Global Politics

Filipino-Americans finally 'making waves' in politics

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Jennifer Ong is seeking to become the first Filipino American ever elected to the California state legislature. (Photo by Jason Margolis.)

Filipinos comprise the second largest group of Asian immigrants in the United States, second only to Chinese.

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Despite their numbers, Filipino-Americans haven’t achieved much political success in the halls of political power. A few members of Congress have had some Filipino lineage. But there’s never been a full-blooded Filipino Congressman or Congresswoman.

Nor has there been a Filipino-American in the state legislature in California. That’s somewhat surprising, considering nearly half of all Filipino-Americans call California home.

Two Filipino-born Californians want to change that.

Jennifer Ong and Rob Bonta both moved to California from the Philippines as children. Both now live in the Bay Area and are in their early 40’s. Ong is an optometrist and Bonta is a lawyer.

This June, both ran for the California state Assembly as Democrats in neighboring districts. And both qualified for a November runoff election.

When I met the two candidates recently, I asked them: What Filipino leaders did they look up to along their political journeys?

“I don’t know that I ever looked at political leaders, unfortunately. It’s kinda sad, huh?" Ong said.

It’s not surprising that Ong stumbled for an answer. Bonta did as well.

Ong said Filipino Americans generally don’t engage in politics.

“Our tendency for Filipino Americans, and most other Asians, is you don’t make waves, right? That’s part of our culture," Ong said. " 'Be a good girl, Jennifer. Don’t do that.’ You’re supposed to study hard, get a good education, get a good job, help your family. Other than that, don’t make waves, don’t get involved in politics.”

And to many Filipinos, politics isn’t a noble endeavor. Philippine politics are notoriously corrupt; vote buying is standard practice back home.

Ong's a newcomer to politics. She decided to run when people in the community asked her to do it. She's a regular at Asian churches and community centers where she talks to people about health problems endemic in the Asian immigrant community, problems like Hepatitis B and diabetes.

But, even while spending time at a Buddhist Temple in Fremont, she said her goal at the events isn't primarily to campaign.

“That’s just kind of secondary, because I do feel very strange about that connection with the church and politics," she said.

The district Ong is seeking to represent, just south of Oakland, has a high concentration of Asian and Filipino immigrants. But in appealing to other Asian Americans, Ong is running head-long into a problem.

According to the Census Bureau, during the last presidential election just 49 percent of Asian American immigrants who were eligible to vote, did vote. That’s some 14 percentage points below the national average.

Ong says it’s her job to engage people in her community. She thinks she can.

“When we find then that people see someone who looks like them, or talks like them, or has their shared immigrant experience, and now this person is willing to step up in leadership ... seems to be, we’ll find they’ll get more involved," Ong said. "‘Because I sure wouldn’t do what she’s about to do, but she’s going to speak for me, she’ll have a better idea than someone else who doesn’t have that experience.’”

Bonta already represents his community, serving as vice mayor for the Bay Area city of Alameda.

He says his political involvement started from an early age.

“We actually lived and I grew up as a young boy in the headquarters for the United Farm Workers movement of America," Bonta said. "My parents worked directly with Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta.”

From the farm fields, Bonta went on to study at Yale, Oxford, and back to Yale for law school. Besides his academic achievements, Bonta was also captain of the Yale soccer team.

Bonta says he doesn’t campaign much on the possibility of making history for Filipino Americans.

"I’ve had fundraisers that have been very successful in Washington, and in New York, and in Philadelphia," Bonta said

This is quite a departure for a group that’s been dubbed “The Invisible Minority.” Filipinos have assimilated well into American culture, and, as Ong suggests, have not made waves. To many, those are admirable qualities. But Ong says Filipino-Americans also struggle with having a cultural identity.

“In the past, I’ve seen Filipinos who weren’t very proud of being Filipino. And I think it’s going to change. I see it changing already. It’s time, it’s okay to be proud of it," Ong said.

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