Durian memories with Leticia Shahani
Durian played an interesting role the first time I had any sort of extended contact with Sen. Leticia Ramos Shahani.
I had come to Davao City on the invitation of Rogelio “Noning” Lizada and his wife Charito, both ardent supporters of Shahani who was then making a second run for the Senate. The Lizada couple were leading business folk in the city, with their restaurants “Harana” and “Bistro” (which have since become institutions in Davao), and were active in Shahani’s national campaign.
When I asked Noning why they worked so hard for Shahani, he replied: “I believe we owe it to the people to help the best candidates stay in the Senate, and I believe the senator is one of the most competent, with integrity and intelligence!”
But on to the durian. As part of the campaign, we drove all the way to Tagum City and paid a courtesy call on the mayor. There we were served durian, the “aromatic” fruit which I was tasting for the first time. Unlike Shahani and the Lizadas, I was a bit intimidated by the exotic fruit. But once I tasted the flesh, I couldn’t believe the mix of sweetness and edge of bitterness on my tongue. No wonder so many people consider durian a delicacy, and even an aphrodisiac!
Anyway, it seemed the senator still hadn’t had enough of her durian fix. From Tagum, we stopped by the Davao fruit stand to have more, standing on the sidewalk and wolfing down the sweet flesh and then gargling with water that had been placed in the hollow rind. This, said Davaoeños, was the best way to get rid of the durian’s distinctive aroma.
It’s an enduring image from my mental memory album of encounters with Shahani: standing on the sidewalk, sipping water from a durian rind, and laughing at ourselves.
Who would have thought the senator, who served two terms in the chamber and even became the first woman to occupy the post of Senate president pro tempore, also had a funny, spur-of-the-moment side to her?
To the public, “Manang Letty” was the epitome of a refined, dignified public official. After all, she had been a seasoned diplomat, employed for many years with the United Nations where she served as one of the pioneering women who pushed gender boundaries in the organization and later an ambassador who opened doors of diplomacy even to countries behind the then impenetrable “Iron Curtain.”
But to me and to women’s organizations, many of which she encouraged and advised, Shahani’s most valuable contribution was her steady, consistent and feisty championing of women’s rights and gender equality. In later years, especially after her retirement from politics, she never hesitated to speak out on women’s rights and what she saw as the increasingly misogynistic tendencies of officialdom.
She sounded off most loudly and forcefully on the plodding and inconsistent implementation of legislation in which she had a hand in crafting: most prominently the progressive antirape law, the laws against sexual harassment and violence against women and children, the laws on equal employment opportunities and status for women, and on the establishment of antirape centers around the country.
For decades Shahani battled fiercely for the creation of a law protecting the reproductive health and rights of Filipino women, even if she was already out of politics by the time the RH Law was passed. In fact, it could be said that she had “set the ball rolling” when during her first term she filed a resolution calling for the “study” of population issues.
After her retirement, Shahani retired to her native Pangasinan, boasting that she had come home to her roots as a dairy farmer, another advocacy she had pursued with passion.
Most everybody reacted with shock when it was revealed in 2015 that she had been diagnosed with colon cancer. But Manang Letty herself appeared unfazed, inviting friends to visit her farm, and gracing events with her prestigious presence. I hope it is not too late to say “thank you” to her and to her family, especially her children Ranjit, Chanda and Lila, for sharing her with the country and the world, for the betterment of us all.