The Philippines’ Pink Phenomenon—the Leni Robredo Story

by Rose Churma

Last month, I stayed up late glued to my iPad mesmerized by the images I was seeing: a long river of pink on Emerald Avenue in the heart of Pasig City’s financial district.

The crowd was so thick, all dressed in various shades of pink such that, from shots taken by a drone above, it looked like a riverbed of locally grown rose-tipped onions. But they were people of all ages, the crowd was estimated to be around 137,000 to 180,000.

Even American pop star Ariana Grande couldn’t help commenting on Instagram when the behemoth crowd sang one of her hits. “I could not believe this was real,” she wrote over the video showing a stream of people wearing pink and singing their hearts out.

The Pasig City event was considered the biggest so far, outperforming in size the ones in other cities.  But in all of them the energy and “good vibes” of the “Kakampinks” – the label used by the pink-clad voters to call themselves – was palpable in all the rallies.

As one Kakampink confessed on Tiktok, “It is hard to be a Kakampink: there are implied high standards set to be called one, embodied in the phrase “mas radical ang magmahal.”

A sense of sharing and “looking out for the other” permeates the rallies. Food items, campaign merchandise, and various small acts of kindness are shared by all in these rallies – the standard rather than the exception.

In a typical political rally, it is usually the candidate’s campaign machinery who organizes these sorties, distributes the campaign materials, and generally funds the expenses related to putting an event together.

Not so for the Kakampink rallies: local volunteers organize themselves and pool their funds and resources to stage these gatherings. One can see the decentralization of the campaign in the various shades of pink used in the campaign materials, different designs and ditties for each area, and the friendly competition among the “people’s campaign” groups to draw the biggest and most energized crowd for their jurisdictions. And in all the rallies, one can hear the chant “hindi kami bayad, hindi kami bayad!

One of the surprising pink gatherings was held in Isabela on March 12.  Even the candidate herself expressed trepidation in coming to Cagayan Valley (she lost big time here in 2016), part of the legendary Solid North.

But like in the other Kakampink rallies, the crowd was large and full of positive energy, chanting “No Solid North, No Solid North!” with signs that said “Liquid North.”

These last few days, the pink rallies are now held in Mindanao, attracting the same large crowds and enthusiasm, generating endorsements from politicians from that area. The mayor of Davao banned political rallies in that city, but it didn’t prevent the Kakampinks to stage one in the neighboring city of Digos which also drew the usual large crowds holding signs that said, “No Solid South.”

At the CNN-sponsored presidential debate held at the UST campus last March, a photo of the pink-clad Leni Robredo is shown walking to the venue, flanked by her three outstanding daughters.

In another photo that same night after the debates, she is shown holding her shoes and standing in her bare feet as she fields “ambush” interviews from the crowd of reporters.

Any woman who saw that photo can relate. After endless hours on your feet fielding questions from the pandemic to the West Philippines Sea (she did very well in the debates, by the way), it must have been a relief to step out of those shoes.

Much later on, as her vehicle exited the UST grounds a condo dweller from one of the buildings flanking the street took videos of her vehicle as it left the campus grounds and posted them on social media.

A group of young supporters waited patiently at the gates for her to appear, and when she did, the evening exploded in shouts and screams, all surged to see her wave, shake her hand, or shove a gift of flowers in her hands. Some cried, some danced or jumped or tried to do selfies with the moving vehicle.

This scenario is multiplied in all the venues where she appears, and the same enthusiasm is generated in the crowds attending her rallies when she is introduced: she is greeted like a rock star!

Who is Leni Robredo?

How did this typical “everywoman” end up aspiring to be the next president of the Philippines? She grew up in Naga City in the Bicol region.

In an interview with her mom who is a professor at the local university, her mother described her as a quiet young girl who can be depended on to look after her younger siblings.

She avoided the limelight, preferring to be in the background. She was an introvert who loved to read, and she excelled in school. Her best friend in high school called her “crush ng bayan” with her good looks, sweet demeanor, and unassuming ways, which is easy to imagine.

After high school, she was accepted at the University of the Philippines–Diliman where she took up economics courses and boarded at the campus dorm. She would relate how she and her dorm-mates would sneak out to watch Sharon Cuneta movies, whenever a new movie is released. Little did she know back then that her running mate would be Kiko Pangilinan, Sharon’s husband. 

By her own account, her world consisted of school, family, and friends. She was apolitical and happy in her small world.

Then the unthinkable happened. Ninoy Aquino was assassinated in August 1984. Like countless young people of those times, she was one of the thousands who paid respect as his body lay in state at the Santo Domingo Church.

By the time she graduated in 1986 her political activism intensified. She decided to postpone the trajectory planned for her which is to enroll in law school soon after receiving her bachelor’s degree. Her father was a regional trial judge in Naga, and the family plan was for her to follow in his footsteps.

Instead, she opted to work for the non-profit Bicol River Basin Development Program (BRBDP), an agency tasked to undertake integrated area development planning in the three provinces of the Bicol region. The head of the agency was a young man named Jesse Robredo. They would be married within the year.

During those early years of their marriage, Leni Robredo took on the various roles of wife, mother, the first lady of Naga (Jesse would be elected as mayor in 1988), law student and professor (she taught economics at the local university) and juggled all those roles competently and cheerfully.

As her oldest daughter recalls, Leni was a “tiger mom” who woke up at 4 a.m. to drive her daughters to swim practice every day, helped them with their homework and expected them to excel – not only in academics but in whatever they choose to pursue.  And she set the same standards for herself, and more.

Jesse Robredo, among other countless awards he would receive in his lifetime, also received the Ramon Magsaysay Award for government service in 2000 for his advocacies in transformative governance which he practiced, transforming Naga into the “most improved” in Asia during the 19 years he served as mayor.

In an interview after receiving the award, Jesse explains:

“If I could go through it again, I would have married my wife much earlier. She was my conscience.  I led a clean political life because of my wife. She insisted I walk the high and difficult path, almost all the time.”

In the note accompanying this video that Leni sent to her supporters, she wrote: “my most important endorsement.”

During the Noynoy Aquino presidency, Jesse Robredo was appointed to head the department of local government. In 2012, on a plane trip back home to Naga to attend his daughter’s swim meet, his plane crashed, leaving behind a widow and three daughters, the youngest still in high school.

As she recalls those days, Leni says she thought of applying for a government position – now that she was the sole breadwinner – she still had three daughters to send to school.

As fate intervened, Jesse’s supporters convinced her to run for Congress. Despite her lack of political machinery and limited funds to mount a campaign against an entrenched political rival, she prevailed and won by a huge majority.

Early on in their marriage she and Jesse chose to live a simple life. She would say that it is best not to get used to the perks of power and privilege – or you get used to it and want to maintain that lifestyle. She walks the talk.

In an iconic photo taken when she served as Camarines Sur’s 3rd district representative in Congress, she can be seen waiting at the curb for her public transport. Yes, for years she and her daughters took the bus trip to Naga from Manila when she went back home to meet her constituents during the weekends.

In the 2016 presidential elections, she was Mar Roxas’ second choice as running mate. By her own account, she started at the bottom of a six-person race at a 1% approval rating but eventually won the vice presidency – “through hard work and perseverance” and to her obvious intelligence and character.

One of her daughters observed that Leni tends to be underestimated. In a country whose majority still consider a bully as a sign of strength, her womanhood was considered a disadvantage to being “strong.”

In the six years she served as Vice President of the Philippines, she proved her detractors wrong. In those years, she was the beacon of hope for Filipinos who dreamt of good honest governance, civility in public discourse, and basic competence.

Despite a minuscule budget (the smallest among all national agencies), she was able to serve her constituents in all parts of the country. With no part to play by law (except to be on stand-by in case the president is incapacitated), she created her own roles.

Her Office of the Vice President (OVP) won the highest Commission on Audit (COA) ratings for good governance for several years. It also received the ISO ratings indicating that her office was run under the highest standards.

Because of this trust in her capability and moral integrity, the private sector helped fund her projects. As she recounts in a TV interview, the OPV matches the donors with the local government units that need assistance.

There is ample evidence that indicates the successes of her various initiatives—from the Angat Buhay program, her response to COVID-19 such as the iConsulta (an online medical consultation program), or all the relief efforts her office conducted due to the natural calamities.

It wasn’t an easy six years as VP for Leni Robredo. The incumbent president dismissed her as irrelevant and his descriptions of her in his public addresses can be both vulgar and demeaning.

The social media trolls of her political rivals for years have been posting fake news to create disinformation. I’ve seen some of these posts and the vitriol of their accusations is not for the faint of heart (hundreds of these trolls has since been taken down by Facebook).

It was understandable why she was hesitant to run again. But in October of last year, close to the deadline for the filing of candidacies, she announced her intention to run.

Ang nagmamahal ay ipaglalaban ang minamahal,” she explains but adds that to fight for a Philippines of our dreams, we can’t be merely observers but need to fight for what we believe in. “Tumindig kayo at mayroon din titindig sa katabi ninyo” she admonishes.

This pink phenomenon has had an impact worldwide affecting Filipinos in the Diaspora. On any given day, there are social media posts from Kakampinks from different countries – from Saudi Arabia to Spain; from the US East Coast to the US West Coast, and in-between.

And of course, Hawai’i: established late last year, the Hawaii Kakampinks meet regularly to get the word out to dual citizens who are registered to vote in the May 2022 elections. It has also established a social media presence that seems to be attracting participants from all over the state.

Pink is the color of hope. It is perhaps why that color was chosen by Leni Robredo’s supporters to represent her candidacy. She has brought hope and allowed the Filipino people to dream again for a better Philippines.

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