Honoring, serving Filipino migrants: Local non-profit responds to community’s needs
| By Amanda Aguilar |
In December 2005, a Filipino migrant came to the United States from the Philippines to work as a nurse in a health care facility.
Not even a few months after that, Reynante Cabanban was diagnosed with cancer. He had no health insurance, no money and no relatives in the U.S.
Before Cabanban could start his job as a nurse, he passed away—with no relatives in the U.S. to arrange his burial services.
“How do you help a person like this?” asked Grace Valera-Jaramillo, founder and executive director of the Migrant Heritage Commission.
The Migrant Heritage Commission is a non-profit, service-oriented organization that recognizes and preserves the cultural identity and rights of Filipino immigrants, grew from this moment of need. It has since grown to serve the growing and geographically scattered Filipino immigrant community across the D.C. Metro area in a wide variety of ways, from cultural education for the second generation to aiding victims of human trafficking.
Valera-Jaramillo, who was also a diplomat for the Embassy of the Philippines at the time, was in charge of Cabanban’s case in the Assistance to Nationals of the Philippine Embassy. She believed there needed to be a resource that helped immigrants, because the Filipino government had limited resources.
Valera-Jaramillo encouraged her brother, Arnedo Valera, to form such an organization.
During the memorial mass for Cabanban at the Philippine Embassy on Dec. 27, 2005, Valera proposed the establishment of a Filipino Overseas Migrant Fund. This proposal gained a great deal of support from key leaders in the Filipino community, such as Jesse Gatchalian.
In an immigrant community, Valera said, nobody should die alone.
Valera-Jaramillo, Valera and Gatchalian realized they needed to establish a more formal organization where immigrants could turn to for help and resources.
And on Dec. 30, 2005, the Migrant Heritage Commission was born.
“This is what you call a response. A response to the needs of the migrant and immigrant community,” said Valera, the commission’s executive director.
The non-profit serves the Filipino communities in D.C., Maryland and Virginia. According to Valera-Jaramillo, it’s hard to say where exactly Filipinos live in the Metro area.
“Among the various migrant groups, we are the ones who are able to assimilate and integrate well into the U.S. society because there’s no language barrier,” said Valera-Jaramillo. “Filipinos—they’re spread all over.
“For us to be able to help these immigrants, they have to make sure that they take pride of their culture.”
The Culture Resource and Support Program is one of eight programs offered through the commission. It is also one of the most popular.
According to Valera, the program participants promote the Filipino culture through dance performances and learn ways to enrich their cultural heritage in the nation.
It is also one of the ways Filipino youth connect back to the culture.
Valera-Jaramillo said this was the only way she was able to connect her son back to his Filipino roots, since he was born in the U.S.
Raymund Valera, 22, joined the MHC dance ensemble when he was in middle school.
The MHC dance ensemble, part of the Cultural Resource and Support Program, performs Filipino cultural dances at various events around the District of Columbia.
Valera-Jaramillo believes that starting Filipino-American children in the MHC dance ensemble is a great way to “ease them into learning more about their culture.”
Raymund agreed and said a lot of youth “gravitate towards dancing,” like he did.
“As I got older, I realized I’m performing for something more than just the Filipino culture,” he said. “I’m spreading awareness to those who are not familiar with our culture, even to kids who are Filipino who want to learn.”
Angela Dizon, 17, was one of those youths that wanted to learn more about her roots and find ways to become more involved in the Filipino community—as she was already doing charity work in the Philippines.
Valera-Jaramillo convinced Dizon to enter the 2014 Miss Teen Philippines-America contest, which she ended up winning.
Dizon said that after her title win, she started getting more involved with the commission—which included attending the annual Youth Assembly at the United Nations headquarters in New York.
This is another way the cultural program allows young Filipino-Americans to learn about where they come from, but also about other countries.
Dizon and Raymund were some of the commission’s youth members lucky enough to attend.
Raymund described the experience as “beautiful.”
“The real beautiful thing is getting to talk to other people our age. They’re right there with us, we’re learning there with them,” he said.
Dizon said she learned how important it is to encourage others just by being involved and raising awareness about issues the world is facing.
In December 2014, MHC received the 2014 Presidential “Banaag” Award from Philippines President Benigno Aquino in Manila. Only six organizations nationwide were selected out of the 157 nominees.
According to Valera, the organization’s work with human trafficking victims was a huge factor in being awarded.
“We really have to thank those individuals that gave us the opportunity to serve,” said Valera.
Regardless of beliefs or gender orientation, the commission’s leaders believe there is a need for the organization to serve the community in the form of cultural and legal programs. Although they serve mostly Filipino immigrants, the services extend to other ethnicities.
“It’s the philosophy of the Migrant Heritage Commission,” Valera said, “that you do not deprive a person to fight and dream for a good life.”
I am Pastor Vance.
I have a friend (Art) who recently married a lovely Filipino young woman (Cathy).
Cathy is Filipino. She is nervous about transitioning into the Northern VA career market.
Her English is OK, but she clearly wants to improve her English speaking.
Cathy feels nervous about not being able to find- or keep- a new job, from miscommunication. Cathy feels she might not understand her boss, make a mistake and lose her new job.
I believe it is OK for Cathy to ask questions.
I also believe no boss will expect Cathy to perfectly learn everything at once, since she is trying hard to learn the job with the primary language, Tagalog.
I hope Cathy can make friends to begin to feel more comfortable to move forward in America.
Are there any Filipino American Culture Employment services that can help Cathy to acquire better English and career skills?