The Non-political Leila

Senator de Lima flashes her signature sign, symbolizing a call to stop injustices

Senator de Lima flashes her signature sign, symbolizing a call to stop injustices

I prayed with my daughter en route to the PNP Custodial Center in Camp Crame where Senator Leila de Lima has been detained in the last 394 days. With everything that we see in the news, feeling scared could not be helped although we came with no pessimistic expectations and instead, placed our complete trust in the women and men in uniform who are tasked to protect us.

"But to do that is to accept the role of a victim---bowed, bent, broken and silenced. But that is not who I am. I am whole. I am not just a survivor, I am a warrior. I am a woman, and I refuse to be silenced. Certainly, I will not be cowed because there is more at stake here than my own personal comfort and interests. I will speak up for other women and say that we are more than the sum of our reproductive organs. We are human beings deserving of respect for our rights and dignity.”

Senator Leila de Lima, Dispatch from Crame No. 242 13 February 2018

There are two kinds of Leila de Lima that ordinary Filipinos know: One is the Leila de Lima that the likes of her former professor and superior, retired San Beda College of Law Dean and Supreme Court Associate Isagani A. Cruz describes as an intelligent and hardworking woman whose "passion for justice matches his" and whose "career is prima facie evidence" of her commitment to human rights, as told by his daughter, Candy Cruz Datu, in a blog post entitled, Leila. The other is a complete opposite of the first---a drug lord coddler and a public enemy whose personal life has been exploited at great lengths to support her identity as a villain. Never mind that all are allegations with no material evidence and entirely based on the statements rendered by persons who were convicted of crimes with moral turpitude and the people that she investigated and put on trial.

But I am not here to write about that.

Whichever of the two Leilas you choose to believe, they only describe a facet of the person that traditional and social media convey. There is another, more authentic Leila who is little known, if not completely unknown, by the ever curious and scrutinizing public.

She is the non-political Leila.

Here is how I met her:

One does not easily get to visit the senator. First, a request has to be made in advance, which may or may not be approved by the authorities. At the Custodial Center, government-issued IDs have to be presented as visitors are thoroughly checked from the official memo. My daughter and I were both subjected to at least two rounds of thorough yet respectful bag inspections and body searches. Our personal items were checked one by one and we had to surrender all our gadgets, including cables and power banks. The police officers on duty reminded us to turn off our phones before submitting them at the entrance.

From there, we walked across a vacant lot towards another gate leading to her reception area that is separate from the living quarters. The reception included a small room with a toilet and a pantry, and some benches outside. It was clean and decent, although it could get quite warm and humid even with electric fans when there are several people gathered inside the room.

Senator Leila was greeting her other guests when her brother, Vicboy de Lima, introduced my daughter and me. With all that she continues to go through in her quest for justice and freedom, I was surprised not to see a frail, desolate, and vindictive Leila de Lima, although she visibly lost some weight. Senator Leila was in such good spirits, her countenance lit up the room and her warm voice made us feel both safe and comfortable. 

However, that was not yet the Leila who I discovered that day.

We were ushered by her brother to our seats inside the room where Sunday masses were regularly celebrated by her spiritual advisers, Fr. Bert Alejo, SJ; Fr. Flavie Villanueva, SVD; and Fr. Robert Reyes who was unfortunately out of the country that day. There was a makeshift altar -- a Monobloc table covered with white table cloth -- in the front. We sang Church hymns and listened to the readings and the homilies that deeply resonated with our current events.

As a Jesuit, Fr. Bert talked about the "disordinate attachments" of Ignatian Spirituality, like money and power, that Pope Francis considered as enemies to our inner freedom, and thus, prevent us from exercising love and compassion.

Senator Leila gave her reflection after all the guests have shared their own as part of the Sunday tradition.

"I ask for neither poverty nor riches," she paraphrased a verse in the Proverbs, explaining that she does not think money is inherently good or evil.

Then she went on, "I have always just wanted to be comfortable---to have enough to appreciate life but not too much that I can no longer be genuine in helping others." 

On that day, Senator Leila was far from comfortable, being stripped off her privileges as an elected official and certain material comforts as a private citizen. Yet, what has been keeping her steadfast, able to fight for her convictions and perform her work as a senator writing her bills and resolutions by hand, and dispatching fragments of her thoughts everyday for over a year already?

I can only surmise that it is the real, non-political Leila, who is unencumbered by the trappings of power, money and privilege; ironically, robbed of her own rights and made to suffer deep injustice.

This is the Leila I met that day:

  • A mother who draws courage and strength from the innocence of the love of her 36 year-old son, Israel, who has special needs;

  • A sister who thinks so fondly of her siblings, even calling one of them, "the holy spirit with small letters h and s," because he is a natural comic who makes everyone laugh;

  • A daughter who is deeply concerned about her mother's health and welfare, and keeps to heart the lessons that were exemplified by her late father, a public servant who lived humbly and with integrity;

  • A friend who listens more than she talks, and asks genuine questions to get to know you; and

  • A human being whose sense of justice and compassion enables her to fulfill her role as a steward of God's creation.

Perhaps this is the Leila who retreats to her quarters when all of her visitors have left at 5:00 pm. The Leila who has been on a personal silent retreat with God for a couple of hundreds of days. Without any TV, radio, computer, and cellphone and whose reading materials are now being screened, Leila has found companionship among the stray cats that have grown from four to 13 and that moved her to write about the alleged anti-stray cats circulars of several upscale condominiums in one of her recent dispatches.

"... It may sound strange to some, but there is something inherently inhuman about forcing people to ignore their instinct to care for other creatures who are weak, helpless and in need of care. There is something utterly dehumanizing – and, if I may say so,monstrous – about punishing people because they harbor altruistic and unselfish emotions, such as the basic instinct to feed a starving creature.... The bond between humans and God’s other creatures is an innate one. I deem it unnatural and, in fact, dangerous to foster such a hostile attitude towards stray cats. They will be condemned to a slow death by starvation and neglect, not because nobody wants to help and feed them, but because those who are inclined to are threatened with punishment. 

In a world that is moving ever nearer towards apathy, cultivating this level of heartlessness is the last thing we need. I wonder if the reason for the proposed ban and penalty is based on considerations of what would be most convenient for the management.  Perhaps they think that starving out the cats will result in them dying out and eliminating a “problem” for the management. But sometimes what is “convenient” is the opposite of what is “right”.  Especially if convenience comes at the price of a life – even the life of a creature as small as that of a stray cat. After all, what defines the kind of human beings we are is how well we treat even the smallest of God’s creatures."

For one who is incarcerated by lies, Leila gave life to the Bible readings that day, which Fr. Flavie simply yet beautifully weaved together in these words: inclusivity is a form of compassion.

Words aside, I came to my own conclusion and discovered this Leila from my own encounters with Senator Leila and her family, which are supported by the accounts of people I have always considered to be credible.

In the two occasions that I have met her brother, Vicboy, and in all our communication, he never appeared to me as someone who could be corrupted by his sister's profile. He followed protocols, respected authorities including Senator Leila's staff, and was repeatedly apologetic when the original schedule had to be cancelled. He does not claim that his family is perfect but, just like his sister, he strives to live up to the example set by their parents. Then there was Israel who greeted my daughter and me with a handshake, and bid us goodbye with an innocent kiss. From him, I see why Senator Leila would not shed a tear for the painful things that were said and done against her, but for Israel, she would.

For people like me who have no direct personal knowledge of Senator de Lima, the kind of atmosphere that she and her family and friends created that day revealed much about the non-political Leila. There was outrage against injustice, but also respect on the rule of law and the humanity of her so-called enemies. In the most spirited conversations, not a single insult or derogatory word was ever said against them.

Senator Leila lit the room with grace and dignity, and brought air to our lungs with the kindness of her compassionate heart.

That is the Leila I will remember and always pray for.