Superstar, Catwoman or Photojournalist?
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.
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.
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 would recognize me afterwards.
I have never attended the Independence Day celebrations in Manila since I grew up in the province. 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 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 thing 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 accomplishment 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 float 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 to them. If I could just make it without falling off the float or killing myself!
In between lurches 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 wave.
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. "Thank you, Miss Cheryl Diaz Meyer, for joining us... blah, blah, blah
Question, 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.
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 Malacanang Palace? 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? I'll get back to you. Hours later, it's arranged. The president has changed her schedule to meet with me.
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 just right for the photo op. I'm practically giggling, I'm so giddy. And the photographers are giggling with me.
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 over so that I can 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 just an all around circus. Finally, the photographers are led away and we sit down together.
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 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 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 for her second term as president. I am honored but must decline. My life in Dallas returns to the concerns of cleaning house.
© Cheryl Diaz Meyer
Dallas Morning News
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