In 1974, former Rep. Thelma Buchholdt, D-Anchorage, made history as the first Filipino to be elected to the Alaska Legislature. Now, almost 50 years later, Rep. Genevieve Mina, D-Anchorage, is making history as Alaska’s second.
Mina took office in January. She represents House District 19 in Anchorage, which covers the Airport Heights, Mountain View and Russian Jack neighborhoods.
Like Buchholdt, who represented Spenard for 8 years, Mina has a strong connection to the Anchorage community. It’s where she was raised by her mother, an Ilonggo nurse, and her father, an Ilocano grape farmer and Alaskero who fell in love with the state.
“There are so many people that I grew up with, that I went to school with, who have family in these neighborhoods who I would come over to hang out and watch TV, or have sleepovers, or do Dungeons and Dragons, or have tea parties,” she said.
Despite being elected at 26, Mina never thought she’d go into politics. She says she was shy and quiet as a kid, but she wanted to break out of her shell. At East High School, she began volunteering with school groups and realized her love for serving her community.
While studying at the University of Alaska Anchorage, she was introduced to the debate team by a friend. It was a welcome break from her biology degree that quickly transformed into a passion that redirected her future plans. Then, the same friend who introduced her to the debate team asked Mina to help out on her first political campaign.
“And I just got hooked from there,” Mina said.
Mina joined the Alaska Young Democrats and College Democrats, and was elected to be a delegate to the 2016 Democratic National Convention. She’s worked on numerous campaigns, interned in state and municipal political offices, and with policy firms in Alaska and Washington D.C. Her involvement in community groups expanded her interests in health care, public transit, economic empowerment and women’s rights.
“The more I realized how much I love doing this type of work of talking with people, building relationships, making policies into reality and leading groups, the more I felt that it was a natural fit for me to eventually run one day, whenever the timing was right,” Mina said.
Inheriting a passion for health care
Mina grew up in a health care family, where she watched her loved ones care for others as a career.
Her mother, a nurse from Iloilo City in the Visayas region, was the first in her family to go to college.
“My mom is a nurse. She’s the first nurse on her side of the family,” she said. “My brother became a nurse, my sister-in-law’s a nurse, my aunt is a caretaker. All of my immediate family works in the healthcare industry.”
For almost 20 years, her family ran assisted living homes. The business, called the Genevieve Assisted Living Home, is named after her.
“I grew up around more old people than people my own age,” Mina joked.
When she was young, her father passed away by suicide. And after that, her mother lost Medicaid approval for their family business. When trying to appeal her case with the state, Mina said her mother felt she experienced barriers and discrimination. Eventually, her mother connected with other Filipino-American assisted living home administrators experiencing similar challenges from the state.
When she was still a preteen, Mina found herself supporting a burgeoning group of health care administrators in an attempt to sue the State of Alaska for shutting down Filipino-owned care homes without due process. She helped her mother document her handwritten recollection of interactions with the state, and she even designed the logo for the group.
The group lost the case, but the experience shaped Mina’s love for health care policy.
“It was really gratifying and fulfilling to be able to help someone understand what is going on, when they’re trying to deal with a very difficult system,” she said. “Health policy is truly an avenue where you are trying to work through the system to literally save lives, and I think that’s a beautiful thing.”
Learning who came before
In 2017, Mina interned with former Rep. Ivy Spohnholz at the Alaska Legislature.
“I was in the Capitol for the first time, being an intern. And I was just like, you know what, I wonder if there’s ever been a Filipino elected to the Alaska State Legislature?” she reflected. “And I looked it up, and I learned about Thelma Buchholdt.”
Before getting into politics, Buchholdt dedicated tireless hours to communities in Alaska. She was involved in Anchorage’s NAACP chapter, the Filipino Community of Anchorage and worked alongside rural Alaska communities to increase their access to health, education and social services.
She worked for years as a school teacher and first ran for the Anchorage school board in the 1960s. While she lost that first election by a small margin, she was elected to the Alaska House of Representatives in 1974 as one of the first Filipino-American women to be elected as a legislator in the U.S.
Buchholdt spent her eight years in office passionately representing the concerns of her working class district in Anchorage. She served as vice-chair of the Finance Committee and chair of the Health & Social Services Committee, and her accomplishments include establishing the Alaska Commission on the Status of Women and the Asian Alaskan Cultural Center in Anchorage.
Even after leaving office, Buchholdt continued her mission for civil rights. She founded the Alaska chapter of the Filipino American National Historical Society, compiled a historical book about Filipinos in Alaska, and served 30 years on the Alaska State Advisory Committee for the Commission on Civil Rights.
“I think that my mother was very aware of the lack of representation of Filipinos in the United States,” Buchholdt’s daughter, Titania Buchholdt, said. “And she took it very seriously as the amount of change she had the ability to create in her role.”
“I could see myself doing this work, because I saw Thelma doing it,” Mina said. “Learning about her history, learning about the work that she did, and the other parallels that I love, like that she was an ad hoc young Democrat.”
Reclaiming her Filipino identity
Buchholdt was born in Luzon, in the Philippines. She didn’t come to the U.S. until the 1950s for college.
Mina, on the other hand, was born in the U.S. in Alaska. But, growing up with family members that were all born in the Philippines, she says that when she was young she didn’t feel she was truly Filipino.
“Between people who emigrated in their adult life with folks who were born here, it’s a huge cultural difference,” she said. “A big challenge that I have personally had is my family constantly speaking in a language that I don’t fully comprehend. That’s a very alienating feeling to have on a daily basis, where you don’t fully know what’s going on in your own home.”
Mina is now proud of her Filipino identity. It took an intentional effort exploring ways she could connect with her family – through food, learning her family’s language, attending Filipino community events and organizations and teaching herself that her differences didn’t make herself any less Filipino.
Still, she emphasizes that her feelings of isolation aren’t abnormal in Filipino households, or in any home. As a public servant, she hopes to see other Filipinos feel included and take pride in who they are. She believes that talking through feelings of alienation, isolation, and depression is crucial to not only finding pride in our identities, but to supporting our mental health.
“Mental health is a huge issue in the Filipino community. I’ve been very open about how my dad died by suicide when I was very young,” she said. “There are ways to take pride in who you are. I own who I am, as someone who kind of knows Tagalog but not really, who didn’t grow up involved in the Filipino community, who wasn’t raised Catholic, but I’m just as Filipino as other folks from my community.”
Mina is known for putting together outfits that share the facets of her identity. On the day she was sworn in as a lawmaker, Mina wore a barong, a traditional Filipino blouse, gifted by her mom and jewelry made by T’boli artisans in the Philippines.
In her office in the Capitol, she has a framed photo of Thelma Buchholdt speaking to a group of taller male legislators. The photo was gifted to her by Christine Marasigan, a former legislative staffer and one of many accomplished Filipinos she credits with her journey into politics.
Mentors like Marasigan are why Mina introduced her first piece of legislation, HB23, which would establish October as Filipino American History Month in state statute. The bill will have its first committee hearing next week.
She hopes the bill will help the public recognize the complexities within the Filipino community while also challenging Alaskans to better understand the community’s history.
“We have this assumption that Filipino-Americans work only in canneries, only in hospitality, only in health care. And when you think about these different Filipino groups, Ilocanos, Ilonggos, Tagalogs, Kapampangan, there’s a lot of complexity within our cultures,” she said. “And so I want to go deeper in that conversation and challenge the public. To learn more about who we are, why we came here, and why we take so much pride in being who we are.”
She hopes to see more Filipinos, and anyone else from an underrepresented community who doesn’t feel heard by the government, feel like they can be civically engaged.
“I just hope that I am able to live up to the work of (Buchholdt) and many other people who have come before me, to inspire others to to get involved and do the same after me,” she said.