Monday, August 21, 2006

The Philippine Soul

"We Filipinos of today are soft and easygoing. Our tendency toward parasitism is not inclined to sustained strenuous effort. Face-saving is our dominant note in the confused symphony of our existence. Our sense of righteousness often is dulled by a desire for personal gain."

This powerful indictment of the Filipino character was made close to 70 years ago on August 19, 1938 by Philippine Commonwealth President Manuel Luis Quezon on the occasion of his 60th birthday celebration. In a Time magazine article dated August 28, 1938 ("Moral Criticism"), Quezon pontificated on the "state of the Philippine soul" in a speech delivered to 40,000 students and teachers.

"We lack the superb courage which impels action because it is right," he said. "Our greatest fear is not to do wrong, but to be caught doing wrong. Our conception of virtue is conventional. We take religion lightly and we think lip-service equivalent to a deep, abiding faith. Patriotism among us is only skin deep and incapable of inspiring heroic deeds."

It was refreshing to read that a Philippine leader could actually "tell it like it is." Too often we have been so used to hearing leaders heap platitudes on how great we are as a people, how morally righteous is our collective soul, etc, ad nauseum.

But to be fair, what Quezon described as character flaws more aptly describe Philippine politicians, more than it does the Filipino people. Whether they are in the Arroyo administration or in the opposition, these politicians' collective "desire for personal gain" overwhelms any sense of righteousness they may have personally harbored at one time or another.

To be "caught doing wrong" is their greatest fear as it will diminish their chances of becoming president or even of retaining power for themselves and their families.

The true state of the Filipino people's soul, at least the best of it, may be found in the Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) and in the movement known as Gawad Kalinga.

Imagine the incredible sacrifices that these OFWs, especially those employed as domestics, have to make on a daily basis, in some cases in the Middle East as the virtual slaves of their employers, or even as TNTs in the US. It is the poverty of their lives in the Philippines that make them willingly choose to work in the most miserable conditions abroad just so that they can send money to feed their families at home.

There is no "desire for personal gain" for these overseas Filipino workers, only family survival.

There are close to 4,000 Filipino workers in Iraq (mostly TNTs) working at US-managed facilities where every day puts them in harm's way and yet they willingly choose to remain there because their families back home need the money they earn to survive.

Most of the 34,000 OFWs in Lebanon have decided to remain there because of work, even if Israeli planes may rain bombs on Lebanon again if the tenuous ceasefire fails.

The best of the Filipino soul can also be found in the selfless dedication of the people behind Gawad Kalinga which has so far built 19,321 homes in 809 communities throughout the Philippines. It has laid for itself the ambitious goal of building 700,000 homes in 7000 communities in 7 years. It is ahead of schedule.

Tony Meloto, the founder of Gawad Kalinga, will receive the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award this month on August 31 for Community Leadership for "harnessing the faith and generosity of Filipinos the world over to confront poverty in their homeland and to provide every Filipino the dignity of a decent home and neighborhood."

Those of us who heard Tony Meloto speak at the Philippine Consulate in San Francisco earlier this month can attest to the truth of the citation that he truly has the gift for "inspiring Filipinos to believe with pride that theirs can be a nation without slums."

When I visited the Gawad Kalinga Baseco project in Tondo, Manila early this year, I was given a guided tour by Oscar Tuazon, the GK volunteer who was managing the project. When I asked Oscar why he was pouring all his time and effort to build these homes for the poorest of the poor, he told me that the year before, his son had been stabbed by thieves. Oscar and his wife, a registered nurse who works full-time for both of them, resolved that the best way to make all their children safe was to work to change society, to remove the slums which produce a slum mentality, the kind that caused his son to be stabbed. Working with GK was the best decision he ever made, he said.

This week marks the 128th birth anniversary of Quezon (August 19, 1878) and the 23rd death anniversary of Ninoy Aquino (August 21, 1983). Quezon derided the flaws in the Philippine soul in 1938. Ninoy, as well as Tony Meloto, Oscar Tuazon and other patriots of today, have shown that Filipinos possess "the superb courage which impels action because it is right."

In the "confused symphony of our existence", Ninoy, Tony Meloto, Oscar Tuazon, Gawad Kalinga and the OFWs inspire our souls.

Monday, August 14, 2006

From the Pages of Time

Since 9/11, more than 1,000 Filipino TNTs (overstaying tourists or immigrants with criminal convictions) have been deported back to the Philippines at US government expense. This is not the first time the United States has engaged in the wholesale removal of Filipinos from the US.

The first concerted effort, occurring about 70 years ago, was covered by Time magazine in an article published on October 3, 1938. The title of the piece "Philippine Flop" represented Time's editorialized view of the "repatriation" (the euphemism then for "deportation") of Filipinos back to the Philippines:

"Aboard the S. S. President Coolidge when it cleared the Golden Gate for Manila last week were 75 guests of the U. S. Government. They were Filipinos taking their next-to-last chance to go home at U. S. expense. Already 1,900 had taken a free ride home since the Filipino Repatriation Act was passed in the summer of 1935. Just one more Filipino repatriation party is to be given before December 31, when the Act expires.

"Although $237,000 has been spent to date on Filipino fares, both Immigration officials and California Labor regard the repatriation program as a flop. Remaining in the U. S. are 120,000 low-paid Filipino farm workers, houseboys, janitors, cooks. Half are in California, 97% are bachelors about 30 years old."

"The boys," explained Dr. Hilario C. Moncado, president of the Filipino Federation of America, "do not want to go back without money or assurance they will earn a living." Another good reason is that, in some cases, boys are loathe to leave a country where, as a California judge remarked (TIME, April 13, 1936), "they boast of enjoying the favors of white girls because they are a very superior grade of lovers."

It was considered a "flop" because 120,000 Filipinos refused to be "repatriated" back to the Philippines. If all 120,000 Filipinos had been repatriated as the Act anticipated, it would have been hailed as a success.

The April 13, 1936 issue of Time carried a piece ("Lovers' Departure") that would not be shocking if it appeared in an anti-Filipino racist journal (maybe that's what Time was). It surely had the effect of inflaming anti-Filipino sentiment in towns throughout the United States where one would surmise, if Filipino men appeared, the white men there would hide their women and prepare their ropes.

The article explained that the enactment of the Filipino Repatriation Act of 1935 was the result of the lobbying of Pacific Coast Labor which resented Filipinos for "selling their services for 10¢ an hour in competition with white men."

[Believe it or not, the racial stereotype of "big black men" now (as having "superior male attractions") were once the province of "little brown men."]

Here is an excerpt from the Time article: "The Pacific Coast was interested in this subsidized exodus not only from the standpoint of labor but also from the standpoint of race and sex. In many places Filipinos are "problem children" for Pacific Coast authorities. To the intense dismay of race-conscious Californians, these little brown men not only have a preference for white girls, particularly blondes, but have even established to many a white girl's satisfaction their superior male attractions."

The Time article quoted extensively from San Francisco Municipal Court Judge Sylvain Lazarus who ruled in a case involving a Filipino man coveted by two white women. "This is a deplorable situation," Judge Lazarus said. "It is a dreadful thing when these Filipinos, scarcely more than savages, come to San Francisco, work for practically nothing, and obtain the society of these girls. Because they work for nothing, decent white boys cannot get jobs."

The widely-publicized Lazarus denunciation of Filipinos prompted the Filipino community in San Francisco to pass a resolution denouncing the judge for his racist view of Filipinos. The resolution was sent to Washington DC to Philippine Resident Commissioner Quintin Paredes (no RP Ambassador as the Philippines was a US Commonwealth). Paredes promptly wrote Judge Lazarus a note stating that "I cannot believe that you had in any way intended to refer to my people as a whole."

Judge Lazarus immediately responded to Paredes: "I intend to be as straightforward with you as you have been considerate with me. Basing my conclusions on years of observation, I regret to say that there is probably no group in this city, proportionate to its members, that supplies us with more criminal business than the local Filipino colony. It is no compliment to the predominant race that most crimes committed by Filipinos have as background intimate relations with white girls."

Judge Lazarus continued: "I am making allowance for the fact that there is a scarcity -- I imagine almost a total absence -- of Filipino girls in this country and that the kind of white girls who associate with these Filipino lads is not calculated to provide the best influences for them. However, the girls are satisfied and generally very happy in their relations with these boys. Their sweethearts are working -- all of them -- as waiters, elevator operators, janitors, bell boys, etc. and are able to supply them, according to their notions, with abundant attentions and diversion. . . . "

"Some of these boys, with perfect candor, have told me bluntly and boastfully that they practice the art of love with more perfection than white boys, and occasionally one of the girls has supplied me with information to the same effect. In fact some of the disclosures in this regard are perfectly startling in their nature." "Well," said Senor Paredes urbanely, "the Judge admits that Filipinos are great lovers." [Time, April 13, 1936].

If Time magazine were to publish an article like this now or if a judge or any US official were to make a statement denouncing Filipinos as "scarcely more than savages" or such drivel, there would be picket lines throughout the US against Time and the US official organized by the National Federation of Filipino Associations in America (NaFFAA).

Instead of denouncing Judge Lazarus for his racism, Commissioner Paredes was content to simply provide him with an excuse which the judge refused to use. Instead of denouncing the Repatriation Act, the Filipino Federation of America under Hilario Moncado was simply interested in explaining why Filipinos do not want to leave the US. Unfortunately, there was no NaFFAA then.

To celebrate 100 years of Filipinos in Hawaii, join us in Honolulu on September 28-October 1 this year for the 4th Global Filipino Networking Convention and the 7th NaFFAA National Empowerment Conference. For more information, log on to

I hope to see you there this year for the 1st centennial celebration. I doubt if anyone of us can make it to the 2nd centennial celebration in 2106.

Monday, August 7, 2006

Brothers in Arms

They could have been brothers. Both were Filipino Americans who lived with their parents in the Filipino suburbs of Daly City and South San Francisco, not too far from each other. Both went to school at the Voice of the Pentecost Academy in the Ingleside District of San Francisco. Both were unmarried and were the only sons; each had two sisters with kids whom they fondly adored. Both known for their infectious "colgate" smiles.

Both enlisted in the US military, each coming from families with a long tradition of military service. Both died in the line of duty within a month of each other. Both were buried in Colma cemeteries, not too far from each other.

Christopher Rose was killed in the streets of Baghdad on June 29 and Nick-Tomasito Birco was killed in the streets of San Francisco on July 26.

Chris was 21 and serving in the 1st Battalion, 67th Armored Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, when he stepped on an improvised explosive device (IED) while on patrol in Baghdad on June 29. The explosion severely injured him and sent him into shock, dying before a Blackhawk helicopter could take him to a hospital.

Chris had enlisted in the US Army in November of 2004 to serve the country as his father, Rudy, had done in Vietnam and as his grandfather, Benito, had done in WW II and in Korea.

Chris was dispatched to Iraq in November 2005 for a one-year tour of duty, scheduled to return in October of 2006. Within a few months of his arrival in Baghdad, Chris' humvee struck an IED causing an explosion. Chris saw figures running from the scene and radioed his commander for instructions. He was ordered to shoot and he did. When he examined the three bodies, he discovered that he had killed kids.

"It was a justified killing, but he never got over it," Rudy Rose told a San Francisco Chronicle reporter. "It bothered him terribly, because they were just kids. He talked to his superiors, all the way up to his commanding officer, who basically told him, 'That's war.' But after that, whenever I talked to him, he sounded very depressed."

Chris was home on leave in the Bay Area over the Memorial Day weekend in May but he was back in Baghdad in early June. Within days of his return, Chris was wounded in the arm by an IED. "He wasn't fully recovered by the end of the month, but he insisted on going back out on patrol," his sister, Suzette, said.

Rudy Rose told a Chronicle reporter that he was bothered by the fact that his son was allowed back on patrol even though he was still recuperating from his injuries. "He had told me before he went back on patrol that the wound was hurting him a lot, and he was using pain medications,"

."He was going to take criminal justice courses and go into law enforcement," Rudy told friends who gathered at St. AugustineĆ¢€™s Church for his funeral mass. "School was always his goal."

Nick-Tomasito Birco followed that goal. After enlisting in the US Marines and serving there for four years, Nick used the GI Bill to study at San Francisco State where he majored in marketing and business. Five years ago, at the age of 34, Nick joined the San Francisco Police Department.

Nick was stationed at the Bayview Police Station, which covers the area with the highest number of reported homicides in San Francisco. Capt. Al Pardini, his commander at the Bayview station, recalled Nick as a well-liked man with a sense of humor who earned 11 commendations for his work. "Citizens often took time out to write letters about the great service Nick had provided to them," Pardini said.

While responding to a robbery call on July 26, Nick's police cruiser was rammed by a van carrying three robbery suspects who were fleeing other police officers. Nick suffered internal injuries from the force of the collission and was pronounced dead on arrival at the San Francisco General Hospital.

Nick was fondly called "St. Nick" for playing Santa Claus at Christmas and for his generosity especially to his nieces, nephews and godchildren on an outing to the zoo.

More than 2,000 people, including law enforcement officers from throughout California and as far away as Las Vegas, paid their final respects to St. Nick at St. Mary's Cathedral in San Francisco on August 2.

As Nick's casket was being carried down from the cathedral by Filipino American pallbearers followed by dozens of Nick's extended family, more than 500 San Francisco police officers, in a sea of blue, saluted their fallen comrade in arms under a gigantic American flag hoisted aloft by the extended ladders of two San Francisco Fire Department trucks .

A Filipino Community Memorial Mass for Officer Nick Tomasito Birco will be held at St. Patrick's Church in San Francisco (at 756 Mission Street between 3rd and 4th streets) on August 9 at 6 PM. A community potluck dinner with family and friends will take place after the mass at the parish hall below the church. Everyone is invited to pay their respects.

At the funeral masses for both Chris and Nick, I felt great sadness for the families and friends they left behind and for our Filipino community so badly in need of heroes and role models. Chris and Nick were wonderful human beings who were cut in the prime of their lives, when they had so much more to contribute to making our world a better place to live in.

They have left big holes in our hearts.