Filipinos Recognized With Memorial It Symbolizes A Nation's Liberty, And An Immigrant Group's New Influence.

Posted: August 14, 1998

In Memorial Grove along the Cooper River, a statue of Christopher Columbus pays tribute to Italian Americans, a Gen. Casimir Pulaski monument acknowledges Polish Americans, and a large sculpture reaching toward the skies serves as a somber reminder of the Holocaust.

Now, an imposing statue of Dr. Jose P. Rizal - the national hero of Filipinos everywhere - has joined the others in Cooper River Park in Cherry Hill, recognizing yet another ethnic group as part of the region's multi-hued fabric.

The monument symbolizes liberty and the Philippines' gaining independence from Spain 100 years ago this year. But those who lobbied for the memorial say it also attests to the growing influence of the more than 13,000 Filipino Americans in the Philadelphia area, especially those in South Jersey.

``This is a statement that we have come a long way as a community,'' said Verne M. Pineda, 56, of Moorestown, who as chairman of the Rizal Monument Committee worked to ensure a spot for the 10-foot bronze.

The Rizal monument will be unveiled during a day-long celebration tomorrow. For Filipinos, it will mean that they - like the Italians, Poles and Jews who came before them - have begun to receive public recognition of their history.

``This is tangible evidence that we're united as a group,'' said Pineda, a gastroenterologist who immigrated to the United States in 1967.

By granting public land for the Rizal monument, Camden County has acknowledged the group's contributions, said Freeholder Annette Castiglione-Degan, liaison to the Camden County Parks Department.

``The Filipinos have taken an active role in the economy of our county as professionals,'' she said. ``They're residents who intend to stay here.''

Unlike the many new arrivals who struggle to assimilate and earn a decent living, most Filipinos - one of the nation's fastest-growing ethnic groups, expected to number 2 million by the 2000 census - have an atypical immigrant experience.

Although early immigrants to the area came as cooks and stewards' mates - the only positions they could hold in the U.S. Navy - and worked in factories or as chauffeurs on the Main Line in the 1920s, that changed.

During the '50s, the Philadelphia Navy Yard attracted skilled Filipino tradesmen from across the country. The next immigrant wave began in the '60s, with the arrival of highly educated Filipinos in professional fields, especially health care.

``Almost every Philadelphia-area hospital has Filipino doctors, technicians and nurses on staff,'' said Skip Voluntad, 67, a Filipino American who is chairman of Mayor Rendell's Commission on Asian-Pacific Affairs and runs his own consulting company in Philadelphia.

Filipino Alex Cueto, a family physician from Cherry Hill, said Pennsylvania has about 3,000 Filipino doctors and New Jersey has 1,500, mostly because immigration policy has favored professionals and because of a shortage of health-care providers in the United States.

Filipinos usually speak English well, largely because the Philippine education system teaches its students in English - a vestige from the days of American colonial rule that lasted until 1946. Without the language barrier, Filipino immigrants tend to assimilate easily.

As a result, Filipinos often have immediate access to the middle class and, like middle class folks everywhere, tend to avoid ethnic enclaves and put down roots in the suburbs, making homes in this area in Cherry Hill, Bensalem, Voorhees and Media. Locally, there is no Filipino equivalent of Philadelphia's Chinatown or a Little India as in Edison, N.J.

But despite the group's success, there is a historical lack of unity and political clout.

``It's very hard,'' lamented Cueto, 57, who said he has made efforts to encourage interest among Filipinos in local and national politics, but has met some resistance.

He said the community is suspicious of politicians based on experience in the Philippines, where corruption and chaos have long plagued the system. ``We have to inculcate our own constituents that if you support your candidate, you can castigate your candidate if he does not make good on what he has promised.''

In addition, Filipino immigrants, who come from a nation of 7,100 islands and 800 dialects, have formed a variety of small social groups, factions that make unity around a single issue or cause difficult. In 1975, community leaders created the Filipino Executive Council of Greater Philadelphia, an umbrella organization intended to unite Filipinos.

``We have to be united,'' Cueto said, ``so that we have a voice in this country.''

He points to the Rizal monument as an example of the power of Filipino unity. The community raised nearly $50,000 for the memorial, lobbied the Philippine government to donate the 2.2 ton statue, one of only 10 made to celebrate the country's centennial, and won the county freeholders' support for a public site.

``It is very significant,'' said Cueto, president of the nonprofit Dr. Jose P. Rizal Centennial.

The memorial consists of two linked circles that represent cupped hands, symbolizing protection against oppression. In one circle stands the statue of a thoughtful Rizal, one hand holding a book, the other a quill pen. Plans call for the construction of a monument in the other circle to mark the Bataan Death March, in which Filipino and American soldiers died during World War II.

From childhood, every Filipino learns about Rizal's life story, from his scholarly achievements - physician, poet, novelist, historian - to his nonviolent fight for independence against Spanish rule. His two novels about Spanish oppression - Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, loosely translated as Touch Me Not and Social Cancer, respectively - aroused the national consciousness and eventually led to his execution by firing squad in 1896. He was 35.

In the Philippines, every town has its Catholic church, its plaza and its memorial to Rizal, said Ray ``Boots'' Benitez, 50, an architect from Cherry Hill who emigrated from the Philippines in 1981.

``His influence in our country is great,'' Benitez said, adding that Rizal serves as a role model, representing values that Filipino immigrants hope to instill in their U.S.-born children.

``It serves as a catalyst to Filipinos and Filipino Americans to propagate the heritage and the customs and traditions of the Philippines, and it encourages the youth to become professionals. . . . He [Rizal] believed in the youth . . . that the hope of our country and all other countries is the youth.''

Local Filipinos already have their churches, such as Olde St. Augustine's Church on Fourth Street in Philadelphia's Old City. Now they have their memorial to Rizal.

``We want to think this will be a shrine of sorts, a place where all Filipinos can gather and pay homage,'' Pineda said. ``We think it can be a place where Filipinos can come 100 years from now, on the next anniversary, and remember their legacy.''

comments powered by Disqus