Thursday, May 26, 2011


Lt. Raymond C. Gamboa is the only Filipino to graduate this year from a United States military academy, a feat his mother attributes to destiny after he was declared clinically dead as a toddler and the peculiar way he got to take the entrance exams at the Philippine Military Academy (PMA).

Gamboa was the only Filipino and one of only 12 foreign cadets in a class of 1,021 that graduated from the US Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, CO. yesterday (May 25).

Unlike past years, there were no Filipinos in the graduating classes of the US Military Academy at West Point or the US Naval Academy in Annapolis this year. Gamboa was immediately sworn in as 2nd Lieutenant of the Philippine Air Force (PAF) by Col. Arnel Duco, the air force attaché based in Washington DC.

Only the top 20 academic achievers at PMA get a chance to take the competitive exams to enter American military academies, and they would have to turn in scores that can best those from other Southeast Asian military academies (there used to be slots reserved for PMAers when the US still had military bases in the country but today, they have to compete for those slots with other US allies in the region).

Gamboa’s road to Colorado is a story in itself. He became severely ill during a family vacation in Batangas when he was just 4 years old, his mother Haidee, a consultant for Sofitel Hotel, told this writer. He was foaming from the mouth and showed other signs of a seizure so they decided to rush Raymond to St. Luke’s Hospital where he was declared clinically dead.

But doctors didn’t give up and he was revived, pumping him with an assortment of medicines that his mother now jests, “seem to have made him brighter” – he was an honor student from pre-school all the way to high school at Ateneo.

“While he was recovering at the hospital, he seemed to take interest at being a doctor one day. When he got older, he wanted to become a lawyer,” Haidee says. But in his senior year, he expressed an interest in entering PMA that his mother found odd since there were no soldiers in their family.

Raymond surfed the net to learn more about PMA but for a time, couldn’t find a way to list up for the exams and told his mother about it. Haidee says her son had about lost interest when one day she passed by Gateway shopping mall and stumbled upon PMA officers handing out application forms. “I think it was really God’s will,” she declared.

When Raymond passed the week-long medical exams at the AFP Medical Center, she lost any trepidation about her only son taking on the hazards of a soldier’s life.

When he flies back next month, he will go back to teach at PMA. “I will share what I’ve learned and I hope to improve academic and military training in the Academy,” he explained.

The Air Force is considered the most technical of the major branches of the military. “We had mostly academic work,” Raymond revealed, “but we also had a chance to meet with people in US aircraft companies and do a solo flight in a T-52 (trainer plane).”

After his 6-month stint in PMA, Duco said Raymond will need to earn his wings at the PAF Flying School in Lipa, Batangas but will likely have to wait a year because there is long queue for aspiring PAF aviators. “We don’t have enough planes,” Duco stated matter of factly.

Years of budget constraints, accidents and obsolescence have depleted much of the PAF’s air assets. Lack of spare parts has forced them to cannibalize some aircraft to keep others aloft. The US is scheduled to deliver this summer a C-130 “Hercules” transport plane that’s now being refurbished at a Mojave Desert (California) facility and complete the overhaul of engines to extend the operational life of MG-520 “Defender” helicopter gunships.

Raymond was unfazed by conditions in the air force he’s investing the next years of his life. Right after the graduation ceremonies, we asked Haidee what motherly advice she gave him.

“I told him to pray and ask guidance from the Holy Spirit for any decision he has to make, and to pay back his country for the opportunity it gave him. Everything we have, we owe to our country,” she told his 23-year-old son.

Monday, May 23, 2011


The 20-something’s say they try not let 83-year-old “boss” former President Fidel V. Ramos wear them down. It’s hard work being Ramos’ aides, they say, even if he happens to be their “Lolo Eddie”.

The three men – brothers Patrick, 20 and Bryan Jalasco, 19, and C.J. Sembrano, 22, are spending their summer as apprentices of the former President who’s in the United States to attend another granddaughter’s graduation, talk to potential investors, deliver speeches in several US universities, promote his books – including his latest entitled “Unsolicited Advise” – and his peace and development foundation, and meet with the Fil-Am community and veterans.

His schedule is enough to drain men half his age. After a 90-minute session with the Fil-Am media in Washington DC, Ramos dove straight into a crowd of about a hundred Fil-Am community leaders that packed Romulo Hall of the Philippine Embassy. That was his way of winding down the day – earlier he met with the DC-based policy adviser Centennial Group and the Emerging Markets Forum that he co-chairs with former IMF managing director Michael Camdessus.

“This summer we’re actually working for him,” Bryan tells us, “We always try to keep up with him. We do our best.”

Patrick and Bryan’s mother is Cristina Ramos-Jalasco, the first female president of the Philippine Olympic Committee. C.J. is one of two children of Carolina “Chula” Ramos-Sembrano who figured in a hit-and-run incident in 2003 that left her in a coma for a month. She survived but the trauma erased over 30-years-worth of memories.

“It feels tiring but at the same time it’s a learning experience,” C.J. shares the experience of travelling with his Lolo Eddie, “When we got to the hotel, we thought we could finally rest but then he told us to fix his books, to segregate them. So that was that.”

Ramos’ grinding schedule is renowned especially among reporters who’ve covered him, from his years as national police chief all the way to the presidency. The Armed Forces made sure it had a full complement of aides who rotated their schedule.

Some of those aides would eventually assume top military and police posts. On one trip to Bohol, Ramos decided to take a swim at one of the island’s pristine-white sand beaches, harvesting a pair of starfish that he playfully placed on the shoulders of his aide, then Capt. Avelino “Sonny” Razon. The “prophecy” came to pass of course because Razon became Director General of the Philippine National Police.

There’s no time to even meet new girls, the younger Jalasco insisted. “Wala eh, we’re always on the move, walang oras” Bryan says sheepishly.

His elder brother explained he decided to tag along for the education. “It’s a big responsibility knowing where he’s coming from. I’m studying political science (at Ateneo) so I’m picking up a lot of things following him around,” Patrick says.

Ramos showed no signs of slowing down. He told reporters at the press conference that there was no time to rest. There were opportunities beckoning for the Philippines and her leaders.

Offering his unsolicited advice to no one in particular, he exhorted “Don’t take any time-outs. It’s not even 24x7 if you’re there in Malacanang or in a sensitive Cabinet position, the work ethic should be 25x8. You’ll need to probably work 25 hours a day. That way you expand public service.”

As for me, I decided to cut and run from the evening’s coverage because I knew from years of reporting about Ramos, he was just warming up.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011


DC United Academy midfielder Jose “OJ” Porteria will be playing for the “Azkals”, the Philippine national soccer team.

OJ is the 16-year-old son of Manila Mail columnist and realtor Jocelyn Porteria and Elmer Lomat. He is a member of the DC United Academy, the 2nd team of the national capital’s premier soccer club.

Azkals team captain Aly Borromeo and regular Anton del Rosario held try-outs last month in Daly City, CA. for possible reinforcements and spotted Porteria and fellow Fil-Am James Rochilitz.

The Azkals are fighting for a slot in the Asian Football Confederation Championship after beating regional powerhouse Vietnam in the AFF Suzuki Cup and winning a qualifying match against Bangladesh. Their next international match pits them against Sri Lanka in June.

Another prize in their sights is the coming Southeast Asian Games (SEAG) in Indonesia later this year. The Azkals are building an under-23 squad that could finally net the country’s first soccer gold in the biennial event.

Azkals coach Michael Weiss also scouted players with Filipino roots at the Nagold Blitz Football Tournament in Germany. He spotted at least three players who’ll be invited to join the Azkals camp.

Porteria is a junior at Falls Church High School where he is the captain of the school’s Jaguars soccer team. “OJ is a very entertaining player. It seems almost from the time he could walk he has been in love with the soccer ball,” Team America coach Larry Dunn described his ward. Porteria also plays for Team America.

“He never stops running,” said DC United coach Roberto DaSilva. “He will intimidate the defender by pressuring the ball at all cost. I can see him scoring many goals,” he added.

OJ has some international experience as well. DC United Academy represented the under-16 US team at the 2010 Future Champions Tournament in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.


A three-day convention marking World Press Freedom Day paid tribute to journalists who were killed “giving voice to those who may not express themselves freely” even as one media watchdog kept the Philippines in the list of deadliest countries for journalists.

World Press Freedom Day was celebrated with a conference last May 1-3 in Washington DC organized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the State Department and civil society organizations.

The Philippine press experienced one of the world’s worst violence when 32 journalists were massacred in Maguindanao in 2009. The International Press Institute (IPI) said 788 journalists was killed around the world in 2000-2010, 96 of them in the Philippines.

DC-based Freedom House released a report on the eve of World Press Freedom Day which said that of the 196 countries they examined, the Philippines ranked 93rd, a 4-rung fall from its 2010 standing.

“The score for the Philippines recovered somewhat having dropped in 2009 due to that year’s massacre which claimed the lives of 32 journalists and media workers,” the report concluded.

State Secretary Hillary Clinton said World Press Freedom Day is an opportunity to “honor those who promote and protect the freedom of expression, and pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives while giving voice to those who may not have the opportunity to express themselves freely.”

“Even as we celebrate innovations that make information easier to share, we are reminded that in many places around the world, journalists are still targeted for harassment and abuse, and are sometimes killed,” she declared.

The IPI said Asia, where 40 journalists were slain during the past decade, was the most dangerous region for media people. Iraq topped the list of most dangerous countries, followed by the Philippines and Colombia.

The conference focused on the theme “21st Century Media: New Frontiers, New Barriers” that delved on new opportunities as well as challenges for various new media outlets, especially social networks that have fueled political change and held governments more accountable to their people. “New media empowers individuals around the world to share information and express opinions in ways unimaginable just 10 years ago,” Clinton noted.

But she also reminded her audience that “journalism is a calling of everyday heroes”.

“We must continue to stand up for those who speak out in perilous circumstances as they pursue, record and report the truth,” she added.

In the Philippines, the trial of suspects in the Maguindanao massacre, including members of a powerful Mindanao clan, is slowly moving in the courts. It is considered the worst election-related violence in a nation that already has its fill of political killings.

Freedom House said the killing and harassment of journalists in the Philippines continue. Adding that “impunity for such crimes remained the norm” even today.


May is the month when flowers bloom and with it the stream of pageants that celebrate beauty and virtue. Filipino communities all over America will be staging dozens of contests in the next couple of weeks that will feature bubbly teens as well as radiant matrons because they’re a link to the past, to the home Filipinos left behind.

One such pageant in Virginia is the Miss Teen Philippines-America that is now on its 26th year. Organized by the Ilocano Society of America, this year’s crop of aspiring queens come from a diverse background and varied interests.

It’s going to be Heather Carlson’s first pageant. Chessa Taboada is the daughter of Filipino teachers in Baltimore City public schools and as a 3rd grader, was chosen muse of St. Anthony’s School in her native Cebu City. Silver Spring high school student Joyce Mata thinks the experience will boost her dreams of being a successful event planner, just like her father.

Choosing symbolic kings and queens for May festivities is a custom that harks back to ancient Europe. The first modern American pageant was staged as part of an 1854 circus and the first “bathing beauty queen” was chosen in a pageant in Rehoboth Beach, DE.

There are “Miss America” pageants within the Chinese, Indian and many other Asian-American communities. It’s a way for these groups to celebrate their own unique cultures and foster a sense of unity and accomplishment, especially among the contestants.

In the Philippines, the Flores de Mayo is a unique rite of summer where the town’s most beautiful men and women wear their best barong and terno and parade around city streets. It is a religious festival in honor of the Virgin Mary but has since evolved as an extension of the Filipinos’ penchant for pageants.

Carlson, 18, said she wanted to learn about her roots. Her mother, Helen, hails from Manila. She goes to Rockville High School. She heard about the pageant from a cousin and for someone entranced watching the Miss Universe show it was short hop to joining one herself. Carlson is also a fan of “So You Think You Can Dance” and is exploring schools for the performing arts in New York and California when she graduates from high school.

At 14, Erika Cronin is the youngest of the lot. She’s a freshman at Northwest High School in Germantown, MD. Her mother, Rosa, comes from Davao City. “I want to be a good model for younger kids,” she enthused.

Taboada, 16, speaks with an English twang that sounds like she’s lived in America all her life, but her family actually arrived here only in 2005. Her parents Vilma and Alfredo hail from Cebu. Vilma Taboada belonged to the 2nd batch of teachers hired by the Baltimore public school system to fill the shortage of mentors and help meet federally-mandated learning standards.

She’s a high school sophomore in Catonville, just outside Baltimore. It’s her first real pageant and says “I just want to see if I’m any good at it.” Chessa wants to pursue a degree either in pharmacy or law when she goes to college.

Mata’s family immigrated to the US when she was just 6 years old. Now 18, she goes to Blake High School in Silver Spring, MD. She said the pageant was an “opportunity to learn more of the Philippine culture” although she insists she still speaks fluent Tagalog. Her parents Vic and Lourdes both hail from Manila.

Joyce said she still remembers weekends spent in the Philippine’s famed beaches, hanging out with cousins and “not worrying about the cold”.

The Miss Teen Philippines-America pageant will be held May 28 at the Fairview Park Marriott Hotel in Falls Church, VA.

Another longstanding Fil-Am beauty pageant is held yearly in Virginia Beach. The Miss Philippines America pageant is one of the oldest and most prestigious for the Filipino communities in America’s eastern seaboard, running for nearly 30 years and drawing contestants from as far away as Florida in the south and Canada in the north.

While the celebration of beauty certainly lives on in the Fil-Am community, these events also serve to raise funds to help countrymen in the Philippines.


For someone who shunned attention, Zenia Castillo is going home quietly inside a diplomatic pouch bound for Manila.

Castillo’s decomposing body was found about two months after she was believed to have died between Dec. 6 and 10 last year, inside her Northwest DC condominium. The remains were in such a bad state, it took medical examiners over two weeks to confirm her identity, issue a death certificate and release her body.

It was cremated free of charge by Rendon Hill Funeral Homes in Maryland. “I’ve been in the business for quite awhile and I found out that certain communities need help,” said its owner Richard Rendon, adding “It makes me feel good.”

Castillo was a naturalized American and lived alone in Washington DC for over two decades. Her only known relative is a niece in California that she’s never met. She worked as a caregiver in a Chevy Chase, MD retirement home.

Her ashes will be turned over to Philippine Embassy lawyer Sofronio “Loy” Cortel and will be delivered by diplomatic pouch to the Office of Migrant Affairs of the Department of Foreign Affairs in Manila.

“Because she was an American citizen there has to be someone from the Philippines, a member of her family who should request for the ashes to be sent back home. The family can claim the remains at the DFA or delivered to them,” explained Grace Valera of the Migrant Heritage Commission.

She explained they did the same thing for the remains of Filipino nurse Rey Cabanban, who died from cancer just weeks after arriving in the US and before he could start working for a DC area hospital.

Yden Ayap, her only known friend, said she last talked to Castillo before Thanksgiving because she went on vacation in the Philippines. A Fil-Am neighbor, Perfecto Paras of the Filipino Community of the Most Blessed Sacrament, tried to have building administrators break her door but was rebuffed because only Ayap was listed as contact person.

“All I knew she had a thyroid condition but she was taking medication for that. She worked evenings and had a part-time job during the day,” Ayap recalled.