The Struggles of the Philippine Nation: The Story of the Aquino and Cojuangco Clans
This feature story was originally titled as Family Matters, and was published in the May 2010 issue of Tatler Philippines
In her book The Rulemakers, the journalist Sheila Coronel says that political families, not ideological parties, are “the most enduring feature of Philippine legislatures, beginning with the Malolos Congress,” in fact, they are able to project themselves from a regional power base onto the national stage. To prove her point, she cites the Cojuangco and Aquino clans as examples. Both originally of Capampangan and Tagalog stock who share the same bailiwick of Tarlac province, these two families have “produced a disproportionate number of legislators dating back to 1898.” Some have intermarried, but their family branches, at varying points in Philippine history, have coincided or collided with each other’s social agenda, business interests and political visions.
The Aquinos trace their illustrious line to their patriarch, Servillano “Mianong” Aquino, born on 20 April 1874 in Angeles, Pampanga, to Braulio Aquino and Petrona Águilar de Hipólito. The family transferred to Concepción, Tarlac, where the father became its gobernadorcillo from 1885 to 1887.
Servillano led a colourful life in the revolutionary years, credited with major victories as well as marked by storied downfalls. His first foray into the world of politics was as the military governor of Tarlac province, where the Spaniards surrendered to the Filipino forces on 3 june 1898. At the Malolos Convention, he was promoted to brigadier general and appointed deputy to the Congress by General Emilio Aguinaldo, president of the first Philippine Republic. When he retired in the town of Murcia in Tarlac province, General Servillano was incessantly lured to enter politics, but each time he declined. Politics would be reserved for his next in line.
A BRILLIANT YOUNG DEPUTY
Benigno Snr, popularly called “Igno”, took the political road offered to his father Servillano. A graduate of law at the University of Santo Tomás, he married María Urquico, daughter of prominent Tarlac rice traders, in May 1916, happily becoming a gentleman farmer at the 1,200-hectare Hacienda Tinang, perhaps urged on by his wife.
At the age of 25, however, he made his first foray into local politics, winning as the representative of the Second District of Tarlac and starting the political dynasty of the Aquinos.
1928 was a year of both sorrow and joy. In March Benigno’s wife died of cancer, and three months later, at the age of 34, he was elected senator representing the Third District comprising Tarlac, Nueva Ecija, Pampanga, and Bulacan. Two years later, Benigno, one of the youngest members of the Senate, married his third cousin Aurora Aquino, 16 years his junior.
The senator became increasingly identified with Senate President Manuel Quezon, who made him, in quick succession, the majority floor leader, acting Senate president in Quezon’s absence and member of the council of state, the liaison between the governor-general and the legislature. The mantle of leadership would be passed either to him or to Manuel Roxas Snr.
The last big political battle between Osmeña and Quezon was fought over the Hare-Hawes-Cutting Bill, with Roxas and Osmeña advocating its passage and Quezon strongly opposing it. Benigno was recruited by Quezon to stop it. On 14 November 1932 he sailed for the US, with great reluctance, as his wife was heavy with their second child. In his farewell speech delivered in Spanish, he said, “I hope to fulfil the desire of my father [Servillano], who fought for freedom in the days of the Revolution. And I feel happy that, when my child is born, it will be while his father is fighting for the independence of the Philippines, for his freedom and for other children’s freedom.”
Don Benigno was sure that his child would be a boy. So portentous was the event that it was Governor-General Theodore Roosevelt Jnr himself who cabled the senator on the birth of his son on 27 November 1932. That boy was his junior, Benigno Servillano, nicknamed Ninoy.
In Washington, DC, Senator Benigno had a change of heart and became convinced that the H-H-C bill would be the best measure obtainable from the US Congress that would help realise Philippine independence, eventually siding with the Osmeña-Roxas mission.
THE RICH COJUANGCOS
Although the Aquinos dominated the Capampangan-speaking southern part of Tarlac, another fast-rising family in Ilokano-speaking northern Tarlac would come to the fore at the turn of the 20th century.
The Cojuangcos trace their roots to a Chinese immigrant father and his son José Cojuangco I from Xiamen who settled in Binondo in 1861. José, popularly known as Ingkong José, married Antera Estrella, a local mestiza from Malolos, who bore him three children: Ysidra, Melecio, and Trinidad. The family engaged in rice trading and money lending. They relocated to the town of Paniqui, Tarlac, during the Revolution and continued to prosper in spite of the upheavals of the war.
The family placed its political hopes on the sole heir apparent, Melecio, who won a seat as an assemblyman in the first National Assembly of 1907. However, he died of a heart attack two years later on a train bound from Manila to Tarlac, while cradled in the arms of his oldest son José. His four children—José Snr (Pepe), Juan (Itoy), Antonio, and Eduardo Snr—were raised by their mother Tecla Chichioco de Aquino and Ysidra, a spinster aunt. Doña Ysidra was deferred to as the family matriarch who, because of her acumen in the rice trade, became phenomenally wealthy. At one time she was estimated to have owned 12,000 hectares, becoming the unofficial banker of farmers and businessmen in the whole Central Luzon area.
Don Pepe inherited his father’s mantle, becoming the three-term representative of Tarlac’s First District in early 1934. It was Senate President Quezon who persuaded Doña Ysidra to draft a young family member against Don Benigno Aquino Snr, thus starting the first in a series of electoral contests between the Aquino and Cojuangco families.
Like his aunt, Don Pepe was also blessed with the Midas touch. He did not only become the Croesus of the legislature, as dubbed by the Philippine Free Press in 1934, his pioneering ventures in banking and agri-industry paid off. The four brothers, together with their mother and aunt, founded the Paniqui Sugar Mills in 1928, with Don Pepe becoming its first manager. With his three brothers and the Rufino and Jacinto families, Don Pepe co-founded in 1938 the first all-Filipino owned commercial bank, the Philippine Bank of Commerce.
In 1940 the Aquino and Cojuangco families reached an agreement for the first time to field a common candidate for governor of Tarlac: Don Pepe’s youngest brother, Eduardo Snr (Endeng) who, although elected, chose not to serve out his term when the Japanese invaded the country.
THE RISE OF NINOY
World War II brought countless tribulations to the branches of the Cojuangco family. When both Eduardo and Don Pepe refused to serve under the Japanese administration, the family’s bank and sugar mill were placed under Japanese control. It was not only a twist of fate that their chief technician, Zempei Suemura, a Japanese immigrant, was able to save the plant from destruction.
Fate would not also be so kind to the Benigno Aquino Snr family. Initially reluctant to serve, Don Benigno started entertaining Japanese overtures, believing that Filipinos should “try to advance the ideals [of independence] despite the evil situation.” Wooed by the Japanese occupiers, Don Benigno would capitulate to serving in the puppet administration. Thus, the issue of enemy collaboration hung heavily over the family.
Yet with Manuel Roxas Snr triumphantly elected as the Third Republic’s President, it seemed that the Filipino people had put the issue of wartime collaboration behind them. Don Benigno returned to Concepción, to see whether the 1947 elections would vindicate his family as a political power.
But a huge tidal wave had changed the electorate. The war years led to the rise of a peasnt guerrilla army (Hukbo ng Bayan Laban sa Hapon) called the Huks. They were the rising force of the masses arrayed against the ruling class. The old Nacionalista Party was considered pro-Huk and anti-American and the Liberals were regarded as the vanguard of the landed against peasant insurgency. Don Benigno once again went on the campaign trail, but his gubernatorial candidacy would lose, handing him his first electoral defeat.
Dejected, Don Benigno died shortly after of a heart attack on 20 December 1947, with his young son Ninoy at his side. Four days later his case of treason was dismissed, a national Christmas gift for a fallen and disgraced leader.
The 15-year-old son was ostracised. His adored father was called a collaborationist. Year later he recalled, “Nobody wanted to talk to me in school. Those were my first traumatic experiences. I had seen the heights and now I was nobody.” After university in 1949 he was accepted as a junior reporter at The Manila Times. Starting as a cub reporter at 16, Ninoy was given choice assignments. When the Korean War broke out, he became the youngest war correspondent covering the Philippine battalion. He was barely 18 when he was awarded the Philippine Legion of Honour for his work as a journalist in the prosecution of the Korean War.
At the ceremony he was accompanied by Defence Secretary Ramon Magsaysay and congratulated by President Elpidio Quirino, who told him, “You bear a great name. Be sure to keep it great.” The young teenager had recuperated the Aquino name from shame. Ninoy would quickly blaze a trail in Philippine history, becoming the special assistant to Present-elect Ramon Magsaysay, helping secure the surrender of the Huk supremo Luis Taruc, besting the efforts of the Armed Forces of the Philippines.
On 11 October 1954 Ninoy married Corazón “Cory” Cojuangco, daughter of the powerful politician and landowner José Cojuangco Snr and Demetria “Metring” Sumulong, the daughter of the staunch Quezon oppositionist Senator Juan Sumulong. Cory had just come back home from her American studies. Ninoy was still in the Times and newly returned from his Korean adventures.
The marriage united three politically and socially important families: the José Cojuangcos, the Aquinos of Tarlac, and the Sumulongs of Rizal. That intersection would change the course of Philippine history, cause the downfall of the strongest man to ever rule the country and precipitate the startling and unlikely rise to power of a reluctant widow.
THE SALAD DAYS OF THE 1950S
Returning to Tarlac in 1955, Ninoy at the age of 22, was elected the youngest mayor of Concepción, but would be disqualified after seven months for being underage at the time of elections. In 1958 an important event intervened and Ninoy changed his career to agriculturist and farm manager when Compañia General de Tabacos de Filipinas (Tabacalera), the Spanish conglomerate, divested its huge trouble-hidden Hacienda Luisita in Concepción. Aided by the government of President Carlos García, the new owners, headed by Doña Ysidra and Ninoy’s father-in-law Don Pepe, were lauded for transferring the mighty Spanish property to Filipino hands.
Don Pepe’s eldest nephews were invited to buy shares with Eduardo Jnr (Danding) declining and Monching accepting. Don Pepe’s eldest surviving brother Don Juan did not take part in the purchase.
Under Ninoy’s management, Hacienda Luisita became one of the most modern and technologically advanced plantations. His sterling track record in farm management and labour and peasant relations was rewarded in 1959 when he was elected the youngest Tarlac vice-governor. Switching to the Liberal Party of the incumbent President Diosdado Macapagal, he was elected the youngest governor of Tarlac province in 1963. Ninoy’s political future seemed preordained. He was young, charismatic, intelligent, loquacious and backed by wealth of his in-laws.
The late 1950s would signal an era of seemingly limitless possibilities for the young generation of Aquinos and Cojuangcos. Danding married Gretchen Oppen of the prominent Negros family in December 1956, settling in recently urbanised New Manila, with their glamorous cousins and neighbors Ninoy and Cory. According to the writer Nelson Navarro, the two couples “would form a constant foursome to go to the movies, dine out and share leisure activities common to couples just starting their families and careers.” Gretchen recalled those salad days, explaining that “Ninoy or Danding would call each other after work. Just like that. We would usually go to the movies in Avenida Rizal and then have midnight snacks at Bulakeña or Max’s. It was with Ninoy and Cory that we first saw the Banaue Rice Terraces.”
The turbulent 1960s would bring all the halcyon days to a crashing end.
DANDING AND PEPING
The extended Cojuangco family was torn apart by the competing ambitions of its branches. In January 1963 Danding and his cousin Monching agreed to vote their uncle Don Juan as the new president of the family-owned Philippine Bank of Commerce, replacing their uncle Don Pepe, long considered the patriarch of the enterprise and credited having pulled the bank out of the ashes of World War II. Devastated, Don Pepe sold his shares to Don Juan and founded another bank, the First United Bank. He also diversified into other established businesses, such as Mantrade, a key distributor of motor vehicles, and Pantranco, the transportation company.
The festering disagreements between the Cojuangco branches came to a head in a 1965 Congressional match, pitting first cousins against each other in Tarlac’s First District. The writer Amante F Paredes heralded the impending political skirmish as one with significant local and national implications. He predicted that the fight of Rep José “Peping” Cojuangco Jnr, son of Don Pepe, and Danding, son of Don Eduardo Snr, was not only about “their political leadership and business supremacy which goes beyond the boundaries of Tarlac. Pitching in to lend colour and drama are the wives of the two candidates, both national beauties and socialites in Manila’s higher circles.” Margarita (Tingting) de los Reyes Cojuangco, Peping’s wife, and Gretchen, Danding’s wife, took leave of Manila’s four hundred to campaign among the barrio folk.
The outcome of that 1965 campaign influenced the course of Philippine history. Danding lost to his cousin Peping but came back stronger by allying himself with Senator Ferdinand Marcos, who victoriously challenged the incumbent President Diosdado Macapagal in the 1964 presidential elections.
In 1967 with Danding’s help in Tarlac, Ninoy was elected the youngest ever senator at the age of 34. His election campaign took on a very different track. Selling his Concepción farm to tenants, he actively sought the support of peasants, even recruiting Bernabe Buscayno, aka Commander Dante, to campaign for him, reasoning that “the Huks are a necessary evil: they bring about social change.”
Ninoy’s modus vivendi with radical elements haunted him later because military intelligence characterised him as a “Huk coddler”.
Danding’s political alliance was repaid by Marcos with favoured monopolies in agricultural industries; his cousin Monching acquired the government-sanctioned takeover of American-owned Philippine Long Distance Company in 1968.
With the imposition of martial law in 1972 Ninoy was imprisoned. Held incommunicado until 1975, he went on a hunger strike and hovered close to death. The businesses of his father-in-law, Don Pepe, already in his eighties and much weaker, were devastated and with only Hacienda Luisita left to hang onto. Don Pepe humbled himself by personally pleading with Minister of Defence Juan Ponce Enrile. It was nephew Danding, however, who would intercede, after Don Pepe valiantly pleaded his son-in-law’s case.
Released on medical and humanitarian reasons, Ninoy, Cory and their children lived in exile. The José Cojuangco family then took the lead in bitterly opposing the Marcos dictatorship, further exacerbating the rift with their cousins and engendering a raft of financial troubles.
Bank capitalisations were raised, jeopardising the José Cojuangco-controlled First United Bank. Their shares were sold to nephew Danding to form the nucleus of United Coconut Planters Bank. Their family bus company was denied a fare increase and the family was forced to divest it. Erectors, their construction company, owed more than 50 million pesos to the Central Bank.
The once grand patriarch Don Pepe had been broken. The pioneer Filipino banker, politician and hacendero collapsed in Tarlac on 21 August 1976. His nephew Danding sent a helicopter to airlift his uncle, but it was too late. Don pepe died, uttering his last words “Kawawa naman si Cory (Poor Cory).”
Assassinated upon his return in 1983, Ninoy did not live to see his dream of resorting democracy to the country. Fate ordained that his widow Cory, the reluctant presidential candidate, was drafted to fulfil his mission, on the same date of 21 August, exactly seven years after Don Pepe had died.
Regimes have come and gone, but the Aquinos and Cojuangcos have survived as political kingmakers; and like all families have had some sort of rapprochement. In the delicate and sophisticated balancing of the core Filipino values of pagtanaw sa utang na loob (debt of gratitude), amor propio (personal pride), delicadeza (tact), hiya (shame) and pag-aaruga sa pamilya (familial nurturing) lies the nexus of Philippine power and governance.
READ MORE: The Blessed Life of Imelda Cojuangco
Tide of Time by Marisse Reyes McMurray
The Aquinos of Tarlac by Nick Joaquin
Chronicle Magazine, October 1965
Chronicle Magazine, 23 October 1963
- Images Courtesy of the Doña Aurora Aquino Collection, Lopez Museum and Library Collection, Benigno S Aquino Jnr Foundation