The Unsung Struggle of Maria Theresa Carlson
Some may have forgotten her. Some don't even know her.
Some may still remember her for famous laugh line, "Si ikaw, si ako."
Two weeks after the murder of Nida Blanca in 2001, showbiz was shaken once again by the death of one of its own.
Though Maria Theresa Carlson was not as legendary as the veteran actress, her suicide on November 23 that year was a mystery fraught with tales of extreme suffering after she had faded from the limelight.
Maria was 16 when she came to the Philippines on a visit with her family. Her mother was from Guimba, Nueva Ecija, and her father, a Californian. Born in Manila but raised in San Francisco, the young Maria decided to remain here. It was not difficult convincing her to stay. In a Mr and Ms. magazine interview in 1982, Maria said she had always dreamt of becoming a beauty queen.
In fact, she did become one three years before that interview. She was Miss Young Philippines, 1979. Her title brought her places, literally and figuratively. She represented the country in the Miss Young International Pageant in Tokyo.
The entertainment world was quick to spot her. She was witty, pretty, playful, and articulate. Immediately she was cast as a pretty, dumb damsel in distress in the weekly hour-long sitcom Chicks to Chicks. The show was quite successful; but while male viewers found it funny, women felt offended.
"Si ikaw, si ako" became her laugh line to popularity. She was one of the first Filipino-Americans who made something out of her broken Tagalog.
Soon, movies beckoned. She made a total of seven films, including comedies with Chiquito and with the trio of Tito and Vic Sotto and Joey de Leon.
When Maria Met Rudy
In 1982, Maria Theresa Gerodias Carlson, 19, met Rodolfo Castro Fariñas, 32.
Maria's Chicks to Chicks co-star Freddie Webb introduced them to each other. Freddie recalls, "It was by accident. We were going to play basketball in Laoag. I called up Maritess and asked her if she wanted to watch. She wasn't doing anything, so she agreed."
Fariñas, a longtime friend of Webb, was then the newly elected mayor of Laoag City. He was a fast-rising political star who wanted to win the heart of Maria, a fast rising showbiz star. A Manila-based magazine called him "a dashing bachelor" and "flamboyant playboy." Fariñas had already fathered two children from a previous liaison.
In a 1996 interview, Maria told the Manila Times that she fell for Rudy because of his name, position, and connections. But she insisted he was more than those things. "He had a great personality, he was down to earth. He is basically a good person—smart, intelligent. He was not corrupt like most politicians you see now. He was a perfect gentleman."
So, Maria went off to his turf in Laoag. She lived in his home, married him later in Las Vegas, and married him again in a Laoag church.
In the next several elections, Rudy used her as his star campaigner. He called her "Whitey" before the Ilocanos. And they were captivated by her beauty.
But campaigns were tough and her husband wanted to cover more areas. Sheila Coronel, then a reporter for Manila Chronicle, related an incident: "Fariñas was impatient...‘Faster, Whitey!' he hollered at her, and shouting in Ilocano for everyone to hear, 'Or else I'll dump you!'
The Ilocanos were impressed when they saw her, beautiful and all smiles for them. But whenever she was inside the vehicle, Maria sulked. She was suffering from scoliosis, with some bones in her spine pressing close to her heart. She got tired easily and had palpitations.
In 1996, a handwritten letter was addressed to then senator Leticia Ramos-Shahani. The senator was a known Fariñas supporter.
In the letter, Maria narrated that she wanted to leave the marriage because her husband had been beating her up. She said she was beaten black and blue and subjected to water torture. She requested that she be taken away from her husband. As a postscript, Maria had affixed her thumbmarks to assure the senator that the letter was not a hoax.
The media began to explore deeper into her troubles.
In a Probe interview in October 1996 Maria narrated: "At the start, there would be occasional slapping on the face, physical abuse, beatings. He will box you...all over. I was subjected to water torture. I had a gun at me in my mouth...a wet towel all over my face, pour [sic] Sprite, 7-Up or continuous water...
"I do not wish to embarrass him. I do not want humiliate him. I'm not out just for any money. I'm even willing to give up everything. I just want my freedom, and my independence. I want my annulment and I want what's due to me as my constitutional rights as a Filipino."
Long before 1996, Maria had cried out many times for help.
In a 1988 interview, she slipped a note to reporter Nini Valera that said: "Please help me, I am literally being tortured."
Valera was interviewing Maria in the Fariñas home. She noted that the husband was not far away in the same room, cleaning his gun. Near the end of the interview, when Fariñas left for a few minutes, Nini discovered that Maria had been dabbing powder to conceal cigarette burns on her chin.
In 1992, Maria got in touch with the Kalakasan hotline, an NGO for women in distress. Anna Leah Sarabia said, "Sa umpisa, saglit-saglit lang ‘yan. At saka walang pangalan. Umiiyak...Hindi naming alam kung sino..."
By 1995, Maria was able to identify herself. Sarabia said, "Pero tatawag siya, saglit-saglit lang, siguro one minute, two minutes. Tapos, Ibababa ‘yong phone. Kaso sabi niya, ‘They're watching me.' Tapos, ‘pag wala nang tao, tatawag uli."
Back in His Arms
A week after her Probe interview, Maria went back to her husband. An article in Cosmopolitan magazine, "Cry for Help," read: "With no money, no government protection, but only a baby begging to be delivered, Maria was left with no choice but to return to her husband. On October 15, she gave birth to her sixth child, a baby boy. It was also her birthday. She was 34."
She appeared on television, Magandang Gabi Bayan, with her husband beside her and she took back everything she had said against him. She told host Noli de Castro that she was just feeling insecure. "Baka dahil buntis po ako. Hindi ako maganda sa kanya. Puro motherhood, puro housewife na lang." The plump, matronly Maria was a far cry from her beauty-queen days.
Meanwhile, Fariñas had things to say, too: The media "violated our rights as husband and wife." He accused Probe of messing up with their lives, interfering in a petty marital quarrel. He said to the Manila Times, "Saan ka naman nakakita ng tampuhan lang ng mag-asawa, ipa-flash mo sa TV?."
Maria Theresa Carlson-Fariñas, 38, died on November 23, 2001. She plunged from her apartment on the 23rd floor of Platinum 2000, Greenhills, San Juan. She landed on the condominium's third floor airwell. (Ironically, the condo is adjacent to the Atlanta building where Nida Blanca died.) Maria was found dead by a roving security guard at 2 o'clock in the wee hours.
Initially, everyone suspected foul play. But San Juan police said there was no indication of anything wrong at the scene and ruled it a suicide. Her husband called it an accident.
A Loyola Memorial services assistant told the GMA-7 news crew, "Walang ulo. Yung utak niya dumikit sa mga ano...nagkalat, pinulot ko isa-isa. Nakakatakot talaga. Wasak ang mukha, durog, sabog ang skull niya."
The househelp who was with Maria at the rented condo unit, said that Maria jumped. Days before that, she was going around the condo, saying, "I miss my baby...don't leave me."
In the weeks that followed her death, her husband, now a congressman, faced the media relentlessly. In an interview with Butch Francisco in the Philippine Star, he recounted, "I loved being with her. We enjoyed the same kind of things...Okay lang sa kanya that she would be the butt of my jokes. And I really appreciated the fact na inalagaan niya ang dalawang anak ko sa ibang babae."
"During the elections, nangangampanya ‘yan. She'd go on a house-to-house campaign. Pero kapag sinumpong ‘yan...she'd start hearing things. And then, she becomes uncaring. Ang pagkakamali ko, sana naki-ride on na lang ako. May mga pagkukulang din ako sa kanya," the scion from Laoag, Ilocos Norte said.
After Maria's death, a women's coalition lobbied arduously to have a law passed in Congress.
The women succeeded in 2004 when Republic Act 9262 or "Anti-Violence against Women and Children Act" was signed on March 8, International Women's Day. Many women are now aware of their rights and how to seek protection from all forms of abusive relationship.
This story originally appeared on Pep.ph.
* Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.