The Accomplished Dream

This is an illustrated story of Leonardo Saplala’s journey to the United States from the Philippines in 1971; in hopes to create a better life for his family

essay written by Daniel Nguyen

Leonardo Saplala was born in the region of Pampanga in the Philippines, living with the typical Filipino atmosphere. Though being influenced by his atmosphere culturally, he was motivated to have a different future for himself, one in California. To follow this idea, he bettered himself with his education, acquiring vast knowledge. This knowledge led him to a Federal job; one that moved him to different areas of the world. Landing in California, his skills and education made it effortless for him to incorporate his family within society, making him successful.

   Leonardo Saplala decided to create a transformation in his life by taking the opportunity to venture past the Philippines. Saplala had desired to go to the United States, a place where opportunity thrived and where the land had not succumbed to poverty and corruption. To achieve this goal, he had decided to take a different step from his generation, creating an alternative path of achievements. Saplala believed that, “[the] education experience is always ongoing.” 1 He had used his education wisely and strategically, allowing him to create a better life for himself and his family within the states.

   The Philippines, home to Saplala’s birth town of Luzon, Pampanga, was considered an agricultural country. The people, who had originated as Malayans, were strongly influenced by the colonial Spaniards, altering their ways of life. After wanting to free the Philippines from Spanish control, the United States fought in the Spanish-American war, eventually causing the United States to colonize during that time as well. Saplala, who was born during the United States occupation, recalls all the events that took place at the time. He states, “Way back then, in the thirties, [the era] was right after the depression in the United States, which also affected our country because it was then under the US colonial policy it was…. A colony of the United States taken from the Spaniards in the 1898, so from then on, the United States took over the whole country and changed its educational system [the same way as it] was in the United States. A lot of people unless you are in the upper bracket of social life, can’t really have too much of an education, except for the elementary level which is free.”2 As a result, the colonies had created a better lifestyle for the Filipino people, establishing a new way of learning to allow them to be literate. Their daily life has also been affected because of these new educational systems. These systems were put intact so the people of the Philippines could strive for an excellent career. Though established, many people had ignored them, and did not incorporate them into their daily lives. Most of the wealth of the Philippines was not equally divided. Saplala states, “The upper class or the rich probably constitute 10% of the population but they control 90 percent of the wealth of the islands, the rest, the middle class, would probably be another 60 or 70 percent, which are the government workers, and…trade people, and then the rest are really poor because they are the farmers or fishermen, [which we have back, living] from the countryside.”3 The upper class mainly contained the government officials or excellent entrepreneurs. They had power and authority, and their lives were set, due to their enormous wealth control among the islands. The middle class, which had consisted of most of the other Filipinos, were government workers or trade people. Saplala, whose father had a high paying job, belonged to the class in between them, the upper-middle class. Lastly were the fishermen and farmers-they were the ones in poverty. Their daily lives included education, but they needed to work in the farms mainly because of the Philippines’ high demand for agricultural needs.

   Daily life in the Philippines varied. Many Filipinos attended school because it was free, but depending on the individuals, they either followed up on the education to pursue higher careers requiring further knowledge or settled at home after elementary education to continue the family’s daily work. Being an agricultural country, one would say that the environment there was extraordinarily hot. Families had worked on farms during this scorching weather to produce many crops. Saplala recalls the wealthy family’s way of living: “[A family] won’t worry about food, during the harvest time, [their] sharecroppers, they bring the rice on carriages, pulled by water buffalos, and there’s a big stream of them coming to the house, and they deposit the rice into those big baskets. Those baskets are probably 10 ft across and at least 6 ft deep, so [anyone] can see how much rice they can hold, and that will tide [them] over for the whole year.”4 People typically had lived in three types of houses, ones made of bamboo and nepa, ones made of stone, and ones made of timber and hollow block. The huts of bamboo and nepa were for the poor families, ones who had to create their own housing for the hot heat. The houses of stone, influenced by the Spanish’ occupation, were for the middle class families, and the prosperous’ homes were of timber and hollow block. Each home was built to last mainly to provide shelter for the average family, which had consisted of six to eight children, as well as the mother and father. Catholicism was also a major part of daily life. Most of the people in the nations were Catholic, mainly due to the influences taken upon the Spaniards. In this, each family had prayed daily, and even set a week for traditional Catholic event, Holy Week. Daily life was majorly influenced by the people who had originally occupied the nation, and the Philippine people had accustomed to them, making them traditions, for example, festivals and fiestas.

   Saplala was born, during the time preceding the Great Depression, which had taken a major toll among the people of the Philippines. That had contributed to a reason why he had left; the economy was unstable during this period. Shortly after, World War II had arisen, creating more political corruption. After the Japanese occupation had occurred, he states, “It was extremely difficult for everyone during the war, since the Japanese soldiers were not really the best of soldiers; they were really mean and brutal. It…was just like the experience in any other Asian country, where the Japanese soldiers brutalize the population and…there were a lot of atrocities, put upon the population, and a lot of killings and a lot of torture.”5 The Japanese had also contributed to the reason why Saplala had left. When the Japanese had left the Philippines, and the Philippines gained independence, Saplala soon knew that trouble was arising. When the nation had finally become independent, corruption had come. He explains, “…the Philippine politicians have been less than honest in their dealings, and this has become a case of corruption and looking after themselves.”6 To show the corruption, he is able to recall an evident time of corruption, saying, “This is evidence by the past president of the Philippines, President Estrada, who had seven mistresses and all of them he had to build mansions. He said, ‘I have to be fair, if one gets a mansion, the other 6 should get the same thing.’ And where do you think the money would come from, with the salary of the president? Obviously, it must come from the people…”7 Saplala grew sick of the Philippines social and political corruption and decided it was time to leave the country.

   Aside from the political instability, he had other reasons for leaving the country for the United States as well. He had wanted to go to the United States for an opportunity to become a doctor or an engineer. With his benefit of being born into a wealthy family, Saplala set his plan into action. He had pursued higher education, rather than only elementary, and had attained, “multiple majors, one is science, and the other is English. But also, I pursued a course in accounting, a business administration, so [someone] might call it a triple major.”8 Receiving his bachelor’s degree from the University of the East, as well as his Master’s degree from Ataneo University, he was set to seek the professional life in the United States. However, he would not enter the states as a doctor, but as a Federal computer programmer, a career had he gravitated to during college, mainly because he passed an IBM international test just to test his knowledge.

   As soon as passing the test, he realized it was the beginning of his journey to the states. Being one of the only computer programmers in the Philippines, he had benefitted to gaining a Federal job from the United States government, solely due to his profession. With knowledge at hand, he first set out to Japan. Upon landing in Japan, asides from his World War II experience, he took notice of how normal the people were and how normal society was, which was rather different from atmosphere of the brutal Japanese soldiers. Shortly after, Saplala had ventured to Vietnam for two main reasons: “I went to Vietnam to be able to one, financial reward obviously, more money, and secondly, I learned more about computers.”9 During this time, his position had already been chief of a division for data processing, which had gained him enough respect and authority similar to a Captain in the United States Air Force. Residing in Vietnam for five to six months, he had benefitted by learning the language, as well as furthering an education in computers.

   After Vietnam, his family had moved to Hawaii, which was where he had gotten his immigration documents. Being a federal worker, it was not hard to obtain documents, because he had already applied for them at the American consulate in Vietnam. In addition, his degrees and his professional career added to the appeal for the immigration agency. Upon waiting for two to three months to receive them, he had set out to search a new lifestyle in Hawaii. Sadly, it had turned out to be an expensive lifestyle, one where the money demand was much greater, and where there were not many opportunities. Also, though Hawaii is a part of the states, he did not feel as if he was part of the states, mainly because it was similar to his home of the Philippines. In it, he found that, “Like us I think we had Island Fever, so we really found ourselves too much claustrophobic in living in Hawaii. You can only do so much after working I mean, you get tired of bananas and pineapple, and Hula Hula dances.”10 So, he had decided to send his immigration papers to California, where he had thought was a better place to find various opportunities.

   After receiving the documents, and landing in California, he was already requested a job. Taking the job as a computer programmer, he gladly moved to Burbank, California, a suburb. Expecting to see many Filipino’s, he was stunned, explaining, “[that] there were only two Filipino families within the city, we were the first two Filipinos, and it was a shock to find there were no other Filipinos. I thought they were all over California, well, they were in LA, but not in Burbank, because Burbank was a white enclave.”11 He was glad that the people were able to fend off political corruption for justice, and was pleased to see how the social life, including the education system, had worked. The economic stability and the technology had also been maintained well, which resulted to motivating him to follow a life of education.

   For Saplala, integrating into society was not difficult solely because the education standards in the Philippines had required English to be taught to the people. After having been taught English, it was easier to communicate with the citizens within the United States. His multilingual abilities had brought him far above the ordinary immigrant already. To his concern, however, he was unsure of how the people would accept him because of his ethnicity. He states, “ In the 70s or 60s, when I started applying…the country has already moved forward a little bit toward racial acceptance, that was my first question as a matter of fact at the consulate, I said, ‘Since I’m Asian Oriental, what do you think is my chance of finding a job?’ They said, well, as a professional, there is no color barrier to you…”12 Then the consulate advised him by explaining that as a professional, ethnicity was of no problem; as a matter of fact, they were widely accepted. When he asked about non-professionals accepting him, the consulate replied that there was no problem. Adjusting was made easier also because his neighbors possessed vast tolerance and that there were a number of Oriental Asians in the area as well.

   Adjusting to life in America was also a positive aspect for Saplala. Hoping to create a stable place for his family to settle in and create an established living, he succeeded with his use of education. To do this, he successfully was offered a career upon landing in California, he had suffered no ethnicity discrimination whatsoever, and he lived in an enclave-like community where he was well-respected. Trying to make himself fit in society was effortless, in fact, he makes it seems as it were of ease. Saplala says, “I was the first one to come to the United States.”13 With being the first one, opportunity came to arise in his favor. Compared to ceramics, Saplala was different; being able to sculpt an alternate shape into his life creation, instead of the typical Filipino pottery. The typical Filipino pottery consists of someone carrying the ongoing tradition, whereas he himself shaped his pottery into something with American customs, as well as various experiences during the time.

   When Saplala had to choose the lifestyle his family was to grow up within, he wanted it to be the best lifestyle that he can offer, consisting of excellent education, great careers, nice atmospheres, one of religious influence, and one that wasn’t so hard on the children. To do this, he says, “[His family] chose a private school for our children ran by sisters, it’s called St. Finbar for their elementary school, and it was an excellent training for them. On the high school level, we chose another private school called the Providence high school, run by the sisters of Providence. It gave them excellent training for academic advancement into the college level. We stayed there for a long time, and all 3 daughters went to UCLA without a problem, they got admitted, and everybody got their degree, their bachelor’s degree.”14 His chosen lifestyle for his family was attained by keeping the children on track, as well as giving them the best that he could offer. That was Saplala’s way of leading his children into the future to be successful. He believed that each youth should continue their education, and should to pursue high dreams. To him, education is the most important aspect that people can have in their life, and that one should exercise it daily to keep it intact.

   All in all, Saplala had established a permanent home for himself, as well as being financially stable. Retired, he lives with his two grandchildren at home, as well as one of his daughters and her husband. He has gotten far with his education which eventually led him to his experience, and his life has been content with the knowledge. He still furthers his education, even to this day, and exercises it daily. When asked if he regrets leaving the Philippines, he responds, “Culturally, sometimes I think about the Philippines if I didn’t leave, but I think the way things are over there, with all the unfortunately the corruption and the population explosion, I think the opportunities in the US are a lot better, and right now, while it was a successful job opportunity which I have, and I have no regrets, so I think the United States experience is so much better, and that’s why we’re here.”15 In the end, he turned out to be happier with life in the United States, and is expecting the best of life from the land of opportunities.


1. Saplala, Leonardo. Personal Interview. May 23 2009, 23
2. Saplala, May 23 2009, 2
3. Saplala, May 23 2009, 2
4. Saplala, May 23 2009, 23
5. Saplala, May 23 2009, 3
6. Saplala, May 23 2009, 15
7. Saplala, May 23 2009, 15
8. Saplala, May 23 2009, 4
9. Saplala, May 23 2009, 9
10. Saplala, May 23 2009, 11
11. Saplala, May 23 2009, 9
12. Saplala, May 23 2009, 9
13. Saplala, May 23 2009, 14
14. Saplala, May 23 2009, 11
15. Saplala, May 23 2009, 23