It is seven o’clock on a Thursday evening at St. Francis the Catholic Worker in Uptown, and tonight, Filipino food – an aluminum container of spring rolls and big metal pots of white rice and noodles – fills a table in the dining room. Myrla Baldonado sits on a stool in the main room. She is talking about toxic waste left at American military sites in the Philippines, and she passes out cards drawn by Crizel Jane Valencia, a little girl who died from leukemia attributed to the waste. The cards show a little girl floating through the air surrounded by flowers.

Of the eight or nine people in the room, some are interested Filipinos but many are volunteers at St. Francis, drifting in from the dining room. Finally, someone asks how the campaign will possibly get American politicians to pay attention. Baldonado sighs. She does not know. After she is done, a smiling Thai immigrant takes e-mail addresses for his own cause, Thai democracy.

The scene is familiar to Filipino activists who struggle to convince a fragmented ethnic community and uninterested politicians to care about their cause. When people think of Chicago as a collection of immigrants, few think of Filipinos. This is because most Filipinos arrived with college degrees and proficient English skills and have since adapted easily and faded into Chicago communities. There has never been a Filipino-town in Chicago, and, scattered throughout the city, Filipinos lack the cohesion of many immigrant populations in the city. For years, activists have attempted to band Filipinos together, but calls for unity have long become trite and activists have tired.

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This story is part of a unique collaboration of six Chicago area ethnic news media exploring the impact of the upcoming U.S. Census count on their communities. The stories were released simultaneously on Fri., Jan. 15, by Extra (Hispanic), the Polish Daily News, 4NewsMedia (Polish), Pinoy Newsmagazine (Philippine), Future newspaper (Arab), the India Tribune, and the Korea Daily News. Click here to access the other stories: U.S. Census needed for Korean elections, Census campaign means Spis Powszechny to the Polish community, Counting Hispanics in Little Village’s hands, Two Indian communities join to take on the U.S. Census, and Arab “whites” await the U.S. Census.

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That does not bode well for U.S. census takers in the upcoming 2010 count. In 2000, 80,767 Filipinos were counted in the six-county area, encompassing Cook, DuPage, Will, McHenry, Lake and Kane counties. At the Alliance of Filipinos for Immigrant Rights and Empowerment (AFIRE), executive director Jerry Clarito thinks this number doesn’t reflect the real Filipino population – it’s too low. An accurate count, says Clarito, is important to understanding the community.

“An accurate count [enables] a more accurate story,” Clarito says.

As president of the Illinois Chapter of the National Federation of Filipino American Associations (NaFFAA), Angeles Carandang has seen a sense of wariness in the Filipino community. She’s been receiving forwarded e-mails about the census, which she considers scare tactics, whose source she says no one can seem to trace, for the past couple of months. Under the subject “2010 Census Cautions,” one e-mail purporting to be advice from the Better Business Bureau warns Filipinos that “[e]ventually, more than 140,000 U.S. Census workers will count every person in the United States and will gather information about every person living at each address, including name, age, gender, race, and other relevant data. The big question is – how do you tell the difference between a U.S. Census worker and a con artist?”

This does not surprise Clarito, who sees such distrust as part of the Filipino “cultural baggage” after a decade of martial law from 1972-1981 and corruption.

“Growing up we were afraid to talk about the government,” Clarito says. “Corruption [was] everywhere, from the low government officials to the president.”

Many Filipinos may not understand the importance of the count because in the Philippines, there is no census equivalent and they had never been counted. In providing the government with their name and family information, Clarito says, many Filipinos fear that the government is keeping tabs on them, or at the very least, will demand they perform jury duty or another civic duty.

“There is this suspicion because of where they came from that it would be used for any purposes that they would not like,” Clarito says.

To Filipinos, being counted does not equate with representing their community. This is because Filipinos consider themselves Americans, honoring their American identity over their cultural identity. Ever since the civil rights movement and the passage of the Immigration Act of 1965, allowing the biggest wave of Filipinos to come over as professionals, Filipinos have worked hard and have quietly blended into their communities. They had good jobs at hospitals and accounting firms, they were there at Sunday services in the Catholic churches, and their children came to school speaking perfect English.

“I can’t even count to three in Llocano,” says Larry Versola, a second-generation Filipino whose mother came to the United States as a nurse as part of the professional wave. “The one thing I retained from my Filipino heritage is that I can eat rice with anything.”

Versola grew up in one such quick-adapting, Americanized home. Now, Versola lives in Albany Park, a neighborhood with one of the highest rates of Filipinos, and yet Filipinos are almost invisible, he says, in his community.

“I don’t see any of them,” Versola says. “I never see them out walking their dog, or walking their kids, or showing up to CAPS meetings, or eating at restaurants.”

Versola attributes the invisibility of Filipinos in his community to a deep-seated Filipino belief in keeping to oneself and not making waves. This belief has carried over into many aspects of life for the Filipino American community. According to James Villar, executive director of the Philippine-American Chamber of Commerce of Greater Chicago (PACCGC), most Filipinos do not want to seek help, in business or other areas. As they quickly and quietly adjusted to the American lifestyle, Filipino immigrants brought a belief in self-sufficiency, a belief in working hard and not complaining.

“There’s really no welfare in the home country,” Villar says. “You either make it or you don’t… That’s the attitude that many Filipino Americans came to this country with.”

Villar sees Filipinos neglecting business opportunities available to them. Minority certification can help minority businesses receive contracts from the government as well as from Fortune 500 companies, such as Boeing and General Motors. Many Filipinos however, do not pursue minority certification. According to the PACCGC, for every fifty thousand dollars of federal contracts, Filipino businesses receive less than one dollar, with nearly the same rate for every fifty thousand dollars disbursed by Fortune 500 companies.

“They’re not asking for more of their share,” Villar says.

Five years after Versola founded and began organizing the annual Chicago Filipino American Film Festival (CFAFF), this keep-to-oneself mentality proves a continual barrier for the festival. Last year, in an effort to boost attendance, the organizers let students, seniors and many others into the festival for free.

“I don’t think Filipinos understand that by they themselves showing up, they are supporting the community,” Versola says.

Based on the Chicago event, Filipino-American film festivals in New York and Los Angeles have started. Though the festivals are only in their first year, Versola expects that more people will attend them than Chicago’s festivals because the Filipino communities in those cities are better-established and more united. According to Juanita Burris, a founder of the Asian American Institute and an organizer for AFIRE, different reasons for immigrating created different Filipino communities throughout the U.S. In California, Filipino immigrants mostly immigrated to join brothers and fathers already there after serving in the navy during World War II, resulting in a more united and family-centered community. New York attracted a Filipino community more involved in the arts, such as writers and movie lovers, forming a more cohesive and active community. Chicago, however, received a more fragmented group, with some families but more dominated by professionals motivated by income.

“It isn’t apathy or indifference that can explain the lack of interest in civil life in Chicago or Illinois,” Burris says. “It’s that the basic purpose of coming to Chicago or Illinois is to improve themselves economically.”

Division has resulted in a lack of political representation in the Chicago Filipino community. It’s getting better: the number of Filipinos holding office in Illinois has increased in the last five years and last year a Filipino grassroots political group supporting Obama called “Kaya,” meaning “Yes We Can,” formed.

“Politicians would probably take a second look if they see that a large number of Filipinos [is voting,]” Carandang says.

Politicians have overlooked the Filipino population for years. This is something known all too well by the sons and daughters of Filipino veterans all over the country. For 60 years, Filipinos have fought to get pensions for the Filipino veterans who fought for the Allies in World War II. Finally, in February 2009, the bill was tacked onto the stimulus bill and passed.

According to Clarito, whose father was one of those veterans who fought in the war, the veteran campaign proves that Filipino solidarity is key to capturing politicians’ attention. The bill’s main momentum came from California Congressman Bob Filner, whose district rests just north of the Mexican border, and Hawaii Senator Dan Inouye, both of whom represent constituencies with a large proportion of Filipinos.

The bill’s passage is viewed as a major victory for Filipinos all over the United States and the Philippines. It took sixty years, however, to get the bill passed. Sadly, most of the veterans who fought in World War II have passed away. Clarito’s father died in 1997. More than anything, Clarito says, the campaign demonstrates how easily the Filipino community is forgotten in the United States.

“What’s forgotten [are] the services of those boys in their teen years who joined,” Clarito says. “The fact that Congress could not even recognize that it’s part of their history [is frustrating.]”

Even within the Filipino community, there are segments that are forgotten, hidden underneath the veneer of the successful, independent Filipino. According to the 2000 Census, the Chicago Filipino community is still young and evolving, with 65 percent of the community born outside of the United States. Because of the professional wave, the classic image of the Filipino immigrant is that of the nurse or doctor, immigrants who are economically-mobile, self-sufficient, fluent in English and able to fill out forms on their own. For years, it seemed that all Filipinos needed was a place to gather.

“The [Jose P. Rizal] Center [a Filipino center in Lakeview] organized first for a sense of belonging,” Clarito says. “[P]eople looking for their own townmates, schoolmates, looking to protect their own communities.”

Arriving immigrants, however, do not fit the images of the professional wave that preceded them. Because Filipinos can now petition for family members to join them in the United States, the new wave of Filipinos includes older and younger immigrants.

As an immigrant community, the needs have changed. The new community is often less educated, doesn’t speak English as well and doesn’t understand the twists and turns of the American legal and social system, according to Clarito. They can’t easily slide into well-paying jobs, and, according to The New Chicago, a contemporary analysis of the city published in 2006, 7 percent of Chicago’s Filipinos are living in poverty. This group needs help applying for Medicaid, mortgages and food stamps.

Joaquin, who preferred not to have his real name known, has one such story. He and his wife are visiting the United States on a tourist visa in order to help his wife’s aging father, a permanent resident, who had stopped receiving food stamps in August after running into a problem with his benefits. Joaquin and his wife did not know where to go.

“We [were] struggling because we [didn’t] know how we [could] relate and how we [could] solve this problem,” Joaquin says.

Joaquin and his wife soon met with volunteers with AFIRE, who gave them ideas and helped them navigate the system. One of the most important services AFIRE now offers is translation, according to Clarito. Although most Filipinos are fluent speakers, they learned to use English in different ways in the Philippines and attached different cultural meanings to phrases. AFIRE volunteers ask clients to speak in their language, and then help them to state their needs in a way more appropriate to the American understanding of English.

“The culture that envelops the English that we know is different from the culture of the native speakers,” Clarito says. “It’s drilling down until the person will actually tell you.”

Joaquin’s father-in-law receives food stamps again, and Joaquin and his wife are using AFIRE to figure out how to get Medicaid for him. There are lots of stories like Joaquin’s; Filipinos who lose their jobs and become homeless, Filipinos unsure of how to get treatment for diabetes and other struggles.

Then there are the seniors, 70 year olds who come to the United States to join their children. Lacking mobility and cultural connection, many feel imprisoned.

“Oh my God, it’s just the adjustment,” Clarito says. “If you can give a person a good quality of life before they die… that’s a fantastic project.”

In a population typically characterized by quiet, productive Filipino households, however, issues like these create a stigma. This is what makes the need so great and yet so hidden in Chicago. In a still young immigrant community comprised typically of independent, homogenized Filipinos, those who are suffering are unknown and try to stay that way. They may not understand forms and don’t make enough money to feed themselves without food stamps.

According to Clarito, Filipinos don’t know the urgency in their own communities. The need is not yet visible to Filipinos amongst their neighbors or the people at their church, but it exists. To him, the numbers testify to the need: AFIRE has helped more than 250 people in the past five months.

“What I’m trying to tell is that there are so many people I think that need assistance for [my] kind of situation,” Joaquin says.

As part of a project by the Illinois Department of Human Services, AFIRE is starting to do outreach and research in the community. So far, AFIRE has embarked on a massive information campaign, using write-ups in local media and public information workshops to reach out to Filipinos and collect data. This is exactly how the census could help the Filipino community in Chicago. It could illuminate a changing and unexpectedly suffering community.

A more accurate count of Filipinos in Chicago would not only provide statistics for the Filipino community but could help activists build a better case for funding for both services and research of the community. Clarito dreams of getting a building for AFIRE. Right now, volunteers operate an information hotline and meet with clients at churches, restaurants and centers.

An accurate census count in 2010 could help in other ways too. Filipino participation in the census is important not just for the ethnic community but for the larger cities and towns where Filipinos reside, according to Carandang. In Skokie, known as a center for many Filipinos in the area and where Carandang is on the Planning Commission Board, a more accurate population count could mean better senior centers and a domestic violence prevention campaign. For the Film Festival, an accurate count could help sway more sponsors. In the business community, evidence of population growth would mean more federal funding.

“Funding is the number one concern for small business,” says Villar. “The more we show, the bigger piece of the pie we’ll be able to get from the federal government.”

“If every Filipino in Chicago was counted by the census, we could go to sponsors and convince them to reach out to the Filipino community,” Versola says.

Efforts are being made to help Filipinos understand the importance of the census. Abella’s Filipino American Council of Chicago will work with the census to motivate Filipinos to participate. In Skokie, Carandang is planning a census forum for the general community, but focusing upon Filipinos. She hopes to counter fears and encourage participation.

As census outreach begins, Filipinos in Chicago find themselves in a unique position. Well-known division in the community could prevent a truly accurate count. However, if outreach succeeds, the census could help bring attention to a forgotten community.

“Everything is about education,” Carandang says.