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Beyond ‘Desperate Housewives’

Our town by John MelegritoThe controversy over the Desperate Housewives episode that disparaged Filipino medical professionals reminds me of the case of Filipina Narciso and Leonora Perez Filipina nurses who were tried for the murder of 10 patients back in the 1970s – and how our collective response planted the seeds of community empowerment.

The entry in Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, reads: In 1975, 35 patients at the VA Hospital in Ann Arbor, Michigan, suffered respiratory failure, 10 of whom died. The FBI launched an investigation into the matter due to its suspicious jump from monthly averages at the hospital, and eventually accused two Filipina nurses recently immigrated to the U.S., Filipina Narciso and Leonora Perez, of responsibility for the murders in June of 1976. The case against Narciso and Perez was, by admission of the assistant U.S. Attorney General, Richard Delonis, highly circumstantial, yet resulted in a guilty conviction. The FBIs devotion to cracking the case was considerable, in total using an estimated 200 agents and devoting over $1 million in resources to the case.

In a trial marred by racist accusations, a man slated to be the lead witness for the prosecution (though dropped by the Federal prosecutor just prior to trial), referred to Perez and Narciso as slant-eyed bitches in on a nationwide conspiracy of 1800 Filipino nurses out to murder Americans. Racial tensions at the time were also running high due high rates of immigration to the U.S. by Asian immigrants. Despite the lack of any concrete evidence linking the two nurses to the crime, they were found guilty on three counts of poisoning in July of 1977. In February of the following year, however, the case was overturned on an appeal by the defense, due to a lack of evidence. Despite their vindication in the eyes of the law, however, Narciso and Perez had suffered terribly and unnecessarily as a result of their lengthy trial process. The struggles of Narciso and Perez became a focal point for many protest groups and Filipino(a)s, who united in their condemnation of the handling of the case and support for the two nurses.

I remember that case very well, witnessing the trial and writing about it for a Chicago Filipino newspaper.
The massive outrage of Filipino Americans across the nation led to the formation in Washington, D.C. of the Philippine Heritage Federation (later named Philippine American Heritage Federation, PAHF) in 1978. It defined a political agenda of community empowerment, including fighting racial stereotyping and discrimination. Community leaders recognized the need for an organization to fight for civil rights and to educate the American public about our culture and history in this country. Years later, in 1995, PAHF took up the campaign for justice and equity for Filipino World War II veterans. The 1946 Rescission Act was a racially-motivated bill that stripped our veterans of their rightful status and benefits.

Among PAHFs founders was David Valderrama, who later served as delegate to the Maryland Assembly for 10 years. Valderramas election also heightened the communitys consciousness about empowerment through the ballot box. Community figures like Gloria Caoile, Belen dela Pena, Celso Barrientos and many others led voter registration and get-out-the vote drives in Prince Georges County, Maryland. They also built coalitions with the countys African Americans and Hispanic Americans.

Around that time, I was actively involved in a militant group, the Katipunan ng mga Demokratikong Pilipino (KDP) or Union of Democratic Filipinos. Its objective was to fight war and racism and work in solidarity with other progressive groups to defend immigrant rights. One of our campaigns was Fair Licensure for Filipino Medical Graduates (FMGs) and Filipino nurses. On the streets and inside executive suites, we protested the blatant discrimination and unfair treatment of our Filipino medical professionals. We met with U.S. government officials to change public policy on this issue.

I recall this bit of history with a sense of pride because it depicts our organized efforts to rise up and fight back. We were there in the trenches, mobilizing opposition to the Marcos Dictatorship in the 70s and early 80s. We were also there in Senate hallways, lobbying Congress to cut off aid to the Marcos regime. We held forums and town hall meetings to educate the American public. We celebrated Philippine National Day on June 12 as a way of developing a culture of enlightened resistance and empowerment and a sense of pride in our history and heritage.

In 1997, PAHF along with the West Coast-based National Filipino American Coaliltion (NFAC) convened a national gathering of more than 1,000 leaders. It led to the historic founding of the National Federation of Filipino American Associations (NaFFAA). The battle cry then, as it is today, is justice and equity for our Filipino World War II veterans. We also vowed to defend immigrant rights and vigilantly uphold our communitys civil rights.

The road to political empowerment, however, has not been easy. We have yet to translate our numbers (more than 3 million strong) into political clout. We are not as yet a political and economic force to reckon with.
Our invisibility, in part, explains why we continue to be picked on. Comedian Joan Rivers thought she was being funny when on primetime television, she joked about Filipinos being dog-eaters. The network apologized after NaFFAA protested, but nothing much else followed in terms of amends.

In the mid 90s, on the sit-com Frasier, Kelsey Grammers character Frasier and his brother Niles were discussing the price of a face lift for Niles wife, Maris, where a figure of $25,000 came up. Frasiers father, Martin, replies, For an extra five grand, you can get yourself a whole new wife from the Philippines. That offensive remark unleashed angry letters and street protests. In front of NBC studios in New York and San Francisco, demonstrators led by Filipino Civil Rights Advocates (FilCRA) held signs that read Filipinas not for sale.” NBC issued an apology, but it was back to business as usual after that.

Perhaps, at that time the community was not ready or ashamed to address the issue of mail-order brides, says FilCRAs Terry Bautista. The internet was not a quick weapon then to alert the American public about the plight of the most vulnerable in our community.

Two years ago in Chicago, the NBC TV5 president met with Filipino American community leaders who demanded an apology regarding a news report identifying an alleged rapist as a Filipino. According to FilCRA Coordinator Jerry Clarito, NBC apologized but community leaders wanted more. As a result of some serious discussions with management, the local TV station started covering issues that were critical to the community. Like the Filipino World War II veterans. NBC made amends by paying more attention to our concerns, says Clarito, a NaFFAA leader and also an elected public official. We got coverage every time we hold demonstrations. This eventually led to Sen. Barack Obama signing up as sponsor of the Veterans Equity bill. In the past year, NBC TV5 has broadcasted several reports highlighting the positive contribution of the community. Although its still business as usual, Clarito believes that being at the table with management yielded concrete results.

Fast forward to the racial slur in the Desperate Housewives episode, Bautista adds, harking back to the mail-order brides slur: This incident has touched a collective scab in our community, now a burgeoning ethnic group that has more medical professionals than pinays from the barrios. Nonetheless, the immediate massive outcry reflects a more mature political muscle.

NaFFAA, as a relatively young organization, is learning valuable lessons from our collective experience on how to flex its political muscle when dealing with racial profiling and stereotyping. It is continuing to engage ABC in a more constructive way. NaFFAA believes that after the initial street protests, it is counterproductive to simply pursue adversarial tactics like boycotts and class action suits. Instead, it is building a relationship with a major network that has agreed, through its diversity program, to open doors to Filipino talent (i.e. film makers, scriptwriters, newscasters, directors and producers).
NaFFAA has worked hard over the years to carefully build coalitions with other Asian Pacific American, African American and Latino groups so that our collective voices can influence change and transform the complexion not only of Corporate America where decisions about popular media are made, but of Congress as well where public policies affecting all of us are made.

What happened recently is a wake up call to all Filipino Americans of the need to truly empower our community so that we become truly visible in U.S. society, a force to be reckoned with. The challenge is to build NaFFAA as a national organization that will defend our rights and ensure that our children will have a future where ugly and offensivescenes in such TV sit-coms as Frazier and the Desperate Housewives will be things of the past.

Its fair to ask ABC to do more than just an apology. But we must also demand the same of ourselves, that we need to do more as a community than just grandstanding and drumbeating.

What we need now is more light and less heat. We must never give up looking for creative and constructive ways to become truly empowered if only for the sake of our children and our communitys future.
E-mail your comments to jonmele@aol.com

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