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2022-02-21, #1 Frank Irigon
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PSARA Oral Histories Project:
Frank Irigon

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Frank Irigon Biography

PSARA Advocate Archives

July 2022 Page 5 (Part I)

August 2022 Page 10 (Part II)




Mud on Their Hands,

An Interview With Frank Irigon

By Angie Bartels


It never ceases to amaze me how much newly arrived immigrants know about and give to our country. They work hard for the ideal of democracy and to improve their lives and the gen­eral welfare of the US. People like Frank Irigon have taught me more about the US than I had learned in school. His knowledge goes back generations and I believe is innate. 


Frank’s grandfather and father served in the Philippine Scouts, a military unit and remnant of colonialism. Frank was born on a US military base in the Philip­pines in 1947. His father was captured by the Japanese and spent time as a prisoner of war. After WWII, his father took advantage of an offer to join the US Army and shipped off to the USA. He sent for the family in 1950, when Frank, his mother, and two siblings boarded a ship bound for San Francisco. Frank’s mother did not speak English, and she didn’t realize that the fare for the voyage included meals. She brought what food she could carry, along with the children and their belongings, but then ran out of food mid-voyage. A Filipino passenger in a nearby berth heard the cries of the hungry children and asked if she could help. The friendly passenger led the family to the ship’s cafeteria where there was bounty. When they reached San Francisco, once again they relied on the kindness of strangers to help them find the train to Fort Riley, Kansas, where Frank’s dad was sta­tioned. 


Frank was raised on US military bases and learned the signs of racism early on. He remembers growing up in North Ft. Lewis where there was an old military hospital that was converted into family housing. Most of the families living in that complex were Latino or Filipino. Newer complexes were built, but those were occupied mostly by white families. His fourth-grade teacher was African American, and her husband was a military pilot. She and her family were not permitted to live with the white officers, so they lived in an area set off by themselves. 


Frank himself enlisted in the US Army before high school graduation. He remembers training in Baltimore in the summer of 1965 and the civil unrest in that city. His sergeant called the soldiers of color into one room and began his lecture, “I know we got a lot of n------ troops.” Stunned, the Black soldiers stared at one another. The sergeant went on, “But we’ve got only one color here and that’s green.” But everyone in the room knew that he had made a grave error as soon as he said the N word. The soldiers stared at the sergeant as he too realized the mistake he had made. Per Frank, “It really lost its effect when he tried to tell us we were all one color, green, our military fatigues. He already knew that we were different because of our race.” Frank went on, “And I saw other things – an African American lieutenant not being given the respect that he deserved because of his rank, white soldiers talking behind his back, things like that. This wasn’t the first time I heard the word racism, but I remember we had a Black clerk and he wanted to go on leave. But he was denied it while many other soldiers were granted leave. The clerk claimed it was because of racism.” Frank spoke for some time with the clerk about the incident. 


The saving grace during Frank’s military years was his thirst for knowledge, which he quenched through reading. While stationed in Heidelberg, Germany, he happened upon an anti-Vietnam War protest where the marchers had occupied the streets. He then began reading about US involvement in Vietnam and its tragic effects. But for Frank, it was deeper and more complex than that. His mother wrote to him of his childhood friend, Eddie Caceres, who died in battle in Vietnam. Frank considered putting in a form 1049, a request to go to Vietnam, so that he could get revenge for Eddie’s death. But the more he thought and read about it, the more he felt that he really didn’t want to do that. And since he had less than a year left in the service, he wouldn’t be sent. The military had the draft to replenish troops that were discharged, or who deserted, or died. 


After discharge, Frank came to Seattle and attended Seattle Central Community College, and later, the University of Washington, majoring in history. His wife, Felicita, was working with the Asian Counseling and Referral Services as a social worker, and he was envious of her work and skill at helping people. Frank had been working for DSHS and was offered the opportunity to study for a master’s degree, along with a stipend, all while continuing employment and accrual of benefits. He decided to become a social worker and eventually earned his master’s degree. 


Frank became increasingly aware of the issues facing Asian and other families of color in the CID (Chinatown- International District) of Seattle. He remembers the fire at the Ozark Hotel, located near Westlake and Lenora, in 1970. The Ozark was six floors of low-rate rooms and SRO (single room occu­pancy) units, inhabited by low-income, disabled, and elderly residents. The hotel was not retrofitted with sprinklers, and twenty-one people died, some while trying to jump to safety from windows. As a result, a huge displacement of low-income residents citywide took place as the City closed down 6,000 low-rate rooms and SROs for failure to meet fire safety codes. Frank says the homeless problem in Seattle began at that point. 


Frank was working with the Asian Student Coalition at the UW in 1972, when it was announced that the King Dome would be built south of King Street Station. This sent shock waves through the CID, as affordable housing and businesses would be impacted by displacement and gentrification. Frank had co-founded the Asian Family Affair, the first pan-Asian community newspaper in Seattle, and they reported about the negative impact of the proposed King Dome on the community. He and Felicita were driving north on I-5 in their “hippie wagon,” a VW camper, when they heard an announcement on the radio about a groundbreaking ceremony. Frank felt like enough was enough as he looked at Felicita and said, “Fuck that shit!” His anger mounted as he started thinking about ways to demonstrate, to disrupt the ceremony, to show that “they” weren’t going to get the King Dome without a fight.

Al Sugiyama noticed the sign Frank had placed on his office door at the HUB (UW Student Union building) stating “I will be going to the King Dome site to protest the groundbreaking ceremony.” Al called Frank and asked how many people would be going with him. Frank replied, “You, me, and Felicita.” Al laughed, but set himself in motion. He was a former president of the Oriental Student Union at Seattle Central and had a history of activism, lots of contacts, and years of organizing experience. By the day of the groundbreaking ceremony, when Al, Frank, and Felicita met up at the International District Drop-In Center, 50-75 people had joined them. 


The group marched from the CID to the King Dome site, a muddy rain-soaked field south of King Street Station. No presentation was planned; the protesters were there to disrupt. The former NFL great, Hugh McElhenny, was standing beside John Spellman, then King County Executive, and the group heard him say, “Just give me a football and I can run through that crowd.” 


A lively chant went up amongst the protestors. “We dare you! We dare you!!” A group of protesters then tried to occupy the dais that was set up on a stage. A King County sheriff’s deputy turned pleadingly to Frank and said, “Can you stop this?” Frank was reluctant but also concerned about the safety of the protesters, so he began herding people together and asked everyone to leave the stage. Then a friend from the School of Social Work picked up a piece of mud and threw it at the groundbreaking plaque. In a split second, other protestors began throwing mud at the plaque. 


About this time the Seattle Police Dept. (SPD) arrived, “. . . looking like Roman soldiers with their shields and combat gear,” and marched towards the protesters. Frank said, “We decided it was time to go!” Al felt that they needed to leave all together as a group. Al, Frank, Nemesio Domingo, and a few others picked up the rear to ensure that no one was left behind. Nemesio had been appointed to ensure that no one in the group was arrested. But the SPD intended to arrest anyone with mud on their hands because, according to their thinking, they were guilty of throwing mud balls. Frank said, “This made no sense because the site was very muddy, and if anyone slipped or touched anything, such as a football, there would be mud on their hands.” 


As the protesters left the site, two officers followed them. Nemesio turned to the officers and said, “Why are you following us? We’re leaving!” The officer unzipped his jacket, placed his hand on his gun, and said to Nemesio, “What are you going to do about it?” Nemesio, looked him straight in the eye, flipped him the bird, and said, “Fuck you!” Suddenly, a sister protester yelled, “Run Nemesio, run!” 


Nemesio took off running with the police officers right behind him. The chase lasted only a block or two when the officers caught up with Nemesio. One of the protesters was a law student, and he convinced the police to release Nemesio on the spot, without charges. The demo was over, and the officers decided it wasn’t worth their while to arrest anyone. If this incident had happened today, it’s frightening to think of the consequences. 


Over the next few days and weeks, it became apparent that the protest wasn’t merely a mud fight. It had put the City and County on notice that the people of the CID were ready to stand up for their homes and livelihoods. 


Frank and the group used this as an opportunity to get a meeting with King County Executive John Spellman and present a list of demands, one of which was a community health center for the CID. It wasn’t a novel idea, since other community clinics were starting up as well. Frank and his group had learned that the Filipino and Chinese elderly were using the Pioneer Square Health Station (PSHS) for medical care. PSHS was there to treat the homeless and Indigenous people who lived in the area.


A doctor there told them that it wasn’t a good mix, Filipino and Chinese elderly waiting for care alongside people being treated for drug and alcohol addiction and problems related to homelessness. Also, PSHS was not culturally or language accessible for these Asian patients.


When Frank presented the demand for a culturally appropriate clinic for the Asian elderly, Spellman responded, “Why should I fund a community health center that is in the city of Seattle and not serving all of King County?  How do I know that you guys even need this?  Frank responded that the health care center would be open to anyone who wanted to use it and added, “Prove to us that we don’t need it.”


Spellman assigned a nursing student working on her master’s degree to do a community assessment. She worked with activist and journalist Doug Chin on an epidemiological study to assess the health care needs of the elderly living in the CID. She came to Frank and Doug and said, “You guys have a problem with your elderly. They’ve got diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and a myriad of health problems, so they need good primary care. This will help you prove that you do need a clinic.” The study findings were presented to Spellman and he, along with King County Councilwoman and restaurateur Ruby Chow, got the International District Community Health Center funded as a brick-and-mortar facility, not the mobile unit that was originally proposed by the County. Frank became Executive Director of the IDCHC in 1980 and served in that capacity for about two years. 


Frank is modest when talking about this achievement, as well as his many others. He credits the hundreds of people he’s worked with, from all walks of life, for the contributions they made in the struggle for racial equality and health and social equity. I did volunteer work at the ID Clinic in the late 1980’s as a prerequisite for nursing school. Back then, it was a small clinic on the second floor of an old building on Maynard Street. It was impressive then and even more so today, with new buildings in multiple locations and services for its mostly Asian American clientele. 


Before speaking with Frank, I did not know that the IDCHC grew out of a mud-splattered disruption of the commemoration of the first of several sports facilities built in Seattle, facilities that continue to disrupt and displace residents of the CID. Nor did I know of the tremendous contribution that Frank had made. 

Frank spends less time looking back over the many years of service he has given to us, our city, state, and country, and more time on the challenges that lie ahead. City planners and developers continue to draw up plans for more building and development in the CID, completely overlooking the impact on the commu­nity, its character, its residents, and its viability. But now, just like then, Frank will tell you, “They’re not getting it without a fight and without consideration for the people affected.”



Angie Bartels is PSARA's Membership VP. This story is one of a series of interviews she's doing with PSARA members.

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