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That Enigma: Imelda Marcos

I had planned on writing a humorous piece about Imelda's excesses-the 500 identical black brassieres, 3000 pairs of shoes, gallons of First Lady French perfume, multi-million-dollar jewelry, and so on. But as I began scribbling, the comedy of the situation didn't linger. It was the tragedy that did. I kept thinking of the children of Negros eating their one free meal a day to keep from dying. I imagined the child prostitutes walking the streets of Ermita, and the elderly abandoned in the back alleys of Manila. And I no longer found Imelda's rapacity amusing.

I do not know Imelda personally. I have never met her although I had seen enough of heron television to know how utterly charming she can be. I knew Imelda through her manipulations of other people's lives, through media reports, and through stories and jokes about her. It is interesting how much one can learn about a person this way.

Growing up in Cebu, I knew Imelda's niece, M., my classmate at St. Theresa's grade school. She was tall, pretty, and shy; years later, Imelda would coax M. into her prequisite beauty queen title and a stint in Spain. When I attended Maryknoll College in Quezon City, I learned that M. was engaged to a banker's son. I met her fiance shortly before their wedding and he did not strike me as one engaged. Imelda, I heard, had arranged this marriage. She had invited the banker's son to the presidential yacht, had wined and dined him for her favorite niece. M. and this man got married but the marriage did not last. Last time I heard, M. was running a jewelry store in Makati.

Another victim of Madame's whim was Carmen Navarro-Pedrosa, author of the biography, The Untold Story of Imelda Marcos. Imelda, by this time likened to Eva Peron and the Czarina Alexandra, was furious because the book dwelt on her poor background. It mentioned her barefoot days in Leyte, her humble start in her rich relative's house in Manila. So angry was Imelda that she bought as many copies of the book as she could, and the author and her family had to flee to London to avoid harassment.

At that time I had thought that Imelda behaved foolishly. She could have turned the situation around; she could have used it to her advantage. After all, President Ramon Magsaysay's appeal in the 50's was his coming from the masses. (Remember the slogan: Magsaysay is my guy?) But Imelda denied her humble background; she was ashamed of it. She hired genealogists to trace her ancestral background to ancient kings. She spent a fortune decking herself out as some kind of queen. She wanted to forget the nights she slept on wooden boards propped up by milk boxes, while her mother wept. If her mother were alive now, she would have more cause to weep. Her daughter, the beautiful girl, who had long hair and wore white dresses, the Rose of Tacloban, let her people down with a gigantic thud. Million-dollar emerald and sapphire necklaces and bracelets, seven tons of gold, world-wide mansions-Imelda stole from her people with a greed never before thought humanly possible.

Oppressed Filipinos, stripped of their freedoms since 1972, could only express their contempt for the Marcoses through jokes. After the attempted assassination of Imelda by the bob-wielding man, Filipinos snapped their fingers and said,Sayang, hindi namatay! (Too bad she didn't die!).

Manilans tell the story about Imelda unable to sleep at night. (Apparently enormous beds with cascading nets do not insure a good night's rest.) Imelda would drive around Manila saying, Mine, mine, all mine. A similar joke popped up about Imelda's mining business. Women, it was rumored, were afraid Imelda would take a liking to their jewelry. All Imelda had to say was, Ang ganda nito (This is beautiful) and that piece of jewelry had to be turned over to Madame.

And there was the one about Imelda with a headache. She got a handkerchief, went to her safe, took out her diamonds, put these into the handkerchief. She then held the bundle to her forehead until the headache passed.

Los Angeles Times, referring to her as the Iron Butterfly, quoted her as saying, I am my little people's star and slave. When I go to the barrios, I get dressed up because I know the little people want to see a star. Last month she talked about the role of women. Power is always the man. Power and strength is man. Beauty, inspiration, love is woman. Beauty is love made real, and the spirit of love is God. And the state of beauty, love and God is happiness. A transcendent state of beauty, love and God. Peace and happiness is a state of beauty, love and God...When I read this quote, I thought Imelda had a nervous breakdown. But apparently she was sane enough to liquidate the original paintings from the New York townhouse. She had enough presence of mind to warn Marcos not to spill blood during the revolution because, What will happen to our assets in the States.

They will lose some of those assets, but Imelda has her fabulous jewelry in her hands. They will live more than comfortably for the rest of their lives, but Johnny Carson has been making almost nightly jokes about Imelda; and even small American children say, Marcos is bad. They will continue to be the international laughing stock, and Imelda will go on shocking the world with her tackiness and greed. Imelda will never have enough because her poverty is in her soul. And this is her punishment.


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