MONA LISA: An Actress’ Pain and Triumph
A colleague once told Mona Lisa that an actor must go through hardships in order to emote properly. Mona Lisa must have smiled at that remark; for since childhood she has known only pain. Her life bears the scars of a traumatic upbringing, a stressful episode of near-starvation as a child laborer, and a turbulent career as an exploited screen actress. A less hardy individual would not have survived the crushing blows inflicted on her.
Born Gloria Yatco on June 22,1922, Mona Lisa was exposed early to the reversals of fortune. Her father was a scion of a wealthy family, with relations to Jose Rizal, whose patriarch, however, spent the family fortune in shuttling between Manila and Paris and in courting Parisian women. Reduced to penury, her father, Manuel Yatco was forced to do menial tasks; he was mortally embarrassed to be seen by acquaintances doing janitorial work. Compounding his situation was a marriage considered beneath his station – – to a movie ticket seller, Melecia Lerma.
The shame forced him to relocate his family to California. However, it was the time of the American depression; and, being Filipinos, the Yatcos were exposed to racial prejudice. In order to survive, the family lived in stables and worked as fruit pickers in the California orchards. Thus, Mona Lisa and her brothers and sisters picked grapes, apples, oranges and apricots and,from time to time, sweetpeas.
The Yatcos were extremely poor that they had to share a piece of porkchop among the eight of them. In school, the Yatco children’s classmates brought with them paper bags full of ham and turkey sandwiches. To avoid embarrassment, the Yatco children ingeniously worked on their paperbags to make it appear as if there was something inside. As they ate separately , they avoided detection. Until one day, when a teacher opened the paperbags and found- -stones.
The American sojourn proved to be traumatic to Mona Lisa. Unto this day, she cannot be enjoined to swoon over the imported fruits on the Christmas table.
After seven years of a hard life, Mona Lisa’s parents eventually divorced. Mona Lisa’s mother decided to return to the Philippines, bringing with her the brood minus her ex-husband, who opted to stay behind.
But Philippine life was just as hostile, and Mona Lisa found that she had to become the family’s breadwinner. She opted to become an actress because she had long harbored such a desire since the age of five and had loved watching the movies. Her maternal grandmother, Maximima Gonzales, was an actress in the Carvajal stage troupe. Mona Lisa, too had appeared in school plays.
While in the States, she wrote to her maternal aunt, Celing Lerma, to help her get a movie break. Ms. Lerma was close to the Parlatone Hispano Filipino owner, Raymundo Navarro. The studio honcho took a liking to her and ordered the Parlatone publicists to orchestrate a buildup. She was a naive girl of fifteen when she first appeared on the Parlatone set. She was rechristened Fleur de lis. Her first role was an unbilled appearance as Yolanda Marquez’s pal in Ang Pagbabalik . She soon climbed to the sympathetic second lead in films like Walang Pangalan, Sanggumay, and Bago Lumubog ang Araw —or to villainous roles like the scheming woman who conspires to separate her paramour from his inamorata in Mga Sugat ng Puso.
Both Mga Sugat ng Puso and Giliw Ko dwell on one of Mona Lisa’s early screen incarnations: the misunderstood modern woman who freely expresses her sexual proclivities, the liberated woman who smoke, drink and wear the indecent Western clothes, who could show off the daring bathing apparel, much to the horror of the conservative baro ‘t saya society.
In 1940, she moved over to X’Otic Films where Eduardo de Castro, the production head, and later the father of one of her sons, changed her name to Mona Lisa. According to the studio buzz at that time, it was because the symbol had negative connotations.
Over at X’Otic, she started to get the plum roles. She was poised to be launched as a superstar when the Pacific war broke out. Her solo starrer was to have been Prinsesa Urduja, about a tough jungle native who refuses to marry unless her groom could beat her in very demanding athletic competitions. It was eventually shown during the war, but her screen career suffered a setback.
After the war she continued to make films for X’Otic Films and its sister company, Lebran. She made films for master director Carlos Vander Tolosa : Siyudad sa llalim ng Lupa , an ambitious films about underground dwellers and Sunset over Corregidor, a dark, brooding film about war atrocities and the despair of its fighters. She played a guerrilla leader and became the first Filipina to disrobe — at least for the international version.
In 1952, she acted in Eddie Romero’s much acclaimed Buhay Alamang, one of her last films before her retirement.
She also made films for independent companies, especially when X’Otic Films closed down. She was cast as the guerrilla leader in Bisig ng Batas, a woman whose child is kidnapped in Matimtiman (Babaeng Silangan), a taxi dancer in Maria Kapra, and a deranged woman who has lost her child and is brought back to her senses by Tessie Agana in Ulila ng Bataan .One of her all-time favorites is Hanggang Langit, an adaptation of Wuthering Heights, where she played opposite Leopoldo Salcedo.
In the fifties, she decided to settle down and married Abelardo Guinto, a mason and later the firechief at Vientiane, Laos. She raised a family of four children and remained a housewife. Twenty-two years later, Joey Gosiengfiao got her out of retirement to play a glamorous mother in La Paloma in 1974; In 1976, Lino Brocka called on her to essay the role of Aling Tonyang in Insiang.
Insiang was her artistic peak. She won wide acclaim both here and abroad for her role as the tough and amorous mother, whose sexual needs clash with her maternal duties to her abused daughter. Amidst the incipient violence of Smokey Mountain, both mother and daughter devise stratagems to possess and punish the slum’s resident lothario.
Given her golden years, her choice of roles has narrowed to the geriatrics. In Itim, she plays the troubled mother whose favorite daughter, a nun, dies from a botched abortion. In Cain at Abel, she is the devouring mother whose irrational favoritism disastrously pits son against son. In Mother Ignacia, she plays a nun who is witness to the life and times of the eponymous heroine.
Asked how she is able to achieve such acting brilliance, Mona Lisa replies by saying she merely gives her all. Her thespian prowess is not evident in the rehearsals but, as Lino Brocka once remarked, she incarnates the character, once the camera is ready for the take.
Mona Lisa is one of those intuitive Filipino actresses who deliver finely nuanced, emotionally resonating performances. Without benefit of training, she exhibits an impressively broad range of dramatic options, imbuing her screen roles with sensitivity and insight. She draws from her memories the very pain of her being and transmutes that into the essence of her craft.
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