Consul General Cato poses for a painting of himself to be hung on the wall with the former Philippine consuls-general of New York. | Photo by Ricky Rillera/PDM
The endeared outgoing consul general Elmer G. Cato finally bid his “official farewell” to the community during the Pasasalamat event at the Kalayaan Hall of the Philippine Center on December 21. In a memorable moment such as this, it wasn’t easy to anticipate what he would say besides giving certificates of appreciation to individuals and organizations that partnered with the consulate’s programs and projects.
When he returned to New York after being suddenly “recalled” to Manila, Cato signaled his departure to the surprise of the attendees at a community event welcoming him back. What was going on in his mind was a matter of conjecture. Would he have shared what was discussed during his trip back home? Or appeal to the community for him to stay on? After all, the community knows how he was performing, and perhaps the order for him to leave may be rescinded.
Although many knew he was leaving New York, nobody seemed to know the official version of his abrupt departure after serving for nearly two years. Some wondered if it was due to professional jealousy from his peers or his high-profile image that may have been perceived as promoting his interests to advance his career. Or that he acknowledged he voted for the opposition in the 2022 presidential elections. What people heard came from the rumor mill — “hush-hush” or mere speculations.
Despite a concerted community effort to retain him through a letter sent to Cato’s superiors, it appeared the sword of Damocles had fallen. The deal was done. But like an obedient and loyal soldier, the consul general would only comment he had to follow his orders. If there was one word to describe a tight-lipped person accepting his fate, it is diplomacy, which he had learned in his 24 years of service. But, is it his experience as a diplomat or a kind of omerta that kept him, mum?
He appeared confident but seemed hesitant when he delivered his remarks during the Pasasalamat. Or was it a feeling of ambivalence? As he paused and reflected on his a-year-and-nine-months tenure, he cited the accomplishments of the consulate under his watch – flagship projects and new initiatives, which the community was very much a part of.
He relates well, but this time was a unique moment to express his feelings. Unlike “farewell addresses” of his predecessors I have heard in the past, his message sounded like a state of the nation address, but the tone was subdued yet grateful and less personal. The effect would have mattered more if his message had come from the heart instead of reading from a prepared statement. He said the occasion was a time to thank, salute and recognize individuals and organizations whose spirit of volunteerism, commitment, and Filipino pride helped implement the consulate’s programs, activities, and advocacies for the past two years.
He paid special tribute to the men and women of the consulate and the “nameless, faceless people” from the community responsible for the consulate’s accomplishments even with the ongoing COVID-19 and the rise of Asian hate when he arrived, which put him to work immediately. At this point of his speech, his voice cracked, and perhaps, he tried to compose himself as he received resounding applause from the audience.
“All of you are here because of your exceptional contribution to our success. Ang tagumpay ng konsulado ay tagumpay nating lahat,” he said. (The success of the consulate is the success of all.) He thanked his community of supporters for their spirit of bayanihan and conveyed that it is alive not only in New York but across the nation. Perhaps close to a hundred certificates of appreciation were given to individuals and organizations — something that people will be proud of and remember him by.
But contrary to the opening statement of the vice-consul, there was no mention of the plans for 2023. Of course, there wouldn’t be since a new consul general is about to arrive. It would be up to this person to lead and set up a new face of the consulate and direction. As someone from the audience said, it would have to go back to the future.
An ambassador told me New York is a “sensitive post” for a consul general. I thought that one might have to learn how to swim with sharks, real or imagined. Or know how to dance with the wolves.
Consul General Cato’s brief stint in New York will be exceptionally remembered. He may be gone to another assignment in another foreign land, but the ideas he left behind that sparked a community’s response will not. Whatever legacy he leaves, the community believes he is still a compassionate, dedicated, and seasoned diplomat in service to his motherland.
He deserves the community’s parangal, pasasalamat, pagpupugay at pagkilala.