By Manny Crisostomo
For the past 15 years Felix Sablan has channeled his charismatic personality, unbridled optimism, endless hustle and insatiable drive to advocate for stateside CHamorus to be seen and heard.
“There is this distinct difference between where we come from, what we bring to the table and the way we show up in the world that differentiates us,” he said.
“I am kind of hellbent on defining that and making sure that we could use that as a competitive advantage in the workforce, but also as a differentiator in how we tell our story in the U.S.”
The 41-year-old former Santa Rita resident, who now lives in the San Diego area, is using his day job, a mobile app, and his civic involvement to “make sure that people know that we (CHamorus) are here.”
At the Center for Creative Leadership Inc., a global nonprofit that focuses on executive leadership development, he is the first CHamoru in a senior leadership position and leads a team of business consultants that span across North America, South America, and the Caribbean.
“I feel a tremendous responsibility to make sure that they see the value of our community, Pacific Islanders in general, with a strong strong emphasis on the CHamoru community. It’s really exciting for me to be able to share that with them,” he said.
“I am also the chair of their global Asian Pacific Islander employee resource group, and so there’s this momentum and credence to be able to influence corporations.”
He started a community-based organization called Islander Elevation and developed a mobile app for CHamorus to get access to workforce development, scholarships, community support, business resources, and culturally relevant content.
“The whole function of the Islander Elevation is to bring us together, get us civically active, and then support each other,” he said.
Sablan also was recently confirmed as a member of the Mayor of San Diego’s Asian Pacific Islander advisory group. San Diego has one of the most densely populated Pacific Islander communities in the country.
“The work that I’m doing with the city is making sure that there’s a line of sight into our community, at a policy and legislation level,” he said. “And that people understand the stories of the struggles we come with, when we settle here in San Diego.”
Felix Sablan is the youngest of five and the only boy to be born to Felix Concepcion Sablan, familian Kaila, from Santa Rita and Josephine Munoz Cruz, familian Kokora, from Sinajana.
He grew up in Santa Rita, where his father, Felix Sablan Sr., was the fire chief for the federal government before he retired and then hired as fire chief for GovGuam.
“My mom and dad both pushed us to not accept the status quo,” he said. “My dad is very competitive and he always pushed me to be better than I was yesterday. And he is always saying, ‘If that person can do it, you can do it better.’”
“I’ve always been a wheeler dealer,” he said. “I remember being entrepreneurial in fourth grade. I would buy someone’s marbles for cheap, and then turn around within 30 minutes and sell it for like four times the amount. I did that to buy myself more snacks and candies and whenever. I’m buying and selling marbles or Pogs or whatever I can sell that could turn a profit.”
He was part of the first graduating class of Southern High School back in 1998 and was on the varsity basketball and volleyball teams that won the islandwide championship.
He also had aspirations of being an opera singer. “I got my start singing in St. Francis Middle School choir, and then, you know, stayed in choir throughout high school.”
San Diego move
He left Guam and enrolled at Mesa College in San Diego, the same school his father got his degree in fire science. He also got a job as a cashier at a gas station.
He was living in his uncle’s house and didn’t have a car.
“I decided that I had to save money to buy a car so I can have more independence and get a better job,” he said. “So I went to McDonald’s and bought like 60 ten-cent cheeseburgers and froze them and ate that for like three months until I got enough money.”
While at DMV getting his driver’s license, he met a guy selling a 1985 Ford Mustang 5.0 hatchback with 196,000 miles for $3,000. Sablan counter offered with his entire savings of $1,500 and convinced the seller.
“I had to drop him home, he gave me the pink slip and had a car that same day,” he said. “But it was worth it for me, that was a lot of cheeseburgers I had to eat to save up 1500 bucks.”
Living out of a car
He did find a better job as a cashier at the Road Runner Sports store in San Diego. He quickly worked his way up to supervisor, assistant manager, and at 19 years old the youngest store manager for the sporting goods chain.
“I think Road Runner sports is really where I was able to kind of bring a lot of the cultural values to my career,” he said “Over the course of my tenure there, I hired maybe 30 recent high school CHamoru graduates as cashiers, salespeople, and backroom stock people. I just wanted to make sure that they had an opportunity to get a job that pays decently.”
While working as store manager in the capacity of a district manager, he helped open 21 new stores. “I was involved in building their culture, creating standard operating procedures and all that kind of stuff.”
Sablan recalls the lowest point in his life when he was an assistant manager. “I found myself without a home living in my hatchback Mustang packed with all of my stuff under a (freeway) bridge.”
“I could have very well asked my mom and dad for financial assistance, but I didn’t. I wanted it to be me, who figured it out,” he said of that month living in his car. “I am glad I did, even though it was frightening, and not very safe. I was able to think through and design the life that I wanted.”
Since then he has embarked on a prolific career and has a high profile in the CHamoru community in San Diego.
“People look at my resume and they’re like expecting someone older,” he said. “I am just going all over the place doing everything I could in an ungodly short amount of time.”
He received his bachelor’s degree in business communication and master’s in business administration at University of Phoenix and is working on his doctorate in industrial and organizational psychology at Walden University.
He never realized his dream to be an opera singer but he performs at trade shows and corporate settings and events singing, playing guitar, ukulele or piano. “I’ve been doing it for almost 20 years — three to four hour live gigs providing entertainment and music.”
He is involved with service clubs holding district leadership for Rotary and Optimist clubs; has been on about 17 boards, including the House of Chamorros, Chamoru Language Foundation Inc. and PIC Health (Pacific Islander Community Health).
He also makes himself available to mentor young CHamorus.
‘A labor of love’
“I’ve probably mentored over a hundred people — bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, coming for college, or maybe just finishing up college and trying to figure out their life. They reach out to me and I make time to sit down with them, I ask them questions that help them realize what they really want to do, and then provide resources and connect with people. I help them prepare for interviews and make sure that they have the right references,” he said.
“It’s a labor of love, and I’m most proud of those moments, because it’s, you know, I wish I would have had something like that when I came here.”
“Eventually I do want to go back and reinvest in our island,’’ he said. “But in the meantime, I decided to try to be an influence out here for the displaced 170,000 CHamorus stateside while trying to advocate for our people.”