Politically incorrect!” said a protective friend who heard that I was attempting an article on former First Lady Imelda R. Marcos’ contribution to arts and culture. “Where angels fear to tread!” cautioned another. “Basta bahala ka dyan,” she continued. “Di ka naman anghel, Darna ka.” Thank you.
Political correctness? When ever have I been “correct” in my life! I am clueless about politics. My husband was a Cory official and I am a P-Noy (President Benigno Aquino III) adorer. But that does not subtract one whit from my admiration for such incomparable vision.
Imelda (was there ever any other?) was the uncontrollable visionary who fueled arts. She founded the Namcya search for musical talent that yielded Cecile Licad, Rowena Arrieta, Raul Sunico, Joseph Esmella, the Bolipata brothers and more.
She did a lot for fashion. High society then, for their grand occasion, brought only imported designer gowns (from New Yorker salon). Zentie Imelda, in a series of fashion shows called “Bagong Anyo,” introduced homespun designs like Christian Espiritu, Ernest Santiago, Joe Salazar, Inno Sotto and more who today are big names.
“She promoted not only ethnic wear,” said Steve de Leon, “but also locally manufactured cloth, also Marikina shoes, until they became acceptable even to the upper middle class. She promoted the native saya for which she became its incomparable model, appearing even at 6 a.m., dewy fresh and breathtakingly beautiful, in one of her endless ternos.”
She used as many things Filipino as she could in Malacañang. She exacted from her favorite caterers, Glenda Barretto, forgotten heirloom recipes which she had to hunt for and serve in its banquets.
The Cultural Center of the Philippines was Mrs. Marcos’ pet project. To build it, she chose the young architect Leandro V. Locsin. The structure houses a museum, two galleries and informal exhibit spaces, three performance areas plus a theater for film showing, library and archives. It had several satellite structures, the Folk Arts Theater, the ill-fated Film Center, the coconut palace (now Vice President Binay’s headquarters).
True to Imelda’s vision, the CCP became a center for the arts. Its management was awarded to Lucresia R. Kasilag. Since Mrs. Marcos loved music, the CCP presented the best of Filipino talents—singers, pianists, violinists and other instrumentalists, orchestras (the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra was its first resident company), composers and conductors.
She didn’t forget Filipino popular music either, for which she began the Metropop concert that yielded Ryan Cayabyab and Freddie Aguilar. High culture was also imported from abroad—international artists like Van Cliburn, Placido Domingo, Marcel Marceau. The New York Philharmonic Orchestra and the Bolshoi Ballet performed in its theater.
First ladies are style setters. Before the 1960s, hardly anybody collected art. Imelda gave painters and sculptors importance by buying their art. The perfumed set followed suit, and started collecting, too. Conceptual art in CCP was handled by Ray Albano.
Modern dance was Alice Reyes and her company, which later morphed into Ballet Philippines. Drama was initially lorded over by the choleric Rolando Tinio, translator and director. Experimental cinema spawned memorables like “Oro, Plata, Mata” (Ishmael Bernal) and in its last years, “Ishmael” (Lino Brocka)—lolos of today’s indies.
Mrs. Marcos’ Nutrition Center provided not only for children, but mind food, as well. Through Virgilio S. Almario, it conceptualized and produced affordable children’s books. They eventually became the mainstream Aklat Adarna.
Imelda’s ideas, some contended, only came from her many advisers. But it was she who was able to make the correct choice. She had her own native intelligence. She also learned quickly from what she saw abroad. Her aim was always to put the Philippines on the international map.
The vision of Imelda Marcos for arts and culture and its carryout was tremendous. We’ve never had anything like it since. Those were golden days, a vibrant, exciting time to create and to be Filipino.
It was the best of times, but also the worst of times. Imelda was, of course, the other half of the conjugal dictatorship that became increasingly abusive. It left deep and lasting wounds (and huge debts to pay). And people who had suffered too much can only say, was it all worth it?
But cultural legacies remain, whether acknowledged or not. In the Philippines, every new dispensation makes rubble of the last, not distinguishing what is worth continuing from what is not. But stepping stones come out of the rubble.
And artists never lose hope—even today, when commercialism has invaded everything and cultural institutions are in survival mode. Maybe someday, new visionaries will come again, with no crippling baggage this time, new trailblazers, new guardians with splendor… And we, the culture bearers, only need to be grateful for continuing fruits they may bestow. Gratitude always gets more grace.
Materials for this article were heavily culled from interviews with Jaime L. Laya, Budget Minister of the Marcos regime, his book “Wala Lang,” and Nonon Padilla.