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).

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