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CJ Lourdes Sereno: The ‘Batang Kamuning’ in fighting form

Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno: “Many don’t believe that truth will set us free. It does. It will!” —Lyn Rillon

In fighting trim.

That was how Supreme Court Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno looked when she arrived for an exclusive interview with Lifestyle on Feb. 14, casually chic in dark blue jeans and midnight blue shirt.

“This is my usual weekend getup,” she beams. “When I’m feeling very relaxed, this is how I look.”

She did bring a very nice fuchsia dress, she hastened to add, if we thought that would be more appropriate for the shoot.

“I do my own makeup and hair,” she adds. “I’m quite proud of the fact. I learned through YouTube. My schedule is so hectic, I don’t have time to go to the parlor. I put on makeup on the go, in the vehicle.”

If the mind-numbing, tedious spectacle of the House impeachment proceedings, now entering its sixth month, was weighing on her mind at all, she wasn’t showing it.

Efforts to unseat her, widely believed to be at Malacañang’s behest, have come to resemble nothing so much as Yeats’ prophecy of “The Second Coming,” particularly these lines: “The best lack all conviction/ while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

“It’s not something I fret about,” she says.

She sleeps fine at night, she adds, because everything she has said publicly has been the truth: “The fact that I have truth on my side and I am fighting the fight, that is already victory.”

Hyenas, however, have been known to bring down a lioness by working in packs and wearing her down. Sereno’s stubborn refusal to appear before the House may be a strategic move to choose her battles and conserve her energy, but the real test is yet to come.

Rest assured, she says, resignation is not an option. She will fight it out to the bitter end.

“It is widely known now that I have a faith-based life, so that accounts for a great deal of what some people are calling my strength and inner fortitude,” she says.

Working-class roots

The rest might well be in her DNA.

Maria Lourdes Aranal Sereno spent the first 21 years of her life in a working-class neighborhood in Kamuning, Quezon City. She’s the third of four children of Margarito Aranal, a Christian from Siasi, Sulu, and Soledad Punzalan, a schoolteacher from Bay, Laguna.

Her parents met and married in Mindanao, but like many migrants, moved to Metro Manila in search of opportunities. They were no strangers to the struggle to survive, both having lived their childhood through the horrors of the Japanese occupation.

“My parents are some of the bravest people I have ever met,” she recalls. “I have never seen them back down from a challenge. So that, and a faith-based approach in life where you understand the end of things—you get a sense of equanimity, where you can face challenges that are really quite large.”

Her father tried a variety of occupations to support the family: printing election paraphernalia; running a furniture store; and, at one time, working as the executive secretary of the representative from Sulu. But it was her mother who was the family’s real bedrock, says Sereno.

“She was the usual Filipina with a double burden—she was not only trying to keep order in the house and raise her children, she actually had two jobs.”

Public schools

The future chief justice attended public schools—Kamuning Elementary School and Quezon City High School. The highlight of her school days, she recalls, was going to the Channel 2 and Channel 7 studios to watch “Student Canteen” or “Uncle Bob’s Lucky 7 Club.”

She seemed headed for an unremarkable life, until she caught a lucky break.

After graduating from high school at 16, she landed a scholarship under the Ateneo de Manila’s Gabay program in 1976. The elite university had been trying to diversify its student population with underprivileged but deserving graduates from the public school system.

Foreseeing such a culture clash, the Gabay program provided new scholars with tutoring by more senior classmen. Sereno’s tutor was another scholar, a Management Engineering senior from Ateneo de Davao, Mario José Sereno.

Long story short, he became her first boyfriend and the pair became inseparable. They married in 1983.

The following year, Sereno graduated from the University of the Philippines College of Law—the class valedictorian—and embarked on the distinguished legal career that would eventually lead to her appointment as the country’s first female chief justice of the Supreme Court at  age 52, replacing the impeached Chief Justice Renato Corona.

The irony isn’t lost on her, but Corona’s fate is one subject she doesn’t talk about, she says out of respect for her late predecessor.

Sereno: “Educators and historians and the media, forgot that we should have had a consistent story. And that we must never tire of telling that story.” —LYN RILLON

Sound and fury

Amid the sound and fury of the ongoing impeachment proceedings, Sereno’s preoccupation remains continuing with reforms in the judiciary that was her mandate when she was  appointed in 2012.

“I am doing my normal routine, my daily work, the production of the court is continuing,” she says. “I must fix my eyes on the ball, and the ball is justice—justice for Filipinos. My ‘thing’ is just something I have to deal with so that the production of the court does not stop.”

An evangelical Christian since the late 1990s, Sereno draws strength from her faith, though her enemies have tried to make it an issue.

Meanwhile, she tries to live as normal a life as possible, under her current circumstances. Gone are the days she could walk around in shorts and T-shirt, and it’s been ages since she last shopped in Divisoria.

But some private enjoyment remains—she can whip up a mean kare-kare, she says, from scratch, toasting rice and pounding it in a mortar and pestle to thicken the peanut sauce, and cooking each vegetable separately to preserve their textures.

“My children call it the best in the world,” she says.

She also makes a Bicolano-inspired dish from santol with bagoong and coconut milk which is always a hit.

Outward calm

In her downtime, she likes to de-stress with a good movie. She’s a big fan of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Her favorite characters, she says, are Samwise Gamgee and Eowyn of Rohan—the loyal friend and the woman warrior who slew the Witch-King.

Despite her outward calm, we sense an undercurrent of emotion. Did she ever get angry?

Of course, she says, she’s only human. But she has to focus on the bigger picture.

“There are many people who are similarly placed,” she says. “People who are harassed. People who are threatened. People against whom lies are peddled. People who are bullied and taught to be afraid. This fight is larger than me. If the Chief Justice herself will back down from a challenge that is very difficult, then what kind of an example am I setting for the Filipino youth? Then the message will be ‘if it’s too difficult, quit’. That’s not the lesson I want to impart. On the contrary, it must be ‘face all challenges with fortitude, cling to the truth.’ That alone, in itself, is victory.”

Excerpts:

Were you named after the Virgin Mary?

Actually I was named after the Lourdes College of Cagayan de Oro City. Because at the time I was conceived, my mother was teaching in Cagayan de Oro City.

Where did you grow up?

For most of my life, it’s really Kamuning. I was born in Quezon City, near the Delgado Clinic. I was born at the National Children’s Hospital, if I’m not mistaken. By then we were living in Quezon City on Scout Gandia. Then, from there, we moved to some apartment in Kamuning Market, then to another apartment in the same place, and then finally Kamuning Road where I spent most of my life. I spent 21 years in that area.

Yes, batang Kamuning… At that time, Morato was not yet Morato. It was called Sampaloc Avenue, and it was lined with tamarind trees. Really, really old tamarind trees.

You think your public school exposure toughened you up?

Of course! You really have to survive. You have to learn to struggle on your own… And my mother was the usual Filipina with a double burden. She was not only trying to keep order in the house and raise her children, she actually had two jobs.

Two jobs?

She was also running a cottage industry—bag sewing and selling, she and her crew of volunteer students from Ramon Magsaysay High School where she taught. She would sew and sell bags. She had agents among public school teachers, so that was bringing us income. And then at 3 o’clock, she would teach at Ramon Magsaysay High School, across Nepa Q Mart. She would  teach from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. She would come home between 9:30 and 10 p.m., look at how the house was doing, then sleep at 11 p.m. And then wake up at around 4:30 to 5 a.m., and start the whole routine again.

Was she a solo parent?

No, my father was there. My father was from Sulu. He didn’t have a lot of contacts, but he was very smart, very bright, so sometimes he would put up small home industries. Every election he would produce election paraphernalia.

So he’s an entrepreneur?

Yes, entrepreneur. Sometimes he would put up a furniture shop. It would have clients, then it would close. Then he would hold a job for maybe about one year. At one point, he was the executive secretary of the congressman from Sulu. But my father couldn’t really be relied on to provide financial stability. It was really my mother.

How many are you in the family?

Four. I’m the third, middle child.

Is your mom still around?

No, she was born in 1920. She passed away in 2007, at age 86. A very tough woman. She would tell me stories about how the Japanese invaded, for example, Laguna. She spoke and wrote very good English. She was already teaching in Bay, Laguna. When the Japanese came, she had to learn how to speak Japanese and continue teaching.

In the afternoon, they would have a small stall and sell food to Japanese soldiers. And when the siege of Bay happened, when the Japanese were retreating she told me about how the family ran, and she being one of the elder daughters, the second of nine children, she basically kept the food warm, because when they had to evacuate, she was still cooking rice for the family. But she could not bring it, so she was basically left, and it was only after that that she evacuated with the family to the mountains.

That DNA from your mom—is it helping you raise your family and helping you in your work?

My parents are actually very brave people. Because if you are a Catholic in Sulu, you have to be brave. My father’s father was a captain in the Army who migrated to Sulu, where he met my lola, a public school teacher. So a soldier and teacher meet in Sulu, both on assignment. Fell in love, got married, both were very, very bright. So somebody from Bohol and somebody from Surigao, because that’s the origin of the Aranals.

My lola was from Batangas—Mendoza. So Mendoza, Aranal is Batangas/Surigao. My father was born and raised in Sulu, among Muslims, you really have to be very good, very knowledgeable about how to deal with people, because they were a Catholic family. But at a young age my father was orphaned; both parents died quite early. They were raised by an aunt who was married to a Muslim. So my father was raised by an uncle.

When you live in that kind of environment, you become really tough.

My mother also came from a very tough background. Both really endured a lot.

My parents are some of the bravest people I have ever known. I had never seen them back down from a challenge. So that, and a faith-based approach in life where you understand the end of things—you get a sense of equanimity, where you can face challenges that are really quite large.

How did you meet your husband?

At Ateneo. I was then a scholar. It was the year Ateneo decided to have an integration program for scholars. Before, there would be scholars but no program to try make them fit or blossom. But in 1976, they decided to have a scholars’ program.

They set up an organization, Gabay, which still exists. My husband-to-be was one of the founding officers of that organization. He was also a scholar in Davao. He comes from Davao City, Ateneo de Davao.

Parang meron kayong Davao magnet—magnet for Davao men.  (Laughter)

He graduated from Ateneo de Davao, a valedictorian, with an Insular Life Education Foundation Scholarship to go to Ateneo de Manila. He was already in his fourth year management engineering when we met.

The upperclass men were tasked to take care of the first batch of scholars…  That was when we met. We had mentoring. He was my tutor. He was fourth year, I was first year. I was 16 when I entered Ateneo, a year younger than my batch. We got married in 1983. So in July this year, we’ll be celebrating our 35th year.

What was life like in college?

It was fun. If not for that scholars’ organization, it would have been terrifying because you see your classmates come from the really rich classes. And especially those from all-girls schools, the way they spoke was quite different from the way we from Kamuning did. In Kamuning, we have jokes that are simple. They were really sophisticated, and I was really young. But knowing I had friends from the same social class allowed me to integrate faster and even shine in some of my classes.

We felt very comfortable with each other. I would be one of those always in maong; there was one point bakya became popular, so I was also wearing bakya at that time. Usual sandals and T-shirt would be my getups on campus. The leadership of the Ateneo community was very careful to make sure our idealism would not be lost and we would not be disillusioned by the fact that we had entered a very rich school.

So how are you coping with the current onslaught?

The truth is actually very important. Because I am sure what will come out will set many things to rest. So you don’t need to worry.

It is quite known that I have a largely faith-based life, so that accounts for a great deal of what some people are calling my strength and inner fortitude. Every person really must face struggles in life. And I guess these challenges make life meaningful.

It is not what you actually accumulate, but it is how you walk through the fire… Because the fact that I have truth on my side, and I’m fighting the fight—that is already victory. The outcome is another matter entirely. It can be a bonus.

So I am doing my normal routine, my daily work. The production of the court is still continuing. It is important that people will see that it is possible to fight, and fight with dignity.

Do you ever get angry?

Every person gets angry. I haven’t met anyone who hasn’t gotten angry… But I must fix my eyes on the ball. The ball is justice, justice for Filipinos. My fame is just something I have to deal with. And I must manage whatever it is so that the production of the court does not stop.

I will just have to keep on remembering that if I stop working, one more Filipino’s quest for justice will be delayed… (So) you put that context in a larger picture. And that larger picture is our people’s quest for justice. I never forget that on a daily basis.

How is your relationship with your colleagues?

I greet them, I say good morning. We pray the centennial prayer, we go through all the items in the agenda. All the items are taken out and finished.

So their adverse testimonies don’t affect the work in the Court?

No. If it’s just a matter of the feelings of the justices dominating. I think that’s so unfair to people. I think our duty is to make sure that our work is finished.

Have you reached out to them?

We talk about all issues. There is no question that we continue to talk. They come in on the agenda, and when there are matters that I need to inhibit myself from, I step out of the room. (This interview was held Feb. 14, before Sereno decided to take an indefinite leave.)

Even if the President had denied repeatedly any involvement in the impeachment move, did it ever cross your mind to reach out to him—explain to him the allegations against you?

The chief justice must always appear genuinely independent. Just imagine if there is a misinterpretation of any communication I make—that can change people’s faith in the chief justice.

I try to make sure people understand that I have taken an oath to be independent, and that’s something I have maintained. Even the appearance of independence is very important to me, so unless it will help the judiciary, I don’t see the need for any gesture that could be interpreted otherwise.

But why do you think the President wants you out?

I think in a previous interview, I said: “I take his word as he declares them.” That’s what he has stated, that he is not part of it, and let’s leave it at that.

My thoughts—some of them must remain private… My mind is open but I do not act on those possibilities. I act on what is professionally required of me. And what is required of me is to treat the President with utmost respect, as befits his office and as required of my office.

Resigning is not an option for you?

No.

You will fight it out till the end?

Yes.

How much do you pray?

Prayer is an inward communication. If you really believe in the sovereignty of God, and if you believe in a personal God, someone who is here with us now, it’s a constant communication.

Do you have a routine? Or a devotion?

I make use of devotionals. I have Bible readings, I have my quiet time, and there is a constant inward expression of my thoughts.

You are Catholic?

I am what some call as Evangelical Christian.

How do you feel about your critics using that against you? Tithing, for instance.

Have they seen anything they can criticize among the decisions or opinions I have penned? Otherwise it’s just a misconception. It’s the inability to understand that faith can enable you to be a very good professional, using the tools available to professionals.

I heard the gospel message that Jesus came into the world to save sinners and offer a life of salvation. I was 12 years old. So it has been a constant hunger for God’s word, and I have been exposed to many pastors, many teachings. I was always actively looking for spiritual feeding.

In your graduation speech at Ateneo, you mentioned something about martial law…

In fact, I was not just mentioning it, it was facing the possibility of Marcos’ abuses being resurrected, and how people must be vigilant to ensure that our human rights are not violated.

What do you think are the primary values Filipinos should have?

Love for truth. Many don’t believe that truth will set us free. It does. It will!

The lesson we have to tell everyone: ultimately lies will go away. The things that remain and will be unshakeable are the truth.  Hang on to that and there will be order in your lives. There will be consistency. You can live with yourselves.

Build your life on lies and you will see it crumble, and the pain lies generate can actually last several lifetimes.

Do you find it hard to convey the truth every day?

Educators and historians, and if I may say, the media, forgot that we should have had a consistent story. And that we must never tire of telling that story. We should have started with the struggles of our forefathers when the Spaniards came, and how the Westerners tried to divide us. And when the idea of democracy came to some of our young people, they led the fight for Filipino ideas and the Philippine revolution against our colonial masters.

We should have continued telling that story in various forms—in theater, comics, in all forms of art—and also the struggle against the Marcos dictatorship. We actually have many stories to tell.

But we’ve had decades of neglect, though it is not too late to hope. The stories of Filipino heroism against corruption, against dictatorship—these stories are there, and we should spend more effort in retelling them.

Were there shortcomings in our educational system?

Yes. We should have looked at our textbooks. If I’m not mistaken, after the Edsa revolution, we basically slackened off and looked at the day-to-day exigencies without looking at the foundations for the future.

Stories build lives. We forgot to retell them, and then we forgot to unify all the regions so that we would have a united love for democracy and for our country.

How do you relax? How is Chief Justice Sereno outside the court?

I have a few favorite movies, like “Lord of the Rings.” I have the extended version, the more expensive one with production videos, behind-the- scenes. That’s my stress-buster movie.

What’s the last movie you saw?

One of those Marvel movies.

Is there parallelism or resonance? You and superheroes?

I have always believed there is not much meaning in life unless you give it up and live it for others. What makes us truly alive and human is to live for others.

What is the most mababaw thing you do that people don’t know about you?

What I truly miss is when I used to walk outside in shorts, walking at UP, eating kwek kwek and carioca.

Do you see your fight as the fight of the entire judiciary?

Let’s put it this way. Our judges, specially those in the lower courts, are always under pressure. The struggles I have resonate with our lower court judges because they face similar struggles. So I am conscious of that fact that if the fight is conducted in this way, with honor and dignity, and people begin to appreciate that, it will ultimately redound to the rest of the judiciary.

Do you think there is a need for the court to educate the public?

That is actually one of the lessons I’ve gained in the first few years on the job—that people have very little appreciation for the value of judicial independence. We actually launched an information campaign on the reforms in the judiciary. We were bringing out stories.

It is important that the core value of democracy be protected by all actors, especially the most significant ones. If that requires speaking more to the public, it will be done.

Definitely we should educate people more about the judicial system. Many people don’t even know the difference between a prosecutor and a judge. And that judges are just there to render their decision impartially based on the evidence. Many think it’s the popular opinion that must be implemented by the judge; they don’t understand that even if it’s a popular opinion, if the judge does not have enough evidence presented before her, she cannot rule according to popular will.

We have to let people know about due process. We must let people know that when the shoe is on the other foot, ikaw na ang nasasakdal, hihingi ka ng hustisya at ang unang hihingiin mo ay due process, na pakinggan ako at i-weigh ang aking evidence ng tama, timbangin at hindi pakinggan ang isang side lang. At kung nandoon ka na sa panahon na ikaw ang ginigipit, hihingi ka talaga na ang hustisya ay ibigay sa’yo ng patas.

Kaya importante na makita ng lahat na ang hustisya ay patas talaga. Kaya dapat kami, independyente. Kung hindi kami independent, lagi na lang may pinapakinggan, sino ang tatakbuhan ng mahihirap?

When you became chief justice, did you note a change of character in you, like tumapang ang sikmura and all that?

A position does not add to one’s character. If your character has always been strong, perhaps in a position that is more public it will be magnified in the eyes of the public, but it has always been there.

But you don’t become brave because you are given more power; otherwise if that happens, it also goes the other way around. If you have a tendency to be corrupt you will be more corrupt. If you have a tendency to be slavish you will be more slavish.

Are you confident that you have the inner fortitude to see the impeachment fight to the end?

I think each of us must take each day as it comes. God’s mercies are renewed every morning, and grace will be there for those who seek grace and who, in their weakness, will cry out out to God.

When you fight for a worthy cause, you do not count the odds. Because if you count the odds of your winning, you’re saying lumaban ka lang ’pag panalo. You fight because it’s the right thing to do, not because of the odds.

And be ready to absorb the costs of the fight. You have to prepare yourself.

There are many people who are similarly placed. People who are harassed, threatened, bullied, taught to be afraid. This fight is larger. If the Chief Justice will back down from her challenge, what kind of example am I giving the Filipino youth? That is not the lesson I want to impart.

Cling to the truth. As long as your values are valid, hang on to them to the end.

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