Emil Guillermo: Diversity at the movies? Was that Kiyoshi Kuromiya in a few frames of "Selma"?
January 19, 2015 12:56 PM

If you're an Asian American like me, you may be watching movies and media for any presence of Asian or Asian American anything. 

It's like our "AA-dar." 

Among the Oscar-nominated movies of note, mine went off in "Boyhood," when Mason crashes at his sister's University of Texas dorm with his girlfriend, and in walks the "sister's roommate." 

Yup, the Asian American student, who politely agrees to get lost while the others get it on.

It's the typical role. Compliant. On the margins. Not the one having sex. 

Unfortunately, there's no category for "best minimal presence in a major motion picture." 

Oddly enough, my "AA-dar" also went off during "Selma."

If you plan to see the movie for MLK Day, or soon after, please go and keep your eyes peeled during MLK's speech on the capitol steps of Alabama.

Although I cannot verify this with the producers in a complete Zapruder film-like analysis, look at the black and white clips interspersed in the film's scenes of the big March, the final one in the movie that actually took place on March 25. 

There is a non-black face with black hair and an Asian-sized body among a group walking by with signs. It's a wide angle/side view. They walk by in a flash, but no matter how faint, and for how many seconds, I could sense we were in the presence of an Asian American.

Steven Kiyoshi Kuromiya. 
kuromiya3.jpgAs we honor Dr. King throughout the nation, Kuromiya is one of the Asian Americans among the closest to Dr. King.

In the assassination year of 1968, Kuromiya cared for Dr. King's kids at the King house the week of his funeral.

But in 1965, Kuromiya, as a member of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and later a member of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), met Dr. King.

If you miss the frames that flash by at the end of "Selma," imagine Kuromiya on the front lines at the first marches at Selma. He was one of those clubbed by the state troopers in Alabama.

In a Life magazine piece, Kuromiya talked about his role: 

I was in the South during the spring and summer of 1965. After Revered James Reeb was killed, we marched and I was clubbed down and hospitalized. When you get treated this way, you suddenly know what it is like to be a black in Mississippi or a peasant in Vietnam. You learn something about going through channels then too. I gave my story to an FBI agent in the hospital. He took seven pages of notes, but I remember thinking at the time it was probably just about as effective as relaying information to the ACLU via the House Un-American Activities Committee. Nothing ever came of it, at any rate.

It sparked Kuromiya's independence for taking real action, for the public good, and, of course, through non-violent means. 

If you want to be a rebel, Kuromiya would be a good role model.

Of course, he already knew what discrimination felt like. He was born while incarcerated by the U.S. in a Wyoming internment camp during World War II. 

His family later moved to Monrovia, California, and Kuromiya went on to college at Penn. As a student, he made sure his voice was heard in the biggest issues of the day, the antiwar and civil rights movements.

Like Dr. King, Kuromiya knew that protest and the media go hand in hand. To draw attention to the use of napalm in Vietnam, he staged an event where a dog was threatened to be burned alive on the library steps at Penn. When thousands turned up, they saw Kuromiya's message: "Congratulations on your anti-napalm protest. You saved the life of a dog. Now, how about saving the lives of tens of thousands of people in Vietnam?"

Later, Kuromiya became a legendary fighter for AIDS research, known as the founder of Critical Path, and a member of ACT-UP. 

Kuromiya died of AIDS in May 2000, just 56 years old.

When you think about Dr. King, remember that the fight was never just a black and white thing. 

Asian Americans stood with Dr. King in the common fight for equality.

It may not be always reflected, but if you look hard enough, you'll find that we had a voice.

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Read about my take on the Oscar snub of "Selma" and more of MLK here.
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Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator.
Updates at www.amok.com. Follow Emil on Twitter, and like his Facebook page.

The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF's views or policies.

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Emil Guillermo: Margaret Cho talks to me about the Golden Globes, the White Oscars, "Fresh Off the Boat," and Sex
January 16, 2015 5:32 PM

More than Jennifer Lopez's dress, it was Margaret Cho on the Golden Globes that made me do a double-take last week. And she was in that sexy North Korean military drag.

At first glance, I just wasn't sure it was her. If you've seen Cho's stand-up shows on cable, you know she's outrageously tatted, speaks her mind, and is as amok an Asian American as it gets.

I liked her lampoon of a North Korean general and movie fan. I thought it was toned down, given the current spikier Cho, but conservative enough for the venue. So I was shocked to see the reaction she got this past week from people who actually  thought she was racist.

I talked to her on Friday by phone as she prepared to shoot her new TLC talk show, "All About Sex" (Saturdays at 11 pm). 
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E: Let's go to the beginning. Did they approach you? Did they say, "Hey Margaret, why don't you do this for us?"

M: Yes. Well, Tina [Fey] asked me to do it a few weeks ago, and I was delighted because I love her and love working with her. And so I just came in the day before and we worked it out. And I wrote the jokes for like the whole thing and we just did it.

E: And it was planned to do the open with the magazine and the selfie or the "semi-selfie" with Meryl Streep?

M: Yes.

E: She was in on it?

M: No, not really. But she's kind of up for whatever, so she was into doing it. It was great because we were ready to handle whatever, so it was fine.

E: And Michael Keaton, he was going to take [the picture]?

M: Yes, so we arranged that beforehand. That worked out well.

E: And [Benedict] Cumberbatch, he did his [photobomb] thing. That was a surprise, or was he supposed to do that?
M: That was a surprise.

E: It made it even punchier...Tell me about going into this. Any trepidation at all? You knew it was going to be somewhat polarizing?

M: No, I didn't think there would be any...I thought it was great. I was [hearing] laughs. I really enjoyed myself. It was a moment to have some fun with my friends, whom I never get to see, so it was great.

E: When I saw you, I said, "That's Margaret Cho;" it didn't surprise me considering the edgy nature of your comedy. I thought it was funny, but the reaction was mixed. Do you understand why some people might have felt...negatively? 

M: No, I'm not a racist person so I don't know. It's only people that are racist who were acting negatively, unfortunately. What is really racist is that I'm the only Asian person involved in the entire event. And what's really racist is there's no people of color in any of the acting nominations for the Oscars. 

E: People in the background, in the wings, you didn't see any Asians there at all? 

M: No. Wait, there was one Asian cameraman. That's it. I know him. So that was awesome...I said hi to him [giggle]. Julie Chen was in the audience, but she was not presenting or anything.

E: What's amazing is you've been at this for so long. It's been 20 years since the cancellation of "All American Girl." March of '95. And we're still fighting for representation.

M. Right, I don't know over what. But something. 

E: We're still fighting for some kind of representation.

M: Right.

E: And even then when you broke through in '94 and we were all rooting for you and I was writing for Asian Week at the time, even then you had a kind of mixed reaction to "All American Girl."

M: Well, yeah. But I don't know why. I don't think there really was anything that could have been done. That wasn't the show I would have done. I don't think it would have gotten on the air if it hadn't been the way that it was. I didn't have that much control then over what I could do. But I guess anytime there is Asian American representation in the media in Hollywood and television and movies, whatever, there's got to be some kind of backlash because people are racist and they are not used to seeing Asian faces out there.

E: I thought it was incredible to see that cast, Amy Hill, BD Wong, a Lincoln High guy from San Francisco, but now 20 years later, are you still astonished that it's taken so long?...[TV] is [still] not quite the perfect mirror to society.

M: No.

E: It must be frustrating for someone like you.

M: It's very frustrating.

E: Now 20 years later, we've got "Fresh Off the Boat." Have you seen it? What do you think?

M: Yes, I helped Eddie [Huang] tremendously in the beginning. And I feel like in a lot of ways, this is my show too. I'm really proud of it. I think it's great. It's really funny. And I feel like it accomplishes a lot of the things that I set out to do, but could not do 20 years ago because of the time, my own situation within show business, my own inexperience then. Now, finally, there's someone who can do it, Eddie Huang and the show "Fresh Off the Boat" is genius. I'm very proud of it.

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Back to the Globes, free speech, and satire. 

Cho said because free speech is being threatened, "it's important to do jokes about that kind of stuff and be very aware of the world around you.

I related to Cho some of the free speech her performance inspired, in the form of the criticism I got after I defended Cho on the AALDEF blog. One comment in particular came from an Asian American English professor in Wisconsin, who seemed to over-intellectualize the issue to such a degree that I wasn't even sure what he was saying. And we were just tweeting.

But after consulting Cliff Notes, I think I understand. 

The professor believes it doesn't matter whether you call it satire or free speech. If the tools Cho used were the same tools, same stereotypes, used by the racists, he said, then the result is the same; Asians are lesser beings, making General Cho no different than Charlie Chan.

If you look at the "absolute value" of a racial image--and discount all the major differences--I guess it doesn't matter. The images of white supremacy win. Hence, we all lose. 

Hmm. This is why we have PhDs. It figures an academic would come up with that. Sounds like a good thesis topic, right alongside "the homosexual themes in Moby Dick."

Cho responded: "That's the dumbest thing. People trying to qualify their racism by saying that I was trying to be like Charlie Chan. They don't understand that I'm actually Asian, I'm actually Korean. That's the stupidest justification for their own racism."

But what if they're like this English professor, an Asian American? Does she buy into his belief that using the same stereotypes as the racists actually furthers white supremacy?

"And therefore people of color can't make commentary on people of color, therefore Asian people cannot talk about other Asian people?" Cho responded. "This is basically saying white people can only talk about white people. That's what they're saying. They're racist."

It's also likely the reason that whites and the white media are happy to leave us out of things. Under the guise of not wanting to offend anyone, we end up with this irony. As society gets more diverse, some of our cultural institutions--in an effort not to be offensive--get blander and whiter by the moment. It also doesn't leave much room for real Asian Americans to talk honestly. 

Or take another example: Some Asians may think it's free speech when they talk amongst themselves. They're just too afraid to talk freely in general. But that's not free speech, that's self-censorship in action. And that's exactly why First Amendment protections exist--to make sure minority opinions are not intimidated by the majority.

On any topic. Even talk about sex, which Cho is doing a lot of these days on her new cable series on TLC on Saturday nights at 11 pm. 

"It's a new kind of role going into a talk show, to be an expert on this subject, and being from San Francisco, which is a very common thing," said Cho. "I'm proud of it."

Being from San Francisco, I guess having three kids makes me some kind of expert. But maybe not to the degree of Cho, self-described as polyamorous, which has nothing to do with a love of polyester.

She's also is a multi-tasker as the only bi-sexual co-host on the show. So I asked her whether, among all the different formats she works in, the talk show allows her the freedom to be who she really is.

"Yeah, I think so," Cho said. "But they're all different aspects and types of performance and they're all easy for me."

We ended the conversation with her last line at the Golden Globes. Would she host the award show as dictated by the general next year? Or was that a joke? 

"I don't know, I'd love to," she said. "We'll see."

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Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator.
Updates at www.amok.com. Follow Emil on Twitter, and like his Facebook page. 
The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF's views or policies.

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Emil Guillermo: Margaret Cho stole the show at the Golden Globes
January 12, 2015 10:47 AM

I always wondered whether I could create a ruckus by getting a voting membership in the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, by virtue of my column "Emil Amok" appearing in a Philippines publication. You know, as the second coming of dictator Ferdinand Marcos of the movies, I could vote for more Filipino and Asian American actors and actresses.

But General Cho Yung Ja, a North Korean army general and a contributor to Movies Wow magazine, beat me to it.

To paraphrase the great Hollywood film producer Samuel Goldwyn, if you have a message, don't call Western Union. Host a movie awards show. Or better yet, steal the show by being a running satirical prop.

And that's the kind of night comedian Margaret Cho had, coming out of nowhere to be the evening's "in-your-face" star.

There she was in full military drag, in a scowling white face that made Amy Poehler seem like a person of color, and that unmistakable Korean accent.

Why not? She heard it all her life growing up in San Francisco. It was pitch perfect.
It came out naturally to top off jokes satirizing the biggest story in Hollywood last year, North Korea's hack of the Sony movie, "The Interview." 

Co-hosts Tina Fey and Amy Poehler sharply attacked that story right from the start. In the opening, they joked about celebrating "all the movies that North Korea was OK with."

They launched into how the threat of an attack due to "The Interview" forced us "all to pretend we wanted to see it."

They said the movie was called "absolutely intolerable as a wanton act of terror," and then the punchline: "...not the worst review the movie got."

Funny, but there would be a topper--General Cho.

Being from San Francisco, I feel a kinship for Cho. She's also our Asian American comic queen, who brought us the first modern network Asian American sitcom, "All-American Girl" in 1994. Since then, she's been racier, edgier, funnier.

And when she was brought on to do her generalissima thing, Cho killed it.

At first it was just the look, holding up her Korean fanzine. Then there was the "sort-of-selfie" bit with Meryl Streep (actually taken by Michael Keaton) that sent up the "Ellen at the Oscars" gag.

But that wasn't all. The general came back throughout the show, criticizing it for not having a multitude of babies playing violins, or basketball players like Dennis Rodman. Like all good satire, there's an uncomfortable danger. It hits a nerve.

But was the portrayal racist? 


A better case for racism could be made when SNL trots out Bobby Moynihan every time as Kim Jong-un.

Cho was just being realistic. And scarily so, when you catch yourself and wonder if it's real. 

If that was you, you need to have more Asian and Asian American friends.

But was it an Asian minstrel show? A yellow Fetchit? 

If anything, it was Chaplinesque.

Go ahead, admit to your laughter. Cho's target was right: North Korea. 

And that's what you call satire, twitterpeeps. 

Of course, the twitterverse was full of those who didn't see it that way.

Well, that's the nature of satire. If you don't laugh or disagree, you get to speak out. Free speech begets more free speech. Debate. That's the way it works. You don't try to shut anyone down. You don't intimidate. You add to the conversation. You tweet your peace. 

These Globes seemed to have all sorts of diversity messages. The win for Amazon show "Transparent" was a high point for the transgendered community. "Jane the Virgin" star Gina Rodriguez, who beat out "Girls" star Lena Dunham for best actress in a comedy, was a moment for Latinos everywhere. So was Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's win as best director for "Birdman." It was one of my favorite movies of 2014, and its star Michael Keaton brought home the class issue. He revealed to the room of successful bratty stars his humble start in the Midwest, as he accepted his award for "Birdman." 

"Selma" was expected to have its moment, and it did. But it was just a win for its song, "Glory." Prince, in a '60s afro and carrying a walking stick, presented the award. Maybe he was ready to beat back an Alabama state trooper. Whatever he was up to, it nearly upstaged the rapper Common, who played James Bevel in the movie. Common spoke like many of a younger generation just learning about the history. And he made the movie's point when he said, "Selma is now."

It was moving, but the civil rights moment of "Selma" didn't resonate with the night like the fight against the repression of free speech.

Theo Kingma, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association president, said: "Together we will stand united against anyone who would repress free speech, anywhere from North Korea to Paris." It got the longest, if not the only real standing ovation of the night.

It was even longer than when lifetime achievement winner George Clooney mentioned the millions of unity marchers in Europe, to which many in the room may have been oblivious.

But this was about the self-absorbed movie world. And the big story there was how "Boyhood," won for best picture, and deservingly so. Along with "Birdman," "Boyhood," with its universal message about life, shot over 12 years, were my two favorite films. (Hey, I was the movie critic for the San Francisco NBC affiliate from 1984-89.) 

But you can't end with "Boyhood." A three-hour-plus show needed to end with a bang.

Enter General Cho, one more time: "Show over, I host next year. Good night!" 

We can only hope. 

I would have preferred that more Asian American actors and filmmakers get their recognition. But Cho, in my opinion, was pretty damn good as a North Korean military movie dominatrix.

In a night of stars, an Asian American taking down the dictator wins the night.

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Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator.
Updates at www.amok.com. Follow Emil on Twitter, and like his Facebook page.

The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF's views or policies.

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Emil Guillermo: Asian Americans are Charlie Hebdo
January 8, 2015 12:41 PM

Je suis Charlie. Nous sommes Charlie. Can you tell I was a Francophile in high school? (The man can conjugate an irregular verb!) My French high school teachers were teachers' union radicals who had an impact. I loved everything French for many years. I even lived in France--in Paris, but also on a farm in the Pyrenees. I grew to love everything French, including their screwy handwriting. I envied the Vietnamese their colonizer. They had France, while the Philippines had Spain. My love for France waned as an adult. Mostly because France had changed--its immigration issues, the rise of the right-wing. Foie gras.

But when the Charlie Hebdo murders occurred this week, it all came back. And I was in shock for the death of the French satirists.

After my last post of 2014 on my distaste for SNL's "Asian American Doll," you may think I am anti-satire. 

Au contraire! 

Hey, I'm the guy who writes a column called "Emil Amok."

Satire is in the blood of anyone who dares speak the truth in a derisive tone. I've done it all my life. And usually from the position of an Asian American pricking someone's balloon. 

Asian Americans, of course, are natural satirists in an absurd modern world, where minorities must continue to speak out or be ignored. Humor and sarcasm only make the irony bearable.

People don't always agree on what's funny. Or what balloon is worth pricking. Some balloons and their makers get used to all the blowing that have made them large and prickable. They like the rich lifestyles to which they've become accustomed. And some have even learned to prick back at the lowly.

But real satirists aren't that cowardly. They understand the purpose of satire in a free society and they go after the high and mighty.

Satire attacks to clear the air. It exposes the truth so that people see the big picture. And hopefully, it's all accompanied by an explosion of laughter. 

And more discussion.

When I saw the SNL doll parody, I got angry. 

But I didn't want to shut SNL down. I didn't even demand an apology. I simply spoke out.

It's the gift of free speech in an open society. Free speech begets more speech. You discuss, you talk (or write). You spend hours at the sidewalk cafe with others, nursing your demi-tasse. 

And that's at the crux of the Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris. 

The response from the gunmen was an attack on the way we do it in a free, civilized, and democratic society.

Satirical barbs are invitations to debate, not for bullets. 

The gunmen disagree. I wish they had drawn a cartoon rebuttal. 

When I first heard the news, I couldn't believe the headlines that included the line "a French satirical magazine."

I didn't want people to think the satirists were somehow lower in the food chain than, say, the writers at The New York Times

The fact is they were journalists. A truth-teller is a truth-teller. 

It takes courage to do that in these days when the more truth you tell, the more it costs you.

For the cartoon satirists at Charlie Hebdo, it cost them their lives.

The magazine, known for skewering the authoritarians in government, religion, and the military, had the right targets.

Charlie Hebdo had the sharpest sticks. And the most courage.

Interesting now how some journalism organizations won't even publish some of the cartoons of Charlie Hebdo.  But the
Washington Post will.

So now it's our turn as a global society to respond courageously to those who will bully us into silence.

Salman Rushdie issued this statement about the killings yesterday:

Religion, a medieval form of unreason, when combined with modern weaponry becomes a real threat to our freedoms. This religious totalitarianism has caused a deadly mutation in the heart of Islam and we see the tragic consequences in Paris today. I stand with Charlie Hebdo, as we all must, to defend the art of satire, which has always been a force for liberty and against tyranny, dishonesty and stupidity. Respect for religion has become a code phrase meaning "fear of religion." Religions, like all other ideas, deserve criticism, satire, and, yes, our fearless disrespect.

It applies to all religious zealots, and maybe to a lesser degree to the nuns I knew with their deadly rulers. 

Conan O'Brien, whom I last saw in a jester's outfit in college at the Harvard Lampoon, said this last night: "All of us are terribly sad for the families of the victims to the people of France, and for anyone else in the world tonight who now has to think twice before making a joke. That's not the way it's supposed to be."

It's true. We're all thinking twice before telling a joke these days. 

In a free world, that's not freedom.

Charlie Hebdo is a reminder of the courage it takes to live up to our ideals. 

Nous sommes tous Charlie.

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Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator.
Updates at www.amok.com. Follow Emil on Twitter, and like his Facebook page.

The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF's views or policies.

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Emil Guillermo: "Saturday Night Live" TV ad parody on Asian American Doll is downright racist
December 22, 2014 7:09 PM

I won't waste your time. Here's the problem with that "Saturday Night Live" Asian American Doll sketch right up front: It's so self-consciously aware of pandering to diversity that it's really a blatant attack on remedies for equality, fairness, and civil rights.

These are principles we should all support, right?

But the ad parody speaks for corporations and all others tired of giving in to minority demands, in this case, a doll that is racially sensitive.

It's become the post-civil rights lament of white conservatives, a variation on an old theme. You know, the one that goes, "Haven't we done enough? Isn't political correctness just so much B.S.?"

SNL's playing that up for laughs, in a mock ad that depicts not-so-innocent white girls and a white mother as the adoring consumers of Asian American Doll.


Somehow, that's supposed to soften the message and make it seem like the show is really mocking white attitudes. 

But it's just a rhetorical trick to enable SNL to say it's arguing both sides. 

Whites buying these dolls! That's funny.

But SNL also makes fun of Asian Americans who complain about these dolls. They are those self-righteous, unfunny, politically correct killjoys who fight for equal rights and justice.

If you laughed at the sketch, then you laughed at everyone who fights for equality over all the little things that add up in society, the little transgressions that really do matter.

When I saw the sketch, I wondered why they would make merciless fun of Asian Americans who dare to advocate for justice.

Would SNL do the same with Dr. King? Give him a watermelon and have him engaged in a seed-spitting contest at Selma?

They wouldn't do that because blacks have risen at SNL over the last year.

Asian Americans? Not at all.

I guess it was too much to expect that after "Saturday Night Live" hired multiple black performers and writers in the last year, all its diversity problems had been solved.

SNL is now a lot more sensitive to blacks. 

But Asian Americans? Apparently not.

There are still no Asian American comic actors on the show. And SNL continues to resort to Bobby Moynihan as Kim Jong Un. Is it to save money and avoid paying an Asian guy scale? Or does Moynihan play Kim in order to add to the mockery of Asians?

Coincidentally, Moynihan makes an appearance as Kim during the 12/20 Weekend Update segment. But again, that was harmless compared to the Asian American Doll ad.

The punchlines in the ad were a self-conscious whine about placating minorities who advocate for equality.

That's not funny.

But the SNL writers felt so good they decided to load up on a full array of Asian American stereotypes in the ad parody.

Start with the China doll, throw in a joke about academics and test scores, add a jab about "oriental rugs," and finish strong with a dog joke.

Yes, Asian American Doll comes with some accessories, like a chef's hat and a puppy.

Cue the Asian dog eater joke.

And wait. There's a big finish with a gong. 

Did someone say gong? Yes, a gong. There's even a kind of wink that signals they shouldn't have done it.

But they did it anyway.

Because Asian Americans aren't like blacks. 

SNL relies on the Asian American stereotype of our docility and compliance. They don't expect Rev. Al to lead us into a confrontation demanding equality. If you don't find the jokes offensive, at the very least, you should be taken aback by their arrogance.

Maybe this is SNL's racist enema to get it all out there before it makes amends by hiring a few Asian Americans on staff.

There's just no other explanation for such a self-consciously in your face rant against diversity.

Somehow it was even more offensive on the night when two NYPD officers were gunned down by an African American man who invoked the names of Eric Garner and Michael Brown.

SNL has been sensitive about all the news of protests and police violence.

But one of the cops gunned down Saturday in Brooklyn was Asian American, Officer Wenjian Liu. 

Knowing that made the ad even more offensive to me.

Because after all these years, we still don't count. And we're not expected to speak out. Ever. SNL is saying, if you do, they'll be there to ridicule our concerns. The show is developing into the voice of the reverse whiners, those who've had enough and are tired of all that "political correctness." 

And what about Asian Americans fighting for racial justice and equality?

The show doesn't care, because we just don't matter. 

Still think the doll ad is no big deal, not offensive, and maybe even funny?

Well, think of what SNL is really taking aim at in their "satire."

They're making fun of protests for cultural sensitivity, in this case, a toy doll.

They're making fun of "doing the right thing."

Making fun of "doing the right thing?" To do what--welcome back racial indifference and insensitivity?

If that is SNL's view of a post-racial America, there's nothing funny about that.

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Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator.
Updates at www.amok.com. Follow Emil on Twitter, and like his Facebook page.
The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF's views or policies.

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