SUBIC BAY, Philippines — There’s a taunt that hangs over this former U.S. naval base, looming over kids who look a little different, shadowing single moms: “Left by the ship.”
The term is used to shame the offspring of U.S. servicemen and local women, to tell them that they don’t belong here. That they were left behind.
Nearly 25 years ago, Philippine lawmakers expelled the U.S. warships that had docked here for almost a century, vowing to “unchain” the country from its colonial past, promising a fresh start. The American flag was lowered. Ships set sail. But the U.S. legacy lived on.
For decades, tens of thousands of children of U.S. military men and Filipinas, known as Filipino Amerasians, have been fighting not to be forgotten.
In 1982, Congress passed the Amerasian Immigration Act, allowing the children of U.S. service members and Asian women in Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and South Korea to immigrate. Filipinos were excluded.
In the 1990s, abandoned children tried to sue the U.S. government, seeking $68 million for 8,600 minors ignored by fathers serving with the Navy and Marine Corps. When that did not work, the community backed a bill extending the Amerasian Act to include the Philippines and Japan — to no avail.
Now China’s claims to most of the South China Sea have put the Philippines back at the heart of U.S. strategy in Asia. A new defense pact allows the U.S. military to build facilities at five Philippine bases, and a growing number of ships will be stopping by Subic Bay.
Their return is renewing questions about what the United States owes Filipino Amerasians — and stoking worries that there will be more neglected children when the ships leave harbor once again.
“Why would we welcome them back?” asked Brenda Moreno, 49, a Filipina Amerasian who was all but abandoned as a child. “They will just create new babies that they will not support.”
The fate of Subic Bay has long been tied to ships and sailors far from home.
The Spanish navy built a port here in the late 1800s and the Americans moved in when they annexed the Philippines in 1898.
During the height of the Vietnam War, Subic harbored dozens of U.S. ships, and some 30,000 Filipinos worked at the base. Thousands of others made their living in the sprawling city that surrounds it, Olongapo.
Young women from across the Philippines moved to find work in the wartime boomtown, finding jobs — and sometimes boyfriends — on base, or work in the lines of “girlie bars” that served as a gateway to the commercial sex trade.
It was during that era that Moreno’s mother, who worked in a bar, became pregnant. Moreno knows very little about her parents except that her Filipina mother gave her up when she was young. She told Moreno that her father was an African American serviceman.
Raised by another woman, Moreno was mocked for looking different than other children, teased relentlessly for her dark skin and curly hair. “I wanted to change my blood,” she said. “I thought if I could change my blood, I might be accepted as Filipino.”
In the 1980s and 1990s, as anti-colonial sentiment surged, so did the stigma of being the child of an American.
Enrico Dungca, a photographer based in New York, grew up in Angeles City, outside Clark Air Base, in the late 1970s and early 1980s and remembers the cruel words his Amerasian neighbors endured. They were called “bye, bye, Daddy,” “half dollar” or “souvenir.”
“I saw the bullying back then,” said Dungca, who is now working on a photo project about the lives of Filipino Amerasians. “And I see how it still affects them now.”
A disproportionate number of Filipino Amerasians live on the margins of the margins, enduring high rates of poverty and ill health, even by Philippine standards. Often abandoned as infants or raised by young single mothers, many have struggled to find their feet as adults.
After a chaotic childhood in Manila, Moreno returned to Subic at 23 to find work and entered the sex trade, working the same stretch of “girlie bars” as her mom had. She found a sense of place and purpose volunteering at a sex-worker-led rights group, Buklod, but never gave up hope of connecting with her father.
That quest is a touchstone for many here who treasure even the smallest fragments of information — a name, military branch or faded picture. Some are simply curious about where they came from. Others are looking for a lifeline or a way out.
Online message boards and Facebook groups such as “Amerasian Children Looking For Their American GI Fathers” are full of young Filipinos seeking information about fathers they never met. Occasionally, a former military man posts requests for information about the woman and child he left behind.
Richfield Jimenez, 40, a welder in Subic, heard about his American father as a boy, but stopped asking his mother about him because the questions always brought tears. Since his mother, Salud Parilla, died in 2013, he has wondered about finding his dad but is not sure where to start. He may have lived in Arkansas, Jimenez said — that’s all he knows.
Those who locate their fathers don’t always get the welcome or recognition they crave. To be eligible for U.S. citizenship, the Philippine-born children of Americans must get paternity certifications by the time they turn 18. Those separated from their fathers when the base closed in 1992 are no longer eligible.
When Washington and Manila started talking about the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement that will see more U.S. troops on Philippine soil, many advocates for Filipino Amerasians saw an opportunity. So far, though, there has been no talk of a deal.
Although many people in Subic and Olongapo welcome the cash that comes with visiting ships, some are wary of the U.S. return.
Alma Bulawan, president of Buklod, the rights group, says they are bracing for a rise in abandoned and neglected children.
In her decades in Subic, she has seen an endless stream of ships and sailors. The one constant: “They leave.”
Sherwin Alfaro in Subic Bay contributed to this report.