Monday, November 19, 2007

The Not So Impossible Dream

Alex Esclamado may have been looking forward to blissful retirement and to writing his memoirs when I invited him to travel with me to New York in April of 1997. I had been invited to speak at the regional conference of the Filipino Intercollegiate Networking for Dialogue (FIND) to be held at the State University of New York in Long Island when I unexpectedly received a round-trip ticket from the Filipino student group after I had already purchased a discounted “buddy pass” ticket to go there.

So, with an extra plane ticket in hand, I asked Alex if he would be free to join me. By then, Alex had a lot of free time as he had just sold Philippine News to his good friend, Ed Espiritu. For the first time since 1961 when he and his wife, Luly, started publishing the weekly newspaper from the garage of their home in the Sunset District of San Francisco, Alex did not have a weekly editorial to write, a newspaper to edit.

Alex said yes and off we flew to New York. En route, I had told Alex that the National Filipino American Council (NFAC) which he worked so hard to organize in 1987 just wasn’t working. We recounted how, after People Power ousted the Marcos Dictatorship, we had set about to unite the Filipino American community which had been bitterly divided between the proponents and opponents of martial rule.

Back then, Alex had traveled the country to invite community leaders to meet in Anaheim, California in August of 1987 to form an organization that would work to empower the community. In Anaheim, 1500 delegates from around the US met and formed the NFAC. They had all agreed that martial law was a thing of the past and that we should now look forward to being Americans and fighting for our place at the table. Alex had succeeded but not quite.

When the time came to electing a chair who would guide the organization forward, a majority of the delegates voted against Alex because they believed he was too partisan a Democrat. They elected, instead, a Republican from San Francisco, Dennis Normandy (now a declared Independent), a corporate executive who did not share Alex’s vision of chartered chapters in Filipino communities throughout the US. His “spokes in a wheel” model envisioned a more modest growth.

On the flight to New York, I told Alex that after 10 years of NFAC, we needed to form another organization that would be true to his vision at Anaheim. I told him that with what remained of the NFAC, a decision was made in Salinas in January of 1997 to call for a summit of Filipino community organizations to meet in August in Washington DC. I was going to the FIND conference to invite the members to join us in DC.

When we arrived in New York, Alex and I were met by a FIND member who took us to his home in Brooklyn where he put us up for the night. It was not a hotel but Alex did not mind. If he had sold his newspaper in 1977 when the Dictator Ferdinand Marcos offered to purchase it for $10 million, to silence him, Alex would be a very rich man and he could fly first class and be billeted at a suite at the Ritz Carlton.

But though Alex needed the money as he had borrowed heavily to keep his newspaper afloat in the face of iron-fisted pressure on advertisers applied by the Marcos government, he rejected the tempting offer, declaring that his principles were not for sale.

When we woke up the following morning, we learned that we did not have to be in Long Island until that evening so we had a day to spare. I called up my friend, Michael Dadap, a classical guitarist and conductor of the Children’s Orchestra Society of New York, and asked him to join us. Within minutes, as he lived nearby, Michael was there with his car to take us around New York.

We decided to call up Loida Nicolas Lewis, the Chief Executive Officer of the TLC Beatrice conglomerate and a personal friend of all three of us. By happenstance, when we called her, she was in town and she invited us for lunch at a restaurant across from her downtown Manhattan office.

Over lunch, we shared with Loida our plans to organize a national federation of Filipino American associations, although we had not decided on the name yet. In concept, we wanted the organization to have a national presence in Washington DC to lobby for the community’s interests on matters like the Filipino WW II veterans issue, on immigration and institutionalized discrimination. In short, we needed an NAACP for the Filipino community.

Loida was excited about this project and gave it her full enthusiastic support. With Loida’s backing, Alex was energized once again. In 1966, he had organized the Filipino American Political Association (FAPA) but although it had 29 chapters at one point, it was only based in California and it folded when martial law was declared in 1972, with members divided between those supporting and opposing Marcos. Before Alex’s dream for the NFAC could take off, he was taken off the driver’s seat because of division over American political parties.

Alex would give it one more try, the third time’s the charm, they say. With Loida's backing, he traveled the length and breath of the country, once more into the breach, contacting leaders from every city and every state, inviting one and all to come to Washington DC to organize the National Federation of Filipino American Associations (NaFFAA).

Some 1200 delegates, including about 200 students from FIND, formed the NaFFAA and elected Alex as the national chair, a post he held until 2002, when he was then succeeded by Loida Nicolas Lewis. Loida was in turn succeeded in 2006 by Alma Kern from Seattle.

Now, NaFFAA has working chapters in virtually every major city in the US where there is a significant Filipino presence and witha national office in Washington DC advocating for the WW II veterans and other community issues. For more information about NaFFAA, please log on to

Happy Thanksgiving to all and especially to Alex Esclamado for empowering the Filipino American community. Your “impossible dream” was not so impossible after all.

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