DCG Theresa Dizon-de Vega: FilAms need to be ‘more engaged politically’

DCG Tess: lawyer and a science fiction fan. The FilAm photo

DCG Tess: lawyer and a science fiction fan. The FilAm photo

By Cristina DC Pastor

The night before the interview, she was “dancing” with Jimmy Carter in the interactive documentary about the party-loving Imelda Marcos. Hours after this sitdown, she was administering the oath of allegiance to dual citizens at the Philippine Center lobby.

Deputy Consul General Theresa Dizon de Vega’s life is one in perpetual motion. Out-of-town outreach every other weekend, at least a dozen invitations a week, lunches and dinners, not to mention consular events at the Philippine Center. All constituency-driven “very important events,” she said in an interview with The FilAm.

Even before she became a diplomat, her life had been a whirlwind of decisions, duties and dabbling in interests other than diplomacy. Even her choice of career was one dizzying carousel: English literature teacher, foreign service officer, and would-be attorney until she finally decided on being a career diplomat.

“Kahiyaan,” she explained the decision. A family friend and a retired ambassador had been pressing her mother to get her, a consistent honors student, to take the FSO exam. Until, “Sige na nga.” She took the test and aced it. Like everything else she’s done exceedingly well.

Reluctantly, she gave up teaching but not her affection for literature and science fiction and joined the Department of Foreign Affairs. But as promised to her lawyer-father, the dutiful ‘panganay’ pursued law at the Ateneo, took the bar and passed.

“I’m licensed to practice, but I did not (practice),” she declared, laughing at how she ended up in New York as deputy consul general of the Philippine Consulate and manager of the Philippine Center Management Board. “I got waylaid.”

Mexico was her first destination as a diplomat. There, she was the cultural and economic officer serving mostly expatriate Filipinos married to foreigners or working in UN agencies.

Hong Kong, her second assignment, was where she met her husband, Eddie de Vega, a fellow diplomat.

With husband Eddie de Vega, also a diplomat

With husband Eddie de Vega, also a diplomat

“It’s interesting because we have a lot of mutual friends in UP, so we were saying we may have met at UP,” she said.

Eddie de Vega is currently the Deputy Permanent Representative of the Philippine Mission to the UN, also in New York. It is the second time that the family finds itself together in the same foreign assignment. The family lives in Bergen County in New Jersey.

The couple has one daughter, Montserrat, who sometimes complains about her parents’ arduous hours, but loves attending some of the community parties. “She loves the dancing,” said de Vega.

De Vega, who is leaving her post by the end of the year, spoke to The FilAm and shared her thoughts about her life as a Philippine diplomat in New York.

TF: Who’s your favorite science fiction writer?
TDDV: I’m very partial to Isaac Asimov and his Robot series. I also have a soft spot for Arthur Clarke, 2000 Space Odyssey. I also love the female fiction writers Ursula K. Le Guin and Margaret Atwood.

TF: You were happy teaching literature at UP, why did you choose to become a diplomat?
TDDV: I stumbled into it by accident. I taught for several years at UP. I took a leave of one year to do my masters in literature and cultural studies in Canada. When I got back, a friend of my mother, who is a retired ambassador, said why don’t get her to take the FSO exam. She’s been pressing my mom. So, sige na nga.

TF: What is the community like here?
TDDV: The diaspora here is very organized because Filipinos have been here longer than in other communities. We have a relatively young community in London where people come to work and then they go home. The U.S. is a place we go (to live). Everyone has a relative in the U.S. The organizations here have been around longer.

TF: What’s the first thing that surprised you about the organizations in New York?
TDDV: The sheer number of activities. You have a very engaged community here. Whatever their advocacies, there is engagement. It may not be engagement along the same line but it’s engagement which is important. It’s a community that feels the need to get involved. You have that here, it’s just a matter of maximizing it for a lot of issues and creating venues and platforms for them to explore how far you can go.

TF: What do you see is the challenge to Filipino Americans?
TDDV: It’s an exciting era for the Filipino American community. We’re one of the fastest growing ethnic minority groups. The challenge is how to reflect that in the mainstream, in politics, in policy making, in other fields.

TF: This feeling of being invisible…
TDDV: Yeah, under the radar, invisible. Nobody listens, nobody pays attention.

TF: Is it because we don’t speak up also?
TDDV: Partly. Let’s go micro. School board. I’ve been to one. There are very few Filipinos (who attend). Council meetings. Some of these are open to the public. If you have time, go listen. It could be about fire hydrants, about safety precautions or a new law. That’s the way they operate here, the American model. That’s the first thing they look for, at. They look at demographics, voting record and numbers. They look at the bottom line from a political sense.

TF: What’s our track record in voting?
TDDV: There aren’t too many. The Pew Research came out with a study of Asian Americans. We’re one of the least engaged politically.

TF: They’re saying we’re not politically active?
TDDV: Not really when ranged against, say, the Indian community. The South Asians are very active.

We also have to look toward other ethnic minorities and not just Filipino Americans. The Asians and Pacific Islanders (is one group) because politically that’s how they view us also. We have to gain a foothold there somehow.

TF: What about the second generation? Are they more out there? Are we becoming more visible because of them?
TDDV: I think so. Take Jason Tengco, he’s in one of the committees of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. He’s doing a lot of work. Jason Tengco is here, goes to Washington, networks there.

I think the second generation is at a crossroads. Their parents’ generation automatically connects to the Philippines because they grew up there, have relatives there. Most of the second generation don’t have that connection. They have to build that connection themselves. At the same time they’re also looking toward the mainstream more.

TF: I remember the Congen (Mario de Leon Jr.) saying the second generation may not be as engaged in sending remittances.
TDDV: At the FIND conference last year, that question came up in the open forum. One of the students asked, Am I obligated to give, to remit? I said it’s really a personal choice. If you feel there are other ways of giving back, then are other ways. There’s this NYU graduate who gathers a group of professionals and they go back to the Philippines and for a day or two give lectures in schools or talk to young people. He calls it “intellectual remittance.”

TF: I see that the second generation is slowly taking the helm of established organizations, like Steven Raga is now with NaFFAA and Mike Nierva with the Philippine American Chamber of Commerce. Is the consulate involved in that effort somehow?
TDDV: It’s not something we’re forcing upon them. We gently remind them, you know, why don’t you develop leaders. The reality is at some point in time they’re going to retire. It’s good to get the second generation involved.

TF: Who is the most memorable, remarkable New Yorker you’ve met, someone who takes your breath away?
TDDV: So many. I can talk about people like Jorge Ortoll (founder of Ma-Yi Theater). In a different reality I would also be where he is. My first love is the arts and culture and literature. He’s such a pleasant person. Another is Mang Maning Rodriguez, the artist. Such a colorful personality. There’s also Lilia Clemente, the Iron Lady of Wall Street, who makes her own pitch for the Philippines but is not vocal about it.

Another Filipino who really inspires me is Roz Li. I love Roz. I promised Roz pag nag-retire ako I’ll work for your Bakas Pilipinas. It’s very important work that their group is doing.

You have your political advocates like Loida Nicolas Lewis, so many, the teachers, the people working in advocacy work, the people of Kalusugan Coalition. So many.

TF: Care to share any ‘Only in New York’ moment?
TDDV: I met Martin Scorsese at a Tribeca screening…Oh, even before that I saw one of my favorite film directors Darren Aronofsky. I went to the concert of Clint Mansell, who is a British composer who composed in many of Aronofsky’s films, “Black Swan,” “The Wrestler.” He’s now working with Aronofsky on “Noah.” Aronofsky introduced us, so we were like aaaaahhh. Fangirling ako.

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  1. Cristina, I love this interview of DCG Tess de Vega. Congratulations. You covered a lot of topics through your questions and answers. Very interesting.

  2. […] Deputy Consul General Tess Dizon de Vega’s hashtag says as much: #pinoygoodbyeslastalifetime. […]

  3. […] the New York region had seen him in the background, providing quiet, dignified support to his wife, Ma. Theresa Dizon-de Vega, the former Deputy Consul General of the Philippine […]

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