New York – A gem in the Filipino community, actor-director-teacher Ms. Lorli Villanueva had been all encouraging to young FilAms seeking public office, saying that there is a need for Filipino visibility.
The merry month of March started with an inspirational interview with Villanueva at the Issues & Inspiration digital show on March 1, 2021, alongside young FilAms signifying their bid in the local primaries.
“There are millions of Filipinos in the US. Filipinos tend to be invisible, even in the movie industry here where I work too. I am cast as a Spanish in movies here. But if we bond together, we can be heard and seen. I believe that if you are qualified, go for it,” she said.
Villanueva, who lives in upper Manhattan, directed the TV soap Flor de Luna which launched Janice de Belen into stardom in the Philippines in the late 1970s. She was the supporting actress of the famous “Bituing Walang Ningning” with Sharon Cuneta, Dina Bonevie, and Cherrie Gil.
You will also remember her as Maxima Labandera in the commercial Ajax during the advertising wars of detergent soaps in the Philippines.
Villanueva migrated to the US in the early 1980s where she chartered a career as a teacher, starting off as a Grade 4 science teacher in a Catholic High School in the Bronx. She retired in 2014 as chairperson for the Special Education Graduate School Department at Touro College.
In 2017, Villanueva published her books Dancing with the Dictator and Living and Experiencing the Realms of the Unknown.
Excerpts of the interview with this writer and Ms. Grace Labaguis of I&I
What is keeping you busy these days?
Remember I launched two books about two years ago – about Martial Law and about paranormal? Now, I am trying to complete my autobiography. I am also starting to write some poems.
When can we expect our autobiography?
I am not rushing it. Maybe a year or two. I am not rushing it. It is just to keep me busy during this covid (times). I could not do my singing practices and my rondalla. So I am keeping busy by writing, especially during the snowstorm. I am inspired to write when there is snow, I dunno why.
But you are not bored right?
No no, I am not bored. You know, you have to embrace this lockdown. We have to find ways to be happy and less depressed. I have even learned to bake some things, a few pastries. I am not a baker. But I try to occupy time mostly with writing.
Take us back to the time when you started as an actress. How did you become an actress? I actually started as a stage actress. The picture you are showing is the original Larawan by Nick Joaquin, and was directed by Lino Brocka. There’s Charito Solis, Lolita Rodriguez, Butch Aquino. All of them have passed on. I am the one in the picture left behind.
Villanueva in Larawan with Butch Aquino, Lolita Rodriguez, and Charito Solis.
But yes, I started in the theatre. When Lino Brocka became a director, he started taking his friends in the theater to become his actors. And I became a Lino Brocka actress in many of his films.
I also started directing films after I took my Master’s degree as a Fulbright Scholar in the United States. When I came back to the Philippines, I directed television. I directed stage plays for the department of education. I did commercials.
You will be remembered as Maxima Labandera of the Ajax commercial. Was your popularity boosted by those commercials?
The picture you see is the commercial Maxima Labandera. I think we had about eight versions of that. It won in the international congress for commercials. In those times, I was paid much higher than Bert Marcelo or Rod Navarro in those times.
Upon the suggestion of my friend Jun Urbano, I went to audition for that. When I did, Jun said that’s my Maxima Labandera. It had the highest viewership ever.
Until now, Maxima Labandera is still famous. When I was given the award for outstanding teacher in New York, I stood. And the teachers from another table said, si Maxima Labandera!
Who for you is the best director you have known?
I have always been doing Lino Brocka, Peque Gallaga films. They’re great fantastic directors. When it comes to the creativity of a director, I don’t want to compare, dahil kanya-kanyang creative talent yan eh. I wouldn’t say who is the best, because it is not fair.
There is Orlando Nadres. I made Lupang Hinirang with him. And I won my award as supporting actress. There is an understated Elwood Perez who made really good films too like Paraisong Parisukat. In his time, it didn’t do as much. But if we reviewed his films, I think he did so well.
I dare not say who is best. When it comes to our creative juices, we have many good directors.
You were crowned Ms. Ormoc City back in the day. Can you share with us your experience and memories of being a beauty queen?
My father was the provincial commander of Leyte. In my time, it was an easy pick. But of course, there was a contest. It was created by the chamber of commerce. That was a fun time of my life.
How was your journey as a teacher? What were the issues of teachers in the US then?
As a teacher in America, it wasn’t easy despite all my qualifications. I was overqualified in teaching Gr. 4 where I started in New York. New York is such a snub. I taught in a public school, a private school. Ultimately, I finished my stint as deputy chair at Touro College where I stayed for 15 years in the Graduate School of Education and Special Education, I was also the international student adviser.
The number one problem of Filipino teachers I noticed was that many Filipino teachers cannot pass the state certification test. Review classes were important. Testing in America is different.
Also because Filipinos tend to write lengthily. We had to teach them to write. We speak English. But we don’t speak and write the way they do. We use deep words in our writing, which is not necessary. Training is important.
I encourage Filipino teachers to enroll Masters. The UNIFFIED and AFTA organizations are doing a good job at training our teachers, especially because of technology. I applaud these groups.
Same for nurses. I encourage them to take up advanced studies. They have to go up the ladder. Unless they are just here for money, money, money. You can be a nurse, teacher, or a supervisor. This is the case for all professionals who are here.
We must continue studying and go up with the way the world is moving.
At this time, what issues are you going to advocate for in the Philippines?
In this era, I would pay attention to the disabled. The laws we have for the protection of the disabled is absolutely nothing. The social welfare department is not doing enough. I just realized it now that I am on the scooter. We need ramps, elevators, and bathrooms for people with disabilities and seniors also. There is nothing of that. This is a neglected silent sector. I would like to work with them.
Villanueva: Filipinos tend to be invisible. If we bond together, we can be heard and seen.
Your thoughts on emerging FilAm leaders in politics in the US.
There are millions of Filipinos in the US. Filipinos tend to be invisible, even in the movie industry here where I work too. I am cast as a Spanish in movies here. But if we bond together, we can be heard and seen. I believe that if you are qualified, go for it. I would love to run even for a council seat. (Laughs). There is so much to do for our community.