My Grandfather, A Killer Denise Guerra, a second-generation Filipino American, never met her grandfather. When she finally learned a long-held family secret, it shattered her view of the quintessential immigrant narrative.
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My Grandfather, A Killer

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My Grandfather, A Killer

My Grandfather, A Killer

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Sometimes, families harbor the deepest of secrets. WEEKEND EDITION producer Denise Guerra recently uncovered a murder mystery among her relatives she'd never known about. And in pursuing her investigation, she'd learned about her family's long and complicated history with the United States. Here's Denise.

DENISE GUERRA, BYLINE: One day a few years ago, I was driving through downtown Los Angeles with my dad, Manolo Guerra. He points to a building and says...

MANOLO GUERRA: Did you know that my dad killed somebody in that place?

D GUERRA: I almost missed the moment. I remember my response. Wait, what? It shocked me. I'd heard stories of my grandfather, Vicente Guerra. We called him Lolo, which means grandfather in Tagalog, a language of the Philippines. But I'd never even heard anything about Lolo coming to America, much less that he killed someone.

M GUERRA: I remember that time you don't believe me.

D GUERRA: This is the immigrant story I knew. My father came here from the Philippines in the 1980s to give his family a better life. It was the quintessential American dream, or so I thought. All my father knew was that Lolo had been in a fight with some locals in Los Angeles.

M GUERRA: According to my dad, he was going in a restaurant. He was eating. He went inside the restroom, and two guys slit his neck.

D GUERRA: He survived, but Lolo never let it go. Two years later, he's cruising out with his friends and he sees the men who tried to murder him.

M GUERRA: And right then and there, my dad said, stop. I'm going to shoot them. And he has a driver, one of his friends. He said, don't stop the engine. When you hear a shot, just go, and I will run, and I will try to catch you, but don't make it too fast.

D GUERRA: Lolo was caught and sent to prison. That was it. That was the story.

M GUERRA: I said, if you don't believe me, why don't you do some research?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

D GUERRA: It was a lot to take in. I wanted evidence, so I went looking through old newspapers, went through state and national archives, and there I found his mug shot. He was a handsome man, 24 years old in a suit with slick black hair. The charge - second-degree murder. His sentence - five years to life in prison. I found another clue, a newspaper headline - "Oriental Killed, One Shot, In Love Feud." There was Lolo's name and the name of the man he killed, a Filipino named Joseph Retotar. And that love feud, it was over an American woman. Who was she? Her name could be in a case file. On a muggy day, I went to the Los Angeles County Hall of Records looking for it. But when the archivist took the microfilm out of its box, it fell apart.

I kept looking. I wanted to understand what Lolo faced when he came to America in the 1930s. I found history books about young Filipino men at that time. I tried to imagine them stepping foot off steamships into a new world.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

D GUERRA: America offered poor men like Lolo an opportunity to start over, and it was easy to immigrate.

M GUERRA: During that time, the Philippines are still part of the United States.

D GUERRA: They were field hands and domestic workers. Lolo's occupation in his prison records listed him as a houseboy. It was a job with long hours and low pay for rich families. These men were known as America's little brown brothers.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

D GUERRA: But when work was over, these men took on a new persona. If you look at a photograph of Filipinos in the 1930s, you would notice the fedoras, pressed suits and shiny, wingtip shoes. It was a chance to feel respectable and to impress the women working at the local dance halls.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TEN CENTS A DANCE")

RUTH ETTING: (Singing) All that you need is a ticket. Come on, big boy, 10 cents a dance.

D GUERRA: I traced a popular dance hall where Filipinos hung out in downtown Los Angeles. One was near city hall where the murder took place. It's what happened there that would set the course of Lolo's life. After, Lolo was sent to San Quentin.

M GUERRA: He stayed, I think, about seven years.

D GUERRA: There's a handwritten note in the prison records. It's hard to read, but it says repat paroled May 5, 1939. Repat could be a reference to the government's attempt to repatriate Filipinos back to the islands. White workers were angry that they were taking jobs, so politicians responded. It was also convenient timing according to my dad's cousin, my tita Letty Francisco. The U.S. offered Lolo parole but on one condition.

LETTY FRANCISCO: They were asked, the prisoners, the Filipinos, who want to go home but they have to join the army then because we lacked soldiers then.

D GUERRA: In 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and invaded the Philippines. Lolo by then had returned to his childhood home, Ibaan. There, he became a second lieutenant in the guerrilla army that was fighting alongside the U.S.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) These are guerrillas. Don't let the clothes fool you. Men like these kept the war going in the Philippines.

D GUERRA: Lolo even got a nickname. Instead of Vincente Guerra, they called him Vicente Bakal.

FRANCISCO: Bakal is iron.

D GUERRA: Yeah, iron. Lolo was tough as steel. My dad said Lolo bragged about killing the Japanese invaders.

M GUERRA: He cannot remember how many Japanese they killed, but there is one story here that is very vivid.

D GUERRA: Lolo was in charge of tracking and killing Filipino traitors who leaked secrets to the Japanese. One time, they were tasked with killing a woman. They couldn't use a gun because it would make a sound, so they used the piece of wood.

M GUERRA: They kept hitting her and hitting her. She won't die. She's still breathing. So what they did is they just dig a hole. But when they put her there, she's still alive. That's why he said, you know, after that, I asked my boss, transfer me to something. I really cannot take it.

D GUERRA: When I think back on the story, it makes me angry, the fact that he killed a woman so brutally, even in the service of his country. But the more I research Lolo, I can't help but see that America seemed to encourage the worst in him. What if he never left the Philippines in the first place? He would never have committed the murder and sent to prison or fought in the war. And then there was Ted Lewin. He was an American who built some of the biggest casinos in Manila. After the war, Dad said Lewin hired Lolo as his enforcer.

M GUERRA: When they found out something in the casino that you are cheating, they will beat the hell out of them.

D GUERRA: Lolo became a top boss at Lewin's casino. He was feared and respected and eventually owned his own businesses, taxis and distilleries. And this success gave my dad the opportunity to go to college in the Philippines. After graduating, Dad tried to build a business, but he went into debt, and he owed people money. They came after him. He found his only way out was in America. And it would come full circle. Dad actually got his citizenship with the help of Lolo's war service. From there, he started from scratch in the U.S., hustled and worked hard. He got a job in manufacturing and built my family a middle-class life. He's retired now. He never went back to the Philippines, even for Lolo's funeral.

M GUERRA: When I die, I already bought our family plot because most people, when they die, they go home, but this is my home.

D GUERRA: When I think about Lolo's story, the murder, the war, his thuggery, my biggest question is whether he was a monster. Despite Lolo's violence, Dad believes he was a good guy. I'm not so sure, but the blood he shed is part of my family story. It's part of America's. Denise Guerra, NPR News.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And you can check out more of this wonderful story, along with family photos, at npr.org.

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