The Passing of a Bridge Generation Fil-Am Icon: Bob Santos

Bob Santos

Bob Santos

Without Uncle Bob Santos, the International District of Seattle would not have survived as a living, working-class, pan-Asian neighborhood with an intact culture and history and Seattle’s Filipino community would not be as enlightened.

”Uncle Bob” as he was affectionately known, is widely credited with saving the predominantly Asian neighborhood of Seattle’s International District (ID) from runaway redevelopment and the invasive construction of the Kingdome stadium during the early 1970s.  His leadership came at a time when many Asian neighborhoods, such as San Francisco’s Manilatown and Stockton’s Little Manila, were disappearing due to redevelopment being out of touch with the character of ethnic neighborhoods.

As executive director of Inter*Im (International District Improvement Association), he led the fight to preserve and strengthen the International District, for the rights of its most vulnerable members, and for advancing social justice for the largely Filipino, Chinese and Japanese community that comprised the ID. As a result of his vision, forward thinking and tireless energy, hotels were rescued from demolition — thus preserving housing for elderly and low income resident. A health clinic, a community garden and the Village Square were subsequently established, and ethnically relevant social service agencies were brought into the district.  Bob’s efforts could also be uniquely innovative (such as the annual pig roast (lechon) for residents to celebrate their community garden).  The ID grew to be the vibrant neighborhood it is today. When asked by the International District newspaper what he believed was his greatest ID accomplishment, Bob said, “…it is still a residential neighborhood with low income elderly.” Today, the ID is believed to be the only place in America where early Asian settlers and recent Vietnamese immigrants combined to build a thriving community out of what once was a dying neighborhood.

Bob’s work on behalf of the International District was not by happenstance. He was born and raised there as the son of Sammy Santos – a Filipino immigrant who gained fame as a crowd pleasing boxer during the ‘30s and ‘40s — and Virginia Nicol, of Filipino/Native American/French Canadian ancestry.  The ID was where he lived among pan-Asian residents, where he personally experienced the challenges and perils facing these early immigrants, and where he devoted his life’s work.

The leadership of the fiery yet affable “Uncle Bob” helped to forge unity among Seattle’s minority groups as well.  As the executive director of a non-profit agency, he collaborated with three counterpart executive directors of Latino, African American and Native American community-based agencies.  The work of this “Gang of Four” brought critically needed services and mainstream recognition to their communities.

Young Turks

I first met Bob and other similarly minded young activists soon after my family moved to Seattle in 1970.  They would go on to comprise the core members of the Filipino American Young Turks of Seattle (FAYTS), the politically savvy group that helped bring the Seattle Filipino Community into the American mainstream.  Their earliest efforts resulted in the funding of congregate meal and social service programs for Filipino elderly.  Subsequently, thanks in large part to the activism of Bob and the Young Turks, no longer was the Filipino community one where politicians came with their barong tagalogs to eat lumpia and mumble “may-boo-hi” (mabuhay) to seek votes.  Now politicians had to be prepared to discuss issues with a far more enlightened community.

Young Turks (Present day Old Turkeys): Front - Peter Jamero. Back row L-R: Tony Ogilvie, Bob Santos, Dale Tiffany, Fred Cordova, Andres (Sonny) Tangalin, Roy Flores, Larry Flores

Young Turks (Present day Old Turkeys): Front - Peter Jamero. Back row L-R: Tony Ogilvie, Bob Santos, Dale Tiffany, Fred Cordova, Andres (Sonny) Tangalin, Roy Flores, Larry Flores

The Young Turks became heavily involved in politics, were sought after by both political parties and actively participated in local, state and national campaigns — including several in which Bob was a candidate.   For the next 18 years, the Young Turks (present-day Old Turkeys) were influential in bringing access, recognition and resources to the Filipino community.

As busy as Bob was with the community, he still made time to author his life story Hum Bows, Not Hot Dogs in 2002; to co-author Gang of Four in 2015; and to sing every Tuesday evening at his favorite karaoke bar in the ID.

Bob credited his uncle, Joe Adriatico, who came from a well-connected family in the Philippines, with first shaping his political awareness.  Other early influences were Filipino labor leaders Philip Vera Cruz and Larry Itliong who he met in 1965.  Vera Cruz was an uncle of Bob’s late wife, Anita, who often visited the Santos home with Itliong.  Bob listened, learned and developed his own approach to activism. He was an activist, but he also learned the art of building bridges.  And while he was a fiery protester in advocating for minority causes, he was also an effective behind-the-scenes negotiator who could influence government and business power elite.

Bob’s achievements brought highly deserved recognition.  He and other members of the “Gang of Four” were recipients of the prestigious Bridge Builders Award in Washington D.C. He received the Overseas Filipino Banaag Award from Philippine President Benigno Aquino in Manila. Santos Place, a transitional housing complex for the homeless at the former Sand Point Naval Air Station, was named in his honor. He was appointed Regional Administrator for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. And many referred to him as the “Unofficial Mayor of the International District.” He may be the only Filipino American whose death made front page news in a major metropolitan American newspaper when the Monday, August 29 issue of the Seattle Times boldly headlined: “BOB SANTOS, A SON OF SEATTLE WHO HELPED MOLD ITS SOUL.”

Bob’s legacy is huge. Without him, the International District would not have survived as a living, working-class, pan-Asian neighborhood with an intact culture and history. Seattle’s Filipino community would not be as enlightened.  The Filipino American Young Turks of Seattle would not have been as effective in its socio-political activism.  Bob Santos may be gone from us, but his spirit and contributions live on.

Posted with permission from Peter Jamero’s blog:

Peter Jamero

Peter Jamero

Peter Jamero was born in Oakdale, California in 1930 and raised on a farm labor camp in nearby Livingston. He achieved “Filipino American Firsts” as Washington State Director for Vocational Rehabilitation; King County (Seattle) Department Director of Human Resources; Executive Director, Commission of Human Rights, City & County of San Francisco; Vice President for United Way of Seattle/King County; and Assistant Professor of Rehabilitation Medicine at the University of Washington.

He was founding vice president and long-time board member of the Filipino American National Historical Society. Author of Growing Up Brown: Memoirs of a Filipino American and The Filipino American Young Turks of Seattle, his most recent book Vanishing Filipino Americans: The Bridge Generation was published in 2011. Retired, he lives in Atwater, California.   

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