Here Lies Love, stolen wealth, and dead bodies
The soon to premiere Broadway musical tells Imelda Marcos’ life story, but will it include key events from the conjugal dictatorship?
May 14, 2023
The full cast for the Broadway show “Here Lies Love” was recently announced at the start of the month. While it is notable to see the first all-Filipino company on Broadway, the achievement is dwarfed by the plot and context of their musical.
“Here Lies Love” tells the tale of Imelda Marcos, the Marcos family matriarch, known for her love of shoes, shiny things and soirees. During a 2010 interview with TIME Magazine, producer David Byrne stated that “he’d like listeners to ‘reluctantly empathize’ with his version of her.”
In that same spirit, I’d like readers to understand the real version of Imelda Marcos –– not the one known for dancing, singing or her vast collection of footwear and dresses.
Imelda was not driven to her status by some “human drive” or “passion.” She was not a reluctant player in the Martial Law era. She was not trapped by nor a victim of her circumstance in marrying a dictator. After all, Imelda and Ferdinand Sr.’s marriage was dubbed the “conjugal dictatorship,” a term highlighting the equal power balance between the two. Especially considering that Imelda wielded far more political influence compared to previous first ladies.
Imelda wooed heads of states, monarchs and various elite members of society but underneath her Charles Jourdans were the graves of activists, journalists and political opponents.
She was a cunning political player with an edifice complex to match.
Here Lies (Stolen) Wealth
Imelda had a love for the grandiose, whether it be her seemingly endless supply of luxury goods, the various buildings and American penthouses in her name or her own public projects, she was not known for subtlety.
The Marcoses owned various properties outside of the Philippines. In New York alone, they owned four skyscrapers; the Crown Building, the Herald Center, 200 Madison Avenue, and 40 Wall Street which is now known as the Trump Building (not to be confused with the Trump Tower). Those are only a few of their land holdings; it is reported that there are more properties in Hawaii, California, Washington, New Jersey, Texas, Europe and Asia.
When Filipinos stormed the Presidential Palace during the People Power Revolution, they discovered the infamous shoe collection left behind by the First Lady. Over 2,700 pairs of shoes –– it was a range of locally-made footwear and luxury designer kicks.
It seems insane to own such a large quantity of shoes, let alone leave them behind. What’s even more egregious is the trail of suffering that the Marcos family left in their wake.
Here Lies Dead Bodies
While chairwoman of the Cultural Center of The Philippines, Imelda ordered the rushed construction of the Manila Film Center, a part of the Cultural Center of The Philippines Complex, which would be the venue of the Manila International Film Festival in January 1982. On Nov. 17, 1981, during the construction process, a scaffolding collapsed sending over 150 workers into quick-drying wet cement. Their bodies were never retrieved and still lay under the building.
During the Martial Law era, the Philippine government imprisoned 70,000 Filipinos. 34,000 were tortured. Over 3,200 were killed.
As officers from the Philippine Constabulary buried the bodies, the Marcoses were counting the cash. An estimated $10 billion was embezzled and hidden by the Marcos family throughout their initial 21 years in power. The Philippine government has yet to recover the full amount of the stolen wealth.
Here Lie The Facts
“Here Lies Love” might make you believe that Imelda just fell into wealth and power. After all, she had no way of knowing that her husband would soon become a powerful dictator. One could make the argument that since divorce is illegal in the Philippines, she really had no way of escaping.
To assume these things are easy. It’d sure make things a lot easier for Imelda. But the truth of the matter is that she has been found by multiple courts to be responsible for the atrocities committed during her family’s regime.
In 1995, the US District Court of Hawaii held Imelda and her son, current Philippine President, Bongbong Marcos in contempt for “contumacious conduct causing direct harm to [a class of human rights victims].”
Imelda and Bongbong were the named representatives after the death of Ferdinand Sr. in 1989 and they were also the executors of the late dictator’s estate. The contempt judgment has reached over $350 million and was upheld as recently as 2019 when US District Court of Hawaii judge Derrick Watson extended the order until Jan. 25, 2031.
In 1989, a US District Court in Washington found Ferdinand Sr. and Imelda responsible for the 1981 murder of two labor activists in the United States. Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes were members of the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union and were assassinated in retaliation for their efforts in organizing with other Filipino Americans against the Marcos government. The court also found them liable for running a surveillance network that spied on political opponents.
As recently as May 5, 2023, the Sandiganbayan, the appellate court which oversees criminal and civil cases of graft and corruption by public officials in the Philippines, rejected a motion filed by Imelda and her daughter, Irene, to reacquire properties and assets previously sequestered by the Philippine Commission on Good Governance as the assets were deemed “illegally obtained.”
The Marcos family would love to have you believe in the mythology of the Marcoses. They would prefer if their plundered wealth stopped becoming a topic of conversation. They would rather have you forget about Liliosa Hilao, Gene Viernes, Silme Domingo, Archimedes Trajano, Emmanuel Lacaba, Maria Lorena Barros and many others who were killed as a result of the Marcos family’s quest for irrevocable power.
In the years since the People Power Revolution that overthrew Ferdinand Marcos Sr., the Marcos family has made their comeback to the Philippine political stage.
Imelda was elected as a congresswoman multiple times in 1995, 2010, 2013 and 2016.
Imee Marcos, Imelda and Ferdinand’s eldest daughter, served as a congresswoman, governor and is currently a senator.
Bongbong was elected as governor, congressman, senator and is now the current president of the Philippines.
Their efforts to return to the Presidential Palace were not without opposition but in a country easily swayed by lavish lifestyles, celebrity status, and disinformation, their ascent back into power proved to be an easy win for historical revisionism.
Now, this is not to say that I completely condemn “Here Lies Love” or even its premise. At best, it seems like a weird, interesting and inappropriate take on an extremely important period in my country’s history. At worst, it can be an example of the historical revisionism that the Marcoses actively engage in.
I write this only as a warning and to lay out the facts. Imelda and her family are not heroes as their supporters describe them. Nor are they the devil incarnate as their strongest opponents (myself included) might make them out to be.
They are a family of thieves, murderers, and political opportunists. There are many like them. There will undoubtedly be many more after them.
The line between glorification and demonization is a thin one, and therein lies the danger. To idolize and to demonize a person is to dehumanize them. Both imply that one is superhuman, that one is vastly different from the rest of us, no matter what our opinion of them may be.
Imelda, Ferdinand Sr., and their children are mortal humans like us, from dust we are and to dust we shall return. They have done irreparable damage to the Philippines and have committed some of the most grotesque human rights abuses in the country’s history.
To fully demonize and dehumanize them is to allow the perpetuation of the Marcos mythology. It allows for them to escape the idea that they too can be held accountable for their crimes. It turns them into the boogeyman, a monster that can neither be defeated nor held captive. It tells the rest of us that humans are incapable of cultivating and promoting the suffering of others.
It is a fallacy.
I have yet to see the musical, since it’s only playing on Broadway and hasn’t yet come to the Bay Area. But I know that once it makes its premiere here, I will be in attendance, watching skeptically and knowing the true history and context behind the glitz and glamor.
“Here Lies Love” can claim to be an anti-Marcos production, but if it fails to portray the active role that Imelda played during the conjugal dictatorship, then it will have failed as an accurate representation of the horrors she and her family are complicit in.
Imelda herself once said that “perception is real, truth is not.”