Alex Esclamado: An Impossible Dreamer Dies

Alex Esclamado received the prestigious "Ellis Island Medal of Honor" during the U.S. Bicentennial Celebration to America's most prominent immigrants. (Courtesy of Filipinas Magazine)

Alex Esclamado is dead. He passed away on Sunday, November 4, in Cebu City from a lingering ailment. His demise is a loss for Filipinos in America, as well as those in the Philippines who endured the Marcos dictatorship.

On May 9, 1989, President Cory Aquino conferred the Philippine Legion of Honor on Alex. The text of the proclamation, read into the records of the U.S. Congress by Rep. Stephen Solarz, that same year, tells of the great service Alex rendered to our country:

“For his distinguished and outstanding service to the country during the past 20 years. Often a lone voice in the United States, he relentlessly championed Philippine freedom and democracy without regard for personal safety in the face of the threatening might of the dictatorship.

“Through his newspaper, the Philippine News, he continuously published the truth about the repressions of the dictatorial rule, suffering great financial loss and harassment of his family. His testimony before the U.S. Congress revealing facts about the assassination of Benigno S. Aquino, Jr., and the oppression of the Filipino people, helped change U.S. policy towards the Philippines.

“Immediately following the People's Revolution, he was one of the first, if not the first, to call for a `Mini-Marshall' plan to assist in rebuilding his native country, inspiring support for the current Multilateral Aid Initiative.

“Since the 1960's, he has led a gallant battle for equal rights for Filipino immigrants in the U.S., benefiting not only Filipinos but all Asians. He was the prime mover in unifying more than 3,000 Filipino American associations into a single organization, with the goal of assisting Filipinos in the U.S. and contributing to the economic recovery of the Philippines.
“He was the only Filipino American selected to receive the prestigious `Ellis Island Medal of Honor' presented during the U.S. Bicentennial Celebration to America's most prominent immigrants.

“For the past two decades, Alex A. Esclamado has been the single most influential Filipino American, courageously fighting for the cause of justice for Filipinos everywhere and serving as an inspiration in the defense of freedom, a true benefactor of the underprivileged and an ardent advocate of a strong and lasting democracy in his native country.

“By virtue of the powers vested in me by law, I, Corazon C. Aquino, President of the Republic of the Philippines, do hereby confer upon Alex A. Esclamado the Philippine Legion of Honor, Degree of Officer, this 9th day of May, in the year of our Lord nineteen hundred and eighty-nine, and the Republic's ninety-first.”

Alex Esclamado, founder of Philippine News and Founding National Chair of the National Federation of Filipino American Associations (NaFFAA)
(Courtesy of Filipinas Magazine)

The Marcos machinery tried to silence Alex with an offer of $12 million. The response of the Esclamado family: “Is that the price of our honor?” The bribe was turned down.

Advertisers were threatened and had to pull out. Alex was driven to bankruptcy. Unfazed, he borrowed from friends to keep his newspaper in print. Unbelievably, Philippine News did not miss a single issue. But that left the Esclamados deep in debt.

In spite of the honors given by Malacañang and the influence of his brother-in-law, House Speaker Ramon Mitra, Alex asked for no favors or privileges from the government. He and his wife Luly, Mitra’s sister, struggled to keep Philippine News alive. They finally gave up and sold it to then Finance Secretary Ed Espiritu.

Esclamado founded Philippine News in 1961 and used it a voice against the Marcos dictatorship and to advance Filipino causes, such as immigration and veterans' rights. (Courtesy of Filipinas Magazine)

If the Mexicans had Cesar Chavez and the African Americans had Rev, Martin Luther King, Filipinos in the US had Alex Esclamado, unwavering, tireless and Quixotic in his efforts to unite and empower his people.

In 1963, Alex organized a group of seven leaders from various states and, much like David taking on Goliath, they resolved to correct the inequities that Filipinos were being subjected to in America. Only 50 people were allowed to immigrate to the U.S. from the Philippines, annually. Filipino doctors, dentists and accountants could not secure licenses to practice their profession, farm workers endured low wages and unfair working conditions and Filipino World War II veterans wondered when – or if – they would ever be granted the benefits promised them by the U.S.

The Marcos machinery tried to silence Alex with an offer of $12 million.

Using Philippine News as a bully pulpit and through dogged lobbying and coalescing with other minority communities, Alex and his group saw the Immigration and Naturalization Act amended and the quota increased to 20,000 per nationality, with special preference for professionals and a provision for family reunification that was not part of the quota. Filipino professionals were also finally allowed to take licensing examinations and practice in America.

In 1978, after waging a successful “Browns for Brown” campaign that saw Jerry Brown win the California governorship (for the first time), Alex and his group got the first two Fil-Ams appointed to the bench: Judge Ron Quidachay in San Francisco and Judge Mel Recana in Los Angeles.

In 1990, World War II veterans finally won the right to U.S. citizenship, but they continued to be denied equal benefits and privileges. It would take many more years before benefits would finally be granted, under the Obama administration.

Alex Esclamado and Loida Nicolas-Lewis pursued the goal of uniting Filipino associations in the U.S. together with other leaders of the National Federation of Filipino American Associations (NaFFA), Greg Macabenta (standing) and Jon Melegrito (right). (Courtesy of Filipinas Magazine)

Alex Esclamado was not yet done. In 1997, Alex, Rodel Rodis, Michael Dadap and Loida Nicolas-Lewis, over dinner at the latter’s New York apartment, agreed to pursue what seemed an impossible dream: an organization that would unite Filipino community associations across the country. 

The plan was to convene a national organizational conference. Determined to persuade a large number of delegates to attend, Alex and Luly literally drove thousands of miles across the U.S., shuttling from state to state and city to city, to rally and energize the hitherto passive Fil-Am communities.

On August 22, 1997, some 2,000 delegates attended the First National Filipino American Empowerment Conference in Washington, D.C. The following year, the National Federation of Filipino American Associations (NaFFAA) was formally organized with Alex as founding chairman. The Impossible Dream was realized.

NaFFAA is the Fil-Am equivalent of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The difference is that the champion of the African American community is over 100 years old. NaFFAA has just marked its 15th year, surviving organizational difficulties while gaining a seat at the table in briefings at the White House and Capitol Hill on issues affecting minority communities. It is a tribute to the indomitable spirit of Alex Esclamado.

In 2002, Alex began to feel symptoms akin to that of Parkinson’s disease. He confided to me that he wanted to relinquish the chairmanship of NaFFAA and hand it over to someone who could ensure its survival and growth. We both agreed that Loida Nicolas-Lewis was the best choice. In spite of business commitments, Loida accepted the national chairmanship, with me as her vice-chair. I became national chair a few years later. It was the least we could do for a man who was willing to dream the impossible dream for all the rest of us in the community.

Alex Esclamado speaking at the first National Filipino American Empowerment Conference in 1997 (Courtesy of Filipinas Magazine)

I also had a personal reason for standing by Alex when he needed support. In 1991, when he learned that I had retired from my position as CEO of Advertising & Marketing Associates, and didn’t know the next thing about flipping burgers, Alex encouraged me to set up my own advertising agency in America. He even had a name for it: Minority Media Services, Inc.

I told Alex that, while I had a lot of experience, a capacity for hard work and some brains, my wife and I had no money, having sent our children to school in the U.S.

Once more, the Don Quixote in Alex Esclamado rose to the occasion: “If you think $10,000 is enough to get an agency started, I’ll lend you half and we’ll be partners.”And thus, another impossible dream was realized.

Sadly, Impossible Dreamers die. But their dreams can live on.


Greg Macabenta

Greg Macabenta

Greg Macabenta was the publisher of Filipinas Magazine from 2005-2010. This article was first published in Business World in Manila on November 7, 2012. Greg can be reached at