The Lisa Macuja-Elizalde I know
By Missy Macuja Elizalde
Most people know Lisa Macuja-Elizalde as the prima ballerina.
But for me she is, quite simply, “Mama.”
My mom has always gone above and beyond in big ways and small, whenever and however she could. She brought us to school every day for as long as I can remember, waking up at six in the morning to join us in the drive to Taguig. It was often the only time we would see her in the day if she was dancing and working, as she would come home after we were asleep. She would do that even if it meant an extra two hours of her day spent in a car in Manila traffic, and before having company class later that day.
We would talk about what we needed to do, what trips we wanted to go on and when I was dancing too, sometimes we talked about work while my brother took a nap in the backseat. It was how we figured out a lot of projects and travels, and had difficult discussions about decisions big and small; in the car on the way to school. That was just the kind of mother she is.
Taking ballet classes with her as my teacher when I was younger is a vague memory. The only thing I really remember is that I wanted to climb on the barres like I would when I would visit the studio, and my mom had to tell me that “climbing around like a monkey” wasn’t allowed in a ballet class with other girls. For the two summers that I took classes with her before my seven-year-old self valiantly told her “Mama, ballet is not for me”, it was about having fun with my friends, running around backstage with the older girls I knew from Ballet Manila – the company she co-founded – and making sure everyone knew I was Teacher Lisa’s daughter.
Working and dancing under my mom were among some of the hardest years of my life thus far: emotionally, physically and mentally. Something she always instilled in me was to “decide and commit”. The idea and importance of commitment and discipline is something that I will always carry with me from ballet. I find it still with me in my work ethic in my employment and school, as well as my own endeavors in martial arts. It is the feedback I hear most from employers, coaches and professors.
I will never NOT be grateful to my mom, Sir Shaz (Ballet Manila co-artistic director Osias Barroso) and all my other teachers who taught me the hard way that to get better, I needed to put in the work. Habits I’ve formed I still haven’t broken; I still show up to class early – be that at university or jiu jitsu – and am always willing to put in long hours.
I never find myself complaining, because I think of the long nights in the theater, sometimes sixteen-hour days running on two hours of sleep, and I think of how I managed that. There were days when I looked on the brink of collapse, and my mom would let me take half a day off school so I could dance that night. She knew best the importance of an ounce of prevention being better than a pound of cure. She helped me through my injuries, even though she admitted that she hated seeing me get hurt and it was one of the reasons she didn’t want me dancing in the first place.
Ballet Manila exposed me to the world as only so many would see it. It was one of the reasons why I spoke Tagalog differently, why I treated authority with such visceral values, and what often made my sister Sasha and I different from our brothers. I enjoyed a sense of camaraderie, support and adventure from what it was like growing up on tours, in theaters and studios from a young age.
Ballet gave me so much. I take so much from the art and give it credit in making me the person I am today, even though I am without it now. And so much of that was because I had my mom as a role model, a teacher and a director.
My mom’s “celebrity status” came to be just a reality of my childhood. I knew she was famous because some of my earliest memories were Frisomel shoots, magazine articles and newspaper articles on my parents. My dad was an Olympic swimmer and a renowned businessman, my mom a famous ballerina; they were my fun facts at school.
I didn’t know a time when she wasn’t a celebrity. It meant getting used to standing at the side and grabbing my brother when people asked her for photos, or waiting in the car while she talked to people. Nothing ever really surprised Mac and I, I think. Ma was Ma to us, but she was a lot more to the public too.
I’ve been away at university for three years now, and though our relationship took quite a few hits while I was her dancer, spending time away has allowed me to grow into the person I wanted to be without influence or obligations. She has been so supportive of everything I’ve done, even if she doesn’t understand it. She’s visited me in Boston a few times now, and every time, she tells me how much I’ve grown, how stunned she is that I can speak Spanish, and the crazy things I get into now.
I miss many things about home, and one will always be watching a movie at MOA with my mom and brother, and grabbing Chili’s or Coldstone ice cream after. It became tradition, as well as game nights with Monopoly, poker and other card games we’d played since we learned how to count. Fun fact: Lisa Macuja is a great dealer at poker, and very competitive at Chinese checkers.
We have had our share of crazy, funny and unlikely stories on our travels over the years. She’s flown across the world to “rescue” Mac and I when we were not allowed to board the plane to Heathrow in Abu Dhabi because of visa restrictions, we’ve been delayed for seven hours in Cebu, and run across many airports together. We were rained on in Angkor Wat one summer in Cambodia and instead of hiding under a roof, we got soaked through and danced in the rain. In London, my mom aggressively pointed at a bird in the distance, insisting we “look at that HUGE pigeon!” until my Tita Gia said “Lis, that’s a seagull”, thus spurring an age-old family joke that whenever we see a seagull we scream “huge pigeon!” and send a photo to our group chat.
To be entirely candid, a moment that really stands out to me was when she visited me in Boston last April, as I had been going through a lot of transformative changes for the better, with my time at university coming to an end. She took the train with me to my martial arts academy where I practice Brazilian jiu jitsu, Gracie Barra Boston, met one of the black belts – Guilherme Verissimo Pereira – who had been teaching me these past few months, and said “Thank you for taking care of my daughter.” She, and my grandparents and dad, sat through a part of open mat, and when I went to lunch with them after, I was met with a lot of questions and uncertainty about this new part of my life. They wondered why it made me so happy, how it could mean so much to me, and I explained as best as I could, while my siblings in Manila blew up my phone asking about their reactions to this new sport.
A performing arts family, the Prima Ballerina of the Philippines, Lisa Macuja’s Daughter – so much of who I was raised to be, by society, by external influences, by the media and my mother’s fame, was no longer who I was. And they all let me. I knew I had my mom’s unconditional support in being who I am even if it wasn’t how we all thought I would be. She used to bring me to ballet, an art I had thought I would devote my life to, and here she was nine years later bringing me to a sport that I found on my own (with the help of my friend Ranton Andaya) that had healed much of what ballet had broken, and met one of my teachers who she had once been.
It was surreal, and I felt so, so lucky to have a mother like her. She didn’t care what I was doing, she didn’t really understand it, but she knew I was happy and would support that however she could. I don’t think she knew how much it meant to me to have her in my corner then.
I know I have her trust and support, and keep true to her childhood rule that I need to be able to tell her what I’m up to. She let me go to Indonesia and spend weeks on a boat despite her fear of the unknown. She came with me, watched, and paid for my first tattoo (then later interviewed my tattoo artist on her radio/cable television program Art 2 Art). She may not understand jiu jitsu, but she encourages me every day to keep fighting and progressing because she sees how happy it makes me.
I think we all try to give back to our parents in any way that we can; it’s a part of the gratitude that has been instilled in us and how we see our parents. My mom, ironically, is always the one planning surprises: for my grandparents, for her friends and co-workers… So when my brother came up with the idea of lying about when I was coming home from my trip last May, I thought it hilarious. I had saved up and spent two weeks after the semester travelling to Spain and England, and decided to arrive back in the Philippines the day before Mother’s Day.
My brother snuck me home from the airport with our friend Liah, which was a surprise to me, and we had to stay hidden and quiet and pray she wouldn’t come upstairs to see the lights on in my room, or hear the laughter from the three of us. My dad even said, “There’s a strange woman laughing”, and my mom brushed it aside, thinking he was talking about the TV. The following morning, the Donada staff all lined up to give her roses, and I hid behind everyone at the end of the line with a bouquet, my brother filming everything. No one in my family but Mac knew, and the staff to help get me home. It was funny, above all, because she was never on the receiving end of surprises. To say the least, she reacted much like my lola would when my mom would surprise her with grand gestures. You can even see in the little video my brother edited both of their reactions to my surprise arrival. My mom went “Walanghiya ka!” when I told her that I had arrived the night before. She was laughing and crying and, needless to say, thoroughly surprised.
Honestly, what surprises me about my mom is how big her heart is. She cares about so many people so deeply, and may very well be one of the most compassionate people on the planet. It surprises me all the time how she treats people, and how patient and willing she is to help others before herself. I will be forever grateful for the lessons she taught me, for the support she gives me and how she sees and molds the world around her.
My mom is one of my best and first friends, and she lets me be my most true self, even if that isn’t on stage anymore, and I can’t thank her enough for that.