LEGAZPI CITY --- In 1971 or forty-nine years ago, Judge Efren Iglesia, 70, a native of Baligang, Camalig, Albay, then 21-year old, fled to the United States of America (USA) with a heavy heart under the tumultuous reign of the late President Ferdinand E. Marcos.
Iglesia then was the editor-in-chief of ”The Mayon” the official newsletter of Bicol University High School (BUHS) and later on of the Aquinas University (AUL) of Legazpi’s (now University of Santo Tomas) college publication.
He was the batch mate of former top communist rebel turned peace adviser, the late Sotero Llamas alias “Ka Teroy,” who was a former AUL Citizens Army Training corps commander.
Iglesia is the third of nine siblings. He finished his elementary education at the Baligang Elementary School in Camalig, Albay with first honor award. He graduated as class salutatorian at BUHS.
Aside from being a campus paper editor, Iglesia was an anti-Marcos activist, Ross, his younger brother said.
As the editor-in-chief of the AUL student paper, he worked mostly behind the lines, writing articles and columns critical of the Marcos regime and made a risky call: “We need a revolution.”
He was in third year college when he fled to the USA in 1971, a year before Martial law was declared in the country. He went to America with a student visa.
Iglesia’s father was a farmer and his mother a small businesswoman.
Start of his legal career
In 1976, he graduated from an American law school through a scholarship program. He passed the US bar examinations on his first try.
He started his legal career in the State of California as a criminal defense attorney of the defunct Gendron & Gendron in Madera, soon after passing the bar where he worked with senior lawyers of the law firm. Three years after, he became a deputy county counsel in Imperial County and worked there for four years.
In 1983, he moved to Montery county after being offered a job as a deputy counsel with the Monterey County Counsel’s Office, where he headed the land use division, supervising four attorneys, and handled land use and environmental law litigation at the trial and appellate court levels.
In 2007, he applied and was appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger as a judge of the Monterey County Superior Court.
On Mar. 22, 2020, after 13 years in the bench as a Filipino-American magistrate in California, Iglesia, now 70, laid down his gavel amidst the Covid-19 pandemic and with two years remaining in his term.
He advanced his retirement from the Monterey County Superior Court from July to March of this year. As he left the bench, Iglesia shared his thoughts and recalled his desires to become a journalist before fleeing to America.
“The thought of becoming a lawyer was furthest from my mind. Having been deeply involved in campus journalism in high school and in college, I had fancied myself obtaining a degree in journalism and travelling every nook and cranny of the world covering wars, revolutions, and other earth-shattering events. As fate intervened, my career path was directed to the law profession, not by choice, but by luck and circumstance,” he narrated as he was asked to share his thoughts and reflections at the San Joaquin College of Law in California where he graduated.
Coming to America
“Throughout our lives, we all have faced situations where we have had to make life—changing decisions. In my case and, making light of things a bit–I made one such decision in 1971: I came to a fork in the road, and took it, as Yogi Berra once advised.
“I was in my third year of college in the Philippines in 1971 when the political situation under the Marcos government became dire and outright dangerous as violent street rallies and demonstrations ruled the day.
“As the editor-in-chief of the university paper, I worked mostly behind the lines, writing articles and columns critical of the regime. In one of those columns, I made what at the time was a risky call: “We need a revolution,” he said.
Subsequently, a family who hosted him when he was an exchange student at Reedley High School three years earlier, urged him to get out of the country while it was still safe to do so.
“With their help, and with only one year remaining to get my bachelor’s degree, I opted to drop out of college and come to the United States on a student visa in September 1971. Had I waited one more year, I would have been unable to leave. Almost a year to the day of my departure, Marcos declared martial law and suspended the writ of habeas corpus; scores of the leaders of the militant movement were arrested and many of them were killed,” he narrated.
Arriving in America
“I formulated a life plan: maintain my student visa and prolong my studies toward a college degree so I could wait out what was then perceived to be the imminent overthrow of the Marcos regime. Thereafter, I was to go back, enter politics, and eventually become the President of a fair and democratic Republic of the Philippines. A tad ambitious, I must say, but formulating in those days, raw idealism was in full flower.
“But fate intervened. After just a semester at Reedley College and two quarters at Pacific College, I was given credits for my college courses in the Philippines and handed my diploma. Graduating from Pacific College in 1972, I was faced with yet another difficult decision: how to maintain my student visa, having already completed my college degree.
“The beginning of the 1980’s saw the Marcos regime still clinging to power, albeit precariously. By this time, all thoughts of ever going back to the Philippines had long vanished as I had started a family and put down roots in my adopted country. Ironically, I took my oath as a U.S. citizen on February 14, 1986—11 days before Marcos was ousted from power during the People Power Revolution,” he said.
Grateful for the Opportunities
“As I leave the bench, I will be eternally grateful for the opportunities that have been afforded to me and my family in this country. I am most proud to have raised a service-oriented family of two registered nurses (my wife and a son), a daughter who recently became a lawyer and now works for a federal agency in Washington D.C. and whose husband is serving in the US military, and another daughter with a Masters’ Degree in social work employed as a social worker for a mental health facility in Orange County.
“In the meantime, my wife and I had our second child—who would go on to follow in my footsteps and eventually become a California lawyer. One of the proudest moments of my career occurred when I administered the attorney’s oath to her in my courtroom.
“While on the bench, I always reminded myself of all the blessings of living in a country such as ours. Upon my suggestion, my bailiff would announce the opening of the court’s session each day thus: “In honor of the flag of the United States of America, the Superior Court of California, County of Monterey, is now in session.
“In my letter informing the presiding judge of my intent to retire, I wrote: When I dropped out of college during those tumultuous years in the Philippines in 1971 and came to the United States on a student visa, little did I know that I would be able to complete college and law school, become a lawyer and a judge, and raise a family in the process. This country has made it all possible for me to do so, and, trite as it may sound, live the American Dream.”
Judge Efren Iglesia is the 7th Filipino-American who served as judge in California, Ross said. Ross is based in Sydney, Australia.
In Albay, Iglesia’s family came from humble beginnings. He is the son of a tenant, whose father was taking care of a 28-hectares hacienda owned by the wealthy family of Tanchulings.
Iglesia, when he was still a boy lived in Barangay Baligang, Camalig town about 8-10 kms away from the town proper. Back then, he used to walk along with his 8 other siblings going to school.
“We mainly walked to school, which is about 1.5 kilometers from our home. Sometimes, an elder brother would use my father’s bike once or twice a week,” Ross said.
The Iglesia siblings credited their successes to their parents, specifically their mother who urged and supported their schooling through hardship and perseverance.
“We have always paid tribute to our mama for believing in education as the great equalizer. It was our mother, who pushed us to finish and persevere for our education so we can get the best opportunities, because if not, we will just ended up as tenants in all our lives, just like our father,” he said.
“My father was a simple farmer and my mama was a small businesswoman. Both grade 4 and didn’t finish elementary. Due to this, they have done everything to send us to school and finished our own baccalaureate degrees,” Ross said.
The Iglesia siblings, from eldest to youngest are: Rudy, a BSEED graduate now retired elementary school principal, the only one left in Bicol specifically in Daraga town; next to him is Molin, a BSIE graduate who is lives in Sydney, Australia; Efren in USA; Orlando, BSIE graduate living inManila; Alda, a BSFN graduate living USA; Rey, a BSBA graduate living in Manila; Ross, a BSCE graduate based in Sydney, Australia; Brigido, BSC graduate in USA; and Mylene, a BSN graduate.
“My mother used to supply rice, coconuts, firewood to the retired enlisted personnel of government troops and retired servicemen at EMs barracks in the past. That was her business for over 35 years before she and my father migrated to the US,” Ross said.
Their father looked after the 28 hectares land, planted lots of coconuts, banana, and among others for over 40 years. “Under the land reform, the father was awarded a share of it but my parents just gave back everything to the Tanchulings when they emigrated to US in 1986,” he said.