Gina Lopez.
Photo by Niccolo Cosme courtesy of PEOPLEASIA magazine
Gina Lopez: She wanted to change the world, & she did
PEOPLE - Joanne Rae M. Ramirez (The Philippine Star) - September 3, 2019 - 12:00am

‘I left Forbes Park to live in Paco, where the other missionaries of the movement lived. And then I left for Africa. I once lived in a slum area in Kenya that did not even have a toilet. I slept only on the floor, for we were not allowed to sleep on a soft surface.’

When private citizen Gina Lopez, 65, breathed her last on Aug. 19 this year, the Philippines grieved. She wielded no political power, but had made as much a difference in the country as legislation and Supreme Court rulings.

Among her lasting legacies was Bantay Bata 163, which rescues children who are victims of domestic violence. She called it a “gift of love to Filipino children.”

Through another advocacy, Bantay Kalikasan, Gina championed the rehabilitation of the 2,700-hectare La Mesa Watershed and the development of the La Mesa Eco-Park.

In 2016, President Duterte appointed Gina head of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). Unfortunately, her appointment was not confirmed by the Commission on Appointments.

Nineteen years ago, I interviewed Gina, who had then just begun Bantay Bata, for PeopleAsia magazine. At the time, she was adjusting to living in the Philippines after being away for 20 years as a missionary of Ananda Marga, described as a “social-spiritual organization” founded in India.

This was her story.

*   *   *

She lived the first half of her life in Forbes Park, and the next half in a series of hovels. Just after her 18th birthday, she joined a religious group that she thought was going to change the world. For it, Gina Lopez gave up her family, her religion, her affluent lifestyle and herself.

“When I was at the movement, I was so sure it was going to change the world. I sincerely believed it,” recalls Gina, eldest daughter of the late tycoon Eugenio Lopez Jr. and the former Chita La’O, and now the managing director of the ABS-CBN Foundation.

Looking at her with her well-coifed shoulder-length hair and designer dress, it is hard to imagine she once had only two sets of clothes.

“I was magnetized by the movement. Joining it was not a rational decision. I just went,” she recalls.

“I left Forbes Park to live in Paco, where the other missionaries of the movement lived. And then I left for Africa. I once lived in a slum area in Kenya that did not even have a toilet. I slept only on the floor, for we were not allowed to sleep on a soft surface,” she recounts over lunch of brown rice and sautéed vegetables. Her strict vegetarian diet is about the only vestige left of her 20 years with the movement.

Because she was totally devoted to the movement, she tried to forget that she had parents, brothers and sisters.

“I wasn’t allowed to see my family and not even allowed to write them. I tried to pretend they did not exist, but every time I would enter the Philippine embassy or consulate in Africa, my heart would bleed,” she remembers.

Now a mother herself, Gina believes that the worst thing any movement can do to its members is to sever them from their roots.

“You can imagine how my parents reacted when I left them. If my son joined a group like that I’d get totally freaked out!” she admits.

Geny and Chita tried to get Gina back three times, and each time, she ran away.

“They even tried to put me in a rehab center just to reprogram me,” she confesses. But nothing could come between her and Ananda Marga. Her devotion to it had to run its course.

But there was a time when Gina tried to sneak in a call to her parents, her first in about 11 years.

“I was finally in a house that had a phone!” she recalls, squealing in delight at the memory. “They couldn’t believe it. At the time, they were already living in exile in San Francisco.”

After that, her parents visited her twice, hoping to win her back anew. “Both times, I was crying and crying. I was totally torn. Daddy was very emotional himself,” she remembers.

But again, Gina chose the movement over her family. “I was still very obsessed with the group,” she says. It was not till she fell in love with a fellow missionary—within the movement, members are reportedly not supposed to even look at the face of the opposite sex—that Gina slowly broke away.

She returned home to Manila and her then future husband followed her. “After years of living with a movement where you’re supposed to have no family…and then you come back and then find yourself in a very socially prominent family…I had such a hard time adjusting. I tried to contact the movement. It was my source of security. I did not even know what to wear. In Africa, we were only eating with our hands. So I had to adjust to eating with the fork and spoon again!” she says.

The point of no return came when she lost faith in the leader of the movement, “who was once my god,” she reveals. And then her children—both boys—started coming.

While she was teetering on the brink of her past, Gina chanced upon a news report about a five-year-old who had just died at the hands of her own mother. “She was beat up continuously for two years by her mother and in the end, she died. They showed the mother, and they interviewed the neighbors, one of whom said she would often see the child with welts and bruises. And none of the neighbors did anything until it was too late! I thought they were as much to blame as the mother,” Gina believes.

Gina realized that maybe, just maybe, if the child had a phone number she could have called to ask for help, she would still have been alive.

Thus was born Bantay Bata 163. The number “163” Gina begged from another cause-oriented group, which was given exclusive right to the number. But the group readily understood Gina’s point: children should be given a number they could easily call whenever they are threatened. And to date, thousands have.

When her father Geny was alive, he took much pride in Gina’s work. When she told him her dream was to give a TV set to every public school in Metro Manila, Geny Lopez organized a breakfast meeting to help his daughter come up with the TV sets.

Happiness nowadays for Gina, who has remained in good terms with her ex-husband, is being a mother. “This is the happiest time of my life,” she declares.

Gina Lopez has traveled far and wide in search of her purpose in life. In the arms of her two sons, she has found herself. And in helping others, she has found fulfillment.

And she really might just change the world.

(You may e-mail me at joanneraeramirez@yahoo.com. Follow me on Instagram @joanneraeramirez.)

BANTAY BATA 163 BANTAY KALIKASAN DEPARTMENT OF ENVIRONMENT AND NATURAL RESOURCES GINA LOPEZ
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