By: Angelo Cantera
Sunday, May 10, 2009
The Manila Times
THESE days, it is considered as old-fashion moniker—unforgotten, still, but now greatly unused with most Filipinos calling their friends kapatid. But even until now, as it bore the misconception that only “the masses” or “the proletarian” would utter such a term, its essence remains in tact. Colloquially, when you call a person manay, you are calling her a comrade; you are calling to arms a sister who understands and a woman willing to share your suffering.
It is a fitting title for someone who has made a career out of sharing the burden of others. And even more so for a person who has garnered a lot of citations for such a lifestyle. Ultimately, it is that very reason why you can call a friend kapatid, and you can call a privileged lady madam, but woman’s advocate Gina de Venecia will always be known as Manay Gina.
“It’s a tribute to my Bikolano heritage,” de Venecia told The Manila Times. “There, manay is a sign of respect. It’s something you would call a woman who is older than you so I relish that.”
Throughout her illustrious career, de Venecia has been at the forefront, fighting for women’s rights. Highlighted by the establishment of several rehabilitative institutions, she has vigorously lobbied for the empowerment of women no matter their standing in life. Her efforts have garnered her several recognitions like the Gintong Ina Award back in 1994 and 1997, the Dakilang Ina Award back in 1997, and the Advancing the Status of Women Award back in 1999. She was also hailed as the “Ideal Women of the Year” back in 1996.
And while a lot of events in her vibrant life could be credited for her numerous advocacies, she still believes that one of her greatest experiential treasures came with her blessed childhood.
Born Maria Georgina Perez, de Venecia came to the world rooted in both politics and show business. Her father, the late Doc Perez, was a star builder of Sampaguita Pictures and her mother Azucena Vera-Perez, is currently the president of Sampaguita and Vera-Perez Pictures. Her maternal grandfather Jose Vera was once the Governor of Albay, Senator of the Philippines, and Judge of the Lower Court of Manila. She finished high school at the Assumption Convent, and acquired a degree in Business Administration in Pace College, New York. Immediately after graduation, she served as Vice President and Comptroller of Sampaguita Pictures, VP Enterprises and Jose Vera Corp.
Raised in her ancestral home in Valencia, Quezon City, de Venecia recalls that her childhood was filled with wonderful memories. According to her, she lived in an “enchanted kingdom;” she was constantly surrounded by celebrities, she got to travel a lot, and more importantly, her parents showed her that she was really loved. But, as she told The Times, the greatest wealth she inherited from her mother and father did not come with “the silver spoon.” It came with a house that was open to all and an upbringing that allowed her to remain humble amidst such a fanciful life.
“My parents taught me how to walk with kings and eat with paupers,” she said. “I was taught how to mingle with the less fortunate. We played with the squatters of Valencia. My father would invite them over and we would take turns on the swing. Some of them, my friends, sold baskets of lumpia. We would buy the whole basket and we would give it to the movie stars. The greatest lesson I learned from my parents is that, the higher the position you have in life, the more humble you should be because the people you see on your way up would be the same people you see on your way down.”
According to de Venecia, it is this rearing that allowed her to be good at the things she does. It has also given her the armor she needed to weather the storms she never thought would come her way.
“I survived a lot of heartaches because of my childhood,” de Venecia told The Times. “During my lowest moments, all I have to do is think about it and I’ll be back on my feet. I got so much love from my parents.”
Known for being shy as a child, de Venecia never perceived that her would turn out the way it did. Formerly married to construction manager, Felipe Cruz with whom she had two children, Carissa and Philip, she never thought that she would be thrown into the limelight. However, her marriage with then congressman and former House of Representatives Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr., eventually drew her into the eventful world of Philippine politics. But according to de Venecia, she has now fully embraced her arduous standing. Through their union, she also gave birth to two more kids, Christopher and Kristina Casimira who was more fondly known as KC.
“Since I’m married to JDV, a five time speaker of the house, I’ve always served his constituents,” de Venecia told The Times. “It’s not that stressful anymore. I learned to adapt. I learned to embrace everything he’s committed to do, all his causes, and his loved ones.”
In 1992, de Venecia made her presence clear when she became the President and Chairperson of the Congressional Spouses Foundation Inc. (CSFI.) During her first two terms in that position, she solidified her stand as a champion of women’s rights. Through her dedication came the establishment of the nine-building Haven for Women in Alabang; an institution whose main goal is to rehabilitate abused women and help them to reclaim their God-given right to live with dignity.
“When I became the chairman of the Congressional Spouses, I decided to do something for the women and to empower them,” de Venecia told The Times. “That’s why, in 1992, we started building the Haven for Women together with the DSWD [Department of Social Welfare and Development.] They owned the property and I raised the funds to put up the buildings.”
Inaugurated on September 30, 1995, it was immediately followed by the construction of the 15 Regional Centers for Women, nationwide. According to de Venecia, since its establishment up to the present, that haven has helped over 20,000 women in the Philippines.
“It has paved the way for a lot of success stories,” she said. “Some of the women are now teachers or employees of big companies. We even have those who became nuns. It’s very effective. It’s really a big help to a lot of Filipinas.”
The plight of battered women whose lives were transformed by the haven also served as inspiration for her radio program Pira-pirasong Pangarap, launched in June 1996. The following year, its TV version debuted on GMA 7. After seven years, the program was re-launched as Nagmamahal, Manay Gina in the tri-media: DzBB, Balita and GMA 7. Today, it continues to account true-to-life stories of everyday heroes on DzBB. She also maintains advice columns in publications such as Balita and Tempo.
In 2001, de Venecia returned as President and Chairperson of CSFI. Maintaining the same spirit she had before, her leadership rallied the congressional spouses to develop the Phase 2 of The Haven for Women. In her third term with the said position, she also led the establishment of The Haven for Children in Muntinlupa City for the rehabilitation of street children. In line with this new advocacy, she also launched “Bituing Pangarap ng mga Batang Sampaguita” on November 25, 2004, in partnership with the DSWD, which is aimed at saving sampaguita vendors from the dangers of the streets.
Besides this, de Venecia also continued to be at her husband’s side, taking his place if he is indisposed for certain gatherings. She also supported the causes that he chose to fight for with the same eagerness that paved the success of her advocacies. She also believes that being a public figure has made her a better person.
“I became more patient,” she said. “I became more tolerant. In dealing with the constituents, you encounter a lot of problems. There was even a time when I even had to deliver a baby. When we were on our way home from Baguio, there was this woman who was lying on the street because of labor pains. She was waiting for a jeep to take her to the hospital. The delivery of her baby couldn’t wait so I had to do it myself. I had to embrace a lot of things like that.”
But despite all of her success, she still believes that nothing could compare to being a mother. Her children, as she told The Times, are the greatest of all her accomplishments.
“I would say that being a mother is probably my greatest achievement,” said de Venecia. “Being a mother, I was also a public servant because I gave birth to such wonderful children. My kids, they have the same genes but they are so different. KC was very brave. Carissa used to be the undersecretary of the DTI. Now she is getting ready to have another child. She is very sensitive and very intelligent. Philip is very thoughtful. He calls me up to 5 times a day. He will be leaving in September to go to New York and take up his masters at NYU. Christopher is also very loving, we chat a lot, I’m his senior advisor, we argue a lot but we’re the best of friends. He’s the junior officer in SM. He’s also a columnist for the Philippine Star.”
For a woman who calls her self a “cool mom,” de Venecia states that she is a friend to her kids. From learning how to use an Ipod to respecting their privacy, she believes that not only has her relationship with them enriched her, it has also kept her young. Her only regret however was the amount of time that she wasn’t able to spend with them.
“I attended more to the political needs of my husband,” de Venecia confessed. “Politics consumes a lot of my time and my children were growing up. It was mostly during the height of my husband’s political career so far. I wasn’t able to attend school events because I had to be in the province or I had to take the place of my husbands for several events. I wish I spent more time with them—especially with KC.”
On December 16, 2004, a tragic fire took her youngest child—the then 16-year-old KC. But even as she was stricken by grief, de Venecia once again drew strength from her childhood and the support of the people around her to get back on her feet. From the ashes of that unfortunate event, de Venecia acquired a valuable lesson that allowed her to not just be a better mother but also a better person.
“I believe that my daughter is like a butterfly,” she stated. “She lived a short but beautiful life. She also taught me that all my loved ones, all my children, are merely loaned from God. I learned to live for the moment. I learned how to appreciate my loved ones because I don’t really know if they will be around later because the only thing we have is now. ‘Now’ is so important. The ‘moment,’ is so important. Whatever good you can do, you should do it now. Don’t wait for tomorrow or later or five days or five years because that time might never come.”
Soon after, her loss gave her the resiliency she needed to establish yet another advocacy. Banding together with grief-stricken mothers like TV personality Ali Sotto, who also lost her son Miko to an accident, she established the INA Foundation Inc. With the mission to provide psycho–social support to grieving mothers who lost their children, the foundation was conceptualized in March 15, two months after KC’s untimely death. Focusing their collective experiences, they provided a venue for emotional healing. In December 16, 2004, the INA Healing Center was inaugurated at the DSWD Compound, Batasan Hills, Quezon City. Through this, “orphaned” mothers were able to transform their experiences into a driving force that did not only make them stronger but also gave them the power to aid others in dealing with their grief.
“Nowadays, the INA foundation is getting big,” said de Venecia. “My dream for it is to put up healing centers nationwide and work closely with the local government officials. I hope we could train the barangay health workers to be grief mentors because there are very few psychologists or psychiatrist who can help. If we can do that, that’s a big thing for all the communities in the country. It’s hard because there’s nothing like it. It’s a pioneer institution. We have no prototype to copy from. It was made with sweat and blood.”
Nowadays, de Venecia continues to champion women’s causes through her work. She also resumes to face the growing challenges as an advocate. Adding to the trials caused by domestic abuse, she also remains adamant in fighting another threat that is brought about by the increasing number of mothers who are going abroad for better opportunities.
“My dream for the Filipino women is for them to no longer find the need to go abroad,” she said. “Right now, a lot of them are OFWs and that I think is breaking the family unit. Children need their mothers. It’s really a problem. She is the light of the home. The mother gives the direction to the children. The mother, as they would say, is the ilaw ng tahanan. She can also be the foundation of the home. Even our family is very matriarchal. Right now, my mother is 92 but up to now we still consult her.”
But amidst this growing crisis, de Venecia believes that the trials she has faced have made her a lot stronger. She has also learned from her on-going work as a public servant and she still believes in the virtues of being a quintessential Filipina; a sister and a friend that others may still refer to as manay, a wife supportive of her husband’s causes, and of course, a mother.
“I don’t think there is a perfect mom,” she told The Times. “But a good mother can raise kids who are assets to the world. And you can only do that if you’re child knows that he or she is loved. There’s no formula but the most important component in raising a good child is love.”
Now, de Venecia is taking on a new role. With the birth of her grand daughter, Isabella, she has yet another inspiration that does not only keep her young, but allows her to hold on to residuals of a treasure that she once lost.
“Being a grandmother is the best feeling because the responsibility of being a mother is now in my child’s hands. Now, I’m just here to spoil her.” de Venecia told The Times. “She reminds me a lot of my daughter, KC. They are so a like. She is also strong-willed like her. She is also brave like her.”