Political Awakening : Filipino-Americans Start to Reach for Reins of Power


For years, Filipino-Americans have experienced stunning population growth but precious few political gains. Now, however, members of the state’s largest Asian group can cite places such as Carson as a showcase of emerging Filipino power.

In June, voters in the ethnically diverse, middle-class city elected their second Filipino-American to the City Council. The same month, Daly City elected its first Filipino-American council member. And in San Diego, a Filipina-American is running for the City Council.

Political infighting in the Filipino community could prevent such advances from becoming a full-fledged trend, experts say. But up and down the state, Filipino-Americans contend that a long-overdue political awakening may be in the offing.

“What we are seeing here is the beginning effort to get involved in mainstream politics,” said Enrique de la Cruz, a Filipino-American who is assistant director of UCLA’s Asian-American Studies Center.

Fueling such sentiment are the recent signs of Filipino power in local races.


In Carson, voters elected Lorelie S. Olaes, an American-born and UCLA-educated political neophyte who manages a scholarship program at UCLA. Her victory came a year after Peter D. Fajardo became the first Filipino-American elected to Carson’s five-member council.

Also in June, Michael Guingona, a 31-year-old public defender, became the first Filipino-American elected to the City Council in Daly City, where the population is about one-third Filipino.

And in San Diego, Villa Mills, a 41-year-old business consultant, is believed to be the first person of Filipino descent to run for City Council. The former chief of staff of Councilman Tom Behr, who is not seeking reelection, is running in the city’s 5th District, which includes large Filipino-American communities, particularly in the Mira Mesa area.

“These city council seats may not be the biggest political plums but they are a good start,” said Monty G. Manibog, a lawyer and former mayor of Monterey Park who is considered a pioneer in Southern California Filipino-American politics. “It sort of reinforces the feeling that America is for everybody. . . .”

In the 1980s, according to the U.S. Census, the Filipino population more than doubled in California and Los Angeles County--to 731,685 and 219,653 respectively--making Filipinos the largest Asian ethnic group in the state and the second-largest in Los Angeles County after Chinese.

Large Filipino communities can be found in Los Angeles in an area just west of downtown known as Filipino Town. Filipinos also are concentrated in Long Beach, Carson and the San Gabriel Valley.

Despite their fast-growing numbers, Filipino-Americans have failed to accumulate much political clout.

In the 1970s and early ‘80s, Filipino candidates had won a handful of elective posts, mostly in small farming communities in Northern California. Gloria Ochoa won a seat on the Board of Supervisors in predominantly white Santa Barbara County in 1988, then last year lost a congressional race against Michael Huffington, who spent about $5 million to win the seat.

Filipino candidates generally have not done well because they have tended to be “extremely ethnocentric in style and politics,” De la Cruz said.

“In early immigration waves Filipinos were not politically oriented,” said Alex Esclamado, longtime editor and publisher of the San Francisco-based Philippine News and the president of the Filipino American Political Assn., a national group that aims to promote voter awareness.

“Even if they were politically minded, their competence and sophistication left much to be desired,” Esclamado said, referring to candidates in the 1960s and ‘70s who ran unsuccessfully for municipal offices across the state.

And although voter registration and citizenship drives have been held in several Los Angeles-area communities, registration by Filipino-Americans remains low. Of the 14,100 Filipinos in Carson, for example, it is estimated that only 4,000 are registered to vote.

Filipinos active in the registration drives say they often are confronted by suspicion among Filipinos, especially older ones, who hold politics in low regard after witnessing chaos and corruption in Philippine elections.

“A lot are dismayed about what happened in the Philippines,” said Marissa Castro, a longtime Filipina-American community activist in Los Angeles and an adviser to Assembly Speaker Willie Brown on Asian-American issues. “When you talk about government, they think government is corrupt.”

Filipino immigrants also tend to focus more on getting established, rather than getting elected. “We were taught very clearly that you go to school to get a good education and get a good job,” said Mills, who was born in the Philippines but came to California as a baby. “The political education was never part of that process.”

Infighting in the Filipino-American community must also be overcome if Filipinos are to gain more political clout, observers say. Although Mills in San Diego has so far been spared such friction, rancor has marked the candidacies of Olaes in Carson and Guingona in Daly City.

In Daly City, many older Filipinos who had been trying to gain representation on the council viewed Guingona, 31, as a Young Turk who had not paid his political dues. About a third of Daly City’s population is Filipino.

“It was the old guard versus the new guard,” said Guingona, who said that one reason his campaign succeeded is because he reached out to other groups, something Olaes also said she did in Carson.

Flipino Power Filipinos, a new force in Carson politics, are one of California’s fastest-growing immigrant groups.

Flipino population 1980 1990 + /- Los Angeles 43,713 87,625 +100% Long Beach 7,757 17,329 +123% Cars0n 6,892 14,100 +105% Glendale 2,215 8,022 +262% West Covina 2,864 7,185 +151% Norwalk 1,352 3,759 +178% Walnut 541 3,660 +577% Rowland Heights 877 3,071 +250% Los Angeles County 99,043 219,653 +122% California 358,738 731,685 +104%

The Phillippines Population: 65.8 million (est. 1991) Languages: English, Pilipino (based on Tagalog), and about 100 other regional languages and dialects. People: Malays are the largest group, with some having Chinese, American and Spanish ancestry. Religions: The vast majority are Roman Catholics, followed by Protestants and Muslims. Area: 115,831 sq. miles (slightly larger than Nevada in an archipelago of 7,000 islands of the southeastern coast of Asia. Government: Republic (modeled after U.S.). Headed by President Fidel Ramos, electedJune, 1992. Capital is Manila. Industries: Food processing, textiles, clothing, pharmaceuticals and wood products. Source: U.S. Census Bureau