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Jovito Reyes Salonga: Embracing his vision and inspiration

Bless Salonga

A memorial service was held on Sunday, March 20, at the FCF Life Centre in Michinbury in honour of the late Senator Jovito 'Jovy' Reyes Salonga. His niece Bless Salonga, who resides in Sydney, led the service and organised the tribute with the help of her family and friends. This was her eulogy to her much-beloved uncle.

First and foremost, our family would like to express our deepest gratitude to each one of you for your generosity, kindness and love. 

Thank you for gracing this occasion to celebrate the life and journey of our dear uncle, and for the offering prayers of peace for the rest of our family.

To our dearest friends, adopted families, speakers, guests, artists, community leaders, FCF Life Centre church community and our extremely gracious hosts, Pastor Rudy and Sister Marion, all of whom made this memorial service possible, “maraming salamat po”. 

To my wonderful friends, Violi Calvert and Charles Chan who had been with me from day one of this process and had become an extension of my family unit – “maraming salamat sa pagmamahal”.

I would like to also thank and honor my late grandparents, minister Esteban Salonga and my grandmother Bernardina Reyes Salonga, for the excellent job they have done in raising five boys amidst the challenges of war and poverty. 

I’d also like to honor my late Auntie Lydia Busuego Salonga for being the strong woman that she was - always there to love, support and comfort my uncle, holding his hands during the time of pain, healing, uncertainty and in many extreme circumstances that I can only imagine a wife could go through. 

Lastly, please allow me to honour all his brothers, my uncles including my beloved father who have supported, protected and inspired my Uncle Jovy in many ways to become an amazing man he was. 

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“Skyflakes with a pat of butter." That’s how I described one of my Uncle’s simple joys in life to FHM Philippines Editor Allan Madrilejos in one of our chats-cum-interview last week. I found it difficult to give to a man who had very minimal needs; a couple of boxes of the Laughing Cow cheese were enough to make him happy.

He was a simple man who didn’t ask for too much. Experiencing life’s simple joys always thrilled him like - flashing his senior’s card any chance he got. Whatever the benefits his seniority afforded were enough to him. No additional perks or any preferential treatment.

My father and my uncles grew up poor; pulled grass at a young age to sell as horse feed. As uncle described in his book “A Journey of Struggles & Hope”, they were eating ayungin (small fish) for breakfast, ayungin for lunch and ayungin for dinner.” However, as my cousin Victoria puts it, “he never felt poor because his spirit was rich”.

Uncle mentioned that he kept a class picture taken when he was in Grade Six where he was standing unshod. His parents, our Lolo and Lola, couldn’t afford to buy him a pair of shoes. He kept a copy to constantly remind him of the past. 

He was the smallest kid in primary school; accompanied by my Dad, they would walk for an hour and several kilometres barefoot using banana leaves as umbrella on rainy days. 

Possessing a spirit of a true soldier, none of life’s obstacles deterred him from excelling at school, topping the bar exams and wining the senatorial race. He still had shrapnel shells embedded in all over his body until he died. 

He didn’t welcome the idea of having four cars opting to keep only two (one for emergency) and found the Honda Civic more than sufficient to take them from point A to point B. 

The only time I saw him with a security guard was when he came to my wedding day, which ironically coincided with the anniversary of the proclamation of Martial Law.   

All his life, he showed us to take pride and joy in what we have, in what we need to do, and to do it with determination and commitment to excellence.  That’s the kind of man he was.

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My best first encounter of Uncle Jovy was in 1975. I was 7 years old. My father decided to take a pit stop at Uncle’s residence in Pasig. And so I found myself in his study room taking part in my Dad’s own little “show and tell”.  Although my eyes were busy scanning several accreditations and citations covering his wall in awe, I cannot miss how happy and proud I made my Dad felt. I could see how important it was for my Dad to share that joy with my uncle but felt insignificant compared to him—I only got my very first “first honour certificate in first year of primary school.  

Then I pointed at one of the frames and asked with innocent curiosity, “Are you a lawyer?”

Uncle Jovy had this warm wide smile and gentle touch, his left hand on my head, lowered him self and looked me in the eye “do you want to be a lawyer one day?” Hearing Dad’s numerous claims that Uncle defended the poor and the oppressed, I confidently replied, “I want to be like you”.

He laughed with approval but said, “You can be anybody you want”. That’s the first brownie point my uncle got in my books as parents of my generation always tried to impose their dreams on their children. But at that time, I wasn’t kidding – his love for the poor and the oppressed inspired me to take interest in social justice. 

Not a lot of people know, prior to the result of the 1992 Presidential election, I dreamt about Uncle not winning the electoral race. I called him to relay the premonition. Due to a prior dream about my dearest Uncle Serafin’s death where I predicted the day he would pass, my Uncle Jovy took what I said without scepticism but appeared to remain hopeful.

The first thing he said was, “ah, ganoon ba?” Then he asked me to describe what I saw. I told him that at the back of the room there was a throne and he was at the front just looking at it over his shoulder. He was merely looking at the seat behind him … not seating”. With a calm voice he replied, “If it’s God’s will”. Hearing his reaction convinced me that he trusted His Master.  

Please allow me to read a letter he sent me dated 8 July, 1992, after I apologised for not getting enough votes to win the presidential election at the same time I informed him of my desire to seek Australian citizenship.

“Dear Bless, 

Don’t you worry. In a sense, I feel that no defeat is a real loss if it means the awakening of our people to the need for principled politics. I am enclosing my “Reflections Interview Answers” so you will understand.

I can appreciate your desire to migrate to Australia so you and your family can have a better quality of life considering the limited opportunities here. Hindi ko lamang malaman kung ako ay matutuwa o malulungkot dahil sa inyong pagyakap ng bagong citizenship. Ang pagiging Pilipino ay ibinigay sa atin ng Panginoon at ang pagiging makabayan ay isang katungkulan at pribelehiyo ng bawat Pilipino. 

Kung ang bawat Pilipino ay mag-iiba ng kanyang nationality baka wala ng matira upang kumalinga sa ating bayang tinubuan. Totoo na kaawa-awa ang ating bansa, naghihirap ang maraming tao, at hindi maganda ang pamamalakad. Lalong katwiran iyan sa aking sariling isipan upang gawin natin ang lahat upang magkaroon ng pagbabago dito sa ating bayan. Ngunit marahil ako ay masyadong “old fashioned” at nationalistic pa. 

Bayaan ninyo, kapag nagkaroon kami ng pagkakataon ng Auntie Lydia mo ay makapagsasadya din kami diyan.

Affectionately, 

Signed 

This just fortified his ultranationalist ideals and that he genuinely believed in the capabilities of each Filipino. He has this great faith and conviction that each one of us can make a difference, using our God given skills, to make the nation whole.

Video courtesy of Bob Reyes
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The Salonga family is one big clan. Every year, we have this Christmas/New Year reunion and our “All Saint’s Day” gathering where we have an opportunity to nourish our close bonds; two special days when we can all be together and forget our busy lifestyle.

In these gatherings, aside from food and music, you’d hear our uncles talk about politics, current events and issues that affect our society. Conversation of church, fellowships and charities were also popular topics. 

On other days, whether we are in his house, another relative’s place or public gathering, people from all walks of life were constantly drawn to him seeking help and advice, or inviting him for meetings and public speaking events.  

But in spite of his already demanding political career, he always had time to be generous in silence. Every year until the onset of Alzheimer’s, I would call him on his birthday. At various times the house help would ask me to call later. 

With my persistence to find out where they would be, I was informed that Uncle and Auntie were both out giving away gifts to the less privileged. Doing this was his birthday treat to him self; preferring giving over throwing lavish parties. 

He helped a lot of people by providing means for educating the less fortunate, as Uncle was a big advocate of education. 

The biggest one for us is when my Dad died August 4, 1985 just a few months after Uncle returned from the States following Ninoy’s assassination. My late father, David Reyes Salonga, was in the process of buying our house but had a heart attack prior to the settlement date. Uncle Jovy came to house to console us that very same day then later on gifted the title to our family.

What I love about my uncle is how quiet he was about his generosity.  No media. No big fuss. A genuine personification of humility.

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When Uncle, Auntie and cousin Kuya Eddie finally got the chance to visit us here in Sydney to spend a lot more intimate time together, that’s when my admiration intensified immensely.

I saw first hand, that his mind and heart were both married to our country; his system refused to disengage. He contacted the Embassy and the Consulate to arrange a meeting with the purpose of connecting OFW’ to the affairs of the country.  With absence of social media at that time, he wanted to distribute “Kilosbayan” magazines in Australia as he wanted our Filipinos here to continually care for our motherland.

I was more mature to hear about our ancestors and his stories then. I witnessed how everyday he was disciplined to wake up before the break of dawn faxing and communicating to his office in Manila, always wanting to get updated about Philippines … on his holidays. 

I asked him to slow down as they only had around seven days with us in Sydney but it just fell on deaf ears. It’s almost like he can’t switch off. Immediately, I learned from him that public office is a job and not just a title or achievement; it’s a commitment not entitlement.

Every morning, while waiting for us to get ready for our daily planned trip, I would see him praying or holding a book or the bible. I was blown away by his devotion to God, his country and the strong desire to educate himself consistently. 

Seeing Uncle’s reality elevated my already great perception of him – he led us through his actions not just words. Who he was in public mirrored exactly who he was behind closed doors. His integrity and commitment was simply inspiring. 

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When he was in Sydney, he took time and interest to look at my poems placed in frames around the old house. He said, “marunong ka palang magsulat gaya ng Uncle Isayas mo", who was a poet in his times. He encouraged me to keep writing when I have time to free my spirit. And I did.

During my visit in 2005, he knew I was experiencing grave pain due to a relationship breakdown. He invited me to relax with him, Auntie and Kuya Eddie and enjoy our favourite heated spring water pool in his retreat house in Pansol, Laguna. Here, I unloaded my sorrow to him and one of the things he said was, “without the rain, you can’t enjoy the sun”.

He had the signs of Alzheimer’s in 2009, my cousins were surprised he got out of bed to welcome us in his home, dined with us and even uttered his last words to me. I knew he didn’t approve of my living situation with my ex partner but being the selfless person that he was, he still thought about how to give me my peace. And so he gave me, and my unborn child, Olivia Faith, his blessings even though I couldn’t ask for it. But he knew, he knew I wanted it so bad. Without any spoken words, he knew I wanted his approval.

That’s the kind of man he was – selfless, caring, thoughtful, compassionate and sensitive. He would make time for you. 

My uncle was a man of colossal character; writing this eulogy was such big challenge, as I didn’t know where to begin. I have too many stories to share where he displayed admirable values worthy of praise. 

Uncle Jovy was a magnificent exemplar whom the whole clan has immense respect and admiration for. He may be the “anak ng bayan” but to us, he was a well-loved family member who gave emphasis in worshiping God with complete reverence, in motivating us to look out for others, to appreciate the past, accept responsibilities, to hold onto hope and to never give up.

But the three biggest things I’ve learned from Uncle are: 

1. How he observed and practiced “utang na loob” or “debt of gratitude” without compromising his principles 

2. His deep love and respect for his family and elders, 

and, lastly which I reflect on a daily basis, is forgiveness. 

Let me share an excerpt from his book called, “Not By Power or Wealth Alone” on the death of my Uncle Ben.

Almost midnight on October 15, 1998, a young lady by the name of Vangie Lagazo, age 26, who had been faithfully serving my brother and his wife as a nurse was repeatedly stabbed inside her room by a trusted houseboy, Joselito aged 28. His advances were apparently spurned by the nurse; in the adjoining master’s bedroom, my brother Ben was roused from sleep due to the commotion and her cries for help. He went to the adjoining bedroom, presumably to come to the rescue of their nurse.  

The houseboy saw my brother whom he fatally stabbed right through his chest, and then gone berserk, rushed to the master’s bedroom, where he also stabbed to death my bedridden, helpless sister-in-law, Inso Elong. 

Fortunately, the badly wounded nurse is in a hospital and it is our hope and prayer that she will recover soon so she can give a more detailed account of this tragedy  - so incredible and unexpected.    

In some of his books, he had spoken about his parents, wife and older brothers. But what he didn’t write in the book was what moved me. I rang one of my closest nieces, the day I learned about his tragic death to extend my condolences and see how she and the rest of the family were going. 

Marissa was obviously upset and said she could not believe that his Lolo Jovy had asked them to learn to forgive the houseboy. I felt Marissa’s pain as it was all so fresh to all of us and curious why Uncle would say that.

But as time passes, slowly, I understand that that not only he wants us to fight for the freedom of our country; to fight for education so we can become a nation of leaders and free thinkers but most of all, he also wants us to achieve spiritual freedom. 

To free our selves from hurt, from anger, from destroying ourselves by drowning our spirits in the poisonous pool of revenge or self-pity.

To us, he was just one of our uncles whom we trusted and supported. A dear family we will continue for many generations to come. He was an amazing role model and mentor. He was my teacher.

It’s quite sad that I have been planning to write a book for more than seven years and it has not come to fruition. It was my dream for him to see it. In the last three years, I kept telling myself maybe there’s more to be told hence it has not happened. 

Meanwhile, I have noticed that in the last five years of my life, my confidence level has been affected by the constant challenges I have encountered. And I just realised, not being able to talk to him to seek fatherly guidance in the last six years made it harder for me to cope. 

I was not looking forward to speaking in front of you today, as it’s so hard to pay tribute to a man of significance and compared to him, I feel like I am a nobody. But I have to for him, and accepted I had to do it. 

Then last Friday, I saw this notebook; it says “simple but significant”. And automatically, I remembered him. He is no longer here but his “journey of struggles and hope” is inspiring me to be “who I wish to be”. That’s my uncle!

On this Palm Sunday, I would ask you to please remember that before Jovito Reyes Salonga joined the Liberal Party and became an obedient son of our nation, he was in God’s army first.

That before Jovito Reyes Salonga became a defender of the poor and an honest servant of his people, he was a Christian first, devoted in serving his most powerful Master.

And now, he is finally home.

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