By Marivir R. Montebon
New York – The Filipino community here laid to rest early this week one of the most colorful Filipina leaders that has made it vibrant in the face of its challenges. Maria Consuelo Almonte (Sept. 4, 1937-March 28, 2019) or Tita Connie to many, extinguished her candle of 82 years in the sunny morning of March 28 at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital. She left behind a daughter, May, and a community of adoring friends with memories of fun and laughter.
Consuelo’s convivial character supersedes her thunderous Republicanism, an enigma that young Democrat leader Steven Raga can only shake his head about. I dunno what to do with her when she starts talking about her politics. But then, I admire her as a leader, Raga was once heard saying.
Consuelo founded and chaired the Philippine Community Center Service for the Aging which provides specific attention to the needs of the senior citizens in the community. Along with buddies Nieva Quezon-Burdick and Myrna Santos, she has organized activities that were cultural in nature – forums that tackle retirement programs, and cultural events that appreciate the traditional respect for the elders and programs that ensured that their twilight years were fun and dignified.
Dignified, indeed, Consuelo was. Her fashion sense was a stand-out, signatured mostly with frivolous hats and a glittery frog or spider bar pin at the back of her dress.
Her void during parties is already felt now. Gone is the woman leader whose warm regard for people, young or old, puts you off-guarded and amazed. She was victorious against breast cancer for the past 40 years, and Consuelo had been relentlessly partying, organizing, supporting social causes, and yes, speaking her mind out.
Her legacy, as she wanted to be remembered, is the attitude of living a life with a sense of purpose, and fun, and gratitude. She had told me that over coffee, in the winter of 2018, as she took a handful of chemotherapy pills. It was a journey down memory lane about her life (that she remembered sharply, and without drama) that had to be posed for she almost forgot to take her pills. After about two hours, we wrapped up our chat and went home together with her long time friend Nieva Burdick on the F train.
In her youth, Manila-born Consuelo trail blazed as the first Filipina to work for the communications department of the Pakistani Mission to the United Nations. It became her training ground for diplomacy and meeting with bigwigs of politics in the international arena. She also worked restaurant manager of a premier steak house in the city while raising her daughter May.
One cannot underestimate the sense of purpose Consuelo had. In her watch, the PCCSA bravely filed a case on accountability and transparency against the Philippine Independence Day Council Inc. for its liability to publicly disclose funds as it operates the Philippine Independence Day parade in Manhattan. The PCCSA along with the United Mindoro International filed the case before the Supreme Court and gained a stipulation for the public disclosure of funds and a denial on the nullity of its 2017 elections.
She was thoroughly keeping track of the progress of the court battle, despite her own health battle and maintained the indomitable spirit of fun along with her sense of responsibility. Community leaders are accountable to the public especially when using public funds, it is that simple, she had once opined to me.
Towards the latter part of 2018, Consuelo gave an endowment fund to a local hospital in honor of the legacy of her late husband Mark Shaffer. In her speech, she profusely admired her husband’s wit and patience, as they were on the different side of the political spectrum.
Consuelo would often tell an anecdote about Mark, that he was a Democrat and a labor leader for a teachers union while she was a Republican. She would go on to say, “When asked how he survived our marriage, he would always say I was opinionated and he is awesome. Oh I miss him so much,” oftentimes Consuelo would break into tears remembering her late husband.
Now having crossed over, it will be her community that will miss the Maria Consuelo Almonte.