AS FAMOUSLY flawed and fickle as it is, the Philippine legal system is inherently dramatic, something Aida Sevilla Mendoza knows very well. For the better part of four decades, Mendoza has been chronicling some of the most controversial and compelling legal cases in the country through her “Unforgettable Legal Stories” series.
Understanding the twists and the turns involved, Mendoza said she thought readers would appreciate the drama and the human interest in the cases. Her own surprising life story proved to be unforgettable as well.
Recently released by Anvil Publishing, Mendoza’s fourth book, “The Best of the Unforgettable Legal Stories,” compiled the best cases from her first three books as well as more recent, uncollected stories. Not bad for someone who never wanted to be a lawyer.
“Writing was the only thing I could do,” the 76-year-old Mendoza said. “I was bad at math.” The youngest of six children to actuary Exequiel Mendoza and wife Susana Guidote, Mendoza took up English Literature at St. Scholastica’s College Manila, and earned her master’s degree in English from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.
She decamped for Madrid, Spain, to take up Spanish guitar and music before her boyfriend came to Spain for her and they returned to the Philippines.
Mendoza would later work for Ayala Corporation for 20 years, handling their media affairs.
Unusual places and times
Mendoza has wound up in the most unusual places and times. She was inside the Channel 4 compound in Quezon City in February 1986 when the People Power Revolution happened.
“I was with Maan Hontiveros when they took over the station from the government forces,” she recalled. “There was shooting, but a few blocks away you could still see the buses passing as if nothing was happening.”
She had started writing by contributing consumer articles to future Inquirer founding publisher Eugenia “Eggie” Apostol at the Manila Chronicle. Mendoza would start writing for the Inquirer after its birth in 1985. She has been writing for the Inquirer’s Motoring section for over 20 years. “I just enjoy driving,” she explained.
But it was in 1975 when she fell in love with writing about legal cases. It was then she discovered the famed American criminal defense lawyer F. Lee Bailey’s book “The Defense Never Rests.”
“I remember the Thrilla in Manila took place that year,” she said. “It’s a great book. Each chapter has a different case. I thought I could do it also.”
Because she had a lot of lawyer friends, Mendoza then went and looked for the most interesting cases, and then began writing the “Unforgettable Legal Stories” for the weekly Women’s Home Companion magazine.
“I don’t know how I was able to do that,” she said. “I was young.”
As her stories began to appear, the damnedest thing happened: “The lawyers and the judges themselves started calling, giving me their cases, especially when they’re finished and no longer on appeal.”
Tireless research was necessary. “You have to go to the lawyer, to the court; you have to borrow their pleadings and decisions,” she said. “You have to go over all that.”
Mendoza comprehensively documented the back-and-forth developments, making the effort to change the details and names of the case (to avoid the involved being identified), but keeping the actual name of the lawyer or judge to ensure authenticity.
She even provided a look into the aftermath of the cases.
“I heard that there were some who wanted to sue me, but they were advised by their lawyers not to, because they said, ‘If you sue, your name will come out,’” she remembered.
She continued writing them until she joined Ayala in 1979.
“I didn’t have the time anymore,” she explained.
Her “Unforgettable Legal Stories” earned her a following and much more. She had three compilation books published and had three movies made based on her cases.
One movie, 1978’s “Rubia Servos,” boasted a script by Mario O’Hara, a cast led by Vilma Santos and Philip Salvador, was directed by Lino Brocka, was a box-office hit and even won a Famas award. Mendoza remembered being thrilled when she saw her name on screen.
“Lino Brocka came to my office to give me my royalty,” she added.
In 2012, Mendoza resumed writing her “Unforgettable Legal Stories” for the Sunday Inquirer Magazine and, later, Woman Today magazine. She, too, had to adapt to the times: “People now have a really short attention span. I have to learn to write shorter.”
She’s not writing them right now, but looks forward to doing so again in the future. She would love to see a telenovela produced based on the cases, which is why she made sure her contract gave her the rights for TV and movies.
“The Best of the Unforgettable Legal Stories,” thus, represents the best opportunity to experience Mendoza’s series. The older stories in the book include those about adultery, a battered child and a dispute over inheritance.
The newer stories discuss premature campaigning, and even the fallout from a sex video. Among the lawyers involved in the cases are former Vice President Salvador Laurel, Lorna Kapunan and former Supreme Court Associate Justice Adolfo S. Azcuna, who also penned the book’s Foreword.
“Whether the laws in the stories are old or new, the emotional reactions and consequences stemming from their violation remain the same through the years. This eternal theme is what I hope will make this book a page-turner for the general public, lawyers and law students alike,” Mendoza wrote in her preface.
Aida Sevilla Mendoza has lived a life that’s as interesting as the cases she has immortalized in “The Best of the Unforgettable Legal Stories.”
Then as now, her favorite part about writing the stories remained the same: “I enjoy reading them when they’re already published. It’s nice. Then the others can read it and learn something from it.”
“The Best of the Unforgettable Legal Stories” is available at National Book Store.