I am preparing to fly to Washington DC where the Filipino Ambassador to the United States is graciously hosting an event for Ramon Magsaysay Awardee and Gawad Kalinga Founder, Antonio Meloto. Tony or TM as he is fondly called by so many, has won so many international awards, especially in the field of social enterprise, that we who work with him can hardly remember them all. It is a great affirmation to have the Philippine Ambassador honor the man who in Reader’s Digest commissioned research for Asia in 2009 – 2010 was declared by Filipinos as their most trusted male (after three most trusted females took the top spots), followed by then presidential candidate Noynoy Aquino. The global empowerment of Filipinos is part and parcel of nation building that prioritizes a ground-up approach as what Gawad Kalinga espouses.
After less than a week in California and spanning San Diego to San Francisco, I have again been blessed with being treated to small intimate gatherings of Filipinos, both in their homes and in restaurants. Again, too, I get to hear their stories, their history and lives in the last three to four decades mostly. But this time, with great pleasure, I noticed more young Fil-Ams, from college students to young professionals, as part of these gatherings. I have met with more youth in San Diego, LA, New York, Washington DC and Tampa. After five years of visiting the United States every three months, hip-hopping several states every trip and staying with Filipino families in most of the hip-hopping, I feel most privileged that the story of their lives have been generously shared with me. I feel like a researcher or an author interviewing thousands of people and hundreds of families for a future book.
Writing, though, is not my main preoccupation. I write because I have much to write about, not because writing is a career. When I was asked to write for the electronic version of the Philippine Daily Inquirer 12 years ago, I was told I could write up to five days a week. I opted for once a week because my life schedule does not allow me to write more frequently. I choose to be more devoted to the work of eradicating poverty, less for pity or charity but more for justice and the empowerment of the weak, the marginalized, as the crucial step to building a strong and proud nation.
Working to raise poor Filipino families out of poverty, five million of them in the lowest rung of the social and economic totem pole, does not mean that ground work only refers to the slums or the impoverished rural communities. Much of the work is to bring strategic sectors into a state of active collaboration. Business and industry players have to be courted and recruited to get involved, to use their resources and influence to bear on historical poverty. National and local government officials, both the elected and the appointed, have to be engaged so that their priorities can look at the poor and poverty as among their most urgent concerns. Organizations and institutions where hundreds of thousands to millions of volunteers are sourced, like schools and civic organizations, are no less strategic.
In my perspective, though, Filipinos abroad, led by Filipino-Americans, are a most critical force. Their resources alone are staggering, and the Central Bank can attest to the staggering amount of remittances from Filipinos abroad. But it is the political maturing of Filipinos abroad, especially migrants to developed countries like the USA, Canada and Australia, who can set the color, the tone and the pace for Filipinos in the Philippines to be influenced by. The changes that we seek in the homeland have largely been experienced in the developed countries, the consistency of the rule of law, the equal rights and opportunities of citizens, mobility and ease of travel, and, of course, earning many times the level of Filipinos in the Philippines.
I have been told of the endless efforts of Filipinos in America to rise above the discrimination inflicted on them before the civil rights movement. I myself know some advocates for equality and empowerment of the minority who found their way to America from the late 60’s, the martial law years, the waves of professionals in the last forty years. They tried, they broke through many barriers, but mainstream success escaped them. In all my trips and meetings with informal or organized groups, my stay in the homes of generous Fil-Ams, my time with their children and young relatives, I see why Wikipedia would call Filipinos in America as silent or invisible. The vast majority simply stay under the radar.
Which must not stay so, for themselves in America, and for their unique potential to influence their families in the motherland, especially her politics and economics. For too long, Filipinos have allowed themselves to be kept apart, to be pitted one against the other, to be used and manipulated by foreign masters until even their own could impose martial law and resurrect the animosity between Christians and Muslims. Today, there is an aura of global change. People power toppled dictatorships in the 80’s and has inspired even the Arab world today to question the once unquestionable – with some already experimenting with new democratic governments.
The presidential elections in America were like weather vanes. The rest of the world, with very few exceptions, preferred Obama to his rival. To many, and not just Americas, Obama represents a new direction and manner of political and social values. Post-election commentaries have pointed out in detail where America tilts towards. If America will move forward in these directions, it is not only Republicans who must adjust. Many nations will have to do so as well.
So will mainstream Filipinos in America. Their investment in creating a new life for themselves and their families have raised them to levels where they can actually take pride. Despite the economic downtrend of America, Filipinos have not done badly. They know their capability to survive and thrive. They are awakening, and their young will not be shy about taking their rightful place in America. What an awesome journey to witness.