Monday, February 19, 2007

The Final Battle for Equity

The Filipino Veterans Equity Bill finally got its long-awaited hearing day in the US House Veterans Affairs Committee on February 15, eve of the 61st anniversary of the day the US Congress passed the infamous Rescission Act excluding Filipino WW II veterans of the US Army Forces in the Far East (USAFFE) from receiving US military benefits.

At the committee hearing chaired by Rep. Bob Filner (D-CA), 15 witnesses testified in support of the equity bill that will provide approximately 20,000 surviving Filipino WW II veterans with a monthly US military disability pension.

Among those who testified at the hearing were Franco Arcebal, 83, a former Philippine guerrilla intelligence officer in WWII who serves as vice-president of the American Coalition for the Filipino Veterans (ACFV), and Alma Quitans Kern, chair of the National Federation of Filipino American Associations (NaFFAA), which initiated the formation of the 20-organization National Alliance for Filipino Veterans Equity (NAFVE) last December 7.

As veterans affairs committee chair, appointed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Rep. Filner has fast-tracked the equity bill, holding the hearing just two weeks after re-filing it as HR 760 on January 31, with Republican Congressman Darrell Issa (California) among the co-sponsors.

"We're going to try to take this up in committee within a few weeks,” Rep. Filner said, “and I would like to take it on the floor (for a vote) before Bataan Day (April 9)."

At the hearing, Rep. John Boozman (R-Arkansas) raised the question of whether the US could afford to pay the full $880 maximum veterans monthly pension to poor veterans with non-service related disability who served a minimum of 90 days in the US military during a wartime period.

Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Florida) supported the proposal of Rep. Lane Evans (D-Illinois) allocating a $200 monthly pension for veterans in the Philippines which he said was “reasonable” given the cost of living in the Philippines and the fiscal constraints caused by the US deficit and the growing expense of the Iraq war.

Whether the Filipino veterans should accept anything less than the maximum amount to which they are entitled has been a source of contention among the various veterans support groups in the past. All the groups agree, however, that the issue now is passage of the veterans equity bill and that the issue of the amount of the pension to be paid to the veterans should be determined later in the appropriations committees of the Congress.

In reply to a question, Philippine Embassy Deputy Chief of Mission Carlos D. Sorreta said that there are only 20,000 WW II veterans still alive today from the 472,000 vets who originally served under the USAFFE. The US Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA) provided a higher figure of 22,000, with about 15,000 in the Philippines and 7,000 in the US.

In his testimony, Sorreta urged the committee to pass the bill "on behalf of a nation that has stood by yours in the name of liberty and freedom in World War II, in the uncertain decades after, and in facing today's new and grave challenges."

House approval of the Equity bill will provide momentum for its Senate counterpart sponsored by Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) who refilled the bill as S 57 when the 110th US Congress opened on January 4. Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii), the new chairman of the committee on veterans affairs, promised a senate hearing in April.

“We will get it in and we will get it passed this year,” Sen. Inouye said. Sen. Akaka also reintroduced his Filipino Veterans Family Reunification Bill which would exempt children of Filipino WW II veterans from the numerical limitations on immigrant visas. Sen. Akaka’s bill “seeks to reunite the naturalized Filipino veterans with their sons and daughters, many of whom have been on the immigration waiting lists for years.

In the 109th Congress, Akaka’s bill was included as an amendment to the Omnibus Immigration Reform Bill after it passed the Senate with a vote of 99-0 last year. The Omnibus bill was not enacted into law, however, because the House and Senate could not agree on a compromise bill.

Before the Thursday house committee hearing, members of the American Coalition for Filipino Veterans, led by ret. Maj. General Antonio Taguba (author of the Abu Ghraib report), visited the House offices of veterans’ affairs committee members to thank them for their support of the equity and reunification bills and give them Valentine’s Day roses.

It has been 61 years of struggle for the Filipino WW II veterans to rescind the Rescission Act. The veterans in dwindling number hope that the equity bill will finally pass the US Congress this year.

Friday, February 9, 2007

Homeless in New York

In the fashionable Tribeca section of Manhattan is an art design studio called TAMA Gallery owned by my long-time friends, Craig Scharlin and Lilia Villanueva. It used to be caled TAMAD after the Juan Tamad Imports business they established in Berkeley decades ago before they moved. The morning I visited them, as Lilia opened the door to greet me, a neighbor, actor Vincent D’Onofrio, passed by and warmly greeted Lilia. I was impressed.

“Well, actually,” Lilia smiled as we entered her high-end furniture gallery, “there are several other celebs who live on our street — Gywneth Paltrow and Chris Martin, Edward Albee, Mariah Carey, Kevin Spacey and that’s just the ones I know about. De Niro’s Tribeca penthouse pad is around the corner, across from the famous Nobu restaurant he owns with partners.”

Later, as we left Lilia’s gallery to eat at the Cendrillon, the premier Filipino restaurant in SoHo, Lilia waved and pointed to another resident of Tribeca whom she sees on a regular basis, a man in his 30s who seemed to be putting some clothes on while seated on the curb.

“That’s Pedro,” Lilia said, “he’s a homeless Filipino.”

What? There’s a homeless Filipino in America? It sounded strange. Yes I know, given the fact that there are now 3.5 million Filipinos in America (up from the 2.4-M estimate 7 years ago in the 2000 Census - which excluded 500,000 undocumented Filipinos), it would be statistically improbable for there not to be homeless Filipinos among the millions of homeless people in America.

It’s just that in our Filipino culture, we generally take care of our own. Somehow, there is always some relative or some kababayan out there willing to take care of a Filipino in need of food and shelter. It's our social security system.

Lilia narrated that when they first opened their art gallery in 2002, this guy just showed up at their doorstep peering inside. Lilia opened the door and immediately felt the sting of a foul stench.

As Lilia recovered from the smell, the man spoke. “Are you a Filipino?” he asked. When Lilia nodded with her hand covering her nose, he said “ako rin” (me too).

Pedro told her he was from Iloilo (his mother’s side) and had immigrated to the US when he was 9 years old. He still spoke Ilongo, which Lilia could speak too as she came from nearby Bacolod. When asked, he refused to reveal where he slept or where he cleaned himself - maski di-in lang da – ‘wherever’) and said getting food is never a problem. New York’s restaurants are probably the most generous to the homeless and needy in the country so Lilia was not surprised.

Pedro wanted Lilia to be his friend. Lilia was open to it but made it a condition of their friendship that he would not ever ask her for money. He agreed.

In a later visit, Pedro asked to use Lilia’s phone to call his sister in Texas. Lilia gave him the phone and after he reached his sister, Meldy, he introduced her to Lilia.

Meldy was grateful that Pedro had found a friend, a kababayan in New York. Pedro had one other friend in the City, a Filipino nurse in the psychiatric ward of the Bellevue Hospital where he would often be admitted to after being picked up in the streets by the New York Police.

Lilia learned from Meldy that Pedro is a schizophrenic but that he was not always so. Once, she said, he was the brightest and smartest of them all, the 9 siblings who immigrated to the US with their parents in the early 80s. Pedro had been a sous chef at one of the top restaurants in Los Angeles, she said. He was in great shape physically and anything he set his mind to, he could do and do well, she added.

But Pedro’s life changed dramatically when his beloved mother died, Meldy recounted. His personality changed, he began to have hallucinations, causing him to withdraw from his family and society, retreating into an inner shell, talking to no one but himself.

Pedro’s siblings from all over the US took turns taking care of him. Then one day, while in the care of one brother, Pedro disappeared. After a frantic search, they learned that he had made his way to New York, living in and off the streets, joining the legion of homeless in the Big Apple.

Schizophrenia is a severely disabling brain disease affecting approximately 1 percent of the US population (almost 3 million in the US). The disease causes its sufferers to hear internal voices, to believe that others are reading their minds, controlling their thoughts, or plotting to harm them. These symptoms may leave them fearful and withdrawn, their speech and behavior so disorganized as to be incomprehensible or even frightening to others.

Large numbers of America’s homeless suffer from schizophrenia, unable to work and maintain normal lives. In the 50s and 60s, many of them were cared for in state mental hospitals but that all changed in the early 70s when California Gov. Ronald Reagan eliminated state funding for the mentally disabled forcing many mental hospitals to shut down and release their patients to live out on their own. Other states followed California and the homeless crisis in America was full blown.

Lilia recounted that one day she received a call from Meldy asking her to pass on to Pedro the news that their Uncle Joseling had died, without any children, leaving all his property in Iloilo to Pedro and his siblings. The brothers and sisters, Meldy told Lilia, had agreed they would give the property for Pedro to use. They wanted Pedro to go back to Iloilo and live in their uncle's house where he would be properly cared for by maids and live off the money the siblings would gladly provide.

Lilia was tasked with relaying this news to Pedro, but she was not quite sure how to convince Pedro to accept the gift. She would try her best as she was convinced this would be best for him.

The next day when Pedro showed up at the gallery, Lilia was all smiles and excited to tell him the good news. She told him that all his siblings were willing to give him their share of their uncle's inheritance because they all love him and care for his welfare.

“This would solve all your problems, Pedro. You wouldn’t have to worry about finding a place to sleep every night, or what to eat. You wouldn’t have to fear police officers or thugs. You could get all the medical treatment you need to get better,” Lilia explained.

Pedro listened intently, nodding his head. At the end of Lilia’s pitch, however, Pedro said “no”.

“What will I do in Iloilo? No way!” he said. The voices inside of Pedro’s head had rejected the idea of leaving the dangerous but familiar streets of New York for the safe, secure but unfamiliar life in Iloilo.

No matter what Lilia said, Pedro was determined not to allow her to change his mind. He was adamant that he would not leave the streets of New York. No way.

When you go to Tribeca (TRIangle BElow CAnal) in New York, you may not bump into DeNiro, Gwyneth, Chris, Mariah, Spacey, Albee or D’Onofrio but you may run into Pedro. You can't miss him. Say hi.

Monday, February 5, 2007

The Star of Mayor Gavin Newsom

There were ooohs and aaahs everywhere San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom spoke during his one week Sister City visit to Manila last December, where he captivated his audience with his intelligence, Hollywood good looks and personal charisma.

Filipinos there confidently predicted that Mayor Newsom would one day be elected president of the U.S. after succeeding Dianne Feinstein as US senator or Arnold Schwarzenegger as California governor. They readily compared him to John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton, who possessed, they said, the same qualities they saw in Gavin Newsom.

Unlike Kennedy and Clinton, who were married when they had affairs (with Marilyn Monroe and Monica Lewinsky, respectively), the 39-year old Gavin appeared to be squeaky clean. As an eligible bachelor, he could go out with anyone he pleased and there would be no sex scandal involved.

Well, not quite. Last week, Gavin made front page news all over the country when his best friend and campaign manager, Alex Tourk, resigned after confronting the mayor about his affair with Tourk’s wife, Ruby Rippey-Tourk, while she worked in his office.

Gavin admitted to the short-lived affair, which occurred a year and a half ago, and apologized to Alex Tourk and to the people of San Francisco for his failure of judgment. His apologies notwithstanding, the Mayor quickly became the butt of jokes as comedians like Jay Leno, announced that what really surprised the people of San Francisco was that Gavin’s affair was with a woman.

Gavin's fans in Manila may be disappointed with the sudden fall of Mayor Newsom’s star but it’s standard fare out there to intrude into the private sex lives of their celebrities and politicians. Still, it was a shock to see CNN interrupt its regular programming to announce "BREAKING NEWS," not of the war in Iraq, but of Newsom's affair. "If there is one thing worse than the modern weakening of major morals,” English author and novelist G.K. Chesterton once observed, “it is the modern strengthening of minor morals."

I would like to share a few of my personal encounters with Gavin Newsom. I first spoke with him sometime in March of 2003, when he was still a San Francisco Supervisor. He called me about an article I had written in the Philippine News, and which also appeared in Asian Week and The San Francisco

The column, “Would this have happened to Gavin Newsom?” was about my arrest by San Francisco police officers who were called in by the Walgreens manager, who mistakenly thought my old (small Ben Franklin) $100 bill was counterfeit. I thought my arrest was racist because I believed then, as I still do now, that had it been Gavin Newsom who presented the $100 bill, the white manager would not have called the police, and the police would not have arrested him.

The fact that I was a lawyer and an elected city official did not change my appearance as a minority. Yes, the Walgreens general manager and the San Francisco Chief of Police apologized to me but it didn't change what had happened. Gavin called me to complain as to why I chose him as an example. “Do you have an ax to grind against me?” he wanted to know. I told him that no, I had nothing against him. He was just the most suitably identifiable white official I could think of to make my point.

“Well, it’s ironic, Rodel,” Gavin said, “because what happened to you happened to me.” “No kidding?” I replied. Gavin explained that one day, he went to his bank to deposit cash from his Russian Hill restaurant, Balboa CafĂ©. As the teller counted the money, she noticed a peculiar $100 bill which she examined then applied the counterfeit detector pen to. It turned black which meant that the bill was counterfeit unlike my Walgreens experience when the mark turned yellow, which meant it was good, but still didn’t stop Walgreens or the SFPD from arresting me.

“So what happened?” I asked. “Well,” Gavin replied, “she just returned the bill to me and warned me to be careful next time.”
“Gavin,” I said, “if that had been me, she would have called the police. What happened to me didn’t happen to you.” "Oh." he said.

In retrospect, I can see now that Gavin was reaching out to me, empathizing with me in his own way. But it was also clear to me that his white upper class upbringing limited his ability to understand what minorities and lower income people experience on a regular basis.

He Gavin was elected mayor later that year in 2003. After assuming office in 2004, Gavin made local history by appointing San Francisco’s first woman police chief (Heather Fong) and first woman fire chief (Joanne Hayes-White). He then cemented his place in history when he proclaimed same-sex marriage was legal in San Francisco, allowing more than 4,000 couples to be legally wed before the courts stopped him from continuing the practice.

Gavin became a pariah to many Democrats who blamed him for handing George Bush a major wedge issue to use for reelection in 2004. The extent of this rejection was revealed in a recent interview where Gavin complained that presidential candidate Barack Obama refuses to pose in a picture with him despite the two fundraisers he has done for Obama.

A year ago Gavin called to invite me to join him that Friday in his visit to Bessie Carmichael Elementary School in the South of Market district. I readily accepted the invitation to the one school in the City where the majority of students, the teachers and the principal are Filipino. With Principal Jeff Burgos, Gavin and I went to each of the classrooms and engaged the students and teachers in civic discussions.

He would ask the students “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and the students would respond “doctor, lawyer, nurse, firemen, actor, dancer” etc. He would nod in approval, believing that if students set their goals early, they can work to meet those goals for themselves.

But he recently told us that he realized he was asking the wrong question. “It shouldn’t be ‘What do you want to be?’ It should be ‘What do you want to become?’ It isn’t important that you want to be a lawyer,” he explained. “What’s really important is that you want to become a socially committed environmentalist or advocate for social justice. It’s a state of consciousness, more than a state of being, that’s what really counts.”

I saw in that epiphany a maturing Mayor Newsom, someone who did not want to be just mayor, but a socially committed and conscientious mayor. Will San Francisco voters in November allow him to continue to become that kind of mayor?

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