Littleton resident Jaime Yrastorza sits next to a childhood photograph taken in his native Philippines. His book From Fire to Freedom details his life during World War II and his eventual travels around the world.Photo by Peter Jones
By Peter Jones
The Republic of the Philippines has among the more diverse and complicated histories in colonial world history.
The western Pacific nation of more than 7,000 islands was controlled by Spain for three centuries and named for the nation’s King Philip II. That the natives would be called Filipinos with an F is just one footnote in the Philippines’ long saga of colonization and associated linguistics.
A revolution in the 1890s overthrew the Spanish before the United States and eventually Japan took turns at the islands’ helm until the end of World War II when the republic gained its long-awaited independence.
As it happened, the Cold War threat of communist expansion would cause the United States to back the ascension of President Ferdinand Marcos, who was eventually pushed from power in the wake of massive corruption.
Raised amidst the backdrop of Filipino history was Jaime Yrastorza, author of From Fire to Freedom: Childhood in Colonial Philippines to Post WWII Adulthood in America. The book tells Yrastorza’s story in the context of the nation’s tumultuous history.
The 83-year-old Littleton resident was raised in the rural Philippines that became one of the battlefields of World War II. He fled the often-troubled nation he calls Perla del Mar de Oriente at age 18 and began an international odyssey that eventually led him to his career as an oral and facial surgeon.
In 1989, Yrastorza founded Uplift Internationale, which has donated life-changing surgery to underprivileged Filipino children, whose facial deformities would otherwise not be prioritized by the nation’s health care system.
Jaime Yrastorza, center, marks his 5th birthday in U.S.-occupied Philippines.Photo courtesy of Jaime Yrastorza
The Villager recently asked Yrastorza, a U.S. citizen, to reflect on his homeland.
Villager: The melting pot of the Philippines is so rich and unusual, even in the context of colonial history. Do you consider yourself Hispanic?
Yrastorza: Yeah, I see myself as a mestizo. That’s what it’s called. At some point in the 1800s, Spain compelled the population to have a surname. My grandfather was a Spaniard. We trace him to be a Basque. If the colonizer stays there long enough, it becomes a compelling thing to be one of them.
Villager: The Philippines were another part of the broader Spanish colonization that largely happened in the Americas, but is not often associated with it.
Yrastorza: Yes. What the Spaniards were able to do in South America, they were not quite as successful at in the Philippines. First of all, it is an archipelago – 7,000 islands, plus or minus, depending on the tide. The indigenous populations did not get along with each other. There were Muslims in the southern part since the 5th or 6th century. The Spanish tried to convert them. The Americans tried to convert them. It didn’t work.
Villager: The United States has had a rather complex relationship with the Philippines, hasn’t it?
Yrastorza: Eventually, the Americans took control of the Spanish naval fleet in Manila. Only a year before, the Filipinos had declared independence from Spain. It was a revolution. When the Americans came and neutralized the Spanish, the Filipinos thought they were here to help us, so they were welcomed at first. In the meantime, the Americans brought in troops to take over what the Spaniards had. Lots of historians call the Filipino-American war “the forgotten war.” There was hardly any mention of it on the home front. Here were the Filipinos barefooted with bolos against the troops. It was a disaster.
Villager: Then of course, a man named Fernando Marcos came along.
Yrastorza: The U.S. was complicit in many things happening in the Philippines. Like many dictators in the world, he was a saint and he gradually became greedy and took millions of dollars that were supposed to be for the people. The Philippines were corrupt from the very beginning when the Spanish came: “You’re my lord and you want me to do something, so I sneak around and learn how to lie, and you give me some goodies.” That’s the kind of culture that emanates from a colonial overlord and it continued with the Americans. It continued with the Japanese. When I visited during the Marcos years, the country was subdued and controlled. People crossed the street at the right places. In the end, the people correctly said enough is enough. What made them unique is they achieved his downfall peacefully.
Villager: What are your strongest memories of growing up in the Philippines?
Yrastorza: It was as much adventurous as ominous being occupied by Japan. I followed the Army with my toy cap pistol and a cowboy outfit that my mother had gotten from Montgomery Ward. At one point, I became friends with a Japanese soldier. He tells me he graduated from high school in state of Washington in 1941 and his parents gave him a graduation trip to Japan to visit his grandparents. Next to his grandparents was a representative from the Japanese army who said, “You’re in.” He was in the Japanese army fighting against Americans.
We were refugees at a schoolhouse that had been a Japanese headquarters. The Americans started bombing. We got relief, but then the Japanese came, thinking that the Americans were there and set the building on fire. The first bunch that rushed out the front door was met by machineguns set up by the Japanese. It was horrible. People were trapped in that fire.
Villager: What’s it like to go back to the Philippines today?
Yrastorza: I see the big differences between myself and my relatives who live there. I have a bigger worldview.
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