Monday finds Batangas City sodden and sullen from the early-morning monsoon drench, with motorists from Manila making their way toward the provincial capital, braving through the new road extension from the Southern Luzon Expressway, which has suddenly been enveloped by a thick fog, obscuring the way and raising fears of a road mishap.
Everything appears to indicate that it’s going to be a bad week ahead, but the provincial government driver tells us not to worry. “Whenever the Gov arrives,” he says in smacking Batangueño Tagalog, “the rains will stop and the skies will clear.”
“Gov” is Governor Vilma Santos-Recto, “Ate Vi” to the general masses, the actress and “Star for all Seasons” who has become probably the most successful and most admired actor-politician today.
And the driver is right. By the time we get to the provincial capital grounds, the rains have stopped, and in the provincial auditorium, at the strike of 8:30 a.m. for the Monday flag ceremony, it is announced that she has arrived: It’s Gov Vi bringing the sun with her unfalteringly radiant smile.
At once Gov Vi works the hall, shaking hands with the provincial board members, including actor and her former screeen partner Christopher de Leon, and other local officials. As she does the obligatory hand-shaking and beso-beso (social kissing), she holds on one hand her fashion trademark, the ubiquitous hankie knotted daintily between her fingers, a security blanket she does not go out without.
Today the hankie is matched with the ruffled close-neck collar that partly hides her porcelain neck, another evolving fashion statement that may soon be parodied by Ate Vi impersonators.
Farther back in the vast auditorium are the employees of the provincial government, and not one to neglect anyone, the star governor waves at them. And because she’s barely out of five feet, she extends her arm like a volleyball player about to throw a spike, a political athlete of Olympic determination. And the people wave back frantically, even fanatically.
Later, a provincial employee leads the recitation of the Panunumpa ng Kawani ng Gobyerno, the oath of the government worker in an impressive sing-song but martial voice, inspiring everyone.
The public servant oath has a particularly special meaning today. It is announced that Gov. Vi will receive the Lingkod Bayan award, the highest presidential award for public service. She will receive the award from President Aquino himself in Malacañang during the anniversary celebration of the Civil Service Commission that Wednesday, which administers the award.
“Para sa atin lahat ito, mga kababayan!” she declares, and the audience roars louder with applause.
Later, when she makes her way to a meeting with the mayor and barangay leaders of Malvar town, she’s mobbed by people asking for this or that favor.
“Hindi lahat mapapaunlakan,” she tells us, explaining that tokenism has its limits and government has scarce resources. But they will never get away disappointed, she assures us.
Then she poses for photograph with many of the callers, and without a quiver of hesitation, she puts into practice what she has learned in show business: Smile and be friendly.
“Huwag mo silang pauuwiin nang malungkot,” she tells us. “Kahit hindi mo sila napagbigyan, uuwi sila nang nakangiti at masaya.”
The merry clicking of the mobile phones and other cameras goes on, it seems forever. And in each shot, Vilma provides without fail the right angle and the right smile, the apt “V” sign of her fingers and the proper pose as public official and darling of the masses.
Just as she has mastered show biz, Vilma has mastered politics. Although not a native Batangueña (her parents hail from Nueva Ecija), Rosa Vilma Santos married the scion of the Recto clan, Sen. Ralph Recto, whom she calls her “guide” and political adviser, and has become both the sublime face and the cheerleader of Batangas, right down to the smacking Batangueno accent.
It’s a role that admittedly was not prefigured by her past, especially since she has never played a politician in any of her celebrated movies. But until Joseph Estrada ran and won for mayor of San Juan in the late 1960s, actor-politicians were unheard of.
Starting as a child actress in the 1960s, playing the memorable title role in the tearjerker “Trudis Liit,” Vilma seemed destined to a career solely in entertainment.
And she became a master in entertainment, holding the most number of titles as takilya or Box-Office Queen, as the only actress to have won a grand slam of all of the major acting awards twice, and as the actor with the most number of Best Actress trophies from the Gawad Urian (eight!).
She also revolutionized Philippine television in the 1980s and 1990s with her Friday variety extravaganza, “VIP,” which became distinguished for its high-theater musical productions, and where she donned lavish costumes and did death-defying acrobatic dances that continue to be mimed by gay impersonators.
But she will be forever remembered for her work in cinema, for performances that chart the rise of the Filipina, from the silly teenager falling in love with an older man (the “Nakakahiya” series of the 1970s), to the barrio lass with superhuman powers in “Darna, Lipad, Darna” (for much of the 1970s the biggest Filipino hit, raking in P8 million in the box-office), the striptease dancer of “Burlesk Queen,” the rape victim in “Rubia Servios,” the mistress of “Relasyon,” the activist nun of “Sister Stella L,” the working mother in “Broken Marriage,” the terminally ill executive in “Pahiram ng Isang Umaga,” the overseas domestic worker in “Anak,” and the mother keeping her family together through the troubled martial law era in “Dekada ’70.” Many of her movies are box-office hits, including her last, the horror movie “The Healing.”
Vilma is marking her 50th anniversary this year as an entertainer. In the era of tin-can lives and short memories, hers is no mean feat: She’s become an icon of popular culture, a canon or measuring rod against whom only a few can measure up.
But her golden anniversary in show business has been obscured by her forthcoming 15th anniversary as a politician and elected official. Since 1998 when she was elected mayor of Lipa City, politics has preoccupied her, consumed her.
Vilma will run for a third and last term as governor next year, and she’s not taking any chances, especially since she encountered difficulty in 2010 during her reelection because of unpopular decisions she had made on her first term, especially her order to dismantle the illegal fish pens and other structures on Taal lake. As a result, she says moneyed interests ganged up on and campaigned against her.
But she prevailed, and, last Sept. 8, during the Marian regatta organized by the Batangas diocese, she and Lipa City Archbishop Ramon Arguelles boarded boats that sailed along the beautiful lake, cleared of crowded fish pens and other illegal structures.
For the election next year, Vilma is expected to run unopposed.
Steel and grit
Her diminutive figure and bubbly personality belie a woman of steel and grit. Forever sporting a bright smile, her eyes like a frozen flash bulb of radiant glint, framed often by large glasses that provide a contrast to her small but very expressive fair face—the face of Philippine cinema, no less—Vilma is very smart.
At first her moves and remarks have struck some as displays of native intelligence. But really, this is a woman in full control of her wits and power, while also possessing the qualities of dainty grace and maternal tenderness. She’s Woman Supreme.
Very decisive and deliberate, she refused offers to run for congressman or senator when she was Lipa City mayor, invoking the vow she made before “my Lipeños and kababayan.” In 2010, she was offered to run for vice president by the administration coalition, but she said no, invoking again her social contract with the Batangueños.
Her public dedication has been much rewarded. In 2002, Lipa City was given a presidential award for being “the cleanest and greenest city” in Region IV.
In 2001, the Civil Service Commission named her Most Outstanding City Mayor. She was given the same award by the Department of Social Welfare and Development in 2006. On the same year, she topped a survey of “the best role models for the youth.”
In 2010, a survey by the Readers Digest Asia named her the “17th Most Trusted Filipino.”
Despite her achievements as a public servant, Vilma is incredulous that she has reached this far.
“I don’t know what I’m doing here,” she says. She complains that she misses the movies, but she can’t commit to any production unless she could clear her schedule or else, both her administration and the movie would suffer.
She expresses excitement over an offer from lawyer Joji Lorenzo, the indie movie producer, to do a movie with award-winning director Jeffrey Jeturian in which she will play—of all roles!—a movie extra.
“It’s already been booked for Cannes and they want me to finish at least three days of shooting before the end of the year,” she says.
Known in show business for her obsessive-compulsive ways, Vilma has earned a reputation in Batangas government circles as a perfectionist.
No second takes
She strives for perfection because, in governance unlike in the movies, “there are no second takes.”
“Kasi I’m doing this without naman talaga the camera, unlike in show business where mayroon mga take two tayo ’pag pangit at ibahin natin,” she explains. “Pero dito sa gobyerno hindi, kung ano ’yung ginawa mo, naging desisyon mo, that’s it. And it will definitely affect ’yung totoong buhay nung tao. Kaya walang second take.”
She admits that the chief stumbling block to perfect execution is “proper coordination.” But the fact she’s getting a presidential award for governance should indicate she’s delivering, and she modestly attributes it to her staff and the government workers of Batangas.
“If we will talk about efficiency, pagiging competent, I think I’m lucky to have efficient and competent people,” she says.
Her perfectionism extends to finding new approaches to delivering services. “It’s always the same routine, nakakasawa na,” she says.” No, I tell my staff, we have to move. Kasi at the end of the day ang gusto ko masabi ng tao na naramdaman nila ’yung tulong.”
Vilma says the focus of her administration is summed up by the acronym “Hearts”—for health, education and environment, agriculture, roads and infrastructure, tourism and security.
She says she has always focused her attention on education and health since she was elected 15 years ago.
“Even when I was mayor of Lipa, I was partial to education,” she says. When she found out that some districts had poor school attendance because kids from the remote villages found it bothersome to hike several kilometers every day to get to school and back, she gave them bicycles. Now attendance in Batangas public schools is almost a hundred percent.
But she also noticed that without health programs, children would drop out of school because of poor nutrition and for perennially getting sick.
“From there, I have learned my lesson,” she continues. “Naging No. 1 ang health.”
“We have a nutrition program,” she says, noting that only six to eight municipalities now have incidence of malnutrition. “We have trimmed it down.”
But she admits that parents still need to be educated about diet and nutrition. “Ang pinakamahirap na nangyari noong mayor ako eh mayroon ka ng feeding program na dadalhin mo sa health center, hindi pa dadalhin ng magulang ’yung mga anak. Kaya sabi ko sa staff ko mag-isip muna kayo’t papaano ito magiging epektibo kasi kung nandiyan na ’yung pagkain at hindi pa dadalhin ng nanay iyong anak, walang mangyayari!”
The province now has 12 district hospitals and, although staffing is a perennial problem, her government has exerted effort to attract medical and health professionals to work for the public-health system. She has also outfitted the hospitals with the proper equipment despite the high cost and the tight budget.
Her programs run the gamut of public health and social concerns, so that many people wonder how she could see through their planning and implementation and, most importantly, monitoring. But she has learned one technique in public administration. “I have checkers,” she says.
The tactic also minimizes corruption and defective delivery of services and equipment. “I am not saying that I am perfect,” she points out, “but I’m also not a fake. It’s just a matter of trying my very best to at least i-bend mo ’yung system nang konti ng serbisyo. The system is not perfect, but at least (we should) bend it for the better.”
Part of the reason for her successful administration is her modernization of public planning and implementation. She says Batangas is one of only seven provinces out of the country’s 80 that implement the Community Base Monitoring Survey system of the National Economic Development Authority.
“May datos kami ng buong lalawigan, per household kaya alam namin at natutumbok namin ’yung talagang kailangan ng mga Batangueno through 14 indicators,” she explains in public-administration speak.
“So noong nakita namin na kulang pa kami sa pabahay, anong ginawa ng ating DSWD? Gumawa ng Balay Project. Nagbibigay kami ng P50,000 d’un sa may mga sira-sira ang bahay or walang bahay. We told the people, ‘Bumili kayo ng mga gamit. Kayo ang magtatayo ng bahay, kami ang magbibigay ng food for work sa mga labor niyo pero kayo ang gagawa.’”
Nowadays, she’s focusing on promoting the province as a tourist hub.
Her new program is a no-brainer, since Batangas is scenic and historic. It has prime beaches and diving sites. Its coast facing the west has become a site for prime resort developments such as Punta Fuego, and its landscape is breathtaking and striking, highlighted of course by Taal Lake and Taal Volcano, the world’s smallest but deadliest volcano.
Taal town is a heritage town and has probably Asia’s largest church, the St. Martin of Tours Church and Shrine of Our Lady of Caysasay. Old Taaleño families are coming back to enhance the town’s cultural tourism potentials, among them renowned international glass sculptor Ramon Orlina, who has opened a café and gallery.
Perhaps because word got around that she was embarking on a heightened tourism program, a news leak recently cast her in a ridiculous light when it was reported she was mulling putting the capital letters of the province on top of the volcano, à la Hollywood, the better to correct the notion of many people that Taal lake and volcano are parts of Cavite, where the sites are often seen from Tagaytay ridge. They are, in fact, parts of Batangas.
But the report wasn’t true. “You reported it!” she tells the Inquirer in mock accusation, breaking into laughter. “I didn’t know how that got out,” she adds.
It was true, however, that the idea was suggested in a meeting of officials that tackled how to better promote the province, but it was never seriously considered, she says. She could only laugh in incredulity at how the matter became fodder for the political mill.
To be sure, the report gained some credence since it combined with some hilarity Vilma’s governorship and her show-business roots. But again, showing her entertainment background, she dismissed the report with charm and finesse, harboring no grudge against sectors that leaked it.
It’s all in a day’s work, she now says.
Batangas the beautiful
She couldn’t bother with the bad press because she’s diving headlong into the business of cultural tourism promotion.
“Batangas is beautiful,” Vilma declares. “Baka nakukulangan lang ng pagma-market. Unang-una nandirito ’yung masasarap na pagkain. Like what? The famous maliputo, yung aming magagandang tilapia diyan sa Taal lake. ’Yung aming ginataang tulingan! Egg capital of the Philippines ang San Jose, which is in Batangas. Aba’y dinudumog ng tao ang bakahan sa Padre Garcia!” (When she would revert to Tagalog, the acquired Batangueno accent becomes palpable.)
“Nandirito talaga sa Batangas ang lahat eh, siguro kailangan lang namin aba’y dagdagan ’yung pagma-market. Not only to foreigners but also domestic tourists. Batangas is beautiful and we’re very near kaya ang slogan namin ay “Batangas is all here and so near!”
Eager to promote Batangas’ natural and cultural tourism potentials, the better as well to generate job opportunities and increase the revenues of the province, Vilma and her administration have been organizing the yearly Ala Eh Festival, a trade fair where all the key industries of the 31 towns and cities exhibit their products.
But Batangas is also a vast province with 2.5 million. How does she manage to be “all here and so near” to the people she would fondly call invariably as “my kababayan” and “my constituents”?
She has declared Monday as People’s Day, the day when she opens her office to all people and their most mundane concerns, from the village elder of the remotest barangay to the meddlesome hawker of the public market.
The rest of the week, she would motor around the province on the governor’s bus—not the “Beep-beep Minica” she used in one of her hit comedy-fantasies—but a self-styled bus where she could relax and discuss matters with other officials en route to a particular municipality where she will do her regular monitoring and “checking.”
The bus has the icon of the Mary Mediatrix of all Graces, as the title of the Marian apparition that allegedly took place in the convent of the Carmelite nuns in Lipa City in the 1950s is known.
The same image graces an inner room of the governor’s mansion where she also receives callers and officials. The room is where she meets with advisers and staff before tackling the official agenda with callers.
Vilma says she has had a devotion to the Blessed Mother since she came to Lipa City. She calls her “Ina ng mga Batangueno.”
Although the bus and inner sanctum seem to exude the atmosphere of refuge, it’s hard to imagine Vilma ever winding down to a semblance of peace and quiet. The governor’s mansion in and out is a flurry of activities.
Because the meeting with the officials of Malvar is taking longer than usual, she takes lunch very late in a small mess hall and kitchen where her doting elder sister and niece serve her delicious ginatang maliputo and other Batangas delicacies.
Dessert is leche flan, with the bottom well done to delicious brown, a favorite of Vilma. It’s a quick modest lunch amid very spartan surroundings for someone associated with movie-star glamour and luxury.
Relaxing with family
So does she ever wind down?
Oh, I relax with my family, she says. Family time is important, she explains. She goes home every day to Ayala Alabang to be with husband Ralph and son Ryan Christian.
Surprisingly she still finds time to help Ryan with school work.
She recalls when he was younger and she came home one night to find him still awake. He asked her, “Uh, mom, did you have a good day?” Realizing her son wanted help, she asked him what she could do for him. He said he had homework to deliver the next morning.
“Mom, make me a drawing,” he meekly asked. Vilma, who says she’s very good in drawing (“I wanted to take up Fine Arts when I was younger”), proceeded to take Ryan’s drawing pad and pencil to do a doodle or two. But he also told her, “Please draw for me a cartoon… with a story. And don’t make it too perfect or they’ll know it’s not me who did it.”
She finished the drawing at 3 a.m.
Even her son is well acquainted with her perfectionism and workaholism. But Vilma’s face hardly betrays any sign of wear and tear.
She remains fresh and unruffled as sunny Batangas, and as she excuses herself from the dining table for still another meeting with local officials, the photographer—who’s young enough to be her son but who’s eager to have his photo taken with her to show his mom—asks for a photo-op.
“My mom’s a Vilmanian,” he gushes.
“Of course,” she says. And to provide better proof that the photographer has, indeed, met “Ate Vi,” she throws her arm around him and he takes a self-photograph of her with him.
Rosa Vilma Santos happily flashes the trademark victory sign and the camera clicks. Outside the rains have not only ceased but have formed merry puddles reflecting the sun. And everywhere, everything’s coming up roses.