Travels with My Aunt

Helena Z Benitez, educator, civic leader, environmentalist and former senator, turns 99 this year.

My Aunt Helen is an inveterate traveler and foodie. She introduced me to my first artichoke, as we sat by the beautiful waters of Lac Leman, and smiled serenely as I followed it up with an order of trout almondine expertly filleted by a Swiss waiter.

I forgot about these minor inconveniences when we were given a tour of the Kremlin, Catherine the Great’s private rooms and later, a special visit to Russian radio/TV facilities that my aunt had arranged to encourage my burgeoning interest in broadcasting.

Tita Helen’s sense of adventure extended to whatever part of the world her many nieces and nephews found themselves in.

Helena Z Benitez is turning 99 on June 27. Her career as a senator, UN Official, environmentalist, civic leader and educator marks a lifetime of service to the Filipino people. She started young, encouraged by her educator parents Conrado Benitez (first Dean of the UP College of Business Administration) and Francisca Tirona Benitez (one of the founders of the Philippine Women’s University). Her exemplary record inspires many people, but to all of us who have the good fortune of calling her “Tita Helen, ” travel forms an indelible part of the memories we share with her.

Helena Z Benitez with Ambassador Alfonso Yuchengco, chairman of the board of the Bayanihan Dance Co., and Bayanihan dancers at the United Nations in New York

“Traveling with Tita Helen was always a lot of fun, ” remembers my older sister, Rosary. “Tita Helen was always enthusiastically met by relatives, PWU alumnae and friends at the airports we landed in. We hardly took a taxi or any public transportation to get around, except when we took trains in the East Coast. One particular trip from New York to Washington, D.C. was memorable. In 2003 we met with the Dalai Lama who singled Tita Helen out from the crowd. He shook her hand and remarked how wonderful it was to see her again. ”

Tita Helen in Geneva with niece Petty Benitez-Johannot


My sister Petty (who is known in the family as “Petite” Helena) remembers doing a night tour in Geneva with Tita Helen and Ambassador Delia Albert to watch a group billed as “The Philippine Dance Company. ” Contrary to expectations, they ended up in a nightclub with scantily clad “exotic” dancers. After the show, the choreographer was thrilled to meet Tita Helen, who was the founder of the famous Bayanihan Philippine Dance Company. She gently reminded him that the title “Philippine Dance Company” was already taken and, in fact, was an honor bestowed upon the Bayanihan by an Act of Congress in 1998. They took the claim off their posters the next day.

Rosary Benitez, Tita Helen, Lyca Benitez-Brown (in NYC)

Another sister, Bebet, recalls, “I remember one time I stayed with her–I must have been in my early twenties as I was going to school in Wharton; she woke up early and started doing her stretching exercise while still in bed–gracefully moving to some music that must have been playing in her head. She looked kind of weird to me at that time, but I guess that is one of the things she did and still does that has kept her going all these years. And guess what? I am doing the same thing now. ”

Tita Helen with Rosary Benitez and Bebet Benitez-McClelland at "Castle-in-the-clouds" in New Hampshire

Tita Helen’s sense of adventure extended to whatever part of the world her many nieces and nephews found themselves in. When my family and I were living in Tanzania, Tita Helen came to visit with my youngest sister, Genny, and my cousin, Patricia Araneta, in tow. East Africa was a region Tita Helen was familiar with as she was the first woman and Asian to be elected president of the Governing Council of the UN Environment Programme, whose headquarters were in Nairobi (Kenya borders Tanzania). She was just as enthusiastic as the first-time Africa visitors in her group, so she insisted they go on safari. She had just as many questions for our guide as during our Spice Tour of Zanzibar.

Helena Z Benitez with Suzie Benitez, executive director of Bayanihan

Traveling was always one of Tita Helen’s favorite things and it was a love she imparted to everyone who had the opportunity to travel with her. Power-napping, menu-tasting, cultural explorations, always putting one’s best foot forward but never pushing one’s weight around–these were just some of the lessons we learned in our travels with our aunt. Some of us learned these lessons better than others, and some, not at all. Her nephews and nieces have a hard act to follow because Tita Helen always taught by example and never by decree. But thank goodness she took us on these journeys, because she provided us all with opportunities, and left each of us to make our own choices. Thank you Tita Helen, for showing us the way.

Lyca Benitez-Brown (Photo by Photo by Boots Babushka)

Lyca Benitez-Brown (Photo by Photo by Boots Babushka)

Lyca Benitez-Brown is a writer in transition to living in the Philippines where she is helping to establish a media center for the Philippine Women's University. (Photo by Boots Babushka)