By: Lou Maningas Cabalona
Planes, Trains and a lot of walking.
I found myself flying to Washington DC last minute on a Monday night after receiving an invitation to celebrate Filipino American History Month at the White House last October 2, 2018.
Now on its fourth year, the White House FAHM celebration’s star-studded inaugural event in 2015 during the Obama administration featured Filipino trailblazers such as comedian Jo Koy, singer Cassie, supermodel Geena Rocero, Ronnie Del Carmen of Pixar Animation Studios, Apl. De.Ap of the Black Eyed Peas and White House Executive Chef, Cristeta Comerford in a panel hosted by entrepreneur and TV personality Billy Dec with close to 200 Filipino American leaders in attendance, many of which are close friends in the community.
I wanted to have the chance to experience a celebration of FAHM inside the exclusive national landmark, something I could not commit to the past years that I had the privilege of being invited. So, while I expected this year’s celebration to be more low-key, I looked forward to being a part of and take away something special during my short trip.
This year’s presentation, fittingly hosted by Kelly Ilagan, a young Filipina American who is the Acting White House Liaison at the U.S. Department of Commerce, was a short but packed two hour program that turned the spotlight to Filipino American and Asian personalities in government and civic engagement today.
Brendan Flores kicked of the speaker series representing the National Federation of Filipino American Associations (NaFFAA), the White House’s main partner organization for the event. The organization’s National Chairman summarized his energetic and brief welcome with an infectious chant in his radio broadcaster voice, “Together, let’s make history, and continue to write our story!” which the attendees echoed back cheerfully.
On the side he shares that, with his position at NaFFAA, he is humbled to be part of a movement that can bring people together, to show how powerful we can be as a community when we take the time to put our differences aside and really focus on (our commonality) being Filipino first.
“When I think about Filipino American History Month, I think it’s an amazing opportunity for us to reflect on our rich (history) and vibrant culture”, Flores says, adding that it is critical for us to focus on what unites us as opposed to what divides us in the same way that it is crucial to bring “bayanihan”, the Filipino value of communal unity, work and cooperation to achieve a particular goal, to succeed.
Holly Ham, Executive Director, White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders reminded the audience that Filipino Americans have made remarkable contributions to every facet and sector of American Life from the farm workers of the great fields of Delano to Hollywood all the way to the White House where Filipino Americans are in the Executive Cabinet as well as the West Wing.
She shares that current census data clearly reflects how we contribute to our society enumerating, “You all exceed the national average on pro capita income, you also exceed the national average on educational attainment … and there are 200,000 Filipino owned businesses with gross receipts of over 30 Billion dollars!”
Ham also shares that in her personal experience, she has found that Filipino Americans are hard workers and smart workers, “You aim high. You understand what it takes to get the job done and most importantly, you produce results”.
While Flores encourages us to tell our story as Filipinos, Executive Assistant to Secretary of State, Richard Buangan, a Filipino American diplomat who started his career in Foreign Service in 1999, encourages us to express in our own way what it means to be American and to be great storytellers because “the openness and intimacy of our experience and the honesty and passion of the stories that we tell is really the strength that we have of moving people”. He believes “it’s the greatest way we can celebrate our diversity, the Filipino in all of us and honor what it truly is to be American.”
In her short address, Cristeta Comerford, the first Filipina, first Non-European and first female Executive Chef of the White House simply yet passionately calls on our leaders to rise up and lift the community at the this great time when the “Filipino Heritage has arrived in America” signaled by the Filipino culinary renaissance that is making waves in the mainstream.
Echoing the words of Bill Hybels, one of the most influential religious leaders today she says, “A leader’s most valuable asset is not their time but their energy and their ability to energize others.”, articulating it more than once to emphasize her advice and hope that us leaders will harness our energy to affect the person next to us and eventually the community at large.
I listened as these brilliant speakers ardently share their thoughts about Filipino American History Month. And I am amazed that, while they all agreed on the importance of recognizing and highlighting what makes us unique and admirable as Americans who have a proud history and heritage as Filipinos, each person had a different perspective on what is significant to focus on. Each speaker had their own vision of what we are called to do to honor our history and the people who came before us.
This struck me and lingered in my mind as I attended NaFFAA’s own FAHM Kick Off at the Filipino-owned Asian restaurant Kaliwa located at DC’s new hip district, the Wharf that same evening. Meeting many new Filipino American leaders across the USA for the first time and connecting with old friends in the community, it piqued my interest to peek into how they plan to celebrate FAHM.
Here’s what they had to say:
“Filipinos are the largest Asian Group in California…Given our demanding presence, we do not see the same representation in the elected official arena. I hope to both be both an inspiration and a catalyst to build a pipeline of leadership for the upcoming and next generation to serve in elected official capacities. In a City with 8% Asians, we will officially recognize the month of October as Filipino American History Month. I hope to actively participate in local and regional events that are celebrating the importance of our month and vocalize the importance of (building that) pipeline.”’
– Rachelle Arizmendi, first person of color Councilwoman (and former Mayor) of Sierra Madre, California, Chief Operating Officer at Pacific Asian Consortium in Employment This FAHM 2018 (commemorates) the 120th anniversary of the Philippines Independence & the Spanish-American war. The last time I remember hearing about these topics in school was 10th grade World History Class. My goal is to use social media as a platform to educate Americans that Filipino American History is a part of American History as well.
– Matt Ventura, VP – Marketing & Mass Communications, Filipino Young Professionals of Washington D.C. (FYP-DC)
This month is very important to me, as it is FAHM (and) because October 10 is World Mental Health Day. This time last year, I was in the (Philippines) with FYLPRO, talking with fellow Filipino American and Filipino leaders about changing the conversation around mental health. I was even featured on ABS-CBN on World Mental Health Day to talk about the work I do with the National Alliance on Mental Illness. This year, I’m proud to lead workshops and forums on mental health in the FilAm community with my good friend, Krystle Canare. As young professionals, we are excited to be changemakers in this space!
– Ryann Tanap, Mental Health Advocate, Leader in the FilAm community and greater AAPI community
I like to show my pride in subtle ways by taking time to point out things that are uniquely Pinoy to non-Filipinos. I think this helps educate them in a non-threatening way and exposing them to our culture in a positive way.
– Rodney Salinas, Director of Sales and Operation, Fooda, DC
(Throughout my years of community involvement) I have always focused on getting young Filipino Americans involved with the greater community… because at that point, you start to see meaningful contributions and growth from these individuals. And as that kind of energy spreads to others, it becomes contagious and ultimately increases visibility of Filipinos on a larger scale. That’s part of becoming an empowered community and what I’ve always been most interested in. I remember all the local and national community leaders (of NaFFAA) who dedicated and continue to dedicate themselves to this vision of community empowerment. I was truly inspired by all of them. So, I reflect on their legacies that created a voice for our community through NaFFAA and today’s leaders who carry these legacies into the future. We are in good hands.”
– Rafael (RJ) Diokno, Board of Directors, Filipino Young Leader Program (FYLPRO)
I’m helping the Filipino organizations I’m involved in (in planning) events that will highlight the stories of Jose Rizal and Lapu Lapu. I’m hoping that by sharing these stories, we can have a greater appreciation for two important national figures in Filipino History. On a personal level, I’m researching the history of the Philippines and the U.S Navy so I can gain a deeper understanding of the service Filipinos have provided to the United States Navy.
– Mark Arevalo, Senior Cyber Technical Lead at U.S. Department of Energy, Board of Advisors for FYP-DC, National Membership Director, NaFFAA
“I hope to highlight the importance of civic engagement. Not just with voter registration and canvassing (even though that is of high priority) but the importance to be involved in one’s community. I think it is so important to be knowledgeable of the issues and policies affecting you and your community, and recognize the bigger picture. I’m trying to do this through the programming FYP hosts and by having open, honest dialogues with individuals. From events that support charities to canvassing, by encouraging our friends who don’t feel like they have jobs that allow them to be civically engaged, we make small steps of progress to have people further involved in their communities”
– Stephanie Wong, Chapter and Membership Manager at OCA – Asian Pacific American Advocates and President, Filipino Young Professionals of Washington, DC.
“In celebration of Filipino American History Month, I would like to encourage Filipino Americans to stay in touch with their roots and to keep helping each other to prosper, to continue to build the spirit of brotherhood, camaraderie, and support that I experienced meeting you, Louella, and the other Filipino Americans at the event.”
– Nadine Jacinto, Media and Communications Professional, Producer, Station Voice, Writer, Presenter Rajah Broadcasting Network RJFM 100.3
“Dr. Jose Rizal once said, ‘Ang Hindi lumingon sa pinanggalingan, hindi makakarating sa paroroonan.’ In English that means,”He who does not know how to look back at where he came from will never get to his destination.” While I enjoy speaking to Filipino groups about my background, history, and values, I also enjoy speaking of how we can use our shared backgrounds, histories, and values to be more involved in our neighborhoods and communities. Together, we can form a strong, positive force to continue to build and expand upon the American dream”
– Ron Falconi, first Filipino American Mayor of Brunswick, Ohio now serving his second term I hope that I can help make the contributions of Filipinos throughout American history more widely known, and as more and more people comprehend our significance, I hope Filipino American History Month will be universally recognized by calendars across America. Here in Pennsylvania, we are so fortunate that Governor Tom Wolf … has issued a Proclamation of October as Filipino American History Month. We hope that such recognition by our state’s leader will set the example for others throughout the country (and) will serve as a beacon, signaling that Filipinos have been, are, and will be here to stay, and work, and contribute, and lead.
– Christopher Rivera, President of the Filipino American Association of Philadelphia, former VP of the Filipino Executive Council of Greater Philadelphia, Chief Strategic Officer – National Executive Board, NaFFAA
I am a Filipina Immigrant who escaped the Martial Law regime under Marcos. I am running for United States Congress, only one of two full-blooded Filipinos to have (the) honor of running in a general election for Congress. Filipino American History Month coincides with the peak of the election cycle. I have been campaigning heavily to Filipinos with the ultimate message to get out the vote. If they don’t agree with my politics, that’s ok… But vote, they should. Let us see the effects of an active Filipino political body in the United States.
– Cristina Osmena – Congressional Candidate for the 14th District of California
With the midterm (elections) coming up, I have been pushing to get Filipino-Americans more civically engaged. Growing up, my family never discussed politics or other issues. That needs to change. We need to see that lawmakers from national to local, have a great effect on our lives, and the only way they will listen to us is if we vote. Nearly every year, I would always go out to register voters and go down to Virginia Beach to encourage other Fil Ams to go to the polls.
– Emil Trinidad, Fundraiser / Event Planner, Advocate for the Asian American & Pacific Islander (AAPI) community, Programs Director, KAYA: Filipino Americans for Progress.
For myself, I see Filipino American History Month as a time and platform for our community to recognize our power —- in numbers: 4 million strong, our innate creativity and our we-always-find-a-way attitude, our fortitude strengthened by our cheerful outlook, our boundless generosity for those who have less, and our position living in the most influential country in the world. So that in acknowledging our power, we can commit to do our part in bettering the lives of our people – Filipino Americans in the USA, our countrymen in the Philippines and even Filipinos living in other countries around the world.
Shout out to Brendan Flores and NaFFAA who led in organizing this event with the White House this year, to Jason Tengco for paving the way for White House FAHM to become a yearly much awaited gathering of leaders nationwide and to all the movers and shakers of the Filipino communities in the 50 different states of the USA!
I write this with sincere hope that amplifying the voices of these leaders from the East to the West will energize you, dear reader, to take action!
May you have a meaningful, energetic and powerful Filipino American History Month!
With Chef Cristeta Comerford, White House Executive Chef just before she gives her speech at the Filipino American History Month celebration at the White House
With Brendan Flores, National Chairman of National Federation of Filipino American Associations
With Mayor Ron Falconi of Brunswick, Ohio and Holly Ham, Executive Director and White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders
With Councilwoman Rachelle Arizmendi of Sierra Madre, California
White House FAHM Emcee, Kelly Ilagan and Vice Consul Darell Ann R. Artates of the Philippine Embassy in Washington D.C.
Filipino Young Leaders Program (FYLPRO) Alumni attending the White House FAHM 2018 – (from L to R) Lakhi Siap, Louella Cabalona, President Dondi Quintans, Ryann Tanap, Jason Tengco, and Rafael “RJ” Diokno
Filipino American Leaders at the NaFFAA FAHM Kick-Off (clockwise from top left) Kris Valderrama, Maryland State Representative, Kimberly Lizardo, Rodney Salinas, Randy Lizardo, Christal Ann Simanski, RJ Diokno, Stephanie Wong, Mark Arevalo, Dondi Quintans, Louella Cabalona, Lakhi Siap
FYLPRO and California Fil Am Leaders – (fr L to R) Jason Tengco, Congressional Candidate for California’s 14th District, Cristina Osmena, Louella Cabalona, now Manila-based Nadine Jacinto of RJ FM 100.3 , Lakhi Siap with Chef Cathal Armstrong, Executive Chef of Kaliwa
Attendees of the Filipino American History Month celebration at the White House last October 2, 2018 (from the Department of State Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs Twitter account)