What’s in the Cards for Filipinos in Las Vegas

Ron Quilang and supporters (Source: facebook.com)

LAS VEGAS, Nevada—On the southern end of Eastern Avenue is a small street called Oquendo Road. It used to be longer and bigger that what it is now, but over the years, through constructions and other city improvements, it seems like it has shrunk in value to this ever-growing city. Although there is an East and a West Oquendo Road, the original road is now only part of a parking lot at 5915 S. Eastern Avenue.

The road is named after Rudy "Roque" Legaspi Oquendo, and according to the book The Peoples of Las Vegas: One City, Many Faces he was one of the first Filipinos to settle in the valley. He worked as deputy sheriff during the day and as a bartender at night. Legend has it that he won big in the game of Keno and donated part of the winnings to an orphanage.

Rudy Oquendo died at age 56 in 1964, the day after he became the full owner of the Copper Penny, a bar on East Fremont Street a few blocks from his home, according to the Review Journal, a Las Vegas newspaper. He was traveling east on Fremont Street when he had an apparent heart attack and veered into a row of parked cars.

But if he did not live long enough and the road named after him also did not fare well, the Filipino community here has had better luck, has mushroomed through the years and is now considered a force economically and politically.

There are about 30,000 Filipinos and Filipino-Americans in Las Vegas, but unofficial estimates put the number at as many as 100,000.

In fact, one of Oquendo's close relatives, a grandniece, is one of two Filipino-Americans seeking elected office this year in a show of political muscle.

Cheryl Moss, whose grandmother was a sister of Oquendo's, is running for re-election to the Eighth Judicial District Court. She will face Travis Shetler in the general election on November 4, 2014.

"I've heard from my family that granduncle Rudy donated money to an orphanage," says Moss. "I guess charity and public service is a tradition in our family."

Another Filipino-American running for public office is Ron Quilang, who is seeking a Nevada State Senate seat representing District 9. He is running as a Republican.

Moss and Quilang are running on the strength of their personal accomplishments, but also on the support of a burgeoning Filipino community, which is the largest Asian group in Las Vegas.

Latinos are not the biggest group of immigrants coming to Nevada from outside the United States both legally and illegally, according to Census Bureau data released last month. Immigrants from Asia are nearly twice as many as immigrants from Mexico and Central America, according to the Census Bureau’s County-to-County Migration Flows data, based on its annual American Community Survey.

Robert Lang, director of Brookings Mountain West at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, says there are a few major job magnets for Southern Nevada that pull employees from Asia.

One is health care. The Las Vegas area is missing about a third of the health care workers it needs to support the population it has; so it draws heavily from overseas, especially from the Philippines, where it gets a lot of nurses, says Lang.

Cheryl Moss (Source: facebook.com)

“The Philippines puts nurses through a serious science program,” he says.

Another is gaming. Singapore and Macau are undergoing major gaming expansion, and there are corporations connected to those areas and Las Vegas; so there is a natural exchange of workers and managers, he says.

There’s also the gaming manufacturing business. While the No. 1 user of green cards to get foreign workers is the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, the No. 2 is Konami Gaming based in Las Vegas, says Lang. It gets engineers, people with high-technology skills and other highly skilled workers from Asia.

There are about 30,000 Filipinos and Filipino-Americans in Las Vegas, but unofficial estimates put the number at as many as 100,000, according to the l 2010 Census. Their presence is obvious in hospitals, schools, casinos, churches, shopping malls and groceries. They seem to be everywhere. On weekends, you'd think Seafood City, a popular grocery market on Maryland Avenue, is a shopping center in Makati.

When Rhigel Tan, a professor at the University of Las Vegas, arrived here nearly 20 years ago, he says he could count on his fingers the places he could go to find something Filipino.

"There was just one Filipino store—at Sahara Boulevard," says the 42-year-old nurse.  "Nothing much else, particularly in terms of cultural or artistic pursuits."

Now, there are clubs that cater to Filipinos, and at least two dance groups, including Tan's Kalahi Folkloric Ensemble, perform regularly in both Filipino and mainstream American events.

Las Vegas attracts Filipinos for basically two reasons—its casinos and hospitals and health care facilities.

Casinos are always in demand of waiters and waitresses, bartenders, dealers, security guards and hotel workers—and many Filipinos find jobs there.

Filipinos nurses staff many hospitals here. Of more than 1,000 employees of the St. Rose Dominican hospital, nearly 50 percent are Filipino, many of them recruited from the Philippines several years ago.

Other health workers are found in dialysis centers, nursing homes and skilled nursing facilities. Some are doctors and dentists.

Janet Aquino left Philadelphia with her three daughters more than ten years ago to live with her parents here and start life anew.

Orquendo Road, named after Rudy Legaspi Orquendo, one of the first Filipinos to settle in the valley. (Photo courtesy of Bert Eljera)

"We love it here and my job is great," says Aquino, who now has her own place, and works at the DaVita Dialysis Center on Buffalo Avenue.

Rosendo Doctor, a former seaman, also works at the same dialysis unit and finds Las Vegas the ideal place to raise his young family.

Considered one of the top ten retirement destinations in the United States, Las Vegas has become a draw for Filipino-American seniors.

Erlinda Coligan left San Diego, California, and decided to retire here after her husband died. She says she likes the variety of activities the city offers and the relatively cheap rent, food and recreational activities.

"I plan to spend six months here and six months in the Philippines," says Coligan, who looks spritely at 64.

The influx of Filipinos have even forced the Clark County Department of Election to included Tagalog among the languages used for ballot and related election materials.

Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act mandates that if a minority group reaches 10,000 citizens who are not proficient in English, or those who are limited-English speakers become five percent of the citizen voting-age population, voting materials must be available in their language.

The determinations are made every ten years following the Census. Data released last October revealed that Filipinos in the U.S. reached that threshold in four new jurisdictions, including Clark County.

According to the 2010 Census, there are 98,351 Filipinos in Nevada, the largest Asian group. Asian and Pacific Islanders total 195,436 or 7.2 percent of the state's 2.7 million population.

A Pinoy pride celebration with Kalahi Philippine Folkloric Ensemble (Photo by Ronaldo Udalve)

Because most Filipino-Americans are proficient in English, however, there was not much use of the Tagalog ballots in the last general elections, says Clark County election officials.

The apathy for Tagalog ballots also seems to reflect the Filipino-American indifference to political participation, and community leaders are trying—desperately—to change that.

Judge Cedric Kerns, whose mother is Filipino, was the first Fil-Am to be elected in Nevada's history when he won a seat as a municipal judge in 1997.

In 2000, Moss ran for the District Court for the first time, and won with heavy support from the Filipino-American community. She ran and won again in 2002 and 2008. She is running for a fourth term this year.

"The Filipino voters now feel they have a purpose for going to the polls," says Moss. "They feel they now have a say in government politics. They feel more confident as a growing powerful voting block to support candidates that would best represent their interests."

She says that Filipino-Americans have a better appreciation of the importance of voting, of participating and getting involved in politics, and are more confident in their decisions to enter political races.

Filipino-American leaders have used the surge in numbers as leverage to extract concessions for the community from mainstream politicians and have preached the value of increased voter registration.

Several groups have been active in registering voters, such the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, the Las Vegas chapter of the National Association of Filipino-American Associations (NaFAA) and POWER, the Filipino-American Political Organization With Equal Representation.

“The Filipino population has changed a lot in ten years,” says Amie Belmonte, who has lived in Nevada since 1997.

“There has been tremendous growth. Before, Filipinos were concentrated in hospitality and hospital, health care industries, but now they are represented in every industry in Nevada, " she says.

Bert B. Eljera

Bert B. Eljera

A journalist for more than 25 years, Bert B. Eljera has extensively covered the Asian Pacific American community in California, Florida and Nevada. His expertise in ethnic culture, political empowerment and issues that impact minority communities provides depth and nuance to his writings. He has written for top newspapers in the Philippines and the United States, including the Los Angeles Times, Florida Times-Union, Vero Beach Press-Journal, Stockton Record, Asian Week, and The Manila Bulletin. He resides in Las Vegas, Nevada.