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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, October 10, 2006

My mother, war bride

Video: See a clip from Stephanie Castillo's documentary, 'Strange Land'

By Wanda A. Adams
Assistant Features Editor

Wallace and Norma Castillo out on the town. They were married for 35 years, until his death in 1981. He worked in military intelligence and the couple and their seven children lived in Hawai'i, Japan and the Philippines.

Photo courtesy Norma Castillo

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SCREENING

"Strange Land, My Mother's War Bride Story"

When: Hawaii International Film Festival, 8 p.m. Oct. 25, Regal Dole Cannery Stadium 18. Stephanie J. Castillo will introduce the film.

HIFF tickets: box office, 680 Iwilei Road (11 a.m.-6 p.m.); by phone, 550-8457; www.hiff.org. Tickets: $10 adults; $9 for 13 and younger, military, students, seniors. On sale now.

Free Kaua'i preview: 3:30 p.m. Oct. 22, Waimea Theatre, Kaua'i

Discussion: "WWII War Brides: My Mother's Story and Others," free talk by Castillo, noon, Oct. 30, Center for Korean Studies Auditorium, UH-Manoa (East-West Road and Maile Way).

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Wallace Castillo, 25, and Norma Vega, 17, married in Manila in 1946 after a brief acquaintance that fell short of preparing them for the stresses of a new life together in a foreign country.

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Norma Castillo with young Stephanie, second of her seven daughters, who would grow up to become an award-winning filmmaker and would make a documentary about her mother's war bride experiences and her isolation far from home.

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Whenever Stephanie Castillo would visit her widowed mother, Norma Vega Castillo, on Kaua'i, the two would find themselves in Norma's bedroom, daughter perched on a chair, mother propped up comfortably on the bed. And they would have long, loving, intimate conversations.

Castillo, an Emmy Award-winning Honolulu filmmaker and former print reporter, would ask her mother the kinds of questions too many of us don't think to ask until it's too late. Their talks traced the story of Norma Castillo's colorful life, particularly the war years in the Philippines and her decision to marry a Hawai'i soldier.

Reflecting on those conversations, Castillo decided to turn her mother's war bride story into a documentary. It is one of three she is making to honor the Filipino Centennial in Hawai'i. The series starts with 2005's "Remember the Boys," about Domingo Los Banos, who has devoted his life to caring for aging World War II veterans, and the third is yet to be made.

So Castillo and her mother returned to the bedroom, where the filmmaker tried to keep the mood as relaxed as it had always been. Norma Castillo sat where she always does, seemingly oblivious to the camera sitting unobtrusively in her daughter's lap. In three sessions nine hours of filming Stephanie Castillo gently probed and Norma Castillo, in her words, "submitted."

The film is imbued with a genuineness and authenticity. There is a touching and often surprising frankness in the elder Castillo's account of an ambivalent courtship, a somewhat reluctant marriage and achingly lonely early years in Hawai'i.

"My mom was always a storyteller, but I think for a long time she was picking and choosing the stories she would tell us," recalled Stephanie Castillo. "I think the hardest thing for her was to relive some of the painful experiences, but I don't think there was any way around it in making this film. She had to tell her pain."

FOR THE RECORD

A striking 17-year-old woman with luxuriant dark hair and a slim figure, Norma Vega was dating a Philippines man when Wally Castillo caught sight of her in the Temptation Bar and Restaurant in Manila. He angled to meet her. Uninterested at first, she nevertheless appreciated Wally Castillo's eagygoing but gentlemanly manner. When he asked her to marry him, though, she dithered: She didn't want to leave her family, the kind of family that shared every meal and was always together around the house.

But relatives and friends urged her to seize the chance to move away from a country devastated by war. She soon found herself attending war bride classes to help "Americanize" her, and sharing a cabin with 11 other war brides in a transport bound for San Francisco, and then another to Hawai'i.

Here, she found strangeness and isolation her military career husband wrapped up in work, cockfights and card games; her new family scattered to their own pursuits. It wasn't until the third or fourth of her children was born that she ceased to pine and cry almost daily. "You just have to make the best of your life. I have no way of returning (to the Philippines) so I just have to go through it," the 79-year-old recalled in a phone interview from Kaua'i.

As her depression passed, the Castillos built a new closeness. Later, a tour in the Philippines would return her to her family.

Norma Castillo appears hardly aware of how rare and moving her honesty seems, coming from a generation that tends to harbor its secrets. She agreed to talk, she said, because Stephanie asked her to. She also wants her seven daughters, 18 grandchildren and 21 great-grandchildren to know their history.

"It's important for them to know the lifestyle we came from. It was a hard way living in the Philippines; we don't have all the luxuries. If you need new shoes, you wait until Christmas. ... I'm just sharing with them that they need to appreciate the life where they are," she said.

ACCEPTING DESTINY

"Strange Land" presents some surprises, including one for the filmmaker. The very last question she asked her mother was one she'd never asked before: "If you had to do it over again ... "

The daughter was prepared to hear that her mother would have stayed in the Philippines. Instead, Norma Castillo replied, "If I had my life to live over, I would like to be there (the Philippines) with them have the same kids, the same husband, but live there."

Says Stephanie Castillo: "For me, that sums up the immigrant tension wanting a better life for your kids, for yourself, and yet not wanting to detach yourself from your homeland, your people, your culture, your family."

And eventually, like Norma Castillo, they make peace with the decision: "It's such an archetype of the hero's journey, the heroine's journey. They leave kicking and screaming and at a certain point they say, like my mother, 'This is my destiny' and they're able to complete the journey. I think we live that over and over in our lives."

Castillo said she's shown the film to a number of people and two things happen they relate the story to their own lives, and they begin to think about gathering their own family history.

"The important thing is the stories get told," she said.

And what of Castillo's father, who is rather like a voice heard only faintly offstage during this film? He died tragically at age 61 of a lingering nerve and muscle disorder that robbed him of speech and free movement. He will be the subject of a future short film based on a trip she took with him toward the end of his life, when she had one of those epiphanies that children sometimes have, seeing their parents as fully realized people for the first time.

His courage in living with his illness, like her mother's in persevering when she wanted to run home, inspires her.

Reach Wanda A. Adams at wadams@honoluluadvertiser.com.