By Rita M. Gerona-Adkins


          WASHINGTON, D.C., March 25, 2019  As the 2019 International Women’s History Month of March comes to an end, recognizing the honorable deed of one woman is a must. Below is an account of the reason why.

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That was all Leonila “Leo” Madrid Oteyza responded unhesitatingly when asked to type down an urgent statement about what Filipinos in America felt about returning democracy to the Philippines, to be immediately handed to the press and media that were yelping for it.

That was at the time Feb.22 to 25,1986 when Filipinos in Manila, the United States and elsewhere were on the streets clamoring for the democratic process in the Philippines after causing the dictator President Ferdinand Marcos to flee in exile to Hawaii. It was also a time when the U.S., a close ally of the Philippines that had tacitly supported Marcos, was searching its diplomatic soul what to do.

It was, indeed, a horrifically significant time for the near 50 million Filipinos and a glittering global triump for democracy after 14 years of the Marcos autocratic rule.

An Ordinary Clerical Chore

But to Leo, what she did was just work as ordinarily as chewing gum while doing her adminstrative job for her boss, Stanley Please, World Bank Country Program Director (1976-1978) for East Asia and the Pacific Region.

If she knew or realized the event’s significance, she certainly did not show it as she acquiesced to type and reproduce the statement dictated by phone to her early morning of Feb. 26, 1976, then run down to the front of the White House and hand xeroxed copies of it to reporters and photographers, who were milling around a motley group of demonstrating Filipinos and Filipino Americans and hungrily hoping to get something in time for their deadlines.

As History Was Breaking

The media’s frustration was understandable.

The Philippine Embassy in Washington, D.C. — while reinstalled by the liberated democratic government of President Corazon Aquino, who was then scrapping with rival and elected Vice President Salvador Laurel over the national budget — was severely handicapped.

Emmanuel Pelaez, assigned then as the Philippine ambassador at a politically tumoultous time, did not even have funds for running an embassy office, let alone the instruments with which to respond to media’s urgent demands.at such a critically challenging time. (The problem, while embarrassing, was however met admirably by many in the Filipino community, who scrubbed the floors and even put up their own home paintings to decorate the barren embassy office building on Mass Avenue, N.W., which was denuded of its furnishings and historical decor, including an original Amorsolo painting, by the ambassadorial staff of Benjamin Romualdez.)

And here came Leo with her xeroxed copies of a statement — something about the overwhelming support of Filipinos in America for the return of democracy in their beloved country of origin. A theme that tried to capture the passion and politics of the day.

A Timely Message, Unknowing Hero

It was not an authoritative message at all, but to the hungry press and media it was enough to beat the nagging deadline with. Most significantly, the timely message as immediately broadcast by the press and media, helped dramatize the historic political upheaval in the Philippines.

LEO OTEYZA as young employee at World Bank. {Source: family)

So to me, Leo — in her small but critically timely act of typing, reproducing and distributing a much needed statement on behalf of U.S. and Philippines-based Filipinos to the media toward a wider national and global audience — is an unrecognized, unsung hero who contributed to the People Power Revolution and the return of democracy in the Philippines.

(I know because — in the spirit of full disclosure — due to the gaping absence of an official statement and the urgent need of the press and media, I dictated that statement by phone to her, breaking my professional rule as a journalist not to create, but to report, the news.)

By prime news time in the evening, Channel 4 put out a 15-minute magazine-style coverage of a gathering at the metro Washington D.C. home of Ronie Nieva, a program consultant , showing the weeping face of Mel Odilao, a conscierge at Four Seasons Hotel, emotionally singing “Bayan Ko” (My Country). It was a dramatic coup for Channel 4 beating other television rivals for local community content.

But at the greater political scale — through constant news coverage of iconic nation-altering events including photos of Catholic nuns offering flowers to military tanks —  it was the Filipinos’ inimitable success in finally ousting the deeply driven dictatorship that was dominating the air waves.and keeping publishing machines humming.

It also inspired, in some measure, other subjugated countries in the developing world to do the same or aspire for, as depicted in a heartbeat-stopping photo of a young man holding a bag halting military tanks in a street in China, imitating the fearless act of the Filipino nuns offering flowers of peace to weapons of war.

Consequently, as Philippine civil and military sectors sped up reorganization toward a democratic order of governance, Filipinos in the Nation’s Capital and throughout the U.S. and elsewhere, with their community organizations and resources, joined the Philippines’ effort in rebuilding its economy and governing capacities. The task was humongous, considering what the Philippines was left with: an empty treasury from which Marcos had methodically siphoned funds and hid in foreign banks, leaving the country disabled with unpaid debts and disqualified from further borrowing much-needed funds from lending institutions like the World Bank.

STANLEY PLEASE. World Bank country program dIrector and boss of Leo Oteyza. (Photo source: Wikipedia)

During this challenging period, Leo continued to do her clerking, adminstrative chores, such as helping faciliate meetings with World Bank officials, especially with her boss, Stanley Please, whose job included overseeing development funds for the Philippines.  One such one-on-one private meeting was with Jaime Ongpin, ardent supporter of President Aquino who passionately argued for debt forgiveness for the Philippines in order to accelerate rebuilding strategies.

:Later after leaving the World Bank, she did secretarial work for former U.S. Senator and presidential candidate George McGovern who, as president of the Middle East Policy Council, was initiating the strengthening of friendly relations and trade ties between the U.S. and Arab countries.

Her Personal and Family Life

          Leo came to the U.S. with eyes open for opportunities. As a valedictorian high school graduate and college student of economics, Leo won a U.S. scholarship to pursue further studies.  Upon arriving in the U.S., she decided instead to work at the World Bank where she diligently earned a comfortable salary plus extra-time fees from which, over a period of 20-some years, she accumulated enough savings to buy residential homes for all her children and their families. She also was able to travel to other countries as accompanying staff to her World Bank superiors.

LEO (last at right end) is shown with her family and friends at a birthday celebration of son-in-law Kevin Owens in 2014. (Photo by Rita M. Gerona-Adkins)

Leo, however, is commonly known in the metro-D.C. Filipino community as the mother of children: Maurese Oteyza Owens, community advocacy leader; Julian Oteyza, noted bandleader, guitarist and painter; and Omar Oteyza, IT programmer; and their families. She is also mother-in-law to Kevin Owens, author of fictional books on Mars and cyber space.

LEO WITH HUSBAND VICTOR OTEYZA, Filipino artist of note. (Source: Oteyza Family Album)

To some intimate friends and art admirers, she is also known as the wife and widow of Victor Oteyza, the famed Filipino artist and one of the leaders of “neo-realism” or modern painting; and sister of Kidlat Tahimik, an internationally known filmmaker and proclaimed Philippine National Artist.

                                      Adobo, a Culinary Passion

Leo is also noted and appreciated for her cooking adobo, tinola and other Filipino culinary favorites, and for her hospitable invitation “Hali ka, kumain ka dito” (Come here, and eat.) She used to diligently bring some of her cooking for refreshment at Julian’s musical band performances.

A dedicated mother, she still insists on cooking for her family who now restricts her from her culinary ambitions as well as prevents her from driving on her own. Leo also proudly claimed that she had helped her musically talented son, Julian, build his self-made quitars. One thing is certain: she enjoys dancing and singing occasionally to Julian’s band playing. And still loves to offer her home-cooked adobo.

“Ma is here!” Maurese would call out and Julian would quickly leave his band to help extricate their partially stiff-legged mother from the car to join the audience for his band’s performance. Or Julian would drive her along with his musical instruments — among the Oteyza family rituals. She continues to live comfortably by herself in her Arlington County, VA home (with a teenage grandson sleeping in one of her rooms).

Deserving of Twin Honors

When told by phone an account of what she did in that historic time, she nonchalantly replied, “Kanon ba?”(Is that right?)  After all, she is in her 90’s with occasional memory lapses, but later, with some remembering, she girlishly goaded, “Yes, yes, print that!”

So, in addition to being recognized and honored for her clerical role, small but significant for its timeliness in the messaging of the People Power Revolution, an epochal episode of Philippines’ political history, Leo should be further honored as a woman of efficient action.

          It therefore would be most fitting that she be also recognized and honored on this year’s 44th anniversary of International Women’s Day as proclaimed by the United Nations in 1975 and in observation of March as Women’s History Month, as well as in anticipation of the 2020 centennial celebration of Women’s Rights and Suffrage gained in 1920.

Rita M. Gerona-Adkins
Rita M. Gerona-Adkins, a freelance journalist in the U.S., was a staff member of news publications in the Philippines, and later a regional communications officer for the U.S. Bureau of Census. She had also done analytical writing assignments and program development for United Nations/ESCAP (Economic & Social Copmmission for Asia and the Pacific) and other international organizations. Her email address: [email protected]