[I would like to share with you this story I wrote, which remains relevant to this day. Here is one individual who truly deserved the Ramon Magsaysay Award for public service. She is a Filipina ahead of her time and one I truly admire. Ms. Rosal turns 81 this year.]
Philippine domestic helper Marivic Parrenas was jailed in Saudi Arabia.
Her family told actress-turned-Red-Cross-volunteer Rosa Rosal that the pregnant Parrenas was raped by a friend of her employer. Rosal tried to get the young woman freed. “I was passed like a ping-pong ball from one [Philippine] government official to another,” she recalls. “Impossible, they all told me.” Until Fidel Ramos, then the country’s president, asked Rosal to come to the presidential palace so he could donate blood, something he has done every year on his birthday since 1953. In the 10 minutes it took to get a pint of his type “A” blood, Rosal had told him the sorry tale. “I bled him on a Tuesday,” she says. “On Thursday, Marivic was on a plane and by Friday she was back in Manila.”
So it is fitting that Rosal, 67, is being honored this year (1999) with the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service.
A woman who puts the needs of others before hers
“The board of trustees recognizes her lifetime of unstinting voluntary service, inspiring Filipinos to put the needs of others before their own,” reads her citation. Rosal has not only persuaded generations of Filipinos to donate blood and fund Red Cross centers and laboratories. She has also helped battered women, abandoned children, ill people and poor students get on with their lives.
Born Florence Lansang Danon, Rosal became a movie star at 16. She happened to walk by a film shoot and caught the eye of the producer, who cast her as the vampish other woman in another film because of her sultry looks – Rosal’s father is French-Egyptian while her mother is Filipino. Her screen name is the Filipino word for the rose (Rosa) and gardenia (Rosal). The new star’s cleavage and 22-inch waist caught the public’s imagination. “I became very controversial,” Rosal laughs. In hot weather, she would wear tight sweaters. When everyone else was cold, she would sashay in an off-the-shoulder gown.
Rosal won a local best actress award in 1955. She played a peasant in Poverty’s Child (Anak Dalita) and a tribal princess in Badjao, films that were showered with accolades at the Asian Film Festival in 1956 and 1957. She fought for and won the role of a 60-year-old woman in the Philippine film classic Earth’s Bounty (Biyaya ng Lupa) in 1959. By then, she was getting tired of the movies.
It had destroyed her marriage. Her husband, Walter Gayda, an American pilot she met in Hong Kong, did not know she was a star even as they wrote and phoned each other over three months. “I didn’t think it was important,” says Rosal. “If a person loves you, he loves you for what you are.”
Gayda was unnerved when reporters mobbed him upon his arrival in Manila for the wedding. During their honeymoon in Hawaii, Rosal appeared on TV with Philippine boxer Flash Elorde, who had just won a world championship. He presented her with his gloves. “Walter couldn’t take that,” she says. “We quarreled. The next day, he was not there.” Gayda died in a car accident a decade later. The brief union produced a daughter, Toni Rose.
A woman transforms her own pain
“When I realized it was over, I took a deep breath and went on with life,” says Rosal. A different life, as it turned out. She started helping the Red Cross’s blood-donation campaigns in 1948. (Rosal first met soldier Ramos in 1953, when he was a member of the Philippine Expeditionary Forces to Korea, and she was in Seoul with a Red Cross mission.) When sex movies became popular in the Philippines in the 1960s, she spent more and more time on volunteer work.
Rosal pioneered mass blood-donation campaigns and acquired the country’s first equipment to detect the AIDS virus in blood. She also hosted public-service shows on radio and TV. Rosal says she will use her $50,000 prize money to set up the Rosa Rosal Foundation to fund scholarships. She will still solicit contributions for her other projects. Once, she wanted 25,000 pesos ($657) to buy an air-conditioning unit for the babies of a Manila orphanage. A well-known corporation offered her coffee and told her someone would call. “I didn’t believe them,” says Rosal, “so I came back.” And returned again. They stopped serving her coffee. Rosal persisted “until they finally gave me the money.”
She has been equally firm when asked to run for public office: “The Red Cross has to be neutral.” But she is glad that another celebrity, fellow actor Joseph Estrada, took the plunge and is now the country’s president. Estrada donated 3 million pesos ($78,950) in public money to renovate a blood-testing laboratory. Rosal wants more. Only three Asian countries – Bangladesh, India and the Philippines – do not fund the Red Cross in a big way, she says. “Before I die or his term is up, I hope he will allocate 100 million pesos a year for the blood program, so no Filipino will die for lack of blood.” You heard her, Mr. President. When it comes to public service, Rosa Rosal will not take no for an answer.