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Menchu Aquino Sarmiento



By Menchu Aquino Sarmiento

Our Batangueno father had married an Ilongga, but to him, we, their progeny, were always those “Crazy, kissing Bisayan idiots na hindi marunong mag-mano o mag-sabi ng ‘po’.” To keep the peace, we spoke in English to our parents, which was good practice as those were the days when Santa Teresa, where my sisters and I studied from kindergarten to high school, used to fine students 5 centavos for every Tagalog word overheard on the school grounds (outside our Pilipino class, that is). Those were also the days when 5 centavos still had some purchasing power.

When our maternal grandparents would visit us in Manila during the Chistmas holidays, our grandfather strove to make up for all our linguistic shortcomings. At the breakfast table, Lolo Juan would muster his meager conversational Tagalog and diligently insert “po” after practically every other word, as he and Daddy discussed the front page news over their pandesal, oatmeal and eggs. “Ano po ang palagay po ninyo po sa atin pong bagong presidente po?”

Lolo presumed that Daddy would be on the inside track, since he was part of the famed UP College of Law Class of 1939. Ferdinand E. Marcos Sr. would have been their valedictorian, but had missed several weeks of class while in prison for the Nalundasan murder trial. Daddy was in the evening class: a working student, helping to support two younger sisters. He did not socialize with the better off, day-class College of Law students, among them, the future Philippine president.

Human society thrives on connectedness. Daddy’s best friend, Leandro “Totoy” Sevilla was a cousin of future Marcos crony Potenciano “Nanoy” Ilusorio. Tito Totoy asked Nanoy Ilusorio to pass on his discarded Time and Life magazines, Readers Digests and such, to Daddy who loved to read but was too poor to buy his own leisure reading materials. In the 2022 movie Maid in Malacanan which was produced by Imee Marcos, the maids are reminded several times to make sure there are books in the Malacanan guest room being readied for Chief Justice Ramon C. Aquino on the eve of Marcos Sr.’s oathtaking, or the day before he fled the Philippines with his family for Hawaii.

Daddy placed No. 6 to Marcos’ No. 1 in the Bar Exams. This and his acquaintance with Nanoy Ilusorio, brought him to Marcos’ attention. Thus, Marcos appointed Daddy to the Supreme Court in October 1973. In the three decades prior, Daddy had a modest law practice with Tito Totoy while teaching at the UP College of Law. It was here where he met our mother Carolina Cabrera Grino of Leganes, Iloilo. Mommy had finished her 2nd year of law at the Colegio de San Agustin when the Dean, Felipe Ysmael, a UP College of Law graduate, and a No. 1 Bar Topnotcher himself, arranged for her to transfer as a special student to the UP. Dean Ysmael believed Mommy would be better trained to top the Bar at the UP College of Law.

Mommy was the eldest of seven siblings, who were all in school then. Her family was of modest means, with no relatives in Manila. During her first year as a junior at the UP College of Law, she was in the evening class since she worked as a clerk for one of the Lopez companies, in order to support her studies and her stay in Manila. It was here that she met Daddy who was one of her professors. They fell in love as he walked beside her during the 1950 Lantern Parade. After Mom placed No.1 in the 1950 Bar Exams–affirming Dean Ysmael’s faith in her–she and Daddy got married.

While raising four children, Mommy was an associate in the Claro M. Recto law office. She remembers sitting at his desk, where he had asked her to search for some documents, and wondering whether she would ever make it to the Supreme Court, the pinnacle of every lawyer’s ambitions. Don Claro was a kind boss, who allowed Mommy to work from home throughout her pregnancies. After he died, by which time, our youngest and only brother Manny, was in pre-school, Mommy became a junior partner at the Sycip, Salazar Atbp. Law Office–one of the Philippines’ top law firms. The Makati Commercial Center was incipient. Mommy worked half-days on Saturdays, and would take us all to the offce with her, for some quality time. After work, we went to Erehwon, one of the first independent bookstores and to the Makati Supermarket, which also had a books and toys section back then.

The rising Marcos tide also lifted our mother’s ship. He appointed her judge of the Rizal Court of First Instance in Pasig, even before Daddy made it to the Supreme Court. In 1979, Pres. Marcos elevated Mommy to the Court of Appeals. Pres. Corazon C. Aquino replaced Daddy as Chief Justice with Claudio Teehankee, but Mommy was reappointed to the Intermediate Appellate Court, and soon became its Presiding Justice. Traditionally, the Appellate Court Presiding Justice is first in line to fill up a Supreme Court vacancy. Her UP College of Law contemporary, Executive Secretary Joker Arroyo (whose wife Fely Aquino is my husband Mariano “Dodo” Sarmiento’s law partner, in a firm founded by the late Haydee Yorac and SC Justice Adolf Azcuna) ensured Mommy was in the right place at the right time. Thus, not 2 years after the Febuary 1986 EDSA People Power Revolution, Pres. Aquino made Mommy the 4th woman Supreme Court Associate Justice.

Mommy would have been 100 in October this year. Serendipitously, this is also the year that my youngest daughter Alice decided that we should shake off the dust of the traffic-ridden monstrosity that is Metro-Manila. And so we are relocating to Iloilo, aka “The City of Love,” where salesgirls and waitstaff call you “pangga,” and sound like they mean it. Throughout her professional and judicial career in Imperial Manila, Mommy frequently and faithfully visited our grandparents in Jaro. When they passed on, we made sure to continue the tradition of celebrating each of her aging siblings’ precious birthdays.

When I would run into other Ilonggos in Manila, the inevitable question is: san-o ka mapuli? This year: this is it. On January 10, 2023, the Supreme Court en banc permitted me to install a permanent bas relief portrait of Mommy at the Ramon Q. Avancena Hall of Justice in Iloilo City. The esteemed feminist sculptress Julie Lluch shall install this behind the ground floor elevator, facing the chapel. Carolina Cabrera Grino Aquino will be home again, in the city which nurtured her girlhood dreams and aspirations. Puli na ‘ta.


Menchu Aquino Sarmiento is an award-winning writer and a social concerns advocate. IRL (In Real Life) are short verbal pagmumuni-muni, the essay equivalent of fast fiction–but in real life. She really wants more Filipinos to care, and to do something legal and non-violent about it, preferably together, so that we act more like a civilized country, a mature democracy.

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