Life is Short, Eat the Cake: A Slice of Life with Imelda Aquino

Sunday December 1, 2019

By: Naiia Lajoie

Life has not always been a piece of cake for Imelda Aquino. While she did grow up in a relatively well-to-do family in Palo, Leyte in the Philippines, she was number eleven in a twelve-child household. Despite carrying the Aquino name, she would opt to use her middle name of “Rose” as her surname so as not to draw attention to herself. Given people often associate the Aquino family name with riches, she recalls being called upon during her first day of school; once her full name was read aloud from the attendance sheet, she was asked if she came from wealth.

Make no mistake, she acknowledges how blessed she was being brought up in a “comfortable” environment. She was raised with the help of maids – as is typical in Filipino culture –surrounded by Disney toys. Yet early on she found herself questioning whether life on the island was enough, perhaps at the behest of her immediate older brother, number ten of twelve. Imelda and her brother were particularly close, and as they grew together he felt as though there was more that life had in store for his younger sister, particularly when it came to courtship.

As she approached marrying age (mind you, this is fairly early in the Philippines compared to their Fil-Am counterparts), Imelda’s brother bluntly pointed out that there was no one on her level. Though there was a fellow well-off family within the vicinity, he regaled her with thoughts of traveling abroad to America. He of course knew nothing of the subject, but from what he had heard it sounded magical. Over in America their family could easily split large helpings of pork & beans – a delicacy in his mind – and claimed that if she did move to the States she would not have to cook. She could just go to McDonald’s every day; a place the entire family knew existed, but no one had ever seen let alone set foot in.

His tough love made it all sound so simple. Why waste time playing with dolls based on Disney characters when she could move to the U.S. and meet them all in person? Again, think of this prospect from the mindset of a teenager, who upon nearing the end of her teens relented to his suggestions and devised a plan to enter the United States through a student visa. But her family already had other plans, and decided via means of an arranged marriage to a wealthy suitor that she would enter the States through a spousal green card.

Seeing as her fiancé hailed from an already well-established home, when her future mother-in-law asked what it was the then 17-turning-18 year old wanted for her dream wedding, all Imelda could answer was a big beautiful wedding dress – which was delivered, complete with pearl button detail along the back in lieu of a zipper – and a cake that towered at 5’4”. While the request may sound ridiculous now, in her family of twelve siblings only the eldest two were married, who were 20 years her senior. She was more a daughter to them than a sister, and given no one else dared brave the move to America, she wanted to milk that American dream for all it was worth.

Imelda soon learned that the American dream was not all it was cracked up to be. She did not have pork & beans or McDonald’s every day, and did have to do the cooking. She also had to wash her own clothes, and that initial marriage ended in divorce. She reminisces, “Coming to America was NOT a fantasy or dream. Especially when you had everything back home, but just didn’t realize it”. Fast forward to present day in Rogers, Arkansas. During the interview for this article Imelda is running back to a fast food joint while on the phone because she had forgotten her order at the restaurant. She remarried and has two adult kids, a 35 year old daughter who works as a scientist and a 33 year old son living in Manhattan, studying to obtain a PhD from Columbia University. She works as a real estate agent, running multiple properties across four different states – Arkansas, Arizona, Nevada, and Florida – and owns 6000 acres of active farmland growing rice, soy beans, & corn.

After the birth of her children, Imelda returned to the Philippines to introduce them to their extended family, who marveled at their ability to play the piano and violin at just 3 years old, and how happy they were – how happy SHE was. Two of her siblings caught the travel bug and decided to emigrate. Imelda encouraged them; she petitioned for their arrival into the U.S. in 1987, which at the time warranted a mere $50 cost according to her memory. “Life isn’t easy”, she recollects, “but I made it easy for them”.

Having lived stateside for 36 years now, Imelda returned to the Philippines recently following the passing of her mother. She was 96, and while most would attribute that old age to luck of the draw (especially in the Philippines) Imelda insists her mother lived that long because she wanted to. “My mother was precise. It didn’t just ‘happen’. I had a brother who passed away at 72 years old. We can pick which of life’s roads we want to go [down]” she explains.

“Even if you fail, you have to get up again. That’s how you’ll live more, because you try harder. If you don’t make it, don’t give up. It’s not the end of the world”. Imelda is a far cry from the dream-laden naïve girl who left her homeland for greener pastures. “I started from scratch, and I fell so many times. I have a great life, but it took a long time to get there”. Every year for her birthday and life’s other celebrations she commemorates the day with a 5’4” cake. She also did eventually make it to Disneyland.

All throughout, Imelda maintained her sunny disposition. Her colorful spirit is perpetuated in her children, who in their youth knew little of their original Filipino culture. Initially detesting the ‘foreign’ tastes and smells, they now enjoy visiting Filipino homes and love Pinoy food. “There’s always a plan. It might not be how you’re currently looking at it, but it will come. It’s close, and it’ll spontaneously grow” she imparts. Imelda’s stories of life, love, and the pursuit of happiness despite loss illustrate that one can have their cake and eat it too.

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