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Filipinos and Mexicans struggle for power in National City

What district elections along ethnic lines produced

Bennett Peji’s daughters are Mexipinos, the product of a mother born in San Luis Potosi, Mexico and a father who immigrated with his family from Manila.
Bennett Peji’s daughters are Mexipinos, the product of a mother born in San Luis Potosi, Mexico and a father who immigrated with his family from Manila.

Philippine-born Ditas Yamane ran for a seat on National City’s City Council in 2010 and 2020 and for mayor in 2018, as well as for other offices over the years. But getting elected (despite having the U-T’s endorsement in 2010) continued to elude the real estate broker and longtime National City resident. According to Jose Rodriguez, a National City councilman who was born in Baja California, Mexico, “She didn’t get elected for a variety of reasons, but the biggest one is that she’s Filipino in an overwhelmingly Latino community.”

Rudy Guevarra, Jr. has written a book, Becoming Mexipino: Multiethnic Identities and Communities in San Diego, which documents the shared history of Mexicans and Filipinos.

Rodriguez explained to me that National City, like most cities south of Interstate 8, was largely controlled by white politicians until the 1990s, when Latinos began acquiring more representation and power. Today, he says, the city of close to 61,000 people is 60% Latino, 20% Filipino, 10% White, and 10% Black and other races. But in spite of being the second largest ethnic group in the city, Filipinos like Yamane have struggled to win elected office. Since the city’s creation in 1887, National City residents have elected only two Filipinos to the city council: Rosalie Zarate in 1990 — a beloved figure who was also the first female elected to the council and who served four terms — and the disgraced Fred Soto in 2000, an attorney who served briefly before he had to resign from the state bar after allegations of fraud — and who, according to Nancy Fay, writing for the Reader in 2002, filed a defamation lawsuit against his fellow members of the city council, which was later dismissed. Fideles Ungab, the most recent Filipino councilmember, served two years on the city council in the mid-2000s, but was appointed both times.

Then along came Audie de Castro, a Filipino attorney and Philippine honorary consul of San Diego. On Nov. 8, 2021, he called on the city council to change its charter, so that at-large, citywide elections would be replaced by district-based elections. This would mean that candidates could run for seats on the council only if they lived in the geographic district that seat represented. The exception would be the mayor, who would still have to face all the voters citywide.

Secret Weapon

There was initial resistance to de Castro’s proposal from the mayor at the time, Alejandra Sotelo-Solis, and councilman Ron Morrison. But de Castro had a secret weapon: the threat of a civil rights lawsuit. He would argue that at-large voting violated the California Voting Rights Act by diluting the political power of the city’s Filipino and API (Asian and Pacific Islander) residents. (California passed the Act after the U.S. Supreme Court rolled back key provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.) This wasn’t an idle threat; the tactic had been used successfully by plaintiffs to stop the disenfranchisement of minority voters in other cities.

Counclman Rodriguez was a staunch advocate for de Castro’s proposal and the only councilman to attend the attorney’s rallies to generate support for district-based voting. “I just thought it was important to be in solidarity with our Filipinos brothers and sisters,” he said. For Mexicans not to support Filipinos, he noted, would be intellectually inconsistent and hypocritical, given that they have faced, and continue to face, similar discrimination and disenfranchisement in other regions. “It’s inherently unfair, because if you have a sizable population of constituents, they should be represented.”

Systemic Racism

And although Rodriguez didn’t use the words systemic or institutional racism, he did say this: “It sounds wrong when we say, ‘We’re discriminating against our Filipino sisters and brothers, but it’s because of the system.’ I don’t think anybody on the council was being malicious. But I think that a system benefited folks that were more politically connected, more affluent.” People from a certain part of town. “There was a point during the early 2010s when four out of the five elected officials lived within three blocks of each other,” Rodriguez conceded. It created the impression, maybe the reality, that they weren’t attuned to the needs of other parts of National City. For a period of 20 years, the city council didn’t have “anybody that was serving as a council member that lived on the west side of Highland Avenue,” he noted. “It’s half of the city. And what does that tell you? That means that the west side of Highland is not going to get as much attention. Those constituents are not going to get a lot of time, effort, and energy into their projects, because the people being elected don’t live there.”

Alejandra Sotelo- Solis, former National City Mayor.

For this reason, Rodriguez argues that district-based voting would benefit the whole city, not just the Filipino and API community. “Part of what districting is about is about being better, having better representation for your entire city, whether you are a Filipino community member, that you now have a Filipino voice, or whether you live on the west side of National City,” he said.

Why was Mayor Sotelo-Solis against it? Rodriguez said there was speculation that she knew district-based voting would dilute her power. If a District 3 were to be created, it would include Mona Rio, one of the mayor’s closest allies. “It would mean Mona would have to compete against a Filipino candidate in an overwhelmingly Filipino district — and lose.” The Latina mayor would lose her Latina ally. “If I were to speculate, it was a political reality that I’m sure she was contemplating at the time.” Sotelo-Solis did not respond to a request for an interview.

Unanimous Vote

On Dec. 21, 2021, the city council heeded Audie de Castro’s call. Realizing the city would be liable in the lawsuit, Sotelo-Solis and Morrison came around, and the council voted unanimously to change the charter to pave the way for district-based voting. The move carved out District 3, a densely Filipino district. District-based elections would be implemented in November of 2022. One of the immediate repercussions was that Mona Rios decided not to run, leaving Damitas Yamane to become the first Filipino council member elected in over a decade. In the mayoral race, Sotelo-Solis was handily defeated, and Morrison became the new mayor, beating Councilman Rodriguez by a mere 60 votes. (In addition to Yamane and Rodriguez, the city council now includes Luz Molina and Marcus Bush, who is African American and Latino.)

But Filipino activist Judy de los Santos suspects de Castro’s lawsuit had an ulterior motive. “That was the only way that certain candidates were going to be able to get a seat. That’s my personal opinion.” Certain candidates? I asked if she was referring to Yamane, and she answered in the affirmative. (De Castro and Yamane did not respond to requests for interviews.) For his part, Councilmember Rodriguez spoke highly of Yamane: “I think she’s a very good representation of the Filipino community. She’s progressive on some issues and she’s a little more moderate and conservative on others, but that is the Filipino population. They’re a little more conservative. She is a product of her constituents.”

Mixed Feelings & Misgivings

Contrary to my expectation, most of the Filipino activists and organizers I spoke to were against, or had mixed feelings about, district-based elections. They were all for giving geographic representation to areas of National City that were sorely in need of it, places like the west end. But they weren’t fans of drawing lines around race, and thought the practice could prove divisive. “I am for being inclusive. I want to make sure all voices are heard. But to say that’s the reason why one ethnicity needs a district, I lean away from that,” said de los Santos, who previously campaigned for a seat on the city council, as did her sister Lorna.

Audie de Castro (left) at rally for district-based elections in National City.

She also thought it was ridiculous to carve up such a tiny city—National City is roughly four square miles — into different districts. But the big objection was the notion that candidates should have to appeal to all of the city’s voters rather than a segment or sliver of the population. Districts work against that. Her critique was that ambitious Latino and Filipino candidates “use their race as their base of support” but don’t expand beyond it. District-based elections would encourage them to place identity above issues.

While conceding that the political representation of National City doesn’t reflect the city’s racial demographics, de los Santos argued that “it doesn’t matter what a candidate’s race is. The will of the people should decide if they belong in that seat.” JoAnn Fields, government and public relations director of the API Initiative, agreed, emphasizing that three Filipinos have been elected (or appointed) to the city council without district-based elections. Her point was that the right candidate should be able to attract a broad base of support and speak to voters’ issues. She believes that whoever is elected “has to represent the whole community. If Latinos are the majority in a certain district, an elected official still has Filipinos, they have Anglos, African Americans and other diverse populations that they must represent.”

Fields agreed with de los Santos, pointing to Chula Vista, which has been running district-based elections since 2016. “If you focus just on your own racial group for support, but don’t speak more broadly, that can hurt you,” Fields said. She speculated that this is what might have happened with Jason Paguio, the president of the Asian Business Association and a rising star in the Filipino and API community, who lost his bid in 2016 to represent District 3 on the Chula Vista City Council. “He didn’t appeal to the whole district. You can’t rely on the API vote — you have to collaborate with all the residents,” insists Fields.

Floods and Favoritism?

Rodriguez, who supported carving out a Filipino district, conceded that while “color is important to feel you’re represented, the key is serving your constituents.” As an example of National City’s empathy and responsiveness, Rodriguez mentioned the floods, saying that on the first night, he “visited a handful of sites that were deeply impacted. Folks were just shattered by what had happened to their homes and all of their possessions. And the following morning, I called up my city manager, Ben Martinez, and I said, ‘Ben, our community needs help. I need you to come here and bring sweepers and our waste removal team. I need you to bring volunteers. We need to help people.’ Ben showed up half an hour later. He was there bringing in resources to help 40 families at the mobile home park and 30 families at the apartments right next door.”

But Fields had a different take. “When the recent floods happened, we didn’t get the same equity or access to resources” that other ethnic groups received. “Yes, Latinos are a majority and we live in a border city, but Filipinos are the second largest ethnic group after Latinos — yet the information and resources were all in Spanish and English,” she said. Many Filipinos in National City also lost housing and were otherwise impacted by the flood; having a Filipino councilmember, she suggests, didn’t necessarily translate to better service for Filipino constituents, which tied back to her original point: constituent service, not race, is what matters most at the end of the day. Fields had similar concerns about the city’s response to Covid, which predates redistricting and the election of Yamane. What Fields would like to see in the future is the local government and community-based organizations, both Latino and Filipino, working together for all the people of National City.

The Peralta Predicament

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In July 2020, Mary Rose Peralta, a popular, award-winning principal at Chula Vista High School, was transferred to Chula Vista Middle School, causing uproar among Filipino activists and CVHS students who felt the move — made by Moises Aguirre, the newly appointed, interim superintendent for Sweetwater Union High School District — was an unfair and unjustifiable demotion. Peralta’s transfer was especially hard for the Filipino community to accept, given their contention that there was already a scarcity of Filipino principals and administrators employed by the district. Another Filipino, Assistant Principal Jason Josafat of Palomar High School, was also demoted by Aguirre.

The district claimed its transfer of Peralta and Josafat were routine. Still, the optics were not good: A Latino superintendent whose job, some alleged, was due to nepotism, demoting a Filipina principal while promoting Jose Alcala, a Latino, as Peralta’s replacement. It didn’t take long for the Filipino-American community to organize itself and make its demands known. Led by The Filipino School, attorney Audie de Castro, and other partners, the campaign included drive-by rallies, TV news coverage, a letter-writing campaign, and a CVHS alumni petition calling for Peralta’s reinstatement, which garnered close to 10,000 signatures.

Ditas Yamane, National CIty CIty Councilwoman, 3rd District.

In October, 2020, Peralta was appointed interim principal of Otay Ranch High School, and is now the principal of Options Secondary School in Chula Vista, billed as “a unique learning community.” And Jason Josafat, the assistant principal of Palomar High School who was also demoted, is now the principal of Bayfront Charter High School in Chula Vista. San Diego designer and Filipino advocate Bennett Peji, who helped with the media outreach, credits The Filipino School for its role in “organizing the community and voicing its concerns with the school board. And, thankfully, they made the right decision” to reinstate her, albeit not at CVHS. According to its website, The Filipino School was established in 2015 and “seeks to educate and empower the Filipino diaspora.”

So, there have been some wins for the community. “I feel like we do have a voice at the table. I think people are paying more attention because of our numbers,” said JoAnn Fields of the API Initiative. “I don’t think people can overlook us.” Added Judy de los Santos, “It’s not new. There’s always been a history of struggle, a history of activism in our community.”

The Way We Were

Nora Vargas, the first Latina chairwoman of the county board of supervisors, is currently under fire for anti-Asian slurs allegedly made by her Tijuana-born chief of staff, Denice Garcia. In a wrongful termination lawsuit that he’s bringing against Vargas’ office, Jeff Liu claims he was hired as Vargas’ new policy director but was sabotaged by Garcia, who referred to him as a “chink” and “yellow person” and then reneged on his job offer. Liu insists another county employee overheard Garcia making similar racist comments about him and other Asians — and perhaps worst of all, that Vargas knew about it.

In spite of the lawsuit, Vargas, who denies the allegations and claims to have zero tolerance for racism and discrimination, not only refused to fire her chief of staff but, according to La Prensa San Diego, went out of her way to promote Garcia, by creating a new position that, since it was never advertised, appears to have been created for her: chief bi-national affairs director. A hearing was scheduled for May 31 in San Diego Superior Court.

But it wasn’t always this way. “Commonalities” was a word I heard a lot as I spoke with Filipino activists. They seemed nostalgic for the way it used to be, back in the day, when Latino and Filipino activists forged alliances, worked together — and even fell in love. Jose Rodriguez, a history buff in addition to being a councilman, told me, “There is a history of Filipino and Latino families here in National City. I’ve met Filipinos from all over the region who have a story tying them back to National City. And there are Latino families that have been deeply entrenched in National City; they’ve been here for well over 100 years and can trace their lineage to the late 1800s.”

According to Rudy Guevarra, Jr., an Arizona State University professor of Asian Pacific American Studies who was raised in San Diego, “One of the earliest records of Filipinos landing in San Diego by way of the Navy is in 1907, when the U.S.S. Boston anchored in the city’s harbor.” Guevarra’s research revealed that by 1908, a small number of Filipinos lived around Market Street and 15th and 16th Street, in what is now the East Village. Outside downtown, there were miles and miles of farms.

Guevarra has written a book, Becoming Mexipino: Multiethnic Identities and Communities in San Diego, which documents the shared history of Mexicans and Filipinos. As he explains, the Philippines was a U.S. territory from 1898 to 1946, which meant that people born there were deemed U.S. non-citizen nationals and could live and work freely in the U.S. Many arrived in San Diego by serving in the U.S. Navy. However, like Mexican arrivals, “they entered a city that had already established itself since the late nineteenth and early twentieth century as an Anglo town.”

JoAnn Fields, Government and Public Relations Director, API Initiative, assisting distribution of sandbags at MLK Park and Recreation Center.

As San Diego continued to grow, real estate agents enforced a racial dividing line, excluding and segregating “undesirable elements” from the nicer neighborhoods. Mexican, Filipino, and Black residents could find housing only near industrial areas, where buildings were older and rundown. In places like Logan Heights, National City, and Chula Vista, writes Guevarra, “they constructed their own world apart from mainstream society and turned inward to support each other.” For the most part, they didn’t venture beyond the boundaries of their barrio. When they did, they were often confronted with hostility, racism, and violence. Guevarra’s book includes this anecdote: “Born and raised in Baja California, Mexico, Felipa Castro met Ciriaco ‘Pablo’ Poscablo in San Diego after migrating to South Bay in the 1930s. Pablo had arrived from the Philippines, via the U.S. Navy, in 1924. After a brief courtship, they filed for a marriage license in 1938.” Felipa, whose skin tone was light enough to be regarded as white, indicated on their marriage license that she was Mexican Indian, because if she had been classified as white, she would not have been able to marry her Filipino beloved, due to the legal prohibitions against miscegenation between whites and nonwhites.

So it was in these multi-racial, segregated spaces that Latinos and Filipinos lived their lives and found a sense of belonging; and it was there, Guevarra told me, “that Filipinos and Mexicans got to know each other and formed bonds that still exist today. They attended the same parties, dance halls, restaurants, and Catholic churches. According to Guevarra’s research, most Latinos and Filipinos went to Our Lady of Guadalupe, built in 1922, Saint Jude, and Saint Anne’s Catholic Churches. Filipinos also attended Christ the King Church in Southeast San Diego.

Latinos and Filipinos were also allies in the farm worker and labor movement during the early half of the 20th century. Filipino farmworkers, including Larry Itliong, were the first to walk out of vineyards, prompting the Delano Grape Strike. In the 1920s and 1930s, Latinos and Filipinos forged alliances in the fields and years later joined Cesar Chavez to form the United Farm Workers. It surely helped that they faced a common enemy in the form of San Diego’s business and government authorities.

Signs of Fracture

But the forces that brought Latinos and Filipinos together seemed to fade over time. Wedges were introduced. Alliances frayed. Filipino farmworkers and veteran labor organizers such as Larry Itliong became “overwhelmed by the increasing numbers of Mexicans who dominated the union,” Guevarra told me. “Racial politics soon began to fracture the alliance.” Fewer Filipinos were being hired, and they found they had less influence at union meetings. By the 1970s, the effects of immigration reform were being felt. There were now more Filipino professionals — engineers, doctors and nurses — coming to the U.S. instead of laborers and agriculture workers. This reduced the pool of Filipinos that could join the Latino-led labor movement. Those Filipinos who remained in the labor movement felt marginalized, as César Chávez took the helm and focused primarily on Latino members. Most of the Filipino leaders and members soon left the union. As the Chicano movement moved forward, it became associated with César Chávez’s image, and the contribution of Filipinos to the farmworkers’ movement was all but erased, argued Guevarra. The community felt a sense of betrayal.

And then, some 30 years ago, as whites who had ruled over most cities south of Interstate 8 for decades passed on or moved out, Latinos began stepping in and assuming control of the city councils, school boards and planning committees — in National City and throughout South County. A new, savvier and more ambitious generation of Filipinos saw signs of systemic and institutional control and a lack of political representation in a city they felt was as much theirs as anybody else’s. They wanted to share power with the Latinos, just as they had once shared the same churches, dance halls, restaurants, labor struggles, and marriages. But it would be something they’d have to fight for – no one in their right mind, regardless of race, religion, or ethnicity voluntarily gives up power.

Worrisome Wedges

But fighting, even when it’s framed as standing up for your community, has a cost. JoAnn Fields wondered whether de Castro’s lawsuit and the resulting district-based elections have empowered Filipinos at the expense of damaging their relations with their Latino neighbors. She said that while in theory she would like an Asian representative, carving out a special district wasn’t fair. She worried it created “a wedge between our communities,” adding that “what we need is the whole city council to work for the entire city and all residents of National City.”

When candidates rely on one ethnic community for their base of support, “it sort of pits one community against the other,” said de los Santos. “I’m not for the separation. It should not be us against them.” It, however, may be one of the unintended repercussions of creating districts along racial lines. It’s supposed to level the playing field for minority, under-represented groups, but may exacerbate racial tension and fracture unity.

Jose Rodriguez, National City Councilman.

Most of the Filipinos activists I spoke to said they wanted to restore the alliance and return to the era when they worked together with Mexicans to solve problems that affected both communities. They wanted to build upon and leverage the commonalities that they share: culture, religion, and region; the history of being geographically and racially separated from white America, or white San Diego, of struggling for their civil and human rights, of striving for a better life and working hard to achieve their slice of the American dream, of living in the same neighborhoods and attending the same churches, of dances and dating and marriages. The thousands of Filipino-Latino marriages and the children they brought into this world, affectionately known as Mexipinos, are testament to the ability of Filipinos and Latinos to work together to create something beautiful and meaningful.

Mexipinos

Raised in Logan Heights and Clairemont, Bennett Peji is a community leader, Filipino advocate, and prominent designer (He was commissioned to design the soon-to-be-installed Convoy sign in Kearny Mesa). His daughters are Mexipinos, the product of a mother born in San Luis Potosi, Mexico and raised in Tijuana and a father who immigrated with his family to Logan Heights from Manila when he was a toddler. He met his wife 25 years ago, the two were brought together by their common interest in design. Peji was the first Filipino and non-Latino “to marry into a big Mexican clan,” he said. “I fell in love with her. She fell in love with me. And she took the chance.” Her large, extended family may have been a little dubious at the beginning, but it didn’t take long for him to win them over, he said, smiling: “Not to brag, but Filipinos are the most amicable people in the world. Filipinos can get along with anyone. That’s one of our strengths.”

Filipino activist Judy de los Santos married a Mexican-American and they have been together for 28 years. “We believe in the same principles: how to raise our kids, politics, values, all the things that have guided us throughout the years.” Their Mexipino children “have always been exposed to both cultures and are well aware of their parents’ backgrounds. They don’t identify with one over the other. I think they identify as being both,” she said.

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Bennett Peji’s daughters are Mexipinos, the product of a mother born in San Luis Potosi, Mexico and a father who immigrated with his family from Manila.
Bennett Peji’s daughters are Mexipinos, the product of a mother born in San Luis Potosi, Mexico and a father who immigrated with his family from Manila.

Philippine-born Ditas Yamane ran for a seat on National City’s City Council in 2010 and 2020 and for mayor in 2018, as well as for other offices over the years. But getting elected (despite having the U-T’s endorsement in 2010) continued to elude the real estate broker and longtime National City resident. According to Jose Rodriguez, a National City councilman who was born in Baja California, Mexico, “She didn’t get elected for a variety of reasons, but the biggest one is that she’s Filipino in an overwhelmingly Latino community.”

Rudy Guevarra, Jr. has written a book, Becoming Mexipino: Multiethnic Identities and Communities in San Diego, which documents the shared history of Mexicans and Filipinos.

Rodriguez explained to me that National City, like most cities south of Interstate 8, was largely controlled by white politicians until the 1990s, when Latinos began acquiring more representation and power. Today, he says, the city of close to 61,000 people is 60% Latino, 20% Filipino, 10% White, and 10% Black and other races. But in spite of being the second largest ethnic group in the city, Filipinos like Yamane have struggled to win elected office. Since the city’s creation in 1887, National City residents have elected only two Filipinos to the city council: Rosalie Zarate in 1990 — a beloved figure who was also the first female elected to the council and who served four terms — and the disgraced Fred Soto in 2000, an attorney who served briefly before he had to resign from the state bar after allegations of fraud — and who, according to Nancy Fay, writing for the Reader in 2002, filed a defamation lawsuit against his fellow members of the city council, which was later dismissed. Fideles Ungab, the most recent Filipino councilmember, served two years on the city council in the mid-2000s, but was appointed both times.

Then along came Audie de Castro, a Filipino attorney and Philippine honorary consul of San Diego. On Nov. 8, 2021, he called on the city council to change its charter, so that at-large, citywide elections would be replaced by district-based elections. This would mean that candidates could run for seats on the council only if they lived in the geographic district that seat represented. The exception would be the mayor, who would still have to face all the voters citywide.

Secret Weapon

There was initial resistance to de Castro’s proposal from the mayor at the time, Alejandra Sotelo-Solis, and councilman Ron Morrison. But de Castro had a secret weapon: the threat of a civil rights lawsuit. He would argue that at-large voting violated the California Voting Rights Act by diluting the political power of the city’s Filipino and API (Asian and Pacific Islander) residents. (California passed the Act after the U.S. Supreme Court rolled back key provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.) This wasn’t an idle threat; the tactic had been used successfully by plaintiffs to stop the disenfranchisement of minority voters in other cities.

Counclman Rodriguez was a staunch advocate for de Castro’s proposal and the only councilman to attend the attorney’s rallies to generate support for district-based voting. “I just thought it was important to be in solidarity with our Filipinos brothers and sisters,” he said. For Mexicans not to support Filipinos, he noted, would be intellectually inconsistent and hypocritical, given that they have faced, and continue to face, similar discrimination and disenfranchisement in other regions. “It’s inherently unfair, because if you have a sizable population of constituents, they should be represented.”

Systemic Racism

And although Rodriguez didn’t use the words systemic or institutional racism, he did say this: “It sounds wrong when we say, ‘We’re discriminating against our Filipino sisters and brothers, but it’s because of the system.’ I don’t think anybody on the council was being malicious. But I think that a system benefited folks that were more politically connected, more affluent.” People from a certain part of town. “There was a point during the early 2010s when four out of the five elected officials lived within three blocks of each other,” Rodriguez conceded. It created the impression, maybe the reality, that they weren’t attuned to the needs of other parts of National City. For a period of 20 years, the city council didn’t have “anybody that was serving as a council member that lived on the west side of Highland Avenue,” he noted. “It’s half of the city. And what does that tell you? That means that the west side of Highland is not going to get as much attention. Those constituents are not going to get a lot of time, effort, and energy into their projects, because the people being elected don’t live there.”

Alejandra Sotelo- Solis, former National City Mayor.

For this reason, Rodriguez argues that district-based voting would benefit the whole city, not just the Filipino and API community. “Part of what districting is about is about being better, having better representation for your entire city, whether you are a Filipino community member, that you now have a Filipino voice, or whether you live on the west side of National City,” he said.

Why was Mayor Sotelo-Solis against it? Rodriguez said there was speculation that she knew district-based voting would dilute her power. If a District 3 were to be created, it would include Mona Rio, one of the mayor’s closest allies. “It would mean Mona would have to compete against a Filipino candidate in an overwhelmingly Filipino district — and lose.” The Latina mayor would lose her Latina ally. “If I were to speculate, it was a political reality that I’m sure she was contemplating at the time.” Sotelo-Solis did not respond to a request for an interview.

Unanimous Vote

On Dec. 21, 2021, the city council heeded Audie de Castro’s call. Realizing the city would be liable in the lawsuit, Sotelo-Solis and Morrison came around, and the council voted unanimously to change the charter to pave the way for district-based voting. The move carved out District 3, a densely Filipino district. District-based elections would be implemented in November of 2022. One of the immediate repercussions was that Mona Rios decided not to run, leaving Damitas Yamane to become the first Filipino council member elected in over a decade. In the mayoral race, Sotelo-Solis was handily defeated, and Morrison became the new mayor, beating Councilman Rodriguez by a mere 60 votes. (In addition to Yamane and Rodriguez, the city council now includes Luz Molina and Marcus Bush, who is African American and Latino.)

But Filipino activist Judy de los Santos suspects de Castro’s lawsuit had an ulterior motive. “That was the only way that certain candidates were going to be able to get a seat. That’s my personal opinion.” Certain candidates? I asked if she was referring to Yamane, and she answered in the affirmative. (De Castro and Yamane did not respond to requests for interviews.) For his part, Councilmember Rodriguez spoke highly of Yamane: “I think she’s a very good representation of the Filipino community. She’s progressive on some issues and she’s a little more moderate and conservative on others, but that is the Filipino population. They’re a little more conservative. She is a product of her constituents.”

Mixed Feelings & Misgivings

Contrary to my expectation, most of the Filipino activists and organizers I spoke to were against, or had mixed feelings about, district-based elections. They were all for giving geographic representation to areas of National City that were sorely in need of it, places like the west end. But they weren’t fans of drawing lines around race, and thought the practice could prove divisive. “I am for being inclusive. I want to make sure all voices are heard. But to say that’s the reason why one ethnicity needs a district, I lean away from that,” said de los Santos, who previously campaigned for a seat on the city council, as did her sister Lorna.

Audie de Castro (left) at rally for district-based elections in National City.

She also thought it was ridiculous to carve up such a tiny city—National City is roughly four square miles — into different districts. But the big objection was the notion that candidates should have to appeal to all of the city’s voters rather than a segment or sliver of the population. Districts work against that. Her critique was that ambitious Latino and Filipino candidates “use their race as their base of support” but don’t expand beyond it. District-based elections would encourage them to place identity above issues.

While conceding that the political representation of National City doesn’t reflect the city’s racial demographics, de los Santos argued that “it doesn’t matter what a candidate’s race is. The will of the people should decide if they belong in that seat.” JoAnn Fields, government and public relations director of the API Initiative, agreed, emphasizing that three Filipinos have been elected (or appointed) to the city council without district-based elections. Her point was that the right candidate should be able to attract a broad base of support and speak to voters’ issues. She believes that whoever is elected “has to represent the whole community. If Latinos are the majority in a certain district, an elected official still has Filipinos, they have Anglos, African Americans and other diverse populations that they must represent.”

Fields agreed with de los Santos, pointing to Chula Vista, which has been running district-based elections since 2016. “If you focus just on your own racial group for support, but don’t speak more broadly, that can hurt you,” Fields said. She speculated that this is what might have happened with Jason Paguio, the president of the Asian Business Association and a rising star in the Filipino and API community, who lost his bid in 2016 to represent District 3 on the Chula Vista City Council. “He didn’t appeal to the whole district. You can’t rely on the API vote — you have to collaborate with all the residents,” insists Fields.

Floods and Favoritism?

Rodriguez, who supported carving out a Filipino district, conceded that while “color is important to feel you’re represented, the key is serving your constituents.” As an example of National City’s empathy and responsiveness, Rodriguez mentioned the floods, saying that on the first night, he “visited a handful of sites that were deeply impacted. Folks were just shattered by what had happened to their homes and all of their possessions. And the following morning, I called up my city manager, Ben Martinez, and I said, ‘Ben, our community needs help. I need you to come here and bring sweepers and our waste removal team. I need you to bring volunteers. We need to help people.’ Ben showed up half an hour later. He was there bringing in resources to help 40 families at the mobile home park and 30 families at the apartments right next door.”

But Fields had a different take. “When the recent floods happened, we didn’t get the same equity or access to resources” that other ethnic groups received. “Yes, Latinos are a majority and we live in a border city, but Filipinos are the second largest ethnic group after Latinos — yet the information and resources were all in Spanish and English,” she said. Many Filipinos in National City also lost housing and were otherwise impacted by the flood; having a Filipino councilmember, she suggests, didn’t necessarily translate to better service for Filipino constituents, which tied back to her original point: constituent service, not race, is what matters most at the end of the day. Fields had similar concerns about the city’s response to Covid, which predates redistricting and the election of Yamane. What Fields would like to see in the future is the local government and community-based organizations, both Latino and Filipino, working together for all the people of National City.

The Peralta Predicament

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In July 2020, Mary Rose Peralta, a popular, award-winning principal at Chula Vista High School, was transferred to Chula Vista Middle School, causing uproar among Filipino activists and CVHS students who felt the move — made by Moises Aguirre, the newly appointed, interim superintendent for Sweetwater Union High School District — was an unfair and unjustifiable demotion. Peralta’s transfer was especially hard for the Filipino community to accept, given their contention that there was already a scarcity of Filipino principals and administrators employed by the district. Another Filipino, Assistant Principal Jason Josafat of Palomar High School, was also demoted by Aguirre.

The district claimed its transfer of Peralta and Josafat were routine. Still, the optics were not good: A Latino superintendent whose job, some alleged, was due to nepotism, demoting a Filipina principal while promoting Jose Alcala, a Latino, as Peralta’s replacement. It didn’t take long for the Filipino-American community to organize itself and make its demands known. Led by The Filipino School, attorney Audie de Castro, and other partners, the campaign included drive-by rallies, TV news coverage, a letter-writing campaign, and a CVHS alumni petition calling for Peralta’s reinstatement, which garnered close to 10,000 signatures.

Ditas Yamane, National CIty CIty Councilwoman, 3rd District.

In October, 2020, Peralta was appointed interim principal of Otay Ranch High School, and is now the principal of Options Secondary School in Chula Vista, billed as “a unique learning community.” And Jason Josafat, the assistant principal of Palomar High School who was also demoted, is now the principal of Bayfront Charter High School in Chula Vista. San Diego designer and Filipino advocate Bennett Peji, who helped with the media outreach, credits The Filipino School for its role in “organizing the community and voicing its concerns with the school board. And, thankfully, they made the right decision” to reinstate her, albeit not at CVHS. According to its website, The Filipino School was established in 2015 and “seeks to educate and empower the Filipino diaspora.”

So, there have been some wins for the community. “I feel like we do have a voice at the table. I think people are paying more attention because of our numbers,” said JoAnn Fields of the API Initiative. “I don’t think people can overlook us.” Added Judy de los Santos, “It’s not new. There’s always been a history of struggle, a history of activism in our community.”

The Way We Were

Nora Vargas, the first Latina chairwoman of the county board of supervisors, is currently under fire for anti-Asian slurs allegedly made by her Tijuana-born chief of staff, Denice Garcia. In a wrongful termination lawsuit that he’s bringing against Vargas’ office, Jeff Liu claims he was hired as Vargas’ new policy director but was sabotaged by Garcia, who referred to him as a “chink” and “yellow person” and then reneged on his job offer. Liu insists another county employee overheard Garcia making similar racist comments about him and other Asians — and perhaps worst of all, that Vargas knew about it.

In spite of the lawsuit, Vargas, who denies the allegations and claims to have zero tolerance for racism and discrimination, not only refused to fire her chief of staff but, according to La Prensa San Diego, went out of her way to promote Garcia, by creating a new position that, since it was never advertised, appears to have been created for her: chief bi-national affairs director. A hearing was scheduled for May 31 in San Diego Superior Court.

But it wasn’t always this way. “Commonalities” was a word I heard a lot as I spoke with Filipino activists. They seemed nostalgic for the way it used to be, back in the day, when Latino and Filipino activists forged alliances, worked together — and even fell in love. Jose Rodriguez, a history buff in addition to being a councilman, told me, “There is a history of Filipino and Latino families here in National City. I’ve met Filipinos from all over the region who have a story tying them back to National City. And there are Latino families that have been deeply entrenched in National City; they’ve been here for well over 100 years and can trace their lineage to the late 1800s.”

According to Rudy Guevarra, Jr., an Arizona State University professor of Asian Pacific American Studies who was raised in San Diego, “One of the earliest records of Filipinos landing in San Diego by way of the Navy is in 1907, when the U.S.S. Boston anchored in the city’s harbor.” Guevarra’s research revealed that by 1908, a small number of Filipinos lived around Market Street and 15th and 16th Street, in what is now the East Village. Outside downtown, there were miles and miles of farms.

Guevarra has written a book, Becoming Mexipino: Multiethnic Identities and Communities in San Diego, which documents the shared history of Mexicans and Filipinos. As he explains, the Philippines was a U.S. territory from 1898 to 1946, which meant that people born there were deemed U.S. non-citizen nationals and could live and work freely in the U.S. Many arrived in San Diego by serving in the U.S. Navy. However, like Mexican arrivals, “they entered a city that had already established itself since the late nineteenth and early twentieth century as an Anglo town.”

JoAnn Fields, Government and Public Relations Director, API Initiative, assisting distribution of sandbags at MLK Park and Recreation Center.

As San Diego continued to grow, real estate agents enforced a racial dividing line, excluding and segregating “undesirable elements” from the nicer neighborhoods. Mexican, Filipino, and Black residents could find housing only near industrial areas, where buildings were older and rundown. In places like Logan Heights, National City, and Chula Vista, writes Guevarra, “they constructed their own world apart from mainstream society and turned inward to support each other.” For the most part, they didn’t venture beyond the boundaries of their barrio. When they did, they were often confronted with hostility, racism, and violence. Guevarra’s book includes this anecdote: “Born and raised in Baja California, Mexico, Felipa Castro met Ciriaco ‘Pablo’ Poscablo in San Diego after migrating to South Bay in the 1930s. Pablo had arrived from the Philippines, via the U.S. Navy, in 1924. After a brief courtship, they filed for a marriage license in 1938.” Felipa, whose skin tone was light enough to be regarded as white, indicated on their marriage license that she was Mexican Indian, because if she had been classified as white, she would not have been able to marry her Filipino beloved, due to the legal prohibitions against miscegenation between whites and nonwhites.

So it was in these multi-racial, segregated spaces that Latinos and Filipinos lived their lives and found a sense of belonging; and it was there, Guevarra told me, “that Filipinos and Mexicans got to know each other and formed bonds that still exist today. They attended the same parties, dance halls, restaurants, and Catholic churches. According to Guevarra’s research, most Latinos and Filipinos went to Our Lady of Guadalupe, built in 1922, Saint Jude, and Saint Anne’s Catholic Churches. Filipinos also attended Christ the King Church in Southeast San Diego.

Latinos and Filipinos were also allies in the farm worker and labor movement during the early half of the 20th century. Filipino farmworkers, including Larry Itliong, were the first to walk out of vineyards, prompting the Delano Grape Strike. In the 1920s and 1930s, Latinos and Filipinos forged alliances in the fields and years later joined Cesar Chavez to form the United Farm Workers. It surely helped that they faced a common enemy in the form of San Diego’s business and government authorities.

Signs of Fracture

But the forces that brought Latinos and Filipinos together seemed to fade over time. Wedges were introduced. Alliances frayed. Filipino farmworkers and veteran labor organizers such as Larry Itliong became “overwhelmed by the increasing numbers of Mexicans who dominated the union,” Guevarra told me. “Racial politics soon began to fracture the alliance.” Fewer Filipinos were being hired, and they found they had less influence at union meetings. By the 1970s, the effects of immigration reform were being felt. There were now more Filipino professionals — engineers, doctors and nurses — coming to the U.S. instead of laborers and agriculture workers. This reduced the pool of Filipinos that could join the Latino-led labor movement. Those Filipinos who remained in the labor movement felt marginalized, as César Chávez took the helm and focused primarily on Latino members. Most of the Filipino leaders and members soon left the union. As the Chicano movement moved forward, it became associated with César Chávez’s image, and the contribution of Filipinos to the farmworkers’ movement was all but erased, argued Guevarra. The community felt a sense of betrayal.

And then, some 30 years ago, as whites who had ruled over most cities south of Interstate 8 for decades passed on or moved out, Latinos began stepping in and assuming control of the city councils, school boards and planning committees — in National City and throughout South County. A new, savvier and more ambitious generation of Filipinos saw signs of systemic and institutional control and a lack of political representation in a city they felt was as much theirs as anybody else’s. They wanted to share power with the Latinos, just as they had once shared the same churches, dance halls, restaurants, labor struggles, and marriages. But it would be something they’d have to fight for – no one in their right mind, regardless of race, religion, or ethnicity voluntarily gives up power.

Worrisome Wedges

But fighting, even when it’s framed as standing up for your community, has a cost. JoAnn Fields wondered whether de Castro’s lawsuit and the resulting district-based elections have empowered Filipinos at the expense of damaging their relations with their Latino neighbors. She said that while in theory she would like an Asian representative, carving out a special district wasn’t fair. She worried it created “a wedge between our communities,” adding that “what we need is the whole city council to work for the entire city and all residents of National City.”

When candidates rely on one ethnic community for their base of support, “it sort of pits one community against the other,” said de los Santos. “I’m not for the separation. It should not be us against them.” It, however, may be one of the unintended repercussions of creating districts along racial lines. It’s supposed to level the playing field for minority, under-represented groups, but may exacerbate racial tension and fracture unity.

Jose Rodriguez, National City Councilman.

Most of the Filipinos activists I spoke to said they wanted to restore the alliance and return to the era when they worked together with Mexicans to solve problems that affected both communities. They wanted to build upon and leverage the commonalities that they share: culture, religion, and region; the history of being geographically and racially separated from white America, or white San Diego, of struggling for their civil and human rights, of striving for a better life and working hard to achieve their slice of the American dream, of living in the same neighborhoods and attending the same churches, of dances and dating and marriages. The thousands of Filipino-Latino marriages and the children they brought into this world, affectionately known as Mexipinos, are testament to the ability of Filipinos and Latinos to work together to create something beautiful and meaningful.

Mexipinos

Raised in Logan Heights and Clairemont, Bennett Peji is a community leader, Filipino advocate, and prominent designer (He was commissioned to design the soon-to-be-installed Convoy sign in Kearny Mesa). His daughters are Mexipinos, the product of a mother born in San Luis Potosi, Mexico and raised in Tijuana and a father who immigrated with his family to Logan Heights from Manila when he was a toddler. He met his wife 25 years ago, the two were brought together by their common interest in design. Peji was the first Filipino and non-Latino “to marry into a big Mexican clan,” he said. “I fell in love with her. She fell in love with me. And she took the chance.” Her large, extended family may have been a little dubious at the beginning, but it didn’t take long for him to win them over, he said, smiling: “Not to brag, but Filipinos are the most amicable people in the world. Filipinos can get along with anyone. That’s one of our strengths.”

Filipino activist Judy de los Santos married a Mexican-American and they have been together for 28 years. “We believe in the same principles: how to raise our kids, politics, values, all the things that have guided us throughout the years.” Their Mexipino children “have always been exposed to both cultures and are well aware of their parents’ backgrounds. They don’t identify with one over the other. I think they identify as being both,” she said.

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