By Redge Tolentino
Illustration by Oteph Antipolo
I first heard about Gina Lopez the same way many Filipinos probably did—with her appointment as secretary for the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). Being a journalist, I was probably at my desk, writing. I heard the name “Lopez” and “government posting” and thought, “same-old, same-old.” Rent-seeking families. Done deal.
But then she got rejected. Over mining closures. And I’ve been working in the industry long enough to know that nothing in politics is ever truly a coincidence. So I dug.
Basic research revealed that she was indeed a Lopez scion, second of seven kids, and a runaway. In a country where millions are living in poverty, Ms. G chose to run away from a life of easy comfort to live in Portugal, India, and then Africa, almost as a refugee. She spent years lining up for water, eating sparsely, meditating… Her life read like Eat. Pray. Love., if that lasted for two decades.
When she came back in 1993, Ms. G started Bantay Bata 163, as well as several TV shows. I now realize that I and many other “batang ’90s” kids owe her our formative years. It was her who started Bayani, Hiraya Marawari, Math Tinik, and Sineskwela—educational daytime TV shows that are now cancelled, probably because they didn’t make a lot of money, though they damn well made a difference.
At her eulogy on Wednesday, Susan Afan recounted a time when Ms. G, who constantly insisted on national-level changes almost weekly, asked her: “Susan, am I ‘topak’ (crazy/mental)?”
At which point Susan raised her hands to sky and put on an expression that said: “You realize this now??” So she said yes. Confirmed. Topak. But then Ms. G retorted, calmly, “But you’re topak too, right?”
She was an environmentalist in show business who wasn’t doing it for show, a personality who cared about persons, and a philanthropist who gave at least one writer something that felt a lot like hope.
This anecdote struck me for three reasons. One, because it was funny. Two, because it wasn’t the first time I’ve heard someone call her “topak.” A friend mentioned that she once called for a meeting of CEOs from all of the country’s top mining corporations. All these businessmen with their entourages—big money people—shifted their schedules just to accommodate the request of a maverick government secretary threatening to close down their mines. They showed up, each probably prepared to discuss extensive workarounds. Instead, they walk into a prayer meeting. Ms. G had (allegedly) arranged for nuns to place their hands over the CEOs, praying that God descend and make them feel genuine love for country.
Hilarious. One just can’t make that stuff up.
Which brings me to the third reason why Susan’s “topak” anecdote was so remarkable: Because nowadays, having the same almost child-like wonder and naivety that Ms. G showed every single day qualifies as insane. In asking “but you’re topak too, right?” Ms. G was asking: “But we believe the same things, right? We can change the world, right?
Now up to this point, everything is from something I’ve only read about or heard. So let me tell you about the time I met Ms. G.
My Gina Lopez moment, which happened earlier this year, was five minutes off her hectic schedule one afternoon in her office. At the behest of my mom, I was called in for a possible assignment.
I was somewhat apprehensive. I tried to walk in as quietly as I could. Even the air-conditioner was making more noise. But my mom introduced me and Ms. G beamed: “Ah, so you’re Trina’s son! Do you sing? Do you dance?” she asked as we shook hands.
“He’s cute! Trina, he should sing and dance!”
My mom smiled. Ms. G turned back to me.
You should sing and dance. How old are you? Do you have a girlfriend? Boyfriend?”
Deer-in-headlights moment. I was nailed to the chair. I felt the effects of sudden global warming. But Ms. G sat next to me, looked me right in the eye as if saying: “People? What other people? It’s just you and me, iho.”
But what she said was “So come on, tell me about your love life.”
Now, I’m used to interviewing people. I know when they’re nervous. I know when they’re defensive. I ask friendly questions, I smile, I joke. I prod. Everything to get at the story. And now with me on the receiving end of questions, the last thing I wanted to broadcast to an entire office of strangers was my entire love story.
So I don’t know how she got it out of me. Something about her just felt…real.
I told. Oh did I tell. She even managed to get pictures. Pictures! Geezas. I don’t have a single couple pic online and there I was. Scrolling. Ugh.
But it was worth it. Ms. G dispensed a tender measure of advice on life and relationships, before tapping my hand to say, “You should sing and dance” one last time, before heading to another meeting.
It was the last time I would see her.
What I finally took away from those five minutes crystallized everything I’ve read or heard about her, and gave me a realization.
In an era of fake news and puppet politicians, true public servants exist, and Ms. G was one of them. She was an environmentalist in show business who wasn’t doing it for show, a personality who cared about persons, and a philanthropist who gave at least one writer something that felt a lot like hope.
Thank you, Ms. G.
Reginald C. Tolentino writes freelance. He gravitates toward sci-fi, fantasy, and creative non-fiction. He is now seriously considering a career in singing and dancing.