There are four million Filipino-Americans.
But even though they constitute the second-largest Asian-American community, 28-year-old public policy professional Angelica Cortez feels that they've been neglected by the mainstream:
"Why aren't there more schools and streets named after us? The biggest injustice was that an estimated 250,000 Filipino men who fought alongside American men in the Second World War were deliberately denied veteran benefits and citizenship.”
"It was only in 2009 – sixty-four years later – under President Barrack Obama that there was some measure justice. Lump sum payments were made to surviving veterans and their families."
Angelica recently set up an NGO called “LEAD Filipino”, an organization focused on building the leadership capacity of young Pinoys in public service and civic life.
With her magnetic personality and intelligence, it’s a role for which she's well-suited though she brushes-off any suggestions of going into politics herself: "I don't want the spotlight on my life. I prefer policy over politics and don't enjoy running from to meeting, constantly schmoozing and raising funds."
Still, having grown-up in the warm embrace of her stepfather's large Filipino family (her biological dad is also Filipino), Angelica has a strong and enduring sense of heritage even though her mother's family is more Guam-ian and Japanese.
As she says of her adoptive grandmother: "If something was missing, you guarantee that it went into the 'balikbayan' box (i.e. boxes for Filipinos overseas)!"
Angelica is now with a lobbying group that works for Silicon Valley tech companies. It engages with local government, labor associations and other NGOs.
Given that San Jose is the seat of Santa Clara County—one of the richest and most prosperous regions in the States—the pressure on resources is intense.
The experience has given her an inside-track into how politics works at the grassroots-level.
"In our federal system of government, there's a lot that we can do at the local level. For example, there's a Santa Clara County-wide initiative to raise the sales tax. This is expected to generate over USD6 billion to improve roads and transport. For the measure to succeed, we'll need 2/3rds of the vote. That's a lot of work."
As the discussion turns to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, her tone shifts slightly, "Most OFWs (i.e. Philippine overseas foreign workers) liked his straightforward policy platform. They want structure, law and order and an end to bloating in government."
When asked about Duterte's announcement of a “separation” from the US, she is diplomatic but firm: "I don't think we saw that coming. Someone who might have supported him, may well have switched. Most non-Filipinos think he's crazy.”
Filipino-Americans like Angelica are making a difference in their local communities. There are 60,000 in Santa Clara alone and this could be the nucleus for future political power.
So while Duterte’s decision to court China for trade and investment is economically astute, his anti-Western rhetoric may not serve his countrymen both at home and abroad well.
For one thing, in 2015, the Philippines received USD9.7 billion in remittances from the US.
While successive governments have sought to reduce the country’s dependence on this—such funds remain a vital part of the economy.
Then there’s also the Philippine Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) industry to consider. In 2015, its IT subsector alone generated 1.2 million direct jobs and USD22 billion in revenues, or the second-largest source of dollar income for the Philippines.
Moreover, it has been estimated that the Americas remain the biggest Philippine BPO client, accounting for 65% of the domestic market.
It’s no accident therefore that the Information Technology and Business Process Association of the Philippines (IBPAP) requested a meeting with Duterte shortly after he made his comments about the “separation.”
What will happen to these crucial strands in the Philippine economy if Duterte resorts to a total break from the US and the West?
To the many Filipinos who have made their home here, or who back home rely on its custom for their livelihoods?
Will the country still be able to benefit from their talents and hard work?
These are questions that will not go away and will need to be answered by the Philippine leadership sooner or later.