Community Matriarch Devoted Life to Service

Alice Bulos gives a blessing to Daly City councilmember Ray Buenaventura (Photo courtesy of Ray Buenaventura)

Alice Bulos gives a blessing to Daly City councilmember Ray Buenaventura (Photo courtesy of Ray Buenaventura)

The Filipino American community has lost its matriarch: Alice Peña Bulos, the first FilAm appointed by a sitting president to a United States federal advisory panel, passed on peacefully from natural causes October 21 at Seton Medical Center here.  She was 86.

Mrs. Bulos was the most powerful Filipino American never elected.

Non-Filipino candidates hoping to get the FilAm vote first sought audience with her.  FilAms seeking connection to mainstream officials asked to be introduced by her.

She guided activists fighting for parity and justice in diverse arenas.  She was best known for her battlecry: "To achieve empowerment, we must reach out and empower the community."

Her place was front and center, at meetings and rallies, on her feet and later in her wheelchair, always a formidable presence.  

She was "Tita Alice" to many generations of FilAm friends and disciples, but to me she was just "Alice."  That's how I addressed her the first time I spoke to her over the phone for a story in 1985.  This reporter was being professional, objective, avoiding reference to age difference.  My interviewee did not seem to mind, accommodating all questions from someone fresh-off-the-jet and unconscious of the dual campaigns at that time preoccupying Filipinos opposing martial law in the Philippines while struggling for equality in the United States.

In fact Alice herself was first-name basis with the powerful:  Nancy, Jackie, Anna, the list goes on.  Anyone who needs to be told the surnames of the aforementioned probably is apolitical or new in the country to know U.S. House Minority Leader Pelosi, U.S. Representatives Speier and Eshoo - all longtime allies who traded air kisses and likely had Mrs. Bulos' number on the old speed dial along their way to Capitol Hill.

By the time she earned the appointment of "Bill" to the Clinton Administration's Federal Council on Aging and grown fondness for his wife "Hillary" in the mid-'90s,  Mrs. Bulos had devoted almost 30 years to organizing political action supporting candidates she believed would address Filipino American issues and appoint FilAms on their staff if not to official posts.

Alice Bulos inspired ALLICE (Photo courtesy of Ray Buenventura)

Alice Bulos inspired ALLICE (Photo courtesy of Ray Buenventura)

Before the confirmation hearing for California Supreme Court Justice nominee Tani Cantil-Sakauye, a FilAm and then- 3rd District Court of Appeal Justice, I spotted and shook the hand of a familiar figure who lately had been out of the limelight.

"Do you know Alice Bulos?" queried then-former and again future Governor Jerry Brown, a Democrat, who was on the Commission on Judicial Appointments that eventually anointed the highest ranking FilAm in California nominated by Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Who does not know Alice Bulos, I shot back, feeling privileged to be more than an acquaintance to the woman dubbed "Godmother of the Filipino American politics" for her willingness and capacity to listen, advise, and advocate for those who could not find their voice or otherwise felt helpless.

While recipients of her time and wisdom recognized her fearlessness and generosity, recent beneficiaries might be surprised by their champion's beginnings. 

Born on March 31, 1930 in Nueva Ecija, Alice Peña was a pious homebody whose favorite pastime was cleaning the house. In school she frequented the library and spent rare time beyond studies, she told me for a tribute on her 80th birthday.

College Offered Infinite Possibilities

The University of Santo Tomas nurtured the mind and spirit of the devout Catholic.  Eager to probe the development, structure, and functioning of human society, she enrolled in sociology. The department chair, a woman, took the diligent student under her wing as professor's assistant. The experience solidified Alice's career path: The protégée eventually succeeded her mentor.

The campus also opened Alice's heart and led to unexpected flight, literally.  A law student wooed her, started his practice and won her consent to be Mrs. Donnie Bulos.  A few years later, he had to leave for the United States, where his mother had immigrated.

Mrs. Bulos was already head of the sociology department and the couple had become parents to Elizabeth, their only child.  Family came first: Alice said goodbye to UST but would cherish the ties as president of Thomasians USA, an alumni association in Northern California that upholds the school's values through scholarships in the U.S. and PH.  

Politics was unseen on the newcomers' horizon.  But the gubernatorial campaigns sparked their consciousness as U.S. citizens.  Initially they leaned Republican, taking a shine to Gov. Ronald Reagan.  But soon they dived into the "Browns for Brown" campaign that spurred Filipinos and Latinos for Jerry Brown in his debut race for governor in 1974.  The new Americans embraced the Democrat Party having analyzed and found its ideology of service and openness aligned with their principles.  They formed the Filipino American Grassroots Movement to register voters.  When Donnie passed away from cancer, Alice took the torch to fire up and increase FilAm involvement in the process.

Mrs. Bulos co-founded the state Filipino American Democratic Caucus and FilAm Democratic Club of San Mateo County, and she was one of the few females on the Filipino American Political Association, precursor of the National Federation of Filipino American Associations.  

She advocated multiple and varied causes in and beyond the FilAm community - benefiting seniors and children, women and families, World War II veterans, access to health care, jobs, labor, and lately against bullying - in every capacity.  For her boundless service, she received national, state and local awards too many to hang on the walls of her residence in South San Francisco, unofficial home of Filipino American empowerment.

Mrs. Bulos suffered from severe arthritis and sciatica but inspired even in her failing health.  

Alice Bulos was the most powerful Filipino American never elected.

Challenge from a Role Model

On our regular phone chats even after she had lost her voice, she challenged me to be more visible, not for myself, but to model engagement to others. Because of her I have been serving since 2011 on the San Mateo County Commission on Aging to advise the County Board of Supervisors on issues facing older Americans.

Thirteen years ago Mrs. Bulos, then a member of the San Mateo County Commission on Status of Women, joined the volunteer outreach team I was organizing for a domestic violence prevention service agency. When our organization went independent, we needed a new name to define our vision of a community collaborating to educate toward health and safety.  We borrowed from our role model's favorite word and baptized ourselves Alliance for Community Empowerment.  Our acronym memorializes her: ALLICE.

Mrs. Bulos is survived by her daughter and son-in-law Elizabeth and Carlos Ramilo, their children Charity, Charles, Clarke and his wife Socorro and their children Noah, Aubrey and Penelope; her sisters Zenaida Villaviza in the Philippines and Lourdes Reyes and her children in South San Francisco; her niece and nephew-in-law Rosemarie and Larry Formalejo, relatives and countless admirers in the U.S. and PH.

Viewing is scheduled 4-9 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 29; vigil and rosary 6:30 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 30, at Duggan's Mortuary Services in Daly City.  Funeral Mass is set for 10:30 a.m., Monday, Oct. 31 at St. Augustine Church in South San Francisco followed by interment at Holy Cross Memorial Park in Colma. 

The family requests that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to Thomasians USA with Alice Bulos bereavement in memo.  Mail to 2444 Liberty Court, S.S.F. CA 94080.

Cherie Querol Moreno

Cherie Querol Moreno

Cherie M. Querol Moreno is a Commissioner with the San Mateo County Commission on Aging and executive director of nonprofit ALLICE Alliance for Community Empowerment. She is editor at large of Philippine News, columnist for Philippines Today USA and contributor to Rappler and GMA News Online.

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