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Monday, April 30, 2012

Once called 'nigger,' Fil-Am now a Pennsylvania mayor

In the lethargic town of Ridgway, Pennsylvania – which is closer to Canada than to New York City – the mayor is a Filipino.
 
The 72-year-old Guillermo Udarbe is also a doctor and so his town runs like clockwork. Mornings, this family practitioner tends to patients, and evenings he holds court over the town council.

He seems to get the job done, reporting the arrival of a dozen new establishments in downtown Ridgway and a decline in unemployment from 15 percent to 6.8 percent. Bully for this plucky, almost defiant, native of Camalaniugan, Cagayan!
 
Udarbe and his wife Gloria were the first Filipino residents of this town.
 
“We had a hard time at first,” he told The FilAm in a phone interview. “We received phone calls telling us to go away. They even called us niggers.”
 
But the couple persisted and raised two daughters, Cherry and Charina, while Gloria worked as a nurse and Udarbe ran his solo practice after specializing in family medicine at Temple University Hospital in Philly and working in big-city hospitals for nine years.
 
“I came here because Ridgway is just like my little hometown in Camalaniugan,” he said wistfully.

Little it is with a current population of 4,600, where about 98 percent are Caucasians and 2 percent are Asians. There are only two Filipino families in addition to the Udarbes.
 
Udarbe has seen the ebb and flow of Ridgway, being one of its long-time residents and the town medic for 33 years.

He’s seen the population of 9,000 dwindle when the factories that made automotive brake linings and ball bearings closed in the height of the recession, and residents moved away in search of jobs.
 
“Nagsi-alisan sila. Bumaba ang census namin,” he said, speaking in Tagalog for the most part of the interview.
 
Seeing that Ridgway was getting to be a “ghost town,” he decided to run for mayor in the 2009 election. It was a five-way race, his four opponents all Americans. He won by 65 percent as the Democratic candidate in a Republican-dominated community.
 
“It’s all because of my relationship with the people. I’m a friendly guy,” he said. He hopes to win re-election.
 
Since he assumed office, he said at least 12 retail establishments have opened in downtown Ridgway, including a dry cleaner, a Verizon Wireless store, a PNC bank, an eye clinic and a nail salon.
 
“Downtown is slowly coming back to life,” he said.
 
“Mayor Udarbe’s election as the first Asian American and Filipino American mayor of Ridgway brought a great honor for the Philippines and the Filipino American community,” said Consul General Mario de Leon Jr., who recently visited Ridgway as a guest of the town council.
 
He continues to see patients mornings as a doctor of the Aane Community Hospital and the Elk County Regional System. By end of business, he puts on his mayor hat and meets the town council.
 
“Most council meetings are at night,” he said. “I am a full-time mayor.”

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