How The Lowly Morenita From Iriga Rose To Become Superstar Nora Aunor
By QUIJANO DE MANILA
PHILIPPINE FREE PRESS
July 11, 1970
ONCE UPON A TIME there was a little girl who seemed to have been born under a very unlucky star.
She was born small and weak, a sickly baby. Again and again she would shake with convulsions and fix her eyes in a dying stare. One night, soon after she was born, she fell so ill, burning with fevers and shaking with chills, that her mother rushed her to church and had her baptized in a hurry, late in the night.
“My baby won’t live,” cried the poor mother.
The baby was christened Nora.
All through childhood, little Nora Villamayor, the fourth of five children, continued to be very frail of health. She was always having those chills and fevers and spasms. The physicians couldn’t cure her. So, her parents consulted herb healers and village medicine men. “A bad wind got into your child,” said the witch doctors. But their magics couldn’t cure the ailing little girl either. What she suffered from was the cruel sickness called poverty, a disease endemic in her country. There’s no medicine for that in hospitals or in the witch doctor’s bag.
Nora’s family, the Villamayors, lived in a nipa hut in the Bicol town of Iriga. The two-room hut belonged to the family of Nora’s mother and the Villamayors were only allowed to live there. Nora’s father worked as porter at the railroad station. Until he came home at night with the day’s earnings, his wife couldn’t buy supper for the fmily. There were times when the children went to sleep without eating.
When she was seven years old, Nora went through a crisis. She had her most severe fit: fearful convulsions during which she coughed up blood and turned up her eyes in agony. Her parents thought it was the end. But Nora passed the crisis and, from then on, suffered no more fits. She became healthier. It looked as if the poor, thin, homely child had, after all, a fairy godmother to take care of her. It must be funny sort of fairy godmother because when this fairy godmother grants a blessing she always mixes a heap of trouble with the good fortune.
Little Nora loved school, even if the other children teased her about her dark completion. “Negra, Negra, NoraNegra!” they chanted. But Nora showed them by winning first honors year after year, from first to fifth grade. She played house with the girls, marbles with the boys. But what she liked to do best of all was play school. She would gather the tots in her neighborhood and make them sit in rows like in school. Then she taught them like the teachers did in school. “When I grow up,” she told herself, “I’ll be a teacher.”
Her eldest brother had joined the army and was stationed at Nichols. “Send Nora here,” he wrote his parents, “andshe can study at the camp school and stay with Auntie Belen. I’ll take care of her expenses.”
Auntie Belen, a sister of Nora’s mother, agreed to board Nora. So, during Grade III, Nora stayed with the Aunors, her auntie’s family. Then her brother was transferred to Batangas and Nora went back to Iriga. She had had a year of city life.
In the sixth grade Nora did not win first honors. She had become a movie fan, especially of Susan Roces movies, and a pop-music addict, especially of TimiYuro songs. Now, from the time she woke up in the morning, she was singing. And all day longshe was singing – or so it seemed to her family. When she went on to high school she was thinking she wanted to be a lawyer. Though they were so poor, her father and mother were determined that their children should have at least a high school education. “It’s all we can give you,” they told their children. But, often, they didn’t know where to get money for fees.
Nora was in first year high when there was this problem about the tuition for her elder sister, who was in fourth year.
“Mamay,” said Nora to her mother, “they’re having the Darigold Jamboree in Naga. I could go there and join the contest. If I win, there would be money for Ate’s tuition.”
“But what would you wear, child? All the contestants will be dressed up.”
“Maybe any dress will do.”
“No, child – but I know what we can do.”
Nora’s mother bought a second-hand dress. She remodeled it to Nora’s figure and added frills. A family friend was persuaded to take Nora along to Naga. Nora felt very little when she saw the other contestants. They were all grown-up, good-looking and well dressed. She was the only child, just 12 years old, and wearing a second-hand dress. The crowd looked very big. But she thought of the money needed at home and she forced herself to be brave as she went onstage to face her first real public. The she sang was You and the Night and the Music.
The contest was being broadcast all over Bicolandia. Nora’s family didn’t have radio, but they went to a neighbor’s house to listen to the radio there. They felt tense and nervous. Then they heard Nora being proclaimed the winner. Nora’s sister jumped with joy. Late that night Nora arrived and gave her mother the twenty pesos that was her prize. It was exactly the amount needed for her sister’s tuition.
Nora’s win didn’t change her life. She didn’t turn into a swan overnight. Indeed her success in Naga only sharpened the gibes in Iriga at the ugly duckling.
One night it was long past suppertime but Nora’s father still hadn’t arrived with the money for supper. Nora’s mother asked her elder children to see if they could get rice on credit from one of the neighborhood stores. The elder children said they were ashamed to ask for credit when the family was already so in debt to those stores. Their mother scolded them but they said they would rather go hungry. Everybody was shouting or crying. “I’ll go, Mamay,” said Nora, just to bring on peace.
The first store she went to was being minded at the moment by the storekeeper’s daughter.
“Why, it’s Nora. What do you want, Nora?”
Nora said could they please give her some rice on credit.
“Credit again! Your family owes us so much already. No more credit. Why don’t you go to Naga and sing in another contest. Maybe you’ll win again and have the money to pay us.”
Nora walked away cringing with shame.
At the next store the jeers were even cruder.
“Oh, look who’s coming. Negra, Nora Negra! Have you come to show off your skill in singing, Nora?”
Nora said no, she had come for some rice, please on credit.
“Oh, so you have come to ask for credit again. And we thought you were going to brag about your winning in Naga. Sorry, Nora, no credit. You sing somewhere else.”
Poor Nora was on the point of tears.
At the third store, after much pleading, she was given rice on credit. Hurrying home, she stumbled and fell, and spilled some of the rice. When she reached home, her mother scuffed and pinched her for spilling the rice. The weeping child wondered if her win in Naga was to bring nothing but hurts.
But when the Liberty Big Show was held in Naga, Nora was there again, as contestant. And again she won over the field.
THAT DECEMBER, Nora’s mother was at Nichols, visiting with her sister and their mother. One night they were watching an amateur contest on TV. They fell to talking about Nora’s two wins in Naga. Maybe Nora should come to Manila and try out for one of the radio or TV singing contests, said Belen Aunor. But her soldier husband said that would mean a lot of expenses; the money were better spent on the child’s education. Just the same, the three women – the two sisters and their mother – secretly arranged to bring Nora to Nichols.
It was Christmas vacation when Nora came to Manila. Her mother didn’t feel up to taking her around to the studios; so her Auntie Belen offered to accompany Nora while she applied for auditions. Her aunt would pose as her mother or guardian and introduce her as Nora Aunor. Nora herself didn’t want to use her real name. “Because I might flop in Manila,” she said, “and that would be embarrassing after I had been a winner in Naga.”
Nora was accepted as contestant on the Darigold Bulilit Show. Nora won her first week out and she stayed undefeated champion week after week. This posed a problem. The Christmas vacation was over; she had to go back to school in Iriga. Her Auntie Belen proposed that Nora be transferred to a school in Manila, so she could stay with the Bulilit Show. Nora’s mother went back to Iriga to arrange the school transfer. Nora was enrolled at Centro Escolar. She would study there for three years but her high-school credits are still incomplete.
Nora topped the Darigold Bulilit for 14 weeks. Then she retired undefeated champion.
Three weeks on Bulilit were invaluable to Nora. Pianist Romy San Mateo saw that here was talent and he took time out to train the little girl in diction, timing, gesture, expression, and the proper choice of songs. He had an apt pupil.
The next goal was Tawag ng Tanghalan. For amateur singers, that’s the Big Spot. Nora wasn’t too nervous the first time she competed on Tawag. If she won, good. If not, she wouldn’t really lost anything. She won first prize. But the following week she got the jitters. Now she was the champion, now she had something to loose. When she went on to sing, she stuttered from nervousness. She got a line wrong. She lost.
This was when Nora showed she had the makings of a champion. She had been knocked out but she refused to stay down. She was determined to go back on Tawag and win again. She rehearsed song after song, her Auntie Belen accompanying her on the guitar. She worked on her enunciation. She sang for free anywhere she was asked, to gain stage experience and conquer her fear of crowds and audiences. When she felt she was ready she applied again on Tawag. And she was given another chance.
Her mother came to Manila and sewed her a new dress, for second try on Tawag. Already she was a bit known as the poor little girl from the masses whose father was a porter, whose family was so hard up, whose childhood had been so grim. The poor folk, the common folk, crowded around the radio and TV that night their little girl sang – and she sang to them and about them. She sang People. Nora was singing of her own kind: all the poor people who have nothing but each other. So they need one another and that’s why they’re really lucky people and very special persons. They know that the opposite of love is not hate but loneliness. When Nora sang, a number of people felt less lonely. They had Nora.
It wasn’t just an amateur contest that Nora won that night; she won people.
Nora was a 14–week winner on Tawag, an undefeated champion. And she crowned her career on Tawag by topping the grand finals. She bagged the year’s trophy, a TV set, and 200 pesos in cash.
The child said good-bye to amateur. It was 1967, she was 14, when she turned professional. From Tawag she moved on to Oras ng Ligaya and Operatang Putol-Putol. Her influences ranged from Streisand to Nancy Wilson, but a Nora style was developing. Whether belting out a hot number or crooning a kundiman, the Aunor voice identified itself by a certain huskiness of tone, quite remarkable in so young a girl. The Aunor voice has never been particularly young-girlish. Even at 14, when she pitched it low, the effect was of smoky torch. Her teen-age fans say that what they like about Nora’s voice is that “it can do anything, wild or sweet.” But it’s in the heartbreak songs that the throat really come through – and she sound is all woman. Nora says she feels most like singing when she’s singing a ballad.
Alpha Records took a chance on the young singer and waxed the first Nora disc. It flopped. Alpha tried again and the second Nora recording did better. Since then, Nora’s Golden Voice LPs have been runaway best-sellers.