Tracking Leni: The Journey of a Hero



“A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself” - Joseph Campbell


The world (and this is not an exaggeration) woke up on May 9, 2022, the day of election, with Leni Gerona Robredo in the small barangay of Carangcang. For those in the know, she was there because, apparently, it was her plan to run for a local position, which demanded that she lived not in Naga, an independent chartered city. Things turned out differently: she was running for the highest post of the land. We may not know what was in her mind but the people in Naga, and the many individuals - friends and foes alike - who knew her never predicted that she would pursue a presidential ambition.


And so there she was, the woman addressed with familiarity and endearment as “Leni.” The photograph showed her standing in line with other people ready to vote. No one seemed to be talking to her and she passed that awkward time by doing what we would do in line - check our mobile phones. It’s not that she was being snubbed by the young woman beside her. Knowing the Bikolanos and Bikolanas, the observers were looking more at the “ordinary” people beside Leni and how they would behave with regard to her presence than they were assessing the candidate. To engage Leni in that line would make the person not only daring but sort of bragging and overconfident. Here in this land, we put a premium on distance and effacement.


To the world looking, Leni was unprepossessing, a quality rare not only among leaders but more so politicians. To people in Naga and the surroundings, that behavior of Leni was regular and had often been observed in the past.


That morning, the millions who went out of their homes, and made “pink” the color of their battle gears, and who baked breads and cookies and imbued them with the hue of roses believed in her even more.


This was not always so. For many long years, Leni was an ordinary person in the city. Personally, I do not remember her as a First Lady, a de-facto label given to over-active spouses of local government unit executives. Perhaps, it was because her husband, Jesse, was both popular and populist. In death, the man had assumed a persona of mythic proportion.


However, on that day in Carangcang, we saw a person who had placed this barangay on the world map. She became ordinary and extraordinary, as this humble place where the native delicacies - ibus, sinuman, binutong - came from and had graced many feasts in the nearby cities and towns. She was a force in that photograph. Much as we wanted not to be in awe of her, we knew she had the power greater than all the politicians combined in this region. She was facing a formidable foe, the son of the disgraced dictator against whom she had become the avatar of pure strength and ability.


She left the city of Naga an ordinary woman. It could be mentioned that she held local political positions but those were posts that many aspired to and could be within reach of any person with a political clout, daring, and machinery. But she had become the Vice-President of the country, isolated from the rest of the national leadership and yet was able to parlay her creativity to be of help to other communities.


In tales of courage and tests, Leni was this third daughter in a mythical kingdom. She was not favored and was not expected to contribute to the wealth of the territory. But the King (in some tales, it is the Queen) is afflicted with something mysteriously incurable and the other daughters, more trained and more equipped with obvious might, had already tried to look for the bird who possessed healing properties. It also sang a song that made one fall asleep. The first and the second princesses had all but failed. They were turned into stones. The third one ventures forth and is distracted by aging and dying men that needed her help. She stopped for poverty and paused for acts of mercy.


We know of course the direction of the story: the ordinary, humble, quiet daughter - the obscure royalty - finds the cure for her father (and sometimes, in other stories, the mother) and they all live happily ever after.


Joseph Campbell has this to say of heroes: “The hero’s journey always begins with the call… ‘There is a whole aspect of your consciousness, your being, that’s not been touched. So you’re at home here? Well, that’s not enough of you there.’ And so it starts.”


The passing on of a person dearly important to her began in grief and, oddly, became the call.


Thus, with the world - the representatives of embassies and other members of foreign press - still watching her, Leni finished her day of exercising her right as a citizen by making a pilgrimage to Amang Hinulid (The Father Who Has Been Laid to Rest), the Dead Christ, a powerful icon in the Roman Catholic tradition. There in that place where shamans and healers begin their prayers and conduct their secret rites before embarking on a journey to secure charms and talismans, Leni prayed and lighted votive candles with her three daughters.


In a season where we looked to the colors and shades of the sky at dusk and dawn for prophecy, we also divined the destiny of Leni by the path she followed that day and the days before.


That night, a few minutes after the polls had closed, the returns came fast and vicious. Science - as with the surveys - has failed once more. The machines may have been not working but the technologies connected to them continued to send numbers.


That night, with the magnificence of our faith borne on the carriages of Ina, the Mother, and the Divino Rostro, the face of the Ineffable, we sang and prayed. These are icons taken out only during their festivities and, within the pandemic, brought out to assure the inhabitants in the barangays of the city. They always worked to protect us against the plagues. And corruption and lying are foundations of afflictions that make our society sick. In front of the Quince Martires, we shouted our protest once more. Then Leni came forth via a message. There is a whole aspect of your consciousness, your being, that’s not been touched. So you’re at home here?


And so, it starts.