Giving up on the impossible dream?

“IN union there is strength,”  has become such a cliche that even otherwise sensible people tend to forget its inherent wisdom.

In the wake of the declaration of martial law by President Ferdinand Marcos, assorted government entities, from the Office of Civil Relations of the Philippine Constabulary to the Department of Public Information to various committees in the legislature saw an opportunity to exercise control over the media and advertising industries.

In a defensive move, raising the cry of “self-regulation,” broadcast media companies decided to band together as the Kapisanan ng Brodkasters sa Pilipinas (KBP), newspapers and magazines set up the Print Media Organization (PRIMO) and the advertising agencies organized two separate groups, the Association of Accredited Advertising Agencies, Philippines (4As-P) and the Lapian ng mga Advertising Practitioners sa Pilipinas (LAPPIS).

These industry associations then joined forces with the Philippine Association of National Advertisers (PANA) and together, under the unified banner of the Philippine Board of Advertising,  they pushed the concept of self-regulation more aggressively with the Marcos government. Other industry groups, such as outdoor advertising companies and commercial production houses, also joined the PBA. The 4As-P and LAPPIS also decided to become one ad agency organization under the PBA.

The PBA, as the single unified voice of the media and advertising industries, wielded enough influence and potential power to persuade the government to back off and allow self-regulation.

I distinctly recall a meeting with Senators Butch Aquino and Joey Lina, that I participated in as president of 4As-P, where the two bared a plan to regulate the way ads were to be written and commercials were to be produced to ward off “negative foreign influences”  (Lina even cited Michael Jackson’s song, “I’m bad,” as an example). Mercifully, we succeeded in changing their minds.

I also recall my late boss, Tony de Joya, chairman of Advertising & Marketing Associates and the Asian Federation of Advertising Associations (AFAA), tirelessly lobbying the Senate and successfully preventing some power-hungry senators from inflicting punitive bills on the ad industry.

Well, so much for “ancient history.” A few years ago, the PBA (which had been renamed the AdBoard) was dismantled because several member organizations had “gone on leave,” a euphemism for breaking away.

I remember, receiving an email from Noy Diy-Liacco, then a senior executive of Nestle Philippines and still active in the ad industry, asking me to comment on the demise of the AdBoard and provide a historical perspective to the formation of the PBA.

My response, though not in so many words, was that they who do not learn a lesson from history were bound to re-live it. I said that, one day, a power-lusting government functionary would consider it a good idea to “regulate” the ad industry. When that happens, a unified ad industry body like the AdBoard would become an urgent necessity again.

In a virtual case of deja vu, what has befallen the Philippine media and advertising industries may happen to the Filipino community in America.

In early 1997, I was among a group of community workers in Northern California who gathered in Salinas to answer the call of visionaries, led by Alex Esclamado, Rodel Rodis and Dennis Normandy, for the formation of a national organization of Filipinos in America.

As a result of that meeting, the first Filipino American National Empowerment Conference was scheduled in Washington DC in August of that year. I was assigned to handle the wordsmithing of the rationale for the conference. The essence of the verbiage was the need for Pinoys in America to harness our growing numbers to achieve socio-cultural, economic and political empowerment.

We had noted that significant events in the United States were passing us by. In spite of the rapidly increasing ethnic Filipino population, we had been routinely overlooked — in fact, ignored — by public officials, politicians, corporations and mainstream America and, as a result, had not enjoyed the social services and other benefits that the government and businesses were making available to other minority groups.

We had concluded that the main reason was because Filipinos in the U.S. were not united, but consisted of thousands of small organizations concerned mainly with insular issues. The concept of “empowerment” — socio-cultural, economic and political — rarely crossed our minds.

Esclamado had proven that a unified Fil-Am community, speaking with one voice and harnessing its numbers, could influence the decision makers in the U.S. He had organized “Browns for Brown” when a young Jerry Brown first ran for governor of California. When Brown won, he asked Esclamado what the FilAm community wanted from his government. That question resulted, among other benefits, in the appointment of the first Fil-Am judge in Northern California, Ronald Quidachay. The same unified voice had persuaded the U.S. government to allow Filipino doctors, accounts and other professionals to practice their professions in America.

Esclamado envisioned a national organization of Filipinos that would have some influence in state houses and in Washington DC. He was told that it was an “impossible dream,” but he and other dreamers decided that it was worth pursuing. Thus was conceived the national empowerment conference.

Performing an almost superhuman feat, Esclamado, as the principal proponent, literally traveled (in many cases, drove) across the U.S. with his wife, Luly, to persuade Fil-Am community leaders (most of whom had never met nor heard of each other) to attend the event.

Over 2,000 attended. It was the biggest gathering of Pinoys in America. Thus was the National Federation of Filipino American Associations (NaFFAA) formed.

Esclamado was elected founding national chairman. Washington DC’s Gloria Caoie and Jon Melegrito, who virtually invested sweat and blood to head the host committee, were elected national vice-chair and executive director, respectively.

The  beginnings of the “impossible dream” had been achieved through the Quixotic persistence and determination of Esclamado, Caoile, Melegrito, Rodel Rodis and, subsequently, Loida Nicolas Lewis.

I did my part as a volunteer and worker, inspired by those who virtually tilted at windmills. I eventually became national chair of NaFFAA for one term and helped to keep it alive, at a time when the federation was almost on its knees due to lack of funds.

NaFFAA has since become the go-to organization for Capitol Hill and for the White House, whenever they need to reach out to the Fil-Am community. Its leaders have notched notable achievements such as gaining benefits for Filipino World War II veterans, and the conferment of the Congressional Gold Medal on the old soldiers, dead or alive; supporting Fil-Am candidates for city, state and national office; and calling worldwide attention to Chinese intrusion in the South China Sea, as well protesting instances of discrimination against Filipinos.

But the “impossible dream” of the Fil-Am community still has to be fully realized. Compared to national organizations of other minorities in the US, NaFFAA still has much to learn. It has failed to persuade other major Fil-Am groups, like doctors, nurses, lawyers, accountants, engineers, and other professionals who proliferate in America, to join the federation. It has also failed to  attract corporate promotional and advertising funds, befitting a national federation.

Fil-Ams have also failed to see one of our own win a seat in the U.S. Senate or the House of Representatives. In California, which accounts for half of the four million-plus Pinoys in America, only one of our own, Rob Bonta, has won a seat in the state assembly.

Now comes the disconcerting news. Perhaps discouraged by the non-involvement of the other major associations, the current leaders of NaFFAA are reportedly planning to convert the federation from an association of associations into just an organization independent of and different from the rest and not representing them. If this happens, there will be even more reason for the wielders of power in America to ignore our community.

It seems that the current leaders of NaFFAA are giving up on the dream of one unified, dynamic and influential federation and are conceding that it is impossible to achieve. The late Alex Esclamado would have vehemently disagreed.

But Esclamado is gone and it seems that the Don Quixotes in the community either have not yet been born, or hesitate to emerge, or are already riding off into the sunset.

(gregmacabenta@hotmail.com).

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