A foundling named Grace

By Gigi Grande, ABS-CBN News

(First of a Series)

"THERE WERE NO SECRETS in Jaro back in the sixties," long-time resident Marilen Montinola Locsin said of the district in Iloilo which wealthy sugar barons once called home. "Jaro was a place where everybody knew each other. Either we were friends or relatives. Everybody knew what was going on during that time."

Perhaps she was right. But there is one secret that remains to be told, and the story begins at the Jaro Cathedral before dawn on September 3, 1968. As a woman named Sayong Militar approached the font, she discovered an infant wrapped in a blanket and covered in blood. The newborn would grow up to be Senator Grace Poe.

Then and now, the identity of Poe’s biological parents has never been known. “Nobody came forward. Those who came forward were found to be fraudulent,” Poe said.

The Jaro Metropolitan Cathedral in Iloilo.

In its heyday, Jaro was strictly a residential area. Only mansions of prominent families stood near the cathedral.

The pre-war Locsin mansion, which is found in the area surrounding the cathedral.

But Sayong, the woman who found the infant, worked as a nanny for the nearby Ledesma-Lizares household. That she was in church at 5 a.m. on a Tuesday was no surprise, said her son Jun. Sayong was a devout Catholic who went to Mass daily.

The infant was brought to the public hospital and a search for her biological parents ensued. When all efforts failed, Sayong, who already had five children, would spend the next two years raising the child they called Grace like one of her own.

Jaime Cardinal Sin, then Archbishop of Jaro, baptizes baby Grace, held by Sayong Militar. Tessie Ledesma Valencia (second from right) was among the godmothers.

The responsibility of rearing six children may have been too much, however, and Grace was passed on to the haciendera Tessie Ledesma Valencia, a close relative of Sayong’s employers.

Ninang Tessie

Tessie was in her forties when she took charge of Grace, recalled Tessie’s niece Carmela Ledesma. Born and raised in Bacolod, Tessie herself had been orphaned. She had no siblings, no husband, and no children of her own, but having inherited vast tracts of land, there was one thing she had: lots and lots of money.

Tessie Ledesma Valencia holding baby Grace

“She didn’t know where to put her money. She really had lots of it, “said Carmela. While showing little interest in the haciendas, Tessie was fascinated with movies and celebrities. Among the celebrities, she loved Susan Roces best, even becoming national president of the Susan Roces fans club. “She spent a lot of money on gifts for Susan and threw big, big parties for her at my grandfather’s house on Taft Avenue,” Carmela said.

Tessie, who started out as a fan, later became good friends with Susan and her sister, teenage star Rosemarie Sonora.

From right: Susan Roces, Tessie Ledesma Valencia, and Rosemarie Sonora with a friend

Tessie was so close to Susan, she became a veil sponsor at Susan’s high-profile Christmas day wedding to Fernando Poe Jr. (FPJ) in 1968. The couple was so popular back then that they managed to get President Ferdinand Marcos and his wife Imelda to sit as principal sponsors on short notice.

Carmela also recalled how Tessie and Grace lived on and off with Susan and FPJ in Greenhills, San Juan even before the newlyweds formally adopted the child.

Undated photo of Grace, Fernando Poe, Jr. and Susan Roces 

Rising star in politics

Grace was nearly six years old by the time a San Juan judge signed the adoption order. Her life would be well documented from then on, but it is the unknown past that may now be used against Poe, a rising star in Philippine politics based on surveys, and a likely contender for the Presidency in 2016.

A recent Social Weather Stations (SWS) survey shows Poe nearly neck and neck with Vice President Binay. While Poe hasn’t declared her intention to run for President, she knows rivals will pick up on her hazy beginnings and raise it to question her citizenship.

“I would rather have that issue than plunder or anything else to defend myself,” said Poe.

At least one parent must be Filipino

Under the Philippine Constitution, only natural-born Filipinos can become President, Vice President, Senator and Congressman. Natural-born citizens are those who are citizens of the Philippines from birth without having to perform any act to acquire or perfect their Philippine citizenship. “I didn’t have to go through a special procedure to acquire my citizenship,” Poe said.

But constitutional expert Fr. Joaquin Bernas said the essential requirement of being a natural-born citizen is being born of a citizen. “You have to know who the parents are,” he said. “One of them must be a Filipino. If you don’t know who the parents are, you cannot say whether it’s natural born or not.”

If political watchers are to be believed, it’s only a matter of time before the issue is formally raised.” I’m sure somebody will bring it to the Supreme Court,” said Professor Popoy de Vera of the UP National College of Public Administration and Governance. “In a senatorial election, if you’re one out of twelve, the eleven others won’t bring you down as long as they are still in the top twelve. But in a presidential election, if there are seven candidates, the 6 others will do everything to try to stop you from being President.”

Let the people decide

When that time comes, Poe will be ready. ”Ang sasabihin ba natin, isang foundling, kailangan ba nating limitahan ang pagkakataon nito sa buhay sapagkat hindi natin alam ang tunay na magulang? Para sa akin, siguro tao na ang magdedesisyon nyan,” Poe said.

Poe has spent many years trying to find her biological parents. During a campaign sortie in Iloilo in 2013, she even met with Sayong, who migrated to Canada in the ‘80s, in search of the truth.

Grace Poe and son Brian Llamanzares with Sayong in Jaro, Iloilo in 2013

Poe said she hopes to find the truth someday, not so she can run for President, but so she can finally put closure to this chapter in her life.

A clue may be waiting in Jaro.