The society of respected film critics that hands out the annual Gawad Urian in cinematic excellence

Mila del Sol: Hard life, beginnings, romances, hollywood days, the bright twilight years

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By Butch Francisco

Mila del Sol—a play of words around “milagro del sol” or miracle of the sun. This was the screen name given to her rather belatedly—when she was already in the middle of production, shooting her launching picture, Giliw Ko.

Filmed outside the controlled environment of a studio barn, the director, Carlos Vander Tolosa, had difficulty working on his day effects. The skies were always overcast.

But whenever the star was called in to do her scenes, the sun—miraculously—would come out. And so the name Mila del Sol was coined.

Life has not been all sunshine, however, for Mila del Sol, now 90 years old. But in spite of her share of storms (plenty!), she has remained healthy. Her face is still lovely and almost wrinkle-free.

Born Clarita Rivera, she traces her roots to her father’s side to a Castilian forebear named Primo de Rivera. Somewhere along the way, the de (of) in the surname was dropped. By the time her father, Amado, was born in the pueblo (now the capital city) of Batangas, the name had been shortened to Rivera.

It was also in Batangas where her father met her mother, the former Lorenza Villarba, who then was just visiting from her native province of Mindoro, just across the bay.

Lorenza was a true Filipina beauty—“magandang Pinay,” as Mila describes her. It was love at first sight for Amado. He wooed and courted Lorenza until she agreed to marry him. Together they settled in Manila—in the district of Tondo, which then still had traces of gentility.

Even in those supposed days of plenty, decades prior to the Pacific War, life was still difficult for them. Although Amado came from a family of means and worked as an agent for the Bureau of Customs, he and Lorenza had a hard time feeding their children, mainly because there were nine of them—with the second child dying in infancy.

They were so hard up that by the time Clarita was born on May 12, 1923, Lorenza had to give birth at the free ward of Mary Johnston Hospital. Mila claims that she wasn’t particularly pretty as a child. ”I suspected that even my mother thought so,” she now recalls, “because I had to teach her how to say that I was beautiful.”

Nicknamed Claring, she had had difficulty pronouncing her R that she ended up calling herself Claling. She remembers telling her mom to say: “Claling, ang ganda-ganda mo! Claling, ang bangu-bango mo!” This was the mantra Mila’s mother had to recite repeatedly to keep peace at home. “This is why whenever somebody says I’m beautiful, I value it,” says Mila.

Toward the 1930s, there came a relief on their finances. Amado and Lorenza had saved enough to purchase—through a bank loan—a property in Pasay (then still part of the province of Rizal). On Antipolo St., the Riveras built a one-story residence with three rooms—one for the couple, with the other two for the brood.

Typical of most middle class homes, they had a piano in the living room. Mila and another sister were even given piano lessons that turned out to be so expensive the tutoring had to be cut short after a few sessions. They only went as far as learning do-re-mi on the ivory keys.

Fortunately, her parents didn’t have to spend for her tuition fee since she went to public schools that in those days still guaranteed quality education. For grade school, she was sent to the Malate Primary School. Mila recalls that it was then located in front of the Malate Church—which now serves as an open park. Later, she moved to the public elementary school in San Andres Bukid.

However, money remained tight for the family. Their Pasay home had yet to be completed when they transferred, with the last nail waiting to be pounded in. The roof, for instance, still had to be properly installed, but the limited funds did not allow it. Every time it rained, there was only one area in the house that stayed dry and that was where they all converged.

When their finances hit rock-bottom, they had to give up the house because Amado could no longer pay for the amortization. They packed their bags again and moved to Intramuros.

The once famed Walled City by then was already on the brink of decay. The more prominent families that time had already long moved to Ermita and Malate. Others began building residences in Old Sta. Mesa—like the Legardas and the Cachos (great-grandparents of director Paul Soriano).

Most of the grand old houses in Intramuros had been converted into accesorias or rooms that were rented out to families. On Magallanes Street, the Riveras got a room for all 10 of them.

No bigger than 20 square meters, it served as their living, dining, kitchen and sleeping quarters. And they even brought with them their piano from their house in Pasay. Mercifully, it wasn’t a grand piano, but upright. But still some of them had to sleep upright—yes, upright—since the space was so cramped.

It was a time to be considerate of each other. Those who already had the luxury and comfort of sleeping flat on the floor for a few hours would later get up and take the upright position to give other family members a chance to have a night’s rest.

Mila describes Intramuros that time as a place that was packed with people, but generally was still cleaner than it is today. The house where they stayed, she says, was charming and even had an azotea where children of all the residents played. Bathrooms were communal and so was the laundry area.

At age 10, she was given the task of doing the laundry for the entire family—washing and ironing. Her parents had noticed that she was meticulous when it came to ironing clothes. “If you excelled at one chore, then you got assigned to that one for good.”

Doing the laundry was no joke because in those days, no decent person ever went out of the house wearing only a T-shirt. Her father, for one, wore a starched long-sleeved white shirt complete with cuff links just to go to the store of the Chinaman at the street corner. “Washing wasn’t a big deal because I had fun playing with water,” she points out. What was murder for her was the ironing of clothes because they used a heavy flat iron that was heated by charcoal (de uling) that emitted smoke. “And I was asthmatic!” No, she doesn’t recall ever burning even a piece of clothing because if she did—“I would have gotten it!”

Everyone in the family did their share to make life easier at home. All her young life she remembers her father always hanging on to two jobs. He worked at the Customs during the day and waited on tables at night at the Santa Ana cabaret, then billed as the world’s biggest dance hall.

For all the hard work her father put in, there were days when they would fall asleep at night without supper. But weekends were much awaited. Santa Ana cabaret was frequented by big-time businessmen and even respected politicians had their own reserved tables there. Friday and Saturday nights, tips were huge and from work, their father would pass by the panciteria and wake up everyone to partake of a midnight snack of noodles to make up for the dinner they had skipped earlier.

After finishing 7th grade at the Intramuros Intermediate School, she was no longer able to pursue secondary education because of financial difficulties. She merely stayed home and did more laundry for the family.

One day, one of the suitors of older sister Sofia dropped by their home. His name was Teddy Benavidez, who had then just joined the movies (a daughter, Charmie, later followed in his footsteps in the early 1970s).

In his attempt to win points with Amado, he offered to bring Sofia to the movie studio to turn her into an artista. Unfortunately for Teddy, Amado had the notion—like most everyone else then—that movie stars were cheap. “Ano akala mo sa anak ko, puta?!” (“What do you think of my daughter, a whore?!”) He then grabbed a palu-palo (a wooden laundry stick) and gave Teddy a chase around the neighborhood.

When Amado eventually calmed down, Teddy carefully explained to him that those working in the movies were decent people who earned an honest living. The Rivera patriarch later gave his consent for Sofia to audition and try her luck as an actress in motion pictures.

Sofia passed the screen test and was given the name Gloria Imperial. “My sister was really very pretty,” volunteers Mila. And she proved to be very talented, too. In Gloria’s brief stay in the movies she was respected as a top dramatic actress.

With her sister’s earnings from show business, the family was able to get out of that cramped accesoria. They also stayed within the Intramuros vicinity, but in a much better place.

Soon, another sister, Adela, was also drafted into the movies and was given the screen name Guia Imperial. Mila was finally rid of her duties in the laundry area and was made to chaperone her sisters at work.

The enterprising Mila, however, found a source of income for herself—as an extra in the movies. As part of the crowd scene, she would position herself in front, closest to the camera. By the time of the actual shoot, she’d find herself relegated to the farthest end—“pero pose pa rin ako nang pose (but I’d still keep posing just the same).”

Although Ang Maya, Hatol ng Mataas na Hari, and Mariang Alimango (all in 1938) are always included in her screen credits, she considers her participation in those films as non-parts.

In 1938, the families of the De Leons, Villoncos and Navoas decided to pool their resources to establish LVN Pictures. Their first project was to be Giliw Ko and they had wanted Gloria Imperial to star in it.

Gloria, however, had to turn down the offer. After about half a dozen films and despite her success as an actress, she felt it was time to settle down and marry her beau, Alfredo Bunyi, who later became prisons director. (One of their children, Ignacio “Toti” Bunyi, would become Muntinlupa mayor and press secretary of the Arroyo administration.)

Dropping by the box the De Leon family maintained at the San Lazaro Hippodrome, Gloria sought out Doña Sisang’s daughter, Amada (later Mrs. Erana) to thank her family for the offer, but sorry, she couldn’t do the film. The name of Guia was brought up, but she, too, was altar-bound (she would later die in a fire in the US).

When there were still no takers for the role, Mila mustered enough courage to volunteer for the part. Amada promised to present her to Doña Sisang. At the New Manila home of the De Leons, the matriarch wasn’t immediately impressed. The 16-year-old girl to begin with still had baby fat and, to put it bluntly, was plain (she’d only bloom later). But she showed promise and had probably what today’s generation would describe as X-factor.

When filming of Giliw Ko began, nobody knew what to do with her. Word reached Doña Sisang that the new discovery would face the camera filthy—after a playful brawl with the crewmen in between takes. She was obviously still a child and tomboyish at that. “I was so dirty, my leading men wouldn’t touch me,” she now laughs. Leading men were Fernando Poe, Sr. and Ely Ramos. Fleur de Lis, who later would be renamed Mona Lisa, played her support. Mona Lisa was a balikbayan from San Francisco then and spoke with a twang. “Despite her crooked Tagalog, she was already an excellent actress even then,” shares Mila.

Giliw Ko thankfully became a hit when it was released in 1939 and established Mila as a star. More films followed and Mila realized she could not afford to be playful on the set anymore in spite of her being cast mostly in pilya (naughty) roles. For one, she still didn’t know how to memorize lines. It was Leopoldo Salcedo who taught her how she should study her script and even learn the lines of co-actors—“so that nobody got lost during the take.”

She was thankful that unlike Mona Lisa, she had a mastery of Tagalog and was very fluent at it and that made her acting job easier. However, she still felt awkward using “datapwa’t” in her dialogues—because “we never used that for everyday conversation even in the old days, unless naglolokohan kayo.”

After a series of successful projects with LVN, she became Doña Sisang’s favorite in the studio lot. The old lady became so fond of her that a room in the De Leon house on Broadway Street was remodelled and turned into a suite for Mila’s use if she wanted to stay for the night.

But Mila thought it was wise to build her own house. She had saved enough, after all, and chose a property near the boundary of Manila and Quezon City, then in its infancy after it was carved out of Rizal province. After leafing through several American magazines, she had a house constructed—on Kanlaon Street—and named it California Bungalow.

To get her to work, she initially got a secondhand Ford that kept stalling. Doña Sisang remedied the problem by gifting her with a Cadillac in red—an exact replica of the car used by the old lady herself. Mila claims that those were the only two automobiles of that kind in the Philippines.

The De Leons also provided her with a personal driver, plus a nursemaid to bathe her at night and before the shoot—“so that my co-stars wouldn’t complain that the leading lady looked filthy.”

She was hot property when the war broke out in 1941. LVN closed down to avoid being used as a propaganda machine by the enemies and Mila spent part of the Japanese Occupation serving as a Red Cross volunteer. She remembers visiting survivors of the Death March in Capas—just to talk to them and basically bring them cheer. She had a soft spot in her heart for those who went to Bataan. It was probably because a beloved had joined the war to fight the Japanese and promised to come back for her.

She was unable to wait. A suitor, Francisco Tambunting, from the prominent clan, pursued her relentlessly through her family, lavishing them with gifts and dinners at the Manila Hotel.

Mila’s circumstances then had shades of the great novel The Great Gatsby. Her parents figured: rather than let her wait for that soldier who may or may not come back from the war, why not marry her off to this ardent suitor? There was a mad rush among girls to get married during the war anyway.

Her altar date with the Tambunting scion was dubbed as the grandest wedding of 1943, with her bridal trousseau done by Tres Chic. But maybe it was a union doomed from the start. While she and her groom exchanged vows at the chapel of the Holy Rosary in UST, American civilians trapped in Manila at the outbreak of the war were dying of starvation and dysentery while incarcerated just a few meters away at the university’s main building. For their wedding reception, what could be more ostentatious than treating well-wishers to a fancy dinner at the Admiral Hotel?

By the end of the war, the young Tambunting couple had two children: Jesus and Ellen. During the liberation era, Mila, along with the rest of the nation and even the world, began the process of recovery after the devastating Second World War. She also found herself peppered with battle scars brought about by married life.

Despite troubles at home, she managed to stage a comeback and appeared in Orasang Ginto, the very first local picture produced after the war.

The post-war period still saw her as a big box-office draw, but five years after she wed Francisco Tambunting, Mila decided to fly to the US to divorce the husband. The settlement broke her heart because Ellen had to stay with the Tambuntings, who to Mila’s everlasting gratitude raised her well. Today, mother and daughter love each other dearly—like they were never apart.

Already a divorcee, probably the first Filipino actress to carry that civil status, she continued her movie career and later found another love in the person of Alonzo Young, a Texan who was sent to the country by the US government as an official of the Philippine War Damage Committee.

When they were introduced to each other—at a party hosted by Benigno Aquino, Sr.—Young was with his fiancée. But as fate would have it, he was the one tasked to bring Mila home that evening. The following day, they found themselves together again attending the fluvial procession for the Holy Cross of Wawa in Bocaue.

They were inseparable for 19 days and eventually got married and between them had two daughters: Melita Jeanne (Bunny) and Melissa Claire (Peachy).

In the succeeding years, Mila found herself shuttling between the Philippines and the US. She stayed in California long enough to finally attend high school. Through an adult education program, she got her diploma from Hollywood High. American living also allowed her to pursue a business course at the Glendale Community College.

As for her married life, love didn’t turn out to be lovelier the second time around. But there was no time to nurse another broken heart. She kept herself busy doing projects both in the US and the Philippines. In America, Mila had a cameo speaking line as a stewardess in a minor Hollywood adventure movie in 1957 starring Cameron Mitchell and Teresa Wright, Escapade in Japan. The scene was a plane trouble, the pilot played by then still unknown Clint Eastwood.

In 1961, she was one of the Filipino actors cast in the Hollywood film Espionage Far East jointly directed by Ted Post, Gerry de Leon and Eddie Romero, shown at Univesal Theater on Rizal Ave., Manila.

The mid-1960s saw her doing a complete career shift when she put up a janitorial company called Superior Maintenance Services (SMS) that now employs more than 10,000 people. Although it was the idea of her son Jesus or Sonny, SMS carries the name Mila del Sol.

This very successful business allows her to live comfortably with her loved ones. In her BF Homes Parañaque residence, she is constantly visited by Sonny who continues to run SMS and Ellen, who has her own successful janitorial company.

Daughter Jeanne Young, who was a big name on TV from the late 1960s to the 1980s, has entered the nunnery in the US after she became a widow. Peachy died about half a decade ago and it is in this late daughter’s house where Mila now stays. Peachy left behind two sons: popular guitarist Ira Cruz and John, who until the other year worked for the Belo Medical Group.

Mila’s two sons by the late National Artist Eddie Romero, Dinky and Doodle remain in the US where they were raised. The first grandchild, Gus Tambunting, was recently elected Congressman in Parañaque’s 2nddistrict.

At 90, Mila is blessed with good health, free of any major illness. According to SMS area manager Edelynn Faderoga, who accompanies her to her monthly check-up at the Makati Medical Center, even Mila’s blood pressure stays normal.

She attributes her long life to prayer. “I pray for everything. I knew Giliw Ko would be a hit because I prayed for it.” A Marian devotee, she was among those who helped raise funds for the construction of the Redemptorist Church in Baclaran. When she started praying to the Mother of Perpetual Help, the church was, according to her, “just a shack, with its main entrance facing the other way.”

Mila has lived long enough to witness changes in landscapes, not only in architecture, but also in the movies. She is already part of the history of Philippine cinema since her name is attached to several pioneering projects and efforts in early local films.

Aside from being the first contract star of LVN, a major film studio, and the lead in the first post-war movie Orasang Ginto, she also starred in the first local picture with color—Ibong Adarna with scenes that were hand-painted frame by frame.

Ibong Adarna was also the first literary piece to be adapted to the big screen.

Her last movie was made 24 years ago, Kahit Wala Ka Na with Sharon Cuneta, but she appeared in an ABS-CBN soap opera exactly three years ago. Still, Mila del Sol will always be remembered as an actress who lent her talent, lustre and beauty to the silver screen—and, miracle or coincidence, for being the sunshine during that era that ushered in the first Golden Decade of Philippine cinema in the 1950s.