I am writing this in Lourdes, France, the town of St. Bernadette to whom the Blessed Virgin Mary showed herself 18 times over a period of six months, from February to July, 1858. My wife and I are part of a pilgrimage to holy sites where Mother Mary appeared before young children to deliver messages to the world. Our trek began in Fatima in Portugal, stopped over in Madrid and Barcelona in Spain, and will culminate in Rome, with a visit to the Vatican and, hopefully, an audience with Pope Francis.
Nearly all of the 43 people in the group are Filipino-Americans from the San Francisco Bay Area, mostly from St. Joseph church in Pinole and St. Anne parish in Union City. The organizer of the pilgrimage is Fr. Geoffrey Baraan, pastor of St. Joseph and formerly of St. Anne.
The FilAms are all accomplished individuals, mostly retirees, who chose to build their lives and seek their fortunes in America. Fr. Baraan himself finished his priestly studies in the US, in spite of belonging to a prominent family in Pangasinan (two brothers, Francisco III and Rafael, were former Justice Undersecretary and Provincial Administrator, respectively). Not surprisingly, they attribute their success in life to having sought it overseas, instead of in the Philippines.
In the course of earlier trips to Europe and around the US, I have met similarly successful Filipinos who believe that they would not have “made it” if they had remained in the land of their birth.
In fact, it was to acknowledge the achievements of these fellow Pinoys that I conceived and persuaded GMA Network to sponsor the Alex Esclamado Memorial Awards for Community Service. The late Alex Esclamado was himself a high achiever in America. Among many honors, he was a recipient of the Philippine Legion of Honor, conferred by President Corazon Aquino for his courageous campaign against the Marcos dictatorship, as publisher-editor of Philippine News, a nationally circulated FilAm newspaper.
Several years ago, I met in San Francisco some remarkable alumni of the University of Santo Tomas. It was one of those occasions when I regretted having prematurely and unceremoniously left UST in my youth.
Despite my meager academic credentials, I had been invited to the annual reception and awards presentation of the Thomasians USA, an association of UST alumni residing in Northern California, because they needed a co-emcee for ABC TV anchor, Sydnie Kohara.
I had the good fortune of being seated with two of the evening’s awardees. Their credentials and those of the third honoree were truly impressive.
Dr. Jesus C. Bacala’s curriculum vitae read like that of five people combined: doctor of medicine, registered nurse, obstetrician, gynecologist, medical professor, dean of the UST College of Nursing, newspaper columnist, editor, poet, author of several nursing textbooks, soldier and lay minister.
A resident of Indiana, he had helped found the American College of International Physicians, the Indiana Philippine Medical Association, the Philippine Heritage Association and the Philippine American Society of Indiana and Kentucky.
The second awardee was Dr. Lupo T. Carlota whose book, Quantum Theory of Acupuncture, laid the scientific basis for the practice of the centuries-old art of healing. The book earned him the honor of an invitation to lecture in Beijing, Nanjing, Shanghai and in Taipei at the annual convention of the International Acupuncture Society.
Dr. Carlota was the founder and president of the Medical Acupuncture Research Institute of America (MARIA), which provided physicians across the US with advanced training in acupuncture and the application of his Meridian Regulatory Acupuncture (MRA) system of therapy, as well as the use of a digital precision instrument that he had invented.
He had graduated Meritissimus from the UST College of Medicine and, at the time of the awards, was president of the Association of Philippine Physicians in America and the American Board of Acupuncture Medicine.
Several years later, at the start of the incumbency of President George W. Bush, Dr. Carlota was appointed to the president’s commission on Asian American affairs. He had also been elected, at one time, to the city council of Lakeland, Tennessee where he and his family resided.
The third awardee was Dr. Cecilia M. Loleng, a full colonel in the US Army and a member of its medical training staff. She was one of the highest-ranking Filipinos in the American armed forces and had received three Army Commendation Medals and a Meritorious Service Medal.
Dr. Loleng was a graduate of Class ’63, UST College of Medicine, and was married to Dr. Gregorio Loleng, also a Thomasian.
As I conversed with Dr. Bacala and Dr. Carlota, I felt proud of their achievements in the US mainstream, but sad that the Philippines had to lose such brilliant people to America.
However, I could understand why they left. My own elder sister, Dr. Evangeline Garcia, herself a UST medical graduate, had found it necessary to immigrate to the US in the late 1960s. I guess, she felt that her medical practice would not flourish in the Philippines. Like Dr. Loleng, she was also an officer in the US armed forces. She would later retire as an Air Force lieutenant colonel.
On the other hand, I had a younger brother who was also a doctor and a graduate of the US College of Medicine. Vicente had never felt the need to leave the Philippines. As a matter of fact, upon passing the medical board exams in Manila, he decided to go home to Leyte to work as a rural doctor.
I think he, too, would have flourished overseas. He had many opportunities to pull up his roots, having worked with the World Health Organization on primary health care and having participated in several medical conferences abroad as a resource speaker. But he preferred to stick to his low-paying job as an assistant provincial health officer in Biliran, Leyte.
Every time I asked him about any plans to move to the US, where I had already taken up residence, he had one simple reply: “They have enough doctors in America. This is where I’m needed.”
Vicente died in his mid-40s, while still working as a rural doctor. He would not have it any other way.
Today, as an overseas Filipino, enjoying the fruits of my labors in a foreign land and seeing many of our countrymen honored for their achievements abroad, I cannot help thinking of my younger brother.
I also cannot help wondering why we often forget to honor those who have chosen to stay behind.
Greg B. Macabenta is an advertising and communications man shuttling between San Francisco and Manila and providing unique insights on issues from both perspectives.