Veteran actress Mona Lisa passes away

Leah C. Salterio

Posted at Aug 25 2019 06:47 PM | Updated as of Aug 25 2019 10:46 PM

MANILA - (UPDATE) When one talks about popular actresses in the 1930s and 1940s, the name Mona Lisa readily comes to mind. Not surprisingly, since the actress undoubtedly made her mark in those decades early on in her career and had a second wind when she proved her innate acting brilliance in critically acclaimed and award-winning films.

Mona Lisa passed away Sunday afternoon. She was 97.

According to her daughter Vangie Bocobo, Mona Lisa died peacefully at home, without experiencing pain.

Born in Tondo on June 22, 1922, Mona Lisa was Gloria Lerma Yatco in real life. Originally called Fleur de Lis during World War I and II, she made history when she became the first actress to don a bathing suit on the big screen.

That daring career move happened in Carlos Vander Tolosa’s “Giliw Ko” (1939), the first production bankrolled by LVN Pictures. Mona Lisa played a supporting part in the film, which became the launching vehicle of Mila del Sol. The leading men were Fernando Poe, Sr. and Ely Ramos.

Mona Lisa was born to a wealthy family. However, she experienced the reversal of fortune because her father, Manuel Yatco, subjected them to extreme poverty because of his womanizing ways. From Manila to as far as Paris, the patriarch spent the family’s fortune unwisely.

To escape embarrassment and humiliation, the Yatcos moved to the US, where they had to survive in the time of the Great Depression. That went on for seven years until Mona Lisa’s mother, Melecia Lerma, gave up on her husband.

After her parents divorced, Mona Lisa and her siblings returned to the Philippines with their mother.

It was at this time when Mona Lisa decided to become an actress. She was only 15 when she displayed her acting inclination. In school plays, she also danced and sang. She became the family’s breadwinner.

Her brothers and sisters often dissuaded her from becoming an actress. She was tagged as the “ugly duckling” of the brood. Yet, that didn’t stop Mona Lisa from pursuing her dream.

Her maternal grandmother, Maximina Gonzales, was an actress who also performed with the Carvajal Stage Troupe. Mona Lisa credited the old lady for igniting her interest in acting.

Her acting debut was a bit role and unbilled appearance as the friend of Yolanda Marquez in “Ang Pagbabalik” (1937). Mona Lisa also did minor roles in other films like “Bago Lumubog ang Araw” (1930), “Walang Pangalan” (1938) and “Sanggumay” (1939). She excelled even in contravida roles, like “Mga Sugat ng Puso” (1938).

The year 1940 became a turning point in her career, as that was the time she was re-introduced as Mona Lisa. Thanks to producer Eduardo de Castro of X’Otic Films, who urged her to drop Fleur de Lis and adopt Mona Lisa as her screen name, instead.

Expectedly, she started getting plum roles and her solo starrer was “Princess Urduja” (1942), opposite Poe, Sr. Her producer also became the father of her son. Mona Lisa experienced a setback in her career when the war broke out.

After the war, Mona Lisa opted to work for Lebran Films, sister company of X’Otic. She headlined Tolosa’s “Siyudad sa Ilalim ng Lupa” (1949), an ambitious yet dark film about the atrocities of war.

As a guerilla leader in the film, Mona Lisa again made history as the first Filipina actress to disrobe on the big screen, albeit only for the film’s international release and not locally.

In 1952, Mona Lisa starred in Eddie Romero’s “Buhay Alamang,” one of the few films before her retirement. 

She played more varied and challenging roles through the years. She was a guerilla leader in “Bisig ng Batas” (1947), a taxi dancer in Angel Esmeralda’s “Maria Kapra” (1947), a mother whose child was kidnapped in Fil Paculan’s “Matimtiman” (1948), a deranged woman in “Ulila ng Bataan” (1952).

She starred opposite Leopoldo Salcedo in “Hanggang Langit” (1947), one of Mona Lisa’s favorites which was a Tagalog adaptation of “Wuthering Heights.” She also acted in Tolosa’s “Sunset Boulevard” (1949) and Mar Esmeralda’s “Sagur” (1949).

The fifties saw Mona Lisa into retirement. She tied the knot with Abelardo Guinto and raised four children, away from the glare of klieg lights and focus of the film cameras.

However, as they all say, “Once in showbiz, always in showbiz.” The seventies saw the second wind of Mona Lisa when it came to acting. After 22 years into retirement, she was convinced by director Joey Gosiengfiao to face the cameras again. 

She played a glamorous mother in Gosiengfiao’s “La Paloma” (1974), with Celia Rodriguez in the lead. Then came Mona Lisa’s acting peak as Aling Toyang in Lino Brocka’s “Insiang” (1976), with Hilda Koronel in the title role.

Mona Lisa bagged the Best Supporting Actress trophies from FAMAS and Gawad Urian Awards for “Insiang.”

She was also in Mike de Leon’s “Itim” (1977) and Brocka’s “Bayan Ko: Kapit sa Patalim” (1984).

Her favorite role was Senora Pina, the stern matriarch in one of Brocka’s classic films, “Cain at Abel” (1982), starring Christopher de Leon and Phillip Salvador. 

Brocka was apparently in awe of Mona Lisa’s capability as an actress. “She has a strong face, a face that doesn’t need any dialogue,” the late director said in his early interviews.

One of her last film appearances was a nun who witnessed the life of “Mother Ignacia,” shown in 2000 and directed by Nick Deocampo. Among her co-stars were Nida Blanca, Gina Alajar and Sandy Andolong.

On Mona Lisa’s 91st birthday in 2013, the actress had her life story immortalized when she came out with her biography titled “Mona Lisa: A Portrait (From the Memoirs of a Grandmother),” printed by ABS-CBN Publishing.

The book, which took seven years to finish, was written and published by her granddaughter, Celine Beatrice Fabie, a singer-actress and a member of the Ryan Cayabyab Singers (RCS).

“Mona Lisa: A Portrait (From the Memoirs of a Grandmother)” was launched at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP). A retrospective of the actress’ early films was also held at CCP’s Tanghalang Manuel Conde.

Everything about Mona Lisa’s life – from being once a scion of a wealthy family to being a mere fruit picker in California, USA with her brothers and sisters during the Great Depression era – made it to her tell-all biography.

The actress initially had reservations about revealing everything in her book. She even had to ask her children if she could divulge certain things that the public never knew about. Her children, however, were generous in sharing their mother’s life to a greater number of people.

Mona Lisa undoubtedly led an inspiring life, not only for the many actors she had worked with but also for those whom she influenced with her dedication to her craft, passion for her work and love for the industry.

Her wake will be at Loyola Memorial Chapels in Sucat, Parañaque starting Monday, August 26, at 6 p.m. 

She will be laid to rest on Friday, August 30, also in Loyola. - with a report from Mario Dumaual, ABS-CBN News