In memoriam: Tessie Aquino-Oreta

Gerry Lirio, ABS-CBN News

Posted at May 15 2020 08:08 PM | Updated as of May 15 2020 11:05 PM

In memoriam: Tessie Aquino-Oreta 1

Acclaimed director Lupita Aquino-Kashiwahara once described herself as the female version of her brother, murdered Sen. Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr.. She had guts, movie stars working with her on the set of “Minsa’y Isang Gamo-gamo”, which tackled the presence of American bases when it wasn’t fashionable to do so, would remember her this way.

“I am a female chauvinist pig,” Aquino-Kashiwahara said in jest over coffee with this newsman decades ago at a hotel once called Manila Hilton, reminiscing how her brother was arrested in this same hotel a few hours after the declaration of martial law.

She was not exactly their opposite, but their youngest sister, former Senator Teresa 'Tessie' Aquino-Oreta, who died on Thursday night, was probably the down-to-earth version of the former senator whose assassination in August 1983 triggered massive demonstrations that led to the downfall of his political nemesis, former President Ferdinand Marcos.

It was this plain sincerity and unassuming common sense that made Aquino-Oreta more loveable, more approachable than her sisters and possibly than her political contemporaries, though this same trait put her in trouble a few times, including one unfortunate incident during the impeachment trial of President Joseph Estrada in 2001.

Ninoy’s youngest sister was 39 years old when Ninoy was murdered, and remembering Ninoy for an August 21 issue of the Inquirer, she provided a wealth of fresh material and a different perspective.

She wept endlessly when she received word of the murder, she recalled. “It felt like time had stopped,” she said. She tried to hold back her tears when she realized that her mother, Dona Aurora Aquino, held her poise, courage and dignity while dealing with Marcos’s officials for funeral details. Her mother had told the funeral parlor to neither apply makeup nor to embalm her son. “Let the whole world see what they did to my son,” she said.

All throughout, Aquino-Oreta remembered that her mother was in deep prayers, seeking for strength.

Many years later, Aquino-Oreta and Dona Aurora saw Marcos’ widow, Imelda, inside a church at a gated, posh subdivision in Makati. She asked her mother later if she saw Imelda. Dona Aurora was said to have replied: “Yes, and I prayed for her.” Surprised, the daughter shot back: “But, why?” And the mother replied: “Iha, Imelda needed prayers to guide her.”

That kind of perspective humbled her, Aquino-Oreta said. She felt relieved of some of her emotional burden. Two years later, Aquino-Oreta found herself in one room with Imelda and Edna Camcam for the first time during a Bible study at Edna's house in North Forbes where they talked about God’s grace and forgiveness. Camcam was the girlfriend of Marcos’s top military man, former Gen. Fabian Ver. Both Imelda and Ver were once blamed for Ninoy’s assassination.

In that meeting, she recalled to this newsman that she felt she had to ask a question, and she did: “So who ordered to kill Ninoy?” The three women traded information that ended up in a dead end. Edna told her: “Why don't you ask your sister in-law (former President Corazon Cojuangco-Aquino)? With all the power she had, surely she could wrap up this investigation."

The three women became friends.

Camcam’s son Jun, an active leader in Victory church as a lay leader, said he hoped that the experience of the three women would trigger a new perspective of the country’s political past. "It's time to forgive and bury the hatchet for the sake of our nation and the people,” he said.

Aquino-Oreta later met with this newsman for an interview explained why she sided with former President Estrada in his impeachment trial. She said she was misunderstood, but she said sorry.

Accompanied by long-time close friend Rica Bagatsing, Aquino-Oreta would see Marcos and Camcam again more often and in a more-relaxed setting. “There is nothing we can do about the past, we can only pray for the future,” she said.

EDUCATION AND THE YOUTH

And the future, she believed, belongs to the next generation.

At the House of Representatives, Aquino-Oreta, then a lawmaker from Malabon, authored and co-authored about 280 bills, 79 of which were enacted into laws, all seeking the welfare of teachers and reforms in education system. “No education reform will succeed unless it is a reform of the teaching-learning process and is focused on helping the teacher become a better teacher,”
she said.

If the late Sen. Edgardo Angara managed to push through tough pieces of legislation on educational reforms in late 1980s and early 1990s, it was largely because he had the support of Aquino-Oreta at the House of Representatives.

“Edong was a great man, of great ideas, especially on education,” she said of the former president of the University of the Philippines a few days after Angara died in May 2018. “He was a great mentor. I learned a lot from him.

Years into her retirement, Aquino-Oreta endlessly talked about reforms in education over coffee with this newsman, from their house in Urdaneta Village to her husband’s ancestral house in Malabon to their rest house in Tagaytay. If Aquino-Kashiwahara dealt with us like a teacher to her students in the few times we were together, Aquino-Oreta treated us like a younger, old friend all the time. She was relaxed talking about her passion.

“I want to take care of the teacher so that the teacher in turn will take care of our children, so in turn our children will take care of the future of the country,” she said.

Along with Estrada, she would drive and stay at the ancestral house owned by the family of former Tanauan Mayor Paquito Lirio to check on some of her barangay school projects in Batangas. “She was down-to earth, no cordon sanitaire. We can talk to her directly,” the former mayor said.

She accepted a P1-a-month job under then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo if only to oversee the implementation of these reforms.

Aquino-Oreta slowed down a little bit when she woke up one morning afflicted with cancer. She had to fly regularly to the United States for check-up. She would frequently send us text messages from Stanford hospital that she was coming home soon, her tests all favorable, and that we would have coffee again soon.

She surprised us one morning years later at EDSA Shangri-la in Mandaluyong City. She was pretty and looked vibrant, no trace of cancer medication. Her hair was thick and dark. Thanks to medical science, she said, laughing.

With little provocation, she would talk again about education over coffee, in Cibo to California Pizza to Via Mare. Like Angara, she never ran out of ideas about education.

She said she was glad that her nephew, then Sen. Bam Aquino, was also an education advocate. Said Bam: “She had a larger-than-life personality and our world is truly less bright without her. We miss her. May she rest in peace.”