By Bert Eljera
LAS VEGAS – When Rhigel Tan arrived here nearly 20 years ago, he could count on his fingers the places he could go to find something Filipino.
“There was just one Filipino store – at Sahara Boulevard,” the 42-year-old nurse said. “Nothing much, in terms of cultural or artistic pursuits.”
How times have changed! In November, a Filipino-American dance group, which Tan heads, will perform at the Smith Center, a place comparable to Carnegie Hall in terms of prestige in the performing arts.
Not only have Filipino-Americans grew in number, they have also gained economic and political clout that in the future could translate to power in the ballot box.
Statistics tell the story:
In the 2010 Census, the Asian population grew by 45.6 percent from 2000, a faster rate than the total U.S. population, which increased by 9.7 percent from 2000 to 2010.
Out of the total U.S. population, 14.7 million people, or 4.8 percent, were Asian alone. In addition, 2.6 million people, or another 0.9 percent, reported Asian in combination with one or more other races.
Together, these two groups totaled 17.3 million people or 5.6 percent of all people in the United States.
More importantly, Asians, who have now surpassed Hispanics as the fastest-growing ethnic group, grew by at least 30 percent in all states, with Nevada ranked at the top with a 116 percent growth.
With about 124,000, Filipinos are the largest Asian group in Nevada. They are the largest in Las Vegas, too, with about 30,000 total.
In addition to Las Vegas, Filipinos are the largest Asian group in the Metropolitan areas of San Diego, Riverside, Sacramento and Phoenix, the U.S. Census Bureau said.
Despite their big number, however, the Filipino-American community is practically voiceless.
Unlike in California, where Filipino-Americans have run for public office, a few of whom have become city mayors, no one has run for public office in Las Vegas.
Jason Margolis of PRI’s The World, met recently with Filipino-American leaders in Las Vegas to look at the reason behind the community’s seeming apathy towards public office.
“Finding leaders among Filipino-Americans in Las Vegas, isn’t so easy to do – they’re not very well organized, and the organizations they do have, which are many in number, are difficult to reach,” he said.
He said there is an awareness among the community leaders to do something – and they have started the process of organizing.
A variety of issues prevent the community from coming together solidly.
One is cultural differences. Because the Philippines is composed of thousands of islands, there are centuries-deep fissures among Filipinos, who speak different dialects.
Tagalogs often don’t get along with Cebuanos or Warays, Ilocanos may not want to mix with Kapangpangans, or Ilongos don’t want to associate with Bicolanos.
This babel of voices often leads to disagreements on the direction of community endeavors, or even results in personal animosity among so-called community leaders.
Often, social and civic clubs split up because leaders fight each other after some contentious elections of officers.
The concept of American politics can be puzzling to many Filipinos, who have gotten used to the politics of patronage and dole-outs in the Philippines.
“We cannot erase our traditions,” said Priscilla Santayana, one of those who talked to Margolis. “Believe it or not, politics in the Philippines is perceived as dirty. So that’s why it’s very hard to unwind the perceptions about politics.”
The biggest reason, perhaps in non-involvement in politics, is that most Filipinos, as immigrants, just want to be left alone to earn a living and take care of their families.
“Our main concern is to provide for our families,” said Nimfa Aguila, a neurologist who works in Kingman, Ariz. but calls Las Vegas home. “We came to America for that reason, and we have to take advantage of our opportunities.”
However, she said that in time, with their growing number, Filipino-Americans will be more visible in public affairs.
Nothing unites Filipinos and Filipino-Americans in Las Vegas more than a Manny Pacquiao fight.
The Filipino boxing champion has had several big fights at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, and the loudest cheers always come from his compatriots.
In June, when he lost a controversial unanimous decision to American Timothy Bradley, the biggest protest came from Filipinos, who also led a signature campaign for Nev. Gov. Brian Sandoval to overturn the decision.
Bradley kept his title, in the end, but Pacquiao remains an icon and a unifying force for Las Vegas Filipinos, who, at least for now, remain in the sidelines.
But as Tan, a nursing professor at UNLV and a member of the Nevada State Board of Nursing, said time is on the Filipino-American said.
“It’s just a matter of time,” he said. “Soon, we’d be recognized and take our seat on the table.”