• Interviews

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

Second 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. And more: racism, pioneering feminism, community silence, grief, and trauma.

How would you describe the Filipino immigrant community’s mood during those times? Was there a women’s power movement? Did the women feel they exhibited this power by doing something to their Filipina sister, by being pressured by the men to do this?

I’m so thankful for the scholarship of the late historian Dawn Mabalon, who was a professor at San Francisco State University, and also for the incredible depth of research conducted by Dr. Dorothy Cordova of FANHS, who collected many oral testimonies of what it was like to be a Filipina across the decades in the United States.

Dawn Mabalon did all this amazing research by looking at letters to the editors, articles that women wrote about their time. It involved, definitely, the currency of beauty, of having beautiful penmanship and having the social ability to bring people together. All of those things mattered, especially within the really severe gender ratio between men and women.


In terms of the Celine Navarro case, it has been a big debate in the community. Was this a signal of the way women did have power outside of men? Or was this a way that the men bullied the women, especially because Celine was being condemned supposedly for desiring another man apart from her husband or being desired by another man.

There were these experiments or violations with rituals of marriage in an intensely Catholic community. That’s up for debate as well. That’s something that we included because it’s quite hard to tell what was really happening. But for me personally, it’s hard to deny that Celine had the power and courage to go against the community and testify.

Bringing forth the wrath and ire required that courage. That really required a lot of power, maybe misguided, misdirected power, but they definitely had power, too. While it’s hard to tell, we can see that the women acted.

The last thing I want to say about women’s power is that I did not expect it would uncover the story of Filipino-American migration, that it has very much been told in terms of men.

Men came here to work. Men came here to marry people, start families. But we don’t really hear about women doing that. Celine’s mother, Juana Montayre, brought her three daughters and they moved on their own. They did not follow any man.

They moved on their own because they themselves were seeking work, opportunity, dreams, and they did it. One of the big contributions of the film is that it explores the notion that women were just following men around. These women acted of their own accord.

Eight of them were indicted of the murder but were acquitted. What do you think of that?

The way the newspaper stories were constructed, the story was definitely of savagery and voodoo ritual. There was this narrative that Filipinos did not belong to the U.S. as citizens.

They could not qualify as citizens because they had a constitution that was incompatible with civilization. That was really shown in the newspapers. But I don’t think it’s deserved in any way.

This was an anomaly. It was a rare occasion, a controversial one. But what is really revealing, and that’s one of the most painful results of the movie is that the people were indicted but they were not convicted because the organization, the Caballeros de Dimas-alang, was able to solicit contributions from every single member. They were able to hire the best defense attorneys.

Through a glitch, whether it was different rules according to different counties, they were able to get off. That was extremely painful for the family because this means that Celine Navarro did not get justice. Even more so, the community came together to prevent her from receiving justice.

For the family of Celine Navarro and her many descendants, it’s very different. Whenever I see Filipino-Americans on the street, I always figure out, are we from the same place? Are we related? What’s your name? Who are you? Who’s your family? Where do I go get the best food around in this neighborhood?


For them, it’s not like that. There’s a sense of suspicion – were you a part of the community that led to the sacrifice of my grandmother? I can’t even imagine that disorienting pain in regard to a community that you’re supposed to belong to.

There were two men who were asked to bury Celine. But one of them saw Celine with her hand sticking out of the dirt and her fingers trying to come out of her grave. Why didn’t they try to save her? What do you think happened there?

I did not even know that Filipinos at that time had cars. I just thought they took the bus. But it was interesting to read that people had cars. There were two or three cars that traveled with her from Stockton all the way to Jersey Island.

Is it like just under two hours to get there? I can’t even imagine at that time how long that took and what did they go through, those eight people? What were they talking about in the car as they were bringing this woman who was alive to this desolate site?

At that site in Jersey Island, there were two men who they woke up. One of them interestingly has a Korean name, Kang, then another one had a Filipino name. But they woke them up.

Then one of the four men, one of the bosses, Bustamante, when I first read the article, I thought, “Oh, Bustamante was having an affair with Celine Navarro. He got jealous.” But that was not the case. He ordered those two men to dig up a hole and then put her in the hole.

Dillon Delvo [founder of Little Manila Rising], one of the community activists in the film, talks about how long that took. What was the consciousness around that they all stood around and waited for a huge hole like that to be dug and then to put the ground over her? How long did it take and what did they say to her as that was happening?

But I do believe that mandate of loyalty was so strong, that people were acting in such fear that they could do such a thing. And to know that she was alive, and the mythology around it is that she had her hands coming out of the ground. It was a very brutal, very violent experience, I’m sure.

There are a lot of stories around in the community about what happened to those people. One of them supposedly was driven mad by the memory and was forever changed. One of the family members said, “I know one of the families of that person and they live close by. It’s been 80 years and they’ve never said anything to me.”

One of the descendants of Celine Navarro worked in a nursing home and she said that she actually ended up having to take care of one of those men. That was really very disturbing because I think the man had dementia, and he just kept talking about it.

Eighty years later, he’s still talking about it. It goes to show how both for the people who are the descendants of Celine and even the killers themselves, it’s a story that’s lasting up until their moment of death. It has haunted them.

((Come back tomorrow for Part Three)