Americas Columns

AMERICA IN MY HEART: FilAms honored with freeway in San Diego: mayor has Pinoy blood

SAN DIEGO – There is no heat wave at this time in San Diego unlike many areas in the United States which are sweltering under extreme heat.

In fact, the city and county on the Pacific coast and southern tip of California bordering Mexico and considered the birthplace of California, known for its beautiful beaches, and parks like the Balboa Park, is sunny and yet cool and breezy although much milder than that of San Francisco where I flew from.

Since coming in here, the sun rises every morning and it’s like daytime even at 7 p.m.. With the sun up high above, San Diego gets warm allowing the bees and colorful butterflies in our neighbourhood at least to frolic from one flowering plant to another while the humming birds sip the dew or nectar of their favorite flowers. In the trees, one can see birds perched on branches for shade or food or soaring high dotting the skyline. The sun is a blessing to homes of many Filipinos as their typical backyards are dotted with malunggay, kangkong, sweet camote, eggplant, ampalaya, calamansi, sigarilyas, siling labuyo, , siling pang-sigang, avocado, sometimes coconut and sampaguita, supplementing the American rose, orange, grapes, apple, plum, persimmon, cherry, pomegranate and sugar apple.

At daybreak, many residents jog or simply walk, some times with their dogs while others troop to the bay front, parks, golf courses or nature trails covered with trees, shrubs and flowers, sometimes with brooks and lakes preserved within the city to enjoy.

The sun then goes down on the side of the Pacific Ocean evoking memories of the scenic President Roxas boulevard, formerly Dewey boulevard in honor of US Commodore George Dewey, commander of the US Naval Force which defeated the Spanish armada of Contraadmirante Patricio Montojo (related to the wealthy Ayalas) on May 1, 1898 that paved the way to America’s 48-year colonization of the Philippines.

Then in almost the same direction where the sun rises every morning, the moon gazes as lights glitter in almost every house and other edifices and the cool breeze sets in.

The warmth of the people of San Diego on Filipinos and Filipino Americans is easily noticeable not only as you go about the malls, but in many strata of society, especially in the US Navy, as San Diego is the home port of the US Naval Force Pacific Fleet where many Filipinos are recruited, some rising to as high as Assistant Secretary to the Navy.

Of the 1.6 million Filipinos in California, over 200,000 are thriving in San Diego (Los Angeles has almost 500,000 while San Francisco has over 300,000 ) and they are second to the Latinos of the city’s 1.5 million residents. The acceptance of Filipinos and the biggest mirror of their success here is at City Hall where the city’s current chief executive, the mayor since 2020, Todd Gloria, 45, a Democrat, is proud of his Filipino roots, although he is also of Dutch, Puerto Rican, and Native American descent. Gloria was a member of the California State Assembly when he made waves in the mayoralty election becoming the first Filipino and person of color and first open gay  mayor of the city.

A summa cum laude graduate of the University of San Diego, Gloria also served as interim mayor of San Diego in August 2013 to March 2014, following the resignation of Mayor Bob Filner who had supported Filipinos in the city. He was a member of the San Diego City Council representing District 3 for eight years.

In recognition of his experience and achievements, Mayor Gloria was recently selected by mayors of California’s 13 largest cities that includes Los Angeles, San Francisco and Sacramento as their bipartisan coalition leader.

According to San Diego’s website, “Mayor Gloria’s lifelong career in public service was inspired by a lesson his parents – a hotel maid and a gardener – taught him at a young age: if you care about something, then you should leave it better than you found it. That lesson continues to motivate Mayor Gloria to improve San Diego every single day.”

Mayor Gloria is committed to making San Diego a city of opportunity that invests in every neighborhood and every San Diegan. Judging from what I have seen so far, San Diego’s transformation makes it a very attractive city for Filipinos and others to thrive and succeed.

In National City, meanwhile, which hosts San Diego County’s biggest concentration of Filipinos, Filipino-American Ditas Yamane, after several unsuccessful city-wide campaigns, was elected City Council member for District 3 in the last election,  together with Luz Molina for District 1. They became the first Filipino members of the City Council after more than 50 years of attempts by Filipinos to join the City Council.

Like in Daly City and San Francisco, a Filipino will feel at home in San Diego seeing Filipinos as you stroll in the streets or parks or shop at the malls. One can find also many Filipino stores here like the Valerios whose “hot pandesal” is well liked, Manila Seafood, Island Pacific, Red Ribbon among others, eateries especializing in Filipino food, some of them earned the monicker “point point” or “turo turo.” Remittance centers like LBC, Lucky Money and PNB and parcel delivery stores for homeward-bound “balikbayan” to Filipinos’ family and loved ones in the Philippines have also sprouted and are now part and parcel of the Filipino community with their brisk business. What I miss from these stores are the Filipino newspapers one can pick up from the racks every time you do business with the stores.

And in recognition of the contribution of Filipinos to San Diego, there is now a freeway or portion of a freeway in the city named “Filipino American Freeway.” Although the sign in the freeway is small compared to other freeway signages, every Filipino here nonetheless is surely proud of it.

I have been to San Diego many times and my trips have been memorable. One of my longest stay was at the home of a brother in law, Jeset Lazo, who was a tall and handsome US Navy sailor, and his mother Filomena Saballa Maufit, on Stockman street in National City. I remember that from the house I would walk to nearby JC Penny and other stores. Aside from the malls, this trip took me to the famous San Diego Zoo and Balboa Park.

Another memorable trip was upon the invitation of a good friend, award-winning photo journalist Nick Sagmit, who originally stayed in his parents’ house in a promontory near the Greyhound station (I took the Greyhound from Los Angeles) in the old downtown from which you can appreciate the seafront of the city. Returning to the place last week, I was amazed at its transformation to a modern district with many skyscrapers, tall condos, high-rise five-star hotels, a classy convention center with access to the well-manicured San Diego Seaport and Marina with yachts ready to ferry tourists for cruise and sightseeing, an open auditorium, restos and coffee shops, among others.

The San Diego Convention Center is accessible also by train and other public transport. There is a sky bridge connecting the convention center and hotels to the train station from which one can walk to the San Diego Stadium, home of the San Diego Padres. Value of properties in the area must have skyrocketed with these developments which surely would surprise my friend Nick Sagmit whose family disposed of their house and lot there years ago.

Another important visit to San Diego was as a working journalist covering a state visit of then President Fidel V. Ramos. Part of the President’s trip was to the University of San Diego where he made an important speech. I remember then that part of the big crowd of officials, faculty and students at the USD was a sister of Mr. Ramos who was a Philippine consul based in San Diego.

While reports indicate that downtown San Francisco is dying, San Diego’s downtown and bayfront in contrast has metamorphosed into a revitalized nucleus of the city and business is booming – a feather to the cap of San Diego’s young mayor of Filipino descent and the people of the city, many of whom are hardworking Filipinos and Filipino Americans. .

(Editor’s Note: The writer is a book author, professor and journalist in the Philippines and United States. He served as president of the National Press Club during which he linked up with the National Press Club in Washington D.C. and launched NPC chapters in US. For 2 six-year terms, he served as a member of the Board of Regents of the Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila, Commissioner of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts and Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Philippine Postal Corporation, among others. He was involved in Filipino media in US since 1988 and is the current editor in chief of Philippine News Today. He can be reached at alfredgabot@aol.com or alfred.gabot@gmail.com)