CULTURAL CENTER OF THE PHILIPPINES | HISTORY :: From “Imelda Marcos: The Rise and Fall of One of the World’s Most Powerful Women” by Carmen Navarro Pedrosa

Originally published on 8 January 2010. Relaunched with additional reporting from Veronica Pedrosa, Carmen Narvarro Pedrosa, and Alan C. Robles on 15 October 2011.

James Fallows is one of my favourite journalists.

This man knows Asia like no one else. I’ve followed his career as a commentator since his 1994 book, Looking at the Sun: The Rise of the New East Asian Economic and Political System. He’s now a writer at The Atlantic, and I learn a lot about an eclectic range of things by subscribing to his blog.

One of his recent posts referred back to a 1987 article he had written, “A Damaged Culture: A New Philippines?” (a finalist for the National Magazine Award). Here’s a quote that I found apt and astute:

But when observing Filipino friendships I thought often of the Mafia families portrayed in The Godfather: total devotion to those within the circle, total war on those outside. Because the boundaries of decent treatment are limited to the family or tribe, they exclude at least 90 percent of the people in the country. And because of this — this lack of nationalism — people treat each other worse in the Philippines than in any other Asian country I have seen.

The Philippines is a country without a social contract. It’s set up to be a dog-eat-dog society, clan versus clan. When I write “set up to be,” it is because, as Fallows points out, the entrenched elite (often referred to as “The Manila 400”) have little interest in making their country work for all. The Philippines is still a semi-feudal nation in the 21st century. Its biggest export is its people.

As you can imagine, Fallows’ article caused quite a stir in the Philippines when it first appeared because it detailed that society’s dysfunctional political, economic and cultural systems and how things continue to get worse for the non-400.

About the country’s elites, one paragraph in particular jumped out at me:

Carmen Navarro Pedrosa, a writer some of whose work was banned under Marcos, recently published a debunking biography of Imelda Marcos. Its killing blow, in its final chapters, was its assertion that while Imelda always pretended to be an aristocrat, Corazon Aquino really was one: ‘Her jewels were truly heirlooms, not recent purchases from Van Cleef and Arpels. She was a true blue stocking, educated in the United States, and fluent in French. She represented all that Imelda had ever aspired to.’

Well, that seemed like quite an inspired statement. I had to get Navarro Pedrosa’s book and check it out for myself (any biography on Imelda is well worth reading — she’s such a fascinating wingnut — and this one was an especially good read).


The Marcos-Aquino families will be forever locked in a deathly embrace. I find it intriguing that Ninoy even dated the young beauty, Imelda, “back in the day” before she hitched her wagon to Marcos’s aspirations for the presidency.

But back to the Cultural Center of the Philippines.

Here are the relevant bits about how Ninoy attacked Meldy’s “edifice complex”:

Of all the edifices and monuments that Imelda built during Marcos’s twenty-year rule, the Cultural Center stands out as the premier symbol of her relentless drive. It was also the first project she completed.

But Senator Benigno Aquino, whose meteoric rise in politics would later place him on a collision course with Marcos for the Presidency, attacked the expensive Cultural Center as ludicrous in an impoverished country such as the Philippines. In his memorable speech on the floor of Congress, Aquino did not condemn the idea of a Cultural Center but deplored its ostentation — and Imelda’s determination to see it through at any cost. Aquino then threw down the gauntlet and said Imelda reminded him of Evita Perón, the wife of the Argentine dictator.

Imelda and Eva in their finest

To the Marcoses, Aquino’s attack on Imelda’s flair and extravagance represented a major threat. Moreover, Aquino’s innuendo suggesting that these qualities were traceable to an impoverished childhood similar to Evita Perón marked a foray onto sacred ground. Since Aquino represented the Philippine social elite to which the Marcoses aspired, the attack added insult to injury. The colorful, swashbuckling senator was a true blue blood; what’s more, he was married to Corazón Cojuangco — heiress to a fabulous sugar fortune. The Conjuangcos represented the crème de la crème, at the top of Manila’s Four Hundred. They were the archetypes of Marcos’s and Imelda’s ambitions.

– Carmen Navarro Pedrosa. Imelda Marcos: The Rise and Fall of One of the World’s Most Powerful Women. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988 : 108-09

Left: the wedding of María Corazon “Cory” Sumúlong Cojuangco and Benigno Servillano “Ninoy” Aquino, 11 October 1954. Their principal wedding sponsor was President Ramon Magsaysay who was also the principal wedding sponsor of the lovely couple on the right.

Right: the wedding of Imelda Remedios Visitacion Trinidad Romuáldez and Ferdinand Emmanuel Edralin Marcos, 1 May 1954, after a whirlwind eleven-day courtship.

In these photos, it looks as if Ninoy and Imelda are worrying about their decisions to marry, whilst future presidents Cory and Ferdy are all smiles.

Interestingly, the same courtier, and later National Artist of the Philippines, Ramon Valera, designed the wedding gowns for both women. (I keep wondering what Salvacíon Lim Higgins would have created for them, had she been asked to create the gowns.)

In her early days in Manila, Imelda had modeled but could not afford Valera’s creations. Navarro Pedrosa also states that Imelda was not allowed to see Valera’s design until the big day (p. 83).

Meldy in her modeling days, before she met Ferdy. Was that terno designed by Valera?

Back to the Marcos-Aquino feud. The following quotation is from “Ninoy: In the Eye of Memory” by Max Soliven (one of the first people hauled to jail when Marcos declared martial law):


In a million different ways, the indefatigable Aquino bedeviled the Marcos regime, chipping away like a beaver at its monolithic façade. His most celebrated speech, insolently entitled ‘A Pantheon for Imelda,’ was delivered on February 10, 1969, and assailed the First Lady’s first extravagant project, the ₱50-million Cultural Center which he dubbed ‘a monument to shame.’ In a land where so many people were starving, Aquino challenged, why should an ostentatious edifice be built ‘so the bejeweled elite, the nation’s first 100 families… can live it up!’ He called Imelda ‘The Fabulous One’ and declared:

‘I have risen at the risk of Mrs. Marcos’s scorn and wrath, because a voice must be raised to try and put a stop to the First Family’s wasteful misuse of public money.

‘I have risen at the risk of her fury, because country and people demand they cease those wild Palace and yacht bacchanalian feasts.

‘I have risen at the risk of her spite, because out there, barely 200 meters away from a fabulous Imelda Cultural Center, a ghetto sprawls, where thousands of Filipinos are kept captives by misery and poverty… I have risen at the risk of her site, because I am plainly revolted by this will to immortality while the nation suffers and lies on the razor’s edge.’

President Marcos, outraged, called Ninoy ‘a congenital liar.’ The First Lady’s friends, while a flood of tears cascaded down her beautiful face (as faithfully recorded on television), angrily accused Aquino of being ‘ungallant.’

This, from the guy who dated Imelda briefly in the 1950s.

From Katherine Ellison’s book, Imelda: Steel Butterfly of the Philippines, we find Imelda recently arrived in the “big city,” much like her contemporary, María Eva Duarte de Perón and her entry into porteño society:

Imelda went to work at the P.E. Domingo music store. The shop was on the Escolta, Manila’s main commercial thoroughfare … The Escolta was about a half hour’s drive from Quezon City, and Imelda began by commuting on the jeepneys. But after a few days, [Imelda’s cousin] Paz began to worry about her traveling alone in the evenings, and asked one of her nephews to escort Imelda home from work. Imelda’s cousin-in-law was a fast-taking young Manila Times reporter and law student named Benigno Aquino, Jr.

Skinny and bespectacled, Aquino was three years younger and a few inches shorter than Imelda. But he cracked jokes, drove a white convertible Buick, and had a prestigious surname; his father had been Speaker of the House and secretary of agriculture under past administrations. More importantly, he was possibly the first eligible bachelor in Manila to whom she’d had a formal introduction …

The courtship with Aquino was little more than flirtation — an unassuming prologue to a rivalry that would last for thirty years. Both Imelda and Aquino would later tell friends that Aquino had broken it off — as he later said, because Imelda was ‘too tall and too old.’ But if Imelda was heartbroken in 1953, she didn’t seem to dwell on it. Her beauty was beginning to make her famous, bringing many more admirers and opportunities.

– Katherine Ellison, Imelda: Steel Butterfly of the Philippines. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1988 : 29-30




One has to wonder how Philippine history would have been written had Meldy not been “too tall and too old.”

THE MARCOSES: The former Filipino “royal” family as they envisioned themselves. Clockwise from bottom left: Maria Victoria Irene, Aimee, Imelda, Ferdinand Emmanuel (“Bongbong”) Jr., Ferdinand, and Maria Imelda Josefa “Imee”

THE AQUINOS: Ninoy and Cory Aquino celebrate their 25th anniversary on 11 October 1979 at their Times Street home in Quezon City with children Noynoy, Pinky, Kris, Viel and Ballsy

THE PEDROSAS: Carmen Navarro Pedrosa and family

Our last trip to the Philippines a disaster. What we thought would be another return to paradise was anything but. It may have been our last trip to the Republic.

For two weeks at the end of 2009, we watched with dismay as the country displayed its dark and dysfunctional underbelly.

It all began on 23 November 2009 with clan rivalry gone amok.

Running amok, sometimes referred to as simply amok (also spelled amuk, from the Malay meaning “mad with uncontrollable rage”) is a term for a killing spree perpetrated by an individual out of rage or resentment over perceived mistreatment.

The syndrome of “Amok” is found in the DSM-IV TR.


Fifty-eight were killed in Ampatuan, Mindanao — 34 of them journalists — that tragic day.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) called the Maguindanao massacre the single deadliest event for journalists in its history.

In 2009 the Philippines was, after Iraq, the world’s most dangerous place to practice journalism. That alone speaks volumes about the country’s descent into darkness (at one time the Republic was ranked second in prosperity to Japan in all of Asia; it now ranks near the bottom, competing with Cambodia for the title of Asia’s most laggard country).

So, Boracay in 2009 wasn’t so much about the beach for us as it was watching the grisly events unfold on our room’s “sellavision” and reading about it a day later in the Pinoy newspapers flown in from Manila and available from venders on the beach after 10:00 a.m.

We followed the saga of the bravado of the Ampatuan (same name as the place, natch) clan who “allegedly” ordered the killings, cold-blood in broad daylight, with the collusion of the country’s military.

We knew whoever did it was probably going to get away with the crime. (The wheels of justice in the Philippines are notoriously slow — the country has been trying to get back some of the $10 billion the Marcoses looted for the past 25 years.) As Joni Mitchell wrote, “money is the road to justice and power walks it on crooked legs.”


On prime time crime the victim begs
Money is the road to justice
And power walks it on crooked legs
Holy hope in the hands of
Snakebite evangelists and racketeers
And big wig financiers

Where the wealth’s displayed
Thieves and sycophants parade
And where it’s made—
the slaves will be taken
Some are treated well
In these games of buy and sell
And some like poor beasts
Are burdened down to breaking


The massacre was Mafia-style — just the way James Fallows said things operated in the Philippines way back in ’87 — after “People Power” supposedly corrected the mistakes of the Marcos era.

Killing the most journalists in a single day is not the type of record a country wants to be noted for.

The crisis, and the always-entertaining presidential debates, did however, make for compelling television viewing:

The Philippines has been led by strongmen (and -women) who display aspects of the personality of the cult. This was the country’s fourth state of martial law in its history (the Marcos version was the longest — it lasted nine years).

The leaders of the Philippines aren’t afraid to invoke marital law when they’re afraid — or afraid things have gotten out of hand or are about to be exposed. Things like the surreptitious arming of warlords in a futile attempt to stamp out opposition.


Which brings us to Veronica Pedrosa’s provocative look at the country of her birth. Called “Imelda and Me,” a more appropriate name for this compelling 48-minute documentary would be “The Philippines: A Culture of Impunity.”

For, despite its title, this piece of reportage is really about the Philippine’s entrenched cultures of entitlement (the national job seems to be mining: “This is mine, that is mine …”) and impunity.

Why Filipinos are so forgiving/forgetting is something I’m not qualified to answer. Short attention spans and knowing where your bread is buttered play their roles, I’m sure. Pedrosa never really answers the question either. What are your thoughts?


Veronica Pedrosa and Carmen Navarro Pedrosa: “If somebody asked her, what was Imelda’s profession, she used to say: ‘Mining, that’s mine, that’s mine’.”

Carmen Navarro Pedrosa uncovered the true circumstances surrounding Imelda’s childhood — although educated, Imelda’s father was not successful like his brothers and the future First Lady grew up in relative poverty, unlike the yarn she likes to spin — and when Imelda heard about the book she struck back. (She ain’t called the Iron Butterfly for nothin,’ baby).

Navarro Pedrosa and her family were forced into exile when martial law was declared in ’72.

“In some ways of course Imelda’s attempts to intimidate our family turned out for the best. I probably would not be in the position of being able to write this story and make this film if she had not booted us into exile. It is a rather delicious irony that her attempts to shut us up only motivated us to speak louder and take action on the international stage.”

Veronica Pedrosa

Above: Imelda, back in the day. She must wonder where her friends are now and hope they’ll be back when her son, Ferdy Jr., (or is that her real son — urban legend has it that Bongbong died or was murdered in the ’70s and a cousin, who underwent plastica, is what we see — that’s the Pinoy scuttlebutt, just so you know) becomes president.

Below: Imelda uses her bizarre charm to pull Pedrosa into her orbit.

Imelda attempts to explain her numbers-based belief system to the Al Jazeera reporter.

When challenged on the veracity of her statements, Madame Marcos asks God to strike her down dead on the spot should she be lying about anything.

Incredible drama from the queen of it all.

The encounter session over, Pedrosa leaves Congressperson Marcos’ office in a shell-shocked state. Too bad. But how do you get someone so deep in denial to admit even a tiny piece of the truth? Do that and the whole edifice crumbles. Therefore I give Pedrosa an A+ for effort and a D for results.

I’ve written before that I would love to interview Imelda before the end of it all. Watching Pedrosa’s attempts at getting anything real out of the Butterfly has convinced me that my dream is a futile one. After all, if someone so directly affected by Imelda’s past power is unable to coerce even the tiniest bit of remorse from her mouth, then why bother? As Veronica points out, Imelda is now living in an alternate reality space. Perhaps she always has been.




With that intense personal confrontation out of the way, the documentary switches gears to the Philippines’ latest, egregious, example of its culture of impunity.

We leave Manila and follow Pedrosa to Mindanao where she does a superb job of deconstructing what went down in Ampatuan that day in November 2009.

Watch the video.



I found out about “Imelda and Me” via the always provocative Anti-Pinoy – World Edition :)

Carmen Navarro Pedrosa’s article, “A System That Does Not Work,” begins:

When a cousin of Imelda, Loreto Romualdez Ramos died, I met her at the funeral. The cousin was one of my principal witnesses to The Untold Story of Imelda Marcos.

At about the same time my daughter had submitted to al-Jazeera a subject for a documentary. It did not yet have a title, only a theme in her mind about the culture of impunity in the Philippines. She would tell the story from a personal vantage point.

She e-mailed to me an essay entitled “Has Imelda Marcos created some kind of alternate reality in which she is the victim?”

That had me hooked. The next thing I knew I was watching her daughter’s completed video, which got me thinking about how hopeless the country seemed to us back in 2009 when all we wanted was a piece of beach and a book on Boracay.

It was not to be. The entire trip felt like a prevision of the lowest-common-denominator future we are racing towards. (And don’t get me started on Boracay’s bloody thirsty female sandflies — I’ll spare you the photos of my legs.)

At the end of 2009 we saw the future and it wasn’t pretty.

I hope that, sometime soon, Veronica Pedrosa will journey back to the Philippines and work on another documentary about the country.

Here’s a working title to get things rolling: “The Philippines: Dysfunctional for Decades. Dysfunctional Forever?”


Veronica Pedrosa interviewed the opinionated and insightful Alan Robles for her documentary (check out his website,

I like his take on the combined Marcos/Ampatuan situation (and a lot of other things!). He comes closest to answering the question I posed earlier: “Why are Filipinos are so forgiving/forgetting?”