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Leticia R. Shahani: the early years

March 20 marks the first death anniversary of my mother, Leticia Ramos Shahani. She has been hailed as a legislator, diplomat, farmer and feminist—a patriot whose nationalism was coeval with her cosmopolitanism.

Since her death, I, along with my partner, Vince, have been organizing her archives. Among the numerous photographs, clippings, books, and reports are thick folders of letters dating back to her youth. We have only begun to scratch the surface of these letters, but what has emerged are glimpses of postwar life as experienced by an intellectually precocious girl developing into a woman of the world. Given that much of what has been written about Philippine history is about and by men, Mom’s letters are valuable sources not just for a history of Filipino women but also for a feminist view of the postwar bourgeoisie.

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Starting around 1947, Mom’s correspondences begin with her years in Washington, DC, where her father Narciso and mother Angela served in the Philippine Embassy. She writes with palpable excitement about her first summer in Mexico after high school with Gloria, her sister, where they explored Mayan ruins, markets, and cities. At Wellesley, Mom was ever the serious student, writing about her classes in letters that are virtually term papers sans footnotes. Her senior thesis was on the English poet Samuel Coleridge and the ethics and aesthetics of self-knowledge.

From Wellesley, Mom went on to do an MA in comparative literature at Columbia. As part of a small group of New York Filipinos in the mid-1950s, she had numerous correspondences, many adorned with sketches, from artists and writers drawn to her uncommon intelligence and sensibility. Returning to Manila, she taught humanities at the newly built Diliman campus of the University of the Philippines alongside her best friend, Virgie Moreno. She vividly recalls using a phonograph and slide projector for the first time to teach European classical art and music.

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Living in what was then the wilds of Quezon City, Mom writes about visiting “Andy and Meldy”—second cousins—after the latter delivered her first daughter, Imee. She maintained a correspondence with her brother Fidel while he was at West Point, in the field fighting the Huks, and later serving in the Korean War (where he read Shakespeare and Carlos Romulo, admiring the former while dismissive of the latter). And because she had taken French in college, Mom was tasked to teach the language, working hard every day just to keep one step ahead of her students. But her French also allowed her to win a scholarship from the French government to do a doctorate in literature at the Sorbonne in Paris.

It was while visiting her parents at their posting in Delhi that Mom first met her future husband and my Dad, Ranjee Shahani. What ensued was an epic courtship that lasted over a decade across three continents. The letters to and from Dad constitute some of the most interesting parts of her archive. Mom’s parents sternly objected to him: He was much older and was not from a “good Filipino family.” They feared that this match was doomed: He was a “Hindu” (though secular) and divorced, and their children would be seen as “illegitimate” by the Philippine state.

Mom protested but eventually relented, no doubt out of filial piety. But this would not be the end. Undeterred, she continued to see Dad in Paris, and corresponded with him while he lived in England. Having gone to Cambridge, Dad was also a scholar and essayist who had written a book on Gandhi as well as novels and short stories. His own correspondences include letters from the likes of T.S. Eliot, Aldous Huxley, John Dos Passos, and many others.

Dad then moved to New York, where prospects for writers and academics seemed better, and Mom joined him there around 1961. Married in Brooklyn, they decided to stay in the United States. Dad took a position at the English department in Seton Hall in New Jersey. Three children came in quick succession—Ranjit, Chanda and myself. We lived in a white house just behind the campus. Thanks to Manang Cencia, their Ilokano maid, Mom—who never saw herself as a stay-at-home type—went to work, teaching at the New School and Brooklyn College, and at the United Nations where she would have a long and illustrious career.

Eight years into their marriage, tragedy struck. Repeatedly blocked from promotion by a department chair for clearly racist reasons, Dad suffered from great stress and one day had a fatal stroke. In his coat pocket were the letters of his department chair denying him the promotion. Reeling from her sudden loss, Mom wrote a long letter full of measured anger addressed to the president of Seton Hall and to the Catholic archbishop, detailing my Dad’s case. She decried his discriminatory treatment and how the department sought to cover up this injustice. It is a remarkable document that shows her well-honed capacity to act as an advocate, exposing the morass of academic hypocrisy.

Suddenly a widowed single mother, Mom returned to Manila, children in tow, and moved back to her parents’ home. But the sorrowful years of her widowhood proved to be a mere interlude. In time, she would plunge into public service, quickly rising through the ranks of the foreign service and the UN. In 1986, she broke dramatically from her cousin, Ferdinand Marcos, ahead of her own brother, and would serve with distinction as a two-term senator. The letters from those very public years await further reading.

Lila Ramos Shahani is secretary general of the Unesco National Commission of the Philippines.

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