| 14 Nov 2003 @ 16:44, by Letecia Layson|
Shriners have the fez. Other clubs might have antlers.
By Emil Guillermo
Published Friday, November 14, 2003
But the fraternal organization known as the Legionarios del Trabajo of America have an apron, sash and fuzzy velure cap worn tight on the head.
If that appeals to you, you're in luck. They're looking for young, new members. And when you pay the $25 initiation fee and $15 annual dues, you'll get the secret password.
Until then, forget it.
"If you show me your membership card, I'm willing to give it to you," said Camila Carido, 92, the group's grand dame, who in 1935 was the first woman admitted to the organization in Stockton.
Carido and many of the 660 members of the Legionarios are meeting this weekend at the Radisson Hotel Stockton for their 14th triennial convention.
They're wondering how long they can keep it up. After 79 years, the organization, which has its roots as a support group for Filipino immigrants to America, finds its numbers dwindling.
Members are dying faster than new members are found. And its a double-whammy because the group, a legitimate nonprofit, is a mutual-aid society that gives a $3,500 death benefit to member families.
Last year, 55 members died. As they do, the funds dry up.
"We're paying out more than we take in," said Zosimo De Veas, 65, who is otherwise known as an illustrious brother and the group's grand master for the past nine years.
De Veas, an Internal Revenue Service employee who lives in Hercules, drives to Stockton each weekend to run the organization from its Grand Lodge on South San Joaquin Street.
Along with the lodge, the Legionarios own 160 acres of farmland in Lathrop that's currently leased out.
"They grow tomatoes," said Ernie Mabalon, 79, the group's supreme minister.
At this week's national meeting, some members suggested the group sell the farmland.
"Never," said Mabalon. "That was bought with the sweat of the old farm laborers."
Those early immigrants were the founders of the Legionarios, and included Filipino labor leaders like Larry Itliong, who some considered Cesar Chavez's right-hand man. Originally formed in Manila, the Legionarios was seen as the Filipino answer to the Free Masons.
The symbols and images are similar but with a heavy dose of Filipino national heroes and Christian ideals. Nevertheless, the group says it is nonsectarian and nondenominational and preaches tolerance.
When the group arrived in the United States in 1924, its main purpose was to serve as a social support system to the mostly male Filipino immigrants.
The hostile social pressures of the time, which included anti-intermarriage laws, made the Legionarios even more important to the Filipino community.
Today, however, the Legionarios are dying off. The one-time national group is down to a few chapters in California and Washington state.
Nowadays, a new, young member might be a 60 year-old doctor looking for people to socialize with.
"When you try to recruit a 25- to 26-year-old, they just say, 'Oh my God,'" said Felino Cabusora, 75, of Union City.
Cabusora joined three years ago for the fellowship, the club's tradition and the death benefit -- which could be reduced if the members keep dying off at a faster rate.
"Age and death have caught up with us," Mabalon said.
But so have the women. The one-time predominantly male organization is now two-thirds female.
"Will we have a woman grand master or mistress?" De Veas asked at Thursday's Ladies Conference Luncheon.
Carido, who is the mother of Stockton Vice Mayor Gloria Nomura, was honored at the luncheon and put the group's problem in more-direct terms.
"This is the last time to see all of you to give my love," said the 92-year-old.
But De Veas is more optimistic. The coronation ball today and the banquet Saturday are open to the public.
A big push for new members is planned.
And the year's almost over, and there are only 26 deaths.
If you join, you'll get the secret password, the sign and the handshake. Until then, don't ask.
"We keep it among ourselves," De Veas said.