A story of a Filipino immigrant who became mayor of a California city

On Thursday, October 19, 2017, Myrna Lardizabal-de Vera , my sister had the honor of speaking to the Filipino American Network of the Federal Reserve Bank (FRB) of San Francisco. Bernard Del Castillo, Assistant Manager at FRB and a Hercules resident invited her to speak about the challenges she faced as an immigrant, the lessons she learned and the resources she tapped to develop into her leadership position as Mayor of the City of Hercules.

Myrna was impressed with FRB’s commitment to diversity, as stated:

“The Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco believes in the diversity of our people, ideas, and experiences and are committed to building an inclusive culture that is representative of the communities we serve.”

Here’s a transcript of their conversation:

WHAT CHALLENGES DID YOU FACE AFTER IMMIGRATING TO THE USA? (Development)

When I recall the challenges I faced as an immigrant, I consider myself blessed. I’ve had an easy time assimilating because I spoke English as my first language, had a college degree, and skills I used to find good paying work and start my business. But when I ran and won for Hercules City Council, I experienced blatant discrimination for being a Filipina.

I came to America in the early eighties during the height of Philippine political unrest, a year after Ninoy Aquino was assassinated on the airport tarmac, and two years before the People Power in the Philippines overthrew the dictator Marcos. I came on a whim, a tourist, 24 years young, single, with 1 luggage and $500. I just passed the Architectural Board Exams in the Philippines, so I demanded from my father to reward me with a trip to San Francisco to visit my best friend from college for a 2 week vacation.

After playing tourist for a couple of weeks, I decided to find a way to stay in America. I managed to stretch the 2 weeks into 7 months by working “under the table” for a group of Filipino American engineers I met through my friend at a funeral. I used my drafting skills for their engineering drawings they paid me $5 to $7 per hour. When these engineers ran out of work, they referred me to a Filipino American newspaper office, which I worked as a secretary, answering phones and doing clerical work. Friends urged me to marry an American citizen “for convenience” so I could get a green card. Others said I could TNT “tago ng tago”. But I was determined to marry for love and determined to return home if I couldn’t find a legal way to stay.

I met my future husband, Manny, during my brief secretarial job. We fell in love and planned to get married as soon as our families allowed us. But my tourist visa was expiring, and I took the risk of returning to the Philippines. Before I left, I worked for another engineer, a Chinese American, in Oakland, who I’d met through the Fil Am engineers. He kindly offered to sponsor my H-1 Visa for my Architectural skills, and five months later, I returned to America with an H-1 visa and a fiancé.

I found jobs in the civil engineering firms and later changed my career to insurance agent. All the jobs I got through referrals from a network I built. I felt welcomed, appreciated and lived in the color-blind, diverse city of Hercules. Or so I thought.

Then I got elected to the Hercules City Council.

Residents and even the media, seemed to want to perpetuate the image of Filipina women as passive, submissive, silent, and sweet. I can be sweet, but certainly not passive, submissive or silent. Fearless and fierce, I spoke out, asked difficult questions, and voted with my conscience., many times, the lone opposing vote. Because of my efforts to speak for my constituents, I earned the appreciation of many residents. But my actions defying the Filipina stereotype disturbed other people. Racial and sexist slurs against me filled the blogs. I was called Imelda, Evita; They painted me as an evil woman who sought power. They told my husband and me to go back to the third world we belonged.

I survived those early years of racial attacks by continuing to work hard and speak up for my constituents. I survived my trials through prayer and the support of loving friends and family. Instead of defeating me, I used my trials as an opportunity to grow and change. I had sessions with a life coach; every day I read books on leadership and self-improvement. I’ve made peace with myself and forgave my political enemies for the sake of the greater good. And I stopped reading blogs. Instead I reach out to my constituents through email newsletter updates and community gatherings.

Leaders should encourage the good in people

WHAT LESSONS HAVE YOU LEARNED THAT LED YOU TO THE POSITION YOU ARE IN NOW? (Leadership)

I like to think about my “position” as a public servant, rather than a politician. I grew up witnessing my parents lead a life of volunteerism, at church, Rotary, Jaycees, Family Planning.

I started my community involvement in Hercules during the mid-1990’s when I joined the Chamber of Commerce and served on the Board as Vice-President. I volunteered as team mom of my sons’ soccer and little league baseball teams, treasurer of their cub scouts pack, and faith formation teacher for my twins’ classes.

A FilAm council member urged me to apply for the planning commission because he knew of my Architectural background. The council had 2 members of Filipino descent and they became my mentors. When the city council appointed me to the planning commission, a FilAm newspaper published a 2 page article written by my sister about my oath-taking, and her friends, who were leaders of the Fil-Am community in the larger San Francisco Bay area urged me to seek higher office. I didn’t realize that the planning commission appointment was a step into politics.

As the only woman in a 5 member commission, I worked twice as hard as my colleagues. I studied the thick volumes of environmental studies and staff reports so I could ask intelligent questions and make the right vote. On my second year, I was ready to quit the political world. I hated the political intrigues and conflicts. I wanted to crawl back to my safe simple life.

A turning point came when my sister, Lorna Dietz, dragged me to a Filipina Women’s Network Summit, where I met Marily Mondejar, FWN president. Marily pointed out how we Filipina in mainstream positions could change the image of Filipina women in the USA by moving on to more visible positions of policymaking bodies. I realized then that I had to think of the bigger picture — that what I did as a commissioner in the city was important.

Instead of quitting, I moved on to be the Chairperson of the Hercules Planning Commission. In 2009, Filipina Women’s Network recognized me as one of the 100 Most Influential Filipina Women, Policymakers and Visionaries. The panel speakers during that Summit inspired me, and most of all, I met Mayor of Davis, Ruth Asmudsen and Mayor of Colma, Joanne Del Rosario. Meeting them allowed me to imagine, I can be mayor too one day.

I served as Treasurer of the Fil-Ams of Hercules, the local organization known for members who became city leaders. I volunteered as a member of the pastoral council and fundraiser at St. Patrick Catholic Church and for donor drives for the Asian American Donor Program. Through my community involvement, I learned consensus building, independent thinking, and leadership skills. I also built relationships with many hard-working residents, who would later become my most passionate campaigners.

Campaigning for my sister in November 2010.

WHAT RESOURCES DID YOU USE TO GAIN THE LEADERSHIP SKILLS THAT HELPED YOU BECOME THE MAYOR OF HERCULES? (Collaboration, influence and achievement)

When people ask me how I got involved in politics, I say, it was a call to service. Also, I was in the right place at the right time. I live in Hercules, a San Francisco Bay Area suburb of 24,000 residents, where 27 percent of the population area of Filipino descent. The Filipino-Americans, or Filams, is a segment of the population that turns out to vote, motivated by the need to have at least one Filam serve in the city council. Proof of the power of the FilVote are the 6 council members of Filipino descent before me; five of them became mayors. I’m the sixth. In addition, the FilAm leaders practiced the tradition of mentoring new leaders through commission appointments. I’m a product of that legacy of mentorship and the Fil-Am vote.

In 2010, allegations of corruption by Hercules leaders spread among blogs and the local newspaper. The city manager owned an affordable housing company, run by his two college-age daughters. The city council awarded $3 million contract to the city manager’s company and awarded affordable housing loans to friends, staff, and council members’ family. A grand jury reported of Hercules city leaders’ nepotism and cronyism practices. Residents clamored for a change of leadership. After much encouragement from residents, I took the plunge and ran for city council with my platform: “The Right Change, based on Competence, Commitment, and Character.”

Fortunately, after many years of civic engagement, I’d built name recognition and a base of loyal supporters. My husband, Manny served as my campaign manager and his strategy was simple: reach out to the Filipino-Americans as our foundation and build from there. Because of my campaign, members from 3 local Filipino American groups worked together for a common cause: to make sure I win with the highest votes.

The Filams were my most ardent and generous donors but I also attracted a diverse group of residents, who knew me from the planning commission, to rally behind me during my campaign. My supporters attended meet-and-greet house parties, casino trips, a dance, breakfast buffets, and other fundraisers to raise $10,000. Donations were typically from $20 to $100 from individuals. Most gave support with one condition: that I serve as an honest public servant. Many supported me unconditionally and with full trust.

The two challengers, I and John Delgado, beat the two incumbents, and our victory started true change in Hercules.

I entered the city council at the height of controversy. The situation was worse than I had thought. We were stunned to learn the brutal truths. First, that the city wasn’t flush with money, as our former city leaders had assured us. We discovered the magnitude of our financial crisis ($6 million budget deficit), the mismanagement of funds, the conflicts of interest and rampant nepotism and cronyism practiced in city hall, the rubber stamping of decisions. Then, on top of our local challenges, the State abolished Redevelopment. The city was slapped with lawsuits. Real estate properties and our municipal electric company sold at fire-sale prices. City staff were cut in half. Friday furloughs implemented. Community events cancelled. Angry constituents filled our council chambers at every meeting. During my first term, Council had to deal with a revolving door of 7 city managers, as well the resignation and recall of 3 council members, and another election that booted out 2 of the newer council members who had recalled the former council members. The city was on the brink of bankruptcy. I moved quickly from rookie council member, to Vice Mayor during my first month of office, then Mayor on my 6th month.

Because of my community involvement and the relationships I established, I was ready to hit the ground running.

AS A FILIPINA, WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO WOMEN WHO WANT TO TAP INTO THEIR LEADERSHIP ASPIRATIONS? (Emotional intelligence and critical thinking)

I mentioned earlier about one of the turning points in my life, the Filipina Women’s Network Summit of 2006. Marily Mondejar, the President of FWN, said that when one googles the word “Filipina”, the results were dating and marriage sites of Filipina women for Foreign men.

Out of curiosity, I wanted to see if that has changed eleven years later, and so today I googled the word “Filipina Women”. 9 out of the 10 top ten results are devoted to Filipina women in relation to marriage or dating. Only 1 site is a non-dating sites. Wikepedia is number 6. The results describe Filipina women: beauty, girlfriend, ladies looking for love, romance, spouse, fiancé to Non-Filipinos, dating, friendship, sweet, sophisticated, innocent, demure. Only Wikepedia states the truth about Filipina Women: a nation of strong women, who directly and indirectly run the family unit, businesses, government agencies and haciendas. Compared to other parts of Southeast Asia, women in Philippine society have always enjoyed a greater share of equality.

The other 9 google results didn’t mention any of these words: strong, intelligent, ethical, creative, empowered, leader, dynamic, assertive, mentor, role model, inspiration, survivor, visionary.

Clearly, we Filipina women in the USA have much work ahead of us. We are all called upon for our purpose in life — whether we’re leaders or behind the scenes, in professions of medicine or law, business, in the arts, nonprofits, or in politics. We need to forge on, be the best we can be in our fields or endeavors, and change the perception of the world so that one day, not only will people appreciate us for our beauty. One day, when we google Filipina, we will be recognized as strong leaders, empowered women, role models and inspiration, intelligent and creative go-getters.

Here’s what you can do:

1. Volunteer in your community – at your children’s school or extra-curricular activities, at your church

2. Apply for a commission appointment in your city – In Hercules, we have Finance, Planning and Community Services/Library Commissions where you can learn “on the job” how to navigate local politics

3. Join community based organizations such as the Chamber of Commerce, Lions, and Volunteer at the SOMA Pilipinas. You’ll establish relationships and meet community advocates and leaders who you can emulate.

4. Get training from political organizations whose goal is to increase the number of women in public office.

HOW DO YOU DEAL WITH BALANCING FAMILY AND WORK? (Accountability and Influence)

On my oath-taking ceremony as a rookie council member, I expressed my philosophy about family/work/life balance.

I am the driver, and my car with four wheels must be balanced to survive my journey in life. The first wheel represents my family, who I love and who love me. The second wheel is the wheel of my business. During these tough economic times, I have to work hard in my insurance business to earn money so I can responsibly pay our bills. The third wheel represents my community I serve either as a volunteer, and recently, as an elected official. The fourth wheel represents faith, faith that there is a power greater than me. Faith has been my guiding light during my dark times. I try to balance these four wheels in my life, the wheel of family, of your job, of community, and the wheel of faith. I also remind myself, don’t forget to take care of the driver, my emotional and physical health.

I admit balancing the wheels of family/community/business/faith is challenging. My car is out of balance many times. Right now, my wheel of community is overinflated while my wheel of finances is low in air. I live day to day, using triage when deciding what to focus on. Fortunately, my sons are now working adults, so they support and help me. I de-stress by playing games on my tablet, playing with my cats, and walking on the Bay Trail.

WHAT CURRENT INITIATIVES ARE UNDERWAY FOR THE CITY OF HERCULES THAT YOU’D LIKE US TO KNOW ABOUT (Achievement, Collaboration)

Intermodal Transit Center (Train Station, Ferry Terminal, & Bus Service)

The Intermodal Transit Center will combine several modes of public transportation (train and bus, with a possible ferry link in the future) in one convenient Waterfront location (along Bayfront Boulevard near Refugio Creek). Design of the train infrastructure improvements – track alignment, signals, pedestrian walkway, center-boarding platform and station structure–is nearly complete.

In addition to the rail, and bus improvements, and a possible ferry terminal, an additional 1,300 homes are proposed to be located in the Waterfront as well as commercial, office, and live-work units. The transit center will be easily accessible for bicyclists and pedestrians as well, particularly via the Bay Trail, which will connect to Pinole and Rodeo.

The cost of the Intermodal Transit Center and all related infrastructure improvements is estimated at $81M. This transit-oriented development will be the largest in California!

As a future provider of bus and rail service to Western Contra Costa, the ITC will be a highly valued regional transportation hub. Given the merits of the project as exemplified by the grant funding and project sponsors, staff is confident the ITC will continue to compete competitively for future grant opportunities.

For more information, please go to the City of Hercules website at www.ci.hercules.ca.us

Noemi Lardizabal-Dado is a Content Strategist with over 11 years experience in blogging, content management, citizen advocacy and online media publishing and over 21 years in web development. Otherwise known as @MomBlogger on social media, she believes in making a difference in the lives of her children by advocating social change for social good.

She is a co-founder and a member of the editorial board of Blog Watch . She is a resource speaker on social media , blogging, digital citizenship, good governance, transparency, parenting, women’s rights and wellness, and cyber safety.

Her personal blogs such as aboutmyrecovery.com (parenting) , pinoyfoodblog.com (recipes), techiegadgets.com (gadgets) and beautyoverfifty.net (lifestyle) keep her busy outside of Blog Watch.

Disclosure:

She was a Senior Consultant for ALL media engagements for the PCOO-led Committee on Media Affairs & Strategic Communications (CMASC) under the ASEAN 2017 National Organizing Council from January 4 -July 5, 2017. Having been an ASEAN advocate since 2011, she has written extensively about the benefits of the ASEAN community and as a region of opportunities on Blog Watch and aboutmyrecovery.com.

Organization affiliation includes Scrap Pork Network. I do not support or belong to any political party . Family friends with House Representative Pia Cayetano and Former Senator Alan P. Cayetano. I did not vote for any presidential candidate in the 2016 elections.

Updated July 30, 2017

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