Sunshine Joe through Our Eyes

Aida Aspiras and Imelda Marcos
Jose Aspiras

Jose Aspiras was one of a group of journalists who in the 1950s made history by refusing to reveal their sources. They were jailed for contempt. The incident led to legislation which protected journalists and their sources. Under the administration of Ferdinand Marcos, Jose Aspiras became Presidential Press Secretary and then the Minister of Tourism. He served as a Representative of the 2nd District of La Union to the 7th Congress (1969-1972) and then a member of the Interim National Legislature established when the country shifted from a presidential to a parliamentary system. He was then elected to the 8th Congress (1987-992), 9th Congress (1992-1995), and 10th Congress (1995-1998). He also served as president of the World Tourism Organization and the Pacific Area Travel Association. He is considered the father of the Balikbayan and the Reunion for Peace Programs. At the time of his death in 1999, he was the head of the Manila Economic and Cultural Office, the Philippines’ coordinating agency in Taiwan.

Aida Aspiras is my friend and neighbor. This interview took place in my study. Later Aida invited me to sit in on an interview with Imelda Marcos, which appears in an edited version below.

Aida’s story

My father, Jose Aspiras, was from a modest family. All he had was a good head. I never met his dad, but he was very close to his mother, a very prayerful lady in a long Filipina dress. She spoke very little but when she did it was something of substance. Dad was basically a simple provincial man who on a hot summer night could sleep inside without air-conditioning or outside under a tree. He was brought up by his half-brother, a priest who became the Archbishop of Pangasinan, near Baguio. Dad’s brother was to me the epitome of priesthood, a holy man–honest, strict and disciplined. We weren’t allowed to curl our hair, use makeup or nail polish or wear revealing clothes. He officiated at my wedding and at my brother’s wedding, but after that no more. Maybe he thought he hadn’t done a good job because both marriages ended in separation.

La Union Province in northwest Luzon..

As a boy my father lived in the archbishop’s palace, where he served mass with his older brother. He was very good in school. He went to the University of the Philippines and Ateneo University on scholarships. He finished a degree in journalism and started a law course. His first job was writing for The Manila Times and what was then The Manila Chronicle.

Having a journalist for a dad meant he was asleep when we left for school and gone when we got home. He had to be in the office at night because the papers came out early in the morning. He worked so hard. Like a lot of journalists, he was thrown in jail for contempt because he refused to disclose his sources. Their defense lawyer was Ferdinand Marcos. After my father got out of jail, he started to follow Marcos and write speeches for him.

Before my father joined government, he was the public relations officer for the Textile Mill Association of the Philippines. He ran for Congress and lost. We were packing up to return to Manila, where we were going to school, when he told all of us we had to go congratulate his opponent, Congressman Manuel Cases. I didn’t want to go because Cases had said so many bad things about my father. Dad said, “Aida, don’t be mad. Politics is like a contest. Somebody wins, somebody loses. People like me too. I got thousands of votes. They like him more. So let’s all go and congratulate him.” After the election he decided to move back to La Union. In the next election Marcos was running for president, and he supported my father’s candidacy. Dad became a Congressman.

Later Marcos appointed him as his first Press Secretary, a job he held for five years. He’d say, “I really don’t like making enemies. As the mouthpiece of the president, you’ll always have people mad at you. I’m a PR guy. I want a job where I can make as many friends and as few enemies as possible.”

My father held two portfolios, one as member of the General Assembly [popularly still called the Congress] and one as the Minister of Tourism. He said, “I am in government now. I don’t want anybody to make money out of my position. If you’re not called to my office, please don’t come.”

Then in 1983 Ninoy [Benigno Aquino] was killed. I never saw my dad so angry. He said, “We’re finished.” Then of course one thing led another [as public outrage rose over the assassination]. In 1986 Dad took the Marcoses up to where they were supposed to get a chopper to Hawaii.

For a long time I was the leader of the youth organization, the Namnama Ti La Union, a youth organization with no political affiliation.  After Marcos was deposed, I took over in my province. I went to La Union for a meeting. One of the candidates for governor of the province was Joaquin Ortega, a 70-year-old man. I walked into the room and said, “Hello everybody.”

The governor said, “Here’s your candidate for vice-governor.”

My father said, “One politician in the Apiras family is enough.”

Then the candidate for vice-governor, a doctor, pulled out of the race at the last minute. The deadline for filing the certificate of candidacy was midnight of the following day. My dad said, “You’re not going back to Manila. I want you to run for vice-governor.” They put me in to solidify the support of the electorate. Someone else might have been as electable.

After the election my dad took me aside. He said, “Congratulations. I never got the lead you had. You won by a landslide.” What he said next didn’t make sense at the time, but I always kept it at the back of my mind. “Listen to me, and listen to me well. Now that you have won, you have nothing else to prove. Remember you owe the people who elected you, not the other way around. Lead with humility and courage. When you make decisions always take into consideration what’s best for the majority.” I’m repeating this verbatim. At the time I was thirty-eight. I didn’t understand, but I discovered what he meant later.

When I was Officer in Charge of the province and had to make decisions, I brought all my documents home to get my dad’s opinion. Once I said, “Dad, look the cost of this cement. How come we’re buying it at a high price when we’re supposed to have a 20% discount?”

He would just read the documents one by one and set them aside. Then he’d say, “Okay. Wait for the governor to decide. You know, Aida, in government if you make a mistake, even after your tenure as a government officer, and people want to make it difficult for you, they can sue you for irregularities. So it’s best to play it safe all the time. If you’re not sure about a document, don’t sign it.”

I came from the private sector, where the paper trail is the same every day. In government, it can change. Today it’s from left to right, but tomorrow it might be from right to left. So it’s hard. The system is difficult. At that time I was also having problems with my sons. My father saw I was really distraught. He told everybody, “Aida’s not running anymore. She’ll have to take care of her children first. What good is she in politics if her family is broken?”

In 1996 when my father got cancer, he was diagnosed here, and my mother said, “We’ll get a second opinion in the States.” I went ahead to look for an oncologist. At the time Dad was in Taiwan as the head of the Manila Economic Council Office. Since we didn’t have an embassy in Taiwan, as the chairman of MECO was the equivalent to a Philippine ambassador to Taiwan. Anyway, in the States he was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer. The doctor said he would have to have chemotherapy. We were living in my sister’s two-bedroom house in San Francisco. I saw him counting out money. It was so sad to see a man of his stature counting money and telling my mom, “Amparo, you keep this. I’m not going to undergo chemotherapy. I’m not going to get well anyway. It will just prolong my life.”

My mother was angry. “No, no, no. Even if we have to sell our home in Manila, you are going to have chemotherapy. If we have to sell, we will.”

I was angry too, and I was sad. My dad was sitting in a Lazy-Boy reading the newspaper. I said, “Dad, why didn’t you make yourself rich?”

He didn’t answer me. He didn’t even put down the newspaper and look at me.

When I asked again, he lowered his newspaper and said, “Torpe,” which is Tagalog for stupid. “For what? So people spit at you when you turn your back? For you and your brother and sisters to be fighting over what I made? I’d be tossing and turning in my grave.” Then he went back to his newspaper.  “Sorry, kid, all you’ll inherit from me is a good name.”

I thought, “What’s a good name anyway?” I’m a slow learner.

Even at the height of my dad’s popularity, our lifestyle didn’t change, and I’m grateful for that.  My son Padjo married a woman who came from a well-educated, well-to-do family. She said, “Your grandparents’ life is so simple.” Maybe she thought for dinner we would put out a lot of silver and crystal on the table. It was the same before and after Marcos left, even after Dad became an ambassador. My dad sheltered us from politics. He didn’t expose us.

As a matter-of-fact, when people said the Marcoses were thieves, it was a shock to us. That’s why when we hear that I say, “I don’t know those things.”

Martial law was good for the first year. There was a curfew. Filipinos don’t listen to their leaders if they’re not afraid of them. Marcos ordered the execution of a drug dealer, Lin Seng. After that the dealers were too scared to sell drugs.

My dad was like a man who’d swallowed Emily Post [the best-selling Etiquette, 1920]. He was so proper, and he always had the right thing to say. For instance, when he was very sick and in a wheelchair, he said, “Aida, what are you doing this morning?”

“Why, Dad?”

“Because there’s something I’d like you to get for me—but only if you’re not busy.” So how do you react to somebody who would ask you that? He never felt entitled.

“Ok, what can I get for you?”

He sent me out to get some jewelry for my mother, something not too expensive and not too cheap. He asked someone else to buy each of us the least expensive Cartier watch. There was a note saying, “Thank you, Dad.”

Even though he was in pain and couldn’t eat or sleep much, he was always very considerate. He had a doctor, Francisco Lukban, who never charged him for his services. When the doctor came in, my dad would try to stand up to shake his hand. Once when the doctor told him he should take a test he didn’t want to take, he blew his top and walked out of the hospital.

I said, “Dad, why did you talk to the doctor like that? And why were you mad at him?.”

Before he went back to the hospital, he told me to fetch the bottle of Johnny Walker Blue Label that had been given to him by some important people. He took it back to the hospital with a note apologizing for losing his temper.  The doctor told me later that he’d never drunk the whiskey because it was so precious to him.

So that’s pretty much my dad. If he were alive he would be ninety years old in August. We’re writing a coffee table book which will be The Life and Times of Jose Aspiras.

In preparation for the book, journalist Jojo Sylvestre interviewed Imelda Marcos. I was present for the interview, which with his permission I’ve presented here in a shortened form.

Imelda Marcos’s story

Jose Aspiras—he was called Sunshine Joe—and Marcos were friends even back when Marcos was a Congressman. When Marcos became Senate President, Joe was involved in many projects for Ferdinand. Then when Marcos became President, he became Press Secretary. Because of his very pleasant and wonderful personality, Marcos put him on tourism, and he did a lot for tourism and for the country—showing the real potential of the country. Marcos also had great need for him. When there were conflicts and misunderstandings among the different people in the Cabinet, he was a peace maker. He fixed things up. That was very important because there was a lot of intrigue. In the midst of power, there is a lot of envy and fighting for a higher post. I used to ask him to join me on my travels because in the groups there were always misunderstandings. You don’t need that, especially when you’re working for a foundation. He was democratic. He brought people together. If I had a social event, for instance, he was very good at organizing it.

He knew what to do, and he was almost indispensable. When people were fighting he was always the one who talked to everybody and put things in place. He had charisma. He could attract people. And he was a credible speaker, a big asset to a political campaign. During the election he was Press Secretary, which was tremendously important.

Tourism became a very important department in the Marcos administration under Aspiras. Mrs. Aspiras and the whole family worked with us because they were all pleasant. Mrs. Aspiras helped in many projects. She was very efficient. It was nice to have her around because she was a beautiful woman. Having beauty around you helps your mind and your spirit. Joe had a wonderful family. The children were hardly walking when they came to visit in Malacañang [the presidential palace].

The Marcos monument in La Union

When the Miss Universe Pageant was held here, I presented a parade of the history of the Philippines, starting with the Stone Age. We were not ashamed to show all the different tribes, to show how rich our culture was, to show our history, to show the best parts. Then to show the Spanish colonization and World War II and what we had to go through under the Japanese. And also the Americans. I wanted people to understand the Philippines and see how beautiful our culture was. Well, I suppose Miss Universe became my responsibility because it was hosted here and I was First Lady. Joe’s opinion was important because we wanted beautiful things not only for women, but also for men. He had quite a talent for visualizing how things would look.

From the beginning to the end, he was with us. Even before Malacañang. That was because 1) he was pleasant to be around, 2) he was very useful in calming down misunderstanding, 3) he was very efficient, 4) he could put things together beautifully and 5) he was Ilocano and he was super-loyal. In fact, we were surprised that he even had a monument of Ferdinand built in Ilocos. Ferdinand never saw it. Unfortunately during the Ramos time they blew it up. I saw it only after we came back from exile. We always stopped by La Union when we went north to Agoo. Joe was a friend. A delight. Above all, he was a man of good character.