Saturday was a day I would be perpetually thankful for. Not only was I able to hear Mass on that feast day of one of my favorite saints, St. Thérèse of the Holy Child and the Holy Face, at the Carmelite nuns’ monastery, I was also able to deliver a speech at a convention of students taking up Tourism and also, literally rubbed elbows with a world icon – Former First Lady and now Ilocos Representative Imelda Romualdez Marcos.
About two weeks ago, I received an invitation from Saint Paul University’s BS Tourism Management program students to speak on Manila, and the role of the youth in its future. I immediately said yes as it I always find it an honor and humbling experience to share my views on cultural heritage, history and tourism. Likewise, I found it exciting to do something in line with my passion as my desk job has been seemingly sucking all of my “youth”.
According to the organizers, an estimated 450 students from different schools which offer Tourism courses would be attending the afternoon event. There were 4 speakers supposed to speak before me then, all experts in their respective fields. The Intramuros Administration, headed by Mr. Jun Capistrano, sent a representative, the Chief of the Planning Division of the Intramuros Administration. The Intramuros Administration or IA, which was established by a presidential decree during the Marcos regime, is the primary government agency tasked with overseeing the preservation, restoration and maintenance of the Old Walled City, Intramuros, which was synonymous then to Manila. Ms. Raidis Bassig, the speaker on behalf of the Intramuros Administration, stressed on the undeniable importance of Intramuros in Manila’s quest for identity and progress.
The next speaker, however, was undoubtedly the most popular and most awaited for, the Iron Butterfly, the Big-Haired Woman, the Filipino with “3,000+++ shoes”, the so-called Imeldific, the Former First Lady and former Governor of Manila Imelda Romúaldez Marcos. In a stunning pink terno and donning a few delectable pieces of jewelry, the former first lady, the subject of scorn and praise for decades, commanded a presence not only because of her height and elegance but also because of her disarming charm and wit. Though she was already showing signs of age (she ended up talking about herself, the former president Ferdinand Marcos, and her many theories instead of Manila), Mrs. Marcos was still able to dispense some words of wisdom and heart-warming encouragement to the young crowd despite her dragging and repetitive talk.
After her talk, one of the organizers, the same young lady who invited me, Let, called my attention and invited me to meet Mrs. Marcos in the waiting room for VIPs. I was late for the event, and so I wasn’t able to sit with the other speakers before the event started. As I was being led to the room, I was undoubtedly feeling both excited and anxious. “Would she be snooty?” “Would she bother shaking my hands?” “What would I say?”
But alas, when one beholds her, one is really taken aback at her statuesque figure, her legendary coiffeur and her surprisingly friendly demeanor. She immediately extended her hand and shook mine firmly. I thought I was in heaven. Kidding aside, it was a very surreal moment. Here was our former First Lady, a woman sent on missions to Libya, Iraq, Cuba and China during the Cold War, shaking my hands in a small, unkempt backstage room. She encouraged me in my work of writing, touring and speaking, telling me that as the speaker responsible to address the youth on their role in promoting Manila, I had to do well in delivering my speech. A few blurry photos eternalized that moment, but the next few moments were more surprising.
As I returned to the auditorium after that pause with my friends, Mrs. Marcos saw me entering from a side door and when I was getting closer to where I was originally seated, she gestured towards me to sit down besides her. I asked my friend to take a photo. Apparently though, she really wanted me to sit beside her. She then asked me about the content of my speech. She said she needed to go right after the next speaker but since she feels strongly about the role of the young in Manila’s future, she said that she will stay to listen to my speech.
I really felt humbled, and at the same time, nervous the moment she said those lines.
The original 3rd speaker was heritage advocated Ms. Gemma Cruz-Araneta but since her mamá, esteemed cultural essayist and historian Ms. Carmen “Chitang” Guerrero-Nakpil was in a critical stage (I think she’s 89 years old), Ms. Gemma decided to stay by her mother’s bedside. It was tasteful and proper on the part of the organizers to offer a few moments of silence for that lady’s well-being, a woman who wrote of Manila’s once genteel Manila.
The next speaker was urban planner Dr. Nathaniel von Einsidel, whom I met in an event last February at the National Museum. Dr. Von Einsidel spoke about Metro Manila’s growing problems (e.g. traffic congestion and garbage disposal) and how the need for comprehensive and integrated planning is an urgent issue needed in Manila.
Finally it was my turn, and my message was pretty simple: regardless of how many millions of Pesos tourism folk spend on marketing, conceptualizing tour packages and souvenirs, if the city of Manila is not regarded, treated and seen by its own citizens as its rightful capital, then everyone’s efforts are futile. I learned from talks and lectures given by my friend and professor, Dr. Fernando Nakpil Zialcita, and Dr. Ed Nuque, that cultural heritage, its preservation and proper utilization can bring about a successful kind of tourism that benefits ordinary folk. I also stressed in my talk what I learned from these two men that putting up “world-class” hotel, resort or casino chains isn’t the answer to our tourism problems here. Manila, I reminded the audience, should not be filled with casinos, world-class highways and tall skyscrapers in an effort to keep up with global tourism. In fact, I mentioned that before we do all of these things, we need to come to that point where we can stare straight at Manila’s face and accept her as our once-fabled, once-glorious city, a Hispanic community once known for her fine art, magnificent architecture, scientific progress, lively theater scene, world-class products and Spanish-speaking, Latin-praying folk.
I wanted the audience to remember and know, realize and accept that Manila’s value is not based on the fact that it can bring in tourists; it is valuable and worth every single drop of our sweat, tears and blood because it is our capital, and with it comes the responsibility to conducts ourselves in such a way worthy of calling ourselves residents of the country’s capital. The temptation to forget and distance ourselves from the city of Manila is strong and irresistible. But the pockets of hope that resist the forces of Ugliness and Apathy, those beautiful historical sites such as San Beda Abbey, San Agustín Church, UST’s campus in España, the Neo-Classical Corridor (The Manila Post Office, the Manila City Hall, the National Museum Complex) and all the many beautiful buildings, churches and houses serve as our rallying point to combat the callousness that daily degrades and taints our city.
As “Madame” Imelda said last Saturday, “We Filipinos are brainwashed for the beautiful. Ayaw natin ng pangit!” We must live up to this assertion, and most especially us who live and work in the capital, Manila, once the Pearl of the Orient.
Many thanks to Kid Centeno and Let Alcobendas for the photos and support.