Asian Pacific American Heritage Month: Not Quite American

by Spencer Howard

Lou Henry Hoover’s papers include numerous files documenting some of the secretaries, servants and aides that worked for her over the years.  Among them is a folder of letters that tell the story of a Filipino, Matias Estella.

Matias Estella was born in the Philippines around 1896.  Two years later, the United States acquired the Philippines from Spain, and all Filipinos became U.S. nationals, but not U.S. citizens.  Unlike other Asian peoples, who were almost entirely barred from entering the U.S., Filipinos could then freely enter, live, and work here.

Florence and Charles Hoover, Lou Henry Hoover’s parents. ca.1910

As a boy, Matias became a servant of an American naval officer, who then brought him to the U.S.  By 1917 he was hired as a “house boy” by Lou’s parents, Charles and Florence Henry, at their home in Monterey.  Matias took care of the Henrys for the next decade, especially Charles.  He served as chauffer, camping guide and companion, and filled every role in the household, as Lou would say, “from cook to cabin boy.”  During these years, Lou’s sister, Jean Henry Large, went through a messy divorce, and she and her two children frequently stayed at the Henry house.

After Florence died in 1921, Lou determined that what her father needed was an outdoor adventure, so with Matias behind the wheel, Lou and Charles drove the Hoovers’ Cadillac all the way from Palo Alto to Washington DC.  At that time, there were no freeways, and paved highways were rare;  highway signs and roadmaps were scarce or unreliable.  The trip took 34 days, averaging a little over 100 miles per day.  Many nights they camped out under the stars;  Matias cooked their meals and repaired the frequent punctured tires.  After a brief stay in Washington, Charles and Matias returned to California by train.  In the mid-1920s, Charles, along with Jean and her children, moved to Palo Alto and Matias went with them.  Matias also took on the extra work of caring for the Hoover home in Palo Alto, during times when it was unoccupied.

By 1927, Matias was in his early 30s, though still referred to publicly as the Henrys’ Filipino “boy.”  Due to the death of his parents, he inherited responsibility for members of his extended family back in the Philippines, so he decided to return to his hometown, Kalibo, uncertain whether he would ever come back to the U.S.  As he was preparing to leave, Lou sent him a check for $700.  “I want you to look upon it as a very informal loan,” she wrote.  “If [your] business is a success you can repay it.  But if it should be a failure, and make it very difficult for you to pay me back, then you are to consider it in the nature of a gift rather than a loan.”

Matias invested Lou’s money in some local business, and felt confident that his family’s financial situation was secure.  During this time he was also married.  He soon returned to California, though it’s not clear whether his wife traveled with him.  After Charles Henry died in 1928, Matias moved to Washington to work for the Hoover family, and followed them to the White House in 1929 where he was given a job as a pantry boy.  By late 1929 he felt compelled to return again to the Philippines, though what caused him to do so is not documented.  Lou arranged for him to travel on board the U.S. Army Transport Cambrai, which regularly shuttled across the Pacific.

A year later he was having second thoughts.  His business ventures were not going well, and “besides that,” he wrote to Lou, “my health doesn’t agree with the climate.  Now I have in mind to go back in the States with my wife to work in your family or to some of your friends if there is a chance for me, but I prepare first to be in your family because I feel at home to be with them.”  Lou found an opening for him in the household of Vernon Kellogg, a professor at Stanford University and close friend of the Hoovers, but Matias’s wife fell ill, and they never made the trip.

Things improved for Matias and his family.  Aided by glowing letters of recommendation Lou sent to the Governor-General, he picked up a series of government jobs – dynamite inspector for the Bureau of Public Works, time keeper on road construction projects, and assistant to the chief of a government fish farm.  His last recorded contact with Lou was in 1938;  he told her about his three children and offered to send a photograph.  Lou replied, congratulating him and giving news of the Hoovers and the Larges.  “Things in California look much as they did when you knew it,” she wrote, “but times are very, very much harder.  You were indeed fortunate to get back to your own country when you did, as everyone has a much harder time to make a living now than when you knew California.”

As a Filipino and U.S. national, Matias’s immigration experience was somewhat unusual, in that he could freely travel, live and work in the U.S.  But like many immigrants, Matias wrestled with his loyalties to his birthplace and to his adopted home.  While en route to the Philippines in 1929, Matias wrote to Lou, “I feel happy to think that I am on my way home, but at the same time, I feel sorry to think that I shall soon be far from the United States, the Country to which I shall always be loyal and faithful.”  Ultimately, economic concerns took precedence – the need to provide for himself and for his family.

3 thoughts on “Asian Pacific American Heritage Month: Not Quite American

  1. Dear Mr. Howard Spencer,
    I am especially touched and am grateful to you for featuring my Lolo (filipino term for grandpa) in your article in Asian Pacific American Heritage month. My siblings and I always take pride of our Lolo Mattias Estella for having set foot and served as a Whitehouse aid because of his loyalty and service to the Henry-Hoover family.
    I myself am now based in Marysville, WA. USA. I would like to meet the living family of the Henrys whom my Lolo served with love and loyalty. How can I connect with them?
    Again thank you,
    Jonna Estella Tesorero-Valencia

    1. The Library-Museum does not have any contact with Jean Henry’s descendants, but several of the Hoover great-grandchildren continue to support the work of the Library-Museum. If you send us a letter or email, we would be happy to pass it on to the Hoover family.

    2. Dear Jonna,
      Recently, I watched a C-Span documentary regarding the 1920’s cross-country trip of the Hoover family and was intrigued when they mentioned your Lolo Mattias since I’m a Filipino in California. I found this article mentioning he was from Kalibo. My mother-in-law (also from Kalibo, Aklan) lives near us and will be 92 on Nov. 1. My family also made a cross-country trip in 1965 from Virginia to California through the southern states on our way back to the Philippines where we lived for 9 years after my father retired from the US navy. Whatever became of your Lolo Mattias?

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