Monday, January 29, 2007

Philip Vera Cruz

When the 3.5 million of us Filipinos in America, following the lead of all other immigrant groups before and after us, begin to advocate for US parks, streets and schools to be named after our trailblazing pioneers, serious consideration should be given to the name of Philip Vera Cruz, a Pinoy farm worker leader of extraordinary vision and leadership.

A new generation of Filipinos may now get the opportunity to know Philip with the recent publication of Sid Amores Valledor’s “The Original Writings of Philip Vera Cruz” (available on, which was described by Dr. Jovina Navarro from San Jose State University as: an “insightful look into a philosophical and international mind, (whose) experiences influenced his political perspective, which guided his actions.”

Another book, “Philip Vera Cruz: A Personal History of Filipino Immigrants and the Farmworkers Movement” by Craig Scharlin and Lilia Villanueva, was initially published by the UCLA Labor Center in 1992 and again in 1995, owing to the high demand for it. In 2000, the University of Washington Press in Seattle published the third edition of the book (also available through with a new introduction.

Philip, who died in 1994, was a close personal friend over the years and was ninong (sponsor) at my wedding in 1979. I first met him in 1971 while attending an anti-war rally at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. I heard this distinctly Filipino voice speaking over the loudspeakers to an estimated 400,000 people who had gathered to protest the Vietnam War.

I inched my way to the stage to get a glimpse of the man behind the voice. By the time I got to the stage, however, he was no longer speaking but it was still easy to find him as he was the only Filipino backstage. I introduced myself to him and we exchanged phone numbers and addresses. We communicated for the next year as he traveled all over the US and Europe encouraging people to boycott grapes and support the United Farm Workers Union (UFW), where he was the 2nd Vice-President under Cesar Chavez and 1st Vice President Dolores Huerta.

When I taught the History of Filipinos in America class at San Francisco State University (SFSU) from1972 to 1978, I often brought my students to Delano to do volunteer work at the Agbayani Village there. Even today, many of my former students at SF State, like Union City Vice-Mayor Jim Navarro, count their visit to Delano as the highlight of their college experience.

Agbayani Village, named after Filipino farm worker Paolo Agbayani, who died from a stroke in 1967 while manning a UFW picket line, was Philip's project as he wanted his union to build a retirement village for farm workers. In Delano, they interacted with the manongs (elder brother, an honorific) while doing construction work at the Village. After breakfast on Sundays, we would visit the actual camps where the manongs lived, many of them since the 1930s).

Manong Philip would be our tour guide, giving the students a history of the farm worker experience. In one visit in 1974, I brought along my friends, Craig and Lilia Scharlin, to join my students in Delano and to meet Philip. They were so impressed with Philip during that visit that they decided to do his oral history. Craig and Lilia spent the next decade interviewing him on tape, transcribing the tapes and organizing the narrative to produce their book, “Philip Vera Cruz: A Personal History of Filipino Immigrants and the Farmworkers Movement”.

In one chapter of this book, Philip provides an account of his conflict with Cesar Chavez over Philippine strongman Ferdinand Marcos. This occurred in August of 1977 when Marcos extended an invitation to Chavez to visit the Philippines. The invitation was coursed through a pro-Marcos former UFW leader, Andy Imutan, who carried it to Cesar and lobbied him to visit to the Philippines.

At a UFW Board meeting where the Marcos invitation was brought up, Cesar turned to Philip, who recounts the exchange in his book:

“Well, Philip, what do you think?” and I said, “No, I don’t approve of it. I don’t like the form of government Marcos has created because it’s very oppressive. It’s a dictatorship. There are thousands of political prisoners; people are arrested without charges or benefit of trial.”…I could see that after Chris and I spoke, Cesar wasn’t in the mood to listen anymore. I know how he gets. It doesn’t do any good if I kept talking so I just shut up. Then Cesar said, “Well, all right” and he moved right on to the next order of business and that’s all that was said about that issue. He didn’t want to decide then because he could see that his position was weak.”

After another Board meeting, however, Cesar had the votes he needed to secure support for his Philippine visit (Philip cast the only dissenting vote). In Manila, Cesar appeared with Marcos in photo-ops and was quoted as saying that Marcos’ martial law appeared to be helping the people.

Philip wrote: “What Cesar did there in the Philippines is the saddest day in the history of the farmworkers movement in this country. It was a disgrace. Cesar was toasting Marcos with all those phony labor leaders appointed by Marcos at the presidential palace while, at the same time, on the other side of Manila, the real union leaders were in jail.”

When he returned to California, Cesar invited Marcos’ labor minister, Blas Ople, to speak at the UFW national convention in August of 1977. After Ople told the UFW delegates that the Filipino people support Marcos, Philip rose to challenge that assertion but was prevented from doing so by Cesar Chavez.

Philip asked him why he wasn't allowed to speak: >em> “Cesar said to me, “No, because you’re going to insult him (Ople).” That’s exactly what Cesar said to me then. So what could I do?...You can see what a sad state of affairs Cesar had come to when he was officially gagging a union officer who had been with the union since its inception while allowing a representative of a right-wing foreign government a free voice to speak to the union rank and file.”

In the union elections that followed, Cesar Chavez was reelected union president by acclamation. Dolores Huerta, 1st Vice-President, was similarly re-elected. But Philip Vera Cruz, the UFW 2nd Vice-President from the inception of the Union, was not even nominated. Instead, another Chicano (Mexican

American), Eliseo Medina, was nominated and elected to replace Philip, thus removing the last Filipino to hold a leadership post in a union that came into being because of the Delano Strike of 1965 initiated by the Filipino farm workers.

As an outgoing national officer, Philip was given an opportunity to address the convention, for the last time, and he used it to criticize Cesar Chavez for becoming “reactionary.” “I cannot understand why a resolution was passed to condemn the dictatorship of Nicaragua and, at the same convention, to praise the dictatorship of the Philippines...It cannot be hot and cold at the same time," he said.

In the final chapter of his book, Philip wrote: “Since I left the union, it’s kind of funny or ironic, but I feel liberated. I feel that now I have more freedom…I could say what I felt in my heart and nobody could censure me.”

At Philip's funeral in 1994, many old-time Chicano UFW officials came to pay their respects to a man they highly respected. "He was right and Cesar was wrong", many of them acknowledged.

There are thousands of parks, streets and schools in the United States named after Cesar Chavez. There is not one named after Philip Vera Cruz.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Bigotry's Logic

Whenever a Filipino in the US commits or is accused of a crime, fear and trembling rattle the cages of insecure members of our Filipino American community who worry that somehow mainstream Americans will view all Filipinos in a negative light because of it. Even if they were not involved in the crime a Filipino suspect committed or is accused of committing, they nonetheless feel a sense of collective guilt because the alleged perpetrator of the offense is Filipino.

Even secure members of our community fear tarring from the same brush. A decade ago, from April to July 1997, a Filipino American named Andrew Phillip Cunanan went on a cross-country killing spree, taking the lives of five people, including the famous fashion designer Gianni Versace. To find this Filipino killer, the FBI interviewed as many Cunanans as they could locate to see if they were related to Andrew and if they knew where he was hiding. For a time it seemed all Cunanans were suspect. And many Americans viewed all Filipinos as potential serial killers.

It's akin to going to a party where all the guests are white and the one other Filipino in that party, whom you’ve never met, breaks a vase (or kills the host). There is the fear that since you and the vase breaker are the only two Filipinos in the party, the other guests will naturally assume that you were somehow involved as a cohort.

Last week, a popular Filipino Catholic priest in the commonwealth of Louisa, Virginia was charged with embezzling $600,000 from two rural parishes. The charge came as a total shock to the people of Louisa whose District Attorney, Don Short, had known the Filipino priest for a decade.

"It has come as a great shock to folks in the community, and I include myself in that," Short said. "It's someone I've known in the community for 10 years or more as the Catholic priest. He is held in a high level of esteem—he had a following, people liked him."

What will the Americans in that parish, in that county, in that state, in the US think of Filipinos now? Will we be tarred with the same brush because we share a common cultural and ethnic heritage with the accused priest?

What makes this case of particular interest to me, personally, is the name of the accused priest: Fr. Rodney L. Rodis. Within days of the news of his arrest, I received dozens of e-mails and phone calls asking me if I am related to the priest. I responded that I do not know him nor had even heard of him until the news of his arrest. But because Rodis is not a common surname, it is quite possible we share a common ancestor somewhere up the line.

I was uncomfortable with having to dissociate myself from him because it already assumed that he was guilty of what he was charged with and that I wanted to have no connection to him. But he may be innocent and I may be related to him.

Over the years, I have learned that the Rodis clan originated in Indang, Cavite. However, because my grandfather (Arsenio Rodis) grew up in Cebu, where he met and married my grandmother (Asuncion Velez). All the Rodises I have ever known were from Cebu.

About 10 years ago, my mother in San Francisco received a phone call from a Greek sailor who was in town for a visit. He told my mother that he checked out the white pages to see if he had any relatives in town and saw one name that matched his. He wanted to know if we were related.

My mother identified herself as a Filipino and the Greek sailor apologized for taking up her time but did tell her that Rodis was a common surname in Greece. My mother’s account of this call led me to speculate that perhaps some Greek sailor in the 1700s jumped ship in Sangley Point, in Cavite, and decided to live permanently in the Philippines, marrying a local woman and having kids. Perhaps this Fr. Rodney L. Rodis and I share the same Greek sailor as the common ancestor.

About two months ago, a Walnut Creek Superior Court judge asked me about my surname, opining that it sounded Greek to him. When I told that I’m Filipino, he said that I must be a Filipino Greek, a Fil-Greek, a Freak. He laughed at his wit.

Over the weekend, I was awakened by a phone call from a columnist from another newspaper who inquired if I was related to Fr. Rodney L. Rodis. He said a muckraker from Los Angeles was spreading the rumor on the Internet that Fr. Rodis was my brother and that this incident was proof positive that all Rodises are crooks.

I thanked the columnist for checking on his facts first, something that the guy from L.A. has obviously never been accused of doing. The logic that if one Rodis is a crook, then all Rodises are crooks extends to all Filipinos (“if one Filipino is a crook, then all Filipinos are crooks”) and to all Catholic priests, most especially Filipino Catholic priests.

Bigotry has its own logic.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Fil-Am Role Models

We all need role models. We need heroes to blaze trails for us, to inspire us to do more and achieve more, heroes toinstill in us the confidence and self-assurance we need to get to where we want to go. Those who aspire to professional careers look to the professionals who came before them to draw inspiration about how they dealt with adversity, how they overcame obstacles, how theyachieved success in their fields.

It must have been very difficult for then 22-year old Eleanor Oducayen when she entered the prestigious Boalt Hall School of Law at the University of California in Berkeley in 1969. There were no other Pinays in her class; in fact,they had never seen one at Boalt Hall. In point of fact, before Eleanor, there had never ever been a Pinay at any law school in California, or perhaps in all of the United States. Eleanor had no Pinay role models to look up to in the profession she aspired to enter. She was it.

When she graduated from Boalt and passed the bar in 1972,Eleanor was hired as a Deputy Attorney General in the California Attorney General’s Office in Sacramento, the first Filipino to hold that post.Of the 32 Deputy AGs in her office, 30 were males, and almost all of them were Caucasian but being the first or being the only was nothing to new to Eleanor. In short order, she ascended the ranks and was appointed Administrative Law Judge to handle unemployment insurance cases. She rose to become Chief Judge in her department. Both were firsts for her as well.

In 1981, when there was enough of a critical mass of Filipino attorneys in Northern California, Eleanor and a dozen of us organized the Filipino Bar Association of Northern California (FBANC). Although virtually all of us were men, there was no question that the one most qualified to lead us to become a professional organization was Eleanor who was unanimously elected president of FBANC.

After 35 years of working for the state of California, Eleanor quietly retired last week and was set to celebrate her retirement with her husband and her kids, all grown up, by going out to dinner all they way in San Francisco from their home in Oakland. On the way, they stopped by a friend’s retirement party in Oakland’s Chinatown.

It was not a friend’s retirement party, as it turned out, it was hers. A genuine surprise to Eleanor who saw all her family members, her fellow judges and old colleagues from the Attorney General’s office, some of whom flew in from Los Angeles, her FBANC and community friends all had been waiting at the Silver Dragon to shower her with warmth and affection in a testimonial roast.

The surprise party was planned by Eleanor’s husband of 35 years, Mike Nisperos, who will readily admit that his role model is his wife. After graduating from high school in Oakland in 1968, Mike enlisted in the US Marine Corps and served two tours of duty in Vietnam. When he completed his tour,finishing as a Master Sergeant, Mike returned to Oakland in 1971. There, at a party, he met Eleanor, who was graduating from law school. In terms of academic accomplishments, they seemed an odd pair at the time, but love conquers all. After a brief courtship, Mike and Eleanor married and Mike went to college on his G.I. Bill, graduating from UC Berkeley in 1975 and then, following Eleanor’s lead, going on to Boalt Hall as well, graduating in 1978.

After working in the Oakland District Attorney’s Office as a Deputy DA, Mike returned to the US military to work in the office of the Judge Advocate General (JAG)from 1982-88. He was then hired as a Trial Attorney in the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). In 1991,Mike was appointed “Drug Czar” of Oakland, as Director of the Mayor's Office of Drugs and Crime, where he coordinated the enforcement, prevention and education efforts directed toward the reduction of crime and drug abuse. In 2001, Mike was appointed Chief Trial Counsel of the State Bar of California overseeing the bar’s attorney discipline system over the state’s 175,000 attorneys.

In 2006, Mike returned to Oakland and ran unsuccessfully for Superior Court Judge. After considering various options, Mike accepted an appointment as Deputy Attorney General for the Marianas Islands to serve in Saipan, where he will be joined by Eleanor. They have two kids, Marlo, a Deputy District Attorney in Sonoma County, and Mike Jr., a law student at McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento.

A role model is one who is compassionate and who feels obligated to better society and work for the common good of the community; one who has developed powerful and effective habits of the mind and soul; one who can work through challenges and is committed to what he or she does; one who has the capacity to achieve goals and obtain self-fulfillment; who possesses high standards and values; and one who is admired for courage and strength.

By all these standards, Eleanor Oducayen Nisperos fully fits the bill of a positive role model for the Filipino American community. (And so does her husband, Mike).

We wish them well in their new adventure in Saipan and we thank them both for lighting the path for the rest of us to follow. Godspeed.

Monday, January 8, 2007

Speaker Pelosi Supports Filipino Veterans

NOT ONLY did Nancy Pelosi make history last week as the first female House Speaker in the US, second in line to the presidency, she also made history as the first top American elected official to come from a district with a significant Filipino constituency.

Speaker Pelosi’s San Francisco district has a population that is approximately seven-percent Filipino, and is predominantly Democratic in political registration. Because of her commitment to make her staff reflect her community’s diversity, she has hired Filipino Americans, most recently, Charmaine Manansala from Vallejo, California.

Pelosi has been supportive of Filipino community issues since she was first elected to her House seat in 1987 when she signed on as a co-sponsor of Rep. Mervyn Dymally's Filipino WW II veterans naturalization bill. It was in her congressional district that the first Filipino WW II veterans were naturalized as a result of a court decision by Federal Judge Charles Renfrew in 1977. After the Filipino veterans naturalization bill was passed in 1990, Pelosi focused on the Filipino Veterans Equity Bill and has been a co-sponsor since it was first introduced in 1992.

At a House Veterans Committee hearing on the Filipino Veterans Equity Bill that was held on July 22, 1998, Rep. Pelosi introduced Filipino WW II veterans from her congressional district who had traveled to Washington DC to testify in support of the bill. She reminded the committee members that “the battle for the liberation of the Philippines was the beginning of Japan’s demise in the war… The courageous efforts of the Filipino soldiers, scouts, and guerillas were instrumental in that success.”

The Equity bill, she said, “provides that these Filipinos get the same assistance that retired US soldiers receive… If we fail to do this, I fear we send a message that the life of that of a foreigner is not as valuable as an American fighting in the same war, under the same command... I think that is a dangerous message.”

Under Dennis Hastert, Speaker Pelosi’s Republican predecessor, the Filipino Veterans Equity Bill could not even merit a hearing, a prerequisite to bringing the bill to a floor vote, as Hastert’s House Veterans Committee chair, Steve Buyer (R-Ohio), rejected all such pleas by Rep. Bob Filner (D-CA), the ranking Democratic member of his committee.

One of Speaker Pelosi’s first appointments was that of Filner as the new chair of the House Veterans Committee. Filner, the principal sponsor of the FilVets bill, has promised to hold hearings on the bill as soon as possible.

But even with a Democratic majority, passing the FilVets bill will not be easy. Rep. Pelosi acknowledged the difficulty in her testimony before the House committee in 1998: “I appreciate…the complexity of, and the resulting financial strain, on the Federal budget. As a result of the balanced budget agreement, we're required to find offsets to any additional costs with cuts in current programs. I do not believe cutting current programs to American veterans is the proper solution, of course. I do believe, however, that a solution exists and that it's vital we work together to find that solution before more of these veterans pass away and then it's too late.”

It is already too late for one of Pelosi’s constituents, Magdaleno Duenas, who died on February 27, 2005 at the age of 90. A week after his death, Pelosi paid tribute to Duenas on the floor of the House, honoring and thanking him “for his courageous military service and the sacrifices he made for our nation, as well as his lifelong struggle on behalf of Filipino veterans of World War II. His life is a symbol of the struggle for total recognition of Filipino veterans and a sad reminder of a shameful page in the history of our nation. “

“Mr. Duenas moved to San Francisco's Tenderloin district in 1993,” Pelosi said, “where he was vibrant member of our community. This diminutive, gentle man worked tirelessly to improve the experience of Filipino veterans in the Bay Area. All these years, he waited for the recognition of the US Government for the services he rendered during WWII. He was featured in two documentaries: Tears of Old, and Second Class Citizens. He died still waiting for the full equity bill to be passed by the US Congress. We will not rest until the equity bill becomes law.”

Speaker Pelosi’s support for Filipino community issues was not limited to the Filipino veterans. In November of 2004, she included $388,000 for the Filipino Cultural Center in San Francisco as part of the $388 billion spending bill that was sent by the House to President Bush. As House minority leader, Pelosi was able to tuck a long list of spending provisions for projects in her district into the bill that critics derided as a testament to “pork barrel spending.”

Among the “earmarks” that passed the Republican House was the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere” which was a $223-M appropriation for an Alaskan bridge that was constructed to connect to an island of 50 people and sponsored by Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), chair of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, who earmarked it as "high priority."

In contrast, Rep. Pelosi earmarked $788,000 for the Student Health Center of City College of San Francisco to provide the medical equipment and furniture needed for a center that annually serves 11,000 low-income students without medical insurance.

Although Pelosi believes many earmarks "are worthy" and "can be a legitimate way for Congress to force fiscal priorities on the White House," House Speaker Pelosi has promised to enact a rule requiring sponsors of earmarks to be identified. Currently, lawmakers can remain anonymous in sponsoring an earmark.

But for now, Speaker Pelosi’s biggest challenge is compelling President Bush to accept the verdict of the American people in the November 2006 elections to phase out US military involvement in the Iraqi civil war which has already claimed the lives of more than 3,011 US soldiers and more than $500 billion in US funds ($200 million a day).

Those funds should be better used in the US for the benefit of the American people. Less than a day of the cost of the Iraq War will be sufficient to fund the Filipino Veterans Equity Bill. This is what Speaker Pelosi will surely convey to President Bush.