Celia Diaz-Laurel: The consummate artist’s lifelong pursuit of peace

Conferment of her humanitarian award marks its 30th year, an honor shared with Barbara Bush, Diana Vreeland and other notable women

In 1991, Mrs. Celia Diaz-Laurel receiving the Woman for Peace award from the mayor of Madrid, Jose Maria Alvarez del Manzano

Poet and philosopher Henry David Thoreau said, “Success usually comes to those who are too busy to be looking for it.” I believe this perfectly fits the persona of Celia Diaz-Laurel, a stage actor, visual artist, writer, and production and costume designer all rolled into one.

A consummate artist, she was more known to the populace as the wife of former Vice President Salvador “Doy” Laurel who served with then President Corazon Aquino after the 1986 Edsa Revolution. She was also a mother of eight artistic and creative children, most famous of whom was Victor “Cocoy” Laurel who caught the film world’s imagination in his movie outings with Nora Aunor. Cocoy would eventually become a painter like his maverick mother who was his mentor as a portrait artist.

Last July 12, the Laurel matriarch passed away at the age of 93, just two months after she launched her book, My Lives Behind the Proscenium. The book, second to the supposed trilogy spanning her life, chronicles her 60-year journey as thespian and stage production and costume designer. The first book was a coffee-table memoir, The Colors of My Life.  Released in 2014, it showcased her works in portraits, still life, nature, and landscapes, and chronicled her interest in drawing and painting through personal anecdotes about her early childhood in Talisay, Negros Occidental, her primary and secondary education at Assumption Convent, and her University of the Philippines College of Fine Arts days. At UP, she studied under Philippine masters Fernando Amorsolo and Guillermo Tolentino, both National Artists, the former in visual arts and the latter in sculpture.

The passionate artist and author also wrote a biographical coffee table book dedicated to her late husband Doy in 2005, as well as a historical and personal narrative about Domingo Franco, her maternal grandfather who was the supremo of the revived Liga Filipina and one of the 13 martyrs executed at Bagumbayan. My Lolo Domingo Franco was published in 2011.

A woman for all seasons, Ms. Laurel received the Natatanging Gawad Buhay for Lifetime Achievement Award in the performing arts at the 8th Philstage Gawad Buhay Awards in 2016. The award recognized her multidisciplinary contributions to the arts as stage actress and set and costume designer.

The award was the culmination of her lifetime passion for theater encouraged by Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero, then head of the UP theater department even as she was enrolled at the UP Fine Arts program for painting. Guerrero, who would be posthumously conferred a National Artist for Philippine theater, made her his lead actress in the plays she joined during her four years at UP. Her mainstream theater breakthrough came when she was 19 and was tapped by visiting Russian-American director Sonia Rifkin to play Adela in Federico Garcia Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba in 1950. She later became part of Fr. James Reuter’s company of actors, the Cathedral Players, which staged plays for his popular radio program.

She went on to take up Masters in Fine Arts at Yale University, joining her husband who was working on his Master’s degree in Law in the same university at that time. But theater beckoned and she found herself being interviewed and asked by the founder and head of the Acting Department of the Yale School of Drama to join them.

She went on to star in 53 plays and eventually designed about 100 sets

In 1968, she joined Repertory Philippines which further developed her career as theater artist. She went on to star in 53 plays, including The King and I, The Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, The Diary of Anne Frank, and Fiddler on the Roof, 47 of which were directed by Rep co-founder and director Zenaida “Bibot” Amador. The latter also convinced her that her keen eye for detail would be perfect for production design. She eventually designed about 100 sets— including Camelot—and at times she was both acting onstage and working behind the scenes as a designer in the same production.

The charmed life of Ms. Laurel reached on a notch higher with the conferment of the highly prestigious international peace and humanitarian award “Woman for Peace” given by the Insieme Per La Pace (Together for Peace) Foundation on November 29, 1991. This year marks her award’s pearl anniversary.

Like its founder and president Mariapia Fanfani who had devoted all her life to cater to the sick, poor, and victims of war, the honor is bestowed upon remarkable women who have helped promote, advance, and partake in global peacebuilding processes through meaningful social, educational, and cultural means.

The grand awarding ceremony in 1991 was held at Pabellon De Cecilio Rodriguez in Madrid, Spain, where Ms. Laurel joined her co-honorees Queen Noor of Jordan, Madame Bernadette Chirac of France, and Madame Maria Soares of Portugal. With her conferment, she joined the revered roster of past awardees like Queen Sophia of Spain, Raissa Gorbachev of Russia, Former US First Ladies Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush, Marcella Perez de Cuellar, Diana Vreeland, President Violeta Chamurro of Nicaragua, and Queen Sirikit of Thailand.

Ms. Laurel’s vast humanitarian work began in 1986 when she volunteered to head our country’s national bid for the United Nations’ Million Minutes of Peace —a worldwide campaign asking people (even with differing religions) to pledge and devote “minutes of meditation, positive thinking or prayer for peace.” Under her leadership, she launched a series of peaceful undertakings that triumphantly landed the Philippines at the fourth slot (out of the 88 participating nations) with an overwhelming 94,000,000 minutes collected and dedicated to peace!

Following this success, then UN Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar flew to the Philippines in 1987 to honor Ms. Laurel with the “United Nations for Peace Award” and to invite her to speak at the Million Minutes for Peace international conference that same year. She then attended the Universal Peace Conference in Mt. Abu in India and the World Media Association in Seoul, South Korea. She also stood before the International Security Council to discuss, among others, the impact of insurgency in the Philippines on the general security of the nations in the Southeast Asian region.

Alongside her international engagements, she organized and established several key socio-civic organizations like Causa Philippines, Inc., DAYTOP Philippines (Drug Addicts Yield to Persuasion), Handog Lingap sa May Kapansanan (HALIKA), Philippine Tuberculosis Society, Kidney Transplant Association, Gifted Children and Youth Foundation, Memorial to the Peaceful Revolution, Save the Children (Community Development), People’s Welfare Foundation, Philippine International Friendship Organization, Philippine General Hospital Foundation, Philippine National Red Cross Overseas and Diplomatic Divisions, and Peace Development Foundation, Inc.

She worked in the countryside where she focused on health and education, like providing sustainable potable water in depressed areas

She also worked in the countryside where she focused on health and education developments like providing sustainable potable water in depressed areas and building public school libraries. Months before she attended the Woman for Peace award ceremony in Madrid, Ms. Laurel provided relief to our countrymen devastated by earthquakes and the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo, and the killer cyclone in Ormoc City.

In her acceptance speech which she excellently delivered in Italian, Ms. Laurel emphasized her “fervent wish that the day will come—perhaps in the next 100 years—when the efforts of Together for Peace Foundation, with all our collective efforts, will bring about a social floor below which the poor in the world will never again sink and suffer.”

It’s been 30 years, but the words of our very own Woman for Peace remain to be an elusive dream. Will we who were left behind to continue the crusade she tirelessly but silently began decades ago take up the challenge?

Meanwhile, Thoreau’s words were validated by the long, busy journey that Celia Diaz-Laurel took on this our beloved land.

Read more:

A standing ovation for Celia Diaz Laurel

About author


She is a freelance writer and retired business executive. She is the president of the Maningning Miclat Art Foundation, Inc. [MMAFI] which recently posthumously launched the memorial edition of her husband Dr. Mario I. Miclat’s last books --on poetry (Kailan Diwata at 70+ na Tula), essays (Hundred Flowers, Hundred Philosophies), and novel (21 West 4th Street)—written before he passed on due to COVID pneumonia exacerbated by comorbidities. Proceeds of the books will benefit MMAFI. Email [email protected] or call/message 09189057311 to order the memorial set in a special katsa tote bag.)

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