Essential Cory Aquino
 

 

HER LIFE WITH NINOY AQUINO
 

 She did well in her studies, but Cory never became a lawyer. In 1954, she agreed to marry Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr., whose family dominated the politics of Tarlac’s south while the Cojuangcos ruled the north. Cory and Ninoy first met when they were nine years old. Their fathers were both congressmen and Jose Cojuangco was the godfather of Ninoy’s younger sister, Lupita. Ninoy’s half brother was married to Cory’s cousin, the Cojuangco young woman who was massacred by Japanese soldiers at the De La Salle school in 1945. Love began to blossom when Cory spent her summer vacation in the Philippines in her junior year. Ninoy was bowled over by the refined lady Cory had become. She admired his guts and knowledge of current events. A journalist since he was sixteen, Ninoy had just returned from Korea, where he covered the exploits of the Philippine expeditionary force in the war there.

Ninoy Aquino’s father, former congressman and later Senator Benigno Aquino Sr., had served in the wartime government sponsored by the Japanese occupiers, in the belief that Tokyo would grant the Philippines independence from the Americans. A sovereign Philippines was a long-standing dream in the family. Ninoy’s grandfather, General Servillano Aquino, had fought for independence from Spain. He thought freedom was at hand after the Philippine revolutionary forces joined the Americans to defeat the Spaniards in 1898, but he was bitterly disappointed when the United States annexed the islands instead. General Aquino refused to learn English and proudly displayed a photograph of himself in an American prison. His son was also briefly imprisoned and tried for treason for serving the Japanese-installed government. Benigno Sr. was exonerated, but Ninoy and his siblings encountered nasty comments in the classroom because of their father’s decision to collaborate with the Japanese.

Ninoy was fifteen when his father died, leaving behind four children from a first marriage and seven others, including Ninoy, from his second. Ninoy’s mother, Aurora, had to sell her husband’s properties to support the large family. Ninoy persuaded his father’s friend, Joaquin Roces, to give him a job as a copyboy and later as a reporter at the Roces-owned daily, Manila Times. At eighteen, he won the Philippine Legion of Honor medal for his coverage of the exploits of Filipino soldiers in Korea. At nineteen, he was named Southeast Asia correspondent of the Manila Times and, later, foreign editor. In 1954, he was awarded a second Legion of Honor medal for negotiating the surrender of rebel peasant leader Luis Taruc. President Ramon Magsaysay also made him a presidential assistant.

Ninoy was a young man in a hurry, intent on continuing his family’s legacy and perhaps making up for his father’s choice during the war. “Ninoy was so confident,” says Cory. “He was somebody I found very interesting and I felt I would never be bored.” After they were married, there was so much excitement that she sometimes wished for some boredom. At twenty-two, Ninoy won the election for mayor of his hometown of Concepcion, despite being nearly three weeks short of the minimum age for candidacy. Cory had recently given birth to Maria Elena, the first of their five children, so she was spared from the hustings. She was uncomfortable in her few public appearances. “I was basically a shy person and I really liked my privacy,” she recalls. “How can I be smiling and waving at people I don’t know?” On the last week of the campaign, the couple rode a carabao cart and then waded knee-deep through a swamp to get to a barrio. They spent the night in a hut that had an empty pineapple can as toilet. “It was really my baptism of fire,” says Cory.

 The hyperactive new mayor reveled in his job, but his wife traversed a steep learning curve about the realities of being a political partner. It was never like this in her father’s house, even during his political heyday. Concepcion folks expected the mayor to solve every problem, including domestic quarrels and elopements. “In the morning, people were in our bedroom,” recounts Cory. Why can’t they stay in the big living room downstairs? They want to feel like they’re part of the family, the politician in her husband explained. Cory was particular about towels—she had them monogrammed so Ninoy would use his and not hers—but some of the guests wandered into the bathroom and used the personal articles there. Why don’t they use the amenities downstairs? No, Cory, you can’t tell them that, said Ninoy, because you’re the wife of the mayor.

Relief for Cory came two years later in 1957, when the Supreme Court upheld a lower judge’s ruling that Ninoy’s electoral win was illegal because he was underaged when he ran. The family returned to Manila and Ninoy became special assistant to President Carlos Garcia, who took over when Magsaysay died in a plane crash that year. The hugely popular Magsaysay, who was seen as a man of the masses, was Ninoy’s political mentor and he took his death hard. “I had never seen my husband so sad and dejected,” recalls Cory. “He felt that he had lost a second father.” Ninoy was supposed to be on the same ill-fated plane to cover the trip for the Manila Times, but he asked to stay behind so he could watch a big boxing fight—he was an aficionado of the ring like his father, who suffered a heart attack while watching a title bout.

 Cory had a second baby, Aurora Corazon, in 1957 while Ninoy continued his political career. He was elected vice-governor of Tarlac in 1959—he was twenty-seven at this time and truly eligible to be a candidate—and was appointed governor in 1961. Two years later, he won a landslide victory for the governorship in his own right. In 1967, Ninoy was elected senator, the only oppositionist who won in a race dominated by allies of Ferdinand Marcos, who had won the presidency in 1965. The tables were turned when Ninoy led the anti-Marcos forces to victory in 1971, winning six of eight senatorial slots. This made Ninoy the frontrunner for the 1973 presidential polls. Marcos was not eligible to run for a third term. Cory knew she could become First Lady. “I was scared of that,” she says. “I was thinking I’ll see even less of him and that it’s going to be more exacting on him and on everybody else. But if Ninoy really believed [being president] was the best thing he should do, then I’d always support him.”

The presidential election was never held. Marcos declared martial law on September 21, 1972, and his main political opponents were arrested. Ninoy, his chief nemesis, was detained hours before the state of emergency was announced. Weeks earlier, Ninoy had exposed Marcos’s plan to impose martial law, which he said was meant to keep Marcos in power indefinitely. Ninoy suggested to Cory that she and the children leave for Australia. “I just kept saying no,” says Cory. Maria Elena, the eldest child, was seventeen, while the youngest child, Kristina Bernadette, was only a year old. (Only son Benigno III was born in 1960 and third daughter Victoria Elisa in 1961.) “It had nothing to do with patriotism,” says Cory with disarming candor. “It was just that I could not see myself managing with five kids in Australia.”

In the Philippines, she could count on relatives and a network of friends, even though many of the people who used to buzz around her and Ninoy no longer seemed to know her. Cory fought to remain strong and vowed not to give her husband’s opponents the satisfaction of seeing her cry in public, sometimes with the help of tranquilizers. At one point, her visiting privileges were cancelled. She frantically made the rounds of people she thought could help  her get permission to see Ninoy again. The Supreme Court was prevailed upon to request the military to allow Cory to see her husband for humanitarian reasons. It turned out that Ninoy had been secretly transferred to Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija Province, about three hours by car from Manila. “When we got there, it was like the movie The Bridge on the River Kwai, with the barbed wire and watch towers and sawali [bamboo mattings] walls.”

Cory and the children were shocked when they finally saw Ninoy. The plumpish dynamo—he had a weakness for white chocolate—had lost about twenty pounds since they saw him only two months before, his hair was long, and his glasses were gone. For Cory, the biggest heartache was his despair. She had never seen her husband break down or lose his confidence. “Cory, I have to tell you about all our debts,” Ninoy told her. “Better have a meeting with our accountant.” She was to try and sell properties, including two airplanes that Ninoy had bought in preparation for the 1973 election. Years later, she would read her husband’s diary entry for that day. “I’m so ashamed of myself,” Ninoy wrote. “Cory was so strong, did not shed a single tear, and here I was breaking down.” Recalls Cory: “I was fortified with tranquilizers, so I was just so very much in control of myself.”

Cory drew more strength from prayers and the support of the Catholic Church, especially from His Eminence Jaime Cardinal Sin, who administered the last rites to Ninoy thirty days into his hunger strike in 1975. The senator was protesting an order to force him to attend his trial by a military commission, whose authority he did not recognize. Ninoy stopped his fast after forty days, but not before he had to be rushed to the intensive care unit. Cory was allowed to be with him all this time. She would feed him one or two tablespoons of baby food every two hours. Around this time, the family dogs whimsically named Ferdie and Meldy (after Ferdinand Marcos and his wife Imelda) bit Kristina who was then four. The little girl needed more than an hour of surgery—the dogs nearly severed an artery—and could not walk for two months.

Plagued as well by allergies that made her break out in red spots, Cory was in despair. “I had been through many difficulties, but at that time, I felt that this was it. I was thinking if  something else happens, I’m just going to give up. But I found that when you think you’ve reached your limits, then the Good Lord gives you maybe just a week of seemingly easy or less difficult days. Then you’re reenergized and you say, ‘Okay, I am ready again.’” She needed all her strength in 1977, when the military tribunal sentenced Ninoy to face the firing squad for subversion, illegal possession of firearms, and murder. While awaiting execution, he was allowed to run in the 1978 election for a seat in the Interim National Assembly. Marcos’s wife Imelda led the ruling party in a 21-0 sweep in Metro Manila.

Cory had attained a measure of serenity. “In the beginning of martial law, my prayer was, ‘Dear Lord, please work it out somehow that Ninoy would be released.’ But after two years, I was just asking: ‘Dear Lord, help me to accept your will and give me the strength and courage to accept all of these trials. All I was asking for was, if possible, maybe some time together—I wasn’t even talking about years.”  The answer came in 1979 when Marcos, perhaps calculating that Ninoy was already a spent political force, granted the prisoner a thirty-six-hour furlough to celebrate his twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. Two months
later, Ninoy was given a three-week furlough for the Christmas season. And the next year, on May 8, 1980, he was allowed to travel to Dallas, Texas, for heart surgery. Beginning the following September and for the next three years, Ninoy, Cory and the family lived in Boston, where Ninoy was awarded fellowships at Harvard University, for two years, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for one.

 Back to her preferred role as wife and mother, Cory glowed with happiness. But the blissful years did not last. The Philippines was never far from Ninoy’s thoughts and he decided to return in 1983, despite warnings from the government that it could not guarantee his safety. Marcos was ailing, the economy was in shambles, and the extravagant and vindictive Imelda looked set to take over. Ninoy was assassinated on the airport tarmac while under military guard. In Boston with the children, Cory was devastated but remained strong. Had not God granted her the time together with Ninoy that she prayed for? “There was really very little time for mourning,” she says. “I was just taken up by so many necessary activities like giving interviews on television, on radio, by telephone. There were just so many things to attend to.”

 In Manila, Cory had not expected to see so many mourners. She had seen and been wounded by the people’s apathy during her husband’s long incarceration. But at his wake and his burial, Filipinos came in the hundreds of thousands—some estimated the funeral cortege at two million people—to honor the man who declared when he was dissuaded from returning home: “The Filipino is worth dying for.” Many also came to protest the repression, grinding poverty, and corruption of the Marcos regime. Cory worried about the outbreak of violence, a concern that would always be foremost in her mind. “I’m a pacifist,” she says. “I’ve never gone for violent acts.” At one time, Ninoy thought that force had to be met by force, but he had undergone a spiritual transformation during his years in detention. “He was forever reading Gandhi when he was in prison,” says Cory. In the United States, he saw the 1982 movie Gandhi three times.


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