Never in Mom’s wildest dreams had she pictured herself becoming the ideal politician’s wife one day. It must have been farthest from her mind in 1939 when she, at age 15, eloped with the shy, soft-spoken 19-year-old pre-law student.
She was beautiful and easy to like, two most important qualities in winning votes for Dad, who was not your typical loud, backslapping politician. She took the trouble of staying beautiful, but tempered her efforts with frugality, which only added to her charm.
She preferred the natural and organic produce from our garden to expensive imported brands, which she judged overpriced and full of chemicals: “What you’re really paying for is the brand.” She did her own hair, pulling it back and gathering it into an artistically formed bun, and highlighting a widow’s peak, an oval face and an olive complexion.
She also did her own makeup; even for special occasions, she seldom went to professionals. She sewed her own clothes— and mine—until she needed a lot more clothes for her new role; a stay-in dressmaker did for her at least two new dresses a week.
No one would have guessed her clothes were homemade; she looked good in anything. She also modeled famous couturiers’ clothes at charity fashion shows.
She stayed slim past her 60s and credited hula dancing for it. She performed, much to the delight of her guests, at her own parties at home. She would further amaze her guests by cooking most of the dishes herself, except for the lechon—she herself made it into paksiw the day after. She started gaining weight when she stopped smoking; by then Dad was already out of politics.
In her younger days she went to market every day—Blumentritt, Quiapo and Central Market all happened to be located in Dad’s district. She was a tough haggler. She knew how to test for freshness and quality, quickly earning both the respect and the affection of the vendors, who then became enthusiastic electoral supporters of Dad’s.
But politics was never a consideration in her marketing; she continued to haggle for the best price, much to the embarrassment of Dad whenever he accompanied her.
“Lita,” he would tell her, “let the vendors make a little profit naman.” Perhaps to make up for Mom’s take-no-prisoner approach to haggling, I myself don’t haggle at all. Vendors would quickly spot me as a patsy, anyway. I did my marketing at the grocery instead.
In 1953 Dad surprised us all by announcing he was entering politics at the invitation of family friend Arsenio H. Lacson, who had vacated his congressional seat to become mayor of Manila. It was Mom’s baptism of fire, but she took to politics as fish to water.
Dad was congressman of the second district, the business district, of Manila for five terms, the last ended by martial law in 1972. Mom was in the limelight almost as much as Dad, maybe even more. Dad concentrated on his job in Congress and left the nitty-gritty of campaigning and anything that required direct contact with constituents mostly to my naturally sympathetic mom, who could awaken and light up a room. In no time she became his most effective campaigner.
Credible and sincere
Having come from modest means, she came across as credible and sincere. She gladly attended fiestas and wakes and ribbon-cutting events. She became wedding sponsor to countless couples. She never stopped campaigning, and Dad winning.
“There’s nothing like winning an election, kiddo. Imagine all those people writing your name on their ballots!” Dad would tell me. He was always cool and confident all through his five successful elections.
“I didn’t run, kiddo,” he said, intoxicated by every victory. “I walked away from my opponent.”
Dad, on the other hand, was an easy candidate to sell. Every year he was picked by the Philippine press among the Ten Outstanding Congressmen and once as Man of the Year. But Mom always campaigned as though he would lose. Once she was frantic after receiving reports of flying voters getting into one precinct.
“Flying voters cannot make anybody win an election, Lita, not in Manila, especially not in my district.” He had so much respect for the voters in Manila.
Mom was also persistent in trying to woo the Iglesia vote, but Dad disagreed: “I don’t believe they can make me win or lose.”
The excitement on Election Day was always centered on the precincts, the only place where the votes were safe and counted correctly. Cheating had to happen elsewhere, what with Dad’s leaders watching and monitoring the whole process from the voting to the counting, all done in the presence of the public, official election watchers and party watchers, and each candidate’s representative. All of them also got a copy each of the tally sheets after they all had signed it.
Dad’s copy was personally delivered to him. Before the end of the day, the results of the local elections were known. I was 13 in Dad’s first election, but was not much help during campaigns even after I had grown older. But I did get to observe the interesting process up close.
There was a family ritual at the end of every victorious campaign. Dad would put on his shirt before emerging from the bedroom beaming like a Cheshire cat. He’d walk over to Mom who’d be sitting at the dining table surrounded by people. He’d kiss the top of her head, which would surely smell of Jasmine flowers—she always wore them in her hair, in lieu of perfume. She would always be the first one he’d thank.
Photographers already waiting at our house would then position Dad between Mom and me. At the signal, it was our turn to plant a kiss on Dad’s cheeks, and the picture would be in the newspapers the next morning.