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[Reprinted from the MANILA-U.S. TIMES]

November 30, 2004

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 President.

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 visit.

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.

In the 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.)

While walking 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 party?”

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 honoris causa.

After chatting with some of them and exchanging pleasantries, I went back inside the hotel.

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 spoke.

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 them.

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.]

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