As a feminist and former martial law activist, DSWD Secretary Judy Taguiwalo has earned a reputation for being driven, upright, and no nonsense. As she reveals in her first lifestyle interview, the 67-year-old former academic can also be ebullient, warm, and chatty like everyone’s favorite aunt.
She has had a long day, which isn’t unusual, really, if you’re on top of a mammoth government agency with more than 27,000 personnel stationed in almost every key town and city in this developing, disaster-prone island nation, so Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) Secretary Judy Taguiwalo might not be in the mood to answer “personal questions.”
At least, that was what one of her staffers warned us about, as we waited for the 67-year-old retired Social Work and Community Development professor from the University of the Philippines-Diliman to arrive. Although she was aware of the interview beforehand, it reportedly slipped her mind, as she had to attend one meeting after another, including one at Camp Aguinaldo. It was almost 5 p.m. when she got back to DSWD’s main offices in Diliman, Quezon City, and Taguiwalo had yet to review and sign wads of documents waiting for her on her desk.
In other words, we were forewarned, albeit indirectly, that Taguiwalo, a former academic, feminist, anti-Marcos activist, and single mother (her marriage was annulled years ago), could appear stern and even impassive during her first ever interview and photoshoot with a lifestyle team. We were steeling ourselves for the worse and thinking of ways to make her loosen up should she prove tepid in her responses.
She’s earned it
After all, this is a woman who was imprisoned twice and tortured during martial law for standing up to the dictator. Although she’s identified with the left, this Bachelor of Science in Social Work graduate from University of the Philippines (UP) didn’t go underground, choosing to spend most of her adult life, post-martial law, earning a post-graduate degree in Public Administration in Canada and a doctorate degree in UP, doing social work, advancing women’s rights, and teaching.
It has become perfectly understandable for this driven, independent, outspoken, and well-educated woman to brook no nonsense. Taguiwalo, who still insists to this dayon not hiring a kasambahay to at least cook for her and help her iron her clothes, has earned it.
“Dati naman ’di ako nagpaplantsa ng damit because when you’re in UP, you’re not expected to dress up like I have to now,” she said much later. “Wala kaming kasambahay. Kasi mahirap naman na may kasambahay ka tapos women’s rights advocate ka, di ba?”
Lawyer Alnie Foja, one of Taguiwalo’s longtime friends and legal counsel at DSWD, attests to the secretary’s independent streak and multitasking nature. She drove her home one night recently, and was amazed with what she saw.
“As soon as she got off the car, she saw that the front of her house was dirty,” said Foja. “Wala nang palipaliwanag. She got a walis-tingting and started sweeping. She still does the same things even before she became secretary. When she gets home, she takes out the trash. If there’s no food in the kitchen, she buys cooked food.”
When then President-elect Rodrigo Duterte told leaders of the communist National Democratic Front that he wanted them to join his cabinet, they declined because they had no intentions of resurfacing after decades of working underground. Instead, they gave Duterte a list of unsullied names that have proven themselves in the service of the people. Of these prominent names from the left, Taguiwalo, Liza Maza, and Rafael Mariano responded to the chief executive’s invitation.
“She was also executive director of UP’s Center for Women’s Studies,” said Foja. “That’s what’s good about her because you need some administrative and organizational skills to run a department. You won’t be able to go far with just smarts and vision alone. You also need to know how to run an organization.”
As Taguiwalo would also share with us much later into our interview, she had high grades in organizational behavior while finishing her post-graduate degree at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. Of course, nothing could prepare anyone, including her, to run an organization like DSWD with an annual budget that’s close to P130 million, apart from the P1 billion the current administration provided it for the sole purpose of funding prescription medicines for needy Filipinos.
Like many things in this life, our fears proved to be unfounded. Wearing a printed, black-and-white Diane Von Furstenberg-inspired dress under a nondescript black Uniqlo blazer, which she later revealed to us was a gift from a friend, Taguiwalo turned out to be as ebullient and as chatty as everyone’s favorite aunt. Briefed most probably by her staff, she even knew this journalist’s name.
“Alex, ano ba ito,” she asked. “I knew about this, but I completely forgot about it because of the many things I had to attend to. Can we be quick about it? Ang dami ko pang pipirmahan.”
It was more of a request than a command delivered in her soft, almost singsong Ilonggo lilt. When she learned that a team of makeup artists was waiting for her in another room, she begged off, insisting that she had already powdered her nose and put on lipstick. The thought that the two women might not get paid had she insisted on declining their offer made Taguiwalo change her mind.
Of course, no such thing would happen, as the two freelancers own their time. We simply kept quiet, as she allowed them to retouch her face and do her eyebrows. But that was about it. They had to later put palettes of unused eye shadow and false eyelashes back to their cases because Taguiwalo refused to wear them.
She derives strength, she said, from helping people in dire need of government assistance. These days, Taguiwalo has no qualms riding airplanes and helicopters at a moment’s notice.
She even had to cut short spending Christmas Day with her elderly mother and balikbayan sisters (younger brother Mario Taguiwalo, former undersecretary of health, passed away in 2012) when typhoon Nina made an unwelcome appearance in the Bicol region last December 25.
What she still has to get used to is dressing the part of a supposedly respectable DSWD secretary. She doesn’t care if she’s in the minority, but this is one seemingly unusual woman who doesn’t enjoy dressing up.
“You might think that she’s old,” said Foja, “but when she goes to the provinces or visits a disaster area, she could outpace and outlast many of her younger staff. Kami pagod na, siya sige pa rin.”
And she’s also very sharp and intelligent. Ina Silverio, her media director, noticed this the first few times she brought press releases and other written materials for her approval. Taguiwalo just looked at them briefly before handing them back to Silverio while pointing out areas that needed to be corrected or improved on. She also wields considerable influence on her much younger staff, which she credits for their hard work and dedication as well as for providing her with fresh ideas, including unsolicited fashion advice.
An uncomplicated life
Taguiwalo looks back with a bit of nostalgia at how uncomplicated her life and wardrobe were while in UP. All she needed were a few Filipiniana pieces, including a stylized barong, during special occasions. Alas, her fallback barong no longer fits her.
Because of the office she represents, she acknowledges the fact that she needs to dress the part during official functions. And it’s driving her crazy. She recently had a “Gabriela Silang-style” kimona made, which she tries to make the most out of by modifying and incorporating it either with a tapis or a patadyong.
“Before I could even make it to the door of my office, my staff would start dissecting my look. Diyos ko! Ano ba ito,” she said with mock exasperation. “Manay, yung buhok mo. Manay, yung makeup mo. Manay, yung sapatos mo, ’di bagay. ’Yung tapis mo mukhang tuwalya.”
She doesn’t take offense, of course, because they’re all well meaning. But to save them and herself all the trouble, she is seriously thinking of aping Bangladeshi Prime Minster Sheik Hasina’s signature look—a non-descript black outfit, which she spices up with a brightly colored shawl. She met the prime minister sometime ago.
“By adopting such a look, the prime minister explained to me that she doesn’t have to worry every morning about what to wear,” said Taguiwalo. “She only needs to grab a shawl from her collection. I’m almost tempted to follow her lead.”
Taguiwalo brought with her close to 10 people to the department to assist her, act as a buffer, and even reign her in
“kapag pagod na ako at kung ano-ano na ang sinasabi ko.” That’s an unwritten cue for her staff to take over and attend to an endless stream of people requiring government assistance.
She’s profuse in giving credit to everyone in the department, including the many temps DSWD employs. She is also mindful of the fact that it’s team effort more than the strength of her personality and sterling reputation that ultimately gets things done.
“She’s quite strong for her age, sharp, and very committed,” said Silverio.
“When she was nominated by the NDF to be DSWD secretary, she called and asked me to be part of her team. I’ve known her and respected her for quite some time. This is Judy Taguiwalo calling me. I didn’t think twice. I left my job as a marketing specialist in the private sector to join her.”
Foja also attests to Taguiwalo’s “simplicity” and aversion to calling attention to herself. As much as possible, she does away with a security detail and can be seen lining up either at McDonald’s or Jollibee’s to buy a combo meal for her government-issued driver.
She could be “game,” too. During a friend’s birthday party, Taguiwalo was prevailed upon to sing. She gamely took the mic and belted Dan Hill’s Sometimes When We Touch. Foja and all their common friends kept looking at each other, wondering in their heads who the person Taguiwalo was dedicating the song to.
“Recently, we held a surprise party for her here at the office during her 67th birthday,” said Foja. “One of the singers asked the secretary if she had any request. Again, she requested him to sing that song. When the singer asked her if the song held any special meaning for her, she simply said that it fit the range of her voice.”
Six months into her retirement from UP, Taguiwalo responded to Duterte’s call almost 10 months ago and was back in the daily grind, working 10 to 12 hours a day. She still lives in the small apartment she shares with her daughter June inside UP. Save for a cleaning lady, who goes to their house on certain days of the week, mother and daughter still do the housework.
“I even bought a new kabayo (ironing board),” she declared proudly. “I’m an early riser. This morning, for instance, I even had time to cook rice and iron my clothes. For breakfast, I made do with rice, bottled sardines, mango, and coffee. Okay na ako.”
But never underestimate this Bacolod native in the kitchen. She definitely knows her way around it, thanks to her 98-year-old mother who used to cook. One of Taguiwalo’s specialties is kansi, the Ilonggo version of bulalo and sinigang rolled into one consisting of cow’s knees and pieces of unripe jackfruit soured by batuan seeds. Soon after her retirement from UP, she visited her sisters in the US, and all they did was cook Filipino food, including kansi using Knorr sampaloc mix as a souring agent in lieu of batuan.
“But don’t come to my house right now,” she said with almost childlike glee. “Magulo! It’s so small. All my books are all over the place.”
Among the few activities she misses the most after being plucked by Duterte from retirement are movie-watching and going to beach with friends. She also enjoys reading fiction and biographies, which she tries to squeeze in before turning in. She just finished reading the biography of the late Katharine Graham, legendary owner of Washington Post and Newsweek. Just the other night, thanks to an appointment that got cancelled, she was able to watch Kong Skull Island.
“It’s an escapist movie, which I immensely enjoyed because it tried in a way to contextualize the Vietnam War before all those special effects and fight scenes between the monsters,” she said.
But what she really loves to watch are Filipino films, particularly socially relevant ones directed by the likes of Joel Lamangan. Taguiwalo admires the fact that Lamangan was also imprisoned during martial law.
“He also underwent discrimination because of his sexuality,” said Taguiwalo. “His father used to beat him up when he was young because he was gay. I’m just so happy now that we’re more open [about homosexuality and same-sex partners] because everyone has a right to be happy.”
She acknowledges that she misses doing a lot of things, including staying a bit longer with her Bacolod-based mother, who, to this day, remembers “all my utang to her,” including the ring she gifted her daughter with after her graduation in Canada. But she’s not a ring person, she said. Apart from wearing a watch and pair of South Sea pearl earrings her mother also gave her, Taguiwalo fights shy of jewelry.
“I miss doing a lot of things,” she said. “But I’m also experiencing new things. Going to places I’ve never been before in the course of my work like Tuguegarao and Tabok, Kalinga, for example, on a helicopter. In lieu of the joys of retirement, there are new experiences that come with being part of DSWD.”
Despite their strong personalities, she and President Duterte get along quite well, she said. She can’t recall openly disagreeing with him, apart from the fact that she publicly opposed the late President Ferdinand Marcos’ burial at the Libingan ng mga Bayani. What they occasionally have, she said, are “debates.”
One such debate involved the amount of Christmas bonus and 13-month pay to be given to thousands of DSWD’s temporary employees last December. Prior to Taguiwalo’s appointment, these employees hardly got anything during the holidays. She was asking the president for each employee to receive at least P10,000. Duterte did the math and found the total price tag of such generosity beyond the government’s current budget. His counter offer was P2,000 per employee.
“I said, sir, why don’t you give each of them at least P5,000,” said Taguiwalo. “Hindi daw talaga pwede. I would have really wanted more for them. Despite the reduced amount, it was a welcome development because it marked the first time government recognized these people.”
On Marcos’ burial
With regards to Marcos’ burial, which Duterte sanctioned in keeping with his campaign promise, Taguiwalo felt bad about it not just for herself, but also for many of her contemporaries who died fighting the dictatorship.
“He knows that I have been against it from the very beginning, but he still appointed me,” she said. “He knows where I’m coming from. But was that enough for me to resign from government? No. Why? Because staying on means I still can serve. There are plenty of things that need to be done.”
Many view it as a compromise, but Taguiwalo sees it differently:
“It’s not a compromise for me because I stated my disagreement with him even before it happened. A compromise would be if I said I agreed with him and it was fine with me. It’s more of a compromise for him because he appointed and retained me.”
When she met Duterte during a “shadow cabinet meeting” in Davao prior to his inauguration as president, Taguiwalo remembers what he said to them:
“He wants his cabinet members to lead a simple lifestyle. He doesn’t want us to be ostentatious. He reminded us to act like public servants and not as overlords of the people. I really like that. I really liked what he said.”
Taguiwalo’s appointment has yet to pass the powerful Commission on Appointments for the simple reason that she has yet to be called by its members. If ever she gets bypassed, the president can still re-appoint her. But she won’t lose sleep over the prospect of an outright or unanimous rejection.
“All the perks of the position don’t go to my head,” she said. “In the first place, the president doesn’t want them as well. Secondly, everything is temporary. What I would really miss isn’t even the access. It’s having an official car and driver assigned to me. Of course, I could always drive myself once I leave government service. But at my age, I can’t imagine myself having to brave the traffic these days driving my old car with manual transmission.”
She then gently brushed us off, pointing to the stacks of paper that separate us, even before we could begin asking her questions about her daughter and her life as a single woman. For Taguiwalo, everything about her life is for public consumption except for a few morsels of fact and precious moments spent with loved ones that transpire within the confines of her tiny apartment.