especially an industrialized country like America, most of them turned out to be drivers, busboys or work as a maid because they don't have schooling."

Dad never went back to the Philippines, even for Lolo's funeral.

"Even when I die, I already bought our family plot, because most people when they die, they go home, but this is my home, so I will just stay here," Dad said.

"My parents are already dead. My only brother is dead. So there's no more thing for me to go to the Philippines."

When I think about Lolo's history in America — the murder, the war, his thuggery — my biggest question is still whether he was a monster. Or would he have made different choices if America had been kinder? If you exist in a land where you're constantly seen as a villain, do you inevitably become one?

Despite Lolo's violence, Dad believes he was a good father, a good friend. Tita Letty remembers him as kind.

I'm not so sure. But the blood he shed is part of my family's story. It's part of America's.

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