Cerritos City Councilmember Mark Pulido calls on Filipino Americans to run for public office during a national townhall in Washington, D.C. Also speaking before more than a hundred participants from across the country are, from left, Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba (Ret), Eric Salcedo, Angelo Mathay, Rozita Lee and Irene Bueno. (PINOYPHOTO BYJON MELEGRITO)
Celebration & Call to Action
By Jon D. Melegrito
Filipino American leaders who came to the nation’s capital to commemorate Filipino American History Month in October have good reason to celebrate the many trails blazed by FilAms like Apl.d.ap of Black Eyed Peas, White House Executive Chef Cristeta Comerford, Model Geena Rocero, Comedian Jo Koy and Ronnie del Carmen, Co-Director of Pixar Animation Studios. Include in that list Nani Coloretti, the highest ranking Pinay in the Obama administration. She’s Deputy Secretary at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
These trailblazers, prominently showcased during the FAHM kick-off event at the White House, shared their stories of struggle and success. They also gave credit to the one person who made it possible to be who they are today: their mother.
But it was the “Call to Action” sounded at a National Townhall hours before the White House event that should get the attention of all Filipino Americans.
Sponsored by KAYA, a progressive national organization composed mainly of young professionals, the Townhall featured elected officials, community leaders and public policy advocates. They all shared one message: community empowerment and how do we get there.
Mark Pulido, a member of the Cerritos City Council since 2011, led off with a question: “How politically empowered are we?” To elicit some answers, he asked the more than 100 participants to raise their hands if anyone is personally running for public office. No one raised a hand. After sharing his experience running for city council and serving as mayor, Pulido stressed the importance of “representing our community” in order “to effect change not only locally but nationally. It makes a difference when we ourselves advocate first-hand on our own issues. Being a council member is a position of power because we decide what resources to allocate and what policies to adopt.”
A “Data Snapshot,” to demonstrate that “we have power by numbers,” followed Pulido’s remarks. It cited these figures: FilAms now number 3.4 million, the second largest ethnic minority, next only to the Chinese. But in California, Filipinos comprise 43% of the AAPI population, surpassing the Chinese. And yet, there’s only one FilAm in the state legislature, and not one FilAm representing the state in the US Congress. In Los Angeles County alone, which has the most number of Filipinos, the nine US Representatives are mostly White and Chinese Americans. “If we want more say in our communities, we have to start electing Filipino Americans,” Pulido declared.
But even with our numbers, Pulido pointed out, “we need to build coalitions with Hispanic Americans, African Americans, and other Asian Americans. That’s how I got elected, considering Filipinos only comprise 15 percent in Cerritos. But we need to start building a pipeline now and start cultivating potential leaders for public office. Our time is now. Are we up to the challenge?”
Use your leverage
In his remarks, Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba (Ret) expanded on Pulido’s point by posing the question: “How do we lead the 4 million Filipinos and Filipino Americans in this country to become an influential and strong voice in this country?” Although his immediate interest is to secure passage of the Congressional Gold Medal Award for Filipino World War II veterans, he is nonetheless concerned that the community is not sufficiently engaged to make “Recognition” happen.
“Representation should be our number one priority,” Taguba said. “We do not have a leadership presence as a community.” He then challenged the millennials – who “have inherited the problems we baby boomers have” – to “use your leverage.” Focusing back on the plight of Filipino veterans, Taguba made an emotional plea to everyone in the room to urge their elected officials to pass the Congressional Gold Medal legislation. “It takes our whole community to do this,” he said. “We have to tell their story.”
Rozita Lee, former commissioner of the White House Initiative on Asian American Pacific Islanders (WHIAAPI), shared her experience mobilizing voters in Nevada, the state with the fastest growing Filipino population. “It does not matter if we have the numbers,” she said. “We have to register and vote. That’s the only way we can get elected officials to listen to us and influence public policy.”
Another barrier to empowerment, next to political indifference, is cultural in nature. Much has been said about the immigrant mentality of “not rocking the boat.”
There’s also the cultural stigma of “hiya” (shame). This has played out in the low number of undocumented Filipinos applying for immigration relief, such as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Angelo Mathay, himself a DACA beneficiary, also wondered why “there aren’t enough like me who can speak out publicly.” An Associate Policy Analyst with the Migrant Policy Institute where he works on adult education and workforce training, Mathay emphasized the power of story telling. “Let’s use our own narrative as a model for empowering ourselves,” he said.
Eric Salcedo, National Field Director for Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote, concluded the townhall by declaring “there is a lot of power and influence to shape the debates in the 2016 elections.” He noted that today there are 1.3 million Filipino American voters. “There can be more,” he said. “But we have to build the Filipino American political machine. It’s in our hands. Our time is now.”