Romeo Marquez gets haircut. “The Rizal statue is a very graphic symbolism. The penchant for something grand, something to remember you by, something to show off.'
  • Romeo Marquez gets haircut. “The Rizal statue is a very graphic symbolism. The penchant for something grand, something to remember you by, something to show off.'
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“The whole world can be reduced to the beauty pageant,” Romeo says.

We are in National City, at the Point-Point Joint, a Philippine restaurant with a large African-American and Hispanic following. The Point-Point Joint got its name because its non-Filipino customers didn’t know the names of dishes, so they pointed to what they wanted.

"Unity is not the Filipino way. We speak in many voices. It is hard to get two people to agree on anything.”

"Unity is not the Filipino way. We speak in many voices. It is hard to get two people to agree on anything.”

I’ve come here to meet Romeo Marquez so that he can give me a quick tour of the Philippine community in San Diego, especially in National City.

That’s how he got on the subject of the beauty pageant. Romeo believes that it is almost an obsession with his community. But he is not Bert Parks, cheerleading the contestants through their beauty routines.

“Filipinos may be summed up by the beauty pageant.”

“Filipinos may be summed up by the beauty pageant.”

Part writer, part editor, part publisher, Romeo Marquez is the journalistic force behind Diario Veritas, the English-language, Philippine-community newspaper. At least through November 2000, the paper has come out monthly with a circulation of 5000 to 10,000 readers.

Romeo, a tall, middle-aged man with a graying ponytail, wears khakis, a long-sleeved sport shirt, and loafers. His eyeglasses are rimless, but that has more to do with practicality than style, he says, just as the ponytail is less fashion statement than political one. He grew the ponytail in June 1998, the same time he started Diario Veritas.

“That was a political statement I made, a kind of protest,” he says, referring to the ponytail. “I wanted to show that I did not conform to the set standards of the Philippine community. Incredibly, the ponytail attracted more attention than I wanted it to. Every time people asked me about it, I told them it was my way of showing my nonconformity with the way our community leaders and newspapers were doing things.”

The Point-Point Joint is filled with customers pointing to various dishes. One African-American customer points to the adobo, a chicken-and-pork dish cooked in soy sauce, vinegar, ground pepper, and lots of garlic. A Spanish-speaking customer points to the pancit, the popular noodle dish.

But before my attention goes to the food, Romeo reminds me of the tour he wants to give of National City.

We leave the restaurant and hop into his beat-up 1986 Nissan Sentra.

When I ask him to elaborate on the beauty pageants, he says, “Before I tell you about the beauty pageants, I’m going to take you to a fish market where it all began for me.”

As we drive away, I realize that Romeo is referring to his newspaper’s beginnings.

Three years ago Romeo Marquez stopped being the editor in chief of Philippine Mabuhay News and started Diario Veritas. Veritas means the truth in Latin. But Romeo started his newspaper in order to provide the Philippine community with the facts. He had a journalistic belief that the facts would lead to the truth.

“Nobody was telling the truth,” he says.

The Philippine community in San Diego is an old one. Its origins go back to the Filipino wives of American sailors coming back to the States from World War II. Today it is more than 200,000 strong, an ethnic group second only to the Mexican community in its size.

“I wanted to publish a newspaper that presented something more than photographs from yet another beauty pageant,” he says. “But I really started the paper because of the Philippines centennial events, including the unveiling of a statue of José Rizal, the national hero.”

José Rizal was a physician, novelist, and linguist. He was executed by Spanish firing squad in Manila on December 30, 1896. His execution triggered the Philippine revolution that led to the declaration of independence on June 12, 1898. The Spanish, who had ruled the Philippines for 300 years, executed Rizal because they suspected him of being behind a plot to topple them.

Rizal had been preparing to move to Cuba, though, as a volunteer doctor. He didn’t have anything to do with the revolution. Yet it was his execution that triggered the revolutionary events two years later.

Romeo Marquez laughs.

“Sometimes it seems like the entire world — at least the world as it is known in National City — can be reduced to the beauty pageant. I wanted to introduce a serious issue into the common dialogue that Filipinos engaged in.”

We have been driving around National City. Now Romeo Marquez pulls his beat-up car into a parking space in front of the Family Loompya market.

I look at the sign for the market and try to connect it with what Romeo Marquez has been talking about.

Finally I ask, “What does this have to do with José Rizal, beauty pageants, and the truth?”

He looks at me with pity because I am not seeing a set of connections that are so obvious to him.

“Money,” he says.

We enter the Family Loompya market, and my nose fills with aromas of the sea and the earth. The fish and meat and vegetables remind me of some place far from San Diego. The aisles, even though it is a morning in the middle of the week, are filled with customers, many of whom seem to know each other and shout greetings to their friends.

Some nod hello to Romeo Marquez. Others seem to scoot past him quickly. He says hello and moves on.

“When the Americans took over the Philippines from Spain after the Battle of Manila Bay, José Rizal was chosen as the best person to be a national hero and symbol for the Philippine struggle,” Romeo says as he picks up a melon, looks at it, then puts it down. “Rizal was chosen because he was a pacifist. A more likely candidate for historical sainthood was Andres Bonifacio, the leader who instigated the revolt in the first place. But Bonifacio did not fit the American ideal of a national hero. He came from Manila shantytown masses, and he favored armed struggle.”

A grandmother picks up a bunch of bananas, examining them for their quality. Philippine dialects are spoken in all directions. Romeo looks at the pechay next to the other greens, the cabbages and the lettuce. He nods that the quality is good.

In the world of Romeo Marquez, though, everything is ripe with a narrative.

Take the Family Loompya.

“ ‘Loompya’ is a play on words taken from lumpia, which is the equivalent of spring rolls,” he says.

As he speaks, Romeo Marquez has the manner more of a good schoolteacher than of a renegade publisher.

“Lumpia,” he says, “is one of the favorite dishes of the Philippines, just like pancit, the noodle dish you saw at the Point-Point Joint.”

Romeo now moves purposefully amid the fruits and vegetables, nodding hello to some people as they shop, avoiding others. Some wave hello. Others scowl and turn away. Might all this coming together or avoidance have something to do with José Rizal? I wonder.

Outside the Family Loompya market, I ask Romeo about these encounters.

“If you go to the other Asian communities,” he says, “they tend to speak with a unified voice. But unity is not the Filipino way. We speak in many voices. It is hard to get two people to agree on anything.”

We get in the car and drive away into the combustion of National City.

“Everyone has their own opinion,” Romeo says. “Plus, everyone wants to run the show.”

The Philippine community, he tells me, does not have a unified voice.

“Everyone wants to project him- or herself as a leader,” he goes on, expanding his observation. “Our American colonizers were very successful in implanting the divide-and-conquer strategy when they occupied the Philippines from 1898 until very recently. That tact still haunts us. Take San Diego. There are more than 200 Filipino organizations, and a large portion of those are spin-offs of bigger organizations. One organization gives birth to another and another because of personal differences, jealousy, envy, and crab mentality.”

At a traffic light I notice a sign that reads “School of Beauty.” Perhaps Romeo noticed it too.

“Filipinos may be summed up by the beauty pageant,” he declares.

Marquez explains that he’s talking about pageants that are not just for young women in bathing suits with a modicum of musical talent.

“I am talking about middle-aged beauty queens,” he says. “About old women who are beauty queens. Everywhere you look in San Diego, Filipinos are holding beauty pageants, and behind those pageants are the real politics of this community.”

“One does not need an education in beauty to become a Philippine beauty queen,” he says.

Then he continues: “You need money.”

“Money?” I ask.

“Lots of money,” Romeo answers.

“What about good looks and musical talent?”

“Every Filipino has musical talent,” he says, “so musical talent is not going to cut it. Let’s face it, there are some beautiful Philippine women. So beauty is not the answer either. No, money is what makes the difference.”

“And what does this have to do with José Rizal?” I ask rather naïvely.

Once again, Romeo gives me a look of pity, feeling sorry for my inability to make the connections with these people and events.

“Money,” he says.

Romeo Marquez came to San Diego by way of Manila in 1993. In short order, he became the editor in chief of a leading Philippine newspaper. He had had a long newspaper career in Manila, first as a stringer for the Japanese newspaper syndicate Asahi Shimbun, then as the Manila correspondent for Deutsche Presse-Agentur in Hamburg. His tenure with the German press agency began in 1983 and lasted until he moved to the United States.

Working in the newspaper business during this volatile period in Philippine history was an education in blood. Benigno Aquino, an opposition senator, had been assassinated upon returning to the country. No one knew it at the time, but this would be the beginning of the end for the longtime dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, and his extravagant wife Imelda.

Romeo Marquez’s stories for the German press agency began to be translated from English into German as well as Spanish and Arabic, among other languages. He became one of the key witnesses for the outside world of what was happening inside the Philippines.

When he came to San Diego, his newspaper experience allowed him to fit in immediately, and in no time he had become editor in chief of one of the leading newspapers in the community, the Philippine Mabuhay News.

“Filipinos are the second-largest ethnic group in San Diego,” he tells me.

“After the Mexicans,” he goes on, “we are it, 200,000 strong.”

The Philippine community is everywhere in San Diego, though the largest portion of it is probably in National City. Mira Mesa, Bonita, and Chula Vista have large Filipino populations too.

“But the more eastward you go in San Diego,” Romeo observes, “the more ethnic it seems to become.”

Not coincidentally, we are driving toward the east.

“What makes San Diego’s Filipino community so interesting are all the associations,” Romeo declares, weaving in and out of traffic. “These associations are really extensions of the typical Filipino family. That’s why you will see whole clans belonging to one association.”

But what does all of this have to do with José Rizal, the national hero whose statue was unveiled in San Diego three years ago?

“The root of these organizations is fellowship,” he says. “But over the years, these organizations have acquired new meaning. They have become political springboards to public office or to influence personal agendas in a public way.”

He tries to explain.

“What better way to capture the public’s attention than to present a beauty pageant?” he asks. “Or to unveil the statue of a national hero in a very public space?”

Without pausing, Romeo Marquez elaborates.

“San Diego is a Navy town,” he says, shaking his head, so that his ponytail does not blow in his face. “In the last 50 years, the community has evolved from what was basically a neighborhood association of Navy wives into something much bigger. Now it has structure, a set of officers, and a defined purpose. People came together because of a common culture, sharing food and music and their lives. But assimilation and acculturation take a long time and, in many cases, never take place at all.”

For years, he says, no newspaper cared about what was really going on in the community. One scandal after another unfolded, and the only way to learn about them was word of mouth, because the newspapers were not interested.

“People talked in whispers,” he says. “One true story took the form of a rumor peddled from one misinformed mouth to another.

“The so-called meat of Filipino newspapers,” Romeo continues, “are pictures of the same people in various poses.”

Romeo mimics these “candid” shots.

Here are his three favorites:

“One is when the head is being crowned,” says Romeo. “Two is when the right arm is raised as in taking an oath. The third is when everyone is applauding and the mouth is wide open in glee.”

The publisher-editor of Diario Veritas tells me that Filipino newspapers excel in coverage of the first type of photograph. He goes on to explain that most organizations have beauty pageants and therefore — beauty queens. Then these “queens” compete with other “queens” for still more beauty honors. The ultimate winners symbolize not only the greatest beauties from the community but the best “brains.”

“Until now,” Romeo declares dryly, “these beauties have been far from brains.”

Romeo had noticed that the Philippine newspapers in San Diego mostly rehashed stories that originated from Manila. He wanted a newspaper that represented the community right here in San Diego.

“I believe,” he says, “the reason for this is a lack of honest-to-goodness journalists who see newspapering as a vehicle to educate and enlighten the community on the issues directly affecting them. Many newspapers have ‘publishers’ and ‘editors’ and ‘writers’ who don’t know the newspaper business and don’t know how to edit or write.”

But this is not just a tale of Romeo Marquez tooting his own horn. He has disagreements with the Filipino media, but there are exceptions, even there.

“If editorial content, layout, design, style, knowledge, and understanding of journalism were the gauge,” Romeo puts in, “I would say my [meaning Diario Veritas’] chief competitor would be the Filipino Press. That newspaper is edited by Ernie Flores, who is a fine writer too.”

But, of course, Romeo, being a true Filipino as well as a journalist, has his disagreements with his colleague. That is why he prefers his own newspaper, Diario Veritas, to any others. His competition includes weeklies like the California Examiner and the Asian Journal, as well as biweeklies such as the Filipino Press and the Philippine Mabuhay News, of which he used to be editor in chief.

I’m beginning to see that food and newspapers have something to do with the story about José Rizal’s statue. At least, all of these disparate things seem to be coming together. Or maybe I am simply hungry. Perhaps it is time to eat.

Conching’s Cafe is on Eighth Street in the heart of National City. It is a noisy, lively restaurant. We enter and immediately get in line to select our food, cafeteria-style. Romeo orders for me.

“Give my friend some pinakbet and adobo,” he says, pointing to a steam table filled with vegetables and the pork-and-chicken dish I saw earlier in the Point-Point Joint.

Everything is self-serve, and we sit down at an oilcloth-covered table that has just been cleared and wiped off.

We must be in Romeo’s territory because everyone comes over to say hello and no one seems to be avoiding him.

A group of elderly women at the next table bubble over with their enthusiasm. They are wearing incredibly colorful — okay, gaudy — nylon bowling-style jackets.

One of them has a large trophy in her hand and is now passing it around for her friends to see.

“Does this have to do with a beauty pageant?” I ask him.

He smiles. No, it does not, he says. Most things in National City have to do with beauty pageants, but not everything.

“They are coming from a Lion’s Club meeting,” he informs me.

Romeo nods hello to the elderly women, and they recognize and say hello back to him.

It is hard to hear each other in the restaurant, as every table has filled up. Everyone is noisy and hungry. It is just before noon. Luckily we have beaten the rush, and as we leave the restaurant, Romeo shakes hands and waves good-bye to people, almost as if he were running for office.

“Now I am going to take you to the place that is the reason why I started my own newspaper,” he says.

A short drive from the restaurant where we ate lunch, we pull into another mall. He parks the car in front of a large seafood store called Seafood City. We get out and Romeo saunters over to a statue.

“The center of the Philippine community,” he says.

But I can tell by the scowl on his face and the sarcastic way he makes the remark that he doesn’t mean it.

There is a pedestal topped off by a life-sized bust of José Rizal, the national hero of the Philippines. This public art is not monumental. In fact, it is quite modest. If it were not plunked down in the center of a path leading into Seafood City, one might overlook the statue of José Rizal entirely.

“What do you think?” he asks.

Frankly, I am disappointed. All this buildup, I think, for what? A measly bust of José Rizal in front of a fish market. But Romeo Marquez seems to read my mind.

“It is nothing much,” he says.

“Yes,” I agree, uncertain as to what he might think of my response.

Near the statue of José Rizal, a family is picnicking. Romeo Marquez mutters under his breath. He says, “Imagine the statue of a national hero erected in front of a seafood market!” The editor-writer-publisher of Diario Veritas is hot under the collar because José Rizal was a renowned person, and Marquez feels his statue needs to be located in a more culturally significant place than a shopping center’s seafood store.

Some Filipinos — including Romeo Marquez — see the Battle of Manila Bay as a mock battle staged by George Dewey, the American admiral. They also see the choice of the pacifist José Rizal as a national hero as sinister too. If the Americans were to colonize the Philippines, they needed this pacifist leader to become the symbol. From 1898 until July 4, 1946, the United States asserted its influence on these islands, then after World War II, they granted the country a qualified independence.

Romeo Marquez tells me that the Americans completely ignored the Philippines’ declaration of independence on June 12 and instead gave it an independence to coincide with the American one in July.

As we stand in front of the small bust of José Rizal, I ask myself what this statue and location have to do with a national hero. Romeo Marquez is a good media person because that is exactly the question he wants me to ask myself. We have been roaming, seemingly in an aimless way, from restaurants to markets, discussing history and newspapers, and now it is beginning to connect for me.

“What does this have to do with a national hero?” I ask.

“That’s my point,” Romeo says. “It has nothing to do with anything other than selling fish.”

He points to the dedication on the monument. Many newspapers and their publishers are thanked. But not Diario Veritas and Romeo Marquez.

“What did I do wrong?” he asks. “I was simply trying to awaken people to what was going on.”

Romeo points to the picnickers.

“Is this any way to honor a national hero?” he asks. “People picnicking in front of a grocery store, a market.”

He walks away from the statue and says that it doesn’t look good for the image of the Philippine people.

“How can you honor a national hero in front of a fish store?”

We get back in the car. But we don’t drive away. We sit there, sweating, because there is no air conditioner.

“It is like the beauty pageants,” Romeo says. “If you have money to buy something — whether it is a beauty pageant or the site to honor a national hero — what talks is the money. Money bought this site to honor José Rizal.”

Romeo Marquez, ever the journalist, picks up his camera and gets out of the car. He takes photographs of the statue of José Rizal, the seafood store, and the picnickers.

When he gets back in the car, Romeo resumes the narrative about his newspaper and how it is braided with the unveiling of the Rizal statue. He takes me back to 1998, when the events unfolded, even though his telling of them makes it seem like it happened yesterday.

Nineteen ninety-eight was the hundredth anniversary of Philippine independence from Spain. The Philippine government asked the satellite communities around the world to celebrate the occasion in appropriate ways.

On June 12, 1998, the bust of José Rizal was unveiled in front of Seafood City. It was a ceremony, Romeo says, that was almost hidden from the public. Only a select few were invited, including the editors of what Romeo Marquez calls “the captive” newspapers.

He believes that advertisers control the content of most so-called independent Philippine newspapers in San Diego. Print something adverse about them or against what they believe, which is to say the status quo, and you’ll be out of business quickly, Romeo tells me.

“I was not invited to this ceremony,” he says, “much less informed about it.”

Early in 1998, when the idea for the bust was being conceptualized by certain business interests in the Philippine community, Romeo Marquez was the editor in chief of the leading newspaper, the Philippine Mabuhay News. Romeo had built up a reputation, since coming to San Diego from Manila five years earlier, of being very independent-minded.

“I feared no one, not even my principals at the newspaper,” he says, “and I wrote anything I wanted to write.”

Nobody could edit him or change the layout or design of the newspaper. Many times the publisher asked him to tone down his commentaries and stories. But, of course, Romeo Marquez did not. He did not want the Philippine Mabuhay News to be another rag exploiting another beauty pageant.

Romeo Marquez was put on notice.

“I believe the leadership in the biggest community organization and the people behind the José Rizal statue knew I was going to expose the scandal behind the bust monument in front of Seafood City,” he says.

He was told by the publisher that the paper was losing revenue and in order to cut costs, Romeo had to take a four-month leave of absence, starting in March. This was an unpaid leave; in essence, a quiet way to be fired.

Marquez’s journalistic instincts kicked in. He became suspicious. Still, he could find nothing unreasonable or wrong, though he had his suspicions. He had been editor for close to four years.

Even during the worst of times, the money people gave him their votes of confidence. Slowly but surely he was building a reputation for the newspaper as being fearless and trustworthy and accurate in its factual presentations.

“My gut feeling was that the publisher was being pressured by people outside the newspaper to dispose of me,” he said, “especially since the anniversary was coming and I expected that someone intended to do a bust of José Rizal somewhere in San Diego.”

Here is what Romeo Marquez began to piece together: he discovered that the people behind a statue of José Rizal included an official of the Philippine Centennial Committee. This was Greg Macabenta, a personal friend of the Seafood City market owners.

“In 1998, Greg Macabenta was, by his appointment as executive director of the Philippine Centennial Celebration in the United States, an official of the Philippine government,” Romeo Marquez tells me in his most conspiratorial voice. “As such, he was a public official. On the other hand, he was also the owner of Minority Media Services, the then–advertising agency of Seafood City.”

Then, as if I did not understand any of this, Romeo asks: “Do you see the conflict of interest there?

“Macabenta was the advertising and marketing executive of Minority Media Services, Inc.,” Romeo Marquez continues.

As we drive through National City in Romeo’s old car, I’m beginning to feel like a character in a Raymond Chandler mystery and that Romeo Marquez is a kind of Philip Marlowe in this drama.

“Greg Macabenta was the media buyer for Seafood City,” Romeo continues. “The supermarket had a string of stores in San Diego and Los Angeles, and their advertising needs were being taken care of by Minority Media Services, Inc.

“Thus Macabenta calls the shots in practically all Filipino newspapers in San Diego where Seafood City places its ads,” Marquez explains.

“It was Macabenta,” Romeo tells me, “who suggested that the Seafood City site was a virtual Philippine center.”

A virtual Philippine center!

But Macabenta encountered an obstacle.

The Philippine Centennial Coordinating Committee (pccc), the overseer of all projects relating to the centennial celebration, rejected his idea. They reasoned that Seafood City was not an appropriate place to honor a national hero like José Rizal. This great leader then would be reduced to a marketing icon.

That did not end the affair, though.

The Philippine Centennial Coordinating Committee was part of an umbrella organization called the Council of Philippine American Organizations.

Macabenta went to the Council of Philippine American Organizations, offering $1000 from the owners of Seafood City. The Council of Philippine American Organizations overrode the Philippine Centennial Coordinating Committee decision, and Macabenta had the green light to erect the Rizal statue in front of Seafood City.

After he was more or less let go by the Philippine Mabuhay News, Romeo decided to start his own newspaper. Because he sensed a lot of backroom shenanigans going on around the centennial celebration, he also decided to make the celebration the subject of his first issue, which coincidentally was preparing to come out in June 1998.

Politics is politics. But shopping is all about survival. It is about eating food. Romeo was driving his parents and a sister to Seafood City to do some grocery shopping.

As they shopped, he lingered around outside the supermarket.

He noticed a stonemason at work. Romeo asked the man what was going on.

His parents both have disabled parking permits, and so the car, even though Romeo was driving it, was smack-dab in front of Seafood City and the stonemason doing his work.

The stonemason told Romeo about a statue that was going up. The man was working on the base, getting it ready for the bust. This worker was Mexican. But the man remembered the name, he said, because it sounded almost Mexican.

“It was to be a bust of a man called José Rizal,” Romeo tells me.

“The stonemason said he didn’t know who José Rizal was,” continues Romeo, drawing to the end of his story, “but he had heard that Rizal was some kind of Filipino national hero.”

This was two weeks short of the June 12 celebration, and the worker had said that they had to have the pedestal ready before that date.

Come June 12, Macabenta and the Seafood City owners and the other local editors were surprised to find Romeo Marquez covering the event for a fledgling newspaper called Diario Veritas.

Romeo Marquez covered the event the way he was trained to cover any local breaking news. He gathered information, put the facts together, wrote everything down. He took photographs. Later, he would notice that the pedestal of the statue contained the names of most of the local editors and publishers except himself.

“True to form,” Romeo says, “none of these newspapers wrote about how the bust came to be where it was or how the pccc had rejected the site outright.”

The first issue of Diario Veritas came out within days of the Rizal bust’s unveiling. People took to the paper immediately. It was local and ethnic, filled with information, entertaining, and, yes, it told the truth. Suddenly the new kid on the block was the biggest competition around.

The maiden issue consisted of 16 pages, most of it given over to this centennial intrigue.

Romeo Marquez has been in business ever since.

Instead of beauty pageants, though, his front page often contains items like the photographs of young women who won a poetry contest.

An issue I picked up had a page-one article about the Pinay (the Filipino woman). Marie Obana writes, “This isn’t about a Filipina winning a beauty pageant, but rather something that focuses on a deeper and more meaningful perspective of the Filipina woman.” She then goes on to explain a founding legend about the Pinay and the Pinoy and the bird that they came from.

In that same issue, Romeo Marquez includes his own memoir entitled “Diary of a Foreign Correspondent,” about how he came into the newspaper business.

Romeo Marquez would like to stay and chat some more, he says, but there are deadlines to meet and stories to cover. A three-year-old statue may no longer be news for many people, in and outside Romeo’s community. But his obsession remains alive. Like a focused homicide cop who will not rest until a culprit is found, Romeo Marquez will not rest until José Rizal’s statue finds a more appropriate home than a seafood market.

But other matters are pressing too.

“The biggest issue that my paper is covering is the plight of Filipino veterans who are, more than 50 years after World War II, still being denied recognition from the U.S. government.”

As he prepares to leave in order to pursue a story about the veterans, I ask him if he ever would cover a beauty pageant in his newspaper. He answers this as he has answered everything I have asked him. Nothing is simple. There is a hidden narrative underneath everything.

“Beauty contests are the biggest money-earning ventures in the Filipino community,” he says.

“All the contests involve selling a predetermined number of tickets,” he says. Those who sell the most tickets are practically guaranteed of winning. The more tickets that are sold by a candidate, the more likely her chance becomes of winning the contest.

“So you can see how the old matrons will go the extra mile to sell more tickets,” he informs me.

“But doesn’t this mean that some real dogs win the contests?” I ask perhaps a bit too bluntly.

Romeo shakes his head and smiles. He shrugs his shoulders.

He says that he does not understand the psychology behind the contests. Perhaps they want to relive a kind of Cinderella fantasy. Perhaps it is a way to realize a dream that evaded them since they were young.

“Maybe we Filipinos are suckers for this kind of diversion,” he says, looking gloomy about that possibility. “It is a type of entertainment to relieve our boredom.”

He categorizes the candidates into three groups. There are the motherly and grandmotherly types. He gives as an example Mrs. Philippine Millennium Faire.

The second category is for young women, transitioning from adolescence to adulthood. They would be simply Miss Philippine Faire.

Finally, there is Little Miss Philippine Faire. This is for young girls just out of infancy.

“Isn’t this funny?” he asks.

But he is not laughing. Nor am I.

Romeo Marquez is a very serious man. He is not going to end on such a frivolous note. He refocuses my attention on that statue of José Rizal back at Seafood City.

“The Rizal statue is a very graphic symbolism of what we are and who we are,” he says. “The penchant for something grand, something to remember you by, something to show off, something to make you look taller than the others, something to make it appear you’re important — these are all there. Of course, there’s also the unstated fact that we’re willing to compromise principle for money.”

I am beginning to see now where beauty and truth come together. They both get compromised by money.

“I started my newspaper,” Romeo says, “because I needed to expose the lack of principled leadership in our community organizations. I needed to let people know what tricks were being played right before their eyes. I needed everybody to be informed that those who claimed to be exalted leaders were not leaders but opportunists.”

Then the tightness leaves Romeo Marquez’s face.

“On the other hand, beauty pageants,” he says, “next to being the biggest cottage industry hereabouts, are also our favorite pastime. Beauty contests make us forget about day-to-day problems. They are a diversion from the hard reality of living in America at the great expense of our women, young and old.”

With that, he gets into his 1986 Nissan Sentra, and National City’s Philip Marlowe drives away. n

— M.G. Stephens

Michael Gregory Stephens has published 18 books, including the memoir Where the Sky Ends (Hazelden) and the reissue of his novel The Brooklyn Book of the Dead (New Island Books in Dublin, Ireland).

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