Lolita Lledo: Fighting for Democracy in the Philippines and L.A.


KCET Departures asks, "What's your or your family's Los Angeles arrival story?"

Today, we hear from Lolita Lledo, Associate Director, Pilipino Workers Center:


"I came to Los Angeles in 1997 from Manila, the Philippines.

"I took the regular flight, Philippine Airlines, fourteen or fifteen hours straight from Manila. I wasn't used to flying that distance - this was my first international trip.

"When I landed, I was met by my sister and my father, who already lived here.

"In the Philippines, we were a professional, middle-class family of nine kids - six girls and three boys. All but one of the girls eventually moved here.

"My eldest sister was the first to immigrate, during the 1970s. She's an RN, a registered nurse, she works at Kaiser. Many Filipinos in the U.S. work as caregivers.

"After my sister settled in, my parents were petitioned around 1988. My mom died here in 1994 and her body was brought back to the Philippines for burial. My dad stayed here and became a U.S. citizen.

"I participated in the anti-Marcos dictatorship struggle. Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in 1972. I was recruited in 1974 when I was so young - around 18 years old.

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Lolita Lledo in 1997 attending her first party in the USA. Photo courtesy Lolita Lledo
Lolita Lledo in 1997 attending her first party in the USA. Photo courtesy Lolita Lledo

"I was in my second year in college and supposed to become a medical doctor. I was studying at the University of the Philippines (UP), which is the top university in the country, comparable to Harvard.

"At first I didn't participate in the student movement and other radical actions. But we were soon forced to - because what's in store for young students like us when there's no democracy? If we're not allowed to participate, we're forced to join the underground movement.

"I was able to finish my pre-medicine courses over four years. But I did not go on to medical school. I became a full-time activist, organizing workers and urban poor in the cities and later sent to the rural areas to organize the peasants. I was arrested and jailed. Terrible things happened to many people I knew.

"My batch of students, we were part of what people call the Philippines' 'Lost Generation.' Even if you didn't want to become an activist during that time, you were forced to - it was the call of the times.

"We put aside all our ambitions, our future, everything, so that we could bring democracy back. We were not able to build our careers, we had to give up our schooling and fight for what was right and proper.

"We protested and challenged Marcos' rule until he was ousted in 1986. This was the People Power Revolution. I was there at EDSA [the Epifanio de los Santos Avenue] when it happened. Everyone was out on the streets.

"Being an activist here in the U.S. and in the Philippines is very different. In the Philippines, in my time, when they said you are an 'activist,' that meant: 'You will be hunted down. You will be arrested. Your family will be terrorized.' It's as if you were the real enemy of the people.

"In the U.S., people respect activists. There are different kinds of activists here - immigration, community, labor, environmental, etc. Being an activist is a job, like the position I have at the PWC.

"President Obama was a community activist in Chicago and now he is the President of the United States.


"After the Revolution, the Philippines needed to rebuild civil society. I went back to school in '86 and earned from UP a diploma in Labor Studies. I continued serving the people and later on worked for a non-governmental agency, or NGO.

"By 1997, more than a decade had passed since the fall of Marcos and we haven't won what we wanted: A new Philippines where there are lots of opportunities.

Lolita Lledo with husband and youngest daughter before Lledo left the Philippines. Photo courtesy Lolita Lledo
Lolita Lledo with husband and youngest daughter before Lledo left the Philippines. Photo courtesy Lolita Lledo

"I felt - I wouldn't call it, burnt out - but like I wanted to have a break and see what the other part of the world is like.

"My friend who was also a former activist and comrade based in L.A. invited me for a one-month visit to see how they were helping Filipinos. I was in my forties. I had already raised my two daughters. My husband ran a small business. It was a good time to come.

"There are more than four million Filipinos in the U.S. Two million are in California. Probably one million of those are in L.A.

"We came from a tropical country where year round we have only a rainy season and a dry season. We cannot live in four-season areas - no snow please!

"The distance between here and there is 10,000 miles. That's why Filipinos are afraid to be deported - because they cannot come back. It's not like crossing a river - you cannot swim the Pacific Ocean!

"When my flight from Manila landed at LAX, it was around 9pm so I wasn't able to see the surroundings. My father and sister tried to show me different parts of the city, so we went on the freeway. As a stranger, all I could do was compare Manila to L.A. We don't have freeways in the Philippines, only highways, so that was the first thing that amazed me.

"Manila is not a planned city. We have narrow streets and super bad traffic - it's not comparable to the traffic here. Traffic in Manila is so awful that you have two or three hours a day where you just struggle and you get mad.

"When Filipinos come here, they say driving is easy. In the Philippines, drivers don't follow traffic rules. Here we are forced to become obedient because the U.S. has traffic tickets, traffic cameras and police who cannot be bribed.

"Another thing that surprised me about the U.S. is the size of portions of food at restaurants. It's too much! I have diabetes now, and I don't eat big meals. But when I go back to the Philippines, I am shocked at the tiny amount of food served. I say, 'Why so small?' Everyone laughs at me. They say, 'What the hell are you talking about?'

"Also, L.A. is probably 100% cleaner than Manila. It's so dirty back in our country - it's really polluted and humid.


"That first month I visited Los Angeles, people would say to me, 'Don't go back, try working here and settling.' I would answer, 'I'm an activist. What would I do here?'

"My friend - my former comrade - who was also an activist back in the Philippines ended up as one of the directors of a non-profit here. She said they got big funding to give tuberculosis screenings to Filipinos.

"Her organization needed someone to join their team who knows the culture and who speaks the language to identify and assist any Filipinos who might have active TB.

"My employers petitioned for my labor certification through the U.S. Department of Labor. I got a working visa and then a green card. The process took me like six years.

"While I was waiting, I petitioned for my family to join me. My husband and my youngest daughter came but my eldest daughter was left in the Philippines because she had married her boyfriend.

"So, now we're a transnational family. My grandchildren are in the Philippines. My daughter is divorced from her husband and she's now working in Qatar. And we're here in Los Angeles. We use Skype to reunite. The different time zones make it hard - when it's Sunday in the Philippines, it's Sunday early morning in Qatar and it's Saturday here.

"The first year I came to L.A., I lived in the Valley, with my sister. Since then, I've lived in a one-bedroom apartment in a ten-unit building in Historic Filipinotown. All the units are rented by Filipinos. I live on a block where the majority of people are Filipinos. This is our community.

"Around the neighborhood, you see all those Jolllibees and other restaurants. Everything is here. It's just like Little Manila. And you can go over to Eagle Rock, where there's a mall where you can buy whatever you need from the Philippines.

"Okay, maybe not quite everything - I do miss some of the tropical fresh fruits that are found only in the Philippines.

"There is the durian, there's the rambutan, there's the duhat - there's no equivalent. There's also the santol and lanzones. And of course our mango is different from the mangos here.

Lolita Lledo's Family in 2009. Photo courtesy Lolita Lledo
Lolita Lledo's Family in 2009. Photo courtesy Lolita Lledo

"They do sell exported mangos, but they are so expensive. That's the whole point, also, why we can't eat those fruits - because they cost so much when they reach Los Angeles. In Manila and all around the Philippines, you can find these fruits all over the sidewalks - there are vendors everywhere.

"Restaurants here also sell traditional Filipino food like balut. Do you know balut? I'm not a fan. It's an egg - it's an aborted fetus of a duck. It's famous in the Philippines but for foreigners it's horrible. But that's part of our culture.

"Restaurants here sell it, but it's different. In the Philippines, the food is not frozen. We are a country of 7,100 islands so we are used to buying our food fresh at our markets.

"You have fresh chicken, fresh pork, fresh meat, beef - all freshly killed. Even if we put it in our refrigerator, it stays there just a day or two. The fish being sold comes straight from the ocean.


"I'm a very spare, simple immigrant. Our family lifestyle is not really extravagant - if we earn $1,000 we spend probably $500, so we have some little savings.

"I'm one of the victims of this economic burst. We dreamed of owning a two-bedroom small house. But my husband got laid off. He lost his health insurance, too.

"My daughter is out of high school and she can't find a job, either. She got good grades, now she's studying nursing. But she wants to do something to earn for her keep.

"I've been telling here, 'There are fifteen million American adults, who have a lot of experience, who are out of work. Do you think you can compete with them?'

"We put a lot of value in finishing college, that's what in the Philippines all families wanted their kids - it is horrifying for us to imagine our children going to college without us supporting them.

"Our culture, we are slaves. Our history, we are a colonized people. That's why we are not more entrepreneurial. We are more of the workers, the employees, the professionals.

"What's left for us today? My daughter is frustrated. I said, 'We're living in a time of economic crises. I don't know where this is heading.'

"We are not asking for much. We are just asking for a living wage so we can go back and work and become productive.

"My husband and I are already in our fifties and we are not very healthy. I don't know if we will be able to reach our seventies or eighties. But I am very proud to say that I am ready to die whenever.

"I have a clear conscience. I will meet my Creator and I will tell Him I did what he taught us, to do in the world. I did not pollute anything, I did not exploit anyone, I did not oppress anyone. I just fought for everyone, beyond myself, sacrificed my ambitions and future.

"I'm part of the 99% that won't know what will happen to us when we retire. Because the healthcare system is a big mess if you're not working. We are trying to understand all these low-cost clinics. But our fear is if my husband has an emergency and he's hospitalized, we won't be able to afford all these horrible big expenses that they charge.

"But then - I think we can cope. I am part of the activist world, I am part of the non-profit world. We're used to helping people survive so probably we can manage to help ourselves.

"I say, 'Once an activist, forever an activist.' You cannot just force yourself to keep silent when you know that we can make things happen, we can change things by helping each other, educating each other, organizing and fighting for our rights for a better situation, for a better world.

"I dream that one day, mankind will finally be able to build a society where justice, peace and prosperity prevail. If ever that happens, and wherever I am during that period, I will proudly say to my descendants, to my great, great grandchildren: 'During our time, when there was no justice and peace, your grandparents did not sleep but instead decided to fight, decided to become activists!''

-- Lolita Lledo
(as told to Jeremy Rosenberg)

Top Photo: Lolita Lledo, activist. All photos courtesy Lolita Lledo

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