Greg Sarris: A Native American finds his Filipino roots

Greg Sarris, Emiliano Hilario’s neice Amparo Crispino Fernandez, Mary Sarris and Emiliano Hilario


ROHNERT PARK – Gregory Michael Sarris, is the Tribal Chairman of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria. To high rollers, that means Sarris is the head honcho at Graton Resort and Casino. In almost two and a half years since it opened, Graton has become one of the Top 10 most successful Indian casinos out of almost 470 nationwide.

But the Boss of it all is not just a numbers man. In 1977, he graduated B.A., summa cum laude at UCLA. He earned a PhD in Modern Thought and Literature from Stanford University in 1989. He was a full English professor, teaching American and Native American Literature and Creative Writing at UCLA until 2001. He was the Fletcher Jones Professor of Creative Writing and Literature at Loyola Marymount University until 2005. Sarris holds the Graton Rancheria Endowed Chair in Writing and Native American Studies at Sonoma State University.

Sarris wrote and published some acclaimed books. He wrote the script and co-produced with Robert Redford, Grand Avenue, a 1996 HBO mini-series based on his book. His play, Mission Indians, snagged the 2003 Bay Area Theatre Critics Award for Best Script. The same year, he co-produced and appeared in public TV’s American Passage, which won the Hugo Award for Best Documentary.

He initially wrote what would eventually be H.R. 946 or what’s known as the Graton Rancheria Restoration Act. Graton Rancheria is one of over 40 Indian tribes terminated in 1958. The Bill went through Congress and then President Bill Clinton signed it into law in December 27, 2000, giving back to the tribe their rights to the land.

Impressive. But what’s even more incredible is when you put down Sarris’ resume and listen to him talk about his life’s story.

1. Why did you want to find out about your biological father?
“Being an adopted child, I always wanted to know about my heritage. I grew up in a family that was quite different from me in many ways, not only physically but emotionally and psychologically. I was darker than my blonde adopted siblings, and in many ways, much more emotional and excitable — which I’m sure, was often a problem, the latter was often a problem for my adopted mother Mary Sarris whom I loved very much. I did not have a close attachment at all with my adopted father, and I suppose it was for that reason I wanted to learn about my natural father. I knew early on that my natural mother had died shortly after I was born, although I didn’t understand the circumstances of her dying, that is, by the hospital giving her the wrong type blood after I was born, until I was 19 years old. That left my father. On the birth certificate it noted for father: unknown, non-white. The suspicion was that my natural father was Mexican. Though my natural mother, Bunny Hartman, who was of Irish and German-Jewish descent, never identified my father by name, apparently she did at one point elude to the fact that he was Mexican. So maybe I thought I was Mexican. That’s all I knew until much later in my 20’s, after further research, and after finding my natural mother’s family, did I learn that my father was in fact Filipino, American Indian, and Mexican. My natural mother’s brother gave me a name to pursue — Emilio Hilario. I went to Laguna Beach where my mother went to high school, and there I found my father’s picture in the year book, and looked up the name in a phone book. Only to find my grandfather, Emiliano Hilario, who I then telephoned. While he informed me that I had missed meeting my father by only a short while, as my father had recently passed away, I was able to meet my grandfather and then learn about the family. My grandfather was a manong, originally from Cebu. He told me his life story, how he came here when he was 19 in 1927. He told me all about the manongs and he showed me many pictures of his old friends from the Philippines. Amazing! I then later met many of myrelatives, his niece’s children who came to this country later, in the 1960’s. They live here in the Bay Area and I am so proud of all of them and love them very much — I’m so proud to be a part of the Filipino community.”

2. When did you start your search and how did it end?
“I first started my search when I was 19, after my adopted mother Mary Sarris gave me the name of my natural mother, Bunny Hartman. I found Bunny’s grave in the local Catholic cemetery where, ironically, Mary Sarris is buried also today. It took me another good 10 years until I located my father’s people. Ironically, as a young man, in junior high and high school, I knew many of the American Indian people who I was related to. Ha! In fact, I went out with a girl who, as it turned out was my third cousin, but then how did I know? It was a bizarre and lovely kind of homecoming. I was already somewhat familiar with local American Indian and Mexican culture, and I knew many of the local Indians who were part Filipino. But at that time, I had no idea that I was American Indian or Filipino. Again, I just had some vague sense that I was Mexican — my adopted mother, Mary Sarris, told me all she knew from the records at that point.”

3. How did you feel when you found out you had Filipino blood?
“Well, I remember talking to my Lolo Emil on the phone and hearing his accent. I knew his accent was not Spanish or Mexican. I was certainly surprised to find out I was Filipino, but the minute I met the man, I was so heart-warmed by his love and good nature that I would have been proud no matter who or what he was. The minute I learned I was Filipino from him, I immediately began to ask more and more questions about my Filipino heritage. For instance, I was curious about where we came from in the Philippines and was curious how he met my grandmother. I learned then — and I had some knowledge before — that it was very common for the manongs to marry American Indian women in the 1920s, 30’s, and 40’s. America had passed the anti-miscegenation laws, whereby a Filipino could not get a marriage license. There was much prejudice here against Filipinos in those days. The manongs came as a bachelor society; they did not have Filipino women with them when they came over then. One of the only groups of women they had access to was the American Indian women. The local Indian women here found the manongs a good catch, as they were hard workers and good family men. This group of manongs proved to have, though relatively small in number compared to many other ethnic groups, had a huge influence on many aspects of American culture. It was the manongs who started wearing the pin striped suits, Panama hats, and the gold dangling watch chains — which later got picked up by the Mexicans and became more or less the uniform for the Zoot Suit movement. They were all the first to organize the farm workers in the Delano Valley and elsewhere. Quite an impressive group of men who, in my opinion, have never been given their fair share of credit for what influence they have had. My grandfather worked in a kitchen — he ended up being the manager at Victor Hugo’s, the Tony’s Laguna Beach restaurant whose patrons were the wealthy and movie stars from Los Angeles. Imagine, such a long way from a tiny village in his province in the Philippines!”

4. How was your relationship with your adoptive parents and the other people you knew when you found out?
“By this time, I pretty much lost contact with my adopted father since my mother had divorced him several years in the past. My adopted family — my mother in particular — were very happy for me. In fact, my mother became very close to my Lolo Emil and referred to him as Grandpa. She spoke to him on the phone at least once a week and they visited each other at least two or three times a year. She adored him. In fact, she saw in him exactly what I did — what a great man he was and how proud he made me feel to be Filipino. The minute after I first met him in his small house in Laguna Beach, he said to me, “Get that lady on the phone who raised you, I want to thank her for raising my grandson and doing a good job.” There it is. That says everything about the man Emiliano Hilario, my grandfather.”