• Interviews

True Crime: A Filmmaker Digs Up a Century-Old Murder in Northern California, Part I

First of a three-part series on filmmaker Celine Parreñas Shimizu’s The Celine Archive, a documentary on the true story of a Filipina immigrant who was buried alive in 1932. – a true history of violence against women.

In the 1930s, a Filipina was buried alive in Northern California. Celine Parreñas Shimizu made a documentary, The Celine Archive, in which she tries to find the real story behind the tragedy, and in the process explores feminism, racism, misogyny, and transgenerational trauma.

But first, a background on the story. Celine Montayre Navarro was only 14 years old when she met Ignacio Navarro, a man who used to work in the camps in the United States. She married him when she was 15. He was 25.

Both were from Cebu, Philippines. They immigrated to the U.S. and met in Stockton, California. They had four children.

In 1932, at age 28, Navarro was buried alive in Jersey Island, an island in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta of Contra Costa County, California, by members of a group called Caballeros de Dimas-alang and their auxiliary female group, the Maria Claras.


Some people theorized that Navarro was murdered because she witnessed a crime allegedly committed by a Filipino man against a white woman – a case of domestic abuse. Others said that Navarro was punished because of her infidelity to her ailing husband who was dying of tuberculosis. Eight people were indicted but later acquitted.

Shimizu, dean of the Arts Division and distinguished professor of Film and Digital Media at the University of California at Santa Cruz, wrote, directed, and produced The Celine Archive. The film has won numerous awards, including from the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival and San Diego Asian Film Festival.

The documentary not only tries to find answers to questions about the murder of Navarro but also paints a vivid portrait of the early Filipino immigrant community struggling with widespread racism and misogyny. It also displays the strength, courage, and character of the late Navarro.

Some people thought the Navarro murder case was just a ghost story told by the elderly to their grandchildren about the woman buried alive, her hand sticking out from the grave, with fingernails filled with dirt as she struggled to get out.

But Shimizu, together with her sister Rhacel Parreñas (who is a co-producer on the film), both then undergraduates at UC Berkeley, discovered that the “ghost story” was actually a real story.

In The Celine Archive, Shimizu, herself a Filipina, weaves her own story of grief within the tragedy in 1932 that also deepens her understanding of the history of the early Filipino immigrants.

Below are excerpts of my interview with Shimizu, who is the author of three books and who has directed two other films.

When was the first time you heard this story, and what inspired you to make the documentary?

Thank you so much for your interest in this film which I really hope is a gift to our community in the global diaspora of Filipino-Americans and Filipinos everywhere.

I was an undergraduate at UC Berkeley in the early ’90s. This was a time when I was really trying to figure out who I was. I had been in this country for just about five years.

My sister, who I was at Berkeley with, was informed by the same fire to learn more about Filipinos in America. She was doing research. She ran into this article from the New York Times about a Filipino woman being buried alive in the 1930s in Northern California.

She thought it was so remarkable that her name was also Celine. It’s a gruesome and horrible story. But it’s so rare to find another Filipina with that name. There’s a lot of Spanish names, American names, but it’s strange that it’s a French name. It was also from a woman who was from the 1930s.

She just would tease me like it’s the aswang [a shapeshifting evil spirit in Filipino folklore] – she’s following you around. It just became a part of my life for 20 years. The more I thought about it, the more it was a gripping story for me.

I wanted to find out more about her because Filipinos at that time, the ratio of men to women was 14 to 1. I thought she was buried alive because she was going around looking for other men. Was that it? Then she was being punished for her exploration of sexual freedom. Was that it?

Because it was also a time for me of pagdadalaga, growing up as a woman and trying to figure out what is sexual freedom? What is a sexual choice? I made a lot of assumptions about it. The more I looked into it, the more revealing the story was about who we are in this country.

There are two reasons why the Caballeros and the Maria Claras wanted Celine dead. The first one was because she witnessed a crime allegedly committed by a Filipino against a white woman. The second was she was unfaithful to her ailing husband. What do you think was the real reason?

We don’t know what the real reason is. But what we can draw from the archives is that women’s stories were buried, much like how she was buried alive, and also how we have such a capacity for tolerating the violence against women that’s perpetrated within the community.

The first story was that she committed adultery while her ailing husband was suffering from tuberculosis. That was the story that was most circulated in the newspapers at the time. This story was circulated all over the world – Singapore, Los Angeles, New York, London.


But when you dig more deeply, you then find out this other story that maybe was harder to take – that she was very heroic and brave in talking about this other Filipino man who was beating up his 18-year-old white wife, and she [the wife] was being protected by another man.

The man attacked that man. Celine was supposedly a witness to this. Then when she reported it, she testified against the men in court, which helped to send them to prison. She violated what was the most important rule in the community at the time, which was loyalty.

Because we have to remember the vehement and intense racism that Filipinos were going through. They were being lynched. Their makeshift homes were being bombed and put into flames. They were being chased out of town. In towns like Watsonville, there were very famous race riots in 1930. Filipinos could not find protection from institutions, the police, etc. They were victimized by police, and they could only help themselves, and they were mainly young people. They were really holding on to the community and the tradition of helping each other.

Once she did that, to them, it was a violation of the main code of life. They were almost like religious zealots. They were very strict about this code of loyalty and belonging. When you violate that, then you come under attack. When you don’t know, it could be one of those two things, right?

This Caballeros de Dimas-alang and the Maria Claras were described as like a cult. Are they still in existence?

There were fraternal organizations, of which the Caballeros de Dimas-alang was one. They were organizations that really provided resources to the new Filipino immigrants that were 30,000 to 40,000 around that time who were in the U.S.

They helped them with finding places to live, food, and also just acculturating them into this new area, baptisms, marriages, taking care of people when they were sick and dying. It was a very community-centered, building organization. They were informal families. They really aimed to help people.

But there was this part of it. On one occasion, Dr. Dorothy Cordova, the Executive Director of Filipino-American National Historical Society said, “It wasn’t like people were going around killing people.” But they existed at that time.


I think the Caballeros de Dimas-alang existed up until the recent decades. After they were dissolved, these organizations donated all of their materials to the Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS) in Stockton. They own property in San Francisco. But I don’t think that they exist any longer. I think we’re much more acculturated.

(Come back tomorrow for Part Two)