Thursday, June 10, 2010

San Diego's 'Centennial' Scandals

The June 14, 2001 issue of the San Diego Weekly Reader.

Chapter 2 Settling in a Community of Pretenders

TORONTO - "Sinister Hero" reads the big, bold headline. Then the drophead that says "A Filipino Writer Takes On His Community".

It was the cover story in the regional San Diego Weekly Reader, the mainstream alternative newsmagazine that carries at least 200 pages per issue and circulated throughout the city and county of San Diego, California.

The year was 2001, well over seven years into my reporting, and about three years into my pioneering news coverage of the many scams and scandals in the Filipino community.

What the Filipino media had avoided notice, the Reader seized readily. And that was the uninterrupted flow of investigative stories that scandalized many a Filipino in America's Finest City.

To understand what was taking place, the Reader assigned a writer to interview me and a photographer to record places of interest that I had mentioned in the stories.

Soon came a jovial British author named M. G. Stephens, Ph.D., who has at least 18 books to his name, including the memoir Where the Sky Ends (Hazelden) and the reissue of his novel The Brooklyn Book of the Dead (New Island Books in Dublin, Ireland).

Much later photographer Sandy Huffaker Jr. asked the locations of the establishments and even joined me on my way to have a haircut (see photo below).

The Reader's centerspread showing me having a haircut.

Mike as he was called, patiently trailed me for days as I wandered about the City of National City in search of news.

The city is unofficially America's Philippine capital. It has the look, smell and ambience of a little Manila where the spoken language is Tagalog and other Philippine dialects, mostly Ilocano. In fact, if anyone felt homesick, National City would be a quick cure.

With 17 percent of its population Filipino, National City is the hub of Filipino businesses. It's also where Filipino organizations had situated their offices. The city government remains a favorite arena for aspiring political talents.

On a lunch hour one day, Mike left his car in the parking lot and took off with me in my old Nissan Sentra, never minding that it had outlived its usefulness and could just suddenly stop in the middle of the road.

(To be perfectly honest, it wasn't really my car. My brother lent it to me because he was worried that the older, American-made Plymouth Fury my other brother had given me might just give in. My critics mockingly called the eight-cylinder guzzler Batman).

We drove around until Mike decided he would try Filipino food. The three most popular restaurants --Turo-Turo (Point-Point Joint), Conching's and Karihan -- had similar menus, and gave off the strong stench of fish sauce (patis) inside, a turnoff for non-Filipinos. 

So we settled for the one closest to where we were, which was Conching's, to avoid the traffic snarl. The aroma of fried garlic and fish paste (bagoong) just as quickly latched on to one's clothes the moment we entered the restaurant. I could see the smirk in his face but was too polite to say anything unpleasant.

Once seated for the meal, Mike asked: "Why do you do this?", pointing to a copy of my paper, the broadsheet Diario Veritas, which was my first business venture in community journalism. He meant the content, not the modest 12-page physical paper.

The paper officially launched in June 1998, just several weeks after I quit being editor of Philippine Mabuhay News. Before PMN, I was associate editor of Filipino Press, the paper run and managed by domestic partners Ernie Flores (now deceased) and Susan de los Santos, then the advertising solicitor.

My resignation from PMN had been fueled by the refusal of the owners (Danny and Nette Bungay) to publish my story about the bust of Philippine national hero Jose Rizal which was being erected right in front of the Filipino-Chinese owned Seafood City supermarket in National City. They feared offending their patrons, their main source of revenues for the paper.

The bust of Jose Rizal stands like a sentry guarding the fishmarket in National City, California.

I had stumbled upon the story accidentally. I was driving for my parents who wanted to do their marketing chore at the fishmarket. From where I parked the car directly across, two Mexican workers were digging up a small area.

I inquired what they were up to. One replied in Spanish: "Monumento a Jose aqui". I thought he was joking. "Jose, who is Jose?" I wondered. "Did you mean Jose Rizal, the hero", I asked. "Si, si Jose! Filipino hero". It was the centennial year of Philippine independence from Spain and a celebration was being readied in San Diego.

The dots begun to connect.

As usual, the umbrella organization Council of Philippine American Organizations (COPAO) headed by Mrs. Aurora Cudal was raising money for the event. (She's the same person in whose second term as COPAO president a few years later, COPAO funds amounting to $27,000 would disappear. The money has not been found to this day).

Meanwhile, the government in Manila through its Philippine Centennial Commission under Vice President Salvador Laurel was donating several Jose Rizal busts to Filipino communities in America. Seafood City was deeply involved but why? Why is the Filipino media silent about it?

My inquiry was giving me information I had never expected to get. The local press had become complicit owing to the fact that their lifelines (meaning, the main advertiser in their papers) had indicated an unwillingness to continue with their ads should an unpleasant story about the bust came up.

In its maiden issue in June 1998, Diario Veritas exposed everything, including the secret deals that gave COPAO $1,000 courtesy of Seafood City in exchange for overturning an earlier decision that had rejected the installation of the Rizal bust in front of its store.

As it turned out, one man was orchestrating the event in San Diego and Los Angeles from the safe comforts of his home in Daly City, a San Francisco suburb -- the clever advertising man named Greg Macabenta.

Macabenta, current chair of the near-bankrupt National Federation of Filipino American Associations (NaFFAA), was working on behalf of Seafood City while holding on to a post as a deputy of the Manila-based centennial commission.

He was the reason why three Seafood City branches in West Covina and Carson in Los Angeles, and in National City in San Diego, had identical Rizal busts erected on the stores' frontage. "Virtual" community center, he said of National City.

With that single theme exposing the crookedness of some community leaders in that first issue, Diario Veritas set a new standard in news reporting in the Filipino community. It veered away from meaningless entertainment stories that filled all the Filipino newspapers.

Instead, it dug in, deep into the secret chambers of community organizations and alleged community leaders whose passion was not on leadership but on raising funds every single chance they got.

Diario Veritas differed from the other Filipino papers in layout and content, publishing only investigative pieces and locally-written, community-sourced stories. The competition, on the other hand, relied on Manila newspapers and most times, republished stories in their papers.

I decided early on that I wasn't going to be one of the boys, them (the publishers, editors and reporters of most of the Filipino community newspapers) who were at the beck and call of this itinerant individual who dispensed the advertisements and held their throats.

When Mike was done, he wrote in the June 14, 2001 issue of the Reader a long and detailed story about me and how I was pursuing the type of investigative journalism that was pretty much an unknown thing in the Filipino community.

Towards the end of his story -- which is generally regarded as the first of any Filipino in San Diego -- Mike had referred to me as "National City's Philip Marlowe". It was quite a recognition, coming as it did from a novelist like him.

The allusion was a perfect description of the journalism genre that I believe I pioneered in San Diego's Filipino community 16 years ago.

Philip Marlowe is America's favorite detective, a creation of American author Raymond Chandler, whose literary career ran from 1935 through 1960.

In the latest book celebrating Chandler's works, Philip Marlowe is described as "the quintessential American detective: cynical yet idealistic; romantic yet full of despair; a gentleman capable of rough violence."

I am no detective, however. But as an investigative journalist, my work parallels that of a detective.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Bearing Witness to An Unfolding Revolution

Chapter 1 Transitioning While Manila Braces for the Worst

Fresh from a working stint as a foreign correspondent with Deutsche Presse Agentur, the German news agency, I moved to San Diego, California in late 1994.

I had spent my most productive eleven years at DPA, starting with the setting up of its first bureau in Manila and becoming its first correspondent and bureau manager.

Before that, I was assistant correspondent in Manila for Japan's Asahi Shimbun, the world's second-largest circulation daily. It has a sister publication in English, the Asahi Evening News.

My years here covered one of the tumultuous events in contemporary Philippine history -- the daylight assassination of Senator Benigno Aquino Jr., chief political rival of strongman Ferdinand Marcos, as he came back from exile.

The airport slaying of Aquino on Aug. 21, 1983 by his military escorts on orders of Marcos had worsened the situation in the Philippine capital. It sparked massive protests by workers, students and the populace.

Personally, it accelerated my transition. As Manila emerged as a hotspot, journalists from all over the world were coming in droves.

I quit Asahi Shimbun and joined DPA, succumbing to an offer nobody could refuse. Time was of the essence -- bad for the Japanese newspaper and good for the German wire agency. My presence in either guaranteed a native's insight and access to information reserved for the locals.

I formally became resident correspondent, ending more than a year of reporting as stringer, and inaugurating a new partnership with one of the world's major news wires.

After a few months, DPA brought me to its head office in Hamburg for further training at its English desk. In Hamburg, I kept watch on news developments in Manila, providing a constant stream of news analysis to DPA subscribers around the world.

Affiliating with DPA was a big professional leap for me. As a stringer, I filed my stories via United Press International at its Port Area, Manila office. Then, as part of my upgrade, I took a lease on a building fronting the United States Embassy in Manila. My small office was located just across from where Agence France Presse was in the same structure.

Though DPA and AFP were competitors, that did not stop me from discussing current issues with the very insightful AFP bureau chief, Teddy Benigno, who founded the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (FOCAP) and later on became Press Secretary.

After I came back from Germany, I moved the DPA bureau to another building on United Nations Avenue, which was close to the National Library on T. M. Kalaw Avenue.

The ominous political events at that time had prompted the wire agencies and major newspapers to relocate to Manila from elsewhere in Southeast Asia.

Less than three years after the assassination, in February 1986, Marcos was overthrown and Aquino's widow, Corazon Aquino, was catapulted to the presidency by the "people power" revolt. The Philippine political landscape had now changed.

I've witnessed some bloodbaths (the bombing of a political rally in Manila's Quiapo district)as a police reporter during the time I was starting my journalism career while still pursuing my college course. The lesson I learned from that had steeled my resolve as it did my nerves.

That experience had prepared me for the worst in news coverages. Once you've witnessed death and mayhem, nothing else -- dead or alive -- could frighten. And covering the unfolding revolution with just a notebook, pen, tape recorder and a satellite phone was not to be feared either.

I spent days without much sleep covering the news, sometimes on the other side of the political divide, and most times criss-crossing the adjacent military encampments -- Camp Aguinaldo, the defense headquarters; and Camp Crame, the constabulary headquarters, both in Quezon City, a Manila suburb.

Corazon Aquno's ascent from mere housewife to the highest office in the land had been a boon to news organizations. She's celebrated for being the instrument for peaceful change in a country wracked by internecine strife.

Her six-year term, ironically, however, was marred by bloody attempts at ousting her by some of the military personages who had initially supported her against the dictator Marcos. From 1986 to 1992 when she stepped down, there were at least 11 major coups.

General Fidel V. Ramos, one of two high officials who broke off with Marcos (the other was Defense Secretary Juan Ponce Enrile), succeeded Mrs. Aquino to the presidency. I also covered the first two years of his presidency for DPA, and then moved to San Diego in the latter part of 1994.