A gentler exile (2)

Ambassador Leon Maria Guerrero was still in London when I went to Europe for the first time, with about 20 schoolmates and two Maryknoll nuns as chaperons. Tito Leoni and Tita Annie gave us a splendid reception at Palace Green, the embassy residence. They invited Sandhurst cadets, handsome in gala uniforms, sparkling conversation, and with whom we danced all night. They sent my uncle effusive thank you notes afterwards; one of them, a great grandson of Charles Dickens, said he felt “transported to the Orient” during that memorable dinner party.

After 7 years in London, Ambassador Guerrero was sent to Spain in 1962, where he was Philippine envoy until 1966. He was instructed to make representations with the Spanish government for copies of official documents about the North Borneo question.

In 1968, during the acrid debates with Malaysia over Sabah, when the Philippine panel appeared to be at the mercy of Malaysian barrister Ghazalie bin Shafie, the Philippine government summoned Ambassador  Guerrero to bring the talks to a dramatic finish. According to Francisco Tatad, then a young reporter for the Manila Bulletin:  “Guerrero overcame the Malaysians by sheer eloquence and sartorial elegance…”

When Tony Araneta and I decided to get married in Avila, in September 1965, Tito Leoni and Tita Annie made all the arrangements with the civil registry and the Church of Santa Teresa. They hosted an intimate family reception with my in-laws, my stepfather (who had given me away) Nang Sevilla, and a retired general of Generalissimo Franco’s army who was my Guerrero grandfather’s cousin. He came with his daughters who had never visited the Philippines; apparently, he migrated to Spain as a child.

I had been, unwittingly, trailing this beloved exile to each and every diplomatic post. From 1966 to 1973, he was ambassador to India, Nepal, and Afghanistan and I went to visit in November, 1968, arriving just in time for Diwali.

After India (during which Tita Annie passed away and her pet cat committed suicide), he was off to

Mexico where he was ambassador   from 1973 to 1977, concurrently to Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Ecuador, El Salvador, Cuba, Venezuela, and Colombia.

There I was again, in 1975, rattling the embassy gate with two children in tow; it was martial law in the Philippines and I had become a fugitive; what better place to seek refuge than Mexico, where the ambassador himself was an exile.  Tito Leoni and Aunt Margaret (his second wife) gave me and my children shelter until I found a place of my own. He arranged student visas for Fatimah and Leon and a work permit for me.  “I will talk to the Minister of the Interior at the reception this evening,” he promised. “Don’t worry, Mexicans and Filipinos have the same vices and virtues.”

In 1977, he was sent to open the Philippine embassy in Yugoslavia and graciously asked if I wanted to come along. It sounded exciting but we were already happily settled in Mexico, so I stayed behind.

Among his multifarious tasks was membership in the Philippine delegation to the UNCTAD and chairmanship of the Philippine delegation to the Sugar Conference in Geneva in 1968.  He also wrote The First Filipino, a prize-wining biography of Jose Rizal, made English translations of Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo for Longmans Co.  A writer at heart, he left a collection of articles and speeches about Philippine contemporary politics.

Like my 19th century relatives, Leon Maria Guerrero was banished; though his exile was gentler, he turned it into a superlative diplomatic career, maintaining his conviction that Asia is for the Asians and the Philippines for Filipinos.  That may have been his most controversial sound byte, but I dare say, what really made Ambassador Guerrero famous was the terse cable he sent his sister Carmen (my mother) when I joined the Miss Philippines contest in 1964.  “Basta de barbaridades!” he bellowed from the other side of the globe and we all cowered in fear and dread.

Surprisingly enough, my formidable uncle was no longer furious when I won the Miss International beauty title because, he said, I look like him.