For Filipino Americans, fraternal organizations like the Masons have
played an important historic role in forging connections.
Now a new generation is making its mark on the fraternity.

By James Sobredo

For Saturnino Cariaga, this is the fun part. It’s late spring, and he and 32 other Masons in Riverside County are in the final stages of filing their intent to form a new Masonic lodge, to be named for the national hero of the Philippines, José Rizal. “We’re shooting for June 19, Rizal’s birthday,” says Cariaga, a Menifee-based Navy veteran, restaurant owner, and member of Hemet San Jacinto No. 338 and MW Manuel Luis Quezon No. 874.

There’s still lots to do. As the lodge prepares to receive its dispensation, Cariaga, who goes by J.P., still needs to secure the group a permanent home—either at the Menifee Lodge or at the nearby Masonic hall in Murrieta—and finalize the membership roster. Then there are the fun little details to work out, like a new lodge logo that can be embroidered into a custom-made barong Tagalog, or Filipino dress shirt. But this is the time to think big, to imagine what a brand-new lodge will look, feel, and act like—especially one that’s consciously incorporating elements of Filipino culture. “We want to be active, vibrant,” he says. One thing’s for sure, he says. “Definitely, we’re going to have a big party.”

He isn’t the only one thinking along those lines. Ninety miles west, in Gardena, Norm Tonderas is the charter master of another newly formed and expressly Filipino-inspired lodge, Andrés Bonifacio U.D. “The demand for Masonry is growing, especially among Filipinos,” he says. For Tondares, also a member of Pacific Rim No. 567, Bonifacio U.D. is an opportunity to “forge a new identity.” Like Rizal, Bonifacio is an important Philippine independence figure. “His name evokes a spirit of courage, freedom of thought, and patriotism,” Tondares says. “It evokes struggle and perseverance reminiscent of the risks that we and our parents took in coming to California.”

The excitement surrounding the new lodges is palpable—and indicative of a growing Pinoy influence in the fraternity. Both lodges have almost entirely Filipino American membership, and add to the sizable Filipino presence in California Masonry. Today, Filipino Americans are the largest nonwhite ethnic group in California Masonry and represent the state fraternity’s fastest-growing demographic. While Asian Americans account for about 10 percent of overall membership, that share—and particularly Filipinos’—is much higher among new members. Over the past 10 years, more than 14 percent of all applicants to California lodges were born in the Philippines.

As their numbers have grown, Filipino Americans’ contributions to the craft have increasingly reverberated—through a commitment to the ritual, the introduction of cultural celebrations to lodge life, and an influx of new leaders. “Camaraderie, friendship, brotherly love,” says Thomas Chavez, explaining the growth. Chavez, a member of several Bay Area lodges including Crocker No. 212—one of the approximately 20 California lodges with majority-Filipino memberships—was born in Manila and immigrated to the Bay Area at 21, eventually settling in American Canyon.

Chavez’s fellow member at American Canyon No. 875, Past Grand Master M. David Perry, has seen those traits up close. “There’s a real bond there,” Perry says. In 2015, he became the first sitting grand master of California to make an official visit to the Philippines. “Our Filipino brothers are an integral part of our fraternity, and I’m proud of the diversity we have in California Freemasonry.”

The result of that is a revitalization in many lodges. “There’s new blood coming in, especially among the younger generation,” says Mike Tagulao, a past master of San Leandro No. 113 and a district inspector who was born in Manila. San Leandro is typical of lodges where the Filipino influence has been strongest. As new members join, they tend to invite their social circles to lodge events—and that brings more candidates into the fold. Over time, the lodge’s membership evolved; Tagulao estimates that the lodge is now 80 percent Filipino. “We do events nearly every month—festivals, promotions,” he says. With each, the lodge’s presence in the Filipino community grows.

Says Thomas, who also belongs to San Francisco No. 120 and California No. 1, “Filipino [candidates] come to the parties. They see the lodge and say, ‘How can I join?’” It’s a virtuous cycle powered by friendship and cultural bonds. And the connection runs even deeper than that.

Members of Coronado No. 441 and Amity No. 442 pose during a Filipino Independence Day celebration in 2018 with the national flag of the Philippines at left and the Revolutionary Katipunan at right.

A Revolutionary History

Ask almost any Filipino American Mason about the fraternity’s cultural appeal and the conversation inevitably turns to Rizal. For many, he exemplifies the interrelatedness of Freemasonry and national pride.

Many of the leading figures of the Filipino fight for independence were Freemasons. In fact, Masonic lodges provided much of the infrastructure and networking that helped power the anti-colonial movement. As a result, Masonry has been strongly identified with Filipino nationalism for more than a century, both on the islands and, increasingly, within immigrant enclaves. “Masonry played a big role among the Filipino revolutionaries, especially in fighting the Spanish friars,” says the Rev. Bayani Depra Rico, a member of Mission Lodge No. 169 in San Francisco and Carquinez No. 858. Rico is a former grand chaplain of California and the rector of Ascension Episcopal Church in Vallejo. A great admirer of Filipino history, he was inspired to join the fraternity in large part because of its association with those revolutionary figures.

Filipino Mason and Martyr José Rizal

Chief among them is Dr. José Rizal, the martyred Philippine national hero. Rizal, a highly influential writer who advocated for the expanded rights of Filipinos under Spanish colonial rule, first became a Mason in the 1880s while studying in London. He later moved to Spain and joined the movement of anti-colonialist Filipinos there, affiliating with the influential Lodge La Solidaridad, a Masonic lodge in Madrid that published a nationalist newspaper read widely in Manila. In 1890, Rizal and Marcelo H. del Pilar, leaders of the reform movement in Spain, were granted authority by the Gran Oriente Español to establish a new lodge in the Philippines exclusively for native-born Filipinos. Rizal viewed Masonry as the “universal protest against the ambition of tyrants” and the “supreme manifestation of democracy.” Rizal would eventually publish two major novels that are credited with inspiring the Philippine independence fight.

Filipino Freemason and leader of the Katiputan, Andrés Bonifacio

By that time, Masonry already had roots on the islands. The first Masonic lodge in the Philippines was formed in 1762, when the British temporarily occupied Manila and formed a short-lived military lodge. Other expat lodges briefly sprouted up and disbanded, virtually all of them founded by and open exclusively to Europeans and whites. These were connected to grand lodges in Britain, France, Spain, various U.S. states, and Scotland.

In 1892, Rizal’s newly formed Nilad Lodge No. 144 was established in Manila, from which a wide network of Filipino lodges chartered by the Gran Oriente Español were born. It was in those lodges, driven underground by the colonial government, that many of the most celebrated revolutionary figures were raised as Masons. Chief among them was Bonifacio, a member of Taliba Lodge No. 165 and the founder of the Katipunan, the famous secret organization that in 1896 become part of the Philippine Revolutionary Army. Clearly inspired by Freemasonry, Bonifacio’s Katipunan borrowed heavily from Freemasonry, adopting many of its symbols, rituals, and organizational structures to carry out its armed revolt. “Masonry, or more accurately Filipino Masons, were the pioneers of the establishment of democracy in this country,” wrote Manuel Camus, an important Filipino Mason, judge, and independence figure, in 1938. “And for this many of them lost their comfort, their freedom, and their very lives.”

In 1901, after the Spanish-American War and during the U.S. occupation of the islands, a new Manila Lodge No. 342 was constituted by the Grand Lodge of California. Two more lodges, Cavite No. 350 and Corregidor No. 386, soon followed, and in 1912 the three lodges were granted permission to form a new Grand Lodge of the Philippines, which would perform its work in English under the California ritual. Harry Eugene Stafford was the first grand master. The early leadership of these lodges was largely Anglo-American, but membership was open to all ethnicities and nationalities. (A 1936 report counted 2,711 Filipinos in the fraternity, working alongside 1,948 Americans and 513 Chinese.)

In 1918, Manuel Quezon became its first Filipino-born grand master. Quezon, a former officer in the Philippine Revolutionary Army, is generally acknowledged as the most important political figure in the Philippines. As president of the senate, he would negotiate for a peaceful transition toward Philippine independence from the United States. And in 1935, he was elected the first president of the Philippine Commonwealth, a transitional state before full independence was established. As grand master, he helped unite many American- and Spanish-chartered lodges under the umbrella of the Grand Lodge of the Philippines.

Despite the historic connection between San Francisco and Manila, the relationship between California lodges and Filipino American Masons hasn’t always been harmonious. Once they’d arrived in the United States, many immigrants from the islands formed extensions here of the Spanish-backed lodges that originally birthed the Filipino revolutionary movement, which were not recognized by the Grand Lodge of California. A 1941 Grand Lodge of California committee reported that members of those lodges were “of a much lower grade” than those of recognized lodges, and “not even acceptable Masonic timber.”

While California’s Masonic lodges were never formally closed to Filipinos on the basis of race, the fact is that very few Filipinos were admitted prior to 1960, when the first all-Filipino lodge, Tila Pass No. 797, was chartered in Los Angeles. Even then friction continued. During the 1980s and ’90s, as many urban lodges experienced precipitous membership declines, Filipino Americans began entering the fraternity in greater numbers. The result in some cases was a culture clash. “In many cases, [the rise of Filipino membership] had a salutary effect on Freemasonry, and lodges were revived and revitalized by this importation of new blood,” wrote Past Grand Master John Cooper in a 2010 article in the journal Proceedings of the Policy Studies Organization. “Unfortunately, there were also some less desirable side effects, caused in some cases by cultural differences.”

One such issue was the rise of a group called the Grand and Glorious Order of the Knights of the Creeping Serpent. As the “Snakes,” as they were known, conferred their own Masonic degree without permission from Grand Lodge, they were banned from the fraternity, and officers were asked to renounce membership in the order. In 2009, the group was reformed as a strictly social club with no degree conferrals.

Honoring a Legacy

In addition to Rizal and Bonifacio, many other California lodges’ names pay homage to the Philippines. They include today’s consolidated Atwater Larchmont Tila Pass No. 614, the latter so named for the 1899 Battle of Tila Pass, in which outnumbered Filipino soldiers mounted a spirited but doomed defense against American forces. There’s also General Douglas MacArthur No. 853, chartered in Sacramento in 2010, named for the commander of the U.S. Armed Forces of the Fareast during World War II, who famously fulfilled the promise he’d made in his “I shall return” speech by successfully landing U.S. troops in Japanese-occupied Leyte in 1944. He was made a Mason at sight by Philippine Grand Master Samuel Hawthorne and affiliated with Manila No. 1. Then there’s San Diego’s Most Worshipful Manuel Luiz Quezon No. 874, chartered in 2019 and named for the first Philippine president and grand master.

For many members, the historical interrelatedness of Masonry and Filipino history is understood across generations. Charles P. Cross, the assistant grand lecturer for Division VI, is a member of Metropolitan No. 352, which is nearly 90 percent Filipino. Cross arrived in the United States from the Philippines in 1993 by way of Pohnpei, in the Federated States of Micronesia, and now works as a chief financial officer in Los Angeles. His father served in the U.S. military during World War II and participated in the Bataan Death March. Joining the fraternity gave him a way to connect with his family. “When Filipinos immigrated to the U.S., they realized their parents and uncles were also Masons,” Cross says. “They joined so they could emulate them.”

A dinner and dance party of the Caballeros de Dimas-Alang in the 1940s, one of several pseudo-Masonic Filipino fraternal organizations in California.

The generation of Filipino immigrants who arrived in California in the early 20th century came as U.S. “nationals” who owed all the responsibilities of citizenship but very few of its rights. Fraternal and community organizations played a crucial civic role within Filipino American communities, especially in towns like Stockton, which had the largest Filipino community in the United States. Fraternal groups like the Legionarios del Trabajo and the Caballeros de Dimas-Alang—both quasi-Masonic in nature—were bedrocks of financial, cultural, and social support for Filipino communities not only in the Central Valley, but also in the Bay Area and Los Angeles. They provided food, jobs, and housing, and functioned as social and cultural centers. 

Marrino Berbano, longtime chaplain of Morning Star No. 19 in Stockton, has witnessed the transformation of the Filipino American community firsthand. Berbano, now 85, joined the lodge in 1972 and recalls with fondness the Little Manila that once flourished in downtown Stockton. He remembers many of the first Filipino members of the lodge, men like Toribio Rosal, a World War II veteran with the First Filipino Regiment, who was featured in the PBS documentary An Untold Triumph.

Oscar Gonzales III, a Master Mason with Martinez No. 41, is also connected to the pioneer generation of Filipinos who came to America in the early 1900s. His grandfather, Oscar Gonzales, arrived from Aklan province in the Visayan Islands. “His membership in Freemasonry really helped him survive in America,” says Gonzales, who cared for his grandfather in old age and later joined him in the fraternity. While in college, the younger Gonzales founded a statewide Filipino American fraternity, Chi Rho Omicron, but Freemasonry remains the foundation of his civic life. “It’s important to get Filipinos into mainstream organizations and to make good men better men,” he says.

For others, like Tony Cimarra, the assistant grand lecturer for Division III, the familial connection to Freemasonry has come as a welcome surprise. In 1996, while working as a manager for an American airline in California, he approached Sublime-Benicia No. 5. While he was petitioning, he mentioned the fraternity to his parents and was shocked to learn that many of his family back home were Masons, too.

Says Emmanuael Dial, master of Torrance University No. 394, who immigrated to the United States from the Philippines at age 4, “There is a strong family connection for Filipinos. It really is a family environment.”

A circa-1930s photo of members of the Caballeros de Dimas-Alang, one of the largest Filipino fraternal organizations in California.

Celebration of Spirit

Today’s Filipino-inspired lodges have infused California Masonry with more than just fresh blood. They’ve helped birth a unique Fil-Am lodge culture.

That can be seen clearly in the blowout fiestas that many lodges are known for. Among the best is the Filipino Independence Day party held each June at Columbia-Brotherhood No. 370, where lodge members and their families celebrate with traditional food, dances like the tinikling and habanera, and a band of rondalla guitar players. There’s also the boisterous interlodge fellowship party Sir Francis Drake No. 376 hosts the night before Annual Communication, a party that often draws visitors from the Grand Lodge of the Philippines. And there’s the Filipinana celebration hosted each June by members of Anacapa No. 710, a lodge comprising many current and retired Filipino American Navy men stationed at Port Hueneme and Point Mugu.

Members of San Francisco No. 120

It can be seen in smaller ways, too, like the elaborate barong garments worn for formal events and embroidered with Masonic flourishes. And it can be seen in festive interjurisdictional events like MGM and the Philippine Masonic Association of America’s annual meetings.

For all the cultural pride displayed in these lodges, there’s a distinctly Filipino-American brand of Masonry practiced in California. Many members, particularly those born in the United States, are astonished at the cultural cachet and special privileges afforded to Masons on the islands. It’s not uncommon for an American Mason to be greeted at the airport in Manila by junior members of a nearby lodge, for instance, and whisked through customs.

“The prestige of Masonry in the Philippines is really big,” says Albert Cua, lodge master of San Francisco No. 120, who is Chinese-Filipino and immigrated to the United States at 19.

California has birthed a unique Fil-Am lodge culture. Pictured is a Filipinana Celebration with Past Grand Master Russ Charvonia

To James Bonnin, a past master of Francis Drake No. 276 and junior warden of Mission No. 169, those differences in character are underscored by a shared set of principals connecting Masons around the world and through time. “Every lodge has a slightly different culture, even here,” says Bonnin, who left Bacolod City for the U.S. in 1999. “So when you mix the Filipino culture with the American lodges, it gives it a different flavor. But it’s all Freemasonry.”

That’s a sentiment shared by many Filipino American members. “When you join Masonry, you can feel you’re home right away,” says Alfredo Dumaop, secretary for Anacapa No. 710. He invokes the Tagalog term matulungin, or helpfulness. “That’s what hospitality is all about. It becomes your second home, your natural environment.”

Tagulao, the inspector for District 305 and past master of San Leandro No. 113, puts it succinctly— and eloquently. “We just genuinely care for each other,” he says.

James Sobredo, Ph.D., is professor emeritus of ethnic studies at Sacramento State University, where he specialized in Filipino American history. He is also a journalist and documentary photographer.

Dancers at the Pistahan Festival in San Francisco

James Rualo
William Sugaitan
The Bennett-Loomis Archives
Russ Henning/Moonbeam Studios

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