Monday, August 01, 2005

An empowered generation of Filipino-Americans

By John Entrada, contributor

IN THE MERITOCRACY of the American workplace, the issues that young Filipino-Americans face almost never have to do with their ethnicity. One does not need to be a Kennedy or a Rockefeller or an Ayala to achieve success or recognition in a country where one's surname, home province, or bloodline has no significant bearing on a person's career.

American organizations are primarily concerned with a person's strengths, skills, and how he or she contributes to the bottom line of the organization. Though the degree to which young Filipino-Americans must struggle with their Ethnicity varies depending on the industry in which they work, Filipinos are able to showcase their talents, add value to the organizations in which they work, and add to the bottom line. Overall, the issues they face remain the same as those of any other professional in America: career development and advancement.

Though Filipino-American professionals have come a long way in the past forty years, one issue they face is the lack of visibility at higher levels and representation in certain industries. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Asians make up the fastest growing group in the US work force

But while Asians make up about 4.2 percent of the US population, a study published in the Journal of Applied Behavioral Science reveals that Asians hold only 0.3 percent of senior management positions at Fortune 500 companies.

Vladimir Manuel, 35, a Filipino-American director at the International Institute for Learning in New York states, "In very large organizations, I've found that it's harder to see Filipino-Americans, or Asian-Americans in general, who have gone beyond certain higher level, visible positions." For young Fil-Am professionals, he says, "this results in a general lack of fellow Filipinos who could serve as mentors."

For the most part, however, their experience is one of entitlement, progress, and optimism. Some are already leaders in many aspects of the work force, while many are trailblazers in several non-traditional industries. Filipinos are fortunate to have among their ranks young professionals who have higher goals in mind, in addition to their careers. Many immigrants come to America in search of a better life for themselves, never to look back. But for many young professionals in the Filipino-American community, it is this land of privilege that instills a sense of obligation within them in a way that inspires them to succeed in their professional and personal endeavors.

Virgil Esquerra, 22, an investment-banking analyst at HSBC, says, "For a lot of people, even those who are born here, the Philippines is always on their minds. A lot of us realize that in being able to live and work here we happen to be in a position of privilege. We should use that to give back to the community. With privilege comes responsibility."

Working in the United States while giving back to the Philippines, young professionals like Mr. Esquerra often feel like they have their feet in both countries. For Genevieve Javellana, a 28 year-old marketing professional in New York City, it's a matter of trying to find that balance. "In an ideal world," she says, "I'd get paid to use my marketing skills to help the Philippines and the Fil-Am community in the States. But right now, they are just two separate parts of my life: my paid job and my volunteer work."

In spite of this balancing act, Ms Javellana is driven by her personal mission to contribute to the advancement of the Philippines by ultimately living and working there. "When I first came here a few years ago for my MBA, my goal was to gain some experience working here, and then move back to the Philippines." Considering the current trend of highly educated professionals leaving the Philippines in droves, she hopes to counteract the "brain drain."

As first-generation Americans, many Filipino parents encourage their children to assimilate into American society. Although young Filipino-Americans have succeeded quite well in assimilating, this can impact on their visibility and professional development. Some believe that it is now time for Filipino-Americans to come together as a collective to empower the Fil-Am professional community. Mark Anthony Agbuya, a 31-year-old financial advisor at J.P.Morgan Chase, states, "For a lot of the Jews, Italians, Koreans, and Indians with whom I do business, there exist peer groups within their own communities. These peer groups are a big part of what made them very successful. And in finance, that's how the financial tree is often set up. They thrive on their culture; they purposely share information to help each other, whereas we Filipinos don't do it as much as we could. We've assimilated so well, that if we don't start bringing it together a little more, then maybe we've assimilated too much."

For Abby Veneracion, an executive assistant to the president of Victoria's Secret Beauty, one method of empowering the Filipino-American community is to lead by achievement and example. "Being a Filipino-American in the workplace makes me want to strive harder, and succeed so much more," she says, "Because of the way I look and the way we are, I'm representative of the Filipino-American community. So if I succeed, we succeed as a whole."

Some young Filipino-American professionals become mentors and advisors for students who are exploring possibilities outside of the "traditional" healthcare industry. Marylou Cabrera, a 31 year-old buyer for Century21 Department Stores in New York, says, "A lot of young Filipino girls who are in college often come and talk to me about what I do. A lot of them assume that they will become nurses, but when they see what I do in the fashion industry, they start to feel like 'Wow! I didn't know I could do that. How do I do it?' So, it's great to be able to show them that the possibilities are infinite. And, whenever possible, I'll assist in getting them internships or interviews."

One industry in which the lack of Filipino visibility is endemic is the American entertainment industry. Though there are many Filipinos who work behind the scenes in companies such as Time-Warner, HBO, and MTV, there exist many obstacles to casting them in front of the camera or upon the stage. While Asian-American actors face blatant discrimination when it comes to casting, Filipino-Americans seem to have an especially difficult time finding work. Joel de la Fuente, an accomplished actor on stage and on screen, relates his experiences: "This particular line of work has to do with the way I look, so the roles I primarily perform are ethnicity-specific to Asians." Although he is often not considered "American enough" for other roles, he says, "I sometimes get passed over for a lot of Asian roles, because I'm often considered to be 'not Asian enough.'" In spite of meager opportunities, Mr. De la Fuente says that through his work, "I want to increase people's awareness of what it means to be an American. Someone that looks like me can be American, can be Asian, and can be both."

As a staff attorney with the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund in New York City, Glenn Magpantay has the privilege of being able to contribute to the advancement of the Filipino-American community on a daily basis. "My work at AALDEF looks to amplify the voice of all Asian-Americans, including Filipinos, in the political process." During last November's elections, Mr. Magpantay utilized his visibility as a prominent Filipino-American leader to solicit the contribution of volunteer election monitors at polling sites in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and Jersey City. In light of current immigration and social policy, he calls attention to the fact that Filipinos "are a politically disadvantaged group." As a fervent supporter of his cause, Mr. Magpantay feels that Filipino-Americans can do a lot more for their community. "There's a lack of Filipino role models who do this work," he says. "I am the only [Filipino]. It's lonely here."

One prominent group working for the development and advancement of young Filipino-American professionals is Collaborative Opportunities for Raising Empowerment (CORE: Founded by Mr. Manuel in 2002, CORE's primary objective is to empower young Filipino-American professionals as a collective body in the United States. CORE's members are proud to proclaim that "it's not your parents' Filipino organization." When Ms Veneracion was invited to attend a CORE event in 2003, she was hesitant. "I used to view Filipinos as cliquish," she says, "but since I've become involved in the various community-building projects, I found these people to be very professional and very inclusive."

Among CORE's programs is "Harnessing Individual Successes Toward Collective Empowerment," which highlights prominent Filipino-American leaders in various industries. These events bring visibility to Filipinos in leadership roles and facilitate networking among young professionals. In June 2004, CORE spearheaded an initiative to light the Empire State Building in the distinctive red, blue and gold of the Philippine flag. In commemoration of Philippine Independence Day, this event paid tribute to the contributions of Filipino-Americans' to the United States, and heralded a new era of young Filipino-Americans empowered by their community. This year, the Empire State Building will once again showcase the Philippine colors on June 15 and 16.

Previous generations of young Filipino-Americans had few role models other than their parents and other relatives. Today's Filipino-American professionals not only have a larger pool of role models from whom to draw their strength, they also serve their communities by acting as shining examples to future generations who continue the American tradition of dreaming big.

Not only do they use their strengths and skills to create their own opportunities, but they also use their talents to give back to the community through volunteering, networking, and highlighting the achievements of their peers. By blazing a trail of success, many are serving as role models to younger people and broadening a world of possibility in which young Filipino-Americans continue to dream.

John Entrada is the managing editor of "Calling All Stars," a publication of the All Stars Project in NYC.

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