This is the second time we meet with President Rodrigo Duterte; by we, I mean the descendants of the sisters of Jose Rizal, my cousins. Every year, the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP) sends us invitations, by snail mail, to attend the commemoration of the execution of Dr. Jose Rizal. We call up each other, or send PMS, to make sure a respectable number of relatives show up and that a flower wreath is ordered and delivered on time.
Last 30 December, it was the 121th anniversary of our national hero’s martyrdom, with the theme “Rizal 2017: Excellent Ideals, the Key to Progress.” We were there as early as 6:15 a.m, on that mercifully cool and cloudy morning. Executive Director Ludovico Badoy of the NHCP confirmed the attendance of the President, but we had our doubts because the usual fearful-looking security elements were nowhere to be seen. The Knights of Rizal, in their golden leafed barong uniform, were there in full force and so were the Masons and various congregations which venerate Rizal as their god. Very few members of the diplomatic corps attended. The secretary of education and I greeted each other, but there were no other identifiable Cabinet members with portfolio. I bumped into former co-workers of City Hall. From a distance, I spotted Mayor Joseph Estrada waiting at the foot of the gigantic flagpole. Then the arrival of Vice President Leni Robredo was announced over the public sound system. What a pleasant surprise, I thought, and as she walked to take her place beside the mayor of Manila, I noticed that she is as tall as the former movie idol.
A bit before 7 a.m., three helicopters coming from the direction of Malacañan, came into view and landed somewhere near the Quirino Grandstand. Cannons boomed to announce President Duterte’s arrival. What a dramatically grand entrance befitting the head of state! As dictated by protocol, there was a parade-in-review of the Philippine Army, dressed in revolutionary rayadillo. Imperceptibly, a 3-tiered phalanx of security agents materialized.before my eyes. Honor guards in full regalia and white gloves assisted in the raising of the biggest Philippine flag in the country. I was dismayed that, except for my relatives and myself, no one else sang the Philippine National Anthem.
There was a 21-gun salute for Rizal, President Duterte offered a wreath and, to our surprise, he stayed at the foot of the monument longer than usual. Was he pondering on the excellent ideals of Rizal as the key to the progress of the Philippines? The Army band started playing the recessional march, the breezy “Sampaguita,” but he was still deep in thought, so the band had to repeat the piece to give the President time to return to the ceremonial platforms.
Once the rituals were over, the President walked towards us, shook hands with the oldest uncle who was in his wheelchair. In December, 2016, when NHCP Executive Director Ludovico Badoy introduced us collectively to the newly elected President Rodrigo R. Duterte, the latter said he wanted to be like us, which we took to mean that he wished he could somehow be related to our heroic ancestor. However, he stressed that he did not want to face a firing squad. He was gracious enough to pose for pictures and selfies, which our nieces and nephews, the younger generation, enthusiastically snapped.
This year, the President once again came to greet and converse with Rizal’s descendants. He promised to do his best to rid the country of corruption and added that he will never agree to form a coalition government with the Communists because that would be unconstitutional; he affirmed that sovereignty cannot be shared, much less relinquished, to a group that is not elected by the people. We agreed with him. Then came the clinching statement: He would invite us to Malacañan, for lunch, one of these days, because he wants us to see the “holy place” where Teodora Alonso, the mother of Rizal, met with the Spanish governor-general to plead for the life of her son. When he is not so busy, he said, he will let us know.
As soon as the President left us to greet the diplomatic corps, then the Masons, Knights of Rizal, and the Rizal cults, I was “ambushed” by TV and radio reporters who wanted to know why the President spent a longer than usual time with us. What were we talking about? I heard myself brag that he had invited all of us to lunch in Malacañan to see that ‘holy place” and I explained it just as the President had told us. They thought we were going straight to Malacañan.
I took that opportunity to express how happy I was to see Vice President Leni Robredo who is usually snubbed and excluded from official ceremonies. She also made the rounds and came to exchange pleasantries with us. Again the younger generation of nieces and nephews were feverishly clicking away, taking selfies and group pictures with the Vice President.
What is your message to the Filipino people? – the standard question during such patriotic commemorations. I asked why Filipinos do not sing our National Anthem. I have yet to receive an answer.