A Beautiful Game
BY EDWIN ALLAN DIAZ
CAVITE VICE GOVERNOR ATHENA BRYANA TOLENTINO’S CALCULATED APPROACH TO SOLVING THE PROVINCE’S CONCERNS HAS PUT THE WHOLE PROVINCE AT AN ENVIABLE POSITION.
If there is one thing that is immediately apparent with Cavite Vice Governor Athena Bryana Tolentino, it is her love for paintings. Every wall in her office at the provincial capitol has at least one made by a local artist. Some of these are her work, most of them done in oil. “I find oil paint very fascinating. It’s quite complex but very forgiving. Plus, you can create beautiful textures,” Tolentino shares with LEAGUE. She has been painting since she was nine years old, storing most of her works in her studio in Makati City.
Another one is chess. A big chessboard in the middle of the room awaits anyone who wants to start a game. It is not a surprise because her father, Tagaytay City Mayor Abraham “Bambol” Tolentino, is an honorary member of the International Chess Federation (FIDE) and the president of the Philippine Olympic Committee (POC). His full support for her and her belief in Filipino athletes’ winning potential inspired the vice governor to push for advocacies related to e-sports and chess—the latter aiding her every move in life, especially as the province’s secondhighest official.
“It’s a game of strategy. You have endless moves and all the patterns are there. The gameplay is on you, so it’s more of challenging each other; a timeless possibility,” Tolentino says.
Admitting no major challenges in her position so far, Tolentino reveals it was always her plan to become a public servant, which she prepared for her whole life.
LEARNING THE BASICS
From an early age, Tolentino had been exposed to public service. Tolentino’s father was already a city councilor when she was born in 1998, and she would always tag along with him at work. Her mother, incumbent Tagaytay City Vice Mayor Agnes Tolentino, has been performing tooth extractions on Caviteños as a dentist during medical missions. She considers her grandfather, the late Isaac Tolentino, who served Tagaytay City as mayor for 26 years, as her biggest inspiration.
“My [family is my] core circle for my support and my inspiration. I’m very thankful that we have close ties and they’re there to guide me through whatever challenges I face,” says Tolentino. They had a profound effect on her growing up, including her sister, Cavite 8th District Representative Aniela Tolentino. Her philosophy, “Lead by example,” comes from their father.
“The duo of my mom and my dad, it’s amazing when they work together,” Tolentino says. “Positive change takes place.”
Interest in public service only grew from there for Tolentino, who volunteered at the Sisters of Mary orphanage when she was in high school. “I spent the majority of my weekends there, my birthdays, and I got to see all the orphans grow up,” she says. Not only did it boost the children’s morale, but it also gave her hope for a brighter future.
“At that time, I couldn’t wait for the day when I could personally give back to the community, to have my initiative, and leave a positive footprint in Tagaytay and the entire province of Cavite,” Tolentino says.
PROVING NAYSAYERS WRONG
Tolentino became a Tagaytay City councilor in 2019. During this time, Tagaytay launched the Katuwang sa Pangkalusugang Mental program. “It consists of services of an in-house psychologist, an on-call psychiatrist (for referrals and evaluation), routine therapy, and 24/7 hotline,” she says.
Establishing Katuwang’s office is an implementation of her learnings as a Psychology graduate from Laurentian University in Canada. “To make a physical outcome—that office—because mental health has not been focused on for a very long time,” Tolentino says.
“Usually when we say something small, as simple as ‘Ay, nalulungkot ako. Depressed ata ako,’ may branding agad. “Ay, baliw ‘to. Topak ‘yan (Oh, I’m sad. I might be depressed, there’s immediate branding. That person’s crazy. He has some loose screws in the head).’ But it’s not really like that. Mental health services should be accessible to all and be as easy as going to the clinic when you have a fever.”
Three years later, Tolentino became Cavite’s first female vice governor. She feels empowered by the Caviteños and so she strives to be a better leader for them because of the connection she shares with them. But it was not always like this for the 25-year-old leader.
“It was quite intimidating at first. I always hear, ‘Mundo ‘yan ng lalaki. ‘Wag muna babae, baka mamaya kami nang mga lalaki ang nasa bahay (Politics is a man’s world. Don’t vote for women because we men might be the ones tasked to stay at home),’” Tolentino reveals.
“I’m pretty sure there’s a lot of space for everyone here,” she replies to her naysayers. “I think the topic of gender right now, it’s somewhat sensitive in our community, but gender doesn’t determine one’s capability in terms of serving their community. It is very challenging, especially the comments people have about me.”
Tolentino adds, “But through it all, rather than having the mindset of proving anyone wrong, it’s more of having the mindset to do what I’m meant to do. This, and using the feedback and comments as fuel to do better.”
“I’m in the office Monday to Wednesday. Thursday and Friday, I have groundwork. My limit every Monday is 8 p.m. Afterwards, I’m focused on my house and family. Sundays are for my family; I focus on them,” Tolentino reveals.
She adds, “Thursday is our cut-off for all the ordinances and resolutions by the local government units (LGUs). By Friday, we set the agenda, disallowing any additions until the following Thursday. Whatever is included in our agenda, we will be discussing in our next session where such will be referred to and deliberated on by the respective committees composed of our provincial board members. Eventually, these will be approved or disapproved the following regular session.”
Regardless of what people say about Tolentino or her gender, her almost endless performance of her daily duties prove that nothing could distract her from giving her all for Cavite. “It is really an honor to be able to serve our great province of Cavite and my fellow Caviteños,” she stresses.
BAPTISM OF FIRE
“Don’t forget your time for yourself.”
This is Tolentino’s reminder for her staff. She says taking a 10-minute break, even if they’re busy with paperwork, and checking up on oneself, are important.
“I always remind them, before anything else, ‘Is everyone okay?’ ‘Are we having a problem with anything, anyone?’ I check with them regularly,” Tolentino shares. Her empathy shows wherever she is or whomever she is working with. She even checks with the provincial board members to see where she can support them in their needs to better serve the people.
Compassion and drive are nothing new for Tolentino, who has faced big trials, one of which was when she was put on the front seat when the back-toback 2020 Taal Volcano eruption and the COVID-19 pandemic happened.
Tolentino describes the Taal eruption of 2020 as her baptism of fire. “The mayor and congressman were in a conference in Switzerland. They couldn’t fly back and were stranded, and they were only able to return 2-3 days after. ”
“I got a call around 1 PM. ‘Konsi, sumabog na ‘yung TaaI (Councilor, Taal has just erupted).’ So I went straight to Tagaytay, no questions asked. When we arrived at the control center, I was asked, ‘Ano’ng gagawin namin (What will we do)?”
Although taken aback, Tolentino knew exactly what to do. “I ran to the bathroom. I prayed a small prayer. I was like, “Lord, please help me. Ang daming kailangan dito ngayon (We need to do a lot of things here).” After that, without a pause, she took it upon herself to learn about the entire situation, contacted and collaborated with key groups and individuals, checked in on communities— a couple of days that as she says, somehow felt like an eternity.
But Tolentino was not alone in her fight. “Thankfully, all our city officials were very helpful, the department heads, and our provincial officials most especially Cavite Governor Jonvic Remulla and the mayors. They all supported any way they can, such as lending their personnel, their ambulances and rescue trucks,” she says.
Taal prepared Cavite for COVID-19 because the provincial government procured face masks early on to combat the volcanic ash. However, the pandemic still impacted the province’s business and tourism, Tagaytay’s primary sources of income.
“So the priority was making sure everyone was able to meet their necessities because they had no income and no shops were open. That is where we became more hands-on with the people,” Tolentino says.
Tolentino adds, “Sadly, we had situations like that. But then it made me realize the sense of community, how important that is, and how grateful it is to be human and to have that capability to understand each other, especially in times of disaster.”
LOOKING FORWARD TO VICTORY
Halfway through her first term as vice governor, Tolentino is optimistic about Cavite’s future, especially with the projects lined up for the province, such as the Tibay ng Caviteña. This is an all-girls arnis and self-defense workshop that aims to empower girls, integrate self-protection and develop women arnis athletes who will compete in the local, national and eventually in the international arena to bring honor to the province of Cavite and the Philippines.
Through her advocacy and initiative, all local government units in the province will soon have mental health facilities and/or back office facilities. The provincial board is also drafting a bill that will give incentives to athletes and those who participate in international competitions. “I’m very proud that in Tagaytay City, it’s a house and lot for Olympic medalists. This kind support will always be there for you especially when you work hard and give glory to our great country,” Tolentino says.
Another is the Php187 billion Bataan-Cavite interlink, which will reduce travel time between the two provinces from eight hours to just 45 minutes. “With easier access, that’s going to give a lot of opportunities for the provinces of Cavite and Bataan in terms of trade and commerce, job opportunities, and tourism.”
The provincial government will soon transfer to its new home, a fully off-grid structure made in partnership with Meralco and an Australian group. Tolentino proudly claims, “It is the first off-grid government building in the entire Philippines; an estimated 90 percent of the building will be solarpowered.”
It is not just the structure that is getting a facelift. “The goal for it is to have a zero carbon footprint. After that, hopefully, we get to digitize the entire process for the provincial government, especially access to services for our constituents,” Tolentino says.
The vice governor does not have plans of running for higher office yet, as she has other plans after her term ends. “I want to continue my master’s degrees: Political Psychology and Fine Arts.” John Hopkins University has already offered the first to Tolentino, who hopes there is a distance-learning setup available.
“If I will not be in politics anymore,” Tolentino continues, “I will focus on the arts. But that doesn’t mean I will stop giving back to the community.”
Just like a professional chess player, Tolentino plots and considers her every move as a public servant. “I actually prefer having a strategized layout before actually executing it, because after all, life truly is a work of art” she stresses. “Sometimes, we think our decision is correct without listening to the ones around us. It is not okay to proceed with something that I had just thought of. We have to consult others and consider every aspect of what we’re trying to do. But it falls under understanding what needs to be prioritized and whether or not it is fair for everyone.”
Asked why Tolentino loves playing chess, she replies, “It’s a beautiful game.” For now, her grandmaster-like precision has put her in a position to win the match against problems that have impeded her province’s progress.