Shared Stories: A Blessing in Disguise

Dulce Ruelos was a wife and mother with four children when martial law was declared in the Philippines. Fearing layoffs and the loss of her job, Dulce left her family for one year in a heroic effort to earn a degree in another country. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns.

By Dulce Ruelos

In 1972, martial law was declared in the Philippines. This caught many by surprise, including myself.  

At that time my husband Vicman, a lawyer, and myself both worked as government employees. He was with the Legal Department of the Bureau of Customs, and I worked as a medical nutritionist in the Health Department. We were blessed with four young children – ages one, five, three, and seven. We were fortunate to have domestic helpers who took care of the children and did the housework.

Initially, martial law was deemed to be a solution to the surge of increasing violence from rebel groups and activists who posed a threat to the national security. Martial law suspended all civic rights, and military authority took absolute control over the media and government offices. The people hoped that martial law would bring about reforms to transform the country into a more stable new society.

Massive governmental reorganization was instituted. Government offices were to be streamlined, resulting in a reduction of personnel.

At the Division of Nutrition, our main function was to identify problems and institute policies to improve the nutritional status of the most vulnerable age groups, such as infants and children, and pregnant and nursing mothers. Policies were carried out by rural health clinics in towns throughout the country.  

The most common malnutrition problems came to the attention of Mrs. Imelda Marcos, the First Lady at that time. She decided to create the National Nutrition Program and additional professionals were hired to work within the rural health clinics.  

My group in the Health Department was absorbed by this national program, resulting in a duplication of function. This caused me a lot of anxiety and uncertainty. I no longer felt I had job security at a time when unemployment or early retirement was not yet an option. I felt I could be replaced or laid off at any time.

Although I worked full time, I did not cease to be engaged in my role as wife and mother.  I discussed my situation and my concern with my husband. He was fully supportive and assured me of his help with whatever plans or decisions I would have to make. His parents and his sisters would help him with the children.

I thought long and hard about my next move. I thought of applying for a postgraduate study grant, a scholarship, fellowship, or whatever was available, anywhere. I would be advancing myself professionally. In exchange, for every year of scholarship, I would have to serve the government for two years.  This would assure me of at least two years on my job.

I went to the office in the Dept. of Health that handled scholarships. I told the officer in charge that I was applying for a post-graduate scholarship anywhere that one was available. He looked at his records and told me the only one available was at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Israel.  I told him I wanted to apply. It was for one year and would lead to a degree in Public Health.  

He discouraged me, saying that the situation in the Middle East was unstable and that war was going on in that region. I told him that if there was war, the Philippine Embassy in Tel Aviv would evacuate us.  

Again he said, “Why don’t you wait for an available study grant in the US or somewhere else?” I said that I couldn’t wait and that if one was offered in the US, I might not be picked. I pleaded with him to please endorse my application.

Anyway, we were not sure I would be able to comply with all of the requirements and pass all of the interviews. My persistence paid off and he grudgingly endorsed my application. I passed the interviews with another government office and a professor at the Hadassah Medical School of the Hebrew University.

I was accepted for the one year scholarship from November 1973 to November 1974. This was an international class with students from Thailand, Vietnam, Sweden, and the United States as well as the Philippines. My roommate for the year was a girl from New York. The Israeli government provided a roundtrip plane ticket from Manila to Tel Aviv, a book and clothing allowance, and rent for my stay at the student hostel.

Leaving my four children with my husband and family members was very hard. My children were now two, four, six, and eight years old. My only contact with them for the year was by letter because phone calls were too expensive.

I felt so homesick that I almost thought of giving up, but I didn’t want to be a quitter. I wrote to my husband every two weeks and included letters for each of my children. Every time I got a letter in return, I would cry before even opening it. My eight-year-old would write to me as well.

I was so happy to go home when it was over, but it hurt when my two-year-old, who was now three, didn’t want to sleep with me at first. He didn’t remember me so well and wanted to sleep with the nanny. Things improved after a while.

Being away from my family for a year was terribly difficult, but looking back, I consider the martial law regime a blessing in disguise for me. My children were well cared for while I was gone, and I got a one-year, post-graduate scholarship with a Masters of Public Health degree. 
Upon completion, I went back to my old job at the Department of Health where I worked for two years.