TOFA Class of 2016.  (All photos by Francis Faina)

Goal-setting, obedience and determination — these have propelled countless individuals to excellence, among them The Outstanding Filipinos in America (TOFA), according to philanthropist Loida Nicolas Lewis, who paid tribute to TOFA honorees at Carnegie Hall (Weill Recital Hall) in New York on Oct. 8, 2016.

“The awardees this year are worthy of the designation of outstanding Filipinos in America because they imbibed the three secrets to success: Goal-setting — they dream big and work very hard to reach their goal; Obedience to code of ethics, obedience to the golden rule — they do to others what they want others to do to them and they do not do to others what they do not want others to do to them; Determination — they may fail many times, they experience failure, disappointments, disasters in their lives, but they keep going no matter what,” Lewis said in her keynote speech at the Sixth Annual TOFA Awards.
“Goal is G; Obedience is O; Determination is D — put them together spells GOD. With God, everything is possible. With God, nothing is impossible. Those are the lessons we learn from our honorees today,” she added.

The Sixth Annual TOFA Awards had honorees from Chicago, Florida, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. joining outstanding Fil-Ams from the New York tri-state area in celebrating Filipino American History Month.

The event is organized by New York-based journalist Elton Lugay, who founded TOFA in December 2010 and has been its executive producer since.

Atty. Billy Dec, the only Fil-Am commissioner appointed to the White House Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, was stoked.

It was his first time to grace the annual TOFA gathering as a keynote speaker and this year’s honoree for business and entrepreneurship.

“TOFA is an incredible gathering and celebration of prominent and influential Filipino-Americans who have made game-changing contributions across many different sectors of society, further displaying the rich history, heritage, artistry, value, leadership and culture that the Filipino-American community has woven into the great, diverse, beautiful fabric of America,” he said.

U.S. Federal Judge Lorna Schofield echoed this sentiment in her keynote address.

“I love the TOFA event for showcasing the diversity of talent and public service of this community,” she said.

Ambassador Mario L. de Leon, Jr., Philippine consul general to New York and TOFA’s Heritage awardee, drove the point home by citing that the United States hosts the biggest percentage of the Filipino diaspora with about 4 million out of an estimated 10 million overseas Filipinos living in America.

“Everywhere we go, and especially here in the U.S., Filipinos have mastered the art of assimilating and integrating to their second home. We are gifted with a resilient spirit and are sociable beings, making allies of our neighbors and developing good relations with the greater community in our host countries,” he said.

“As we celebrate Filipino American History Month this October, we are reminded of the history and narrative of a people that thrive and flourish wherever they find themselves in. From the early mariners and farm settlers in Louisiana to the Delano Manongs in California, we started as a struggling community, but are now a rising force in American society. 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,” he added.


Consul General Mario L. de Leon, Jr.

Noting that quite a number of Filipinos have been appointed or elected to public office, de Leon said proof of the rising esteem of mainstream America for the Fil-Am community could be seen all across the U.S.

“The Filipino-American community has indeed emerged a force to be reckoned with in U.S. society. We are given leadership positions in government, business, the arts, and civil society, indicating that Filipinos have finally achieved due recognition and respect in our second home, the United States. Hopefully, this recognition and respect will translate into more U.S. cooperation for our beloved country, the Philippines. Awareness, Respect, Cooperation — these have always been my key messages since Day One in 2011. And I am happy that as a community, we are moving fast forward in that direction,” he said.

It was a bittersweet moment for the ConGen, whose tour of duty ended last month.

Holding back tears as he delivered what may very well be his farewell speech, he thanked community partners, including TOFA, for raising the profile of Fil-Ams.

Positive vibe

The Sixth Annual TOFA Awards night was one of surprises and some firsts.

The first surprise came as Band of Brothers’ JC Lozano fainted after the group rendered the Philippine national anthem.

The audience was aghast as he started turning purple right there on-stage.

To everybody’s relief, he was revived after several minutes.

With the deft hosting of Boy Abunda, “Asia’s King of Talk” and now “Dr. Boy” after receiving his Ph.D. from Philippine Women’s University last summer, the show went on with more pleasant surprises.

For instance, in her acceptance speech, award-winning journalist Janet Nepales, this year’s entertainment honoree along with husband Ruben, revealed they were Abunda’s contemporaries.

“Ruben and I thank TOFA, especially Elton Lugay. Being honored in Boy Abunda’s presence is special to both of us because Boy reminds us of our early days back in Manila. Ruben and Boy rode together on the Love Bus almost every day to their respective work. While I was starting my career as a journalist, Boy was also beginning his career as a publicist at the Metropolitan Theater. So it feels like this award brings us full circle. It inspires us to continue shining a spotlight on Filipino talents everywhere,” she said.


White House AA&PI Initiative Commissioner Billy Dec.

In a rare appearance, the legendary Ryan Cayabyab accompanied singers Joseph Legaspi and Rasmin Diaz on the piano.

Cutuy Herrero, daughter of the late Subas Herrero, also stirred the crowd with her rendition of Adele’s “All I Ask,” a song co-written and co-produced by Bruno Mars.

A total of 15 awards were handed out in batches throughout the evening, with honorees unanimously expressing gratitude and Filipino pride.

This year’s honorees include Florida-based Brendan Flores, national chairman of the National Federation of Filipino American Associations (NaFFAA), for community service and advocacy;

Marie Blanco, vice-chairman of the Filipino Veterans Recognition and Education Project (FILVETREP), for public service and politics;

Camille Araullo, manager of volunteer resources at the Los Angeles LGBT Center, for LGBT Advocacy;

Miss Universe Pia Wurtzbach for fashion and style; and

Aries Dela Cruz for courage of conviction.

Also honored this year in their respective fields are Erno Hormillosa, arts and culture;

Dr. Fred Andes for education, research and technology;

Linda De los Reyes, food and restaurants;

Dr. Crispin Ayroso Jr., healthcare;

Lito Gajilan, media and publishing;

Fe Martinez, senior welfare and advocacy;

as well as Josh Sembrano for youth and sports.

“My heartfelt congratulations to all the winners of this year’s TOFA Awards who have each contributed so much in their respective fields,” said Commissioner and Chair of the NYC Commission on Human Rights Carmelyn P. Malalis.

“As the Commissioner of the NYC Commission on Human Rights and former TOFA award winner myself, it was a great honor to welcome this year’s honorees from near and far to New York City.”

Malalis, representing Mayor Bill de Blasio, was the first speaker of the evening.

NaFFAA’s Flores did not let Hurricane Matthew stop him from attending the TOFA event.

With all flights cancelled, he drove for 15 hours from Florida to NYC.

“I see tremendous opportunity for Filipino-Americans from all generations and backgrounds to hold the baton together and work in partnership to further our community,” he said in his acceptance speech.


NYC Human Rights Commission Chair Carmelyn Malalis.

FILVETREP’s Blanco called for wider community involvement in legislating the Filipino Veterans of World War II Congressional Gold Medal Act of 2015.

In the same vein, Christine Sakdalan, vice-president of diabetes/obesity marketing at Novo Nordisk, asked the audience to help minimize diabetes incidence through early diagnosis.

The Fil-Am community is the second-largest population among Asian-Americans at risk of already suffering from the silent killer, she said.

Novo Nordisk hosts online portals that provide information and resources to manage diabetes.  

Sembrano, thus far TOFA’s youngest honoree, paid tribute to his family.

“Dad, I strive to be like you every day and thank you for being my role model. You show me every day what hard work and perseverance looks like. To my sisters: thanks for always keeping me humble and always being there for me,” he said.

The positive vibe was palpable well beyond the event, as guests gathered for an after-party hosted by Lewis in her Manhattan home.

Abunda has described TOFA Awards as the most reputable Filipino award-giving body in the U.S.

“It is very important because it honors Filipino achievers. And that’s what we need these days — we need heroes, we need people to inspire us,” he said in a message to TOFA Awards.

About TOFA Awards

Founded by New York-based journalist Elton Lugay in December 2010, The Outstanding Filipinos in America (TOFA) Awards recognize organizations and individuals who have raised the profile of Filipino-Americans in the New York tri-state area.

As the organization tread new territory this year, TOFA New York co-founder Cristina DC Pastor rejoined the TOFA board.

A veteran journalist, Pastor is the founding editor of The FilAm and co-host of Makilala TV.

Bobby Yalong and Vince Gesmundo, TOFA chief finance officer, also served on the board.

Notable TOFA Award winners include Tony winners Lea Salonga, Bobby Lopez and Jhett Tolentino; Pulitzer Prize winner Jose Antonio Vargas; fashion designers Monique Lhuillier, Josie Natori and Betina Ocampo; Mahwah, N.J. Councilmember Jonathan Wong; New York City Commission on Human Rights Chair Carmelyn Malalis; transgender activists Geena Rocero and Chelle Lhuillier; and multi-awarded seasoned journalist Sheila Coronel.

Presented by AARP, the Sixth Annual TOFA Awards was sponsored by VYNZ-NY Entertainment, Oro Women’s Society and Jerasyl Entertainment, Western Union, LBC, Wells Fargo and Novo Nordisk.


TOFA Awardee Brendan Flores flanked by Judge Lorna Schofield (left) and Atty. Loida Nicolas Lewis.


Baritone Joseph Legaspi, Maestro Ryan Cayabyab on piano and TOFA Musical Director Maestro Bobby Ramiro (far left).


TOFA Master of Ceremonies Dr. Boy Abunda.


Songstress Cutuy Herrero, daughter of the late Filipino actor Subas Herrero.

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