Two Women who Changed my Life
By Boy Abunda
The Philippine Star
March 30, 2017
Aside from my mother, two women influenced my life in a way that only the Divine could have arranged. What a journey it has been. Thank you for these formidable mentors who taught me how it is to live, to love, to lose, to win, to explore, to read, to question, to be content and happy, to be proud of who I am and to know who I am not. And in celebration of the International Women’s Month, I pay homage to these great women whom I am eternally grateful!
Helena Zoila Benitez
Helena Benitez — one of the most revered educators, a patriot, a nationalist, a diplomat, a great politician — was the seventh woman to be elected to the Philippine senate. I was always in awe of Tita Helen. It was her who pushed me to further my academic endeavors. When I could not march to my masteral graduation, she allowed me to stage my own in her presence and in the company of my friends. When I went for the evaluation of my doctoral dissertation, she was there again making sure I didn’t run away. Because really, running away sometimes is the bravest that one can do in dissertation writing and defense.
In my last interview with the great Tita Helen, I asked her to complete the sentence: “I am Helena Benitez…”
And she quipped: “I am Helena and I am a Filipina.”
I realized that in front of me was one of the last great patriots.
The former senator graduated magna cum laude with a degree of Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Science in Education. Later on, she took Master of Arts at the George Washington University in addition to her post-graduate studies at the University of Chicago and the Iowa State College.
Eventually, she became the first Filipina chairperson of the UN Commission on the Status of Women and the first Filipina and first woman to become the president of the governing council of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).
Aside from her advocacies in environmental protection, women’s rights, education, she founded the Bayanihan in 1956 through the inaugural show titled Bayanihan: An Evening of Music and Dance Festival, on Aug. 1, 1956. This was followed by the establishment of Bayanihan Folk Arts Center in 1957 and Bayanihan Folk Arts Association in 1959. According to my dear friend Suzie Benitez, The Bayanihan Folk Arts Foundation was established in 1997. Bayanihan was declared National Dance Company of the Philippines in 1998 through RA 8626.
She was later awarded with The Order of Sikatuna by President Fidel Ramos, an order of diplomatic merit conferred upon diplomats, officials and nationals of foreign states who have rendered exceptional and meritorious services by fostering, developing and strengthening relations between their country and the Philippines.
I was a PA (Production Assistant) or an ASM (Assistant Stage Manager) at the Metropolitan Theater (Met). I was doing a great job taking care of the costumes, props and other matters backstage. I was a diligent stagehand who made friends with all, including the spirits that roamed the Met.
One day, I was summoned to Rm. 1107 of then Manila Hilton (now Manila Pavilion). I was told, the great Conching Sunico wanted to see me. She was head of Karilagan International, and at the same time, executive director of the newly-renovated Metropolitan Theater.
“Do you want to work for me?”
She asked the moment I stepped into the room…
“Yes, ma’am!,” I politely shot back. My knees were weak. I thought I was disintegrating.
I motioned to leave — quietly, not wanting to distract the solemnity in the room where everyone was busy working. But I forgot to ask what my job was. So I turned back to Tita Conching and bravely inquired.
“What’s my job, ma’am?”
“PR,” she curtly declared.
“What is PR, ma’am?”
“I will teach you.”
She looked me in the eyes and I melted. It was the start of my best education. — With reports from Drew Castillo and Almed Garcia