Another year is past us and following tradition, the Asian Journal editorial team lists the top MDWK Magazine covers from 2016. Each week, the MDWK Magazine is a platform to recognize and share the stories of Filipino Americans who continue to break barriers in their respective career fields.

From the 15 Filipino Americans working in President Barack Obama’s administration to the first Filipina-American ballet dancer in the American Ballet Theatre, the subjects we covered continually give us more reasons to be proud Fil-Ams.

*To read these selected features & other stories in their entirety, please visit

Diversity matters: Filipino-Americans in the Obama Administration (Two parts) 

In a two-part series, the Asian Journal got exclusive interviews with the 15 Filipino Americans who have worked in President Barack Obama’s administration, which has been regarded as the most diverse in American history.

These individuals have filled different capacities throughout the federal government, from the Department of Commerce to the White House itself. They candidly shared how they came to their positions, what challenges they’ve faced as a Fil-Am working in public service, and how their particular section of the government is working to help Filipinos and Fil-Ams across the United States.

“I think the broader challenge for me as a Filipino-American, who is half Filipina, is to make sure that my voice can be heard in an effective way.  I think it helps that I come from a diverse state of people with different ways of communicating and interacting.  I also think that any challenge can also be an opportunity.  So, being someone who is different from others in a table can be helpful, particularly if I am operating with both ears open and with curiosity,” Nani Coloretti, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, said.

Ambassador Jose L. Cuisia, Jr. asks Fil-Am community to be more engaged, united 

Jose L. Cuisia Jr. spoke with the Asian Journal before he vacated as Philippine ambassador to the United States, a post he occupied from July 2011 to June 2016.

Ambassador Cuisia, a well-respected figure in Philippine business with over 32 years in financial services, most recently as the president & CEO of the largest and most profitable non-bank financial institution in the Philippines, brought with him to Washington his savviness in politics and business. His accomplishments include strengthening the relationship between the U.S. and the Philippines, as well as establishing the Filipino American Young Leaders Program, which selects 10 of the most outstanding Filipinos in the U.S. for an immersion trip.

“Interacting with the Filipino community here in the U.S. is very gratifying because I see what they have been able to contribute in terms of uplifting the image of the Philippines,” he said, adding “It is important for the Filipinos in the United States to be more united. We can have a tremendous influence on U.S. policy…”

Why Mayor Eric Garcetti thinks LA is a Fil-Am friendly city

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti sat down with the Asian Journal at the tail-end of Filipino-American History Month to talk about his “Filipino story” — from his grandfather fighting alongside Filipinos during World War II to spearheading the creation of the Historic Filipinotown neighborhood as councilmember.

With over 139,000 Fil-Ams who reside in Los Angeles, Garcetti noted how important it is for the population to make its voice heard and be represented in the city.

“That’s a question I always ask: not are we doing well, but who are we missing? That’s why it was important for me to establish a Filipino voice in City Hall, a Filipino neighborhood in the city, and it links closely to me and to tell my Filipino story,” Garcetti said.

Currently, the Mayor’s Office has six Filipino Americans, working in departments from immigrant affairs and gang reduction and youth development. Last year, Garcetti also nominated former Search to Involve Pilipino Americans (SIPA) Executive Director Joel Jacinto to the city’s Board of Public Works, making Jacinto the first paid Filipino American commissioner. On top of that, the Los Angeles Filipino Association City Employees (LAFACE) has over 500 members.

“This is one of the great Filipino cities of the world and Los Angeles should think itself that way,” Garcetti said.

Rocky Gathercole: Born to be a fashion designer

Behind many of the intricate, eccentric designs worn by Hollywood celebrities — from Katy Perry to Nicki Minaj — is Filipino avant-garde designer Rocky Gathercole.

Gathercole, who left his father’s house in Manila at age 14, worked odd jobs before migrating to Saudi Arabia for a fashion-related job. From there, he established himself in different countries in the Middle East, creating designs for royal and wealthy clients. In recent years, he made his way to the United States, debuting at New York and Los Angeles fashion weeks, as well as becoming a go-to designer for A-list clientele.

“I don’t believe designers are made; I believe they’re born. From [my experience], I didn’t study to be a designer. Somehow, designer talaga ako (I really am a designer). The best advice I can give is to be yourself and find it in your heart, and the art will come out,” Gathercole said.

LASA, Fil-Am chefs experiment Filipino flavors at Unit 120 in Chinatown

Unit 120, a dining space in Los Angeles’ Chinatown, has become a popular spot to find Filipino cuisine. During the daytime, Fil-Am chef Alvin Cailan — who is the mastermind behind Eggslut — has Amboy, a takeout window that serves dishes like pork belly, grilled pampano, and vegan versions of kare kare and kaldereta.

On weekend evenings, the space is used for LASA, a California cuisine-inspired Filipino pop-up that has since received rave reviews from top publications and critics.

“When any race eats our food, we want them to say, ‘Hey, why…haven’t I been eating Filipino food before?’ Because we’re not reinventing the wheel or taking away anything from the first generation of Filipino-American restaurants,” Cailan said, adding “What we’re doing here is so vital to have our community represented…We want people to come out to Chinatown and really enjoy what we’re trying to do. We’re working hard to make it an experience.”

*This story won the Best Food Story award at the 2016 Plaridel Awards. 

Fil-Am actor Jose Llana leads diverse cast of national tour of ‘The King and I’

Until January 21, 2017, the national tour of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The King and I” will be at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles — and it’s a must-see, especially for the array of Filipino-American talent present in the cast.

Jose Llana (who first started his Broadway career in a 1996 production of the musical) plays the title role of the King of Siam and delivers a stellar, commanding performance.

Though Llana is not the first Asian American to assume the role of the King, representing the community and bringing that diversity shows how much theater has progressed.

“I think the biggest shift in the last 10 years has been that the Asian American community and the theater community, in general now, will not stand for someone putting on yellowface,” he told the Asian Journal. “It’s a lot less tolerated now — that’s a huge deal for us, as Asian Americans, that there is a part of us and we can actually be cast in it.”

In addition to Llana and Joan Almedilla (as Lady Thiang), this national tour of “The King and I” boasts a cast of Fil-Ams in prominent roles:  Brian Rivera as Karalahome; Lamae Caparas, Marie Gutierrez, Michael Lomeka and Rommel Pierre O’Choa in the ensemble; and Almedilla’s son CJ Uy, Jaden and Kayla Amistad, and Adriana and Amaya Braganza as royal children.

Filipina in charge: California Appointments Secretary Mona Pasquil

In California’s Appointments Office, there are more than 12,000 applications in the system from individuals seeking to serve on various state boards and commissions. But before any of them either secure a high-ranking position or get turned down, they are screened by California Appointments Secretary Mona Pasquil, 53, a Filipino-American who has served in her current role since 2011.

Prior to her role, Pasquil’s experience has included chief of staff to California Lt. Gov. John Garamendi, political director for former California Gov. Gray Davis’ gubernatorial campaign, California political director for Al Gore’s presidential campaign, deputy political director for John Kerry’s presidential campaign and western political director for the White House Office of Political Affairs under former president Bill Clinton.

Most notably, she became the first Asian Pacific Islander and Filipino-American woman to serve as acting lieutenant governor when Garamendi was elected to Congress in 2009.

“That foundation of family and hard work and recognizing their hard work is something, that is a part of who I am and I think about it every day. You have to have that drive and that appreciation for your history and your story,” she said, crediting her Filipino background.

Stella Abrera: Making history in the world of ballet.

Southern California native Stella Abrera made headlines when she became the first Fil-Am principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre (ABT). In an interview with the Asian Journal’s  Executive Editor Momar Visaya, Abrera recounted how she danced her way to this prestigious honor in the ballet company’s 76-year history.

Abrera began her studies with Philip and Charles Fuller and Cynthia Young at Le Studio in Pasadena and continued it at the West Coast Ballet Theatre in San Diego when her family moved there. She also spent three years studying the Royal Academy of Dancing method with Joan and Monica Halliday at the Halliday Dance Centre in Sydney. She joined the ABT as a member of the corps de ballet in 1996 at the age of 17 after being an apprentice for a few months.

“To be honest, it’s mostly the feeling of responsibility, to help inspire the next generation of dancers not only Filipinos but all of them. It warms my heart to see these young Filipina dancers on social media saying that I inspire them. That’s very heartwarming, and it’s a responsibility that I am happy to take on,” she told the Asian Journal.

Illinois Judge Jessica A. O’Brien: A Courtroom Trailblazer

Jessica A. O’Brien — who was born in Cebu City, Philippines —  broke many barriers on her journey to becoming the first Filipina-American judge in the Circuit Court of Cook County in 2012. Before that, at John Marshall Law School, she was the first student to graduate with a J.D./L.L.M joint degree in Tax Law.

Most recently, O’Brien became the first Asian American woman to become president of the Women’s Bar Association of Illinois (WBAI), an organization that has been around for over 100 years.

To women of color and immigrants aspiring to make their mark on the world, O’Brien offered this advice:

“You have to really want it, and you have to have a passion for it because you are going to need that to withstand a number of challenges along the way. It shouldn’t be that way but it’s going to be that way for a while. But if you want to contribute to the betterment of our group, you need to do your part,” she said.

Ryan Cayabyab’s life journey to music

Filipino musician, composer and conductor Ryan Cayabyab — also known as “Mister C” or “Maestro Ryan” — discussed how he formed his identity and how he decided on his chosen path with the help of his mentors, and his current advocacies.

Cayabyab has been responsible for 23 movie scores, 15 great OPM songs and dozens of CDs. He has performed inside famed venues around the world, including Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center in New York, and the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. His current project includes the Ryan Cayabyab Singers (RCS), a group of seven young adult singers, that toured in various cities in the U.S. in 2016.

When asked what is his music’s message, Ryan responded, “my pride in my heritage, pride in my Philippine music, growing up with kundimans (courtship songs) and balitaws (Visayan folk songs that are meant to be danced).”

Dante Basco: Creating stories & opportunities in entertainment for Asian Americans

Fil-Am actor Dante Basco’s acting career has spanned over 25 years. He’s no stranger to the big screen and television, with filmography including the iconic role of Rufio in the 1991 movie “Hook” and the voice of Zuko in the popular Nickelodeon animated television series “Avatar the Last Airbender,” for which he has become well-known among the younger generation.

In 2000, the Fil-Am actor played the role of Ben Mercado in “The Debut,” a landmark film for the Filipino community where his character struggles between his family’s Filipino traditions and his American dreams.

In recent years, he helped found an Asian American arts collective in Downtown Los Angeles called We Own the 8th. The collective meets on the eighth of every month and is meant to curate, educate and inspire the next generation of content creators, including singers, writers, actors and YouTube personalities.

“Once you’ve acquired some success, you’re able to drop a lot of ego and see the importance of helping others and the group. Whether the group is the production company I’m a part of, the community at large, the world, or the Asian American community or the Filipino community, there’s a lot of room for us to help out and help grow things,” Basco said.

Director & filmmaker Jon Jon Augustavo on his artistic purpose and discovering his Filipino heritage

Director and filmmaker Jon Jon Augustavo sat down with the Asian Journal about his recent journey of connecting to his Filipino heritage.

One of Augustavo’s most notable creations is the music video for Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ “Thrift Shop,” a hip-hop song that topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 2013. That same year, Augustavo also went on to collaborate with the rapper and producer duo on videos for “Can’t Hold Us” and “Same Love.”

The three videos were nominated for six MTV Video Music Awards. “Can’t Hold Us” won Best Cinematography and Best Hip Hop Video, while “Same Love” won Best Video with a Social Message. “Can’t Hold Us” was also nominated for Best Music Video at the 2014 Grammy Awards.

In nearly four years, he has worked with chart-topping artists, such as Shawn Mendes for several videos, including breakout hit “Stitches,” and Mike Posner for “I Took a Pill in Ibiza” (SeeB Remix).

Despite his success with music videos, Augustavo’s next path is creating feature films that challenge his abilities as a director and creative.

“With a film, it’s the closest it can be to your own voice the director or artist. My goal has always been to make a film that speaks to who I am as a person, director, artist or whatever it is. My main goal, main dream is to do that. And to have someone allow me to make what I think is right with the story I want to tell,” he said.

An inside look at the life of LA Superior Court Judge Teresa Magno

To date, there are 11 Filipino-American judges in the state of California; nine of them are in LA County, including Filipina Teresa Magno who won the seat in 2014. But Magno is the first Filipino-American judge to be elected, as the other judges had been appointed to the bench.

In an interview with the Asian Journal, Magno recounted how she decided upon a career in law and how she was motivated to run for an open judicial seat in LA County.

“This is it for me. I want to be a trial judge until I retire…I want to be at this level where on a daily basis you see life — I experience firsthand the drama called life. That’s where I want to be,” she said. “The reward and satisfaction that I feel [are] very much alive in my heart. I love what I do.”

*This story won the Best Profile Writing award at the 2016 Plaridel Awards. 

25th annual Festival of Philippine Arts and Culture brings closer to home

The Festival of Philippine Arts and Culture (FPAC), the annual production of FilAm ARTS, is the largest presenter of Philippine arts and culture in Southern California presenting over 1,200 artists in nine disciplines and attracting over 25,000 audience members from all over the country.

In 2016, FPAC marked its 25th year as an annual celebration, as well being a large commemoration for Filipino American History Month. The 25th-year celebration gathered a whole host of Fil-Am talent, including of the Black Eyed Peas and DJ and dancer STAHYL of the JABBAWOCKEEZ and My Digital Kids, and Fil-Am cast members of the CW show, “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.”

“I just feel like I’m at home with the warmth and reception. I just feel like me. When I’m with the [Black Eyed Peas] I represent the Filipinos, but this time it’s all of me just being proud to be Pinoy and just being around my kababayans,” told the Asian Journal.

Dancing his way to fame: How John Philip ‘Balang’ Bughaw became an Internet sensation

John Philip ‘Balang’ Bughaw, a 7-year-old boy from Bacoor, Cavite, became a worldwide internet sensation for his YouTube videos showing him dancing to the latest pop hits.

With no formal training, Balang started dancing at 4 years old, emulating motions picked up from videos or by simply just moving along to the background music heard on TV shows. The recognition even caught the attention of Ellen DeGeneres, who invited him onto her talk-variety show three times in 2015.

“Natuto akong sumayaw sa pamamagitan ng panonood ng mga videos (I taught myself how to dance by watching videos),” Balang told the Asian Journal, adding that artists Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift and Meghan Trainor, among others, have inspired him to dance.

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