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Highway marker in Virginia Beach to commemorate Filipino sailors

The state highway marker is meant to remember and honor contributions of Filipinos in the U.S. Navy.

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — The United States is home to thousands of Filipinos who emigrated from the Philippines after enlisting in the U.S. Armed Forces.

One of those people was Felipe Diaz of Virginia Beach.

"It's my ambition and dream," said Diaz. who was inspired to serve in the U.S. Navy while he was in high school in Pangasinan, Philippines. 

Initially too young to serve, he never lost sight of that dream. He enlisted in the service in the late 1960s at the age of 22.

Early in his career, he ended up in San Diego and then settled in Hampton Roads.

"Our sailors had an opportunity to serve in the military but also to establish a life here in the United States," said Dr. Cynthia Romero, chair of the Council of United Filipino Organizations of Tidewater. 

"My dad was in the U.S. Navy and my mom had graduated from a medical school in the Philippines, then came here with my dad, started the family," Romero shared. 

Credit: Contributed, Dr. Cynthia Romero

Contributions of the Filipino people in the U.S. Navy date back to the 1800s.The U.S. took control of the Philippines after the Spanish-American War.

Decades later, America and the islands became allies during World War II. An influx of Filipinos served in the U.S. Armed Forces.

In 1946, the Philippines gained freedom. Recruitment of Navy sailors only grew. Migration to the U.S. soared on the heels of a game-changing law passed in 1965.

"The Immigration Act really opened up the doors, so that many Filipino could come and help fulfill many of the professional and workforce needs that the United States needed," said Romero. 

Until retirement in 1995, Diaz spent more than 25 years serving as a steward, machinist's mate, and teacher, He was a leading chief petty officer who attained and his ultimate goal of becoming a master chief petty officer.  

"I did everything that a sailor would do to get the highest rank they want to be," said Diaz. "Sometimes, the stories are not told about our accomplishments here."

Credit: 13News Now

A forthcoming Virginia historical marker aims to put those stories at the forefront of people's minds in Hampton Roads. It will commemorate the contributions of Filipinos in the U.S. Navy. 

"It's a symbol of the hard work," said Diaz. 

The recognition is thanks to nominations from a statewide Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month contest. Students from Chesterfield County and Fairfax County made the winning submissions.

"We went online and did some research, but our lola mostly told us about it, because we have family in the U.S. military," said Fairfax County student Daniel Foley,  whose "lola" (grandmother) is from the Philippines.

"We feel so proud that we get to be part of our family and that we get to learn more about our heritage," said Daniel's sister, Ciara.

Credit: Contributed, Clare Foley

There’s significance behind the marker's proposed location in Virginia Beach.

"To hear that there is a strong consideration to have that marker be placed very close to our Philippine Cultural Center of Virginia is a tremendous pride for us," said Romero. 

The Philippine Cultural Center of Virginia on Baxter Road is closed temporarily because of the pandemic, but it has more than 20 years of history in the community.

It's considered a hub for learning and gathering to celebrate the Filipino culture.

Dr. Romero believes the roadside marker will also highlight contributions of other Filipino-Americans in the region.

"We have brought our expertise in health care, in engineering, in law, in accounting and in education," she said.

Diaz is the current president of the Filipino-American Veterans of Hampton Roads. He hopes that the marker will help strengthen relationships, as well as extend gratitude for all service members and their families.

"Telling them that they are not forgotten of their sacrifices," he said. 

But Diaz also hopes the lasting reminder will motivate the next generation to enlist and serve "in military, not just the U.S. Navy."

Credit: 13News Now

A spokesperson for the Department of Historic Resources told 13News Now there's a backlog of Virginia markers, but it is hopeful the one for Virginia Beach will arrive sometime early next year.

Members of the Filipino community said they're excited to plan events around the marker's installation and unveiling.