Despite nearly six months having passed since the strongest typhoon ever recorded in history wrought havoc in central Philippines, the evidence of its destruction was still very apparent in and around Tacloban, Leyte, when Bonta visited the area.
“Yet, regardless of the thousands that have perished and thousands more displaced in its wake, I experienced many memorable instances of resilience, resolve, and determination to continue. The spirit to move on and rebuild has become synonymous with the people of this archipelago nation, which I am proud to say is the country of my birth,” Bonta wrote last January.
This trip was particularly meaningful for him as he was able to take it with his father, daughter and chief of staff.
“Shortly after arriving in Tacloban, my daughter and I and others as part of the Gawad Kalinga, USA delegation, were able to assist one of the rebuild efforts by helping to fill bags of concrete mix that would be used in the construction of approximately 150 units of housing for residents whose homes were destroyed by Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda this past November,” recalls Bonta.
His trip to Leyte happened after Bonta had won his seat in the California state legislature. He had shattered the glass ceiling at the Capitol, which had been kept intact for 162 years.
“I may hold an American citizenship, will even die for the United States, but we are Filipinos,” Mia McLeod, who joined Bonta’s trip to the Philippines tearfully shared.
“We went there connecting to Motherland, and at the tail end of our trip, the taxi drivers who were shuttling us around, were in tears, too. They treated us like family and were inspired to meet Filipinos that care, even though they live abroad,” she added.
He told the crowd that his mom, Cynthia, was raised in the Visayas. Raised by his parents who were union organizers, he grew up in the California farms where he saw poverty firsthand.
“I am in the Assembly for a reason. That’s what I said to voters, I am what my values are. And I want to serve. If the voters deem that I have served them well, then I am there for another term, and to do it in a team spirit, ” Bonta continued.
Bonta’s supporters tend to echo what his beliefs are.
I spoke to Ken, CEO of a four-generation strong company, who came to support Bonta. Ken told me he thanked one of his clients for a private donation of water system pumps and filters, which successfully reached typhoon-ravaged Leyte.
Butch, a lawyer, and an activist during the Anti-Martial Law movement days described Bonta as "a very worthy man, working for a very worthy cause.”
“Before [he went to] Yale, he [already had] a great heart,” Lem, another supporter volunteered. “He has done more in educating youth not just about Latinos, but about manongs, so they are not forgotten, as their contributions are not taught in history. He is breaking the cycle of marginalization.”
“He is the biggest hope for Filipino presence in the USA, “ Menard Leelin opined.
Atty. Abraham Lim, a frequent supporter of Philippine Consulate events, summed up: “Rob represents a growing awareness in Filipino migration for future generations. Unfortunately we will not be around to enjoy that. When we were educated, only Spanish was taught, they omitted the Fookien influence in Philippine culture. Now, we will be educated about the Filipino contributions to the diversification of the USA. We need people like him [Bonta]. He was raised well by his parents.”
Melissa Ramoso, state chair of the Pilipino American Caucus of the California Democratic Party, said: “He governs with integrity, transparency and honor. Everything he does is with the purest intention.”
Bonta's mom, Cynthia, is also amazed at what her son has done in such a short period of time.
“I did not imagine that he could accomplish all those things. It seemed like a miracle to have all that done,” Cynthia says.
Could it be that the manongs, our Uncle Larry Itliong, our Uncle Philip Vera Cruz and our ancestors, were watching over him?
Assemblyman Bonta rallied the California Legislature to respond to the typhoon’s destruction. Bonta's leadership brought together state legislators in an unprecedented press conference and fundraising effort for the Philippines, raising close to $7,000,000 and garnering support from organizations throughout the state. From the state treasury came a hefty contribution of $6,000,000 for the survivors of Typhoon Haiyan.
Not content with that, Bonta launched a personal fundraising effort on Crowdtilt, contributing his own leadership donation of over $4,000 and crowd-magnetizing it to reach more than $40,000.
By the end of December, Panda Express presented another $650,000 donation to build homes in the Visayas. Half of that amount was raised by Panda Express customers and then matched by the corporation.
His uncommon leadership qualities quickly became evident in the legislative ideas he pursued and passed last year.
“I was extremely proud that the Governor [Jerry Brown] signed 10 of my bills last year, including four bills that I authored as Chair of the Committee on Public Employment, Retirement, and Social Security,” Bonta says.
The bills he pushed:
• AB 1377: Raise for Hard Working State Workers -- Bonta’s first bill to be signed by Governor Brown includes a 4.5 percent pay raise for SEIU members by 2015.
• AB 123: Filipino Contributions to the California Farm Labor Movement -- This first-of-its-kind bill requires the State Board of Education to provide statewide curriculum on the significant role of Filipino Americans in the California Farm Labor Movement.
• AB 514: Oakland’s Safe Schools for Safe Learning Act -- This new law will help students affected by gangs, gun violence and psychological trauma by providing them with information on resources where they can find help.
• AB 817: Language Access for Voters -- Expands the pool of available bilingual speakers to serve as county poll workers and volunteers by allowing lawful permanent residents to serve as poll workers in order to assist citizens who are not fully proficient in English.
• Assemblymember Bonta has also taken a leadership role on controlling gun violence in communities in the state, including Oakland.
Bonta was appointed by Speaker Perez to be Chair of the Select Committee on Gun Violence in the East Bay. He conducted hearings throughout the East Bay on gun violence how to find reasonable legislative changes to address the problem.
• Bonta also found creative ways to improve the health of the state by expanding trauma informed care for students impacted by violence (AB 174), increasing gun safety protections in Oakland (AB 180, AB 187), and creating safer opportunities for prisoners (AB 999).
At dinner in a shabu-shabu restaurant in Southern California one winter evening, Bonta elucidated on his vision as assemblyman: “It is a true honor to serve in the Assembly. California is doing well, on the right track and we now have a budget surplus. We have come out of a deficit of $40 billion out of $100 billion. We are now reinvesting in education. We are covering more in health insurance. We are creating regional improvements. We are supporting businesses. We have STEM to support the workforce of tomorrow. We are very proud to serve Filipinos up and down the state. We will know more about Filipino-American history, about the Filipino-American farm workers. When I went to the Speaker of the House and the Senate leadership, they were eager to provide support and assistance. As part of the largest 1.5 million Filipino community majority born in the Philippines, these are important progressive steps. I have to run for re-election every two years. I am sorry for it being so often. I would change it if I could. One million voting-age Filipinos in California are not registered to vote. Awakening the sleeping giant, we can exert our power and influence we deserve. I really appreciate everything.”
After giving his Christmas wishes, Rob Bonta left to catch his flight back. He wants to get home in time to greet his son Andres, a happy birthday the next morning.
“We dream of seeing him in the White House!” says a young person at the restaurant. Another one says, “Hopefully in our lifetime!”
Prosy Abarquez-Delacruz, J.D. writes opinion-editorials and feature stories for Balikbayan Magazine and Asian Journal Press in Los Angeles. She is a patron of theatre arts, concerts, musical theater, and indie films. She loves to travel to national parks with her husband, Enrique.