Fresh off the vote

IN 1955, Peter Aduja became the first Filipino American to be voted into office as a member of the Hawaii Territorial House of Representatives, a historical event first reported on the Honolulu Star Bulletin by Richard Borreca on Feb. 22, 2007.

Four hundred years earlier, Filipino seafarers got off the bigger boats of the Manila Galleon Trade era, landing in Morro Bay, California. (

Later, the first ship jumpers of the Galleon Trade settled in Saint Malo, Louisiana.

While the exact date of the establishment of the Filipino settlement in Louisiana remains disputed, what is clear is that a sixth-generation descendant of a sailor who settled in Saint Malo has both oral and written records of her great, great grandfather, Felipe Madriaga.

fresh off the vote

Rhonda Richoux is a sixth-generation descendant of Felipe Madriaga, a sailor from the Philippines who settled in Saint Malo with his Irish wife in 1849. Their descendants remain residents of Saint Bernard Parish up to 2021.

Felipe’s fresh-off-the-boat incident and subsequent settlement in Saint Malo with his Irish wife in 1849 is proof of the Filipino diaspora, first to the United States and later to Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

The phrase “fresh off the boat” (FOB), off the boat (OTB), had metamorphosed into a derogatory term used to describe recently arrived immigrants who have yet to adopt the host nation’s culture, language and mores.

It is interesting to note, however, that while Filipinos have been considered a fresh-off-the-boat community, there is no Filipino Town as prominent or omnipresent as the Chinatowns of New York, San Francisco or Los Angeles.

Instead of “melting” or being assimilated, Asians set up enclaves (distinct “towns”) — the physical manifestation of an immigrant community’s continuing homage to its own culture, language and cuisine.

Filipino Americans, on the other hand, represent the immigrants who made America the melting pot of the world. Filipinos are everywhere but nowhere. Conversant in English and proficient in the host country’s language, Filipinos vanished in the marsh, metros and movies of the US.

Reggie Telmo Valdez, for example, known professionally as Reggie Lee, is a Filipino American film and television actor.

Until I read his biography, I thought Reggie — who played Sergeant Drew Wu in the series “Grimm” — was Chinese or Vietnamese. I found out that Reggie was born in Quezon City in 1975 to parents Jesus Espiritu Valdez and Zenaida Telmo.

The 5’9″ Fil-am also played William “Bill” Kim on “Prison Break,” another TV series.

From melting pot to salad bowl

With 24 percent of the Asian population in the US, 5.4 million Chinese Americans have set up thriving Chinatowns in big cities. Even small towns in America have at least one patronized Chinese restaurant.

Filipinos are the second largest Asian population in America at 4.2 million (according to State Department reports)

Later, the melting pot motto turned into a more politically correct description of the US as a salad bowl: various ingredients mixed into one palatable dish that represents everyone — “E Pluribus Unum, out of many one,” a literal translation of the motto of the United States of America, suggested by a committee on July 4, 1776.

The motto that graced US mint and paper money also became the political currency that witnessed the arrival of Filipino Americans, Filipino Canadians, Filipino Australians and Filipino Kiwis.

Fresh off the vote, descendants of the earliest kababayan include Rechie Valdez, the first Filipino Canadian to be elected as a member of parliament in Canada. Two years earlier, she was elected as a member of parliament for Mississauga-Streetsville.

On July 26, 2023, Rechie was appointed Canada’s Minister of Small Business, the first Filipino Canadian to serve in Prime Minister Trudeau’s federal cabinet.

Canada has the second largest Filipino Canadian and permanent resident community, close to a million, according to the latest census. In fact, if Filipinos with temporary immigration status are included, there are more than a million kababayan who can look up to Rechie as a role model.

The 960,000 members of the Filipino community “[have] not had a single Filipino Canadian representative in parliament since 2004 other than Valdez, who was elected in 2021. Rey Pagtakhan became the first Filipino-born Canadian elected to the House of Commons in 1988 and served in the Liberal government’s cabinet.”

Fil-Aussie from Cebu

Across the globe, Carmen Garcia, a Filipino woman from Cebu, became the first Australian-born Filipino to be appointed as honorary Philippine consul to South Australia.

According to public records, Carmen was “raised by her Cebuana mother and grandparents in Adelaide, South Australia (SA). Carmen was immersed in community life at a young age. They opened their family home to host the Sto Niño de Cebu fiesta in their backyard back in 1987 and 1988. She proudly speaks Visayan fluently, and although born and raised in Australia, her values and experiences were influenced by Filipinos’ inherent values — an immense generosity and sense of community spirit.”

Much like Filipino immigrants with dried fish in their luggage, Carmen recalls a similar incident when growing up and in school eating from her lunch box, “her classmates wrinkle their noses from the “unique aromatic of buwad (stinky dried fish) and rice.”

Rumor has it that a Filipino immigrant at the San Francisco port of entry was subjected to a secondary inspection because the drug-smelling dogs stopped at his balikbayan box.

When the USCIS officers opened the tightly tied box, they took out a package of dried fish.

The officer asked, holding the dried fish with his right hand while covering his nose with the other: “What is this?”

“Daing, sir,” the Filipino replied.

“What do you mean “dying?” It’s dead.”

The sweet smell of political success, however, prevailed, fueled by Carmen’s passion as a multiculturalism advocate.

“Bringing the spirit of bayanihan from her Filipino heritage, Carmen started as a volunteer in the community from the age of 16 tutoring Filipino students, to later establishing the organization Filipino Youth SA, and taking on other leadership roles in the community, including the chairmanship of Filipina SA.

“I didn’t know at the time, but my Filipino culture, values and beliefs have really shaped who I am today. Advocating and supporting our Filipino community has led to a career where I can help everyone embrace diversity and recognize the role multiculturalism contributes to Australia’s economic and social prosperity,” Consul Carmen explained in an interview.

Carmen’s leadership and tenacious advocacy to give Filipinos a voice Down Under earned her a South Australia’s Young Achiever Award in 2014 for Community Service. She was later appointed as the first Filipino woman to the federal government’s Australian Multicultural Advisory Council to the minister.

MP in New Zealand

Another Garcia, this time from San Juan, Metro Manila, became the first member of the New Zealand Parliament of Filipino origin to win an electorate seat this year under the National Party. Paulo Garcia defeated Labor’s Deborah Russell in New Lynn by a margin of 1,013 votes.

Prior to this, Garcia was appointed honorary consul of the Philippines in Auckland in 2012 and was also involved in establishing the New Zealand Philippines Business Council.

A UP Diliman law graduate in 1965, Garcia also attended the Academy of American and International Law in Texas in the US. His biography states that Garcia was a barrister before entering parliament. In the Philippines, he practiced for 10 years specializing on commercial law.

Millions more immigrants from the Philippines will be setting foot in the Five Desti-Nations: Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the USA — this time by plane instead of boat.

And the votes will continue to come.

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