ONE of the greatest American expos that have been showcasing the best of the Philippines is the Philippine Fiesta in America, which is held in New Jersey every year for the past 14 years.
Appropriately, the great lady, who was the driving force behind the annual event ,also showcased the best of the Filipino character and values- Milagros Beltran Mendez. Hardworking, persevering, devoted, passionate and faithful to the end, Mila truly displayed the excellent qualities of a Filipino.
Succumbing to a cardiac arrest after six months of illness, Mila Mendez died last September 29 at St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital, New York City. Those who know Mila were shocked at her untimely passing, since she didn’t want people to know about her illness, except for close relatives.
“Mila was a very strong woman. Even though she underwent a lot of pain and suffering the months before she died, she still managed to finish the Philippine Fiesta last August,” shared Nanding Mendez, Mila’s husband and best friend for the past 36 years.
The Philippine Fiesta in America was Mila’s “shining accomplishment.” Held annually every August at the Meadowlands Expo Center, New Jersey, it has been the largest indoor gathering of Filipino Americans in the northeast. It features a unique blend of trade exhibits, Filipino cultural and food festival under one roof.
A very active and passionate leader in the Fil-Am community in the East Coast, Mila believed that no matter how long immigrant Filipinos have left their native country, their hearts will never be uprooted from the land of their birth. And thus, she painstakingly worked to showcase the best products and people of the Philippines.
The origins of Philippine Fiesta in America
In an exclusive interview with Asian Journal, Nanding Mendez shared how the Philippine Fiesta in America came about.
” We used to publish a magazine called Special Edition, but we decided to close it in mid-1990. So, we were brainstorming about a new project. It was my idea to come up with an exhibition displaying and showcasing Philippine products, and featuring our outstanding Filipino people. We decided to hold the festival in a covered place. I told Mila, ‘Ikaw ang boss dito.’ So, she became the key force behind the event. It was first called the Philippine Fair and Trade Show and then became the Philippine Fiesta. From the New York Coliseum, it transferred to the Meadowland Expo Center. Since I am more in the graphic design and publishing business, Mila concentrated on marketing and community relations. She was the one who talked with the potential exhibitors, sponsors, government agencies, celebrities, community people. Because of her perseverance, Philippine Fiesta has become the largest gathering of Fil-Ams in the north east,” said Nanding.
Besides Philippine Fiesta, Mila and Nanding also own Special Edition Press, Inc., one of the most successful Filipino companies in its specialized field. Their company also operates divisions in graphics design, advertising and marketing services, publishing and special events management. While Nanding spearheads the organization as its CEO and President, Mila served as the second-in-command, more than capably functioning as SEP’s Executive Vice President for Marketing and Community Relations.
Education and Career
Born and raised in the Philippines, Mila has always been at the top of her game. She graduated Valedictorian in her primary grade, in intermediate grade and then in high school. She was a university scholar at the University of the East in Manila where she took up Liberal Arts & Sciences – Major in Mathematics.
Mila worked with her husband, Nanding, at the Philippine Advertising Counselors, Inc., before they migrated to the US in the mid-1980s. She then worked with some of the biggest names in America’s corporate world such as Knight Ridder Financial Information and Dow Jones Company before joining Nanding’s business full-time.
Her high level of competence stemmed not only from her extensive business experience, but also from her ability to connect with diverse communities. The ideal mix of industry skill and a positive, socially aware disposition enabled Mila to direct SEP’s publicity campaigns in ways that were eye-catching, yet wholesome and socially relevant.
In the service of the Filipino community
Proudly Filipino, Mila volunteered her time and resources to causes that benefitted the Filipino American community. She was instrumental in soliciting corporate sponsorships for the annual New York Philippine Independence Day celebration committee, the Philippine American Friendship Committee and other organizations. She sat on the Board of Directors at several Filipino -American organizations in the northeast region.
Together with Nanding, she recognized the need to be involved in the development and enhancement of skills and talents of children and youth of Filipino descent. In 2001, their company (SEP) coordinated the search for the Outstanding Filipino American Youth Leaders, which recognized young Filipino Americans who demonstrated high level of leadership and community service.
She also established the Filipino American Youth Services, Inc., a non-profit organization, whose objective is to help prevent smoking and illegal drug use among children. Prior to her untimely demise, Mila was working on establishing a dedicated Filipino Library in New York City to help young Filipino Americans understand and appreciate their heritage and culture.
Awards and accolades
For her outstanding work, Mila has been honored many times with recognitions and awards. In 1996, Mila got the Tandang Sora Award of Excellence, from the Association of Filipino-American Teachers in America. In 2004, Mila and Nanding received the Outstanding Asian Americans of Hudson County Award, NJ. In 2005 she was honored as the Most Outstanding Filipino American in Community Service, by the Filipino Heritage Foundation of the East Coast. In 2007, Mila and Nanding were the Grand Marshal during the Philippine Day Parade, in Passaic, NJ.
In 2008, Mila was awarded the Female Entrepreneur of the Year, by the Dr. Jose P. Rizal Circle of Excellence Awards. That same year, she received the Leadership Award In Business, from the Pan American Concerned Citizens Action League (PACCAL).
When asked about her greatest accomplishments in life, she was quick to insist that it was being mother to her two boys who are now grown-ups. Mila said that she and Nanding relished the joys of being parents so much that they considered being mother and father to Nathan, 35, and Mervin, 32, their greatest blessing. Older son, Nathan, studied computer science and plays a very significant role in the day-to-day operations of their graphics and special events business. Younger son Mervin is into film editing and cinematography. Nanding credits Mila for keeping the family together during their first years as newly arrived immigrants in the bitter cold of Montana during the mid-80’s, before replanting their roots in New York.
When asked how he can best describe Mila, Nanding said, “she was a perfectionist when it comes to work, was a very good wife and devoted mother.”
With Mila’s unexpected passing, the question now is “what will happen to Philippine Fiesta?” Nanding told Asian Journal, “That’s a very good question. Philippine Fiesta is Mila’s legacy. It won’t be the same without her. I myself want to transition to something else. If there is a group of individuals who are interested in taking over Philippine Fiesta, I am open.”
In her Facebook page, Mila wrote ” I like to be involved in anything that will preserve the true character of a good woman–– her values, goals, vision, service to her family and community.”
Mila got her wish — her life displayed the true character of a truly good woman.
(LA Weekend October 27-30, 2012 Sec. A pg. 10)