OPINION: The Filipino-American in San Antonio, Texas

Buddy Gomez

Posted at Jun 02 2017 06:13 AM

San Antonio, Texas and the Philippines go a long, long way. The connection may indeed be historical trivia today, reason enough that very few even ever knew about it. In fact, it is an almost forgotten vignette. 

A happy event, however, of San Antonio possibly electing a particular candidate for Mayor on Saturday, June 10 might be reason enough to rekindle a lost romantic memory.

The San Antonio mayoral election (non- partisan) is a ‘run off’ between incumbent Ivy Taylor, a New York-born African-American and 40-year old, 2-term councilman Ron Nirenberg, Texas born, of multi-ethnic background. 

The elections conducted last May 6 had 14 candidates for Mayor, without anyone garnering more than 50%. Taylor and Nirenberg topped the results, with 42% and 38%, respectively. Hence, the run off. 

Ron Nirenberg, by his maternal grandfather, is a quarter Filipino and is proud to be so.

A 300-year “Look Back”

There is a rare map of North America drawn by Spanish cartographer Tomas Lopez in 1790. Then, the western two-thirds of continental USA was still territory belonging to Nueva Espana (New Spain, to which the Philippines was a province far, far over the western Pacific horizon.) That is, of course, Mexico as we know it today. On that map, there is a swath of land, vast areas above the Medina river, marked “Nueva Filipinas” (New Philippines).

Today, that vicinity comprises the metropolitan areas of San Antonio and Bexar County, stretching out to Medina and Bandera counties and maybe, even Guadalupe and Comal. “Nuevas Filipinas” and “Nuevo Reino de Filipinas” (New Kingdom of the Philippines) were secondary names given to these areas of Texas as early as 1716. Unfortunately, perhaps regarded simply as an infinitesimal detail, such appellation is not at all mentioned in current Texas history textbooks. Nevertheless, many Texas archival materials, documents attest to that historical fact. 

For the next forty years, “Nuevas Filipinas” was part of the official name of Spanish Texas, falling out of use towards the end of the 18th century. In extant documents, the founder of San Antonio per the Texas State Historical Association, Governor Martin de Alarcon referred to himself as “Governor and Lieutenant Captain General of the Province of Texas and New Philippines.” Also, in the possession of the UT Austin Library is a 1783 book authored by a Juan Agustin Morfi on the ‘geography and history of the Province of Texas or New Philippines, 1673-1779. (Relacion geografica e historia de la Provincia de Texas o Nuevas Filipinas).

James A. Michener’s “Texas,” (1985) was a fascinating monumental saga that chronicled the epic history of Texas, spanning centuries from its Spanish to roots to its current fame of affluence and diversity. That may have been the last time “Nuevas Filipinas” was mentioned in popular literature.

The Missing Monument

A columnar monument, a memorial to the historical relationship between San Antonio and the Philippines, once stood somewhere in San Antonio. I do remember that in the early 1950s, a Manila weekend magazine (it could have been the Sunday Times or Women’s Magazine) featured a photograph of a monolith/cenotaph-like monument with inscription, supposedly a San Antonio landmark. There was a brief companion article to that photo. Then was my first encounter with San Antonio. 

I have not quite exhausted my efforts in search for this object of interest. But of the folks and entities I have thus far contacted, nobody seems to know anything nor even shown an ounce of interest. My guess is that it was located in the eastern side of San Antonio. And if so, that relic might have been demolished to give way to the HemisFair International Expo hosted by San Antonio in the summer of 1968. There has got to be some record of it in some archives of the city. The search will have to go on. It is a challenge worth taking on by activists of the Filipino community in San Antonio.

The Filipino-American Vote in San Antonio

There is presently no way of measuring the number of registered Fil-Am voters in San Antonio. The forthcoming Mayoralty elections could be a singular opportunity for them to make a difference in their adopted community. It will also be an opportunity to display a capacity for unity, usually uncommon among Fil-Ams, to rally together behind one cause, one common candidate. Such dynamics are now on a roll. Community leaders US Air Force Col. Nonie Cabana (ret.) originally from Cavite; and Ms. Yoly Moy, nee Mate (daughter of former Tacloban City Mayor ‘Daric’ Mate--pronounced mah-teh) are among those known to be active and on the go for Ron Nirenberg.

The small voting bloc of Pinoys in San Antonio are now being conscripted, animated and inspired to organize, to go out and to vote. Thus contributing to a potential swing vote or perhaps to a tipping point towards successfully electing one, identified and claimed to be, of their own, Ron Nirenberg. A quarter Filipino, albeit with some generational distance, but nonetheless a gap easily bridged by blood kin sentimentality typical of the Filipino diaspora.

The Quarter Pinoy Candidate for Mayor

Ron Nirenberg is a graduate of the local Trinity University and the University of Pennsylvania, BA and MA respectively, both on Communications. A ‘rock and roll’ and jazz fan, he was once a DJ and managed local radio station KRTU-fm. He served as Program Director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center. A fitness aficionado, he once deadlifted 600 pounds in competitive weightlifting. 

His campaign theme: “the City You Deserve.” Reputed to be a policy-minded centrist, his principal pursuits are on the issues of transportation, the environment, housing and employment. An expanded continuation of his successes as a two term Councilman. Ron enjoys the endorsement of two former Mayors, Julian Castro and Phil Hardberger.

The Nirenbergs of San Antonio are of Jewish Polish-Russian antecedents with grandparents who immigrated to the US, processed through Ellis Island, long before World War II. Ron’s mother, Charlotte, on the other hand, is half-Filipina. She was born in Penang, when Malaysia was still Malaya, a colonial protectorate of the British. Her grandfather was Scottish who wed a South Asian (indigenous Indian), her mother, thus, an Anglo-Indian mestiza, Ron’s maternal grandmother. Charlotte’s father was a Filipino musician nicknamed “Andy.” He was actually Enrique Castillo. 

Charlotte recalls that her Dad spoke Tagalog, although it is uncertain from what province he hailed. Blurred memories even mentions Mindanao. “Andy” must have been a stalwart of the renowned Filipino musical sojourners that regaled audiences in the capitals of Asia, a social phenomenon that saw its heyday in the 1920s and the early 30s. Truly, musicians were the Philippines’ earliest OFWs. (Overseas Filipino Worker). 

Should Ron make it to the Mayorship of San Antonio next Saturday, talents, skills and fortitude aside, he will be the personification of the emerging international character and stature of San Antonio, Texas. The Mayor’s genes are indeed a happy cocktail of Polish-Russian, Scottish, Anglo-Indian, American and Filipino, in varying portions. A practicing Roman Catholic, with a Jewish heritage to boot!

Ron is married to Erika Prosper, a multi-awarded business executive and Board Member of the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Erika is Mexican Hispanic American with evident features of the proud Aztec. She has an M.A. from the University of Pennsylvania Annenberg School and twin BA’s from UT Austin. She is the Director for Consumer Insights of H.E.B., Texas’ largest Grocery-Supermarket chain. (370+ locations, 86,000 employees, 2013 revenues-US$21 Billion+, with subsidiaries in Mexico). 

Ron and Erika adore their only son, pre-teen Jonah. And Jonah possesses a far superior gene pool than Mom and Dad. After all, Jonah is all of Mexican-Aztec, Spanish American, Polish-Russian, Scottish, Anglo-Indian, and Filipino. (And who knows, great grandfather Castillo might have some Chinese and Spanish in him too, like most Filipinos!)

Obviously, we are rooting for Ron Nirenberg and wish him victory. San Antonio deserves Ron!

We also wish for Jonah to learn whipping up a hefty serving of good old Pinoy ‘pork adobo.’ With a Mexican twist, throwing in “polvo de comino y chiles picantes,” in honor of Mom’s and Dad’s heritage.             


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