Since the news about Secretary Jesse Robredo’s plane crash happened, memories and reflections have been dancing around in my head. I hoped I would not have had to write this. I hoped I would save these memories for another day, with many more added to them. But on this sad day when a country mourns for one of its quiet heroes – a hero who did his work without fireworks or fanfare – I’ve got to let this out.
When I first started at IPD, then Mayor Jesse was an icon. He had transformed Naga City from a sad face of misgovernance into a first class, economically booming city. He successfully implemented participatory budgeting, he had drastically reduced the urban poor population and provided security of tenure to thousands of families, and he was not tied to a political dynasty – all core components of our vision of a participatory democracy that prioritizes the dignity of the poor. He was the symbol that we could do it. He was the living archetype we wanted to emulate and reproduce. If only we could develop and install Mayor Jesses all over the Philippines.
When I quit my job in DC to join the Noy-Mar campaign, I had no idea Mayor Jesse was head of the political unit until my first day at the office. I’m not one to get starstruck, but I was really excited to finally meet in person the man that I had looked up to for so long. When I finally did see him, my reaction was “ganyan lang pala?” Hindi naman dahil wala siyang dating, pero hindi siya katulad ng mga iba na they would expect everyone to stop what they were doing and greet him as soon as he entered a room. He acted as though, despite all his accomplishments, he didn’t consider himself “mahalagang tao.” Humble at simpleng tao lang talaga. Mayor Jesse could slip in and out of the various rooms at Parc House and, unless he wanted to talk to you or you were looking for him, barely be noticed – except that he was taller than 95% of the staff. He was not about getting attention. He was about getting work done.
I had only fleeting interaction with Mayor Jess until late in the campaign when groundwork became the more important focus. I remember my first ops with him in Mindanao – at first he didn’t want me to go. He didn’t really know me and so was reluctant to spend campaign money when he wasn’t sure what my value-added would be. I secured outside funding and went along anyway. Once we got on the ground I too was a bit nervous that I didn’t actually bring any value-added, and that despite really wanting to impress him, I wouldn’t be able to. Halfway into breakfast, however, we were both surprised to realize that I was a repository of some information he needed, but had not had a chance to collect. That was all it took. He was at once genuinely receptive of my input and the information I had to bring. As a young woman in a very masculine and classist political world, I am used to being (and seeing other women be) patronized, politely waved away, or resented because of seeming to come out of nowhere and then talking out of place – like a kid sitting at the adult table. Mayor Jess was not like that. He was open to hearing ideas and advice from new sources, no matter how old you were or what you looked like. He was never too proud to turn down help offered by earnest and able people. In this way he was the opposite of so many mga mayabang na pulitiko.
I remember my first visit to his office less than a month after he became Secretary Jesse Robredo of DILG. His office’s somber yet overwhelming blue color seemed to reflect his mood. Sec. Jesse was in charge of a massive portfolio that would put him in the line of fire of some of the most powerful and dangerous figures in the Philippines. The department at that time still had plenty of holdovers from the previous administration, and so he did not yet know who he could trust and who would be out to get him – a point emphasized by how he carefully and purposefully closed the door after we entered his office. Jueteng and ARMM were the two most important points on the agenda that day, and perhaps two of the most complicated, most intimidating areas any government official could take on, let alone a new Secretary taking the reigns after almost ten years of an administration that had used the DILG to coddle criminal syndicates. He was nervous, and he had every right to be. But, he was determined, and somehow seemed to be creating energy against the dictates of reason. My friend (who incidentally is also currently dying of a sudden unforeseen cause) and I agreed that we would supplement his efforts in any way we could. If anyone had the world thrown against him, it was Sec. Jesse. If anyone could make a major change in how a crucial government line agency runs, it was Sec. Jesse. If anyone deserved our utmost support, it was Sec. Jesse.
And so when I think of Sec. Jesse, I think of someone who served tirelessly and asked for nothing in return. I think of someone who, while we pat ourselves on the back as we wrestle with ideological and theoretical debates, was accomplishing tangible outcomes. Someone who remained righteous, smart, and grounded, despite 15 years in a political game that ruined many others. Someone who achieved the dream of simultaneously pursuing progressive policies, delivering real economic growth and social services, and being successful in a world of realpolitik.
I also think of the great irony that someone who was such a fighter, who survived so many battles, was killed in a freak plane accident. I think how ironic it is that so many snakes well into their 70s and 80s still continue to rape the Philippines, while Sec. Jesse, who still had so much more to give, was lost at age 54.
Right now a lot of people are talking about destiny. When it’s your time, it’s your time, they say. Well, I have always said that we make our own destiny. I’m amending that now. Sometimes we also have to make the destiny of others. Sa ang dameng beses na tinanong ko “bakit siya, ano ba ang meaning nito?” I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s up to us to decide what this means. We choose to give this meaning. We have to use this event to work harder, think better, love stronger, and fight until victory. It’s now up to us to fulfill the destiny of Sec. Jesse.