Robredo supporters hold on to the spirit of her grassroots campaign

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A Leni-Kiko volunteer handing out a fan and comic to a fruit vendor during a house-to-house campaign in early March. Photo courtesy of NICOLE SORIANO

Days after the partial, unofficial electoral results projected Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos Jr. as the presumptive president of the Philippines, tens of thousands of Leni Robredo’s supporters packed Ateneo de Manila University’s sprawling campus. People carried posters adorned with roses and the phrases “Liwanag sa Dilim,” “Patuloy Pa Rin Sa Pagtindig,” “Thank you for bringing out the best in us.” A sea of people, including nuns and students, made the “laban” hand gesture, once popular in the 1986 People Power Revolution and widely used during Robredo’s campaign for presidency. Clad in black and pink, many of them were on the brink of tears.

“[H]abang lumilinaw ang litrato, kailangan nating simulang tanggapin na hindi ayon sa mga pangarap natin ang resulta ng eleksyong ito . . . Itutuloy tuloy natin ang pagsasama-sama,” the Vice President said in the massive thanksgiving event, recognizing the hard work of her supporters. She announced her plans to launch the Angat Buhay non-government organization this July. She was confident that it would form the largest network of volunteers in Philippine history.

“Sasama kami!” The crowd shouted in unison, causing Robredo to pause her speech and smile.

Who were these volunteers? What was this conviction that drove them to sacrifice their time and energy to fight for a candidate who, surveys consistently revealed, needed a miracle to win?

When Robredo filed her candidacy for president last October 2021, Haya Santiago-Florendo, a senior manager for a healthcare BPO and mother of two, pooled funds together with other alumni from her high school and began donating to Robredo’s campaigns every month. At first, she thought that was what she could contribute to help her presidential candidate of choice win. But then she went to Robredo’s mammoth rally in Pasay City, where over 400,000 supporters formed an unending river of pink.

As Manobo musician Bayang Barrios sang the national anthem, a performance that transformed from fierce to emotional, Santiago-Florendo cried. “It fired up something within me,” she says.

Santiago-Florendo wanted to do more than donate. Her family’s finances suffered after her mother was diagnosed with cancer, and she knew she did not have much to give. So when her neighbors began organizing house-to-house campaigns for Robredo, Santiago-Florendo eagerly joined them. The biggest donation she could give, she realized, was herself.

One of those organizers was 33-year-old entrepreneur Moha Barakat. In February, she and a handful of “kakampink” neighbors began campaigning for Robredo within their village. They gathered tarpaulins and merchandise, offered free silk screen printing of t-shirts, and set up a booth in their village’s gazebo. After a few weeks, feeling they had reached all their neighbors, they organized their first house-to-house campaign in nearby Barangay Santolan, where they used to do outreaches after past typhoons. On April 24, a little over 20 volunteers showed up.

Barakat had no prior background in political organizing. But when she was younger, she was active in her church, hosting retreats and volunteering in outreaches and mission trips. Organizing people came naturally to her. “I think medyo strength ko naman that side," says Barakat, compelled to offer her skills for the campaign.

Before going to their respective communities, volunteers delineated tasks among them: documenters, tarpaulin carriers, and those who would speak and aim to persuade voters. Photo courtesy of NICOLE SORIANO

Under the scorching summer heat, volunteers carried tarpaulins and large tote bags filled with pink t-shirts, komiks, fans and fliers creatively presenting the strengths and promises of Robredo. Photo courtesy of NICOLE SORIANO

For their next house-to-house visit, one of their volunteers, fashion designer and feminist activist Mich Dulce, used her birthday to invite people to join. Word spread rapidly online, and by the following week, the number of volunteers ballooned to 120. Two days after that, on the May 3 Hari Raya holiday, the count was 180.

Under the scorching summer heat, volunteers carried tarpaulins and large tote bags filled with pink t-shirts, komiks, fans and fliers creatively presenting the strengths and promises of Robredo. They dispersed on the streets of Quezon City and Pasig City, from public markets to low-income housing complexes. They spoke to truck drivers and fruit vendors. They knocked on stores displaying Marcos Jr. posters. They carried speakers blasting Robredo’s campaign jingles, putting on their friendliest faces as they walked on for hours. The adrenaline that came with volunteering and sharing a common goal with others masked any trace of exhaustion and thirst.

Barakat’s neighborhood group is just one among many volunteer groups that self-organized house-to-house campaigns for Robredo. For the Vice President’s birthday last April 23, her daughter Aika Robredo invited one million supporters to do house-to-house campaigns, believing it was a good way to fight disinformation online and remind people that they are not each other’s enemies.

In the days leading up to the May 9 elections, Robredo’s grassroots approach only intensified. The profiles of these volunteers were notably diverse — from celebrities to farmers to droves of youths, some of whom were too young to vote. They persisted despite the risks that came with it: Employees took leaves from work. Some young volunteers had been heckled; others had water dumped on them. Mothers had to sacrifice precious time with their children to organize.

Observers have described this level of volunteerism as rare in Philippine elections. In an interview with Rappler, a Team Leni Robredo official noted the unique dynamic between the national campaign and its ground volunteers: Traditionally, a “command structure” would mark the machinery of a political campaign, in which experienced political campaigners would craft strategies to be trickled down and executed on the ground. Robredo’s campaign, by contrast, was shaped by the energy and innovation coming from the bottom. Artists freely made a plethora of designs for the t-shirts and merchandise disseminated during the house-to-house campaigns. Music producer Nolan Bernardino and composer Nica del Rosario released the jingle “Kay Leni Tayo” even before Robredo declared her presidential bid.

Robredo’s campaign, by contrast, was shaped by the energy and innovation coming from the bottom.

Yet, some of the more critical observations on the campaign addressed its belated timing. In a recent article for Time, associate professor of Global Digital Media Dr. Jonathan Corpus Ong praised the campaign’s grassroots efforts as “inspiring, monumental, and important”. But to him, it was also “too little too late, coming after too many decades of blaming or patronizing the ‘bobotante’ (the dumb voter) and ‘the masa’ (masses).”

“I hope such dialogues will turn from a campaign exigency into a sincere, long-term willingness to listen and understand the issues faced by excluded communities, while respecting their own agency and cunning in political participation,” Ong wrote.

Sociologist Dr. Jayeel Cornelio believes that it would be useful for civil society organizations to tap into the vitality of the youth who are already participating in politics and society. “[A]round the country, young people are involved in areas where they could be effective," says Cornelio. "Take, for example, their participation in school-based organizations, church-based youth groups, or humanitarian work in times of crisis. [Y]oung people go wherever their voices are heard and participation [is] valued.”

Cornelio observes that what made Robredo’s campaign particularly unique is what he calls the “Leni effect.” Public leaders like Robredo are effective if they get to articulate the aspirations of young people, he says. “In particular, Leni inspires those who are longing for credible reform in the government and leadership that exemplifies accountability.”

30-year-old architect and house-to-house volunteer Gab Alviola admires Robredo for voicing out her stance against the violent drug war. “[D]iba sa ibang bansa, rehabilitation ang priority kung may drug addict?” he says. To him, supporting Robredo was not a hard choice, despite his parents being supporters of Marcos Jr.

During the campaign season, he would attempt to engage with his mother about their presidential candidates. “Pero the dynamic sa house is intense,” he says. It was difficult for him to advocate for Robredo without them feeling like he was opposing them.

His background in architecture, however, fueled his care for history. He cited Marcosian architecture — the grand, modernist edifices that projected a front of progress during the Marcos regime, masking the human rights abuses and massive debt that fueled what his supporters now call a “golden age.” “Ang sakit sa dibdib knowing na naghihirap ‘yung bansa and there’s someone [saying], ‘Hindi, we have to maintain a facade na strong tayo.’”

Today, beyond building concrete structures, the Marcoses have deployed an elaborate, years-long campaign on social media to whitewash the brutalities of the late dictator’s rule.

A volunteer talking to a vendor. Photo courtesy of NICOLE SORIANO

A volunteer speaking to a vendor on the street. Photo courtesy of NICOLE SORIANO

Brutalities like those endured by Santiago-Florendo’s mother, Lilia Quindoza Santiago. In 1972, the year Marcos declared martial law, she was one of the student activists arrested, detained and tortured by the military. Longing to be free, she wrote poetry in prison, and went on to become a prolific writer and educator. Last year, after a battle with leukemia, Santiago passed away.

Santiago-Florendo credits her parents (her father, Jess Santiago, was a prominent protest musician of the Marcos era) and their crowd of artists, writers and musicians for shaping her political beliefs since she was young. “The principles that they fought for were also of course what we wanted to fight for, eventually, when we grew up,” shares Santiago-Florendo. Even with her mother no longer here, she still felt her presence as she fought to keep those who hurt her from returning to power.

On Santiago-Florendo’s first house-to-house campaign, she took a video of the volunteers as they scanned their area, smudges of pink against gray concrete walls. Suddenly, she saw that the street they were on was named Santiago. “It gave me goosebumps . . . I had to take a few moments to really pray and, you know, talk to my mom on my own,” she shares. “‘Nani, that’s you right?’”

Campaigning, she encountered a woman named Janice, who was skeptical of Robredo. She felt the latter was simply attacking Marcos Jr. for what she believed were made up events during martial law.

Santiago-Florendo would not typically share the story of her mother during the house-to-house campaigns. But this time, she felt compelled to tell Janice that her mother was a martial law victim. “Sabi ko, ‘Eto po ako, totoong tao . . . [M]ay kwento ako, pero hindi lang siya basta kwento. Totoo siya. Kasi totoong tao 'yung pinaguusapan natin. Nanay ko ‘yun, eh.’”

She was moved when, after their conversation, Janice warmed up to her. “Ingat ka, Ms. Hay,” Janice told Santiago-Florendo, encouraging her to drink water because of the heat.

“[T]he mere fact that she allowed herself to listen to my story was a big win in itself," says Santiago-Florendo. "Hindi naman kailangan na 'yung end goal palagi ay makita mo agad-agad. It’s a process.” She believes that it’s not the fault of the people who fall victim to disinformation. “That’s why sabi nga nila, ‘Kailangan mo ipaglaban. Kasama sila sa pinaglalaban mo.’”

Against the dark night sky that early morning of May 10, Robredo was calm and sober as she addressed her supporters. She urged them to believe their efforts were not in vain. “[W]alang nasayang. Hindi tayo nabigo. Pinakamahalaga, hindi pa tayo tapos . . . Ang namulat, hindi na muli mapipikit.”

Robredo’s words consoled her supporters. Many echoed her sentiments, believing that the movement they created has only begun. Barakat says, "All the volunteerism we’ve seen during the campaign period has given birth to networks of people who never knew each other before, who are acquainted and somehow more united not just for our candidate, but basically for good governance. We have been able to stretch ourselves na kaya pala natin ibigay to. Yung mga hindi sanay magbigay before have started giving. And I think that will continue.”

In a post-election interview with Vice, Cornelio stressed the fragility of a movement revolving around one figure, and urged civil society to step in. “Let’s sustain the conversations, the vigilance, by creating activities that will keep us conversing with one another,” said Cornelio. “Our potential has already been turned into kinetic energy. We just have to keep it kinetic in the meantime.”

Because for some of them, the movement showed them that hope was no longer an abstract concept, but something tangible and real. As real as the faces they met on the streets, the stories they will never forget.

Santiago-Florendo shared that being part of the movement made her feel proud of her name, Haya Pag-asa. “It means ‘bundle of hope,’ or ‘princess of hope,’” she says. Typically she would drop the “Pag-asa” whenever she introduces herself to others. But for the first time, she signed off a letter to her mother with her full first name. She finally understands why her mother gave it to her.