MANILA, Philippines—There’s the terrible traffic, yes, but the sights, the people and the experiences in the homeland of their folks are what these visiting Filipino-American youth are taking back to the United States.
From a Guam senator and a Yale economist to a public school teacher and a Google strategist, 10 of the brightest Fil-Ams are in town in an “immersive” youth leadership program that brings them in touch with their roots and gives them a chance to give back.
Selected from across the United States, young Americans of Filipino descent are in the Philippines for the Filipino-American Youth Leadership Program (FYLPro), an annual undertaking of the Philippine Embassy in Washington. The program seeks to encourage deeper involvement of Filipino-American youth in Philippine development.
“I listen to what they have to say, and they want to become more actively involved in different causes, particularly in political engagement, policy discussions and getting more involved with Fil-Am community. I have seen that this younger generation is very eager to contribute to these causes,” Philippine Ambassador to the United States Jose Cuisia Jr. said at a press conference.
This year’s FYLPro is the second batch that the embassy sent to the Philippines in hopes of engaging outstanding Fil-Am youth “whose civic involvement and advocacy of causes could contribute to advancing important issues in the Filipino-American community and the further development of the Philippines.”
Throughout their three-day visit this week, the delegates had the opportunity to meet President Aquino, Vice President Jejomar Binay, members of Congress, and Manila’s top business leaders and social entrepreneurs.
On Sunday, the group traveled to Gawad Kalinga Enchanted Farm in Barangay (village) Encanto, Bulacan province, a training ground for students and communities seeking to begin a venture in social entrepreneurship.
It’s the kind of immersion that the young Fil-Ams are raring to have, aware that moving forward also meant looking back.
“As our national hero Jose Rizal said, the hope of the Philippines is the kabataan (youth) and you will not be able to arrive at your destination if you don’t go back to your roots,” said 25-year-old Randy Cortez of Hawaii, who works as a program specialist at the state’s Department of Labor and Industrial relations.
“And that’s the primary reason why we’re here, to help in the development of the Philippines and together, we can make this a really successful relationship,” Cortez told reporters.
For New York public school teacher Edward Santos, coming to the Philippines was an opportunity to trace the roots of his parents, whose story in the United States began like many Filipinos who braved a new beginning. His mother worked as a nanny while his father waited on tables.
“What I remember from the very beginning is the Filipino spirit that my parents always had and which I applied because I wanted to learn more about my identity and really understand the Philippines’ culture of social justice. It really made me want to really understand where I came from and where I want to go,” said Santos, who worked with underserved students in Manhattan’s East Harlem.
He said his group had an unparalleled look into the country’s culture, business and government. “(W)e now really have the resources to be engaged in the process of creating good relationships.”
Coming back to Manila gave Yale economics graduate Nico Barawid a glimpse of how much the country has changed 15 years since his last visit.
“Over the past couple of years, I’ve been reading about the economic revival in the Philippines. And the thing that struck me the most coming out of the airport was the number of high-rises that you could see in the distance,” said Barawid, now taking up his master’s in public policy at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom.
“It helps to concretize the notion of economic development in the Philippines … Obviously, there’s a lot of work to [be done] but the Philippines should be extremely proud,” the Tennessee native said.
Golf courses, traffic
Asked what was the best and worst part of their visit, Bea Querido, 27, of Boeing Co., said: “Lately, I’ve seen a lot of really, really good golf courses. But the worst is [the] traffic.”
The good, however, trumps the bad if you ask Anthony Guevara, a 26-year-old senior loan officer from Houston, Texas.
“I’ve been here a few times. But the thing is, like what the ambassador said, it’s the people who really keep me coming back. I love it here. I really don’t see the bad things in the Philippines,” said Guevara, who founded the Filipino American Council of South Texas.
“It’s hard to see that even if there is poverty and everything else, there’s so much of the beauty to overshadow that,” he said.
Other delegates are involved in politics: 34-year-old Dennis Rodriguez Jr. is a second-term senator at the Guam Legislature; Julien Baburka, 26, is a policy adviser at the Governor’s Office in the state of Illinois; and Washington D.C.’s Melissa Medina is, at 24, a liaison and legislative assistant at the US House of Representatives’ foreign affairs committee.
Two others are closely engaged in community development programs in their home states. California’s Rex Brown, 25, a strategist at Google Inc., is the founder of Baskets 4 Hope, a nonprofit organization that encourages inner-city youth development through sports.
New Yorker Rachelle Ocampo, 26, is a health educator at Queens Hospital Center and serves as president of Pilipino-American Unity for Progress Inc.
This year’s 10 delegates stood out as “the best of the crop,” Cuisia said. They were selected through nominations and applications sent to the Philippine Embassy in Washington, D.C. and the country’s six consulates across the US mainland and territories.