Oct 16, 2009

A Regent Remembers the Mementoes of Exilic Life

By Aurelio S. Agcaoili, Ph D
Fil-Am Observer, Editor-In-Chief
Front Page

During one of the more recent telephone conversations I had with retired circuit court judge Artemio C. Baxa at his Maui base to return his call, I asked for some specifics he wanted me to tell those attending the 2009 Nakem International Conference when I would do the introduction of the keynote speaker, of which he was one of the two.

“Nothing,” he said, his voice firm, almost biblical in its timber and tone, the one we hear echoing when watching the classic movies of the Christian faith.

One senses a hint of a judge in that voice, one used to saying statements that meant only one thing and never suggesting any other to avoid a case of not-so-good legal hermeneutics that might lead to a bad play of words and a bad case of legalistic maneuvering based on an ambiguous semantics.

But there is a trace of a hopeful note in that voice, almost coaxing me in a fatherly way, even encouraging me to go slow with him and to say only the modest things the he knows he has done.

“Nothing extraordinary,” he reminds me, his voice full and energetic in that almost noontime return call I made to him that segued, for my benefit, into a conversation with a man imbued with mindfulness of so many things including that capacity to understand diversity in its myriad, surprising forms.

He has received our invitation for him to grace the conference by sharing with us his insights on the legal basis of cultural pluralism and the legal ethics involved in reframing linguistic and cultural rights from a human rights perspective.

At the Nakem Conference, we wanted to understand more fully what is the score in the eyes of the law—whether federal or international—insofar as education to justice and cultural democracy.

He said, “Yes” to our invitation—and he said, “yes” with some reservations as he said he was neither a scholar nor an academic who had explored or done work on these issues.

I told him we wanted his insights and that he had so much of those and that our people would be so glad to have gotten a piece of those insights that could only come from years of study and reflection and experience.

That also gave me the opening to pry open the almost hidden sanctuary of a man who is respected as a legal luminary, one of the few that have been able to get past the usual practice of law to blaze a new trail for immigrants like him.

In that classic sense, he is a model for the young—a role model for the Ilokanos and all Filipinos who have come to these islands to take part of the bounty Hawaii offers. At the announcement of his retirement from the bench, the Maui News titled its editorial page, “Retiring Judge A Maui Role Model.”

Here is a concrete exhibit—this Baxa success, this Baxa triumph—of what we can do to ourselves when we strive hard, strive harder, and strive hardest.

Here is a man from the ranks of the immigrants that wanted to get into law in the State of Hawaii, was ready to sacrifice in the pursuit of that dream, and lo and behold made it.

“It was hard work,” he says, matter-of-factly now, one of those understatements you hear from a man who knows well the meaning of humility.

The practice of law or the chance to assume the position of a judge did not come easy: both of these were opportunities beset with challenges that only the tough-hearted could hurdle.

I egg him on, almost forcing him to tell me that he is a poet of the Ilokano people, writing a major poem in Ilokano at age 15 and having it published, on the front pages of a major weekly magazine read like a sacred text by the Ilokano community dispersed all over the country.

It mattered that some of the members of the Ilokano reading public were from the State of Hawai’i, where several years after starting a career in law in the Philippines, he would soon go to search for that proverbial paradise that offers something better, something more meaningful, something with more chutzpah. His decision to leave the Philippines when a career in law was in its cusp was indeed a gutsy audacity rarely seen among the children of immigrants in his generation.

We would see that same chutzpah in the years ahead as soon as he set foot in the islands.

His father had moved to Hawaii years before, his father a sugar cane plantation worker who originally came from the northern part of the Philippines, the majority of those who came to Hawaii as sakadas, the popularized name of those who were recruited by the plantations to work in the fields.

Before moving to Hawaii, he had earned his degree in law from one of the leading law schools of the country, the Ateneo de Manila University.

From the Ateneo, he went on to the University of Chicago Law School to earn his master’s degree in comparative law.

After his master’s studies, he went back to Manila, worked for a law firm for a number of years, and then decided to join his father in a plantation camp in Pu’unene in Maui.

There were no law firms on Maui in need of his legal background.

He was trained as a lawyer, true, but found work as a part-time bellhop at a local hotel and as a community aide and project supervisor at an anti-poverty agency.

A study grant in urban and regional planning brought him to the University of Hawaii at Manoa, completed that study grant, and went back to Maui as a planner and coordinator of Maui Economic Opportunity.

Even with a master’s in law at the University Chicago Law School, he could not practice law in the State of Hawaii; at that time, the processes and procedures for professional training equivalency had not been put in place.

But law was in his blood; he dreamt of doing a lawyer’s work, studying cases, looking into arguments, and reading through the human stories in the cases that would take hold of his time.

He decided to go back to law school—and practice in Hawaii. He was well aware of the social cost, even the inconvenience this decision would have on his young family.

The logical step is to register at the Williamson S. Richardson School of Law.

That decision required the sacrifice of his family, even moving his family to Oahu while he studied law once more even after he had gained some knowledge and understanding of the laws of this country.

It was a difficult process of unlearning what one mostly had already known.

But he wanted nothing less than a lawyer’s work and he would go for it, pursue it, and in time, he knew he would get it.

His wife, now deceased, understood. She did not complain. She was there to do her part in the pursuit of that dream, always ready to sacrifice for her man.

That sacrifice would pay off. By 1978, he had finished law and had gotten his license to practice.

Between 1978 and 2004, the year he was admitted to practice in the Hawaii Supreme Court, he tirelessly worked for the local government of Maui particularly at the county’s Department of Human Concerns, even serving in that office as deputy director and as deputy prosecutor at the Department of the Prosecuting Attorney.

Because of his dedicated work for his department, he was awarded Employee of the Year; in that same year in 1988, the county of Maui honored him with the recognition Maui County Employee of the Year, the first person to be awarded that award by the county.

During the centennial of the coming of the sakadas to Hawaii, he served as member of the State of Hawaii Filipino Centennial Commission.

In a “poem” from the book “Anak” put together by the Maui Centennial Celebration Coordinating Council, Baxa lauded the sakadas, saying, “In the order and cadence of time, slowly but surely/ The cane cutter, throughout the State and every industry, / Has inspired kindred faces toward other occupations, / Though yet a minority in some genteel vocations.”

Truly, there is much to remember, as there is much to hope for as we get hold with care the mementoes of our immigrant and exilic, even diasporic, lives.

Our numbers are increasing but we want some more: those in the genteel vocations Baxa says that are a minority becoming, hopefully in the end, a majority.

I put the phone back to its set after our telephone conversation, relieved that in the October of our celebration of the Filipino American History Month, a model of what we need to recall, to remember, to revisit, is the model of a life of giving and sacrifice that retired judge Artemio Baxa demonstrated and continues to demonstrate as a member of the Board of Regents of the University of Hawaii since 2008.

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