"Tessie was always “maka-tao” in her political life and, in her personal dealings, always a good friend."
I retired earlier than usual Thursday night, because I had an uneven sleep Wednesday. The body tends to repair itself, so when for any reason I have a long night that stretches into the wee hours, I would take a two-hour siesta the following day to make up. But as our office hours in Taipei have been adjusted since April to end at four in the afternoon, a siesta is not feasible.
Anyway, my dream Thursday night centered on a former boss in government, and I woke up Friday morning wondering why I dreamt of the person, worried that something may have happened to him. But as I glanced at my cellphone to look at messages, what came was a short one about the departure from mortal life of a dear friend, Tessie Aquino Oreta.
I got into politics from being an SME businessman because when I was a tad over 30, I realized that Marcos’ martial rule was a failed experiment in “good governance.” I had built my own house by then, drove a Mercedes Benz 250, travelled “around the world” which in those days meant Europe and the US of A at the very least, using my own savings (though I started off by borrowing capital and sometimes to meet the payroll from my mother).
So I went to the United States, to savor for myself what Senator Gerry Roxas once described as the “exhilarating air of freedom.” In that odyssey, I met by chance the exiled opposition leader Ninoy Aquino. That chance encounter in the lobby of a Washington DC hotel changed my life’s direction.
Before I went back to the Philippines at the behest of family, I passed by Ninoy in Boston for the last time. Informing him that I would be back home soon, he told me to help the “above-ground” opposition to martial rule, and seek out Doy Laurel when I got back.
I asked him, “why Doy?” “Aren’t the Laurels close to Marcos?”
Ninoy’s quick reply was “’Yang si Doy, para kong kapatid. We were together during the depressing chapter of our parents’ lives…we have remained the closest of friends.”
But Ninoy died three years later at the tarmac of the international airport. Outside, somewhere between the MIA and the domestic airport was a parked delivery truck of my company, with employees holding signs that were tied to balloons, to be released when Ninoy arrived. On those signs were printed the words, “Ninoy, Hindi Ka Nag-iisa.”
On the last day of July 1983, we had a simple lunch at the house to celebrate the birthday of my wife, and we invited our ninong Doy and his wife, Tita Celia Laurel. They came with Tita Eva Estrada Kalaw (of departed and highly respected memory), their niece Fely Reyes Laurel, and Tessie Aquino Oreta.
This was exactly a week before Ninoy’s originally scheduled arrival, which days later we were told would be moved to a later date.
Over lunch, I excitedly told our “big shot” guests that I had prepared welcome collateral items, from T-shirts to streamers and other materials and the slogan was “Hindi Ka Nag-iisa.”
Tessie and even Doy were a bit skeptical. Tessie said their group would adopt Ninoy’s election slogan “Ninoy pa rin Kami,” and Tito Doy was asking why my slogan was phrased in the negative. But Tita Eva nodded approvingly. Anyway, I could no longer “stop the presses” as the saying went.
“Hindi Ka Nag-iisa,” in today’s socmed lingo, became viral after Ninoy arrived, and died on August 21, 1983. It became the battle cry of the strengthening opposition to Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos.
Fast-track to the fall of Ferdinand Marcos and the rise of Cory Aquino on February 25, 1986.
I was appointed postmaster-general, or head of the almost 20,000 strong Bureau of Posts on March 8, 1986.
Sometime in the first two weeks of my stint, postcards bearing the faces of Marcos and Imelda portrayed as blood-sucking “Draculas” were being peddled in Ayala Avenue. The postcards were being lapped up, mostly by foreigners, in the euphoria of “People Power” and the incipient hatred of the Marcoses.
I did not feel right about it. No matter how vilified they were, Ferdinand Marcos was a duly-elected president of the country, and even if he held on to power by martial law, the undisputed fact was that he represented the Philippines in the world stage.
Using my authority as postmaster-general, I ordered the confiscation of the “libelous” mail matter, and disallowed its use of our postal system. I explained over radio that stamps and postcards bearing Philippine imprimatur are symbols of our country, reflective of the national character, and vilifying a former leader was not only in bad taste, but a denigration of our self-respect as Filipinos.
Two days later, an excited Tessie Aquino called me, and asked, “Ano ba itong ini-intriga sa iyo sa palasyo? Bakit mo daw pinagbawal yung postcards ni Marcos? Bakit, ano ba ang nasa postcards na ‘yun?”
After I explained my position, Tessie said, “Tama ka naman diyan. Ano mang galit meron tayo, hindi dapat bastusin ang naging lider ng bansa”. And then added, “Hayaan mo, ako mag e-explain sa mga intriggero”.
Tessie became congresswoman for three straight terms in husband Len’s hometown of Malabon after the 1987 Constitution took effect. Then in 1998, she ran for senator under the merged PMP-LDP coalition where Erap joined with the late Edong Angara as his vice-president, a merger made possible with Tessie’s “conspiratorial” moves with me and a select few.
But in 2004, we were on opposing political sides. She was with now Senate President Tito Sotto and Ed Angara in pushing for FPJ, while I remained intractably with Ping Lacson’s “doomed” quest for the presidency against GMA.
Once more, we fast-forward to 2015, when I went for the “unknown” Davao City mayor.
Over the usual sumptuous Sunday lunch at Erap’s Polk Street residence, we were seated together with her husband Len, the former president, Manong Ernie Maceda, Rep. Baby Asistio and a few others.
I was explaining why I believed Duterte had a good chance making it to victory the following year. Mayor Erap was of course for Grace (“baka multuhin ako ni FPJ ‘pag hindi ko sinuportahan”) and Tessie explained that while she believed that Jojo Binay was going to win, her son, Mayor Len-len was obliged to support Mar “dahil kay Pnoy.”
“But not to worry, Lito”, Tessie said. “In Malabon, you can campaign freely. Besides, the campaign manager you got for the Camanava area, Norman Fulgencio (now Chairman of the Philippine Postal Corporation), is in our political camp. And he is a damn good guy who spends his own money in support of his candidates.”
In April 2016, Malabon-Navotas saw the largest ever campaign event in its history, with the motorcade from Navotas’ fish landing all the way through the streets of the small twin cities lasting from 3:30 to 10:30 at night. And who would be “secretly” helping out Norman Fulgencio? Atty. Rizza Aquino Oreta, Tessie’s bright and politically astute daughter, who was with me in Malacanang during Erap’s aborted presidency. “I admire Duterte,” Rizza impishly whispered to me.
Tessie, nicknamed TAO in political circles, was always “maka-tao,” in her political life and in her personal dealings, always a good friend.
Rest in peace, dear Tessie!