Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The Long Road to Empowerment

The year was 1996. A national debate was raging about proposals to dramatically revamp US immigration laws, like eliminating sibling petitions by US citizens and closing the door to many forms of legal immigration. These proposals would drastically affect the Filipino community which has more than 100,000 siblings with approved visa petitions waiting patiently to immigrate to the US (as long as 25 years).

African Americans, Latino Americans, Chinese Americans, Japanese Americans and various immigrant communities were participating in the national discussion. But noticeably absent from the table were representatives of the Filipino American community. Even though hundreds of thousands of Filipinos would be affected by the proposed legislation, there was no national Filipino American organization to lobby the policy makers in Washington DC on behalf of the community.

It was not supposed to be this way. Filipino Americans had met a decade before in San Francisco after the fall of Marcos to plan out how to make up for the 14 years that was lost because the community was bitterly torn over Marcos and martial law. That bury-the-hatchet meeting in April of 1996 at the San Francisco Airport Hilton set the stage for a year long campaign to call on community leaders throughout the US to meet in Anaheim, California in August of 1997 to form the National Filipino American Council (NFAC).

When 1500 delegates from all over the US answered the call and trooped to Anaheim in August of 1987, it was thought then that the political drought was over for the Filipino American community. We would now begin to finally focus on fighting discrimination against Filipinos, electing qualified Fil-Ams to public office, and asserting our right to a seat at the table.

But 9 years after the NFAC was formed, there were less than a handful of chapters, all concentrated in the San Francisco Bay Area. There was no national presence in Washington DC and the NFAC did not have a place at the table.

The time had come to form and build another organization. Discussions began within the San Francisco chapter of the NFAC in the fall of 1996 resulting in a general meeting in Salinas in January of 1997. I presented a proposal for the NFAC to take the lead in calling on all Filipino community organizations to come to Washington DC to attend a National Filipino American Empowerment Conference. NFAC accepted the challenge.

In February, I went to Washington DC and met with local leaders Jon Melegrito and Gloria Caoile to discuss our proposal with them. They immediately endorsed it and Jon even proposed the adoption of the federation concept similar to the Filipino American Heritage Federation which he headed in DC that was composed of more than 40 Fil-Am organizations.

While in DC, I was invited to attend the April 1997 regional conference of the Filipino Intercollegiate Network for Dialogue (FIND) in Long Island in New York. In April, after I learned that the FIND group had bought me a round-trip ticket, I invited Alex Esclamado to join me as I had obtained a RT ticket. Alex had just sold the Philippine News and was getting ready to write his memoirs. It was his dream to have a national Fil-Am organization that would effectively advocate for the Fil-Am community. But his dream would not materialize because his leadership was rejected in Anaheim in 1987.

While in New York, Alex and I (with Michael Dadap) met with Loida Nicolas Lewis and informed her of the plans for the National Empowerment Conference. Loida enthusiastically applauded the move and gave it her full support. That support would energize Alex and cause him to travel throughout the US to encourage and cajole Filipino community leaders to come to Washington DC.

Greg Macabenta explained the reason for the conference in a brochure we prepared for dissemination:

"Major events are occurring and laws are being passed that affect the interests of Filipino Americans, such as those on immigration, affirmative action and social services. But our community is simply being swept by the tides of change and circumstance. We are not playing a significant role in shaping these events and enacting these laws, despite the fact that we make up the largest Asian ethnic group in this country.

"We appear to be impotent in the face of the adverse circumstances, not because we lack the numbers nor the social status nor the intellectual capacity but because we, as a community, have not been able to harness our full potentials as a socioeconomic and political force.

"We have not struggled hard enough for empowerment. This is our challenge."

On August 22-24, 1997, over 1,000 delegates from throughout the US attended the 1st National Empowerment Conference in Washington DC to focus on four major issues affecting the Filipino American community: immigration, affirmative action, welfare reform, and equity for Filipino World War II Veterans.

To dramatize the urgency particularly of the last issue, delegates marched to the White House on the first day of the conference, led by hundreds of uniformed Filipino veterans, to demand "equity now." For the first time, the veterans issue became a national campaign for justice.

The following year, the delegates met again in Washington, D.C. on October 16-18, 1998 and unanimously ratified the Constitution & By Laws of the National Federation of Filipino American Associations (NaFFAA), formalizing NaFFAA's organizational structure. Elected to lead the federation for a 4-year term were Alex A. Esclamado as National Chair and Gloria T. Caoile as National Vice Chair.

The 3rd empowerment conference was held at the New York City Hilton & Towers on October 15-17, 1999 with then First Lady Hillary Clinton as the keynote speaker. The conference affirmed NaFFAA's vision of establishing a solid and powerful presence of Filipino Americans in the United States

The 4th empowerment conference was held in Las Vegas on September 28 - October 1, 2000 with the theme "Making Our Power Count".

The 5th national conference was held in San Jose, California on August 28-September 1, 2002 with the theme "Forging a National Consciousness as a Filipino Community in America." During that "Y2K2 Conference," Loida Nicolas Lewis was elected to lead the Federation as the National Chair, with Greg Macabenta as National Vice Chair.

The 6th national conference was held in Chicago, Illinois on September 10-12, 2004 with the theme of "Bridging the Fil-Am Community".

Aware that the Fil-Am community is only a part of the Filipino Diaspora, NaFFAA also convened the 1st Global Filipino Networking Convention at the massive Moscone Center in San Francisco immediately after the "Y2K2 Conference" in 2002. It was attended by close to 4,000 participants. The 2nd global convention was held in Manila in December 2003 while the 3rd global convention was held in Cebu in January 2005.

And now, coinciding with the centennial of Filipinos in America, the 7th NaFFAA National Empowerment Conference and the 4th Global Filipino Networking Convention are being held in the same venue at the same time on September 28-October 1, 2006 at the Hilton Hawaiian Village in Honolulu with the joint theme: "100 Years of the Filipino Diaspora: Hawaii and Beyond."

As its website (www.naffaa.org) states: "NaFFAA has grown into what it is today -- an organization that is recognized by Washington policy-makers, private industry and national advocacy groups as the Voice of Filipinos and Filipino-Americans throughout the United States. It is a non-partisan, non-profit national affiliation of more than five hundred Filipino-American institutions and umbrella organizations. Its twelve regions cover the continental United States, Hawaii, Guam and the Marianas. Its mission is to promote the welfare and well-being of all Filipinos and Filipino Americans throughout the United States by fostering unity and empowerment."

It has been a long road to get here and a longer road still to go. But weĆ¢€™re moving. Finally.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The Road to Empowerment

The declaration of martial law in the Philippines, 34 years ago this week, was the most divisive issue to ever confront the Filipino community in America. Overnight, the Filipino community was split into two warring camps, the pros and the antis, with the political lines divided also along age and region. The older more established leaders in the community were more easily seduced by the promise of political stability offered by Marcos while younger Filipinos were opposed because of their idealism and their skepticism about dictatorships.

But region was where the battle lines were more sharply drawn. Because Marcos came from the Ilocos region, Ilocanos in Hawaii and throughout the US generally favored martial law because "Apo Ferdie" was in charge.

When Marcos declared martial law, hundreds of labor union leaders were among the 10,000 arrested by his military forces. And yet the Filipino labor union leaders in the US, many of whom were Ilocanos, remained silent.

Andy Imutan, a member of the board of the United Farmworkers Union (UFW) under Cesar Chavez, was an outspoken Ilocano supporter of Marcos. In 1977, he carried a personal invitation from Marcos to Chavez to visit the Philippines. Imutan convinced Chavez that the Ilocano farmworkers support Marcos and that accepting the invitation from Marcos would show the Filipinos that he cared about them.

Despite strong objections from Philip Vera Cruz, then the highest-ranking Filipino in the UFW leadership, Chavez accepted Marcos' invitation and, with Imutan by his side, visited the Philippines in August of 1977. When he returned with Marcos' Presidential Appreciation Award, Chavez invited Marcos' Labor Minister, Blas Ople, to deliver a keynote speech at the UFW National Convention on August 28, 1977.

In his autobiography, Vera Cruz wrote: "What Cesar did there in the Philippines was the saddest day in the history of the farmworkers movement in this country. It was just a disgrace. Cesar was toasting with Marcos and all those phony farm and labor leaders appointed by Marcos, and at the same time, on the other side of Manila, the real union leaders and farmworkers were in jail; many have been tortured in the most terrible ways you can imagine." (Philip Vera Cruz: A Personal History of Filipino Immigrants and the Farmworkers Movement by Craig Scharlin and Lilia Villanueva).

But as divisive as martial law was to the Filipino American community, it also provided an opportunity for the formation of national Filipino organizations. Prior to 1972, other than professional groups like the Association of Philippine Physicians in America (APPA) and the Philippine Nurses Association of America (PNAA), there were no national Filipino organizations. Even the Filipino American Political Association (FAPA), which was formed in 1966, was not a national organization even though it had 39 chapters in California.

The day after Marcos declared martial law on September 23, 1972 (which he backdated to September 21 because of his fixation with 7), the National Committee for the Restoration of Civil Liberties in the Philippines (NCRCLP) was formed with chapters in 7 major cities throughout the US from Los Angeles to New York, from Seattle to Washington DC. A National Day of Protest was organized on October 6, 1972 with pickets set up in front of all the Philippine Consulates and the Philippine Embassy in Washington DC.

A year later, the Movement for a Free Philippines (MFP) was organized in Washington DC by Raul Manglapus and Heherson Alvarez, with chapters set up all over the US as well.

In 1975, the Katipunan ng mga Demokratikong Pilipino (KDP - Union of Democratic Filipinos), a militant organization of young Filipinos and Filipino Americans, was formed with the goal of "consolidating the left, winning over the middle, and isolating the right."

In 1979, the Coalition Against the Marcos Dictatorship (CAMD) was formed under the leadership of the KDP.

In 1983, after Ninoy Aquino was assassinated in Manila, the Ninoy Aquino Movement (NAM) was formed in the US with the leadership provided by MFP members.

The result of all these national formations was the evolution of a national consciousness, a realization that Filipinos throughout the US shared common ideas and were concerned about common issues.

When the Marcos Dictatorship was overthrown by People Power in February of1986, Alex Esclamado, the anti-Marcos publisher of the Philippine News, seized the opportunity to ask all the warring factions to lay down their rhetorical arms and unite to form a national organization that would be concerned with advancing "The Filipino American Agenda".

In August of 1987, more than 1200 Filipino community leaders from throughout the US, including future Hawaii Gov. Ben Cayetano, trooped to Anaheim, California and formed the National Filipino American Council (NFAC).

Under the leadership of NFAC National President Dennis Normandy, the NFAC presented the model of "spokes in a wheel" with various national organizations formed along areas of interest with the NFAC at the center of the wheel.

While the NFAC attempted to set up chapters around the country, it was left up to the local groups to form their own NFAC chapters. The most active NFAC chapter was the Monterey, California chapter and it was formed by a coalition of 12 community organizations under the leadership of Efren Iglesias.

By the time Dr. Lupo Carlota from Tennessee was elected national president in 1995, there were less than 100 delegates in attendance at the convention. There was a growing realization among the dwindling numbers of NFAC members that a new national organization was needed.

By then, new national organizations of Filipino Americans had emerged on the scene. Among them was the Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS) which was formed in Seattle, Washington in 1982 with national biennial conference held since 1987. There was also the Filipino Civil Rights Advocates (FilCRA) which was formed in Berkeley, California in 1994 under the leadership of Lilian Galedo.

In February of 1997, I met in Washington DC with local community leaders Jon Melegrito and Gloria Caoile to discuss the formation of a national Filipino organization that would work towards the empowerment of the Filipino community. Both Jon and Gloria enthusiastically supported the idea with Jon suggesting that the new organization be established as a federation of Filipino community organizations similar to the Philippine Heritage Federation that he headed in DC. It would also be similar to the Monterey chapter of the NFAC.

How about calling it the National Federation of Filipino American Associations (NaFFAA)?

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Attempts at Empowerment

When San Francisco Municipal Court Judge Sylvain Lazarus opined in open court in a 1936 case that Filipinos were "scarcely more than savages," the city's Filipino community erupted in protest, especially after his remarks made front page news.

But what could they do at the time? Could they picket the Municipal Court and denounce Judge Lazarus for being a racist? Could they go to the Mayor or to the Board of Supervisors and ask them to censure the judge? Could they file a complaint with the state judicial council against Lazarus? Could they seek his removal from the bench?

These were not reasonable options available to the Filipino community which, according to Judge Lazarus, was composed of "waiters, elevator operators, janitors, bell boys, etc." Filipinos were also "nationals," not US citizens, and couldn't vote (Why should the mayor or supervisors listen to them?). What few Filipino lawyers there were couldn't practice in California which restricted "officers of the court" to US citizens (this changed only in 1971).

Aside from the Filipino Community of San Francisco, there were three main fraternal Filipino organizations at the time: the Legionarios del Trabajadores, the Caballeros de Dimasalang and the Gran Oriente Filipino. There were provincial aggrupations of Ilocanos (Anak Ti Batac) and other like-minded regional groups.

There was no national Filipino organization. About the closest at the time was the Filipino Federation of America (FFA) which was founded and led by Hilario Moncado, who basically organized it as a cult centered around him. The members were even referred to as "Moncadistas" and they paid regular membership dues and tithes to maintain Moncado in a comfortable, if not opulent, lifestyle.

Filipinos basically did not have the First Amendment right to "petition the government for a redress of grievances." On paper they could, but reality was another matter. About the only way for Filipinos to redress their grievance against Judge Lazarus in 1936 was to send their petition to the Philippine Resident Commissioner in Washington DC, which is what they did.

What did the Philippine Resident Commissioner do with the resolution of outrage against Lazarus? Time magazine reported on the Commissioner's response: "Statesman Paredes answered his San Francisco countrymen with restraint: He believed the judge had not meant to call all Filipinos savages -- "but there are savages everywhere." He urged his compatriots to "avoid occasions for rebuke" and sent a copy of his reply to Judge Lazarus accompanied by a note saying, "I cannot believe you had in any way intended to refer to my people as a whole."

The Commissioner did not want Filipinos to be "rebuked" for getting upset at being called "savages." What's the big deal anyway? There are savages everywhere. No big thing. Besides, the judge didn't mean to generalize about all Filipinos. To appease the restive natives, Paredes thought he would send a note to the judge to obtain confirmation that he was not generalizing about all Filipinos. See, I told you the judge didn't mean what he said.

But Judge Lazarus was not about to oblige the Commissioner: "I intend to be as straightforward with you as you have been considerate with me," he wrote back. "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 supply us with more criminal business than the local Filipino colony." Yes, he meant exactly what he said, Commissioner.

The years since 1936 saw various attempts to form a national Filipino organization. One of the more notable efforts occurred 40 years ago in 1966 with the formation of the Filipino American Political Association (FAPA).

When the Filipino farmworkers of Delano, California, led by Larry Itliong, went on strike in 1965, Filipino professionals in the San Francisco Bay Area, led by Philippine News publisher Alex Esclamado, organized a "food caravan" to supply the striking farmworkers with canned goods to feed them. This alliance of rural farmworkers and urban professionals gave birth to the FAPA, which at its height had 39 chapters in cities and towns throughout California.

The conflict that eventually developed within FAPA was not based on class but on geography. To resolve this dispute, a FAPA by-law required that the president be elected alternately from Northern and Southern California.

FAPA's influence faded after Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in 1972 with many Ilocano farmworkers and Fil-Am businessmen relying on the Philippine government for support backing Marcos while civil libertarians among them denouncing him.

After People Power ended Marcos rule in 1986, Alex Esclamado asked the pro-Marcos and anti-Marcos forces in the community to set aside their differences and form a new national organization. More than 1200 Filipinos from throughout the US heeded his call and trooped to Anaheim, California to form the National Filipino American Council (NFAC).

As the organizer and prime mover of this fledging group, Alex expected to be elected its national chair. But partisan politics derailed his plan as Filipino American Republican delegates in Anaheim objected to his unabashedly pro-Democratic politics and succeeded in electing Dennis Normandy, a Fil-Am Republican businessman from San Francisco, to lead the NFAC. A Fil-Am Democrat (me) was elected national vice-chair.

Saddled with a massive debt from the Anaheim convention, the Normandy-led NFAC was hesitant to embark on projects which might put the NFAC in the red. The group was thus unable to organize chapters in cities and states outside of the San Francisco Bay Area as Dennis envisioned and fashioned a leaner debt-free organization. By the 1995 national conference of the NFAC in Monterey, California, however, less than 100 delegates were in attendance.

In 1997, a new national organization would be formed in Washington DC: the National Federation of Filipino Associations in America (NaFFAA).

Friday, September 1, 2006

Philippines: The First Iraq?

At the July 11 funeral mass for Christopher Rose held at the St. Augustine's Church in South San Francisco, Brig. Gen. Joseph Schroedel of the US Army Corps of Engineers spoke of the "ultimate sacrifice" Private Rose made when he stepped on an explosive device in Baghdad on June 29.

"Chris didn't want to die," Gen. Schroedel assured us. "He didn't want to leave his family. But he knew that by serving something bigger than himself, even if it meant the ultimate sacrifice, Chris knew that was an honorable thing to do with his life."

Chris' father, Rudy Rose, a Vietnam War vet, agreed with the General. "A lot of soldiers have died already," he told a San Francisco Chronicle reporter. "Finish the job there. We cannot leave now. It's too late."

Although the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Chris Rose was the first San Francisco casualty of the Iraq War, Fr. Ramon Mores, the officiating priest at the church, told me that the Rose funeral was the 5th funeral mass for an Iraq War vet held at St. Augustine's Church since 2003.

I remember not too long ago attending the funeral mass for Joseph Menusa in Tracy, California, less than two weeks after the Iraq War began. Joseph was the first Fil-Am Iraq war casualty from the Bay Area.

Along with Chris Rose and Joseph Menusa, more than 2,642 American soldiers have been killed in Iraq since President George W. Bush ordered the US invasion of that country in March of 2003. Those of us who do not have Alzheimer's still vividly recall the Bush rationale for war: Iraq was an immediate threat to the US because it had weapons of mass destruction and because it was involved in the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.

Neither of those charges turned out to be true but no US general will dare tell grieving parents that their son died because of a lie or a mistake. It is more reassuring to the family to hear that their son died "serving something bigger than himself."

President Bush says again and again that we have to "stay the course" in Iraq. According to Pentagon officials, this means that American troops must be prepared to stay in Iraq at least until 2016. At the rate of 800 American soldiers killed a year since the Iraq war began, Americans must be prepared to suffer another 8,000 soldiers killed in the next 10 years.

The Congressional Research Service reported that more than $325 billion has already been spent to prosecute the war in Iraq. At about $80-B a year, in a decade, this would add up to $800-B, making the Iraq War a trillion dollar investment.

What about the people of Iraq? Since January of 2006, more than 18,000 Iraqis have been killed, averaging about 100 victims a day. A recent U.N. study, cited by Ted Galen Carpenter in his San Francisco Examiner article, reported that more than 14,000 Iraqi civilians were killed in the first six months of 2006. The death toll is rising ominously: in January it was 1,778; in June it was 3,149.

Carpenter noted that "this is occurring in a country of only 27 million people. A comparable pace in the United States would be a horrifying 1,200 deaths per day -- 438,000 per year. If political violence were consuming that many American lives, there would be little debate about whether the United States was experiencing a civil war."

As the de facto civil war between the Sunnis and the Shites intensifies, there is little compelling argument left to "stay the course" in Iraq. One argument being peddled by the neo-conservatives who pushed the US into the war is the "Philippine model". If we hang in there long enough, they now argue, Iraq can end up as a successful democracy just like the former US colony of the Philippines.

Even Iraq war critics like Thomas E. Ricks, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the Washington Post, accept this argument. In his new bestseller, "Fiasco: The American Military Misadventure in Iraq," Ricks believes that although the war has been a disaster, he is still opposed to pulling out because of the US experience in the Philippines where a military misadventure evolved into a democracy.

But Jon Wiener, in an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times ("Iraq is not the Philippines", 8/30/06), debunked the comparison:

"First, it neglects the massive differences between the Philippines in 1900 and Iraq in 2006. The guerrillas in the Philippines fought the Army with old Spanish muskets and bolo knives; today's insurgents in Iraq employ sophisticated improvised explosive devices, rocket-propelled grenades and heat-seeking shoulder-fired missiles that can shoot down helicopters. And combat in Iraq takes place in a fully urbanized society where "pacification" is much more difficult than in the mostly rural islands of the Philippines.

"Also, the Filipinos who fought the U.S. Army at the turn of the 20th century had no outside allies or sources of support. Today's Iraqi insurgents are at the center of a burgeoning anti-Americanism that has spread throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds, with supporters in Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere.

"And of course today there's also the media. Images of resistance fighters in Iraq, and of the victims of American attacks, are broadcast hourly throughout Iraq, Arab and Muslim countries and the rest of the world. Compared with the Philippines guerrillas of 1900, the Iraqi insurgents are much stronger and more capable and have a much broader base of support that extends beyond national boundaries."

Weiner, a Professor of History at UC Irvine, also noted that in the Philippine War, "the U.S. did not count Filipino casualties, but historians today estimate 16,000 deaths for the guerrilla army and civilian deaths between 200,000 and 1 million,” a horrifying toll.

We don't have to hold our breath until 2016 to realize that Iraq will not be the 2nd Philippines.