Robert Andres Bonta, 49, is the first Filipino-American to serve as California’s Attorney General (AG). His mantra: “to right historic wrongs” and “justice for all.”
He was sworn in as the State’s top law enforcer last Thursday, April 23, confirmed by the State Legislature the day before. He was also the first Filipino-American elected to the California State Assembly having represented the East Bay District 18 (Oakland, Alameda and San Leandro) since 2012, after serving 2 years in the Alameda City Council. After Vice President Kamala Harris, Rob Bonta is only the second Asian-American to hold the post of California’s Attorney-General. Nine years before his stint in Alameda, Rob served as Deputy City Attorney for the City of San Francisco.
As the State’s top law enforcement official, the Attorney General is the legal advisor to the state government. He serves as the head of a state department of justice. His duties typically include issuances of formal opinions to State agencies and advocacies in areas such as consumer protection, antitrust and utilities regulations, legislative proposals. The AG is regarded as “the People’s Lawyer.”
Rob Bonta replaces Xavier Becerra who was appointed by President Biden as Secretary of Health and Human Services. The post of Attorney General is elective and therefore Bonta will have to run for election in 2022.
A month earlier, Rob’s nomination was announced by Governor Gavin Newsom in a venue replete with social activist symbolism and meaning. That was in San Francisco’s Jackson/Kearny streets vicinity known as Manilatown, where once stood the “International Hotel.” Until the 1970s, “I-Hotel” was ramshackle slummy housing for neglected and underserved minorities, mostly Filipinos, threatened with summary eviction by landlords eager to enjoy the lucre of ‘urban renewal’ and ‘gentrification.’ Five years ago this month, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors designated this South of Market (SOMA) neighborhood as the Filipino Cultural Heritage District.
In August 1977, this low-income residential hotel became a dramatic housing-rights battleground in San Francisco’s history. In resistance, the tenants organized and mounted “a mass-based, multi-racial alliance…students, unions and churches,” 3000-strong physical defense. Unsuccessful, the social action was unable to prevail against “hundreds of club-wielding riot police.” The building was demolished but remained vacant for decades. After more than 20 years, however, persistent and militant church and neighborhood groups were able to revive the area with a 104-unit low-income senior housing known today as the “International Hotel Manilatown Center.”
Among the 3,000 arm-locked protesters was Rob’s mother, Cynthia Arnaldo Bonta. Rob was then 5 years old. Years earlier, Cynthia Arnaldo from Laguna, armed with a Master’s degree in Religious Education from Silliman University came to the US. Soon after, she met and wed a kindred soul. Warren Bonta, (a native Californian from Ventura County, presumably of Eastern European roots) who was likewise committed to civil rights and social justice even from a young age. As a student, Warren had joined Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil and voting rights organizing in Alabama. Cynthia, joined by Warren, returned to the Philippines as religious missionaries, “training the needs of young people to serve rural Philippine villages through service, community organizing and ministry.”
Rob was born (September 22, 1972) in Quezon City just as Martial Law dawned upon a hapless country. The Bonta family returned to the US when Rob was only 2 months old.
Mom and Dad Bonta were present in Manilatown when Gov. Newsom announced Rob’s appointment as California’s 34th Attorney General.
With initiatives began by Larry Itliong and Philip Vera Cruz, the Bontas worked alongside Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, “moving to a trailer” in Bakerfsfield, close to the “headquarters of the United Farm Workers movement, organizing Latino and Filipino farmworkers for racial, economic and civil rights.” Rob’s dad worked in the front office and helped set up health clinics for the farmworkers, while mother worked at the daycare.
Rob was “a child of the civil rights movement,” indeed. His mantra “to right historic wrongs” and “justice for all” is “hardwired in his DNA!” Rob recalls: ““My parents believed that serving people is our highest calling, and they instilled that in me and my siblings from an early age.”
Reacting to Gov. Newsom’s nomination, LA Times columnist George Skelton wrote: “Skeptics who say the American dream is no longer real for people without riches need only look at Bonta.” Rob Bonta is “another American dream story.” Born in the Philippines and brought up by parents who served in America’ civil rights crusades, a Sacramento high school valedictorian, he went to Yale on financial aid, odd jobs and soccer scholarship, finishing a BA and Law (Juris Doctor) with a one-year stint at Oxford in between.
Rob is married to Mia Villafane, who he calls my “partner in life and in service.” They met during their Yale “first-year orientation program for incoming students of color.” Mia is Afro-Latina, New York Bronx-bred, who herself grew up “in families steeped within social movements….dedicated to public service.” Mia’s Puerto Rican parents were also activists for civil rights, educational and economic opportunities. They have three children.
Not knowing personally enough about California’s new Pinoy AG, I sought affirmation from a reliable Pinoy socio-political weathervane in California, veteran lawyer Ted Laguatan. Ted said: “Rob is not only a good lawyer but more important, he is a good human being. He has a deep sense of social justice and fairness. For sure, this sincere concern for his fellow human beings will translate to protecting everyone including those in the minority and immigrant communities who have been deprived of equal protection of the law. Californians are fortunate to have him as Attorney General.” (Ted Laguatan is a UP lawyer, in California practice for more than 30 years, and among only 29 California State Bar-certified Immigration Law experts.)
Scanning the political horizon of America’s most populous state, what might the stars have in store for Rob Bonta? Evidently, he has opted for his ‘skin in the game’ to be a lifetime commitment. Therefore, first he must win his AG post in the elections next year.
California’s senior Senator, Dianne Feinstein, will be 91 years old in 2024 and unlikely to seek re-election. Governor Gavin Newsom will be ‘termed’ out in 2026.
Que sera, sera.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Tomas 'Buddy' Gomez III began his professional media career in ABS-CBN's (previously Chronicle Broadcasting Network) DZQL-Radio Reloj in 1957, after which he spent 25 years with the Ayala Group.
In 1986, the then Pres. Cory Aquino appointed him Consul General to Hawaii and later served as her Press Secretary.
During the Ramos administration, he was chairman and president of state-owned IBC-13 Network.
After government service, he became an ‘OFW’ in the U.S., working as front-desk clerk and then assistant general manager of a hotel. He also worked as a furniture and antique restoration specialist.
He is now retired and lives in San Antonio, Texas.
Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.