An early morning rain swept the streets of Tacloban City when I flew in last week. Lacking sleep and preoccupied with tasks at hand, I took little notice of my surroundings until our van pulled out and I saw the first of the “conjugal” billboards.
The husband and wife team of Tacloban City Mayor Alfred Romualdez and Councilor Cristina Gonzales-Romualdez beamed from the mist-sprinkled surface of a billboard overlooking the Daniel Z. Romualdez Airport.
Until a local friend corrected me, I made the mistake of assuming that the tandem smiling from several billboards and streamers is the mayor and vice-mayor.
When we encountered again the couple, still smiling tirelessly, as we took a rather sharp curve to the city, my friend snorted: this people think they own the city.
My stay was too short for me to agree or disagree with his view. But then and now, it seems that the people of Tacloban remain ambivalent about what must be their most prominent political clan.
When I first visited the city in the 1990s, I thought it was a sleepy throwback from my memories of old downtown Cebu.
On that trip, while motoring to the city, we passed by the Sto. Niño Shrine and Heritage Museum. When I expressed an intention to visit one of Imelda Marcos’ heritage landmarks in her hometown, my hosts then discouraged me. Looting had reduced it to a shell of its former self, they said: there’s nothing there.
“There’s nothing there” was a verbal shrug I often heard from residents during two other visits I made as the ‘90s came to a close. Last week, when I complimented another resident for the wide open spaces, the lush greenery and towering ancient tries found so close to the heart of the city, his reply was another shrug: she didn’t do enough for Tacloban.
“She” refers to Imelda, the “Rose of Tacloban,” whose beauty, singing and marriage to the strongman Ferdinand Marcos first brought prominence and acclaim, then notoriety, condemnation and jeering when their conjugal fortune eroded along with their credibility and moral ascendancy.
Today, in the city of her birth, there is no conspicuous public image of the “Rose of Tacloban,” now multiple-jowled and rarely seen in Manila dailies’ society pages.
Another rose, the younger, fresher Cristina, smiles ubiquitously now around the city. Although it was my first time to see the Romualdez couple’s display of public self-indulgence, I saw it as no different from the Malakas and Maganda images of Ferdinand and Imelda I grew up seeing in the ‘70s: the rose-colored optimism of political myth-making framed by stark, contradictory social realities.
After finishing early an appointment at the Government Center in Palo, I walked to another Leyte landmark, MacArthur Park. Whether it was to fulfill a promise to the Filipinos or he was just passing through, the return of General Douglas MacArthur to the Philippines is commemorated on Hill 522, located by the Red Beach in Palo, site of fierce fighting between Allied and Japanese forces during the Second World War.
It was near noon and the park was nearly deserted. I squinted at the figure of MacArthur, wondering if his aviator glasses were real or just painted black. According to stories, the Marcos couple had the original concrete statues destroyed and replaced with bronze ones commissioned by Imelda. And then she renamed the site as Imelda Park.
After their fall from power, the old names of every street, park and public building in Leyte were restored. The park continues to draw crowds who remember the bloody sacrifices made for freedom or for geopolitics. Or perhaps just to have their picture taken.
One fellow hitched his shorts and waded gingerly in the brownish water to pose beside the striding figure of the general. The top of his head only reached MacArthur’s crotch so he had to content himself with clutching a bronze knee while his lady companion took photos and shouted jokes.
Backdrop to the grinning couple and my watching self was the park, immaculately maintained and quiet as a cemetery.
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* First published in the May 31, 2009 issue of “Matamata” in Sun.Star Cebu