Art/Style/Travel Diaries

How octogenarian Cecile Guidote-Alvarez rushed to the beauty salon to tackle West Philippine Sea

The cancer and COVID survivor continues her 57-year-old radio show, after having given the Filipino the national treasures that are Balintataw and PETA

Cecile Guidote-Alvarez continues to host Radyo Balintataw on DZRH at home. (Photo by Totel V. de Jesus)

Cecile Guidote was Ramon Magsaysay Awardee at 28 years old, the youngest Filipino to receive the prestigious award at that time, shown here at the gravesite of President Ramon Magsaysay after receiving the award.

On a rainy Saturday afternoon not so long ago when internet connection was fluctuating in most homes, the 80-year-old Cecile Guidote-Alvarez, widow of the late Senator Heherson Alvarez, carrying a mini iPad, hurriedly alighted from a three-wheeled pedicab Toktok and stormed her way into a popular coffee shop in a mall in Manila.

A senior citizen in panic mode, she told the stunned baristas she’s looking for a Wi-Fi connection because she was about to interview retired Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonio Carpio via Zoom.

The coffee shop, a known world brand, has Wi-Fi exclusive to its employees, so the old lady was told to try other establishments. She went from one coffee shop to another only to be told the same, until a kind stranger led her to a well-known beauty salon with a free internet connection.

The lady salon attendant was very accommodating to the octogenarian, even typing the password on her IPad. Of course, she needed to avail herself of their salon services.  Initially, she opted for a haircut, but since she needed to talk and hear clearly who she was talking to, she settled for a foot spa with pedicure.

“They lowered the volume of the piped-in music, and since there were less customers because it’s been raining all day, I was able to do my interview,” Guidote-Alvarez said.

For the next half-an-hour, the hair dressers and manicurists working with their scissors, nail clippers and cuticle removers on their customers’ hair and fingernails, listened to Carpio and Guidote-Alvarez discussed how Filipino fishermen and the Philippine Navy ships helplessly negotiate their ways in Scarborough Shoal amid the territorial disputes in the West Philippine Sea.

“They were all very nice to me. I was able to finish my interview, with newly pedicured nails,” she told The Diarist.

For those who’ve worked with Guidote-Alvarez, her steadfast, almost stubborn, nature to accomplish a task, is nothing out of the ordinary. She would improvise, find alternatives, call up friends and former students, wake them up from sleep, just to get things done.

But now, in her 80s, legally blind and nearly deaf, she has mellowed down.

Cecile Alvarez with her mentors, National Artist for Literature Alejandro Roces, Jr and Fr. James Reuter. SJ

In her twilight years, Guidote-Alvarez has been solely hosting the 57-year-old Radyo Balintataw on DZRH, one of the oldest radio stations in the Philippines, where she tackles a wide range of topics, from climate change, women’s health, theater, culture, dance, to current issues, apart from playing old recordings of classic radio plays she produced and directed, dating back to the late ‘80s.

She shared with TheDiarist.ph how she started and continues to host one of the longest running advocacy programs on AM Radio.

In the late 1960s, Cecile Alvarez and Robert Arevalo performed in alternative venues the two-hander ‘A Wedding Dance,’ an adaptation by Alberto Florentino of a short story about an Igorot folktale by Amador Daguio. They would later co-host ‘Balintataw TV’ on Channel 5. (Photo from Cecile Alvarez)

Theater on TV

After founding the Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA) on April 7, 1967, or exactly 57 years ago, Guidote-Alvarez thought of the need to expose PETA’s members to television, so she started conceptualizing Balintataw, which in Filipino means the pupil of the eye, but in a larger context has something to do with having wild imagination, or what you might see if you have a third eye.

‘I designed to have Balintataw as a bridge between cinema and the stage….’

“I designed Balintataw as a bridge between cinema and the stage, where the youth being trained in theater skills can have a ready-made laboratory experience linked with the film and entertainment industry that would likewise have a natural on-the-job training and orientation regarding the theatrical discipline of working with a literary script, whether dramatic or comic—not the regular improvised script done on taping or copycat scripts from foreign themes,” Guidote-Alvarez wrote in her yet-to-be published Memoir of a Freedom Fighter’s Wife.

“A primary goal when I conceived PETA was to initiate and sustain artistic expression that draws meaning and power from the lives of the people, and sharing the literary gems with a greater number of audiences through a Broadcast Theater-Film Program with Balintataw on Channel 5,” she added.

“No matter how little the pay, at least it provided our local writers with a little honorarium. I sought permission for award-winning pieces of the Palanca Playwriting contest to be fleshed out to reach the masses. The much-awarded playwright Bert Florentino served as our literary manager, assisted by Mauro Avena. Eventually, Isagani Cruz took over when Bert left for the US,” she wrote.

“Writers need exposure and encouragement through a regular TV performance that will give them a sense of achievement and inspire them to keep on writing with some kind of honorarium. I was glad Lupita Aquino (now Kashiwahara) agreed to be TV director and Robert Arevalo as TV host.

She got members of the PETA Kalinangan Ensemble to serve as stage directors. “This is to undertake preliminary preparation with a rehearsal with the actors for character development and memorization and preliminary staging,” she wrote.

Five months after PETA was founded, Balintataw TV premiered on Channel 5 on Aug. 19, 1967, coinciding with the Buwan ng Wika birthdate of President Manuel Luis Quezon.

The first play, whose title escapes her now, featured Armida Siguion-Reyna and Maria Eva “Chingbee” Kalaw. She employed photo journalist and award-winning photographer/documentarist/cinematographer, Romy Vitug, to work with her in filming outdoor scenes for Balintataw.

Among those initiated into television were Lino Brocka, Elwood Perez, Nick Lizaso, Maryo delos Reyes, Mario O’Hara, Joey Gosiengfiao, Behn Cervantes, and Frank Rivera

In the pre-Martial Law Balintataw, among those initiated into television were Lino Brocka, Elwood Perez, Nick Lizaso, Maryo delos Reyes, Mario O’Hara, Joey Gosiengfiao, Behn Cervantes, and Frank Rivera.

Among the stage actors who crossed over to television were Lily Gamboa, Angie Ferro, Lorlie Villanueva, Jonee Gamboa, Joy Soler, Sherry Lara, Gardy Labad, Noel Trinidad.

Like with PETA, Guidote-Alvarez directed and managed Balintataw for five years. Because of Martial Law, she and husband Heherson went on exile in the US to escape a military shoot-to-kill order on Heherson, who was tagged as a subversive.

Post-Martial Law

Internationally acclaimed auteur Lav Diaz mentioned in several interviews how he learned writing radio and TV scripts in Balintataw.

This happened in the late 1980s, when the Alvarez couple  returned from exile.

Despite its absence on the air in the Martial Law years, Balintataw  was honored by Star Awards as among the 20 unforgettable outstanding broadcast programs in the Philippines.

“This encouraged me to consider reviving Balintataw on TV. Another blessing was a FAMAS award for having an important role in the development of cinema recognizing Balintataw as a bridge for synergizing cinema with the stage, providing a pathway of entry of our PETA artists into film and for movie stars to consider enriching their experience by acting on the legitimate stage,” Guidote-Alvarez wrote.

Though she didn’t return to PETA anymore because it had been surviving well and had its own set of officers led by Brocka, she just tapped some of its members for the return of Balintataw.

For 14 years, the Alvarez couple lived in the US as political exiles, shown here during a Ninoy Aquino Movement meeting. Cecile revived Radyo Balintataw upon their return in the late 1980s.

Channel 4 stint

“I arranged to revive TV Balintataw on Channel 4 in 1989. We began with a drama about a rebel returnee, title escapes me now, but I clearly remember it was written by Lualhati Bautista and directed by Maryo de los Reyes. We also had a good story series on the hazing of Lenny Villa, an Aquila Legis Frat neophyte,” she wrote.

At the time, Heherson had been elected senator after having served as Agrarian Reform Minister and eventually Cabinet Secretary during the first year of the Cory Aquino Administration.

“We were able to unravel the deadly hazing process from a fellow neophyte who broke the code of silence as we revealed graphically, acted the cruel process used. I had Jose Mari Avellana direct it. This presentation won all the awards.  Lav Diaz was training with us and he started writing teleplays. We also had Nora Aunor in an adaptation of Bert Florentino’s The World Is An Apple, adapted by Frank Rivera, and I had Nick Lizaso direct.”

Balintataw TV was selected as one of five soaps for social change recognized by Emmy Awards

Emmy Awards

Balintataw TV was selected as one of five soaps for social change recognized by Emmy Awards. The Philippines was one of five countries cited, with Mexico, India, Brazil and Kenya.

“The nomination was made possible by the wonderful support from David Poindexter. It was a supreme honor for our country to be recognized in the Emmy Awards, to be cited among the five Third World countries using soap opera for social change.”

Poindexter was a Methodist minister and TV producer who founded the Population Communications International.

Surviving on radio

“In spite of the cry about how television can be deadening the minds of the people with copied themes with an eternal favorite love triangle story, there was really no funding for Balintataw,” she wrote.

 “Sponsors would go naturally to the commercial stations where big stars were paid highly for the starring role. Balintataw may have substance but we could not afford payment of bankable stars,” she added.

“Financial stress forced me to drop TV and remain on radio because I didn’t want to kill Balintataw per se just because we didn’t have funds.”

Creative classroom

“We have focused on Balintataw as a creative classroom on the air. I was able to talk to Fred J. Elizalde of DZRH and the president of the network, Mr. Jun Nicdao,” she wrote.

In the ‘80s, the HIV/AIDS became a global epidemic and in the Philippines, the general populace was still clueless on how to deal with it.

“In order to get funding, the first series I did was about the explosive news regarding AIDS in Asia. I got the DOH Secretary at the time, Dr. Juan Flavier, to act as himself, providing the data. It was easier to start off with an AIDS radio serial.

They did a minimum of 13 episodes to raise awareness about the disease.

“From then on, some of our television scripts we transformed into a radio version. DZRH provided us with our initial production staff, so we used some from the network and some of its resident artists and drama talents. Our time slots were changing but always coming after the long-running horror drama, Gabi ng Lagim.

“We worked on the themes of overseas workers, the drug problem, corruption, aside from portraying contemporary and literary classics serving as social commentaries,” she wrote.

Women playwrights

“We dramatized the works of noted women writers and playwrights like Estrella Alfon, Genoveva Edroza Matute and Marilou Jacob, who is distinguished in being a founding president of Women’s Playwright International.


“Apart from our PETA staple of writers, we involved young, upcoming and budding university and community theater groups.

“We also had a lot of foreign plays, where we could feature theater festivals beyond borders. We could do Shakespeare, we could do Euripides but also the current playwrights in the Arab region we translated in our language.

“We brought in Chinese contemporary plays, Malaysian, Indonesian and from other women writers from ASEAN member countries.”

‘Balintataw’ became a regular daily program on DZRH in the 1990s, up to this day. In this undated file photo, with guests are co-hosts Robert Arevalo (third from left, standing), Cecile Alvarez (center), actress Angie Ferro (third from right), voice actor Noel Mallonga (rightmost), known as the voice of Big Bert Arsmtrong in the original ‘Voltes V’ on TV. Seated are veteran journalist Joe Lad Santos (2nd from left) and Hexilon Alvarez (rightmost). (Photo courtesy of Cecile Alvarez)

Virtual history book

“The significance of Balintataw is portrayed as a virtual history book on audio as it unveiled events in the country. Radio is fresh, instant and up-to date,” she added.

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, Balintataw became Guidote-Alvarez’s outlet and therapy. Having lost her husband on the second month of the pandemic,  a widow cocooned at home, she began hosting it six days a week, learning how to use an iPad and interviewing via Zoom.

The word “Balintataw” has been associated with her name.

Visual artist and editorial cartoonist Benjie Lontoc in casual meeting told us how in his younger days, when AM Radio was a national past-time, he was surprised to hear a Filipino adaptation of No Exit by Jean Paul-Sarte. This was when radio was airing soap, fantasy adventures targeting housewives and children.

Another was the airing of Larawan as a radio play in the 1990s, with Guidote-Alvarez as the voice of Candida Marasigan.

Leopoldo Salcedo (left) as Manolo in a confrontation scene with Dante Rivero as Tony Javier in PETA’s 1968 ‘Larawan’ directed by Cecile Guidote-Alvarez. (Photo from PETA archives)

In the 1960s, she directed Larawan, the first Filipino adaptation of Joaquin’s A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino for PETA’s second season. It ran from December 1968  to January 1969 at the Raha Sulayman Theater at Fort Santiago in Intramural. In the cast were Rita Gomez (Candida), Lolita Rodriguez (Paula), Leopoldo Salcedo (Don Manolo) and Dante Rivero (Tony Javier).

Guidote-Alvarez has a funny recollection of the radio play.  It was Nick Joaquin himself who told her years ago how his pedicurist suddenly started a conversation about Larawan.

Nick Joaquin was relaxing on the barber’s chair when the lady pedicurist asked him how Larawan would end

Joaquin was relaxing on the barber’s chair having a post-haircut pedicure and foot spa when the lady pedicurist asked him how the story would end. Joaquin was stunned because he didn’t want to be known in the barber shop as Nick Joaquin the famous National Artist for Literature, but just a regular customer.

“He told me he almost fell out from the chair. He was a very private person and the pedicurist recognized him as the playwright,” Guidote-Alvarez, laughing, told TheDiarist.ph.

When she was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2000, she was given only three years to live.  It’s been more than two decades since then. She has also conquered COVID-19 twice.

Over and beyond her work in theater and various advocacies, Guidote-Alvarez is among the few surviving practitioners of AM Radio broadcasting.

The beauty salon incident wasn’t a first for the octogenarian radio host. She occasionally went back there to interview guests and record her shows whenever Wi-Fi connections in her home fluctuated.

Despite all setbacks, man-made or otherwise, the steadfast Cecile Guidote-Alvarez’s voice continues to be heard in this mass media platform in an era that knows mainly Spotify.  As  Joaquin wrote, “to remember and to sing, that is her vocation.”

(Except Saturday, Radyo Balintataw airs daily on DZRH 666 Khz AM radio after ‘Gabi ng Lagim’, and live streamed on radio.org.ph. Some episodes have been uploaded on YouTube.)


Newsletter
Sign up for our Newsletter

Sign up for Diarist.ph’s Weekly Digest and get the best of Diarist.ph, tailored for you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.