On Global Filipinos: Letty Lanuza: A mother’s love conquers death (Part 1)

Dondon and mother Letty Celestino Lanuza. Facebook photo

By Loida Nicolas Lewis
What is a more fitting story to tell during the Christmas season than the story of how a mother’s faith, hope and love saved her son from being beheaded?

Letty Celestino grew up with seven other siblings in Nueva Ecija. Their father managed rice fields and their mother was a prayerful woman with a strong devotion to the Blessed Mother Mary. She attended the St. Joseph High School run by Carmelite Nuns from Switzerland, and there her Catholic faith deepened. She adopted her mother’s practice of praying the rosary every night.

Letty met her husband Edilberto Lanuza while both were working at Zuellig Pharma. They got married, and were soon blessed with four children: Roderick, followed by Rodelio whom they nicknamed Dondon, Rowena and Ronaldo.

In 1995, the family began a new life in the United States where Letty’s widowed sister Norma Celestino in California had asked Edil, an accountant, to help her manage her rental apartment buildings. Roderick, who was finishing his tech studies, and Dondon, who did not want to desert his girlfriend, decided not to go with them to America.

A year later, Dondon informed them that he was going to Saudi Arabia because his cousin, Benito Celestino, enticed him to work as an architect at Aramco.  Dondon moved to Riyadh to work as a designer-architect at Aramco.

Everything was going well, he was making good money, until Dondon’s life took an unexpected turn in 2000. He and other Filipinos were invited to the apartment of a co-worker who was a Saudi national. Although drinking liquor was prohibited in public places in Saudi Arabia, drinking in the privacy of one’s home was common.

Dondon, wearing a Saudi scarf over his head, when he was in jail. Photo courtesy: Dondon Lanuza

Soon, everybody got inebriated and each of Dondon’s friends left one at a time. When Dondon was about to leave, the Saudi host made suggestions of a sexual nature. When Dondon refused, the Saudi locked the door and moved towards him menacingly with a knife in his hands. A struggle ensued, and Dondon was able to wrench the knife from the man and stabbed him in an act of self-defense.

As the Saudi fell to the floor bleeding, Dondon was able to escape, and fled to his apartment. It did not take long for the local police to arrest him on a charge of murder.

The case was almost a fait accompli – the slain victim was a Saudi national and the accused defendant a foreigner. Although self-defense was an argument to be presented, the court ruled he was guilty of murder. The punishment:  death by beheading.

Letty heard the news by telephone from a friend of Dondon, who told her, “Tulungan ninyo ang anak ninyo. Your son was sentenced guilty of murder.”

At that time, Letty was in Manila visiting her relatives. She immediately went to the Department of Foreign Affairs and was told by the receptionist upon learning Dondon’s story, “Pupugutan po siya ng ulo (He will be beheaded).”

Letty was in tears. But she was still full of faith. And hope.

She learned that the final decision depended on the family of the Saudi man who had two young sons. They would decide when they turned 18 years old, whether Dondon would be beheaded or whether he would give “blood money” to support the sons in exchange for the life that he took.

Thus began the walk of faith of Letty Lanuza, on how to raise the blood money of 3 million Riyals (equivalent to $800,000).

I met Letty Lanuza, a slender, kindly-looking Filipina, on the side of the 2011 Summit on Overseas Filipinos in Manila chaired by Imelda Nicolas, who was appointed by then President Benigno Aquino III. She was calm and gentle in her narration, I had to ask her, “Are you not afraid that if you cannot raise the Blood Money, your son will be beheaded?”

Letty replied without hesitation and without bombast, “I have faith. God’s will be done.” That convinced me that I had to help this mother whose son’s life was hanging by a thread.

I learned that the Secretary of Foreign Affairs Albert del Rosario was also in Manila at the time and was attending the 75th birthday celebration of then-Speaker of the House Feliciano Belmonte Jr. at the Peninsula Hotel. I was able to gate-crash the event because I told the gatekeepers that Secretary del Rosario was expecting me, and I was not going to sit down for dinner.

Soon enough, I was able to get close to the table of Secretary Del Rosario. I worked with him on several projects to benefit Overseas Filipinos since I was with the National Federation of Filipino American Associations (NAFFAA).

He told me that Blood Money is known to the DFA vis à vis Saudi Arabia and other Muslim countries. But the budget of the DFA allowed a maximum of only $100,000. He also said that it was a matching grant — if we are able to raise $100,000, DFA would match it up to $100,000.

I breathed a sigh of relief. That was a start!

Shortly thereafter, I invited Letty to come to New York so we could launch an online campaign called, “Save Dondon.”  When she came in February 2012, we held a press conference with the FilAm media of New York. Thus, the  “Save Dondon — Barya mo, Buhay ko”  movement was launched.

To be continued

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: