California’s New Attorney General: The Filipino American with the Golden Story
by Emil Guillermo
People around the country better get to know Bonta who is now officially confirmed as the first Filipino American Attorney General of California.
Good timing, I’d say. Just when the focus in the news has drifted from Atlanta to Boulder, to Indianapolis, here comes Bonta as California’s top law enforcer, and example of impeccable timing. But that has always been part of Rob Bonta’s story.
Of late, the post has become a lucky political steppingstone. Bonta replaces Xavier Becerra, who recently became the first Latino to head of the Department of Health and Human Services in the Biden Cabinet. And of course, Becerra replaced Kamala Harris, who went on to the U.S. Senate and then became the first woman of color to be the nation’s vice president.
In politics, that AG spot in California is a good gig to get an even better big.
One of those “first to be—” gigs.
When Governor Gavin Newsom made the nomination a month ago, I said that Bonta, a highly qualified Asian American of Filipino descent, had been launched into a new political orbit.
If you know Bonta’s story, you knew it was going to happen at some point.
The guy’s got a golden story.
At the introduction of Bonta to the media, Newsom talked about how Bonta, 48, went from rural California to Yale, then Yale Law, forcing the governor to quip, “You sense the overachiever in him. I didn’t even mention the year in Oxford, uh, not my path to this podium, his is very different but a remarkable journey.”
Newsom has known Bonta for a long time from Bay Area politics (Bonta worked in the SF City Attorney’s office before he ran for office). But Newsom may not have chosen Bonta were it not for a concerted community effort from a coalition of Filipino groups in the state, like Stockton’s social justice group, Little Manila Rising.
Filipinos around the country also took note of the moment.
“It’s a very big deal,” said Mona Pasquil, a veteran Filipino American politician who served as the 47th and acting lieutenant governor of the state. “He’s the top law enforcement position in the state, a constitutional office.”
Theodore S. Gonzalves, former president of the Association for Asian American Studies, put an even finer point on the history of it all.
Gonzalves recalled the words of Filipino American author Carlos Bulosan, who once wrote: “I feel like a criminal running away from a crime I did not commit. And the crime is that I am a Filipino in America.”
“Filipinos faced horrible living and working conditions, especially during the Great Depression, when Bulosan and many others from the Philippines arrived in the United States,” said Gonzalves.
“Imagine what he’d think about a Pinoy being named California’s top law enforcer. Bonta’s appointment as Attorney General is history-making. As he takes on the role, he should continue to take inspiration from generations of Filipino American activists, organizers, and workers who’ve been working for peace and justice for decades.”
All of that isn’t lost on Bonta.
After Newsom’s introduction from the podium at San Francisco’s I-Hotel/Manilatown Center, Bonta began with a sense humility.
“I stand here because of so many people who come before me,” he said.
Of course, he meant all those previous generations who paved the way for a guy like him, but he also meant his mother and father, Cynthia and Warren. His mother had been at the I-Hotel in 1977 to help organize tenants in their historic eviction battle.
But that’s just part of what I call his “golden story.” Bonta was born in the Philippines but his parents immigrated to America to escape the growing power of martial law dictator, Ferdinand Marcos.
Bonta’s family moved to California’s Central Valley, where they lived in a trailer in rural Keene, near Bakersfield, close to one of the trailers Cesar Chavez lived in. Bonta’s mom and dad were UFW organizers who worked alongside with Chavez. Bonta acknowledged that his upbringing among those involved in the farmworkers’ fight for justice sparked his dream to become a lawyer.
And now here he is, the top lawyer in the biggest state with the most Asian Americans in the country.
It’s a “Si Se Puede” story with a Filipino glaze in the golden state. But his accomplishments in the last 12 years as a no-nonsense, for the people, legislator have also been noteworthy, mostly in terms of making the criminal justice system fairer for everyone.“My fight is your fight,” Bonta said at the announcement event.
Bonta said he promised to use the power of his office, and the bully pulpit it signifies, when it comes to hate crimes against Asian Americans.“One of the most hateful things about the hate crimes against the API community is that they had seemed to be swept under the rug. No one cared that those lives and those people weren’t valued. I valued them. I see them,” said Bonta.
“The rhetoric we use as leaders is critical. Just look at what the rhetoric of the former occupant of the White House with the biggest megaphone in the planet did. It led to the murders of API people, the reductionist devaluing of Asian Americans throughout this nation is using words like ‘Kung Flu’ and ‘Wuhan Virus’ and ‘China Virus.’”
So just as the whole country is discovering its lack of knowledge about Asian Americans and our history, here comes Bonta to make some of his own.“As we see the tragic and horrific rise in hate crimes against our API siblings throughout the nation, I can’t help but think about a photograph of a sign from a hotel lobby in 1920s Stockton that I have in my office,” Bonta said.
“It says, ‘Positively No Filipinos Allowed.’ Throughout California history so many of us have felt the sting of hate and discrimination. I have. I know many of you have as well. Too many of you, Asian, Latino, Black, Native American, LGBTQ, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, so many of us have been targeted and attacked because of who we are, where we’re from, and who we love. But that hate has not defined who we are or what we can achieve.”
If it sounds like he’s revving up his golden story for a campaign, it’s because there’s only a year before he has to think about the next election.
But as California’s AG, he’s in the political sweet spot of the day.
It reminded me a little of 2010, when then San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris chose to run for attorney general. Look what’s happened 11 years later.
In 11 years, Bonta will be only 59. Having been born in the Philippines may limit his options, but his future seems bright. And if he continues as he’s done in his no-nonsense way, who knows how far he could go.
Filipinos nationwide have been looking for someone to emerge since Ben Cayetano was governor in Hawaii. Keep your eyes on Bonta.
He’s a young Asian American politico ready to lead the fight for justice in the most Asian state in the nation.
EMIL GUILLERMO is a journalist and commentator. In Hawaii, he was a columnist at the Star Bulletin and on the editorial board of the Advertiser. He vlogs at www.amok.com.
Read more from Emil Guillermo:
Asian American Filipinos United Against Hate?
Biden Shines a Light on Filipino Asian American Fears; What Took Everyone So Long to Notice?