NaFFAA celebrates 25 years in Las Vegas

NaFFAA’s founders and leaders, minus Alex Esclamado, at the Aug 4-6, 2022 National Empowerment Conference. From left: Jon Melegrito, Rodel Rodis, National Chairman Brendan Flores, Loida Nicolas Lewis, and Michael Dadap. Photo by Giselle Rushford

By Loida Nicolas Lewis

Twenty-five years ago, in the spring of 1997, Alex Esclamado, Rodel Rodis, and Michael Dadap visited me for lunch when I was CEO of TLC Beatrice International.

Alex, the former publisher of the Philippine News, discussed the need for a national organization for Filipinos because other Asians had well-known national groups. But we decided that membership would be by organizations instead of individual Filipinos to avoid vote buying and fraudulent elections. It was Rodel who suggested the name National Federation of Filipino American Associations (NaFFAA).

After that meeting, Alex and his faithful, hardworking wife and secretary, Luly Esclamado, went and visited 27 cities in the United States to invite FilAm community leaders to Washington DC to attend the first National Empowerment Conference (NEC) in 1997.

Because of his persuasive campaign of “Panahon Na,” meaning “It is time,” a thousand Filipino Americans poured into the Capitol at the Marriott Hotel, where NaFFAA was officially incorporated.

To dramatize the injustice done to the Filipino soldiers in World War II with the Rescission Act of 1946 stripping them of the benefits given to soldiers who fought under the U.S. flag, uniformed FilAm veterans marched to the White House, chained themselves to the fence, and got arrested. I paid the bail to get them out.

The next Empowerment Conference was held again in Washington D.C., where the Charter and By-Laws of NaFFAA were passed. Alex was unanimously elected Chair, with the dynamic Gloria Caoile as Vice Chair from 1998 to 2002.

I was elected to the position in 2003. During my term of office, the official logo of NaFFAA created by Tambi Wycoco was adopted. Areas were regionalized, giving each Regional Chair authority to chart its own fundraising and purpose.

Alma Kerns of Seattle, WA, became National Chair after me. Then, Greg Macabenta was elected to the top job, followed by Ed Navarra, re-elected for the second term in 2012. J.T. Mallonga came after Ed Navarra in 2014.

Brendan Flores with President Joe Biden at the White House in celebration of the Asian American and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander (AANHPI) Heritage Month in May 2022.

First millennial National Chair

Then in 2016, a remarkable change in NaFFAA occurred. Brendan Flores, a 31-year-old millennial who was born in Calapan, Oriental Mindoro, was elected National Chair. His parents brought him to Las Vegas when he was in middle school. When his dad left for America, their maternal grandmother took care of the five Flores children with Brendan being the middle child.

Brendan was very close to his Lola, so when she died when he was in the 11th grade, he very much wanted to go back to say goodbye. As it turned out, only his mother could buy one airplane ticket due to limited funds. He was utterly crushed for not being able to attend his beloved Lola’s funeral service. That impacted Brendan tremendously and made him ambitious. He vowed there would never be another situation in his life where money became a factor in family decisions.

At 17 years old, he was an intern at Wells Fargo Las Vegas while still in high school. The bank saw that he had lots of potentials, so Wells Fargo offered him a job as assistant vice president before graduating. He was only 21 years old when he was promoted to vice president during the merger of Wachovia Bank and Wells Fargo.

In 2018, after being courted for three years by a headhunter, Brendan accepted the position of senior vice president at Bank of America overseeing performance management over 150 bank locations in Florida. In January this year, Brendan was promoted to head the nationwide Consumer Vehicle Lending Channel Integration effort. 

How did he get involved with NaFFAA?

It began when Alex Esclamado visited a Wells Fargo branch in Las Vegas and noticed a young Filipino banker with whom he wanted to connect. Alex made his pitch.  Brendan listened to Alex’s exhortation of why NaFFAA was the only national organization for Filipinos in America working for their political, financial, cultural, and personal empowerment. It did not impress Brendan to attend the Conference of Filipino Americans held in Las Vegas then.

He struggled to fit in the Filipino-American community. He was having a self-identity crisis as he did not see many Filipinos who looked like him. In addition, he was warned not to join any Filipino group because it’s all “Tsismis” (gossip), Karaoke singing, or ballroom dancing.

Loida Nicolas Lewis with then-First Lady Hillary Clinton who attended the 1998 National Empowerment Conference in New York City.

He was introduced to the late Jing Espiritu, NaFFAA Nevada state chair, who invited him to attend the NEC in Las Vegas in 2000. This time he listened. He was appointed as State Youth Chair after that conference.

His attitude toward being a Filipino began to change. He saw the passion, the civic duty, the advocacy for empowerment, and the richness of the culture and creativity of FilAms. In the end, he began to appreciate himself being a Filipino.

Thus began his engagement with NaFFAA. He was elected in 2016 as the first millennial National Chair, re-elected in 2018 and 2020, and again, he has submitted a change in the By-Laws to have two separate leadership roles for the organization’s growth: a National Chair for external affairs and a President for internal affairs.

NaFFAA founder Alex Esclamado addressing the1999 first National Empowerment Conference attended by a thousand Filipino American community leaders.

Brendan’s term as President and National Chair

During his six years at the helm of NaFFAA, membership quadrupled. We saw a record number of corporate sponsorships validating the importance of this large national organization being the united voice for FilAms. He focused on empowering Filipino Americans and ensuring FilAms get their seats on the critical tables. In his first year, he traveled to 32 cities in the country to get a pulse of how to become the leader that NaFFAA needs.

General Tony Taguba began the campaign to get Congress to grant the Congressional Gold Medal to FilAm Veterans of World War II. It was supported by NaFFAA under JT Mallonga and was signed into law by President Obama during Brendan’s term of office. Brendan’s administration was also responsible for assisting several FilAm celebrations at the White House with various organizations to honor their rich history and contributions to the United States. He emphasized empowering more Filipino-Americans to run for public office in the Run for Office campaign.  A great effort was also made to maximize the 2020 Census registration of 4 million Filipinos in America, now the third largest among the Asian population.

NaFFAA, under Brendan’s leadership and other FilAm organizations working together, has led to President Joe Biden naming a ship after a Filipino hero of WW II – USS Telesforo Trinidad.

However, his term was also faced with challenges during a time of a massive spike in Anti-Asian hate crimes. He and his team reacted quickly and organized a Hate Crimes Task Force in response to the rise in attacks to protect our “Lolos” and “Lolas.”

Most of all, Brendan considers his most significant contribution is the coming and working together of the young and the older FilAms, the Baby Boomers and the Millennials, and Generations X, Y, and Z. He believed that when the keys to the NaFFAA leadership were passed on to him, he did not just receive the baton, but he held it together with all generations of FilAms aspiring to write a better history for themselves in this country! He hopes his mandate will make NaFFAA more inclusive and a “Bayanihan” spirit-centered community, where everyone always seeks to lift each other up.

© The FilAm

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