Meet One of the Country’s Oldest Filipino-American Social Societies

Formed in Alameda in 1936, Bohol Circle hopes to cement its legacy in the city with a park.


Photo by Steven Tavares

The members of Alameda’s Bohol Circle meet every month at their clubhouse on Union Street, a humble building surrounded by a short cyclone fence and limited parking. On a sunny Sunday afternoon, the Filipino-American social society ended its meeting like most every other during its 82-year history on the Island, with a generous spread of pancit, chicken adobo, and other Filipino delicacies. But despite smaller participation by Filipino-Americans in Alameda, the group formed by 16 immigrants from the small Philippines island of Bohol in 1936 believe it’s time to honor their ancestors’ work, especially in an era when the immigrant experience in America appears as harrowing as it was during the Great Depression and other times in this country’s history.

“Alameda was like a lighthouse for Filipinos from Bohol,” said Bob Balandra, a Bohol Circle member and resident historian. “They could come in here and meet other Boholanos — get information about where to live, where to work.”

Last year, the city of Alameda honored Bohol Circle by naming a street after the group at Alameda Landing. But Bohol Circle members hope the city will further honor them by naming a public park sometime in the near future.

“We’re not doing this to be political. We want to demonstrate they did their job,” said Gary Cagaanan, a Bohol Circle member whose father, Tex Cagaanan, is one of the original Bohol Circle members. “They faced tough economic times and discrimination, yet they persevered. The seeds that they planted beared fruit.”

A lesson learned from the bureaucratic process of getting a street named after Bohol Circle is that many in the city are unaware of the organization’s mission and its longstanding ties to Alameda, said secretary and member Crystal Cahailog.

It’s unclear whether Bohol Circle is the oldest continuously operating Filipino-American group in the United States, said Balandra. He’s currently in contact with the Filipino-American National Historical Society to discern whether Bohol Circle or another group holds the mantle for longevity. Nevertheless, Bohol Circle’s history as a safe place for Filipino immigrants seeking new opportunities in America is a common thread that unites it to other groups attempting to assimilate in the United States.

A Filipino immigrant named Victor Cainia is one of the group’s early pivotal figures. During the Great Depression, he purchased a home that still stands today. In the same Union Street neighborhood, Cainia bought a parcel on which he built a warehouse to store equipment for his landscaping business. As others immigrated from Bohol to Alameda, they gravitated to Cainia. Early on, the original 16 members — all men — met in local Catholic churches and other locations. The growing group needed a place to meet consistently and Cainia offered a portion of his warehouse. The storage facility was later torn down and the parcel sold to Bohol Circle members in the 1950s for $5,000. The building serves as the group’s clubhouse to this day.

Yet, Bohol Circle’s philanthropic origins are a very basic human story of respect. “When our ancestors immigrated from the Philippines and someone passed away, they didn’t have enough money to give the individual a dignified and respectful burial,” said Cahailog. “Within our culture — specifically the Boholano culture — to be buried in a dignified way speaks to a person’s life, and what they did, and what they accomplished. The trials and tribulations, the difficulties of acculturating into a much different society and to pass away and not have the ability to be buried respectfully, is very traumatic.”

Bohol Circle’s early founders, however, struggled to grow the group until after World War II. Some members joined the 2nd Filipino Infantry Regiment, which served in the Pacific theater during the last half of the war. The aftermath of the conflict was an important period in the history of Filipino-Americans in Alameda. The new prosperity allowed Filipino immigrants to bring their families to the United States. Those hoping to get married and start families in Alameda now had the financial wherewithal to do so. In addition, there were fewer restrictions facing Filipinos who sought immigration since the Philippines was a U.S. territory.

But that didn’t mean the immigrant experience in mid-century Alameda was easy. “There were hard times at first for Filipinos coming over here,” said Balandra. A dearth of Filipina women before the war resulted in many Filipino men marrying outside their race, he added. Anti-miscegenation laws at the time meant interracial marriages were not recognized by the state, but worse, for devout Filipino Catholics, shunned by the Church. Balandra’s father, at the behest of his employer who loaned him his car, ventured out to find a priest to marry his Portuguese bride. “They went up and down California. None of the missions would marry my mother and father. They didn’t want any mixed marriages,” said Balandra. The father’s employer, instead, pulled some strings and enticed Earl Warren, the assistant Alameda County district attorney at the time and future chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, to marry them at a Methodist church in Alameda. Balandra said his parents also faced discrimination after an attempt to purchase a home in then-San Lorenzo Village. But, by and large, said Cagaanan, who grew up in Alameda, the island experience was far different for Filipinos over the past generations.

“Alameda has always been an accepting town, at least for Filipinos in the Bohol Circle. It’s always been a beacon for those who immigrated from the island of Bohol and acclimated themselves as Americans,” said Cagaanan.

Cynthia Bonta, a member and the mother of Alameda Assemblymember Rob Bonta, said Bohol Circle’s history is a testament to the Filipino community and Alameda’s support of various ethnic groups. “Alameda has been the home of this organization and the families that make up Bohol Circle,” she said. “I think the organization is very significant. It was established in order to welcome immigrants to Alameda so their transition to becoming Americans would be smoother. To think they have been able to exist for all this time and that original purpose is still very much their purpose today speaks to the condition of Filipinos and how Filipinos in this country are treated today.

“The immigration experience is very common,” she continued. “It also shows how members here have stayed together. The care for each other is the glue that has kept them together, and I think it really shows the inherent traits of immigrants.”

Uncertainty over the future of Bohol Circle worries many of its members as membership and engagement in recent years continues to trend downward. Conversely, the perceived apathy may only be a byproduct of its success. “I remember when my parents came to meetings when I was child,” said Cagaanan. “This place was packed. Over the years the numbers have dwindled. I attribute it to [the fact that] Boholanos and Filipinos have accelerated the pace of acculturation and adaptation. So the need for an organization like this in no longer urgent.”

Filipinos-American youth today might not see the same value in Bohol Circle as their parents and grandparents once did, he added. “What we try to expound now is to maintain a tie to the culture. To appreciate your roots and to appreciate the pioneers that came before you that made everything possible for you later in your life. It’s the manifestation of the American Dream.”