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Roots and Wings

Community Organizing and Political Empowerment
in the Filipino American Community

by Mark Pulido
A Personal Investigation into the Filipino American Communities
of Los Angeles, Chicago, and Washington DC

(Reprinted with permission from the author.
Copyrightę 1997 by CAPACI)


Author's Note

  • Community Profiles and Observations (background)

    Washington, D.C.


    Los Angeles

  • Suggested Organizing Strategies

  • Conclusion

  • Author's Note

    The summer of 1996 proved to be a turning point in the development of my political consciousness and perspective on the Filipino community in America. Between June and November of 1996, I had the wonderful opportunity to engage in the politics of the Filipino American community in three distinct metropolitan regions of the nation: Washington DC, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

    My Washington DC summer internship and related activities were made possible through a generous fellowship from the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus Institute. As a CAPACI fellow, I worked at the United States Department of Justice and participated in several CAPACI-sponsored leadership development seminars. The beauty of the experience was that I was also able to conduct independent field research and thereby immerse myself into both community and political contexts on the East Coast. Later that summer, it enabled me to bring back a comparative perspective to my community involvement both at home in Los Angeles and at graduate school in Chicago.

    Frankly, without CAPACI, I would not have had the chance to work in our nation's capitol this summer, nor could I conduct the research and comparative analysis of the Filipino American community that I hoped I could for so long. I dearly thank Ms. Francey Lim Youngberg, Ms. Leigh-Ann Miyasato, and the CAPACI Board of Directors for their support and proudly present the findings of my independent field research.

    Between cutting lawns and watching the summer blockbuster movies, Arnold Nisperos spent his vacation unlike most of his classmates by getting involved in his community--politically. Arnold, a sixteen year old junior at Downers Grove South High School in Chicago_s suburbs, spent summer performing in a community play celebrating the 98th Anniversary of Philippine Independence, volunteered when the Democratic National Convention came to town in August, and helped phone-bank and do literature-drops for Dick Durbin and Rod Blagojevich (Illinois candidates for U.S. Senate and House) right up until election day. He says he lives for this stuff.

    Concerned about her lolo and lola and other Filipino elderly and recent immigrants in America, Cathy Serafica spent her summer educating Filipino students about pending changes in national immigration and welfare policies as well as the malicious attacks on affirmative action with California's Proposition 209. Cathy, a senior at the University of California, Los Angeles from Cerritos, CA, is the peer counseling coordinator for the Filipino academic support program SPEAR at UCLA and organizes in Los Angeles' South Bay and Long Beach neighborhoods with, Kababayan Alliance, a network of several Filipino high school clubs. She looks forward to continuing her commitment to community after graduation this spring.

    Traveling back-and-forth between Washington DC and New York City this summer, Marlan Maralit registered voters, helped organize the first Filipino Youth Day in New York City, and coached a team Filipino Basketball League back home in Maryland. Marlan, from Temple Hills, MD, is a campus recruiter for the Organizing Institute, AFL-CIO, and is actively involved with the Filipino Civil Rights Activists (FilCRA), Filipino Intercollegiate Networking Dialogue (FIND), and attended The George Washington University.

    Marlan likes to mix-it-up both on the court and in the community--that's the way he plays and works--with intensity and a strong commitment to making a difference in the community.

    FILIPINO AMERICANS are at the threshold of a promising age of involvement in the American political arena. These profiles clearly indicate that potential and promise. Community organizing in various Filipino American communities across the nation is giving way for real political empowerment and participation in the democratic process. From coast to coast, Filipino Americans young and old are engaging in both grassroots and mainstream political activism at community, state, and national levels.

    This article will present my findings and thoughts on the topic of Community Organizing and Political Empowerment in the Filipino American Community in two parts: 1) community profiles and observations from the summer of 1996; and 2) suggested community organizing strategies for political empowerment.

    The goals of this article are to reflect on political and community organizing efforts in various regions of America, share stories and strategies and to provide ideas that may break down the geographic and communication barriers that persist between Filipino American communities across the nation. Hopefully, this study will help facilitate the establishment of national communication links and cross-regional community organizing efforts to usher in this age of promise and political empowerment.


    Filipinos have been a part of America since 1587 when the first Filipino landed in Morro Bay along the California coast (Gomez Borah, E., 1993). Further, United States-Philippine relations date back 100 years to the Philippine American War (following the Spanish American War) and subsequent annexation of the nation at the turn of the century. This century long relationship, marked by colonialism and war, has resulted in unique immigration patterns of Filipinos to the United States during various eras and in distinct waves (early 1900s, World War II, post-1965, and today). Despite a long history in this country, the Filipino American community is still largely foreign-born (over 70 percent) attributable to its constant growing population with over 60,000 immigrating each year (U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service).

    Across the United States, the Filipino American community is both diverse and widely dispersed. According to 1990 U.S. Census figures, Filipinos numbered 1,419,711 (second only to Chinese among Asian Pacific American populations). Among the larger concentrations of Filipinos in America are the communities in the metropolitan areas of Los Angeles, Chicago, and Washington DC which will be the focus of this article. In the Washington DC-Virginia-Maryland region there are approximately 54,443 Filipinos.

    In Illinois, most of the 64,224 Filipinos reside in the greater Chicagoland area (including Cook County and the surrounding suburbs).

    In Los Angeles County, the 219, 653 Filipinos comprise the single largest concentration of Filipinos outside of the Philippines. For a broader demographic picture of the Filipino American community, the states with significant Filipino populations are listed in Appendix A. Closer profiles of the three focus communities are detailed below.


    PROFILE. The Filipino American community of the Washington DC region draws from the neighboring populations of Maryland (19,376) and Virginia (35,067). Specifically, Filipinos are concentrated in Prince Georges County, Maryland (Oxon Hill, Fort Washington, Temple Hills) and Fairfax County in Northern Virginia (Springfield, Clifton). Many Filipinos commute to work in the District, yet maintain residence in these communities. The community is largely professional and middle class with some exceptions such as OCW's (overseas contract workers) who work in many embassies in Washington DC and Filipino World War II veterans who have migrated to the nation_s capital to push for their denied benefits. Another significant enclave is further south in the Hampton Roads area of Southeast Virginia which includes the towns of Norfolk and Virginia Beach. Many Filipino American medical and military personnel reside in this area because of the naval base in Norfolk (Reyes, 1997).

    As the center of national politics, Washington DC has a unique political context within which the Filipino American community must operate. The various political forces create a political dynamic quite unique to other regions of the nation. The overt political atmosphere coupled with an interesting collection of players and institutions makes the Washington DC area especially ripe for advocacy and representation. The community has the advantage of numerous key contacts such as Filipino American appointees in the Clinton administration, congressional staffers, national Asian Pacific American support organizations, union leaders, and active college student organizations. The area also offers indispensable institutional resources such as: the Library of Congress, the Philippine Embassy, and various federal agencies that could provide vital access to information.

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    OBSERVATIONS. My observations of the Filipino American community in the Metropolitan Washington DC area focus primarily on three particular organizations: Filipino Civil Rights Advocates (FilCRA), Metropolitan Washington DC Chapter; the American Coalition for Filipino Veterans (ACFV); and the Filipino Intercollegiate Networking Dialogue (FIND). Other observations include my involvement in CAPACI-sponsored events and interviews with local activists.

    *Opportunities for Youth Involvement. One of the first things I noticed was the tremendous number of young people that converge on the nation's capitol during the summer. The numerous opportunities for internships, fellowships, and other leadership development activities available to college and graduate students creates a dynamic atmosphere. Consequently, the environment serves as a practical laboratory for young people to gain skills.

    *Civil Rights Advocacy. The Filipino Civil Rights Advocates afforded me the opportunity to immerse myself into community advocacy in various ways throughout the summer. Among the activities that are discussed below, FilCRA worked to expand the national organization to other areas of the East Coast by hosting an East Coast Summit that took place on August 3, 1996 at The George Washington University. It brought together concerned Filipinos from as far as Virginia Beach, VA and New York City. The effort helped establish ties with New York City Filipino Americans that ultimately lead to the establishment of a new FilCRA Metropolitan New York chapter.

    *Voter Registration and Education. One of FilCRA's major efforts for the summer was the voter registration drive entitled the "Your Voice, Your Vote" campaign. Grace Caligtan, a graduate student at the University of Hawaii, and Johanna Puno Hester, FilCRA's summer intern from Northern California, coordinated the program and conducted training sessions for volunteers. The campaign incorporated voter education as a primary objective. Introducing and discussing issues with community folk such as immigration, the Filipino Veterans Equity Act, affordable and accessible higher education were fundamental in the project's approach to community organizing. Another feature of the effort was to have a consistent presence at community events such as the weekly Filipino Basketball League games and community plays and cultural performances throughout the summer. The purpose was to gain acceptance and ultimately legitimacy in the community by being a familiar face at community functions. By presenting generally complex political issues in tangible and understandable ways, proved to be effective strategy for the campaign.

    *Lobbying for Filipino World War II Veterans. The American Coalition for Filipino Veterans successfully lobbied Congress and President Clinton for recognition of Filipino service during World War II. The issue focused on the "singling-out" of Filipinos Veterans who have been denied rightful benefits of service during World War II as a result of the Recission Act of 1946. Coordinator Eric Lachica, along with numerous veteran groups across the nation organized a lobby conference, for the week of July 22, 1996, that included a general meeting and press conference with the sponsors of the resolutions in the Senate (Inouye, D-HI and Akaka, D-HI) and the House (Gilman, R-NY and Filner, D-CA). The conference provided the chance for supporters and the veterans themselves to directly lobby members of Congress. In fact, the conference brought Filipino Veterans organizations from all across the nation to Capitol Hill to give a human face and a sense of urgency to the issue. I felt proud to take part in this national campaign, a truly multigenerational effort for justice. I thought of my own grandfather, a defender of Corrigedor and survivor of the Bataan Death March during World War II's darkest hours, whose spirit is still strong, yet physically too weak now to travel to Capitol Hill to represent. I knew he would be proud.

    As a result of active lobbying efforts, both the Senate and House passed concurrent resolutions honoring Filipino Veterans who served during World War II. President Clinton reiterated that gesture on October 17, 1996. But, the struggle is not over. The Filipino Equity Act must be reintroduced in the 105th Congress to finally grant overdue benefits to these Filipino Veterans. It is critical that the Filipino American community act now to right this wrong and bring justice to this issue.

    *Support to Other East Coast Communities. The New York City community established a social service agency, Filipino American Human Services, Inc. (FAHSI), that needed support in the creation of programs geared to serve Filipino youth. Responding to that need, student and community activists from the Washington DC area provided assistance in organizing the First Annual Filipino Youth Day in Manhattan, which was held on July 27, 1996. Fellow CAPACI intern, Chellyn Boquiren and I presented a workshop designed to identify critical issues facing Filipino American youth of New York City today. From this cooperative start, FAHSI was able to build upon that event by holding a series of Town Hall meetings in each borough. Eventually, FAHSI established the FALCONS program, Filipino American Leaders Club of New York, to provide a positive outlet for Filipino youth throughout New York's five boroughs. The event and subsequent activities of FAHSI demonstrated the potential for more coordinated organizing efforts between the Washington DC area and the New York/New Jersey communities due to the relative accessibility of these communities along the East Coast.

    *Coalition Building and Leadership Development. On July 22, 1996, CAPACI sponsored a seminar discussion that featured among the panelists, the Honorable David Valderama, Member of the Maryland House of Delegates. He pointed out "that it took hard work, issues, and merit" for him to win his campaigns and warned that one "can't run solely on race" but rather emphasized the need to build coalitions across communities. Some Filipino American community activists are making significant strides in developing ties across communities, building coalitions, and fostering healthy leadership practices. Grace Caligtan, a FilCRA member and coordinator of the voter registration project, exemplified the commitment to the Filipino American community through here involvement with FilCRA. Further, she actively took part in strengthening ties with Asian Pacific American organizations, such as the Conference on Asian Pacific American Leadership (CAPAL) by helping to organize and facilitate the summer workshop and forum series for APA summer interns. Among other positive community practices that I observed included: coordination among different community organizations and leaders; intergenerational cooperation; and some sense of bipartisanship in community voter registration efforts.

    *Mainstream Political In-roads. President Clinton made historic progress diversifying the federal government when he appointed several Asian Pacific Americans to his administration. A few Filipino Americans serve as appointees, including: Danny Aranza, (Department of Interior, Insular Affairs); Paula Bagasao (Department of State, USAID); Maria Haley (Export-Import Bank, Board of Directors); and Stanley Suyat (Peace Corps). I had the valuable opportunity to meet these four appointees over the summer, because they made the personal choice to be accessible to the community at events in Washington DC and even at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. At the Convention, these political insiders even participated in two Filipino American Caucus meetings to discuss national issues facing the community. Indeed, the in-roads that these appointees are making in the mainstream provide an added benefit to the Washington DC area community that is unique to the rest of the nation.

    *Local Opinions. One of the benefits of working in Washington DC was to meet local community activists who have a more intimate perspective on the needs, strengths, and shortcomings of their particular community. The following are some insights collected from three local community activists on organizing in the Filipino American community on the East Coast.

    *Effective Organizing Strategies. Joe Montano, a FilCRA member, pointed out that the community dialogue format has worked effectively in organizing different organizations. The goal is to have the leaders act as agents for sharing information and mobilizing. Further, Montano felt that educating voters about the issues made the voter registration drive particularly worthwhile.

    Michael Reyes, program manager at the New York-based Philippine American Chamber of Commerce, noted that in New York the best [community organizing] method is to make personal connections, whether it be through direct mail, telephone call, email if someone feels special and feels that they have a stake (ownership) they will be more receptive to new ideas making them feel comfortable is very important thing that people fear most is having to change from what they feel is comfortable.

    *Ineffective Organizing Strategies. Montano felt that canvassing at large community events where the [size of the] venue and unfamiliarity combine to prevent any real connection. Reyes pointed out that the opposite of personal is mass advertising simply passing out flyers and not talking to people is very ineffective you may have to point out why an issue is important or what advantage/benefit is in it for them.

    Challenges to Face. Although the community currently has two elected officials, David Valderama, state representative of Maryland and Reggie Chavez, city council of Takoma Park, MD, Joe Montano suggested that more could be done to support Filipino American candidates for elected office. Developing relationships with mainstream politicians was noted as important to address. Montano expressed concern that the local community may give more attention to our relationship with the Philippine Embassy rather than our own governmental agencies and elected officials.

    Marlan Maralit, added that building coalitions with other strong APA organizations such as the Japanese American Citizens League and the Organization of Chinese Americans. Reyes indicated that the Internet is one challenge that the community must face. It has the means to disseminate information quickly and reach a vast audience on that personal level but it should not be the sole means because the majority of the population is not on the internet whether email or web, remarked Reyes.

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    Empowerment (Part II) Empowerment III




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