World renowned icon of democracy Nelson Mandela was quoted as saying, “Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity, it is an act of justice.” 2007 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee Jovito Salonga is living proof that poverty is not a crutch but could be the impetus to success. Despite his humble beginnings, Salonga has lived an epic of a life that places him as one of the most important figures in Philippine history.
Jovito Salonga’s life could have very well been a cliché. For he was one of those quintessential poor boys who did well in his studies and rose to fame and positions of power.
But unlike those who moved on to accumulate great wealth and influence at the expense of the public good and the national interest, Salonga chose a life of service to the people.
Steeled by poverty and guided by Protestant ethics, Salonga had no fear about outcomes after making his choices on what path to take at crucial junctures in Philippine history.
His continuing journey of 87 years can very well be likened instead to one undertaken by a hero in a Greek epic – one full of unnerving confrontations with the monsters and villains of the times which unceasingly tested one’s character and commitment to duty and purpose.
For how else can anyone describe the story of a man who dared tangle with the storm troopers of a foreign invader, speak truth to a home-grown despot, and fearlessly cut the ties that bound his native land with a former occupier?
It all began simply in the village of Pulo, now known as San Miguel in Pasig, where he was born on June 22, 1920, the youngest of five sons to spouses Esteban Salonga and Bernardita Reyes.
Married in 1904, at the onset of American rule, Esteban and Bernardita were early converts to Protestantism. A Presbyterian minister who did not draw any salary, Salonga’s father depended on the charity of his flock to provide for his family’s needs. His mother, whom he describes as a “woman of great faith,” would later on sell produce at the village market to help earn a living.
“I can’t recall any single event of my childhood years which stands out as the most memorable. But I do recall how poor we were,” he writes in his memoir, Journey of Struggle and Hope. “We often had ayungin (a small fish) for breakfast, ayungin for lunch, and ayungin for dinner.”
One memory he remembers very well, however, was when his mother brought him to attend the first day of classes at the town’s public elementary school.
“I was the only one barefooted,” says Salonga. Six years later, he would remain unshod in a class photo taken of the graduating class which a classmate gave him while campaigning for a congressional seat in 1961. He would keep this picture to remind him of the hard times he and his family went through early on in his life.
In time, particularly during the long summer breaks from school, Salonga and his siblings would find ways to support their parents. Hard work, initiative, and perseverance became the first lessons Salonga learned in his youth. He would keep these in mind and draw strength from in his later encounters with fate beyond the confines of Pulo.
His years in high school though were mark by episodes of restlessness. He admits to having fallen in “wrong company and began noticing girls” in his third year which led him to skip classes. Salonga would regain his focus with the help of an American teacher who taught English literature in his penultimate year.
At age 16, Salonga began his pre-law studies at the Padre Faura campus of the University of the Philippines to realize his dream of becoming a lawyer and politician. He had chosen to become one when he was only 12 while watching, with his father and brothers, then House Speaker Manuel Roxas, of the Philippine Assembly, arguing for independence from America on a stage in Pasig.
“I was held spellbound by this man who spoke of our people’s yearning for independence and freedom,” he says of Roxas. “There was no public address system at that time, but his voice, his diction, his gestures, and his stage presence impressed me no end.”
Salonga completed his pre-law course while working as a proofreader in his eldest brother Isayas’ publishing company. He would enter the UP College of Law where he earned medals as a debater and student leader.
While preparing for the bar exams, Salonga underwent his first encounter with fate with the outbreak of war between the United States and Japan on December 7, 1941. With the US retreat to Australia, the Japanese Imperial Army occupied Manila.
Appalled by Japanese military abuses and atrocities and wanting to boost the morale of his compatriots, he went underground and waged his own propaganda war against the new foreign overlords.
It did not take long before the Japanese, with the help of neighborhood Quislings, caught up with the 21-year old freedom fighter. By this time his barrio had become a stronghold of remnants of the anti-American Sakdal movement which became the core of the pro-Japanese Makapili. In April, 1942, the Japanese kempetai captured Salonga and in the presence of his father, tortured him to admitting his partisan activities.
“I thought I’d be sentenced to a severe penalty but the Japanese interpreter, who was familiar to me, because I used to see him in the University of the Philippines, must have told the tribunal composed of high-ranking Japanese something that moved them and made them decide that due to extreme youth, I should be sentenced only to 15 years of hard labor instead of the death penalty, which I expected,” he recalls in an interview.
Salonga was subsequently imprisoned in Fort Bonifacio and in the Manila City Jail, in San Marcelino, before being transferred to Muntinlupa prison where he stayed until his release on February 11, 1943. He was among those pardoned by the Japanese on the occasion of Kigen Setsu, the Japanese foundation day.
Placed under surveillance by the Kempetai, Salonga focused on studying for the bar exams in August 1944 which he topped with Jose W. Diokno, with a grade of 95.3 percent.
By the time independence was granted to the Philippines by the United States on July 4, 1946, Salonga had began the practice of law. But this would be interrupted by his acceptance to graduate studies at Harvard Law School, and later on, his pursuit of a doctorate at Yale Law School. There he would meet Jose “Teroy” Laurel, son of wartime President Jose P. Laurel, who would be his law partner upon their return to the Philippines.
In America, Salonga would marry Lydia Busuego a few months before his graduation from Harvard in July 1948. She would return to the Philippines earlier and give birth to their first-born, Esteban Fernando.
Soon after his return to Manila in 1948, Salonga would get his first taste of politics by helping the candidacy of Jose P. Laurel against the incumbent Elpidio Quirino during the 1949 presidential elections. Quirino’s victory was contested by Laurel who eventually accepted defeat rather than risk a bloody uprising by his angry followers.
At 33, Salonga himself would learn the hard way how politics was being played by the dynastic elite. A modus vivendi between erstwhile rival political clans in Rizal led to his exclusion from the race for the seat vacated by his brother, Isayas, who had not pursued reelection for the 2nd congressional district because of ill health.
In 1961, he would get a chance to run again for the position that had been denied him. This time, the alliance of convenience between the rival political clans had broken up. Under the Liberal Party banner, Salonga won by a convincing margin over his established opponents. His time had come.
Salonga would be drafted to run by the Liberal Party for the Senate in the 1965 elections with incumbent President Diosdado Macapagal of Liberal Party facing the erstwhile partymate, now Nacionalista convert, Ferdinand Marcos. With pre-election surveys showing him a distant 15th, Salonga would get the surprise of his life by topping the race for the eight Senate seats at stake. Marcos would beat Macapagal.
Salonga would run for reelection and make it once more to the Senate in 1971, only after surviving the deadly bombing of the LP miting de avance at Plaza Miranda which rendered him almost incapacitated. There were however greater dangers ahead.
On September 21, 1972, Marcos declared martial law, closed down Congress, and began his authoritarian rule which would last until his ouster 14 years later by a civilian-backed military uprising led by his closest lieutenants and the wife of his murdered arch-political rival, Benigno Aquino, Jr.
Salonga spent the martial years in active opposition to Marcos but was jailed for four years on accusations of leading a bombing campaign against the dictatorship. Released in 1980, he was granted a medical pass for treatment of wounds suffered during the 1971 bombing in America. Returning in 1985, two years after the assassinaton of Aquino, Salonga became part of the expanding opposition movement that eventually forced Marcos to call for snap presidential election in 1986.
Asked why he had persisted in his struggle against Marcos, he replied: “You see I’m affected by, probably by the religion I have, my father was a Presbyterian minister, and I grew up in poverty… and this probably colored my thinking. When I see injustice being committed against the poor, against the marginalized, I react immediately,” he explains in an interview.
After the fall of Marcos, Salonga would become the first chair of the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG) which was tasked by President Corazon Aquino to recover the billions of pesos plundered by the Marcoses and their cronies in the heyday of their strongman regime.
He would be drafted again to run for the Senate in the 1987 elections which the administration ticket swept 22-2, with Salonga topping the race anew. At the helm of the Senate as Senate President, he faced up to the greatest challenge of his life by casting the vote ending the special military relationship between the Philippines and the United States in September 16, 1991.
Explaining his vote to a packed hall, Salonga’s last words were: “I have been warned by well-meaning friends that my stand on this Treaty may hurt my chances of becoming President. No matter. That is an insignificant consequence. In times of great crisis, our martyrs and heroes offered their lives that our people might become truly free.”
“I have said it before and I will say it again. After walking through the valley of the shadow of death twice in my life, titles and positions do not mean that much to me anymore. What is more important is to be of real service to our people, with or without any position in Government.”
After his term ended in 1992, Salonga founded the civil society groups Kilosbayan and Katarungan which have led the opposition to manifest attempts to reverse the nationalist, democratic gains of 1986.
For as he points out, “independence, like freedom, is never granted, it is always asserted and affirmed. Its defense is an everyday endeavor – sometimes in the field of battle , oftentimes in the contest of conflicting wills and ideas. It is a daily struggle that may never end – for as long as we live.”
At age 87, Salonga has yet to write finis to his own epic. There is no doubt however that there will be more than enough people who shall willingly carry on his struggle to realize peace and prosperity for his people and nation.