Global Politics

Division among Nevada's growing Filipino population dilutes potential political impact

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Filipino Americans in Las Vegas, including from left, Bernie Benito, Amie Belmonte, Maria Henry, Emily Higby, Robert Henry, and front row, from left, Rozita Lee and Priscilla Santayana, could make up a powerful voting block in November's elections.

Latinos will be a key to November’s elections up and down the ticket — we’ve heard that over and over.

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But Latinos aren’t even the fastest growing minority group in America. That distinction belongs to Asian Americans, who grew as a group by nearly 50 percent between 2000 and 2010.

Nowhere have the numbers of Asian Americans swelled more quickly than in Nevada, with 116 percent growth there in the past decade. Much of that growth was fueled by Filipino immigrants — some 124,000 Filipinos now call Nevada home, mostly in the Las Vegas area.

In a crucial swing state like Nevada, those numbers aren’t insignificant for November’s election. And many local Filipino community leaders say it’s time for them to become the state’s newest political voice.

But finding that voice, and finding leaders among Filipino-Americans in Las Vegas, isn’t so easy. If you want to check the pulse of Filipino Americans in Vegas, everyone says, talk to Rozita Lee.

Lee is considered an old-timer in the Vegas Filipino community. She moved to Las Vegas in 1979 when she got married. Lee is a tiny, well-dressed woman, who wears big, rose-tinted glasses. Don’t underestimate Lee. She’s a feisty, well-connected woman with an impressive rolodex and résumé.

Lee and several other local Filipinos, talked about how they can turn their swelling ranks into political power. Lee said politicians ignore them, but Filipinos have no one to blame but themselves for that. They’re all bickering about who is in charge.

“There is so much division within our community. You form an organization and you say, ‘Well we can’t have you because you’re known as this. We can’t have you because you’re known as this.’ That’s BS,” Lee said. “That is not what is going to bring the people together. You have to recognize your leaders and use those leaders to bring you forward. I’m sorry to be so vocal about this, because we have trying for years to get our Filipinos together.”

 

The lure of Las Vegas

Most Filipinos in Vegas were lured here in recent years by cheap homes and good jobs.

Priscilla Santayana was a nurse living in California in 1997. Then she and her husband visited Vegas and he decided to apply for a job with a collections agency.

“He called up the company and says, ‘Do you need my résumé?’ ‘No, we need you in person today,’ ” Santayana said.

For most Filipino immigrants, the move to Vegas was an easy economic transition. Nevada usually wasn’t their first stop in the U.S., so they weren’t entirely new to American culture.

“You know we’re all transients here,” said Emily Higby, who was born in the Philippines, then spent much of her life in California before relocating to Vegas 2.5 years ago. “There’s still a learning curve to know where I stand politically, where are my issues, where is my loyalty? Is it to my party? Maybe that’s one of the reasons.”

Despite their swelling numbers in Nevada, virtually no Filipinos are running for state or local offices.

Santayana said there are deeper reasons Filipinos aren’t active politically.

“We cannot erase our traditions. Believe it or not, politics in the Philippines is perceived as dirty," she said. "So that’s why it’s very hard to unwind the perceptions about politics.”

But that’s no excuse for not being politically engaged here in Las Vegas said Amie Belmonte.

“We’re not educated enough, I think, on the issues and then the political values of Republican and Democrats and whatever it may be," Belmonte said.

 

Wait and see

The process of becoming politically active just takes time said Daniel Ichinose with the Asian Pacific American Legal Center in Los Angeles.

“A lot of it has to do with the cultural context. Many (Asian immigrants) are coming from countries in which political participation, was not only not seen as important, but actively discouraged," Ichinose said. "So for a lot of these folks, culturally there’s some risk involved. But I think what we see is as folks become more acculturated to life in the United States, they begin to see that political participation is part of that.”

David Damore, a political scientist at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, compared Filipinos today to Nevada’s Hispanics in the recent past. He said if you go back 12 or 13 years, local Hispanics were disorganized and largely not active politically.

Today, Hispanics wield substantial power in Las Vegas. Any shrewd politician knows they need to reach out to local Hispanic organizations and the Latino community when campaigning for office.

Damore said Latinos became more politically active when it became necessary — states began passing laws cracking down on undocumented immigrants, and Latinos felt vilified. It began in 1994 when California voters approved a referendum preventing illegal immigrants from accessing healthcare or public education. Damore said that galvanized Latinos in California and western states into political action.

“So far, for these other minority groups, it hasn’t really happened yet. You hate to see that they have to be targeted by legislation or by politicians to do that, and that just hasn’t happened yet,” Damore said.

 

United by a champion

Filipinos do have key issues they unite around — immigration, healthcare, and securing full benefits for Filipino World War II veterans who fought on behalf of the United States.

But nothing has united Nevada’s Filipinos more in recent years than Manny Pacquiao, the world boxing champion from the Philippines. Two years ago, Democratic Senator Harry Reid was in a tight re-election race. Pacquiao — who is far and away the most popular Filipino on the planet — began campaigning for Reid.

“I do think that swung some votes,” said Filipino Robert Henry.

He said when Filipino Americans in Nevada talk about what can unify them, it will be someone like Pacquiao.

“Historically, it’s something like that and it’s not the education and all of that, which I agree is very important, because we want to have an educated electorate. In other words we want to be politically educated,” Henry said. “But will it ever happen, and will people vote as a bloc based on that? Hard to say.”

Pacquiao, who is also a representative in the Philippine Congress, met with President Barack Obama last year. Pacquiao called Obama his “inspiration” and his “idol.”

This may not deliver Nevada’s Filipinos as a solid voting bloc for Obama, but in the absence of much else unifying Filipino Americans in Nevada, it certainly won’t hurt.

The headline on this story has been updated to more accurately reflect the challenges facing Filipinos if they want to be a powerful political force.