It used to be just another frightening bedtime story told to children in Filipino communities in California. One way older manongs would spark fear among kids at camp. There was also talk of a lady in white walking unkempt in the rough roads of Sacramento Delta. And if you’re a Fil-Am raised in the Central Valley, you might have heard the tale passed around in hushed tones—that one about the woman who was buried alive, her hand sticking out of the ground, just like in scary movies.
But the story of Celine Navarro is true. She lived a life and it was taken away one day in 1932. She was Filipino-American, a farmer’s wife with four children. Celine was accused of adultery and tortured by people in a community she belonged to. And then they buried her alive.
Her story is told in a new documentary called “The Celine Archive,” where the Filipina Celine Parreñas Shimizu explores the connections between her life and her namesake’s. “Where are the women in Filipino-American history?” she asks in the film’s trailer. “I’m hungry for Filipino women’s American stories that come from traversing continents.” In college in the 1990s, Celine’s sister chanced upon one, and it's a story that’s stayed with the filmmaker for more than two decades.
The farmer’s wife
From the Philippines, Celine Villano arrived in Hawaii in 1914, along with her mother and two sisters—a group of brave women from Carcar, Cebu bravely venturing into the unknown. They moved from one farming town to another as plantation workers, until they settled in Stockton in 1918.
Celine, or Cecelia to some, married Ignacio Navarro in Stockton. Later on, however, Ignacio would contract tuberculosis, a common illness in Filipino communities during that period. The gravity of her husband’s condition would lead Celine to decide to send their kids—three girls and a boy—to the Philippines. So they can be better taken care of by their grandparents, while she took on odd jobs and moved to a boarding house close to the hospital where Ignacio was being treated.
There were many Fil-Ams in Stockton in the 1920s and 1930s. It’s where they found work and found a community. But there was also a general racist sentiment against the Filipino immigrants. “A brutal New Year’s Eve attack on Filipinos in 1926," according to a report in Recordnet.com, "and the 1930 bombing of the Filipino Federation of America building in Stockton’s Little Manila point to the rising tide of tension, prejudice and legal restrictions.”
For some, the intense racism is somehow linked to Celine’s death. While there was the accusation she was an adulterer and so was hounded for her immoral act, there was also a version that says the murder was the community’s way to get back at Celine. She was supposed to have squealed to police about an incident that involved the beating up of two men who happened to provide shelter to a white woman who ran away from an abusive husband—a husband with an influential position in a cultish Filipino fraternity.
When the men Celine reported to authorities were brought to prison, it could only have intensified the community's resentment toward her. She was accused of adultery by members of the fraternity’s affiliate group called Maria Clara Lodge No. 15. She denied the accusation, but was still ordered to “do penance while kneeling on beans,” according to a 1997 article in Filipinas Magazine written by Alex Fabros. Fabros, one of the interviewees in the documentary, a former professor at San Francisco State University, says that the lodges were a powerful force. “During the Depression—when migrant workers often underbid each other just to get work —the lodges were seen as the unifying element in the Filipino community and thus wielded much power over Filipinos living in the farming communities.”
Celine was kidnapped in late September of 1932, while visiting a female friend in Winton, California. Five men took her, beat her up and held her captive for weeks. They "made her crawl on beans, then picked stones out of a bag to decide who would start throwing them at her," Shimizu wrote in a story for the women's studies journal Frontiers. But Celine was able to escape.
"She fled to her sisters in Ventura, who reportedly gave her money to bring her husband back to the Philippines," says the article on Recordnet.com. "Returning to Stockton to prepare, she was spotted by a member of the lodge and kidnapped again. Only this time, there was no way out for the young mother.” They tied her hands, blindfolded her, and brought up the issue of her alleged affair. According to Fabros’ report, “a man pushed her down and kicked her. The women then took over,” allegedly beating her up, with one hitting her on the head with a gavel.
“I believe the torture took a turn for the worse that night,” wrote Fabros. “Perhaps Navarro cried out that she would report the incident to the police. Or maybe she was knocked unconscious. Whatever the case, someone panicked. She had to be gotten rid off.” So in the very early morning of November 20, Celine was brought to Jersey Island where she would meet her end. It was the last time anyone saw her alive.
The following year, 1933, a Pablo Bustamante confessed a crime to authorities at the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office. It was a tale too bizarre to be easily believed, his yarn that he was able to listen in on a secret trial where a woman was to end up buried alive. But from Bustamante’s statements, police was able to get hold of two men involved in the burial. One of them, Eustaquio Codog, broke down from pressure and began telling his story. They were awakened from sleep and told to bring shovels, he said, by Regidor Lodge No. 5 leader León Quintanilla. They were commanded to dig up a hole.
“Once the hole was dug, the woman reportedly dragged a screaming Navarro from the car and pushed her down next to the hole,” said a quote from Codog in the Recordnet.com story. “Navarro struggled against her bonds and was heard screaming as the women kicked dirt into the grave and the men filled in the hole. Then there was silence.”
Rings on fingers
Unlike in the bedtime story where the woman’s hand had crawled out of the grave, it took digging four feet worth of soil before authorities finally saw a hand, as per the Filipinas mag article, with “rings still on the fingers.”
News of the crime hit many mainstream newspapers the world over, with the cultish group and their primeval ways serving as the period’s clickbait. More than a thousand Filipinos protested the stigmatization being created by the stories, according to Fabros, condemning how American media had misrepresented their race as a people into bizarre sacrifices and barbaric rituals.
Suspects in the murder were arrested but eventually acquitted. And up to this day, Celine never got the justice she rightfully deserved. Her story just became a tale people pass around. “Celine’s own story, whether adulteress, traitor, heroine, or prey shows she was an actional woman throughout her life. She moved here, lived a life with various versions of bravery and endurance, and finally saved her children before her death,” writes the filmmaker Shimizu on her subject. “Celine Navarro’s story is considered a haunting, not by her family who lives with her story, but by Filipinx Americans who keep hush-hush, diminishing the violence she experienced by calling her a ghost, or simply refusing the truths of her story.” May Shimizu’s documentary begin to change that.