Artesia, California’s can-do Fil-Am mayor pro tem
ARTESIA, California — When it comes to participating in politics, getting constituents engaged is a priority for Victor Manalo, the Filipino-American mayor pro tem of Artesia.
“I want people to know that they don’t have to just sit and suffer if there’s something going on in their neighborhood that needs attention that the city has responsibility for,” he said.
“The only way we can address those issues as a city council is if people let us know that these things are happening. And some things take time to fix,” he added.
Artesia became Manalo’s home in the early 1990s after he and his wife purchased a house in the city. At the time, he realized he didn’t know much about what was going on in his new surroundings.
During elections, then-council members visited his home, including Tony Mendoza, who is now a state senator representing District 32.
“When he came to my house, I decided to start asking him some questions about what kind of things are going on in the city,” Manalo said. “After that, he actually got me appointed to a planning commission because I showed some interest in what was going on.”
Hit the ground running
Eventually, Manalo took a shot at local government. It took him three tries before he finally secured a seat on the Artesia City Council in 2007. (He ran and lost twice in 2001 and 2003.) Upon entering the municipal governing body, he said he hit the ground running.
“I had to learn the ropes on actually how to govern,” he said, noting that government procedures are much more complicated than what is taught in school.
“You have to figure out what the job is and what you can do and what you can’t do because it’s very different when you’re running for an office versus actually having to govern as an elected official. They’re two totally different things,” he said.
The mayor pro tem said he never thought he would be in politics. A social worker by profession, he obtained three degrees in the field: his bachelor’s from Marquette University, his master’s from Cal State Long Beach and his doctorate from the University of Southern California.
Manalo had worked with many individuals in South Central for a number of years. He was a graduate student at Cal State Long Beach after the Rodney King verdicts, and the uprising and riots that followed.
Although he dealt with many people from communities involved in the riots, he realized he was largely unaware of what was going on in their lives. It was then that Manalo began on a more political trail.
“That event really caused me to realize that there was something much bigger going on in people’s lives that I needed to pay attention to. And that eventually brought me to the politics, and specifically to local government,” he said.
Since Manalo took office eight years ago, he has pushed to get residents involved in local government. From 2010 to 2011, he served as mayor of the city and started a group called Artesia in Action.
Members were volunteers from local churches who donated time to various projects that enhanced the city’s appearance. Among these included collecting trash, cleaning up empty lots, trimming trees and painting buildings.
“I realize that if we want to make decisions that respond directly to the needs and wants of the people that live and work in the City of Artesia, then we need to engage them in some way,” Manalo said.
A more recent accomplishment the mayor pro tem has made was a safety ordinance he initiated after a storefront crash in Buena Park last year that killed his mother-in-law and severely injured his two daughters: his eldest daughter suffered from two broken ankles, while his second came out with brain fractures.
Both his daughters fully recovered, although his second has titanium pins in her head.
After looking into the incident, Manalo found that storefront crashes are not uncommon and result in thousands of injuries and hundreds of deaths each year.
The ordinance he pushed, which took nearly a year to approve, focuses on eateries with outdoor dining and requires that property owners implement safety measures to keep people safe while they are eating outside. Options from which owners can choose include: putting up safety barriers, such as bollards, which Manalo says costs a few to several hundred dollars each; refiguring parking spaces so that none face where people eat; or completely eliminating outdoor seating.
Manalo said the city does not want people to select the third option, but added it was included for businesses that do not wish to spend any money on physical barriers. He also hopes the ordinance will eventually expand to include areas that receive much foot traffic in front of the business.
In addition to what has already been done, Manalo, along with the rest of Artesia’s councilmembers, is exploring ways to raise more revenue without relying on tax hikes (although he said that is always something to be considered when looking at ways to raise more money).
The city is also investing about $3.5 million to enhance its downtown area by widening its sidewalks to make it more pedestrian friendly, and adding streetlights and benches, among other things.
Another priority for Manalo is to build Artesia a new community center, as he describes the current one as “not very user-friendly.”
Social work professor
Aside from serving on the Artesia City Council, the mayor pro tem is a professor of social work at Cal State Los Angeles, where he has worked as a full-time faculty member since 2002 and brings his belief in the power of participation to the classroom.
“He empowers students to be active in their community and be an agent of change,” said Yenny Guarin, one of Manalo’s former students. “He has the gift of being able to educate pupils about politics in a manner that causes action.”
Guarin has known Manalo for four years and said she walked out of his classes feeling empowered. After taking his courses, she has called her local government regarding potholes in her neighborhood and even reached out to other cities on behalf of family members.
Guarin also participated in a lobby day event in Sacramento in support of a bill (SB 1064, the Reuniting Immigrant Families Act) that was ultimately signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2012.
“I could not believe that I was part of a change in legislature. At that moment I realized that everybody could be involved with policy. One [does] not have to be a politician to have a political impact on other people’s lives,” she said.
Born and raised in Chicago to his father from Quezon City and mother from Mambusau Capiz in Visayas, Manalo is the eldest of three children. He doesn’t speak either of his parents’ native tongues: both of them didn’t want their kids to get confused so they spoke to them in English, he said.
Still, Manalo said he possesses a sense of obligation to a greater community, which reflects the communal culture of Filipinos.
As a public servant to a diverse city (Artesia is home to Hispanic, Asian, European and African American populations; 45.8 percent of its residents are foreign-born and 25.2 percent are non-US citizens), Manalo adds to the city’s municipal government with his Filipino background, said Artesia Councilmember Sally Flowers.
“He’s always willing to lend a helping hand. He brings a perspective that is different from others that are on the council, and that’s important for any team that’s working together,” she said.
Flowers added that Manalo has held leadership positions in other organizations – including one on the California Contract Cities Association – that are related to the council but are outside of the city.
“He has brought Artesia to a leadership position among other cities in LA County. I think more so than most on the council,” she said.
As Manalo continues pushing his constituents and students to become active in their communities through government, he also believes Filipino-Americans—whose presence in politics is scarce—possess the ability to mobilize others and assume leadership positions.
He said that since Filipinos are not the dominant voting block in elections, it would be necessary for Filipino political candidates to reach out to other communities.
“Because we have that communal nature, I think we’re the perfect people to reach out to and unify other people,” he said.
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