INVESTIGATIVE REPORTING PROJECT: Anatomy of a community organization: Teachers battle over AFTA (Part 1)

Ousted president Lumen Castaneda. Photo by Velzon Hizon Velez

Ousted president Lumen Castaneda. Photo by Velzon Hizon Velez

By Cristina DC Pastor

This is the story of a 25-year-old teachers organization created in 1989 to campaign for an extension of the H1-B visa so that Filipino teachers could continue to work legally in the United States. The following year, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1990 was passed under then President George H. W. Bush. It provided for an extension of the H1-B visa and enabled foreign teachers to continue to work until they could find employers who would sponsor them for permanent residency or green cards. Against the backdrop of that historic immigration triumph was born the Association of Filipino Teachers in America. AFTA became the heart and voice of united Filipino teachers and educators.

But in March this year, the once-solid and formidable AFTA, suddenly split up, stunning many in the Filipino American community. Equally shocking were reports that it moved to impeach its 79- year-old president, retired teacher Lumen Castaneda. Teachers loyal to the ousted Castaneda broke ranks to form the United Federation of Fil-Am Educators or UNIFFIED.

Attempts by the Philippine Consulate to patch things up did not bring the feuding teachers any closer. The nagging questions remained: Why was Castaneda asked to step down? What impropriety did she commit? Couldn’t she be replaced the traditional way through an election?

The FilAm magazine spoke to the personalities involved and tried to piece together the events that led to the split. Here is that story.

It’s easy to spot Lumen Castaneda at community events. She is almost always present, the silvery-haired, elegant woman with an affectionate smile peeking through her red-painted lips.

At 79 years old, she is a retired elementary school teacher who taught for more than 20 years at the Bronx’s PS 2 Morrisania School. As one of the enduring members of the Association of Filipino Teachers in America, Castaneda became president for two terms since 2006, changing the ‘F’ in AFTA from Filipino to Fil-Am. Castaneda is protective of her tenure, proud of the reforms she introduced, prouder still of the time and resources she poured into growing the organization.

Until one wintry day in February, Castaneda received a letter from past president and AFTA adviser Lilia Juele asking her to step down. The reason cited: conflict of interest.

“Naalala ko malakas ang snow,” recalled then AFTA membership secretary Ernesto Pamolarco of that time when hostility was simmering at the top.

The board and the officers met in February to write a Constitution that sought to strengthen the organization further. This process, said Pamolarco, led to a misunderstanding among the leadership. A fuzzy line dividing AFTA began to form.

Pamolarco, a special education teacher for the New York Board of Education, said one of the proposals put on the table was to make AFTA New York the leader that would decide policies covering all AFTA chapters in 11 states, namely: Arizona, California, Florida, Louisiana, Maryland, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Texas, Virginia, and Washington D.C. Juele led the group that pushed this proposal.

At least eight chapter presidents were not in agreement with the proposal. They insisted on keeping the status quo where each chapter, say AFTA New Mexico, is independent and has a voice equal to AFTA New York.

“Gusto nila gawing mother chapter ang New York, and all chapters will be parang anak na lang,” said Pamolarco. “The other side felt that new chapters, like Maryland, should not be equal to New York, which started AFTA 25 years ago. Ate Lumen, Ronie (Mataquel), and myself insisted that all chapters should be equal.”

Ernesto Pamolarco; Ronie Mataquel

Ernesto Pamolarco; Ronie Mataquel

Ronie Mataquel, who was then the executive vice president, said the Constitution was a surprise to him.

“I was not given a chance to read the old CBL (Constitution and By-laws) written by the incorporators of AFTA and I’ve been with AFTA for six years,” said Mataquel, who is a Math teacher and an adjunct professor at Queensborough Community College. Just the same, he participated in the process, being a ranking member of the association.

Mataquel had a different recollection of how the rift erupted. According to him, there was an election of officers in December 2013, or two months before the writing of the Constitution. As a matter of fact, he was elected president of AFTA Chapters, together with Lynne Ciocon (President, AFTA-Maryland) as executive vice president, Edgardo Dacpano (President, AFTA-North Texas) as internal vice president, Rina Andres (President, AFTA-North Carolina) as external vice president. Castaneda was installed as chair.

“Everyone was happy after the elections, there was congratulations all over,” said Mataquel. “Even Lilia was so happy, she was telling us to get some money from the treasurer and use it as seed money.”

The following week, the election was declared illegal by Juele and other advisers, said Mataquel. Castaneda promptly called for a special meeting, and the board honored the validity of the election. The board also agreed that Castaneda and Mataquel would stay in their former capacity as president and EVP, respectively, for one year during a period of transition.

“To our surprise they retracted what transpired in our special meeting because they said there was no votation and no raising of the hands,” he said. The elected officers decided to postpone their induction to hear out whatever reservations others may have.

Around the new year, AFTA was starting to come apart. There would be meeting after meeting, grumbling all around and confusion over leadership. Although there were meetings called, some of the pivotal members would not show up, some sending word they were sick, others would be traveling. Nothing would be resolved because the important leaders were not available.

Until Pamolarco, as membership chair, decided it was time to convene a teleconference on February 16 to “foster unity” and address the growing acrimony among the leaders. Invited were 29 AFTA officers, chapter presidents, past presidents, board members and advisers:

Castaneda decided not to participate. She said she did not want to be seen as trying to influence any decision. “I wanted to give them a free hand.”

In that phone conference, it was proposed, according to Pamolarco, that AFTA NY would become the main unit – or the “mother ship” — and all local chapters would become secondary units. The local chapter presidents did not approve the move to diminish their roles. One AFTA adviser spoke that whoever was in disagreement was free to disengage from the organization. The adviser warned against the use of the AFTA name or there would be legal consequences, according to Pamolarco.

By this time, Castaneda had received a letter from Juele asking her to step down as president because of conflict of interest. She was being accused of creating a rival organization. “They tried to impeach me; they sent me a letter,” she said.

She decided to step down to prevent the impeachment from moving forward, and after AFTA lawyer Ferdinand Suba counseled her, assuring her that her legacy at AFTA was secure. “Ayoko ng gulo,” she said.

Mataquel and eight chapter presidents were not in favor of Castaneda’s resignation, but respected her decision.

Castaneda recounted some of her accomplishments: She said it was she who formalized AFTA’s incorporation as a 501(c)3 or non-profit organization. It was through her effort that AFTA found a “home” at the basement of St. Joseph Catholic School in Manhattan for their monthly meetings free of charge. Ulirang Guro, the search for outstanding teachers, got started during her term, she added.

On March 31, the breakaway United Federation of Fil-Am Educators or UNIFFIED, was formally announced as a new organization. Castaneda was named the founding chair and Mataquel was elected president for 2014 to 2016.

“Deep inside she didn’t want to split AFTA,” said Mataquel. “She had no choice.”

NEXT: No comment from AFTA leadership: ‘We have moved on’

The FilAm’s Investigative Reporting Project is made possible through the generous support of our readers and contributors including the following:

Consuelo Almonte
Melissa Alviar
Bessie Badilla
Sheila Coronel
Joyce and Arman David
Kathleen Dijamco
Jen Furer
Marietta Geraldino
Dennis Josue
Lito Katigbak
Rich Kiamco
Monica Lunot-Kuker
Michael Nierva
Lisa Nohs
Cecilia Ochoa
Rene & Veana Pastor
John Rudolph
Roberto Villanueva
2 anonymous donors

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