Below is the speech I delivered after receiving the Dr. Jose Rizal Achievement Award at the induction of officers of the Filipino Bar Association of Northern California (FBANC) held on April 25, 2008 in San Francisco. I revised my speech a bit for the column since it was extemporaneous).
This award holds special significance to me as my mother was born and raised in Calamba, Laguna, just a short block from the home where Dr. Jose Rizal was born on June 19, 1861. As a child, I spent many summers with my grandfather where I would often stroll over to Rizal’s childhood home, which had become a museum. I remember devouring all the books about Rizal that I could find there.
As it turned out, I went to elementary school at the Letran College in Intramuros in the walled city of Manila just a few blocks from Fort Santiago, where Rizal was incarcerated and executed on December 30, 1896.
In between his birth in Calamba and his death near Fort Santiago, Rizal informed and defined the Filipino national identity.
Before Dr. Rizal, the people who lived in Las Islas Filipinas were generally called indios by their colonial masters. In the logs of Spanish galleon ships plying the Manila-Acapulco trade, the native mariners were referred to as “Luzon indios” or “Visayan indios” but always “indios” regardless of whether they were Ilocanos, Tagalogs, Cebuanos, Ilongos or any number of disunited, disparate tribes.
The word “Filipino”, named after King Felipe II of Spain, was a pejorative insult employed by Spanish citizens born in Spain of pure Spanish blood to put down and denigrate Spanish citizens born in the Philippine Islands whose parents were not pure Spaniards.
Through his writings, Dr. Rizal elevated Filipino and infused it with a distinct racial, ethnic, cultural and political identity. We became one people, from one nation because of Dr. Jose Rizal and we all would not now be members of the "Filipino" Bar Association of Northern California if it were not for him.
I am aware that there are still many Filipinos who reject their own national identity. When I attended a conference in Atlanta many years ago, I sought out Filipinos from the thousands of delegates there. When I spotted someone who might be Pinoy, I went up to him and asked him if he was Filipino and he replied "I was".
What he does not understand is that while he may no longer consider himself a Filipino, others will. He may find himself as I did five years ago in a Walgreens store paying $44.32 worth of goods with an old but genuine $100 bill only to have the white manager call the police based on his suspicion that the bill may be counterfeit simply because the bearer is a Filipino. The white police officers may believe the bill is counterfeit simply because the suspect they arrested, as they wrote down in the police report, was wearing "khaki shirt, khaki pants" with perhaps a khaki skin.
Racial profiling does not distinguish between those who consider themselves Filipinos and those who believe they are “former Filipinos”.
What my Walgreens experience taught me is that even in this day and age, no matter what individual honors you achieve, you will not be judged for the content of your character but for the mere color of your skin.
We are fortunate to belong to a legal profession that can do something about racial profiling. I sued Walgreens and that billion dollar company settled with me for an undisclosed sum. I sued the San Francisco Police Department and the police officers who arrested me. The police department issued an apology and issued a new policy directing officers not to arrest anyone suspected of using a counterfeit bill without some evidence that the suspect knew the bill was counterfeit.
But the two white San Francisco police officers who arrested me, admittedly without probable cause, brought my state civil case against them to the federal court where they filed a motion to dismiss my suit on the basis of qualified immunity. When the judge denied their motion, the officers appealed the case to the Ninth Circuit which issued a published opinion on August 28, 2007 upholding the federal court decision.
Unfortunately, the police officers have chosen to appeal the case all the way to the US Supreme Court. If that Court grants certiorari to hear their appeal, then I invite all the members of the Filipino Bar to join me in Washington DC to hear oral arguments on this significant civil rights issue.
Chief Justice Charles Hughes once said “If you think the Constitution provides you security, remember that they are just words. If you think the laws provide you protection, remember that they are just statutes. The real power of the people lies in those who interpret the Constitution to benefit the people. “
That, my fellow Filipino attorneys, is our challenge - to use the law to help and benefit our community, in the proud spirit of Dr. Jose Rizal.