Secretary Deles passion for peace is in ‘lots of bags’
Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Teresita “Ging” Deles brings “a lot of bags” to work, which an executive assistant breaks down as follows: personal bag; iPad and urgent files bag; confidential files bag; laptop bag; “other bag” for important documents; and, sometimes, extra bags.
Her peace advocacy is also in the bag, so to speak.
She has never once thought of throwing in the towel when talks with any of the government’s enemies become difficult.
“Peace would have to give up on me,” Deles told the Inquirer in an interview in her Ortigas office recently.
She admitted getting “really frustrated” at times. But giving up would mean turning her back on “such a large part” of her life, she said.
“She has always been a determined and hopeful person. She believed that this [peace] process will come to light. She never gave up on that belief,” her best friend, Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman, told the Inquirer by phone.
Deles became the first female presidential peace adviser, and one without a military background, when former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo appointed her to the office in 2003, just as the government’s peace talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) had just resumed, with Malaysia acting as a third-party facilitator. The significance of this was not lost on Deles.
‘It took a woman’
A 2008 book on civil society workers crossing over to the government quoted Deles as saying in a speech, “Even with my 13 years of solid experience as a civil society peace advocate before I entered government, I don’t think any male president would have appointed me to the post. It took a woman, even an avowed nonfeminist, to appoint another woman to a male-dominated field.”
The longtime NGO worker who has immersed herself in development work for the grassroots community believes that everyone—not just combatants—has a stake in resolving conflicts. Long before the term “human security” was coined, Deles was already working toward achieving it.
As such, the realization of the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro between the government and the MILF for lasting peace in Central Mindanao was an emotional moment for Deles.
Television viewers will remember how Deles, speaking at the opening ceremonies for the signing of the agreement in Malacañang on Oct. 15, choked back tears as she commemorated the thousands who died in the fighting in Mindanao. Now, she said, there will be “a better tomorrow.”
Deles admitted she was a bit afraid that she would be overcome by emotion when she delivered her speech “because sometimes that happens to me.” She said she would often practice her speech so that she would be able to control her emotions.
“But you know many times these past weeks, sometimes just in this room, and I get emotional about this. Just before the signing, there would be some quiet time and I’d think ‘Wow, we’re here. It’s really going to happen,” Deles said.
Soliman understands how this first major step toward peace with the MILF has affected her friend. Both have tirelessly worked together on their advocacies since they were fresh out of college in the 1970s.
“In your lifetime, you would like to contribute to society in a way … Here she is able to contribute greatly and it happened in a major way,” Soliman said.
Soliman said their friendship has endured through the decades because of their “common vision for change.”
“Ging was one of the student leaders and eventually became a core founding member of development NGOs. Her track was alternative lifestyle in building families for peace and justice,” Soliman said.
Passion, hard work
Among the organizations that Deles either joined or cofounded or led are the Coalition for Peace; Gaston Z. Ortigas Peace Institute; International Center for Innovation, Transformation and Excellence in Governance (where she served as managing trustee and focal trustee for peace and security sector governance issues); National Anti-Poverty Commission (NAPC); United Nations Commitee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (UN-Cedaw); Women’s Action Network for Development (Wand); Legislative Advocates for Women (Law), and the feminist group, Pilipina.
Deles’ staff at the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (Opapp) attests to how committed she is to her job. Staff members will tell you Deles works long hours, leaving the office at 8 p.m. at the earliest and midnight at the latest. But she could be up and about in the morning when meetings are scheduled.
One of Deles’ three executive assistants, Cam Ronquillo, said the staff had to keep up with her stamina. Although they are much younger than Deles, the women take turns handling executive-assistant duties because sometimes they find themselves exhausted.
But they agreed that it is a pleasure to work with Deles. “Her passion and commitment and hard work is actually contagious,” one of them said.
Deles does not use a buzzer to call in any member of her staff. She goes out of her room and walks to the table of the staff member she wants to talk with.
Carries own bags
“All her bags are heavy. Her personal bag and urgent files bag are the ones she usually brings with her because she feels secure carrying them. We always try to help her with them, but she says, ‘I have two strong arms. I can carry my bags.’ It just proves she is a strong woman. She is well known here for carrying around heavy bags,” Ronquillo said.
Deles, who is in her early 60s, takes power naps when in the car on the way to meetings. She gets acupuncture treatments as regularly as she can. At work, she listens to operas and arias, and sometimes pop music, as, in her own words, it gets her “brain waves moving.”
She had her hair cropped short, keeping it undyed. It is convenient, she said, as it is “low maintenance.”
“I don’t have to dry it and comb it,” she said, laughing.
Her hair used to be long, but she decided to cut it shorter and shorter so that one day her haircutter dared her, “Let’s see how short you could go.”
She went nearly as short as military cut, a style that has become her trademark.
“One of the thrills of my life was when Conchitina Sevilla came up to me at a gathering and told me, ‘Your hair is so chic,’” Deles said, laughing again.
The pressure of work makes Deles lose her temper once in a while, but her staff remembers mostly the times when she is in a good mood. When she is happy, staff members say, she goes around whistling a tune.
She is a thoughtful boss, always bringing back something for her staff from out-of-town trips.
Her staff says her simplicity and down-to-earth style had rubbed off on her three daughters. The girls, her staff says, still take public transportation despite their mother’s high position in the government. (Deles fondly calls her girls “PaLaKa,” shortcut for their names Paola, Laila and Karla.)
Aside from being a workaholic, Deles “leads by example,” Polly Cunanan, Opapp spokesperson, said. Deles spends long hours in the office “in order to get things done,” Cunanan said.
Cunanan also said that being an English and literature major, Deles “is very particular with grammar.” She spots grammatical or typo errors right away, Cunanan said. Deles wants her staff members “to dot their i’s and cross their t’s,” Cunanan said, adding that Deles wants her staff to be “very meticulous and thorough considering the sensitivity of our jobs.”
Soliman said she learned the “rigors of writing” from Deles, who would sometimes return memos written by her friends with “red marks.”
“She’s a very clear thinker and a very good writer,” Soliman said.
Deles writes her memos to President Aquino herself, according to her staff.
High school teacher
She is a former teacher. She taught literature and composition to high school students at Maryknoll College, her alma mater, from 1970 to 1972. She did not use the prescribed textbooks, giving more weight instead to what she believed literature was all about: significant human experiences.
But Deles realized that conventional teaching was not for her. She left Maryknoll and began to explore alternative education, which she described as “working and learning” more from the communities.
She also became her brother’s assistant when he launched an adult education program that she said focused not so much on literacy “but more on developing one’s self.”
Nonviolence and peace
Deles said she not only taught the alternative lifestyle but also espoused it. Soon came “the woman question that led me to women’s work and feminism, which led me to nonviolence and peace,” she said.
Ironically Deles worked for nonviolence and peace, but she and her husband, Jojo, went through the cruelty of martial law, like other community organizers.
Her husband was picked up and detained by the military twice. Deles was spared only because she was then pregnant with their first child.
Deles found herself observing the peace talks initiated by President Corazon Aquino after the Edsa Revolution. She found the talks “hard-line and strident” and along with her colleagues who fought the Marcos dictatorship, decided that “one could not leave the peace talks to combatants.”
And the Coalition for Peace was born.
Deles said she learned the value of “talking things out” when conflicts arise from her father, the late Dr. Florencio Quintos.
“My father encouraged debates. He really cultivated a table of talking a lot and eating a lot. You are allowed to raise your voice. For him, you should be able to express yourself,” Deles said.
But being the youngest in a brood of six, Deles said she did not talk much. She was instead the “listener.” As a peace advocate who attends conferences where others get exhausted just listening, Deles has the stamina to simply listen to what her colleagues have to say.
But she also has the stamina to stand her ground and say her piece. In 2003 Deles, then the NAPC head, engaged a military general in a shouting match during a discussion of the attack on Buliok in Maguindanao province that displaced thousands of people from their homes.
Deles carried on her father’s example of encouraging his children to speak their mind in her own family because she also practiced alternative parenting.
“This includes nonviolent child rearing, which means what you promote is talking. If you are angry, you talk about it. You don’t hit people,” Deles said.
Deles has yet to have a quiet day, however, as the government and the MILF are on their way to thrashing out the annexes to the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro. She has not even had the time to celebrate, even just to toast the fruit of the hard work she has put in it.
Great ballroom dancer
In fact, she said, since she and Soliman joined the Aquino administration, they have not had time to go ballroom dancing, which she described as their joy.
Her staff says Deles is a great ballroom dancer. At her birthday party last year, she was the first to take to the dance floor and the last to leave.
But Deles is not complaining. In fact, she said, she feels a certain kind of high these days.
“I realized you could actually do it. Government is really an arena where you can make a difference, especially with the right leadership,” Deles said. When I say I am tired or overstretched, I am not complaining because it means the things I’ve been working on for so, so long are moving.”
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