With green eyes, light hair, a pronounced nose and light skin, it’s easy to assume that 75-year-old Carlene Bonnivier is of European descent.But if anyone were to ask what ethnicity she identifies with, she would say she’s Filipino.
Born to a Swedish-French father and Filipino-Spanish mother, Bonnivier is half European and only one-quarter Filipino. She has been to the Philippines twice and speaks limited Tagalog.
Still, she identifies most strongly with her Filipino roots.
Bonnivier spent her former years growing up on the corner of Temple St. and Westlake Ave. in the Bunker Hill neighborhood of Historic Filipinotown during the 1940s where she lived with her mother and sister.
“I grew up knowing I didn’t look Filipino, but I didn’t look like anybody in the neighborhood,” she says.
The Filipino population in her neighborhood was scarce—they were more concentrated in the Figueroa and Temple area—but Bonnivier was well aware of and strongly connected to that part of her ethnicity.
This was mainly because the Filipinos her mother met often visited their home. Some were chauffeurs, houseboys, cooks, dishwashers and farmers, who came frequently enough to inform them about what was happening in the Philippines during the Japanese occupation.
It was Bonnivier’s mother, Marciana Sobrino, who was responsible for setting the family’s roots in Historic Filipinotown. Sobrino met Bonnivier’s father, Gerhard Gustav Bonnivier, in the Philippines in the 1930s when he joined the US Cavalry. He was stationed in Baguio, around the area Marciana lived. Then they got married, and endured a series of partings and reunions throughout the years.
Eventually, Gerhard sent for his wife (who was eight months pregnant with Carlene at the time) and their daughter Gerri so that the family could be together in Northern California.
Two weeks after the couple was reunited, Gerhard died.
With no friends or relatives up north, Marciana found Bunker Hill in Los Angeles where Filipinos were allowed to live in the 1940s.
And two weeks after Gerhard’s death, Bonnivier was born.
Upon arriving in Historic Filipinotown, Marciana found a boarding house and secured a job at a factory where she worked for nine years at a wage of 18 cents per hour. She typically worked eight to 10 hours a day, leaving Gerri in charge for the most part, an expectation held of the panganay (eldest child) in Filipino families.
Bonnivier’s encounters with Filipinos went beyond those her mother invited over. At the age of 10, she took a trip to Delano where she witnessed how Filipino farm workers slept on wooden boards and spring boards, how plumbing in their living spaces were dysfunctional, and how they were treated poorly. The mere recollection of seeing all of that at a young age brings tears to her eyes.
“What I definitely noticed growing up was that with the Filipinos, there is a gentleness… but they understood it wasn’t received as gentleness. It was received as weakness or stupidity. They wouldn’t say anything. But what I mean is, that gentleness was, I think, natural to Filipinos and it was not well received in America. That’s what I saw,” she says.
In addition to Bunker Hill, Bonnivier’s family had lived in three other areas in Historic Filipinotown: Beaudry, Burlington and Westlake. When she reached her high school years, her family moved to Inglewood. The area was predominantly white at the time, she says, and while she blended in with her physical appearance, the same could not be said of her cultural values.
One memory that stands out is an event that played out in her junior year, when a non-Filipino peer invited Bonnivier to her house to listen to records. The girl had her own room, her own record player and records.
“I was just astounded by this sort of luxury living,” Bonnivier says, laughing.
When it was time for dinner, Bonnivier instinctively – given her cultural background – made her way to the table.
But dinner time for the girl’s family meant something completely different.
“One of her parents said, ‘It’s time for dinner. You should go home now,’” Bonnivier recalls.
She was shocked.
“I couldn’t even speak. Luckily I don’t blush, but if I had, I would have been beet red. It was like I had been slapped,” she says.
At the time, Bonniver had no clue why she was being sent away from the table.
“I was really embarrassed. I was mortified,” she says.
Bonnivier has an abundance of such stories to share about her younger years. She is a published writer (some of her works include “Seeking Thirst ” and “Autobiography of a Stranger”) and says her writing comes from the first 10 years of her life. In “Seeking Thirst,” part of the storyline focuses on an orphan who lives in Historic Filipinotown for a period of time as she figures out her identity, a process that parallels what Bonnivier had experienced.
Her most recent book, “Filipinotown: Voices from Los Angeles,” is a compilation of stories, poems, maps, newspaper articles, photos and various documents that bring to life the earlier years of Historic Filipinotown. Today, the area remains home to many Filipino organizations, churches, medical clinics and hospitals.
Contents of the book include a poem by Johneric Concordia, founder and owner of The Parks Finest restaurant; a letter from Bonnivier requesting the addition of Filipino-American author Carlos Bulosan’s novel, “America is in the Heart,” to the Library of Congress’ list of 100 Books that Shaped America; a map of Little Manila; photographs and writings depicting the struggle of Filipino World War II veterans against discrimination after being denied benefits as US veterans; and the proclamation signed by former president Bill Clinton declaring Oct. 26, 1996, as a day honoring Filipino veterans in World War II.
In addition to being a writer, Bonnivier was formerly a teacher at University of California Irvine where she worked with ESL students and those who struggled with the subject.
“I love working with students like that, partly because my mom only finished third grade and struggled to read and write,” she says.
A lot of things for Bonnivier trace back to her Filipina mother. For one, Marciana always made people comfortable at their home. Bonnivier mirrors the hospitality she describes in her mother.
At her house in Long Beach, she’s quick to offer a seat, pecan cookies, coffee, and explain all the memorabilia and framed photos and artwork in her living room, even without necessarily knowing her guest too well.
Upon stepping foot into her home, one immediately visible frame surrounds a black and white sketch highlighting her mother’s eyes. There are also several figurines she collected during her travels. One of them is a green dragon-like head from Thailand.
Among corners of the globe she’s touched include Austria and Bulgaria. She also trekked the Himalayas and visited Puerto Rico.
“It was the happiest time of my life,” she says of traveling. “I didn’t have a single key, not for a car or an apartment.”
For the six to seven months she explored the globe, Bonnivier shares that she made it a point to take notes in a journal, where she jotted down even the smallest details. In Nepal, she wrote about how when she got stuck playing the string game cat’s cradle, someone swooped in to help her out just at the sight of her needing assistance. In Puerto Rico, she took notes about a time when a young child simply crawled into her lap and sat there while she was reading the newspaper.
“That would never happen in America,” she says with a laugh.
Bonnivier planned on including the Philippines in her travels for two and a half years starting in 1972 through the Peace Corps. However, because former Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos uninvited volunteers during his reign, she ended up spending that time in Malaysia.
Although she was not able to immerse herself in the culture in the Philippines, Bonnivier was exposed to multiple facets of it through her mother. One of these was cuisine, as Marciana would concoct Filipino dishes, such as adobo and sticky rice.
And even if Bonnivier can’t speak much Tagalog, she is acutely aware of what it’s like when the wrath of an angry Filipina mother unravels. Whenever Marciana lost her temper, the words that rolled off her tongue consisted of Hala! Hindi!, Bonnivier’s full name, and an expletive that Bonnivier thought sounded like “remember the Alamo!”
While she remembers how mad her mom could become, Bonnivier also recalls how tender she was, how people who didn’t know her family would assume her mom was her maid, and how Marciana handled prejudice well.
In 2010, at the age of 98, Marciana passed away, but it’s not an event Bonnivier dwells on. She reminisces more thoughtfully about how her mom was not always treated well because of her kindness.
“I had to protect my mother’s gentleness,” she says.
As she revisits the sights, scenes and events that have contributed to her identity as a Filipino, it’s a Wednesday morning at her home and Bonnivier is recovering from a hip operation. It’s not obvious, as she manages to walk, sit and stand up without assistance.
She’s in the process of undergoing rehab and relates that experience to her identity, since nearly all the nurses, nurse aids and physical therapists at the facility she visits are Filipino.
“I tell you, I would hear how they were talking to people, how they would try to convince someone they could turn over or be OK. They wouldn’t hurt them and the person might be yelling at them and screaming at them to go away, and they would keep talking to them. It’s just an amazing facility, to love, that just to me seems natural and it gets twisted around,” she says.
In Bonnivier’s most recent book, she acknowledges that Filipinos living away from home don’t necessarily know everything going on in the Philippines, but states this does not eliminate ties to their ethnic identity.
“We may not follow day-to-day what’s happening in the Philippines, in our villages or cities, but…We will always remember where we came from and the value of respecting our elders,” she writes.