Written by Donna Kato and Maureen Fan
Jessie Riogelon Mangaliman, an undocumented Filipino immigrant who left behind a leaky house in Manila for a high school exchange program in Oklahoma and went on to win a Pulitzer prize, died of an apparent heart attack Monday July 20, 2020 at his home in Oakland, CA. He was 63.
Mangaliman, a role model for legions of journalists, particularly Asian-Americans and other people of color, was a crisis manager, gourmet cook and lifelong advocate for immigrant rights. When he became a US citizen in the 1990s, he was invited to a ceremony for 300 new Americans on Ellis Island and was one of five singled out for a special presentation as exemplary citizens.
After beginning his journalism career in Oklahoma, Mangaliman went on to high-profile assignments for USA Today, New York Newsday, The Washington Post, and the San Jose Mercury News. But his work also took him from a summer gutting salmon on a fishing boat in Alaska to the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco.
And yet the experience of living undocumented for years pervaded his world-view. In 1988, he wrote about covering a press conference at the Immigration and Naturalization Service: “To be in an INS office again … was to know mortification. In my nightmare, I was hauled away, deported. But my pen and notebook provided a shield to hide my terror and my secret. I filed my story that afternoon. I went home exhausted, desperate.”
By September that year, with help from a New York Newsday lawyer, Mangaliman obtained a green card, assisted by columnist Sydney Schanberg and photographer Dith Pran of “The Killing Fields” fame. But he never forgot the fear.
Mangaliman held leadership positions with the Asian American Journalists Association and served on the board of directors of the Immigration Institute of the Bay Area, which provides legal services and community outreach for immigrants and refugees. He was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for articles on AIDS and immigration for New York Newsday and was a member of the paper’s team that won the 1992 Pulitzer for breaking news for a midnight subway derailment.
As news of Mangaliman’s death spread this week, his husband John Meier received a call from a sobbing Iranian man whom Mangaliman had written about. “Jessie saved us from being deported. His picture is on our wall. He was our hero,” the man told Meier before hanging up, too distraught to say more.
“Jessie was most animated by the stories of individuals on the margins: the Hmong in the Central Valley, elderly refugees, and undocumented immigrants,” said Cecilia Kang, a former Mercury News colleague who now covers technology policy for the New York Times. “He understood what it meant to live meaningfully.”
Slender and elegant, with a belly laugh, an incandescent smile and an enviable sweep of dark hair that became threaded with gray in middle age, Mangaliman was among the most fashionable reporters in the country. He sealed friendships with legendary meals, often pulling tomato, zucchini and fig leaves from his yard. Two days before his death, he served lamb chops with homemade romesco sauce to friends at a socially distanced dinner party.
On the morning of his death, Mangaliman asked Meier: “Have you eaten? Can I cook you a fabulous meal tonight?”
Mangaliman and Meier met in New York City, after stealing glances in an office elevator. They left the building without speaking, only to find themselves moments later shopping for travel supplies at the same Duane Reade. Mangaliman was headed to the Philippines to report on Imelda Marcos. Meier, at the time a fashion stylist, was on his way to Venezuela for Benetton.
The two were together the next 27 years. They married at Frank Sinatra’s Palm Springs estate in an intimate, surprise ceremony in 2016.
“It hasn’t really sunk in that he’s gone,” Meier said. “After so long, he was just half of me. I kind of feel like the better half of me is gone. He was my rock.”
Mangaliman felt the same about Meier, now an international jewelry designer. In February, Mangaliman told longtime friends Kay Foran and Maura Fritz: “Our home is a jewel box, created by John.” The three later reunited at a service for Foran’s husband, and afterwards picked up the thread of an old conversation. “I thought we had decades still to keep it going,” Fritz said in a Facebook post. “Jessie was a keenly principled man, a crackerjack journalist. The embodiment of human decency.”
Mangaliman’s quiet, seemingly passive demeanor “concealed a sharp intelligence, a universe of worldly perspective, experience and compassion,” said David Brezing, who met Mangaliman at USA Today in Washington, D.C. in 1985. “He sometimes seemed to be as guileless and joyful as a puppy while simultaneously observing and coolly assessing dimensions of expression only he could see.”
Brezing recalled a camping trip to the Grand Tetons, where Mangaliman taught him the beauty and absurdity of being alive. “We swaggered toward a grazing bull moose for a closer look, only to turn and scamper, squealing like frightened squirrels when the beast snorted and stepped toward us,” Brezing said. “Then later, lying on our backs on the hood of our car, we were awed to tears by the sunset flooding the Montana sky with never before seen colors from horizon to horizon. This was my Jessie.”
Mangaliman was born in Manila in 1957 in what he later described as “grinding poverty,” one of eight children. His father, a police detective, died when Mangaliman was 7. His mother was a school teacher and a part-time taxi driver, who sold her taxi to send Mangaliman on a student-exchange program that brought him to Wagoner, Okla. as a high school student in 1974. His host family, the Galushas, welcomed him as if he were already a sibling and treated him as family for the rest of his life.
“Jessie came to our family and he just immediately became our brother,” said Kim Galusha, of Wagoner, whom Mangaliman considered a sister. “Everything he did, he was very talented at. He would cut everybody’s hair, he would cook, he would mend everybody’s clothes.”
On one family vacation in Santa Fe, NM, Galusha and Mangaliman decided to slide down a mountain together on their stomachs on the same inner tube. “We just kept going into a huge snowbank, where only our feet were sticking out,” Galusha said. Another sister, Katy, was panic-stricken and “thought we were both dead but we were in the middle of that snowbank, laughing and laughing.”
After high school, Mangaliman was awarded a full scholarship to Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Okla., where he earned a B.A. in journalism and French. He started his journalism career by working summers at the Wagoner Tribune, and at the Muskogee Phoenix, soon moving on to full-time positions in Springfield, MO and at USA Today before joining New York Newsday in 1987.
All the while, from college onwards, he was undocumented. When he was asked to cover President George H.W. Bush’s amnesty program, he knew it would be a conflict of interest and told his editor at New York Newsday the truth. “I know I may lose my job but I feel I have to be honest with you,” he said, according to Galusha. Instead of firing him, the newspaper found him a lawyer, telling Mangaliman: “We don’t want to lose you.”
At Newsday, Mangaliman covered breaking news and became a vocal advocate for Asian-American reporters. In 1990, he helped lead a newsroom revolt against powerful columnist Jimmy Breslin, who had shouted in the newsroom that a Korean-American reporter who criticized his column was a “f-cking b-tch (who) doesn’t know her place. She’s a little dog, a little cur running along the street. She’s a yellow cur. Let’s make it racial. She’s a slant-eyed c-nt.” Mangaliman wrote a letter of protest that was initially signed by at least 50 colleagues. Breslin issued an apology, then was suspended for two weeks without pay after mocking that apology on the radio.
“Though Breslin had the reputation of standing with ‘the common man,’ it was Jessie who exemplified standing for the dignity of all people, especially those on the margins,” said Helen Zia, who was president of the New York chapter of AAJA and participated in the meeting with executives called by Jessie and other Asian American news staff.
“He was not fired, as Jessie and I and so many of our appalled colleagues had hoped,” said Kay Foran, the paper’s transportation writer at the time. “Jessie was an ally long before that became fashionable.”
“He was an amazing support for a young journalist fresh out of college,” said Ji-Yeon Yuh, the Korean-American reporter who criticized Breslin. “Jessie always felt to me like a deep, cool pond, gentle, refreshing, a bit melancholy and yet somehow joyful.”
In 1999, the San Jose Mercury News hired Mangaliman as a reporter on the groundbreaking Race & Demographics team at a time when Silicon Valley and the Bay Area was undergoing a major shift that would be reflected in the 2000 Census. By the time he left the badly depleted paper in 2011, he was night city editor.
Mangaliman was active for years as a board member of AAJA, which advocates for newsroom diversity and helps foster opportunities for Asian-American journalists. He was also a John S. Knight Fellow at Stanford University and a Jefferson Fellow at the East West Center in Honolulu. He was a distinctive figure — exacting and dedicated to order but also stylish and inclusive.
“I still remember my first board meeting in Dallas,” said Sharon Chan, Vice President of Philanthropy at the New York Times and a former AAJA board member. “We went around the table doing intros and he said, ‘I am just here to bring my fashion sensibility to AAJA.’ ”
Jose Antonio Vargas, a former Washington Post reporter who came out as undocumented in 2011 and authored Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen, said he saw Mangaliman as a role model.
“Seeing an openly gay Filipino American journalist in newsrooms like The Washington Post and the San Jose Mercury News was a validating and liberating thing,” Vargas said.
“In life, you meet a lot of people, and there are those who, for one reason or another, you immediately feel comfortable, someone who makes you feel safe,” said Michael James Rocha, who also served on the AAJA board,
After journalism, Mangaliman worked as a PR and media relations manager for Kaiser Permanente, where he shaped stories, wrangled medical experts and adroitly managed crises for the country’s largest integrated health care system.
“I needed someone with his empathy and healing instincts to step into difficult situations and make it better,” said Marc Brown, a former editor at the San Jose Mercury News who recruited Mangaliman to Kaiser. “You feel better every single day just for knowing him.”
In his last job, he served as director of public relations at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, where he developed strategy to explain the role of the Fed in the lives of everyday people. His skill at shaping and delivering stories, and his calm, responsive leadership landed him the job, Vice President for Public Affairs Jenny Mack said.
“He taught me and so many others how to find beauty in simple things,” such as the Redwood Regional Park and how to spend time during quarantine, Mack said. “Jessie was always a calm and gracious influence and that was never more evident than during the pandemic. He brought a sense of perspective and appreciation of the small joys in life.”
Mangaliman, slender and fit from years of swimming laps and yoga, was careful about his eating habits. His sudden death at home was a shock to his family and friends. The cause of death is still pending.
“We are so devastated,” said his sister Christina Mangaliman Alegre, who said Mangaliman paid for her college education. “For years we have not been able to see each other, and now he’s gone.”
“Jessie was a light to our life and we are having a hard time believing he has gone,” his sister Katy Galusha-White said Tuesday. “We know Jessie and John have a great support system with so many wonderful friends. This brings us comfort.”
In Manila, Mangaliman is predeceased by his parents Emilia M. Riogelon and Jose L. Magaliman. When Riogelon put her son on a plane to America with a cardboard suitcase, she told him “Don’t come back. Your brains are your future,” Meier said. “Jessie believed in education, and he was so proud of his nieces and nephews. It’s the best legacy he could give his Mom.”
In addition to Meier, Mangaliman is survived by the Wagoner, Okla. family he adopted as his own: parents Richard and Tish Galusha, his sister Kim Galusha, brother Keith Galusha, sister Katy Galusha-White and brother in law Scott White, his sister Kelly Galusha, and his brother Kris Galusha, as well as four nieces and two nephews. In the Philippines, Mangaliman is survived by two sisters, Cristina Mangaliman Alegre and Mila Mangaliman Gaoaten, a brother, Bayani Mangaliman, and 14 nieces and nephews, most of whose college education Mangaliman supported. He is survived by a third sister, Celia Mangaliman, in Canada.
A remembrance is planned for a later date. Donations may be made to the Immigration Institute of the Bay Area, 1111 Market Street, 4th Floor, San Francisco, CA 94103. (415) 538- 8100. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lia Chang is an actor, a multi-media content producer and co-founder of Bev’s Girl Films, making films that foster inclusion and diversity on both sides of the camera. Bev’s Girl Films’ debut short film, Hide and Seek was a top ten film in the Asian American Film Lab’s 2015 72 Hour Shootout Filmmaking Competition, and she received a Best Actress nomination. BGF collaborates with and produces multi-media content for artists, actors, designers, theatrical productions, composers, musicians and corporations. Lia has appeared in the films Wolf, New Jack City, A Kiss Before Dying, King of New York, Big Trouble in Little China, The Last Dragon, Taxman. She stars in and served as Executive Producer for the short independent films Hide and Seek, Balancing Act, Rom-Com Gone Wrong, Belongingness and When the World was Young. She is also the Executive Producer for The Cactus, The Language Lesson, The Writer and Cream and 2 Shugahs. The Lia Chang theater portfolio collection,1989-2011, is in the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) collection located in the Library of Congress’ Asian Reading Room and can be accessed here.