[PHOTO - ‘IDOL’ WELCOME Thousands of fans see Filipino-Mexican Jessica Sanchez (in dark jacket), one of the Top 3 “American Idol” finalists, perform on the USS Midway in San Diego, California. BENNY UY/CONTRIBUTOR]

SAN DIEGO, MAY 11, 2012 (INQUIRER) By: Nimfa U. Rueda - For “American Idol” finalist Jessica Sanchez, home is where the heart is—and that’s still her hometown Chula Vista, where she was born and raised.

Thousands of people turned out to show support for the Filipino-Mexican bet on Saturday (Sunday in Manila) in two grand homecoming events—set in a high school stadium and on a historic aircraft carrier—in the “American Idol” tradition of a hero’s welcome.

“Thank you for showing up,” Sanchez told adoring fans on the flight deck of the USS Midway Museum, where she auditioned for the “Idol” judges last year.

The 16-year-old Top 3 finalist performed the “Star-Spangled Banner” and three other songs, including Luther Van Dross’ “Dance With My Father,” which she dedicated to her father, Mexican-American Gilbert Sanchez, a member of the US Navy.

“I’m very proud of her,” Gilbert told the Inquirer.

[PHOTO COURTESY OF ABS-CBN- American Idol Top 3 finalist Jessica Sanchez is joined by family members as she acknowledges the crowd at her homecoming in Chula Vista, California on Saturday. Sanchez will face two other contestants, Joshua Ledet and Phillip Phillips, in another elimination round on May 16 before the show's Grand Finale on May 23. Photo by BayanPatroller Dennis Llavore]

It was a family affair for Sanchez, who was joined in the landmark aircraft carrier by her father, Filipino mother Editha Bugay (who hails from Samal, Bataan province), her two brothers and other family members.

Earlier, Sanchez performed before 6,000 fans who gathered at Eastlake High School’s Canaris Football Stadium in Chula Vista.

“This is so amazing and I’m so happy to represent Chula Vista and San Diego,” she told the stadium audience that included Chula Vista Mayor Cheryl Cox.

Cox announced that the day was officially declared “Jessica Sanchez Day.”

Some fans showed up as early as

4 a.m., determined to be the first ones to enter the stadium gates when they opened at 9 a.m.

“Chula Vista is rock solid behind Jessica,” resident Laura Brooks said.

Brooks watched the morning parade honoring Sanchez make its way to the school stadium. Sanchez was accompanied by Eastlake High School’s marching band and cheer team.

Fans waved handmade signs with such messages as “I Love to Grrrowl like Jessica,” “Jessica is our Idol,” “Jessanity,” “Fanchez” and “Pinoy Pride.” They cheered at the stadium and later on the USS Midway, when a plane flew overhead with a banner that read: “Jessica is SD’s Idol.”

The diversity of the crowd at the two homecoming events showed how Sanchez’s fan base cuts across age and ethnicity.

“Her singing is so beautiful,” said Teresa Barrera, a Navajo Indian, who stood under the hot afternoon sun on USS Midway to watch Sanchez perform.

“I love her. There are no words to describe her voice,” said Senella Dennis, an African-American fan. “I couldn’t handle it when she was singing the Whitney Houston song. I yelled out her name, and she stopped and looked at me and gave me the biggest smile.”

Mexican-American Midea Perez and her family flew all the way from Phoenix, Arizona, to see Sanchez. “We are proud of her,” she said. “I think she’s going to be the next American Idol.”

Sanchez’s adoring Filipino-American fans had the most enthusiastic comments about their idol.

“I watch the show every week and deliver 200 votes in 20 minutes,” said Darlene Larsen, who came with her husband, Karl, a retired member of the Navy. “This Wednesday, we’ll have 500 votes for her, from me and my husband.”

Filipino-American nurses from the University of California San Diego (UCSD) came with banners showing their support for Sanchez.

As Sanchez was leaving the USS Midway, this reporter asked her what her message was to her Filipino fans. She said: “I love you all so much.”

In the Philippines, the local government of Orani is reportedly preparing a grand homecoming for their “idol” as well.

Even Malacañang is rooting for Filipino-Mexican Sanchez to become this year’s “American Idol.”

With the massive support she’s getting from the Filipino community, Sanchez is a shoo-in for the top “Idol” plum, President Aquino’s deputy spokesperson, Abigail Valte, told the state-run Radyo ng Bayan.

The two other finalists also visited their respective hometowns over the weekend to meet and greet fans and, apparently, get more voter support.

Westlake, Louisiana’s pride Joshua Ledet treated hometown fans with a pep rally and concert at Burton Coliseum on Gulf Highway in Lake Charles after parading along Sampson Street. The pep rally featured live entertainment, including songs from the

20-year-old Westlake High School graduate.

Leesburg, Georgia finalist Phillip Phillips visited his family’s pawnshop first before parading along Highway 32 from Starksville Avenue to Lee County High School. He staged a free concert at the school’s football stadium. With a report from TJ Burgonio in Manila

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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