This is how Wikipedia introduces the rabble-rouser: “Gilda Cordero-Fernando (June 4, 1930 – August 27, 2020) was a Filipino writer, visual artist, fashion designer and publisher.”
Yes, Gilda or GCF was all that. But her life was richer, more complex than how Wikipedia describes her.
I had already written an essay for GCF more than 10 years ago, which was triggered by childhood memories. I described the essay as an unpublished eulogy for the living, which Gilda liked. It was a personal piece; it was about my connection with her and her family.
Upon her death, I submitted the untitled piece to the Philippine Daily Inquirer for publication. The Inquirer titled it “How I never returned Gilda Cordero Fernando’s book” (Oct. 18, 2020).
In different ways, GCF touched my life. I cannot forget, for example, how she comforted me upon the passing away of my wife Mae. A few weeks after Mae’s passing in end-August 2015, Gilda invited me, my mom Paula, sister Sana, and cousin Bobbie for a repast at her home. Her piece of advice, which she emphasized by repeating it, was: “Find an amusement, but never remarry.”
This time, I thought of seizing the opportunity to write about another dimension of GCF’s persona, which Wikipedia has missed.
After Christmas day, I received two separate messages from activist friends, Niva Gonzales and Lisa Dacanay. Niva and Lisa are among the organizers of the Ganito Tayo Noon (“This is how we were before”). Called GTN for short, Ganito Tayo Noon is an annual homecoming of activists who fought the Marcos dictatorship.
Niva and Lisa requested me to do a one-minute recorded tribute for GCF. A fixture of the GTN homecoming is a parangal (honor) to the anti-dictatorship activists who passed away in the previous year. Because of the pandemic, this year’s GTN homecoming was done through Zoom. Alex Padilla (a human rights lawyer and most competent, most honest retired civil servant) hosted the previous GTN events at the sprawling family compound in Antipolo.
A one-minute oral tribute for GCF, even if limited to her politics, could not fully capture who she was. But it was understandable to have a short tribute in light of the program’s time constraint and the fact that close to 40 departed activists were honored.
To make up for this limitation, I opted to write a longer written version of my tribute to GCF.
GCF was a superwoman. She had multiple identities. She was a storyteller, an essayist and columnist, a publisher and chronicler of Philippine life and culture, a 20th century ilustrada, a foodie, a bohemian, an organizer of out-of-this-world events, a theater producer, a visual artist, a fashion designer and even a fashion model for Bench, an antiquarian and art collector, a modern and kookie mom, a lola Mad, a second mom, and the crush of boys of my generation.
But I save for last what the GTN comrades would like to hear: GCF was a rabble-rouser. Yes, being a rabble-rouser is how her children proudly describe her.
She was a natural rebel. But no one but GCF herself could fully explain her development as a political activist. I asked GCF’s second son and my classmate Mol about this. Said Mol: “I do not remember… any semblance of an epiphany of my mom towards left-leaning or progressive persuasion. Kung baga, kinagisnan ko ganoon na siya (In other words, since I remember she had always been that way). Maybe it’s the DNA.”
I agree with Mol that one explanation is the DNA. The children of Gilda are likewise rebels in different forms and circumstances. Bey, the eldest son who passed more than two decades ago, was a student activist. He was a student leader representing the radical movement at the University of the Philippines. He was at the thick of the fight against the dictatorship in the early years of martial law. (Bey, as a fratman of Scintilla Juris, was also at the frontline of the rumbles, fighting his dad’s Sigma Rho fraternity, which was labeled reactionary then.)
Mol also said that his mom’s “early association with Manila’s literati likely fueled” her activism. After all, the intellectuals tend to be left and radical.
Mol’s “conjecture” is consistent with what his mom wrote in The Last Full Moon: Essays on my Life (2005): That she joined the protest movement because the writers and artists were there.
The title of a chapter in The Last Full Moon affirms the status of GCF as rebel: “Woman’s place is in the struggle.” In this chapter, GCF said: “Of the groups, the left, which I chose to join, was by far the most aggressive.” She explained her choice: “Perhaps I was tired of being a corporate wife, of having to fit into a mold of dressing smartly, swilling cocktails, and talking shallow. I felt at home in the protest movement….”
But GCF being a rabble-rouser was a different sort. Although she described the left as aggressive, she was far from being one. She found the slogans of the left like “lansagin” (dismantle) and “ibagsak” (overthrow) “downright awful,” “artless,” and “humorless.”
GCF, the rabble-rouser, was relaxed, pleasant, fun loving, crazy, and adventurous. And her thinking was out of the box. Thanks to her, she refreshed the left’s image and made it look hip. An example of her creativity and kookiness was how she transformed a fashion show into a political statement on the state of the nation.
Reminiscent of the wit and irreverence of the First Propaganda Movement, GCF created the enigmatic Los Enemigos, which mocked the Marcoses and the dictatorship. She made political satire popular.
At a time when we are again fighting a repressive regime, arguably a regime more virulent than the Marcos dictatorship, GCF’s legacy serves to move us.
The left’s strategy and tactics are exhausted. Here, GCF reminds us to be creative and innovative. GCF inspires us to reimagine.
Remember GCF’s fighting words: “Go forth into the world and fight your just fight.”
Filomeno S. Sta. Ana III coordinates the Action for Economic Reforms.