Although a member of the Cojuangco, Sumulong, and Aquino political clans, the former president never aspired to political office. She always saw her role as a supportive wife to Ninoy, the political arch foe of Ferdinand Marcos, the dictator Corazon Aquino blamed for her husband’s death and whom she replaced as president. Born in Manila on January 25, 1933, she was the sixth of eight children (of whom two died in infancy) of Jose Cojuangco, a former congressman, and Demetria Sumulong Cojuangco, a pharmacist. Both her grandfathers were also legislators. As a girl, Cory, as she is popularly known, remembers handing out cigars and cigarettes to political leaders and their supporters who visited her father at election time. For the most part, however, her life revolved around school, church, and vacations in Antipolo in Rizal Province, the Sumulong bailiwick, and in Tarlac, where the Cojuangcos owned huge tracts of land.
It was Grandfather Sumulong—Cory called him Lolo (Grandpa) Juan—who encouraged the little girl to read. “His eyesight was getting bad,” she recalls. “I was seven or eight and I would read the newspapers to him.” A nationalist who believed that the elite should not dominate Philippine politics, Lolo Juan died when Cory was about to turn nine. But the senator’s influence lived on. “My grandfather insisted that all of us learn Tagalog [the dialect on which the national language is based] first before we learned English,” says Cory. “I continued this practice, so all my children were taught or spoken to in Tagalog. I’m proud of the fact that all of us are fluent in Tagalog.” She also learned to interact with ordinary folks from the down-to-earth maternal side of the family. “We got a taste of what it was like doing what other people did,” she recounts, from eating halo-halo, the iced dessert of Antipolo’s masses, to trying out the gambling game beto-beto with a street-smart cousin.
While the Sumulongs have been in the Philippines for generations, Cory’s paternal relatives, the Cojuangcos, trace their roots to Fujian Province. Her great-grandfather, Jose Cojuangco, left China for the Philippines in 1836. Diligent and thrifty, the Chinese immigrant saved his earnings as a junk dealer to buy land for a small rice mill in Paniqui town in Tarlac. Jose became an influential man. His son and Cory’s paternal grandfather, Melecio Cojuangco, was voted to the country’s First Congress in 1898, when Filipino revolutionaries declared independence from Spain, only to see the Americans become the new colonial power. Melecio died young, so Cory never knew here paternal grandfather. It was Melecio’s spinster sister Ysidra, known to the Cojuangco kids as Lola (Grandma) Ysidra, who filled the void at the family enterprise. By the 1920s, the Cojuangcos had interests in rice, sugar, and banking.
Jose Cojuangco, the patriarch, was so eager to be assimilated into Philippine society that he did not teach Melecio and his sisters to speak Chinese. “That’s one thing that all of us regret,” Cory says. When she became president years later, Cory made a point of touring her great-grandfather’s home village on a state visit to China. For all their wealth, however, the Cojuangcos remained hardworking. Ysidra insisted on an early day for everyone. “Your children will not amount to much if they wake up late,” she would admonish Cory’s parents. “Late for her was waking up with the sun,” recalls Cory. “She would always be sweeping floors in the rice mill, even if she didn’t have to do that. She was really a workaholic.” Cory’s father, named Jose after the patriarch from Fujian, managed the family sugar mill and later headed Philippine Bank of Commerce, the country’s first Filipino-owned bank, which the Cojuangcos set up with two other prominent families.
Cory has fond memories of her father. “He was the kindest person that I have ever lived with or met,” she says. “He was a very indulgent father, but at the same time he would not contradict my mother in her disciplining of us. But I knew, and all of us knew, that we could always get extras from my father.” Demetria was the disciplinarian. She doled out very small cash allowances and recycled outgrown clothes for the younger kids. “I was the third daughter [of four girls], so by the time the blue school uniform got to me, it was almost gray,” laughs Cory. “I suppose my mother believed that there was nothing wrong with being frugal and for us to really appreciate the hard work that both she and my father went into to make life comfortable for us.” Like Ysidra, Demetria worked hard despite her affluent background. Before she married, she opened a small drugstore to put her pharmacy degree to use. “While she was supportive of my father, she was also her own person,” says Cory. “She was not about to be intimidated or overwhelmed by my father and his family.” Demetria had the Filipino pedigree, while Jose had the greater wealth. When the wedding was announced, the people of Antipolo referred to Jose as “some Chinaman.” The scale and magnificence of the nuptials showed that Jose knew how to splurge on special occasions, a traditional Filipino trait. The Cojuangcos brought all their cooks from Tarlac for the grand reception. “To top that, they invited people from Manila and Antipolo to go to Tarlac, so my father’s family hired a train. My father was wanting to tell them: ‘Look, she married somebody. . . not only substantial, but also someone who’s been a Filipino for quite some time.’”
Doing well at one’s studies was important in the Cojuangco household. The eldest son, Pedro Cojuangco, was held up as a role model because he was always at or near the top of his class. After coasting during the early grades, Cory herself graduated valedictorian of her elementary school. The Cojuangcos also stressed religion and family togetherness. “On Sunday we would go to Lourdes Church,” Cory recalls of the period before World War II. “We would ride together in the car and all of us would sit in one long pew. My father and mother both made it a rule that all of us would go to mass on Sundays together.” During the Japanese occupation, the brood walked to the chapel at De La Salle school, which was not so far from the family home in Manila’s Malate district. They did other things together as well, including going to the movies. “It prepared us for difficult times.”
The first of those trying periods came during World War II. Cory was six weeks away from her ninth birthday when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on December 8, 1941. The family evacuated to Antipolo that afternoon, but returned to Manila when it was declared an open city on December 26. Grandfather Sumulong died on January 9, 1942. He was sixty-six. “That was my first experience with somebody close dying,” says Cory. “He had tuberculosis and according to one of my aunts, my mother’s sister-in-law, he had vomited blood.” Lolo Juan was a big loss for the young girl. “I don’t have any remembrance of him being strict or mean. All I have are good memories of him. I shone in his eyes. I wasn’t one of my grandmother’s favorites because I didn’t like to help setting the dishes on the table or working in the kitchen. With my grandfather, he seemed to appreciate that I could read well.”
But the young are resilient and Cory came to her own during the Japanese occupation. She determined to do better in school. “Suddenly it hit me that, yes, this might be the end of something,” she says. “I decided I’d really put my heart and soul into [my studies]. So you might say I react well in a crisis.” Saint Scholastica’s College, the Roman Catholic private school the four Cojuangco girls attended, was bombed in the dying days of the war so Cory transferred to Assumption College for her first year of high school. The German nuns at Saint Scholastica stressed religion and reading. The more relaxed French nuns at Assumption focused on raising the social consciousness of their charges and teaching them how to think and act like ladies. “St. Scholastica’s was a very strict school,” Cory recounts. “But we, who were studying there, felt that we were really learning more than other girls in other schools.”
Like all schoolchildren at that time, Cory had to learn Japanese. Once she was chosen to recite a Japanese poem in front of Japanese soldiers in a hospital and was rewarded a big prize—a bag of sugared peanuts. It was a treat for a young girl because food was scarce in Japanese-occupied Philippines, even for the affluent. The Cojuangcos had to ration their rice—one cup for each family member, and perhaps a tiny piece of chicken. Some of the family supplies were smuggled to the Filipino underground resistance and to a Sumulong relative who was one of the thousands of men forced by the Japanese to march to the Capas military camp in Tarlac, north of Manila. Their poorer neighbors in Manila also received free or subsidized food. When the desperate Japanese became more brutal as the fortunes of war turned against them, the family left the capital for a nipa hut with no running water in the tiny town of San Mateo in Rizal Province.
The Cojuangcos were back in Manila when the Americans returned in 1945. They stayed at the Sumulong house in Sampaloc district and were preparing to transfer to their home near De La Salle College when rumors of street fighting circulated. The De La Salle school buildings had thick walls and the Cojuangcos would be joining their paternal uncle Antonio and his family. But the move was aborted because the family’s two horses were stolen. It turned out that De La Salle, which the Japanese had sequestered, was no safe haven. Forced to retreat as the Americans advanced, the Japanese went on a killing rampage and massacred many innocent civilians in the area. “My uncle was killed together with his wife, one son, one daughter, and a daughter-in-law, along with some of the Christian Brothers of De La Salle,” Cory recounts. Goria, her beloved nanny, also perished along with four other helpers. “Our neighbors said they could hear them shouting and crying; they were apparently tied to the iron grills. Later, we were able to recover their remains and they were buried in our family plot in Tarlac. From that time, my father knew we would never live in that neighborhood again.”
A year after the war ended, the Cojuangco children were sent to the United States to study. The Assumption-run Ravenhill Academy in Philadelphia agreed to accept the three younger girls. (The two eldest children enrolled in college in New York, while the youngest, Jose Jr., was sent to a military academy in Manhattan.) The private boarding school had one famous alumna at that time—the movie star Grace Kelly, who later became Princess Grace of Monaco. Thirteen-year-old Cory and her sisters were rail thin from the ravages of the war. “My mother asked the nuns: ‘Can you please give them extra food?’ That meant drinking five or six glasses of milk in one day.” And lots of potatoes, although there was no rice, which made the three sisters more homesick. The next year, Cory transferred to Notre Dame Convent School in New York City, where she finished high school. She went on to major in French and mathematics at the College of Mount Saint Vincent in the same city.
Her seven years in the United States gave the sheltered teenager a measure of independence. “If I had gone to school [in Manila], I’d always be relying on my parents, on our driver, on our cook, on our maid,” Cory muses. “Having gone to school in the United States, I became more self-reliant.” She learned to decide things on her own, use public transport, stick to a budget, interact with ordinary Americans and people of other nationalities, and regard herself as no different from others. A poised Cory returned to Manila in 1953 to study law. She had wanted to enroll at the University of the Philippines, whose College of Law had educated many of the country’s political leaders. But because her father was chair of the board of trustees of Far Eastern University, which was also owned by her brother-in-law’s family, Cory had no choice but to go there.