The mirror diplomacy of ConGen Mario de Leon

‘Look in the mirror,’ he tells his staff.

By Cristina DC Pastor

One of the first things Consul General Mario de Leon Jr. did on assuming office in March was to ask his staff to look in the mirror.

He wasn’t trying to be insulting, not even superficially bellicose. He was simply suggesting a practical trick calculated to foster harmonious relations between the consular staff and the public. Having a tiny mirror in front of her (unseen by the public), a passport clerk, for instance, can take a quick glance to see if the stress of the job for the day is taking its toll on her demeanor: Maybe it is and that she is forgetting to smile at the never-ending stream of passport applicants?

“It’s just a reminder,” the affable de Leon explained to reporters over coffee. “Baka sa pagod mo nakakalimutan mo na mag-smile. If you look at the mirror you will see the face that the public is seeing.”

It’s a small thing – this business of smiling. But there are some Filipinos who take offense at consular officials who appear imperious even if nothing unfriendly is intended. Consular officials and staff are the first line of connection between Filipinos abroad and their government, and while diplomats are not trained in the ways of most glad-handing, back-slapping politicians, many of them make the effort to be genial and approachable.

With de Leon, being pleasant comes naturally. There’s an easy smile about him, a sense of humor and a manner of speaking that is almost folksy. He is not pompous as some dark-suited diplomats, especially one who was most recently the ambassador to South Africa. Before that, he was minister and consul general in London. New York is a return engagement of sorts; he was here 15 years ago as second secretary to the Philippine Mission to the United Nations.

It’s South Africa that is most memorable. His recollections of the Mandelas and the ways of an apartheid republic were fascinating. He said the Filipinos there were well respected.

“In South Africa, we had no Filipino organizations,” he told reporters.

He acknowledged the country was smaller and Filipinos are fewer, only about 500. But when some community organizations became personality-focused, the Filipinos in Johannesburg made a decision the organizations did not serve their needs.

“Whenever I called for a meeting I would get about 200 to 250 people. Compare that to the attendance here (in New York). If you get 150, marami na iyon,” he said.

During national day celebrations or sports competitions like bowling, Filipinos in South Africa would get together with the embassy officials “without representing any organization.” There would be potluck and a cultural program and half the community would be in attendance.

“They said there used to be an organization before, but they felt they were not really geared to the well-being of the community,” de Leon said.

In New York, de Leon, his wife Eleanor and youngest daughter Joyce Kathleen – a high school student — live in the Official Residence on East 66th Street. They occupy the top three levels of the penthouse previously reserved for the Marcoses whenever they visited New York.

“It was that way from about 1973 up until Edsa 1,” he said.

Today, the first three floors serve as the Official Residence of the Permanent Representative to the United Nations. The fourth, fifth and sixth floors, after undergoing repairs, are now home to the de Leons. This holiday season, it will be the gathering place of the family including three other daughters Ana Karisma, Anna Korinna and Khristine Mae. An only son, Josef Kriyan, passed away from cancer in 2006.

“It’s our first here in New York,” he said.

ConGen de Leon with wife Eleanor and two of their daughters

One Comment

  1. Lorenza wrote:

    Saved, I enjoy your blog! 🙂

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