LOS ANGELES - One thing that life has taught Ed De Mesa from growing up with 11 siblings in the Philippines to immigrating to the U.S. as a young adult is servitude with gratitude.
De Mesa, chief of the Planning Division for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Los Angeles District, was the keynote speaker at the District's Asian American/Pacific Islander Heritage Month Observance May 22 at the District headquarters in downtown LA. The theme of this year's observance was "Unite our Vision by Working Together."
De Mesa talked about his life as a child growing up in the Philippines. His father was a lawyer and his mother was a homemaker, but with 12 children, the family never had a lot.
"Servitude with gratitude; I learned that from my dad," he said. "Anything that is given to me now is an improvement from what I've had before, and it's more than I've ever wanted or what I've asked for."
As a child, De Mesa said he spent his summers guarding and tending to the family's fish pond and selling popsicles on the streets. It also wasn't uncommon for him and other children to jump onto the back of a truck to get to school.
One day, De Mesa's father came home and told his family he was retiring and going to the U.S. as a tourist, with the intent of becoming eligible for immigrant status based on the time he served in the military.
"We were all scratching our heads," De Mesa said. "We can't even afford a good meal on the table, and this is what he's planning to do. Being the father of the family, no one actually had the ability to question what he wanted to do. That says a little bit about the culture that I grew up in."
Prior to becoming a lawyer, De Mesa said his father served as a captain in the Fil-American Irregular Troops under U.S. Pacific Armed Forces during World War II. In 1979, with his military papers in hand, De Mesa's father set out to become a U.S. citizen.
Changes in immigration laws in the 1970s, coupled with his father's persistence, helped him successfully obtain immigration papers, De Mesa said.
"It wasn't until the late 70s that many from Asian countries were welcomed into the U.S.," he added.
Because De Mesa, an 18-year-old college engineering student, was the youngest of the siblings and not married, his family decided he would be the first to join his father in the U.S.
De Mesa arrived in New Jersey Nov. 23, 1982. He was really excited, he said, until he stepped off the plane and realized just how cold it was during the wintertime.
"I said 'How can people live in this place?' It was 28 degrees," he said.
Despite his initial culture shock, he secured a job with Bradford Trust in New York. But after experiencing his first East Coast winter, De Mesa had enough.
"I said 'This might be like a winter wonderland in the morning, but when you have to live with it, I think I'm done.' So I went west to Texas," he said. "Then I experienced my first winter in Texas. There wasn't any snow on the ground, but for crying out loud - 15 degrees with a wind chill at 10 degrees. I'm done with this. I'm going to go west."
That's how De Mesa ended up in Sacramento, he said, which was a great decision.
He enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in 1983 and became a logistics management specialist.
"Not knowing what the heck it means, but it sounded really good, I jumped in," he said. "They said I didn't have to go to training, and they were going to send me directly to my assignment. I was about a year away from my college degree. When I got there, that's when reality set in. I remember what my dad said: 'Make the best of whatever is handed to you.' Without having the citizenship, we had very few choices on what sort of career field was offered to us. So I did make the best of it.
"By the time I met the three-year requirement for citizenship, I was promoted several times. When I got my citizenship, that's when I switched back into the field that I started with - engineering," something De Mesa said he had wanted to do since childhood.
Through the U.S. Air Force Enlisted College Program, De Mesa earned his Bachelor's Degree in civil engineering from California State University, Sacramento, while he was stationed at the former McClellan Air Force Base.
He was offered an internship in the Planning Division with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers LA District in 1996. He became the chief of the Water Resources section in 1999 and the branch chief in 2004.
"And somehow, they made a mistake and selected me as the planning chief," he joked.
As the chief of the Planning Division for the District, De Mesa leads a team of more than 40 experts in water resources planning and is responsible for the development and recommendation of federal participation in local projects for navigation, flood risk management, aquatic ecosystem restoration and recreation supporting the great Southwest, which includes southern California, southern Nevada, Arizona and southwest Utah.
De Mesa said he considers himself fortunate to be in a position he never expected.
"Everything I have from now on is more than I have ever wanted," he said. "Everything that I have is more than I have ever asked for. The attitude that I am here to serve; the attitude that there's nothing that we can't do; the attitude that we will always say, 'yes,' especially in the Corps of Engineers ... The reason why we are here is to do exactly that - to serve. I am in a position I have always wanted, even though I didn't think I was going to get here."
The Corps also has given him the opportunity to give back to the community - something De Mesa said he hopes to do in his home country in the future.
"I grew up in an area where you could turn anywhere within a half a mile, and you're going to find water," he said. "We have seven lakes within very short proximity from each other, and they're always at the foot of a big mountain. You can imagine how much water we get; how much filtration you get coming down the mountains, but there's a large shortage of clean water for residential use. That has always fascinated me since my childhood. Fifty years later, we still have the same problem. When I retire, I think that will be my second career."
Maj. Scotty Autin, deputy commander for the Los Angeles District, presented Demesa with a certificate and thanked him for telling his story. He also encouraged others in the District to share their personal stories as well.
"I think it's an inspirational story," Autin said. "It really highlights the theme of the gathering and the month. You are a true success. I think it bridges the gap that we could say is starting to develop within America, and it really puts a great touch on all of it, from what we're experiencing."