Part 2: Ever the fighter, Soberano continues her advocacy in Hawaii

Updated:December 22, 2020, 2:00 PM

Toronto, Ontario

Part 2:

Finding Romance, Facing New Challenges

By Ricardo Jorge S.Caluen

A confluence of events brought Cornelia to the shores of Hawaii where she lived and worked in the last 18 years before the final move to the US mainland in 2018. She discovered a love for the road and the love of her life on Maui island. It was an eyeopener for Cornelia to learn that not everything was postcard pretty on this paradise island.  She would personally encounter the ugly face of racism while in career transition.  She was shocked to learn that even second and third generation Filipinos remained stereotyped—chamber maids if applying for a position in a hotel, or farm hand if seeking placement in the agricultural sector. Filipino newcomer felons were just as badly situated in a justice system that is not familiar with the Filipino mindset.

Gracing the cover of the Toronto Sun for receiving the City of Toronto Award for Distinguished Women–Constance E. Hamilton Award for Access, Equity, and Human Rights. ( Provided)

Cornelia made good use of her legal background first as volunteer mediator in the Maui judicial district where she would resolve cases before these are elevated to the court of the District Judge. She would eventually be hired as social worker dealing with domestic violence cases.

Cornelia believed that in many instances education—not incarceration— best addressed the  underlying mental health and social  issues that trigger the brushes with the law.

Filipinos faced so many barriers and challenges. Generally, they were disenfranchised. They were denied professional employment, chased from resort pools, slapped with incarceration versus education. Lucas Bruno, then a Probation Officer of the Maui County Justice Circuit, recalls Cornelia being exasperated with the socio-legal landscape she found Filipinos in. Enough was enough!

Together with other like-minded Filipino professionals, Cornelia co-founded the Maui Filipino Working Group. One of Cornelia’s closest friends in Hawaii, Dr. Virginia Cantorna, PhD traces the early workings of the group. “We worked on many projects together as part the Maui Filipino Working Group which she and I and other professional Filipina-Americans co-founded. We taught about cultural sensitivity as it pertains to working with the Filipino community, we registered Filipinos to vote, and we presented a televised political debate featuring local candidates asking questions related to the quality of life for Filipinos, and she volunteered for the Maui Women’s March which I helped to head. She was so intelligent, creative, and passionate about social justice.” Dr. Cantorna, a director of nursing and soon-to-be-published novelist, was the Filipino being chased away from the swimming pool at the venue of Cornelia and Luc’s wedding. Having gone to the hotel early to survey the venue, she was mistaken for a hotel staff mingling with guests and was asked to return inside the hotel.

How correct Lucas was in his estimation of Cornelia: You can take Cornelia–the Toronto Social Justice Fighter-out of Toronto, but you can’t take the Social Justice Fighter out of Cornelia. Luc and Cornelia first met in the social services workshops both were attending in Maui. The casual meet ups blossomed into romance that led to the altar in 2006. While Cornelia was helping Filipinos navigate the social justice system, Luc taught her driving and how to negotiate the winding coastline of the island. Soon Cornelia was driving herself to work and for leisure. Luc and Cornelia shared a life of common purpose and values, both working in the county’s social work and justice programs and actively connecting with local advocacy groups. “She was the joy of my life, a whirlwind who came into it and disrupted the way I think and taught me how to see life through different people’s eyes,” says Luc.

In all those eighteen years in Hawaii Cornelia got involved with youth offenders, persons with disability, the elderly, newcomers in conflict with the law, and other causes. She had lobbied for better opportunities and the enfranchisement of Filipinos before federal, state, and county officials. Her dedication to the upliftment of the underprivileged didn’t go unnoticed. In 2013, the Maui Filipino Chamber of Commerce gave her a Gintong Pamana Leadership Award.  Cornelia was honored for her work with Neighbors Helping Neighbors; Faith Action Community Equity; Community Alliance on Prisons; Mental Health America-Maui; National Federation of Filipino American Associations; and Good Shepherd Episcopal Church Outreach Committee.

Cornelia was interviewed by the Maui Times when it featured the 2016 Martin Luther King celebration in Kahului, Maui.  “ ‘The state still has racial progress to make, ‘said attorney and Kahului resident Cornelia Soberano, who attended Monday’s celebration. She pointed out that in Hawaii, there are expectations for certain groups – Filipinos like herself, for example, are steered toward hotel or farm work even though some of them have different skills to offer. Soberano said King’s words resonated with her from the first time she heard them. She has a personal dream of her own – to see youth of all races shake off societal judgments and to follow their passions.

‘My dream is that (any) kid who has the intelligence, the commitment, and hard work to pursue college and higher education should not be barred . . . just because they are not privileged,’ she said.”

Career transition for Luc brought the Brunos back to the mainland where they settled in Reno in 2018. By then Cornelia had already retired but not from political participation. She attended meetings of the Division of Public and Behavioral Health Washoe Regional Behavioral Health Policy Board. Just last August 2019 she was a well-acknowledged participant of the 13th conference of the National Federation of Filipino Associations of America—NaFFAA. (In Canada, Cornelia was a prime mover behind the National Council of Canadian Filipino Associations.)

Loss of A Matriarch

Cornelia was very much a surrogate mother to her many nephews and nieces who idolized her. They all acknowledge her fierce convictions where awareness, education, and equity are concerned. A nephew recalls: “Auntie always said the first thing families need to do when arriving in a new place is to go the library, get a library card, and read, read, read. She very highly valued self-actualization, learning, participating, questioning, and striving.  ‘Rights of the poor and disadvantaged’ is the mantra she wanted us to imbibe.“    This nephew has large shoes to fill.

Niece Kriska Pascua remembers her Auntie Cornelia as one who “was selfless and always put others ahead of her. She cared so deeply and tirelessly about others.  You felt her keen presence and critical mind when she interacted with you. Conversations with her were always insightful—challenging your way of thinking.”

Her sister Amparo waxed sentimental when she expressed eternal gratitude to her aunt for her love and support in bringing their family to Canada. “Without you, we wouldn’t be where we are today. Your perseverance, guidance, and patience with your nieces and nephews have made us better parents to our own children. We love you and we will miss you very much.”

On Instagram, Liza Soberano, a grand niece, wrote: “Rest easy, Auntie Cornelia. You were an inspiration to many, including myself. I will cherish everything you taught me forever.” Liza is the very popular Filipino movie personality and model. She had visited her aunt just a few months ago.

The Soberano family may have been orphaned of its matriarch but the Filipino community in North America has lost a champion.

In true Gandhian fashion, Cornelia –lost in the service of others–has found herself. She has become in her own way Mahātmā—a great soul.

She was 68.

(Memorial gifts to honor the memory of Cornelia may be made to Virginia Cantorna, Maui Filipino Working Group, 135 S. Wakea Ave., Suite 213, Kahului, Hawaii. 96732 or to Venmo or Paypal:

About the author:

Ricardo Jorge S. Caluen is a freelance writer based in Toronto, Ontario. A native of Iligan City, he graduated
with bachelor’s degree in History and Political Science from De La Salle University in Manila. He taught at the Mindanao State University – Iligan Institute of Technology where he was Chair of the Department of Political Science. He took up a Masters in History at University of Toronto in 1987 as a scholar of the Rotary Foundation. He moved to Canada in 1992 and currently works with the City of Toronto. A former editor of Toronto-based The Filipino Bulletin, he contributes to Philippine dailies and online magazines as a freelance writer.





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