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The Politics of Ethnicity among Ilokanos in Hawaii

By Belinda A. Aquino

A story is sometimes told in Filipino circles in Hawaii that when the “luna” (overseer) in one of the sugar plantations asked a new worker whether he was Filipino, the latter replied, “No, I’m Ilokano.” [1]  Obviously apocryphal, the “joke” is intended to underscore the primacy of ethnic origins in Hawaii’s large Ilokano population, estimated to constitute at least 80 percent of the entire Filipino population in the state.[2]  The whole Filipino community in turn is currently estimated to be approximately 15 percent of Hawaii’s population of 1.1 million.

This ethnolinguistic group, originating mostly from the Ilocos region in northern Luzon in the Philippines, started to come in great numbers between 1916 and 1946, when the last group of seven thousand sakadas (contract laborers) arrived.  Recruited by the Hawaii Sugar Planters’ Association (HSPA) to work on the plantations in the early decades of the twentieth century when sugar was “king” in Hawaii, the Ilokanos joined other Filipinos like the Visayans, many of whom had arrived earlier, in designated “camps” at the plantation sites on various islands in Hawaii.  Between 1916 and 1928, the four original Ilocos provinces (Ilocos Norte, Ilocos Sur, Abra and La Union), collectively known as “Ilokandia,” and Pangasinan, contributed 62 percent of the total number of 74,009 Filipinos who arrived in Hawaii (Lasker, 1931, 350-55).  This percentage rises to sixty-seven, if the number of Ilokanos coming from other provinces with Ilokano-speaking populations, such as Cagayan, Isabela, Mountain Province, Nueva Ecija, Nueva Vizcaya, Tarlac, and Zambales, is added.   Today the  vast majority of the approximately three thousand Filipinos emigrating to Hawaii every year are still of Ilokano ancestry.  Then as now, Ilokanos are known or “stereotyped” for their hard-work ethic, frugality, simplicity, loyalty, and clannishness.[3]

This paper examines the political dimensions of Ilokano ethnicity in Hawaii, focusing on the period 1986-1989, when the late Ferdinand Marcos, the Ilokano Philippine president-turned dictator, lived in exile in Honolulu.  A word of caution, however, should be mentioned at this point.  The word “Ilokanos” mentioned in the title of this paper does not, of course, refer to all Ilokanos in Hawaii, many of whom were not even supporters of Marcos.  It refers to the subset of “Marcos loyalists” who constituted a relatively small minority in the large Ilokano community, but who were made visible by their vocal and aggressive leaders. Mostly coming from Marcos’s home province of Ilocos Norte and neighboring Ilocos Sur, the loyalists comprised the core of the “Marcos Kami” (“We are for Marcos”) constituency, revolving around Jose “Joe” Lazo, who organized “Friends of Marcos” as soon as the exiled despot settled in Hawaii.  Lazo, a travel agent and radio commentator who originally came from Ilocos Sur, served Marcos with such intense loyalty and fawning devotion that the non-Filipino community and Marcos opponents found either baffling or reprehensible.  Lazo, who frequently served as a self-appointed spokesperson of the exiled leader, began to refer to Hawaii as “Marcos country.”  He and Col. Arturo Aruiza, another loyalist who was Marcos’s chief aide even before the latter was forced into exile, would refer to Marcos as “my President.”  Marcos repeatedly claimed that he was still president of the Philippines, and that US authorities had kidnapped and shipped him off to Hawaii against his will.  To most of Hawaii’s residents, he had simply joined the dubious circle of the “Rascals in Paradise” (Michener and Grove Day 1957).  But to his Ilokano followers and admirers, he was still their “beloved” compatriot and venerable Apo (Ilokano term of respect for “leader” or prominent older person).

The other word of caution is that, just as Ilokanos were not all loyal Marcos followers, not all of the loyalists were Ilokanos.  For instance, Aruiza, the faithful military aide of Marcos, who was on the plane carrying Marcos’s entourage to Hawaii, is from Bicol region in southern Luzon.  Some of the loyalist entertainers, like Bert Nievera, are also non-Ilokanos.

Some Theoretical Perspectives

The behavior and actions of the Marcos loyalists, most of whom were first-generation immigrants in Hawaii, may be more understandable in the context of some of the literature on ethnicity and immigration.  The concept of ethnicity has been used to represent a number of constructions of social reality, which carries a wide range of meanings.  It has been used positively, as in “ethnic pride” or “ethnic consciousness.”  Yet it has also been associated with pejorative or negative images as in “ethnic cleansing,” “ethnic violence,” or even some form of tribalism.  Similarly, it has been used as a catchall term for social phenomena like “ethnic nationalism” or “ethnic resurgence.”  A whole field  of study called “ethnic studies” has also developed since the seventies.  It has also been used to denote a transition process, as in “from immigrants to ethnics” (Portes and Rumbaut, 1990).

In their interesting work on America as a “permanently unfinished” society that has become once more “a new nation of immigrants” since 1980s, Portes and Rumbaut talk about the “politics of the first generation,” which focused on the preoccupation with the old country among the first immigrants in America.  They analyze the experiences of the late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century arrivals, most of whom came from southern or eastern Europe.  During the same period, smaller flows of Asians, including Filipinos, also arrived in the United States by crossing the Pacific.  They were typically of peasant origin from rural areas in their home countries or communities.  Their overriding motivation was basically economic, i.e., to earn enough money to send back home to relatives or buy land in the old country.  They were recruited to meet the labor needs of an expanding U.S. economy.

“Because  most late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century immigrants intended to return, they paid more attention, at least initially, to events in the sending countries than in the United States,” according to Portes and Rumbaut (1990, 104).  The pull of the old homeland was strong and newcomers essentially viewed as “sojourners” in America.  Their ultimate goals tended to hark back to their lands of origin.

Many of the first immigrants came from homelands that were not yet consolidated or independent nation-states.  They had stronger local or regional rather than national identities.  The Sicilians are often cited in the literature as exemplifying a primary regional identity rather than a broader Italian identity. Similarly this could be applied to the Okinawans vis-ả-vis the Japanese and the Ilokanos among Filipinos, in the early Asian immigration periods in Hawaii.  These ethnic distinctions have remained to this day.

In effect, the politics of early immigration in the US was shaped in large measure by conditions and events in the sending countries.  The pioneer immigrants were divided between old loyalties and the new situation, or conditions, which were drastically different, particularly in such areas as language, in the host country, in this case the United States. Their orientation toward the homeland and attachment to old values would not wane even with the passing of several decades in America.  An indicator of this was their refusal or unwillingness to take up American citizenship, compared with contemporary immigrants who were more open to changing their original citizenship.  The “old-timers” were also under the impression that changing their citizenship status would mean losing their land or other assets they were entitled to inherit in their countries of origin.  Thus, in Hawaii, many Ilokanos from the first wave of immigrants would eventually return to the Ilocos, or visit there frequently, during their retirement years.  They would not forsake or forget their Ilokano roots.

Marcos’s Hawaii Ilokano Connection

If Marcos were alive in 1997 he would be eighty years old.  The early Filipino sakadas of Ilokano ancestry came to Hawaii are in the seventy-five to eighty-five age range, the same generation as Marcos.  A medical doctor I met on the island of Maui several years ago recalled knowing and seeing Marcos when he was still a schoolboy in shorts.  Ilocos Norte, particularly Marcos’s hometown of Batac, was the original home of many loyalists in Hawaii.  To this day in the Philippines, they continue to hold vigil over the Marcos corpse, still unburied since his death in 1989, waiting for the Ramos government to give him a hero’s burial. [4]  In his official visit to Hawaii in October 1995, President Fidel Ramos received a resolution from the loyalists requesting a presidential burial for Marcos.

Before his exile to Hawaii in 1986, following the EDSA (Epifanio de los Santos Avenue) “People Power Revolution,” Marcos had been to Hawaii many times.  In 1980, he was guest speaker at the national conference of the American Newspaper Publishers Association (ANPA) in Honolulu.  A bused-in crowd of around four thousand Filipino supporters under the direction of Lazo met Marcos at the airport wearing uniform T-shirts with the marking “President and Mrs. Marcos Aloha.”  They waved miniature American, Hawaiian, and Philippine flags, provided by the Philippine Consulate in Honolulu, along with five thousand lunch boxes.  The consulate was then the watchdog for Marcos in the Filipino community.  The affair was a “public relations” event, typical of the image-building extravaganzas of the Marcos regime.  Flattering his Ilokano brethren in Hawaii, Marcos spoke in both Ilokano and English upon his arrival.  He called them “gagayyem ken kakabsat” (friends and siblings).  As reported in the local media, he appealed to their kindred ethnic ties with him, ending his speech with, “My heart overflows in tempestuous waves to find you all here…I’m not just your brother, I’m your President; your comrade” (Hollis and Matsunaga, 1980, B-2).  The loyalists’ noisy and thunderous response all but drowned out the spirited demonstration of a much-smaller band of antimartial law activists on the street.

In 1982, Marcos stopped by Hawaii again, this time on his way to Cancun, Mexico, for another conference, but again a massive crowd of loyalists put on the usual “song-and dance” show for Marcos and his entourage, waving their flags and wearing their finest Filipino costumes and jewelry.  The free food, T- shirts, books ghostwritten for Marcos, and other souvenirs from the Philippines provided an incentive for even nonloyalists to attend the Marcos-related activities. Many also went out of curiosity, as Marcos was then reported to be suffering from a kidney disease and looking puffy.

Four years later, toward the end of February 1986, Marcos was overthrown in a popular uprising in Manila and transported to Hawaii from Clark Field via Guam, which was chosen by the U.S. as a suitable place of exile for the deposed dictator in view of his large Ilokano following in the state.  One would have thought he would live out his days in exile in relative peace like the other “rascals in paradise.”  Instead, he immediately sprang boisterously into action, reclaiming his lost presidency and insisting that the Philippines would fall to the communists.  The loyalists completely bought his claims and religiously visited him in droves in his two residences of exile.  Frequently, some 100 or so loyalists from the U.S. mainland, mostly California, would visit the Marcoses in Hawaii.

Though fewer in number now that Marcos was no longer in power, the loyalists organized a “welcome parade” for him upon his arrival at Hickam Air Base.  Then they proceeded caravan-style to a beachfront house in Kalanianaole Highway, the first of Marcos’s two residences in exile.  The second would be on a hillside estate on Makiki Heights.  Tim Los Baños, a fourth-generation Filipino-American, wrote about his adulatory welcome for Marcos by the loyalists: “Swarming to him by the hundreds, they bore tribute in the form of cash, gifts, and roasted pigs (lechon).  Their undying loyalty was pledged to this decrepit, swollen-faced tyrant who was responsible for selfishly impoverishing their once-promising country and murdering thousands of their fellow Filipinos” (Los Baños 1988, 2).  Like other younger local-born Filipinos, Los Baños was critical of the Marcos presence in Hawaii.  Interestingly, Los Baños had older relatives who joined the ranks of hard-core loyalists who visited Marcos regularly during his exile in Honolulu.  His aunt was one of the “ladies-in-waiting” at the Marcos households.  His uncle-in-law was part of a security detail called “Bolo Men” for Marcos, even if they did not carry “bolos” (large Filipino knives).  This group was formed when the short-term security arrangement for Marcos with the city authorities expired.  Eventually a security detail from the Hawaii Protection Agency (HPA) was assigned to Marcos, apparently arranged by Gov. George Ariyoshi, a good friend of the Marcoses, who welcomed them with leis upon their arrival at Hickam Air Base.

The Loyalists in Action

The activities of the loyalists in support of Marcos and his entourage during their years of exile may be summarized but not limited to the following:

First, they provided basic necessities like food, clothes, pots and pans, shopping assistance, and even mass services on Sundays by an Ilokano loyalist priest in the Marcos residences.  There were eighty-nine other Filipinos who fled with Marcos from Manila and many of these people were domestics, security guards, drivers, and Marcos’s staff, most of whom settled in with the Marcoses in their houses of exile.  Part of the compound in the two residences was converted into makeshift quarters for the Marcos extended household.  When Imelda Marcos was interviewed by Vanity Fair, she pointed to a walkway between the garage and a one-room guesthouse and said, “Forty-two men sleep in this room,” but was later corrected by a guard who said only 15 were left” (Dunne 1986, 109).  She also gave a tour of the kitchen and adjoining areas and said, “Sixteen women sleep in here .. in shifts.  The nurses and the women in the kitchen and the others.”  Then she told the reporter that “people here [Honolulu] bring us our food.”  Aruiza confirmed this, saying visitors also usually contributed amounts ranging from five to fifty dollars.  The manager of a Filipino restaurant brought food to the Marcos household on Sundays largely for “goodwill purposes, because as you know, I’m in business.”[5]  Someone among the loyalists, usually Lazo, would give assignments to various donors as to which food to bring and on what days.  At the same time, Imelda would be seen in Ala Moana Center shopping extravagantly as usual.

Second, the loyalists would organize parades, rallies, parties, and fiestas, honoring the Marcoses, especially on Marcos’s birthday on 11 September, and his and Imeldas wedding anniversary.  There would be a “big bash” at Neal Blaisdell Auditorium with thousands of supporters bused in to join the celebrations, which were punctuated by the usual free food, T-shirts, and entertainment by loyalist performers like Anthony Castelo (also identified as Castillo), Bert Nievera, and Imelda Papin.  And the highlight of the birthday “bash” would be Imelda’s warbling and Marcos’s joining her in a duet, usually “Pamulinawen,” to the bombastic applause of the predominantly Ilokano crowd.  The logistics for such events would be considerable and the various Ilokano organizations would always meet their quota.  This time the Philippine Consulate, now under Tomas “Buddy” Gomez III, a loyal supporter of the Aquino government, would watch from the sidelines and make a report of what was going on in Hawaii to Manila.  Marcos was under strict orders from the U.S. immigration authorities not to try to flee Hawaii or carry on political activities intended to destabilize the Aquino government.

Third, Lazo and another Ilokano loyalist leader, Francisco Ugale, would solicit resolutions of support for Marcos’s stay in Hawaii from local politicians and community leaders.  A Washington Post Service news dispatch indicated that Ugale “had arranged for Philippine civic organizations from every Hawaiian island to bring resolutions asking Marcos to stay” (Matthews 1986, 4).  Ugale, a businessman, had also been looking for houses for the Marcoses to lease when they arrived in Honolulu. The campaign for Marcos to stay was in response to the various anti-Marcos groups which agitated for the ouster of Marcos from Hawaii.  The latter had argued that he was a potential disruptive force not only in the Filipino community but in Hawaii island politics as well.  The loyalists began to lobby for Marcos with Gov. George Ariyoshi and state legislators of Filipino ancestry.  Honolulu Mayor Frank Fasi, who was supported by many Filipino communities in his various campaigns, did not like Marcos but conceded that he had a significant following in Hawaii that he could not afford to alienate.

Lazo, ever the arch-loyalist and always one to attract attention on the Marcos scene, told the media at one point that even if Marcos was “too frail” or “too absorbed by events in the Philippines to engage in local politics, there are other options like the political talents of Mr. Marcos’s wife Imelda.”  Because she had been former governor of Metro Manila, Lazo continued, “I can see her as governor of Hawaii.”  This elicited gasps of “Saints, preserve us” from other elements in the community.  Every Marcos event would have a “three-ring-circus” atmosphere to it, with Marcos rambling about the harsh conditions of his exile, Imelda alternatively pleading poverty and breaking into song, and Lazo orchestrating the applause and working the crowds to such an emotional frenzy that some would actually weep, stomp their feet, flail their arms, and scream not only Mabuhay or Agbiag (both meaning, “long live”), but also “We love you Ferdinand and Imelda!”  Some of these gatherings would remind anyone of revivalist meetings.  As will be seen later, the Marcos-related activities of Lazo and his cohorts would lead to a grand jury investigation in Hawaii, in which they would be asked to testify.

Fourth, as Marcos remained obsessed with returning to the Philippines, his followers would help him plan his “escape” from Hawaii.  As indicated earlier, both the U.S. authorities and the Aquino government refused permission for Marcos to return to the Philippines.  Marcos even used his mother’s corpse lying unburied for several weeks as a reason for him to be allowed to return to Manila.  Marcos’s mother, Josefa, died in May 1988 in Manila at the age of ninety-five, and her unburied body became a rallying symbol for the loyalist movement.  She died believing her son was still president.  The loyalists in the Philippines waved stickers in the chapel where Marcos’s mother lay in an open coffin reading “Let him come home!”

Jimmy Aguilar, one of the loyalists keeping vigil over the body, told a New York Times reporter that Marcos “has assured us that he will be home, whether by hook or by crook.”  He added that “if he does not return, it is the assessment of the majority that the loyalist movement will collapse” (Mydans, 1988, A-13).

Following the failed takeover of the GMA television station in Quezon City in January 1987 by a group of military officers loyal to Marcos, a “mysterious 707 jet” landed at Honolulu airport, and a “worried Philippine Consul Tomas Gomez sounded the alarm from Honolulu to Manila to Washington that Marcos was about to kiss Hawaii aloha” (Wright 1987, A-1).  A notorious Arab arms dealer with CIA connections, Sarkis Soghanalian, was reportedly seen leaving the jet, even as a frantic Imelda Marcos scampered to buy some $2,000 worth of camouflage military pants, combat boots and other “gifts” as a Waikiki military store.  Marcos was all set to go to the airport, but authorities from the U.S. State Department rushed to his Makiki Heights home and warned him not to try to return to the Philippines ever.  When confronted by the media, both Marcos and Soghanalian denied any escape plan in the “mysterious jet,” but it was obvious that the scheme had been nipped in the bud by Gomez’s careful sleuthing and timely warning. A staunch loyalist from California, a certain Dr. Rolando Atiga, was also questioned in connection with this failed escape of Marcos.  The reported plan was to fly Marcos to Miami and out of the U.S. from there.

Finally, the loyalists acted, wittingly or unwittingly, as “advocates” or “promoters” of Marcos’s plans in exile in the local media.  The would buy full-page advertisements in the newspapers or speak passionately over the radio stations carrying Ilokano programs, styling themselves as “leaders of the American-Filipino community.”  They would write letters to the editor reacting vigorously to editorials of the Honolulu Advertiser and Honolulu Star-Bulletin, which they thought were always biased against Marcos.  Lazo was photographed at one time burning copies of the newspapers.  When the Honolulu Advertiser called Marcos a “corrupt leader who stole billions from the Philippines,” twenty one loyalists purchased a whole-page advertisement to refute the editorial, attributing it to the “fanatics of Madame Aquino in the Batasang Pambansa (National Assembly) in the Philippines.”  They enjoined the newspaper “not to intervene in the internal policies and operation of the Philippine government,” and “not to use its power to prevent the unity of the Filipino people which is out only hope for salvation from communist insurgents and economic collapse” (Sunday Star Bulletin and Honolulu Advertiser 1988, A-18).

It was obvious that the letter was done in consultation with Marcos, who always harped on the “communist threat” in the Philippines.  He predicted that the country would fall to the communists six months after his arrival in Hawaii, and suffer “economic collapse.”  He used as a reason to try to return to Manila his desire to help prevent the takeover of the communists.  He even offered his help in this regard to Aquino.  The advertisement was signed mostly by heads of Ilokano organizations, such as San Nicolaseneos, USA, Inc., Bantay Association of Hawaii, Ilocanos of Hawaii, La Union Circle of Hawaii, Solsona of Hawaii, Sons and Daughters of Candon, and United Laoageneos of Hawaii.  These were the hard-core loyalists who competed for the attention of Marcos and openly supported him on all occasions.  Several travel agencies headed by Ilokanos also signed the advertisement. 

Such an advertisement running for a period of time would cost about $6,000.  Where the money was coming from to finance the activities of the loyalists was never revealed, of course, but it would strain credulity to believe that Marcos had nothing to do with it.  I would always hear stories circulating in the Filipino community that wads of cash  would be seen on the floor in Marcos’s room.  Because of the freeze on his bank accounts, Marcos and his family used mostly cash in their transactions.  Loyalist cronies of Marcos and Imelda, like Fe Roa Gimenez and Gliceria Tantoco, were reportedly funneling cash to the Marcoses in exile.  Tantoco and her husband Bienvenido had purchased the Makiki mansion where Marcos was staying for $717 thousand in 1977.  In subsequent investigations of the Marcos “hidden wealth,” Gliceria Tantoco was described as “a front for Imelda Marcos in the ownership of the New York real estate” (Wright 1986, A-1).

Loyalists have been called fanatic, ignorant, sycophant, irrational, weird, “out to lunch,” suckers, masochists, clowns, and all kinds of names by observers who are unable to comprehend the reasons for their unwavering loyalty to Marcos.  No amount of telling them how much Marcos and his cronies plundered the Philippines, how many Filipinos were murdered, incarcerated, tortured, or simply made to disappear by the Marcos regime, and how he had ruined established democratic institutions in the Philippines, would dissuade them from their undying support for their hero.  There are several ways of looking at this phenomenon.

The most common explanation is the fact of a shared Ilokano ethnicity.  Marcos was the loyalists’ idol, who had not only risen to “the peaks of national power and had remained the longest,” according to Bishop Francisco Claver, but also “one who did well by them, and by himself too, of course” (Claver, 1988, 4).  While he was in power, Marcos poured millions of pesos into the Ilocos region, particularly Ilocos Norte, in terms of roads, bridges, highways, health facilities, markets, and other infrastructure programs.  A sense of economic prosperity in “Ilokandia,” was felt by the people and this was attributed by them to Marcos’s generosity and concern for “what is good for us.”  This kind of thinking that all things emanate from the “great father figure” is a throwback to the feudal politics of the country as a whole.  It does not matter that this “great father” must have stolen the money, diverted government funds, or resorted to all kinds of fraud and chicanery to deliver goods to the people.  It was common knowledge that Marcos was involved in corrupt scandals in the tobacco industry of northern Luzon, for instance.  But his corruption, greed, and cunning were seen as secondary, and even justifiable, by his compatriots because he was “doing good for the people.”  Interestingly, Ilokanos saw Imelda Marcos in a very different light, and regarded her with disdain or with undercurrents of resentment.  There were those who blamed her for “having corrupted Marcos.”[6]  More than just being loyal to their Apo, the Ilokanos were also fiercely protective of him.

Thus according to Claver, an Ilokano-speaking native of Bontoc in the Cordillera, “tribalistic cohesion, a common language and vast sums of money – these, it seems to me, explain to a large extent the still strong loyalty of Ilokanos to the memory of the exiled Apo in Hawaii” (Claver, 1988, 4).

It must be noted that the clannishness factor is also true of the rest of Filipino ethnic groups.  Cebuanos, for instance, generally feel not only a sense of loyalty but also affection for “Serging” (Sergio Osmeña. Jr.), their fellow Cebuano who spent most of his life as a career politician on the national and local scene.  Similarly, Ali Dimaporo, one of the most enduring politicians in the Philippines, commands continuing loyalty, forced or otherwise, from his Muslim constituency in Mindanao.  Shared ethnicity is a standard explanation, but in the case of Marcos, that and money, and “what it has done to the Ilocos,” have to be seen together and understood, according to Claver.

The loyalty dimension was overblown by the media because it was highly visible in the parades and public activities of the loyalists.  On the other hand, the manipulative and exploitative skills of the Marcoses were understated.  This was essentially because it was much harder to prove categorically that Marcos and Imelda were manipulating and exploiting the Ilokanos’ loyalty with usual guile and ability to corrupt people.  The frequent extravaganzas, parties, fiestas, celebrations, and other public demonstrations would not have been possible without the money and resources that the Marcoses had access to even in exile.  The scale and magnitude of these “bashes” were such that they could not have been borne by contributions of the Filipino community, which was generally a poor one.  In short, Marcos was using the Ilokanos’ sympathy and vulnerability for his personal gain, knowing that they would not turn him down as “their president, brother, comrade, and friend.”  He had skillfully misled many of them into believing that the Aquino government was vindictive and that the Philippines would fall to the communists under her leadership.

The point here is that it is easy to fault the loyalists for their unquestioning obedience and blind devotion to Marcos, but the bigger criticism should be leveled at him and Imelda for taking advantage of the Ilokano connection to advance their own agenda in exile.  They had no compunction about exploiting this fundamental ties with a vulnerable constituency.  This reflected Marcos’s ruthless side and arrogance that his followers did not or refused to see.

Bishop Joseph Ferrario, then head of the Catholic diocese in Hawaii, was disturbed by the Marcos situation with the loyalists but did not chastise them.  He said he sympathized with the longtime supporters of Marcos, “who do not want to believe that he was responsible for the mismanagement, fraud and the terror exercised against his own people” (Harpham 1986, A-1).  Ferrario indicated that the Hawaii diocese did not support Marcos’s claims that he was still president of the Philippines.  He was unhappy that Marcos was turning the private masses in his home to public forums to air his claims and grievances against the U.S. and Aquino governments.  His supporters would attend these masses and instead of the usual sermons and homilies, they would be subjected to Marcos’s repeated perorations and harangues.

In this connection, the Catholic priest, Fr. Bernardo Calip, an Ilokano, who held mass for the Marcoses for seven months without church approval, suddenly left Hawaii for an undisclosed assignment in New Jersey.  Calip shared an apartment with two of Marcos’s staff and did not have church authority to say mass for the Marcoses.  “He was in trouble, and getting deeper and deeper with no way out,” Calip’s roommate told the Honolulu Star Bulletin.  “Reluctantly, he left to try and figure out what to do” (Ryan 1989, A-4).

Another Ilokano Catholic Marcos loyalist priest, Fr. Domingo Nebres, was reprimanded by the Hawaii diocese when he compared Marcos to Jesus Christ during the former’s funeral mass in September 1989.  The bishop, the media, and local community thought this was an outrageous comparison.  Such was the depth of the feeling of some of the loyalists for Marcos.

A distinction must be made between the loyalists who were “herded” into demonstrations and celebrations, and the more politically oriented ones like Lazo and his group.  The former were mostly first-generation immigrants who knew Marcos long ago and the good he had done for the Ilocos.  When the stories were going around that the Marcoses were broke, an elderly Ilokano donated his monthly savings of $57 to the “Marcos Fund.”  He must have scraped that from his meager monthly pension.  Something like this was probably a genuine show of concern for a fellow Ilokano in need.  It was a voluntary gesture but it should have been stopped by Marcos if he was really an honorable man.  Yet it was the kind of situation that he relished and cultivated to show that he had the real support of the people.

Most of the loyalists tended to be in this category.  They regarded Marcos not just as a fellow Ilokano, but as someone who was nasirib (“intelligent” or “smart”) and, mistakenly or not, natakneng (“upright”).  They would also make frequent visits to the homeland in the Ilocos and see the improvements that had been made since they left thirty, forty, or fifty years ago.  They would attribute many of these visible improvements to “Apo Marcos.”  Some would resent or reject any references to Marcos’s corruption or thievery when he was in power.

The second type of loyalists tended to be younger, more educated and from a relatively middle-class background in terms of having a steady profession or employment.  In many cases, such as the restaurant and travel agency owners, they had “to play ball” or “dance with the music” on behalf of their occupations.  They were fully aware of the negative reports on Marcos especially after the 1986 EDSA upheaval, but it was in their interest to support the Marcos activities or remain neutral at best.  Some preferred to remain silent.

Lazo was just the opposite because he wanted to give interviews to the media all the time.  He was in a class by himself, who was given to extravagant statements and outbursts, especially with regard to his willingness “to die for Marcos.”

The Counter Argument

It is instructive at this point to look into the “antiloyalist” sentiment, exemplified by Gomez and a segment of the Filipino community which had been active as far back as the martial law period between 1972 and 1986.  Clearly outnumbered by the loyalists, this smaller “antiMarcos” group dealt more with the “issues” regarding the Marcos presence in Hawaii, particularly the damage it would do in terms of further dividing the Filipino community.  They brought these issues to the attention of the media and to public forums in which everyone could participate.  Several community organizations with both Filipino and non-Filipino membership, such as the American Friends Service Committee, and International Longshoremen’s Union, among others, were critical of the Marcos presence and activities in Hawaii. 

Gomez, the Philippine consul-general, was the pointman of the Aquino government in Hawaii during the Marcos years.  As such, his main responsibility was to be a “watchdog” monitoring Marcos’s activities, especially as they related to attempts to create trouble for the Aquino administration.  As cited earlier, Gomez foiled the escape attempt of Marcos in 1987.  He was also responsible for serving subpoenas, summons notices, and other documents to the Marcos household in connection with the various lawsuits that the Philippine government had filed against the fleeing dictator.  Then he had to deal with the loyalists regarding their constant demands to return Marcos to the Philippines and restore the passports of his followers.

Gomez, a Visayan (Samar) businessman, who was a close friend of Benigno Aquino, Jr., was a perfect match for Lazo of the loyalist group.  Equally aggressive, articulate, and sharp witted, Gomez was not intimidated by Marcos and the more numerous loyalists.  He also did not hesitate to use unconventional means to deal with Marcos when the usual methods failed to work.  For instance, when Gomez was refused entry in the Marcos household to deliver a subpoena, he did not quit.  He rolled up the subpoena papers and pitched them over the fence in Marcos’s Makiki house.  I was with him when he did that on 18 June 1988.  In that way, he said, he could report to the Philippine government that the subpoena had been “delivered as required by law.”  Prone to antics, Gomez injected humor in his job, to the consternation of the loyalists.  Interviewed by the media later, Gomez retorted, “I’ve been trying to deliver these things for months, without any success.”  He said he tried everything.  “I go myself, I go to the lawyer.  I’ve even tried process servers.  Nothing works”  (Donnelly 1988, A-1).  The subpoenas required Marcos and Imelda to respond to charges against them, particularly stealing billions of dollars from the Philippines when they were in power.

Gomez had called Manila and his instructions, according to him, were “Try it one more time, and if he [Marcos] gives you the same rigmarole, just toss it over the fence” (ibid).  And that was what he did.  At other times, he would just leave the summonses outside the gate of the Marcos estate.  These kinds of things always attracted media attention, and Gomez and Lazo alternated in giving the media something dramatic to print.

Gomez especially took heat from the loyalists when he refused to lower the Philippine flag at the consulate when Marcos died.  He explained that the memorandum he received from the Department of Foreign Affairs said, “You may lower the flag at half-mast.”  He instead offered the consulate as the public viewing site for Marcos’s body, but the loyalists did not take him up on it.  “Gomez surmised that they did not like the stipulation that the coffin be displayed at the Ninoy Aquino Memorial Hall Annex at the Consulate” (Alegado and Aquino 1989, 5).  That would have been a bitter irony for Marcos.

The main issue raised by Marcos’s critics in Hawaii focused on his political activities in mobilizing his supporters to undermine the Aquino government.  Dean Alegado, a member of the University of Hawaii Ethnic Studies faculty and outspoken Marcos critic, feared that Hawaii could become the “Miami of the Pacific.”  By that he meant an “American beachhead of resistance to the new Philippine government headed by Corazon C. Aquino that could be as distracting as the anti-Castro movement in Florida” (Matthews 1986, 4).  Alegado had been an active member of the Katipunan ng mga Demokratikong Filipino (Union of Democratic Filipinos), one of the major antimartial law organizations in the U.S. during the Marcos regime.  His fears about Marcos’s destabilization campaign against the Aquino government were not without basis.  In time, a grand jury would be issued subpoenas to appear in the hearings.

The Marcos debate subsided a little during his funeral period in September 1989, essentially out of Filipino respect for the dead.  Another debate, however, would follow, this time about the return of his corpse to the Philippines and whether he should be given a state funeral by the Ramos government.  In death as in life, Marcos was surrounded by controversy, but the politics of his burial in the Philippines is outside the scope of this paper.

Loyalists in Trouble

The gaudy displays of loyalty and support for Marcos by the loyalists soon invited trouble for some of them from federal authorities.  In October 1987, several Marcos supporters were issued subpoenas to appear before a federal grand jury, which was investigating the reported plot to return Marcos to power in the Philippines.  As noted earlier, a group of Philippine military officials loyal to Marcos tried to stage a coup in Quezon City, and Marcos was to be spirited away by the “mysterious jet” which had been waiting at the Honolulu international airport.

The grand jury investigation was not only one of several which federal authorities pursued against Marcos, his family and their loyal backers.  Agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) also raided the home of Marcos’s daughter Irene and her husband Gregorio Araneta in Woodside, California, seizing art objects and other assets for possible tax liabilities.  The couple was summoned to the Honolulu hearing as well, along with Lazo, Gemmo Trinidad, another Marcos spokesman, and Dr. Rolando Artiga, the Marcos loyalist in California who headed a chapter of the “Movement for the Restoration of Democracy in the Philippines.” Others subpoenaed were Filipino entertainers Imelda Papin and Bert Nievera; Honolulu businessman Antonio Nazareno; Rexor Ver, son of Gen. Fabian Ver, Marcos’s top aide; Mitos Ablan, relative of Roque Ablan, of Marcos’s closest associates in the Philippines; Col. Jesus Reyes, Imelda’s aide and driver; and Roger Peyuan, a former Philippine Batasan Pambansa (National Assembly) member in whose name Imelda’s limousine in Hawaii was registered.

Lazo denied any involvement in the various plots to return Marcos secretly to the Philippines,  saying he “makes no secret of his campaign to assist Marcos in his return” (Wright 1988, A-1).  A comedy of errors ensued when Lazo was erroneously reported to have been implicated as well in a plot to assassinate President Corazon Aquino in Manila.  It turned out that a “Sgt. Jaime Lazo” was arrested by the police for possible complicity in the plot.  The Hawaii Lazo did not say whether the Manila Lazo was a relative.

The legal cases against the Marcos loyalists are too complicated and detailed to include in this paper.  Basically, they involved existing federal laws prohibiting U.S. citizens or residents to engage in any activity intended to overthrow or destabilize a foreign government friendly to the U.S.  In these cases, Marcos and his associates were being investigated for their activities against the Philippine government under Aquino, a U.S. ally.  While no indictments were actually handed down by the grand jury, many of those investigated had to go through the troublesome and humiliating  process.  Some said they were treated like criminals by the FBI.  The pressure caused some to leave the state voluntarily.  Others were never heard from again.

The more serious cases involved deportation proceedings before the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) of the U.S. Department of  Justice against other Marcos supporters.  Gemmo Trinidad again was targeted, this time for lack of a valid visa.  The others accused were Jose Guillo, a cook in the Marcos household; Jorge Cuarton, driver and security guard; Armando Dolina and Leoni Tan, Marcos’s aides.  Earlier, Dulce Romualdez Gonzales, niece of Imelda Marcos, who paid the five deportable Marcos loyalists mentioned above a monthly wage, returned to the Philippines voluntarily in January 1989, following her meeting with federal agents.  The INS charged the Marcos associates with violating various immigration requirements, like not having valid visas and work permits.  However, at the deportation proceedings, the five potential deportees were asked “about the Marcos’s financial dealings, property ownership, gunrunning, political activities in the Philippines and plans of secretly returning to the Philippines,” according to their lawyer Ronald Oldenburg.  In typical diehard loyalist fashion, Carton said, “He [Marcos] is my president and needs my services,  I will follow him anywhere” (Ryan 1989, B-3).  Reyes received “voluntary departure” status from the INS, similar to the cases of seventy-nine other members of Marcos’s original entourage.  What this meant was, instead of being forcibly deported by INS, they could elect to depart voluntarily to avoid all the problems that usually go with deportation proceedings, including being barred forever from the U.S. if found guilty to violating immigration laws.


In this paper, I have explored the political dynamics of the Ilokano ethnic phenomenon in the relationship between Marcos and the loyalists during the former’s exile in Hawaii for three and a half years in the late eighties.  Based on my reading of the situation as an Ilokano and resident of Hawaii for the past twenty-five years, and as a participant in various activities opposing martial law and Marcos’s presence in Hawaii, I offer the following concluding observations:

First, the loyalist movement in Hawaii was not as massive and pervasive as it was often reported to be in the local media.  The “dyed-in-the-wool” loyalists headed by Lazo were actually a very tiny minority of the Filipino community in Hawaii approximately numbering 150 thousand at the time Marcos was here.  At least 33 percent of that  number were local-born Filipinos who were generally not interested or involved in Philippine politics, or if they were, as in the case of Tim Los Baños, they tended to be on the anti-Marcos side.  Even if there were five thousand people attending a Marcos rally, this would still be a very small number of the remaining population, if we exclude the locals, of some 100 thousand Philippine-Filipinos born in the Philippines or outside of Hawaii.  And it must also be remembered that the five thousand or so supposedly Marcos loyalists were usually hakot (bused-in) crowds egregiously calculated to show massive support for the Marcoses.  It was an artificial situation created by the organizers of the events.  Most of the celebrations were staged rather than spontaneous demonstrations.  They exhibited the pattern of the frequent “New Society” rallies when the Marcoses were still in power, particularly with the use of symbols, high-class entertainers, and an embarrassment of free food, T-shirts, and other items during these occasions.

Second, as already stated, there were many kinds of loyalists and they must not be regarded in the same breath.  The one cited as having donated his savings to the Marcos fund was probably the genuine type of Marcos admirer along with others who remained faceless or silent in the crowds.  They were the first-generation Ilokanos whose politics rested on the values of the original homeland.  They had known only one other Ilokano president – Elpidio Quirino of Vigan, Ilocos Sur – in the late forties and early fifties.  Marcos’s appearance on the scene was another rare occasion for Ilokano pride in a native son.  Both Quirino and Marcos were known to be corrupt in varying degrees, but that seemed to wash out with their Ilokano followers.  Attaining the highest office of the country was reason enough to be proud of them.

The nosy, boisterous, even vulgar loyalists in the “movement,” while being unabashed Marcos admirers themselves, had their own political and personal agenda.  Some of the “loyalist elite” vied for the attention of Marcos and Imelda.  They felt a certain pride and reflected glory in the “hobnobbing” with the Marcoses in private or in public.  They were flattered to be in the company of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos.  But it was not long before reports of in-fighting among their ranks would surface, and some of the loyalists in the inner circle faded from the scene.

Third, there was tendency to lump all loyalists together and call them irrational, misguided, and so on, especially in the context of Marcos’s crimes.  People would ask, how could they still be loyal to Marcos despite his excesses and abuses as a dictator?  From the loyalists’ view, they were simply behaving in a manner expected of them in a cultural situation involving a fellow Ilokano.  No matter how bad he was, they argued, it would be unthinkable to dump a ka-Ilokanuan (fellow Ilokano).  Moreover, a lot of them owed favors to Marcos when he still in power.  Now that he was down and out in Hawaii, the least they could do was to give him due courtesy and respect.

Fourth, what should have been stressed more was Marcos’s amoral ability to exploit his fellow Ilokanos’ weakness for his own ends, and how he used his ethnic of kinship ties with them to do his bidding.  He was the one who knowingly misguided and misled his supporters about his claims to the presidency, the communist threat in the Philippines, the U.S. role in his overthrow and other things.  In the end, he had lost touch with reality and becoming increasingly inarticulate and incoherent.  He was ultimately a failed hero of the loyalists and supporters who had held him in high esteem.  Marcos did not deserve all that loyalty of the Ilokanos.

Finally, what price loyalty?  The most devoted followers and supporters of the Marcos cause overstated their case and overreached their boundaries.  They got in trouble with the law and were subject to a lot of harassment and difficult situations with the U.S. authorities.  Was it worth all the loyalty to this one man?  What did they get out of their unswerving devotion and unquestioning obedience to a leader they refused to see as corrupt and destructive?

The loyalist movement, if there ever was one, is but a shadow now.  With the departure of Marcos from the Hawaii scene, the Filipino community has all but forgotten that episode when his presence cast a dark and disruptive pall on island life.


Alegado, Dean and Belinda A. Aquino. “Ferdinand’s burial: Body politics.” Katipunan, November 1989.

Claver, Francisco F. “Why Ilocos remains loyalist.” Manila Chronicle, 29 October 1988.

Harpham, Anne. “Bishop Ferrario rejects Marcos’ residency claim. Honolulu Advertiser, 2 April 1986, A-1.

Hollis, Robert and Mark Matsunaga.  “Marcos welcomed by 4,000, questions U.S. foreign policy.”  Honolulu Sunday Star Bulletin and Advertiser, 20 April 1980, B-2.

Lasker, Bruno.  Filipino Immigration to the Continental United States and to Hawaii. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1931.

Los Baños, Tim. “The Ilocanos and Marcos in Hawaii.”  University of Hawaii at Manoa. Unpublished research paper, 1988.

Matthews, Jay.  “Filipinos in Hawaii see Marcos as political force.” International Herald Tribune, 8-9 March 1986.

Michener, James A. and A. Grove Day. Rascals in Paradise. New York: Random House, 1957.

Mydans, Seth. “Josefa Marcos unburied, as loyalists wait,” New York Times, 25 May 1988.

Portes, Alejandro and Ruben G. Rumbaut.  Immigrant America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

Ryan, Tim. “Marcoses priest for 7 months goes to mainland,” Honolulu Star Bulletin, 30 January 1989.

________. “Five Marcos aides fight deportation, Honolulu Star Bulletin, 31 March 1989.

Sunday Star Bulletin and Advertiser.  Paid advertisement, 13 March 1988.

Wright, Walter. “Marcos seeks ‘peace and quiet’ at Mansion in Makiki Heights,” Honolulu Advertiser, 4 Seeptember 1986, A-1.

____________“Marcos and the mystery plane – rumors are flying, he isn’t. Honolulu Advertiser, 29 January 1987.

End Notes

[1] I am using the more recent spelling of “Ilokano” used in Hawaii, although the traditional spelling of “Ilocano” is still being used.  Both are correct.  However, I will use “Ilocos” instead of “Ilokos” in referring to the region or province, as in “Ilocos Norte” or “Ilocos Sur,” which is the original spelling.

[2]Census figures on national origins in Hawaii do not provide statistics on subnational or regional groups, e.g., Okinawans among Japanese, Hakka among Chinese, Ilokanos among Filipinos, etc.  References or studies on Filipinos in Hawaii, however, frequently mention a range of 80 to 85 percent as the Ilokano component.  See Benjamin V. Cariño 1981, and East-West Center Population Institute and Operation Manong 1985.

[3]For a very good account of the early migration of Ilokanos to Hawaii as plantation workers, see Ruben R. Alcantara 1981.

[4]I saw the Marcos body in a glass casket in a visit to Batac, Ilocos Norte in July 1992.  It looked too young and too healthy to be the man who died weighing only seventy pounds in Honolulu in September 1989.  It has been speculated that the body on display is only a likeness made of fiberglass or similar material, and that the actual corpse, in an advanced state of deterioration after having been embalmed in Honolulu for three years, had been buried.

[5]Interview with Jean Luamauag, owner of Mabuhay Restaurant in Honolulu, 12 September 1986.

[6]Interview with the president of an Ilokano organization who refused to be identified, 20 August 1987, Honolulu.  I indicated that the opposite could have occurred, i.e., Marcos corrupted Imelda because he was a very experienced politician after all.  The interviewee stood pat, notwithstanding, and hesitated to blame Marcos who led a simple-style, “he ate ‘saluyot,’ ‘rabong,’ and ‘dinengdeng’ (references to vegetable dishes constituting the typical Ilokano diet) all the time”; unlike Imelda who was extravagant, lavish, and looked down on Ilokanos. 

Belinda A. Aquino is Emeritus Professor of Political Science and Asian Studies and the past director of the Center for Philippine Studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. She holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from Cornell University. This article originally appeared in Charles J-H. Macdonald and Guillermo M. Pesigan (eds.), Old ties and New Solidarities: Studies on Philippine Communities. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2000, pp. 100-116. Reprinted with permission from the editor.

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