In that beautifully simple setting, her life was filled with the wonder of the unexpected.
“One afternoon after school,” she recalled, “my father made us all line up in the garage. Beside him was a very thin young man who had just arrived from Cagayan and whom he had met only that morning. This man looked exactly like my father, only darker. My father said to us, ‘This is my son Johnny,’ and to Johnny, ‘These are your brothers and sisters and your mother Purita.’ It happened so quickly, so casually. From then on, Johnny lived with us. He and I hit it off instantly. Dikit na ang buhay namin.”
Reliving that moment, statesman Juan Ponce-Enrile says, “My father, Alfonso, was Castilian in appearance, dashing and romantic. All my life I wanted to meet him. Finally that morning, I found him in his office. He embraced me and told me to come with him to Malabon.
“When I met his family, I noticed that Armida was looking at me with great curiosity. Almost at once, we became very close even if she always argued with me. She was a pretty girl and had many suitors. I felt very protective of her. She was strong-willed, argumentative, fiercely committed to her views, but extremely supportive and loyal. We helped each other. What many people don’t know is that she has a very kind heart.”
Armida was an avid reader of local magazines and became proficient in Filipino. But it was the celluloid world that overtook her daydreams.
One gorgeous day a movie was being filmed in the Ponce-Enrile residence. Watching in awe, Armida felt as though a magical drama was unfolding before her. She was mesmerized by every gesture of the director, every movement of the actors and of Patricia Mijares, the star. More than anything, she wanted to be a part of this world.
“I was asked if I wanted to be an actress, and I said ‘Yes!’ I was thrilled. My heart was thumping! My mother was encouraging. But my father was absolutely against it. He shipped me to a convent school in the United States.”
With surprising aplomb, she approached the director and asked, “Do you think I could have a screen test? I want to see if I can become an actress.” Impressed by her spunk, the director immediately asked the cameraman to give her a test.
Within days, Armida received a call. Was she willing to have another test, this time at the studio of Palaris Films? She gasped in disbelief. Her fantasy seemed so close and so real. She decided to go for it.
“I was asked if I wanted to be an actress, and I said ‘Yes!’ I figured I could do it during school vacations. Afterward, Pepe Gregorio came to tell my parents that Fernando Poe Sr. had seen my screen tests and suggested that I be made a juvenile lead.
“I was thrilled. My heart was thumping! My mother was encouraging. But my father was absolutely against it. He shipped me to a convent school in the United States.”
Armida did not dream. She dared to make dreams come true.
All of 17 then, she was studying at St. Joseph’s Academy in Brentwood on Long Island, New York, when she discovered the Original Amateur Hour and the Ed Sullivan Show. One day she heard that there would be an audition for an important role in a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical on Broadway. She was intrigued by the challenge. She knew all the Broadway songs and trusted her voice. She would try for it. At the same time, she sensed that the nuns would stop her from going. Lured by the promise of adventure, she decided to escape. She connived with a South American friend whose family had an apartment in New York, and together they slipped out of the campus.
"I had made a vow when I was nine that I would never marry a man who would not respect my decisions, who would not trust me to make my choices. It may seem selfish on my part, but I also promised not to marry a man whom I loved more than he loved me."
The audition was held in a studio behind Radio City. When Armida’s turn came, she sang an Italian street song with no accompaniment. Then she was made to sing "I Dream of Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair," which she knew by heart. She was interviewed and asked to come back in two weeks.
I had made a vow when I was nine that I would never marry a man who would not respect my decisions, who would not trust me to make my choices. It may seem selfish on my part, but I also promised not to marry a man whom I loved more than he loved me.
Though high with expectation, she felt that another escapade might not be possible. “This time I knew I needed the consent of the nun who was in charge of me. When I asked for her permission, she was furious. My voice teacher was just as furious and said that I was compromising my operatic aspirations. They wrote my father. I wept for days and days. I was heartbroken. Later I learned that the audition was for the role of Tuptim in The King and I.”
What appeared as thinly disguised rebellion was a heart and mind that could not be contained.
Upon arriving from the U.S., Armida pursued her singing career with the discipline of ambition. She had recitals in classical music, followed by lead roles in the operas La Traviata, Lucia di Lammermoor, Pagliacci and Rigoletto, and in the zarzuela Ang Mestiza.
It was at around this time that she met the brilliant young lawyer Leonardo “Sig” Siguion-Reyna. A courtship blossomed and before long, wedding plans were in the air. Driving home with the couple from a bridal shower one afternoon, Purita Ponce-Enrile turned to the groom-to-be and said, “Once Armida and you are married, I guess she can no longer appear in operas and musicals.”
“Of course she can,” he answered, “but not in shows with Chichay, Pugo, and Tugo.”
Armida was silent. With unerring intuition, she knew the subtleties of a restricted life, and she did not like what she heard. When they reached the Ponce-Enrile house, she removed her engagement ring and presented it to her fiancé. “I’m returning this because we’re not getting married.”