“It’s okay for us to get scared, kasi nakakatakot naman talaga. Pero wag tayong maduduwag,” says the Senator.
Culture Spotlight

Risa Hontiveros is impossible

After she was systematically targeted at the height of the Philhealth scandal, we checked in with the Senator to talk about what it takes to keep going in a climate like today’s.
GIAN LAO | Sep 13 2020

In 1972, she was six years old and inseparable from her cousins.

During family reunions at her uncle’s house, the cousins would do their best to delay their journey home. They knew if they stayed past curfew, their families had to spend the night, and they could have a pajama party. 

Outside her cousin’s room was a balcony. She would sneak there late in the evening and spy on the adults. She would watch the food from above—a lazy susan turning clockwise and then counter-clockwise—and overhear a political conversation that, over the years, “inexorably turned opposition.”

“It was an unintentional intergenerational exchange,” she says. “I don’t think our parents, uncles, and aunts were conscious that we were listening in on them from above.”

First Holy Communion at St. Scho Manila. She grew up on Montreal Street in Merville Park. Her father was a lawyer, her mother Raul Manglapus' executive secretary when he was running for president.

From Christmas reunion to Christmas reunion, the sound of the conversations became softer. “It wasn’t just the change in content. It was the tone. They were angry. They were critical. But they were so conscious that if you were caught talking about this, lagot ka. So the voices became softer, but therefore more intense. [These were] the feelings, the thoughts, and the fear during Martial Law.”

As if it happened yesterday, she describes not just the words they uttered, but also the atmosphere—the tones of voice, and the kinds of silences into which those voices were offered. The things that children remember.

“I was a typical middle class girl of those decades,” Hontiveros says about her childhood, sharing a story that almost feels familiar.

She grew up on Montreal Street in Merville Park. New homes were only just filling up the now-crowded subdivision. She remembers the first time they went there to witness their house in construction. She could “see through the lots, through the streets.” She rode bicycles and fell and wounded her knees. She watched the boys play basketball in their summer leagues.

“One of them has grown up to be a vice-mayor or a councilor now in Parañaque,” she says, and I wonder if that boy also talks about a girl he knew who is now a Senator of the Republic.

She did theater, which she calls her “original dream.” She sang in glee clubs from grade school until high school. She went to auditions. There is that video of her floating around the internet, promoting Repertory Philippines’ production of “The Sound of Music” with a tiny Lea Salonga, Monique Wilson, the Lauchengco siblings, and other future stars.

In a different Philippines, perhaps she would be a theater mainstay. After “Sound of Music,” she was preparing to audition for the next musical, “South Pacific.” But, in her words, “something happened.”

The summer after her sophomore year in high school, her mother brought her to a symposium of the Nuclear Free Philippines Coalition. “I was so inspired by the tres marias there—Sister Mary John Mananzan, Nini Quezon Avanceña, and Mary Concepcion Bautista,” she recalls. “They were talking about their campaigns about the US military bases, the docking and landing of nuclear powered ships and planes, and the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant.”

“Then, wala,” she says, shrugging, as if nothing could stop everything that came after that day. 

As Ateneo Sanggunian Central Board Internal Vice President, with President Chito Salazar, during the EDSA People Power in '86.

One thinks about the lasting impact of Martial Law on so many Filipino lives. No pajama parties without mention of curfew. No truths without whispers. It spares no story. It changes everything it touches.

“I shelved my plans to audition. The following year, I founded a very simply named nuclear disarmament group in St. Scho Manila. And from then on, I continued as a student activist.”

This is the beginning of the story: a middle class theater girl gone activist. Decades later, a Senator traces her career back to a teenager’s decision to stop doing what she loved most, because she wanted to help her country do a little better.

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If I tell you about the real Risa Hontiveros, chances are you will tell me she’s impossible.

There are the things you may already know: Before entering formal politics, she was a lifelong activist, a peace advocate, a journalist. She married her best friend Frank Baraquel in 1990 and her family lost him suddenly to a heart attack in 2005. She raised four kids as a solo parent and breadwinner while serving as representative of Akbayan, her political party. She lost a Senate election twice before finally placing 9th in 2016. Since then, she has authored laws that have expanded maternity leave, established a national mental health policy, and formally outlawed catcalling.

Then there are the things only close staffers can tell us: She hates when they self-diagnose. Whenever a staffer mentions they’re feeling under the weather, she asks them to see a doctor. She checks in on them in the days that follow and sends inspirational memes. “I got a Winnie the Pooh meme,” one of them recalls. 

She’s low maintenance, another person says. She packs her own bags for trips. She doesn’t like pictures. She would stand on the sidelines during photo ops even when they’re signing a bill she spearheaded. “‘Yung area na madaling i-crop!” 

She rides a Toyota Innova, which sometimes gets mistaken for a backup vehicle of the other Senators, which she doesn’t mind. She remembers who among her staffers took French in college, or who recently sent her an article about sustainable agriculture.

They share these stories in a strange tone, as if they’re astonished that they actually happened.

“In all my years with her, never ko pa siya nakitang magalitever,” one of them says. “Not even during crises.” Someone concurs. Yeah. Never.

Someone shares, in disbelief, that she reads everything you send her. She can cite your own writing to you, chapter and verse. You can put her in a room with economists, businessmen, or doctors, and she will have read enough to be conversant and insightful. She brings notebooks to every meeting—even if her aides already have notebooks—so nothing goes unrecorded. One staffer’s first impression of her was that she was regal—a description they soon revised to “regal nerd.”

At St. Scholastica's College where her life as a young activist began 

This challenges our more cynical predispositions. The Filipino politician in our imagination is closer to the ones we saw during the ABS-CBN franchise renewal hearing. They will complain about why they’re always bad guys in teleseryes. They will abuse security guards in NAIA for not treating them like kings. The idea of someone like Risa Hontiveros existing is like the idea of making $400 a day working from home. She is too good to be true.

“What’s the catch?” I ask.

“If I forced you to complain about one thing, what would you complain about?”

Maybe she could act more like a politician sometimes, someone says. She never takes credit for anything. She redirects praise to everyone else who did the work. “Sana mas pa-star siya.”

I think to myself: This might be the political version of “my biggest weakness is I care too much.” But her staff says this sincerely, anonymously, and cautiously, knowing that her tendency to abbreviate herself is precisely what makes her a good leader. Her staff doesn’t know how else to convince the cynics, they say. Before they met her, they thought someone like her was impossible too.

Pwede pala ‘yung ganito,” someone says.

We are a country accustomed to masculine exhibitions of power. A Congressman screaming at his assistant for not serving enough Splenda with his coffee. A Senator instructing a staffer to change to a new dress for the SONA, because they happened to wear the same color. A gorilla growling and stomping until he gets what he wants.

Risa Hontiveros is proof there could exist a better politics, where leaders can be kind; and where they can foster a humane and dignified work culture while still getting much done. And have we mentioned how she stands up to authoritarians—both as a young girl and as a Senator? Not yet. But we will.

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The Hontiveros family lives in a three-floor house built on a 150 square meter lot. They’ve lived in the same house for a generation. There is an open ceiling above the living room “just for the illusion of space, and to let the light in through the windows.” There are animals—more than ten dogs and cats inside and just outside the household. “They all have names!” 

There are bird feeders and bird baths around the windows and—obviously—birds. One of the children says she is beginning to feel like Snow White. 

It is not a big house. Each person is within earshot of the other. A daughter has to request silence from the family before she records a podcast episode. When someone plays music out loud, everyone listens to the same song. Risa Hontiveros will talk about her house until you feel like you’re in it. These configurations are important to her. These spaces where our lives happen.

The joyfulness of her current life contrasts with a more difficult time. In the mid eighties, they lost their house in Merville. Her parents tried their best, but they couldn’t keep up with the SSS payments.

“We really felt bad when we lost the house,” she says. “We had dreams that, eventually, one of us would get to live there—that the memories of that house would physically stay with our family—and we lost it. It makes me wonder, as an indicator also of the disappearance and endangerment of the middle class, how many middle class homes were lost to SSS or GSIS for that matter?”

Those were difficult years for their household. Risa, the eldest of the Hontiveros siblings, even had to borrow pamasahe from her friends in Ateneo’s student government. “Typical manang mentality,” she calls it. But she is thankful for the privilege of being middle class, she says. It allowed her to get sense of what struggling is like, while also witnessing how much the rich actually have.

At this year's SONA.

She remains observant, she says, of how much wealth the rich have, and how they wield it. “And the history of that accumulation of wealth,” she adds. “And the possibility and the obligation for them—if not to participate in the redistribution of wealth—then to get out of the way, if the decisions are in any way made and implemented democratically.”

She talks about being blessed—during her college and post-college years—with regular encounters with fisherfolk, as well as farmers who won their agrarian reform struggle, which shaped the way she practiced her politics “radically, in the best sense of the word.”

“My own understanding of democracy is that it’s not only civil and political,” she continues. “Although those are essential, and without those, even any so-called socialist project will end up becoming authoritarian also, and even fascist. But we cannot stop at just the civil and political. We have to go from that [to] a basic dedication to human rights. We have to see that human rights goes all the way deeper into the economic, social, and even cultural spheres. That’s the kind of work democracy should enable us to do.”

This is insight into how Risa Hontiveros thinks. Activism is not just texture in her story; in fact, her story dwells in the background of our struggle for something better. We begin with the pain of losing a house, but she redirects the attention to those who feel that misery many times over, and goes on to talk about the civil and political structures that might help our nation—especially those in the margins.

It is actually the format of most political speeches: You begin with a relatable personal story; you mention that this story is one of many sad stories; and you end (or perorate, if you will) by motivating people into action for a greater cause. She glides into this classical structure in casual conversation.

Such first-hand experiences have helped populate Risa Hontiveros’ long catalog of advocacies. She knows how difficult it is to be a solo mother, and thus pushed for a law that expands benefits for solo parents—including a 20% discount on child care needs and tuition. She knows what it’s like to lose a home, despite the best efforts of her parents, and thus campaigns for greater income equality. But there are also initiatives she’s worked on that do not find their origin in her personal life, among them the Bangsamoro Organic Law and a law imposing larger fines on hospitals that demand deposits from emergency patients before treating them.

“How do you stretch yourself out so thin?” I ask the Senator. How does she manage to have the time to develop a thoughtful position on all these issues?

She begins answering with a joke shared among her fellow solo moms: “Oh, we sleep less.”

In the middle of our call, her phone rings and she excuses herself. “Hi anak,” she says. “Kumusta?” Her daughter is looking for something at home. She directs her to the cabinet where the blouses are hung; it’s in one of the drawers there, yes. Quickly, whatever it was they were searching for was found, so she ends the call and gets back to me: “Okay sorry, where were we?”

It was the first time someone showed me an answer instead of telling me.

She says that the bills she pushed forward were conceptualized, drafted, and worked on by the advocates themselves. She praises her staff—a team composed of Akbayan and non-Akbayan members, a deliberate diversity to foster “an interdependence between species.” Risa Hontiveros detects praise and hides in the light of her allies. “Pwede pala ‘yung ganito,” I say to myself.

In 2017, when the ILO Convention 151 was ratified by the Senate. 

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Hontiveros’ parents met in the Raul Manglapus presidential campaign—her father a lawyer and her mother the candidate’s executive secretary. “Mommy and daddy were very keen on current events,” she says. “When Marcos declared Martial Law in 1972, our whole clan turned opposition.”

Which might explain, to begin with, why a mother would take her daughter to a nuclear disarmament symposium. Perhaps conscience is in the blood. Her cousins Maan and Buddy became activists before she did. And what possesses a six-year-old to sneak out of bed and eavesdrop on the political discussion downstairs?

There is a story she tells about her grandfather, who was a judge during the Quezon administration. He was attending a Presidential party right after making a ruling against Quezon himself. In his coat pocket was a resignation letter he would submit if he heard the word puñeta, which the President was famous for saying. Instead, as he was entering the party, he heard the President say: “Oh, there’s Hontiveros, a man who’s not afraid to say ‘no’ to his President.”

“I thought, maybe I’m his apo after all,” Risa Hontiveros adds, smiling.

She is, as we know, a woman who’s not afraid to say ‘no’ to her President. She has spoken out against every Duterte misstep—and especially against the thousands of extrajudicial killings that have occurred during the Duterte administration. She helped the family of Kian delos Santos—the 17-year-old boy murdered by policemen—find justice. And she laments that it took the work of so many people just to attain a single acceptable result.

“Imagine, it took three years to get a ruling and finally some measure of justice for Kian,” she says, while also acknowledging the work of Kian’s family, then-Caloocan Bishop David, and then-National President of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines Atty. Fajardo. “It really takes a community effort. It takes patience. We have to outlive our adversaries. Kung mahaba ang pisi nila, dapat mas mahaba ang pisi natin.”

And then she elevates the discussion. The first part of our conversation was Risa Hontiveros in an interview, and this part is Risa Hontiveros in a fight. Her demeanor remains the same, aware that she is not talking to the enemy. But her tone changes. How she emphasizes each word as if to say: “Listen. This is important. This is life and death.”

“There is a Legal Struggle, and there is the so-called Illegal Struggle. Ang ganda nung kay Ka Pepe Diokno: Metalegal Struggle—faithful to legal and constitutional values and principles, but seeking, by breadth of spirit and breadth of intellect, the courage of many people to achieve the justice that is promised by law, but is not always delivered by legalistic maneuvers.”

Speaking at a Martial Law anniversary program in Plaza Miranda.

“If we want to let the Constitution be the champion it was meant to be, then, sabi ni Ka Pepe, we need a metalegal struggle. Those things come back to my mind when thinking about the struggle around Kian’s killing.”

Hontiveros herself has been a target of some second-rate “legalistic” maneuvers. She’s had a case filed against her for supposedly “kidnapping” underage witnesses for the Kian delos Santos case. The Justice Secretary at the time was even caught texting an administration ally to “expedite” cases against her. And beyond the realm of the “legal,” she’s been a target of malicious, pro-administration characters online. De La Salle University refused to renew the contract of a faculty member who insinuated that she should be sexually harassed by prisoners. More recently, a popular pro-Marcos YouTube page—among other questionable sources—implied that Hontiveros was involved in the alleged P15 billion PhilHealth corruption case, even if it happened three whole years after she stepped down from the PhilHealth board. This was the latest in a series of false claims against her for alleged PhilHealth anomalies.

Every Filipino knows this. This is what happens when you try to be good. Those who make their living off shadowy transactions will try and work with you. And if that doesn’t work, then they will find other means to make you submit. “Doesn’t it scare you?” I ask her. What do you tell reformists who are afraid of making cruel and well-funded enemies?

“If the video shook a bit, it’s because I knocked on wood,” she responds. I apologize for asking the question, but she says: “No, it’s okay.” She quotes the Bible. “We have to be as innocent as lambs and as wise as serpents. We have to be out here in our democratic space, while also being prudent about security, and taking care of each other.”

“It’s okay for us to get scared, kasi nakakatakot naman talaga. Pero wag tayong maduduwag.”

She complements her call for bravery with a call for practicality.

“Our adversaries will continue to do what they’re doing regardless,” she says. “Instead of just waiting for the waters to close over our heads, we might as well not allow ourselves to be paralyzed into inaction. By continuing to take action—no matter how modest, no matter how slow at times—we create more and better scenarios than we would be limited to by our adversaries.”

She talks about history and hope—”the Katipunan and the smaller movements before that, all driven by young people”—and I recall the writer Rebecca Solnit in a podcast arguing that hope isn’t optimism; hope is not knowing what’s going to happen. No one knew, Solnit said, that the Soviet Union was going to fall apart when it did. In the same vein, no one knew that the dictator would be overthrown peacefully in 1986. Over time, people overcome hopelessness.

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There are more than 10 dogs and cats in the Hontiveros household, a three-story structure built on a 150-sq meter lot. 

But simple and profound ideas often have to contend with complex realities. Democracy is a powerful thing—and a wonderful idea—but how much can we trust it now, when majority of the country seems supportive of authoritarianism? Does the idea of a democracy with a cruel electorate ever bother the Senator?

“From moment to moment it does shake my belief in democratic methods,” Hontiveros admits. “But I catch myself by thinking that this is also part of his authoritarian project: to shake our belief in democracy. That’s a project all over the world now. That’s part of the evil spirit of the age.”

“It’s up to us who do believe in democracy not to allow them to take away this belief of ours, but to keep reintroducing it to our people in more and more ways that make a concrete difference in their everyday lives.”

The way the Senator practices democracy is, in itself, a reintroduction to it. In her office, she allows her viewpoints to be shaped by new perspectives and information from her staff. She will read that article you sent her. She will treat you as an equal, because that is what you are. At home, she consults her children about big decisions, and even big purchases. She and her husband resolved to always practice positive discipline, and to love their children equally, even if differently.

I realize that this reintroduces the concept of democracy to me: It dies when we don’t live it out—when we view some people as beneath us and tell them to “just do what I say.” Tell me: Has this not happened in your office? In your home? How many minor forms of tyranny does one have to taste before Rodrigo Duterte’s Philippines becomes palatable?

I ask: How do we keep going when everything seems important, and every single thing seems wrong? A more traditional politician would have told me to look on the bright side. They would have quoted JFK: “Ask not what your country can do for you; but what you can do for your country.” Or the Tagalog version: “Ano bang ambag mo?” But Risa Hontiveros doesn’t do that. She affirms the anxiety: “Your question confirms to me that we really are at an existential moment as a people.” Again, she proves she is different.

I suppose we could also call the problem with Risa Hontiveros “existential.” Should we believe that she exists? That there is a girl who gave up her dream for the simple purpose of helping other people? That there is now a Senator who is honest, who cares about the things Senators ought to care about, and who doesn’t abuse the privilege our society accords people in such positions? Even Hontiveros herself is doubtful. “Sometimes I am a horrible person but they don’t see it,” she says.

She doesn’t expound. She leaves that horribleness to our imagination. What would it look like when it does come out? Is her fierceness reserved only for strongmen and their lackeys? Have there been other occasions of outrage apart from shouting “Huwag niyong sasaktan ang mga kasama ko!” as she is hauled off by a police mobile? A story is incomplete without a veil and something that lies behind it. We have been conditioned to wonder: What if?

Outside such personal stories—and the social media binary of like and dislike—we find proof in the work. If she has shown four decades of good work without the public finding anything to dislike, then perhaps this is actually who she is. Maybe this is our trauma warning us against hope. But hope isn’t optimism, right? It’s just not knowing what’s going to happen. We don’t have to believe completely in anyone. We just have to keep watching.

“Follow your bliss,” Hontiveros loves telling her staff. And she says she has the same message to younger politicians, activists, and leaders. It’s not specific to politics or activism, she says, but perhaps it’s how we survived our earlier existential threats. She offers a sequence: Find out what you love most, be excellent in it, and figure out how that can manifest as service. “We Filipinos have survived and have drawn deep, deep, deep from our wells of inspiration and hope to come out—even in earlier times—with new and better normals,” she says.

She knows how difficult it is to be a solo mother, and thus pushed for a law that expands benefits for solo parents.

She is visibly excited. Talking about younger people in politics and activism reminds her that we can keep going. Perhaps it reminds her of when she was 15 and deciding between theater and activism.

She tells me about her personal dream now—that one day, when she’s no longer in formal politics, she can go back to her first love: theater and music. She says she will continue to volunteer to help mentor younger leaders, but she will also explore the life she could have lived—and could still live—in a better country. There will be a house where everyone is within earshot of each other. The dogs and cats slumbering. Then there will be an unburdened song that took several decades to sing, heard throughout the house, and maybe beyond it. The orchestra of birds outside welcomes a companion. The household pauses briefly, wondering why the moment felt like a culmination of something, before going on with its day.

 

Images courtesy of the office of the Senator.