REFLECTIONS ON PRESIDENT GLORIA MACAPAGAL-ARROYO’S VISIT TO SAN
FRANCISCO ON NOVEMBER 18, 2004
[Reprinted from the MANILA-U.S.
By CESAR TORRES*
San Francisco Consul General Maria Rowena Mendoza Sanchez
introducing the President.
“Wow! Ang daming
tao! This a multitude! Ang daming Pilipino na dapat mamobilize para
tumulong sa Pilipinas.
“Pero bakit ganito?
Medyo disorganized. Mukhang kailangan ng sistema…”
These were some of
the thoughts that were uppermost in my mind when we arrived at the
Hyatt Hotel in Burlingame, California, in the early evening of
November 18, 2004. We rode with Morgan Benedicto. With us was Venus
Benavidez an RN, and office mate working in Sacramento, California.
She skipped a training program in the afternoon in San Francisco
because she was so thrilled with the prospect of meeting the
The $30 ticket
stated that the program was going to start at 6:00 PM. We were
anxious because we were running late. Traffic was terrible. But we
inched along anyway, almost bumper to bumper, while discussing the
state of Philippine society and the significance of the President’s
On our way to the
parking lot of Hyatt Hotel, and to the hall where the event was
going to be held, we saw many Filipinos in their “Sunday best”.
Some ladies were driving alone in their cars. The gentlemen were in
their coats and ties. Others were in impeccable “Barong Tagalog”.
When we arrived at
the hall, nobody accosted us. Nobody asked for our tickets. Nobody
asked us to empty our pockets to ascertain that we were not carrying
weapons of mass destruction. Nobody examined my digital camera if
it was indeed a camera.
semi-darkness, we just went through the doors, to the cavernous
hall; found some vacant seats, reserved them, and heaped those
American salad on our paper plates.
I introduced Venus
to Manang Benday Abuyen, the 85-year icon in the Filipino-American
community in San Francisco and her companion, the erudite but blind
Jose G. Caedo III, President of the Filipino American Democratic
Empowerment Council of San Francisco. They were supposed to be
members of the “Reception Committee”. I requested them to take care
of Venus. I continued my milling around all over the place, in and
out of the cavernous hall, turning an ear every now and then to the
Filipino music being played by a Rondalla composed of Filipino
veterans from the Silicon Valley and San Jose. Occasionally, I
would take pictures of some friends I know.
Again, I could not
believe what I was seeing: “How many Filipinos are here? There are
so many of them. Are there 1,000 or 2,000 in this gathering? Ang
daming Pilipino na maaring tumulong sa Pilipinas. In this gathering
alone, all of them paid $30 just to be here. How much has been
generated? How much will be paid to Hyatt Hotel? Are they going to
give a little bit to the Filipino veterans in the Rondalla? There
would be enough extra money from this gathering. Would Mrs. Lupita
Aquino-Kashiwara and the central figures of this reception whisper
to the President to announce that because so much extra funds have
been generated, the President would declare right there and then
that the extra dollars resulting from her reception will be donated
to the families of the victims of the Luisita Massacre?” I am sure
that if she had made that announcement, it would have been greeted
with a thunderous ovation. (Not standing ovation, because 90% of us
were standing anyway, there were no chairs for all of us.)
around, I continued with the questions I was asking myself: “Why
are there so many Filipinos here in the first place? Are they here
to express their support to President Arroyo whose approval rating
in the Philippines had plummeted according to some surveys in the Philippines?
Are they here because they want to gaze at her glorious face and
hear her mellifluous voice exhorting the 5 million Filipinos in
America to help the Philippines by sending more dollars to their
impoverished and starving relatives despite massive corruption in
the Philippine bureaucracy and in the Philippine military? Are they
here because it is the nature of the Filipino, even those in
America, to bask in the presence of powerful people and celebrities
such as the President and Nora Aunor who was with the Presidential
Are they here
because they succumbed to the tremendous persuasive powers of Mrs.
Lupita Aquino-Kashiwara and Ms. Ricci who were the main organizers
of this Presidential reception? Are they here because they honored
the invitation of the esteemed Consul General of San Francisco, Ma.
Rowena Mendoza Sanchez and Counselor Lourdes Santos-Tancinco,
Nerissa Fernandez and other members of the Organizing Committee?
Are they here
because somehow they responded positively to the innumerable e-mails
that were crisscrossing each other in the various Filipino e-groups
inviting them to attend this reception – a testimony to the
effectiveness of the Internet as a medium of communication?
What do they think
about the Luisita Massacre?
While waiting for
the President to arrive, Ademan Tria informed me that there was a
group outside of the Hyatt Hotel who were protesting. I went out to
have a glimpse of them. Sure enough, there were about 20 of them,
out there in the cold, about 30 meters from the hotel, waving their
placards accusing President Arroyo with all sorts of crimes.
Organized by Bayan Muna USA, they were being interviewed by the
media also. I thought that they had just come from a mass action at
the University of San Francisco where the President was conferred an
After chatting with
some of them and exchanging pleasantries, I went back inside the
Anyway, at about
8:00 PM, the President and her entourage finally arrived. She had
to go through a gauntlet of about 10 meters lined by so many people
on both sides; at one side, about three deep, all wanting to take a
look at her and perhaps to shake her hand. Their cameras were
ready. They were almost jostling and pushing each other to have a
better view of the President.
When the President
and her party were already seated on the stage, the program began
immediately. Jasmin Tria sang the “Star Spangled Banner” and
“Bayang Magiliw”. The popular San Francisco Consul General, Ma.
Rowena Mendoza Sanchez, introduced the President. And the President
Since I was milling
around, I could not concentrate on what she was saying. But I did
hear her express her gratitude to those who voted for her during the
election (I was one of them). And she extended her congratulations
to some Filipinos who had won in their electoral bid in Northern California. Rodel Rodis, the antithesis of Bobby Reyes, was one of
The multitude could
not see her. They were craning their necks. They were pushing at
each other trying to come near the stage so that they could take
pictures of what was happening on the stage.
Then it was over.
Our hope that she and her party would go around the hall to shake
hands with the multitude, did not materialize. Perhaps, tired and
suffering from jet lag, she went to her room to rest.
I have never
attended any reception for any president in any place before. This
one was one for the books. What do I make of that reception for
President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo?
First, I agree with
some guests that it was “magulo”, despite the many people from
Chevron Corporation (which apparently donated an amount to the
reception) and the Philippine Consulate and other groups who were
theoretically members of the secretariat. The organization could
have been better. One observer was even saying that if she had been
an assassin, like those suicide bombers in the Middle East,
Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Indonesia, all hell would have broken
loose. Security was just so lax. Perhaps, the President’s guards
were confident that while being mobbed by her own people in San
Francisco, she was in her own element.
Secondly, did all
those who attended the reception pay $30 like us? Would there be a
financial statement from the organizers soon? Was there a body
count, or at best, an estimate, of the number of guests who were
present in that historic event? How many of us were there? How many
paid? How many went inside gratis et amore?
Thirdly, what could
have been the underlying reason why there was a “multitude”?
I believe that the
fundamental reason is this: The Filipino wherever we are, even if
our English is interspersed with innumerable “gonnas” and “you
knows” will never sever his or her connection to Pilipinas.
I also believe that
most of us were there because we wanted to hear some reassurances
from the President. We wanted to be convinced that she is on top of
the situation in the Philippines, that she can provide that
much-needed vision, leadership, and inspiration, despite the
resurgence of revolutionary ferment, despite threats from the
military of a coup d’ état, despite massive corruption, despite the
miserable quality of our leaders in Congress and the local
government units, despite hunger and poverty, despite our roaming
the world as menials and servants in this Philippine Diaspora.
She seems to be
doing her best, especially running after the corrupt.
But we are all
aware that more needs to be done. Attaining her agenda of national
development is not going to be handed to the President and her
fellow reformers on a silver platter. The Filipino is so
fickle-minded and obsessed with immediate gratification. They have
yet to imbibe that sense of democratic responsibility and to
understand that “nation building” and “development” is an arduous
and painful process, demanding great sacrifice and leadership
especially from the elite of Philippine society.
We dare not imagine
that if there was a multitude inside that ornate hall of Hyatt Hotel
wanting to have a glimpse of Her Excellency on November 18, 2004,
while there was only a pitiful few demonstrating against her in the
cold outside of the hotel, the table could be turned. The quality
of her leadership and performance, the example that she, her family,
and her group will provide, the people that she will be working
with, in whom she can entrust her confidence, all of these and more
will ultimately determine whether there will be a multitude
demonstrating against her outside and a pitiful few with her inside,
in some place, somewhere, sometime.
She and the
principal organizers of that reception, cannot gloss over the fact
that while we were basking in her presence, a multitude could have
been manning the barricades in Hacienda Luisita and peasant families
were grieving due to the loss of their loved ones.
And I kept on
hearing the impassioned retort of a Filipino veteran who is selling
periodicals in a kiosk in downtown San Francisco
so that he could send a little more money to his family back home.
His day starts at 4:00 o’clock in the morning and he is always shivering with cold. When I
asked him what he thought of the Presidential visit to San Francisco, he
almost shouted: “I don’t even want to see her face! In three years,
what has she done? I used to be a guard at the Bureau of Customs
before I came here. When the shipment is for Senator or Congressman
So and So, the shipment would be whisked away without any question.
But if the shipment was for an ordinary Filipino, the shipment could
rot in the Bureau of Customs or sold to some people if no money
greases someone’s hands.”
There is so much to
do. And the multitude at the Hyatt Hotel should be ready to extend
unwavering support to the President.
[*The author was Assistant Professor of
Political Science in Diliman prior to his coming to
San Francisco in 1985. He has been active in the Filam Council of
San Francisco, in the UP Alumni Association, in the Samareños of
California and other organizations. He is acting chair of Pamana-United
Way, perhaps the only Filipino-American foundation that donated
$1,000 to the United Way 9-11 Twin Towers Fund in 2001, in addition
to sponsoring the UP Staff Chorale Society in their concert tour of
the US and Canada, dubbed “Songs of Love and Healing”, in
November-December 2001. He works for the State of California and was
the only Filipino to be given an award for “Sustained Superior
Performance” in 1997.]