Honeylet Avanceña offers touching tribute to OFWs

Pia Ranada
Honeylet Avanceña offers touching tribute to OFWs

Robinson Ninal

In a rare speech, the woman President Duterte calls his 'First Lady' speaks of her own experience as a migrant worker in the United States

MANILA, Philippines – President Rodrigo Duterte’s “First Lady,” Honeylet Avanceña, was initially tasked to just introduce the Chief Executive to a room full of Filipino migrants in Japan.

But she used her time in the podium to give a touching tribute to overseas Filipino workers all over the world, people she feels a kinship with since she was once in their shoes.

Though only 5 minutes long, the speech was all the more special because it was rare. Avanceña hardly has speaking lines in major presidential events. (READ: The evolution of Duterte’s First Lady: Honeylet Avanceña)

Though she sometimes accompanies the Chief Executive to official functions, including those abroad, she is usually on the sidelines.

But on Thursday night, May 30, at the Palace Hotel in front of thousands of Filipinos and thousands more watching the livestream, Avanceña spoke of her admiration for OFWs.

Fighting tears and with her voice breaking, Avanceña said: “Natutuwa po ako at nagagalak na makita ang lahat ng Pilipinong nandito. Four years po ako sa America pero never ko ho nakita ang Pilipino na nagmahal nang ganito, nagkaisa para sa bansa. Kaya nakakaiyak.

(I am happy and overjoyed to see all of you Filipinos here. I was in America for 4 years but I never saw Filipinos show love like this, unite for the country. That’s why it makes me cry.)

She then gave 4 descriptions of OFWs, gleaned from her own memories working as a nurse in the United States.

“You have the heroic efforts. Bakit heroic efforts? Hero in the sense na kayod kayo, alam ‘nyo ‘yung mga kamag-anak niyo sa Pilipinas hindi nila alam ‘yung hirap. Ibang klase ‘yung trabaho natin sa ibang bansa. Alam ko po ‘yan. ‘Yun bang parang…walang pahinga, hindi mo maintindihan,” Avanceña said.

(Why heroic efforts? Hero in the sense that you work hard, you know that your relatives in the Philippines don’t know the hardship. The work is different in another country. I know that. It’s like, you have no rest, you don’t understand.)

She praised OFWs for their “strength of character,” recalling a fellow OFW friend of hers who had a nervous breakdown while abroad because of the pressure.

Avanceña remembered how despite her sadness and exhaustion, she would still report to the hospital focused on her tasks as a nurse.

Nandoon pa rin ‘yung presence of mind, alam mo pa rin paano asikasuhin ang pasyente. Pagod ka pero pagdating mo sa trabaho, hinaharap mo kaagad ang trabaho mo,” said the President’s partner.

(You still have presence of mind, you still know how to take care of the patient. You’re exhausted be but when you arrive at work, you immediately buckle down to work.)

She also called OFWs “outstanding employees,” attesting to how companies all over the world prefer hiring Filipinos.

Duterte’s tribute to Honeylet

When it was the President’s turn to speak, he made sure to devote more than a few words to his partner, who he ended up calling his “First Lady.”

He shared anecdotes from the time she was an OFW and he, then a congressman, would visit her in the US. It was around that time, he said, when his former wife Elizabeth Zimmerman, filed for their marriage’s annulment.

Duterte recalled how Avanceña used to live in a converted garage. Her room was so small, he said, that when both of them were on the bed, one of them had to sleep on their side.

Hindi kami makahiga ng flat, ganun. Either mag-side view ako, mag-ganun siya or ako na naman…I lie flat tapos sabihin ko sa kanya, ‘Ikaw naman magtagilid,” said Duterte.

(We couldn’t lie flat on our backs. Either I turn to my side, then she would do that, then it would be my turn – I lie flat then I’d tell her, “It’s your turn to your side.”)

Avanceña at first left him because she knew not to expect a marriage proposal. But when she found out she was pregnant, Duterte told her to come home to the Philippines though he could not guarantee formalizing their relationship.

Sabi ko, ‘Umuwi ka na dito.’ No guarantees anong titulo mo, pero hindi ko man masabi na it’s really a destiny maging First Lady ka ng bayang Pilipino,” said Duterte, to applause from the audience.

(I said, ‘Come home.’ No guarantees on your title but I could not say then that it’s really a destiny that you would become the First Lady of the Filipino nation.)

Apart from Honeylet, Duterte would also sometimes briing along eldest daughter Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte to official functions, leading to confusion on who the real First Lady was. (IN PHOTOS: Duterte’s 2 ‘First Ladies’ join him in China, Hong Kong)

Duterte was unapologetically himself during the event, telling 4 women to sit in front because he found them pretty. By the end of the night, he had kisses on the cheek from women admirers he had invited onstage.

Avanceña was obviously used to this behavior. Duterte would every now and then roguishly remind his audience he was flirting with women in her presence.

“When they are pretty, don’t remove them from my presence because I will lose inspiration. But for this moment, inspiration is built-in because my missus is there,” Duterte said in Filipino. – Rappler.com

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Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada is a senior reporter for Rappler covering Philippine politics and environmental issues. For tips and story suggestions, email her at pia.ranada@rappler.com.