A mother’s illustrious life, seen through the eyes of her daughter
Leticia Ramos-Shahani was a woman larger than life—a career diplomat who was once the highest ranking woman in the United Nations system; the first Filipina envoy to a communist nation; a lawmaker who co-authored some of the most significant laws for the country in the post-EDSA era; a tireless public servant who advocated moral recovery for the Philippines; a voracious reader who loved literature and philosophy; a polyglot who spoke at least five languages; a feminist in the league of the likes of Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem; and, most importantly, a parent who raised three children all by herself, in spite of these commitments.
To her daughter, Lila Ramos Shahani, her mother’s mind and spirit have rubbed off onto her in many subliminal ways. “I’d like to think that, while I did not intentionally try to imitate her, in many ways we led parallel lives,” she shares.
Both of them lived in Mexico, India and France (where Letty did her doctorate in literature), read Indian writing in English for their doctoral theses, and career-wise, worked as diplomats. Lila is currently the secretary-general of the Philippine National Commission for UNESCO.
She confesses though that being Letty’s daughter had its share of challenges. “It was never easy being her daughter. She played the role of mother and father when my dad died when I was only a year and eight months old, all while doing the job of an ambassador. Her life was one shaped by intense discipline.”
During her mother’s wake, Lila, in her first eulogy, shared the stories of her mother’s childhood.
“She was fond, for example, of telling the tale of having crawled under the kulambo (mosquito net) to join her grandparents as they smoked opium. She recalled, too, the times she spent on the shores of Lingayen, collecting with her siblings sacksful of small crabs, laboriously collecting their fat to make aligue and eat them with freshly-cooked rice made by her mother.”
Lila shares that, as a child, her mother had a great love for learning.
“She took her piano lessons seriously. When the Battle of Manila erupted (during World War II), they moved from place to place to be safe. Not wanting to forget her lessons, she crafted a piece of wood where she drew, with great precision, the black and white keys of a piano, and she would practice on it every day.”
Listening to her mom’s childhood stories, Lila bonded deeply with her mother during her twilight years.
“I came to see a side of her that was kept from me while I was growing up. The image of my mother as a child at play, marveling at the natural world, fills me with great tenderness.”
Destined For Each Other
Not too many people know that Letty was a single mother—not by choice, as her husband, Indian scholar Ranjee Shahani, died of cerebral hemorrhage when Lila was only a toddler. She describes that her parents’ love affair was a long and romantic engagement. Letty did not remarry after his death.
“My father courted her for almost 15 years. Sadly, they were only married for eight years before he died. And during those years, it was largely a long-distance relationship, spanning three entire continents. In a time when there was no e-mail, they would write long letters to one other,”
she elaborates. This epistolary relationship was so powerful and beautiful that Lila plans to gather their letters and compile them into a volume one day.
Woman in Man’s World
It was no mean feat working as an ambassador, as being a female in those circles was not easy then. “When she worked for the UN, she drove a car to work. She was her own driver,” Lila reveals. Also, coming from a less developed country and being a woman, she was often looked down upon by less informed colleagues.
However, she also remembers a shining moment when her mother was ambassador to Romania during the Ceausescu regime, the first female envoy to Eastern Europe. Unlike many diplomats who played golf or attended parties with their leader hosts, there was a unique traditional rite of passage for the Romanian diplomatic corps.
“[Nicolae] Ceausescu was into hunting, and the ambassadors tagged along with him during those expeditions. After the activity, they were made to sit on the lap of the dictator, who would proceed to playfully whip them on their behinds—sort of a welcoming gesture. But Ceausescu was reluctant to do that to her since she was a woman. But Letty said: ‘Sir, I insist.’ From then on, Ceausescu and her male colleagues came to respect her all the more.”
More difficult though was when as a senator she crafted laws that were deemed radical and somehow ran contrary to the deeply-ingrained religious and cultural sensibilities of the time. As a feminist, Letty championed not only women and children’s rights but also those of the LGBTs as well. She also advocated for the protection of natural resources from exploitation, both by foreign and local business groups.
As a senator, she was friendly even with many conservative politicians. Still they did not see eye to eye on a number of issues. “For instance, she authored the landmark Rape Law that made rape a crime against persons instead of a crime against chastity. According to the Spanish penal code she sought to replace, you could not complain of having been raped if you were not a virgin. Today, because of Mom, it is now a crime of violence against persons—whether they be straight, gay, lesbian, trans, male, female, young or old,” Lila says.
When Letty’s husband died, she took it upon herself to raise her daughter and two sons, Ranjit and Chanda, while traveling from one country to another, part of her work as a diplomat. Lila admits that, as a young girl, she could not fully grasp why she could not be with her mother all the time.
“I did not totally resent her but, you have to understand, as a child, I couldn’t understand why she was not there when I was growing up,” she confesses. “But she was always a caring mother who never forgot her responsibilities. When we were living overseas, she would buy the groceries herself after a long day at work. She felt she needed to be responsible for all of us.”
Letty also sent the three children to study abroad and learn several languages. “Mom always had foresight. She sent me to a private school for Chinese girls to learn Mandarin decades before China became a super power.”
When Letty was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2014, she remained unfazed. She thought she would live for 10 more years, Lila reveals. She would tend to the family farm in Pangasinan and became a farmer.
“She was tireless. [My brothers and I] would worry when she would still pull out weeds and soil her hands while she was sick. But that was her, always working. She also read books on philosophy, political analysis, spirituality and literature, in addition to books on medicine, alternative healing and raw food—in order to better understand her condition.”
It was Lila, however, who was shaken by the revelation. “I had been mentally preparing myself [for the eventuality of her passing] for three years. I no longer had tears when she finally passed because I had already been crying for months before it finally happened,” she admits.
It was in this situation that she got to know her mother better, and returned the gesture of “motherhood” to her, in kind: they got closer and bonded more often. She would accompany her to treatments and therapies, as well as dinner and movies along with her brothers.
“I tried to give her the time she could not give me,” she says.
With her mother’s passing, Lila has continued her mother’s legacy at the Department of Foreign Affairs by promoting and preserving cultural treasures (both tangible and intangible) for UNESCO Philippines.
“My mom taught me that it is possible to work in government without stealing. I learned from her that there are honest people in government, decent workers who are not necessarily high-ranking but work diligently. I respect those rank-and-file employees who work until 11 at night during national calamities because I worked with some of them when I was with the DSWD. My mom and I believe in honest public service—that it can, in fact, be done.”
An important personal project Lila is working on right now is finishing her mother’s memoirs (Letty managed to write the first two chapters), and also compiling the love letters of her parents to one another.
In her lifetime, Letty imparted many illuminating words to her children, especially about public service. “She told me, ‘I want you to be fierce and strong and bright; but always be calm and beautiful.’”
And Lila continues to take that lesson to heart.