Tuesday, January 10, 2023



Consul Dan Sullivan and his wife Margaret and their youngest son Charley


by Margaret Sullivan

Writer and artist Margaret Sullivan lived in Cebu 50 plus years ago. Her connections there have continued as she returned to cover Aquino elections in the 80s and was Executive Director of the Philippine Centennial Foundation in the 90s. Much of this included in “Fragments From a Mobile Life.” 

How does one begin to write about living in Cebu where we arrived 52 years ago—a place with people tucked permanently in your heart? I could fill a book.

From August 1971 to June 1974, my husband, Dan, was the American Consul in Cebu. The Consulate, a small suite of offices on the third floor of the Phil-Am Life Building, was the branch of the Embassy in Manila. As Consul, Dan was the official face of the United States in the Visayas and Mindanao.

He, and, therefore, we, were in a succession of Consuls and Vice Consuls who came, stayed a while, and moved elsewhere. Marisol Borromeo Putong, the long-time secretary provided continuity, and in reality was the Consulate. Marisol knew everyone. Without her, the Consulate could not have functioned.


Consequently, I was the Consul’s Wife (although not official, that title was just as real as Dan’s). For both of us, his role conferred a complicated mix of highly visible responsibility and unique opportunity. In many ways, we lived in a fishbowl.

The Consul’s residence was a high-ceilinged, board-and-batten house, not far from the Consulate and the American School. As we had moved from one tropical city to another (Cebu was the fourth), geckos became our house familiars. And grist for my artist’s mill. Soon after we moved in, I climbed a ladder, outlined curvy geckos on the ceiling and a back wall with a fat black crayon, chose several colors—blue, orange-brown, or deep rose—and painted in the shapes. When I finished, five three- or four-foot-long geckos dominated one corner of the room.

Several nights later, we hosted our introductory reception. What seemed like all of Cebu came, curious about “their” new American Consul and his wife. Soon, the geckos caught a guest’s eye. Another snuck a puzzled look. Others suppressed a smile. Apparently, no one knew what to make of the exaggerated geckos. Nothing was said to me. Years later, as I kept returning to Cebu, the first thing friends and even new acquaintances said was, “You had those great geckos painted on your ceiling.”

As the home of the Osmena dynasty, leaders of the opposition to President Ferdinand Marcos, Cebu was politically important. Effectively, the bomb blast at a political rally in Manila’s Plaza Miranda that Senator Sergio Osmena barely survived on August 21, two days after we arrived in the Philippines and before we got to Cebu, was our introduction to this new assignment. Dan had been scheduled to call on him as soon as we got to Cebu. That, of course, didn’t happen.

Serging, as he was called, recovered slowly. Once he did, dinner at our residence was his first outing. Four well-armed bodyguards followed him into the living room, clearly determined that they would stay. I was equally certain that there would not be such a display of guns in my home. In my firmest Consul’s Wife voice, I informed the guards that we would keep the Senator safe. They should wait at the front gate. Food would be sent out. They were unhappy. But they left. Inside, the dinner went smoothly.

It didn’t take long for us to realize that Cebu (indeed, all the Philippines) comprises thickly webbed layers of relationships based on family in the broadest sense. Other carefully cultivated relationships—schoolmates or godparents—thicken the mix. Reciprocity in large matters and small as well as constantly sharing the detailed minutia, the chismis (gossip), of daily lives, glues it together.

We needed to know specifics. So, we hosted a small, carefully assembled dinner to pick the brains of our guests, particularly a local social columnist who knew everyone—and everything about them. Soon we were all down on the floor as he drew genealogies on huge pieces of paper showing the major families in Cebu and across the Visayas. Since he loved chismis, we also heard amazing tales.

Charley, Margaret Sullivan with Cebu's Mayor


Being highly visible in an appearance-conscious society, I needed to pay attention to what I wore. Many events required “something new.” Fun in its way, this necessitated an ever-expanding wardrobe. Going to the “parlor” beforehand was also a ritual: shampoo, set, fancy blow dry, manicure, pedicure, gossip—especially gossip. Entertaining at home, though, I practiced my own informality, being, as the gossip columns put it one day, “the breezy Mrs. Sullivan.”

On September 21, 1972, when we had been in Cebu just over a year, we woke to the news on Voice of America that President Marcos had placed the Philippines under Martial Law. Dan rushed to see the General who headed the Constabulary to learn more, got the wording of the proclamation and phoned it to the Embassy in Manila, where they had not yet seen it. For the rest of our tour, we lived under heightened security and many other ramifications of martial law. For the Philippines and Filipinos, it was a decade before it ended.


Consul Dan and son Charley carrying the wreath to lay on Jose Rizal's Monument on behalf of the American people, June 19, 1974. It was Charley's 9th birthday that day. 


As we settled in, I learned that being the Consul’s Wife came with a range of “presumed” responsibilities. The former Consuls’ Wives had chaired the citywide sale of UNICEF cards. Wouldn’t I do it, too? Of course. I reassembled the committee that had always actually organized it. They provided welcomed guidance; jointly, we continued each year, with the sale at our residence.

Likewise, the American Consul always belonged to the Rotary Mother Club. Dan joined. I, therefore, automatically became a “beautiful Rotary Ann,” as we wives were called. We laughed that we, ot the men, were the ones who raised the money and saw that the projects got done. Our best project underwrote drilling wells and supplying pumps in barrios that relieved women and children from carrying bucketsful of river water up hill. The women also learned to repair the pumps, giving them “ownership,” so they weren’t dependent on men to keep water lowing. We were there to cheer in the first barrio when the was turned on.

Each of these activities were welcome opportunities to branch out and learn something new. Better yet, they knit me into the community of active women who did “good works” as well as played together. I even learned mahjong, sort of.

Before long, our family was happily enmeshed in a web of enduring connections, particularly with the Borromeo family who adopted us just as we did them.

Since the matriarch, Lola Pilar, had been young, her family’s women had been custodians of the main carosa honoring Our Mother of Perpetual Help for the Redemptorist Church’s fiesta. During the war, they had hidden the image of the Holy Mother so the Japanese wouldn’t destroy it.

Our third year in Cebu, Lola asked our youngest son and three Irish boys his age, all part of the Borromeo beach group, to serve as candle bearers around the carosa. Dressed in red cassocks and white surplices, they walked through town at the corners of the carosa with four of the five Borromeo sisters dressed as angels riding on it.

Ultimately our travel orders came, sending us to West Africa. While I arrived as the Consul’s Wife, I left as “Tita” to many. To this day, our close family relationship continues. Cebu is in its wonderful way another home. My many trips back are another story.


 Read also: Author Margaret Sullivan's Remarkable Journey in Indonesia and the Philippines - 

 Tags: Old Cebu, Cebu in the 1970s

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