SAN FRANCISCO — When Mae Cendaña Torlakson arrived in the United States to be with her family, she left behind a promising life as a recording rock artist in her native Philippines. Now, she’s deep into California politics, and gunning for a seat in the State Assembly.
Last week, the Asian and Pacific Islander Caucus announced its endorsement of Torlakson, describing her as an “impressive candidate” and a “respected community leader” with more than 15 years of experience working on education and environmental issues in the state.
It was 1988 and, as she landed her first job as a store manager of Duty Free at San Francisco International Airport, her biggest rock hit, “Hoy Lalake” (Hey Man) — considered by many as an early contribution to women’s liberation movement in the Philippines — was still riding the airwaves back home.
“I wanted to pursue my singing — and I loved doing it,” says Torlakson, 57. “But I made sure that my two children who were with me had the benefits, and so I needed a real job.”
It was time for her to join the corporate world.
A far cry from the recording studio and performance stage that she was used to, Torlakson then worked hard to climb up the U.S. corporate ladder. Armed with her degree from the University of the Philippines, she took an entry-level job as a “typist” in a major company.
“That was the title that I had,” she says. “Thank God, I learned how to use WordStar [a word processor that first dominated the digital market in the 1980s], and I was hired, by the way, because of it.”
Later on, she became an accounting assistant and an assistant to the comptroller. And, although it didn’t get her far, she even tried scriptwriting for movies on the side.
Now Torlakson is the University of California’s corporate partnerships liaison of the Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement (MESA) program that helps disadvantaged students. She has the opportunity to make her reprise — this time in politics — and possibly make history for herself.
If she can win against Concord Mayor Tim Grayson, who also announced on July 20 that he is running for the State Assembly (District 14th), and perhaps other candidates who are expected to run for the same seat, Torlakson would be the first Filipino American woman to serve in the California State Legislature.
“It’s still early, and we don’t know who may or may not run — and it may not just me and the mayor,” she adds, “but it is my [proven] record that people would find about and the issues that are important to me.”
Mae Cendaña Torlakson in 2009 married State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, who also served as 11th District Assemblyman (East Contra Costa County) from 1996 to 2000 and as a state senator from 2000 to 2008.
She mentioned, in previous reports, that she may ask campaign help from her husband and was quoted as saying: “I have a very good mentor and coach.”
Education and the environment
“I am running because I have seen an opportunity to make a difference for my community,” Torlakson, a Democrat, says. “I am focused on educational opportunity, economic growth and protecting the environment.”
Every year, she says, California-based companies spend millions of dollars on recruiters that hire professionals from out of state, consequently hurting career opportunities for homegrown talents.
“With my work at MESA, a lot of our students do not go to schools [that] are usually targeted by companies,” she explains. “It is important that these companies find these talents — they are all over California — and they [companies] could invest right here and don’t have to go out of state.”
As California continues to suffer from severe droughts, she mentions that a water- conservation initiative would be integral to her platform.
Torlakson, the chair of the Friends of the Delta Trail, helped raise $4.5 million for the Great California Delta Trail, seeking the creation of a continuous trail network through five Delta countries while protecting sensitive habitat.
She also serves her third elected term on the board of the Ambrose Recreation and Park District, providing recreation services to 28,000 residents of Bay Point and Oak Hills community of Pittsburg, California, where she lives with her husband.
As president of the Bay Point Garden Club and a Neighborhood Watch block captain, she has been advocating for environmental causes.
“I have done park cleanups in the area, teaching residents how to help protect our environment,” she says. “In my little ways, I am doing that in my neighborhood.”
Named one of the 100 most influential Filipinas in the United States, Torlakson has a good chance, according to analylists, to serve in the state Assembly because of her strong community and advocacy work; but for now she does not hide how she feels about her candidacy.
“I am excited, I am worried, I am anxious, I am proud, I am humbled by the people calling me and telling me, ‘You can do this’— and I have all these emotions in one day,” Torlakson said. “But most of all, I am driven. It is not that I want to do this, but I need to do this for my community.”
It’s karaoke time
On a lighter note, Torlakson says the one thing that most Filipino families could relate to: They have three karaoke microphones at home.
Every time she is around with her seven sisters, singing long hours of karaoke, they never put the microphones down. “It feels like we almost need a referee,” she adds, as everyone seems to be unstoppable.
While she has a lot of favorites, including “Misty” by Ella Fitzgerald, “Crazy” by Patsy Cline and ballads popularized by Gloria Estefan, she sings songs based on the company that she is with.
“Sometimes I go for a slow song,” she said. “Or, sometimes I just sing ‘My Sharona’ or ‘YMCA.’”
But being with her family on weekends, according to Torlakson, is very important for her. Now that both of her children finished their studies from the University of California-Berkeley, she and her husband have more time to spend together biking and hiking around their neighborhood.
“And, of course,” she says, “I love, love Zumba.”
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