On Global Filipinos: 1st Filipina mayor in England is daughter of an OFW

Mayor Cynthia Barker of Hertsmere Borough: ‘It’s the Bayanihan spirit.’

By Loida Nicolas Lewis

Last June 24, Cynthia Barker was sworn in as mayor of Hertsmere Borough during the council’s annual meeting. She became the first Philippine-born mayor of a borough in the United Kingdom.

The handover was done virtually instead of formally in a ceremony where the outgoing Mayor Councillor Rabbi Alan Plancey would have turned over to the incoming mayor the chains of office to be placed over her shoulder.

However, the real drama was not becoming mayor because she was already deputy mayor one year earlier. Traditionally, the deputy mayor succeeds the mayor the following year for a one-year term.

At the Annual Meeting of the council, it was moved by Conservative Party Councillor Meenal M. Sachdev and seconded by Councillor Sarah Hodgson-Jones that Conservative Party Deputy Mayor Councillor Barker be elected as mayor of Hertsmere Borough Council for the 2020-21 municipal year.

It was a testament to Barker’s reputation that she was the only candidate as the two other parties, Labour and Liberal Democrats, desisted from putting their own mayoral candidates.  Councillors from the three political parties unanimously and democratically elected Barker.

How did a Filipino woman become Mayor of Hertsmere, a big district in Hertfordshire in England? In an interview with U.S.-based Melody Garcia, Cynthia Bartolome Alcantara Barker shares her story.

With veterans and their families observing Remembrance Day in honor of soldiers who died in line of duty.

It all began in 1972 when Barker’s mother, Nelia Elauria Bartolome, a public school teacher, chose to leave behind her five children in San Pablo City in Laguna with her husband Romeo Alcantara, another teacher, to seek a better life in London as an Overseas Filipino Worker.  (Barker’s father died in 1986 of brain tumor in Manila.   Her mother survived him by 11 years and died in 1997 following an ulcer operation at St. Mary’s Hospital in London.)

Her mother supported her five children’s education while working initially in a private household as a nanny/housekeeper, then as a hospital catering assistant and later as a full-time carer.  

All the five siblings now live outside of the Philippines, either in the U.S. or in the UK.  The eldest, Ador Alcantara, is now a retired civil/highways engineer in Sacramento, California.  Next is Gene Alcantara who is a London-based immigration adviser and journalist. Cynthia herself finished industrial engineering from Adamson University in Manila and began to work as a production supervisor in a garment factory, while waiting to immigrate to London. Her younger brother Rey Ramir Alcantara is a senior healthcare worker in London.  The youngest sister Joy Moreno is a senior nurse in Sacramento. 

At a wine tasting fundraiser

Finally, in 1983, Barker was able to join her mother in London.  She embraced her being an immigrant in England, which she treated as a new adventure. She worked towards full integration into British society. She went to study further at the University of Hertfordshire and worked as manager, operations manager, recruitment manager and immigration law practitioner.

She believes in continuous professional development. More recently she attended a leadership development course Pathways to Success at Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University, sponsored by the university, the House of Commons, Lloyds Bank, and Operation Black Vote.

From her previous marriage to an English gentleman, she raised a daughter named Christine, who is now married and blessed the family with four grandchildren. She said her grandchildren keep her young and give her that “balance in life.”

At the same time, she volunteered her free time in the Rotary Club, and did various charity work in her neighborhood.  She was given the British Community Honours Award at the House of Commons. In the Filipino community, she was chosen as one of 100 Most Influential Filipinas by the U.S.-based Filipina Women’s Network.  She remains a member of the Filipino Women’s Association in the UK.

Because of her active charity work and volunteering, she got noticed by the Conservative Party which invited her to join them. She has been a full member of the party since 2014 although she helped out in their political campaigns for a number of years before joining them.

Attending the opening of the Bushey Museum exhibition in Hertfordshire in southern England.

One year later, in 2015, the party asked her to run for councillor in two towns in Hertsmere Borough Council. She was at first hesitant because she had no experience in running for a public office, and running for two was even more daunting although it was a strategy to do so to maximize her chances of winning.

In fact, the Conservative Party wanted precisely a woman, who was not in politics and a member of a minority group to demonstrate their inclusivity. She was the perfect candidate.  To everyone’s surprise, most of all to Barker, she won handily in both towns and thus became the first female Philippine-born councillor simultaneously in the towns of Borehamwood and Potters Bar in the district borough of Hertsmere. That was the really significant victory.

She said, “My mother’s sacrifices gave me the inspiration and drive to pursue my aspirations. I must also acknowledge my father’s sacrifices as he was just as lost as we children were when my mother went abroad to support the family.” 

Barker added, “My mother’s traits, compassion and the willingness to help was instilled in me. I didn’t realize the light I had inside of me was from my mother who worked as nanny/housekeeper in a foreign land when it was not fashionable to do so.  And how successful she was in her journey specially in inspiring me and my siblings. From her journey, I was energized by people around me, our Filipino community and our local British community who believed in me and helped made me who I am now. They inspired me to integrate into the British community while proudly preserving my own heritage.”

In 2019, four years later, she ran for re-election this time only in Borehamwood under difficult political conditions due to Brexit, where the mood of the people was very negative against the Conservative Party which was being blamed for even conducting the referendum in the first place. She won re-election by a nail-biting three votes.  Across the nation, the Conservative Party lost 1,200 seats all together.

In the council, she was nominated as Deputy Mayor and was elected by a majority of the sitting councillors. She embraced the challenge again of being the first Filipina to be deputy mayor. In June 2020, the council elected her unopposed as mayor of Hertsmere Borough.

When asked by Melody how she manages to fulfill all the demands of being mother, grandmother, councillor and mayor at the same time, Barker replied that “when you do the work without expecting any return, the good comes back to you.”

Barker remains gracious and humble. She said what she has achieved in British politics as a Filipina is now inspiring other immigrants to aim for similar empowerment as important participants in their host society.

© The FilAm 2020

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