Filipino Teacher Leads Community Foray Into Politics

In an interview with The FilAm’s Cristina DC Pastor, the Philippine Consulate’s Deputy Consul General Theresa Dizon de Vega elaborates on her impressions of the Filipino community in New York, where on the one hand, there’s community engagement but at the same time, little political involvement. But  things may be changing with Ed Santos, the first Filipino to run for the New York City Council.

Philippine Deputy Consul General Theresa Dizon de Vega with her husband, Eddie de Vega, also a diplomat. (Photo via The FilAm)

TF: What is the community like here?

TDDV: The diaspora here is very organized because Filipinos have been here longer than in other communities. We have a relatively young community in London where people come to work and then they go home. The U.S. is a place we go (to live). Everyone has a relative in the U.S. The organizations here have been around longer.

TF: What’s the first thing that surprised you about the organizations in New York?

TDDV: The sheer number of activities. You have a very engaged community here. Whatever their advocacies, there is engagement. It may not be engagement along the same line but it’s engagement which is important. It’s a community that feels the need to get involved. You have that here, it’s just a matter of maximizing it for a lot of issues and creating venues and platforms for them to explore how far you can go.

Like many ethnic groups, the “challenge” for Filipinos comes in gaining visibility in the mainstream. Dizon de Vega attributes this deficiency partially to the lack of a presence at political meetings open to the public.

TF: What do you see is the challenge to Filipino Americans?

TDDV: It’s an exciting era for the Filipino American community. We’re one of the fastest growing ethnic minority groups. The challenge is how to reflect that in the mainstream, in politics, in policy making, in other fields.

TF: This feeling of being invisible…

TDDV: Yeah, under the radar, invisible. Nobody listens, nobody pays attention.

TF: Is it because we don’t speak up also?

TDDV: Partly. Let’s go micro. School board. I’ve been to one. There are very few Filipinos (who attend). Council meetings. Some of these are open to the public. If you have time, go listen. It could be about fire hydrants, about safety precautions or a new law. That’s the way they operate here, the American model. That’s the first thing they look for, at. They look at demographics, voting record and numbers. They look at the bottom line from a political sense.

Furthermore, the deputy consul general lamented the lack of political engagement among the community, especially compared to other Asian-American groups.

TF: What’s our track record in voting?

TDDV: There aren’t too many. The Pew Research came out with a study of Asian Americans. We’re one of the least engaged politically.

TF: They’re saying we’re not politically active?

TDDV: Not really when ranged against, say, the Indian community. The South Asians are very active.

We also have to look toward other ethnic minorities and not just Filipino Americans. The Asians and Pacific Islanders (is one group) because politically that’s how they view us also. We have to gain a foothold there somehow.

Like many other immigrant communities, Filipinos can start gaining a foothold in the mainstream via their children.

TF: What about the second generation? Are they more out there? Are we becoming more visible because of them?

TDDV: I think so. Take Jason Tengco, he’s in one of the committees of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. He’s doing a lot of work. Jason Tengco is here, goes to Washington, networks there.

I think the second generation is at a crossroads. Their parents’ generation automatically connects to the Philippines because they grew up there, have relatives there. Most of the second generation don’t have that connection. They have to build that connection themselves. At the same time they’re also looking toward the mainstream more.

Ed Santos is the first Filipino to run for a City Council seat in New York. (Photo via The FilAm)

In a separate story, Cristina DC Pastor writes about one example of a second generation Filipino, hoping to gain a foothold in politics: Ed Santos, 27, the first of his community to run for a seat in the City Council.

The Democrat hopes to represent the newly-redistricted District 8, which is comprised of East Harlem and the South Bronx, but before doing so, he would have to beat two-term incumbent Melissa Mark-Viverito in the primary this September.

Santos spoke to The FilAm at the Philippine Center – which houses the Philippine Consulate General – where he introduced himself to an audience gathered for an immigration forum, one of several Filipino events he has been visiting.

As the son of a nanny in the Upper East Side – with her own mark in government and politics – and a public school teacher himself, he makes the school system one of his top priorities.

“When I was a baby, my mother was almost deported, but she pleaded with politicians, and they sponsored a private bill to stop her deportation,” he said. “There is now an Emily Santos bill.” The politicians who came to his mother’s defense were Michigan Senator Carl Levin and then-Senator from Delaware Joe Biden.

Ed grew up in Detroit, where he was born. He graduated from the University of Michigan with a bachelor’s degree in Statistics. In 2007, he came to New York to get his master’s in Teaching from Pace University, and to teach Math at East Harlem schools. His mother has been working in the city for many years when he arrived. His father, a waiter, remains in Detroit with his two siblings.

“I come from a working-class immigrant family,” he said. “Education is very important to me.”

The reporter adds that District 8 has few Asians compared to long-time African American and Latino residents, but the number is growing as hospitals are opening in the area and bringing in Asian healthcare workers. Santos may have bigger fish to fry first when it comes to his campaign.

As of now, Ed needs to overcome two challenges: a perceived lack of experience and resources that cannot match the incumbent’s. He said being the treasurer of Community Board 11 gives him the experience and he has become aware of the needs of residents in District 8. As for resources, he said he has been able to raise about $15K in “low-dollar donations” so far.

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