By Evangeline Cafe
Northwest Asian Weekly
Fred Cordova spent his life championing social justice issues, preserving Filipino American history, and empowering the youth. The iconic historian and activist died on Dec. 21, 2013, at the age of 82.
Although the final chapter of his life has closed, Cordova’s legacy leaves an indelible mark on the world he left.
Born in Selma, Calif., in 1931, Fred was adopted by the Cordova family when he was a young child. His adoptive parents contracted migrant farm workers, and his family often moved to different farming areas during his childhood.
In 1948, Cordova moved to Washington state to attend Seattle University, where he earned a bachelor of arts degree in sociology and met his future wife, Dorothy. Both second-generation Filipino Americans, Fred and Dorothy developed an insatiable desire to better understand their heritage. Together, the young couple explored their Filipino American identities by getting involved with social activism, student organizations, and campus publications.
Fred and Dorothy married in 1953. While raising a family that would eventually include eight children, they continued their commitment to commemorating their heritage.
In 1957, the couple founded the Filipino Youth Activities of Seattle (FYA) to engage young people in extracurricular activities that instilled cultural awareness. The FYA offered programs in sports, dance, drama, language, and job placement.
An activist life
“Dorothy and Fred would organize parents to get their kids to participate in marches, pageants, and other activities,” said educator and community activist Dr. Pio DeCano II. “Many kids were involved in gangs and serving serious time and this was one of the things that the FYA wanted to counteract.”
For community leader Dolores Sibonga, one of her fondest memories of Fred Cordova was watching him lead the award-winning FYA drill team, which has gained national acclaim for its ornate costumes, rhythmic percussion, and dynamic choreography.
“He was an absolute leader at the FYA, just masterful,” said Sibonga.
“One of the main reasons why my dad started the FYA was because of pride and ethnic identity, and also to make people aware of economic injustice and racial inequality,” said Damian Cordova, Fred and Dorothy’s son.
Sibonga also has fond memories of standing alongside Fred Cordova in their activism. She met Cordova during her college years, as a fellow activist.
“Fred and I are contemporaries. We fought all the wars together. We fought the civil rights battle together,” recalled Sibonga.
A professional life
After college, Fred had pursued a career in media. He took on reporting and editing stints at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Catholic Northwest Progress. In 1966, he became the director of public information at Seattle University. In 1974, he became manager of the University of Washington’s News and Information Services, where he remained until he retired in 2000. He had also spent 12 years as an affiliate associate professor at UW, where he taught Filipino American history and culture.
Meanwhile, Dorothy Cordova served as director of the Demonstration Project for Asian Americans (DPAA) in the 1970s, and did work with the Washington State Oral/Aural History Program. In these capacities, she researched problems affecting Asian Americans and collected written and oral histories.
Fred and Dorothy Cordova applied their strong research and communication skills to their work in the Filipino American community.
In 1982, Fred became the founding president of the Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS), which houses one of the largest collections on Filipino American history in the world. Both Fred and Dorothy Cordova sought to fill the paucity of historical material on the Filipino American experience by hearing Filipino Americans tell their stories.
Many of their findings are written about in Fred Cordova’s landmark 1983 book, “Filipinos: Forgotten Asian Americans – A Pictorial Essay/1763-Circa 1963.”
“We definitely were not getting our fair share of history,” said Damian Cordova. “Asian studies back then were mostly Japanese and Chinese, period. Everybody was saying, ‘Well, you guys have nothing out there. We can’t change it if we have no resources to it. Therefore, we’re not going to teach anything.’ For my mom and dad, the way you rectify that is by building up history of Filipinos. And they thought, ‘Nobody’s going to do that, so we’re going to do it.’”
Dr. DeCano is a national trustee for FANHS, and his own family has deep roots in the Pacific Northwest. His father was a cannery labor contractor in the 1930s, who successfully challenged a Washington law prohibiting Filipinos from owning land. Dr. DeCano said that the Cordovas helped to shed light on lesser-known stories about Filipino Americans in the United States.
“The Cordovas were the ones who uncovered the information that Filipinos were in the continental United States as early as the 1500s,” said Dr. DeCano. “They had been able to look at the experiences of Filipino Americans and weave them into the fabric, development, and growth of this country in every aspect — from construction, business, and politics to education, the military, to agriculture. They’ve uncovered troves of historical materials. Filipinos in different parts of the country had different kinds of experiences, and the Cordovas had strong interpersonal skills to motivate people to say, ‘OK, I’ll sit and talk to you.’ They understood that even though some people were reticent, their stories were important. These skills allowed them to get those oral histories, the foundation of much of their research.”
A legacy-filled life
For his family, friends, and fellow community leaders, Fred Cordova leaves a legacy of wisdom, diligence, and leadership.
“He epitomized the notion of dedication, commitment, and having a vision,” said Dr. DeCano. “His legacy will focus on the belief that we have unique experiences, and that they need to be brought to light in a scholarly and coherent fashion. His legacy goes beyond material. It goes to the heart of the human experience.”
“The legacy that Fred Cordova leaves is to have ‘Filipino American/Pinoy/Pinay’ always at the center of his being. You don’t go away from it. You’re always proud of being Filipino American. That’s what he sends to the coming generations,” said Rey Pascua, president of the Filipino American Community of Yakima Valley.
“Fred is an absolute leader in the community. He, above all others, made us proud to be Filipino Americans, and he did that by bringing up our heritage,” said Sibonga.
Sibonga hopes that young people will keep Cordova’s memory alive by furthering his mission to explore and preserve Filipino American history, fight for social justice, and empower future generations.
“The youth should continue the work of FANHS,” said Sibonga. “The young people need to mentor others who are coming up, to make sure we don’t lose our heritage.”
In addition to being a historian, activist, author, and community leader, Cordova was a devoted Catholic and served at the Immaculate Conception parish in Seattle for 50 years. In 2003, he became ordained as Deacon of the Archdiocese of Seattle.
“He was a man of faith,” said Damian. “My mom and my dad were very giving people. We weren’t rich. My parents were always trying to figure out how they were going to raise eight children and fund their programs at the same time, with their meager earnings. My parents gave to these organizations, never took, and they were going to do it with or without government funding.
“I’d say the one thing my mom and dad would be most proud of his how many young people they have touched and mentored over their lives. All the faces — from everybody getting post graduate degrees, to those getting their doctorates, to keeping foster kids alive, especially through FYA, to give them some place to keep them out of jail,” Damian said.
Perhaps it was their unique upbringings that led to Fred and Dorothy’s lifetime commitment to honoring their Filipino American roots.
“My mom lost her dad tragically at a very early age, and my dad was an orphan,” said Damian. “I think it was engrained in them — this feeling of helping others out — because they didn’t lead a normal life. It always seemed to be one of the drivers for their commitment to doing the work that they did.
“My parents are very bright people and very diligent in what they did,” he said. “Watching these concepts start at the kitchen table and then become of national significance — it amazes me, the things that they have started.”
Fred Cordova is survived by Dorothy, his wife of 60 years, eight children, 17 grandchildren, and eight great-grandchildren.
A funeral mass for Fred Cordova will take place on Jan. 11 at 10 a.m. at Immaculate Conception Church in Seattle.
Interment will take place at Calvary Cemetery in Seattle.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Filipino American National Historical Society or Immaculate Conception Church in Seattle. (end)