BERNARDITA LEONIDO CATALLA
February 18, 1958 – April 2, 2020
(Flash bulletin from The Manila Times, Friday, December 11, 2020, page A3: The late Ambassador Bernardita “Bernie” Catalla to be conferred posthumously the Order of Sikatuna, with the rank of Datu, Gold Distinction, the highest award conferred to an individual in the foreign service)
The Department of Foreign Affairs’ “In Memoriam” was a fitting memorial for this spirited, sprightly woman, who energized the posts she was assigned to with what ever ballsy lady Nieves Confesor endearingly enumerated as spunk, style and substance. My erstwhile work partner Marie’s description of her inimitable swagger will complete the sibilant series of images the world will miss of the dearly departed, irreplaceable, irrepressible Ambassador Bernie Catalla.
Just before the pandemic claimed her life in Lebanon, the last post she held, she made news by spearheading the free, voluntary mass repatriation of OFWs there, with local newspapers heralding “isang barangay na Filipino Overseas Workers pinauwi!”
Prior to Lebanon, she served as Consul-General in Hong Kong before becoming Ambassador to Malaysia and Indonesia in quick succession. Had tragedy not struck, DFA’s Head Honcho Teddy Boy Locsin was already gearing her up for a Paris assignment, in esteem and recognition of her tenacious hurdling of a difficult post Lebanon was.
The difficulty all behind her now, was made seemingly easy because, the narrator said, trinabaho, inupuan at ginawang araw ang gabi ni Amba Bernie just to reunite the overanxious, overstaying workers in Lebanon with their anticipating families in the Philippines. Video clips attest to her genuine, heartfelt and transparent rapport with the workers. Come repatriation time, she hopped from shuttle bus to shuttle bus bidding her compatriots “Goodbye, Lebanon; hello, Philippines,” her face reflecting the pure, unadulterated joy of her faithful fans.
This endearing attribute of the Ambassador was evident at the Independence Day and Christmas celebrations at the Embassy where she joined the workers in a modern dance number and, at another time, in complete costume similar to the ensemble, rendered the famous “Itik-Itik” all the way to the hearts of Filipinos and foreigners alike who witnessed the events.
Even in the hallowed halls of her embassy, it is not difficult to oblige her by singing her now famous favorite, Gloria Gaynor’s “I Am What I Am,” which she gamely did once with 5 of her staff happily singing along.
And whose bright idea would transport our popular Pinoy boodle fight there, on Rizal day at that! It wasn’t surprising, therefore, that Zumba would be a fever that would add to the list of her legacies. Through her networking with NGOs and Caritas, the embassy was able to launch, for the first time, a free medical mission, benefitting thousands.
Her personal coach in Arabic became a friend. And so did the chaplain and many members of the Filipino community there. For them, Amba Bernie was a true defender of OFW rights.
From DFA, let’s cut to the tribute rendered her by former colleagues from the Labor Department and other agencies where her presence touched people. Some of these testimonies were culled from a virtual memorial arranged by her friends.
Ambassador Chito Brillantes
Former Undersecretary of Labor
It would have been easier to highlight and paraphrase Bernie’s curriculum vitae and that would have said everything in very glorious terms. But a bio-data does not spell out her courage, tenacity, determination, devotion to duty, charity, loyalty, patriotism, and capacity for deep and lasting friendships. She was confidently intelligent and accomplished at a very young age, and a very bright young lady of great expectations, many times chosen and elected for positions and assignments of leadership. And as a leader, she displayed sobriety and solid footing, thus demonstrating, that leadership is an activity, not just a position. Bernie was both a working person and a paper person.
After DOLE, and after garnering second place in the tough FSO exams in the DFA in 1992, her first foreign assignment was in Kuala Lumpur. She headed the Assistance to Nationals (ATN) Section of the Consular Office in the embassy. Well, other than the usual community activities, which endeared her to the Filipino community, attending bowling tournaments, endless birthday parties, association anniversaries, and gatherings, Bernie also tried to visit the gambling Mecca and was too friendly with the not-so-friendly slot machines. She even tried her hand in learning how to play golf. She became very, very useful and well-known in Kuala Lumpur because she was the one who instituted regular prison visits. Not only in KL but in Sabah as well where she instituted regular consular visits to this far-off area, which was wrongly given by England to Malaysia, when it really belonged to the Sultan of Sulu.
At the ATN unit, she is remembered because she had a daily mantra. Which was this – all Filipinos seeking assistance at the ATN office must go out smiling. She was a slave-driver, yes it’s true, but this was never taken against her since she worked harder than anyone in her unit.
From the consular section, she later moved to the political section. And that was where she prepared many of my papers, reports and speeches, many of which merited me plaques of appreciation, plaques of recognition, and awards. I wish to assure you that, invisibly, yet indelibly, ascribed on the backs of these plaques was the name of Bernie Catalla.
Did you know that Bernie had a pet dog in Jakarta (her next assignment after KL)? She named her dog after her boyfriend.
She never really failed to send messages and many, many calls to all of her colleagues and her former and current staff, even after very, very long intervals, just to say hello or to give updates on anything and everything that was happening.
In one of her messages, and I think this will probably summarize what she really meant to the DFA, in one of the tweets that she sent to me, she forwarded a message from her boss, Teddy Boy Locsin. I wish to quote this and it says, “To Bernie Catalla, our Ambassador to the beleaguered Mission of Beirut. The President and I extend our heartfelt thanks for all your doing, with nothing to work with, in a nightmare assignment. When you are tired, tell me what European capital you want. (This is probably what Nieves meant when she mentioned Paris as her next assignment).
Let me go back to KL because I remember that Bernie, while being a very, very strict boss, was also very friendly to all her subordinates and associates. But there was one instance when she passed by the residence of one of her subordinates and, unfortunately, this subordinate was taking home an OFW who had sought refuge at the labor center where they stayed overnight. She had no choice and did not hesitate to recommend the severest penalty or sanction. The subordinate was recalled to the home office.
She said it had to be done, and that it was the right thing to do.
One last thing that I wish to mention is, when Bernie was in Kuala Lumpur, she was the go-to person, especially when it came to the unpleasant tasks. And one of these was the sealing of the casket. All Filipinos who passed away overseas would not be allowed to enter Philippine territories without having been sealed by the Philippine embassy. She would do this regularly and many, many times, more than once or twice or three times a month. She was known as the sealer of the casket and yet, it is ironic that when Bernie herself passed away, there was no one to seal her casket (there was no cremation in Lebanon). There was no last embrace. There was no last goodbye. It was the height of the pandemic and there were no regular consular services. Everybody went almost crazy just trying to find out how she could be returned home. Eventually, she did come home to a heroic welcome but she had already passed away to feel or see that.
So, let us remember Bernie in gratitude, knowing that she lived a life that was more worthy of being returned to the Lord. She fell in the line of duty and died in the service of her country. There must be comfort in knowing that she led a meaningful life and served her country well. Let us be consoled in the thought that she now enjoys the fullness of life with our Lord in Heaven where her inimitable laughter roars. Forevermore.
Thank you very much.
Former Labor Secretary
It’s not hard to imagine a woman having enviable attributes like spunk, style and substance because all those were in Bernie Catalla, before she succumbed to the dreadful Covid virus.
She had spunk. She applied for the FSO exams, on the last day, missing work and going all the way to UPLB to get her transcript, and submitting the requirements before deadline. She cried when she didn’t find her name in the list because she was up there in the top ten! She faced up to Senator Honasan, at the CA interview, when asked if, according to investigation, it was true that she was suplada. Snappily, she replied, “Yes, Your Honor, it is, because I cannot please all the clients all the time because I am not an artista or a politician.”
She had style. She joined her staff and workers in a mimetic folk dance in costume like them. At an Independence Day event, she took the community leaders to a five-star hotel in Beirut that they may experience fine dining.
She had substance. She fought for Filipino housemaids in Hong Kong that their window-washing chores be stopped. There is now a law in Hong Kong against housemaids washing windows. She also instituted prison visits in Kuala Lumpur and Sabah.
What made Bernie endure the difficulties in her Lebanon post was the presence – and permanence – of friends. We know that, next to family, when you have the guarantee of support from people who love you all the way, come what may, there is no difficulty that you cannot hurdle.
One of the things I see in Bernie, of course, is the courage – courage to move ahead. But as I said earlier, one of my reflections while moving and trying to put a message for this occasion was when I look back. I said, perhaps the courage that each one of us, like Bernie, had been able to muster is because we knew that we really existed in our infrastructure of relationships as one would call it. And we knew that that our friends – really deep and lasting friendships – would always be with us, and would always be at our back. So thank you all for attending. Bernie was going to come in through her retirement as well, but we all move through life. As I have told everyone, you know, this pandemic has redefined retirement. And suddenly, people, 40, 50 years old are retiring. So, we are all looking forward, and may we all, like Bernie, have that laughter to welcome and embrace whatever the post-pandemic is about to deliver to us. And may we also know that as we face the post-pandemic, it is the friendships that we have that will help us get through it as well.
Thank you to the family — Louie, Edna and the rest. Through Bernie, we had met you all, and like you, we mourn her passing. But like what Rumi had written about the soul, we would like to think that Bernie, and Bernie’s soul, are rightfully now in His warm embrace as she has met our Lord, and we are still working towards it. But I would like to end this celebration, this reunion, and we should not forget it, has become part of our lives. And our lives have not been so spunky but still stellar as well, each of us. I look at Rose, I look at each one of you and we have made, like Bernie, our own lives but part of it is really courage and that is what Chito has mentioned. That her bio-data does not fully describe Bernie. Thank you to the family — Louie, Edna and the rest. Through Bernie, we had met you all, and like you, we mourn her passing. But like what Rumi had written about the soul, we would like to think that Bernie, and Bernie’s soul, are rightfully now in His warm embrace as she has met our Lord, and we are still working towards it. But I would like to end this celebration, this reunion, and we should not forget it, has become part of our lives. And our lives have not been so spunky but still stellar as well, each of us. I look at Rose, I look at each one of you and we have made, like Bernie, our own lives but part of it is really courage and that is what Chito has mentioned. That her bio-data does not fully describe Bernie.
Remembering and Celebrating Bernie
Lucita S. Lazo
Former Labor Undersecretary
I first met Bernie at my office when she was seeking a post in government work. She met with me at the last stage of the recruitment process. As head of the Institute of Labor and Manpower Studies (ILMS), I made the final decision to bring her into the ILMS which was then in need of her communication skills, making sure that our studies and research were put together between two covers for public consumption. At the interview with me, Bernie exuded boldness and self-assurance, traits that later served her well in her diplomatic career.
Joking and cajoling with her office mates, she blended well with everyone. I could still hear her laughter wafting in the air while I walk past their office station at the ILMS. The young Bernie I knew then did not have much of a care in the world. But this would come to pass.
Bernie had a scholarship grant from the Institute of International Studies at the Netherlands. She wrote her thesis on migration and came back to the ILMS. This would prove handy in her diplomatic career. Her exposure to labor administration at the ILMS was building blocks to Bernie’s commitment and competence in managing migration affairs in her duty stations. Hong Kong and Lebanon had throngs of overseas Filipino workers who needed assistance in more ways than one.
After having passed the foreign service examination with flying colors, Bernie settled in her niche as a diplomat. I got to visit her in Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta, her first two posts where she was grounded in diplomatic affairs.
Bernie found her calling at the Department of Foreign Affairs. Her challenging assignments in Hong Kong and Lebanon suited her well as they allowed her to give free rein to her creative imagination combined with an intellectual appreciation of the OFW predicaments. In Lebanon, she took bold action to repatriate OFWs who were affected by the war in Lebanon. Without much of resources, Bernie arranged for OFWs to be brought back home promptly. Certainly, this was a show of executive ability and good judgment to ensure that no more harm would befall her constituencies.
Sixteen years on since 1984, the bubbly Bernie I knew at the ILMS was still bubbling with energy, enthusiasm and a strong sense of responsibility. She heartily laughed with the OFWS as she sang and danced with them at their Christmas party in Lebanon.
Beyond work, Bernie became the sister I never had. I do not remember now how it happened but for Bernie, I became Tita Lucy. On her way from the Netherlands, she visited me in Bangkok where I was posted for my new job after ILMS. During the holidays, she would take the long trip from her home in San Pedro to my place in Quezon City to bring me some goodies – fermented duck eggs and chicken ham that she made herself or a takip-kuhol plant for a Christmas present. During her home leaves, she took time to touch base with her friends, including myself. In fact, we were planning to get together in late February 2020 until COVID rudely ruined our plans. She rushed back to Lebanon for fear of not getting a return flight and our meetup was no more. In a space of two weeks, the news of Bernie’s permanent departure reached me. Till now, I have a hard time reconciling myself with this reality. But heaven is now her home.
Knowing Bernie, she will exhort us: “Do not stand by my grave and weep. Sing no sad songs for me. Plant no roses at my head nor shady cypress tree.”
Yes, Bernie, I know you did your best in taking care of those who had the least. You worked hard, you played hard, and you lived life well. There is no place for tears.
Former ILS Director/ILO Technical Expert
Amba Bernie and I worked together in the Institute for Labor Studies in the 1990s. I knew her as a strong woman and a very determined young lady. She once told me that her goal and dream was to pursue a career in foreign service, which she did very successfully. But despite being assigned at DFA, her heart was also always with her friends at ILS and DOLE. She kept in touch whenever there was an opportunity. We met and chatted about life and work. A couple of times, we met in Indonesia during her assignment there but, of course, the best get-togethers were when she was assigned in Manila. Being an ambassador did not stop her from meeting her old friends and chatting about old times and present challenges. The last was when she invited us to visit her in Lebanon, which we excitedly planned. I will miss a good, sincere friend. Dear Amba Bernie, may you find eternal rest. You will always be in my heart.
Bernardita L. Catalla,
Ambassador Extraordinary, Plenipotentiary
by Chona Sienes-Yap
Friend and Former ILS Division Chief
Bernie, during her last annual vacation (usually every February, which is her birth month), and I agreed to meet up on March 15, 2020. Nagkikita talaga kami tuwing umuuwi siya. But then she called to tell me she decided to go back to Beirut on March 15 already and cancelled our date dahil baka wala na siyang masakyan pabalik.
She was here for barely two weeks, which she spent on medical check-ups and banking, nagbibilang ng kanyang milyones. Then about a week after that, she sent me a message saying, “Tsunami, I just got back from my pulmonologist because of this cough and I am positive for Covid 19! Please pray for me!” So ako naman, to encourage her to fight, told her, “Oo, I’ll pray for you. Just get over it fast but take lots of warm ginger tea, gargle with salt, take lots of Vitamin C, etc., etc. Pray hard, too.”
After a few days, I texted her again, “Kumusta na? Are you getting better? Let’s storm heavens with our prayers, blah, blah, blah.” Then later in the week, it was announced she was gone. So quick.
Sorry, I have deleted our chat when I learned of her passing. Di ko kinaya. I was in denial.
I couldn’t believe that Bernie, so full of life and rocking laughter, is gone. Gone on April 2, 2020. Too soon? Or, was she merely on time for her appointment with her Maker?
It was her season to leave us in jaw-dropping fashion. Oh, Bernerdita! But, wait, halos sabay sila ng best friend niya na si Miriam Tañedo-Cariño, na umalis, in a span of less than 20 hours ahead of her. Pirmi talaga siyang may kasama, at best friend pa niyang si Miriam.
A footnote to this, ganoon talaga sila ka-close ni Miriam. Every time umuwi si Bernie sa Pilipinas, the following day, andoon na si Miriam at si Millie (Miriam’s daughter) sa San Pedro. Imagine, sabay din silang pumanaw!
A brief Bernie backgrounder
Bernie came to the Institute of Labor and Manpower Studies in 1986/87 on the nudging of her bestest friend Miriam, her classmate in UPLB. Miriam and I, naman, met at an ILO Subregional Meeting held at the then Manila Hilton. She was covering the meeting for a small newspaper called “Trabaho.” It turned out Bernie also worked for that newspaper. So, after the usual introductions, here was Bernie in front of me saying directly that she’s looking for a more permanent job than her work at “Trabaho.” I interviewed her a bit, and she said she writes and knows press/printing work. That was the magic word for me because at that time, I was about to move to research and had to leave behind a string of publishing projects. Rose Mangahas, Hellie Mateo, Joey Santos and Tess Jaucian were with me at the Information and Publication Division so they were there when Bernie assumed office. I referred Bernie to Amy King, who was the Research and Publications boss and then to Lucy, who was the final decision-maker as Deputy Executive Director. I knew they would like Bernie.
So there, that’s how another irreverent employee was added to the cadre of young, vibrant, dynamic and energetic ILMS achievers.
But beyond that, Bernie and I became fast friends, maybe because we had the same wave length and reacted the same way to particular views and ideas or laughed at the same situation! Maybe that’s why we lasted at the Institute or the Labor Department. Because we found lasting friendships along the way.
When I moved to the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) in early 1988, our gimmicks had to be planned in consideration of the distance and our schedule. Then she went to the Erasmus University in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, in 1990, on a scholarship. She was ecstatic and I was happy for her, too.
We got together again only after her stint in Holland. Wala pa kasing email and internet noon. Di rin kami nagkabalitaan when I also studied abroad. Kung meron sanang cellphone at email noon. Fax lang meron.
It was around 1992 when Bernie passed the FSO exam and Mitch Duran was her escort during the simulation diplomatic party where they were asked to deliver a speech, impromptu. Bernie acquitted herself well and that’s how her diplomatic career took off. I think this was a strategic move for Bernie because moving up the ladder and overseas assignments are more predictable. Ayaw pa naman niyang mamulitika. She’d rather be recognized for her performance.
I must say though that her background in labor provided her a solid foundation in her assignments. With her DOLE experience, it was already second nature to her to reach out to OFWs via various government programs in a humane and practical manner.
I have witnessed Bernie’s dedication to serve our countrymen in Hong Kong by having the Consulate open on Sundays as this is the day-off of household workers, her constituents. Bernie was always present every Sunday but she never forgot that it’s also the Lord’s day so a Holy Mass was held in one of the Consulate’s conference rooms.
Malikot ang utak ni Bernardita. She has maintained good relations with the host governments by initiating with them projects to serve the Filipino workers better. Where the welfare and protection of Filipinos are concerned, Bernie led the way.
Bernie passed with flying colors the grilling interview at the Commission on Appointments for a whole hour. Here was her response to Senator Honasan’s statement: “Alam nyo, Madam, nag-investigate din kami at may mga report na suplada ka raw.” Ang sagot ni Bernardita: “Your Honor, totoo po yan, sapagkat hindi naman sa lahat ng pagkakataon, mapi-please ko lahat ng ating clients. Hindi po naman ako artista o politician.”
Bernie campaigned without letup on the free, voluntary repatriation of Filipinos in Lebanon who are not yet documented yet want to go back to the Philippines. Eventually, there were about 2,000 OFWs and children who availed of the program. The repatriation was done systematically, from orientation, documentation, ticketing, and scheduling bus trips to the airport. She conducted a briefing on the shuttle bus on the sanitary protocols to observe upon arrival, all repatriates were properly documented, and given money and food.
All these dynamism and energy, I can say, stem from Bernie’s love and passion for her work. She delighted many Filipinos in Beirut especially at their first ever Filipino Christms Party where, indeed, ang Bernardita ay sumayaw at nakiisa by wearing the same type of costume the ensemble wore. The Ambassador was the star dancer of Itik-Itik, a duck-miming Philippine folk dance.
She also took the Filipino community leaders, a first in diplomatic history, to a fine dining event in a five-star hotel in Beirut to celebrate, I think, the Philippine Independence Day. That wasn’t free, but the leaders gladly shelled out their share, knowing full well that it was their Ambassador’s desire for them to taste the experience. After the event, the leaders enjoyed the hotel amenities, the selfies, most of all.
Bernie supported Philhealth greatly, not because of me, but because she believed in the national health insurance program. She spoke to the Filipino women in Hong Kong and gave her personal testimony on how much Philhealth has helped her and her siblings during times of health crises. We still had many plans for Beirut but most of these didn’t push through because of travel restrictions in my office and this pandemic. It’s evidently for the good since she is gone and I am soon retiring.
In all, kahit single si Bernardita, she loved well and greatly. Her family members are always part of her assignments. She took with her her siblings, una si Gerry, sa Jakarta, then si Luisito and Edna, in Hong Kong and Beirut. Some of her nieces also joined her in Beirut.
At the start of her diplomatic posting, Bernie never aspired for the traditional prestigious posts like Europe or the Americas because, she said, buti na rito sa Asia, madaling umuwi kung may aberya. Thus, in Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Hong Kong and, the last, Beirut, pamilya pa rin ang concern ni Bernie.
Siga sa asta si Bernie pero malambot ang puso niya. As in the story shared by Teng Torres where, at the slightest hint of sadness, she would shed. Nang naging diplomat na siya, and her responsibilities increased with every assignment, nakita ko siyang nag-mature nang husto. She’s only boisterous when she’s among friends, like us, but with others, she was always proper and putting the best foot forward for the country.
This is where my story ends. This morning, I really thought about her. I prayed for her and Miriam so that they may rest in peace in God’s kingdom.
To Bernie’s siblings, my deepest sympathies. I pray you are comforted by the many deeds Bernie did for her friends and fellow Filipinos. Our God is gracious and merciful and you will realize how much He loves you all. Thank you for taking care of and supporting Bernie.
I had thought that I will just think of Bernie as assigned in Beirut so I don’t have to deal with her passing.
The Bernie I Know
Former RITD Staff
Her secret ambition was to be a vavavoom actress. A Marilyn Monroe, a Vivian Velez, an Alma Moreno. “Bakit, sexy naman ako, di ba, Mitch?”
When I joined ILS in 1988, recruited by Celia Acedo from Silliman University in Dumaguete, her dusky beauty immediately caught my eye. Who was this woman with such an infectious laughter? Oozing with confidence. Her demeanor was, indeed, disarming. She smiled at me when our paths crossed, and quickly said, “Hi, I’m Bernie,” as she reached out her welcoming hand. A handshake. That was the start of our long-lasting friendship.
Bernie was a no-nonsense person. Although she had her luka-luka moments, she was a dedicated, thorough, compassionate, and caring individual. A visionary. When she raised a point in meetings, everyone listened. And looked at her raised eyebrows. I noticed that same raised theirs during her confirmation hearing at the Philippine Senate for her ambassadorial position in Lebanon. That trademark “Pwede ba?” Bernie glare, when she answered the me-ma (or me matanong lang) senators as they quizzed her. Only Bernie could pull that stunt off.
Back at the ILS, Bernie eventually became my mentor. Her attention to detail was impeccable. Every comma, every period, was rightly positioned. “Look at the forest, but don’t forget the tree,” she would tell me. She was my confidante. She always had a listening ear, but was quick to point out my missteps in life as well.
Fast forward… When Teng Torres chanced upon a newspaper ad on a DFA announcement for FSOs, she egged Bernie to give it a shot, and even volunteered to help gather all the documentary requirements. She beat the application deadline… and then, we waited. Oh well, the rest is history. My only involvement in her illustrious foreign service career was when she asked me to be her escort for their graduation dinner at the Hyatt. “Huwag ka nang mag-necklace, Bernie, kasi, fully-sequinned na ang gown mo.” was the only fashion tip I could give. That night, Bernie was Marilyn Monroe in a Filipiniana number!
Bernie continued to make a difference in the DFA. As if by fate, when I was off to Indonesia for an exchange program, we saw each other on the same plane when she reported for her assignment in Jakarta. That was our first reunion of sorts after she started work at DFA. And It was as if we never parted ways at all. Chika to da max!
I visited her in Hong Kong when she was then Consul-General. I remember that she assigned her niece as my tour guide, because minsan low-bat ang aking Google Earth. Then I was with Misses Thetis Mangahas and Tere Peralta in my second Hong Kong R&R. At the time, when we were caught in a super typhoon in Aberdeen, she sent Edna, her sister-in-law, to fetch our poor stranded souls in Kowloon . Parang assistance to nationals, kumbaga.
I could just imagine what adventures would have transpired had our planned trip to Lebanon with other DOLE friends pushed through.
I was in constant communication with Bernie through viber. She messaged me her concerns and triumphs regularly. Despite her busy-ness, Bernie always had time for her friends. She sent me a cryptic “I am not feeling well…” message about a couple of days after her return to Beirut from Manila. I just dismissed that, and thought that a Wonder Woman named Bernie would never get sick.
Looking back, I should have answered her cry for help. If only to reassure me that I did something to respond to it. (It was at this point that Mitch lost his poise, pregnantly paused, and broke down.)
I have not erased that message since. It’s my last reminder that I had the privilege of having a Bernardita Catalla once in my life. Could’ve extended that privilege a little longer. I don’t know. What would’ve happened if that Lebanon plan to rock the real-life rock star’s world did take place!
I miss her dearly, to say the least. And I look forward to the time when I will hear her roaring laughter all over again. Hanggang sa muli nating pagkikita, Bernie.
Former ILS Librarian
Her scholarship with the International Social Institute, The Hague, Netherlands had concluded. Back in ILS, Bernie was sad because her mentors were either promoted or transferred to other offices. So sad was she that she often visited me in the library to cry.
One afternoon, I was reading the tabloid “Tempo” and saw an advertisement by the Foreign Service Institute of DFA on examinations for foreign service officers. I ran to Bernie’s cubicle and let her read it. She was happy to read it but sad to find out that the deadline for the submission of requirements was the following day. She was even angry at me for not telling her sooner. The following day, she did not report to office to go to UP Los Baños and get her Transcript of Records. At breakneck speed, she was able to submit the requirements before the deadline.
The results were released after two weeks. She looked at the list of passers and cried for she was not in it. I grabbed the paper from her and did my own looking. She was on the top 10 of the list. She looked again. And looked at me. Then we cried together. For joy.
Jing Tana- Damo
Bernie’s Wedding Goddaughter
Ambassador Bernie Catalla, si Tita Berns, and Ninang Badeng for Abe and me, and Mommy B to AJ, our daughter. She’s been my mentor, friend, our ninang and economic adviser in life. She taught me what matters in life and being kind and generous to your parents and siblings, to be a good steward of your hard-earned resources, internalizing integrity, hard work and dedication as public servants, marami pa pong iba. But what I remember about her is her dedication in her work. Nang naka-post po siya sa Hong Kong as Consul-General, we happened to be there for a short visit. That day, napakalakas ng ulan at masama yung pakiramdam niya, halos hindi na siya makahinga sa sipon at ubo at sakit ng ulo. And yet, she insisted on attending ang isang parang event ng Filipino community doon. So ganoon po siya ka-dedicated. And I also remember her in times when we badly needed her, kahit saan po siya naka-assign na post, any time of the day, she never failed to extend her assistance simply because she considers me as part of her extended family. Her passing away left a big hole in my heart that only God’s comforting peace can fill. Her time with us is up and I can only imagine what God said to her when she entered His kingdom, “Well done, My good and faithful servant.”
Miss you, Tita Berns. See you someday in God’s kingdom.
Bernie’s former Staff Photographer
Magandang araw po. Ako po si Rolando Abadilla. Nakasama ko po si Ambassador Bernardita Catalla sa Institute for Labor Studies noong 1985. Ang boss pa namin noon ay si Miss Amy King. Makalipas po ang ilang taon, siya po ang naging boss ng isang dibisyon, RITD. Bilang boss, mabait at mahinahong magsalita si Bernie Catalla, may kasama pang tawa kung makiusap dahil medyo palabiro. Lalong lumalim po ang pagkakilala ko sa kanya nang kami ay ipasyal niya sa UP Los Baños, Laguna, kung saan inilibot niya kami doon at naligo pa kami sa botanical garden. May kanya-kanya po kaming baon noong araw at ang dala ko po noon ay pandesal. Sa maniwala kayo’t hindi, itong pandesal, kumakain po siya, down-to-earth po siya sa amin. Kaya nang mag-apply siya sa DFA, ako’y natuwa dahil siguradong matatangaap siya dahil sa talino at bait na mayroon siya. Inihahalintulad ko si Ambassador sa puno ng kawayan na habang tumatayog ang posisyon, lalong bumababa at nakikita ang hirap ng mga taong maliliit. Kaya, sa iyo, Ambassador Catalla, rest in peace, at alam kong kasama na kayo ng ating mahal na Panginoon sa Kanyang kaharian. Salamat po.
My Mentor Bernie
Ronald (RA) Abrigo
Former RITD Staff
My association with Ambassador Bernie Catalla was rather short despite our being officemates for almost five years. I would not even countenance it as a personal one.
We were assigned at different units in the erstwhile Institute of Labor and Manpower Studies (ILMS), precursor of the present Institute for Labor Studies (ILS), when the Labor Department was reorganized. Of several divisions in the reorganized ILS, she became the head of the Research, Information and Technology Division (RITD) and I was absorbed there as Info Tech Officer, thanks to my previous ILMS trainings on information Technology. That was when I got to interact with and know her better. It may not have been an ideal, functional strategy for RITD to meld research with IT, but the ever headstrong and confident Bernie was unfazed as she allowed Larry Dizon and me to keep at our expertise while she looked after research and the rest of the division’s responsibilities.
My career was headed smoothly towards IT (my undergrad was Industrial Engineering) and little did I know that Bernie was going to be instrumental in my turnaround. She cajoled me into writing, although I did not entirely abandon IT. If you knew Bernie’s keenness of purpose, you wouldn’t be surprised if, one day, she comes up to you and says something like, “RA, bakit hindi ka magsulat? You have a knack for writing as I discern from your regular reports to me. Leave IT to Larry”. And so, with mixed elation and hesitation, I obliged. I had no choice. Here was my superior handing me a compliment and confirming a skill I wanted to improve on it was unthinkable to not accept both. Long story short, she made me write articles for the ILS News Digest in a paced manner. I still did IT work on the side, until I was slowly weaned away from much of it later. All this time, she was continuously enlightening me on the finer points of writing, especially in making concise sentences.
And so it came to pass that, even when Bernie left ILS (after hurdling a foreign service course commendably well), I continued to write until, eventually, I had to leave ILS. In retrospect, I can verily surmise that much of where I am now in my career I attribute to my writing, with all its limits and restrictions. Without a Bernie Catalla, I have no inkling if the turnaround that blessed me would have even had an emergent opportunity.
Thank you very deeply, Bernie! Long live your memory.
Friend and former Fellow Employee
From the time she was assigned to her posts abroad, Bernie and I always kept in touch. She always invited me to visit her in Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong and Beirut. It’s only in HK that I was able to visit her, days before she left for Lebanon. Talagang pinilit nya akong pumunta dahil she would introduce me to the Honorary Consul of Sri Lanka, who wanted to put up a manpower agency in HK, and get Filipino workers from there. I told her if it’s housemaids I would beg off. Sabi nya, “It would not be. It would be for high-end caregivers for she herself does not want to deploy domestics kaya sabi nya chance na ito na itaas ang antas ng manpower requirements ng HK. Kaya sa iyo ko ito ibinibigay dahil alam ko you would take care of this employer.” She further said that she trusted me to keep the conversation to ourselves because she did not want to disappoint that businessman who has a lot of investments in the Philippines.
Para lang talaga pumunta ako sa kanya, she arranged for my accommodations even if I told her I would bring my daughter Arvee along. The Honorary Consul’s staff arranged for everything, from the airport to his guest house (all 1st class and located in the millionaires’ row of HK). The Honorary Consul of Sri Lanka was all praises for Bernie. She said siya lang ang Philippine ambassador na kaibigan ng mga businessmen ng HK. Ang taas ng respeto ng Honorary Consul sa kanya.
Hindi natuloy yong business na yon because they decided to get the workers from Sri Lanka, which saddened Bernie. Sabi niya, kung hindi pa sya nalipat baka natuloy yon dahil she would have followed it up.
When she was still new in HK, she came home together with a group of HK businessmen, husbands and wives. She took them to different tourist spots like Palawan, Boracay, etc. She called me up a day before they went back to HK and introduced to me some of them. There was one whom she told me to take care of because the business partner was a very rich man from Algeria who has business investments in the Philippines. He needed Filipino staff for his new pharmaceutical company in Algeria, and a household staff with a salary of US$1000.
During my meeting with those businessmen, they were all praises for Bernie. They said it was their first time that a Philippine ambassador, who was down to earth, invited them to see the Philippines.
I was able to deploy OFWs to the Algerian businessman. The household workers I deployed were all OFWs from HK who were referred by Bernie. Some of them are still in Algeria. Those OFWs were close to Bernie. They came to her house every Sunday.
Bernie is loved by the OFWs in HK. Mataas ang respeto nila sa kanya. Saksi ako nito when I stayed in HK for four days. There were even times when she would be the one to pick me and Arvee up. On our last day in HK, she arranged for our transportation going to HK Disneyland and saw to it that our accommodations were all right.
She really made sure that we were okay. She personally arranged our daily schedules, including our shopping, and joined us in one of our sprees.
Every time she came home she always sent me a message that she was in town. Several times we met for lunch or dinner with mutual friends.
In December of 2018, she arranged a mini reunion with some ILS colleagues. She chose Diamond Hotel for our dinner. There, we planned to visit her in Lebanon. I was tasked to plan the arrangements. But our schedules clashed. She always messaged me to follow up on our planned trip.
Every time she had special events in Lebanon she always sent me messages. Nakaka-miss siya talaga. My relationship with her reached a depth in so many aspects she even shared her secret aches and pains with me.
When I relayed the passing away of Bernie to the businessmen with whom I am still in contact, they were all shocked. They couldn’t believe it. They said she is a great loss among Philippine diplomats.
Lord, eternal rest grant unto the soul of my dearest friend. Godspeed, Bernie!
Former ILS Colleague and Labor Attaché in Jeddah, SA
We actually worked together for a short time only because I was transferred to LPDED. But it was memorable nonetheless. One thing that stood out in my memory bank was that Bernie induced laughter all the time. We were always laughing out loud in the office. LOL was not yet an IT byword at that time. She also had no stage fright whatsoever that she approached all situations head-on. I remember, too, that, together with the others, we walked towards City Hall after office. We seldom communicated when we were both posted abroad but we sent birthday and Christmas greetings to each other. To summarize, Amba Bernie is unforgettable.
Former LPDED Staff
Bernie did not settle for anything less than perfect when it came to writing the reports, articles and publications that we churned out in our division. She made sure our writings were backed up with facts, and if it meant getting those facts ourselves, we’d go for it. A few times, she and I went on official business trips to gather first-hand information, locally as well as in other regions – as far north as Cagayan. I appreciated her mentorship; she treated her staff as a team and involved everyone in every aspect of our jobs. On a personal note, I have fond memories of her showing her love of life as well as her vulnerability as a human being. I have only admiration and respect for Bernie, as she so well deserves.
Former NLRC Commissioner
He-he-he. With her laughter ringing in my heart (the sound of which impossibly unforgettable), tinutukso niya ako lagi na matatagalan pa bago maging ambassador ang anak ko for the reason na marami pa silang active at buhay na ambassadors, no room pa. Was the joke on her? No! I was looking forward to her announced retirement and masayang get-together.
Ooops, tapos na pala yung zoom. And so was her short-lived existence which would’ve touched more lives. Sigh.
Former ILS Division Chief
Labor Policy and Coordination
I have always admired Bernie’s work ethic and candid opinions during our past staff meetings! But legends leave when they are at the top of their game! Take your place in the space near Him that the Lord has reserved for you, Bernie!
Colleague/Former WWRD Chief
I never really had the chance to work with Bernie closely, kasi nga di naman kami nagka-division ever. But most certainly, I was always in awe of her great competence, confidence, wit and straightforwardness at work and in dealing with people. Binabantayan ko lagi ang taas ng kilay nya noon pag may mga meeting, lalo na pag nakasalang ang aming division! She was cool with us.
Former Executive Assistant to a long line
of ILS Executive Directors and my erstwhile sparring partner
(Translated from her insistent vernacular)
Bernie was a simple person. She never bragged whatever wisdom she had. (My take: it wasn’t her problem what the others didn’t; sabi nga ni Pards, she was cool – with everyone.)
I remember when she applied with the then Institute for Labor and Manpower Studies (ILMS). She was already chosen by the promotions board for the vacant position being filled but the Director requested to interview her before the final decision. On the day of the interview, she came and, upon seeing her, I thought to myself how smug an applicant she was. She hasn’t changed from the day she was selected by the board, as casual as her denim pants and t-shirt could allow her swagger. While she was being interviewed, I wryly observed that she was reclining in her seat, naka-dekwatro pa! I noticed, too, that she was wearing rubber shoes!
After the interview, which she definitely didn’t have a problem passing, I got curious and perused her bio-data. Small wonder, I said to myself, both in utter belief and wonder.
Those were the times when the Institute was assigned speeches of the secretaries down the line, policy papers, and what have you. It sometimes happened that the speeches or policy papers were urgently needed by the powers that be and, in the absence of the director, who gives the clearance, the speech or policy had to be sent up already. When this occurred, I’ll call the director who, in turn, will ask who was doing the paper. If Bernie was doing it, it was an immediate, no-questions-asked clearance. She was not only bright, she was also responsible.
I fondly remember the times when other people who wrote speeches would complain that, after going through Bernie’s editing, they could find almost nothing left of their work. Yet they take back what they gripe about later because, after repeated, mentorial editing, they learned the tricks of the writing trade, the Bernie way.
My Memory of Bernie
Abraham de la Torre
Hi, Berns. This is the first time I’m praying to you so you listen up.
I can’t even remember how many times we rode together on the bus from Lawton to Laguna or the things we talked about. I do remember we were nonstop until the bus got to San Pedro, your station. From the many stuff that we chatted about, the only big word I remember is “structural adjustments” which, you said, you understood pretty well already after your scholarship in Rotterdam. Too short was our time together to earn the term friendship but your genuine interest in what I had to say (through all the days and kilometers that we conversed) revealed to me your honest heart for people, no matter who they are. It didn’t take long to validate that. Your stints in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Jakarta and Lebanon chronicled and exhibited your love for people, specifically overseas workers, particularly the downtrodden lot in Lebanon. What’s better (or is worse the apter word) is that it didn’t take longer for your love to embrace more people, which is a painful, terrible, irretrievable woe.
I couldn’t get over the fact that Lucy Lazo, erstwhile ILS Executive Director, too, was one of the busy bodies (like Thetis, Cha, Mitch, et al) seeing to the setup of your memorial. I squeezed in a message to her. That my Goddess took time to answer me made the endeavor much more worth than gold. Those who planned the project, up to its touching denouement, did it with nothing less than heart.
Fare thee well, my friend. Amen.