Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile, captain of the SenateBy Jamie B. Gutierrez, Joseph Rem de la Cruz, Katherine Anne M. Favino, Riane Mitzi B. Manuel, Roberto C. Libao (coach)
Team Colegio San Agustin
I am the Master of my Fate. I am the Captain of my Soul.
Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile quoted this line from the poem “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley when asked about his favorite pieces of literature.
He is, after all, a man who has taken charge of his own life. The son of a rich Manileño and a poor Ilocana, he has been at multiple crossroads in his life.
Everything is vivid in his memory— his childhood spent in poverty, working as a teenager, fighting during World War II and his struggles in his career.
Being teens and amateurs in the art of interviewing, we were nervous wrecks in the Office of the Senate President. The warm reception of his staff was reassuring. They were all smiles as they offered us drinks. We thought we had a clear idea of the man we were going to interview. We thought that after 30 minutes, the interview would be through, we would submit our story then move on with our lives.
We asked the Senate president if he needed a copy of our questions because we did not want him to be caught off guard. He declined the offer. “Candidly, truthfully, crudely in the best way I can and in the best way I know, I will answer your questions.”
Childhood by the water
Enrile was born in Gonzaga, Cagayan, to a fisherman’s daughter. But his father was not from the province. “My classmates would point to me and say, ‘That Juanito is a bastard!’” He learned from his mother that his father, Alfonso Enrile, was a powerful politician in Manila. Instead of his biological father, he grew up with a stepfather and two older siblings.
Since the family lived near the river, their occupation was fishing. “My mother’s livelihood was selling fish … She would carry our catch on a shallow basket we called lamba. She would put the dripping basket, fish smell and all, on her head.”
He was an adept fisherman and a long distance swimmer. “I was a diver, which is why my lungs are big…,” he said. “And you could throw me into the water some 2 kilometers from shore and I could swim back to land.”
Education is a good anchor
Enrile had a colorful education. His favorite subject was history. Mathematics was easy for him because he was good at mental calculations.
“From Grade 1 to first year college, I would go to school barefoot because my mother could not afford to buy me slippers,” he recalled, with a catch in his voice. His words faltered and then tears welled in his eyes. As he dried his eyes with a handkerchief, we realized that Juan Ponce Enrile, just like everyone else, was only human.
Poverty affected his education. He stopped schooling for a year after Grade 2. To be able to finish grade school, he worked as a houseboy for his aunt, who was a teacher.
“I cleaned the house, cooked, did the laundry, mopped the floor, fetched water and chopped firewood. That’s why I know how to do all those chores,” he said.
His education would later be sponsored by then Mayor Cesario Peralta until he got a scholarship at the Cagayan Valley Institute.
On his second year at the institute, in July 1941, he was suspected of being involved with a girl who often sat beside him and was attacked by some senior students armed with knives. Enrile knew arnis so he was able to defend himself. He jumped from a second floor window to escape his attackers.
The school was in chaos after the incident. JPE’s attackers were sons of school trustees and they had lawyers. Enrile had none. When the case went to court, he lost. The dean expelled him.
Enrile realized life was tougher for those without means. That made him want to pursue a career in law.
Sound of cannons
Back in Cagayan, he resumed his job at the office of the mayor who sponsored his education. One December morning, as he bought food for his boss from a sari-sari store, he noticed that the streets were almost empty. There were soldiers wearing weird hats and he heard the sound of tanks. World War II had reached the Philippines.
Enrile joined the guerrilla movement and went underground. He was captured and imprisoned by the Japanese but managed to escape during an air raid.
After the war, with only a first-year high school education, Enrile did not know what to do. His half-siblings on his father’s side, who had been trying to reach him, finally contacted him after the war. He learned they were in Santa Mesa, Manila.
After 20 years, JPE was finally going to meet his biological father. He traveled from Cagayan, but when he reached Santa Mesa, his father was not there and his siblings were fighting over what they should do with him. Most did not want him to meet their father.
Luckily, one of his siblings gave him directions to his father’s office. Juanito was a country boy, unfamiliar with the city’s ways, but he did find the building.
When he finally met his father, the older man said, “I’m sorry, son,” and hugged him. As he remembered this, Enrile took off his glasses and wiped his eyes.
Time to set sail
Enrile finished high school at St. James Malabon but to graduate, he had to get a permit from the school that expelled him, Cagayan Valley Institute. The director, Candido Valera, was almost teary-eyed as he apologized to Enrile.
Enrile’s voice started to break again at this point when he said this.
It had taken great humility for the school director to apologize for expelling him. Likewise, it must have been quite difficult to forgive the man who caused him pain, but Enrile proved that it was in forgiveness that we learned to let go of the hurt in our hearts.
After finishing high school, Enrile studied law first at the University of the Philippines then at the prestigious Harvard University in the United States.
As a lawyer, he defended Hacienda Luisita, Hawaiian Philippines, Universal Pictures, Paramount, Ayala, Philippine Airlines, National City Bank, Bank of America, Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, oil and mining companies, among others.
He would hold numerous political positions and be a major player in the historic Edsa Revolution that toppled a dictatorship. Now, he is Senate president of the Philippines.
Rivulets to roaring tide
No river or sea becomes mighty without the rivulets. What then are the little things that make Juan Ponce Enrile whole?
He liked books by Lloyd Douglas, Khalil Gibran, Shakespeare and Omar Khayyam.
Enrile said he was born Aglipayan, but converted to Catholicism at age 20.
As for what makes him happy, JPE said, “I’m happy, I do not want much in life. You know, I believe one should be very moderate in life, be very moderate about his ambitions and his desires.”
He is not one to bear grudges. “I was called all kinds of names: Martial law administrator, murderer, plunderer, this and that. If you think about it, I am the most distasteful, distrusted and despicable human being in this country. But I do not harbor any ill will toward anybody.”
But Enrile did admit to one thing: “I just can’t tolerate stupid people.”
As for his plans and wishes, he said, “I want the country to be happy. How will I do it? Uplift the life of the people. How do I do that? Well, of course, the first thing is to educate them, not to become geniuses, but to be able to earn a living…. I’ll have to look at the economic laws … change the whole thing, remove all the restrictions for people to come here to do business. I do not believe in restrictions for they only favor certain people to the detriment of the masses… That’s why I said, ‘Gusto ko, happy ka! (I want you to be happy!)’”
A lot of things have happened in Enrile’s life. How we choose to deal with the huge waves that life brings us will determine how our ship sails in the sea of life. Enrile has proved to us that, whether rich or poor, you are the captain of your soul and the master of your fate.
“No one can give you success and happiness but yourself,” he said.