Monday, December 22, 2008

Delicious Irony

Former Philippine News publisher Alex Esclamado received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Philippine American Press Club (PAPC) last December 20. As Alex was too ill to travel from his home in Raleigh, North Carolina, I had the honor of accepting the award as I have been associated with Alex for more than 28 years including 21 years as a weekly columnist of the Philippine News.

In my remarks, I noted the delicious irony of the award. When the PAPC was formed more than two decades ago and I was elected its first vice president, Alex questioned my decision to join the group. It was composed mostly of pro-Marcos “propagandists”, he said, and I shouldn’t be associated with them. But martial law was over already, I told Alex, and it was time to bring our community together and the Filipino press was key to uniting the community.

Alex was particularly critical of the founder and first president of the PAPC, Willie Jurado, best known as the airport manager of Ferdinand Marcos who, on July 4, 1966, led the assault on the Beatles at the airport when they “snubbed the First Lady.” (Willie later confided to me that he instigated the assault because Manila Times columnist Doroy Valencia bet him 1000 pesos that he didn’t have the guts to do it).

Willie also confided to me that even he suffered under martial law as he and his family, at one point, had to sell newsapers to survive. He decided that it was best for him and his family to immigrate to the US and he published a tabloid-sized paper called The Eye.

But Alex didn’t care to associate with the pro-Marcos media in the US that had proliferated during the martial law regime. I could understand his sentiment as he had paid a heavy price for his principled opposition to Marcos and martial law.
After all, before Marcos declared martial law on September 22, 1972, Alex Esclamado was publisher of the largest, most influential Filipino community newspaper in the US, the Philippine News, which he and his wife, Lourdes, founded from their garage in 1961. The success of his newspaper allowed Alex the opportunity to buy a beautiful home in San Francisco’s Sunset District (which just a decade earlier had racial covenants incorporated in the deeds prohibiting sale to non-whites).

Alex and Lourdes were so successful in their business that they were able to send their seven kids to some of the best private Catholic schools in San Francisco and to invest in a building in the South of Market (SOMA) area for his newspaper which employed more than 20 people.

But Alex’s life and fortune changed dramatically when martial law was declared.

Because of his opposition to martial law, Marcos’ Secretary of Tourism Joe Aspiras sent a letter to all the travel agencies in San Francisco20which advertised in the Philippines warning them that they would not receive support from the Philippine government if they continued to advertise in the Philippine News.

Overnight, more than half of the PN’s revenues dried up. Alex had to borrow money from friends to keep his newspaper alive (Lourdes even had to sell some of her precious jewelry). Eventually, Alex lost the mortgages on his home and on his SOMA building.

After the Esclamados’ fortunes had sunk, an emissary of Marcos approached Alex with an offer to purchase his newspaper and his silence for $10-M.

It was a very attractive offer that would have allowed Alex and Lourdes to regain their lost fortune, repay all their debtors, and set them up for a very comfortable retirement.

Alex and Lourdes convened their family over dinner to discuss the Marcos offer. As the kids each expressed their o pinions, the overwhelming sentiment was clearly to reject the offer. Thanks, but no thanks. The Esclamados were not for sale.

Alex and Lourdes had to be financially creative to keep their newspaper alive. They increased their circulation to 120,000 throughout the US. Virtually every Fil-Am physician was a subscriber. They set up regional bureaus throughout the US to publish regional editions with regional advertisers and they sold shares of their newspaper corporation, which were really investments in the restoration of Democracy in the Philippines.

When People Power overthrew the Marcos Dictatorship in 1986, Alex did not return back to the Philippines to claim any kind of financial rewards for his role in ousting Marcos. He was personally close to President Corazon Aquino and he was the brother in law of House Speaker Ramon Mitra.

The only “reward” Alex accepted was the Philippine Legion of Honor Award given to him by Pres. Aquino and a grateful Philippine nation. And the only “opportunity” Alex took advantage of was that the end of martial law meant the end of a divided Filipino community in America and the opportunity to unite the community.

Alex eventually agreed that joining the PAPC was the right thing to do and he invited PAPC members to join his “impossible dream” of uniting the community. Many among them accepted his invitation and attended the founding of the National Federation of Filipino American Associations (NaFFAA) in 1997.

Giving the Lifetime Achievement Award to Alex not only honors the recipient but honors the PAPC itself.


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