Emil Guillermo: What we do for love, money, and democracy

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What? You working on Labor Day weekend?Well, yes. On the weekend that Jimmy Buffett died, we must be mindful that he was no Margaritaville slacker. He made hundreds of millions of dollars selling the fantasy of not working hard. He worked plenty hard, albeit in flip-flops.

Or you just do what you love, and hopefully get paid. Enough.

And if you don’t, you do what you love anyway. Because you love it, be that in the arts, democracy, whatever. Money shouldn’t be the sole object anyway. The question we seek to answer is what in our labor is purposeful, worthwhile.

There’s a part in my one-man show when I talk about my relatives’ reaction to my being a broadcaster on television, coming out of the same box as their favorite TV stars. To them, that’s where I worked—inside that box. Seeing an Asian American Filipino in 1980 on TV was akin to witnessing an astronomical event. Sort of like the recent Blue Moon.

That was local news even in San Francisco, normally seen as a hotbed of Asianness.

But when my relatives, all hard-working immigrants from the Philippines who came to the U.S. between 1928 and 1975, saw me, they were all amazed.

“So, Emil, you just get on the camera, and you just talk?” my Auntie Pacing would ask me. She worked in restaurants and hospitals all her life. “And you don’t have to clean up or anything? You just talk and report? That’s work?”

It was a foreign notion to her that Filipinos who came to America mostly to work in the fields in the 1920s and 1930s for ten cents an hour could wear a suit, speak, and afford to pay the rent.

I think on Labor Day about how lucky I am to have done what I’ve done as a journalist. Something that my relatives a generation away weren’t able to pursue.

I generally do news and opinion, but drift into the arts as the heart calls. And to have the luxury of feelings and to be able to put them on display somewhere on stage, on screen, on the internet is a definite luxury.

Perhaps that’s less so now as younger generations put distance between themselves and the past and forge their way on new paths of Asian American self-expression.

So this weekend, I’m grateful to be a part of writer Ishmael Reed’s “The Conductor,” his 11th play to add to his list of novels, poetry, and essays. Reed is a master at inclusion. He’s always seen society excluding people of color, and he puts us all in the story. I’ve known Reed for more than 40 years and that’s been his mission with his Before Columbus Foundation. In this new play, “The Conductor,” Reed leads the fight against anti-wokism and the dimming of BIPOC histories taking place at both the grassroots and international levels. In his play, Reed satirizes the right-wing effort to take over education at the local level and puts it amid an international controversy that has people turning against Asian Indians. That’s the narrative, but there’s history lessons galore, including one on Chinese American author Frank Chin, who wrote “The Chickencoop Chinaman.”

If you’re in New York, don’t miss this run of “The Conductor,” at Theater for the New City, 155 First Ave, Thursday to Saturday @8pm, Sundays @3pm through Sept. 10.

I have a small role in “The Conductor,” as a conservative commentator. Think of a Filipino Tucker Carlson.

But I save my own personal story for my one-man show, a newly updated, “Emil Amok, Lost NPR Host: A Phool’s History of Filipino America.” Phool is how they spelled it at the Lampoon when I competed to be a member freshman year. I had to explain why it wasn’t spelled, “Philippino.” And then they made me carry a pineapple around Harvard Yard.

A Latina friend paid me a compliment the other day after she saw it in San Francisco, saying it was like John Leguizamo’s “Latin American History for Morons.” Flattered by the comparison, but it’s definitely more Asian. Check it out for yourself.

Two performances only, Sept. 6 @7pm, and Sept. 14 @9:30pm (all times ET).

This one you can livestream from Hawaii, Alaska, Saudi Arabia, Manila, anywhere. It’s better in person, where we can exchange our humanness. But get a livestreamed ticket if you can’t be in New York’s Under St. Marks Theater in the East Village (94 St. Marks Place, NYC)


So there’s what we do for money and for love. What do we do for democracy? There’s definitely love and passion involved in the fight for democracy. Just ask any freedom fighting revolutionary. And there’s also some art. Just consider how legislation is made.

But it’s worth mentioning the work it takes to make sure a democracy functions well. And so we remember the nitty gritty work done by election workers everywhere. The unsung heroes. They do get paid. But not all that much. They do it because the work has to get done to make democracy work. How do voters get information? How do ballots get distributed, sorted, then counted?

We take election workers for granted. And if you ever doubted the value of what they do, just look at Ruby Freeman and her daughter Shaye Moss. You met them during their testimony at the Jan. 6 Committee hearings in Washington.

They were stand-ins for average Americans like you and me.

Freeman was the election worker accused by Rudy Giuliani of nefarious deeds aiding in the theft of an election against Trump.

It was a baseless claim by Giuliani, one of 18 co-conspirators in the organized racketeering case in Georgia accused of attempting to subvert democracy.

In a separate case, Freeman sued Giuliani for defamation, calling out Giuliani for spreading lies about her and her daughter Moss, also an election worker.

They claim the lies about them impacted their ability to live and work without fear of reprisals in our polarized society.

Giuliani conceded the facts of the case last week, which means the court will only consider the damages at the next hearing.

And right now, Michael Gottlieb, the lawyer for Freeman and Moss, told CNN the damages could be “tens of millions of dollars.”

“You heard me correctly,” said Gottlieb to a CNN anchor. “It is our expectation that we’ll be able to prove tens of millions of dollars in compensatory damages before you get punitive damages in a case that we will present to the jury.”

A jury of their peers, serving the public. Just like election workers. This should be an easy one to get right.

When people like Giuliani defame and lie about election workers, there must be a stiff price to pay.

On Labor Day weekend, let’s remember election workers like Ruby Freeman and Shaye Moss. Too often seen as being in thankless jobs, their labor is more than a worthwhile pursuit when done in the protection of democracy.

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NOTE: I will talk about this column and other matters on “Emil Amok’s Takeout,” my AAPI micro-talk show. Live @2p Pacific. Livestream on Facebook; my YouTube channel; and Twitter. Catch the recordings on