Nov 8, 2011

Mahalo to a Consul General: The Honorable Leoncio R. Cardenas Jr. retires

by Aurelio Solver Agcaoili

When he came back from a posting elsewhere, we said in our 2009 Fil-Am Observer feature story that his was a narrative of service coming  full circle.

He had served as a deputy consul general in Honolulu in the 80s, during the most difficult political times, when loyalties were divided, and the nation was in its ‘days of rage and nights of disquiet’, as one writer has described in a book about this period of contemporary Philippine history. 

After the political turmoil, a new team came over to Honolulu; he was posted elsewhere.

Immediately prior to his second Honolulu posting he was the Philippine Ambassador to East Timor, then a newly independent country.

On July 29, 2009, he came back after almost two decades of absence as the consul general.

I interviewed him at the start of his term. 

Consul General Leoncio R. Cardenas, Jr.

It was a first meeting, and right on, I hit it right with him, the tone of our conversation crisp and light, the texture of our words that of the breezy and gentle wind of the northern Ilocos where we both came from.

I got to know him from afar, from a press release, from a consular announcement, and from second-hand information I gathered from acquaintances; he did not know me from Eve.

During that first meeting, he in his dark and crisp barong, and I in my jeans and rolled long-sleeved shirt, we seemed like long-lost friends reuniting, laughing and exchanging notes about many things from Ilokano poetry to diplomacy and democratic institutions we sorely needed as a people.

It was a delight speaking with him.

In that interview, I came to know of the integrity of the man.

At the height of the struggle for the basic rights and freedoms of the people of the Philippines everywhere, he resolved an ethical dilemma by siding with the Filipino people.

It was service to the people—that commitment he was sworn to protect—that moved him to do the most difficult of all acts.

And history would prove him right.

He did not regret taking sides with the people; it was the most honorable thing to do.

The second interview was on a Sunday morning, on October 29. It was to be at his official residence by a ridge east of Honolulu city proper.

We came in on time. The consul general opened the door for us.

He was helping prepare a late breakfast for a couple, a newlywed from the Philippines, the bride his godchild.

We declined his offer of breakfast; we accepted the steaming coffee he himself brewed.

Here is an official of the land so down-to-earth, so easy to reach, I thought.

He is still the same official I interviewed more than two years ago.

“I have a trepidation with interviews like this one,” he emailed me back when I asked him for a schedule.  “I do not usually grant one. But I trust you. And I trust that you will do justice to your material.”

“This interview is the Fil-Am Observer’s way of thanking you for the good work that you have done to our people. It is our way of saying goodbye to you as well,” I explained as soon as we sat down, he facing the balcony of his official residence where below the ridge the sea spreads boundlessly, the sea calm and blue, serene and unmoving.

I sit across him, facing the entrance and towards a two-lane road that slopes down at about 40 degrees. Beyond are the stately homes in this part of the city and county of Honolulu.

“Your coming back to Hawaii for the second time to complete your work as a career diplomat is a blessing,” I said.

“It is so,” he answered. His voice lilted, like a musician’s, soft and sure, confident and caring.

His face brightened up, perhaps thinking of his retirement that will come in a few days, right after the visit of President Benigno Aquino III. “It is very rare that diplomats are given a chance like the one that I have. When the Secretary of Foreign Affairs called me to say that I would be posted in Honolulu and that I had to leave my ambassador’s post in East Timor, I thought that this was a blessing. I enjoyed my work in East Timor. I had good working relationships with the political leaders of that country right after their independence, after going through their most difficult test as a country, and leaving them was something that saddened me. But I have fond memories of Honolulu and the Filipino people I would be representing. To come and serve them again is something that does not happen all the time.”

“You are coming full circle with your work as a foreign service official with this posting,” I remarked.

“It was one way of completing one’s career, one’s mission, one’s vocation,” he replied. “But I am going home after retiring. I will have another life. I will enjoy my new life to the full. I will be involved in a ministry.”

“What is home to you? Where is home?” I queried. I remembered all of the poets of the Ilokano people pining for home, remembering the Ilocos of old so many of them have never seen in a long while.

He thought for a moment, his pause that of a music coming into its most beautiful and haunting lyrics and notes. There is a musician’s mind and heart in the consul general, and that music would keep him company everywhere he was posted. “Home is where the heart is. Home is what we remember. So: geographically, it is Badoc, Ilocos Norte, where I was born, grew up, got educated. Then again, Manila, particularly Makati, is also home to me. I have a home there, literally, and I will stay there for a time as well. But home is also San Francisco’s Bay Area where my family is, my children in particular. In a sense, the entire Philippines is home to me. I must admit that I will have to fly to the Bay Area some of the time to reconnect with my family, with my children.”

“Was it difficult being in the foreign service?”

“I have no regrets. It was a good life. It was a good career. There is nothing nobler and more rewarding than serving our own people.”

“Do we have a hope for our country? People are quitting the homeland. Can you share your thoughts about this as a private citizen? You will soon be a private citizen. There is pessimism in the homeland. There is despair.”  I took my cup and sipped from it. The warmth of the brew soothed my parched throat. We had talked for some time.

He sipped from his cup. And then he said: “Even as a private citizen, this I can say: there is hope for our country. We have to trust the current leadership. President Noynoy Aquino means well, and surely, he is showing us the way to do the right thing. I understand the pessimism. I understand the despair. I know of the figures of those who lead wretched lives. The act of doing sweeping changes to correct the errors of the past is not pretty, is not always pretty. But it is being done. We have hopes for the homeland. We have to keep on hoping for the homeland.”

“Is this hope the reason why you are going back?”
“One of the many reasons. But it is a major reason.” 

“You said you are going to have your ministry.”

“I am thinking of putting up a non-profit organization for the elderly. The senior citizens have to have something concrete, some reasons to hold on to dear life, some ways to live meaningful lives. I will start this ministry in Badoc. This is to honor my parents who had to put up a lot for my education, for my future.”
“You have made a lot of strides bringing the consulate to our various communities. It is a huge footprint you are leaving behind.”

“To work for our people is always a challenge. When I came in, I simply followed the good deeds of my predecessors. And this I must say: the younger career officers have so much to give. They are oozing with talents and gifts and dedication. Older career officers like us—older senior diplomats like us—must give way to the expertise of the younger ones. The world is changing—and it is changing past. We leave behind a memory, and the fruits of the small things we have done. In the meantime, we look forward to the future and take stock of what we have yet to do so we can do them.”

“Your music will play a role in your retirement?”

“My music has always played a role in my life, both personal and professional. In all my postings, I always had a choir that I worked with. When I retire, music will not take a back seat.”

“Your message to our people in Hawaii? Our people in the Philippines?”

“Thank you for the opportunity of serving you. It was worth it, this life of service in the name of our people, in the name of our country. I am amazed at how our people in Hawaii are always on the ready to give back to our people in the Philippines. I have been part of various drives to help flood victims and other calamities. I have seen up close what kind of energy there is among our people in the state. About our people in the Philippines—there is much to hope for. Let us do the work of building our nation and soon, the good and equitable life will be ours.”

I gave Consul General Leoncio R. Cardenas Jr. a copy of the Contemporary English-Ilokano Dictionary I wrote.

“You sign it, please,” he told me.
“I already did, Apo,” I responded to him.

He flipped the pages of the dictionary to look for my dedication. Re reads from my notes in my handwriting. “I will have use of this dictionary in my retirement.”

It was about noon when the interview was over.

We said goodbye to a man we are truly proud of.

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