I was never a friend of Imelda’s. I was never a Blue Boy, neither a Blue Lady and most especially never a Blue Gay like Pitoy and Doc Teyet, bless them, were. I was too young, too far away and, well, too socially irrelevant (but that’s our secret ha ha).
As a kid, though, I was an Imelda fan. I come from the North and in those topless days of mine (I hated wearing shirts), I would hear my elders talk about how beautiful she was, how tall and how euphonious her singing was when she was campaigning.
No wonder that as I grew old, and grew older still, I made it a point to count the times I saw Imelda Marcos. It was like counting the number of movies you’ve seen, movies being a novelty to a kid. First, I saw the Sound of Music at Ever, with my Manang Glo providing the live “subtitles” in Tagalog for the children seated next to us to hear and understand what Maria was telling dear Mother Abbess. For sure, I enjoyed the movie, laughed at the problem that was Maria and feared that the Von Trapps would be caught by the Gestapo. When they finally escaped, I too felt triumphant and relieved as the family crossed the Alps to the resounding accompaniment of “Climb Every Mountain,” not knowing then it would become my national anthem, if you know what I mean.
Then, I saw For Whom the Bell Tolls, this time with my Auntie Bennie and Manang Glo again, and falling asleep after the first five minutes. (No, my smart cousin did not bother to explain what it was all about, perhaps for fear that I might mature into someone who starts civil wars or blows up bridges. Which, you will agree with me now, would have been farfetched.)
Then, I saw Tickle Me with Auntie Luchi who giggled and swooned over Elvis, and then, Our Man Flint. The ultimate experience for the youngest social climber in the whole universe was watching Mackenna’s Gold at Rizal Theater. I was 12, in a pair of shorts (and a Vonnel knit shirt that itched). I gaped and stared at all these beautiful people as they were then called, all lined up around me, waiting to get inside the theater. Any movie house I entered, after that one, no longer impressed me. (Oh, but in case you’re wondering, no, the naked Omar Sharif did not make an impression on me in that movie, probably because I always saw naked boys in the ditches by the highway all the time.)
Playing ‘klepto” is so unsocial
I finally stopped counting the movies I saw in Manila when I watched The Thief Who Came to Dinner, a funny movie with a very rich setting because it was about a jewel thief who naturally robbed the rich in their beautiful homes. Now, for our purposes here, it’s not of course right to accept invitations to rich people’s homes and end up helping yourself to what’s inside their vaults or even just their cupboards.
Running away with a demitasse wouldn’t harm much, really, but I still find it gauche to be taking away something that is not yours, no matter if you promise to deed it over to the needy next door when you leave our dear, beloved earth. In short, playing “klepto” is so unsocial, despite our topic today being the lady to whom we attribute the statement, “Some are smarter than others,” and I am not about to pass judgment on her.
All I am entitled to is, of course, to say that when you have to steal, it shouldn’t be from the people you social climb because you are sure to lose your credibility among their crowd, and you know how fast word travels from mouth to ears to mouth to ears, as I often say. And if your cover is blown, you can say goodbye to being invited again.
Instead, if you really enjoyed the drunken chocolate truffle cake and want to have another bite as soon as Cinderella reaches home at quarter past midnight, try to be chummy with the waiters or the kitchen staff (which Proust tends to do to pick up the yummiest stories). If you amuse them enough with a promise to hire them now and then in your own little parties, they might be convinced to give you one whole cake, like the socialite I know who used to inveigle the Manila Polo waiters into giving her exactly that, not a slice but a whole cake from the kitchen by promising them a new job in a bigger establishment where the pay was, of course, much higher. Put another way, never outsmart the rich. Only those who will always be beholden to you.
Now, to go back to the Imeldific one, my fascination with her finally found its first fruition when an uncle of mine, a government functionary, gave me two tickets to attend a concert of Franco Corelli and Renata Tebaldi at the Araneta Coliseum.
I don’t remember any more if this was in 1973 or 1974, but I am certain it was in the early part of the Martial Law years.
I was seated in the orchestra, toward the back part where I had a full view of the stage, waiting for Corelli and Tebaldi to come out again after a brief break, when I heard a commotion at the back. And when I turned around, I saw Imelda Marcos and her coterie taking their seats in what must have been the equivalent of a box, and being photographed by about a dozen members of the press who, all of a sudden, materialized from nowhere.
They were most likely tipped she was coming, of course.
It was the first time I saw the First Lady and I couldn’t take my eyes off her. Suddenly I began to smell something fragrant, and I assumed that was her perfume, although if I look back now, it must have been that of the lady right in front of me. Imelda’s presence somehow heightened the already electrifying atmosphere caused by the astounding singing of the two Italians. To this day, I could still imagine the collective gasp of the audience as soon as they realized Ma’am had arrived to grace the occasion. From that day onward, I was convinced Imelda Marcos was really beautiful. She was even lovelier as the spotlight was trained at her.
‘How nice of you to come!’
Anyway, I have since had more sightings of and encounters with Imelda, the most fascinating one being when I was once brought into her presence in her Pacific Plaza home along Ayala Avenue. I was captivated, and thrilled as well, when she stood up and welcomed me, “Jojo, it’s nice of you to come.”
I had mixed feelings, the narcissist in me admiring myself because, “Ay, Ma’am knows me,” forgetting or choosing to forget that right in the lobby, I had been asked who I was, so that when I was face to face with her, Imelda greeted me like I was her long-lost classmate from Tacloban.
“Jojo, how nice of you to come.” I repeat her words because they sounded so genuine and so sincere, they must have been real, or you were simply awed by such a mesmerizing presence.
Finally, after I became a features writer, I had a number of encounters with Ma’am, twice in her home at Pacific Plaza, once in the home of Lulu Tinio and another in Congress. In all instances, she spoke her words of wisdom, and she always made sure I was comfortable and relaxed.
The thing about Ma’am is after your initial apprehension, because she could really make you wait and wonder if she would ever appear at all, you forget about the agony of waiting first because she is really awesome and she somehow remembers you from the last time you met.
Of course, I always try to introduce myself because the fact is, she does not really know me, no matter if I had interviewed her a few times, but as soon as she is reminded, she goes, “Of course, I know you,” and all of a sudden, you are convinced, “Ay, she remembers me.”
Quoting the ‘Fabulous One’
Anyway, let me share with you some of what Ma’am has told me through the years, and I am quoting her verbatim because some things are simply better said by Imelda and Imelda alone, whether you believe her or not. I must wash my hands in innocence, though, for howsoever you understand and interpret what she says is really, really all up to you.
Playing mother: “I lost my mother at eight, and she was a perfect mother. Then I started mothering me. How many times did I go to school without having eaten a single piece of bread because one of the maids forgot to feed me … and we were not poor, we had a dozen maids. How many times did I go to sleep without a bowl of rice because somebody forgot? So, I learned how to cook rice. When you lose your mother, you lose everything. She was there all the time and then, she was gone.
“I was mothering my younger brothers and sisters. Then, before I knew it, I was mothering the district of Ferdinand Marcos. Then, I was mothering my country. Before I knew it, I was mothering the world.”
Dressing up well: “To me, it was important that I dress up well. Being tall, I was always sticking out like a sore thumb. And since I was very visible, they would ask me, “Where is the Philippines? They thought we were monkeys living in the trees. That’s why I decided to be beautiful.”
Fidel Castro: “And they were all kissing my hand. They were bowing to me. They liked me. Fidel Castro said, ‘I drove for only two women in my life, Imelda and my mother.’ Mga driver ko lang ang mga yan (They were just driving for me).’”
Mao Zhedong: “As soon I saw Mao, I held his hand and, in the manner of a Filipino showing respect, nagmano ako (I placed his hand on my forehead). Filipino way lang. Then, he took my hand, and as soon as he held it, he kissed it. The world asked him, ‘Why did you kiss Mrs. Marcos’ hand?’ He told them, ‘When Mrs. Marcos respected me, I respected her in turn as a mother to her children and the Filipino, and as a lover of humanity.’ And that was the beginning of the end of the Cold War. Because the Philippines is America junior. We had the biggest base of America. So, in five minutes, we started the end of the Cold War.”
On Russia and the Russians: “I remember, once, we were all there. The heads of state were naturally seated in front. Since I was a First Lady lang naman (only), I was seated at the back. Then, Gromyko, who was Russian Foreign Minister for 42 years, came to me and asked that I sit in front. Of course, I declined his offer. ‘No, no, no,’ I said. ‘I am not a president or a monarch.’ He said, ‘“You are more important than a president or a monarch because you are our friend.’”
On criticisms: “If somebody tells me, Imelda, duling ka…Imelda, you are cross-eyed, I would get a mirror. And I would see that I am not cross-eyed. The truth is still with me. I pity the person who tells me I am cross-eyed. He does not see the truth, he does not see reality. If they cannot see reality, they cannot see God. And I see God in everything. I see God in beauty. I even see God in garbage because out of that garbage, I can create beauty. I can create something useful. With garbage, people can create Imelda dolls that they can sell for one hundred pesos. With one hundred pesos, your meal for the whole day is taken care of. Do you not see God’s provision in what we recycle?”
On lawsuits and charges against her: “You know, the greatest fulfilment in life is not becoming beautiful or becoming powerful. The greatest fulfilment in life is to be at peace with the truth and God. When you are at peace with the truth and God, nobody can touch you. I had 986 cases, not from individuals but governments and superpowers. USA versus Imelda Marcos. All the time, I was alone, widowed and orphaned. But the Bible says there is a special place in hell for those who oppress widows and orphans. They did it to me for all these years with 986 cases, and yet, I am still here, at peace with the truth and God. And I know that even if they give me a hundred more, even if they keep putting more, please naman, look at the truth. How much was the budget of Marcos in 20 years? Four hundred eighty-six billion pesos (P486 billion). Cory, in one term, one trillion, one hundred billion pesos.
Double. And you’re saying we are the thieves?”
On the Marcos dictatorship: “Marcos, a dictator? He had 15 elections in 20 years that he was president. There were referendums and the like and four elections. Cory never won an election. She proclaimed a revolutionary government. She even booted out all congressmen and all elected officials. And she put a constitution, the number one law, that was not mandated. It was made by a usurper. She called it a revolutionary government. Marcos was not a dictator. He had 15 elections. If you consult the people, you are not a dictator.”
On ungrateful people: “I pity them. Because I loved them. I gave life to many of them. In fact, I attended a party recently. When I was leaving, the owner of the house said, “Ma’am, do you remember, you gave this land to us? When I see these people whom I have helped and to whom I have given hundreds of millions and billions and all of that, but don’t even remember me and say hello, I pity them. Kasi, parang patay na sila (it’s like they’re already dead). They are like walking cadavers.”
On “Dahil sa Iyo,” her signature song: “It became my favorite because it helped me express who I was. First of all, the lyrics say ‘Dahil sa iyo, ako ay nabuhay.’ Very few people may have sung as many times as I have in public. When I was campaigning for President Marcos, I sang as many as 30 to 40 to 50 times a day. But what I discovered was they did not ask for me to sing because I had a great voice. They wanted to find out my character. My greatest applause was when I was like a chicken crowing, tumitilaok na ako. I had nothing more to give but I would still sing. That was showing the character that I am a giver. I didn’t have a voice anymore. But the applause was loudest. They loved you because you were giving even when there was nothing more you could give.”