Photo depicting Auntie Dorothy waving with a sunset behind her.

Dr. Dorothy Cordova Celebrates 90 Years of Building Beloved Community in Seattle

by Jasmine M. Pulido

A woman in a fuzzy knee-length coat, one that sported her signature shade of bright red, made her way out of Immaculate Conception Church, Seattle’s oldest Catholic church located in the Central District, on a bright Sunday afternoon. She may be under 5 feet, but that didn’t stop her from standing tall. She was preparing herself to celebrate her 90th birthday with a cascade of family surrounding her.

Auntie Dorothy standing in a tent behind gifted flowers. (Photo: Sharon Ho Chang)

An estimate of over 100 people showed up to greet her in a COVID-safe drive-through commemoration on Feb. 6 in the church’s parking lot.

“Auntie Dorothy” was born in Seattle on Feb. 6, 1932, and grew up in the Central District when it was still a predominantly Japanese American neighborhood. Her parents immigrated to the United States in 1928 and owned two businesses in the Chinatown-International District. Auntie Dorothy cofounded Filipino Youth Activities (FYA) and its award-winning FYA drill team in 1957 with her late husband, Fred Cordova, as a way to provide “wholesome leisure-time” activities for their eight kids alongside other families from diverse cultural and economic backgrounds. 

In the 1960s, Auntie Dorothy wrote grants and advocated for changes that benefited immigrant and refugee communities — gaining employment for immigrant bilingual teachers and immigration and employment services for parents, and ensuring doctors trained in the Philippines could practice their profession in the U.S. Auntie Dorothy then founded the Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS) and created the National Pinoy Archives (NPY) in 1982 with Uncle Fred, who also served as FANHS’ volunteer archivist until his death in 2013.

In 1994, the couple worked to develop Filipino American curriculum for the University of Washington. Auntie Dorothy and Uncle Fred were also instrumental in shepherding Filipino American History Month into law.

At her birthday celebration earlier this month, attendees ranged from now-elderly folks who were once children in her first Filipino Drill Team 60 years ago to Pio DeCano, whose father collaborated with Auntie Dorothy in passing Filipino American History Month into law. The community came bearing gifts of balloons, succulent plants, pictures for her archives, and even a pineapple. By the end of the event, she had amassed so many flowers that her family started to give them away.

A line of cars waiting to greet Auntie Dorothy on her 90th birthday. (Photo: Sharon Ho Chang)

“She welcomed me into her home in the year 1979,” recalled Keith Bazemore, one of the celebrants in line for Cordova. “Her youngest son, Dion, brought me home, and they have made me part of the family ever since then.”

There are many ways Auntie Dorothy touched the lives of the people who came to celebrate her. As the executive director of FANHS, Cordova has now given 40 years of unpaid leadership to FANHS’ mission of identifying, gathering, preserving, and disseminating the history and culture of Filipino Americans in the United States. FANHS now contains 40 chapters nationwide and will celebrate its 40th anniversary this August.

Fred and Dorothy were lifelong collaborators who also founded the NPY, one of the largest collections of Filipino American history in the country. The archives are nestled in the heart of the historic Central District on the ground floor of Immaculate Conception Church. This historical collection seems to defy the cultural erasure that threatens once again to push Filipino Americans and other marginalized communities in a neighborhood currently experiencing breakneck-paced gentrification, development, and displacement. While a large portion of the Filipino American community resides in the CID, multiple generations of Filipino Americans have also lived in the Central District since the 1930s as it changed from predominantly Jewish to predominantly Japanese to predominantly Black over the passing of several decades. 

Many would agree that Dorothy and Fred Cordova have kept these national treasures they created safe for many decades, and for that and so much more, they are national treasures in and of themselves.

As a couple who both graduated with degrees in sociology from Seattle University, Fred and Dorothy led multiple projects, including the documentation of the stories of Filipino Americans in the CID and Asian American immigrants and refugees, and the histories of Seattle’s historically Black Central District, to name a few.

A table with signs and a bouquet wishing Auntie Dorothy blessings on her birthday. (Photo: Sharon Ho Chang)

Dorothy said her experiences as sociologist and researcher in the 1970s radicalized her and caused a deep sense of sadness and anger as she witnessed firsthand the racism and oppression in surveys she was asked to conduct. 

When she was approached with the idea of an oral history project, she found herself lit up by the idea of getting to hear the whole history of the ordinary person told in their voice. “Once we started going, it was interesting what we were hearing,” she remembers. “I thought I knew these people, and I didn’t know them.”

Decades later, Auntie Dorothy, as part of her 90th birthday, sat in worship service in the same building that houses FANHS while a representative from the mayor’s office presented a proclamation designating Feb. 6 to be “Dorothy Cordova Day.” Bruce Harrell isn’t the first mayor to make such a declaration. After touring FANHS in 2019, Mayor Jenny Durkan also announced Nov. 22 to be “Dr. Dorothy Laigo Cordova Day.” 

Community members describe Auntie Dorothy as “legend,” “cultural icon,” and “national treasure.” Tony Ogilvie, president of the Filipino Chamber of Commerce of the Pacific Northwest, even asserted that he would nominate her for sainthood. It seems that as Auntie Dorothy enters her last years of life, she is reaching a level of acknowledgment akin to a larger-than-life matriarch.

Considering her reputation and how much Auntie Dorothy has accomplished in her life, it is easy to forget that she is a real person underneath her monumental advocacy and leadership. She is someone who, coming upon age 90, is worried about slowing down and how that will impact the work that still needs to be done. She is a person who looks back and regrets doing too many things at once. She feels conflicted about how she’s navigated the balance between trying to be a mom raising eight kids and caring for an ailing husband while also trying to pursue volunteer passion projects that aid her larger community. Despite being a social and well-connected person, she admits that sometimes she still feels lonely.

“To be honest with you, in many ways, I’ve failed. I feel that I haven’t done enough … that I could have done better. I think my problem was I was trying to do too many things,” says Dorothy. “But when I think about it, I was trying to be a mother, a grandmother, a wife. I had a husband who became very ill and [I was] trying to grow a concept.”

Auntie Dorothy laughing as she’s greeted at her drive-through 90th birthday celebration. (Photo: Sharon Ho Chang)

By glorifying Auntie Dorothy as an individual hero, it’s possible we risk failing to see the true legacy of Dorothy Cordova’s life and work. Yes, it’s true there is no one person who could ever replace her, hold her unique strengths, or completely fulfill her role in our community. The point of her work, though, seems to have always been to empower anyone and everyone around her. She has given multiple generations the skills, resources, and, most importantly, the truth laid bare in their own stories, to own their experiences and shape the future ahead.

Auntie Dorothy has taken care of multiple marginalized communities for almost an entire century. She’s sparked the momentum for a movement toward taking united ownership of our own truths. Now, the community can care for her in return by taking over the work she still sees lying ahead. In doing so, we honor her legacy and her life’s work.

As she says herself about the role of the community, “When I say ‘I’ …it wasn’t just me doing it by myself … we did it.”

Jasmine M. Pulido (she/her/siya) is a Filipina American writer-activist and small business owner living in Seattle. She’s currently pursuing her Master of Arts degree in Social Change.

📸 Featured Image: Auntie Dorothy smiles and waves as she is greeted on her 90th birthday. (Photo: Sharon Ho Chang)

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