The First Lady of the White House

CRAZY QUILT - Tanya T. Lara () - August 24, 2008 - 12:00am

When Plaza Miranda was bombed during a political rally of the Liberal Party in 1971, Judy Araneta-Roxas was on the stage with her husband, Senator and LP president Gerry Roxas. The bombing killed  nine people, including a five-year-old child, and injured 95.

Among those who were injured were sons of two former presidents of the country: Gerry Roxas, son of Manuel Roxas, president of the first Philippine Republic; and Sergio Osmeña Jr., son of Commonwealth President Sergio Osmeña.

And then there was Judy Araneta-Roxas whose family developed Araneta Center in Cubao beginning in the 1950s. She sustained injuries to her legs and upper body parts. She lost her kneecap, and to this day pieces of shrapnel are imbedded in her upper body. 

Gerry Roxas died of cancer in 1982, but his memory lives on — his widow Judy made sure of that. You can also say his memory lives on in the 50,000 high school students who have received the Gerry Roxas Leadership Award since 1958.

Among the sterling roster of recipients whose leadership qualities were recognized when they were in their senior year in high school are DSWD Secretary Dinky Soliman, who received the award in 1969, Charo Santos-Concio (1972), Marissa Fernan (1973), and Anthony Pangilinan (1976). Journalist Malou Mangahas received hers in 1976 and says it was one of several medals she received on graduation day “but it was the medal I carried with the greatest pride.”

Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, the Gerry Roxas Foundation (GRF), which gives out the leadership award as one of its five programs, is chaired by Judy Roxas. The matriarch of the Araneta clan lets herself be interviewed for this — albeit a little begrudgingly. We laughingly negotiate over the number of questions I could ask about her personal life and she fends them off expertly.  

Judy has done the impossible in Philippine politics — to keep a low profile through the decades despite the high-profile men in her life: her husband Gerry; brother Jorge “Nene” Araneta, who manages the Araneta Center with her; her late son Gerry Jr. or Dinggoy, who was a congressman in Capiz; and now Mar Roxas, touted to be LP’s presidential bet in 2010.

Wearing a white embroidered linen blouse and black pants, she uses a blue umbrella that’s printed with “Mar Roxas, Mr. Palengke” when we go out in the sun. 

“We have a very healthy relationship,” she says of her children Mar and Ria Ojeda. “We respect each other. Each one is independent and of course we love each other very much. We allow each other to grow.”

On Mar’s girlfriend, broadcast journalist Korina Sanchez, Judy says, “She’s very nice and we get along.”

Mar’s love life gets as much column inches in newspapers as his political activities. Perhaps it is because Mar and Korina are at the peak of their careers and in that stage when wedding speculations are unavoidable — or maybe Pinoys are truly just chismoso.

Korina says of the Araneta matriarch: “Tita Judy is a very down-to-earth woman, quite connected to people and equally gracious in her conduct towards the prominent and the obscure. Her energy amazes me. Her love for her husband, the late Gerry Roxas, is evident and I will always remember how she was talking about him on what should’ve been their golden anniversary a few years back. It is understandably one of her life’s commitments to keep the good name of her husband alive.”

Playing Chess With Mang Enteng

There are several images that best represent Gerry Roxas: One is a black-and-white photo taken after the Plaza Miranda bombing with him at the foot of the stage, being supported back to his feet; another is his profile on the cover of The Sunday Times Magazine in 1964 with the heading “The New Opposition”; and what seems to be Judy’s favorite is a watercolor painting of her husband by National Artist Vicente Manansala, which hangs in the house she shared with him in the Aranetas Bahay na Puti compound in Cubao.

The couple became good friends with Mang Enteng and his wife Hilda. “Jerry and he would sometimes play chess, here or in Binangonan,” says Judy as we talk about a very big Manansala painting in the living room — just one of the many hanging in the living room and, presumably, in the other rooms of the house.

How many Manansalas does she have? She laughs and says, “Enough.” More than enough to pass on to the grandchildren? She refuses a definitive yes or no, but as a matter of fact, yes, some are already in the other houses.

She and Gerry began collecting Mang Enteng’s work after martial law, “when there was nothing much left to do,” and besides, the art scene was very different then — an obvious reference to how artworks even by starting artists are now priced so high.

Manansala’s watercolor portrait of Gerry in 1973 has frozen the Senator in time — he with the white streaks of hair even when he was young. This is the image that bears the logo of the Gerry Roxas Foundation (GRF). Judy enthusiastically talks about the five programs of GRF with the Youth Leadership Program being closest to her heart. 

Gerry was elected congressman in Capiz in 1957 and a year later he set up a scholarship fund for students who couldn’t’ afford college education. When he became senator in 1968, he took the program nationwide. Today, the Youth Leadership Award is given to one graduating student in 2,000 government and private high schools around the country — they get a medal with the image of Gerry imprinted on it. Some of the past awardees have even gotten together to sponsor scholars themselves.

“We’re getting together with some of the past awardees and it’s really heartwarming to meet them.” What’s special about this award is that it recognizes leadership in young people early on, providing them inspiration to uphold the principles of “integrity, service and excellence.”

The second GRF program is the Barangay Justice Service System, which operates mainly in Mindanao, where elders and respected members of the community are trained to become mediators to help settle disputes between neighbors.

The third is the Community Health Program, which trains and provides technical assistance to LGUs and volunteers to improve the local health system and make it accessible to people. “Mar is very much involved” and they often consult him for this program.

The fourth is the Local Government Development program, which trains LGUs to develop competencies, management systems and local resources for responsive and accountable governance.

The fifth, Development Finance program, lends money to small entrepreneurs who can’t go to banks because all they have is what they call “kaldero collateral.” Judy explains that beneficiaries are mostly farmers who may have a plot of land but no money to make any use of it. The amounts being loaned range from P20,000 to P200,000.

“Sometimes their collaterals are their TV sets, their carabaos, or their nipa huts. There’s also training involved so they can pay back what they owe — and they do They’re able to send their kids to school.”

Life In The White House

It’s called “Bahay na Puti” or The White House because, sitting in this five-hectare lot, is a huge, white, mid-century modern house built in the 1950s. “My father dabbled in architecture and design. He was very much involved, too, in the building of the Araneta Coliseum.”

The Aranetas used to live on Taft Avenue, where Judy and her siblings Jorge Araneta and Baby Fores grew up. In the 1950s, their parents Amdao and Ester Araneta bought this huge chunk of land in Cubao. Judy remembers that this used to be filled with talahib, carabao  and a number of radio towers owned by the Radio Corporation of America (RCA). “This used to be owned by RCA and after the Second World War, the US Army had a radio station here.”

The Aranetas developed the property and thus was born Araneta Center, with the country’s first coliseum of this size and malls, including Farmers Market, which the older generation remembers fondly as the place to go for fresh produce and flowers, and everything housewives needed to clothe and feed their families. 

“We were the pioneers, but we sort of stopped and now we’re back,” she says.

Today, Araneta Center boasts The Gateway Mall and in partnership with Megaworld Properties — the developer behind Eastwood City in Libis and McKinley Hill in The Fort —  a high-rise mixed-use community will soon rise. Called Manhattan Garden City, this new development is seen as Cubao’s comeback with the master plan incorporating both the MRT and LRT lines.

What does Judy miss most about the old Araneta Center? She throws the question back at me and I tell her it’s the puppet show at COD every Christmas.

She adds, “We even had Aguinaldo’s Department Store, a Japanese department store called Matzuzakaya, and a Japanese restaurant, Matzuzaka House, which was the very first real Japanese restaurant in the country.”

In Bahay na Puti, one of the most liveliest times is when the family gets together and there happens to be an Ateneo-La Salle game being played. “Ay naku, away yan dito,” says Judy.

The older generation — Judy, Jorge, Baby, and their mom Ester who passed away last year — are diehard La Sallites. Mar and his cousins and the generation that follows are diehard Ateneans.

What about Gerry Roxas, which colors did he wear? He attended La Salle, later Ateneo, and then he took up law at UP. “UP yan!” says Judy.

In this White House in Quezon City, right beside the main artery of the city where parades and protests, and revolutions and quiet days happen, Judy Araneta-Roxas takes a brief pause over the question of whether her son — who has followed in his father’s footsteps to the Senate — will attempt to follow his grandfather’s all the way to Malacañang Palace. 

“If he is running, the family and I will support him all the way.”

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