A Face for an 'Invisible Minority'
Filipino Americans, Nation's Largest Asian Group, Seek to
Flex Their Political Muscle
By William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 18, 1998; Page A06
For years they have been the "invisible minority," underrepresented
politically in the United States, wracked by divisions within their ranks and
generally more interested in the political life of their homeland than their
new life here.
Now Filipino Americans say they are coming together as a force to be
reckoned with in their adopted country. They hope to emulate other
minorities -- notably Hispanics -- and translate their growing numbers into
a major increase in political clout in the 21st century.
Such "empowerment" was the theme this weekend during a three-day
Washington convention of the National Federation of Filipino American
Associations, an umbrella group formed here last year with the aim of
uniting more than 2 million Filipinos and Americans of Philippine ancestry
living in the United States. The group estimates that at least 60,000 live in
the Washington area.
"We're the fastest-growing minority group after the Mexican Americans,"
said Jon Melegrito, the federation's director. Immigrants of Philippine
descent also make up the largest share of the country's Asian American
population and may be the biggest Asian minority group in Virginia, thanks
largely to the presence of tens of thousands of Filipino Americans in the
Norfolk area as the result of high Filipino enlistment in the U.S. Navy.
Despite their large numbers, Filipinos have had little success at making
political presence known in the United States, either in state or national
politics. There are no Filipino Americans in Congress and only six in state
legislatures, including one in Maryland -- David Valderrama -- and another
in West Virginia -- Don Amores. In addition, one Filipino American holds
a governorship -- in Hawaii -- and three are mayors.
"Forming [the federation] was a political act for a group that's been
predominantly invisible politically," said Irene Natividad, a Filipino
American who runs a Washington public relations firm and chairs the
president's National Commission on Working Women. "The larger you are
as an entity, the more people listen to you. We learned from other
immigrant and civil rights groups that have done this successfully."
"We're working our way out of invisibility," she said. "We're becoming
players. Before, we weren't even on the map."
Filipino Americans say they have largely overcome divisions that beset
their community during and immediately after the rule of former president
Ferdinand Marcos, who was driven from power in 1986. Once
preoccupied with politics in their homeland, they are becoming more
attuned to political life here, a trend especially notable among young
Filipino Americans, Melegrito said.
Among them is Rodney Salinas, a 23-year-old graduate student at George
Washington University who makes no secret of his desire to run for public
office. The son of a Filipino veteran of the U.S. Navy and a nurse who live
in New Jersey, he wants to start with local Democratic politics in
As a community, "we want to be put on the radar screen of every person
in America, and I think that's what [the federation] is accomplishing," said
Salinas, one of the convention organizers. He said his own role model is
Democratic Gov. Gary Locke of Washington, a Chinese American who
built an effective multi-ethnic coalition and won decisively in the state two
"I don't see any limit to where I can go," said Salinas. "I'm ambitious."
On the whole, however, Filipino Americans are "still pretty much
ambivalent about who they are," Melegrito said. Because they generally
speak English and have a "Western outlook" -- as the result of U.S.
tutelage during the first half of this century -- they have tended to assimilate
more easily than many other immigrant groups.
"We never really quite saw ourselves as part of a pan-Asian community,"
Melegrito said. As an island nation and the only predominantly Roman
Catholic country in Asia, the Philippines has always seen itself as a case
apart, making it "difficult for Filipino Americans to identify with the larger
Asian community," Melegrito said.
In fact, he said, Filipino Americans seem to have more in common here
with Hispanics than Asians, including religious and cultural values stemming
from more than 300 years of Spanish rule. And the community increasingly
is looking to Hispanic organizing as the model for its own quest for political
power, Melegrito said.
It is for that reason that the convention has invited Raul Yzaguirre,
president of the National Council of La Raza, to be its keynote speaker.
"We want to emulate what they've accomplished," Melegrito said. "We
want to follow the same path of empowerment."
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