“Tita Cory is gone,” wrote a friend on Facebook. It was inevitable; former Philippine President Corazon C. Aquino these past few months was slipping away in her battle against colon cancer. And while the worldwide Filipino community kept vigil, resigned to her predictable fate, her demise cast a pall of gloom, not only on the Philippines but around the world. As one newspaper headlined: “The world mourns the death of Corazon Aquino.”
To many Filipinos, she was Tita (Aunt) Cory. She was the aunt you would want to have—caring and motherly, yet stern and straightforward. But she was not one you would expect to lead the nation. Cory Aquino was the reluctant president. “What on earth do I know about being president?” she said when touted to run against Ferdinand Marcos.
She took pride in her role as a housewife, keeping the family together while her husband, Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr., pursued a promising political career, the trajectory of which, by everyone’s analysis, would collide with Marcos’ dogged ambition to be president for life. Cory’s active participation in politics started when Ninoy was incarcerated by the Marcos administration on trumped-up charges of subversion, among others. She became Ninoy’s voice and stealthily sneaked his messages outside.
As fate would have it, Ninoy Aquino was gunned down while under the custody of the military, and this tragic incident launched the whole country into a ubiquitous clamor against the Marcos dictatorship. The people knew that if anyone could ever topple Marcos, it would have to be Cory Aquino. So, with great hesitancy, she took up the challenge. The housewife was now running for president of the Philippines!
Her prior seemingly naive statement was ruthlessly used by her opponent’s campaign. She was mocked as “walang alam” (clueless). A common joke was to parse her name in its Spanish extraction: corazon (heart), si (yes); aqui (here, pointing to the head), no.
She was all heart—an accusation that would eventually be her strength as a leader. But as the campaign went on, the people knew more about her. She was a housewife by choice, but she really had the family circumstances and educational credentials to become a leader if she wanted to.
Born to a wealthy and politically powerful family, she was sent to the best schools in the Philippines and abroad. She finished her Bachelor of Arts degree at the College of Mount St. Vincent, here in Riverdale. Upon returning to the Philippines, she pursued the study of law, only to give it up when she married Benigno Aquino Jr.
The presidential election in February 1986, pitting Ferdinand Marcos against Corazon Aquino, was the most heated and intense contest in the history of Philippine politics. People voted their hearts out for the lady who was all heart. Not unexpectedly, Marcos’ handpicked Commission on Elections manipulated the results in favor of the dictator. But this time, the people had had it with Marcos; they were not going to be cowed and bullied into submission. Marching courageously, undaunted by the tanks and military loyalists ready to quash them, the People Power march displayed the Filipino people’s resolve to fight for freedom and democracy. After Marcos’ hasty exit, Corazon Aquino was installed as president.
Cory’s presidency was far from perfect, but it brought a breath of fresh air to a nation weary of an autocratic regime plagued with widespread systematic corruption. According to Senator Aquilino Pimentel, “Cory has delivered the Philippines from dictatorship. Giving us the hope of democracy is the best gift she has given us, among others.”
Corazon C. Aquino lived her life true to her name—with a big heart. She will forever be remembered not only for the compassionate heart she possessed, but also for the magnanimity with which she shared it.
Paalam (goodbye), Tita Cory.
(Joel Pal is from Yorktown, New York, who lived through the transition from former President Ferdinand Marcos to Cory Aquino. This article first appeared in the Riverdale Review, a community paper in Riverdale, New York.)