An Interview with Imelda Marcos
story by Arhlene Ayalin and Tina Paul all photographs by İTina Paul 2008 All Rights Reserved
My wish to return to the Philippines was finally granted. I dreamed of visiting my homeland with Tina because I knew that she would love her experience in the Philippines and finally meet my extended family and photograph my beautiful country. Tina is after all, my favorite photographer in the world!
Mom Ayalin had recently moved back to our original home in the suburbs of Manila so it was twice as nice for us to have a beautiful home to stay at with my Mom. One of the plans for our trip was to try to photograph and interview Imelda Marcos the former first lady of the Philippines.
We asked family members there for help and one provided contact information for the press secretary of Imelda Marcos and we had our affiliate photo agency follow up on our letter. Once in the Philippines, our days and nights were full with activities and with time running out, we still had not heard anything definite from Mrs. Marcos secretary.
On Chinese New Years we were invited to my Mom's long-time friend's home to celebrate Chinese New Year with her family. My Mom mentioned our wish to interview Mrs. Marcos and her friend's daughter who I knew when I was a child happened to be a close friend of Mrs. Marcos' sister! She immediately called Mrs. Marcos' sister and followed up with us and had Mrs. Marcos sister call us! We stayed another week in hopes that we would get to meet Imelda Marcos and as promised by her sister, we received a phone call from Mrs. Marcos personal assistant notifying us that the three of us were expected there. Tina wrote down some questions in the Taxi and my Mom told us, "Make sure you don't ask her about politics, just ask her about fashion."
Having had an amazing time visiting the Philippines for three weeks as an American for the first time there, my desire to meet Imelda Marcos, the iconic First Lady of the Philippines was materialized. This meeting seemed so unreal that we found ourselves unprepared; I was frantically writing questions in the taxi on the way there based on the Web search Arhlene and I did the night before. Unsure of Manila's notorious traffic, Arhlene's Mom had us leave early, arriving at the building an hour early for our 1:30 pm appointment. We were immediately sent upstairs to the 34th floor condominium to wait inside instead of waiting in the lobby.
Mrs. Marcos' assistant opened the door for us inviting us in and we were amazed at the museum like atmosphere in a room filled with gold furniture, paintings, sculptures, art and jewels with a large picture window overlooking Makati and the city beyond. Mountains of historic framed photographs were neatly lined up on a table around a large bust of beloved husband and former president of the Philippines Ferdinand Marcos. Valentine Hearts were everywhere inside flower bouquets full of hearts, filling the room on February 15 the day after Valentine's Day. We were seated in gold chairs at the center of the room in front of a coffee table filled with books and magazines. Several of the books were written by Imelda Marcos herself and the collection included The New Philippine Republic: A Third World Approach to Democracy (1982) by Ferdinand Marcos. As we patiently waited, our eyes searched the room watching another assistant unpack a large framed picture of Newspaper covers from the 1990's with headlines of Imelda's collapse in court during her federal fraud trial in New York City. As soon as we stood up to look at the headlines this enigmatic, larger than life, strong, tall woman hurried into the room and greeted us a half hour earlier than our appointment.
We sat down with her and she began to talk about her concern for the Truth and her need to create a foundation for the Truth. Speaking first about the newspaper headlines in the picture, she wanted us to know about that moment when she fainted in court and coughed blood as if it was yesterday, noting that instead of having the trial dismissed she asked for one week to recover and stood trial so the Truth would come out. While we wanted to talk about New York with her, this was something about her time in New York we had not been aware of. It was obvious she had much to say and was going to talk about what she wanted to. We were in awe to be sitting next to Madame Marcos in such a grand setting, intimately speaking with the woman who was close friends with the most controversial important leaders of the World and listened intently hanging on her every word.
With our recorder now on, we asked our first question about her Shoes.
Imelda Marcos - I have more shoes now than before, because they know they took all my shoes so now everybody is giving me shoes!
Sorry for all this Valentine, my children and my grandchildren put all of these things around and then my grandson who is 10 years old
says 'Mama Meldy can you be my date?' oh I was so overwhelmed, he was my date last night! (laughs). He is 10 years old, he is about
to leave for Port Abbey in England together with his two brothers they are my three grandsons.
As first lady you have met many leaders of the world, who was your favorite or most memorable world leader?
Imelda Marcos - It is funny, every leader I met had something to give for after all it was either total consent or partly endorsed by their people and leaders would be there for five or ten years. After ten years for instance you can fool some people all the time but you can not fool all the people all the time sooner or later they will rebel. The thing is perception is real the Truth is not very often and sometimes the media does not have the time to dig into the truth its kind of difficult to come out so the present leaders of countries not only have to really think how to do it right but package it correct.
So here I was trying to package what was correct, when I did things, projects, The Cultural Center, Housing Projects and all that. Housing Project is a good project but I don't stop there, I have to do it right, it has to be strong and affordable to the people. I don't stop on good and right it had to be Beautiful. It should feed their souls and make them happy and feed their senses, it had to be Beautiful. Plus also because I am a total person I'm not a half way person I give it all because I have a philosophy in life that the only things we keep are those we give away in life and especially so, I was trying to please the people, the people that I was serving, the Filipino people.
Because the Filipino people, when I had a project as First Lady nobody would ask 'was the first lady's project expensive?' no, 'was the First Lady's project big?' no, only one question, 'was it Beautiful?' Magandang! and this Filipino, you are brainwashed to be Beautiful all the time. When in German, English, and Spanish you say Guten Morgen, Guten Abend, Buenos Dias, Buenos Tardes, Good Morning, and Good Afternoon. How do you say it in Tagalog? you say Magandang Umaga, Magandang Hapon, Magandang Gabi, Beautiful Day, Beautiful Morning, Beautiful Evening, Beautiful, Beautiful, I am brainwashed with Beautiful and Filipinos are. They will not be satisfied if you give them something especially for something public that you have to please the whole world, the whole of the people, all your children, all your people. You can not stop with what is right because what is right for them is not right for the others, what is good for you is not good for everyone so it has to be Beautiful.
I was lucky 50 years ago I was quite nicely packaged so even that alone was good and then my husband knew my character. He would give the road map, what was I to achieve and he was so dependent on my sensitivity. I not only saw the problem, smelled it, hear it, felt it, so all my projects, all my missions became very successful.
For instance when I saw Chairman Mao in 1974, he was a man, I was a woman, he was old, I was young, he was a Communist and I was on the opposite side that was nothing, so what was my entry point? He was old. So I am Filipino, when you are older than me I take your hand and put it on my forehead and as a sign of respect and he took my other hand and kissed it. And when he was asked 'why did you kiss Mrs. Marcos hand?' he said 'I kissed Mrs. Marcos hand because when she respected me in turn, I respected her, admired her and loved her'. Then he said that ended the Cold War because then, the Philippines and Imelda was America Jr. Remember, Marcos was president at the height of the Cold War and the biggest base of America was in the Philippines. China and Russia was fighting Vietnam and here I gave him respect and my entry point was he was older and I was younger. It was not humiliating, even if I were older and he was younger, I would still give my respect.
That is perhaps I have a great attitude because I see things clearly. In fact when I was going to China I knew the roadmap that we had to have relations because they were right next door and to balance the situation in the Philippines. When I went there to implement my mission I had to have my eyes, ears, nose and my senses all at work, like a child I was seeing the problem without clouds, I could see the sun without clouds. I may have been very naive but it helped. If I was not naive I would have been scared of all the ugliness that man has produced, I would not have started making monuments like the Cultural Center, the Philippine Convention Center, the Heart Center, all the Hotels, etc. I would not have even started if I were not childlike in my mission. I would not have had the courage to go through all the ugliness that would come together with going to your goal and fulfill your dream.
As a First Lady also, how do you feel about Hillary Clinton's presidential race and do you have any advice for her?
Imelda Marcos - First of all, America is very very lucky at this point and time, you have great candidates on either side. You have the Conservative, you have a Woman, you have Colored or whatever a Minority, but I am a believer in the voice of the People because the People will know what they want in a given moment and period of time. The Americans can be so advanced in technology so this is simple common sense of what is good for me and my country. I'm sure they will come out with a great result that will be good for the country and the rest of the world. I want America to stay there because of the ideology of Freedom, Justice and Democracy it's a humane ideology. It's not an ideology that comes from Power, that power comes from the barrel of the gun.
You mentioned New York, what did you like most about New York and do you miss it or was it just difficult for you because of the trial?
Imelda Marcos - No I could not understand it at the beginning for instance, I love New York after the Philippines I love New York because it was the center of everything Culture, the Opera, The United Nations, Wall Street, the center of Free Enterprise, the center of everything at that point, I love New York. It was fortunate and unfortunate that there I was put to trial which was good because I now can sing 'New York, New York, If I can make it there I'll make it anywhere' and I made it in New York on my Birthday!
So when they asked me, in fact they thought I was crazy because it was almost Winter and I wore a Filipino gown and you know I chose the most flimsy gown, a chiffon Filipino dress to wear for the indictment when I was brought to court, I was in a Filipino Gown. The next day the papers said Mrs. Marcos is crazy almost winter time and she wore an evening gown with no coat so they asked me 'Mrs. Marcos, why did you wear an evening gown?' and I said 'I was trying to make a statement with as much dignity and Beauty as I could muster to say to the world 'Hi World why am I here? I have my own flag, I have my own courts, and Laws, why am I here?' I will make a statement without saying anything, just wearing my dress, the Filipino National Dress and making a statement of who I was. Then after the trial the newsman asked me 'are you bitter and angry with America?' and I said 'I have no bitterness in my heart or anger in my soul because the system worked, God Bless America!'
We have to have balance and that is what President Marcos was doing at the height of the Cold War that's why when Marcos was being pressured by the Right to send a combat into Vietnam several heads of state came here and Marcos said 'no I'm not going to send a combat into Vietnam.' Then what he did was just send an engineering battalion. When Vietnam fell I was in Russia and Brezhnev was saluting me for Marcos he said 'you know if Marcos sent a combat into Vietnam, China and Russia agreed that China would take care of the Americans in Vietnam and Russia would take care of the Americans in the Philippines and the fall of the Philippines would be ahead of Vietnam.' Then when I was with Teng Cho Pen he said, 'Imelda, great man, Marcos! If Marcos had sent a combat into Vietnam after the fall of Vietnam and Vietnam is part of Indochina Peninsula then China would have been justified to conquer the Philippines the whole world political picture would be different, thanks to Marcos, salute Marcos!'
Guantanamo had only one American base in Cuba, the Philippines had 23 during the time of Marcos but they kidnapped us, Marcos, took away Marcos from the Philippines, kidnapped us even if we won the election, put Cory there and what did Cory do? kicked the bases out for good. We believed that there should be a presence especially from the Right to help our economy, to help our national security, keep the balance of power here in Asia and also prevent any adventurer from the Left from the other big power on the other side. Nobody could be more pro-American than Marcos, he fought in World War II it was not our war it was an American war he fought there and you can see pictures here with McArthur, Eisenhower, Truman and all of these presidents. It was so sad and Marcos did not only enlist the Freedom, Justice and Democracy of America a humane ideology, but anchored it on natural law, gods law not on man made law. For instance when he talked about Democracy he did not just talk about what is popular, not all that is good is popular and not all that is popular is good, he anchored it on the smallest unit of society, the Family. Natural law and the extended Family in our culture is the Branga and this is anchored on natural law. The problem now with elected officials is a popularity contest, you have a movie actor, boxers, and before you know it Coca Cola will be the President of a given country, whoever is the most popular.
When Marcos became president, we had no justice in this country, Manila was owned by ten families. Here when I was First Lady, wife of the most powerful man of the country and Filipinos were asking for a piece of land I had no land to give, I had to reclaim the land from the Sea. To build the Cultural Center I had to reclaim land from the Sea, 5,000 acres and now they sold it to rich foreigners so you see there was no Justice when Marcos became president. Then Freedom, we were not free to go to China to Russia, what Marcos did at the height of the Cold War when China, Russia and America was fighting in Vietnam was to unite with 29 Muslim Countries to sign the Tripoli agreement to have ties with all countries of the world whatever their ideology. Marcos said our ideology when we talk of Freedom, freedom is Freedom of Speech, of Thought, of Movement as citizens of the World and today we have billions of Filipinos working abroad accepted and respected, earning abroad thanks to that ideology of natural law, Gods law.
And what was my vision? my Vision was The Good, The True and The Beautiful, Culture that was upheld by our people so between nature and culture how will you loose? So when they were bothering me and even called me names meaning extravagant, excessive, vulgar 'are you this Mrs. Marcos?' you have become an adjective, full of all these negative things and I said 'when you are committed to God you may be perceived as such in a material world.' Of course I did not like the word vulgar and then I find it means something like overly overly beautiful, excessively beautiful so I have no problem.
With all your accomplishments, how do you feel about being known mostly for your shoes?
Imelda Marcos - Now there is a little Imelda in all of us because of the shoes! And just remember when the World went to Imelda's closet looking for Skeletons, they found shoes, Beautiful shoes, symbols of love, mostly given by the people of Marikina that I helped support. The more they digged in Imelda's closet the more beautiful Jewels, Beautiful Paintings, Beautiful things that they will find, not ugliness.
Do you think because you are looking for the truth, in history the truth will finally come out?
Imelda Marcos - Of course because who can beat the Truth, the Truth is God, if you are on the side of the Truth you are on the side of God if you are on the side of God who can be against you. That's why at this point, one year and four months to go, I will be 80 and all I need is two hours sleep.
Having met more world leaders than most US Presidents is there someone whom you haven't met that you would like to have met or have you met everybody already?
Imelda Marcos - Almost everybody including Mahatma Gandhi, I was a good friend of Indira Gandhi she used to come here very often, and Nehru and I've been privileged. This is why I look at the world with so much optimism you see, they don't see sometimes the real problems these people are going through, sometimes they look at it only from their perspective.
I'll tell you about Saddam Hussein, they were one of 29 Countries that signed the Peace agreement that was headed by Khadafi and he was on the other side of the fence because he was not so well liked because he was the first one to nationalize the Oil fields. Then soon after that Saddam Hussein invited me to be the guest of their international trade fair only to find out that he was the first country leader who accepted 10,000 Filipino laborers. When I went there he rebuilt Iraq and he said to me 'Imelda is there anything you want to see here in Baghdad?' I said 'I've gone around already Mr. President what I'd really like to see is the Hanging Garden of Babylon I've heard so much about.' 'I'll bring you there' he said.
We took a helicopter there and when we were on top he said 'Imelda, this is the Garden of Eden, this is the beginning of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam but look at us, the model of all civilizations, we are now imprisoned by our brothers. That used to belong to us and instead of paying the Oil to us we became locked in and you know Mrs. Marcos the Oil now is $10. and paying taxes and tariffs sometimes out of our $10. it is good if we can get $1. or $2. a barrel. If I don't do something about it my country, the generations that will come will say I left my country imprisoned by the World when we had one of the biggest sources of Champagne Oil. I will do something about it.' I knew he would die for it because he so believed in that and in fairness to him, in grateful appreciation to him because he was the first one who welcomed Filipino labor in the Middle East, after the Tripoli Agreement I invited him to inaugurate the Lung Center in the Philippines when I finished that Hospital. Unfortunately the Iran Iraq war had started so he sent his Vice President Marbo.
Do you know during the trial, when they asked me for 5 million bail the first one who offered the 5 million bail was Khadafi he said 'I'll be the one to offer you 5 million bail even 10 times that because she is a good woman.' Then Sadam sent Vice President Marbo to New York and he said 'if there is anything we can do Mrs. Marcos we will help because we know you are fighting for a cause' so in the end I knew each and everybody's problem. Just like when I went to China just to show you all about these people and they were supposed to be just like Marcos all the big terrible names like Mao. When I got to China and finally met Mao Tse-Tung, I said 'Chairman Mao I thank you for inviting me'. He said 'I've been watching you Mrs. Marcos. Here I am at the height of the Cultural Revolution in 1974 and 5 years ago in 1969, you inaugurated the Cultural Center of the Philippines and when you became First Lady and your husband was President, your first project was Culture - The Good, The True and The Beautiful to Unite the People because your husband was saying this Country will be great again. You are correct, first unite the People before they can be great.' He said 'I've been watching you Mrs. Marcos since 1965 when your husband was first elected. Here I am Mao, Emperors and Leaders of China built the Great Wall of China for hundreds of years, for decades, to unite China. It did not unite China; the Great Wall did not unite China. I Mao said give me a gun and I'll give you a village. I'm learning from you Mrs. Marcos. It is only The Good, The True and The Beautiful that will Unite the People so I thought it was so smart of you.' So you see no less than Mao Tse-Tung who believed in the power of the gun changed his mind because the end of this was the beginning of the Cultural Revolution.
Who are your favorite Fashion Designers?
Imelda Marcos - I am my own Designer now but I have learned from famous designers, what to do and what fits me, the things they did for me so I am my own designer now. Just the other day I got fabric from the Ilocano Abel, I made a beautiful gown using the old pieces of my old gowns and put it there. I have been forced to be Creative because that is part of Survival.
After speaking with a most impressive Madame Marcos for more than 2 hours we concluded our meeting and began to take some photographs. She said I seemed so young to be doing such an important job and said Arhlene was a beautiful little Filipina and after some hesitation, the grand Imelda Marcos graciously posed for me. Afterwards, she showed us three beautiful gowns made with Abel Ilocano Fabric that she added embellished designs to, from original older gowns that had been torn to rags. This began our introduction to Mrs. Marcos version of recycling. "I take garbage and make it into something beautiful," she said and then a large box was brought out filled with dolls and hats made in Mindanao from cornhusk and silk." After the corn is eaten, the husk is garbage and yet these beautiful dolls and hats are made from it." She then showed us a floral arrangement made of seashells, painted like roses and said "this too is garbage after the food is taken from the shells." As we admired the beauty of the shelled bouquets Mrs. Marcos presented us each with one as a gift. A scallop shell adorned the top with a decal of her profile inscribed "Love and Best Wishes, Imelda." She posed for photographs again, this time with us and then showed us the Imelda Marcos Jewelry Collection line launched last year, created as replicas to jewels she once owned that are also designed using recycled garbage. We said our goodbyes as she quickly disappeared into another room and we left past the Chairman Mao statue by the door. In our taxi, we drove through the beginning of a protest rally against the current government of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. The feeling in the air was confirmed by our Taxi driver who said the country was better off during the Marcos regime than it is today.
An Interview with Imelda Marcos by Tina Paul and Arhlene Ayalin İ2008
Photographs 1, 4, 8, 9 Imelda Marcos at home in Makati
2, Footwear Museum home of the famous shoes of Imelda Marcos in Marikina
3, Cultural Center of the Philippines commissioned by First Lady Imelda Marcos
5, The Ladies Mile Bike Rack designed by David Byrne on Fifth Avenue, NYC
6, View of Manila Bay on Roxas Boulevard in Manila
7, Shoes Monument at Marikina River Park in Metro Manila
10, Arhlene and Tina with Imelda Marcos
All Photographs İTina Paul 2008
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