Alex Esclamado: The invisible giant

Ryan Macasero
Despite Filipinos being the largest Asian-American ethnic group in California, there's still hardly anything said about them in public schools

Photo by Eric Lachica

MANILA, Philippines – I’ve never met the guy. I didn’t know who he was growing up.  There are no schools, streets, buildings or community centers named after him, but maybe there should be.

Alex Esclamado’s name isn’t usually mentioned in the same breath as Martin Luther King Jr. or Cesar Chavez in America, but maybe it should be.

Schools don’t say much about him.  

Not once had I heard the name Carlos Bulosan, author and labor activist who wrote compelling tales of discrimination and his struggle fighting for labor rights. 

Do the names Larry Itliong and Philip Vera Cruz ring a bell?  

It wasn’t until much later when I learned about who they were and what they did for the Filipino farmworkers and for every laborer.

Invisible Filipino-Americans

Everyone knew Cesar Chavez.  

How could we not? It was a free day off from school if you lived in California, Colorado, or Texas.  

He was a celebrated Mexican-American labor and civil rights leader who co-founded the United Farmworkers Movement (UFW) in the United States.

While we learned about the strikes Chavez led in the 1960s and 70s to fight for better working conditions, books made no mention of how the UFW was formed. Chavez joined a week after Filipino grape pickers — led by no less than Itliong and Vera Cruz, in Delano — began to strike. 

The UFW was actually a coalition of Mexican and Filipino-American farmworkers who fought side by side.

So why were second generation Fil-Am kids taught to celebrate and honor Latin American and African-American leaders but not our own? We were invisible.

Alex Esclamado, founder and publisher of Philippine News, fought to change that.

I first learned of his story as a fresh graduate interning at the paper that he founded. I was new, naive and clueless.

Inspiration 

One of the paper’s long time editors, Cherie Querol Moreno, called me into the office one day.  She asked me if I knew the paper’s history. I did not.  

For the next 20 minutes or so she began to tell me about Alex.

Esclamado stood among the giants of history. But all school textbooks I’ve ever read wrote nothing about him.  

His Wikipedia entry has a whopping two sentences. But those who knew him the best would not hesitate to tell you everything about their dear friend Alex.

He was a giant, but an invisible one.

Philippine News

Esclamado’s story began in 1929 in Padre Burgos, Southern Leyte. He was the son of the town mayor. From the province, he made it to law school and passed the bar in 1955. He then worked for former President Ramon Magsaysay and for his “Land for the Landless” program in Central Luzon and Mindanao, distributing land for former Huks in return for their arms.

His friend, US-based lawyer Rodel Rodis, said he had a promising career in politics. He married Lourdes “Luly” Mitra in 1952, the daughter of then Congressman Ramon M. Mitra Sr and sister of former Speaker Ramon “Monching” Mitra Jr.  

It was his working relationship with Eugenio Lopez Sr that would bring him to the US.  

Despite a budding political career, he accepted a post with Lopez’s Manila Chronicle as their chief correspondent in San Francisco, and he won a scholarship to study at the Hastings College of Law in San Francisco. 

As the story goes, Alex Esclamado convinced the Lopezes to begin printing the Manila Chronicle USA out of his Sunset District home garage after seeing a need for news for California’s growing Filipino community.  

Soon after, the paper cut its ties from the Chronicle and printed independently as Philippine News. It wasn’t the first Filipino newspaper, but it became the first Filipino national broadsheet based in the US.

“Where there was a cause, Philippine News was there,” Moreno said.

Opposition voice

Esclamado and his paper became a loud voice of opposition and a muscle for the community.

In 1963, Alex was part of a group that lead the fight to increase immigration quotas in the US (only 50 Filipinos a year were allowed to migrate), and to advocate for the licensing of Filipino professionals like doctors, lawyers and accountants so that they could practice in the US. 

Eventually, the amended Immigration and Naturalization Act increased the quota up to 20,000 per country.  

He also organized food caravans to support Philip Vera Cruz, Larry Itliong, and the farm worker strikes from San Francisco to Delano, California.

When martial law was declared in 1972, the influential weekly paper did not hesitate to criticize the Marcoses’ growing power. It nearly cost the Esclamados their business.

The Marcoses allegedly tried to buy Philippine News‘ silence and sent an emissary to offer him US$12 million.  

Esclamado’s supposed reply was, “Is that the price of our honor?”

Intimidation

Even from Manila, the Marcoses were able to intimidate the paper’s advertisers and forced the company into bankruptcy. The family did everything they could to keep the paper open. Luly even resorted to selling her jewelry. And it worked.

The newspaper didn’t only stick to local issues. It wasn’t just a place for announcements, photos of debuts and expatriates celebrating their hometown fiestas in Filipino communities across America.

Philippine News broke barriers, tackled stories and was not afraid to fight to make the Filipino-American community a serious voice in the national discourse.

The paper identified their allies, Filipinos or non-Filipinos. And highlighted the issues that matter to us, a very marginalized sector of American society, and led serious and smart discussions on issues such as veterans’ rights, immigration reform, housing discrimination, and much more.

Impossible dream

He sold the paper to former Philippine ambassador to the United Kingdom Edgardo Espiritu in 1997 to give his full attention to an organization he helped to found: the National Alliance for Filipino and Filipino American Associations (NaFFAA).  

With this organization, he continued his advocacy of fighting for the rights of the Fil-Am community and advocating for representation in government.

Many thought uniting the fractured Fil-Am community an “impossible dream” but Alex made that song his mantra.

I was invited to spend some time with Esclamado in the summer of 2011 to write a feature on him before he intended to move back to the Philippines. I was elated and looking forward to making the trip to his Napa Valley home, but sadly, I couldn’t go.

Now I wish I did. He died the following year.

Gone virtual

Philippine News is not the same newspaper of Alex’s time. It is still alive and kicking, but it is not immune to the tough environment of print media in the United States.  

The bustling newsroom is no more. It’s gone virtual.  Contributors work remotely.

The office isn’t as big as it used to be. And although Alex is long gone from Philippine News, his legacy remains.

School kids will read his name in the history books one day.

“His work must continue,” Luly told reporters at Alex’s memorial. And it has.  

The importance of electing Fil-Ams into office

The 2012 US elections had the most number of Fil-Ams running in any election cycle. 40 ran, while at least 26 won.  26 representatives for 3.4 million documented Fil-Ams?  Better than before.

In California, Assembly Bill 123, authored by Quezon City-born Assembly member Rob Bonta, the first Fil-Am to sit in the state’s legislature, will require schools to include the role of Filipinos in the farm labor movement in primary curricula.  

A school district in Union City, California, in the San Francisco Bay Area, approved the renaming of a middle school in April after Larry Itliong and Philip Vera Cruz — even after fierce opposition from other groups. It will be the first school in the US named after a Fil-Am.  

The president of the school board, was—you guessed it—A Fil-Am, Rosalinda Canlas.

Crab mentality?  History.  Almost.

Alex is an invisible giant, but not in the way you might think. – Rappler.com

(Writer’s note: Information about Alex Esclamado was compiled from interviews with his friends and associates, especially from Philippine News and the National Alliance for Filipino and Filipino American Associations.)

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Ryan Macasero

Ryan covers social welfare for Rappler. He started at Rappler as social media producer in 2013, and later took on various roles for the company: editor for the #BalikBayan section, correspondent in Cebu, and general assignments reporter in the Visayas region. He graduated from California State University, East Bay, with a degree in international studies and a minor in political science. Outside of work, Ryan performs spoken word poetry and loves attending local music gigs. Follow him on Twitter @ryanmacasero or drop him leads for stories at ryan.macasero@rappler.com