Filipino Americans in Las Vegas. Back row, left to right: Bernie Benito, Amie Belmonte, Maria Henry, Emily Higby, Robert Henry. Front row, left to right: Rozita Lee, Priscilla Santayana. (Photo: Jason Margolis)
Latinos will be a key to November's election — we've heard that over and over. But Latinos aren't the fastest growing minority group in America. That distinction belongs to Asian Americans, who grew 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 to do — they're not very well organized, and the organizations they do have, which are many in number, are difficult to reach. I contacted several Hispanic organizations in Las Vegas, which are easier to connect with, and they all told me, if you want to check the pulse of Filipino Americans in Vegas, 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; not exactly what I had envisioned as Vegas' most powerful Filipino. But don't underestimate Lee. She's a feisty, well-connected woman with an impressive rolodex and résumé.
I met Lee, along with several other local Filipinos for coffee. We talked about how they can turn their swelling ranks into political power. Lee says right now politicians ignore them, but they have no one to blame but themselves. 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," said Lee.
"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 Draw of 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 collection agency.
"He called up the company and says, 'Do you need my résumé?' 'No, we need you in person today!'" said Santayana.
For most Filipino immigrants, the move to Vegas was an easy economic transition. Nevada also wasn't their first stop in the US, 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 two-and-half 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.
Priscilla Santayana says 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. 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 says 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."
It Just Takes Time
The process of becoming politically active just takes time says 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. 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 UNLV, 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 as a minority voting bloc. Any shrewd politician knows they need to reach out to local Hispanic organizations and the Latino community when campaigning for office.
Damore says 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 says that galvanized Latinos, in California and western states, into political action.
"And so far for these other minority groups, it hasn't really happened yet. You hate to see that they have to be sort of targeted, by legislation or by politicians to do that, and that just hasn't happened yet," said Damore.
United by a Champion
Filipinos do have some key issues they all unite around — immigration, healthcare, and securing full benefits for Filipino World War II veterans who fought for the United States.
But nothing has united Nevada's Filipinos more than one thing in recent years: Manny Pacquiao, the world boxing champion from the Philippines. Two years ago, Democratic Senator Harry Reid was in a tight re-election race. Then, 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, part of the coffee crew.
He said when Filipino Americans in Nevada talk about what can unify them, it will be something like a Manny 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 electoral, in other words we want to be politically educated," said Henry. "But will it ever happen, and will people vote as a bloc based on that? Hard to say, hard to say."
Pacquiao, who is also a representative in the Philippine Congress, met with President Obama last year. Pacquiao called Obama his "inspiration" and his "idol."
This may not deliver Nevada's Filipinos as a solid voting bloc to President Obama. But in absence of much else unifying Filipino Americans in Nevada, it certainly won't hurt.