By Emil Guillermo
I just got back from what was supposed to be a one- hour memorial service that turned into what felt like an all-day love-fest memorializing Alex Esclamado.
For what Alex did for the community, he deserved every second.
I was fortunate to be called on to say a few words, but that’s not why it lasted all day. Phil Bronstein, who was nominated for a Pulitzer for his Philippines reporting for the San Francisco Examiner, and who, like me, used Alex as a guide to get value information to the mainstream, was unavailable to eulogize Alex.
In church, on my way back from communion during the mass, Rodel Rodis, the organizer of this event, stopped me, looking for a substitute for Phil.
Phil was also married to actress Sharon Stone at one point. But no one ever asked me to substitute for him on that score. Even though I had not prepared anything I gladly accepted.
I had after all, written a column about what Alex meant to the American Filipino community.
Go back in history, and decade after decade, pound-for-for-pound, there are few American Filipinos who can match the passion of Alex Esclamado. Others may claim to have been more effective, but no one was more charmingly bombastic and so willing to speak out for the common Filipino as Alex.
Esclamado was our Hearst. That’s such a grand statement only Alex could have made it about himself. But now that he’s gone, I’ll make it for him. I can’t think of another brown man with the personality or will to change the color of yellow journalism. But Alex did, and I was privileged to see it.
I grew up with the Philippine News when it meant more to the San Francisco Filipino community than any of the morning dailies. You couldn’t find anything Filipino in any of those rags. But the Philippine News? It was about us, and was a driving force in the community at every stage of its development. Pre-Marcos, during Marcos, post-Marcos. With ever key struggle in the evolutionary journey of Filipinos in America, Alex was there to both chronicle and drive the agenda.
It’s hard to imagine him gone, because to me Alex was always the guy you called on to fight for us all. He had his printing press, his voice, and that was all he needed. He was never scared to turn up the volume and let people know that Filipinos were present. That we were here. That we mattered.
If you are old enough to remember the old “Crossfire” shows on CNN, Alex would go on whenever the topic of Marcos or Asia came up.
When the US was propping up the dictator, there was Alex to shame the administration. Alex could let out an inspired diatribe on cue, going 0-60 in a flash of the eye and redline it till the next commercial.
The white guys arguing the other side couldn’t get a word in edgewise. Alex was always a bit of a bulldog, but for those shows he was rabid.
My first impression of Alex Esclamado? The man was like the Godfather. He took care of you. He cared. Gangster? No, but he dressed liked one. Always decked out impeccably in a dark suit and tie. His hair slicked back with pomade, the preferred Filipino hair gel of the day. I always thought he was cool, especially when I first met him as a junior high school kid in San Francisco.
I went to Everett, O.J.’s school. They segregated the college-bound kids and I managed to get a decent education and straight A’s to boot. That got the attention of the Philippine News, and it backed me, as well as a few dozen students every year, all the way through my years at Lowell High. I think we got a $100 scholarship each year. Maybe it was a bit more, but that token scholarship was Alex’s way to seed the community, to assure us all that Filipinos had a real future in America, and to let young Filipinos know you could do anything you wanted in this great country. So to me, no matter what anyone says, I’ll forever have a soft spot in my heart for Alex, who as it turns out has always in some way served as my benefactor.
I can still hear his voice. He called me by one syllable: “Mil…” he would say. It never changed through adulthood. He helped me when I started an American Filipino radio broadcast. He helped me find a column home. He never stopped his encouragement or support.
While I saw him as a giant, many would say he was more gnat. Yes, he was known to succumb to human frailties. But who hasn’t. On balance, here was a man who believed in the fight for the little man, the fight for civil rights, the freedom of speech, the freedom of the press. He believed it so much he lived it, using his newspaper as a vehicle to make life better for all Filipinos.
Aside from his passion, I’ll mostly remember Alex’s optimism that fueled his nerve to do things on such a grand scale. Outlandish? Sure, but for a Filipino the guy had gumption. Chutzpah. Huevos. Nothing was ever too big or out of reach. Renting the Civic Center to have a Filipino American convention? Starting a FAPA? Or an NFAC? Or an NFFAA? Equity for the Veteranos?
Come on, the guy fought Marcos. Alex knew big dreams come true. In that way, he was the optimist’s optimist, and as we mourn his passing, I realize the ultimate lesson from his life is that we can never dream big enough.
I confess to reading parts of the column. But when my reading glasses failed, and the words fell flat, I recalled what a previous speaker said. She quoted Alex saying not to read a speech, but to let it come from the heart.
When I left the text, the words just came, and whatever I said seemed to soar. It was like I was possessed. Someone yelled out, “Keep preaching, Emil.” What was I saying? I just mentioned how Alex was so much more than a traditional journalist. He was a fighter, an advocate. He took sides and he fought for us.
I ended the speech and then immediately went to his widow, Luly, to offer my condolences. But in my talk to the crowd, I clearly felt something special—the spirit of Alex? Something was giving me a message, telling me that in whatever actions we take, no matter how big or small, if we act with passion and from the heart, we could all surpass our dreams and achieve so much more.
Wasn’t that what Alex was all about?