Tondo-born Hilbay emulates mother's determination in uphill Senate bid

Katrina Domingo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at May 11 2019 09:42 AM | Updated as of May 12 2019 02:36 AM

Tondo-born Hilbay emulates mother's determination in uphill Senate bid 1
Otso Diretso senatorial candidate Florin Hilbay hugs his mother Lydia during a press conference of the slate’s mothers and mother figures in Makati, May 10, 2019. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

MANILA - Otso Diretso candidate Florin "Pilo" Hilbay wept on the sidelines of a press conference in Makati as his mother narrated how a lanky boy from Tondo barreled through poverty and topped the bar exams, defended Philippine sovereignty before an international tribunal, and then decided to gun for a seat in the Senate despite the odds. 

Hilbay sobbed upon hearing his Nanay Lydia campaign for him the best way a mother could: recall tales of his childhood.

She recalled how Pilo, first born among three sons, managed to finish elementary and high school in private institutions due to scholarships.

"'Pag pumapasok sila [sa paaralan], mayroon akong dalang longganisa. Ibebenta ko sa school para may pamasahe na kami para bukas," said Nanay Lydia.

(Whenever I took them to school, I would bring some sausages. I would sell it at their school so that we'd have some fare money for the next day.)

Hilbay's father Rodrigo worked as an office messenger, while his mother took on multiple sidelines - from working as a house helper to selling packed meals in makeshift carts - to augment the family's meager income. 

"Kahit na mahirap lang kami, hindi siya sabik sa pera," Nanay Lydia said.

(Even though we were poor, he was not eager for money.)

"Minsan 'pag Pasko, hindi ko sila mabibili ng bagong damit kagaya ng sa mga kapitbahay namin pero hindi sila nagrereklamo bakit wala silang bagong damit," she said.

(There were times during Christmas when I could not buy new clothes for them, like our neighbors do for their kids. But they never complained about not having new clothes.)

"Hindi din sila nakatikim ng mga birthday party," she said.

(They also never experienced having birthday parties.)

"Sabi sa'kin ng mga kapitbahay, 'Naku si Lydia, hindi 'yan naghahanda sa birthday ng mga anak niya kasi Ilokano, kuripot,'" she added, smiling at the memory.

(Our neighbors told me, 'Lydia doesn't even prepare food for her children's birthdays. She's an Ilokano, that's why she's so stingy.)


A post shared by Pilo Hilbay (@pilo_hilbay) on

Through perseverance and gift of intellect, Hilbay eventually graduated with a degree in Economics from the University of Santo Tomas and proceeded to study law in UP.

In an earlier interview with ABS-CBN News, Hilbay said he worked as an assistant of the College of Law dean and as a speech writer for late Antique Rep. Jovito Plameras Jr. to pay for law school.

"I earned a P9,200 monthly salary for the two jobs which was enough for the dormitory charges and tuition and other expenses," Hilbay said.

What the 45-year-old lawyer failed to say was how he skimped on meals to survive law school. But his mother remembered this well. 

"Noong nag-aaral siya sa law, minsan Sky Flakes na lang kinakain niya. Awang awa ako," Nanay Lydia said.

(When he was studying law, he would just eat crackers sometimes. I took pity on him.)

"Nadudurog ang puso ko sa mga ganung sitwasyon. Wala naman akong magawa kasi 2 silang sabay na nasa college," she said.

(My heart broke in those situations but I could not do anything because I had two sons who were in college at the same time.)


A post shared by Pilo Hilbay (@pilo_hilbay) on

All his sacrifices paid off. In 1999, Hilbay topped the Bar exams along with another examinee from the Ateneo de Manila University with a score of 88.5 percent.

Only 16 percent of the nearly 4,000 examinees passed that year's tests. The results were released that year on March 19, Hilbay's birthday. 

He then kept up a streak of achievements, earning his master of laws degree from Ivy League Yale University in the United States. He also took up fellowships in Singapore and Germany.


Tondo-born Hilbay emulates mother's determination in uphill Senate bid 2
Florin Hilbay files his Certificate of Candidacy for senator at the Commission on Elections (Comelec), October 17, 2018. He was accompanied by his parents Rodrigo and Lydia. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News/File

Nearly 20 years after he became a lawyer, Hilbay is again faced with financial woes as he embarked on a senatorial campaign without a war chest.

Of the 8 Otso Diretso candidates, Hilbay is the lone senatorial aspirant who failed to shore enough funds to mount at least one television campaign advertisement.

He also could not afford to pay for radio spots in Metro Manila, but was lucky enough to have supporters who paid for radio campaign ads in provincial stations.

"Late na late na nagdesisyon [tumakbo]. Ilang buwan inisip pero huling nagdesisyon talaga unlike 'yung ibang candidates na taon plinano 'yung pagtakbo, 'pag setup ng organization," Hilbay said.

(I decided to run for public office very late. I thought about it for several months but the decision came in very late unlike other candidates who spent years to prepare for their candidacy and to setup their organizations.)

"In many ways I came in almost totally unprepared. Buti na lang maraming tumulong (Good thing a lot of people helped)," he said. 

Hilbay, for long a law professor at the University of the Philippines, came to public light during the last administration, where he served as Solicitor General. 

A highlight of his time as the state's chief counsel was arguing before a United Nations-backed arbitral tribunal at The Hague in 2015, where the Philippines eventually scored victory against Chinese incursions in the disputed South China Sea. 

He also faced the Supreme Court several times during oral arguments on high-profile cases. 

On the runup to the campaign, he was a regular in media interviews on legal matters. 

By October last year, he confirmed he was seeking public office. 

His debut in the political arena has been an uphill battle. Hilbay's meager campaign kitty has left him trailing behind pre-election surveys.

He landed on the 29th to 43rd spot with only 3.2 percent voter support and 31 percent voter awareness, according to Pulse Asia's April 10-14 pre-election survey.

Filipinos usually root for underdogs, but Hilbay's story of success despite poverty did not help his campaign narrative because he was "simply not recognized nationally," said Sev Sarmenta, a Public Relations lecturer at the Ateneo de Manila University.

"He is definitely academically and professionally qualified but has not had any major national involvement or issue, save perhaps for the China arbitration case," Sarmenta said.

"He is being overshadowed by the old politicians who are more well known," he said.


To augment Hilbay's campaign funds, his family has again rallied to work as a unit and make do with what they have to see the 90-day campaign through.

The lawyer's younger brother, Alex Hilbay, an engineer, represented him in several sorties, while their youngest sibling John, an IT expert, served as one of the drivers.

Hilbay's parents were initially against the idea of allowing their son to run for public office, but eventually gave in to the lawyer's dreams of becoming a legislator.

"Ayaw namin. Magulo ang pulitika," Tatay Rodrigo told ABS-CBN News in a separate interview.

(We were against it. Going into politics is messy.)

"Sabi namin, 'Ikaw magdedesisyon niyan pero alam mo naman na magulo ang pulitika dito sa atin, hindi lang magulo, delikado,'" he said.

(We told him, 'It's your decision, but you know how messy politics in our country is. It's not just messy, it's also dangerous.)

"Sabi niya sa akin, 'Nay, kailangan ako ng bayan. Hindi naman kaya na tweet-tweet lang,'" Nanay Lydia said.

(He told me, "Mom, the country needs me. I can't just sit here and tweet.)

"Hindi ko naman naintindihan ano 'yung tweet na 'yan," she said laughing.

(I didn't even understand what that 'tweet' was.)

Now, Tatay Rodrigo is among the lawyer's "principal social media warriors," Hilbay said.

"Siya 'yung sumasagot sa kung ano-anong issues. Mayroon siyang sariling network ng mga kaibigan at mga kaklase na tinutulungan siya para mangampaniya para sa akin [online]," he said.

(He's the one who responds to different issues. He has his own network of friends and classmates helping him campaign for me.)

Nanay Lydia has also been going around the country to convince local leaders and faith group members to support her son's candidacy.

"It’s a total family effort," Hilbay said.

The Otso Diretso bet's girlfriend, actress Agot Isidro, has also used her star power to help rally votes for the Tondo-raised candidate.

The lawyer underscored that he was careful not to make it seem like he was using Isidro's popularity to win the elections.

"Kung gusto ko talaga na gamitin 'yung aking personal na buhay para sumikat, we should have done it last year pa para ipakilala at gamitin 'yung kasikatan ni Agot," Hilbay said.

(If I wanted to use my personal life to gain popularity, we should have done it (gone public as a couple) last year so that we could make good use of her popularity.)

"But we didn't want to do that precisely because we wanted our campaign to be as pure as possible, to be about issues and not about personalities," he said.

Still, Hilbay has been lagging in pre-election polls. 

"Agot Isidro has helped but Hilbay may need to run first in a local election and gain recognition for good works done for ordinary folk," Sarmenta said. 


Tatay Rodrigo shrugged when asked what was his parenting secret in raising sons motivated enough to keep on trying to beat the odds.

"Walang secret doon," he said.

(There is no secret.)

"Kahit anong payo ibigay mo sa bata, maraming factors magdadala diyan: barkada, environment... Kaya credit dapat sa kanila iyon na lumapit sila sa tama," he said.

(Whatever advice you give a child, there are many factors that could lead him elsewhere: friends, environment... So my children should get all the credit for choosing to do what is right.)

Hilbay wiped away tears after Nanay Lydia ended her short campaign message in that Makati press conference held Friday, just two days before Mother's Day.

He stood before the cameras and gave away their family secret for overcoming poverty.

"Kung nakita niyo 'yung determinasyon ng nanay ko, ginaya ko lang naman," Hilbay said.

(If you saw my mother's determination, I just emulated that.)

"Alam ko na hindi payag 'yung aking nanay sa aking ginawa
pero alam ko naman na 'yung tigas ng bungo ko ay galing din sa tigas ng bungo niya," he said.

(I know my mom was not in favor of me running for public office, but I also know that my stubbornness came from her.)
"It is the kind of determination needed to get things done," he said.