Ma. Leonor “Leni” Gerona Robredo: The Millennial Widow in Yellow
In 1965, Ferdinand Marcos was sworn in as Philippine president with a popular mandate and considerable political capital. In that same year, Ma. Leonor “Leni” Gerona was born to a middle class family without fanfare in Naga City in the southern part of Luzon Island.
Twenty-one years later, the president turned dictator left Malacanang Palace and the country, overthrown by a peaceful revolution and even abandoned by his own allies in his native land and in the United States, notably President Ronald Reagan. The youth were in the forefront of the EDSA People Power Revolution and one of them was a student leader from the University of the Philippines named Leni Gerona. She belongs to that generation known as Martial Law Babies and by 1986 or even earlier, they have had enough of Marcos and Martial Law.
Though the political capital of the fallen and disgraced leader had greatly eroded except from amongst his most ardent loyalists especially in his home region, his financial capital accumulated from corruption and crony capitalism can only be described as mindboggling. The Washington Post (17 April 1991) reported that Marcos “is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s biggest thief... with a total of $5 billion to $10 billion allegedly looted from the treasury during his 20-year rule” (Branigin, 1991).
Though no one is certain of how much the former First Family stole, and some cash, jewelry, and real estate properties were already turned over to the Philippine government, one thing is certain: then and to this day, they have enough money to finance the mostly successful electoral campaigns of Marcos’ widow, eldest daughter and only son. The Marcoses experienced few electoral defeats: Imelda Marcos run for president in 1992 and ended in the fifth place; and the more recent one was in the 2016 national elections. The only difference between the electoral defeats of mother and son in 1992 and 2016 was that for the latter, the margin between the winner and Marcos was minimal.
The late President Ferdinand Marcos, and his only son, former Senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr. share a lot in common aside from their name, not least of which is the abhorrence for democracy in general. Much as the younger Marcos may not wish to admit it, father and son, in a period covering two millennia, share this rather ignoble and inglorious distinction: despite the advantage of having much more resources at their disposal, they were both defeated by widows in yellow.
And like his father, Senator Marcos refused to accept his lost to Robredo who was eventually proclaimed as the 14th Vice President of the Philippines. The Philippines has this unique system of electing the president separately from the vice president.
Before 21 August 1983, very few Filipinos have heard of Corazon “Cory” Aquino until that fateful day when she became a widow. The same can be said of Leni Robredo.
On 18 August 2012, a small Piper Seneca plane with the Secretary of Interior and Local Government on-board crashed near Masbate Island. His wife had to be strong for their three daughters. For three long days and nights, the fate of the charismatic, well-loved and highly respected public figure remained uncertain. Countless Filipinos joined them in prayer, and several masses of special intention were held, imploring for a miracle. But on the fourth days since that plane crash, his mortal remains were retrieved from the deep sea. Sadly, the miracle did not happen.
Before joining the Aquino cabinet, Jesse Robredo was a familiar name as the living epitome of outstanding local governance especially when he was given the 2000 Ramon Magsaysay Award, Asia’s Nobel Prize, for public service. He was cited as “a Filipino icon for good governance because of sheer dedication, untarnished reputation, and visionary leadership as the three-term Mayor of Naga City” (The Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation, n.d.).
It was the first President Aquino who appointed the late Robredo as head of the Bicol River Basin Development Program in 1986. He was plucked from his cushy corpo- rate executive job in one of the top and most profitable corporations of the country. One of the government agency’s new employees was an economics graduate of the country’s premier state university who de- scribed her boss as a “perfectionist and a slave driver.” Robredo was smitten with the young, attractive Leni Gerona and after a whirlwind romance of four months, the two got married (Yap, 2016).
In 1988, Jesse Robredo, then only 29 years old, run and won as Mayor of Naga City. In the meantime, Leni Robredo finished her law studies and passed the bar on her second attempt. This was particularly important for her father, a lawyer who became a judge. One of her childhood memories was joining her father to fetch and pay the bail of a destitute client, which instilled in her an appreciation and concern for people “at the seams of society.” At one point in her legal career, she joined the Public Attorney’s Office and some of the clients she defended were those ordered arrested by her mayor-husband (Yap, 2016.).
Interestingly enough, Mayor Robredo’s only other appointed government position was given by Cory’s son, the second President Aquino who invited him to join his cabinet. It was likely then that Jesse Robredo did not have an idea that what happened to his idol, the martyred Senator Noynoy Aquino, Jr., would happen to him—die while in the service of his country and have his widow catapulted to higher office as a result.
Bereaved by the sudden loss of a valued colleague and a cherished friend, President Benigno Simeon Aquino III declared a state funeral. Long before his untimely demise, Jesse was a considered a viable “presidentiable” who could replicate what he did to Naga City to the rest of the country. Jesse believed that people empowerment is integral for local governance to succeed and that leader as well as his subordinates are expected to give their best efforts no matter how small the task (Mendoza, 2012).
“I have not always been in politics; it was my late husband, Jesse, who was the politician in the family. While he was busy as the mayor of Naga City, I was working as a human rights lawyer, supporting him, and taking care of our home behind the scenes. It was the life I chose, and it was the life I loved,” Robredo wrote in her article, “This is the Time for Women to Shine”, as part of the 25th Anniversary Silver Lining series of the Council of Asian Liberals & Democrats (CALD).
“My years as a lawyer were spent providing legal aid to indigent clients in far-flung areas—farmers, fisherfolk, indigenous peoples, laborers, and abused women and children. We would sleep in boats and makeshift huts because there was nowhere else to spend the night. We taught people paralegal skills and explained their rights under the law, so they could defend themselves even after we left. That was my work for more than a decade, and I may never have given it up if Jesse did not pass away so suddenly.”
During the 2013 elections, many especially from the Liberal Party and civil society, wanted her to run for a senate seat since a significant number of them wanted her late husband to be in the ruling party’s senatorial slate. She humbly refused and instead run for and later won the congressional seat of the 3rd District of Camarines Sur—her home district as well as her husband’s. This was a testament to her respect and faith in her husband who believed that the most profound change can be done at the local level.
Like Cory Aquino, she was attacked for two things: first, for simply being a woman, and secondly, for her candidacy being merely circumstantial resulting from her husband’s death. And she was against a most formidable candidate. Like the Marcoses of Ilocos Norte, the Villafueretes of Camarines Sur were a deeply entrenched traditional political dynasty that came into, and retained power through guns, goons and gold.
Her 2016 vice presidential campaign was even more challeng- ing. It was a national position and she was up against senators. In the Philippines, senators are elected nationally. Most vice presidents were senators before. Only Diosdado Macapagal was an incumbent con- gressman when he was elected vice president in 1957. Macapagal, the Ninth President of the Philippines who served from 1961 to 1965 was the third Liberal Party stalwart to become head of state. Of the vice presidential candidates in 2016, she was the only one who had not previously won a nationally contested election. And having entered the race late in the game, she started with a single-digit support that swelled as people began to read and hear more about her and her platform.
In the end, it became a two way-race between her and Marcos. It was a very narrow victory with Robredo winning by a margin of only 260,000 votes. As of this writing, the son and namesake of the late dictator is preoccupied with his electoral protest.
Her position as vice president is in jeopardy. The ousting of Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, considered to be at the behest of President Rodrigo Duterte himself especially with his solicitor general filing the Quo Warranto petition that led to the Chief Justice’s removal from office, is widely seen as ensuring a Supreme Court decision that would pave the way for Senator Marcos to be proclaimed as vice president.
It was only Duterte who allowed the burial of the dictator at the Heroes Cemetery in Manila despite the massive protests. Duterte has never been bashful for his admiration of dictators and strongmen like China’s Xi Jinping, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Cambodia’s Hun Sen, and the father of Senator Marcos. He once invoked Hitler who killed millions of Jews to justify the high death toll of his war against drugs and his willingness to commit murder of the same scale.
During the 2016 electoral campaign, the author joined an international delegation from CALD to observe the vice presidential debates, which was a six-way contest. It was clear to the delegation who won that debate. It was also the consensus of nonpartisan observers: Robredo gave clear, concise answers to most, if not all questions posed (giving) examples from her term, highlighting what she has done rather than throwing mud at the other candidates (Philippine Primer, 2016).
Her final words in that historic debate reverberated throughout the country: “I am a mother who will always look after her children. I will always look after our country. To the six of us, may the best woman win.” At that moment, it was as if the rug was pulled from underneath the five male vice presidential candidates.
The repercussions for the victor are considerable if one’s opponent has tremendous resources at his command. This is especially true when the victor is a woman and the loser is a sexist tyrant and/or, the son of one.
Cory Aquino was smeared by mass media during the campaign, all major newspapers and radio and television stations were controlled by either the government or by Marcos cronies. But the first widow in yellow did not have to contend with the next millennium’s internet age. Leni Robredo’s vilification in social media is intense, to say the least, coming from the handlers and supporters of two very powerful men—President Duterte and Senator Marcos. There have been allegations that Duterte secured the services of Cambridge Analytica, which was accused of helping Donald Trump win the elections by spreading lies and half-truths in social media, particularly Facebook.
All sorts of dirt had been thrown Robredo’s way. Her daughter, Aika, graduated with a master’s degree from the Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government in May 2018, something that Mayor Jesse Robredo accomplished 19 years earlier. Robredo attended her graduation like any proud parent ought to. For this, she was accused of corruption for how else could she afford to send her daughter to one of the top universities in the world. A simple googling could have provided the answer: Aika was an Edward S. Mason Fellow. Robredo’s patriotism was questioned suggesting that the Vice President considered that Philippine universities were not good enough despite the fact that Aika, prior to graduate school, received all her formal education in the Philippines.
But when faced with twisted logic and shameless rhetoric, she took the high road, reminiscent of what Michelle Obama once said, “When they go low, we go high.”
In a newspaper interview for a Valentine Day story, Leni stated that in their 25 years of marriage, Jesse never gave her any headache and what she would miss most were the “left-over” roses (Yap, 2016). When Jesse was still Naga mayor, he would give flowers to all his female employees and the remainder he would bring home to Leni (Yap, 2016).
This is symbolic of the love and life of Leni and Jesse Robredo, both private and public—simplicity, humility, empathy and compassion. Leni knew that being married to a public servant meant that she would have to share him with the people of Naga whom they both loved and loved them back.
Leni knew Jesse for what he was and appreciated him for what they both valued. And instead of feeling jealous by receiving nothing more than leftover flowers, she cherished them most as these carried with them the essence of his being—a devoted husband and a loving father, to their children and to the people of Naga.
“How lucky we are that you shared your life with us,” the widow said in a eulogy for her husband. “We are truly blessed to have been loved by you. As my daughter said you may have been prepared to die, but we were not prepared to lose you. We are devastated by your loss, but even if we are grieving we will continue to live because your spirit lives in us. I will make sure that your dreams for our children will be fulfilled. I will not say goodbye because I know that you will never leave us and will always be in our midst.”
God works in mysterious ways and one such mystery is the quirk in the Philippine constitution that stipulates the election of the vice-president separate from that of the president. Leni Robredo and Rodrigo Duterte coming from two different parties with different ideologies were elected at the same time. But more than the parties they belonged to, the two have personalities and dispositions that could never be more diametrically opposed.
The vice president does not really have much power to begin with, especially since she belongs a much reduced and sidelined opposition party. But the author believes that the essence of Leni Robredo’s vice presidency takes a primarily moral purpose, if only to remind Filipinos and show the rest of the world that not every Filipino is like him; that not everyone laughs as he continues to publicly humiliate his critics whose only fault is to speak the truth; that not everyone cheers as he emboldens the police and vigilantes to intensify their murderous rampage; and that not everyone gets tickled every time he brags about his sexual exploits...every time he intimidates, and yet gets intimidated by, women of strength and substance.
Those who loved and admired Jesse may have not realized it then but now, it is very clear: a miracle did happen. In the nation’s darkest hours, the people need this flicker of light that courageously illuminates, withstanding threats, lies and ridicule. She is a tempering force to assuage this regime’s many perfidious legacies. And typical of Jesse and Leni Lobredo, even the miracle they brought forth was not for their own benefit, but for the sake of the Filipino people whom they unconditionally love and serve.
Branigin, W. (1991, April 17). Quest For Marcos’s Millions Fills Dockets, Pockets But Not Manila Coffers. Retrieved from The Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1991/04/17/quest-for-mar...
Mendoza, O. M. (2012, August 28). The Gospel according to Jesse M. Robredo. Retrieved from Rappler: https://www.rappler.com/move-ph/ispeak/11279-the-gospel-according-to-jes...
Philippine Primer. (2016, April 11). A review of PiliPinas 2016: The Vice Presidential Debate. Retrieved from Philippine Primer: http://primer.com.ph/blog/2016/04/11/a-review-of-pilipinas-2016-the-vice...
The Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation. (n.d.). Robredo, Jesse Manalastas. Retrieved from The Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation: http://rmaward.asia/awardees/robredo-jesse-manalastas/
Yap, D. (2016, February 14). Jesse Robredo gave Leni ‘leftover’ roses on Valentine’s Day. Retrieved from Inquirer: https://newsinfo.inquirer.net/764667/jesse-robredo-gave-leni-leftover-ro...
Yap, D. (2016, April 26). Leni Robredo: Best man may be this woman. Retrieved from Inquirer: https://newsinfo.inquirer.net/782193/leni-robredo-best-man-may-be-this-w...
First published in the book, Compelled by Duty, Conscripted by Destiny, authored by John Joseph S. Coronel, published by the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats (CALD).