To say Jessie Mangaliman lived a life of extraordinary fate and fortune would be an understatement.
He was the most accidental of immigrants, a man who had come to America as an impoverished student from the Philippines, hosted by a family in Oklahoma, who found a home in journalism and lived in daily fear he might be discovered and deported after his student visa and subsequent work permit lapsed — all before being lauded in a special 1990s citizenship ceremony at Ellis Island, cited as “an exemplary citizen” in his adopted land.
En route he chronicled his own incredible journey from legal to illegal to legal status as a reporter for the New York City edition of Newsday, where he worked from 1987 to 1995 and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the AIDS crisis and immigration issues.
His role in the team coverage of a Manhattan subway derailment that left five dead helped New York Newsday win the Pulitzer for spot news coverage in 1992. As a young reporter, he stood up to a legendary newsroom figure, leading a protest against Jimmy Breslin after the then-New York Newsday columnist attacked a female Korean-American reporter in a racial and ethnic slur-laced rant.
Breslin was later suspended without pay.
Mangaliman died of a heart attack Monday at his home in Oakland, California. Also a former reporter for The Washington Post, the San Jose Mercury News, USA Today and other papers, he was 63.
He is survived by husband John Meier. The two were married at the former Palm Springs home of Frank Sinatra in 2016, but were together since their first sneaking glances during a 1990s Manhattan elevator ride as Mangaliman headed to the Philippines to report on Imelda Marcos, wife of deposed Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos.
“Jessie and I were lucky enough to share 27 years together and they’re full of beautiful memories and adventures,” Meier wrote as he shared a photo of Mangaliman, arms outstretched, embraced by morning clouds atop a mountain perch in Nong Khiaw, Laos.
Friends noted Mangaliman was a man who could disarm with a smile, a laugh or a tear, who won endearing gratitude not just with his loyalty, friendship, honesty and warmth, but could seal the deal with a legendary homemade meal — often with hand-picked items from his own homegrown garden. He was always immaculately dressed.
All of it belied the hurdles and obstacles he’d overcome.
One of eight children, Mangaliman was born in 1957 into what he later described as the “grinding poverty” of Manila. His father Jose, a police detective, died when he was just 7; his mother, Emilia, was forced to sell the house, moving the family to a tumbledown three-bedroom bungalow in Quezon City, Philippines.
“The house leaked in a hundred places when it rained,” Mangaliman wrote in New York Newsday, explaining how he and his brothers and sisters hung pots and pans to catch water during the monsoons. The septic tank overflowed so often the family built a ditch to divert sewage to a nearby street drain.
“I used to have dreams about the toilet,” Mangaliman wrote.
His mother, a teacher, borrowed money from loan sharks, sometimes at 100% interest, to pay the bills. She beat Mangaliman and his brother when the two sneaked out onto the roof and nearly fell through a skylight over what passed for the living room — not because they’d broken it, he wrote, but because they’d nearly killed themselves.
He huddled with extended family on straw bed mats guarded by mosquito netting for sleep. This was life.
The first big break came when Mangaliman was hosted by the Galushas family in Wagoner, Oklahoma through a student exchange program. That was 1974. He graduated high school, attended Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, earned a degree in journalism and French, got a work permit and a job with the Wagoner Tribune.
When his permit lapsed, he wrote in a 1988 tell-all in New York Newsday: “I hid the truth: I’m an illegal alien. What I failed to reconcile was my job, as someone pledged to report the truth, and my own lies to hide my secret. No layer or device of confusion could smooth it over. I’m an illegal alien.”
The battle with his inner turmoil came to a head less than a year into his career at Newsday, when Mangaliman could bear the deception no more and confessed to his editors. Instead of being fired or deported, the newspaper management, its legal team and even Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Sydney Schanberg and his friend, photographer Dith Pran, whose stories were chronicled in the movie "The Killing Fields," came to the rescue. Mangaliman eventually became a citizen.
One of his first assignments after getting his green card was to write about the first group of immigrants to receive legal status under new legislation awarding citizenship to former immigrants living in the country illegally.
It was at the then-INS — Immigration and Naturalization Services, now U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services — headquarters in Manhattan.
“Three months ago they hid in the shadows, but yesterday they stood in front of flashing cameras and television lights, shoulder-to-shoulder with the immigration officials they had feared,” was how Mangaliman began that story of those immigrants from Belize, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Pakistan and other nations — one even from the Philippines.
"‘Were you afraid?’ I asked in Tagalog,” Mangaliman wrote of his interview with that fellow Filipino. “He said nothing.”
As word of Mangaliman's death spread this week, longtime friend and colleague Maureen Fan said John Meier had received a call from a sobbing Iranian man who told him: “Jessie saved us from being deported. His picture is on our wall. He was our hero.”
Mangaliman held leadership roles with the Asian American Journalists Association and served on the board of directors of the Immigration Institute of the Bay Area.
In addition to Meier and his host family in Wagoner, with whom he remained close until his death, Mangaliman is survived by three sisters and a brother, as well as by 14 nieces and nephews whose college educations he helped support.
A remembrance is planned at a later date due to coronavirus pandemic restrictions in place. Donations in his honor can be made to the Immigration Institute of the Bay Area, 1111 Market St., 4th Floor, San Francisco, CA 94103.