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Sisa, is that you?

/ 12:09 AM September 07, 2014

CHARMED CIRCLE: Lewis with husband Reginald and daughters Christina (left) and Leslie. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Long before she was named one of the World’s 100 Most Influential Women by the Filipino Women’s Network, Loida Nicolas Lewis’ name had already become a byword in a small town in Sorsogon.

Loida Theater was her businessman father’s brainwave, a pre-emptive move meant to stimulate name recall in case his daughter entered politics. “He dreamed for me to be a lawyer,” Lewis recalls, a logic that must have sprung from the politics of  the day that saw law as the quickest route to public office.

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In fact, the older Nicolas was so happy when she graduated from law school, that he gifted Lewis with a trip around the world.

The last leg of the trip took her to New York, where her sister Mely was taking her masters at Columbia University.

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But Lewis never made it to the next leg of her trip; her journey was unexpectedly interrupted—by love.

While waiting for her sister to graduate, Lewis worked in a non-profit civil rights research center in New York. Her boss later invited her to come along for a double date with his Harvard classmate, Reginald Lewis.

The 26-year-old classmate had such a busy schedule then that he initially didn’t want to go—until he found out that his date was Filipina. “I’ve never dated an oriental before,” he said.

“He was always ready for an adventure,” Lewis recounts of the date whom she eventually married.

Reginald F. Lewis came from humble beginnings and was raised by a single mother in Baltimore. Why had his mom left his dad, he had asked his aunt once.

“Because he didn’t have enough ambition,” the woman answered, something that stuck to the boy’s mind who forthwith swore that it would be something that he would never lack.

At 10, the boy started selling newspapers in their neighborhood and two years later, sold his business to his best friend. As a teenager, he played under a football scholarship for Virginia State University. He would later become the first African American admitted to Harvard Law School, without him applying for a slot.

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But long before he made it to Forbes’ list of 400 wealthiest Americans, Lewis knew this guy was The One.

With President Obama. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

“Having been classmates and colleagues with the best of the best at UP College of Law, I knew he was someone I would not meet again. He was more ambitious than me and more tenacious. He was driven and intense, but also kind, generous, and a family man. He made me more feminine, more sensitive and more honest, yet he recognized that I was a race horse, someone who would grow along with him as he climbed to the top.”

The couple got engaged after just five months of dating and after some initial apprehensions about her father’s plans for her back in the Philippines, got married at the Jose Rizal burial grounds in Paco Cemetery in 1969.

Because it was too expensive to fly from Baltimore to Manila, only Reginald came “to claim his bride” as his friend, now Federal Judge Edward Korman said.

The couple began their shared journey, with Lewis supporting her husband while reaching for her own dreams. As a new mother to their first-born, Leslie, Lewis took the Bar in New York and became the first Asian woman to pass it without having studied in the US.

“I exiled my daughter to Maryland so I could study for the Bar 16 hours a day. I didn’t want to exile her again so I had to pass it the first time,” she says.

Lewis later worked as Attorney General for the US Immigration and Naturalization Services, but not before she sued them for discrimination for initially rejecting her. Lewis won three years of back pay and paid vacation leave.

In 1987, her husband acquired Beatrice International Foods, the largest conglomerate ever to be owned by an African American, and moved the family to Paris.  She meanwhile wrote the book, “How To Get A Green Card,” which is now on its 10th edition and still in print.

Lewis had imagined that she and her husband would grow old together.  But the most successful black entrepreneur in the history of the United States succumbed to brain cancer six weeks after diagnosis. They had been married 24 years.

To cope with grief, Lewis dug deep into her faith, something she had absorbed from her parents. “I believe that God would not abandon me, that he is with me in my deepest sorrow, and he would give me discernment to make the right decisions. That is why I am where I am now.”

For business acumen that she needed to run the billion-dollar company her husband had left her, she turned to her father.

Francisco de Jesus Nicolas lost his own father when he was 12 but his mother, a school teacher, sent him to live with an uncle who was a successful businessman, Lewis recalls.

It was here, during his teenage years, that her father’s dreams of becoming an entrepreneur germinated.  Many years later, those dreams would bloom into the successful Nicfur furniture shop, a construction company, a bowling alley and billiards center, and Loida theater in Sorsogon.

The older Nicolas also gave his daughter a strong sense of philanthropy, something she has since practised to the hilt.

“(Running the business) was daunting the first days. But I knew the vision that my beloved had, and that was to create wealth for the family and to help the less fortunate.”

Through the years, Lewis has raised two daughters, Leslie and Christina, both of whom graduated cum laude from Harvard. Ribbed about being the only member of the family who hadn’t gone to Harvard, Lewis took a business certificate course at Harvard Business School’s Owner President Management Course.  She stays in touch with her classmates and travels with them to a different country every year. Next February, she will host them in the Philippines.

Like her, Lewis’ daughters have excelled in their field. Leslie became an award-winning theater actor and producer, while Christina wrote a column for the Wall Street Journal before founding the non-profit All Star Code, which supports talented young men of color to break into technology.

“It’s what her father would probably be involved in if he were born in this generation,” says Lewis proudly.

She shows as much pride over grandchildren Savilla and Reginald, both almost 9, who were adopted as infants from an orphanage in Rwanda in 2005 when Leslie was doing research on her one-woman-play called “Miracle in Rwanda.” The play is about the life of genocide survivor Immaculee Illibagiza, whom she had initially accompanied for the “60 Minutes” documentary.

Despite her father’s less than subtle nudges, Lewis says she has no plans of pursuing a career in politics, although she is not averse to supporting political figures in the US whom she believes in.

In 2008, Lewis hosted a special fundraiser at her own home in New York for Hillary Clinton, who was then campaigning for the Democratic Party’s nomination.  She has also been a firm supporter of New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand and US President Barack Obama when he sought reelection in 2012.

US Senator Charles Schumer of New York once acknowledged her as “one of America’s leading Filipina women,” when she was honored with the Eleanor Roosevelt’s Legacy Trailblazer of Democracy Award.

He explained: “Fifteen years ago, when there was a desperate shortage of nurses in this country, and the talent of Filipina women to come here and become nurses was being blocked by the same kind of non-thinking approach to immigration that too many exhibit in Washington today, Loida led the charge to change.

There are now thousands of Filipina nurses in America, particularly in New York.”

Lewis’ advocacy on Filipino diaspora had sometimes gotten her in trouble.  She has taken a rather strong position on the Philippines’ territorial dispute with China over what she says are “trillion dollars-worth” of oil that could mean a brighter future for the next generation of Filipinos.  Winning our claim, she adds, would mean that it would be less likely for Filipinos to leave their families in search of a better life.

In an interview with Mitzi Borromeo for “Solar News Café,” Lewis said, “I feel that no Filipino would leave the country unless it’s the only way they could lift their economic status. Well, except for those who fall in love, like me.”

According to editor/writer Randy Gener in his website (randygenerlive.blogspot.com), Lewis last year earned the sobriquet “China’s newest public enemy Number 1.”

He explained that as national chair of the US Pinoys for Good Governance, Lewis held a press conference in Manila on July 14 to announce a worldwide campaign to “Boycott Made in China Products,” because of China’s claims over Scarborough Shoal and the Kalayaan group of islands in the West Philippine Sea.

In response, Gener wrote that “China’s government-controlled media called on the Chinese people to boycott a chain of convenience stores in China believed to be owned by Ms. Nicolas Lewis.”

Unfortunately for them, Gener added, Lewis’ former Chinese business partners had bought her out in the Beatrice stores.  In effect, the Chinese authorities are boycotting “wholly-owned Chinese businesses.”

Though active and visible in African American foundations to keep the legacy of her husband alive, Lewis never forgets that she is first and foremost a Filipino.

Which explains why, in 2011, when she watched Felipe de Leon’s “Noli Me Tangere” opera in Chicago produced by Karrel Bernardo’s KGB Productions, she was moved to tears and decided that it should be presented in New York.

“I have been a New York resident for some 40 years and I believe that if any cultural event did not happen in New York, it did not happen at all,” she explains.

“The delightful surprise for me and for many of those who will be watching the opera is discovering that we have world-class artists in this high art form. It is such a joy to find the wealth of talent, musicians and opera singers we have both in the United States and in the Philippines.”

The opera is based on the 19th century novel by Dr. Jose Rizal and tells the story of two star-crossed lovers in the years leading up to the Philippine revolution against Spanish colonial rule.

A recent review of the opera in The Washington Post by Grace Jean (“Striking Voices Send ‘Noli’ Soaring,” Aug. 10, 2014), says that the opera  “unfolded as an elegant affair… Despite several awkward scenery-change pauses, the opera overall flowed with passages reminiscent of Mozart, Rossini, Puccini and Wagner under conductor Benjamin Dia’s baton.”

But Lewis knew she could not produce the opera by herself, and enlisted a diverse group of talent who could produce, design and direct the show, among them executive producer Jerry Sibal whom she describes as the Filipino Cameron Mackintosh for being an artist, architect, designer, dancer, impresario, and visionary.

Successful New York real estate broker Edwin Josue came in as assistant executive producer, while multi-awarded Freddie Santos directs the opera that will be staged from September 11-28 at the Newport Peforming Arts Theater, Resorts World Manila.

“It is the perfect time to bring back the ‘Noli Opera’ to Manila because there have been a lot of Broadway productions staged here recently,” says Sibal, president of JS Productions Inc. “The younger generation is so immersed in the Internet that they’ve forgotten history and culture. I think it’s high time that we educate them as it is our history that identifies us as Filipinos.”

The Manila production of “Noli Me Tangere: The Opera” will be headlined by two world-class talents—Sal Malaki, as Crisostomo Ibarra, the liberal-minded, outspoken and idealistic youth whose eyes were opened to the harsh reality of revolution, and Rachelle Gerodias, as Maria Clara, Ibarra’s sweetheart whose birth is a crucial part of the narrative.

Malaki is one of the most seasoned artists of the Los Angeles Opera Company,  and has performed in more than 105 Los Angeles Opera production since joining the company in 1995.

Gerodias, meanwhile, received her master’s degree in Vocal Performance and Vocal Literature from the famed Eastman School of Music in New York and graduated cum laude from the University of Santo Tomas Conservatory of Music. She is also an awardee of “The Outstanding Women in the Nation’s Service.”

Playing alternates for Ibarra and Maria Clara are Manila-based undiscovered greats Ivan Nery and Myramae Meneses, both from St. Scholastica’s College in Manila who both have a bachelor’s degree in music. They have been in multiple opera and theater productions in the past years and have actually portrayed Ibarra and Maria Clara in previous stages.

Knowing how expensive it is to mount an opera with 40 artists and a 35-member orchestra, not to mention the opulent sets and costumes, Lewis says they sought out several generous business leaders to subsidize the P100 to P150 tickets being offered to public school students. The admission price then becomes equivalent to the cost of going to a movie.

“Seeing the opera will enhance one’s love for the art and literature and one’s country. In addition, you’d be exposed to opera akin to what you’d experience in New York’s Metropolitan Opera.”

Filipinos, Lewis adds, would also be reminded that “Noli” is still relevant amidst the social turmoil in the country today.

“The new Father Damaso and gwardiya sibil are those who abuse their power. That is the crux of what’s happening now.”

Lewis knows whereof she speaks.  When martial law was imposed in 1972, her sister Imelda (Mely) Nicolas was picked up at their home at 2 pm by three truckloads of soldiers.

“It was really a dark time,” she recalls.  “If my father had not been that insistent (about seeing her), she could have been raped or (salvaged).  She was detained for six months.”

Her sister, and a few of her friends, were publishing a spoof of the Marcos couple. “They were actually choosing between ‘Ferdie’s Organ’ or ‘Imelda’s Monthly,’ but nobody in the group was named Ferdie,” says Lewis.

“It was brilliant and very funny. They managed to come out with two issues before martial law was declared  When it came out, I told Melly that I’d like it to be published in New York.  Nelson Navarro said to name it Ningas Kugon, because it was not supposed to last long.  But it lasted eight years.”

Watching “Noli” means being educated about the past so we don’t repeat our mistakes, Lewis says, quoting her favorite words from her parents.  “You must know how to look back, so you can move forward.” •

For ticket inquiries, contact  Dennis Villaluz at (02) 788-9108, 0916-8571-553, 0932-175-8599. For more information, please visit Facebook/NoliMeTangereOperaManila and Twitter @nolioperamanila Instagram@nolimetangereopera, e-mail nolimetangeretheopera@gmail.com or call (02) 899-7938 or 39.

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