Obama’s tears through Filipino eyes
SAN FRANCISCO — The most moving episode from the recently-concluded US presidential election campaign took place after the polls had closed and the ballots had been tallied.
The day after the election, Barack Obama visited his campaign headquarters in Chicago to address the young people who helped him win.
He could have given a rabble-rousing, triumphant speech, saying something like, ‘We did it! We’re No. 1!’
But he didn’t.
Instead, he gave perhaps one of the most important and meaningful speeches of his political career.
Obama began by recalling his own unusual journey as a young man in his 20s who gave up a lucrative job on Wall Street to become a community organizer in Chicago. He then thanked the young people who, like him, also gave their time and energy for a political cause.
“You are so much better than I was, in so many ways,” he said. “You’re smarter, more organized, more effective. I’m absolutely confident that all of you are going to do amazing things.”
“What you guys have done means that the work that I’m doing is important, and I’m really proud of that,” he also said.
It was at that point that Barack lost it.
He paused and turned his head to the side. It quickly became clear why. He wiped a tear that had rolled down his face. His supporters broke into cheers.
So what’s the Filipino connection in all this?
Well, one is minor and unfortunate.
Remember that famous speech by Robert F. Kennedy that Tito Sotto, the comedian member of the Philippine Senate, plagiarized in his campaign against the reproductive rights of Filipino women?
Well, it’s back in the news.
That’s because Obama referred to that Kennedy speech, too, though, of course, he did it the right way.
“I am absolutely confident that all of you are going to do just amazing things in your lives. And what Bobby Kennedy called the ripples of hope that come out when you throw a stone in the lake – that’s going to be you,” Obama told the young activists.
Of course, with Tito Sotto, the ripples of hope became a tidal wave of embarrassment.
It’s safe to assume that Robert Kennedy would be scandalized that a Filipino politician tried to use his words in a campaign against women’s rights.
In fact, coincidentally, a day after Obama’s speech before the young activists, Bobby Kennedy’s family finally spoke out on the Sotto controversy, demanding an apology from the comedian-turned-politician.
The Kennedy speech itself is a story of courage and commitment.
As the New Yorker magazine recalls in a piece on the Obama video, Kennedy gave that speech to a group opposed to the apartheid regime whose decision to invite the American senator took a lot of guts. In fact, the group was banned by the racist white government by the time Kennedy arrived in the country to give the speech.
“Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance,” Kennedy said.
Those words still resonate today. And it’s not surprising Bobby Kennedy’s family would be outraged by Sotto’s plagiarism.
As his daughter Kerry Kennedy said in a letter, asking Sotto to apologize, “I am particularly offended to see a speech my father gave in support of global human rights distorted by Senator Sotto as an argument against the right to contraception. Limiting that freedom was in no way the topic of the 1966 Day of Affirmation speech.”
Fortunately, Tito Sotto is not the only Filipino connection to the now-famous post-election speech by Barack Obama.
Media reports on his moving appearance before his campaign supporters focused mostly on the tears. That’s not surprising since Obama was known as ‘No Drama Obama,’ a charismatic, but incredibly cool political figure.
But what he said was also significant.
Like I said, he could have simply given a simple pep talk, extolling the great success of his campaign. Instead, he talked about the past – his past – and the future – that of the young people who played such a critical role in his victory.
For Filipinos in America, the last election season was in a many ways a reminder of our past and our future, and of the “ripples of hope” Kennedy and Obama talked about.
Obviously, the fact that Americans elected and re-elected the country’s first African American president is one example.
It’s an impressive victory given what Obama was up against.
According to CNN, he won 60% of the votes among Americans who were 18 to 24 years old. He also won 60% of votes in the 25 to 29 age group. That’s not surprising given the way he relates to young people which was demonstrated in that video.
Another point was striking. While much has been written about Obama’s strong support in the Latino community – he won 71% of the votes from that group – he won 73% of the Asian vote. (It’s still unclear how Filipinos voted. I’m looking to get more data on this question.)
Another set of hopeful ripples can be found in the more than a dozen Filipino Americans elected to public office.
One of them has a pretty fascinating background.
Rob Bonta, the Filipino vice mayor of the city of Alameda, just became the first Filipino member of the California State Assembly. In some ways, his story is part of the bigger story of Filipino Americans.
His parents were part of the United Farm Workers. That historic movement is now widely remembered to have been spearheaded by Cesar Chavez, the most prominent Mexican American in US history. In fact, prominent figures in Filipino American history — Phillip Vera Cruz and Larry Itliong – played even bigger roles in the history of that union.
And the ripples of hope in the last election season didn’t just involve Filipino politicians.
Eric Mar, a progressive member of the San Francisco supervisors, was re-elected on Tuesday. Mar is Chinese American, and he won with the support of Filipino Americans.
“My former LFS and PACE students from SF State and the FCC were great on the campaign trail,” he told me in an email.
PACE refers to Pilipino American Collegiate Endeavor, a Filipino American student organization at San Francisco State University. (FilAms refer to themselves as ‘Pilipino.’) FCC is the Filipino Community Center, a school geared to the Filipino community in San Francisco.
LFS many of you already know. The US chapter of the League Filipino Students was founded in the 1980s by my friend Francis Calpotura, a veteran activist based in Oakland.
Fran is one of the most experienced community organizers in the San Francisco Bay Area. He now frowns on the narrow dogmatism of today’s LFS and its extreme left allies. Still, Fran acknowledges the importance of perseverance and patience in organizing.
He also was struck by Obama’s speech before the young activists.
“It was his best speech,” Fran told me. “Doon talaga nakita na makatao siya. That’s when it was really clear that he was for the people.”
“It takes a while to win elections,” he continued. “It takes both the dedication of young people and a strategy that you can build on methodically.”
Barack Obama understood this.
“The most important thing you need to know is your journey is just beginning,” he told the young activists of the Obama campaign. “You’re just starting. Whatever good we do over the next four years will pale in comparison to what guys end up accomplishing for years and years to come.
“And that’s been my source of hope.”
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