NEWTON — Filipino-Americans from around New England gathered at Boston College on Sunday to celebrate the visit of the country’s president, Benigno S. Aquino III, who was making a nostalgic return to the Hub for the first time in 31 years.
“Boston . . . gave my family a sense of normalcy in what can only be described as very abnormal times back home,” Aquino recalled of the turmoil in the Philippines of the early 1980s. “Every aspect of life was controlled there by the dictator. And unless you belonged to the favored few, you had very limited rights.”
Aquino attended a Mass at the Parish of St. Ignatius of Loyola on the college campus before speaking to a crowd of hundreds at the adjacent Robsham Theatre.
In his speech, Aquino touted improvements in the economy, employment rates, health care, education, infrastructure, and public accountability of officials in the Philippines since his election in 2010. But he devoted much of his talk to memories of the time his family lived in the Boston area in the early 1980s.
“It was in Boston that I experienced my first snowfall,” he said, going on to recall a bitterly cold winter in which he slept in thermal underwear beneath a track suit, inside a sleeping bag, under sheets and blankets topped with a comforter.
Aquino is the son of Benigno S. Aquino Jr., who rose from mayor of a small city in the Philippines to provincial governor and then senator before being arrested by the government of former president Ferdinand E. Marcos, whom he had planned to challenge for the presidency. The elder Aquino spent 7½ years in prison.
After his 1980 release, the elder Aquino and his wife Corazon C. Aquino made their home at 175 Commonwealth Ave. in Newton, near Boston College, while he served as a fellow at the Harvard Center for International Affairs and the MIT Center for International Studies before being assassinated upon his return to the Philippines in 1983.
Corazon Aquino attended church at St. Ignatius of Loyola during the family’s Newton years, and BC presented her with its Ignatius Medal after she toppled Marcos — a dictator who ruled for two decades — in a 1986 election.
During her September 1986 visit to the college, she described St. Ignatius Church as “a place of solace and meditation” during her family’s self-imposed exile, according to a Globe story.
Since 2010, Boston College has offered a scholarship for Asian-American students named in honor of the Aquinos.
Professor Min Song, chairman of the scholarship committee, told the audience Sunday that for years the scholarship had been known simply as the Asian-American scholarship. But he said that students had wanted its name changed to recognize the achievements of a leader, just as the school’s scholarship for black students is named for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and its Hispanic student scholarship for Archbishop Oscar A. Romero.
Song said that the college had looked for about two years and considered many candidates to honor, but none seemed right until they considered the Aquinos.
“What I personally love about the name Benigno and Corazon Aquino is that it tells us something about the struggle for justice,” Song said. “It says that one might never see the fulfillment of one’s aspirations for justice, but that one nevertheless survives and finds courage to attain it. And if one fails, someone else will pick up that struggle. . . . That the struggle for justice never ends.”Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.