In the Crosshairs of History: The Lopez Family

(Interviewed and written by Maria A. Ressa)

Every time a  budding dictator is set to consolidate power in the Philippines, he attacks the Lopez family. 

In a way, that makes sense because that family has run - whether in the ‘70s or today - the most modern and influential broadcast network in the country, ABS-CBN. In 1972, when then-president Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law, he shut down ABS-CBN, and it remained dark for 14 years. 

Branded an “oligarch” by Marcos in the ‘70s, the family paid a steep price: Eugenio “Eñing” Lopez was forced to hand over all the family’s companies to Marcos in exchange for the freedom of his son, Eugenio “Geny” Lopez, Jr, who was arrested and detained on November 27, 1972. It was  a promise Marcos never fulfilled. Eñing would die of cancer in San Francisco without seeing Geny, who was never charged with a crime but spent 5 years in prison.

Geny’s wife, Conchita, smuggled messages from her husband to the outside world and mobilized her family and the international community when Geny decided to mount a hunger strike in 1974. 3 years later, Conchita and her sons, 25 year old, Eugenio “Gabby” Lopez III, and 20 year old Raffy, would help Geny escape and - along with their family - go into exile in San Francisco. 

“It’s deja vu,” Conchita told Rappler in her first ever interview on July 21, 2020, from her home in San Francisco. The 90-year-old Lopez matriarch is now remarried and living in the US, where she joins protest rallies against abuses of power in the Philippines. “We’re in exactly the same situation … so it’s terrible. I don’t know what to say. Who would think that we would go through something like this again in our lifetime?”

Her youngest daughter, 58-year-old Roberta Lopez Feliciano, also spoke for the first time, saying she was “angry” after the shutdown of ABS-CBN and the targeting of her family. It is back to the future: President Rodrigo Duterte echoed Marcos, calling the Lopezes “oligarchs” he was able to control without declaring martial law. (Read: Constitutional prerogative gone wrong)

“I feel like I’m in Alice in Wonderland. I mean, everything is possible,” Roberta told me. “Anything anyone can conjure up in their head is possible. So it instills a lot of fear and dread in people because you don’t know what to expect any more.”

“I never felt fear the way I do now,” Roberta added, comparing today with her memories of martial law. “Now I feel there is nothing protecting me. The laws can be turned and twisted according to however they want to read it.”

Our interview came days after the release of a zoom video of lawmakers discussing confiscating the land and facilities of ABS-CBN, decried by some lawmakers as unconstitutional.

“It’s almost like somebody coming to my house and saying, ‘I want your house. Give it to me, and it’s mine and get out.’ I mean how can anybody do that?” Roberta asked. “This is my home. I built it. My name is on the title. What gives you the right to do that to me? And I feel that that’s what they’re doing - and every day, they conjure up something else. And I think to myself, ‘every day this is what you’re thinking of? How to do harm and evil to people? Why aren’t you thinking about helping our nation?’”

I’ve never met these two women, but I worked for Gabby Lopez for 6 years. He first tried to recruit me in early 2000, an offer I turned down then, but in 2004, when he talked to me again, I read everything I could about the Lopezes, ABS-CBN, and Gabby. 

After thinking it through, I accepted the job of running the largest news group in the Philippines. It was time to come home: I was old enough to have real experience but young enough to want to make a difference.

Living through the ups and downs of history instilled values of freedom into the Lopezes.  I saw it firsthand in February 2006 when then-president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo declared a state of emergency and threatened to take away the network’s franchise if it didn’t stop news coverage. Gabby stood his ground. (And an ethical decision the news group made - I believe - prevented the coup from materializing, and yes, I told his mom about it in the interview.) 

Rappler and I have also been under attack by the Duterte administration for the past 4 years so when you watch the interview, keep in mind that we are who we are. Three things struck me as I spoke to them:

1. The parallels of history: the collapsing economy; the burgeoning debt and escalating borrowings; the impunity of power consolidating power; the tax evasion cases filed against the Lopezes, which were thrown out by the courts then (Rappler and I face 5 tax evasion cases, and we did the interview a day before my arraignment on tax evasion).

2. At 90 years old, Conchita is wonderfully liberated: she spoke candidly about the freedom to embrace who she is in the United States and the lessons she learned not just about her marriage and family but about our nation’s democracy. Some of what she said made us laugh because it was shocking to hear, but it was a testament that time heals all wounds. 

3. Roberta is a fusion of East and West, the product of making lemonade out of the lemons the family was dealt. She remembers how she grew up and how the family became closer together in exile. She talked about their odd jobs, hers in Taco Bell, her brothers’ newspaper routes, and why she chose to come home to Manila: “I will defend my home as much as I can.”

Both Lopez ladies share the same lesson from history, something I’ve heard the eldest Lopez daughter, the once feisty and rebellious Gina, say when we were discussing Marcos historical revisionism. (She died of cancer on August 19, 2019).

“You can’t take freedom for granted. I really did. I never thought anything like this would happen,” Roberta said, at one point near tears. “But apparently, it can always happen again … and I know I’m in a very privileged position, and I have so many things that others don’t have.”

Roberta calls on those who have more to #HoldTheLine. 

“I feel that now it’s almost my duty to do something - because who else is going to push? Who else is going to hold the line? People who don’t have food on the table, they can only think about the next meal. And they’re so vulnerable to any opportunistic element that comes in and says, ‘I’ll pay you, but do this.’ So we who have more privileges in this country, I think we have to be the frontliners.”

My takeaway from our conversation? While the men in the Lopez family have taken the spotlight of history, the women hold up more than half the sky. Theirs is a quiet strength that comes from enduring values, faith and love. 

The Duterte administration harnessed that passion in Gina Lopez, but Conchita and Roberta, once content to support behind the scenes, are now using their voices to sound the alarm. 

Every generation gets the democracy it deserves. 

“There’s something intrinsically wrong with the system,” Roberta said. “It will never matter who’s in the places or positions of power. The system allows abuses to happen.” 

Conchita warned against making power “an ego trip ... You may kick the people out, but the system is still there, and if you have not become better people by what you have done, it will happen again.”

This family knows the cycles of history. -– Rappler.com