The Story of a Leader: Mestra Lynne

Mrs. Lynne Viloria Gutierrez


By Aurelio S. Agcaoili, Ph.D.

This is Maestra Lynne’s story—Mrs. Lynne Viloria Gutierrez—of humility, courage, and professionalism. But it is every immigrant’s story as well: the immigrant that knows whereof she speaks in terms of real and honest-to-goodness community service, one anchored not on the self-for-itself but on the self-for-others. If there is one thing Lynne is good at, it is her work with the community, sowing good seeds as many as she can, knowing fully well about trees being planted becoming useful for the next generation. Caecilius said so: serit arbores quae saeclo prosint alteri. The whole of her, from afar as well as in person when you speak with her from the heart is gravitas, that sense of dignity not only for herself but one in which she dreams of the good for others. Here is a teacher; but here is a leader as well, one who has the guts and gumption to show us the way, not from a selfish motive, but from a brew of mixed motives but always—always—the community in mind.

Mindful of her blessings—the multitude of graces she has received through the years, she never forgot to give, and giving she did, and giving she still does, always on the run for something that deals with scholarships for the poor but deserving students, for the medical care and attention of the needy, for sending aids to distressed communities, and for linking up with other organizations and communities.

We are at restaurant on Kalihi, one that has become an informal hub of civic, commercial, and cultural life of the Filipino community on Oahu. In effect, this has become a hangout as well of those trying to divine the destinies of many others through the difficult decisions that organizations and groups take up and pursue, but decisions framed and drawn on tables put together to resemble a conference venue’s amidst the clanging of utensils and the monotone of an afternoon soap opera on an overhead television no one cares to watch on a 4:30 afternoon appointment such as Lynne and I had on the day of the interview.

We partook of a special halo-halo, that mixture of beans, tapioca, ice cream, coconut, jelly, and other colorful things on a tall glass, that wonderful mixture invariably reminding us of youth spent in the Philippines, of summers when the heat would be intolerable that anything cold, that halo-halo included, would be a good way to cool the body reacting to the sweltering heat of the tropics.

I quizzed Lynne in between small sips of her halo-halo melting.

I have not been to Hawai’i long enough to understand what she has in the store house of her memory that began when she first set foot on the island straight from the Philippines in 1970. She had just gotten her teacher’s degree at the Philippine Normal College, now a University, but her immigrant visa was expiring the following day and so she had to rush to go to Hawai’i and take on a new life as an immigrant. A month before, her whole family had left for Hawai’i, but she had to stay behind so she could work on her degree, an option suggested by one of her Ilokano professors at the University, to which her father acceded. The Ilokano professor did not know that that would be the best suggestion she gave Lynne, a suggestion that Lynne took with seriousness as she went on to do her practice teaching. She landed in the United States as a newly minted teacher.

The 70’s, however, were a decade of chaos and turmoil, and before that, there was the war in Vietnam. The world was changing fast, with the black and white television beginning to rule over many people’s lives, and with news going fast around the world, the times were also interesting.

In Hawai’i, particularly in Oahu, there was an acute need for bilingual teachers, so that by 1975, a project on bilingual education funded by the Federal government was being piloted and thus was recruiting teachers who knew Ilokano and Tagalog. That was five years after Lynne first set foot in Hawai’i. When she learned of the need for bilingual teachers, the teacher in her, somehow, took on a serious mien, and she remembered with conviction that she did not pursue a college education, got her degree, and did her practice teaching—all for nothing. Since 1970, she had always done while doing other things other than teaching; she felt she needed to do something more. The bilingual program drew in 262 applicants, and the number was later on trimmed down to 50 for interview. Finally, 30 of the 50 who were interviewed were hired. That was to inaugurate her 30-year teaching career at Hawai’i’s Department of Education.

In an on-and-off way that I have been coming to Hawai’i during the last several years until I decided to stay put and take on teaching at the University of Hawai’i, Lynn had always been a presence in the many gatherings that I have had the chance to attend. In these functions, she would always be running around, and from an outsider’s point of view, always a reference point. You can miss an affair with no Lynn on it but you cannot miss Lynn when there are important affairs of the community.

You take this as a plus factor: for there is before you a solid axis of that which is good and that which is better. And you take it from there. Plus or minus several years of rest, she had always been with the alliance of organizations in Oahu, the Oahu Filipino Community, and the state-wide alliance, the United Filipino Council of Hawai’i. Her inauguration as a community leader did not start off with the goodies of leadership on a silver platter. “No,” she said. “I had to learn the ropes. And I am lucky because I have had role models, good leaders, and mentors who showed me how to do things the right way. And I am always for that which is right and fair.”

“Had there been challenges, with you being all over—sort of?” I asked her.

“Many,” she said. For a moment, she lapsed into silence, gathering her thoughts about the last 24 years or so that she has been serving the Filipino community in the State of Hawai’i. And then her quick repartee, “But we cannot indulge in the challenges. Leaders, the good ones, the effective ones, those who know what they are doing, are not fazed by these challenges. Rather, they take all these are opportunities for growth, for learning, for discovering wisdom.”

“And did you do that?” I inquired, jotting down her fresh language, her dynamic expressions, asking her at times to repeat how she parsed a statement that was memorable for me.

“I have many blessings,” she said. “I cannot ask for more. Or should I?”

“Tell me of your blessings,” I urged her, the afternoon light almost yellow outside, the rays gleaming on the cars parked in the front lots of the restaurant. We stirred our melting halo-halo.

“Two things,” she said, in a manner that bespeaks of a leader, her voice firm but mellow. “First, our coming to Hawai’i as a family when our aunt, Francisca Rol petitioned for us. We cannot thank our aunt enough for this chance, a rare one as it is. Second, my finishing my master’s in special education from Central Michigan University in 2001. All these are part of a buena suerte, that good luck that does not happen to all. I have received many blessings; I must give back.”

“How did you manage to do all these community involvements, and with you leading Magsingal Association of Hawai’i as well?” I asked. I looked at her straight in the eye and I saw a teacher and leader made wise by experience, by life’s tests, and by the graceful process of maturing.

“I was lucky to have my mother living with us. When I was in the middle of all these, my mother provided all the necessary attention my children needed when I was away teaching or doing community service,” she said of her mom who had passed away a year ago. I sensed that unspeakable sorrow in between her lines. “And then, I put together a system for my children to follow: I had to make sure that they did their homework and that they had their own books and read them.”

She spoke of her struggles with the educational system, how she fought for the rights of her siblings when they were attending public schools and were, somehow discriminated. She told the seven-member panel during her bilingual teacher interview of these travails, how she performed the task of being a surrogate teacher to them, and how she managed to teach in an informal and unconventional way in her previous work. “I never thought of quitting despite all the difficulties,” she said. “I had this adage built into my head: a quitter never wins, and a winner never quits. And so I stuck—and today I am still around doing the best that I can in basic education, and in community work.”

(Note: for publication, Fil-Am Observer, March 2008)

No comments: