I met with Imee in late November of 2014 at the Governor’s office in Laoag, Ilocos Norte. Prior to our meeting, I was asked to submit my questions to her Media Officer Jun Gudoy for approval. While our one-hour exchange went beyond the parameters of the agreed upon questionnaire, Marcos kept the list in hand throughout our time together. In that way, we managed to stay on, or return to, the pre-designated topics.
The transcribed interview that follows has been edited for clarity while retaining the in medias res quality of the original séance.
MAGDALENA EDWARDS: Did you enjoy your time at Princeton?
IMEE MARCOS: So-so. I enjoyed New York. But that was a really good time. Because that was the time of Andy Warhol, Basquiat, all that whole gang was in operation. Houston was alive. Warren Beatty, Studio 54. It was really, really decadent and debauched and fun.
People say New York has changed so much.
Yeah, now it’s a little too … banker driven. It’s too finance driven. It’s become less interesting. It was spacier and more stoner at that time. (laughs) No one can afford to live there. That’s what they’re doing in London that’s really great. The creative London. Cool Britannia, that whole campaign, is totally working. They rent out studios and so on to keep the artists in London. We should do that in the Philippines because Filipinos are really artists. I don’t know why they keep pretending we’re scientists or basketball players.
How old are your children?
Six and a half, four and a half, and two and a half …
Two boys and a girl …
Oh, goodness. A handful.
Your children are all grown up right?
Yes. I brought up three boys from the age of your kids now onwards more or less alone. It’s been fun. Really challenging, though.
I have been thinking a lot about women, how when we get older, there is more space for us to become our own selves.
It’s what the tribes do. You only come into your own when your children grow up. And then you become a wise woman. Then you have a whole other rank in the tribe. And that’s how it works here really. They become the wise women in the tribe. And then they know how to cure all the illnesses, pray to the gods, and make all the complicated ritual food. So they become terribly important. But that’s only afterwards, when they’ve had their babies and everyone is married off and so on.
So that resonates for you.
Well, uh. I don’t know … I never did things in the right order, so it’s very tricky for me.
What has been your most satisfying work as governor?
I think the most satisfying is that you actually can touch peoples’ lives. It might sound kind of banal, but it’s probably the only reason to be in politics. On a much wider scale you can actually help people. Things change when you move and do things. What’s most challenging is convincing them that change is necessary. I think Ilocanos are actually change-phobic and are frightened that things are going to be different.
What is satisfying is the little things you actually succeed in doing. And it’s extraordinary. There was an increasing level of poverty, for example, in Ilocos Norte when I came here, and I thought it was a little scary because we were one of the provinces that were slated to make the millennium development goals. Instead of declining, poverty was actually rising. So that was the first challenge of the first couple of years.
Do you see that there’s a renewed energy or spirit here now?
I think Ilocos Norte is my family writ large. We have a huge inherited legacy as a province, the same as pretty much inheriting the Marcos name. It’s sort of a heavy burden at times, and at the same time it’s a huge privilege. I think the province is a little like that. All the best projects, all the international financing, all the pioneering work was actually done here in the 70s. Then my father was gone, and everything was lost. It hit people here in a very personal way because many of them lost their jobs. Ilocanos who would have liked to join the army, for example, were jailed after the coup d’etats. Even the tobacco farmers lost subsidies. The rice farmers never got hybrid rice. The hospitals became deteriorated. Just everything. Well. As they say, they weren’t the only race anymore. We were so much the favored region, and then suddenly it all changed. So I think when I got here everyone was a bit down.
I think now there is a renewed discovery that in fact the local culture is so strong; whereas being Filipino is so unclear and so contradictory, being Ilocano is so evident, and it’s a very, very particular, distinct, strong identity. We don’t need to discuss it. Whereas Filipino is, well, whatever […] we’re all these islands located somewhere and we are so diverse and don’t even like each other from region to region. Ilocos is one clear cut thing — we all more or less look alike, we go to the same big old churches, we all eat the same very salty food.
There’s a unified sense in a changing world.
Yes, it’s very homogenous. Cohesive. Very, very tribal. I can’t get away from that word here. We had a bishop who arrived about a year ago. Maybe two years now. And he comes from another place in Ilocos. He says we have this apple culture. Like whoever is the head of the tribe, whoever is the chieftain, is the boss. Even if you’re very upset with him, when you leave the province you just follow. It’s just the way it is. I think the rest of the Philippines is the opposite. No one wants to follow; everyone wants to be the boss. So you have these Filipino federations overseas, 27 members and 28 presidents. It’s just the way it is.
How does Ilocos Norte enter into conversation with the rest of the country? Or does it?
Yes, that’s very interesting. We all watched with bated breath when the Scots had their vote because we are more or less the Scots of this united Philippines. Everyone says we are stingy; we like to work very hard and we are semi-war like. Very Scottish. We also wear checkered patterns a lot. We all watched with bated breath. But unlike Scotland, I think Ilocanos bring in a lot more money. We actually bring in billions in remittances. Because actually there are Ilocanos everywhere, more than there are countries that are members in the United Nations.
How important is tourism for the economy?
Like I said, the most important thing is dollar remittances. We are a bunch of remittance addicts. I believe that tourism, hotels, and restaurants have now become the fastest growing investment sector. We see a lot of Filipinos coming from overseas who are investing in little hotels and restaurants. So that’s good. We don’t have any big hotels, any chains that are making piles of money, but the little guys selling the ice cream shakes and the other stuff along the way, and tour guides volunteering and a lot of little old ladies selling you stuff.
Do you see the culture here as matriarchal?
It’s always been. The tribal beginnings of Ilocano culture are very evident and the indigenous peoples, the tribes, here in the north, were never completely conquered. So while there is a split between upland and lowland, colonialized and unconquered, it’s never been a real split. It’s more an intermarrying of both things. It’s all a big fusion, and essentially the matriarchal part occurred by default.
And the kids here are learning Ilocano at school?
Yes, and the tribal language. We just opened a tribal school two years ago. They are learning Tinguian and the challenge is to actually find them books. We have a very active overseas community involved with the language. But there is always a big argument — because the language here in the province is evolving differently than it’s evolving in Hawaii and elsewhere.
Different strains of the language.
I suppose it’s a little bit like Spanish. The Spanish used in the former colonies is so 17th century; even our names are so long and even the Spaniards are like, “Hey, why can’t you just call her Ana?” We have all these saints and ancient names.
[Imee’s full name is Maria Imelda Josefa Romualdez Marcos.]
We are one of the few places in the Philippines where we have a declining population. People are making babies, but they are all leaving. Most of our citizens simply aren’t here. They are not just contract workers; they have actually migrated and are third, fourth generation now so they’re not really voting here, they are voting in the US. But they continue to have very strong ties with the province. They act like social insurance. They are always sending money for Christmas and money for school fees, for hospitalizations, for funerals. They are still very involved somehow. They come home once, twice a year. They have huge empty houses. I’m sure you’ve seen them, when you go on the highway. They have these very large houses. And you know exactly where they migrated or are working — there are Honolulu houses with heavy duty landscaping and lanais; whereas those who went to Milan, for example, have put in the fountain and balconies and drop dead bathroom tiles. Sometimes I tell them we really have to take it down on the conspicuous consumption and invest better, instead of using it all up on the mall shopping and the housing. It’s really important that the businesses get started.
I think legacy is such a big word for a very simple task that I’ve set out for myself: to create jobs locally so they don’t have to leave. So if I can in some way keep Ilocanos at home, I will consider myself to have been successful. That’s my measure. If more of them are staying at home and there’s work and there’s gainful and reliable employment for them and their families, I am good. That’s really the issue: that everyone leaves.
You are going to stay in politics?
It’s traditional [in the Philippines] to start your projects in the first term, the second term you know more or less what you are doing, by your third term you finish off. It’s nine years all in. After that you are not supposed to run anymore.
Do you tweet?
Everyone asks me why I am not on Twitter. Why I am very sedate on social media. I’ve actually been prevented [from doing it] because I am very candid and have a famously bad temper. So I’ve been told to shut up.
You would have a huge following on Twitter!
I have a really, really bad temper. And I cuss like a sailor. I’ve been told that it’s not appropriate for a female governor to do that, so I should stay away.
I have a big show tomorrow [Ilocos Norte’s Festival of Festivals]. It’s part of my thing that we should be proud of being Ilocano. It’s important to be proud of what you are. If you have no confidence, you aren’t going to get anything done. So one of the most important things is for us to acknowledge and celebrate Ilocano culture.
Magdalena Edwards is working on a book about poet-translators across the Americas. Her essays have appeared recently in The Millions, The Paris Review Daily, and Rattle.