Ever since she returned to the big screen at age 15 after a brief “retirement” as a child star, Jesusa Purificacion Levy Sonora, known to all and sundry as Susan Roces, proceeded to make a string of popular romantic comedies. These cemented her reputation as “The Face that Refreshes,” known for her sweet persona devoid of scandal or impropriety.
Later, she would abandon her “sweetheart” image for more daring, challenging portrayals that would earn her several acting awards and the title “Queen of Philippine Movies.” But even these cannot be considered her “greatest performance” in her more than 70 years in show business.
That would come in 2005 when, after her husband Fernando “Ronnie” Poe Jr.’s death the year before, she came out with a fiery denunciation of the allegedly widespread cheating in the 2004 elections. Poe, a widely popular, indeed iconic, figure in Philip- pine cinema also known as FPJ, had suddenly passed away seven months after losing his presidential bid.
Then came the “Hello Garci” scandal, where a woman widely believed to be President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was caught on tape conversing with Comelec Commissioner Virgilio Garcillano and urging him to ensure her electoral victory. Arroyo later acknowledged she was the voice in the tape and went on national TV to say “I am sorry’’ for her “lapse in judgement.’’
With this scandal, Roces asked the Supreme Court, convened as the Presidential Electoral Tribunal (PET), to be named petitioner in her husband’s protest.
Rebuffed by the PET, Roces held a press conference during which she delivered a scathing speech demand- ing President Arroyo’s resignation. Unmoved by Arroyo’s public apology, Roces accused Arroyo of “stealing the elections not once but twice!” She then concluded by quoting an old say- ing in Filipino: “Ang sinungaling ay kapatid ng magnanakaw!” (“A liar is a sibling to a thief!”)
Perhaps it was telling of her stature, not just in the industry but in Philippine society and history, that no grave consequences befell Roces after that resulting hullabaloo. Indeed, she and Poe’s daughter Grace would ride the wave of popular indignation and end up a senator in 2013. In 2016, Sen. Grace Poe would even attempt to fulfil her late father’s aspiration and ran for president, ending up in third place.
It was during Grace Poe’s campaign for president that Roces once more emerged as political combat- ant. At that time, several disqualification cases had been filed, questioning the senator’s citizenship and civil status arising from her being a foundling who was later adopted by the Poe couple. “What’s their right to dismiss what we fought for in court so she could have a birth certificate,” asked Roces with what media called “that familiar indignation.”
How fitting, therefore, as Senator Poe disclosed, that her final phone conversation with her mother was about the passage of a law giving legal rights and legitimacy to foundlings, a law they both had fought for. “Symbolic” was how the senator described this final conversation. In the days following her passing Friday last week, praises have been heaped on the queen of Philippine cinema.