• Interviews

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

Conclusion of a three-part series on filmmaker Celine Parreñas Shimizu’s documentary The Celine Archive 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.

Among the relatives of Celine, you met Lucia Navarro, Tootsie Reyes, and Henie Navarro. Can you talk about the relatives of Celine and what their reaction has been?

I didn’t know who they were, and I would not know where to even start to find them. I didn’t know she had any descendants, actually. I was presenting at the Echo Park Public Library, and they asked me, “What’s your next film?” I talked about The Celine Archive and how the story has been with me for 20 years.

Someone in the audience approached me and said, “I know the family. Would you like to meet them?” I can’t remember what restaurant, maybe it was Olive Garden or something, in a town in Los Angeles. We ended up talking. It was in 2012 or 2013.

We established trust. One of the main things is that the family has been really victimized by either the invisibility of that story, the burial of that story, or how her story is really eclipsed by the racism in the articles. That Filipinos are savage, wild, demonic.

The trust was very important to establish. Her youngest sister, Tawa, was still alive at the time. But it took too long for us to reconnect again. When Celine’s youngest sister Tawa died, my own youngest son Lakas died, and then I reconnected with my contact after that.

She introduced me to Henie Navarro, based on that trust. I talked to Henie for a long time, and we had to meet in person because he wanted to vet me and see what I was about, to see my face.


One important assurance to him was I wasn’t going to recreate that very sensationalist narrative, and that I was very much in sympathy with their pain that feels it was just yesterday that this happened to them, even though he never met his grandma. From meeting Henie and establishing that trust, he introduced me to Lucia Navarro, Celine’s only living daughter, and her granddaughter, Tootsie Reyes. Her son interviewed me, making sure that I wasn’t going to be exploiting his mom.

It took a long time to establish trust. I’m so pleased that they feel honored by the film. They feel that I listened to Celine Navarro’s story and have asked to adopt me into their family. I just feel this strong sense of love from them that I return in equal measure.

I love them so much as a family and I have so much profound respect for what they’ve gone through. I really want to honor that. I did not want to create a Forensic Files, Law & Order. Here’s the guilty. Here’s the victimized.

I really wanted to talk about the people who are in pain. I did not want to repeat the infliction of pain on their family. We continue to speak. One day, I hope that we can go to the archives together and take a field trip as a family.


It’s amazing also that Dr. Dorothy Cordova, and all the historians, Alex Fabros, Prof. Dawn Mabalon, and Prof. Rick Baldoz, all of these people helped you, and they have files and archival materials on this. Talk about the research that they got involved in as well.

What’s interesting is that Alex Fabros published the first article on it in 1997 with the help of Filipinas Magazine, which was published by Mona Lisa Yuchengco. He felt quite ousted or condemned for having aired the dirty laundry.

But that article was the very first lifeline for the family. It became a confirmation that the oral history being passed down about their mother and grandmother truly and really happened. That article was passed on in the family. It really says something about what scholars and historians can do to help our community.

Alex found it through the help of 200 students at San Francisco State University where I used to teach. These students really wanted to bring her story to life. They wanted to make sure that it was not buried, that the stories of women in our community can rise to the top.

Prof. Dawn Mabalon was also doing research at UCLA and Stanford, really a testament to Asian-American studies and critical race theory and what does it mean to know our own stories.

Prof. Rick Baldoz was doing the same. His family is a really pioneering Filipino American, multiple generations in the Pacific Northwest, community activists.

The poet Jean Vengua was studying under Oscar Campomanes at UC Berkeley. She found this story, too.

So many people in the community knew about it. I’m so honored that they really helped and were a part of the film. One of the things that I’m proudest of is making visible the work of scholars, historians, the work of Dorothy Cordova with FANHS, and how important it is for us to know our story.

What’s the role of your own sister, Rhacel Parreñas, in the film?

My sister is a scholar. She really helped me to frame the film. She’s one of the best interviewers out there.

We were scouting that location in Jersey Island and we were on the boat. On the day that we were going to go to where she was killed, it was so bizarre because not only did I not know that the Sacramento goes all the way from the Pacific Ocean, all the way deep into eastern California. But there was a seal following the boat the whole time. It looked like a long-haired woman swimming.

Then in the car, it was so dark, and these dead-looking birds were flying towards us. We were so freaked out. Jean Vengua tells the same kind of story. Alex Fabros tells the same kind of story. When we went to that site, it was so spooky, so scary.


But we definitely felt her presence. It was very cathartic. Because I didn’t know what a funeral was until my own son died. I want to make sure to give them a funeral in the film.

Why do you think this story is buried, not really well known to the community?

A key part of it is that the men were acquitted, and she didn’t get justice. In some ways, that becomes the logical result – the story dissipates. It’s really quite unfortunate. I do think that it says a lot about our capacity to tolerate the violence against women and the silencing of women in our community.

I really hope that this film enables us to say what other stories are out there in our past that are equally formative to so many families. It just really shows a picture of how hard it was at that time and how truly amazing and miraculous it is that we continue to be here, even in the face of her story.

Do you think this story deserves a full-length narrative feature film?

When I first thought I was going to be making the movie, I did think it was going to be a fiction screenplay that I was going to write and then direct. Because once you look at the New York Times article from April 1933, it’s so cinematic. It’s like, Bustamante, then these people who buried and then just her own story. I do think that it deserves cinematic fictional treatment.

The costumes alone, the physical comportment of being in migrant labor camps in central California, the amazing labor organizing that was happening, the way that the community is organized, fraternal organizations to help each other to provide food shelter. All of that is so dramatic and so epic, a testimony to the strength of a people. You would want to show that.

But when I met the family, I knew then that I had to make a documentary because I wanted the family to speak, and I wanted them to share what does it mean to inherit this story? What does it mean to become orphaned by a murder that happened within a family?

I wanted Lucia to be able to talk about how she was neglected as a child. She didn’t know where her meal was going to come from because she was missing her mother and her father.

Maybe a fiction film can tell this better. But the film says so much about the ability of Filipinos to come in and out of the country and how, because of the Tydings-McDuffie Act in 1934, they couldn’t come back until 1965. This family really experienced the way that we were treated as a people within U.S. immigration laws and international relations.


I do hope, whether it’s me or someone else, an epic fictional movie should be made. Sticking close to the historical record will be a big benefit. It’s really thanks to the amazing work of historians that we know the story.