Minerva "Eva" Castillo posed beside two of the "200-plus trophies" she won from amateur singing contests.

Photo: Rommel Llanes

Long before the screaming fans, the accolades, the sold-out concerts in big venues both here and abroad, and everything that came with fame and fortune, Asia's Songbird Regine Velasquez was just Chona Velasquez, a little girl who made a career out of joining amateur singing contests.

But in her GMA-7 docu-musical special Regine: Roots to Riches aired last May 24, Regine revealed that winning all those amateur singing contests back then was not easy at all. And that was because she always had one very tough rival.

This rival of hers, Regine said, was clearly dominant. The girl is supposed to have won over 300 trophies from these amateur singing contests. Regine said she only won a little over 75 trophies in over 300 competitions.

"Parang takot ako sa kanya, e. Meron akong gano'n, e. Hindi naman takot, pero parang kinakabahan ako pagka siya yung kalaban ko, kasi nga alam ko na magaling siya at saka nagagalingan ako sa kanya," confessed Asia's Songbird.

The nemesis that Regine Velasquez was talking about was Minerva "Eva" Castillo.

THE RIVAL. The PEP (Philippine Entertainment Portal) sent me to search for Minerva in Tondo, Manila, on Pilapil Street. I found her. She was called Eva, and she greeted me with an apology as I entered her very home.

"Pasensiya na ka na, ha. Maliit lang ang bahay namin," she said. Her house, measuring barely 8 feet by 10 feet, was truly small. It looked more like a college dormer's room than a home for six people—Eva; her three kids, Pipoy (18), Enang (16), and Owel (15); Pipoy's wife Rea, and Eva's granddaughter Lian.

The dim incandescent bulb lighting the small room flickered once in a while during our interview. "Baka naglu-loose do'n sa taas," she said, referring to the room above theirs, from where they "borrowed" electricity for their light and for two electric fans and a 21-inch Japan-surplus TV.

Eva made me sit at the bottom of the makeshift double-deck bed made of used plywood and lumber. This is where Enang, Owel, Pipoy, Rea, and Baby Lian all slept. But seeing Eva sitting quite comfortably on the room's cold concrete floor, I did the same.

I began the interview by asking her to tell me more about herself.

"Minerva Castillo talaga ang pangalan ko, pero Eva na nga ang tawag sa akin. Anim kaming magkakapatid, ako ang bunso. Dito na ako ipinanganak at lumaki sa Tundo. Thirty-nine na 'ko."

Is it true that she had 300-something trophies from her amateur singing stints, as Regine said in the latter's TV special?

"Hindi ko na mabilang, pero nasa two-hundred plus ang trophy ko. Pero kung siguro lahat ng sinalihan kong amateur [singing contests] may trophy, siguro nga hindi lang ganun [ang bilang]," Eva replied.

THE YOUNG BELTER. Eva started singing at the age of six. She said that it was her parents Concepcion and Narciso who first discovered her gift for singing. "Meron daw pangyayari na sumampa ako sa owner [jeep], pagkatapos kumanta ako ng isang kanta na may tono, pero hindi maintindihan yung kinakanta ko. Doon nagsimula yun, e. Pagkatapos nun, tinuturu-turuan na ako ng kuya ko, si Kuya Carding."