In her other hand was a bag that always held something for me. I would always run up to her, give her a peck on the cheek, and flash a gap-toothed grin at her with my hands outstretched. Sometimes it would be a red and white striped bag stuffed to the brim with fluffy Red Ribbon mamon. If filming happened to be out of town, I would be lucky to try things like Laguna pastillas, wrapped in colorful delicate paper, or sticky puto and kutsinta from Batangas.
“Mama, who did you meet today?” I would ask, eyes wide with wonder. With a sparkle in her eyes she’d answer, “Jose Rizal.” Another day it was “Gabriela Silang.”
My parents and I lived with my grandmother, Caridad Sanchez, during that chapter of her life when she was filming the educational television show “Bayani.” Every week, children would watch her on local TV as the enchanted Lola who could transport curious siblings to various points in Philippine history via a magical bubble.
Each episode featured a Philippine hero, and for the longest time I sincerely believed, as she described to me, that they were friends she had met at work. I would learn the truth eventually and, years later when I was in elementary school, our Araling Panlipunan (social studies) teachers would use these episodes as introductions. One of my favorite moments from childhood is when the whole class would turn to me to ask, “That’s your Lola?!” to which I would reply, “Yes!”
The kind of woman my grandmother played in films and television was not far from the one who helped raise me in real life. Fiercely tenacious, with a great sense of humor, she held on to the belief that she and, therefore I, could do anything. It began with the little things--from the way I carried myself to the way I dressed: “Spine straight, shoulders back, chin up, eye contact.” She taught me to dress appropriately for occasions but also know when the moment called for “rugged” attire. We would drive around in her car, a white baby SUV that she herself drove. The back seat was filled with everything she needed: a box of bandages; a glass jar of menthol hard candies; or an industrial-size flashlight for long walks at night. It was not uncommon to find her underneath the hood, elbows covered in grease, tinkering with the engine. “Always remember there is nothing a man can do that you can’t.”
It was only when I was much older that I began to wonder what made my grandmother turn out the way she did. As the narratives fade and the details diminish with each passing year, so increases the urgency to write and remember meaningful moments unbeknownst to most. When asked about resilience, she returns to stories of where her life in film began: at the LVN Pictures studio. In an attempt to better understand the grandmother who raised me and the context that so greatly shaped the person she would become, I sought the histories of the women she worked closely with at the time.
Doña Sisang and Her Stars: Growing Up on the LVN Studio Lot
On a sprawling lot in Quezon City stood the LVN Pictures studio. Named for the initials of the three founders--Narcisa Buencamino Vda. de Leon, Carmen Villongco and Eleuterio Navoa -- it was one of the country’s leading film studios. The postwar period between 1946 to 1960 is often referred to as the Golden Age of Filipino Cinema, and LVN was among the top three studios--Sampaguita, LVN and Premiere—creating films that contributed to that era.
LVN was known for entertainment that presented a more idyllic Filipino life, one of attractive young men and women singing and dancing in scenes of blissful provincial existence, espousing values that were distinctly Filipino, almost like the vivid landscapes of Fernando Amorsolo brought to life.
Integral to every historical account of LVN is a homage to Narcisa de Leon or Doña Sisang. An entrepreneur in the truest sense of the word, she grew her family’s estate with bountiful haciendas and smart investments that would allow her to establish the film studio in the latter years of her life.
It can be argued that Philippine cinema in the 1950s-‘60s was one of the industries where women held prominent positions of power despite society remaining patriarchal. Doña Sisang and Sampaguita’s Mommy Vera were not only astute businesswomen and successful film producers, but they also ran their studios like matriarchs of a family, taking a very hands-on approach with all aspects that would be critical to success. This carried over in their choice of talents and the contractual stipulations for them, similar to rules parents would set for their children.
The stories of how these stars were selected differ greatly from one another. Many of them were chosen because they filled a certain mold--mestizo or mestiza, with the ability to sing or dance.
Luz Valdez was a huge movie fan waiting for a glimpse of her then-idols, Gloria Romero and Nida Blanca. One afternoon while in the crowd of fans she caught the eye of Doña Sisang herself. “Wala sa plano ko ang mag-artista,” (It was never my plan to become an actress), she shares. “Pero buti na lang ginawa ko, kasi napaaral ko lahat ng kapatid ko. Natulungan ko ang pamilya ko. In time, I fell in love with acting.” (But good that I did because it helped me put my siblings through school. I was able to help my family.) Valdez would be one of the stars residing on the LVN studio property itself, and Doña Sisang would recognize this charming, determined actress’ talents and immediately give her a leading role in her first LVN film.
My grandmother’s origin story at LVN is slightly more unorthodox than that of her peers. As an actress in Visayan films and part of a popular Cebuano love team with a young actor named Tony, it was love that brought her to Manila. When Tony left to try his luck, my grandmother followed soon after he had been hired by one of the smaller studios. He failed to meet her at the pier upon her arrival. After three months of searching incessantly with the help of a cousin, and with her 500-peso allowance dwindling, she had all but lost hope in finding him.
One afternoon, she received a call that Tony had been sighted in Escolta, at a restaurant called La Buena Suerte. She rushed over to see him, but instead of the joyful reunion she anticipated, she found herself rebuffed.
“Anong ginagawa mo rito? (What are you doing here?)” he asked. “Mag-aartista dito, gaya mo.” (I want to be an actor here, just like you), she replied. His response would shake her to her core. “Hindi ka puwede rito kasi hindi ka mestiza! Mestiza lang ang mga artista rito. Umuwi ka na ng Cebu. (You cannot work here because you aren’t fair-skinned. All actresses here have fair skin. Just go home to Cebu.)
My grandmother fled Escolta and found herself walking despondently across Jones Bridge, until she reached the Quiapo church. Weeping and staring at the Nazareno, she suddenly had an epiphany: “Kung ang Nazareno nga na maitim ang balat minamahal ng marami, bakit ako hindi puwede? (If the Nazarene is dark-skinned and adored by many, why can’t I be as well?)” With renewed resolve, she returned home and called an old friend she had met in Cebu.
Immediately Ronnie, or Fernando Poe Jr., drove to the boarding house where she was staying to offer words of encouragement. “Huwag ka nang umuwi sa Cebu. Ako nang bahala sayo. Hahanapan kita ng sine” (Don’t go home to Cebu. I’ll take care of you. I’ll find you a movie).” He encouraged her to visit the three major studios. The next day found her at the LVN canteen where a photographer spotted her and asked if she wanted to do a screen test. She was hired immediately for her first contrabida (antagonist) role opposite Charito Solis in the film “Malvarosa.”
When I look at photographs from this period of their lives, I see stylish women in bold prints, coiffed hair and faces that were never without a coquettish smile or the mod-fierce gazes fashionable at the time. “We used to get very specific instructions from the daughter of Doña Sisang,” Marita Zobel shares. “We were always reminded to behave in public. To go out in curlers, jeans, and tsinelas (slippers) were big no-nos. They wanted us to look glamorous.”
“There was certain decorum we had to follow but it was not hard to,” Valdez affirms. “Even if you were earning and did not live at home, you still deferred to and respected your parents. There were certain morals and values you tried to practice, a certain self-respect you kept.”
Despite these restrictions however, when asked about what life was like on the lot--the answer is a unanimous--“fun.” “Work back in the day was different,” Zobel says. “It wasn’t so serious. We were teenagers enjoying ourselves. Sometimes we would play hide and seek with the entire crew before filming. Our male co-stars would play pranks on us. There was so much laughter!”
The LVN Legacy and Finding Pride of Place and Craft
Many of the LVN stars worked with the studio for over a decade, stopping only for marriage or children. When asked about favorite projects, the women are quick to recall the films they were proudest of. For Zobel, it was Lamberto Avellana’s “Biyaya ng Lupa,” a prestige film that went on to be recognized and awarded abroad. “It wasn’t so different from many of the movies we were making then, about a Filipino family in the province. But it brought the Philippines to the international stage.”
For Valdez, it was the film “Chinita,” where she played the lead role. In an industry where there was a preference for mestizos, it was a breakthrough film for her not only because she held top billing, but also because it signified the start of studios considering stars less conventional than the usual mold. It was her way of making a mark and finding her place in her new world of film.
The lives of these LVN women were as diverse as the films they starred in, but there were three overarching themes that encompass their experiences. First, the friendships they forged, filled with moments of helping one another, would be strong enough to withstand the test of time. Second, much of the meaning in their work was found in the impact it had on the Filipinas they inspired. Finally, what carried them through was an absolute dedication to their craft and a love for film and acting.
On the evening that I interviewed these ladies of LVN, I would discover that they were in fact all together only hours before. As part of a group called “Showbiz Balik Samahan” these ladies and gentlemen from the major studios continue to get together to reminisce the old days. What they have, after all, is founded on shared experiences of lives spent working hard, often helping one another through rough patches.
“Nida Blanca was like my Ate.” Luz Valdez says. “I remember for my very first movie premiere, I had no money yet for clothes to wear for the event. I shared this with her in passing and that same day she sent a car over with a whole wardrobe. I thought to myself that they were on loan, but it came with a note saying that she wanted me to have all these clothes. She was just so generous.”
The most striking experience was how humbled they all were by the impact that they made on other women. They would be shooting in distant locations like Laguna and be surprised when fans would show up on the set bringing them fruit, local delicacies, or special gifts. “The first teddy bear I owned was from a young fan.” Valdez shares. “She had saved up her baon (lunch money) to be able to buy and send it to me. It taught me to always have humility in my heart. Here were young women giving you their best; it’s only right that you try to keep doing your craft well, for them.”
Zobel recalls her radio hosting days where fans would line up for hours just to get the chance to meet her and the other stars. “There was no TV then, so radio was really the closest way they could get to us. We never said ‘no’ when approached. I remember there were days when my dress--natatastas at the waist (would be unraveling from the waist) when people would run towards us, but I didn’t mind. I loved it all. I loved the kisses from the fans who would come far away, their cheeks full of nganga (betel nut juice) and it would get on your face. Then there were the lolas, sending adoring letters, hugging you when they see you.”
Nowadays, Luz Valdez wakes up between 3 or 4 a.m., runs through her lines, and goes off to location for her TV work. In many ways still the strong and spunky girl of her youth, she remains one of a handful of actresses from that period still acting. Marita Zobel, still beautiful, fills her days with family and friends in prayer. An artist at heart, she credits her good health and disposition to music, beginning her days playing favorite songs and dancing by herself in her room any chance she can get.
Then there is my Lola, still the determined and steadfast woman who refused to give up her dreams even when the odds were against her. The stories may fade, but the lessons she imparts as my grandmother remain the same. “Be kind to others, you don’t know what kind of lives they have led.” “Laging magpasalamat.” (Always be grateful) “At alalahanin, kung kinaya ko lahat noon, ngayon, kakayanin mo rin.” (And remember, if I could do it then, so can you today.)
DeOcampo, Nick. Cine: Spanish influences on early cinema in the Philippines. Quezon City: National Commission for Culture and the Arts, 2003.
DeOcampo, Nick. Eiga: Cinema in the Philippines during World War II. Mandaluyong City, Philippines: Published and exclusively distributed by Anvil Publishing Inc., 2016.
Interview with Luz Valdez. Telephone interview by author. February 11, 2018.
Interview with Marita Zobel. Telephone interview by author. February 11, 2018.
Pia Guballa is a medical student at Ateneo School of Medicine and Public Health.