By Julius D Mariveles and Rodney A Jarder Jr
VICTORIAS CITY, Negros Occidental, Philippines – Javi Benitez sat in front of a giant built-in aquarium at his family’s home inside the Toreno fishpond, a laptop computer in front of him.
“It needs to be repaired,” he says, referring to the aquarium, and chuckled as a reporter kidded him that a mermaid could fit in it.
“Our ancestors are there,” he says smiling as he glanced up briefly and looked at his laptop screen again.
He was obviously preparing.
Outside, past the four flights of black tiled steps, reporters from Bacolod City invited to the event were seated in carefully arranged tables fitted with white tabletops as chafing trays were being prepared on the side.
A catered event.
“In five minutes,” his publicist told the waiting reporters as the press treated themselves to pica pica – peanuts in a small bowl, a string of Ding Dong Snack Mix sachets and a small bottle of water.
As if on cue, Javier Miguel Benitez stepped out of the resthouse after that five clicks and seated himself on a monobloc chair in front of a small tarpaulin backdrop with his name and photos on it.
After a brief introduction by his publicist following a prayer, Javi Benitez took to the podium with no notes.
Only a computer tablet.
He expressed his condolences to reporters for the loss of four of their coleagues.
“Salamat sa inyo pagkadto diri subong (Thank you for coming here today),” he said, his Hiligaynon lilting a bit, his language switching from English to the local language as he tried to connect with the 14 or so reporters who first arrived.
He talked about the weather.
” Hindi gid kita kapakot sang panahon subong, ‘no (We cannot predict the weather, right)?” he said, after asking the reporters “kamusta man kamo subong (how are you now)?”
Like in a first date, the answers were meek, uncoordinated.
“Society needs you to make sense of what is happening,” he adds, as if to break the ice.
He paused to adjust his face mask, a white N95 as he stretched to his full height of six feet and gripped the edges of the podium, the cuts showing on his athlete’s arms.
He placed his right foot on the raised bottom of the podium, and pointed with his left hand at a distance.
“There used to be a tree house there,” he says and talked at length about their fishpond house where he says he spent summers and Christmas breaks.
The house, he says, means much more than home now.
Accused by critics as a “pangayaw (foreigner),” in Victorias City like his father is in Bacolod, Javi recalled playing with pigs in the punong and how one Christmas his lola Idiong (former Victorias Mayor Remedios Bantug) became the Grinch who stole the Christmas lechon when she pardoned the pig her grandson was wrestling with.
“Ti wala na ta lechon (So we don’t have roasted pig),” he recalls his father as saying.
“Wala kaso wala lechon basta indi lang maghibi si Javi (It’s okay to not have lechon as long as Javi does not cry),” her lola retorted.
In another example of his spoility, he says, lola Idiong even told a worker to dive into a fispond and put a dead fish on Javi’s line when no fish was biting.
“Spoiled,” some reporters said in unison.
But he noticed he says the fish was not moving and asked the farmhand why it was dead.
“Wais gid ni si Javi (Javi is wise),” he recalls the farmhand to have said.
“Hindi,” instead of “indi,” a lilting, almost coño accent when he speaks Hiligaynon, a serious attempt to describe his childhood in Victorias City.
Are these indicators that Javi did not really grow up in the city of the once lone sugar refinery?
Each reporter was given a profile sheet of Javier Miguel “Javi” Benitez.
Under the section on education, it outlined his schools: “elementary and high school: Xavier School, Greenhills-San Juan – top 10 percent of batch, first batch of international baccalaureate diploma program, class president – junior year.”
Santa Clara University in Santa Clara, California, USA where he graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree with a major in political science and a minor in computer science.
Amid questions about his being a “foreigner” in Victorias, Javi Benitez says what is most important is the willingness to serve.
“Ako isa ka pamatan-on nga may bag-o nga ideolohiya (I am a youth with a new ideology),” he says.
That ideology, he says, in a nutshell is the readiness to serve regardless of experience or roots.
“Ginapinsar, ginatuman (In mind, in practice),” that is my kind of service.
Javi Benitez points to his tactical boots when asked about the brand.
“These are Palladiums,” he says boots that sell for P3,000 a pair.
Not really the type a billionaire’s son would wear.
But these, he says, dry quickly, are waterproof and you could use it in the mud.
Javi Benitez faced the press on 21 September 2021, on the day Martial Law was declared in 1972.
He is now ready to dirty his boots.
And prove himself.