I’ve always considered Rina my twin sister from a different mother, our lives having trod a parallel path in our early years as friends and colleagues. Rina passed away early Sunday morning (Nov. 12, 2023) of an illness. She was 68.
There will be no wake service, her family said, although a Mass on Nov. 22 after her inurnment is open to the public. The Mass at Christ the King Church at E. Rodriguez, Quezon City, its time to be announced, will be livestreamed at a site to be set up. Additionally, an online novena for the repose of her soul will start Nov. 14, 8 p.m., Philippine time, with the Zoom link details to be released later.
Rina, whose well-read column, At Large, ran in the Philippine Daily Inquirer for almost three decades until her retirement in 2018, championed women’s rights, a commitment recognized by Towns (The Outstanding Women in the Nation’s Service) with an award for Women’s Rights Advocacy in 1995. Her many awards include being honored in 2015 by Woman Delivered, a global advocacy organization, as one of 15 journalists who focused on the sorry plight of women and girls.
It was in 1973, 50 years ago, when Rina and I first met in the college paper of the University of Santo Tomas (UST), the Varsitarian (or the V). After a competitive writing exam, we passers were being briefed in the V office, each of us warily eyeing the rest as potential rivals for the post we wanted. Rina was seated nearby, a finger inserted between pages of The Gulag Archipelago. I was immediately intimidated; I couldn’t even spell Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, much less read his work. Later, after bagging the Associate Editor post in our junior college year (she would be EIC the following year), Rina would read Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee and Chaim Potok’s The Promise while waiting for reporters to submit their copy. I had read the classics, and my high school Literature class was steeped in Shakespeare, but outside the classroom, it was strictly fiction for me, none of that depressing, deadly serious stuff.
But Rina turned out to be anything but serious or depressing, I’d learn during our stay in the eponymously named Maligaya Beach in Nasugbu, Batangas, where incoming V staffers bonded to build a solid working relationship. Among other interests, we shared a wicked sense of humor and a healthy distrust of authority. In fact, we easily became partners in crime, having both nurtured the love of our life at the V, where we freely shared tips on surreptitious dating during those hormone-soaked years. Between editing, we’d furtively discuss which cinema balcony was darkest, which had retractable armrests, and which had indifferent ushers who turned a blind eye to the entwined couples around.
So absorbed were we in our budding romance at that time that we couldn’t wait to get out of this mandatory religious retreat at UST to have snacks with our respective boyfriends. Ah, but the Dominicans had grown wise to the students’ trick of slipping out after signing the attendance sheet. During our senior year, they didn’t pass the accursed paper until after the retreat, by which time we were deep into our shared halo-halo at a nearby Goldilocks. Summoned to the Dean’s Office the following day, Rina and I had to apologize for our “crime” under threat of expulsion. The rigors of Martial Law had apparently infected our campus.
We easily became partners in crime, having both nurtured the love of our life at the ‘V,’ where we freely shared tips on surreptitious dating during those hormone-soaked years
Our early writing career saw us contributing to the same publications, among them Veritas Newsmagazine, Jingle Music Magazine, Life Today, Sunburst, Who Magazine, and Women’s Home Companion. Whoever got the gig quickly pulled in the other, as we established an informal employment agency between us. Once, after expressing disappointment at the paltry writer’s fee from a magazine, Rina would slip me some cash later, explaining that the cashier had made a mistake. I would soon learn that she had dipped into her savings, telling her now husband Pie, “Alangan namang i-sacrifice ko yung pagkakaibigan namin dahil lang sa pera.”
That generosity would be repeated many many times, with Rina even making sure I could stay with her sister Neneng in Queens during a week-long women’s conference in New York so I could take home my per diem and fatten up my emaciated passbook.
But easily the most memorable instance of her open-heartedness was when our house burned down in the late ’70s. Having saved nothing but the shirts on our backs, my sisters and I washed and ironed our clothes at night so we could borrow each other’s wardrobe the following morning. I might have told Rina this because she asked me to visit her at Pope Pius Center, where she was then working in Cardinal Sin’s information office. There she presented me a box of underwear which was, hands down, one of the best gifts I’ve ever received, being a crucial need at that particular time.
It was this deep sense of empathy that would make Rina such a sympathetic figure in the women’s movement, despite a comfortable background that put her worlds apart from the poor, often battered, women she often wrote about in her column.
As a staunch feminist, Rina knew that the personal is political and lived by it. Together with then Sunday Inquirer editor Lorna Kalaw Tirol and representatives of the Inquirer union, we drafted the company’s Anti-Sexual Harassment manual in the mid-’90s, a first in the local media industry. Rina also carried aloft the banner for reproductive health (RH) rights, and was granted a fellowship at the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland.
With the controversial RH bill held back by conservative lawmakers and the Catholic Church for 14 years, Rina risked her friendship with her former boss, Jaime Cardinal Sin, to hammer out the logic of contraceptive use to prevent abortion, and highlighted the desperation of women suspected of infidelity by their husbands for merely wanting to have some protection and be able to space child birth.
With the RH bill held back by conservative lawmakers and the Catholic Church for 14 years, Rina risked her friendship with her former boss, Jaime Cardinal Sin, to hammer out the logic of contraceptive use
Given our common cause, we’d often attend RH press cons in tandem, eager to meet other advocates and hear their war stories. The last we attended had different flavored condoms as media giveaways, which quickly elicited a chuckle from her: “Ay, too late. Di ko na kelangan ito,” Rina said, quickly stuffing the pack inside my tote bag. “Ayan, ibigay mo kay Emil,” she added, referring to my son, her inaanak. “Gusto ko ngang magka apo, noh? Bakit ko sya bibigyan ng condom?” I replied. “Aba, eh di butasin mo!” she quipped, collapsing into giggles.
In private, this woman warrior and irreverent wit was always the gentler twin, the protective sister who clutched my hand firmly and reassuringly that mid-afternoon in July 1990 when the earth shook and a long ominous crack travelled the wall of BF Homes condominium in Port Area, where we Inquirer desk editors were having a story conference. A millisecond pause between tremors and we were on our feet, racing down the hallway to the fire exit stairs. Too late! Thousands of tenants of the building’s 20+ floors were now thundering down the narrow stairwell, sparing not an inch’s worth of space where we could insert ourselves. I hesitated, knowing that with my slight frame and weak ankles, a missed footing could mean being trampled by the panicking horde. But Rina’s firm grasp of my hand telegraphed that she would pull me up quickly should I slip, so when she whispered, “Ready?,” we both shouldered our way into that sticky mass of bodies. We were carried aloft by the sheer weight bearing down on us and safety made it to the ground floor, and out into the street.
For all the serious topics she had tackled in her column, Rina’s laughter often rang out with gleeful abandon and sheer exuberance. It was a raucous sound, a full-bodied guffaw that made heads turn. Even when the joke was on her.
Once, when our circle of college chums were talking about shopping for clothes, Rina recalled her recent wardrobe expedition to Taytay, where the tinderas had named the latest fashion after the local actresses who had worn them in their latest movie or TV show. This here’s a Vilma, this one a Marian Rivera, and over there is a Juday, the tindera would say, showing off her wares. On this particular jaunt, Rina recalled a Vilma style she had seen previously and promptly asked for it. The woman gave her ample assets a cursory glance and declared, “Ah, wala na kaming Vilma. Meron na lang, Dabiana!”
Not that such putdowns would discourage our dear Rina from shopping, her favorite preoccupation, next only to indulging in sweets and desserts. On a trip to China many years back, after learning that roasted chestnuts were only P30 a kilo, she bought several kilos that filled up plastic sacks that she had to balance in both hands, her shoulder bag hanging precariously over her arm. “Kung pwede nga lang isabit sa ngipin, bibili ako ng isa pang sako,” she said, unrepentant. The predilection to buy so much stuff wasn’t necessarily because of greed or avarice, but simply a measure of how many friends she had, and how much she wanted to share her bounty with them as pasalubong.
During a media junket in Turkey, Rina’s prodigious appetite for shopping would prove to be her downfall, literally. The last in the media bus to get down, she walked slowly to the exit, hobbling with seven shopping bags crisscrossing her body. Just as she stepped down the running board, the bags slipped from her shoulders, pulling her down. She tripped over the bags now at her feet, and landed hard on her hips. Now that’s what you call “Shop till you drop,” we would tease her later.
Fifty years’ worth of inside jokes, gentle joshing, and this weird habit of speaking at the same time, but still understanding each other’s sentences, have now drawn to a close, and I am inconsolable. I will surely miss our sisterhood lunches where, despite the noise level that could surely prompt charges of alarm and scandal, Rina’s boisterous laugh would somehow surface above the din. Such irrepressible mirth and unmistakable joy! Such an uninhibited sound that must now be a pleasant counterpoint to the heavenly hum among angels!
Farewell for now, Rina, but know that I’ll always feel blessed for having shared a parallel life with you, my dearest friend, fellow advocate, sister-in-arms, and my infinitely less evil twin!