Saturday, November 17, 2018


Here’s another piece on Imelda Marcos that I did for Philippine Graphic magazine sometime in 1990 or 1991. It’s a Q&A interview where she’s given a chance to speak out. I get my own chance in my intro to the Q&A. :-)

Philippine Graphic magazine (circa 1990)

“When you went to the inner sanctum of my home, and you found shoes instead of skeletons, you should have taken me a bit more seriously. This was Cinderella.”


Early this year I got a call from my publisher who said Imelda Marcos was making herself available for an interview and would I be willing to do it. This was before Imelda formally declared her presidential candidacy. I had interviewed her twice before, in the bad old days prior to martial law, when she was still First Lady of the land and I was a novato in journalism, and I remembered waiting in the Malacañang Music Room for close to two hours for an interviewee who seemed to think that coming in late for an appointment with a neophyte reporter was the divinely mandated prerogative of a powerful, beautiful woman. But now she was no longer the power and the beauty she once was, and she had spent a few years in exile in New York (which is presumably not governed by “Filipino time”), so I thought perhaps she had learned to be considerate to the hoi polloi and to show respect for the rigors of the clock.

Besides, whatever my personal views on the subject, I had to confess that strictly from a commercial-magazine-circulation point of view she was what’s known in news parlance as hot copy: public curiosity in Imelda had not abated at the time, and each issue of this magazine with her on the cover had been a newsstand seller. And I thought there was one other thing in her favor: she was self-assured and gutsy and foolhardly enough to face a potentially hostile (though normally civil) interviewer, one who had enjoyed the hospitality of her husband’s martial-law prisons and had had a brother killed by her husband’s myrmidons.

The interview was set at nine on a Sunday morning, and though I have a never-on-Sunday-morning rule because that’s one of the few times I can catch up on my sleep, I agreed to be at the Westin Philippine Plaza Hotel at nine. I was assured that she would be on time. I should have known better, of course.

Shortly before nine I was at the ground-floor lobby of the Plaza, along with a photographer, a stenographer, and kibitzer Andy Cristobal Cruz, and we happened to arrive at the same time as Jimmy Barbers, the former Manila police officer, who said he remembered the articles I wrote for the Free Press before martial law (he probably kept a dossier of them). He was now working with Imelda, and he was surprised we had this appointment with her; he was certain they were going to Bulacan that morning.

At about nine the Imeldific, looking appropriately imeldific despite the years and the extra pounds, came out of her room and into the lobby of her suite, and she was sorry, really sorry, because there was this sudden invitation to address some fundamentalist group somewhere in Bulacan and it was just impossible to turn down the insistent invitation. Well, then, I said, could we just tag along and maybe talk to her in her coaster on the way to Bulacan and back? Oh, no, no, she softly exclaimed, horrified: “This is a fundamentalist group and I know you’re a liberal and I don’t want you to get the wrong impression.” She probably thought calling me a liberal would flatter me, but anyway—against my better judgment—I agreed to reset the appointment to five p.m. that same day. I should have known better, of course.

I went back to Quezon City, nearly an hour’s drive away in Sunday’s light traffic, and went back to sleep. At exactly five p.m. I was back at the Plaza, along with the photographer, the stenographer, and kibitzer Andy Cristobal Cruz. Imelda Marcos, we were informed, had not yet come back from Bulacan.

Being a masochist, I decided to wait. My companions and I went down to the hotel’s coffeeshop, where an hour later we got slapped with a bill of close to a thousand pesos for a few sandwiches that Jollibee’s does better. Having paid the bill—it was now past six p.m.—I decided it was time to call it a day, Imelda or no Imelda. Just as I was about to rise from my seat, in rushed Sol Vanzi, the journalist who has been serving as some kind of media liaison for Imelda since the former First Lady’s return from exile. Sol said she had been paging us for the past 15 minutes because, good news, Imelda was back from her fundamentalist foray and was ready for the interview. Sol and I got into journalism at about the same time, so I didn’t have the heart to walk out on her and her boss. I went quietly along, back to the Plaza suite, for the interview and for dinner with Imelda Marcos.

For the next two hours, and all through the dinner, Imelda treated us to her special brand of postmodernist discourse—rambling, incoherent, nebulous, a stream of consciousness studded with glittering generalities and coruscating catchphrases that had become second nature after years of selective brain-picking. If one needed a confirmation of Henry Adams’s observation that “practical politics consists in ignoring facts,” this was it.

Yet her interweaving of reasonable arguments with inspired inanities was also, at the same time, quite skillfully done, and in the end one had to admit hers was a scintillating performance, perversely fascinating, perversely impressive—windyfoggery of the highest order. If one needed a confirmation of Marya Mannes’s observation that “a candidate can have no greater advantage than muddled syntax,” this was it.

The interview was conducted in January, but it took me quite a while to get this together because, sometime after the interview, a daring young newscaster on Philippine television—a novato in broadcast journalism named Patricia Evangelista—said on air, immediately after Imelda got the red-carpet treatment in a television program preceding the newscast: “We shouldn’t glorify criminals.”

Of course, the law states that a person shall be presumed innocent until proven guilty, so it was understandable that Patricia Evangelista should be forced to resign as a result of her rather imprudent statement. Nevertheless, that statement has had a sobering effect on local media, and as you may have noticed, most of the dailies have pointedly ignored the presidential candidacy of the Imeldific, relegating her campaign to short items on the inside pages, very often without photos. Which is the cruelest punishment media can inflict on anyone in politics. “Politicians,” as Auberon Waugh says, “can forgive almost anything in the way of abuse; they can forgive subversion, revolution, being contradicted, exposed as liars, even ridiculed, but they can never forgive being ignored.”

If you’re wondering why we have chosen not to continue ignoring the Imeldific in this Season of Lent, let me tell you the deconstructed version of the Parable of the Prodigal Son, as narrated by a friend of mine named Ben Bautista. As you know, when the Prodigal Son came home after making a shameful spectacle of himself abroad, his father gave a feast in his honor. And the Other Son, who had never left home, naturally complained: “Father, I have stayed by your side all this time, and not once have you given a feast in my honor.” And the father put his arm around the Other Son and took him aside and said, “Well, son, you know … some are smarter than others.”

I don’t really know what the hell that parable according to Ben Bautista has to do with the subject of this article, but I had a good laugh when I heard it and I just can’t help repeating it somewhere, sometime, and here and now seems as good a time as any.

Anyway, here, for all they’re worth, are excerpts from the Imeldific Interview. Remember that this was conducted before Imelda formally declared her candidacy. Some of the questions are therefore dated. But the answers are timeless. Age cannot wither their infinite goofy appeal.

You’ve been going around the country since you got back. How have things been so far?

Wherever I go, I see thousands and thousands and thousands of people. Before you can go anywhere, sometimes you inch your way to.… The moment they know that you’re in the bus, it takes so long.…. Like, for instance, in Cavite, it took us four and a half hours to go three miles. And then we have to walk sometimes because people will go in front of the bus. They want to shake hands, and they touch you, and they run after you, the children. A very unusual thing. I am their mama. Ay, sabi ko, I was not here for five years, and they were born when we were gone. Why is it I am their mama? Like kanina, I was sitting there, and the children of those who were in prayer would come in and kiss me. It was kind of eerie, you know.

How do you feel about all this? Is this what’s convincing you to run?

The situation is such and the cry of desperation of the people is such that it looks like you have no choice. And with what I have gone through—I was alone, I was widowed, I was orphaned, facing the mightiest sword of justice, with only God and my conscience as my witness—and yet the truth prevailed. And yet the greatest victory of my life was during my deprived years in a foreign country. Not when I was in the midst of power and wealth, but when I was completely deprived. So it gives me strength and inspiration to say, if I made it in a foreign country, facing the mightiest sword of justice, the most exacting and the almost perfected judicial system of the world, and made it, how much more we Filipinos, here in our own land. Parati kong sinasabi sa mga tao, kung nakaya ni Imelda sa banyagang lupa, ano pa kaya dito sa ating inang bayan?

Strengthened by what I have gone through, now I am intensely sensitive to any given human pain and suffering. I am practically skinless in body and spirit. I cannot turn my back to anyone who suffers.

But your critics are going to say that you had, how many years?—20 years—and what were you able to do in the time when you had the power and the capability to change the situation?

When I was governor of Metro Manila, I made very good use of my time. This Cultural Center complex alone, the Light Rail Transit, basic services, water, power, food, shelter, clothing, medical service, employment, housing—all of these things. The Cultural Center to give us not only identity, pride and dignity but to ensure the integrity and wholeness of our people.

People have been talking of a New World Order since last year. But I talked about the New Human Order in 1974, when I presented to the United Nations a New Human Order. They kept talking for three decades of a new international economic order. But the demand of the world and humanity was not money, it was a New Human Order.

Will you refresh our memory? What did this New Human Order consist of?

The New Human Order was to bring about the wholeness and integrity of the human being in body, mind and spirit. To feed the body, as I’ve always said, with what is good, and to make it healthy, and to give the mind education, so that it would be literate, and then feed the body with beauty, to give it dignity, or love.

You know, they keep hitting me all the time, because I talk of beauty. And yet that is our role as women in our cultural genesis: Maganda. The role of woman is to be Maganda, in body, mind and spirit. And when I talk about Maganda, it is not only the senses—beauty of music, the sound, the audio, the visual, the olfactory, the gustatory, the tactile—but I talk about it in an ideological dimension, which is: Beauty is harmony, discipline and order. And it has a theological dimension, of beauty, which is God, and love. And peace is made real in what is beautiful. And after, the reach for money and power is the reach for beauty, because God and love are made real in what is beautiful. By divine destiny and will, my first program was the Cultural Center of the Philippines, if you will remember. But I was viciously vilified and maligned. In fact, the Free Press had …

I think I wrote that article.

… “Parthenon or Pantheon” …

Ah, that one was Nick Joaquin’s.

Marie Antoinette. Why, there were people going hungry! And there were slums! Why build this monstrous edifice when people could not afford it?

You see, when Marcos became President, I asked him, “Ferdinand, now that you are President, what is my role as your First Lady?” He said to me, “Now that I am President, as father I will build a strong house for the Filipino people. You, as the mother, make it a home.” So I reflected: What makes a home? Love. What is love when made real? Beauty. What are the beautiful songs, dances, costumes, traditions, values that we have as a people? Culture. And also at the same time we had an identity crisis. We lost our identity after 400 years of colonial masters. We had to peel off the mask and say, “Hi, world, I have a face too. And it’s a beautiful face. It’s not American, it’s not Chinese, it’s not Japanese, it’s not Spanish, but it is Filipino. It’s a beautiful face.”

When we started seeing our dances, our music, our poetry, we said: Aba, maganda pala tayong tao, a. We started having pride, identity. Ano ang Pilipino? Nakabarong, nakaterno ang mga babae, nakamalong, ang gaganda ng mga costume. Aba. We started having not only pride and dignity, what was godly in us surfaced, what was sacred in us surfaced. That gave us dignity as human beings. So the Cultural Center of the Philippines gave an invaluable service to the Filipino people. It was the sanctuary of the Filipino soul and monument of the Filipino spirit. And why am I so controversial?

Yah, why?

At this time, they’re always saying, in the world I am one of the most controversial. They ask who is the most, what do you call this, known woman in the world? And everybody—far ahead, they would say: Imelda. They don’t go anymore: Marcos and all of that. So we have an identity already. We have an identity. You see, all my life, I was then compromising with God, beauty and love.

Okay, that was then, this is now. Now Mr. Marcos is not around. When you say the situation leaves you no choice, you mean it leaves you no choice but to run for the presidency, to be master of the house, head of the house, rather than…?

Not to master. On the contrary: the servant of the house. Because everything comes in pairs. I don’t look at it as a master. I always said when I was first First Lady, the problem with First Lady, I was both star and slave. Star na lang ba pirme? She rides in a limousine, she wears a terno, she has to wear a gown, she has to be with kings and jetsetters and all of these big-deal guys, you know. But they did not see the other side of Imelda. That I was slaving, I did not sleep, I worked night and day. I had very little sleep because I was also slave.

You see, in this world, everything comes in pairs—black and white, man and woman, night and day, yin and yang. And it is a balancing act. And as a mother it is worse. And as a woman it is worse. The mother’s role is the beginning of all evils, because you attend not only to the material needs, but also you attend to and you nurture also the inner, the spiritual needs of man: love. Remember, when even the Lord said, “Call my mother blessed because she is the instrument in my humanity,” and the angels rebelled. Mothers are hard to understand, women are hard to understand, because we are very ambivalent. We can be spiritual, or we are abstract one moment and we are so real the other moment.

ANDY CRUZ: Pag bumibiyahe kayo sa probinsiya, what do you expect? Ano ang salubong sa inyo?

I have been in politics, on the national scene, since ’59, when Marcos ran for the Senate. But—even at the height of the Marcoses’ power—it was never this way, such overwhelming reception that we get. And I suppose, the reason for that is, they know what is in my heart. I suppose they know the purity of my vision and the selflessness of my commitment.

You think it’s not partly out of curiosity that people come, because you’ve become a world-class celebrity?

Partly. They want to find out how much you have deteriorated, or improved, or whatever. You know. There’s all of that combined.

Tell me about life in exile.

You know, it was painful. It was deprivation of dignity, suffering, the losses, the loss of loved ones, separated from your children and your family and your country, completely deprived of even freedom to survive, when you were holding a parole visa, and every so often you would be pictured with a number, fingerprinted like a criminal in a foreign country, continuously doing that. Yes, these were painful, these were humiliating. But the most difficult was, you felt like a tree that had been transplanted, that had been uprooted, that could not even grow leaves on the branches to give shade to your fellowmen. That for me was the most frustrating, the most painful of all.

What sustained you in all that?

God and my conscience. They said I was ugly. They put fangs in my mouth and horns in my head, said I was a pig. And I looked at myself, and I looked at what I did. I built the Cultural Center of the Philippines, I built the Heart Center, I built the Light Rail Transit, I made Manila clean, had Metro Aides, gave not only employment but dignity to people. I said, now the world may tell me that I am bad, but in my heart I know I have a pure vision, and I gave it with dedication and selflessness, and I was sure that if I died any moment I could say to the Lord: “Lord, this is what you gave me, and this is what I’ve made of my life.” And I am sure he would give me a smile. For after all you were born alone, and you will die alone. Even if the whole world is against you, but if you can live with yourself and with your creator, what more do you want?

CRUZ: Ma’am, ang una kong artikulo sa bagong Graphic when it came out was about Kabisig. Inexpose ni Bobby Tañada sa diyaryo, sabi ni Bobby Tañada: Hindi original ’yan.

All I have to say is, the highest compliment, the flattery, is to be able to say: Ay, ginaya tayo. How wonderful! (Laughs) I see so many echoes, I hear so many echoes. But it’s funny. I was always criticized because I was frivolous, because I sang, I danced. It was part of my wholeness. A heart that dreamed and a body that could move with grace—my God, it’s part of your wholeness, the integrity of your wholeness. It brings fulfillment and happiness. Nakakatawa, e. Kaya ang sabi ko sa editorial board of Washington Times and Wall Street Journal, when they were interviewing me, they talked to me about the shoes, I said, “You know, when you went to the inner sanctum of my home, and you found shoes instead of skeletons, you should have taken me a bit more seriously. This was Cinderella.”

That was 3,000 Cinderellas. Did you really have 3,000 pairs of shoes?

I understand it went down to 1,000. I don’t know where the other 2,000 went. Those shoes symbolized the generosity of the Filipino people. And also they showed that I was a responsible First Lady trying to promote Philippine products. You know, shoes were never my weakness, that’s for sure. But I had a responsibility as First Lady and governor of Metro Manila, because one of cities in Manila is Marikina. We wanted to export more shoes from the Philippines. So from one million pairs, we were able to bring out more than 70 million pairs. Of course, every time there was a shoe fair, every shoe factory would give you two, three, a dozen or so pairs, in the hope that you would promote for them and in grateful appreciation for promoting them. You know, these are the hazards of … Iba iyong aking role.

CRUZ: Akala namin, isosoli na, hindi ba? Noong ipinamigay n’yo sa DZRH…

Noong malaman nila na ’yong mga shoes ko, miski sa America, ipinagbibili ng 10,000 dollars each, for charity causes, that they were ready to buy all these 3,000 pairs of shoes, then suddenly they said wala daw shoes. Hindi daw ibibigay. Kasi sabi ko, ibibigay ko sa Pinatubo.

The government is using the resources of government to destroy the Marcoses, to make them victims of injustice. But the ultimate victims of injustice are the poor. That money should be given to the people instead of being used for negative things.

Like the paintings that were here already in the Metropolitan Museum, that they sold. Anong klase ito? They sold it and auctioned it for 15 million, and that collection could be more than a billion dollars. There was a Raphael, there was a Botticelli, there was a Michelangelo, there was a Guardi—ay naku! Filippino Lippi—wala niyan maski sa Metropolitan Museum ng America. Titian. Tintoretto. This is 73 paintings. Ipinagbili! Can you imagine? There could have been two, three billion easily. Dollars. We sold it for 15 million pesos.

That’s government property?

That is Marcos property that was donated. The government did not have this money. The buildings in New York, where did they go? We didn’t get a cent for that. One of them could have been sold for half a billion, or two billion now. We have four buildings, half a billion each. We did not even get 2,000 dollars. There was the silver, the biggest silver collection in the world. They sold it for five million dollars.

But then the critics will say that on a President’s salary Mr. Marcos could not have afforded all of these things.

He had his own money. You know, when they counted the assets of Marcos, they counted something like two trillion 300 billion pesos. You know why I am wearing this ring? It is not only a little ostentatious—it is ostentatious. And this was my engagement ring when we got married. Ferdinand was not a poor man even then, and this was ’54, thirty-seven years ago.

You see, when the Breton Woods Agreement came into force in 1957, three years after Marcos and I got married, he started buying gold because the United States came out already of the gold standard. And they were selling gold at 35. So, whatever cash he had, he started buying gold.

Ferdinand and I got married in ’54. And the Breton Woods Agreement was in force in ’57. Now I remember, my first trip to the United States, after he became President, was to the Federal Reserve Board, and the head of that was Arthur Burns. He was the chairman of the board. William “Bill” Blair was the one who arranged my going to the Federal Reserve, and the reason for that was because we had no money in the coffers of the government. It was empty. And we wanted to sell gold. And the answer to me of Arthur Burns then was that they could not buy gold because they were selling gold, because of the Breton Woods Agreement of ’57. This was ’66, ’67.

But talagang may estrelya sa ulo si Marcos. He bought gold at 32 per ounce when he proclaimed martial law in ’72.

Where did Marcos get all his gold?

There was a little which they found and divided among the guerrilla group, and then in 1945, when he went to the US for the veterans’ foundation, his comrades asked him to sell this. From then on he went into gold trading, and he was lucky.

You know when Ferdinand and I got married he brought me to his house, and then I was surprised, there was worth P30 million pesos nakatambak doon sa bahay, inaamag. Sabi ko, “What are you going to with that? If you deposit that…” He said, “No, I want to become President.” I said, “What is the relation?” He said, “I can confront any kind of problem but not envy. Pagka malaman nila na marami akong pera, maiinggit sila sa akin.”

The Cultural Center, the Heart Center, the Lung Center—hindi naman ito appropriated by government. I was the one spending Marcos money.

I thought you were getting donations from businessmen for these centers.

That kind of money—who will give that? This hotel costs 700 million. When this was made, the exchange was 6-1, and they sold it only for 650 million dollars. I reclaimed every bit of this place, and now they will not even allow me to stay here. They are going to evict me. But the nice part of it is that friends come in. They feel that I must live in some kind of comfort and dignity. After all, I built this hotel.

The rumor is you are the real owner of this hotel.

I could own this if they would defreeze all my assets. This does not belong to them. Kaya taas ang noo at ilong ko rito. Wala kaming kinurakot. This whole complex was primed by the Marcos wealth, which is really a legend. You know why he bought the buildings in New York? Because he wanted the Philippines to be in the midst of free enterprise. See, we were going to align ourselves with free enterprise. He was going to put it in the center, New York.

He had a global vision for the country. The poor guy was so maligned. Only, he was so smart, he was a legend.

CRUZ: Do you mind a personal question?


CRUZ: When do you miss him most?

This is embarrassing to say, but now I’ve never had Ferdinand more with me than when he was alive. I miss, sure, his presence. I miss his presence but I think of him more now. Especially when I have to make decisions, I think of him much, much more now. I miss his presence, but he is very real to me, much more real than ever before. He is more with me than when he was alive.

When you make decisions, do you think first of how Ferdinand would decide?

Yah. All the time. I always do that.

Isn’t it time you moved out of Ferdinand’s shadow? You’re Imelda now, you’re…

No, because he enriched my life, he made me whole. Now I am Imelda, I am Ferdinand and Imelda too. I’m alone, and at the same time… For instance, whenever I made decisions, he always said to me, “When you make a decision, make a decision that is good for all, not just good for one, but for all.” So every time I make a decision, I think of this. Ako naman, mula sa umpisa, basta meron akong vision, basta alam kong ako’y tama, para akong pison—tuloy-tuloy. Miski na ako pukpukin dito, basta ang commitment ko, nandodo’n. Kamukha noong people would say, “Mrs. Marcos, you are so committed to beauty, love, and God. Isn’t that expensive?” Sabi ko, “In a material world where everything is quantifiable, and you are committed to beauty, love and God, which are unquantifiable, you are frivolous, you are extravagant, you are excessive.” Because when you say God is 10 million worth, or I love you 10 percent, or he’s 16 percent beautiful, then they would say, “Mrs. Marcos, your standard for beauty is expensive.” I would say, “It takes a lot more discipline to look good than ugly, and it takes a lot, lot more discipline to even look presentable when you have reached 62.” So I say, beauty is expensive.

Kaya ako, kung sabihin nilang pangit ako, tumitingin ako sa salamin. Hindi naman ako pangit. They tell me I have horns. I look in the mirror. I have no horns. You are born alone, and if they don’t like you what can you do? I’m not running a popularity contest. I just go ahead.

Did you read this recent editorial saying: “Imelda, tama na”?

Tama nang tulungan ang mga tao? Tama nang magmahal sa kapwa? Bakit, sila lang ba ang may karapatang magmahal sa kapwa? Sila lang ang may karapatang tumulong at magbigay-saklolo sa bayan? Ito ay karapatan ng bawat isa. Everybody should be given the right to give, to care and to love, to serve, to help. You know, the opposite of love is selfishness, not hate. I am selfless because I am a believer that the only things you keep in life are those that you give away. And I’ve noticed it. I have been living practically on welfare. When we arrived, we were deprived of everything—our valuables, our things, including our faces, our honor. The whole world descended in a conspiracy against the Marcoses. Now they will stop me to serve my country, to serve my people, to offer what I have, to bring it to a vision of greatness.

Well, people look at you and they wouldn’t think you’re living on welfare.

This is the beauty of it all. They can rob you of everything, but they cannot rob you of friends who respect you and appreciate you and would like to offer you help. One of the most wonderful things that happened to me is that I knew who my friends were. My life is a life of extremes. I lived a very charmed life, a fairy tale. First Lady for 20 years. Corridors of power. I lived in palaces and all that. Then suddenly everything went down. I saw real people, and I am so glad I got to see the other side of the coin. Now, nobody can tell me about suffering, about deprivation, humiliation. I have been through all of that.

We faced the most exact, the most perfected, the mightiest judicial system in the world, and I was alone. Even the Bible says there is a special place for oppressed widows and orphans, and I was both. That was the reason why Ferdinand opted to die. He thought that by dying they would not touch me anymore. But no, three hours later they were…

It was also our fault. Our information system was very inadequate, because they could not articulate the vision, the ideology that Marcos has. There were not enough people who could explain it to the world. Nobody saw his vision, nobody saw his ideology, the policies of Marcos. They were not explained.

You know, ako, wala akong ambition. I’m sure, if I want to be comfortable, I have my passport and I’m sure Mrs. Aquino would give me a royal send-off. I can go home, I can get out. I don’t need this. I need this like a hole in the head. If I have a few million dollars, I’d be very happy. And I have Doris Duke—I can use any of her homes, any of her planes, and I can live high if I want. I don’t need this. I need this like a hole in the head.

So why do you want a hole in the head?

Because it has to be done. Somebody’s got to do it. Yes, somebody’s got to do it. This is the only country that I have. It’s a matter of survival. G


Dahil nasa news ngayon si Imelda Marcos, naisipan kong i-posr itong isang lumang kolum na sinulat ko para sa Manila Times bandang 1996.

Jose F. Lacaba                                                                                                              

As If!

IMELDA’S mad. She’s mad as hell at Cory Aquino for suggesting that Imelda should return all of the Marcoses’ ill-gotten wealth to the Filipino people. Reacting like a bull in a china shop, or like a wayward ballistic missile in a fireworks factory, the former First Lady sent media outfits a faxed note addressed to the former President. That was in the nature of an open fax, the high-tech equivalent of an open letter.

“For God’s sake, Cory!” Imelda wrote, liberally dispensing exclamation points. “Be nice for a change!”

Then she went ad hominem, or maybe the politically correct term would be ad feminam: “For 10 years our country and the Filipino people have suffered enough from your ugliness!”

The proper riposte to that amazing display of pique and chutzpah can only be Alicia Silverstone’s favorite line in the movie Clueless:

As if!

I mean, has Imelda Marcos looked in the mirror lately? She may have been Miss Manila in her youth, but now she looks more like Ms. Quiapo Underpass After a Heavy Rain.

Some women age gracefully, their beauty evolving with the years. But the arrogance of power and the subsequent embitterment of defeat have a way of corrupting human flesh, distorting the features of even the most fabled of beauties.

Today I can’t look at pictures of the erstwhile Rose of Tacloban without recalling lines from a John Crowe Ransom poem: “I know a lady with a terrible tongue, / Blear eyes fallen from blue, / All her perfections tarnished—yet it is not long / Since she was lovelier than any of you.”

Congresswoman Marcos doesn’t seem to know that yet. Which is why she thinks she can get away with such prettier-than-thou exhortations as: “Let us all work to make this nation not only great but beautiful again. Put up or shut up, Cory!”

As if!

That Clueless catchword—which, until I saw the movie, I always assumed to be Filipino English, like saying “For a while” to telephone callers—seems like a wonderfully apt retort to certain announcements and pronouncements recently in the news.

The current First Lady, Ming Ramos, for instance, is also in exhortatory mode. A statement from the Malacañang press office reports that she advised the media not to glorify “actresses and television personalities who have children out of wedlock.”

The Malacañang statement quotes Ming as saying: “We should go back to the good moral values. We have to teach children what is right and what is wrong.”

Ming Ramos is, by all accounts, a personable and unasssuming lady. That may explain why a sympathetic press has chosen to interpret her comments as “a slap at former President Corazon Aquino’s daughter, Kris,” who has a love child by a married man.

As if!

I mean, shouldn’t such comments be addressed to the wayward men? Kris didn’t get preggie by immaculate conception, so it seems unfair to single out the female of the species—“actresses.” Where does Phillip Salvador figure in all this? And, closer to home, should people who live in glass houses be throwing brickbats?

 And now comes Jaime Cardinal Sin pontificating on “signals that martial law may return.”
n a radio interview, the good cardinal took note of reports that the government is thinking of giving vigilante powers to private security guards and that the police may have planted evidence against suspected terrorists. He then exhorted the faithful: “Let us be vigilant, especially on that antiterrorism bill.”

As if!

I mean, the possible resurgence of martial rule is certainly a nightmare devoutly to be feared; but if the cardinal is so concerned about that, then maybe he should be equally concerned about the erosion of democratic rights and civil liberties.

Yet a lot of people see the cardinal’s hidden hand in a recent attack on a fundamental democratic right enshrined in the Constitution—freedom of expression.

A newspaper report, quoting an unnamed member of the cardinal’s staff, said Sin “actively lobbied to stop the showing” of the controversial movie Priest.

The hero of EDSA and savior of democracy, who has not seen the movie, was reportedly “upset” by its portrayal of a gay Catholic priest. He had earlier denounced the portrayal as “foolishness.”

As if!

Saturday, September 1, 2018


The Writer’s Role 

By Jose F. Lacaba

Lecture delivered at the 2014 ASEAN Literary Festival, Jakarta, Indonesia.

A few years ago, for a writers’ conference in another Asian country—the Republic of Korea, to be exact—I was asked to give a talk on what it’s like to be a writer in Asia, a place where we speak and write in many mutually unintelligible languages, a place about which we know little, outside of our own national boundaries.

In my lecture, I noted that writers’ conferences are “helpful because they provide a forum for us to share ideas and experiences, and perhaps even to air grievances, real or imagined.” At the same time, I spoke of another type of gathering that deserved to be explored. “Perhaps,” I wrote back then, “we also need a specifically Asian literary festival similar to the Osian’s-Cinefan Festival of Asian and Arab Cinema, a literary festival in which we can be exposed, not to academic disquisitions, but to poetry and fiction and drama.”

It seems that my wish has now been granted.

Of course, ASEAN, or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, does not encompass the whole of Asia, although the region known as Southeast Asia, like the entire continent of Asia, is a place where the component nations hardly know each other. Still, I’d like to think that my wish has been granted because what we have here is a literary festival, the First ASEAN Literary Festival—in other words, an event that will primarily feature, not academic disquisitions, but poetry and fiction and drama. In short, literature.

I guess literature in this festival also includes the essay, because I have been asked to say a few words here tonight, about the role of the writer in the making of a just and humane society.

This is a tough topic. Plus, I have to confess that I’m not very good at delivering written lectures. Allow me, then, to approach this topic from a personal perspective.

The making of a just and humane society was not something I envisioned when I started to write poetry and short fiction, and when I joined the cabal of dreamers who fantasized about writing the Great Filipino Novel. As a teenager, I believed that my role as a writer was simply to write. After all, that’s what the word writer means, right? A worker works, a farmer farms, a driver drives, a teacher teaches, and a writer writes, right?

So I just wrote without any thought of grand and lofty goals. I wrote about my annoying pimples and my existential angst, the view from the classroom window and the food on the dining table, the stars in the sky and the carabao dung on the road. The way I saw it, I was writing primarily about myself and my surroundings, not about society in general, not about humanity as a whole.

Without realizing it, of course, I was writing about aspects of reality that I was not entirely happy with. And that reality began to assume a larger dimension after I dropped out of college and ended up in journalism. My work as a journalist put me in touch with a wide range of social types—beauty queens and jailbirds, slum dwellers and mansion owners, smooth-talking politicians and sloganeering student activists—and made me realize that my day job as a field reporter and my weekend diversion as a versifier shared the same goal: to tell the truth.

Early on, even as a journalist engaged in truth-telling, I saw myself primarily as an observer—not exactly detached, but still an observer. I liked quoting Groucho Marx: “I am not interested in joining any organization that is willing to accept me as member.”

When the student protest movement that I was writing about went into that intense period that has come to be known in Philippine history as the First Quarter Storm, I started to become not just an observer but also a participant, a joiner. I even became an organizer, helping set up a trade union in the magazine I worked for, and becoming a founding member of artists’ groups that held up the pen as an instrument for the people’s welfare. That was when I started quoting the other Marx: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world. The point, however, is to change it.”

Telling the truth and changing the world became dangerous preoccupations when martial law was declared in my country. The martial-law dictatorship shut down or took over television stations, newspapers, and magazines, and I found myself not only jobless but also on the wanted list of media practitioners. I ended up joining a group of fugitive journalists who put out mimeographed underground publications that dared to publish what the government-controlled aboveground media would not touch.

Less than two years after I went underground, the authorities caught up with me and threw me into a military prison, where I was subjected to torture and other indignities. I spent nearly two years in prison. No charges were ever filed against me.

But before my time in prison, I succeeded in pulling off a literary prank that was also a form of protest. Writing under a pseudonym, I submitted an English poem to a dictatorship-controlled magazine. On the surface, the poem, titled “Prometheus Unbound” and written in rather flowery language, was just about an episode in Greek mythology. But it could also be read as a metaphor of anti-dictatorship protest, since Prometheus was the Titan who was punished by the supreme god Zeus for giving the gift of fire to man.

To top it all, “Prometheus Unbound” was also an acrostic poem. When the magazine came out with the poem, word soon got around that the capitalized first letters of the lines, if read downwards, spelled out a Tagalog slogan that activists shouted in the streets before martial law: MARCOS HITLER DIKTADOR TUTA, meaning, Marcos, Hitler, Dictator, Running Dog. The military quickly swooped down on newstands and pulled out all unsold copies of the magazine.

This brings me back to the topic that I’m supposed to be discussing in this lecture: what is the role of the writer in the making of a just and humane society?

I will go further back, back to my youthful days, when I thought that the role of the writer, the task of the writer, is plain and simple: to write.

If you sincerely believe that you can build a just and humane society by running for public office, or by working with nonprofit organizations, or by marching in the streets, then, by all means, feel free to do so. Writers and artists, after all, are also citizens and must concern themselves not only with their art but also with the issues and problems confronting their society and their country.

But if you see yourself as a writer, then your primary task is clear: Write.

Write a song describing your utopian vision of what a just and humane society should be. Write a poem denouncing the injustice and inhumanity of governments that violate human rights. Write a story exposing the tyranny and the repression that make people’s lives miserable. Write a play extolling the work of those who fight for freedom and democracy.

Above all, in writing, tell the truth. Write with metaphors and symbolism, or write with bluntness and without disguise, but tell the truth.

There was a time in my country, in the time of martial rule, when the dictator’s wife dictated that artists and cultural workers should deal with “the good, the true, and the beautiful.” That phrase has a nice ring to it, but the really important thing is to write about what’s true. What’s true is good, even if brings you misery and pain in a dictator’s prison. What’s true is beautiful, even if the dictator’s wife finds it ugly and revolting.

Friday, August 31, 2018



Iginawad ng Unyon ng mga Manunulat sa Pilipinas (UMPIL)
1999 Agosto 28

May natatandaan akong sinabi o sinulat si Adrian Cristobal noong araw—na ang mga award-award ay walang halaga kung walang kasamang pera. Pero nagpapasalamat pa rin ako, at taos-pusong nagpapasalamat, sa Gawad Balagtas na ipinagkakaloob ninyo sa akin ngayon.

Nagpapasalamat ako sapagkat pinararangalan ninyo ako sa kabila ng katotohanang may panahong nagkahiwalay tayo ng landas. Pinaghiwalay tayo ng isang malaking isyung pampulitika, at hindi lingid sa marami sa inyo na nilait-lait ko ang inyong samahan noon.

Huwag na nating halukayin ang nakaraan. Ang nangyari noon ay trabaho lang, walang personalan. Sapat nang sabihing ang natatapilok ay hindi naman nananatiling nakadapa, at ang Gawad Balagtas na ito ay isang okasyon para sa pagkakaibigan, pagpapatawad, muling pagkakasundo—at pagkilala na marami pa tayong daratnang sangandaan sa hinaharap, mga sangandaang muling susubok sa ating pagsasamahan.

Gusto kong samantalahin ang pagkakataong ito para pasalamatan ang aking ina. Matagal siyang naging guro ng Pilipino, at siya ang unang nagmulat sa akin sa yaman at dunong ng panulaang Tagalog—lalo na sa talas at tigas ni Balagtas.

Muli, salamat sa pagkakaloob ninyo sa akin ng Gawad Balagtas. Ito’y hindi lamang isang karangalan, kundi isang hamon—isang hamon sapagkat, bagamat papasok na tayo sa isang bagong siglo at isang bagong milenyum, ang lipunan ay isa pa ring madilim, gubat na mapanglaw, at sa loob at labas ng bayan nating sawi, kaliluhan pa rin ang nangyayaring hari.