By Jun Nucum
Renowned Philippine TV and movie director Lupita Aquino-Kashiwahara fondly reminisced the bygone days of Sen. Tessie Aquino-Oreta with a tribute to her younger sister’s full life.
Tessie or Maria Teresa Aquino was born 75 years ago on June 28, the youngest of 11 children of Benigno Sr. (who died when Tessie was barely three years old) and Aurora (who also had Benigno Jr. or Ninoy, their 6thchild) and “became the center of attention, admiration and obeisance” according to Lupita.
Single parent Mama Aurora showered maternal attention, affection and companionship on Oreta being the youngest. Oreta, in turn, was obsessed with writing a book on the strong faith and influence of Mama Aurora, plans for which were cut short with her health taking a turn for the worse.
Tessie attended primary education at Holy Ghost College (now known as the College of the Holy Spirit), high school at the Assumption Convent where she also acquired her Bachelor of Arts in Literature degree before she finished International Studies in Ducal Avila Spain accompanied by Mama Aurora.
Later on, Tessie met, fell in love and married Antolin Oreta Jr. with whom she had four children: Rissa, Antolin III or Len (who is the incumbent Mayor of Malabon City), Karmela and Lorenzo.
“The Aquinos have a strong sense of nationalism and activism. I can say that there are two classes of Aquinos on the political scene, on stage and behind the stage. Ninoy, (Agapito) Butz and Tessie. Behind the scenes are Paul and Lupita. Ninoy, Butz and Tessie entered politics and served in Congress,” said Lupita.
Tessie represented the district of Malabon City–Navotasin the House of Representatives for three consecutive terms, from 1987-1998 before she was elected Senator in 1998 where she served until 2004. Tessie was also a reserved Lt. Colonel in the Philippine Air Force.
From an article by Ramon Lopez in the Philippine Free Press in 2012 with some portions excerpted from an interview of Tessie in The Principal by Iris del Castillo, Tessie was best known as the author of Early Childhood Care and Development Act or RA 8980, a landmark law that aims to provide socio-economic and educational aid to more than six million Filipino kids six years old and below.
Her other legislative achievements include:
a) the Act Establishing a Day Care Center in every Barangay or Republic Act 6972
b) the Governance of Basic Education Act or Republic Act 9155 that, gives school principals and teachers the confidence and the support to decide on how to run their schools
c) the Government Assistance to Students and Teachers in Private Education (GASPE) Act (which she co-authored). Enacted in 1989, the law that helped provide tuition subsidies and allowances to 700,000 needy students in private high schools
d) the National Science and Technology Scholarship Program (also co-authored), which has helped send 9,000 students to college
e) Republic Act 9036 (she was the main sponsor), or the Philippine Science High School System Law, which strengthened the administration of the state-run science school
Oreta was also instrumental in “Kinder Plus, ” a pilot project under the ECCD in Nueva Ecija launched sometime in 2001.
All these Tessie did in part to also continue the legacy left behind by older brother Sen. Benigno Aquino Jr., author of the Study Now Pay Later Act and who, according to Oreta herself, believes that, “ An educated Filipino knows his laws. One who knows his laws knows his rights. And one who knows his rights won’t permit tyrants to rule over him or trample on his liberties.”
Lupita intimated that Tessie and she were close especially during the 1978 Laban elections when Ninoy, running from prison, headed a parliamentary slate against Marcos. Sisters Tessie and Lupita frequently attended campaign rallies together.
“During one, outdoors at a makeshift stage, a gunshot suddenly rang out. Tessie, who was eight months pregnant, immediately reacted by grabbing the person beside her pulling them both to safety. That person was foreign correspondent Richard Bernstein of TimeMagazine who he never forgot that incident,” Lupita recounted.
Another unforgettable incident for Lupita was on August 21, 1983, when they were both at the airport awaiting Ninoy’s arrival.
“We were not allowed at the gate but were confined to the airport’s VIP room, to wait with Mama Aurora and the opposition leaders. When my husband Ken, who was on the plane with Ninoy, came into the room he whispered to me that Ninoy had been shot. No one in the room knew. The first person I told was Tessie. Before I could tell her not to tell the others until confirmation of Ninoy”s condition, she let out a loud scream. She was the Aquino who wore her emotions on her sleeve. You always knew how she felt and where she stood,” Lupita still vividly recalled.
In 2012, Tessie was diagnosed with breast cancer and while doctors in Stanford Hospital were able to cure her, a different cancer cell appeared again years later and again a third cell appeared two years ago.
“Throughout all these years, not too many of those who knew her knew what she was undergoing. She’s a very private person and her strong personality never waned. With an Aquino trait, she often used humor as a balm to disguise her discomfort and survived using her strong faith in God instilled by Mama Aurora,” disclosed Lupita.
Tessie died peacefully at 10:48 p.m. on May 14 at St Luke Bonifacio Global City surrounded by her immediate family.