By Marivir R. Montebon
The most important element in celebrating International Women’s Month are the narratives of women that help define women and set the direction of women’s advocacies. They are tools for us to really make history, and not just to consume history. – Consul-General Tess Dizon de Vega
New York City – The petite, hyperactive, all-embracing leader Consul General Tess Dizon de Vega set the mood for the recognition of the 2017 Distinguished Filipino Women on March 15, 2017 at the Kalayaan Hall. As always, she blew away her audience with words and action as a leader of the thriving Filipino communities of the East Coast.
The most important element in celebrating International Women’s Month, she said, is the narrative that helps define women and set the direction of women’s advocacies. “The narratives inspire the future of women and young girls. They are tools for us to really make history, and not just to consume history.”
Thus begun a sharing of narratives of the four women achievers – Analisa Leonor Balares, Elaine Quijano, Maria Torres Springer, and Ali Ewoldt – written in passion for work, dedication, and a lot of leadership. Hosted by Vice Consul Khrys Corpuz, the event also gave the honorees the chance to look back to their immigrant roots where they imbibed their unique and tremendous strength, in the context of Philippine diaspora.
Edifying her humble roots, taking charge
Analisa Leonor Balares, from the province of Leyte in the Philippines, owns a sweet smile and an impressive degree in Math and Science. She is recognized as one of the New Leaders of America by the US National Minority Business Council, being a recipient of the Madam C.J. Walker Leadership Award. She is the founder and CEO of WOMENSPHERE, an international NGO and global community that train women and young girls on leadership, innovation, entrepreneurship, and sustainability in the field of science, technology, arts, and mathematics.
Before her distinctive award last night, Balares was named by NASA as its Datanaut, or an expert of the art of coding. She was global marketing manager at Microsoft and director at Milestone Capital. Hers is a long list of scholastic achievements: a graduate of Manila Science High School and a scholar at the Lester Pearson United World in Canada and Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. She has an MBA from Harvard Business School and certificate in digital filmmaking from the New York Film Academy.
Balares said she owed her strength from her mother and grandmother, strong women in her family who were living humbly as farmers and vendors. Her mother had to give up schooling and work as a domestic help in Manila so she could send her and her siblings to school. “If my mother and grandmother prevailed in rural Philippines, I could prevail too,” she said.
Balares was a state scholar and had a presidential award as a young scientist by then Pres. Corazon Aquino. While edifying her humble roots, she was clear in her message on personal responsibility, to “take charge” as emerging leaders. This visionary leader said that if one hinges one’s purpose to be greater than ourselves, “we will find that there is a reservoir of infinite power greater than ourselves.”
Passion for journalism
New York-based journalist Elaine Quijano became a household word when she hosted the 2016 national vice presidential debate for CBS. Quiet a big feat for this versatile media personality who can quickly cover breaking news or tackle human interest stories.
Quijano joined the CBS News in 2010 and had traveled extensively to cover running events such as political campaigns and elections as well as important events – from storms to world cups.
In college, she thought she would have been an engineer when she went to the University of Illinois, but later realized that she was not cut out to be one. Journalism was her passion and told her parents, a Batanguena and Davaoeno, that she wanted to shift courses, and they were more of puzzled than shocked. “They asked me, what is that? But my dad drove me every early morning to be at my internship during summer. They were supportive even if they did not agree with my decision, because it mattered to me,” she recalled.
Quijano said her parents are “quietly bold” and have the tenacity and determination to succeed. Being immigrants to the US, hard work was a rule. She gave a shout out to her Mom, who decided to pursue a college education despite the norm in the family in the Philippines that women only needed to stay home and take care of the husband and children. Out of that stubborn persistence, her mom finished an accounting degree and eventually migrated to the US. “You don’t want to mess with a Batanguena,” she quipped.
Government service for women and youth
NYC Housing commissioner Maria Torres Springer still knows by heart the Filipino’s undifferentiated breakfast and lunch, the karaoke nights, and balikbayan boxes despite her hectic daily struggles as a government worker for 17 years.
Torres-Springer is at the helm of the city’s underserved communities and women, boosting women’s business acumen and preparing the youth for technological advancements in the 21st century. She helped create large affordable housing projects with mixed use for retail and community spaces. She also helped expand minority- and women-owned business enterprises at the NYC Economic Development Corporation and the city’s Small Business Services department.
“In this work, I try to make government more reliable, faster, and you know, be not like government,” she laughed. Torres Springer said that saw in her immigrant parents from Pampanga the value of hard work and living in a frugal manner while growing up in the US. “They worked in graveyard shifts and had to make both ends meet. I grew up seeing that.”
A doting mother of two teenagers, Torres Springer has a degree in ethics, politics, and economics from Yale University and a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.
Persistence and constant self-improvement
Stage actress and soprano Ali Ewoldt holds a degree in Psychology at the Yale University, but she has never stopped being a stage performer. These days, she conquers the stage as Christine Daee, the lead role for Phantom of the Opera, Broadway’s longest running musical at 29 years.
“I auditioned for this role for 10 years. And finally, a woman of color like me have finally gotten this part,” she told the audience, that included her parents John and Leah Ewoldt. She debuted on Broadway as Cosette in the first revival of Les Miserables where she played daughter of Fantine, performed by the original Ms. Saigon star Lea Salonga.
Persistence and constant “increasing of skills” are what Ewoldt wanted to impart that night, looking up to Salonga as an inspiration and role model. She just successfully nailed a sold-out solo concert in the city’s Feinstein’s 54 Below in the last weekend.
Born in Chicago and raised in New York, Ewoldt fondly remembered how she was touched by the support she got from two Filipino stage performers in her role as Jasmine understudy and back-up for all other roles in Disneyland’s Aladdin in California. “They were kind and generous actors who taught me how to wear my gown and carry myself,” she giggled.
Dealing with micro-aggressions
Being women and women-of-color, the awardees had their share of micro-aggressions in their work-place.
For Balares, micro-aggressions are macro-aggressions. From where she was coming from, it was difficult dealing with stereotypes and meanness and admitted that she had not been very good handling it. “I would cry a lot. It is important that you have friends to talk to about it. And step back, meditate. Be zen,” she quipped. She noted too that daily violations as these, as well as domestic violence at school needed a concerted effort to confront it.
Torres Springer said she rises above micro-aggressors with the attitude of taking it as an opportunity to build bridges and create alliances within the work place. “It is tough. But you can give them the benefit of being your best,” she said. (Photos by Lambert Parong)