Cynthia Arnaldo Bonta leads the committees behind the Philippine Independence Day and Filipino American History Month festivities in Alameda, home county of her son, the first Filipino elected to the California State Legislature.
At 76, she leads the nonprofit Philippine National Day Association, which she founded in 1990 to develop leadership among younger Filipino Americans.
She lives by example and is often the one garbed in traditional Filipino dress at an informal gathering as she was at a recent Filipino American Heritage Month fete, or a formal like the Filipina Women’s Network gala—always ready to honor her beginnings.
The Laguna-born Silliman University alum has a master’s in religious education and a resume that speaks of a life dedicated to public service, particularly to those pushed to the margins of society. Perhaps she has served best by modeling her principles at home.
“Motherhood is raising a child to be a contributing member of society by being a protector, a teacher, an enabler, a guide, an example,” Bonta defined her primary role to Positively Filipino.
Rob, the freshman state lawmaker may be her famous son, but he is among three achievers born to Cynthia and their father Warren Bonta. Their eldest child Lisa Ligaya Bonta Sumii chose to become a psychotherapist and practices in Oakland. Their youngest, Jonathan Marcelo Bonta, founded and directs the Center for Diversity and the Environment in Portland, Oregon.
Much has been written about middle son “Robbie” toddling with Lisa in 1973 in La Paz, California, while their parents (then expecting their third child) helped organize the United Farm Workers of America. That period clearly is imprinted on Bonta, among whose first bills was one that requires California schools to include in its curricula Filipino Americans’ contributions to the history of the state’s farm labor movement, thus correcting a half-century of omission.
That AB123 became law last year was “emotional” for Bonta’s mother. The milestone transported her back to 1993, when pioneer farm worker organizer Philip Vera Cruz and his wife, Deborah, were her house guests as he was to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Filipino Fiesta in Sacramento, “a year before he passed away.”
“It was emotional because since 1975 a group of activists and I had wanted to make changes to the inaccuracies, distortions and omissions in social studies textbooks in the way they have treated the mention of Filipinos and the Philippines—and finally someone from our children’s generation succeeded in making the first of the many changes that yet needed to be made,” she contemplated the significant moment. “I knew it would be emotional for the son of Larry Itliong, Johnny, who has been crusading to give his father the honor that he so deserves, whom Rob asked to meet with, not the other way around.”
“Cyn and Warren obviously did a great job since they raised three smart, very accomplished and independent adults,” noted Bonta’s friend and Katipunan ng mga Demokratikong Pilipino co-member Lillian Galedo, now executive director of Filipino Advocates for Justice, who occasionally babysat the Bonta kids. “Cyn was always very gentle and patient even as it was clear she had high expectations of her kids.”
Instilling independence was key to Cynthia’s mothering style.
“They needed to learn early how to face the world out there,” she said. “My children were exposed to whatever activity I was involved in, because I liked bringing them with me rather than leaving them with babysitters at home.”
Motherhood, she believes, is “expressed differently at each stage of a child’s life … with duties and responsibilities for the best outcome” from the moment of conception, she said, when maternity dictated her diet and lifestyle.
“Provide the childcare, neighborhood and school that will develop the kind of social being you would like your child to become,” she recommended as the next step.
“Close monitoring of the child’s activities is imperative during the K-12 years,” she recalled of that phase when she vigilantly attended school meetings, often being the outspoken one who “would provide the other side of the story or argument or even counter a teaching when I felt it was not the right lesson to teach my children.”
Mothering does not end when the child goes away to college, she said, noting the importance of keeping “communications open as they explore relationships.”
She had known early on that “the Member,” as her lawmaker son’s staff refers to their boss, would be distinguishing himself in school and beyond.
“I knew Rob was not an ordinary child from the time he expressed original thoughts as a toddler,” she remembered. The signs were clear: His second grade teacher had him placed in '‘gifted class because of his advance math skills”; he topped his senior class, graduating with honors in athletics and public service and was invited to attend Yale.
“What he decided and had the opportunity to do was just a matter of time,” she said of Rob’s political feat. “I knew this in my heart. Did not speak of it. I did not favor him over my other children. I did not worry about it. My job was to be the best mother I can be by being the best person I can be, so I developed myself the best way I could and be the best guide for my children.”
She can pat herself on the back.
Her Eli called her up from campus “once a week with no fail.”
“Every time he called he brought me joy with a piece of wonderful news—whether he got the part-time job he was eyeing, or the winning goal he made at soccer that week, or getting a summer fellowship that would finance his research on the Exeter Riot up and down California.”
It was then that he gifted her with a still-functioning stepladder to reach the top shelves in her home, which strikes the observer as a subconscious metaphor for the mother and son’s tenacity.
Recently, the Assembly member splurged on a 76th birthday gift for his mother: a luxurious week’s vacation in Maui with him and his only son Andres, for whom Cynthia has been caring since he was three months old.
The gesture touched her deeply, said Cynthia, who revels in her role as grandmother on top of being a community organizer, “mentor, a Filipino immigrant, an American, a citizen of the world, an inhabitant of this Earth.”
In her presence, Andres will likely learn what his father, aunt and uncle did.
Their mother taught them to take pride in their heritage and appreciate diversity '‘as a rich quality … for which to be thankful.”
She opened their eyes to the reality that “oppression, prejudice, injustice, inequalities in the world exist” and urged them to “actively take the side of the powerless by empowering them.”
Lisa, Rob and Mark saw their mother live that life.
She came to the United States in 1965 to complete a master’s in religious education as an ecumenical scholar of the World Council of Churches. While earning her MRE, she met Warren Bonta, who was pursuing a bachelor’s in divinity. They both attended the Social Concerns Committee of their school and volunteered at the Filipino Hall in Delano during Christmas break. They married in 1967. Together they fought for social justice during their 26-year marriage. They divorced 1993.
“I learned from my mother never to stop fighting for justice and to love and serve your community,” Bonta, who is running for re-election in November, affirmed to PF. “My mother demonstrated these lessons to me by showing me with her actions every day.”
History is repeating itself in the Bonta family with the state legislator now showing his children the meaning of service. He spent Easter week in the Philippines helping build a Gawad Kalinga site in Tacloban with his father and Reina, 15, the eldest of his three children. Reina also led her class in donating soccer equipment to schoolgirls in need in the Manila suburb of Mandaluyong.
Cynthia Bonta acknowledges her part in her son’s feat and shares credit with every individual who has imparted values in him. But she attributes his destiny to Rob himself.
“I am certainly very thankful and happy and proud to see the way that Rob’s life is unfolding in his service to his state and nation,” she reflected on her son’s accomplishments. “He was exposed to certain values and ideals that have equipped him to interact with certain experiences and the conditions of his time in history that has shaped him into what he has become.”
She counts his teachers and friends among those who helped carve the path he has chosen.
“He continues to meet others – whether they are positive or negative examples,” she conceded. “He is in control of his life and he has the best tools to be at its helm. He knows that it is important to build the right circle of support around him because he cannot do it all alone and he knows how to build that support … I am so secure in being part of that circle of support, as an individual and as a mother.”
Cherie M. Querol Moreno is a Commissioner with the San Mateo County on Aging, executive director of ALLICE Kumares & Kumpares and executive editor of Philippine News.