Filipinos comprise the second largest group of Asian immigrants in the United States, second only to Chinese. Despite their numbers, Filipino-Americans haven’t achieved much 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 Congressperson. Nor has there been a Filipino-American in the state legislature in California. That’s somewhat surprising, considering that nearly half of Filipino-Americans call California home. But now, two Filipino-born Californians are set 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?

ROB BONTA: “Yea, ummm... You know... it’s interesting...
JENNIFER ONG: “I don’t know that I ever looked at political leaders, unfortunately. It’s kinda sad, huh?”

It’s not surprising that Ong and Bonta stumbled for an answer.

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

JENNIFER ONG: “Our tendency for Filipino Americans, and most other Asians, is you don’t make waves, right? That’s part of our culture. '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.

Jennifer Ong is a newcomer to politics. She decided to run when people in the community asked her to do it.

Ong is 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. I met Ong at a cookout at a Buddhist Temple in Fremont. And I asked her if she’d also be using the time here to campaign.

JENNIFER ONG: “That’s just kind of secondary, because I do feel very strange about that connection with the church and politics.”

The district Ong is seeking to represent, just south of Oakland, has a high concentration of Asian and Filipino immigrants. One problem for Ong though: According to the Census, during the last presidential election 49 percent of Asian American immigrants who were eligible to vote, did vote. That’s some 14 percent below the national average. Ong says it’s her job to engage people in her community. She thinks she can.

JENNIFER ONG: “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. '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.'”

Rob Bonta already represents his community serving as vice mayor for the Bay Area city of Alameda, where we met for coffee.

I asked Bonta why he hasn’t disengaged from politics, like many other Filipinos. He says his political involvement started from an early age.

ROB BONTA: “We actually lived and I grew up as a young boy in the headquarters for the United Farm Workers movement of America. 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.

But he doesn’t shy away from it either. And he says Filipinos across the country are paying attention.

ROB BONTA: “I’ve had fundraisers that have been very successful in Washington, and in New York, and in Philadelphia.”

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

JENNIFER ONG: “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.”
  • Jennifer Ong is seeking to become the first Filipino American ever elected to statewide office in California. (Photo: Jason Margolis)

  • Rob Bonta. (Photo: Bonta For Assembly)

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