By Stacy Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
In 1988, Corinne Villa-Riese took time off from her job and backpacked around the globe. She started in California and went east, not stopping until she ended back in the Western Hemisphere, in Hawaii. For three months, she stayed with her grandmother in Honolulu, asking questions about the late Fortunato Teho, a gardening television and radio personality and the first Filipino in Hawaii to become a U.S. citizen. He was also Villa-Riese’s grandfather.
“My grandmother saw how interested I was in the family’s background,” said Villa-Riese. “She gave me a photo album containing photos of my grandfather and herself, going back to 1919, the 1920s, and 1930s. … I took the photo album with me and thought to myself, ‘I have this photo album. I don’t have children. I’d like for my cousins and other relatives to know more about my grandfather.’ So I started organizing the photos.”
She also found news clippings and articles that Teho had written. She cataloged them, something that came easy to her because she was a legal secretary. This journey, which spanned decades, culminated this year, with the publication of “Fortunato Teho’s Hawaii Gardens,” a biography of Teho that she wrote with her husband, Ted Riese, a retired writing professor in California.
“We didn’t intend to write a book,” said Riese, explaining that they first intended to create a small booklet to pass around to family members. “I just wanted to help her write a biography and digitize photos, so they would be accessible. She did a timeline of his life. Then it looked like it’d be nice to have a biographical sketch. It just evolved into a book from there.”
Teho was born in Manila in 1908. People dubbed him a miracle baby because he survived a cholera epidemic and was named Fortunato. The family immigrated to Hawaii when he was young. Proving to be an excellent student, he graduated high school at age 15 and went on to become the first Filipino graduate of the University of Hawaii (UH), with a Bachelor of Science in Agriculture Sugar Technology.
He married Susannah Ventura, a Filipino American, and they lived together for 15 years in sugar company housing. Teho worked as an agriculturalist and foreman, or luna, on sugar plantations.
In the early 20th century, most Filipino immigrants in the United States came as cheap laborers, often for Hawaii and California’s agriculturally based economies. By the 1930s, Filipinos had supplanted the Japanese as the largest ethnic group of workers on plantations and were given preference because the Philippines was a U.S. colony at the time, according to a publication from the Office of Multicultural Student Services at UH. Since Filipinos were technically U.S. nationals, they were not restricted by the exclusion laws barring the immigration of Japanese and Chinese.
The situation shifted. The Great Depression in the 1930s depleted jobs, including Teho’s. Anti-Filipino sentiment was highlighted by two acts: the Filipino Repatriation Act of 1935, which saw the U.S. government pressuring Filipinos into returning to the Philippines by offering free passage, and the Tydings–McDuffie Act of 1934, which restricted Philippine immigration to the United States down to only 50 people a year.
Prior to World War II, Teho worked various odd jobs before his stint as editor of the Naalehu News. After the war, in 1945, Teho was among those pushing for citizenship among Filipinos. His hope came to fruition a year later, with the Luce-Celler Act. In 1948, according to the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Teho became the first Filipino in Hawaii to become a U.S. citizen.
In the same year, Teho became a publicist for the College of Tropical Agriculture at UH, working there until he retired in 1973. It was at this job that Teho became more of a public figure, appearing on gardening shows, creating booklets and pamphlets, and writing columns.
From Hawaii to the Pacific Northwest
Villa-Riese and Riese were both retired by 1999. “I was in San Francisco. I didn’t have much to do, so we got married,” Riese deadpanned. “We hit the road. I had a camper, a tiny RV.” They travelled around the country, even trying to craft out a life in Hawaii, but Riese found that it wasn’t for him, so they headed north. They ended up in Sequim in 2007.
It was in their new house that Villa-Riese learned that, like Teho, she had a green thumb. Her yard and the local P-Patch in Sequim were places where she honed her gardening skills. Today, they are vegetal oases, offering up bounties of greens. She said she looks forward to the months of the year when she can make meals sourced solely from what she grows.
“When I lived in Hawaii [as a young girl], I really didn’t have any interest in horticulture,” she said. “That was my mother — her area of interest. … The first garden that I had here in Sequim was something I spent hours on, from nine to five, just experimenting on. I’d just plant something, then I’d go back to P-Patch, once an hour every hour, to see how much it grew.”
In the 1960s, after the last of their children left home, the Tehos moved into a high-rise apartment in Waikiki, a neighborhood of Honolulu. The new environment inspired Teho’s interest in container gardening.
While sustainable gardening, which aims to meet the goals of a garden without compromising surrounding ecosystems, is often thought to have boomed during the 1980s, the concepts and ideas Teho conceptualized in the 1960s can be thought of as a prototype of cultivating food in a town or city.
Before Teho died, he was working on a book about gardening in Hawaii. Evidence of this is on paper, in a written introduction and a book outline, an exhaustive list of topics that, presumably, Teho wanted to write about.
“What made it interesting was his vision,” said Riese. “The ideas in the book were way ahead of their time, in the way it saw sustainable horticulture. … When they moved to Honolulu, even though they were writing about horticulture, they became city people. … It bothered him, the lack of space, the noise, and the pollution. So at some point, he got this idea, well, you know a lot of people in Hawaii have pretty good sized yards, so why not use it?”
Teho died on July 11, 1986, after years of battling prostate cancer.
“Toward the end of his life, he wrote me a couple of letters,” said Villa-Riese. “What was really touching was that he knew that I was working all day and that I would go to school in the evening. He was really proud of that, and he wrote to me about it.”
“I think there are these generations of immigrants,” said Riese, “who all basically went through the same thing, who are caught between traditions at home and the desire to assimilate into U.S. culture. They’re really very admirable people. America is kind of in a troubled place right now, and it’s hard for kids to hook onto something they believe in, and so if they are exposed [to] ancestors of theirs who have stories like Fortunato Teho’s, it might give them more hope and encourage them to take pride in themselves.” (end)
“Fortunato Teho’s Hawaii Gardens” is available for purchase on Amazon.com.
Stacy Nguyen can be reached at email@example.com.