I’m glad our paper chose Jesse Robredo as Filipino of the Year. He was the one who most had an impact on the country last year, alas, not by living but by dying, which made us realize what we had just lost. Alas, it’s always been thus, too: “Don’t it always seem to go/ That you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone,” as Joni Mitchell put it.
The honor is not without some rich irony. “Filipino of the Year” rather than “Man of the Year” or “Person of the Year” is the Inquirer’s chosen title for its award, the first being gender-insensitive and the second being too common, but the title takes on added meaning for Jesse. His not being thrust into national prominence earlier did not owe entirely to his passionate dedication to local politics, though a great deal of it was that: He was fiercely fond of Naga City and was loath to go elsewhere. It also owed to his enemies threatening to question his nationality if he ran for governor or congressman. He had Chinese ancestry.
Thankfully, the Ramon Magsaysay Awards Foundation (RMAF) dispelled the inanity, or toxic rumor, once and for all, giving the award for governance to the very Filipino Jesse Robredo in 2000. At least it effectively ended it, paving the way for him to seek other paths if he wanted to—which he did not, until well up to the end of the decade. And now the Inquirer has clinched the deal, making him Filipino of the Year. That was what he always was, that is how he always will be—or will be remembered: a Filipino.
A Filipino who did well by other Filipinos, or by his immediate constituents, the Nagueños. That is the other rich irony: Jesse did go on to seek higher office, and found a national one as interior and local governments secretary. But it was not his national position that thrust him into national prominence, it was his local one. That at least was how his grateful compatriots would see it after he died—not as a great national leader but as a great local one. But then, quite paradoxically, quite sublimely, quite transcendentally, as a great national leader, after all—one of the biggest of them all—by being a great local one.
What can one say? Wonders never cease.
Jesse was easily one of the best local officials this country ever had, if not the best. Of course this country has not lacked for great mayors, Arsenio Lacson chief among them. Lacson it was who restored Manila’s luster, and had he not died so suddenly of a heart attack while in the throes of love, he might have prevented this country from falling into the throes of hate by becoming president in 1965 instead of Ferdinand Marcos. But that’s another story.
But what makes Jesse a little bit more than even Lacson was not just that he bequeathed a legacy of cleaning up his town of its dregs and giving it a crack at a better future, it was that he bequeathed a new way of doing things, a template for good governance, one that went past town or province to be good enough for the nation itself. Something the RMAF had the great insight to see when they chose to give the award for good governance in 2000 not to any prominent national figure but to a fairly obscure local one. That was what Jesse had done as mayor of Naga. And done quietly, without fanfare, without calling attention to himself.
The template would later be called, and not without inspiration, “tsinelas politics.” The phrase captured it well, with its suggestions of quite literally walking, if not barefoot, at least only in slippers, with the masses. Of course other leaders, and national ones, had done that too, ritualistically or substantially. Ramon Magsaysay had done that, too, as did Erap. P-Noy is doing that, too. Erap of course more in ritual than in substance, more in form than in content, more in token than in essence. He it was who could stop by a poor man’s hovel and partake in his simple repast, collecting and picking up rice and ulam with his fingers. But that wasn’t “tsinelas politics,” that was just photo op.
What Robredo actually introduced, and practiced, in Naga was some kind of “people power governance,” and he proved that it wasn’t just possible, it was feasible. Arguably on a small scale, but it posed the possibility that it could work on a bigger scale. What made it distinctive was not just that this was governance for the people, this was governance by and of the people. This wasn’t just a government that did its best to serve its people, that strove to be honest and led by example, this was a government that actually listened to its people. This was a government that did not believe it could liberate the people, this was a government that believed the people could perfectly well liberate themselves—given the chance to, given the power to. This was partnership in ways that redefined partnership.
The stories told there by the NGOs, the academe, the civic-spirited groups, and ordinary folk about how they took part in quite a substantial sense in formulating policy testifies to that partnership. It was utterly fitting that in the interim between the time his plane was lost and the time it was found that everyone, government officials, mayors, engineers, civil-society workers, cops, soldiers, foreign divers, radio stations, field workers, fishermen, dock workers, usiseros, pitched in to look for him. As you sow, so shall you reap.
Nagueños would of course like to think of Jesse as not just the Filipino of the Year but as the Filipino for all seasons. But he probably would have chuckled at that with Bicolano self-deprecation, and said it was all just tsinelas. Ah, but one thing about tsinelas: They’re exceedingly useful, they’re exceedingly hardy, and they last a long, long time. It’s as Rosanna Roces said about them:
“Di mo ’to kayang laspagin.”