HONOLULU, HAWAII – Had former Hawaii lawmaker Felipe “Jun” Abinsay, 57, stayed in the Philippines and not sought greener pastures here, he would have become a farmer like his parents before him. Never would he have entered Philippine politics.
Not that he detested politics, but he knew that in order to win the vote, a candidate in his home country must have money and a well-oiled political machine. He did not have both.
Abinsay, who traces his roots to Cabaroan, Vigan City, Ilocos Sur, came to Hawaii with his wife, a medical doctor, in the 1970’s. Like other immigrants, he was bent on pursuing the American dream. Never did he aspire to become a politician here.
But an opportunity to enter politics opened to him in 1995 and he grabbed it. Rep. Emilio Alcon, a fellow Ilocano representing the district where Abinsay and his family live had died. The then-Governor Ben Cayetano, the first Filipino-American to be elected to the position, appointed Abinsay to the seat vacated by Alcon.
But this opportunity came after many years when Abinsay had become a respected community leader and gained reputation as consensus-maker and peacemaker.
This is to say that his reputation was the key to the position vacated by Alcon and Abinsay’s entry to Hawaii’s political arena.
“ Yes, you need not have money to become a politician here, just a good reputation,” he told this writer during a break in the recently-concluded Nakem conference held at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
“Politics in Hawaii is synonymous to public service, no more no less,” he said.
Retires from politics after 11 years
He won overwhelmingly (in the primary election) when he ran for re-election in the district of Kalihi (District 290—Kaliki Hai, Palama, Mokauea, Sand Island) that his fellow countryman (Alcon) used to represent. He again was re-elected for a third term in the State Legislature House of Representatives, but last July he announced he was retiring from the Legislature and from politics after 11 years
“I am giving way to the young ones,” he said, referring to young Filipino-Americans and other up-and-coming politicians who belong to ethnic groups.
“To become a state lawmaker was a great honor and it has inspired me to always do my best and give back,” he said.
Abinsay, a Democrat with a good track record in the State Legislature House of Representative, would have hang on to power and not let go. He authored landmark legislations that benefitted not only his district but also constituents statewide.
Abinsay’s landmark legislations
One such landmark legislation was the Language Access 290 signed into law by Gov. Linda Lingle last July 20. Act 290 requires Hawai’s state government agencies to provide language services to thousands who can not speak or have limited proficiency in English.
Government services and other benefits are given to beneficiaries under this law.
Its passage turned into reality the vision and the 20-year struggle of immigrant rights advocates like Abinsay. It will benefit many Filipinos, native Hawaiians and other ethnic groups who are discriminated in jobs because they can not speak English or speak it with a “foreign accent”.
Offices have been created to oversee its (act) implementation, according to Abinsay who along with his wife suffered discrimination in jobs during their early years here because of their Filipino not to say Ilokano accent
“Even if you are highly-qualified in a job you are applying for in Hawaii, you will not get it if you speak with a foreign accent,” Abinsay said, saying that discrimination, prejudice and other barriers still hound ethnic groups here.
“But education and hard work, honesty, and integrity can overcome these barriers,” he said.
In Abinsay’s case, he went back to college in Hawaii and enrolled in and finished many courses that enabled him to rise from the ranks— from inventory clerk to bookkeeper to assistant manager and other high positions in Hawaii’s corporate ladder.
Abinsay’s story is what the Filipino Courier, a Filipino weekly tabloid here, calls a “unique saga of the types of barriers and prejudice that all immigrants face in their search for the American dream.”
Besides the numerous community, leadership, professional awards he received, Abinsay was bestowed the prestigious “Pamana nga Pilipino” Award for his outstanding services to the people of Hawaii and for promoting goodwill relations between Hawaii and the Philippines. President Macapagal gave this award to him in a ceremony in Malacanang in Dec. 2004.
Abinsay and his family live in Kalihi, one of the many areas including Waipahu where there are large concentrations of Filipinos, mostly Ilocanos, in Honolulu. His wife, the former Elizabeth Lim of Vigan is now a pediatrician. They have two daughters— Hazel, 24, a student of John A. Burns School of Medicine; and Amber, 19, a sophomore at the University of Hawaii- Manoa School of Architecture.
(Iti naudi a pannakiumanmi kenkuana, imbatad ni Apo Abinsay a madama ti panangipagnana iti sister-relationship ti Hawaii ken dagiti probinsia ti Filipinas a kas iti Ilocos Norte, Isabela. La Union, Ilocos Sur ken Davao del Sur. -PLJ)