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FIELDNOTES: Incarcerating Imelda

Tito Genova Valiente

THERE are only two images of Imelda Romualdez Marcos in mind: one shows a woman in a yellow parasol, the neck swan-like, and the terno fitted as if it was designed with her body and soul in mind; the other proposes we remember this old lady still in terno, her face rounded and bloated with age, a pitiful old woman.

There are more memories about her if we care to remember. To think of Martial Law is to remember two persons, Ferdinand Marcos and Imelda. One feared the former and his ability to set up structures that threatened the population; one was scared of the latter and the system that propped her up.

The early Imelda was a charm. In many households of the late 60s and 70s, she was this lovely face. Where First Ladies before her served as a kind of presence to the president-elect, Imelda redefined the “firstness” of the Lady beside the president as someone who was active, a partner who had ideas about the government and governance.

Imelda bloomed during the Martial Law years, an irony that should not escape those who withered and faded in those years. Where students disappeared and surfaced mutilated, tortured or dead, she continued to make stronger appearances, staying alive when the world around could be left for dead.

I, too, quaked in my metaphorical boots at the mention that she would be around.

I was working then as Provincial Public Relations Officer in the National Grains Authority, now the National Food Authority. It was late 70s. Marcos continued to rule but he seldom travelled to the countryside. Imelda was the visible one. She ruled many government corporations. She was still physically beautiful in those years but she had stopped being just the First Lady. She was already one of the top bureaucrats in the government.

Photos of her lecturing technocrats and young intellectuals conscripted into government service were common. If men, in particular, who graduated at the top of their classes in Ivy League universities abroad and other top educational institutions appeared in awe as she waved a stick and pointed to triangles and circles on white board, who were we not to listen to her when she did come to inspect warehouses and harvest.

She was also into culture and arts. This persona softened what would otherwise be a purely and violently dictatorial character. The definition of art as propounded by Ralph Waldo Emerson – the creation of beauty is art – is along Imelda’s notion of nation and refinement. Beauty is its own excuse for being and Imelda saw to it that she stood for what is beautiful. This was a short, quiet jump, nay, crawl to the good and the beautiful.

Imelda organized parades and fiestas. This seemed to be part of her cultural agenda – the presentation of cultures as living tableaus.

When dignitaries visited the country, the route of the motorcade for this guest would be a flamboyant display of material and historical cultures. Certain schools would be tapped to field folk dancers to perform the usual “Tinikling” and other dances as the motorcade passed by. Depictions of life in the barrio would be portrayed by school children and music would fill the air. Teachers were made to dance also. Government employees would be tasked to prepare snacks in the form of sandwiches for the participants in the pageants and parades.

When Imelda made provincial sorties, the same kind of preparation would ensue. Offices would suspend their work as they began preparing long and many lines of buntings. Advance party from Manila would tell us the First Lady wanted always a fiesta atmosphere. The more colorful triangular papers pasted on strings the better.

In one of those sorties, I was tasked to think of something more unique to welcome her at Pili Airport. We already contacted a local band to play something by the time the door of the plane had opened and she had stepped out, always regal and expensive in terno.

Along Panganiban, just a few meters from the bridge, there used to be a fancy restaurant called “Ilaw sa Dahon,” or something that sounded exotic. In that place, there was a group that played Latin music, kundiman and old songs. I hurried to go the place and asked them if they would be willing to play for the First Lady. They said yes but thought they would be playing during lunch or dinner. They did not know that I had a fancier idea: they would be at the foot of the stairs to the plane. The band would play as soon as the plane had landed. Just as soon as the door to the plane opened and Imelda stepped out, they would stop playing. At that point, the singing troubadour would commence with their Bikol harana at 10 in the morning or 1 in the afternoon.

Well, the First Lady liked the idea. It was the first time it was done. A serenade right at the plane. The whole delegation was proceeding to Legaspi and then cross San Juanico for the fiesta in Tacloban. In their wake was a long parade of trucks carrying grocery items and other foodstuff from Kadiwa, a kind of national supermarket. The singing group was then requested to go with the retinue up to Albay.

Later that night, I saw the group very happy with the honorarium. They were asked if they would want to go with Imelda’s group to Leyte. They begged off.

Now, the nation, it seems is begging that Imelda be spared from imprisonment.

Imelda is old. Gone is the physical beauty. I cannot say if she has aged gracefully. My sincere knowledge of the atrocities under her regime and her husband has made me judged her already. There is no beauty in that aging. There is sadness perhaps but I do not share the melancholy. I cannot understand any emotion from this woman.

She had used her pulchritude and dirty politics when she was young. She is using the absence of beauty to make us feel bad if we send her to prison or isolation. Imelda is good. She won us with her youth and allure; now she is winning us with her age and pathos. She is so good that we feel guilty for the sufferings we had endured when she was young and deathly powerful.

She is Imelda. Let us put her in prison.

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