Of Presidents and Popes
By Jon Melegrito
Letter from Washington
Two very important people came to Washington recently. One aspires to be the next President of the Philippines. The other may well be the next Pope.
Vice President Jejomar C. Binay is looking to 2016 to replace the current occupant of Malacanang Palace. Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle is not looking to replace Pope Francis anytime soon, but the man who could be Pope is now widely known as the Asian Pope Francis and, at 56, the fourth-youngest cardinal in the world.
Washington D.C.'s Filipino and Filipino American community had a chance to listen to both men share their messages at public gatherings last month.
Binay as 2016 presidential candidate
On May 1, the Vice President spoke at a forum hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and attended by diplomats, policy makers and business leaders. His speech was basically a campaign platform and he wasted no time confirming rumors that, yes, he is indeed a presidential candidate. He has been dreaming of becoming one since his election as Mayor of Makati in 1988. "Makati was my laboratory," he said, explaining why his 20 years of executive experience qualifies him to lead the country after President Aquino steps down. He boasted of accomplishments, from "alleviation of poverty" to "enhanced delivery of services in education, health and social welfare."
He says he's in favor of "changing the constitution to make the country more attractive to local and foreign investors." This was in response to a question about "seducing foreign capital" by making the country much more than tourism's slogan, "It's much more fun in the Philippines."
Above Photo: Cardinal Tagle celebrates Mass at St. Matthew's Cathedral
Understandably, the Vice President's campaign speech got mixed reviews from his audience. Hope and Dread. Fear and Trembling. Delight and Despair. Depending, of course, on your sense of history and state of mind.
On May 18, Cardinal Tagle celebrated mass at St. Matthew's Cathedral, three blocks away from the Philippine Embassy where the community gathered afterwards for a pot-luck lunch, cultural entertainment and picture taking.
There was, of course, much excitement about the Cardinal's visit. Much has been said about his simple demeanor, his rejection of formal titles and ostentation in dress and manner. Much like Pope Francis.
We remember him during his seminary days at Catholic University where he was a student for 7 years in the 1980's. He was a regular presence in our cultural group, Tanghalang Pilipino, composing songs for a play we produced, "Bayan Ko, Bumangon Ka." We'd hang out after rehearsals, share laughs and stories. We didn't know that the man we fondly called Chito is now a man who could be Pope.
At a youth forum arranged during his visit, the Cardinal was asked what led to his religious profession. He actually wanted to become a doctor, he said. But during his entrance exam as a pre-med student, he couldn't decide what to put down as a "vocation" on the form. A counselor suggested "Priest." That reportedly intrigued him and throughout his college years, he gave a lot of serious thought to becoming a pastor.
As most everyone knows by now, Tagle's name was mentioned during last year's papal election. Media stories dubbed him as "the face of a distinctly Asian form of Catholicism." Pope Francis himself was so impressed that he appointed Tagle one of three co-presidents for a critically important summit of bishops in the fall.
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May was Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month. For Filipino Americans, the May celebration was off to an auspicious start (some may actually call it inauspicious) at the tomb of Commodore George Dewey inside the National Cathedral, where a commemoration of his naval victory reminded us of the historic opening of US-Philippine relations 116 years ago on the First of May. Steady waves of Filipino immigrants to America is due in large measure to that "special relationship" forged by both countries. Today, there are nearly 4 million of us here in the greatest nation on earth. Many of us now call America our home.
Treated as human beings
We also observed AAPI heritage month with a film screening of "Delano Manongs," a documentary aboutFilipino farm workers who initiated the historic grape strike in the 1960s. American history books don't say much about the role Filipinos played in building the American labor movement. Even a film currently being shown about Cesar Chavez, the Mexican union leader, downplays the significant role Filipino leaders like Larry Itliong played in the heroic struggle for farm workers justice. Fact is, Filipino and Mexican workers were equally instrumental in forging the nation's first successful farm labor union.
While the farm workers strike is known for Chavez' leadership and considered a Chicano movement, Filipinos – all 1,500 of them – played a pivotal role. It was the beginning of a collaboration between Filipinos, Chicanos and other ethnic workers that would go on for years.
Both Chavez and Itliong learned through struggle that workers could not improve their wretched and unjust working and living conditions if they did not band together and demand to be treated as human beings.