Dear Family, Friends and Colleagues,
I had barely gotten off the airplane with a couple of hundred other nameless folk, dazed and a little stupid from too much travel, when I was met with a sampaguita lei and a bouquet of roses from a correct staff woman from the Philippine Department of Tourism. I was then smoothly guided through immigration, had only to point at my luggage before someone retrieved it off the belt for me, and then was led outside where an air-conditioned vehicle awaited to whisk me to the historic Manila Hotel. It was a dream. Who am I?
In early June I received a frantic phone call on my voicemail from a woman identifying herself as Gina from the Philippine Consulate in Chicago. She wanted to know if I had received a fax inviting me to the Philippines to participate as one of the honorary “Outstanding Filipinos” to be highlighted during Independence Day for my winning the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Photography with my photos from Iraq. I would ride in a parade float with notable Filipinos such as World Featherweight Boxing champion Manny Pacquiao and then meet Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in the grandstand. Would I come—all expenses paid? It was one week before the June 12 celebrations and I was certain that I had misheard. What government calls expecting you to fly clear across the seas on one-week notice? And besides, I am busy trying to clean my house.
The weekend went by and I finally called Gina back three days later. Indeed, it was true and the offer still stood. Could I leave for the Philippines in two days? I called my boss, Ken Geiger, whose response was-- “I suppose you should do that” -- and then the circus began. I had 48 hours to get a whole wardrobe together just so I’d be prepared for any occasion for which I might be invited, as advised by Gina.
My coworkers were agog, each one giving advice as to how best I should wave in the parade. I practiced each one just to show them I was very serious about their advice and then ran off to shop. I didn’t even have time to buy gifts for my relatives in the Philippines.
My mother insisted that I should not ride the float unless the Department of Tourism promised me a fleet of security. Who does she think I am? If someone was going to get knocked off at a parade full of dignitaries and other honorables, I don’t think I’d be the Numero Uno target.
Shortly after I was delivered to the hotel, my cousins Gigi and Marie arrived with my Tita Hilda and Tito No in tow, and they had taken the initiative to buy me an exquisite Filipiniana dress, a two-toned avocado green butterfly-sleeve gown, which fit perfectly with only minor adjustments. Gigi had arranged the beautician, a woman who claimed expertise in both make-up and hair, to arrive at 5:30 a.m. so that I’d be coiffed and glammified for my first appearance-- the Flag Raising ceremony at 7 a.m.
The beautician meticulously applied baby blue eyeshadow, which uplifted and opened my travel-weary, sleep-deprived eyes, and she even dabbed a little taupe shading along the sides of my nose to make it appear taller. I was feeling my cells become more and more Filipino by the second. By 7 a.m. my transformation was complete. My hair was swept up in a French twist, and with my new slipper pumps, I felt like a beauty contestant even though I wouldn’t have made it far down the catwalk. Heck, even if I did get any publicity out of the deal, not even the Abu Sayyaf in Mindanao would recognize me afterwards.
I attended the Flag Raising ceremony in Luneta Park as the sun was still low in the eastern sky and was introduced to a variety of folk including Manila’s Mayor Atienza, who after learning my credentials said he thought he was being introduced to Miss Dallas. I flashed him my Miss Universe smile, the one my coworker Smiley forgot to teach me, and then I thanked the mayor. Afterwards, I was invited to sit at a table of President Arroyo’s cabinet members and shared breakfast with foreign dignitaries, diplomats and politicians of all ilks.
Midday, I was booked for a variety of interviews, so we left the hotel room and were met by a cloud of smoke in the hallway through which I could identify a few teenage figures. My temper flared, who is this *#!?*%* stinking up my hallway? “Hiiiiii, C-e-h-h-d-r-i-c-k,” says a sultry child’s voice as my little 10-year-old niece, Andrea, comes up from behind with the rest of my relatives. “Hiii,” he exhales in a puff of smoke. My jaw drops and I pick it up quickly. No, my niece doesn’t know the tall good-looking boy emerging into clear air, she knows of him since Cedrick Stinky is a famous teen actor as I am later informed. So I put my arm around my niece and direct her towards the elevator as she floats away. Andrea is on Cloud Nine.
I gave three hour-long interviews in the hotel restaurant and then met with the other “Outstanding Filipinos” to be honored at the parade. They were congregated in the main lobby, a massive colonial structure with intricate carved woodwork and mother of pearl chandeliers. I met boxer Manny Pacquiao and took a picture of us with our fists at each other. I met Patricia Evangelista, a teeny 18-year-old who won internationally for her speech “Blond and Blue Eyes,” the story of Filipinos moving away from their beloved homeland in search of opportunity. The hotel was crawling with famous people and even my cousins were begging for their photos to be taken with some of the notables.
I have never attended the Independence Day celebrations in Manila since I grew up in the province of Albay. This was truly an exciting event for me and I was as big of a geek as any, staring wide-eyed at all the floats and the performances. In Manila, they call us provincial folk “Pram-de,” that is “pram de probince,” or translated into English “from the province.”
By the time our turn came in the parade, it had began to drizzle heavily. All my glamour, including my taupe-enhanced, tall nose, was being washed away with each falling drop. The floor of the float was wet and slippery, and worse yet, was that a wheel was broken and the whole float rolled and lurched treacherously as we tried to hang on, me in my impossibly high heels. It was an extravagant float, so much so that it came in four pieces and when it arrived in front of the president it was supposed to split up and then each person or group would be announced with their accomplishments in grand tones over the loudspeakers. I was supposed to be on the education float, but they had about 13 people crowding that little quadrant, so seeing the nearly empty section nearby, I decided to strategize. If anyone would help me stay on my feet, it would be Boxer Manny and Tae Kwon Do Kid Mansour del Rosario, another champion in the bunch. Both were gracious enough to allow me to cling pathetically to them. If I could just make it without falling off the float or killing myself…
In between lurchs on the float, I tried all the waves—the “Screw in the Lightbulb” wrist-only action wave, the “Miss Universe” elbow-action wave, the “Hi Mom, Do You See Me?” entire arm-action wave—I figured I’d better do them all just in case anyone at home asked me if I did their recommended wave. My little digital camera was thrown to the wayside, and just when we were in front of President Arroyo, the skies opened and the rain poured… and all the photographers ran away. My moment of glory would never to be recorded for posterity. I gave one final wave, which felt more like I was flailing, and then was helped down by the two athletes. By the time we reached the president in the grandstand, we were drenched. She greeted each one of us warmly and later we took our photos with her. I wasn’t feeling particularly glamorous, but I smiled as if my life depended on it. President Arroyo joked that everyone should look at my little point-and-shoot camera since my photo would probably be worth a lot being from a Pulitzer Prize winner. Then she was quickly escorted out and with the sound of the chopper in the distance we all turned back into pumpkins.
The following days were filled with interviews by television, radio, newspaper and magazine journalists. I had one photo shoot where I was seated in the middle of a grand staircase. I turned my head this way and that and tossed my hair around just to get the feel of being a true glamour girl. The Department of Tourism was insistent that I should be interviewed for their own television show. The hosts were two middle-aged pretty women, former soft porn stars I was told, who in their tight mini skirts and low-cut body-fitting blouses started the show with some salsa dancing as they approached the stage. Everything was jiggling and shaking. All I kept thinking was, just please-- make it stop. One of them, it turns out, was a Magna cum Laude from a prestigious university in the Philippines, but now they were both respectable because they since have born children.
My favorite television interview was by an MTV-like show for young people; the host’s name was Ketchup. The team was made up of five guys in their early 20’s headed by a flaming gay producer, and they promised me that this was not going to be a “hard” interview.
“Thank you, Miss Cheryl Diaz Meyer, for joining us….blah, blah, blah…” First question, “So, what did you receive for winning the Pulitzer Prize?” asks Ketchup. “A little crystal pyramid from Tiffany’s engraved with my name on it, a certificate and $10,000 to be shared with my co-worker David Leeson.” “At saka isang sakong bigas? (And one sack of rice?)” “No, walang sakong bigas, but if I want, I can buy my own sakong bigas…or two.” Ketchup was referring to the classic prize given out to contestants throughout the Philippines for everything from winning a singing contest to game shows. I remember when my family first immigrated to the U.S. and I had a whole summer to watch television before the school year began. I would watch “The Price is Right” and cry for joy with the contestants as Bob Barker would announce the prizes: cars, jewelry, cruises to Aruba. In the Philippines, one might win a sack of rice.
Question two, “Miss Diaz Meyer, do you have any super heroes?” “I’m sorry, excuse me? Do you mean heroes?” “No, superheroes, like Superman or Wonder Woman?” “Well, I’m Catwoman, didn’t you know?” “Oh,” says Ketchup, flustered. “Great, well, uh, would you be willing to take a picture of us?” “Sure, but I don’t have a camera.” Hands start flying into bags and the producer hands Ketchup a cell phone, which he hands to me. I look hard at it, but don’t see a shutter. “I’m sorry, I don’t know how to use this.” Ketchup looks at the cell phone and throws it at the producer, “Bakla! This doesn’t have a camera—what are you doing to me?” “Was that a trick question?” I ask. “No,” shaken, Ketchup gets his wits back, “So, I understand that you are a fan of Jessa Zaragoza (famous Filipina singer).” “Yes, I a-d-o-r-e Jessa Zaragoza.” “What would you do if you had the chance to meet Jessa today?” “I would kneel in front of her,” I say in the vein of being outrageous. “Would you mind singing us one of her songs?” In the corner of my eye, the producer is standing with his legs apart, knees locked and his hands together praying as he silently begs that I accommodate the request. But I simply can’t think of a single line… “No.” “Please.” “No. I’m not going to embarrass myself that way.” “Ok, well, then to sign off, would you do a little hand sign with me for our guests?” I pretend like I’m dusting my shoulder off in sync with Ketchup. My cousin Gigi is impressed. I was interviewed by Ketchup.
Somewhere along the way, the wife of a childhood friend calls me. “Hi Cheryl, this is Edna Belleza, the wife of your former classmate Arnold. I was trying to reach you…and now I work for the president’s Chief of Staff. We were wondering, would you be interested in touring the Malacañang Palace? That’s the Philippine equivalent of the White House. Sure, if it involves a meeting with GMA (President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo), I say teasingly. Well, let me see if we can arrange that. When are you available? Hours later, it’s arranged. The president has changed her schedule to meet with me.
And through another series of jokes and teasing, I get someone to set up a meeting for me with former President Cory Aquino. Had I wanted, I could also have met former First Lady Imelda Marcos! Who am I?
As my tour continues, one cousin drops off with a stomach bug and by the fifth and last day of my visit, the second chaperone cousin waves me off with a sore throat. I’m the only one left standing to tour the Malacañang and to meet GMA. So I get myself rigged up with my little camera and a signed print of my work, which I’m going to gift to her, and set off for the palace. I’m greeted by the Assistant to the Chief of Staff who is a warm, earthbound sort of woman despite her position. A gaggle of photographers are waiting to make pictures of me and GMA, and them with me. Before GMA enters the seating room I’m moved at the last minute from one seat to the next as a staff member tries to stage the meeting for the photo op. I’m practically giggling, the whole thing is so outrageous. And the photographers are most definitely giggling.
GMA is announced with dramatic flair by someone whose job it is announce the president each time she makes an entrance, and she comes out smiling simply and greets me warmly, leaning forward in permission for me to give her a kiss on the cheek. She accepts my photo and positions it out towards the camera, holding the pose as flashes blitz across the room. I take my own camera and take pictures of her posing with my photograph from Iraq and the photographers in the background. They are going crazy enjoying the scene of me making photos of GMA. It’s an all around circus. Finally, the photographers are led away and we sit down together.
© 2004 Cheryl Diaz Meyer. All Rights Reserved.
She tells me she is glad that I didn’t catch a cold from the rain on Independence Day. I tell her it wasn’t a big deal. In any case, I’m sure you have endured worse in Iraq. Yes, and at least there are no dust storms in the Philippines. We talk about the elections in the Philippines and the fact that the results haven’t been announced because the opposition is claiming fraud. She says her government will have to announce that she has won in the next day or so. After some niceties, the conversation stalls, so I bring up what’s closest to my heart: the plight of Filipino overseas workers, particularly in the Middle East. I tell her that I have met and photographed them in Kuwait and it is a very, very, deeply troubling situation. Some of the women who had gone there to work as domestic helpers were paralyzed from jumping out of windows to escape abuse, some had been raped and had born children there, others were starved and forced to work with little sleep. I told her that I hoped the Philippine government would not forget these people, some of whom are practically enslaved, because if the government would not look out for their welfare, then who would? At this point, GMA’s smile began to freeze on her face and she stopped agreeing and nodding at each statement. I let the conversation lull and she changed the subject.
Later I found out that on that same day one of the major newspapers in Manila had attacked GMA’s government for not looking out for Filipino overseas workers. Some say the Philippines rests on the backs of these overseas workers, that the economy would literally crash if not for the millions of dollars sent home each year to family members. How can a government complain when it needs every dime sent home by Filipinos who do backbreaking work for a pittance, even if some of them might as well be indentured?
We left on a good note, GMA insisting that I have brought much honor to the Philippines. I later received an invitation from Edna asking if I wanted exclusive rights to photograph GMA June 30 as she is sworn in for her second term as president. I am honored but must decline. My life in Dallas awaits.