THE TAGAMI FAMILY
Judith Rivera Balcena was born in Honolulu, Hawai‘i , in 1921 to Francisco Liboon Varona and Salud Rivera Balcena. Francisco, a Philippine diplomat from Iloilo, had been appointed as the labor commissioner and was sent to the US to check on the condition of Filipino workers overseas.
Judith was raised by her maternal grandparents, Nemisio Aride Balcena and Marcela Matillano Rivera, as her parents did not marry. The Balcena family, of mixed Filipino/Spanish/Chinese ancestry, had been one of the first Filipino families to migrate to the US as an entire family unit. Nemisio had served as a commanding officer in the Katipunan in both the Philippine-Spanish War and Philippine-American War. Marcela had served as a war nurse for the Katipunan. In 1912, they left their native Jaro, Iloilo, Philippines, for Honolulu with their daughter Salud and nephew Fred. A son, Adam, was born on the ship. Later, another son, Francisco, was born in Honolulu. Fred’s son, Bobby Balcena, would later make history in 1956 as the first player of API heritage to appear in the MLB for the Cincinnati Reds.
At the age of 5, Judith and her family left Hawai‘i and moved to Watsonville. For the next few decades, the family worked and moved around the Central Coast (while their children attended local schools): farmwork in the Pajaro Valley and Davenport; cannery work in the sardine factories in Monterey; various jobs in Lompoc. There were few American-born Pinays when Judith was growing up. That scarcity, together with Judith’s beauty, made her greatly sought after. She was Filipino Santa Maria Queen in 1936. Judith met the tall and handsome Bob Tagami, a dishwasher, in Lompoc.
Roberto “Bob” (aka Mariano) Lanias Tagami was born in Badoc, Ilocos Norte, Philippines to Domingo Tagami and Hilaria Lanias. Around 1933, at the age of 13, Bob left with his father to work in Hawaii in the sugar cane and pineapple plantations. Their labor included stops in Oahu, the Big Island, and Central California. His father would later return to Badoc. Bob decided to stay in the US. He would never see his homeland again. The surname “Tagami” was inherited from Japanese Catholic ancestors (of the Otomo samurai clan) who had fled southern Japan for the Philippines during the Tokugawa Shogunate, when Christians were persecuted or forced into exile.
Bob and Judith’s early relationship had been tumultuous. At sixteen, she married another Filipino suitor, Jerry Caoile, and had a daughter Andrea. However, that marriage did not last. Judith and Bob reunited after her divorce, and they were married a few years later. They settled in Watsonville, although Bob followed the seasons: Alaskan salmon canneries; Imperial Valley, Watsonville, and Arizona for lettuce harvesting. In addition to caring for the elder Balcenas, Judith worked at Mrs. Tabasa’s Filipino restaurant, packing sheds in Corralitos, and local canneries. The family grew. There were eight children altogether: Andrea, Lené, Robert, Rey, Fred, Jeff, Richard, and Alan. During the late 50’s through early 60’s, the family sharecropped strawberries on Holm Road. They were active in various community organizations: Watsonville Filipino Community, the Filipino Women’s Club, Gran Oriente, and Visayan Trust. Bob died in 2012 and Judith died in 2015, preceded by Jeff, Rey, and Lené. There are 9 grandchildren, and numerous great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren.