Two sisters, Sheila Coronel and Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, broke into the news almost simultaneously last week while they were in opposite parts of the globe.
New York-based Sheila, for being named dean of academic affairs of Columbia University’s School of Journalism. And Philippine-based Miriam, for being the lead negotiator for the Philippine government’s long-running peace talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) that peaked with the signing of a framework agreement that could mean lasting peace and prosperity in Mindanao.
The news on Sheila was a burst of sunshine for her colleagues in the Philippines and media mavens who had seen her undisputed dent on Philippine investigative journalism. Meanwhile, University of the Philippines professor Miriam and the government peace panel (under the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process) were often in the news.
Sheila and Miriam, both in their 50s, are the first and second in the brood of six (they have four younger brothers) of the swashbuckling criminal lawyer, dean Antonio Coronel, and Dorotea Soto, an English teacher and entrepreneur. Dean Coronel died in 1993, and Dorotea several years later.
A UP political science graduate (1979), Sheila has a master’s degree (with distinction) in political sociology from the London School of Economics.
Starting her reporting career at the Philippine Panorama, she later joined Manila Times, then Manila Chronicle while covering for The New York Times and London’s Guardian.
Sheila was cofounder (1989) and, for many years, the director of the groundbreaking Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism. She has received many awards including the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Journalism, Literature and Creative Communication (2003). She is author and editor of more than a dozen books, among them, “Coups, Cults and Cannibals” and “Pork and Other Perks: Corruption and Governance in the Philippines.”
The news about Sheila’s appointment, posted on Columbia U’s website, quoted dean Steve Coll thus: “Sheila is a super journalist, teacher and leader. Her deep commitment to investigative reporting, data science and global journalism makes her ideally positioned to advance the school’s most important priorities.” Columbia U gave her the Presidential Teaching Award in 2011.
Sheila joined the topnotch school in 2006 as director of the Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism and professor of Professional Practice in Investigative Journalism.
Miriam’s academic background includes her graduating cum laude from UP with a degree in philosophy (1981). She has a master’s degree in Southeast Asian Studies from the University of Kent at Canterbury. She is now in a University of Helsinki doctoral program in political science even while balancing her roles as wife, mother, professor, negotiator and peace advocate.
Miriam has been a government peace panel member since talks with the MILF restarted in 2010 under the present Aquino administration. Her academic career centers on peace studies, conflict resolution and transitional justice. She had served as leading convenor of Sulong Carhrihl, a network that promoted human rights. She was involved in the campaign to ban land mines.
She was a director of UP’s Program on Peace, Democratization and Human Rights, and also the Third World Studies Center. She penned books and articles on the peace process, civil society and regional autonomy. She was visiting professor in Asian universities.
In the news
Sheila had been the better-known one because of her media work. But now Miriam is a familiar face in the news. “When Sheila became famous as a journalist,” Miriam says, “I didn’t really mind being referred to as Sheila’s sister or as the daughter of my father. Still, I got a kick from reading a news report about her deanship where she was referred to as my sister.”
Sheila and Miriam were born 18 months apart. While they were growing up they shared the same room and went to the same school (College of the Holy Spirit on Mendiola Street).
Miriam recalls: “I was more extrovert in grade school. I was active in sports and the student council. We both wrote for our school paper. Sheila was not the sporty type. She stayed in the room a lot and read novels. On one birthday our father gave her a boxful of books.”
Sheila remembers: “I was the quieter one. My sister was more robust, outgoing. We’d be wakened up early in the morning and driven all the way to Mendiola from Quezon City. Our arguments were interminable, often during those rides, because Iye (Miriam’s nickname) didn’t like to lose arguments and neither did I.
“Miriam went to Philippine Science High School while I stuck it out with the nuns, so the arguments in the car ended. For college, we both went to UP with a whole bunch of cousins and we were like one barkada.”
Miriam remembers her mother “telling us girls that she did not educate us to spend our lives in the kitchen, although my mother was a good cook, entrepreneur and literati herself.” Sheila recalls her mother saying that they were “too smart to be housewives,” too smart to remain so.
Says Sheila: “Papa made us believe that we could be anything we wanted to be. He was an alpha male, the center of the universe at home. He didn’t like to lose arguments, which became a problem when we were in UP and became activists, and he was defending military torturers and officers.
“Miriam and I were nearly arrested in a military roundup in 1982. You know the story. (A place this writer owned was raided by the military, sending several activists, this writer included, into hiding.) We had to lie low and have our hair curled. We hid with relatives in Pampanga and our farm in Tanay, with Miriam’s eldest son in tow. It was an important phase in our lives that we eventually outgrew.”
Miriam remembers: “After our father was asked to defend Gen. Fabian Ver in the Ninoy Aquino 1983 assassination case, he called for a family meeting. I was very involved in the underground movement then. Sheila was a journalist. She vehemently objected. But I understood. This was his game, he was a lawyer of infamous and famous criminals. In the same way that he allowed us to be, I could not ask him to refuse the case.”
Oh, the stories they tell about the strange characters they saw in their father’s law office, the photos of gruesome crimes in his files, how he would regale his children with the cases he handled.
Sheila has fond memories: “Papa was very generous, loving, funny. He drove us to our press work at the UP Collegian late at night or in the wee hours of the morning. He gave us lavish presents. Even when I was already out of college, he would still buy me shoes and dresses. How many fathers did that?”
Miriam: “Our father was proud of the good that he saw in each of us. He wrote us poems. We grew up in a liberal atmosphere with lots of books in the house. There was no censorship. We freely pursued our interests, attended parties, traveled with friends.”
Clearly, parental influence and the home atmosphere played a big part in their becoming. Sheila and Miriam were already pursuing careers when their parents separated.
Miriam says, “I was able to pursue many things despite early marriage and children because I have a very supportive husband who takes care of our household.”
Sheila describes Miriam’s husband Anthony as “the most supportive husband I know. When Miriam was studying in the UK and I visited her, I overheard her telling him over the phone, ‘Don’t make me feel guilty. I am enjoying myself here.’”
Sheila on Miriam: “She is very focused, driven and tenacious. She will not let go. She is very strong and firm, more stubborn than I am. She has a mathematical mind. She has a very keen sense of right and wrong, is a strategic thinker willing to compromise for a larger goal.”
Miriam on Sheila: “She does rigorous work—very important in investigative journalism. She writes well, which makes the big difference. She is well-read and a speed reader. She is amiable and has a sense of humor. She got some of our father’s penchant for remembering jokes. But she can also get cranky when something distracts her from her work.”
Sheila can’t help crediting her mother for her success. “I had a mother who wanted me to succeed. She made sure I was comfortable when I was studying in London. She supported me in my early years as a journalist. When I walked out of newspapers—three in three years—and was jobless, I could always go home to Mama and ponder my next move without worrying about going hungry. She was my most critical reader. She helped take care of Miriam’s kids when she studied abroad.”
Sheila thinks being unmarried was also a key to her career success. “I was never saddled with domestic responsibilities and was able to focus on work.” She now has a partner in the person of Reginald Chua, executive editor at Reuters. “He is very supportive of what I do. We talk and argue about journalism all the time.”
Sheila says her move to the US was surprisingly painless. “I had an apartment waiting for me and the faculty and the community at Columbia were very welcoming. I had wonderful students who were patient with this stranger. They were eager to learn from me, and I from them.”
Sheila on her appointment as dean of academic affairs: “I am honored and delighted. We are at a period of uncertainty, as well as tremendous possibility, for both journalism and journalism education. It’s an exciting time to be a top-tier journalism school.”
Miriam speaking at the government peace panel-MILF talks: “We come here as skeptical and realistic as anyone else. But these dangers never stopped us from cumulatively achieving consensus and inching our way forward. Why should these stop us now from moving on to the next stage of our work for peaceful change and reforms?”
The Coronel sisters think they look quite alike, one often mistaken for the other. Miriam says. “We both love to read and write. The writing part is a trait that runs in the family, including my brothers.”
Sheila and Miriam stay connected by e-mail and phone. Sheila comes home every summer without fail. “I spend a month chilling out with my siblings and the next generation of Coronels.”