Monday, February 25, 2008

Will Pinoys reject Obama because he's black?

Posted on
February 25, 2008

My wife Mara and I have been ecstatic about the idea of Barack Obama as the first person of color to become president of the United States. But she sadly pointed out something recently: Chances are that many Filipinos will not vote for a black person. I hope she’s wrong. But there’s a basis for her concern.

Take the results of the California Democratic primary which was won by Hillary Clinton. Obama won decisively among whites and African Americans. But Clinton won overwhelmingly among Latinos voters by a 2-to-1 margin. And, in the biggest surprise of the contest, she also won even more convincingly, 3 to 1, among Asians.

As Bruce Cain, the veteran political analyst from UC Berkeley told the San Francisco Chronicle, “Asians were a surprise. It's the first (presidential) election we have seen where Asian voters were a big factor..... The two major immigrant groups voted for Clinton as opposed to the candidate who has the immigrant background.”

There are many possible reasons for Clinton’s triumph, of course. She’s been around longer. Among Latinos especially, she and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, are respected and admired. As others have noted, she has a strong track record as a political leader.

But I just cannot help thinking that race is a factor here. The Nobel Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison said something years ago that I’ve never forgotten: That in their desire to become part of America, many immigrants embrace the views of the dominant white society – including the prejudiced, distorted image of blacks.

“In race talk the move into mainstream America always means buying into the notion of American blacks as the real aliens,” she wrote in Time magazine in 1993. “Whatever the ethnicity or nationality of the immigrant, his nemesis is understood to be African American… It doesn't matter anymore what shade the newcomer's skin is. A hostile posture toward resident blacks must be struck at the Americanizing door before it will open.”

There have long been tensions between blacks and Asians, including Filipinos. So many times have I heard Filipinos privately denigrate blacks, referring to them as “egoy” and “nognog.” And I’ve come across that tension from the other side. As a metro reporter with the San Francisco Chronicle, I was assigned to cover the Los Angeles black community’s reaction to the arrest of OJ Simpson in 1994. When I tried to interview a member of a black church in South Central LA, he looked at me derisively and said in a non-threatening but defiant manner, “You [expletive] got a job, huh. Go talk to someone friendlier.”

Where did this resentment come from? The past has some answers. Historically, blacks and Asians have been pitted against each other. After the Civil War, newspapers and public officials portrayed immigrant Chinese workers as more obedient and industrious than the newly freed blacks whom they replaced on plantations in the South.

In the 1960s the stereotype of the industrious Asian morphed into the image of the “model minority.” Asians were portrayed as the ideal minority – hard working, complacent, non-threatening. That, of course, implied that other ethnic communities, particularly blacks and Latinos, were the opposite.

Around the time this stereotype was gaining traction, African Americans were spearheading the Civil Rights activist movement. Their sacrifices paved the way for a new era in which diversity was not only advocated and defended but celebrated.

As blacks were getting clubbed and thrown in jail for fighting for equality, US immigration rules were changing, opening the doors to newcomers from Asia, mostly professionals from the middle class, including many Filipinos. Many of those immigrants benefited from this new consciousness, not to mention the stricter laws that made it illegal to discriminate based on ethnicity, race or gender.

Sadly, these newcomers were unaware of the battles fought in the streets of Alabama, Washington DC and elsewhere. Worse, as Toni Morrison noted, many of them readily embraced American society’s long held prejudices against Blacks.

As the noted Asian American civil rights attorney Bill Lee told me many years ago when I wrote about this issue for the San Francisco Chronicle, "Immigrant communities generally tend not to know the history and to buy into the biases and prejudices of the dominant group. Unfortunately, becoming American often means buying into the prejudices. They want to identify upward. They don't want to identify with those at the bottom.”

To be sure, many Asian American activists, including Filipino Americans, defied the model minority myth. They chose to identify with those at the bottom – to understand the past sacrifices that gave rise to the rights and privileges people of color enjoy today.

One of them, the Japanese American civil rights attorney Kathy Imahara, said, "It started with this bizarre model minority thing, this image of the white man holding an Asian American up and patting us on the head in this condescending manner and telling other minorities, particularly Blacks and Latinos, ‘If you minorities just work as hard as the Asians, then you too will be able to succeed.’”

This brings me back to the excitement over the rise of Barack Obama. He and his supporters stress that he deserves the voters’ support because of his qualifications, not his race. But I agree with those who support him because he is talented, inspiring – and black. Imagine how his victory would shatter the distorted images of African Americans and other communities of color.

Again let me stress as I have in the past, there are no guarantees. Obama is untested, a newcomer on the political stage. Pareng Barack could very well turn out to be as flawed or incompetent as some of the recent occupants of the White House.

But it’s worth taking the chance. If he succeeds, if he turns out to be the wise and courageous leader he promises to be in this ongoing campaign, what a great new chapter that would be in the turbulent, often painful, story of race in America.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Crazy American Elections

Published February 11, 2008

Despite the massive cheating, the routine vote-rigging and the violence, elections Philippine-style is still much easier to understand than the American system. This has been underscored in the current presidential race which undoubtedly has become the most complex in recent years, especially on the Democratic side.

It is already a virtual certainty that John McCain will be the Republican nominee with his victories last week and the withdrawal of his main challenger, Mitt Romney. But the battle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama will continue for months, and possibly will not be settled until the Democratic convention in Denver in August.

Many had hoped that a clear Democratic frontrunner would emerge from Super Tuesday when about two dozen states held primaries. But that didn’t happen.Obama won more states. But Clinton won the bigger states with more delegates, including California and New York. Unlike the Republicans, who had a winner-take-all system in their primaries, the Democrats award delegates based on the proportion of total votes a candidate wins.

A candidate needs 2,025 delegates to win the Democratic nomination. Based on the Associated Press’ tally on Friday, Feb. 8, it was still a virtual tie. Obama had 796 delegates; Clinton had 794. Based on the broader count that includes so-called “super delegates,” however, Clinton was ahead overall with 1,055 delegates to Obama‘s 998.

Okay, I know, this is where it gets a bit super-confusing. What in the world is a super delegate?

I get to use my Poli Sci degree from UP Diliman here. (Well, not really. I got most of this from friends and the media, particularly NPR and CNN.) Super delegates are essentially Democratic Party big shots – current and former elected officials (including Bill Clinton), members of the Democratic National Committee, etc. – who get to cast their votes for a presidential candidate at the convention. They make up about a fifth of the total vote count. In past nominations, they didn’t really make a difference as most of them voted for the candidate who emerged victorious in the primaries and caucuses.

But this has turned out to be a very tight race. So the super delegates could be the decisive factor. Many of them have already pledged their vote to either Clinton or Obama. Clearly, Clinton has the edge here. (The Republicans have their own super delegate system, but they are likely to play a key role this year.)There are other potential complications in the Democratic contest. In a bid to gain more prominence in the nomination process, the Democratic and Republican parties in Michigan and Florida decided to move their primaries earlier in the year in violation of their respective parties’ rules and were penalized.

As a result, the Republicans will recognize only half the delegates from both states. The Democrats were more severe – the party stripped the two states of all their delegates. That was a blow to Clinton who won both states but didn’t get any delegates. But some observers have said that could be contested if the race gets really tight.

So the battle rages on and it’s bound to get more intense. And we’re not even in the main attraction yet.Whether this year’s race is between Obama and McCain or Clinton and McCain, it’s bound to be exciting and extremely contentious. Of course, many hope it won’t be a repeat of the 2000 contest when Al Gore won the popular vote -- but still lost.As a Turkish columnist told the Washington Post back then, “One candidate can get a majority of the popular vote but he may lose the elections. For us, it is a bit strange, to say the least.”

How did this “strange” outcome happen?

It goes back to a feature of the American system that many find hard to understand. To quickly recap, it’s a winner-take-all system in the main event.

A candidate who wins in a particular state wins all the electoral votes of that state.

Well, something very strange happened in Florida. Tens of thousands of votes apparently got lost. When Gore asked for a recount, the US Supreme Court ruled refused, essentially handing the victory to George W. Bush.

The rest is history. And many in the United States -- and the world – hope it won’t be repeated.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Obama, first Pinoy US President?

Published January 29, 2008

Oh, all right, so he’s not Filipino. But he did live in Indonesia which is close enough, right? He also grew up in Hawaii, a state where the Pinoy community is huge and has even had a Pinoy governor.

And if the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison can claim that Bill Clinton was the first African American president, well, I should be able to make a similarly wild claim about Barack Obama. I mean he looks Pinoy, doesn’t he? He could very well be Pareng Barack.

In any case, Obama has turned the 2008 US Presidential race into one of the most exciting in decades. On Sunday, Jan.27, he won a decisive victory over Hillary Clinton and John Edwards in South Carolina in the battle for the 2,025 delegates needed to secure the nomination. The biggest contest in the battle for the Democratic nomination will be held on Feb. 5, so-called Super Tuesday or Tsunami Tuesday, when about two dozen states, including California and New York, will hold their primaries. The Republican contenders are campaigning for the 1,191 delegates needed to be nominated.

For immigrants and persons of color like me in America, Obama’s rise on the political stage is exciting and historic. He’s clearly brilliant, passionate about social issues many people care about and has shown that he can inspire people. That’s important at a time when there’s much cynicism and hopelessness in American society.

Let me stop here to say I have long ago stopped idealizing leaders here in America or back home in the Philippines. How many times have leaders who appeared to be a beacon of hope turn into just another political opportunist with a hidden agenda – or a flashy symbol who ended up unable to live up to the challenges and pressures of leadership?

We’ve learned the hard way in our own recent history that neither popularity and charm nor advanced degrees and a prestigious family name automatically translate to integrity and competence. I can think of only one person who I believe would have made a great Philippine president, but sadly never had the chance: the late Sen. Pepe Diokno.

Now, I’m not completely cynical about leaders and leadership. When Nelson Mandela first toured the United States after being released from prison, a friend of mine in Washington DC wrote me about attending one of the rallies, and being inspired and awed by Mandela’s story. Here was a political figure that spent more than a quarter century in prison and endured untold abuses from a racist government, yet emerged from his ordeal un-embittered and strong enough to lead his country to a new era. My friend sadly lamented how no one like Mandela has emerged in US politics for many years.

It was around that time that Bill Clinton was elected president. That was certainly an exciting time. After eight years of Ronald Reagan and four of the first George Bush, there was finally a “progressive” president in the White House. Clinton took on many important social and economic issues, from health care to welfare and education. But then came the scandals and the compromises. It got tiring after a while.

Hillary Clinton is not her husband, of course, in spite of his growing role in her campaign. And it’s certainly equally exciting to think of the US having its first woman president. (See how the US is not as politically advanced as one would suppose? The Philippines has already had two woman presidents.)In the battle with Obama, Clinton has portrayed herself as more experienced. That’s true. And to be sure, experience is important. Unlike Obama, Clinton already knows what it’s like to deal with a hostile Congress, negotiate with adversaries, anticipate their moves and even neutralize and defeat them. She knows how to work the system and yes, that’s important.

But often, experience also translates to “more debts to pay back.” In any context, any politician who has been around a long time typically owes many favors. They have more baggage weighing them down.

That’s one advantage Obama has. He’s a newbie, which means he’s less experienced, which also makes him less likely to get bogged down by all the favors and deal-making a veteran politician like Clinton has had to chalk up over the past three decades as First Lady and later as senator.

Still, like I said, I have long ago accepted the fact that leaders like Mandela come only once in a lifetime. In fact, the campaign has already exposed some of Obama’s warts. There’s the question of his ties to what has been portrayed as a Chicago slumlord who was one of his major supporters.

Then there was his controversial statement about Ronald Reagan. He has stressed that he was merely pointing out Regan’s ability to inspire Americans across party lines in the 1980s, and was not endorsing his policies. Still it’s puzzling to many why he would invoke the name of a former president whose social and economic problems wreaked havoc on US society in the 1980s. Analysts have speculated that he was trying to reach out to Republicans, which is good and noble. That would certainly help him win.

But I worry about any political candidate who appears to be trying to please everyone. Usually – and we’ve seen this happen over and over again in the Philippines – those who rise to power on the strength of a very broad coalition sometimes end up yielding to the forces with the greatest power and influence inside that political tent. For Filipinos, of course, Reagan (as well as his vice president, the first George Bush) is also remembered for being the staunch ally and good buddy of the late dictator, Ferdinand Marcos.

So it would seem this early that Obama is no Mandela. He makes mistakes and will probably make more. The big question is: Will he show that he knows how to learn from them and manage to move forward?

Still, his message of hope and change is powerful. It’s moving tens of thousands of Americans to support him and become politically engaged. That’s important right now, as a cloud of gloom hangs over US society. And for countries like the Philippines and people of color in the United States, his background as an African American, who has lived in Asia and a very diverse state like Hawaii, would hopefully make him more sensitive to, and perhaps even more deeply aware of the issues affecting poor countries and minorities in America.

In the United States, this is even more critical at a time when there are cynical and even venomous voices once again blaming immigrants for many of America's problems. While anti-immigration advocates claim to target only those who are here illegally, as a brown-skinned, dark-haired immigrant who speaks English with an accent, I, too, have felt the attacks against Asians and Latinos accused of stealing jobs, feeding off welfare and using up resources.

Sadly, some Filipinos respond with their own brand of bigotry, the sort I heard many years ago in the conversation between two Filipino women riding a Mission Street bus. They were discussing immigration in Tagalog, confident that the other Asians and Latinos would not understand them.

"It's those Mexicans," one of them said. "There are so many of them coming here."

"And those Chinese, too, those who come here by boat," the other chimed in.

To some extent, supporting Obama would be a way of paying tribute to the African Americans and other minorities (including many Filipino Americans and Asian Americans) who have endured earlier periods of rejection and hate and those who struggled for many of the rights we now enjoy and use to defend ourselves. This would also be a way to honor the sacrifices of people like Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Paul Robeson. It’s time to give a person of color (or a woman) a chance to serve in the White House.

Of course, Obama would say he should be judged based on his record and abilities, not his race. I agree with others who’ve said they would vote for Obama because he’s qualified. But also because he is a person of color, his victory would be a giant step forward.

It could all be a mistake of course. Like past presidents Obama could end up compromising and cutting deals for political reasons. That’s where the experience question comes in. How will Obama react to the attacks, the temptations, the incredible pressures of the US presidency? We won’t know that until later.

But the last eight years have been so messed up and there’s so much uncertainty in America and the world right now that supporting a political newcomer with a daring and inspiring vision and incredible appeal makes the chance worth taking.

Copyright 2008 by Benjamin Pimentel

East Bay Pinoys

Published January 18, 2008

When people talk about the Filipino community in the San Francisco Bay Area, most inevitably think about San Francisco and neighboring Daly City. But our community has been growing steadily on the other side of San Francisco Bay, known as the East Bay.

In fact, one of the pioneering Filipino organizations began there more than 15 years ago at the California State University East Bay (formerly known as Cal State Hayward). The Center for Filipino Studies was founded by the late literary giant NVM Gonzalez and now led by Professor Efren Padilla of the Sociology Department of the Cal State East Bay.The center’s other founding members include the late Edgardo de la Cruz of Cal State East Bay’s theater and dance department, Alan Smith, the former dean of the university’s College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences and Ric Singson, a marketing and entrepreneurship professor.

Since 1992, the CFS has served as a focal point of Filipino American involvement on the Cal State East Bay campus and beyond. This made sense since nearly 9 percent of Cal State East Bay’s students are Filipinos. And the Filipino population on that side of the Bay Area has been steadily growing since the 1990s, particularly in such cities as Union City, Fremont and Newark. (Farther north there are also major East Bay Pinoy communities in the cities of Hercules and Pinole.)The center has offered resources for teaching and research, held forums on Filipino American issues and sponsored community events.

In what can be considered a major achievement for any Filipino organization in the United States, the CFS helped spearhead the introduction of one of a minor program in Filipino and Filipino American studies on campus. The program gives students opportunities to study Tagalog and courses on Filipino American history, labor and theater.It is even more impressive when one considers that the California State University system, which includes San Francisco State University and San Jose State University, is one of the largest public university systems in the world. The Center has also helped set up student exchanges and other programs with Philippine institutions, including the University of the Philippines, De La Salle University, Silliman University in Dumaguete and the University of Northern Philippines in Vigan.The center recently launched an online publication edited by Rica Llorente. The “Journal of Filipino Studies” focuses on Filipino American issues.

The recent issue includes an interesting look at Filipinos’ use of non-verbal communication by Brad Washington, a doctoral student at the University of San Francisco and a paper about the lives of elderly Filipino immigrants by Rozzana Verder-Aliga, a marriage and family therapist based in Vallejo, a city on the northern edge of the Bay Area which also has a huge Filipino population.

The current Journal of Filipino Studies even has an interesting look at the experiences of immigrant Filipino accountants by Manuel Valle, who teaches at Cal State East Bay.The journal also publishes poetry and other literary pieces in Tagalog and other Philippine languages.

As a Bay Area expat, I’ve never been much of a joiner mainly because of commitments to family and work. But when I was invited to serve on the center’s advisory board I decided to give it a try. A major reason is because the Cal State East Bay campus is near my home. Another reason was because I wanted to honor the memory of NVM Gonzalez, the great Filipino novelist who passed on in 1999.Gonzalez had taught at Cal State East Bay where he played a critical role in the creation of the center. The CFS created the NVM Gonzalez Scholarship program in his honor.

Eventually, I became drawn to the center (although I still fail to attend some meetings due to other commitments) because of my colleagues, most especially Professor Padilla who, with energy and commitment, has led the organization through good times and bad over the past 15 years.This year promises to be another busy one. There’s a Harana planned in April, and a symposium on Filipino political leadership in October which is Filipino Heritage month in the U.S.And it’s simply not going to be a complete year without – what else – a fiesta. There are two held each year in San Francisco. And East Bay Pinoys will have their own fiesta sometime later in the year.
(For more information on the Center for Filipino Studies, go to or
Copyright 2008 by Benjamin Pimentel

Doctor Boogienights

Published January 1, 2008

Theo Gonzalves is an academic, writer, musician, composer, community organizer, theater artist and activist-- a Fil Am Renaissance man in other words.

Now don’t take that to mean he’s a square or a nerd. You’ll never find a square or a nerd who goes by the name Doctor Boogienights. That’s his stage name as part of the Filam band, Bobby Banduria. Actually, he began as “Captain Boogienights” then gave himself a promotion to “doctor” after, well, he became a doctor with a PhD from the University of California-Irvine.

As you can see it’s pretty obvious that Theo, the son of Pinoy immigrants, is your typical Pinoy: big on higher education, big on music and performing.

“My parents have always loved music,” he recalled. “They encouraged me to learn to play the piano and clarinet as a youngster. I played all throughout my younger days on the Monterey Peninsula. My first regular stint as a pianist was playing for my local parish in Marina, California. Instead of becoming an altar server I joined the musicians.”He said he learned “to fill out the arrangements on the piano by adding chords with my right hand and playing bass lines with my left.”

And he even developed a unique gift, so to speak: Theo found a way to mix holy water with “Purple Rain.”

“Around that same time I became a huge fan of Prince's music,” Theo continued. “I disguised every tune I could learn of his into the Sunday mass. The older ladies in the parish complimented me on the mellow mood music I was playing during the offertory or after the communion service finished up. But my friends knew I was sneaking in smoothed out versions of ‘Let's Pretend We're Married,’ ‘Darling Nikki,’ and ‘Computer Blue’ into the service.”

I first came across Theo while watching a show in San Francisco where he was a member of the famous FilAm comedy troupe, “Tongue In a Mood.” (Hint: Say the name really fast.) Theo served as musical director of the group which he said specialized in “politically subversive theater.” It pokes fun at our own taboos,” he told me many years ago.Tongue In a Mood became known for ribbing Filipino immigrants, Filams and Filipinos in the Philippines.

One my favorite skits featured a decorations commonly found in Filipino homes and banished to the basement. Imagine what a girl dancing the Tinikling, a naked man in a barrel and Jesus Christ would talk about to pass the time?

Theo’s interest in theater and performing extended to his career as an assistant professor of American studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He has just published a book, “Stage Presence: Conversations with Filipino American Performing Artists” (Meritage Press, 2007). The book, which Theo edited, is a collection on essays and interviews with Filipino American performing artists who talk candidly about performing – how they go about mounting a play or a concert, what inspires them, what challenges they face as artists of Filipino descent in the United States.

The book features a pretty impressive lineup.

There’s Danongan Kalundayan, the famous kulintang player and teacher, and Gabe Baltazar, Jr., the master alto saxophonist and clarinetist of the bop school. Then there’s Tongue In a Mood founder Allan Manalo, the Bay Area comic who a few years ago moved to Manila where is now a well-known humorist and theater artist.Theo said the idea for the collection came from his conversations with poet Eileen Tabios, the publisher of Mertiage Press, “about the different kinds of projects that combined artists from various performing arts disciplines.”

“The intent of the books is … to allow performers an opportunity to talk about their creative processes,” he said. “Many of the artists featured in the book have been mentors of mine for many years. I wanted to feature those who were performers in their own right as well as those that have led ensembles, companies, troupes, or bands. Performers who take on the larger responsibilities of leading a group have to rely on a range of skills in addition to their artistic training. It could involve everything from marketing, making business plans, media management, accounting, working with city planners, and chasing down grants to figuring out how to make a group work well together night after night. Add to that a tour schedule and you're really taxing multiple skill sets.”

He said the artists featured in the book all drew from their Filipinoness to do their work as artists, but not just that.

“They also have been at the cutting edges of giving us new ways to think about what it could mean to be Filipino in the world today,” Theo said. “They experiment with while extending traditions.”“They insist on looking and turning to Filipino histories not because it's a comfortable place to go back to but rather because they want to remind us that lessons from the past still have to learned - about the Philippine American war, migration from the country, and so much more,” Theo added. “But their work is not just about playing histories out on stages. I've been enjoying their work because they produce outstanding, fun, heartbreaking and vital work. It's truly alive.”

Copyright 2008 By Benjamin Pimentel

With 18 houses, a FilAm couple prepares for the worst

Published December 12, 2007

For most Filipinos, owning one’s home is a dream. For the Fil Am couple Elena and Samuel that dream was multiplied 18 times. That is, they bought and owned 18 houses. And now, home ownership is turning into a nightmare.

They asked me not to use their real names, but Elena and Samuel, who own properties mostly in the Sacramento, California area, are two of the Filipino faces of the sub prime mortgage crisis that’s threatening to push the US economy into a recession.

But before we go to their story, a quick overview.

Just seven years after the so-called dot-com bust, America is reeling from another financial crisis. The last round involved overvalued tech startups that rode the wave of what former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan called “irrational exuberance.”

Companies hoping to score big in the new frontier called the World Wide Web were -- sometimes to the surprise of their founders -- attracting tens of millions, and even hundreds of millions, of dollars in venture capital investment. Even though many of these firms weren’t making money and it wasn’t even clear that they were going to do so in the near future.

Well, the party eventually had to end. And when it did, it led to the painful tech crash of 2000-2001.

Hundreds of companies folded. Thousands of engineers, executives and others lost their jobs. Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, the collapse of the tech market was manifested in a curious way: Traffic on Highway 101, which could be compared to the EDSA of the Bay Area, suddenly became very, very light. It even became easier to get restaurant reservations. Why? Because the many of the thousands who flocked to the area, hoping to get a piece of the action, simply packed up and left.

But at least that crisis involved companies not really worth much anyway. The current crisis involves something much more valuable to families and individuals: their home.

Over the past 10 years, America saw one of the biggest housing booms in its history, fuelled largely by historically low interest rates. Lenders hoping to cash in on the craze also offered creative ways to finance home-buying, especially for first-timers.

Typically, a borrower has to go through many hoops to get a loan. Down payment of at least 20 percent the price of the house. Good credit. Stable job and income. But, like I said, lenders got creative. Bad credit? No problem. Not enough income? No problem, we’ll make it up.

Because of rapidly rising home prices, homeowners were also able to tap their properties’ equity by taking out home equity loans. The money was used for a variety of purposes, such as remodeling a home or paying off student loans. But it’s been reported that homeowners also used the money to, well, party: They bought boats and other luxury items or went on expensive vacations.American households have typically gotten 30-year mortgages based on a fixed rate. They knew how much they would have to pay for that period and adjusted their budgets accordingly. In other words, the pain, month-to-month, was predictable.

But in the past few years, lenders have become more aggressive in offering what’s usually referred to as ARMs, or adjustable rate mortgages. A borrower would pay a fixed amount for certain period – 5 years, 3 years, sometimes just one year – and the payments would be adjusted depending on the current rate. If the rates stayed low, as they have in the past few years, then there was no problem. But once the rates go up, homeowners get hit with higher payments.

And that’s exactly what happened across the United States – on a massive scale. So massive that it has a caused a major crisis on Wall Street, the US’s financial center.

To be sure, there were many speculators who reaped huge profits from the perfect storm of low interest rates and rapidly rising home prices. But these were people who probably knew the party was not going to go on forever, watched closely for signs of trouble and then got out just in time.

But majority of homebuyers didn’t get out.

That’s what happened with Elena and Samuel. They’re hard working Filipino expats who have done a great job taking care of their family.

In 2001, they bought a home for about $100,000. Rates were then still dropping, and home prices rising. Two years later, the house was worth three times more, so they sold it and bought another one. And they kept buying.

They used the equity on their home to borrow money to buy other homes, which they then rented out. While the rates stayed low and their property values continued rising, their home rental business worked, bringing in more than enough steady income.

Now, what Elena and Samuel did was not unusual. I know of many other Pinoy realtors and speculators who also took out home equity to buy one and even two homes in the Sacramento and Las Vegas, Nevada areas where prices were relatively lower. But until I found out about Elena and Samuel’s story, I had never heard of anyone buying 18 houses.

Then the housing bubble burst.

“We have homes whose values have dropped $50,000 to $100,000,” Elena said in Tagalog. “We bought one for more than $1 million. Its value dropped by $100,000. … We’re losing money on some of our rentals. We’re in the negative. “

That’s because the money coming in from rentals is now not enough to cover the steadily rising mortgage payments. For example, the $2,000 monthly payment they made on one home has doubled to $4,000, she said.“We can’t sell right now because the prices are dropping,” she added. “All we can do is wait for the market to bounce back.”Elena and Samuel had also launched their own real estate business. This has helped sustain them. But she said the situation is grim for many realtors and homeowners. Many of their clients have seen their homes foreclosed.

“Nakakaawa (Pitiful). We felt sorry for them. They just started to default on their loans and they got foreclosed. … I know someone who owned eight houses. They were all foreclosed. And they are just renting a condo right now.”

One bright spot, Elena said, is that each of their houses has a renter, and their real estate and home financing business is still doing well.

“Awa ng Diyos tuluy-tuloy kami.( By God’s mercy, we’re surviving),” she said.

Unfortunately, the mortgage crisis is bound to get worse. Many homeowners are expected to be hit with higher housing bills in 2008 and analysts already predict tens of thousands of them will be forced to give up their homes.

The Bush Administration recently announced a plan, drafted with the big banks, to freeze the rates on some, but not all, home loans. But that’s not likely to help people like Elena and Samuel. The plan only applies to a specific group. People who bought multiple homes hoping to sell them for a profit do not qualify.

So 2008 will be a critical year for Elena and Samuel.

“Iyon ang kinakatakutan ko (That’s what I’m afraid of) – my ARM loans,” she said. If the situation worsens, she continued, they are willing to walk away, give up some, if not all, their homes even if it means losing money and getting stuck with a bad credit rating.

Does she regret going on a buying spree? “Nagsisisi rin. (I do have some regrets.) But you know, it was like a gamble. … We just go month to month na lang.”

And their gamble paid off for them during the good times. When Elena turned 50 last year, she went on a trip to Europe and even got to visit the Vatican. “ “Naka-shake hands ko ang Papa “ (I got to shake the Pope’s hand),” she chuckled.

Copyright 2007 Benjamin Pimentel

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Marily's Mission

Published October 25, 2007

Google “Filipina” and you will likely find Web sites about mail order brides or international dating – online destinations that typically bring to mind the many stories of Filipinas being exploited or abused.

Marily Mondejar wants to change that.

The first time we met, she was trying to do it by producing and promoting Eve Ensler’s internationally renowned play about female sexuality, The Vagina Monolgues. Not only was the production composed of an all Filipina-cast, it was also in Tagalog.

I interviewed Marily, who is president of the Filipina Women’s Network, on Pinoy Pod, the San Francisco Chronicle’s podcast focused on the Filipino American community. (The feature marked the first time that the Tagalog word for the female organ was published on a major U.S. metropolitan newspaper’s Web site. You can check it out here).

Marily is trying to overhaul the image of Filipina women again this year by identifying the 100 most influential Filipinas in the United States.

“We want to be showing on the first page of any Yahoo or Google search with the meaning for ‘Filipina’ as ‘someone doing influential things,’” she said.

The idea for the campaign, which culminates this week at the organization’s 5th Filipina Summit in Washington DC., came to Marily and her group last year during the celebration of the centennial of Filipino migration to the United States.

That commemoration had focused largely on the Filipino men who came to America as migrant farm workers. “There were very few women mentioned, just the war brides,” Marily said.
For the bicentennial celebration of Filipino presence in America, she said, her group “wants to make sure there are at least 100 Filipinas” mentioned in the stories about the Filipino American journey.

For this to actually happen, FWN wanted to find influential Filipinas willing to take part in a campaign to reshape their public image. Marily and her team didn’t want another popularity contest or another feel-good schmooze-fest for the rich and famous.

“We did not want that,” Marily said. “You may be high society, you may come from a wealthy family. But we want to make sure that’s not your only claim to fame.”

And making it to the list is just the first step. Each honoree has a job to do.

“We want you to promise to be a womentor,” she quipped, using FWNspeak for “mentor.” Each honoree must commit to help younger Filipinas as they begin their careers or take on other challenges in their community and beyond. “The goal is to change the face of power in America,” she said.

The organization solicited nominations from all over America, from the world of business, the arts, education, and nonprofits. After the list is completed, Marily said, FWN will then launch a mentorship program that it hopes to become fully-developed by 2012.

It’s a tough challenge, she acknowledged.

While there is a lot of excitement now about the campaign to identify the 100 Pinas, sustaining that energy will be difficult even for an established organization like FWN with its 500 active
members and network of 5,000 supporters throughout the United States.

“The fear is obviously sustainability,” she said. “Are we going to get the support of the community? Is the program going to get the support of the community?”

But for the 57-year-old business consultant and single mother, it’s worth a shot. A native of Tacloban who grew up in San Juan, Metro Manila, Marily married young, had two sons and got divorced after moving to the United States in the early 1980s. She later built a successful career as a business development and image consultant, but she did not play to active a role in Filipino issues.

“I had been here 20 years but never got involved,” she said.That changed in 2000 when she signed up to be a member of FWN which she has turned into a vibrant civic organization.
“This is my legacy to the community,” Marily said. “That’s all I ask for.” Laughing, she added, “I don’t even have a daughter. That’s probably why I’m involved in this.”

To find out more about the Filpina Women’s Network go to

Mother, Activsit, Filipina Warrior

Published September 9, 2007

Until recently, Gloria “Joy” Asuncion – a.k.a. Joy Jopson and Joy Kintanar – has played a bit role on the Philippine political stage, her life a sad footnote in our country’s often violent history.
Although she spent many years as a cadre of the underground movement, the UG, she was not one of the women icons of the kilusan, like Lorena Barros, Lidy Alejandro or Carolina “Bobbi” Malay. Neither was she one of the outspoken advocates of women’s rights.

In fact, staunch feminists would likely frown on her public image: the grieving widow who lost two men she loved to acts of political violence. She was the poor woman in a news photo splashed on front pages of major Manila dailies four years ago, crying in agony next to the bloodied body of her husband, Romulo Kintanar.

The newspaper headlines underscored her image as a victim. "Lighting strikes twice for Kintanar widow," said the headline of a Philippine Daily Inquirer story then, referring to the assassination and death of Joy's first husband, Edgar Jopson, in a military raid in Davao City in 1982. Later Joy was the subject of a cover story in a Manila magazine with the headline, "Tragic Joy."

Until recently, Joy Asuncion, the soft-spoken colegiala-turned revolutionary-turned businesswoman, was viewed largely as a tragic figure, weak and helpless.

Not anymore.

With her decision, (together with Veronica Tabara) to file a case before a Dutch court against Joma Sison, the exiled founding chairman of the Communist Party of the Philippines who has been accused of ordering the murder of her husband, the soft-spoken former activist steps back onto center stage in a fighting stance.

It was a daring and courageous move. But also extremely risky – here is a single mother, a woman in her late 50s, who is not in the best of health, taking on a gargantuan challenge. She is not a political figure, and has no political organization backing her up. She has no army of supporters, no powerful allies, no influential network. Joy is waging this battle virtually on her own.

And she is wading onto a convoluted political scenario.

Initial reactions to Sison’s arrest highlight the complexity of the situation. The UG and other groups have condemned the arrest as a plot to derail the peace talks between the National Democratic Front and the Arroyo government. In a pathetic bid to portray itself as a key player in the U.S.-led war on terror while distracting the world from its own atrocious human rights record, the Arroyo administration cheered the arrest and even tried to portray itself as having played a key role in the case against Sison.

By taking on Sison, Joy has made herself vulnerable to a serious charge: That she has become an unwitting tool of a government accused of gross violations of human rights. She is also taking on a powerful symbol of a movement known for using violence to silence critics and opponents.
An online message board post last year attacking my book, "UG: An Underground Tale" about the life of Edgar Jopson, had earlier accused Joy of being "a professional witness" of the Philippine military.

It was cynical, cruel and dangerous accusation. For just as Amnesty International blamed Arroyo’s sweeping call to root out the communists for a spike in political violence against community organizers and activists (including those not affiliated with the UG) branding Joy a “professional agent” – a bayarang testigo (paid witness) – could just as easily lead over-eager cadres to consider her an “enemy of the revolution” and therefore a legitimate target.
By filing the case against Sison, Joy was also taking on a revered, though controversial, icon of the UG Left. To his followers, Sison is a heroic revolutionary who created a great movement for social change in the Philippines. To his critics, he is a ruthless political figure who would not hesitate to use violence against his critics and rivals.

Joy’s cause is complicated by another fact: Her late second husband, Romulo Kintanar, had been accused of being involved in criminal acts when he was commander in chief of the New People’s Army, including kidnap for ransom operations.

Even some of his friends, and Joy herself, sadly admit that some of the allegations were true. But they were quick to dismiss the UG’s claim – that he committed these crimes on his own – as hypocrisy and a distortion of the truth, for they say Kintanar acted based on collective decisions made by the UG leadership.

Still, the challenge before Joy is daunting. It is fair to ask: Why take on this fight?

Sison’s arrest has been deconstructed in many ways by political observers, UG partisans and others as justice catching up with Sison or a sinister imperialist plot.

I offer an alternative view based on what I know about what moves Joy Asuncion: This fight is being waged by a mother wanting to do right by her child, and an activist wanting to do right by other victims of violence who spent more than 20 years fighting for, and with those who have very little power in Philippine society.

“I did this not just for my family, but also for the other victims of extrajudicial killings, whether by the movement or by the government,” she told me. “I hope this will encourage other victims to come out. I hope this helps in our healing.”

She is particularly hopeful that it helps her teenage son Gabby Kintanar heal. He was 10 when his father was killed while having lunch at a Japanese restaurant in Quezon City. Another photo published in Manila papers showed him in front of his father’s coffin.

“Gabby was always asking me: ‘Mama, what has happened to Papa’s case?’” She would be the first to admit to her husband’s checkered record as a revolutionary. “I know Rolly also committed mistakes,” Joy said, quickly and firmly affirming that she rejects all forms of extrajudicial killings “whether it’s by the government or the movement.

“I feel that prime importance should be given to the sanctity of human life,” she said.
She turned to the Dutch government because mounting a fight in the Philippines has become too complicated. How indeed can one ask for justice from a government accused of being behind hundreds of extrajudicial killings and other human rights violations?

“I hope the Philippine government will stay out of the case,” Joy said. “Let us put it in the hands of the Dutch judicial system.”

It is in Holland, where Sison has lived in self-exile for 20 years that Joy feels she can effectively fight for justice. “I cannot fight him in the hills,” she said. “I cannot fight him with arms. The only forum left for me is the legal venue.”

This fight in a Dutch courtroom could well be the most dramatic chapter in the odyssey of Joy Asuncion, the young woman who once had the typical middle class dream: to marry, have a family and a simple, quiet life. Instead she joined Edjop, as Edgar Jopson was known, to pursue a bigger dream: to overthrow and dictatorship and build a more just social system.

It was a difficult life of assumed identities, limited contact with family and constant fear of arrest and death. But it was a life of meaning spent helping the poor and powerless fight for themselves.
It turned joy into a stronger, and quietly daring, person. After Edjop’s death, she challenged the UG leadership’s order not to attend his funeral. She had to change her appearance to attend the memorial service and had to watch the funeral march from a sympathizer’s house on a hill overlooking Katipunan Avenue.

Edjop’s death offered her an opportunity to return to her old life aboveground. But she decided to honor his memory and his heroism but continuing her work as a revolutionary.

She faced the same choice after Kintanar was murdered by his former comrades. Again, Joy Asuncion opted to continue fighting.

In many ways, it’s not surprising. Her years in the UG left her with a strong sense of justice. The movement she and thousands of young Filipino men and women helped created in the ‘70s and ‘80s had taught those who have been historically disenfranchised in Philippine society – the farmers, factory workers, tribal minorities, women – that it is they themselves who must fight for their own interests. They cannot rely on the politicians, the church, the rich, the patriarchy.

“No one else can file this case expect me,” Joy said. “I owe it to my children.”

She is fighting in her own way, with the quiet gentle strength that sustained during her years in the UG. No lashing back in anger or hatred even. No bitter rhetoric. Those are not part of her style.

To her former comrades in Holland, who have been affected by Sison’s arrest and upcoming trial, she said, “To them, my prayers for your understanding and for enlightenment to be true and honest.”

“I’ve gone past the hatred and anger,” she added, saying she has even asked her family and friends to pray for Sison. “I just want the truth out and hope that justice can be served.”

And in doing so she is casting away the old headlines about the pitiful widow who is always getting hit by lighting, about Tragic Joy, and she is letting emerge a new public image of Gloria Asuncion as mother, activist, Filipina warrior.

Copyright 2007 by Benjamin Pimentel

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Lean Alejandro's Midlife Crisis

Published August 24, 2007

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - Lean Alejandro got a fresh new look in San Francisco recently after a group of artists refurbished a 20-year-old mural honoring him and other activist icons of the 1980s.

But longtime visitors to the "Educate to Liberate" mural on Masonic Avenue will notice something different in the revised painting. Lean looks like he has started to grow white hair.
Jane Norling, a member of the Haight Ashbury Muralists who spearheaded the project, said the artists did not intend to portray an older Lean. "Lean was repainted using the original painting as a base," she said. "I think the white in the recent painting was meant to add depth, but it really appears as white hair. So it adds another dimension -- (like) he is forever alive."

It's been 20 years since Lean was shot dead in front of his Quezon City office on September 19, 1987. He was 27.

Speaking at a memorial in July in to mark what would have been Lean's 47th birthday, activist JV Bautista noted that Lean was spared having to endure what many of us of his generation, now in our 40s, are going through or will likely go through: midlife crisis.

Lean will not have to agonize over whether he made the right decisions in his personal and professional life, or whether he has led a meaningful existence. None of that.

Despite his unintentional aging on the San Francisco mural, in the minds of many, he will forever be the young, confident and brilliant activist who led us in the movement against dictatorship. He will forever be the symbol of the Martial Law Babies, as our generation is called.

We were children when Ferdinand Marcos imposed martial law in 1972, and the regime tried to shape us into an obedient army of blind followers. The dictator failed. By the 1980s, the Martial Law Babies were out in the streets, rebelling against the regime, with Lean at the forefront.
He wasn't exactly the epitome of the dashing mass leader. Tall and skinny, he spoke in a high pitched, sometimes shrill, voice. But he was charismatic, and it quickly became evident to those who watched him in action that he was intelligent, passionate and, most important, sincere.
FilAm activist Francis Calpotura, a former UC Berkeley student who founded the League of Filipino Students-USA, recalled the first time he heard Lean speak in Makati in 1984.
"This lanky guy gets on top of a flatbed truck and proceeds to explain to the throng of white collar workers and businessmen, the common cause of students and professionals against the Marcos dictatorship," he said. "I remember saying to myself, 'Not exactly my image of a mass leader, but he's good.'"

Lean defied the stereotype of the rabble rousing, sloganeering student leader. His friend Jojo Abinales said Lean showed how “to be an activist and an intellectual at the same time.”
He was a voracious reader, and his interests cut across many fields. Lean was a fan of "Lord of the Rings," and he drew inspiration from the story of a peasant Jewish family that fought tyranny in the film version of the Broadway musical, "Fiddler on the Roof." The day he was killed, he was reading a book by Italian socialist Antonio Gramsci.
Abinales jokingly speculated that Lean would have dealt with his midlife crisis by spending more time in the library or returning to the University of the Philippines campus in Diliman. “He will try to finish what he failed to accomplish as a UP student – to graduate!”

As chairman of the UP Student Council and later secretary general of the Barong Alyansang Makabayan, Lean became a prominent figure at protest rallies at Liwasang Bonifacio and at Mendiola Bridge near the Malacañang Palace. He debated Marcos' allies and lackeys on national television and worked closely with such revered political figures as Senators Pepe Diokno and Lorenzo Tañada, as well as the trapos (as we called the traditional politicians) in trying to build a broad political alliance against Marcos.

The Left's heavy handed approach to coalition-building led to a personal crisis for Lean. He became controversial for advocating the boycott of the 1986 presidential election in accordance with the position of the underground left. The boycott campaign caused him nightmares, according to Abinales.

"He became the personification of the boycott position," he said. "Lean was being accused of being a dogmatic and a hardliner, and thus cannot be trusted when it came to coalition building."
Still, after the fall of Marcos, Lean continued to play a high-profile role in the social change movement, and even ran for congress in his hometown of Malabon. He was such an effective advocate for social justice that he apparently was considered a threat by rightwing forces seeking to preserve the old order. They saw the need to have him eliminated.

More than 60,000 people attended his funeral. Many of us honored his memory by naming our children after him.

In San Francisco, which Lean visited several times, news of his death shocked many of his admirers in the FilAm community and the broader activist movement. "Disbelief, disgust," was how Calpotura described how many of them felt.

The Haight Ashbury Muralists led by Miranda Bergman and Jane Norling had just started painting "Educate to Liberate" when Lean was killed.

"Moved by Lean's dedication to justice and enraged by his death, we immediately brought him into our mural for the people of San Francisco to know and honor," Norling recalled.

The mural shows arms linked with other activist icons. On his right, is South African leader Winnie Mandela, ex-wife of Nelson Mandela, and on his left, a Salvadoran mother of a desaparecido (disappeared, i.e. abducted). Also in the portrait were Benjamin Linder, the American engineer who killed by U.S.-backed Contras in Nicaragua, Native American activist Leonard Peltier and the Puerto Rican nationalist Pedro Albizu Campos.

Around their portraits was a tapestry of political images depicting a hodgepodge of causes – from the fight against global hunger and colonialism to the battle for the rights of minorities and the elderly.

Beneath Lean's portrait is his famous quote: "The place of honor is the line of fire."
A lot has changed since Lean's death.

The movement he once led went through major upheavals, including a bitter and painful split that at times turned violent. Many of Lean's former comrades, including his widow, Liddy Nacpil, eventually broke with the movement, rejecting what they increasingly saw as undemocratic, even totalitarian, tendencies.

Within the broader Philippine Left, there has been a push to rethink progressive politics based on more inclusive, undogmatic principles, and to de-mythify many of the movement’s leaders, past and present. Even Liddy Nacpil appeared to do just that at the memorial for Lean in July. While she paid tribute to her late husband’s courage and commitment to social change, she said Lean was nevertheless prone to the same narrow machismo of the typical Pinoy male. He once became upset when Lidy dared to challenge his views in public, she recalled, adding, “Tao lang siya.” He was also human.

In San Francisco many activists and artists, including Jane Norling, also revisited their views of progressive political movements and the use of power. For it has become clearer that, while any political group calling for armed revolution can claim to represent "the people,” that's not always the case. In not a few cases, armed revolutionaries eventually turned into tyrants.
"I firmly believe people have the right to take up arms for self determination as long as its for building justice," Norling said. "It's just that I was naïve about how armed force worked."
The changing view of progressive politics is manifested even in the mural on Masonic Avenue. Not only Lean's hair has changed. He is now seen also linking arms with a new comrade: Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan activist who won the Nobel Peace Prize winner for her work in empowering women, battling corrupt officials and planting millions of trees in ravaged lands in Africa.
The muralists painted Maathai’s image over that of Winnie Mandela, who has become a reviled figure to many after she was accused of abusing her position and power during the struggle against apartheid. Norling said the muralists made the change principally because they wanted to honor Maathai – but also because Mandela, as an icon, has become "outdated and complicated."
That Lean did not suffer Winnie Mandela's fate on the mural is heartening for those of us who continue to remember him as a hero. His life and martyrdom remain relevant today. In spite of the changed attitudes and upheavals over the past 20 years, there is no debating that the young man who stood bravely in the line of fire deserves to be on any wall honoring those who fought for justice.
Copyright 2007 by Benjamin Pimentel

Friday, February 15, 2008

Popo Lotilla's Vow of Povery

Published August 9, 2007

SAN FRANCISCO, U.S.- After more than 20 years in government, Raphael “Popo” Lotilla announced recently that he was leaving.

“I would like to end my vow of poverty and all the ancillary vows that come with it,” he told reporters.

I chuckled when I read that. I’ve heard him talk about leaving government for more than two decades. He had considered going into business or returning to the place many of us always thought he would spend most of his career: academia, specifically UP Diliman.

With his departure, the Arroyo government lost even more of its already diminished credibility.
Still, I was glad Popo has moved on. And I suspect many of his other close friends also did.
We first met in 1983 when he won the editorship of the Philippine Collegian and I joined his staff as a section editor. A few months after his term began, Ninoy Aquino was assassinated, triggering the events that eventually led to the fall of Ferdinand Marcos. The assassination also led to the first and only crisis in our friendship so far.

Faced with reports that Aquino allegedly had been killed by one of the soldiers sent to escort him from the plane, Popo and other Collegian editors argued heatedly over how to present the story. Being a reckless campus hothead, I was among those who pushed for a more aggressive headline, while Popo calmly pushed for a more even-handed approach.

Nearly a quarter of century later I humbly concede : Yes, Popo, “Reports Conflict on Aquino Slay” was a more journalistically-sound headline for that story.

We’ve kept in touch through the years even after I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area. In fact, he frequently made San Francisco one of his stops in his travels so we could meet and catch up – and so he can engage in one of his vices: looking for antique maps of the Philippines. We once embarked on a half day expedition from Menlo Park to downtown San Francisco, going from one antique shop to another.

It was great to see him emerge as a national figure over the past 20 years, first as a NEDA official and later as energy secretary. But it also was sometimes tough to watch him associated with controversial administrations. To put it bluntly, it was not always cool to see him in the company of politicos accused of rigging elections and ripping off taxpayers.

But there was one thing about Popo’s career that I and many of his friends took comfort, even pride, in: It always has been crystal clear that he never enriched himself while serving in government.

How could anyone think otherwise about a guy who doesn’t own a house, doesn’t have a car, and as the Inquirer reported, doesn’t even have a TV set, making him eligible to become one of Meralco’s lifeline customers, those who use less that 100 kilowatt-hours of electricity a month.
Just to be clear, Popo’s no cheapskate. Eating out with him has often meant having an argument at the end of the meal over who should pick up the bill: He always insists on paying. His frugal ways are also striking for someone who comes from a landed family in Sibalom, Antique. Like most children of elite families, he learned to play music, of course. Not just any kind of music, mind you. Popo plays the harp.

But for some unexplained reason, Raphael Lotilla preferred the path of frugality.
He taught at the UP College of Law and was already serving as university vice president for public affairs in the early 1990s when he chose to continue to live at Narra Residence Hall, the senior dorm notorious for bad ventilation, leaky bathrooms and poorly-lit corridors and rooms.
Popo later moved to an apartment room near UP’s Stud Farm. It was not exactly a fancy bachelor’s pad, but we often joked that he privately took pride in being able to say that he lived near the Stud Farm

A friend of ours, Susan Villanueva, also one of Popo’s former students and is now an attorney with Villaraza Law, once visited him at his apartment with her husband, Joey Ochave. “I remember the spartan (read empty) atmosphere of his place and an open balikbayan box in the middle of the living space. The small dining room had a water feature: the roof had leaks so water ran down the walls. Seeing his living space, it dawned on me that Popo may have moved out of Narra but you could not remove Narra from Popo.”

In fact, at one point, Popo’s Spartan lifestyle and passion for the law and public service inspired many of his former students and colleagues at the UP College of Law (including Susan and Joey) to consider embracing their own personal vows of poverty.

“We were a group of young lawyers who were inspired by Popo to join the academe and to serve,” Susan said in an e-mail. “Somehow, without at all being preachy and through sheer example, Popo made us believe and want to change the way things were through our abilities and expertise as lawyers. “

The group included former defense secretary Ruben Carranza and other prominent attorneys such as Teddy Te, Tony LaVina and Meilou Sereno.

“All of us graduated at the top of our class. Most of us were in the top law firms or had lucrative private practices. Yet, we wanted to take the road less traveled,” Susan continued. “…I would have left Villaraza Law and taught and done policy work full time. The idea was to make UP, through the UP Law Center, a premier policy center that could provide expert advice to government on matters ranging from intellectual property, law of the sea, trade, human rights, international law, and environment… Imagine a public policy center that had in-house expertise, beholden to no private interests that could help shape government policy.”

The group had expected Popo to lead them down that road as dean of the College of Law. But he lost his bid for the deanship. Many of his former students were disheartened. Some of them changed career plans. Susan Villanueva called his defeat “one of the seminal events in the lives of so many people.”

“Had Popo been appointed, I would have also taken the vow of poverty he had taken. I can't believe now why I was even prepared to make that sacrifice but that time was different. It was a time for possibilities. We all felt then that a Popo deanship would have been a turning point in UP Law's history, the golden age. There was a critical mass that could be led by Popo who was primus inter pares. Someone we all respected who could lead us to make the change happen.”

In April, Popo and I had dinner with a carafe of red wine at the Stinking Rose restaurant in San Francisco’s North Beach district. We were there to celebrate my decision to leave the San Francisco Chronicle after 14 years, for a new gig at Stanford University. I didn’t have a clue then that he would also be making a major career move in a few months.

“Sorry, I missed you, Mara and the kids on your recent visit,” he emailed me recently, referring to my recent visit to Manila with my family. “But I think we will have more opportunities to see each other now that I am out of full-time public service.”

Name the time and place, Popo, and Ill have a bottle of red wine ready. Time for new adventures, buddy.