“It was disgusting,” she says. But even back then, in 1986, Shiela knew her father, Samuel Gill Barber, had once been one of those American servicemen at the bar. She knew Sam had hired her mother for a night in 1979, fell in love with her, impregnated her, and then left for America a month before Shiela was born.
So for the next two decades Shiela looked for her father Sam. She found him in 2006, broken, serving time in a Georgia jail.
Olongapo is a seedy town a three-hour drive northwest of the capital, Manila. For much of the century before 1992, it serviced a vast American military base here that was closed in 1992 amid anti-American protests. Red Rooster Bar on Jungle Street catered to African American soldiers. Nearby Magsaysay Drive was home to numerous sex-bars where the white U.S. marines lounged.
As children, Shiela and her six siblings all slept together on the floor outside their mother’s bedroom. Up to four Americans per night would tiptoe over the dozing kids to take turns sleeping with their mother.
Shiela faced severe racism growing up. Classmates and some teachers called her “Beluga,” “Negra” and “the dirt of the Americans.” The prostitute kids with white American fathers were often considered beautiful: “They were popular; they won beauty contests.” But the children of black Americans were doubly cursed.
Shiela was never close to her mother, whom she says was "smart…[and] could have done better…but always thought her destiny was to find an American to bring her to paradise [in the U.S.].”
Shiela’s grandmother tried to bolster her self-esteem by telling her a bit about Sam: how he was kind, rarely talked, sipped beer, towered at 6 foot 7 inches, and loved basketball. As mementos, Shiela was given Sam’s marine basketball jersey along with some faded pictures of him.
Unlike many of her peers who turned to drugs and prostitution to avoid the shame or frustration of being castaways, Shiela focused her energies on her studies, and on finding her American dad.
Between ages eight to twelve, Shiela approached scores of tall black American men asking them if they were Samuel Barber. When she hit her teens and received a grant to study computer science from Preda, an organization that helps Amerasian youth with prostitute mothers and absent American fathers, she developed more high-tech ways of seeking her father.
She used the Internet to find hundreds of U.S. addresses under that name. Despite the high cost, she sent out five letters per week, eighty in total, hoping for a reply. Nothing came. Then she wrote to Oprah Winfrey asking for her help. “She is black, and helps black people,” Shiela explained.
Shiela identifies herself as a “Filipina-African-American” and asked me about the racial struggle in the U.S. “Is it as bad as here?” Oprah didn’t reply.
Then Shiela found Jennifer Williams, an Amerasian living in Georgia who founded AmerasianFamilyFinder.com. Searching through old marine databases, Shiela scanned the living, the dead, and finally considered those in jail. That’s when one more Samuel Barber appeared. He was serving five years' time in a Georgia jail for cocaine abuse.
Expecting nothing, Shiela wrote to the warden of the jail. Three weeks later, she got this letter back:
“I'm your long lost father. I feel so ashamed...How can you forgive me?”
Her response was simple: “We should not live in the past.”
“Who’s to blame?" I ask. "Who should you forgive?”
“Nobody,” says Shiela immediately, but then says of her mother, “She always wanted quick money.” And of the army base, she says, “Once it closed, it forced [her mother] to find another job,” as domestic help in the Middle East, where she remains.
“The situation is terrible for everyone,” Shiela says.
In 2007 Sam got out of jail. He’s on probation now, making money from “painting fences for white people.” The two hope to meet. But Shiela only earns US$200 per month working for Preda, and takes care of her grandmother and siblings with that. Her father can barely afford his electricity.
But Shiela is hopeful they will meet. While many of her peers repeat her mother’s mistakes, she hopes her studies, and a newborn relationship with her lost father can help ground her in her roots, and free her from her past.