The life and times of Alex Esclamado
SAN FRANCISCO – The last time I saw Alex Esclamado was in August of 2011 just before he left for the Philippines. I had given him a US Pinoys for Good Governance t-shirt (“Our Soil, Our Oil”) which he proudly wore. Just before I snapped his photo, Alex gestured for me to lean forward towards him as he whispered in my ear “Yes, let’s keep the oil in the Spratlys for the Philippines,” he said in slow, halting tones, showing the deleterious effect of almost a decade of Parkinson’s disease, which had damaged his body’s motor functions but not his mind which remained sound.
While the photo of Alex showed a tear in his eye, I knew he was looking forward to returning to his hometown. As a child in Padre Burgos, Leyte, Alex told me once, he eagerly awaited the arrival of each month’s issue of Tarzan. After one such reading, Alex thumped his chest and imagined himself the king of the jungle. When he chanced upon a carabao in a rice paddy near his home, he charged the beast of burden and grabbed a hold of its horns. The carabao raised its head and effortlessly flung Alex across the paddy.
Alex was not injured but he did receive a permanent scar on his chin which he showed me, evidence of his first encounter with a force greater than his. It was likely the last time he would lose.
Mobilizing the ROTC for clean elections
When he graduated from high school in his hometown, Alex left to study pre-law at the Far Eastern University in Manila. He joined the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) and quickly rose the ranks to be the Corps Commander where he then mobilized the nationwide ROTC to involve itself in the effort to ensure clean elections in the successful 1954 presidential campaign of Ramon Magsaysay.
After he passed the Philippine bar in 1955, Alex worked for Pres. Magsaysay’s Land for the Landless Program that saw the distribution of land in Mindanao to the landless Central Luzon peasants who had turned their backs on the Huk rebellion.
Through all these early political activities, Alex saw his biggest success was winning the hand of Lourdes“Luly” Mitra, the daughter of then Congressman Ramon M. Mitra Sr. and sister of future Speaker Monching Mitra Jr. Together, for the next 60 years of their lives, they would create a brood that would encompass 7 children (Carlos, Victor, Ramon, Grace, Elissa, Elena and Alex Jr.), 14 grandchildren and 7 great grandchildren.
Alex clearly had a promising future in Philippine politics but decided in 1961 to accept the offer of Eugenio Lopez, Sr. to move to San Francisco with his family to work as chief US correspondent for the Manila Chronicle.
When the Esclamados arrived in San Francisco, they saw a quiet community that was a hodgepodge of retired farm workers and military personnel, along with a burgeoning second generation of Filipino Americans.
What the community needed, Alex and Luly decided, was a community newspaper that would report on the activities of the growing Filipino community and advocate for its interests. The paper that would become The Philippine News started out 50 years ago in the garage of the Esclamado home on Lawton Avenue in the Sunset District of San Francisco.
One of the major activities the paper covered occurred on September 8, 1965 when Filipino farm workers in Delano led by Larry Itliong and Philip Vera Cruz walked off the fields in a strike to demand a wage increase. They would later be joined by Mexican farm workers led by Cesar Chavez.
Because the farm workers needed food to sustain themselves during the strike, Alex organized a Food Caravan with Filipinos in San Francisco gathering canned goods and driving to Delano to distribute them to the Filipino farm workers.
This alliance of Filipino farm workers in the agricultural, rural areas and Filipino professionals in the cities would lead to the formation of the Filipino American Political Association (FAPA) which saw 30 chapters throughout California by the late 60s.
Alex also worked with Rep. Philip Burton (D-San Francisco) to mobilize Filipino community support for passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 which increased the immigration quota of countries like the Philippines from 50 a year to 20,000 a year.
In the 1960s, Alex organized the Filipino American Council of San Francisco, a coalition of dozens of Filipino community organizations that would set up city-funded programs for newly arrived immigrants and senior citizens.
Early supporter of Filipino WWII vets
In 1965, Alex supported Marciano Haw Hibi, a WW II veteran who had overstayed his visa and was in deportation proceedings. Alex introduced him to noted immigration attorney Donald Ungar who contended that Hibi was entitled to US citizenship as a USAFFE veteran. Hibi won his naturalization suit in 1967, a decision which the U.S. Supreme Court reversed in October of 1973.
Together with Ungar, Alex filed a federal case in 1976 on behalf of 68 Filipino WW II veterans. In the federal trial of the case in 1977, Federal Judge Charles Renfrew allowed Alex to talk about the sacrifices of the Filipino veterans and the discriminatory injustice of the 1946 Rescission Act.
After hearing his arguments, Judge Renfrew granted the naturalization petitions of the 68 veterans which the US government initially appealed but later withdrew. This paved the way for the naturalization of hundreds of Filipino WW II veterans. This continued until 1988 when the US Supreme Court stopped all court action to naturalize Filipino veterans.
Alex would later mobilize the Filipino community to successfully lobby the US Congress to grant US citizenship to Filipino WW II veterans which the Congress eventually did in October of 1990.
Opposed martial law
When Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in September of 1972, the Philippine News was the first major Filipino community newspaper to denounce the Marcos dictatorship. But it came at a heavy price.
Through Secretary of Tourism Jose Aspiras, Marcos directed all FilAm travel agencies in the US to drop their ads in the Philippine News. As those agency ads accounted for up to 80% of the income of the Philippine News, the ad boycott almost caused the paper to cease publication.
But Alex persisted by borrowing from friends and using the mortgage on their properties as collateral for loans. Eventually, Alex and Luly would lose title to all their properties and would be deeply in debt.
But the Philippine News kept exposing the abuses of the Marcoses and lobbying the US Congress to cut off its military and economic aid to Marcos.
At one point, a Marcos emissary approached Alex with an offer to purchase the Philippine News for $10 million. It was an offer Marcos thought Alex could not refuse given the mountain of debt that Alex was buried under. But after discussing the offer with his family, Alex rejected the Marcos offer.
After People Power overthrew the Marcos Dictatorship in 1986, Alex visited to the Philippines for the first time since 1971 but chose not to accept any political appointment in the new government of his friend, Pres. Cory Aquino. He returned to San Francisco determined to unify the Filipino American community that had been fractured by the Marcos regime.
In 1987, Alex convened a Filipino American unity conference in Anaheim, California to create the National Filipino American Council (NFAC) which Alex saw as the vehicle for the unification of Filipinos in the US. But a majority of the 1500 delegates who attended the Anaheim conference refused to elect Alex as the national chair, not because he was anti-Marcos, but because he was viewed as too much of a Democrat.
Many of the Republican delegates forgot the central role that Alex played in organizing the Browns for Brown gubernatorial campaign of Jerry Brown when he first ran for governor in1974 and in 1978 when he ran for reelection. Because of the FilAms involvement in his campaign, Gov. Brown appointed more FilAms to state commissions than all his predecessors combined. He also appointed three FilAm judges, the first in the state.
They forgot Alex’s role in persuading the California Assembly under Speaker Willie Brown to pass legislation that allowed Philippine-educated accountants and dentists to practice their professions in the US.
Alex was disappointed that he was not able to lead the NFAC to achieve his dream of national empowerment for the Filipino community. Perhaps it was time to move on. He and Luly decided to sell the Philippine News and to transition to retirement.
In 1997, I suggested to him that because the NFAC had failed to take off as he had hope that it was time to try again. We came up with the idea to form the National Federation of Filipino American Associations (NaFFAA) and we flew to New York in April to discuss the proposal with Loida Nicolas-Lewis, who was immediately supportive.
NAFFAA is born
Alex traveled all over the US to rally community leaders to attend the Filipino American Empowerment Conference set for August of 1997 in Washington DC. More than 1500 delegates came from every corner of the US to forge a unified organization. NaFFAA was formed and Alex was elected the national chair. It was Panahon Na for NaFFAA.
NaFFAA just held its 10th biennial empowerment conference in Detroit, Michigan and now has 12 regional chapters throughout the US. It was heavily involved in securing passage of the Filipino Veterans Equity Bill that granted lump sum payments of $15,000 to Filvets in the US and $9000 to Filvets in the Philippines.
On May 9, 1989, Alex received the Philippine Legion of Honor Award from President Corazon Aquino.
The award reads:
“For his distinguished and outstanding service to the country during the past 20 years. Often a lone voice in the United States, he relentlessly championed Philippine freedom and democracy without regard for personal safety in the face of the threatening might of the dictatorship.
Through his newspaper, the Philippine News, he continuously published the truth about the repressions of the dictatorial rule, suffering great financial loss and harassment of his family. His testimony before the US Congress revealing facts about the assassination of Benigno S. Aquino, Jr., and the oppression of the Filipino people, helped change US policy towards the Philippines.
Since the 1960s, he has led a gallant battle for equal rights for Filipino immigrants in the US, benefiting not only Filipinos but all Asians. He was the prime mover in unifying more than 3,000 Filipino American associations into a single organization, with the goal of assisting Filipinos in the U.S. and contributing to the economic recovery of the Philippines.
He was the only Filipino American selected to receive the prestigious ‘Ellis Island Medal of Honor’ presented during the US Bicentennial Celebration to America’s most prominent immigrants.
For the past two decades, Alex A. Esclamado has been the single most influential Filipino American, courageously fighting for the cause of justice for Filipinos everywhere and serving as an inspiration in the defense of freedom, a true benefactor of the underprivileged and an ardent advocate of a strong and lasting democracy in his native country.”
For the last 10 years, Alex has been afflicted with Parkinson’s disease which had debilitated him. In August of 1911, Alex and Luly returned to his hometown in Leyte where on November 4, 2012, with his body rejecting all food and medication, Alex died of pneumonia.
Luly called me the next day to relay the news of Alex’s passing and to inform me that she would be returning to San Francisco with the remains of Alex on November 12. I then suggested a memorial mass and service be held at 11 AM on November 17 at the St. Anne of the Sunset Church in San Francisco (850 Judah Street corner Funston Avenue).
After consulting with the members of her family, Luly agreed but she was somewhat skeptical. “It’s been 10 years since Alex was last active” she said. “Will people still remember him? Will they show up?”
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