Advocating for Asian-Americans in the US

“In Lahaina everybody took care of everybody.” These were the memories of Rozita Villanueva Lee about the little village in Maui, Hawaii where she grew up and where she spent her early childhood. Decades later, “taking care of everybody” is still what keeps her busy.

In Las Vegas where she has lived since 1979, Lee is known as Manang Rozita or Tita Rozita to many Filipinos. She is the go to person who helps solve issues concerning the local Filipino-American community. She is also tapped by mainstream groups, including the media, who want to reach out to Filipino-Americans in the area. Her advisory positions in numerous local and national Asian-American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) organizations, meanwhile, are evidence of how her views are valued by the majority.

It is this deep involvement in the community, as well as her advocacy to encourage others to be involved, that made her win the Jean Ford Award for Participatory Democracy last May. This award from the Secretary of State recognizes Nevada residents who have played a key role in promoting participatory democracy in the state. It honors those that have enriched “their communities, state and nation through their participation and leadership in furthering the democratic process.”

This latest recognition is just one of many that Lee received through the years for her active participation in the community’s affairs. She has also received similar commendations from elected officials, and numerous others from local and national organizations due to her tireless advocacy. In an interview withAsian Journal, Rozita recalled that her activism and passion to serve others were borne out of the good example that her parents, both from the Philippine province of Pangasinan, showed her and her sisters.

“My father was very progressive and he was a leader. He would gather people together for news, and to discuss issues,” she said. Her mother, meanwhile, was “always busy serving breakfast and lunch” to people in their Lahaina neighborhood as a way to augment the family income.

Rozita’s parents, with her three older sisters who were born in Pangasinan, migrated to Hawaii in the early 1930s after her father was recruited by the Hawaiian Sugar Planters’ Association to work in the plantations in Hawaii. The family of five, which eventually grew, settled in Lahaina village in the island of Maui. Rozita is the youngest of the couple’s seven girls.

“I was the buridik,” she said, fondly recalling the Ilocano term for child who was born last in a family. Being the youngest, she was her elder sister’s pet project. “My three oldest sisters were very strict with us. They were the ones who brought me up in the so-called American standards,” Rozita said. These standards they set included having proper etiquette and speaking English properly at all times, she noted.

“They wanted us to do well. They want us to find our way into the world and know that we were okay,” Rozita recalled about the values that were imposed on her by her older sisters and their parents. In addition to etiquette and eloquence in English, the standards also included “the responsibility of helping others.”

Speaking well and being mindful of her manners became second nature to Rozita, while helping others became her passion. In high school, deep involvement in student issues, in addition to her leadership skills, led to her becoming the first non-Caucasian president of their student council.

Her high school academic activities seem to foreshadow her activism in national groups as well as in her now home state of Nevada. Rozita is the national vice chair emerita and legislative affairs director of the National Federation of Filipino American Associations (NaFFAA). She is founding chairwoman of the board of the Las Vegas Asian Chamber of Commerce and is board director of Filipino American Heritage Foundation. She is a member of the advisory boards of several local organizations including the Las Vegas Organization of Chinese Americans, Bamboo Bridges, and KALAHI Philippine Cultural Ensemble. She is also president emerita of the Las Vegas chapter of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, while she serves as speech coach and AAPI community organizing consultant at the Nevada Women’s Diversity Council Board.

Rozita’s deep involvement in Las Vegas organizations belie her initial impression of the city. She once described it as a place that is all about casinos. “I didn’t know then the Vegas that I know now,” she said.

But despite her lack of knowledge of the city that time, she chose to move and settle there from Honolulu after marrying local Las Vegas physician Clifford Lee in 1979. “It was a different world for me,” Rozita said while remembering that she made the decision to move quickly and had “no hesitations whatsoever.”

“I was in love. He was a wonderful person,” she explained. Their wedding was a whirlwind event but their friendship started several decades back in Hawaii when they were teenagers attending Bible school. They remained good friends even as he left the islands to go to medical school, entered the US Army and eventually set up a practice in Las Vegas where he came to be a well-loved doctor to locals.

The couple met again in Hawaii in 1979 at Dr. Lee’s brother’s wedding that Rozita helped plan. Some two months later, the pair themselves had their own wedding in Los Angeles after getting engaged in Las Vegas.

Despite being in the company of her soul mate in the city, Rozita did not immediately feel like Las Vegas is her home as she missed her friends and family in Hawaii. “But being involved [in the community] was the one thing that helped me from being homesick,” she said.

At the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) where she immediately registered to complete her degree in Communication, she wrote for the university student paper. Outside campus, she joined a few Hawaiian civic groups as well as the Ilocano-American Association of Nevada. In 1997, she joined the local NaFFAA chapter.

Aside from these organizations, Rozita periodically spearheads campaigns that urge AAPIs to register and vote in local and federal elections. She also headed a movement to urge AAPIs to participate in the 2010 census. She was also at the forefront of the campaign for Hepatitis B vaccination among AAPIs in the US.

Through the years, Rozita was a constant presence in local meetings that discussed issues that beset the AAPI community such as immigration reform and compensation for Filipino World War II veterans. Often, these activities brought her to Washington DC to speak with legislators and federal officials about community issues.

In 2010, she was hand-picked to be a commissioner in President Obama’s White House Initiative on AAPIs. She is one of two Filipino-Americans who are currently part of the commission that is tasked to help improve the quality of life of AAPIs.

“I got a call from the White House saying the President had nominated me. It was quite an honor to be chosen. I’ve just been doing what I like doing,” she said noting her activities in the AAPI community.

Through the White House commission, Rozita is able to impart information about federal plans and projects to the local community. At the same time, she is able to bring local issues to the national level thereby helping find solutions.

Her term in the commission is ending this year. But her passion in urging fellow AAPIs to be more active in their civic duties will continue, she said.

For her fellow Filipino-Americans, she vows to continue to work toward uniting the various regional groups. “I really believed in the concept of one united Filipino,” she said, adding, “I have such awe at the brilliance of Filipinos. It is just amazing. We are a blessed people, we truly are. I’m so proud to be Filipino.”

(Las Vegas June 27 – July 3, 2013 Sec. A pg.4) 

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