Friday, December 5, 2008

One Hundred Years Of Universitihood*

BEFORE THE YEAR IS OVER and it is too late, I want to jump on the bandwagon and join the centennial anniversary celebration of the University of the Philippines by posting an entry with an old postcard (of the Padre Faura campus where I spent my first semester in the UP system) that I had bought through Ebay from a guy in North Clarendon, Vermont and by, what seems like a pattern emerging in this blog, reminiscing. This is the least I can do; I am indebted to my alma mater figuratively and literally, but the constraints of distance, time and money prevent me from actively participating in the activities, which are probably winding down now as the year comes to a close. Just two days ago, my friend Susan Lara sent me an invitation to the UP Writers Night (which would have been over by now) and another missed event worsens the guilt and nags me into doing something, anything. My coming to America would not have happened if UP (specifically the English Department) did not take me under its wing and send me on its faculty development program to study in the United States. So, for all its worth, I will write my memory of the Writing Center, the focal point of my stay in the university, and drop a lot of names that I hope will not bore some readers.

The UP was established on June 18, 1908 (the same year the University of Nebraska at Omaha was founded) as the American University of the Philippines by Act No. 1870 of the First Philippine Legislature, also known as the "University Act." I entered the university in 1981 as a returning student after two years of soul-searching, trying to figure out what to make of my three years of study at the Ateneo de Manila earlier. I was trying to decide if I wanted to be in a school where most everyone wore Lacostes and Florsheims and drove cars, while I wore my pair of citizens' military training combat boots to school because I could not afford to buy another one, and took the tricycle from the jeepney stop on Katipunan Avenue to Berchmans Hall only when it rained hard. Don't get me wrong; I made many friends at the Ateneo, mostly in my English class of "needy but deserving" scholars under Lourdes Vidal, but I was glad that I left campus before I became angrier at my family, society and God for what we were not. At UP Manila, I took a poetry class under Ricky de Ungria who told me about a Writers' Worskhop held in Diliman every summer that I should apply to. I did, the following year, and was accepted.

In the workshop, I met writers that I read only in books: the late Franz Arcellana and Alex Hufana, Jimmy Abad, Amel Bonifacio, Edgar Reyes (whose piece Lugmok Na Ang Nayon is still my favorite Tagalog short story), Linda Ty-Casper, you name it. Before that, my knowledge of literature was limited to Ang Lumang Simbahan by Florentino Collantes, a poem my late father used to recite at bedtime when I was a kid, "The Beetle" by Consorcio Borje in high school, and "Clay" by Juan Gatbonton in Lourdes Vidal's class at the Ateneo (in the same class, by the way, was writer James Laquindanum, now a priest at St. Patrick's Roman Catholic Church in Long Island City, Queens). Needless to say, the workshop broadened my literary horizons, so to speak. I discovered writers like Dylan Thomas and Robert Graves and Kerima Polotan, learned about the "tangential approach" and "objective-correlative," and met junior writers like Susan Lara (who used to smoke Philip Morris 100s, believe it or not), Carlos Cortes and Simeon Dumdum. I got lucky; my story "Big Wind" got the Best Fiction Award and a Napoleon Abueva trophy.

Heady from the workshop, I dumped biology as a major and transferred to Diliman the following semester to study English. (I kept this from my family until I graduated.) I commuted by bus everyday from our house in a government housing complex in San Pedro, Laguna, and packed home-cooked food to save lunch money on take-out at CASAA, hanging out at the Writing Center in between classes. I had to leave campus early to avoid the EDSA traffic, missing writers' get-togethers, readings and inumans, which happened late in the afternoons into the night. But there was another English major and returning student named Butch Dalisay, a Palanca award-winning writer and former political detainee who read my manuscript one day and apparently saw some potential in my florid prose. Without second thought, he offered me a job as his copy editor and researcher, although he himself struggled at the time financially, with a family to support on a government job at the National Economic Development Authority. To this day, I have not forgotten the spontaneity and magnanimity of his gesture, and the encouragement and confidence it gave me.

Soon, things fell into place somewhat. I was given a local fellowship for fiction at the Writing Center, thanks to the late Alex Hufana, the director who had a library science background and was some kind of a mentor to me. I also found an old boarding house with a restaurant called Jacy's where food and lodging were cheap right behind the Faculty Center. I spent most of the time at the Writing Center (or FC 1003) which was an air-conditioned office created by combining two faculty rooms, with barely enough space for three desks, four steel file cabinets, a book shelf and a long conference table where people held meetings, did homework or graded papers, played Trivial Pursuit, ate lunch, and at the end of the day when no one was looking, gathered for "libations." It was a refuge open to any writer or English major, and even the sleep-deprived or hangover-nurser could use it to catch some Zs when no one except staffer Tony Serrano (the vegetarian and everybody's kuya) or Glo Evangelista was around, only roused when curious faculty like Lily Rose Tope peeked in to find out what was up for the day. There were rotary phones and manual typewriters for duplicating manuscripts using stencils. At dusk, when the acacia trees outside stirred legends, the halls became quiet, and the chicharon, balut and peanut vendors appeared by the building entrance, it was the perfect place to drink Bobot Bitonio's basi or the late Clovis Nazareno's ESQ, to discuss Dylan Thomas, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, gossip, or simply find a victim to roast for the evening (former Labor Usec Bitonio was a ruthless alaskador). Discussions became heated and more lively when writers like Edel Garcellano, Enrico Enerio, Manny Espinola, Rey Luminarias or Ed Farolan joined in. Beer was bought for those who preferred it by the late Ernie Damasco, the messenger, using Mang Rene's tricycle, bypassing the guard at the entrance and delivering the bottles through a side window. Warmed up and ready for wider space, the tipplers dutifully locked up the office by 7 pm and reconvened at a nearby watering hole, usually PCED Hostel on campus or Trellis in PHILCOA. On Friday nights, interested writers gathered for a work-discussion group that met (and, of course, drank) in Isabel Mooney's apartment, the LitCritters of our time. As I lived on campus, I did not have to worry about anything, and freedom seemed infinite.

I spent the following three years in Diliman, only changing residence when Jacy's was demolished to make way for a new academic building, temporarily sleeping in Vice Chancellor Louie Beltran's garage in UP Village for free to help son Ricky complete a paper for Yolanda Tomeldan's class, before ending up in Narra Residence Hall where the late Clovis Nazareno and Donat Alvarez lodged. Before graduating in 1985, I met other English majors and writers who would also pursue further studies abroad, including Gina Apostol (our paths crossed inside Strand Bookstore in Union Square; she is now an English teacher at The Masters School in Dobbs Ferry, New York), Fidelito Cortes (is he in Stony Brook?), the glamorous no-nonsense gang of Judy Ick-Ging Kagawan-Diana Atencia, Neferti Tadiar (professor of Women's Studies at Barnard College, Columbia University), the late Luisa Mallari, Don Dona (connected with Financial Services of NYU) and of course, Butch Dalisay. I ended up in Wichita, Kansas, where the only US university that would give me a graduate assistantship was. Most of them would go back to serve the university, but I would stay on and move around America for reasons that are hard to articulate at the moment. But I know the day will come when I will have to go back, face the music and square accounts with someone for things that I owed in the past.

Here is my cum laude diploma and a picture of the Writing Center in the 80's (photo retouched) with the late Franz Arcellana, book designer Donat Alvarez, Reni Roxas, publisher of Tahanan Books, and Susan Lara. (Notice the Johnnie Walker lapad on the table.) Also a party of English majors, including Cristina de Leon and Neferti Tadiar (back to the camera) and a reading at the Faculty Center with Jimmy Abad and Isabela Mooney.

*"Universitihood" is a word that is apparently used only in the Philippines; I do not know if it is accepted in standard English, but I take risk in using it in my title because it rhymes with "Solitude." You know what I'm going for.


  1. Ramon,

    Amazing recollections of Diliman!

    Du-aw dinhi sa Washington and California, Mon, aron ta makita.

    Please keep in touch.

    Rey Romea Luminarias

  2. Ramon,
    Thanks for remembering our times in Diliman.Please take time out from that solitude for a season.
    Let's meet up and talk about creative writing, about life itself again!
    I think, online, I have read one of your stories or narrative poems (on the surreal abuses and wicked follies of some of the politicians back home) and was inspired to write about our home country again. You can reach me at 714-767-0532 and leave a message. Komosta ug salamat. Rey