Tuesday December 1, 2020

By: Naiia Lajoie


The year of a presidential election. The year of a census count. The year of civil unrest for social justice. The year of a global pandemic. Regardless of how you look back on the year 2020, it will undoubtedly go down in history as the year society looked to its leadership for answers. On the local level, Los Angeles residents – specifically Filipino-American Angelenos – sought out solutions from the LA City Mayor’s office. Thankfully, they had a Fil-Am representative on their side to field their questions and facilitate their understanding.

Jessica Caloza is a Commissioner on the Board of Public Works in the City of Los Angeles. Born in Quezon City in the Philippines, she came to the US as a young child. She was appointed by LA Mayor Eric Garcetti in February of 2019 and confirmed by the City Council in March. She also happens to be the first Filipina American to serve on the Board. The University of California, San Diego-grad is a proud first-generation immigrant, living in and serving the community of Historic Filipinotown (HiFi).

The diaspora of Asian-Americans took note of Jessica’s quick work over a short time of serving, honoring her with SIPA’s (the Search to Involve Pilipino Americans, an LA-based non-profit organization) Lingkod Bayan Award for Public Service. Literally meaning “town servant”, the award is intended to recognize individuals that demonstrate outstanding public service and community leadership.

With respect to the CDC’s guidelines and acknowledging that a mass gathering was not possible, SIPA was the first in the Fil-Am community to transition its gala into an online format in order to remain Covid-compliant. On the virtual celebration, Jessica commented “While it is difficult to maintain the energy level [online], they did an amazing job accomplishing just that. People from different industries were present, highlighting just how far Filipino-Americans have come.” She also remarked on how it was good to see non-Filipino leaders and allies present, as the organization branchingout amplifies the strength of its coalition.

Having gone through the process of immigrating herself – albeit at a younger age; adapting to new surroundings, customs, and culture – as a civil servant Jessica yearns to facilitate immigration. For those who enter the country later in their life or may require additional time adapting, Jessica realizes that communication is paramount, and thereby spearheads bridging the language gap. For her, this is a key point that hits close to home: “Language is a really powerful tool. Our constituents’ understanding allows us to do better. They can put in a request to remove graffiti in their neighborhood, using their native tongue. It increases their quality of life, and we provide greater transparency resulting in more engagement.”

Jessica’s internal work of how the Board can better provide access to their programs has been pivotal in 2020, given it was a year for the census and the election. As the Fil- Am community grows more robust, she wants to ensure that the federal government’s funding reflects such and is appropriately distributed. “I was heavily involved,” she recounts, “going into the community to talk to working class families. I was explaining to them why it is important to participate in the census. I would tell them, ‘This dictates how much money our schools get’.”

Moreover, mitigating the Covid crisis has been a top priority for Mayor Garcetti. Using the working groups that Jessica chairs, she and they would rapidly translate the onslaught of Covid-related information received weekly into 9 to 11 different languages. From there she would transcribe it and send the details to ethnic media outlets, giving priority to anything pertaining to public health orders. Even now – despite and because of the holiday season – the work is ceaseless. Outside of Covid-19, Jessica is also giving priority to increasing Filipino representation – in addition to the multitude of diverse cultures – that make up the multinational identity that is LA. Whether it is the upcoming HiFi Eastern Gateway Project; marking the first historic cultural designation for the Filipino- American community in the US, or the proposed Sixth Street Viaduct Replacement Project; providing a safe, recreational space spanning from the Arts District to Boyle Heights, Jessica’s goal as commissioner is to enrich the lives of those residing in the area. “We have such vibrant communities,” she muses, “how do we showcase them more? We don’t just tolerate other cultures, we celebrate them.”

Ultimately Jessica sees her contributions to the city as a means of furthering the Filipino impact in literally helping to build the city. She shares an anecdotal story on the subject, “One of the original pobladores that was to help found the city of Los Angeles…was actually Filipino. People thought he was Chinese, calling him ‘Chino’. Filipinos are a part of founding the city – and I am so proud of [that].”

For a year that has been trying for so many, it comes as a relief knowing that the Fil-Am community, Asian- Americans, and Los Angelenos alike have a champion in their corner, working tirelessly to ensure that all are fairly represented, heard, catered to, and accounted for. Commissioner Caloza is no stranger to the bitter sweetness of 2020, as she has also experienced personal loss. The Manila Up! family extends its heartfelt condolences to the Caloza family as well as the deepest gratitude for Jessica’s momentous efforts.


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