How many people are aware that one of Hawaii’s current congressmen is a Filipino? Congressman Jose Maria Brias Manahan happens to be the grandnephew of Philippine Senator Manuel Manahan, as well as the grandson of the famous doctor Constantino Manahan, and his even more famous wife Elvira. Manuel Manahan served as senator in the 1960s. His brother, Constantino, became a much sought-after obstetrician who, I am proud to say, brought me and my six other siblings into the world even while he was setting up the Makati Medical Center. Of course, many still fondly remember talk show host and celebrated beauty Elvira Ledesma Manahan who tragically died an untimely death.
With such illustrious forebears, Congressman Manahan, who everyone just calls Joey, remains simple and unaffected. I met him through my friend Karen Santos who accompanied me on a recent trip to Hawaii. He gamely volunteered to be our trip adviser and guide. We had a wonderful time.
My pleasant encounter with Hawaii actually began even before I landed. Our flight on Philippine Airlines was so smooth and comfortable. The crew took such good care of Karen and me that we really arrived rested and ready to take on anything.
The 50th US state turned out to be a real revelation for me. My notions of this tropical paradise derived from taking hula lessons as a child as well as watching Jack Lord in Hawaii Five O with its unforgettable opening credits soundtrack! More contemporary icons include Jurassic Park and that endless TV series, Lost.
Under Joey Manahan’s guidance, Karen and I would come to see that there was so much more to Hawaii than grass skirts and flowery shirts. We went to a fantastic museum, a fascinating royal palace as well as wonderful restaurants with a new friend, Dr. Rickie Camara. We even went on a memorable helicopter ride over the jewel-like island of Kauai where Stephen Spielberg shot his blockbuster dinosaur movie. But I will have to write about all these more in the future.
Let me get back to our Congressman. I was initially apprehensive to meet someone so important but I reminded myself that Karen had told me that his wife Maan was so gracious and down-to-earth. Surely, her spouse would be just as personable. I was certainly proven right. Joey is soft-spoken, humble and yet a lot of fun. As an avid surfing fan turned legislator he has an effortless and genuine manner that was so refreshing.
Joey was born in the Philippines. He moved to San Francisco when he was in high school. When his widowed mother remarried Paul Richard Cassidy in 1991, he joined her for a new life in Hawaii. It was here that, while finishing his college degree at the University of Hawaii, he came into his own, surrounded by friends and family. Somehow, being in a place that has such a rich mixture of people helped him to strengthen his own identity while forging a stronger sense of purpose. I suppose when one is in a melting pot of cultures one learns to swim with more determination to avoid just floating around.
One of Joey’s first encounters with public service came about when he volunteered for a university program started by Amy Agbayani. He got to work helping immigrant children from the Philippines adjust to their new environment. While counseling the children and taking courses with Dr. Dean Alegado he found himself pondering more and more his own identity. This led him to study his own origins and learn about the history of the Filipino immigrant community in Hawaii.
Today’s Filipino Hawaiians mostly trace their roots to the first group from the Philippines that arrived in 1906. This pioneering batch was made up of laborers contracted to work in the sugarcane fields. The Philippines had just become a colony of the United States and it would prove to be an important source of man and woman power.
The early groups were largely from the Visayas, a region to which Congressman Joey is connected because of his paternal grandmother, the glamorous Elvira Manahan. Elvira’s family, the Ledesmas, have long been associated with the Visayan sugar industry marking another point of affinity with Hawaiian history.
As the years passed, more and more Filipinos would arrive in Hawaii. These subsequent batches were recruited from the Ilocos instead of the Visayas. By the 1930s, Philippine laborers formed the majority of the plantation workforce. Eventually they were given the right to bring over their families. Today residents of Filipino descent make up about 25 percent of the total population of the 50th state.
This probably explains why people like Joey have become important political figures in Hawaii. Amy Agbayani would introduce him to Representative Dennis Arakaki for whom he would later work as legislative assistant. Given how active Joey was in state politics, his wife, Maan, suggested that he run for congressman. After a long, hard-fought campaign Joey Manahan was elected by a lead of only 11 votes.
During his first term, the young legislator managed to secure almost $50 million to fund housing, harbors, health programs, schools and social services. He also led the initiative for the Hawaiian Legislature to be the first in the United States to designate October as Filipino-American Heritage Month.
Now serving a third term, Manahan was busy with his work in several of the Legislature’s key committees and is presently chairman of Tourism, Culture and International Affairs. It really amazes me that he is still able to attend to his legislative duties when his calendar is so full of other obligations. Joey is kept extremely busy judging beauty pageants, attending baptisms or weddings or funerals, eating lechon, gracing events, cutting ribbons, eating more lechon, giving speeches, and once, even having to find someone’s lost dog. Like their counterparts in the Philippines, Filipinos in Hawaii are a very sociable lot. They are adept at thinking of new reasons to interact with each other and with their congressman.
Joey likes to say that he wouldn’t have gotten anywhere without his wife. Maan Santos Manahan is a source of constant support and a powerhouse in her own right. She is a graduate of De La Salle University, finishing two degrees, one in economics and another in finance. Her double degree is just one indication of her many talents as she must constantly juggle family life with her life in public service as her husband’s dynamic partner.
I finally had a chance to see a little bit of what a typical day for the Congressman was like when he invited my friend Karen and me to attend a service at St Theresa’s Cathedral in Kalihi. We had to get up very early to be there. But it was worth it since the whole experience was so interesting.
Entering the church filled with Filipinos, I felt that I was back home in the Philippines. Everyone was so friendly. I was even given an orchid lei and asked to assist during Offertory.
After the service, Karen and I saw just how Joey communed with the people he had sworn to serve. We saw how he greeted everyone with a warm smile, asking after family members, indicating how well he knew his constituents. Later on, we all went for breakfast: rice, eggs, and that all-time Filipino Hawaiian favorite, Spam.
During the breakfast, I got to meet someone who worked very closely with Joey. His name was Remar Aquino. Like many others from this congressional district, Remar’s ancestors came from the Ilocos. In Remar’s case his original hometown was Santiago in Ilocos Sur. I silently reminded myself that I would have to make a trip to see that part of our country again. Remar told me how hard they had campaigned and how they had won by an extremely small margin. Since then, the Congressman and his team have never looked back, dedicating themselves to helping their community.
On still another occasion, we had the chance to talk to our waiter who turned out to be the father of Bethanie Hamilton. Hamilton was the champion surfer who, when she was just 12 years old, had her arm bitten off by a shark. Hamilton survived and still went on to compete in her sport. Her father told us that they were now doing a film about Bethanie starring Dennis Quaid. He was hoping that the premiere could be held in Waikiki Beach. Joey offered to set things up without even letting it be known that he was a congressman. Later on, when the man we were talking with found out from us who Joey was, he expressed admiration for his quiet humility. Karen and I were both very impressed as well.
It’s wonderful to travel far from home and meet a community of Filipinos who welcome you warmly. But what makes me really proud is the fact that, in the 50th state, Filipinos and non-Filipinos alike can look up to a leader who is hard working, effective and most of all modest and unassuming. Truly, Joey Manahan is our man in Hawaii.