By James Tabafunda
Northwest Asian Weekly
Her memories of being a girl who could enter a vice admiral’s house only through the back door with her father, Angel Mariano, are still fresh.
Dr. Connie Mariano’s father was a Navy steward back then, and she has never forgotten her roots. Today, the situation is much different: she enters the front entrance of the Greater Tacoma Convention and Trade Center as a retired Navy rear admiral.
The first Asian American female doctor to three U.S. presidents appeared as the keynote speaker at the First Annual Tagumpay Awards on Oct. 9. With smiles, a few hugs, and an occasional group photo, she signed copies of her memoir, “The White House Doctor,” before delivering her speech.
The event honored Filipino American excellence in several categories. Q13 Fox news anchor Maria Arcega-Dunn and Bebot De Guzman served as emcees.
Mariano made history when she became the first military woman in U.S. history to be appointed as White House doctor in 1992 and the first female director of the White House medical unit. She was also the first Filipino American female Navy rear admiral to be appointed; this was on July 16, 2000.
She acknowledges that Filipino Americans must try harder to “make ourselves known,” and the extra effort is worth it.
As they achieve in this country, “they give back to their family. They give back to the Philippines,” said Mariano.
“When people say someone is Filipino, it’s a very positive image of somebody who’s honest, hard-working, kind-hearted, hospitable, somebody you would like to employ or run your company. It’s a great image.”
She discussed three topics during her keynote speech. She talked about her journey to the White House, including a job interview with a boss who tried to intimidate her. She honored her Filipino roots, ones that value dedication, loyalty to family, education, and humility. Lastly, she talked about being proud of one’s Filipino American ancestry.
According to Mariano, Filipino Americans succeed in this country, one that is “not of our birth, not of our native tongue.” She emphasized, “We succeed despite the odds, and we do very well because of our Filipino roots that drive us.”
Belonging to the military servant class, Mariano learned early on that “it was our place” to enter through the back door into the kitchen. As a result, “You are not good enough” became the mantra in her mind. “That’s what I believed growing up because I never fit in,” admitted Mariano.
She hopes Filipino Americans who read her memoir will come away knowing that someone like them achieved success. In 1957, she immigrated with her family to the United States at the age of two, speaking only the Filipino dialect of her parents’ province of Pampanga.
“I think that things that we learn from our [Filipino] culture, such as respect for education and authority, giving back to the community, being very driven to achieve, and also humility, are wonderful things for success, and they also make us great Americans,” Mariano said.
“I think [we] should be very proud of our heritage and that we shouldn’t underestimate ourselves.”
Mariano also pointed out the important, yet seldom recognized, work done by five Filipino American valets. Many of these “unsung heroes” have served different presidents for more than 20 years. She said, “One of them has served five presidents, and they’re the ones who are there all the time, who know the president better than his staff because they feed him. They give him his clothing. They travel with him. They wake him up every morning. They come and give him his medications.”
Francine te Groen-Garnett drove seven miles from Puyallup to be the first one in line to have her copy of “The White House Doctor” signed by Mariano. A former Navy corpsman — one of 15 — who worked for then-Lieutenant Mariano on the destroyer tender USS Prairie, she said she recently bought Mariano’s book.
From 1983 to 1985, the two former crewmates performed such duties as administering first-aid and training the ship’s crew in handling casualties in the event of an accident at sea.
Excited to see her again after their last meeting eight years ago, te Groen-Garnett said, “She is the best, just a really good person, a good doctor who treated us all really wonderful and fair.”
“She was a good mentor and a good example in everything. I’m real proud of her.”
Mariano now runs her own concierge medical practice, the Center for Executive Medicine, in Scottsdale, Ariz. ♦
James Tabafunda can be reached at email@example.com.