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This year’s 15 exceptional individuals and organizations, together with the evening’s speakers, entertainers and guests. At far right on podium is TOFA-NY founder Elton Lugay.  (All photos by RJ ENSALADA)


“Let us teach our people again to be proud that they are Filipinos.”

Words first voiced by diplomat and statesman Carlos P. Romulo in the 1960s and rearticulated by Consul General Mario de Leon, Jr. during The Outstanding Filipino Americans in New York awards night at Carnegie Hall on Oct. 31, 2015.

Thirteen individuals and two organizations were conferred honors for projecting a “positive image of Filipinos in America” through their talent, skills and heart for service, said the ambassador.

The 2015 TOFA-NY award recipients are:

• Arts & Culture — Katrina Saporsantos

• Business & Entrepreneurship — John Gadia

• Community Service & Advocacy — Steven Raga

• Courage of Conviction — Mark Bustos

• Education, Research & Technology — Dr. Kevin Nadal

• Entertainment — Gail Banawis

• Fashion & Style — Betina Ocampo

• Food & Restaurants — Nicole Ponseca

• Health Care — Dr. Richard Holsman

• LGBT Advocacy — Chelle Lhuillier

• Media & Publishing — Makilala TV (this writer, Jen Furer, Rachelle Ocampo and Maricor Fernandez)

• Public Service & Politics — NYC Human Rights Commissioner Carmelyn Malalis

• Senior Welfare & Advocacy — PAG-ASA Social Services Foundation

• Special Humanitarian Award — KC Concepcion for her work with the UN’s World Food Programme

• Youth — Mahwah, N.J. Council Member Jon Wong

It used to be, said de Leon, that Filipinos were a “struggling community.”

This was in the early 1880s when they were mariners and farm settlers in Louisiana and into the 1920s and ’30s in California during the Manong Generation.

Filipinos are now a “rising force” in American society, he said.

“It is time for us to claim our place in the U.S. as an emerging community worthy of positions of leadership, influence and authority. Indeed we should be proud of being Filipinos wherever we may be.”


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Awardee actress KC Concepcion.


The honorees came with their own words of grace, gratitude and abundant pride about being both Filipino and American.

Lawyer Carmelyn Malalis said her “family and heritage inspire my work” at the New York City Commission on Human Rights.

Community organizer Steven Raga spoke about how he continues to engage in intergenerational opportunities where “young and seasoned leaders (can) collaborate.”

Entrepreneur John Gadia recalled how it was to be jobless in New York and how he grew his production company from a hobby into one of the community’s biggest concert promoters.

Mark Bustos, who offers free haircuts to homeless people and veterans, spoke about chasing your own dreams even if they are not exactly the dreams your parents have for you.

Dr. Kevin Nadal said he became a professor because he never had a Filipino-American professor and thought “I could change that for future generations.”

Young singer Gail Banawis thanked her parents and TOFA for “giving me more confidence to pursue my dreams as an entertainer.”

Soprano Katrina Saporsantos dedicated her award to musicians pushing for the preservation of Philippine classical music.

Nicole Ponseca said she opened her two restaurants, Maharlika and Jeepney, so that through food, Filipinos will “be recognized.”

Leyte-born Dr. Richard Holsman thanked “God Almighty for giving me the strength, courage and dedication” to be a healer through his physical therapy clinics.

Trans woman and gay rights advocate Chelle Lhuillier shared how she was removed as a school teacher because of bias and discrimination and vowed to use her visibility to “amplify the voices of the marginalized LGBT community.”

Young politician from New Jersey, Council Member Jonathan Wong, paid tribute to Filipinos’ proud heritage of sacrifice, commitment and excellence as exemplified by boxing great Manny Pacquiao.


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Awardee salon owner Mark Bustos.


The two organizations that received awards were Makilala, the first Fil-Am talk show in the New York area, and the PAGASA Social Foundation, Inc. for seniors.

This writer (MAKILALA TV co-founder) thanked Queens Public Television and Manhattan Neighborhood Network for providing a platform so that Filipino-Americans can engage in timely and meaningful conversations.

Consuelo Almonte talked about PAGASA’s advocacy to help seniors enjoy their Golden Years through music and storytelling, and other creative activities.

Founder and executive producer Elton Lugay noted how this year’s TOFA-NY, now on its fifth year, falls on a Halloween, and how this made the celebration even more exciting.

“Thirteen individuals and two organizations inspired us this year,” he said.

“There is empowerment in sharing their success stories.”

Lugay is joined by new board members Edwin Josue and Jerry Sibal, who are known throughout the community for their support of the arts, such as the Noli Me Tangere Opera and the Philippine Gold exhibit at the Asia Society.

One of the keynote speakers, CEO and philanthropist Loida Nicolas Lewis, commended TOFA-NY’s efforts in organizing a yearly event that celebrates Filipino American History Month in a festive and yet relevant and significant way.

She said the event brings Filipinos together to share and applaud one another’s success.

Other distinguished speakers were New York Power Authority CEO Gil Quiniones, fashion executive Ken Natori of The Natori Company, White House Executive Chef Cris Comerford, and entertainment journalist Janet Nepales, who is the first Filipina member of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.

Concert King Martin Nievera led the assembly of powerhouse musical performers, including Stephanie Reese, Jelly Balbuena, Angel Ram, Elaine Ficarra, Demi Valonzo, dancing partners Jungie and Sheena Zamora and the San Francisco-based Parangal Dance Company.

As emcee, Asia’s King of Talk Boy Abunda kept the program lighthearted and relaxed with his funny commentary, sharp wit, and high energy.

AARP returned for a second consecutive year as title sponsor, recognizing how TOFA-NY has “raised the profile of the Filipino-American community” and for honoring “15 exceptional individuals and organizations.”


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Asia’s King of Talk Boy Abunda ushers Consul General Mario de Leon, Jr. and CEO Loida Nicolas Lewis to the Weill Hall stage.


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Speaker While House executive chef Cris Comerford.


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Speaker fashion executive Ken Natori.


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Parangal Dance Company in a spectacular display of precision and footwork.


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Concert King Martin Nievera, with pianist Bobby Ramiro, draws program to a close with a medley of Original Pilipino Music hits.

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