On Monday, October 24, the White House hosted an event to celebrate Filipino American History Month for only the second time in its history. Sponsored by the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and the White House Office of Public Engagement, the Briefing brought together over 150 community leaders from around the country, as far away as Alaska. An ambitious agenda included panel discussions on issues such as Education, Veterans, Health/ Mental Health, and Immigration. The event also included cultural performances from Parangal, a San Francisco based Philippine Folk Dance company, Broadway Barkada, featuring Filipino Americans starring on Broadway in New York, and hip hop star from the Black Eyed Peas, apl.de.ap, with Liane V. and Jessica Reynoso. Federal agency officials working on critical policy issues addressed the audience, and the keynote address was given by Nani Coloretti, the Deputy Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the highest ranking Filipina American in the Administration.
Filipino American organizations and advocates came together around the Briefing to connect and share information on activities and initiatives around the country. I serve on the Executive Committee of the Filipino Veterans Recognition and Education Project and we held a National Meeting on Sunday where we provided an update on our campaign to secure a Congressional Gold Medal for Filipino WWII veterans. In the year since the legislation was introduced, our work to mobilize the community across the country has resulted in passage of the bill by the Senate in July 2016, and in the cosponsorship of more than 305 members of the House. The bill is steps away from final passage, and our work this week has launched our national "all hands on deck" push to finally get this across the finish line during this Congressional session. We announced our social media campaign using Facebook and Twitter to direct action on the House Republican leadership to pass HR 2737 without delay.
The work to officially recognize our Filipino WII veterans has been a central part of my career in social justice advocacy for the last ten years, has been part of my involvement in Washington, DC's Filipino American community for the last 20 years, and has, with or without my knowing, been part of who I am as a Filipino American my whole life. I was honored to be asked to moderate the panel on veterans issues at the White House Filipino American History Month Briefing and I started the session by putting our discussion in three different contexts:
- 70 Years: This year, we noted the 70th anniversary of the infamous Recission Act that first revoked citizenship and eligibility for veterans benefits. The "original sin" we have sought to address with the Filipino WWII veterans equity movement, this legislation represents the wrongs we seek to right through our efforts on behalf of our veterans.
- 7 Years: President Obama included legislation in one of his first acts as President that authorized the creation of the Filipino Veterans Equity Compensation Fund (FVEC), which has provided important financial relief for veterans in the United States (15,000) and in the Philippines (9,000).
- Today: With continuing progress on the legislative front and an important policy victory earlier this summer when President Obama officially started the Filipino WWII Veterans Parole Program (www.uscis.gov/fwvp) to allow eligible veterans to bring their adult children to join them while their family petition is being processed, our veterans and their needs are top of mind for the community and all our efforts now are on their behalf.
For me, this work has never been more personal. While I was on the stage, I took a couple of opportunities of "moderator's privilege" to reaffirm the wisdom that the personal is political:
- So many people in my life have also dedicated the work of their hands and their hearts to service and were part of the events of the day and of the week, but my twin brother, Roland de Guzman, CMDR, is someone who currently wears the uniform as a member of the U.S. Navy, and having him be part of the proceedings as someone who works for the Commander-In-Chief gave me more pride than I can say.
- While our work is for the veterans that are still with us and the families that survive them, this moment it comes at a time when we have lost some of the leading lights in our community. I took a moment to recognize some of those we have lost this year, including (but certainly not limited to): Joe Montano, Uncle Bob Santos, Alice Bulos, and Gigi Miranda (we recognized Danny Kalundayan later that night). If you don't know who these people are and what they mean to the Filipino American community, Google them- you won't be disappointed.
- As President Obama's term in office is coming to a close, I was proud to take a moment to publicly and officially thank the President for his role in creating FVEC. In both a moment of policy victory for veterans with urgent needs, but more importantly, at a political moment when the Filipino American community moved a priority agenda item forward, I noted that for everyone who made a phone call or sent an e-mail to their member of Congress during our campaigns for the veterans, the legacy we build today is for them as well.
The movement building we've done these past days, the moments we took to recognize the rock stars in our community (literal and figurative), and the momentum we've built to carry us on to more victories epitomize the spirit that the founders of the Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS) had in mind when they first dreamed the idea of Filipino American History Month- we celebrate our heritage, but we make history. Whether in the White House or at your house, recognizing Filipino American History Month is as American as apple pie and as Filipino as bagoong!