The Grace and Burden of Her Name
Don’t tell Madame Imelda Marcos, but there’s a family secret that Senators Grace Poe and Ferdinand “Bongbong Marcos, Jr. would rather keep from her, though half the country must have heard about it.
In fact, as speculations go, half the country must have been whispering about it since martial law days when then President Ferdinand Marcos ruled the land and reigned as top rooster, a reputation he did not exactly discourage.
Already, the secret has become some sort of private joke among the staff and denizens of the Senate, who usually crack up when the two senators themselves bring it up.
“Sis,” Senator Marcos would address Poe, and they’re not even from the same frat or sorority.
The “secret siblings” story was alive and well during the campaign period in the May 2013 senatorial elections. At the Inquirer Senate forum in Cebu City, one candidate ended his speech with a blind item: “Who knows what’s going to happen on election day,” the candidate said. “We may even end up with a brother and sister in the Senate, but they don’t know it yet.”
The audience was intrigued. Does former Senator Ramon Revilla have another progeny that his son, Sen. Bong Revilla, hasn’t met yet? Or is there a family scandal lurking behind the clean-shaven image of Sen. Francis “Chiz” Escudero?
Candidate Poe was onstage, seated just a few steps from another senatorial bet who, as fate would have it, could easily have been her publicly unacknowledged brother.
But Poe seems immune to the vicious rumor. In fact, she has gracefully found a way to deal with what may be considered a dark stain on the family’s reputation if it were true. She grabs the rumor by its horn and uses it to poke fun at herself.
During the Senate’s first session, Poe greeted Marcos using the rumor as ice-breaker. Recalled the topnotcher in the Senate count: “I told him, Senator Marcos, ang tsismis kapatid daw kita (rumors have it that we are siblings).”
He replied: “Oo nga, narinig ko rin sa kampanya (Yes, I heard that too, during the campaign).” And they both cracked up, Poe added.
Later, whenever the senator would visit Marcos’ office, she would tell his staff: “Wow, ang ganda ng office ng kapatid ko! (Hey, my brother’s office is so impressive)” And his staff would end up laughing as well.
So, how did that rumor start?
Well, anyone old enough to remember the naughty sidelights of martial law must have heard of this juicy showbiz rumor. Then President Marcos supposedly had an affair with movie star Rosemarie Sonora, with Grace being the fruit of that dalliance. The girl, according to rumors, was later adopted by Sonora’s older sister, Susan Roces and husband, action movie king Ronnie Poe.
Rosemarie, of Sampaguita pictures fame, was once married to the late actor Ricky Belmonte. The couple’s daughter is Sheryl Cruz, a teen star in the 1980s, who became Poe’s substitute during the campaign sorties for the 2013 elections.
Poe said much of that rumor stemmed from her close resemblance to Rosemarie. “The thing is, she’s also my favorite tita (aunt), my crazy tita because she’s funny,” the senadora said. When she finally agreed to run for the Senate, the rumor acquired a new sheen. “So that’s why I’m leaning towards politics daw, people would say. Because my father is actually Marcos,” she recalled.
The rumor continues to gain traction for yet another reason. Poe is actually an adopted child, and to this day, her biological parents remain unknown. No one has come forward, not even during the campaign when Poe’s life story was laid bare in the TV biopic show “Maalaala mo Kaya.”
According to the story widely believed to be true, Poe as an infant was left at a church in Iloilo City and taken by a family who, in turn, brought the foundling to a rich woman who happened to be a fan of FPJ and Roces. The foundling was brought to Manila and to the Poe household during social gatherings. Childless, the Poe couple became fond of the baby whom they soon adopted legally and raised as their own. Sometime during her childhood, Poe admitted she had wanted to find her biological parents. But the idea was shelved for other pursuits, among them going to the US for her studies, getting married there and raising a family. Poe came home for good after FPJ died in 2004.
The thought of looking for her real parents regained priority when she finally agreed to run for senator in 2013. She said she even confronted Nanay Chayong, the woman who brought her to the Poe household, to settle the issue once and for all.
“I asked her, sino ba talaga? She said she didn’t really know, that I was left at the church at 4 a.m., and that there was no way of knowing. Wala talaga.”
Realizing that no new information was forthcoming, Poe decided to rest her case in the meantime.
“But if you ask me, is there an emotional void (because I couldn’t find my real parents)? I will tell you, there’s none,” she declares. “It’s important to have the biological relationship, but for me what’s more important is the love and sacrifice that my non-biological parents actually gave me.”
Poe has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science from Boston College in the US, and finished two years of Development Studies at the University of the Philippines in Manila.
She turned 45 last September and is married to her high school sweetheart, Neil Llamanzares, an IT consultant for San Miguel Corporation. The couple has a son and two daughters.
Before she became senator, the former Montessori teacher in the US chaired the Movie and Television Rating and Classification Board (MTRCB).
An aparador (wardrobe) made of mirrors makes for a stunning piece inside Poe’s office at the Senate. It lies directly on the path of two doorways and, according to feng shui principles, is meant to deflect bad spirits that might wander through the open doors. The furniture has a purely utilitarian use as well: it is where the senator stashes away her TV set.
“That’s also where I hide my enemies,” she added, laughing.
Eye-catching too, is the artistic rendition of a heart ventricle perched on Poe’s table. It’s a gift from Dr. William Chua and is a miniature version of a bigger piece at the Philippine Heart Center, the senator volunteered. “That’s to remind me of what my father used to say: that being a mambabatas, kailangan may puso (a lawmaker needs heart), “ she explained.
On the wall is a painting by National Artist Abdulmari Imao, a gift to her father by the artist himself. FPJ’s movies about Mindanao has made him an icon among the Muslims.
Several lampshades, which came from her own house, lend Poe’s office a homey feel. Her office’s interiors were done by a friend, Tina Bonoan, “for free,” said Poe.
This was the same office that Sen. Franklin Drilon used before he became Senate president. Does this mean you’re also going to be Senate President, we teased her. She shrugged, “Sakit ng ulo yan (That would be a lot of hassle).” And, as if to show that she isn’t necessarily following in the footsteps of any one senator, Poe said her legal assistant used to be with the office of former senator Ramon Magsaysay, Jr.
It’s been four months since Poe assumed office in July. It may seem like a lifetime to many who had watched her ascendancy from dutiful daughter to MTRCB chair to lawmaker. But even people who have seen her bloom into a winnable senatorial bet were surprised when she topped the count.
Poe is refreshingly candid about this and does not deny that being FPJ’s daughter has propelled her political career. But, she added quickly, she has “the qualifications naman.”
As if to prove that, she hit the ground running. On the first working day of the 16th Congress, Poe filed two Senate bills: SB 78 titled “Philippines Film Tourism Act of 2013” and SB 79 titled “Sustansya sa Batang Pilipino Act of 2013.” As of December 4, the Senate topnotcher has filed a total of 13 bills and 26 resolutions, including one urging the Senate committee to begin deliberation on the shelved Freedom of Information law.
Learning parliamentary procedures was the toughest part of the job, she said. For guidance, Poe said she turns to Senators Escudero and Serge Osmeña. She is particularly close to Escudero, FPJ’s spokesman and legal counsel during the actor’s failed bid for the presidency in 2004. FPJ also stood as sponsor at Escudero’s wedding to Christine Flores, thus making him and the younger Poe almost kin (“kinakapatid” or almost siblings).
Another “kinakapatid” is Sen. Jose “Jinggoy” Estrada, son of former President Joseph “Erap” Estrada, who has revived his political career as mayor of Manila. FPJ and Erap are bosom buddies in and out of showbiz. FPJ’s decision to run for the presidency in 2004 was largely Erap’s idea, sources said. The king of Filipino action movies could never refuse his “kumpa-re,” the father of his baptismal godson, Jinggoy, sources added.
Such was the closeness between the Estradas and the Poes, according to another Senate source, that when Poe started making courtesy calls on the different senators during her first working day in the Senate, her meeting with her “kinakapatid” turned out to be more memorable than the rest. According to the source, when Poe called on Senator Estrada, the latter had a guest, Ruby Tuason, who used to be the social secretary of former President Joseph Estrada. After the usual banter, the younger Estrada reportedly turned to Tuason and introduced the senadora, before adding, “O, ipakilala mo yan kay Napoles ha? (Be sure to introduce her to Janet Napoles).
Napoles, according to a recent series on the pork barrel scam run by the Inquirer, was a businesswoman and the mastermind behind a network of fake non-government organizations (NGOs) that lawmakers, through several middlemen or conduits (Tuason reportedly among them), tapped as implementors of development projects. According to testimony by the businesswoman’s former employees-turned-whistle-blowers, the bogus NGOs were allocated a budget from the lawmakers’ Priority Development Assistance Fund (also known as pork barrel), with the money eventually divided between Napoles and the lawmakers. The younger Estrada, according to whistle-blowers, was assigned the code name “Sexy” and was reportedly among the lawmakers who took part in the scam.
So, did Estrada’s unusual introduction spiel to Tuason actually happen?
“Not true,” Poe said categorically. “I haven’t made a formal call on Jinggoy because he was not around when I went to his office,” she said. She doesn’t know Tuason or Napoles, either, the senator said. And while she acknowledges that Estrada is like a brother to her, Poe said she supported a full investigation into the allegations raised against him and the other senators by the whistle-blowers, as well as by the Commission on Audit (COA).
“You feel awkward at times. You also feel sad for them,” Poe said on how the pork barrel scam has affected the camaraderie among senators. “We need to correct things, but we have to do it with respect,” she said.
As a Senate insider, what has she observed of her colleagues during those awkward moments? What do they talk about?
Poe’s face lit up: “Showbiz. It’s our fallback.”
Sen. Tito Sotto, for instance, would ask, to lighten the mood: “Sino nga yong boyfriend ni Lolit Solis (Tell me, who’s now the boyfriend of movie scribe Lolit Solis)?”
People say that politics and showbiz are two faces of the same coin – one morphs into the other as easily as the credits on a movie screen dissolve into the next line. Poe, the child of showbiz is apparently in her element in the Senate, while also treading the slippery slope of politics.
Just how the newly-minted senator can maintain her balance and straddle both worlds comfortably is a class act that voters, Senate watchers and her colleagues are watching closely. After all, as Senate topnotcher, she can do no less. •