By Marivir R. Montebon
New York City
The definitive case of Maxima Labandera is that she will not easily be extinguished from your mind. I remember this tobacco puffing, astig (tough) laundry woman using Ajax detergent bar as the absolutely sparkling solution for soiled clothes.
Maxima Labandera, the epitome of the feisty home maker, brought the Ajax to the peak of its popularity in the tumultuous days of Philippine television advertising war in the 1970s – 1980s.
Maxima Labandera is of course the unforgettable Lorli Villanueva, the consummate actress who naturally brings the house down as a ludicrous comedienne, dramatic actress, or as a horrifying vampire. I can still remember how, as a child, she made me shiver in fear as a wide-eyed witch.
Lorli also directed Philippine television’s longest running soap, Flor de Luna, which starred the young Janice de Belen. She has made over 60 films in her acting career of 30 years, having been trained by prestigious international filmmakers in Europe. She had her best supporting actress award in 1972 for the film Lupang Hinirang by the late director Orlando Nadres.
Lorli’s career as an actor started in the theater as a founding member of the Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA) which later became part of the political surge that toppled Pres. Marcos. Alongside the late director Lino Brocka, and other cinema stalwarts, Lorli took to the streets the movement to end 21 years of the Marcos regime.
For several years, Lorli chaired the Board of Judges for the prestigious Palanca Literary Awards. Being a graduate of Communications, Lorli ran her own media outfit, the Tri-Media Productions, which created commercial ads, education campaigns, and programs.
After many years of enjoying her presence on TV and the movies, we lost one of the substantial actors in the Philippine entertainment. Lorli Villanueva joined the exodus to the US, in search of better opportunities in life. At the time, the the entertainment industry had been plagued with the soda pop stars like Sarsi Emmanuel, Pepsi Paloma, and Coca Nicolas. It became quite sexist, she said.
“I couldn’t compete and can’t take how shallow it has become,” she chuckled in an interview in her office at the Touro College in Manhattan’s lower east side.
I met her for the first time in NYC in a forum on women in development at the United Nations NY Headquarters in the summer of 2010. And Maxima Labandera rushed back to my mind again.
The consummate actress has gone a long way since her entertainment heydays. She sits as dean of the Graduate School’s Education and Special Education Department of the Touro College, NYC’s biggest site for graduate studies in education and special education.
Recently, Lorli was awarded by the Association of Filipino Teachers in America, as the Most Outstanding American Filipino Teacher in America for Higher Education.
For this year, we are to expect from her a book of Philippine myths and legends which are culled from her personal experiences in her hometown in Iloilo. Plus there is an autobiography to watch for and a December concert in New York.
Looking back, the year was 1984, when life has taken quite a different course for Lorli, and left behind her four children to the care of her mother.
The interview, done in between the early morning office hours of 10-11 am, a Monday. The actress-educator was multi-tasking.
1. Why did you decide to leave the Philippines in the 1980s?
Lorli: It was the time when the Philippine movies became shallow. Mother Lily’s movies were. And there were the soda pop stars Sarsi Emmanuel, Pepsi Paloma, and Coca Nicolas which I could not compete. (Laughs). I had to go somewhere else.
I passed a Fullbright Hays Scholarship test, a grant for academic excellence in 1980 for two years in Northern Illinois. I was the only grantee for a full scholarship in Asia that year. So that was my ticket leaving the country.
Magulo na din. I was kidnapped by Marcos. Ooopps. I will tell this in details in my upcoming book, my autobiograph which will be coming out early next year.
But in the 1990s, my mom called me and said di na kaya i-manage ang mga anak ko, who were already teenagers. So I went home to be with my children.
2. So how has life been back in the Philippines in the 1990s?
Between 1990 and 1999, I went home to fulfill my mother role. That was truly the most important thing to do, to be with the children who were in their teenage years.
I set my career again, as always, both as an educator and actor. I worked with then congressman Butch Aquino as his ghost writer, and I focused on the cooperative movement for his program of action.
I also ran my own firm, the Tri-Media Productions. I had big projects in the Philippines and abroad.
3. And you did not have any serious relationship? Didn’t marry again?
I focused on my children and my career. So walang distraction. (Laughs) My spiritual health was perfect. I felt whole. I lived life fully.
Now I look back, all my seven children are professionals. And for me, one can only claim success when her children are successful. I am so. Parenting is actually modeling. You live by example. I dated, but set a good example to them.
Walang inggitan ang mga bata. They are confident and have thrived on their own, and are all professionals. I could not be happier.
4. But you went back to the US again, why is that?
It was a crazy time. I had a very busy and full life in our country. Then the US immigration department called me, and said I have to fly to the US or I will forfeit my permanent residency status.
Ang hirap ng buhay sa America, ang lamig and you do all the chores. And also, New York is such a snob to job seekers.
I was afraid, but I had to be decisive. Well, you got to, considering you have children to feed! All those years, ginapang ko sila to join me in the US.
5. Why did you choose to create a path on teaching and not acting?
Well, you can’t rely on the uncertainty of the acting career in the US. Teaching was more promising. I remember my first job was at the Mt. Carmel Parochial School. Fr. Nicanor Lana, whom I knew way back in the Philippines, was my angel. He introduced me to the nuns of the school.
My first teaching stint was teaching Science for 4th Graders! The nuns asked me for a teaching demo. I was frightened. Anong alam ko sa Science (what do I know of Science)? I hurriedly researched for science experiments at Barnes and Noble and tried to internalize these.
I needed time to study some more, and had to call the nuns telling them that the snow was horrible in Teaneck and asked for a few more days before I could do my teaching demo.
My creativity was again finally put to use. I demonstrated flora and fauna, growing mongo on cotton. The kids were wide-eyed listening to me. Voila, I was accepted as Science teacher. That year, I was voted the Science teacher of the year!
Within that year too, I was also made to teach English. After a year, I passed all license exams in New York.
I was also teaching at the New York School of Business. That was a dare, because I was made to teach Computer Classes. I didn’t know much about computers. So what I did, I made all my students do all the reporting in class. I sat there listening to them. In the process, it was I who learned from them.
6. Did you also venture into acting in New York in the early days?
Yes I did. I directed shows and made commercials. I also was into marketing. I sold Sequel phone cards. I got exemplary employee award while selling these cards for the company. The good things never stopped happening.
7. What do you think is the key to your successful undertakings as a teacher?
I believe that teachers must be taught art. It is a tool for creative teaching. Learning must be fun for students. Hence all teachers must be trained to be creative in their teaching approaches. That was how I survived and shine teaching in the US.
I also used the best of our Philippine culture to survive here in the US. Our support system as a family is so reliable. I wouldn’t have survived without my mother’s help in raising my children. My husband passed away leaving me alone to raise the kids.
Also, we allow our kids to grow as they are. Here in the US, the kids are immediately labeled as special when they become so hyperactive. Then they introduce drugs.
That is not right. Kids will develop in their own pace. We have to just guide them and not label them.
8. What are you thoughts on the future of Philippine education?
I personally want to advocate the re-teaching of English, both spoken and written, in the Philippines. It is frustrating that the new graduates no longer have a good command in English. And this is very important.