If there’s an impact on human life, I get excited, because I feel that that’s what we’re all about." Photograph by Philip Sison
Culture Spotlight

How in trying to find herself, Gina Lopez found her calling to serve countless others

The philanthropist’s passing has revealed a life defined by a constant search for purpose. In this interview, she opens up about her time in the slums of Africa and how love brought her back to Manila
Yvette Tan | Aug 19 2019

Gina Lopez spent her life looking for her purpose. This quest has taken her from her privileged life in Manila to the slums of Africa. In her later years, it would bring her to the murky waters of the Pasig River which she would help clean, and the homes of abused children who needed rescuing. On the instance of her passing, we remember her as the woman who fought for the protection of the environment and for the dignity of others. In this interview published in Metro Society three years ago, when the philanthropist was newly appointed by President Duterte as Department of Environment and Natural Resources secretary, she spoke about about how finding herself led to a life of service.

 

“I’m so happy now,” Gina Lopez says as she sits in the receiving room of her home, a Mañosa oasis with a garden on each floor, and without a single straight wall. The round house is a reflection of the woman who owns it. It is a place filled with light, where the delineation between nature and man-made is almost nonexistent.

Lopez is known for her compassion for the underprivileged and her love for the environment. This love for all living things started at a young age. She describes her youth as a life in a bubble, although imbued with love, compassion, principles and integrity. “My dad was always busy, and my mom was always busy in sports yet they somehow maneuvered to create a family where love reigned. I get along with all my siblings and I have very good friends that are still good friends now, from grade school and high school,” Lopez says.

 

Finding herself

Lopez’s outlook changed at 18 when she went to Boston for college and joined a spiritual group called Ananda Marga. “When I came home, I looked for the group and the group lived in the poorest side of town, in Paco. And that gave me an exposure to another side of Manila society,” she says. “I became a missionary because I wanted to do something with my life.”

Soon, Lopez would leave Manila, dedicating her life to the Ananda Marga organization for almost 20 years. She was given the title Didi and lived in the slums of Africa, an experience that enabled her to experience deep poverty. “I had to stand in line for hours for a bucket of water, and I had to use that bucket of water to wash my hair and take a shower,” she says. “I think that’s what Africa taught me: a dislike for wasting.”

Sent by the organization to Africa with no money or contacts, Lopez had to make do on her own, without her last name to open doors for her. “If anything, it taught me how to survive based on guts and faith,” she says.

 Gina Lopez has always had a heart for service. Now, she has the opportunity to extend it to the whole country 

Lopez says that what gave her the strength and conviction to leave her family for a life of poverty and uncertainty wasn’t the organization itself, but her internal search for something more. “I think it was more me, my evolution. There was something inside of me that was looking for something and I didn’t find it in the church,” she says. “The church can be very external and ritualistic, not touching the soul…I don’t see how you can feel God if you don’t do some kind of meditation, stilling the mind, feeling peace inside.”

Her feelings about this aspect of the church have since changed. “That’s been addressed in large part by different segments of the church now,” she says. “My mother belongs to a Christian meditation group and my dad did Zen meditation which is headed by a nun and a priest. Religion does not necessarily equate to spirituality, that’s what I discovered. I think something inside of me was looking for something, so I ended up in Ananda Marga, and I ended up leaving them after a long time.”

 

Coming home

Gina’s reasons for leaving the group was twofold: one was a growing disillusionment. “In retrospect, I think the organization leaves much to be desired. In itself, it also doesn’t imbibe elements of spirituality. I mean, all organizations have some level of weaknesses, and Ananda Marga, like many others, has its own level, and this is manifested in the bosses that are there. That’s the way life is,” she says.

But the more important reason has to do with the heart. “I fell in love with my boss in Nairobi,” she says. “We took a vow of celibacy, and since the relationship was going in the way that was not in the line of celibacy, I said I’d better go home, so that’s what I did. I thought that was the honest thing to do."

Manila took a lot of getting used to. “I had a really hard time when I came home because for 20 years, I was living, I cooked, I cleaned, I did everything myself, I didn’t have maids or drivers or anything. I mean, I’m like a nothing there in Africa, and then I come here and I have all this help and I didn’t have so much to do in the beginning,” she says. “If I wasn’t pregnant, I might have gone back because I felt like there, the life was better utilized.”

She meditates every day: spirituality is important to her. “What you see is really what you get,” Berta Lopez-Feliciano says. “There’s no scripting, there’s no forethought. She’s spontaneous.” 

The hardships she went through weren't lost on those around her. “When I first started getting to know her again, she shocked me, and she continues to shock me to this day,” her sister Berta Lopez-Feliciano says. “It (was) like she had no idea what it was like to live in regular society. It was like she was someone from a different era because she just did not know anything, like from watching shows to buying things to what to wear… She was totally clueless. In the beginning, getting to know her, I was always in a state of amazement.”

So Lopez stayed put in Manila and, after some time, found her place when she became managing director of the ABS-CBN Foundation, where she spearheaded many corporate social responsibility programs more than a decade before it became a common phrase. Though Lopez found her passion in the Foundation, it was a different story when it came to her marriage. “We were together for eight years then we split, but we're still very good friends,” she says. “I think that’s the way it should be with relationships. People move forward. Why do you have to be enemies? Why not be friends? And besides, we have two kids. We’re good.”

 

A protector of children

As head of the ABS-CBN Foundation, she started with children. “I was watching a program on TV where a child was beat up by her mother continuously. The neighbors heard her screaming. They didn’t do anything about it but they knew it was happening." At the end of that program, the child would meet her death. "I was horrified. I said, maybe if there was a number that child could have called, then we could have prevented that death from happening.”

It was then that Lopez spearheaded the foundation's Project Bantay Bata, which offered an easy to remember three-digit number for abused kids, or witnesses to the abuse of children, to call for help. The project helped a lot of kids escape their unkind environment and find better lives. It also alerted the country to the prevalence of child abuse, giving the topic much needed attention. 

 

A warrior for Mother Earth

“My drive for the environment wasn’t even an intended drive. It was because one of my people came to me and said, ‘Why don’t we reforest the La Mesa watershed?’ I said, yes, and that started it: Love affair with trees,” Lopez says. An encounter with the journalist and environmental activist Gerry Ortega spurred her unease with extractive industries. She is also known for her drive to clean the Pasig River through cleaning its estuaries. “I saw that by cleaning one estero, that life changed. If there’s an impact on human life, I get excited, because I feel that that’s what we’re all about. And that’s why I love the environment: because of its massive, direct impact on human life,” she says. “I think I got that from daddy. I like to do things with impact.”

So far, Kapit Bisig Para sa Ilog Pasig has cleaned 17 out of 48 estuaries, and has started getting foreign funding to clean more. The French government, for example, has agreed to take on San Juan River, which Gina says comprises 40 percent of the Pasig River’s pollution because of its location. She says that the Pasig River can be cleaned in as little as three years, given enough funding and the proper technology. “(The communities by the clean esteros are) so much happier,” she says. “They say the economy has improved, their health has improved, happiness has improved. They’ll keep it clean because they’re benefitting. They have to benefit. That’s the key.”

 

A supporter of quality education

When it comes to education, Lopez saw the great importance of audio visuals in getting her message across. “(One of the reasons why there is) poverty is because there’s no level playing field in terms of quality of education… so I felt that if I produced audio visuals and beamed it into the public schools, it’s one way of equalizing this.” Hence, the TV show Sineskwela, which started with science because research showed that  countries with strong economic growth were countries with strong science backgrounds. The program was number one in audience share and ratings during its run, and attracted committed sponsors even before it launched. “There were two things that happened: Sineskwela rated and it was proven through tests that (the show) actually improved academic performance. I was really happy with that,” Lopez says.

The series branched out into other topics before a change in the national TV landscape made it move to cable, where it is still shown. “Now, what we’re doing is selling the packages and getting corporations to sponsor, for example, schools in their area,” Gina says.

 

Life, G style

Lopez has gone on to help others experience her philosophy of living. She started G Stuff, a retail store that sells products from different communities, with all of the proceeds going back to the communities. “I wanted to do a business when I was in ABS-CBN where I don’t have to ask for donations all the time,” she says. “We choose communities near natural resources that need to be protected because the ones who live there should be the ones who benefit.”

She also just launched G Diaries, a travel show she hosts that showcases the beauty of the Philippines. Working with her on the show is American TV director Will Harper, who has directed for shows such as Oprah and Good Morning America. They met while the latter was shooting a documentary on the environment. “What I know is that when you want something really well, my experience in life is that God sends people there,” Gina says. “[Harper] loves the environment. He’s really, really good, so now ABS-CBN is hiring him to be a dean in the university to upgrade our production skills.”

When it comes to her personal life, she tries to keep things simple. “I exercise twice a day for my bones. I’m really healthy. I take care of what I eat. I don’t like pork or beef, no white sugar—it makes me tired, no white flour. I don’t drink,” Gina says.

She grows herbs in her garden, which she fondly calls her botika. She lives a holistic lifestyle, avoiding chemicals because they’re bad for the liver and kidneys. She says her health-consciousness is a family trait. My family is really into health. [Brother] Gabby joined the Paris marathon at age 60, my brother Ernie is an Ironman, my two sisters were champions of water skiing in Southeast Asia. Berta is a diver. All of my brothers play tennis,” she says. “It runs in the family.”

She meditates every day; spirituality is important to her.

“What you see is really what you get,” Lopez-Feliciano says, speaking of her famous sister. “There’s no scripting, there’s no forethought. She’s spontaneous.”

Lopez tries to spend weekends with her elder son, who stays with her, though she says she hasn’t relaxed in a long time because she’s so busy. And yet, all the activity seems only to fuel her love for life.

“There’s a childlike quality to her. She’s very joyful. Her favorite thing is during Christmas vacation, she says, ‘Let’s play hide and seek!’ Or she’ll play patintero,” her sister Marissa Lopez-Grassi says. “She loves to play with her staff, and she loves to play basketball with her sons. She loves sports fests. Come Christmas, she loves to get the staff of all of our siblings together and she’s there with the mic and she plans the programs and hosts the shows.”

Everyone says the same thing about Lopez: that everything she does come from a place of love and an idealistic yearning for the greater good. “My vision for myself is to be able to always be aligned with my highest truth. I would like to be a conduit of light and love,” Lopez says. “I’m not going to determine what I’ll do or be, but as long as it always comes from my highest truth, that’s what I would like for myself.”

 

In service to Filipinos

Lopez’s life has gotten a lot more hectic ever since she accepted President Rodrigo Duterte’s invitation to become Secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. “My main hesitation was my spiritual life,” she says. “I didn’t say yes right away because for me, spirituality is non-negotiable… but during meditation this whole thing took on a spiritual turn. It wasn’t politics for politics. it was the fact that it was a way for me to help and how, if I played the game well, it would actually be a spiritual journey.”

“She’s a deeply spiritual person,” Lopez-Grassi says. “All her life, she’s been that way. It has always been her mission to make the world a better place to live in.”

Needless to say, the political arena is a continual test. “You inherit an environment which you didn’t make, and you’re even handicapped at changing it because of all the rules and regulations,” Lopez says. “And then you go on field and you find out that people are suffering—that’s very hard for my heart, when people suffer and especially when people suffer because my people have been corrupt. It’s really hard for me. And so the challenge there is for me to keep my cool, and that entails some spiritual muscle. You have to be strong.”

Still, this hasn’t stopped her from doing what she thinks has to be done for the good of the country. “There are times when one needs hard love, right? That sometimes, just love and sweetness all the time is not what the country always needs,” she says. “You want to be clear about what you have to do, make sure that you’re doing it not for any other agenda but one of service. The three words which I want DENR to live by are truth, service, and the common good. That’s how I ran the ABS-CBN Foundation and that’s how I want to run DENR.”

Lopez is also known for her drive to clean the Pasig River through cleaning its estuaries one by one. “I saw that by cleaning one ‘estero,’ that life changed. If there’s an impact on human life, I get excited, because I feel that that’s what we’re all about. And that’s why I love the environment: because of its massive, direct impact on human life,” she says. “I think I got that from daddy. I like to do things with impact.”

“I think that it’s only normal (for someone to encounter obstacles). What’s good is that she doesn’t let it faze her. She goes on in spite of that,” Lopez-Grassi says.

“I think it’s great that she has the job she does and I know many people sincerely believe that she’s going to do a good job,” Berta, who is helping with the DENR website, says. “Of course, there are always people who don’t think so, but I think just the passion—I think it’s such a good thing for everyone, especially now, with how difficult things are.”

Lopez has many plans for the Philippines, ones that she hopes to be able to fulfill in her capacity as a government official. “I would like to have a country where our natural resources are conserved. I want to see mangroves everywhere so that we are protected from climate change. I want to see bamboo everywhere because we can (profit from that),” she says. “I envision a country without poverty. Our people would have enough food to put on the table, enough money to send their kids to school. We can make it happen, and I feel that the way to do it is by creating models on the ground to show that it can be done.”

Lopez is genuinely in awe of the President. “I really like him. I find him genuine… He’s so humble. He’s really unassuming,” she says. “He can be hard, but there’s a genuineness and a sincerity there which resonates with me. He really has a heart for the poor. I’ve seen it. He has a heart for social justice... That’s why I continue to serve the President regardless of the chaos that may sometimes abound.”

Her family is proud of what she has achieved, and excited about the change she can effect on a nationwide scale. The task may seem daunting, but they know that it’s all in a day’s work to the woman who made it on her own in Africa. “Initially, I was really worried for her because she’s up against a lot of people who have a lot of money and they definitely don’t see eye to eye on basic things, but every time I talk to her, she’s so unafraid,” Lopez-Feliciano says. “I think it gives her an incredible platform to do all she wanted to do.”

“I think what people like the most about her is a sincerity and there’s a courage about her actions, in the ways she moves as (head of ) DENR,” Lopez-Grassi says. “She doesn’t care what people say. All that matters is that she’s helping the poor and she’s helping the environment.”

Gina Lopez has led a life intent on giving a voice to those who cannot speak for themselves. She inspires people to see the possibilities brought about by finding their best selves. “If we in this country dream and hope for the common good and commitment to integrity, I have no doubt in my heart and in my mind that our country will see the light of day.

Behind Lopez are the friends and family who have supported her in everything she’s done, and who will continue to support her through each of her endeavors. “It’s been a blessing to be born in a family where people genuinely and sincerely care for each other,” she says. “I would say I’m blessed.”

It’s true many people have been blessed in the way Gina Lopez has been. It’s also true that of the few who share the same kind of opportunities, only a handful have used them to better the lives of others. This is what makes Gina special: her love for others and her desire to see everyone become as happy as she is.

 

Photographs by Philip Sison

Styled by Sam and Sarah Policios

Metro Society December 2016 - January 2017