A challenge and an opportunity for political empowerment

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Greg B. Macabenta

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A challenge and an opportunity for political empowerment

Ditas De Los Santos-Yamane is a Filipino-American who is running for mayor of National City in San Diego County. Yamane, who is a licensed real estate broker, is a tireless community worker. Every festival or fair of the Fil-Am community and every civic initiative that the city mounts will likely have her among the workhorses. She has also served as president of the local chamber of commerce and is chair of the city’s planning commission and committee on government affairs of the Pacific Southwest Association of Realtors.

In theory, Yamane has a better than even chance of victory. National City is known as Southern California’s equivalent of Daly City and Vallejo in terms of the size of the Pinoy population — close to 10,000 which account for over 17% of the city’s residents. Yamane also has the endorsement of the outgoing, termed-out mayor, Ron Morrison.

The problem is that only a small percentage of National City Pinoys register to vote and an even smaller number, around 1,500, actually go to the polls.

This is not unique to National City. Pinoys are politically passive and only watch uncaring as Chinese-Americans and other Asian ethnic groups run for elective office and win. You can almost hear them say, “So what?”

There are a number of reasons for this passivity.


First of all, most Pinoys are happy enough earning a living and being able to pay their bills. Many have two jobs (some, as many as three) and they don’t particularly care about volunteering in the community and adding to their burden.

Secondly, political and elective positions in America translate into a lot of work and very little money — unlike Philippine politics which candidates and those in power use to enrich themselves and to promote their business interests.

Thirdly, there is hell to pay if a politician or public official steals and is caught – and the likelihood of being exposed, indicted and jailed is very high. Militant media and volunteer groups, as well as the American justice system, see to that.

And fourthly, Fil-Ams who have held public office are wary of being accused of nepotism or favoritism. Former President Erap Estrada’s walang kama-kamaganak, walang kai-kaibigan mantra would have had to become a reality in America, whether he liked it or not. President Donald Trump is beginning to find that out in the current probe of his financial dealings.

Pete Fajardo, who served as mayor of Carson City in Los Angeles County, found that out too, to his grief. He was indicted and jailed over alleged hanky-panky in connection with city services.

It’s a completely different ballgame for Philippine politicians who are used to getting away with overpricing, ghost employees and outright bribery and extortion. They wouldn’t survive in America.

While Fil-Am community leaders talk loud and long about the need for political empowerment and while those who listen to them nod dutifully in agreement, there are very few signs that Pinoys will take advantage of their voting potential sooner rather than later.

PH elections

The Fil-Am population is close to 5 million and we have the highest rate of naturalization as US citizens among the ethnic groups in America. That could be wielded as a potent voting bloc, if these numbers could be harnessed.

Ditas Yamane is among the few individuals who appreciate the importance of political empowerment. Political clout – more specifically voting clout and clout in terms of financial support for candidates – has resulted in advantageous legislation and ordinances, as well as social services for minority communities. In this regard Fil-Ams are being overlooked.

As in any political environment, the victorious candidates invariably ask who helped them win, who contributed to the campaign pot and who delivered the swing votes. In terms of contributions to political campaigns, Fil-Ams are laggards. What the Chinese can raise in one night of fund-raising, Pinoys can’t even deliver in a year. That lack of financial clout could be offset somewhat if Pinoys would only vote. But only a few do. Since we don’t scratch the candidates’ backs, they don’t bother to scratch ours once they are in power.

The fact that it took a long time for Filipino World War II veterans to gain benefits for their military service under the US flag is one indication of the lack of political influence of Fil-Ams. It took years of dogged lobbying, while veterans were dying due to old age, before the US Congress and the White House finally approved an appropriation for the men who fought bravely in Bataan, Corregidor, and other battle fronts.

I once described their plight as The Second Death March.

But in a modest way, political awareness is gaining, especially among the young Fil-Ams. It took such a young Pinoy, Mike Guingona, to break into Daly City politics. He ran for city council and won and served as mayor several times (the mayor is not elected but chosen from among council members).

In fact, at the city level, more and more Pinoys have been running and winning in elections as members of the school board or as council members, even as mayors. The current mayor of Daly City is a Fil-Am, Juslyn Manalo. Myrna Lardizabal de Vera is in the Hercules city council and has served as mayor a couple of times, in a system similar to that of Daly City. In Vallejo, however, the Fil-Am city mayor, Bob Sampayan, was elected to the post. In Milpitas, in Silicon Valley, former termed-out mayor Jose Esteves is running for the same elective office again. Another Fil-Am, Henry Manayan, also served as mayor before Esteves.

However, Fil-Ams are not yet ready for big-time politics. While Ben Cayetano of Hawaii became the governor of Filipino descent, the closest thing Pinoys have come to a seat in the US Congress at present is Bobby Scott of Virginia, whose grandmother was Pinay. Steve Austria of Ohio served one term in Congress but decided against running for reelection.

In California, where over 2 million Pinoys live, there is only one person of Filipino descent in the state legislator, Rob Bonta. A promising candidate for state assembly, Mae Cendaña Torlakson (a niece of the late Minister of Information Greg Cendaña) lost in a bruising contest.

Hopefully, with the new generation of Fil-Ams, like Ditas Yamana, the challenge and opportunities in political empowerment in America will eventually be adequately met and harnessed.

Perhaps by then, the remaining Filipino World War II veterans who are still hoping to be united with their families in America will finally see a family reunification bill passed in the US Congress by a Pinoy senator and a Pinoy congressman. In the meantime, we hope the Fil-Am community will wake up and rally to the cause of a Pinay candidate for mayor of National City and other Fil-Am hopefuls in the coming November elections.


Greg B. Macabenta is an advertising and communications man shuttling between San Francisco and Manila and providing unique insights on issues from both perspectives.