The Consummate Woman

- John L. Silva () - January 13, 2008 - 12:00am

Biographies have always been my favored books. The subjects are complex, contradictory, inspiring or droll.  As flesh-and-blood portraits they take unpredictable paths and make decisions that often don’t conform to expected norms.

“A Charmed Life,” a biography of Maria Kalaw Katigbak, written by Monina Allarey Mercado, confirms my penchant for biographies. Mercado has written a definitive account of a Filipina who advanced the cause of women in the political realm, paving the way for other women leaders to emerge.

Katigbak advocated for girls and young women to develop camaraderie through scouting, appreciating nature, and develop a moral compass. As the first woman senator of the country, she was the proponent of a bill (among others) that acknowledged Philippine culture as integral to national development which later led to the founding of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA).

She was a writer whose editorial columns were sober and insightful in a cadence lost today. She was a dutiful mother and grandmother with sensibilities and commitments gained from her antecedents and passed on to future generations. Sadly, she passes away in painful circumstances. This is, after all, not a fictional life.    

Mercado begins by tracing Maria’s lineage, devoting whole chapters to both the paternal and maternal sides. There was Valerio Kalaw, from her paternal side, a farmer from Lipa, Batangas with a “sharp tongue and pungent vocabulary.” He believed in a rigorous and secular education for his son Teodoro, Maria’s father. Teodoro would later be a Mason, a writer, an assemblyman, an author of constitutional law and head of the National Library. 

There was Emilio Villanueva, of Molo, Iloilo, Maria’s grandfather from her maternal side. He was from a wealthy family, studied law in Spain, met a Salamanca lass named Emilia Garcia and brought her back to Iloilo. Emilia, from a poor family, suffered the initial putdowns of the Villanuevas and remade herself into a shrewd businesswoman and plantation owner.  A daughter, Pura, would become the first Miss Manila Carnival Queen, a prolific writer for the El Renacimiento and, following her mother’s lead, would metamorphose into a wealthy woman owning vast tracts of real estate. Pura and Teodoro had five children, Maria being the oldest, followed by Jerik (who died at childbirth), Teodoro Jr., Purita and Evelina. Mercado’s thorough rendering of ancestors plus vivid descriptions of late 19th and early 20th century Batangas, Iloilo and Manila society showed that Maria Villanueva Kalaw’s path was determined by her heritage and by society.   

Maria grew up in a period when parental wishes were strictly adhered to.Both parents reveled in books, writing and cultural discourse, rejecting the more acceptable norm of the women being housewife and husband being breadwinner.

Her mother Pura was a known suffragette at a time when voting rights in the few democracies around the world was reserved solely for landed white males. Her father Teodoro believed in a nationalist education and didn’t want his children to study under foreign religious teachers.  With parents like this, how could Maria not be a young radical?   

She was a terror. A teacher she didn’t like got bedbugs on her classroom chair. She could be mean to relatives and her sharp tongue, which developed early and lasted throughout her life, reaped enemies and exacted loyalties. Raised like a boy by her father and being the eldest made her precocious.

In 1931 she was urged to vie for Manila Carnival Queen. Her mother had bagged the first crown 30 years back and she happened to carry her mother’s winning features. Teodoro took the contest seriously, becoming Maria’s trainer in all manners of deportment befitting a queen. The winner had to sell the largest number of coupons and Teodoro also took charge of the sales campaign.

It did not escape Teodoro’s attention that if beautiful Maria won, he would have the singular distinction in the whole country, if not the world, of having a wife and a daughter win the same prestigious crown.

The campaign was fervid and the actual counting was nail-biting as the hourly tallies showed Maria neck-to-neck with the next candidate. In the end though, Maria won by a million votes over her closest competitor. 

Parents as arbiters also meant Maria’s marital spouse would be handpicked by her father.

Pepito Katigbak, from good landed Lipa stock, whose father Leon was a family friend, was the right choice. Pepito as a young boy was involved in his own share of student mischief, but later excelled in school, spoke many languages, and just as he was about to enroll in law school, maternal intervention pushed him to medicine. His devout mother felt that lawyering would lead him to lying and he would thus never see heaven.   

Various Katigbaks starting from as far back as 1702 were local Lipa political leaders. Pepito grew up knowing that power emanated from politics and this acuity would serve him and his future wife Maria well, when she later decided to plunge into the world of politics. In 1934, Pepito and Maria had a grand Manila wedding and settled in Malate close to Philippine Women’s University where Maria taught and to Philippine General Hospital where Pepito worked.   

The next twenty years and throughout the Japanese occupation of the country Maria focused on being a dutiful mother and housewife raising three daughters, Nela, Pinkie, Purie, and Butch, her favorite son. During the occupation, their family survived better than the rest of the city inhabitants with essential foodstuff coming periodically from Lipa. But given the general hardship Maria recast the role of middle-class housewives and wrote her thoughts in 1943: “Sometime ago, wives who were college graduates – those little smart things – left the management of their kitchens to houseboys who doubled as cooks. Today the same little smart things find it smarter to go to the market themselves…we housewives stay home to concentrate on our responsi-bilities. Being thus left so much to ourselves, we discover that we now have time to look around us and philosophize a little on the many changes that have taken place in the people who pass beneath our windows.” 

Pura ran her own household, became the family breadwinner and astute businesswoman when her husband Teodoro lost a leg. As a staunch suffragette she imbued Maria with the sense that a woman’s worth encompassed all parts of society, from household management to civic duties.

Maria’s  “housewife” period plus being a college teacher was the fodder for her later bid to be the first woman senator in the country, championing the rights of consumers, who most often were housewives. 

Before her senatorial career, Maria became involved in the Girl Scouts, making it her passion, attaining national leadership and continuing on for almost 30 years. The scouting tradition, founded in 1908 by Sir Robert Baden-Powell, was a return-to-nature movement for young people, a reaction to industrialization and its concomitant problems of city chaos, pollution and social vices. Camping, trekking in the woods, horseback riding, swimming in lakes and rivers along with rankings, uniforms, achievement medals and strong mentoring were thought to develop sound bodies and healthy minds.

The Girl Scouts in the Philippines was founded in 1936 by Josefa Llanes Escoda who later became an anti-Japanese guerilla fighter. Many important women leaders like Pilar Hidalgo Lim, Concepcion Gonzales, Trinidad Legarda, Concepcion Gil and Minerva Lau-dico nurtured the scouting tradition as well before Maria’s participation.  

By the time Maria set her sights on the 1961 Senatorial race, she had become so accomplished in many various roles that the only important thing to do was win her seat. Husband Pepito would be her campaign manager, something he found exciting from his mundane doctoring job.

Monina gingerly reconstructs the political climate and drama of the 1960’s citing the neophytes, the turncoats, the powerbrokers, and the wily politicos as they play their roles in the 1961 elections.

She does not digress from Maria’s entry into politics by not commenting on the politicians and their record, leaving that to the readers to know what became of them, how much they eventually fleeced, how much they cheated, and how and when they lost their virginal idealism. Maria had to mix with this sort of people in the give-and-takes to secure her bills’ passing in the senate.   

Senator Katigbak was now at the peak of her career.  Her Consumer Protection bill passed handily. Her Culture Commission bill passed after some horse trading with congressmen who wanted the street names changed. She would head Philippine delegations for conferences abroad, relishing her role and the international distinction of having a woman in a then male-dominated political society. In one of her international sorties she committed a gaffe that seemed so out of character as a Senator.

References about Maria’s tart tongue are throughout the book. They are couched somewhat like quirks or temperamental outbursts. Every so often, there is an admission some of the outbursts were hurting.  In a speech entitled “The American Woman in the Philippines” at the University of Michigan, she did something quirky, this time in a whole speech to a public audience.

The speech was a critique of American women not involving themselves with community, civic, and charitable affairs while living in the Philippines. But when reading excerpts from the speech, one squirms and becomes thoroughly embarrassed for Maria. The Filipina senator was sounding quite catty in front of a distinguished audience and after dismissing the American women as not being “…missed at the functions…” anyway, she ends her bombast with a sneer by “…paying tribute to America as a great nation composed of sometimes very small individuals. Sometimes the smallest are sent to us in the Philippines.”

There is some truth to the cloistered and sometimes indifferent lives that expatriates and their spouses lead on foreign shores. But Maria’s speech was a sweeping generalization that offended many in the crowd and later created a backlash when her speech was published in the Philippines

Maria’s political zenith was gnawed at by a charge that she, along with seven other Senators, had violated campaign spending. The spending limit based on a Senator’s yearly salary (in the 1960’s it was P7,200) was enacted in 1938 but by the 1960’s was unreasonable giving the cost of living. In addition, the law was for local legislators limited to their province or district. It did not foresee the inclusion of Senators after independence whose vote seeking was nationwide and certainly more expensive. In the end, the archaic law prevailed and she was eventually suspended close to the end of her term.   

There is much more to her life and her accomplishments and one wishes sagas of illustrious people like Maria’s to have a serene ending. But life isn’t really that and it is painful and sobering to readers to have gone on a journey with a dynamic powerhouse of a woman only to read of ailments creeping in, besetting her and Pepito, and a family tragedy that devastated her.  

Butch, her favorite son, dies and she is inconsolable. Every attempt by her daughters and her husband to lift her spirits was for naught. Attempts by her closest friends were futile.  The loss of her son was too much to bear and she seemed to have lost all reason for living.

Reading these final painful chapters, where Maria turns inward and grieves alone, one wonders what went through the feelings of her husband and daughters who witnessed a woman once fully in control of her life, now despondent, fading and dying.  On December 10, 1992, Maria passes away at 81 years old.   

In reading Maria’s life and her trail-blazing role for Filipina women and Philippine political history, we oftentimes search for reference points that might parallel that of our own family lives.Maria’s fascinating life though, her antecedents, their upbringing were truly a cut above that of ordinary society. Intellectual banter and classical music wafted through their homes. National sentiments, the public good, women’s rights and certitude permeated the Kalaw-Katigbak bloodline. Mercado adroitly contextualized Maria’s life within a country’s tumultuous history, from colonial dominance to fledgling independence.

History truly comes alive when an amazing woman’s life story becomes the fulcrum for such retelling. It is to the credit of Maria’s family that this biography did not skirt the frailties affecting every human being. In revealing Maria Kalaw Katigbak’s quirks and limitations, we are, in the end, left with a full and charmed humanity.  

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