Ferdinand Marcos: The Rose of Tacloban
The Rose of Tacloban
Two — The Rose of Tacloban
THE ROMUALDEZ FAMILY, like so many other prominent Filipino families, prided itself on being started by the illegitimate children of a Spanish priest. They were mestizo anak para, “friar mixtures.” These were the hybrids who — benefiting from Spanish blood, European education, and social prestige — turned on their Spanish masters and began the movement for independence. With their eyes always on the main chance, they were also the first to turn against independence and welcome American rule, becoming its handmaidens. For the Romualdez family, such clever foresight brought power and glory to spare. But it was a string of family tragedies that produced Imelda’s branch, the dark side.
Her grandmother, Trinidad Lopez y Crisostomo Talentin (called simply “Tidad”), was one of eight children sired out of wedlock by a Franciscan priest. A native of Grenada, Francisco Lopez was sent to the islands in 1838 to be the spiritual leader of Basey parish on the island of Samar. He was forty years old, a skilled silversmith, and a man of great energy. The love of his life was Concepcion Talentin, a child of the parish fathered by one of his predecessors. She lived in sin with Father Lopez for thirty-four years. After the birth of Tidad, their first child, in April 1853, the padre was transferred to Burauen, a village on the neighboring island of Leyte, remaining there nearly two decades. As the years passed, he built a church, a courthouse, and a school, and Burauen grew into a small town.
When he was in his sixties, Father Lopez was again transferred, far away to the dusty parish of Pandacan on the outskirts of Manila. He left Concepcion behind but took his children for schooling. At nineteen, Tidad was a solidly built young woman with a deep contempt for men. She wanted to be a nun but was barred because she was illegitimate. She earned her keep sweeping the parish church, where one day her confessor suggested an alternative: She could marry somebody about to die and make the poor fellow happy, then she would be a widow, which was more acceptable socially than being an illegitimate child. The confessor had in mind poor, sickly Daniel Romualdez, an unemployed schoolteacher of twenty-one who was dying of tuberculosis. His family were also mestizos, parish folk of similar origin. Daniel was educated and had been a leader of the village, but resigned his teaching post when he found he was dying, and had come to pray for a miracle. The miracle he had in mind was that the girl sweeping the floor would marry him. So he spoke to the priest, and the miracle was arranged.
Daniel Romualdez was lucky to be taken in tow by a woman of great fortitude. To cure his illness, Tidad took him to Leyte, to live with her mother. When he failed to die, and lived to a ripe old age, making her pregnant repeatedly in the process, Tidad concluded that it was all part of the male conspiracy.
“He would curse her right and left,” complained his granddaughter Loreto, the family historian, who began to talk openly about such things only after her cousin, the First Lady, had gone into exile far away. “Many of her relatives were resentful of him. When he was weak, there was Trinidad taking care of him; now he’s fine, look at him.”
Ever after, Doña Tidad grumbled to her granddaughters, “Don’t get married, men are liars. Why don’t you become nuns, enter the convent? I want you to have peace of mind. If you get married, you don’t know to what kind of a man, so you don’t know what’s going to happen.” Good advice ignored.
Thanks to the many years Father Lopez had invested in Burauen, Tidad and her husband were well received in Leyte. In no time at all, the sickly unemployed teacher from Manila was Capitán Daniel, the town boss.
Compared to Luzon, Leyte is a peaceful place, its low green hills overgrown with banana plants, and hot plains along the coast growing rice, sisal, sugarcane, and coconuts, the main industry. Typhoons blacken the sky in autumn, flattening buildings and leveling crops. The population is peaceful, overwhelmingly Catholic, and there is little cash in circulation. What there is stays in the tight fists of local gentry, who are rarely seen except as election time nears, when they distribute 10-peso notes. By pooling these pesos with compadres, a poor man can buy a squealing ridgeback hog with a string through its nose, for a feast or merienda where the lechon, the best pieces of golden brown skin, dripping fat, go to the elders.
As the local teachers, Capitán Daniel and Tidad were respected but poor. After five years, they moved up the dirt road to Dagami, and finally to Tolosa on San Pedro Bay, where they lived in the schoolhouse, a nipa hut divided in the middle by a tiny kitchen. Tolosa’s main attraction was a sandstone spire that stuck up out of the beach 1,000 feet, resembling Corcovado above Rio. (Like Corcovado, on its summit now is a concrete Christ, a gift of the Romualdez family.) In time, Capitán Daniel became mayor and acquired coconut groves. Half a century later the family owned the whole town. The Romualdez name is on its schools, markets, civic buildings, utilities, and churches.
Daniel Romualdez matured into a giant, with a large head, a barrel chest, and a vast belly. At one sitting, he could tuck away an entire goat. Every five years, he stopped cursing Tidad long enough to get her pregnant. Their first son, Norberto, was born in Burauen in June 1875; a second, Miguel, at Dagami in September 1880. By the time their third son arrived in Tolosa, Tidad was feeling the strain of living with a tyrant and had a nervous breakdown. Filipinos point out darkly that the child delivered on July 3, 1885, named Vicente Orestes, was the product of a woman in mental collapse.
He was a runt, a dainty boy with effeminate features. Tidad sighed, “He is the tenderest, the weakest, my youngest boy Vicente Orestes.” She fawned over him, and he became the family toy. “Orestes will have to be looked after,” she said. “He does not have his brothers’ vigor and ambition.” By his teens, Orestes had become a village idler who spent his time playing dominoes or a guitar. Because he spoke little, people took his silence to be profound. Copying his eldest brother, he carried around a book of poems to stare at vacantly. Strangers believed him to be a man of exquisite sensibilities.
The eldest brother, Norberto, was just the opposite, a dynamic young man educated by Jesuits in Manila, gifted in music, scholarship, business, and politics. He married well at twenty-one and started a local college for Filipinos. The success of the Romualdez family over the years was largely Norberto’s doing.
The middle brother, Miguel, was a man of action and a natural politician. He went off young to fight the Spaniards in 1898, then turned his back on independence and joined the Yankee cause. English-speaking natives were needed to help administer the islands, so the entire Romualdez family moved 20 kilometers to Tacloban, where Norberto was appointed clerk of the court. Under the Americans, practicing law replaced the priesthood as the path to power and glory. Norberto earned a law degree and in 1906 was appointed the prosecuting attorney for Leyte. As legal fees, he accepted some of the best property, and bought a mansion on Gran Capitan, the main street of Tacloban. He published poetry, wrote articles on Filipino etymology, composed a popular song entitled “My Nipa Hut,” and was elected a member of the Society of International Law in Washington, D.C., the kind of accolade that Americans arranged for promising Filipinos. Appointed a judge in the booming sugar capital of Bacolod, he gained influence with the sugar barons and developed political clout throughout the central Visayan Islands. In 1919 he moved to Manila, bought a mansion on the bayfront, and started the law firm of Romualdez & Romualdez with his brother Miguel. Two years later, the Americans appointed Norberto to the Philippine Supreme Court. Until 1916, all the justices were Americans, so Norberto’s appointment was quite a plum.
Brother Miguel became a favorite of Governor-General Leonard Wood, who ruled the islands as a petty despot. Deliberately going against the wishes of Manuel Quezon, Wood in 1925 appointed Miguel to be mayor of Manila, where the perks and patronage soon made him the richest Romualdez.
Life moved at a slower pace for Vicente Orestes. He held down a job briefly for the Tacloban weather bureau, reading the barometer. He attended Norberto’s Colegio de San Jose, where the family name guaranteed passing grades. Norberto found him a place in law school, and eased his way toward a degree. In 1908 Orestes eloped with a Tolosa farm girl, Juanita Acereda, who bore him five children in rapid succession.
By the 1920s, all three brothers were settled in Manila, with Orestes being swept along in his brothers’ wake. Once on the Supreme Court, Norberto had to withdraw from private law practice. Miguel ran the firm. The only obligation on Orestes was to be physically present to receive inquiries from his brothers’ clients. Surrounded by such prosperity and power, he became reckless. Using borrowed money, he bought property on a tree-shaded street called Calle Solano near Malacanang Palace. With family funds, he built a typical Manila house with high ceilings and elaborate grillwork. He had a garage built onto the house and bought a shiny black Berlina limousine. In August 1926, just three months after they moved into the new house, Orestes’s wife — who had never been sick a day in her life — astonished everyone by dying suddenly of what was uncertainly described as “blood poisoning.”
The family matriarch, Doña Tidad, immediately began to fret about her youngest son. He was, as a family biographer put it delicately, “emotionally burdened.”
Doña Tidad was now a formidable old woman. For years Norberto had been putting money at her disposal, so that his mother could make generous gifts to convents she admired. He conveyed to her all his properties in Leyte, to distribute as she wished among members of the family. She decided that the best property, a 10-hectare lot on Calle Real in Tacloban, should go to Orestes, to “guarantee his future.” But all her efforts to insulate Orestes and give him the trappings of a normal life were to no avail. No sooner was his dead wife in her tomb than he was carrying on with a married woman. Doña Tidad decided to find him a proper wife.
It would have been better for everyone if she had not interfered. Orestes already had more children than he could manage: Lourdes, Vicente Junior, Dulce, Victoria, and Francisco. In addition to paying installments on his lot and car, the cost of feeding and educating his children was leaving a hole in his pocket. If he remained single, the children would soon grow up, and Orestes could go back to Leyte, as he dreamed of doing, to become a gentleman beachcomber surviving on the rental of his Tacloban property. For once, Tidad meddled too much.
In her opinion, the best women were nuns, so the best wife for Orestes would be like a nun. The Asilo de San Vicente de Paul in Manila was a shelter for orphaned or indigent girls who sought a basic education and vocational training. Many became nuns, but from time to time one would be taken away by a wealthy family to provide an obedient wife for an errant son. For a roof overhead and food to eat, such a girl could endure almost anything.
The Asilo was one of the charities Doña Tidad had been supporting. As mother of the mayor and a Supreme Court justice, she could expect cooperation. One day in 1927, Tidad appeared at the Asilo and broached her matter forthrightly to the mother superior. Without hesitation, Sister Modesta assured her that there were several young women in her care who might be suitable, particularly a charming young mestiza named Alice Burcher, and a quiet, serious girl from Baliuag, just north of Manila, named Remedios Trinidad. Excuses were devised to bring each young woman into the mother superior’s reception room. Doña Tidad approved them both.
The next Sunday, a merienda was thrown at the Romualdez mansion, to which everyone in the family was invited. As her part in the plot, Sister Modesta sent Alice Burcher and Remedios Trinidad from the Asilo bearing an envelope containing blank stationery. The unsuspecting girls, carefully scrubbed and primped for Sunday Mass, appeared at the mansion and were drawn into the feast, unaware that they were under scrutiny like vegetables being fondled or meat being pinched. When the time came for music, they were asked to contribute a song. To everyone’s horror, pretty Alice Burcher confessed that she did not know how to sing, a devastating admission for a Filipina. Not only did everyone sing, everyone sang all the time, in private, in public, in churches, latrines, brothels, political campaigns — especially in public. It did not matter if you were good or bad, on key or off, so long as you were open about it. In the Philippines, singing was like a grin or a handshake, something you did to let the tribe know you were not carrying a weapon. The only time you did not sing was when you were about to kill somebody. Silence was a danger signal.
The party was rescued by Remedios Trinidad. Shyly, the quiet girl from the Asilo stepped forward, and gave a performance of the Tagalog love song “Ako’y Ibong Sawi” that brought down the roof.
Medy, as she was called, was an attractive young woman whose appeal was completely obscured by a somber nature. The daughter of an itinerant peddlar of costume jewelry, she had been placed in an orphanage at an early age. Making her way to the University of the Philippines, she took a degree in music before she was ruined by a love affair. She had fallen in love with a young engineer, but his wealthy family frowned on a match with a penniless orphan. They sent him off to America to finish his training. Soon his letters stopped. Heartbroken, Medy fled to the Asilo, where she taught piano, a stricken look never far from her face. She was twenty-seven when Orestes saw her pouring her grief into her song.
He was utterly smitten. He visited the Asilo daily, bringing her flowers and candy. For Medy it was a losing battle. Everybody went to work on her. The bishop, the mother superior, her confessor, all tried to convince her that Orestes and his children were a cross she should take up on the path to salvation. It took a year.
They were married on May 21, 1928, at three-thirty in the morning. The early hour was necessary because everyone was frightened. Threats had been made by Orestes’s jilted lover. The day before the wedding, a taxi had drawn up to his house, and a wild-eyed woman screamed: “Orestes, if I cannot have you, nobody will!” In a panic the ceremony was rescheduled. Nobody explained to Medy why this was necessary, nor why the doors and windows of the church remained bolted. Nor why the groom’s children were not in attendance.
Orestes had not told his children that he was getting remarried. The first they knew was when he brought Medy home. Not surprisingly, they refused to accept her, and the eldest girl, Lourdes, who ruled the house and her father with an iron hand, declared open warfare. The house was filthy, with dirty dishes everywhere and trash under the beds. Medy started putting things in order, which provoked a violent reaction from Lourdes.
“Who does she think she is?” Lourdes raged. “This isn’t her house. My father bought this house for my real mother.”
Orestes lacked the strength of character to be firm with his children, except when it came to the subject of sex, and then he overdid it. He was so determined not to let his daughters be victimized by men that he poisoned their imaginations. They had no male friends of any kind. Medy’s attempts to introduce them to people their own age were rejected. Orestes’s influence was lasting.
Dulce, after studying to become a teacher, withdrew to a convent before she was twenty, eventually becoming mother superior of Holy Ghost College in Manila. Victoria, the family beauty, had a nervous breakdown when she passed through puberty and ran through the streets of San Miguel nearly naked. Surviving this sensation, she became an accomplished violinist and doctor of law, but rejected all suitors and fled the islands to be a spinster professor of languages in Spain.
At seventeen, Lourdes had made herself into a caricature of a Spanish noblewoman, arrogant and high-strung. As she saw it, her father had brought home a woman who was little more than a servant, and she was luring him into the bedroom and debasing him. When the children saw that their father was not defending his new wife, they grew more aggressive.
“Remedios would leave the house when she couldn’t stand it any longer,” Loreto explained, “and she would go to our house and spend one or two days with us, crying over my mother’s shoulder until my father would send her home.”
She gave birth to Imelda on July 2, 1929, followed the next year by Benjamin, who was given the pet name “Kokoy.” Each time Medy became pregnant, Orestes lost interest till the child was born, then he would follow her to bed while Lourdes sat in the living room wringing a hanky.
There were two servants in the house, seventeen-year-old Marcelo Carpio Cinco, or “Siloy,” and Estrella Cumpas, both brought from Leyte by Norberto to take care of Orestes and his children. During the days the servants observed Medy scrubbing, ironing, and putting away the girls’ clothing. At night, they overheard shrieking attacks by Lourdes, after which Medy would retreat weeping to sleep in the garage.
For years, Orestes had enjoyed the illusion of prosperity with Norberto on the Supreme Court and Miguel as mayor. Unexpectedly, in 1930-31 the family fortunes plummeted. One of Miguel’s daughters, Estela, was studying law, and Miguel got her a job as private secretary to Justice Norberto. Estela knew Norberto was chairman of the bar exams, and had copies in his office. She gave a set to a boyfriend. He was caught, and there was a scandal. Political opponents seized the opportunity. The trial dragged on two years and was heavily covered in the press.
“It made us shrink this small,” said Loreto. “My father thought it his moral duty to resign, at the height of his career.” He still controlled the southern districts of the Visayas, including Leyte, Samar, and neighboring islands, in alliance with political leader Tomas Oppus. Norberto represented Leyte in the national assembly, and served as dean of various law schools, but from then on he exercised leverage behind the scenes. It was said that he could commit a million provincial votes this way or that. Estela’s indiscretion also cost Miguel his career as mayor of Manila, which ended with the one term. By then enough money had been salted away, and enough property had been acquired, so that the Romualdez family remained powerful, in Manila and in the Visayas. But the free ride for Orestes was over. He became short-tempered with Medy and arguments over money grew violent. One night the servants heard Medy being beaten. The next day, she packed up Imelda and Kokoy and took them away for three months, living in a gazebo on Norberto’s property. Family pressure forced her to return.
All this was too much for Doña Tidad. At the height of the scandal in 1932, the old woman, bedridden for months, called out the names of her three sons and died.
Orestes was desperate. His Manila lot had been purchased on installments, which he could no longer afford. The house, built with family funds, was now mortgaged for 6,000 pesos, which dribbled away. Late in 1931, Medy moved out completely, taking her infants and the maid Estrella with her. They spent nine months crammed in a cheap room. Medy supported them by making spicy chorizo sausages to sell, and embroidering baby dresses that brought a dollar apiece. She opened a bank account and gradually built up her savings.
In 1932, Orestes attempted a reconciliation. He was desperately short of cash — his electricity and water had been turned off, and Norberto and Miguel refused to help until he made peace with his wife. When Medy resisted, he wheedled. Finally, she said, “Look, Orestes, I will go with you because I am your wife, and you don’t like me living away from your house because the Romualdez name will be smeared, so I will live in the same compound, but do not force me to live in the house. I will live in the garage.”
The moment she got home, Medy’s frugal savings were spent by Orestes to pay his bills and school fees for the children of his first wife.
The garage was a shanty, a roof extending out from the main structure, to which some flimsy walls had been added to shelter crates and trash discarded there. The back end was a makeshift servants’ quarters for Siloy and Estrella, who worked without pay. Imelda and Kokoy slept with Estrella on planks laid across packing crates at one end, Medy on a long table opposite. At night, while the children slept, Orestes would come out to talk with Medy, and force himself on her. In the gloom afterwards, Estrella could hear her sobbing. She gave birth to Alita on January 3, 1933, to Alfredo on July 16, 1935, and to Armando — eight months later — on March 6, 1936.
Without telling anyone, Orestes stopped paying installments on the house. The Franciscan order which held the mortgage threatened to foreclose. The land Doña Tidad had left him in Leyte was also in jeopardy. The 10-hectare property in Tacloban consisted of a number of lots, ranging from ordinary wooden houses down to rickety nipa huts. Occupants paid a few pesos ground rent each month; when these small sums were put together, it was more than enough to cover the mortgage for the whole parcel. But the woman in charge of collecting ground rent was pocketing the money. The mortgage had gone unpaid long enough to bring threats of foreclosure.
Again, Orestes begged Medy’s savings to make a token payment on the Manila house, and sent her off to Tacloban to collect the ground rent and resume payments. She took Imelda, Kokoy, and her three babies with her, shepherded by Estrella. While the property quarrel was settled, they lived in a hut Estrella described as being fit only for birds. Finally, Medy received assurances that the property would not be foreclosed, and they returned early in 1937 to Manila.
She retreated to the garage, which she shared with the prized Berlina. Orestes refused to forfeit the car. He sold its tires, mechanical parts, chrome bumpers, and ornaments. Beside the Berlina one night, her last child, Conchita, was conceived. A change had come over Medy. She was gloomy and defeated. Estrella watched her grow sickly. When the pregnancy was nearing full term, Medy had a visitor. Her long-lost love, the engineer who had gone to America and stopped writing, returned. He came to visit Orestes and asked permission to see Medy and her children. The meeting was subdued and Medy humiliated. After introducing her children, she withdrew meekly to the garage. Within hours, contractions began. She fled across Manila to a rented room in Ermita. Estrella bundled up the children and followed.
Medy, virtually penniless, then checked into the hospital. When Imelda was born, Orestes had booked Medy into a private room. This time it was different. The discovery that one of the family had given birth in a charity ward scandalized the Romualdezes. Orestes was ordered to act urgently to protect their reputation. He went to Medy in the hospital, and told her simply, “We are going home.” She was too weak to argue. It was the end of December 1937, and Estrella and Siloy could sense the defeat. Medy had always been a lonely woman. Now, her spirit was broken. Four months later, in April 1938, she curled up in the dark on her table in the garage and wept. Touching her forehead, Estrella found her running a high fever. They rushed her to a clinic, where she lapsed into a coma and died. The diagnosis was pneumonia.
“Remedios was a saint,” Loreto concluded. “Many people malign her. They say she lost her mind, that she was crazy. Poor woman, she suffered a lot.”
The Romualdez family packed Orestes and both sets of children off to Leyte, out of sight and mind.
Seven months later the house at 278 Calle Solano was for sale, with 8,000 pesos still owed on the mortgage. The sellers were listed as Vicente Orestes Romualdez and his children: Vicente Junior, Lourdes, Dulce, Victoria, and Francisco. No mention was made of Imelda or the others.
When she became First Lady, Imelda had the house on Calle Solano torn down. She bought the once-magnificent Goldberg Mansion nearby and had it renovated by the leading architect in the Philippines, filling it with fine antiques. There she entertained foreign guests, referring to it as “my childhood home.”
When the steamer from Manila docked at Tacloban in December 1938, a troupe of five children was herded down the gangplank by a nine-year-old girl. Imelda Remedios Visitacion Romualdez was a tall, bony child with soulful eyes, long straight black hair hanging down to her waist. She wore her mother’s white dress, several sizes too big, reaching to her ankles.
The ship was met by Lourdes and Victoria, who had come ahead to make preparations. Lourdes was now twenty-six, a doctor employed in Tacloban as a government health officer. She was also a surrogate mother. The small children — Imelda’s brothers and sisters — were too young to be aware of tragedy. For many years, Conchita believed that Lourdes was her real mother, an impression her father did nothing to correct.
Orestes was looking forward to a quiet life. Norberto’s original Spanish mansion on Gran Capitan had been replaced in 1935 by a fine new two-bedroom villa. They could live there rent-free. By carefully collecting ground rents on his property, Orestes could maintain title to the land and earn enough from its coconut groves to pay for food. There was a little cash left from the sale of his Manila house. As insurance, he had a secret stash — a moneybelt stuffed with diamonds dug out of jewelry Doña Tidad had left him when she died.
The first two years in Leyte went smoothly. The girls attended a Benedictine convent school, and kept to themselves. Imelda and Kokoy collected the ground rent, earning a tiny commission.
In 1941, news came that Norberto, politicking on neighboring Samar, had suffered a heart attack and died. Their protector was gone. Pearl Harbor followed, the Japanese invaded, and Orestes took his family to stay with cousins in Guinarona, a rural barrio near Dagami, where the girls in particular would attract less attention. By June 1942, the Japanese had settled down to stay, and Orestes felt safe returning to Tacloban.
The occupiers had commandeered Norberto’s villa, so Orestes had no choice but to take his children to a rickety two-story wooden house on his own property at Calle Real. That autumn it blew down in the first typhoon. Nearby was a derelict shack with sagging wood walls and a thatch roof, no better than the Manila garage in which Remedios had lived and died. Orestes remained in the hut for many years. It seemed to suit him.
Under the Japanese, occupation pesos became worthless, dollars were confiscated, and military scrip was printed at whim by local commanders. Most Leyteños survived as they always had, growing their own fruit and vegetables, fishing, bartering, and scrounging. Not Orestes. Although he had no visible means of support, when nobody was looking he dug into his moneybelt for a diamond to live on for the next few months.
While others were scrounging, he amassed a collection of old Reader’s Digests in Spanish. This reinforced his reputation as a scholar. He spent days reading the Digest, pausing to pontificate to his children, or whiled away the hours playing dominoes with parish priests. For him the war was a time of peace.
His indolence bothered others who were having a difficult time, but the name Romualdez still carried weight. Because of his name, and the fact that he was said to be a lawyer by training, Orestes was made honorary head of a neighborhood association that rationed rice, sugar, and salt among its members. When there were leftovers, Orestes pleaded to have them for his large family.
The children depended upon Lourdes. However poorly she had treated Imelda’s mother in the past, she proved to be a woman of courage and determination in caring for the children now. As a doctor she earned what she could, handled family finances, and doled out food at meals. Breakfast was black coffee and one piece of bread each.
In 1944, Leyte was thrown into confusion by the American invasion. Tacloban was the first town in the Philippines to be liberated. The departure of the Japanese left Norberto’s villa vacant, and Orestes hurriedly moved his brood back in before the idea occurred to anyone else. Lourdes opened a clinic. Imelda sang songs to the GIs. In the general exhilaration, it seemed natural to give Orestes Romualdez (a friend of the church whose name was famous in legal circles, and who owned a grand piece of Tacloban property) the post as dean of the law faculty at the newly reopened St. Paul’s College. The title of dean was deceptive because there were very few law students. The figurehead post was created for Orestes as a gesture to his late brother, and obliged him only to teach occasional classes in legal history and legal bibliography, which the professor with the oddly vacant expression insisted on teaching in Spanish, to the bewilderment of his students. His salary was 100 pesos a month, which paid his bills.
But the family’s euphoria did not last. Norberto’s villa had been willed to his son, Norberto Junior, and in 1946 he decided to return to Leyte to build a political career there. Norberto’s heaviest hints were lost on Orestes, and both families ended up jammed into the house, which became impossible. Imelda’s branch had no choice but to move out, back to the thatch shack on Calle Real. Orestes never told his children that Norberto Junior was the proper owner of the villa, so they bore their cousin a heavy grudge that would have ugly consequences years later.
With liberation, Imelda was able to enter high school. She became a familiar sight in her usual white dress, black hair straight to her hips. She was not a brilliant student, but managed to pass. Her brothers and sisters were so sensitive about their poverty that they found ways to slip in and out of classes unobtrusively, avoiding after-school activities where they might be embarrassed for lack of pocket money. This made ordinary friendships impossible. On weekends the family went to the beach, which was free, and there was a great deal of singing. Still there was always something furtive about them. Their school fees were always tardy, and the girls were chagrined to find their names always on the delinquent list, posted in the school hall. Once when Imelda’s sister Alita was absent from school for a week, a nun came to see if she was ill and was astounded to discover the kind of place in which this branch of the famous Romualdez family lived. She was not invited in.
Following this discovery, Imelda was offered a job in the school canteen for 15 pesos a month. She seemed listless and dreamy, and found the work too demanding, so she was moved to the library to dust books and file cards.
At sixteen she was filling out, a striking beauty with an innocent face and huge limpid eyes. Everybody called her Meldy. She acted or sang in school programs with a big, booming mezzo-soprano (her favorite song was “You Belong to My Heart”). She dreamed of being in opera, on the stage, or in movies. Desperate for recognition, when important people came to town she was always among the local belles distributing leis. In a parade celebrating the second anniversary of Tacloban’s liberation, she rode on a float as the local Miss Philippines.
Orestes restrained her as best he could. She was forbidden to go to dances, but was grudgingly permitted to attend certain very proper parties, if she came home early. He frowned on any extravagance, limiting her to two new dresses a year and one pair of shoes.
In 1948, about to turn nineteen, she graduated from high school, then hurried across town to Leyte High to watch the graduation of some friends. A young lawyer, Ferdinand Marcos, who was running for Congress from Ilocos Norte, delivered the commencement address. Then, at the flower festival that year, Imelda had her big moment when she was chosen “Rose of Tacloban.”
In the postwar flush, the new generation of the Romualdez family was rapidly recovering its wealth and high estate. They had a game plan. While Norberto Junior re-established his father’s political base in the Visayas and ran for governor of Leyte, Miguel’s son Daniel became a congressman in Manila, where the family still owned choice property. Daniel’s brother Eduardo became a leading banker, chairman of the Rehabilitation Finance Corporation (RFC) set up to funnel American aid into projects to rebuild the shattered economy. As chairman, Eduardo became a powerful figure behind the scenes. In time, the RFC was renamed the Development Bank of the Philippines and remains today the chief instrument for granting long-term government loans.
Following their game plan, Daniel, Eduardo, and Norberto Junior set up a political tripod with one foot in the Visayas, one foot in Congress, and one foot in the government bank, restoring all the leverage lost in the previous generation.
Whenever politics came to Tacloban, as it did in a big way during the 1949 campaign, family grievances were temporarily forgotten as the Romualdez rich hobnobbed briefly with the Romualdez poor. Imelda was essential decoration at every banquet Norberto Junior threw for visiting politicians, or when Congressman Daniel came to campaign. Naturally, Imelda’s father would be included in his role as Dean Orestes of the law faculty.
Imelda was becoming a political commodity very much appreciated everywhere, a pretty girl with an engaging manner, a voluptuous singing voice, and powerful relatives. Because of the sheltered life she had led up to this point, ashamed of her poverty and guarded obsessively by her father, her personality and character were largely undeveloped. To sophisticates from Manila, she was only a provincial naif. But thanks to her Romualdez ties and her high visibility, she had many unsuccessful suitors — sons of politicians, a young widowed congressman, an ambitious attorney. Orestes found them all unsuitable. That same year, when President Elpidio Quirino came to town, recently widowed, Imelda sang for him in a school concert and the old rogue charmed her by saying he wished he could carry her off, but he would lose as many votes as he would gain. During the same campaign, presidential candidate Jose Laurel was wined and dined at Norberto’s house and Imelda caught his eye. Years later, his son Salvador “Doy” Laurel recalled, “I remember coming home late one night in 1949 and hearing Papa saying: ‘You know, Mama, in Tacloban there’s a good-looking girl, the daughter of Romualdez. She is not only a good singer, she is a real beauty.’ Papa may have hoped that, by overhearing what he said, my curiosity would be aroused.” It was not.
Obediently, Imelda spent the next four years at St. Paul’s pursuing a degree in education, majoring in English and history. Her mother only a dim memory, she became attached to Lourdes. Barred by poverty from ordinary wholesome outlets, she passed long hours posing before her mirror, practicing facial expressions and gestures while she sang.
In 1951, Lourdes and Orestes decided that Imelda was old enough to go to dances. As a symbol of her own liberation, she styled her hair in a chignon and immediately fell in love with Victoriano Chan, the heir of a wealthy Chinese family that owned the Tacloban Electric Plant. His parents considered her ineligible, and ended the romance abruptly.
Imelda recovered quickly. Before the year was out, she fell in love with a young medical student, Justo Zibala, from the island of Negros. He had dark good looks, deep-set eyes, and a promising future, but he was a Protestant. Orestes asked the Bishop of Palo to intercede, but the bishop’s efforts were fruitless and the two grew inseparable. Orestes became alarmed.
For a long time, people had been telling him that Imelda was wasting her talents in Leyte. She ought to go to Manila. Congressman Daniel was now speaker pro tem, and he and his wife had left a standing invitation for Imelda to stay with them. Daniel assured Orestes that he would find Imelda suitable employment. He was acutely conscious of her political value in campaigning and lobbying, and he had in mind making use of her as a hostess. Another recent visitor to Tacloban, Imelda’s cousin Loreto, promised that she would get her a scholarship to study voice.
For Orestes, the idea was repugnant. Manila meant nothing but grief. Still, Imelda had become a serious problem, ever more deeply involved with “that wretched fellow” Justo Zibala, the Protestant. Another suitor that Imelda had spurned — rich, intense Dominador Pacho, who owned the Dagami Saw Mills and had a reputation for getting what he wanted — had been hanging around looking dangerous. Imelda was worried that he was going to “try something.” That dissolved Orestes’s remaining will. When Congressman Daniel agreed to pay her travel expenses, Orestes sent his daughter off to the big town with 5 pesos in her purse.
Imelda arrived in Manila at age twenty-two with a head full of cravings. She moved in with her rich cousins and found a job as a shopgirl selling sheet music. When her father objected, cousin Eduardo the banker found her a more respectable job as a clerk in the Central Bank. Cousin Loreto, true to her word, arranged for voice lessons from a teacher at Philippine Women’s University (Loreto footing the bill).
One day the editor of a Sunday supplement, This Week, discovered Imelda at work in the bank. She personified innocence, so he photographed her for his Valentine’s Day cover. Distributed to a large readership, her cover attracted the attention of Manila’s polo pony set. The name Romualdez had instant recognition. They all knew where to find her.
Congressman Daniel’s home was a center of political activity for the Nacionalistas. Frequent parties and open houses brought clouds of political mosquitoes, and, as Daniel had anticipated, they swarmed around Imelda. Many were members of the oligarchy, some the sons of billionaires, their lawyers, their generals or colonels, with a sprinkling around the edges of lower castes, people who knew how to do things with their own hands — doctors, architects, and columnists. Of the four hundred families who owned everything in the islands, many were represented here, self-important men in embroidered barongs open at the throat, sipping cocktails while their heavily armed chauffeurs and bodyguards sweated in the tropical night outside, grinding out cigarette butts with their steel-tipped stomping shoes. Among so many admirers, there was no question that Imelda could have found someone to marry with money, looks, haciendas, yachts, planes, offshore portfolios, and a few Arabians for breeding purposes.
But she was very young, and did not comprehend the value system of the oligarchy. Manila matriarchs and debutantes sniggered when Imelda rushed about at parties, fetching chairs or canapes. In her anxiety to please, she was acting like a servant.
Perhaps the difference was insurmountable. Imelda’s hopes for fame and glory were secretly fixed on winning the Miss Manila beauty contest. In the past, poor but beautiful Filipinas had made the leap from oblivion to the gentry by winning beauty titles. For the first time since the war, the contest of 1953 would be linked to international pageants. Whoever was chosen Miss Manila would make public appearances throughout the islands, have a chance to become Miss Philippines, then compete overseas. The idea was pushed by Imelda’s music teacher Adoracion Reyes, and her husband Ricardo, a member of the original Bayanihan Dance Company. Through friends at City Hall, Reyes bypassed normal channels and submitted an application and a photograph of Imelda in a polka-dot dress directly to Manila’s mayor, Arsenio Lacson, the main man in the competition.
Congressman Daniel was furious. He thought the whole idea demeaning. Here was Imelda surrounded by wealthy suitors, and she wanted to run for a beauty title. Cousins Loreto and Eduardo were equally dismayed. It was universally assumed in Manila that girls did not win beauty contests without granting sexual favors to the mayor or some other political figure. Although Mayor Lacson was married and a potential presidential candidate, he was a celebrated playboy. It was his custom to spend every afternoon between three and four at the Hotel Filipinas, where he had “Chinese tea” — an hour in bed with one or more Chinese girls provided by his constituents. (He later died of a heart attack during one of these tea parties.)
Imelda’s photograph had the desired effect on Lacson. Friends at City Hall said she had a good chance of winning; others were not certain. At the conservatory, fellow students wondered at the fuss. Imelda was attractive, but immature. Her manners were low class, her taste in clothes was “corny,” and her idea of great literature was Reader’s Digest. All she ever talked about was romance and the social prestige of the Romualdezes. One girl defended her, arguing that Imelda was just a repressed and lonely girl trying too hard to dazzle people and to be glamorous.
The Reyes were willing to do all the legwork and promotion to hustle votes for the contest, and Philippine Women’s University agreed to be Imelda’s official sponsor. But when the votes were canvassed, the Miss Manila title went to twenty-year-old Norma Jimenez from Pangasinan Province.
Imelda was stunned. Ricardo Reyes filed a protest on a technicality, arguing that no representative of the mayor had been present when the votes were tallied. Imelda went alone to see Mayor Lacson in private. By her own account, she broke down in his office and sobbed uncontrollably. When their meeting ended, the mayor astounded everyone by rejecting the decision of the pageant judges. Newspapers reported: “Mayor Lacson yesterday disowned the choice of the International Fair Board and named Imelda Romualdez of Philippine Women’s University as Manila’s official candidate for Miss Philippines.”
Immediately, rumors spread that Imelda was Lacson’s newest conquest, and that only in this way could she have made it worth his while to provoke such an uproar. The mayor charged that the judges had broken the rules, so he was personally choosing Miss Manila. The judges were stubborn. When the night came to present all the candidates for Miss Philippines, both Mayor Lacson’s candidate and the Fair’s candidate were present. Norma Jimenez appeared as Miss Manila, Imelda Romualdez as Muse of Manila, a title Lacson concocted. The scandal did little to help either girl — the Miss Philippines title went to someone else.
Imelda was convinced that she had won fair and square. Throughout her life, publicists and admirers persisted in asserting that she was once Miss Manila. Eventually, most people forgot the real story. It mattered only to Imelda.
On the heels of the scandal, she became involved with one of Manila’s wealthiest young men. Ariston Nakpil had just finished his architectural studies at Harvard University, Cranbrook Academy, and the Fontainebleau School of Fine Arts in France. He was tall, dashing, articulate, belonged to one of Manila’s oldest families, and would have been considered an excellent catch but for one small problem. He was already married. It was a teenage marriage that failed immediately, and the family claimed to be seeking an annulment, a lengthy process in the Catholic Philippines. Imelda spent weekends with Nakpil at his family farm in Batangas and went with him on her first trip to the mountain resort of Baguio in the summer of 1953.
When Orestes learned of Nakpil’s courtship and his previous marriage, he flew to Manila to confront Imelda. Even with an annulment, he insisted that she would never be more than a mistress to Nakpil. To Orestes and many other old-fashioned Filipinos, a Catholic marriage was a marriage even if it was annulled. Whatever followed was sequential polygamy.
Orestes forced her to return with him to Tacloban to get some distance from Nakpil. When she returned to Manila in mid-December 1953, she was still torn between her feelings for Nakpil and her obligation to her father. It was at this difficult moment that she met Ferdinand Marcos.