‘NOONG 1962, when I was 25, sikat na artista na ako,” former President and now Manila Mayor Joseph Ejercito “Erap” Estrada recounted in Taglish as he sat behind his desk at the Manila City Hall. He has just finished giving a lengthy discourse to a group of visitors at the antechamber to his office when he granted this interview.
I overheard him telling the group: “I learned that you were not allowed entry into the office of the mayor during the previous regime, but now, here you are talking personally to me,” Estrada said in Tagalog.
There was an explosion of applause from the crowd. Erap, as he is fondly called, stood up to enter his office, but he was prevented from leaving. His guests crowded around him, wanting a selfie and he immediately obliged. Attired in a blue barong Tagalog, with no strand of unruly hair in his Elvis-like pompadour going astray, Estrada stood up for the photo-ops that sent the women aflutter.
“Asyong Salonga was my first starring role,” Estrada said during our interview. “It was one of more than 100 films I made with some of the most popular actors and actresses in the country. I was paid may be less than P100,000 for my first Asyong Salonga movie.”
Earlier in his career, he played a minor role in the movie Kandilang Bakal, a 1957 action film featuring Jose Padilla Jr., one of the most popular prewar actors who made dozens of films in his lifetime. Estrada remembers Lilia Dizon playing the lead female role.
Estrada said he impressed Padilla with his part in Kandilang Bakal and from there, he starred in a succession of movies. He eventually became one of the country’s most established and renowned actors.
Estrada was born on April 19, 1937, in Manila. Over the course of his prolific film career, he played the lead role in more than 80 films and produced over 70. In 1992 he ran for the Office of the Vice President and won. In 1998 he became the President of the Philippines. In 2001 he was arrested and imprisoned for six years. He ran for reelection in 2010, but lost to
Benigno Aquino III.
Estrada fondly recalls the movies of his younger years, such as Apat na Kilabot with Efren Reyes, Walang Pagkalupig with Fernando Poe Jr., and Ang Sangano at Ang Colegiala with Amalia Fuentes.
“I got the leading role in Kapit sa Patalim,” he said, and after a few more flicks, Estrada had fully established himself as the one of the country’s leading actors, earning him the top billing in such movies as Talahib, Tondo Boy and Markang Rehas.
But it was his role as Asyong Salonga that made him a household name in local moviedom. He was so popular that he became one of the country’s highest paid local actors, netting more than P100,000 per movie.
“At that time, I would set aside P30,000 for myself and the remaining P70,000 would be deposited in the bank.” He said the P30,000 would be spent to have a good time with friends, “but I also shared my money to the less fortunate members of the movie industry.”
“Sa Asyong Salonga, ang papel ko ay para sa mahihirap, matansero, kargador, sorbetero, labor leader, kaya nakita ko ang kahirapan ng mga tao [My role in Asyong Salonga was that of a poor man—butcher, ice-cream vendor, labor leader. That’s how I saw the life of the underprivileged].”
He said that as his popularity increased, his kinship with the low-salaried film crews grew strong. “I saw my film crew’s daily struggles that’s why I founded Mowelfund, the Movie Workers Welfare Foundation, for the crew in the movie industry, the workers.”
“Kaya noon pang artista ako, makamahirap na ako. Akala nila gawa-gawa ko lang [I was already pro-poor when I was an actor. They thought I just made it up],” he said.
Estrada said his early dream was to be a lawyer, but his father, Manila’s city engineer then, prevailed on him to follow his footsteps as an engineer and had him enrolled at the Ateneo.
“I dropped out of third year and got hitched in the movies since my friends were then the actors of the day,” he said. But his authoritarian father, not wanting to “smear” the family name in a profession that was considered for the low-brows in those days, forbid him to use the family name Ejercito. He said he took the screen name “Estrada,” a Spanish word for street.
Estrada said the Erap moniker stuck to him after he made a series of movies with that title: Okay Ka, Erap, Under de Saya si Erap, Tatay Ko Si Erap, “kaya napako sa akin ang palayaw na Erap [That’s how the nickname Erap stuck to me].”
“Pero kabaliktaran lang ng Erap ang pare, pal sa English na ginagamit noon sa Ateneo,” he said.
At the height of his fame, Estrada was paired with the leading men and women of those days, including Amalia Fuentes, Susan Roces, Efren Reyes, Zaldy Zshornack and Romeo Vasquez. He was given the Best Actor and Best Film awards by the Filipino Academy of Movie Arts and Science (Famas) five times each, earning him spots in the Famas Hall of Fame in 1981 and 1984.
“Sa bandang huli, kami na lang ni FPJ ang natira,” he said of his bosom friend, Fernando Poe Jr., the stepfather of Senator-cum-presidential aspirant Grace Poe Llamanzares.
In 1967 Estrada’s popularity with the masses enabled him to win hands down the San Juan mayoral elections. He served as mayor for 17 years. In 1987 he became a national politician when he took a seat in the Philippine Senate. During his five-year stint in the Upper House, Estrada served as chairman of the Committee on Rural Development and Committee on Cultural Communities, as well as vice chairman of the Committee on Health and Committee on Natural Resources and Ecology.
In 1992 Estrada ran for vice president and won. He retained the position for the next six years. As vice president, Estrada led the Presidential Anti-Crime Commission and was responsible for a number of high-profile criminal arrests.
Estrada’s 1998 presidential campaign was centered on this same law-and-order platform. Despite accusations of electoral fraud, Estrada won the presidency by a landslide, leaving his closest competitor, Jose de Venecia, in the dust.
“Ang pagiging presidente ay kapalaran [destiny],” he said. “Pag hindi mo destiny maging presidente, hindi ka magiging pangulo kahit gaano ka kayaman o kasikat,” Estrada told the BusinessMirror.[bctt tweet=”“Ang pagiging presidente ay kapalaran”—Erap Estrada “]
During Estrada’s administration, he improved the country’s tax-collection system and worked toward demilitarizing the Philippine government.
On April 25, 2001, Estrada was arrested on charges of plunder that his political adversaries had filed against him. After a long and humiliating trial, Estrada was imprisoned in Tanay for six years and was eventually released based on an unconditional pardon in October 2007.
While at the height of his popularity in the movies, Estrada said he bought a 24-hectare property in Tanay, which would be his exile to Napoleon Bonaparte’s Elba. He spent six years in Tanay after two years of getting holed up under hospital arrest at the Veterans Memorial Hospital in Quezon City. Estrada, following a highly controversial trial, was convicted of plunder under the Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo regime, the same President that would eventually grant him executive clemency.
“Aside from my earnings as a movie actor, I also earned on the side, renting my Tanay property to some schools for their ROTC bivouac every Sunday,” he said.
During his six years in Tanay, Estrada said he continued to help poor families in nearby towns by giving each family a pair of hogs to be raised for meat.
“Ang kondisyon ko, ibalik ang dalawang anak na inahin na ibabahagi ko naman sa iba [My only condition was to give back two sows which I would give to another set of family]. It is a continuing livelihood program.”
After Estrada was pardoned, he went back to Tanay and distributed 47 land titles and dried goods to 2,000 residents of the resettlement area he created for San Juan residents during his stint as that city’s mayor.
The recipients of the land titles were among 5,000 families who used to be informal settlers in Barangay Corazon de Jesus and Halo-Halo in San Juan. Estrada resettled them to an 18-hectare land in San Lorenzo Ruiz, Taytay town, in 1985. The land titles allowed the recipients to own lots ranging from 60 square meters to 90 sq m.
Estrada said he had to donate almost half of the Tanay property to the military, now Camp Capinpin, the headquarters of the Philippine Army’s 2nd Infantry Division, dubbed the “Jungle Fighter” division.
His incarceration did not stop Estrada from his activities. Today his Tanay property is a high-end resort he rents out to interested parties. The area boasts of a waterfall and a western-style saloon, reminiscent of a gunslinger’s hangout. He built a church, a zoo, a Maranaw-themed village, a lagoon for water fowls, some pink flamingoes, colorful koi fish and giant tilapia. He improved a large-capacity theater, which could be converted into a basketball court.
The center of all these is a movie museum for the country’s movie industry. To top it all, Estrada built a marble mausoleum, only for himself, under the shadow of a tree.
“That’s where I will spend eternity,” he wryly said.
He married Dr. and former Sen. Luisa Loi Pimentel-Ejercito Estrada. He met her while she was working at the National Center for Mental Health in Mandaluyong City. He has three children with her: son Jinggoy, a senator; daughter Jackie Ejercito Lopez, married to Beaver Lopez, son of Meralco Chairman Manuel Lopez; and actor Jude Ejercito.
Dr. Loi remains loyal to Estrada. Although she had foresworn politics, she is present whenever her husband entertains various guests in their San Juan home every Sunday, along with the children of his other women.
Estrada’s womanizing has become fodder for the Philippine media. His extramarital affairs included Guia Gomez, mayor of San Juan and mother of Sen. Joseph Victor JV Ejercito. The others are a former stewardess who is publicly known only by the name “Larena,” former actress Laarni Enriquez and former air hostess Joy Melendrez.
“The difference between me and the others who have extramarital affairs is that I openly admit my relationship with other women. During political campaigns, I never deny I have many women and the voters still vote for me,” he said.
He has been mayor of the city of Manila, the country’s capital, since 2013 and had filed his candidacy for another shot for the mayorship in 2016.
A brief account in Wikipedia said Estrada was elected President in 1998 with a wide margin of votes separating him from the other challengers, and was sworn into the presidency on June 30, 1998. In 2000 he declared an “all-out war” against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and captured its headquarters and other camps.
However, allegations of corruption spawned an impeachment trial in the Senate, and in 2001 Estrada was ousted by People Power 2 after the prosecution walked out of the impeachment court when the senator-judges voted “no” in the opening of the second envelope.
The Edsa 2 protests resulted from the concerted efforts of political, business, military and church elites who were displeased by Estrada’s policies that included removal of sovereign guarantees on government contracts. In October 2000 the Daily Tribune reported “elite plans to constitutionally oust President Estrada under ‘Oplan Excelsis.’” Emil Jurado of the Manila Standard reported as early as 1999 about a PR demolition work designed to embarrass Estrada “by attributing to his administration all sorts of perceived faults and scams with the end in view of covering up anomalies and scams also committed during the Ramos administration.”
Former First Gentleman Mike Arroyo also admitted in an interview with Nick Joaquin that he and then-Ilocos Sur Gov. Chavit Singson and certain military officials plotted plans to oust Estrada in January 2001, with the alternative “Plan B” being violent “with orders to shoot. And not only in Metro Manila.”
In 2007 Estrada was sentenced by the special division of the Sandiganbayan to reclusión perpetua for the plunder of stealing $80 million from the government and was sentenced to lifetime in prison, but was later granted pardon by President Arroyo. He ran for president again in the 2010 presidential election, but placed second behind then-senator Benigno Aquino III.
“Kung hindi namatay si Cory [former president Corazon Aquino], sigurado na-reelect ako [Had Cory not died, I would surely have been reelected],” he said, attributing the citizen’s grief as translating into vote of sympathy for her son, President Aquino.