(Second of a Series)
Secrets, lies and truths about her origin
It's the stuff soap operas are made of. Abandoned at the Jaro Cathedral in Iloilo as an infant in 1968, Senator Grace Poe was raised by nanny Sayong Militar, passed on to sugar heiress Tessie Ledesma Valencia and later adopted by Susan Roces and Fernando Poe Jr., then one of the most popular showbiz couples in the country.
But the story that endeared Poe to many in 2013 could now be used against her if she decides to run for President in 2016.
The Constitution states that only natural-born Filipinos may become President, Vice President, Senator and Congressman. “When you’re born of a Filipino father or mother, you are a natural-born Filipino by birth,” said Christian Monsod, a member of the 1986 Constitutional
Commission. But if both parents are unknown, the Filipino may, or may not, be natural born.
Senator Grace Poe considers this her first home -- Sayong Militar's house on Sta. Isabel Street, Jaro, Iloilo. Photo by Bea Zaragoza, ABS-CBN Iloilo
FATHER IS ILONGGO
Information about Poe’s biological parents has surfaced before but their identities remain unknown nearly 47 years later.
“Those who came forward were found to be fraudulent,” said Poe.
But if long-time Jaro resident Carmela Ledesma is to be believed, Poe’s father is Ilonggo.
Carmela is a niece of Tessie and friend of Sayong.
“Auntie Sayong said the Father is Filipino. He’s Ilonggo. Only I don’t know the name. The real father couldn’t afford to fend for Grace when she was little. He just couldn’t afford to raise the child,” Carmela said.
Sayong is now 89 years old and living in Canada while Tessie passed away in 2009.
Carmela said she knows nothing about Poe’s mother.
The mansion of Rosette Montinola Jalbuena. In its heyday, it played host to parties attended by celebrities.
The yellow house on Sta. Isabel Street owned by Sayong’s family is what Poe calls her first home. But when Grace was nearly two years old, Sayong’s son Jun said she became the ward of Tessie Ledesma Valencia, a relative of Sayong’s employers.
Tessie was orphaned, unmarried, childless and had no siblings while Sayong had Grace to raise five children of her own. Sayong convinced Tessie to take Grace.
Tessie, Carmela said, was flush with cash and loved to party with celebrities. She took the young Grace to Manila to live at the Ledesma mansion on Taft Avenue.
The two also lived on and off at the San Juan, Greenhills home of Tessie’s friends, Susan and FPJ. It was during this time that the couple began to feel attached to Grace.
Whenever they were in Jaro, Tessie and Grace lived at Tessie’s mansion, or slept at the mansion of Tessie’s Lizares relatives. But they would also sleep over at the mansion of Tessie’s friend Rosette Montinola Jalbuena which was located just across the park and a stone’s throw away from the Jaro Cathedral.
It was the same mansion Susan’s sister, teen star Rosemarie Sonora, would stay at whenever she was in town.
Rosemarie has long been rumored to be the biological mother of Grace.
The Ledesma-Lizares mansion in Jaro is where Sayong worked as a nanny. Young Grace and Tessie, a relative of the Lizares family, would sometimes stay here when visiting Jaro.
But it simply wasn’t true, said long- time residents.
Jean Jalandoni Gustilo’s family has lived right next door to the Jalbuenas for decades. Her father and Rosette Jalbuena were best friends. “Rose would live right next door to us with the Jalbuenas. The old lady Jalbuena would come here every day and tell us what was happening in her house. I’m sure if that kind of rumor could have been true, my God we would have known it, “ Jean said.
“She was very young then. It’s impossible,” Carmela said.
Poe smiles easily when asked about the rumor.
“The easiest would just be to say, yes the rumor is true. But it’s not,” said Poe. “I wish it were, in a sense, so I can establish my natural-born status, to be the daughter of my aunt. Daughter with whom? Well that’s a different issue. Of course they will say I’m the daughter of Marcos. You know, if that were true, it would be more than just a loud whisper. Somebody would have come forward to prove that.”
Tessie would eventually migrate to the US leaving Grace with Susan and FPJ. Grace was nearly six years old by the time a San Juan judge signed the order to formalize the adoption.
This is the Ledesma mansion on Taft Avenue in Metro Manila where Tessie Ledesma Valencia threw lavish parties for Susan Roces. Photo courtesy of Carlo Dionisio.
BURDEN OF PROOF
It’s been said there were no secrets in Jaro back then. Perhaps there was one.
But even if Poe’s biological parents remain unknown, there are those who say the cards are stacked in her favor.
“There is a presumption that she is a natural-born Filipino,” said Fr. Rannie Aquino, dean of the San Beda Graduate School of Law. “She occupies public office that requires that she be a natural- born Filipino.”
Aquino said the burden of proof that neither of Poe’s parents was a Filipino citizen at the time of her birth rests with anyone who might assail her nationality. “He who makes the claim must prove the claim,” Aquino said.
No one questioned Poe’s citizenship when she ran for public office in 2013. But political watchers say the game is played differently when it’s the Presidency at stake.
“The problem is, if there are issues hounding you, you will be unable to focus on what you want to do for the country, your vision will not be easy to explain because you’ll (be busy) answering the accusations and criticisms against you,” said Professor Popoy de Vera of the UP National College of Public Administration and Governance. “You’ll get off track in terms of messaging and you won’t be able to convince the voters that you are the right choice for 2016.”
The issues raised could also be aimed at blocking the flow of campaign funds in the event Poe seeks higher office.
“Any uncertainty in a campaign makes the funders a little jittery. You wouldn’t want to back a candidate that either gets disqualified or loses. So any possibility that the one you’re funding has troubles in the campaign generally affects the amount you will give for the election,” De Vera said.
De Vera is convinced it’s only a matter of time before the issue is raised before the Supreme Court.
When that happens, Poe said she would be ready.
In the meantime, she’s still hoping to find her biological parents. “I’m asking our countrymen, if they know anything about it, please come forward. Not for anything else, not just because of my possible candidacy, but because it’s the right thing to do. Sa tinagal ng panahon na naghahanap ako, maganda din naman na makilala ko.”