ConGen Mario de Leon Jr. departs NYC in June, reflects on leaving the ‘oldest Philippine consulate’

Five years of uniting a fractious FilAm community. Photo by Troi Santos

Five years of uniting a fractious FilAm community. Photo by Troi Santos

By Cristina DC Pastor

It’s been the loudest whisper for months: Consul General Mario Lopez de Leon Jr. is ending his tour of duty on June 30 after five years in New York. His former deputy, Tess Dizon de Vega, will be the new ‘ConGen.’

So when De Leon recently announced his departure to officers of the FilAm Press Club in New York, he quickly followed with, “Just want you to know I already have a successor. Kilala niyo naman siya.” Laughter ensued. Most everyone had known all along, and many in the community were pleased with the terms of succession.

De Leon reflected on his tenure and his being in New York at the helm of the “oldest Philippine consulate” in the “largest consular post in the world.”

“New York City is the first consulate established by the Philippine government,” he said. “It was established even ahead of San Francisco.”

The first Philippine Consulate General, according to the consulate website, was located at 40 Exchange Place on Wall Street, and the first Consul General in New York was Jose Melencio, who served from 1946-1951.

To stress the significance of New York City as a diplomatic assignment, De Leon said it is largest consular post in the world with 120 foreign consulates. The Society of Foreign Consuls in New York, which he led from 2013 to 2014, is about 88 years old, he added.

“Most of the big countries are here, and their consuls general are usually ambassadors,” he said.

The consulate, with offices on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, has jurisdiction over more than 350,000 Filipino Americans who are residents of 10 contiguous states, namely, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Vermont, providing them consular services, such as passport renewal and legal documentation.

“The consulate covers all 10 states, and it’s the most compact,” he said. “Let’s face it, these are the oldest states in the U.S.”

He noted how the consulates of the Philippines and China have the same jurisdiction. The two countries are currently locked in a diplomatic dispute over certain territories of the South China Sea.

De Leon, a career diplomat who was previously the Philippine Ambassador to South Africa, assumed his position in New York in March 2011. He served as Minister and Consul General at the Philippine Embassy in London from 2000 to 2006, as Consul at the Philippine Consulate in New York from 1993 to 1997, and as Second Secretary at the Philippine Mission to the United Nations in New York from 1990 to 1993, among other positions. He has been in New York in various capacities since the early 1990s.

While he has known many first-generation FilAms through the years, De Leon has reached out to younger FilAms as Consul General. One of his initiatives includes outreach to Filipino student organizations in universities across the 10 states. For organizations that have been around for many years, such as the PIDCI, NaFFAA and the Philippine American Chamber of Commerce, he has made gentle reminders about the importance of ‘infusing new blood’ within their ranks. De Leon believes in developing new leaders who will introduce new ways of thinking, adjust to new trends, and carry on their organizations’ mission and ensure their survival. He said the consulate has seen organizations come and go and told the Press Club that about 200 organizations are currently active.

“ConGen Mario assumed his post on 1 March 2011, and arrived to a rather fractious Filipino American community,” says a press statement issued by the consulate. “Foremost in his agenda was to bring reconciliation among some sectors and encourage cooperation among organization leaders. He has done more than repair community relations.”

De Leon likes to remind the community how the “three pillars of foreign policy: economic diplomacy, national security and assistance to nationals in distress” are the principles that guide his leadership in New York.

He said he is “happy” that his successor will be Tess Dizon-de Vega, who was his deputy for about three years before she returned to Manila to become Chief Coordinator of Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario. She knows some of the projects initiated during his term and will be leaving them in good hands.

“The last five years have been productive years in the community under the helm of Consul General Mario de Leon.” said community leader Vivian Talambiras-Cruz. “I feel honored to have worked with him in various projects, such as the Simbang Gabi and Panunuluyan, the Homecoming sa Konsulado, and many others. The next Consul General Tess de Vega has been described as a ‘lady in perpetual motion.’ She is bright, tireless, witty and well loved.”

De Leon will be moving to a senior position in the Home office starting in July.

Asked if he could theoretically be appointed Foreign Secretary in the future, he burst into laughter and replied, “Theoretically.”

With his former deputy and now successor Tess Dizon de-Vega. Photo by Rolan Gutierrez

With his former deputy and now successor Tess Dizon de-Vega. Photo by Rolan Gutierrez

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