Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Revolting Traditions

At a recent house party I attended, the lady host remarked that it was a curse to be a Filipino. “My white friends, when they host parties, they only serve one or two main dishes and a lot of crackers and cheese,” she said. “But for Filipinos, we are always expected to serve six, eight or more main dishes.”

“It takes so much more time and so much more money to be a Pinoy,” she said with a sigh.

Thanksgiving always presents the cultural contrast between a typical American family feasting on just turkey and pumpkin pie and a Filipino family which has to serve the traditional turkey along with a whole lechon (roast pig) and several more main dishes.

Filipino middle class families in the US can afford this extravagance, of course. Unfortunately, even those who can’t, both here and in the Philippines, bend over backwards to still try to, because tradition dictates that they do so.

My first involvement in politics occurred in 1965 when I became actively involved in the presidential campaign of Sen. Raul Manglapus of the Progressive Party of the Philippines. What attracted me to the quixotic quest of Manglapus was his book, Revolt Against Tradition, where he decried the Filipinos’ penchant for fiestas where the poor are forced by culture and tradition to borrow money they don’t have just to feed and entertain their guests during the fiesta. They would spend the next year paying off their loan sharks only to borrow money from them again for the next fiesta.

Though arguably simplistic in their approach, some observers blame the moderate Philippine climate and the relative abundance of natural resources for the poverty of this country of 7,107 islands (at high tide). Though humidity is relatively high, the average yearly temperature is only around 26.5 °C (79.7 °F) and all sorts of tropical crops grow almost year-round. In Asian countries which have four seasons, like Japan , China and Korea , the people have to struggle to gather food for storage during the spring, summer and fall so that they will have enough food during the winter. In contrast, in the Philippines, where the sun always shines, people do not need to save for “winter”. They do not have to save for future contingency.

If geography determines culture, then Filipino culture is also shaped by typhoons, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Located within the typhoon belt of the Western Pacific, the Philippines gets belted by approximately 19 typhoons per year, many of which are destructive in terms of lives, habitation and vegetation. The archipelago is also right on the northwestern edge of the Pacific Ring of Fire, causing it to experience frequent seismic activities. Reportedly, about 20 earthquakes are registered daily, most too weak to be felt, although the last major one, the 1990 Luzon earthquake, registered 7.8 on the Richter scale.

Most of the country’s mountainous islands are also volcanic in origin and there are many active volcanos which wreak havoc every now and then. The most notorious of these, Mt. Pinatubo, erupted in the 1990’s and was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of residents in neighboring towns, the destruction of thousands of homes, the temporary cooling of the world by 0.5 °C (0.9 °F), and even the abandonment by the U.S. of its huge military bases, Clark and Subic.

The combination of climate, geography and a history of occupation by foreign powers has fostered in the country’s natives a different set of culture and unique attitude towards life. Filipinos developed a love of partying along with that sense of fatalism that aspires for living large in the now. “Delayed gratification” is a foreign concept to most. To the religious, “Bahala na ang Diyos” (roughly translated, “the Lord will provide”) is the mantra.

These thoughts raced through my head when I read that Asian Americans as a group have fared better than typical Americans in the current financial crisis (see “Home Run: Asian American homeowners and the subprime mortgage fallout,” by Rex Feng on AsianWeek.com). Home ownership among Asian Americans experienced breakneck growth from 2000 to 2005, leaping from 53 percent to 60 percent in five years, but new home ownership among the group quickly slowed right before the housing market burst.

In support of his assumption that Asian Americans are more conservative, Rex Feng wrote: “Asian Americans were seemingly not attracted to the low introductory rates offered with many subprime loans; they prefer large down payments, thereby reducing their loan amount and interest payments. They also prefer fixed-rate mortgages over the more exotic adjustable-rate mortgages that have landed so many American homeowners in hot water.”

The "Asian Americans" described above are likely those who came from countries with four seasons, which does not include Filipino Americans because the anecdotal, if not empirical evidence, is that Filipinos, especially recent immigrants, found subprime loans to be manna from heaven, their shot at the home ownership they coveted ever since they were in the Philippines.

While the economic backdrop is getting worse, the foreclosure problem is the biggest issue in the Filipino community now. I know many, however, who appear unconcerned. They reason that even if they purchased their homes with bigger down payments and obtained a more conservative loan program, like other Asian immigrants do, they still would have been foreclosed on because of increasing unemployment. Sayang lang.

Weird logic?

Erma Brombeck, a US humorist, was famously quoted as saying, “Just think of all those women on the Titanic who said ‘No, thank you’ to dessert that night. And for what?”

A Filipino farmer in an island barrio may well ask, "What's the point of saving for a rainy day when that rainy day typhoon will wipe out your home and everything you worked so hard to save for anyway?"

Happy Thanksgiving. (Take it easy on the lechon).

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The "F" Word

What do the cities of Vallejo, Daly City, Stockton and Las Vegas have in common?

Aside from each being home to a Jollibee Filipino fast-food restaurant, all have large Filipino populations and the highest foreclosure rates in the US.

The dirtiest word in the Filipino community now, the new “F” word is foreclosure. While it is affecting all races throughout the US, it is disproportionately crushing Filipino homeowners.

Las Vegas, home to the fastest growing Filipino community in the US, had the highest foreclosure rate in the past month, with one in every 62 housing units receiving a foreclosure filing. Daly City, with a 35% Filipino population, has the highest foreclosure rate in San Mateo County. Vallejo, with more Filipino elected officials than any other county in California, has the highest foreclosure rate in the entire San-Francisco Bay Area. And Stockton, with its Little Manila and soon-to-be FilAm history museum, has the highest foreclosure rate in the entire United States.

According to MDA Dataquick, home foreclosures in the state of California rose 228% for the quarter ending September 30 when compared to the same period last year. In actual numbers, a total of 79,511 homes were lost during the three-month period alone as compared to 24,209 in the same period last year.

Annualized, this totals to about 320,000 foreclosed homes in California alone in one year. And this problem doesn’t just affect those who receive their foreclosure notices, because even those still fortunate to own their homes are heavily impacted by the foreclosures of others as they have led to a decline of about 34% in median home prices for the state this year. This means that the “nest egg” that many people rely on for their retirement years was just cut by a third.

Compound these housing figures by the stock market which is off by about 40% for the year, the accelerating unemployment and underemployment, and the tightening of available credit and you can understand why these are not ordinary times.

The Filipino Dream has been to immigrate to America and to own your own home here complete with white picket fences and all modern appliances. Upon arriving in America, however, many Filipino immigrants realized that their entry level low incomes would never provide them with enough funds to buy a house of their very own.

The solution to their American dream was the “S” word. S as in “subprime” loans where financial institutions provide credit to borrowers deemed "subprime" or "under-banked". Subprime borrowers are generally those with a history of loan delinquency or default, those with a recorded bankruptcy, those with limited debt experience or those whose incomes have to be creatively embellished to qualify for loans.

In the past few years, aggressive lenders and mortgage brokers pushed subprime loans on people who couldn't really afford them and even to some who could qualify for conventional loans. Subprime loans often came with low "teaser" rates. As those rates have expired in recent months, millions of homeowners around the country have seen their mortgage payments soar, have been unable to keep up and have received notices of default from their lenders - the first step in the foreclosure process

I have personally met the faces behind the grim statistics and I know that they are hurting. They are homeowners being evicted from homes they've lived in and cherished for years. They are employees losing their jobs and health insurance. They are small business owners declaring bankruptcy after years of operation. They are losing hope.

The gross incompetence in Washington over the last 8 years, the greed of Wall Street, and over-consumption from Main Street have created a toxic brew that have turned these Filipinos' "American Dream" into an "American Nightmare."

But all is not lost. Cities and counties are fighting back. Solano County became the first county in the U.S. to call for a moratorium on all foreclosures. And the State's Attorney-General has been pressuring lenders to negotiate in good faith with their borrowers in order to stem the tide.

Community organizations are answering the call too. For its part, the National Federation of Filipino American Associations (NaFFAA), in partnership with the Mabuhay Alliance, is hosting a Foreclosure Training Program on November 17 and 18 at the Residence Inn in South San Francisco to help train professionals from the mortgage and real estate industry to learn foreclosure intervention and counseling.

These trained counselors are expected to help out at the Solano County Foreclosure Prevention Clinic to be held on Saturday, December 13, 2008 in which hundreds of beleaguered homeowners as well as loss mitigation specialists from all the major lenders are expected to attend.

NaFFAA expects to replicate the program throughout California and the other foreclosure hotspots in the U.S.

These are positive and encouraging developments. Indeed, there needs to be a concerted effort on the part of everyone involved to slay this problem that is threatening the economic vitality of the country.

To those Filipinos struggling with “F”, don't give up. Here are a few suggestions:

First, educate yourself about the issues and read the news (for instance, the FDIC, which has taken over IndyMac, says that more than half of those struggling borrowers who were sent letters to modify the terms of their loans did not even bother to respond).

Second, review your real estate and loan documents. Then negotiate with your lender proactively. If the person on the other line wouldn't budge, ask for his or her supervisor.

Lastly, if the lender has really been unresponsive or if you feel you've been a victim of unscrupulous third-parties and you need the services of a counselor or a legal professional, pick up the phone and make the call. You owe it to yourself, your family, and your neighbors who will be affected by another foreclosure in the neighborhood.

Fight for your American dream, for your piece of the pie.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Give The Devil His Due

Although I received more votes in San Francisco than all the US presidential candidates except Barack Obama combined, they were not nearly enough to win. The biggest difference between this year’s contest and the previous four elections where I won handily was that this year I did not receive the endorsements of the San Francisco Democratic County Central Committee (DCCC) and the San Francisco Labor Council.

These endorsements were absolutely critical in this election year where Obama garnered almost 300,000 votes out of the 350,000 total votes cast for president in San Francisco. With over 253,000 registered Democrats (43,000 registered Republicans) in the City, the seal of endorsement by the Democratic Party proved decisive as virtually all the candidates endorsed by the Party for all the elective positions won.

Despite the absence of the DCCC endorsement, I may still have won if I had obtained the endorsement of the San Francisco Labor Council (SFLC), which represents over 75,000 union households in San Francisco and which supplies union workers to go door-to-door to campaign for its candidates.

Traditionally, the Council endorses the candidates supported by the unions most familiar with the candidates. In the College Board race, these unions are the American Federation of Teachers (AFT 2121) which represents the 2,000 full-time and part-time instructors at City College and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU 1021) which represents the 850 classified employees of the College.

The two City College unions highly endorsed me (and incumbent Natalie Berg) and even contributed the maximum amounts allowable to my campaign. The unions’ leaders assured me that it should be a “slam dunk” to secure the labor council’s endorsement.

One SEIU union leader divulged to me that SEIU almost did not endorse Chris Jackson, the 25-year old policy analyst of the San Francisco Labor Council (who was also endorsed by San Francisco Supervisor Chris Daly) because many SEIU union members believed that he was still too young and inexperienced. After one Jackson supporter argued that the same criticisms were being leveled at Barack Obama, the SEIU decided to endorse Jackson, an African-American who also campaigned on a theme of change.

The Labor Council was set to endorse Natalie Berg, Chris Jackson and myself but, I was informed, influential SEIU staffer Robert Haaland, a member of the DCCC affiliated with Daly, succeeded in convincing the labor council to not endorse me. The Labor Council ended up endorsing only Berg and Jackson, who were also endorsed by the DCCC, and both won. Jackson was also helped by the endorsements of the San Francisco Bay Guardian and the Tenants’ Union (led by Haaland) and their slate cards proved essential in the elections.

I sensed trouble in April this year after Chris Daly’s “Change Slate” won effective control of the DCCC. Because of this development, I decided to not even submit an application for DCCC endorsement as I knew I did not stand a prayer of receiving the DCCC endorsement. This was so especially because the leader of the “moderate” camp in the DCCC was Scott Weiner, the Deputy City Attorney who has tenaciously refused to settle my Walgreens case (which began in 2003) which he has appealed all the way to the US Supreme Court (where it sits).

The loss of the DCCC endorsement meant that most of the City’s democratic clubs (including the FilAm Democratic Club) would also not endorse me as they followed the lead of the DCCC.

My problem with Supervisor Chris Daly began in April of 2005 when he successfully managed to get the Board of Supervisors to freeze 90% of the $450,000 previously allocated by four City departments to the West Bay Pilipino Multi-Service Center for services ranging from a senior meal program to an after-school center for teenagers. Daly made this move after the San Francisco Chronicle reported that a West Bay employee had been involved in a Medicare scam.

"Most of you saw the story this weekend on West Bay Pilipino and some alleged activities there that were defrauding the federal government,'' Daly told the Board. "I think just from a fiduciary perspective it behooves us to send that part of the budget back to committee pending a second look -- probably by the controller -- at city funds spent by West Bay." (“Supervisors vote to hold back funds for nonprofit center”, San Francisco Chronicle, April 20, 2005).

After exhaustively investigating the allegations reported in the San Francisco Chronicle and after contacting the FBI, the City Controller reported to the Board of Supervisors that the West Bay Pilipino Multi-Service Center was not involved in the Medicare scam and recommended that the City funds be restored to West Bay.

But Daly refused to consider the recommendations of the City Controller and the four City departments that funded West Bay and refused to allow the funds to be restored to West Bay, which eventually had to close down because it ran out of funds to pay its employees and its rent. (West Bay was subsequently revived, however, thanks to concerned members of the FilAm community who acted to save West Bay and keep it open to serve economically disadvantaged students in San Francisco.)

Daly then succeeded in transferring the funds previously allocated to West Bay to Filipino community groups and individuals loyal to him. I wrote a series of columns in early 2006 denouncing Daly for his role in killing the “dream” of Filipino community empowerment by the late respected community leader Ed de la Cruz.

In response to the charges in my columns, Daly wrote a letter to the editor enumerating all the good deeds he said he did for the Filipino community, without refuting a single allegation I made about his central role in defunding West Bay.

When he ran for reelection in 2006, I actively campaigned for his opponent, Rob Black. After Daly won, he openly vowed to get back at his opponents. Give the Devil his due, he delivered on his promise.

Aside from Barack Obama, the biggest winner in the November elections in San Francisco was Chris Daly. All the candidates he endorsed and supported for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, the School Board and the College Board won.

The biggest loser was San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom who was totally preoccupied with defeating Proposition 8 (the California state initiative banning same sex marriage) that he had no time to support the candidates he endorsed. And the other big loser was me, the only incumbent to lose.

But I should add, aside from Obama and Daly, the other big winner is my family, especially my sons, who will now see more of me.

Friday, November 7, 2008

The Two Impostors

When he heard the news on election night on CNN that Barack Obama had just won the presidency, my 17-year old son, Eric, wanted to scream. “I want to call all my friends and celebrate this moment,” he said. He was ecstatic. He was joyous. He felt hopeful.

Eric had been gloomy and despondent over the past two months, deeply concerned about whether he and his generation had any hope for their future, weary of news of an economy that was going through a deep recession, with the ranks of the unemployed growing by legions. He openly wondered what the point would be of going through college if there were no jobs available for college graduates.

Like his older brothers and many others of his generation, Eric pinned his hopes for the future on Barack Obama, proudly wearing his “Filipinos for Obama” T-shirt to school and engaging his classmates and friends in political discussions.

On election night, we huddled together and heard the speech of President-elect Barack Obama. “For even as we celebrate tonight,” Barack said, “we know the challenges that tomorrow will bring are the greatest of our lifetime -- two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century.” Eric was concerned about those same points.

“There are mothers and fathers who will lie awake after the children fall asleep and wonder how they'll make the mortgage or pay their doctors' bills or save enough for their child's college education,” Barack said.

Those were Eric’s concerns too. Here was a leader my son could believe in, a leader who spoke to him and for him.

Barack is not only the first African American to be elected president; he is also the first post-baby boomer to hold the post. His late mother was only 5 years older than Hillary Clinton and was even younger than John McCain. So he can relate to my son and his generation more than any other candidate had ever done or could ever do.

“This is our time,” Barack said, “to put our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids; to restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace; to reclaim the American dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth, that, out of many, we are one; that while we breathe, we hope. And where we are met with cynicism and doubts and those who tell us that we can't, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes, we can.”

“Yes, we can. Yes, we can,” my son repeated with full resolve.

I was more concerned about this presidential election than I was about my own race for re-election to the San Francisco Community College Board. I told my family and my friends that I would rather that Barack won and I lost than if I had won and Barack had lost.

I rejected my friends’ advice that I refrain from being too actively supportive of Barack Obama as they feared that I may lose the support and the votes of McCain supporters. I didn’t care. The country’s future is more important than mine, I told them.

Well, I got my wish. Barack won and I lost.

After serving 18 years on the College Board, including winning four consecutive 4-year terms, I finally lost one this week.

I wrote recently about how this was a rough year for Filipino American candidates for public office in the US . So many community icons lost their bids for election or re-election and I openly feared that this trend would continue. And my fears proved to be right. There were 10 Filipino American candidates who ran for public office in the San Francisco Bay Area and I believe all of us lost.

For many of the candidates, it was sore lack of funding. The Filipino community does not yet understand the political culture of American politics where money is its “mother’s milk”. Filipinos would rather spend money gambling in casinos than in supporting political candidates.

In my case, the explanation for my loss can be found in the question I posed in a recent column “Daly’s City?”. The answer turned out to be a resounding “Yes”. Supervisor Chris Daly targeted me for defeat and he prevailed. The three district supervisorial candidates he backed (Eric Mar, David Chiu and John Avalos), who were labeled as his “puppets” in a TV campaign commercial, were all elected. The candidates he backed for the College Board also won.

But I honestly don’t feel too bad about my loss because Barack Obama won. For my sons, his victory was far more important than mine.

About 12 years ago, when I was chairing a College Board hearing on a proposed parcel tax, a member of the public spoke about how he would personally campaign against me all over the city if I voted for the measure.

I told him that I have three sons who will forever be in his debt if he came through and delivered on his threat because it would mean that I would be able to spend more time with my family instead of having to attend so many Boards meetings late into the night and read tons of papers to prepare for each meeting.

That man failed to come through with his threat then but Chris Daly and his henchboy, Roy Recio, succeeded now. But thanks to them, I will have more time to spend with my family.

A century ago, the poet Rudyard Kipling counseled folks to learn to "meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those two impostors just the same." Sage advice to remember.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

E Pluribus Unum

If I had drawn up a list four years ago of who would likely be the next president of the United States , the name Barack Obama would not have been on it. Up until July 27, 2004, I had never even heard of him. But on that day, Illinois State Senator Barack Obama introduced himself to me and to the rest of America when he delivered the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention, a speech that electrified the nation.

“I stand here today, grateful for the diversity of my heritage, aware that my parents’ dreams live on in my two precious daughters. I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story, that I owe a debt to all of those who came before me, and that, in no other country on earth, is my story even possible. Tonight, we gather to affirm the greatness of our nation — not because of the height of our skyscrapers, or the power of our military, or the size of our economy.

“Our pride is based on a very simple premise, summed up in a declaration made over two hundred years ago: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. That they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. That among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’

“That is the true genius of America —a faith in simple dreams, an insistence on small miracles.”

A small miracle is about to happen on November 4. After 43 successive white Anglo Saxon American presidents (with two Irish American exceptions sprinkled among them), an African American is poised to be elected president of the United States .

In that 2004 keynote speech, he said: “‘E pluribus unum.’ Out of many, one…. There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America — there’s the United States of America .... We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the Stars and Stripes, all of us defending the United States of America …. I’m not talking about blind optimism here…. I’m talking about something more substantial. It’s the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs. The hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores…. The hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too. Hope in the face of difficulty. Hope in the face of uncertainty. The audacity of hope! In the end, that is God’s greatest gift to us, the bedrock of this nation. A belief in things not seen. A belief that there are better days ahead.”

With the United States currently mired in the worst economic meltdown since the Great Depression of 1929, the American people are about to place their faith and their fate in the man Colin Powell described as a “transformational leader”, the man who will provide the audacity of hope in the face of uncertainty.

The man who has been demonized by right-wing Republicans as a “Muslim” who is “palling around with terrorists” has a vision for “a more perfect union” which he described in a speech he delivered in Philadelphia on March 18, 2008.

“I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas . I was raised with the help of a white grandfather who survived a Depression to serve in Patton’s Army during World War II and a white grandmother who worked on a bomber assembly line at Fort Leavenworth while he was overseas. I’ve gone to some of the best schools in America and lived in one of the world’s poorest nations. I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slave-owners — an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters. I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.”

”It’s a story that hasn’t made me the most conventional candidate. But it is a story that has seared into my genetic makeup the idea that this nation is more than the sum of its parts — that out of many, we are truly one.”

“…But I have asserted a firm conviction — a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people — that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice if we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union.”

”For the African-American community, that path means embracing the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past. It means continuing to insist on a full measure of justice in every aspect of American life. But it also means binding our particular grievances — for better health care, and better schools, and better jobs - to the larger aspirations of all Americans — the white woman struggling to break the glass ceiling, the white man who's been laid off, the immigrant trying to feed his family. And it means taking full responsibility for own lives — by demanding more from our fathers, and spending more time with our children, and reading to them, and teaching them that while they may face challenges and discrimination in their own lives, they must never succumb to despair or cynicism; they must always believe that they can write their own destiny.”

“…In the white community, the path to a more perfect union means acknowledging that what ails the African-American community does not just exist in the minds of black people; that the legacy of discrimination — and current incidents of discrimination, while less overt than in the past — are real and must be addressed. Not just with words, but with deeds — by investing in our schools and our communities; by enforcing our civil rights laws and ensuring fairness in our criminal justice system; by providing this generation with ladders of opportunity that were unavailable for previous generations. It requires all Americans to realize that your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams; that investing in the health, welfare, and education of black and brown and white children will ultimately help all of America prosper.”

E Pluribus Unum. Out of many presidential candidates, one. Out of many hopes and dreams, one. Out of many Americas, one.

Ladies and gentlemen of the world, President Barack Obama.