Fil-Ams in Virginia flexing political, economic power

ABS-CBN News

Posted at May 12 2008 01:49 PM | Updated as of May 12 2008 09:49 PM

Officers and members of the Cebuano-Speaking Association of Tidewater (CSAT) put up one of their cultural extravaganzas, complete with period costumes, that has been a yearly crowd drawer in Virginia Beach

By RODNEY J. JALECO
ABS-CBN North America News Bureau

VIRGINIA BEACH, Virginia – They're among the fastest growing ethnic groups in the region, also among the best educated and highest paid wage-earners. Meet the Filipino-Americans of Hampton Roads.

Hampton Roads is composed of Virginia's southeastern region that includes Virginia Beach, Norfolk, Chesapeake, Hampton, Newport News and Williamsburg. Most of the Fil-Ams are retired US Navy servicemen and their families, who've decided to settle near Norfolk, home of the US Navy Atlantic Fleet.

There are 34 Fil-Am organizations here, representing the various ethnic and geographical divisions in the Philippines, as well as professional groups.

Julius Aspa is president of the Cebuano-Speaking Association of Tidewater (CSAT). "CSAT was formed 20 years ago because our countrymen needed help, and of course we also wanted to help each other here," he told ABS-CBN's Balitang America.

"During natural calamities, we always try to send help back home like what happened after the Leyte landslide," Aspa said.

Olongapo City Association of Tidewater (OCAT) president Joseph "Joe" Ortega said their group is sending several college and high school students to schools in the Philippines.

These groups come alive in spring when Saturday night parties and dance-alongs, featuring the latest "line dancing" hits, become a staple for the growing, dynamic Fil-Am community here.

There are now about 50,000 Fil-Ams in the area, mostly in Norfolk and Virginia Beach. A study released by the Old Dominion University (ODU) showed that over 20% of foreign-born residents in Hampton Roads came from the Philippines. It is the sixth biggest concentration of Filipinos in the US (Hawaii, California, New York City, Chicago and Seattle).

Nurses, servicemen

The ODU established the first academic center on the East Coast dedicated to Fil-Ams in 1998, thanks mainly to a $100,000 gift from community leaders.

In the mid-60s, the Navy housing areas served as "ground zero" for the early Fil-Am "community". At the height of the Cold War era, as many as 2,000 young Filipinos were being recruited in the US Navy every year. As these sailors were promoted and started their own families, they began moving out of the Navy housing areas.

Many Filipinas came to Hampton Roads as wives of both American and Filipino servicemen; but as the study indicated, many of them were also nurses who now work in hospitals in Norfolk and Virginia Beach. No wonder that one of the largest Fil-Am associations here was formed by nurses.

Because they are tied by a common background and experience, the Fil-Am community here is especially tight-knit despite its size and diversity. Aspa for instance, while representing the Cebu bloc, is actually from Zambales; and Ortega, who leads the Olongapo association, is a native of Bulacan.

"We tried coalescing into a single organization but the problem is that we have so many Filipinos here from each of the region of the Philippines, it's difficult to put it together," Ortega told Balitang America.

And they argued, why fix something that ain't broken? But community leaders are starting to realize that a united Fil-Am community has untapped potential.

Employees, not bosses

"We found that Filipinos in the region earn more income than the average person, they're better educated but they tend to be employees rather than the boss," said Dr. James Koch, an economics professor at ODU in Norfolk.

Fil-Ams shops fill this row of stores on Lila Lane in Virginia Beach, earning it the nickname "Little Manila" which is home to a flourishing travel agency, a Filipino martial arts school, video store and other establishments

By 2000, nearly half of the Filipinos in the region were already born in the US. The Fil-Ams' median age is 30, according to the ODU research, which is about three years younger than the median age for all Hampton Roads residents.

Nearly 24% of all Hampton Roads adults have a bachelor's degree or higher – but over 32% of Filipinos here enjoy that same distinction.

The same study showed that the median Fil-Am household income here is $51,509 – 21% higher than the region's average.

"The Filipino American contribution to the Hampton Roads economy is substantial, although at least a small portion of this income is remitted back to family members and other institutions in the Philippines," the study reported.

Phil-Am chamber of commerce

Recently, the community's leading business and political leaders launched the Philippine-American Chamber of Commerce in Virginia Beach.

Joe Ortega, president of the Olongapo City Association of Tidewater (OCAT), supervises final preparations for the group's induction ceremonies in Virginia Beach recently.

"It only makes natural sense to get organized politically and economically," Ron Villanueva, the highest ranking Fil-Am elected official in Hampton Roads, told Balitang America.

"We have hundreds of small businesses and executives here but there's really not one organization or one true voice to expand on that economic power base," he explained.

"If there is anything we saw in our survey, it's that Filipinos tend to be not entrepreneurs, not starting their own firms," Dr. Koch added.

"The formation of the Fil-Am chamber of commerce here may be one way to reverse that. I think that in the region, the strong military tradition is one used to taking orders and not to be the boss," he told Balitang America.

"The potential is huge," Dr. Koch stressed.

"The Filipino community will need to support these people by providing them a little bit of capital, investing in them. If one looks at the Indian community (there are less than 2,000 of them in the region, according to the ODU study), they own 70-75% of all hotel rooms in this region," he said. Since the Hampton Roads area is a major tourist destination, this achievement is very significant.

"That didn't happen by accident," Dr. Koch elucidated, "they went after it, their community supports them and they help each out," he said.

Dr. Koch lamented how Filipinos often lack a unity of purpose and coupled with other factors, estimated it may take them 10 to 20 years before they can reach their full economic potential in the region. He explained that the biggest task is to change the attitude of Filipinos.