Hawaii’s Filipinos Make Progress in Community Empowerment, The Journey Continues

by Chona Montesines-Sonido and HFC STAFF

Hawaii’s Filipino empowerment journey perhaps is seen with a different angle of clarity from the inside to outside, then looking back in. What?

Edwin Quinabo, a Filipino-American, 52, lived in Hawaii for 45 years before moving to El Paso, TX, a city comparable in size to Honolulu but is predominantly Hispanic. Outside of Hawaii and California, and pockets of select larger cities like New York City, Seattle and Houston, El Paso is like most cities across the U.S. – it has a small Filipino-American population.

“When Filipinos in Hawaii contemplate the idea of Filipino empowerment, they should know they are well ahead of the game in so many aspects. When I lived there, the quest for Filipino empowerment people would talk about was always one of lacking in some way or form. But when you move outside of Hawaii (and not California), you realize how Hawaii’s Filipinos take for granted the awesome strength they really have,” said Quinabo.

“Just in sheer numbers alone, as a Filipino in Hawaii you get the sense of belonging, that you are a part of a community that truly has clout. And really, when Filipinos talk of empowerment in Hawaii the ceiling is set very high with a potential that could look like the Chinese American community in San Francisco. So Hawaii’s Filipino community has a lot going for them. It takes leaving Hawaii to know this.”

Filipinos are the largest ethnic group in Hawaii at 377,904 followed by Japanese 313,014, according to AAPI DATA.

Venus Delos Santos, Ewa Beach, 52, has been living in Hawaii for some 30 years. She attended college at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and hasn’t left Oahu since then. Growing up in upstate New York, she commented on life on the mainland as a Filipino, “Where I was growing up, no one knew what a Filipino was. And the question of ‘what are you?’ came to pass very frequently. I was the only Filipino in my elementary school. I didn’t know any better, but when a staring child’s father made a comment to us at a restaurant, ‘I’m sorry,  you’ll have to excuse him, he’s never seen people like you before,’ it struck me odd and made me self-aware. Little did I know at the time, it led to self-discovery and an identity that wouldn’t allow me to stand down.”

Quinabo’s newfound perspective and Delos Santos’ childhood-teen experience are typical of many former Hawaii Filipino residents or those who’ve lived on the U.S. mainland for some time.

Quinabo, a political analyst, Hawaii Filipino Chronicle associate editor who has followed the concept of Filipino empowerment for decades, said “Filipino empowerment in Hawaii is at an advanced stage.  There already is strength in numbers which is the basis of community. There is a long history of this community to its locale – the arrival of sakadas (Filipino plantation workers) more than 100 years ago beginning in 1906, which deep roots truly add legitimacy as a significant part of the larger Hawaii community. There is ample political representation, and frankly, representation in all sectors of society.”

Quinabo refers to yet another community in the mainland as a model of minority empowerment, the Jewish community.  “The average Jewish person in the U.S. for the most part excels, and thus collectively their community is reflective of a high level of empowerment.”

He said the area of Hawaii Filipino empowerment that needs advancing at this stage is really uplifting and empowering the average Filipino. He explains there already are copious ‘exceptions’ to the rule, successful ‘model’ leaders. “But you cannot say Filipinos in Hawaii have ‘arrived’ yet as a community, until Filipinos who achieve high personal success is no longer an ‘exception to the rule’ but really the standard.”

To this end, political engagement has always been central to community and individual empowerment. Hawaii’s Filipino community finds itself in yet another cycle of hope and possibilities as they look to election 2022 — Primary: Saturday, Aug. 13, General Nov. 8 – to find their best candidate (Filipino or non-Filipino) who will represent their best interests.

Will Hawaii continue to have strong representation at the Honolulu City Council and State Senate? Will Filipinos improve their numbers at the State House level? Can they break the shut-out spell in Congress where Hawaii has never had a Filipino representative? Will Filipinos have its first Lt. Governor? (See our supplement cover story on Filipino candidates this issue.)

Politics is but one road to the hundreds-miles journey of empowerment. There have been other builders, architects besides politicians behind Filipino empowerment in Hawaii.

Filipino media in Hawaii
In the early 1990s, arguably the height of Filipino empowerment awareness that paralleled the beginning stages of Native Hawaiian activism, Quinabo said he recalls a comment once made by the late activist and University of Hawaii professor Dr. Haunani-Kay Trask. She said Native Hawaiians should have a Hawaiian newspaper like the Filipinos in Hawaii.

“The late professor Trask understood the power of media in shaping community empowerment. And if we are to speak of our journey as a community on a quest toward empowering ourselves and each other, I must say the Hawaii Filipino Chronicle (HFC) in its decades-long service must be mentioned in this history. And the publishers Dr. Charlie and Chona Montesines-Sonido (also managing editor), as well as key staff, have this legacy to which they can be proud of,” said Quinabo. “This historical contribution must be told for this generation and future generations to understand and appreciate.”

Trailblazers of empowerment
Dr. Belinda Aquino, professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii at Manoa (UHM), political scientist, contributing editor to HFC, is the founding and first Director of the Center for Philippine Studies at UHM.

She is considered by many in Hawaii as one of the pioneering catalysts for Filipino empowerment.

Dr. Aquino recalls, “we had to lobby the Legislature to press for the establishment of the program in the early 1970s. Fortunately, the Legislature already recognized the fact that the Filipino community was already close to 12% of the total state population at the time. We impressed upon both the Senate and House of Representatives that this fast-growing community should be attended to.  The University of Hawaii was receptive to the idea of establishing the program because the academic resources at the UH were already sufficient to make a Philippine program because there were several faculty in various departments who could competently teach courses needed on the Philippines that we could offer.  We conducted [recruiting] of Philippine specialists nationally, internationally and locally to support our efforts to approve the program, which was elevated to a Center status that would include the assistance of various departments on campus or colleges at the UH like History, Languages and Linguistics, Political Science, Education, Business Administration, the Law School and others.”

Paul Martin, Ewa Beach, said “I was able to directly benefit from Dr. Belinda Aquino’s work of establishing the Center for Philippine Studies at UH Manoa because I was able to take courses in Philippine Studies that gave me a lot of pride for being Filipino after taking the language courses.”

Caroline Julian-Freitas, Alewa Heights, mentions another trailblazer educator who has played a role in empowering Filipinos in Hawaii, the late Domingo Los Banos, who was the first Superintendent of Filipino ancestry in the state of Hawaii, a principal and educator in the Hawaii State Department of Education. He received a master’s degree from Columbia University and attended Stanford University. He helped to establish Sariling Gawa Filipino Youth Leadership Program, Friends of Waipahu Cultural Garden Park, known today as Hawaii’s Plantation Village.

“I remember interviewing Domingo Los Banos in my twenties at the Children’s House private school (run by Domingo’s wife) in Pearl City. As part of HFC’s mission to feature Filipino role models, which was much needed PR for our community back then, Mr. Los Banos was certainly one to remember and an empowering figure,” said Quinabo.

In the area of business, Delos Santos mentions Eddie Flores Jr as a trailblazer who has done much to advance Filipino empowerment. Flores Jr. was president and CEO of L&L Drive-Inn/L&L Hawaiian Barbecue and one of the founders the Filipino Community Center.

“As a child, he had a learning disability and repeated grades four times in China. The eldest boy of seven children, both his Filipino father, a musician, and Chinese mother, had sixth-grade educations and were part of the middle class in Hong Kong. In Hawaii, his father worked as a janitor and his mother a restaurant cashier and dishwasher,” Delos Santos said.

His daughter Elisia Flores has taken over Eddie’s company as CEO of L&L Hawaiian Barbecue and she serves on the boards of directors for Hawaiian Electric Industries, American Savings Bank, and Hawai‘i Pacific Health among others.

Mylene Reyes, President R&M REYES ENTERPRISE, Kaneohe, mentions her choice of memorable Filipino empowerment icons as arguably the most emblematic figure of this movement, former governor of Hawaii Ben Cayetano. She said Cayetano embodies the values and resilience of Hawaii Filipinos.

Beyond pioneering individuals
Clement Bautista, Educational Specialist (retired) Operation Manong/Office of Multicultural Student Services, University of Hawaii at Manoa, said “Individuals cannot accomplish lasting advances toward Filipino empowerment.  Most people under the age of 30 (25% of Hawaii’s population) probably don’t even know who Ben Cayetano is, let alone that he was a governor or the nation’s first Fil-Am governor.”

However, he does recognize elected officials like Cayetano have contributed to other Filipinos’ sense of empowerment, especially in the communities they represent.

He said, “For better or for worse, Filipino empowerment in a community might only be achieved when self-identified Filipinos see other Filipinos doing good things in that community.

Discrimination as possible obstacle
Could ethnicity, for just being Filipino, be an obstacle for individual and community empowerment? Where does discrimination fall into the picture?

Bautista inverses the concept of empowerment to one of disempowerment. He believes, “being perceived (by others) as a Filipino works against you. This could mean not allowing you to do the same things as others, not being able to express oneself as others, and not being able to live a life as others. Disempowerment does not simply rely on people’s beliefs or prejudices but on their actions, thus, empowerment also does not simply rest at the level of beliefs or attitudes but on people’s actual behavior toward others.”

Can legislation correct this problem? Bautista said, “Legislation (federal, state, county or any other) barring discrimination based on ethnicity is nice but only a band-aid for a septic wound. As we have seen in recent retractions of policies designed to promote social equality, policies by legislation can change quickly and significantly. Ideally, people’s beliefs and attitudes should change but, once again, a minority of people with “bad attitudes” can change policies for the majority.”

Empowering our way to the future: unity, awareness, community engagement and voting
Dr. Aquino echoes Bautista’s comment of looking beyond individuals who’ve broken the proverbial glass ceiling.  “This goal [of empowerment] cannot be accomplished by not just one person but by several groups that would be supportive in achieving a particular goal.

“Unity is an important factor because it has the strength to influence a particular decision. You command more or better public opinion by impressive numbers of people who would be supportive of your goals. Otherwise, if you are acting solo you will be like a call from the wilderness that will not be heard, let alone considered for judgment.”

Julian-Freitas agrees with the importance of unity: “it’s important for people to unite to help shape the future of the community. From a grassroots perspective, the community should unite to support the causes that benefit the Filipino community. The community can also elect leaders, whether Filipino or not, that support the community and its people.”

To achieve greater advances in Filipino empowerment, Martin, a millennial, believes this can be achieved through social awareness, community engagement and by voting. “People need to become more invested in issues that their community grapples with by taking the time to become aware of those issues.  The idea that we are separated from the issues of our community is not lined up with reality.  The it’s-not-my-problem mentality is so easy to adopt but we are all connected by the issues that play out in our communities. We need to push as many qualified people into running for office so that we have more choices to choose from when it’s election time.  We need to go beyond settling for a candidate that promises only to solve one of our issues, but get behind someone with big aspirations for our community.”

Filipino cultural icons and food as signs of empowerment
Beyond Filipino media, politics, business and educational trailblazers, a relatable sign of Filipino empowerment is the mass appeal of Filipino celebrities to the wider population.

Bruno Mars was the first superstar pop icon of Filipino ancestry who’ve achieved national and international stardom. Following in his footsteps are two Filipino-Americans who are already Grammy award winners and represent the future of mainstream pop and R&B in the U.S. – Olivia Rodrigo and H.E.R.

Both of them are top U.S. billboard artists and have received tens of millions of views on their music videos. Filipinos are also making a big splash in Hollywood.  Famed Filipino comedian Jokoy has an upcoming movie which was produced and will be released by a major Hollywood studio. The movie, titled Easter Sunday, stars Jokoy and a majority Filipino cast, and will be debuted next month.

Delos Santos said paying attention to  Filipino and part-Filipino celebrities, entertainers, leaders that have roots on U.S. soil and have Filipino blood goes a long way toward empowerment. “Some embrace their Filipino heritage more than others, and those that do are great communicators of Filipino empowerment.”

Martin said, “The incident that made me feel like the Filipino community has arrived is when I was able to see Bruno Mars in concert.  For someone of mixed Filipino background to be able to influence the American musical landscape the way Bruno Mars is doing is phenomenal.  Being able to transform musical culture is no small feat and to do so is power.”

Filipino food is cultural empowerment and is becoming entrenched in most cities across the U.S. besides Hawaii wherever there are Filipino communities: New York City, Houston, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle.

Bautista said, “I have been glad to see increased appreciation of Filipino foods by non-Filipinos.”

The Philippine Consulate General in Honolulu organizes an annual Filipino Food Week in Hawaii to promote Filipino cuisine. Each year more than 20 restaurants statewide participate in the week-long event. This event is modeled after a similar annual Food Week in New York.

Back to Politics
Dr. Aquino said, “there have already been a lot of political candidates of Filipino ancestry who have been elected in various parts of the political system such as the legislature, the cities and counties in the neighbor islands look good for the prosperity of the whole community.

“Certainly the election of Benjamin Cayetano, a second generation immigrant of Filipino ancestry is good a sign that the community is doing very well, which doesn’t necessarily mean that it has “arrived.” As a whole, the community has achieved some progress in most fields of human life, but this is a slow process.  It will take time and when it has achieved an appreciable degree of financial and economic resources, the community’s standing will gradually be uplifted.”

Julian-Freitas said, “Every individual leader has in some way opened the doors, broke the glass ceiling and made it wider and higher for the next Filipino to achieve empowerment for the community.  It’s important to recognize leaders in the community who’ve helped with advancements such as Peter Aduja, Ben Menor, and many others who came before former Gov. Ben Cayetano.

She recalls a moment she had of being a proud Filipino in Hawaii, “As a UH political science student in the 1990’s, I was looking through the Hawaii State Legislature’s directory and found a large number of lawmakers with Filipino ancestry in office.  That moment told me that the community developed a large number of leaders to elect into office and they earned a decision-making seat in Hawaii’s political landscape, the community was actively voting, getting their voices heard, and participating in democracy.”

For Quinabo, he said we can learn a lot from other ethnic-minority communities. “When you look at communities where the average member within their community excels, we see two things: first practice of giving back (those who’ve made it help others through mentorship and other supportive means); and second genuine support and joy for each other’s success. I think our Filipino community needs to work more on both areas. There is slippage today among younger Filipinos – who by the way have benefitted from generations before them who believed in the concept of empowerment – in their connection to and sense of loyalty to each other. Again, look to the most empowered minority communities such as the Jews — they’ve understood empowerment crystal clear and for millennia this hasn’t changed or wavered in their support for empowerment. Here in Hawaii, we’ve made marginal gains and already there’s this misconception that we don’t need our community, that we can succeed and do it on our own. This is going down the wrong path. And our youth must understand the value of community and of rising up together.”

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