There was an audible gasp followed by quizzical looks from a crowd earlier this month when Alameda Mayor Trish Herrera Spencer welcomed dignitaries from Dumaguete City — Alameda’s sister city in the Philippines. And now some people are calling Spencer’s comments racially insensitive and embarrassing to the Filipino American community in Alameda.
The flub occurred June 5 as Spencer greeted the sister city’s mayor, his staff, and members of the community. Spencer said her children, like Filipinos, eat “white rice.” Spencer’s remarks were recorded, and then slowly disseminated around the island.
Fearing a small-scale diplomatic controversy was about to erupt following the delegation’s four-day visit, a Filipino-American activist sent a passionate letter apologizing for the mayor’s remarks. The letter, however, has also caught the attention of Alameda’s political establishment, which is often at odds with Spencer. And the incident could now alienate Spencer from the city and region’s fast-growing Filipino community.
However, this isn’t the first time that Spencer, a surprise winner in last fall’s mayoral election, has come under fire for her comments, nor is it the first time a recording has fueled the fire.
In the audio clip obtained by the Express
, Spencer’s short speech is disjointed and littered with incomplete thoughts. (In an interview later, Spencer admitted that it was an off-the-cuff speech.) During her remarks, Spencer struggled to convey the cultural similarities between Alamedans and Filipinos. “I have many Filipino friends,” she said. “Our children grew up … eating rice — white rice!” Spencer followed up the comment with a booming, cackling laugh.
Later, Spencer, who is of Mexican descent, told the group that both cultures share an affinity for affection. “I grew up in a Mexican-American house, which means we do a lot of hugging and kissing, and you do, too!”
The next day, June 6, Spencer was reportedly loud and disruptive during a speech by one of the members of the Dumaguete City delegation.
Spencer said in an interview that the white rice comment was taken out of context, and, instead, she was referencing a rice and egg dish that was part of the breakfast spread at City Hall. “I don’t think there was an incident,” said Spencer, but later added, “I think that the event went very well. I surely didn’t mean to offend anyone. It’s unfortunate, in my opinion, if someone felt that I offended them, I apologize for that. That was not my intent.”
Virginia Savella-Harper, however, was one person who was offended. She videotaped the June 5 celebration and captured Spencer’s unfortunate remarks. Savella-Harper said in an interview that she quickly soured on Spencer’s behavior and periodically stopped the recording. Shortly before Spencer uttered her white rice comment, the mayor introduced herself to the group and began leading the mostly middle-aged residents and seniors in the audience with a round of rhythmic clapping. “When I was in kindergarten,” said Spencer. “This is how they got everyone’s attention.”
“I think that was immature and highly embarrassing,” said Savella-Harper, referring to the rhythmic clapping. Savella-Harper said she was worried the display might be construed as an affront to elders in the audience who, she said, expect “respect and dignity.” Savella-Harper had served as the Dumaguete City delegation’s host and point-person during the Alameda visit. The mother of Assemblymember Rob Bonta was also part of the drive to forge sister city ties between Alameda and Dumaguete City.
Savella-Harper said members of the delegation privately uttered some dissatisfaction with the mayor’s behavior, but did not want to make a big deal out of it. Savella-Harper’s close relationship with the seven-member delegation prompted her to write a three-page letter to the Dumaguete City mayor’s office, which later got into the hands of Alameda political insiders.
“As Filipino Americans, we were demoralized to hear our city’s leader reduce Filipino culture to white rice eating and hugging,” she wrote. “That this was the only connection that our mayor could identify between our peoples was dismissive and demeaning.”
Upon receiving a copy of the letter last week, Spencer said she was totally surprised, believing that the cultural exchange went off without a hitch. Spencer noted that the delegation accepted her invitation for late-night drinks, fried chicken, and shuffleboard at a Park Street bar and grill following the pair of incidents in question. “So, why then did they invite me and my husband to the Philippines next November?” added Spencer.
Savella-Harper, who attended the Saturday night activities at the bar, said the delegation would never decline the Alameda mayor’s invitation. “We are a tolerant and respectful people,” said Savella-Harper.
Spencer previously endured criticism for comments she made about the city’s firefighters union. A day after the mayor and the city council approved long-awaited public safety contracts for its police and fire departments on April 30, Spencer was caught on tape bad-mouthing the contract to members of the public at a local coffee shop. In the recording, she alleged that Councilmember Frank Matarrese reneged on a pledge to vote with her against the contracts and said the Alameda firefighters, according to the recording, were “overpaid and none of them live in town.” She also implied that outgoing City Manager John Russo “wanted to take care of the firefighters” before he leaving for his new job as city manager of Riverside.
In addition, Alameda Councilmember Jim Oddie, who was elected last fall along with Spencer and is normally mild-mannered, directly called out Spencer during a council meeting for telling the executive director of the Alameda County Transportation Commission that she did not support the proposed Broadway-Jackson Interchange Improvement project. The Alameda City Council had expressed support for the plan, which could greatly alleviate traffic problems concerns in Alameda by lessening congestion through the Posey Tube into Oakland. Oddie said Spencer’s ill-advised comments to the ACTC executive director risked undermining the entire project, in addition to directly contradicting what the council had already decided.
Spencer said she did not recall making comments about the Broadway-Jackson plan to the ACTC director nor those that were recorded in the coffee shop in early May.