MANILA, Philippines - Manuel Villar is one of the front runners in next week's national election. He makes much of his humble roots. Born in a squalid ghetto area of Manila, he managed to claw his way out of Nowheresville to become a real estate mogul and one of the wealthiest people in the country. Mr Villar repeats his boot straps story ad nauseum; it's part of his wide appeal. Not only did he escape the ghetto (hallelujah!) but is he an astute and successful business man - this is the man for you!
Whispers of corruption continue to dog Mr Villar, but there are more disturbing rumors that plague his every step. Apparently, Mr Villar ate Spam when he was a child. An older acquaintance murmured darkly that Villar "pretends his family couldn't afford Spam, but I think they could." This scandalous reveal appeared not to need any embellishment. This was a major put down.
Manila tour guide slash social commentator Carlos Celdran believes Spam is an important economic and social indicator. On one of his tours he tells of a dreadful day shortly after the 1983 assassination of Senator Benigno Aquino. His father arrived home with shocking news. "There will be no more Spam". The assembled Celdran clan reeled back in horror: the peso had gone through the floor and the family budget could no longer cover tinned meat.
Mr Celdran says that because it was American, Spam was much in demand and readily available during the days of US forces at Clark Air Base and Subic Bay. They had introduced it to the Philippines during WWII meat shortages. By the 1980s and the Marcos mangling of the economy, many could no longer afford Spam. "It signified that good times were over," he says. "It went from (a) middle class staple to a high end treat after 1983."
And so the Philippines has unknowingly created a political and social indicator: the Spamdex. Before 1983, almost everyone could afford it, almost everyone ate it. But, says Carlos Celdran, "only the mayayaman (rich) now can pay for the real thing these days." (The not so well off eat the far cheaper Ma Ling, a lower end Chinese luncheon meat, which one of my friends calls cats'n'rats).
So if Spam was on everyone's plate before 1983, Mr Villar only has to claim that his family were so poor they couldn't even afford it and people will understand how poor he really was. Couldn't afford Spam? Hell, that's poor! (If you believe him, which apparently, thousands don't).
Front running presidential candidate Benigno 'Noy Noy' Aquino says his favorite dish is Spam meatballs and spaghetti. He gave the recipe to a local newspaper, saying his mom, former President Cory Aquino used to make it for him. Spamdex jackpot! That must have been worth a few votes. His formidable sister, the TV personality Kris, who accompanies her bachelor brother on the campaign trail, is a "tinned meat ambassador" for a Spam rival.
Other candidates in the race - to be decided on May 10 - have remained tight lipped about the consumption of Spam during their child hood. Given the condemnation of Manuel Villar for allegedly embellishing his life story with the assistance of tinned meat, they are probably wise to keep away from the Spamdex.
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