On 12 June 2021, my siblings and I held funeral services for our mother, Sonia Laxamana Rondilla. The viewing was held from 12noon-3pm, followed by a Catholic Mass. Deacon Chuck Glover from Holy Spirit Church led the mass. All services were held at Chapel of the Angels in Fremont, CA. A reception followed at Isla in Newark, CA. We remain grateful for all the family and friends, near and far who attended, shared condolences, and continue to support us through this time. I volunteered to write my mother’s eulogy. You can read it below.
Poetically, Mom’s 40-day rosary fell on her birthday. On what would have been her 82nd birthday, my siblings and I gathered and held a rosary over Zoom at the Wong-Castro residence in Hayward, CA. In true Guam family fashion, there was a beautiful spread of CHamoru and Filipino food, mixed with some other culinary delights. It was a small, yet delicious affair, one that Mom would have been proud of. You can find food photos here and here.
Sonia Laxamana Rondilla was born on July 2, 1939 in Manila in the Philippines. As a child, she survived the Japanese occupation of the Philippines during WWII. A product of the American colonial period, education was a fundamental value in my mother’s family. Mom received a medical degree in dentistry. After she graduated, she was trying to secure a government job. She was approached by one of her godfathers and he urged her to work on a presidential campaign. Her ninong explained, “This guy that we’re supporting is going to be the next president of the Philippines. If you work on this campaign, you will surely get a job with the government.” Wanting to establish some security for herself, she worked on the 1964 presidential campaign of Ferdinand Marcos. Now before you start making assumptions about my mother’s political leanings, I want to remind you that in 1964, Ferdinand Marcos is basically 2008 Barack Obama: the candidate of hope and change. As she worked on this campaign, she would eventually meet my father (Fernando Rondilla, whom I refer to as Pop) under a completely different set of circumstances. They met through letters, and in June 1965, they got married. In mom’s obituary, we described their wedding as “charmed.” I’m sure those who were there and remember, it was a bit more complicated than that. If anything, it’s just a good way to remember my mom: loving and wonderful, yet complicated.
Shortly after marrying Pop, she would move to Guam. Here, she would experience what sociologists call downward mobility. Despite her high education level, Mom worked as a dental hygienist for the government of Guam in Public Health and at FHP (Family Health Planning). She worked there alongside her eldest sister. Through work, Mom created a community of friends, many of whom were immigrants just like her, who worked hard and built their lives on the island. Guam – being the indigenous land of the CHamoru people – is the island in which Tina, Gerry and I were so blessed to be born and raised in, and where our family planted new roots.
California: Part I
However, Mom always had her sights set on California. In late 1979, we packed our bags and moved to Palmdale, California. This was where Mom hoped her California dreams would be realized. Pop worked as an engineer at Edwards Air Force Base and Mom landed a job at a local dental office. Here, she would experience the same downward mobility that was typical of immigrants of her time. Here, instead of being a hygienist, Mom was the assistant to the hygienist, which meant that she was cleaning tools all day. She felt this work was unfit for her skill sets. After two weeks, she simply stopped showing up. I once asked her about our short time in Palmdale and her work at this clinic. She said she did not like the work, and that her boss and co-workers were very rude to her. She said they could not even pronounce her name right. Instead of calling her Sonia, they called her China. When she shared this story with me, I was horrified because I knew that like many immigrants before her, Mom had experienced racism. I tried to explain this to her. I was a professor when we had this conversation. I let her know that a lot of Filipino immigrants would undergo something similar, where you were referred to not by name, but by what someone thought you looked like or what country they assumed you were from. So often, immigrants are not grated basic humanity and Mom was no exception. I explained, “It’s not that they didn’t know your name, it’s that they didn’t bother to know your name. They thought that you were Chinese and that’s why they called you China.” Without skipping a beat my mom looked at me and declared, “You don’t know what you’re talking about, I don’t look Chinese, I’m Filipino!” And that was the end of Asian American Studies 101 with Mom:) Though we stayed in Palmdale for only a year, our best memories are of us visiting family in the Bay Area, and taking numerous trips to visit family in Los Angeles. Those times made Palmdale a memorable place.
Guam: Part II
However, I think Mom wanted to work and Palmdale was not the place to do this. A year later, we packed our bags and moved back to Guam. Our return home meant that Pop was considered a stateside hire, which meant being granted a different set of privileges as a civilian working for the US Navy. Mom was reunited with her siblings and back at Public Health and FHP working with that circle of friends that she missed so much. I know they enjoyed many lunches at J&K Hong Kong restaurant and went on many shopping adventures galavanting the aisles at Duty Free, Gibsons, and Townhouse.
On an October day in 1987, as she was getting ready for her second job at FHP, she received an emergency call. Something happened to Fernando (Pop), and she needed to come home right away. With the help of a dear friend, she rushed back home, and then to the hospital. The next day when I came home from school, Mom sat me down and gave the absolute worst news a mother could give to her eleven-year-old daughter. Pop did not make it. He was on life support and they had to pull the plug. Later that day she went to the hospital and said her last good-byes. That night she came home a widower. Mom is an incredibly strong woman. I often have to remind myself that Mom was a widower at a very young age, and the death of my father devastated her in ways that no one could have imagined. Mom never remarried. She never even dated and when any of us dared to bring up the possibility, she would be infuriated. I once asked her why she never remarried. She simply responded by explaining that when Pop passed away, it was so hard for her. She never ever wanted to feel that pain again.
California: Part II
Two years after Pop passed away, we packed up our bags and headed to California. I think this time was partly about giving herself the opportunity to pursue her California dream again. By then, she had retired, and we were in California starting a new life. I want to say that her California dream became fully realized. But to do so would be a lie. Eventually, Mom learned that the business investments that she made were fraudulent. Through no fault of her own, she lost everything that she and Pop worked so hard for. This devastated her and I don’t think she ever fully recovered from the betrayal, hurt, and guilt that overcame her when this happened.
Still. Mom is a very strong and resilient woman. Even through pain and loss, she managed to make sure that the three of us finished college. Her retirement years were spent being a mom and indulging in being lola. She loved watching her grandchildren grow into the people they are today. She loved witnessing the moments that Pop could not be around for. By 2006 Mom decided that she wanted her own space. With the help of family, she invested in her own her own apartment in Fremont, the land of the indigenous Ohlone. I remember her excitement when she first showed me the space. It was right near a playground so that the kids can visit and play. Having her own space meant she did not have to answer to anyone. She could wake up and sleep when she wanted; watch ALL the TFC (The Filipino Channel) her heart desired; cook and ate whatever she pleased. Most of all, she loved being able to call friends and family whenever she wanted to and talk for hours on end, laughing loudly and with zero abandon.
Today, we honor our Mom and the full live she lived. To honor her is to remember her in the ways she wanted to be remembered – namely as a person of beauty. She embodied beauty in the way she never left the house without her hair done and lipstick on. Beauty was the way in which her laughter could light up a room; the way she lovingly and meticulously crafted the delicious food so many of you know and love. Beauty was how she shared stories with you and listened to you during those hours long phone calls; it was the sound of her somewhat high-pitched cackle of a laugh; it was the look of excitement when you brought her favorite pork buns. Beauty was witnessing the pure delight that overcame her as she watched videos of her grandchild singing, or sat in the audience as they played hockey, or viewed a replay of their Twittermission broadcast, or displayed numerous framed photos of you in her tiny apartment. There was even beauty in the way she chased you around the house with a pair of scissors in hand:) Beauty was her dancing at our weddings; it was her spending countless hours helping raise her grandchildren. Beauty was how we, her children, knew that Mom did not always have the right words to say, but we always knew her heart was always in the right place, and that she was always on our side.
In my lowest points, I am reminded that Mom’s passing marked the moment that Tina, Gerry, and I no longer have parents. This is a painful reality I know most children have to confront. But if my father’s passing taught me anything, it’s that there is nothing that can fill the emptiness that consumes you when you lose a parent. But I want Tina and Gerry to know that what will keep us going is the love of the village that raised us. It’s the love of the village that is here today, that is watching over streaming, that has sent countless prayers and well-wishes our way. The very village that raised us, and continues to love us, is the same one what will sustain us. Something that provides me a little bit of comfort is knowing that Mom is at peace. She is reunited with Pop and their siblings and other numerous people who had passed before her. Like Pop, Mom is now an ancestor. Our ancestors watch over us, guide us, and keep us rooted. With that, I leave you with this quote. Poet Janice Lobo Sapigao wrote this about the recent passing of her own mother: “Maybe our ancestors are only ours until we give them back to the sky; and when we look up, and when the stars see us, maybe our love is at flight, tossed between this world and the next. Grief is a circular force. Maybe grief is also the revolution.” Thank you.
Joanne L. Rondilla, Ph.D.
San Mateo, CA