The University of Santo Tomas — a Memoir

  • strict warning: Non-static method view::load() should not be called statically in /home/amihan/public_html/sites/all/modules/views/views.module on line 879.
  • strict warning: Declaration of views_handler_filter::options_validate() should be compatible with views_handler::options_validate($form, &$form_state) in /home/amihan/public_html/sites/all/modules/views/handlers/ on line 589.
  • strict warning: Declaration of views_handler_filter::options_submit() should be compatible with views_handler::options_submit($form, &$form_state) in /home/amihan/public_html/sites/all/modules/views/handlers/ on line 589.
  • strict warning: Declaration of views_plugin_style_default::options() should be compatible with views_object::options() in /home/amihan/public_html/sites/all/modules/views/plugins/ on line 25.
  • strict warning: Declaration of views_plugin_row::options_validate() should be compatible with views_plugin::options_validate(&$form, &$form_state) in /home/amihan/public_html/sites/all/modules/views/plugins/ on line 135.
  • strict warning: Declaration of views_plugin_row::options_submit() should be compatible with views_plugin::options_submit(&$form, &$form_state) in /home/amihan/public_html/sites/all/modules/views/plugins/ on line 135.
Jan 2 2011

By F. Sionil Jose

F. Sionil JoseIn June 1944, I enrolled at the University of Santo Tomas College of Liberal Arts at its original campus in Intramuros—an ancient stone edifice, with thick wooden floors, and sash windows that could be flung to the farthest corner. Close by was the Santo Domingo Church and farther to the left was the San Juan de Letran College, which was occupied by the Japanese. I was living then in Antipolo street with my cousin, Dr. Eustaquia Alberto, and it was upon her urging that I was to take up preparatory medicine. The times were difficult—I woke up early to take the street car, which was then very crowded and if I couldn’t take it, I would walk all the way from Antipolo street to Intramuros, which took more than an hour. I was 19. I recall my zoology, botany and chemistry classes, the tedious memory work, which I did not like, but which I knew was a prerequisite. And of course, Niponggo—of that class, all I remember now is “korewa hon desu.”

Our Niponggo teacher was a young naval officer, with leather boots, a sword by his side all the time, in khaki and white shirt and cap. His English was accented but perfect. We were having his class at ten that historic morning.

All of a sudden, the anti-aircraft guns atop the San Juan de Letran started popping, and then they came screaming one after another, those grey stubby planes with white bands and a white star—they zoomed so low, just above the acacia trees, some of their canopies open and we could see the pilots waving. Then explosions at the piers. When we realized they were American, all of us started jumping and shouting with joy.

Our Japanese teacher disappeared. That same day, classes were stopped altogether. And in November of that year, with so little food in Manila, and transport. Already curtailed, my mother, a cousin, and I walked all the way to my hometown, Rosales, to join my other relatives who had already gone there earlier.

The main campus in España was, through the war the interment camp for American and Allied civilians. When classes were opened there in 1946, I enrolled again.

Who were our teachers then? There was Jose P. Bautista, editor of the Manila Times, Mauro Mendez who became Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Helen Leyden who was almost our very own age. On occasion, Teodoro F. Valencia and Joe Guevarra who were then name columnists, would drop by.

But it was Paz Latorena and Fr. Juan Labrador, Dean of the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters, who impressed me most. For those who never saw her, let me describe her. She was short, rather dumpy, her hair always done in a bun. She wore no makeup. She never really taught us how to write—what she did was teach us how to read. Books became living things; when the spirit moved her, she would talk as one entranced, and so was I who listened to her every word. The Father Dean was stick thin, with a prominent nose. For a Spaniard, he was not all that fair. He had come to the Philippines before World War II and his memoir of the Occupation is a must read for all who are interested in that dark and gruesome period of our history.

How did I get to join the Varsitarian, the university student paper?

Miss Latorena whom I already knew as a first rate writer was teaching English Lit and I purposely enrolled in her class. On our first day, she made us write on a theme whose title I do not remember. It was not difficult—so when I finished it in 15 minutes, I asked if it was all right for me to leave. She said, yes.

The following session, she called my name and told me to see her after the class. She said I should take the examination for the Varsitarian that forthcoming week, and that I must not fail to do it. And that was how I joined the Varsitarian, first as assistant literary editor, together with Dolores Locsin, The literary editor was Albert Card—an American veteran studying under the GI bill of rights.

In those days, there were separate entrances for men and women and separate classes as well, but not in the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters because we were so few. The Varsitarian office was in the ground floor of the Main Building, the huge room at the right of the main entrance. Voz Estudiantil, the paper in Spanish shared the office with us. The Varsi Adviser was Francisco Cuerva, and the moderator was Fr. Florencio Muñoz, who was also the University secretary; he was succeeded by Fr. Francisco Villacorta. It was the age of the typewriter, the flatbed and the minerva press, and the linotype. When we put the paper to bed, we really put it to bed in the flatbed press at the UST Printing Press, which was then at the corner of P. Noval and España. We often worked late at night, and got our fingers dirty with printer’s ink as we helped the printers set up the pages with the cuts and the proofs fresh from the linotypes.

When there were blanks that needed material, we typed out the stories right there. In those days, there was indeed a close working relationship between the editorial staff and the printers.

My first editor in chief was Eleno Mencias, who was a medical student; then came Santiago Artiaga, who wrote a column, “Tiago Tiaga”, then Manuel V. Salak of the Manila Times; he was taking up Law. When I became editor, Constante Roldan was my managing editor. Cenon Rivera and J. Elizalde Navarro were staff artists. Jerry lived by himself in a small ground floor apartment near the University. I often visited him and we reminisced about the war—he was in guerrilla in Panay. We talked about art. He was then very much under the influence of Carlos V. Francisco.

Pepino Vinzons Asis was the alumni editor. Years afterwards, he visited me at my bookshop. He had become a priest and was in a poor parish somewhere in Bicol. He told me about the priesthood, its hardships.

Several fixtures were in the Varsitarian; the office manager, Enrique Lumba, Mike Evangelista, who was also a very good proofreader, and Benny Buenaventura, the hippie poet and perennial student, who continually gave poems, some of them publishable. I was walking behind him once on the way out of the campus to España and he was talking to himself. I moved closer and realized he was reciting Shakespeare. I had no typewriter so I worked in the office at lunchtime or late in the eveningm typing my short stories as chapters of my novels.

J. C. Tuvera, Ben Rodriguez, Teodoro Benigno, Mary Ruff Tagle, and Eugenia Duran Apostol wrote short stories for the Varsitarian, Doris Trinidad contributed poetry. Juan Gatbonton and Neal Cruz were reporters. Delia Coronel, who was the coed editor became a nun and in Marawi, she translated the Maranao epic, The Darangen, for which she has yet to be fully honored. Our classmate, Mamitua Saber encouraged her to do it.

The first formal dinner I attended was tendered by the Father Rector, Angel Blas, for the new Varsitarian staff in 1946 at Carbungco’s in Sampaloc—the only posh restaurant in Manila shortly after World War II. And so there we were before that fancy dinner table arrangement, the different kinds of spoons, forks and knives. I did not know the sequence so I watched the priests and followed their example. The red and white wine—that was easy enough. The soup and the fish, too. Then the brandy after dinner. I wondered why it was not so generously poured like the wines and so I gulped it. I was in tears and almost choked.

I remember Johnny Frivaldo and our meeting with Father Villacorta, how he had asked for more pay and scholarships for us, which Father Villacorta granted. To prove his point, Johnny lifted one of his shoes, which had a hole in the sole. Johnny was a good politician, as his career later proved.

I’ll always remember Felix B. Bautista, and his wife, Nena, both Santo Tomas iconic institutions. Felix or Bote as we all called him was a brilliant craftsman whose first draft never needed editing.

And Gloria Garchetorena, and Celso Carunungan—as literary editors—they made a beautiful and hard working pair. Celso could write those complex and profound sentences, but he elected to write simply. It was the fad to do so in those days as influenced by Carlos Bulosan and William Saroyan.

And since I was an avid reader of William Faulkner, I tried to write differently, in a manner prolix and obtuse—one page, one sentence of convoluted prose.

My most important lesson in writing was given by Father Labrador. This was sometime in 1948. NVM Gonzalez was then editing the Saturday Evening News Magazine and had used one of my short stories.

Father Labrador took me that afternoon to the canteen—the building at the left of the main building. The ground floor was for students, the second floor for the faculty. We had mami. He asked me to look out of the window and tell him what I saw. I said, “the high school girls playing softball”. He said, “Suppose I put curtains on both sides of the window, what will you see?” I said, “the curtains and the girls playing softball”. Then he leaned forward and asked, “Suppose I covered the entire window with beautiful curtains, what do you see?”

I said, “the curtains, Father.”

He said, “That is writing. Never cover the window with curtains, no matter how beautiful. Leave something clear so that your reader can see what is beyond the window.”

His eyes twinkled, “Besides, you will always be a second rate Faulkner. You can be a first rate Jose.”

So, goodbye William Faulkner. Shortly after, Miss Latorena gave me James Joyce’s Ulysses which I returned after a week, telling her I couldn’t finish the book—it was obscure and after wrestling with it and giving up, I concluded that anyone who tells me he has read the novel in its entirety was either a masochist or a liar. Next, she gave me Finnegan’s Wake—also by James Joyce, and it really put me off—it was unreadable—a conclusion which wasn’t mine alone, but also of scholars of literature and mythology, so experimental and so forbidding—while it illustrated James Joyce mastery of myth and symbolism, it was also one of those novels that was very private in the sense that it could only be explicated by those who had also delved deep into the private world of the author himself.

I did not know that Miss Latorena was monitoring me and one afternoon, she dropped by the Varsitarian office and said she was glad I was not just telling stories anymore, but writing them.

Manuel Quezon Jr. was then studying in the UST seminary and he would drop by the V Office in the white cassock of a Dominican novice, sometimes with Father Labrador, sometimes just by himself. He was writing, he said, and also deep into philosophy and literature. One late afternoon—we were talking before the main building door, he said, he will introduce me to his sister as a car approached. It was Baby—the oldest of the Quezon children; she was taking up law in the evenings, and as the driver closed the car door, she said, “Thank you” to the driver—a tiny gesture, an act of exquisite grace. It is not often that I hear a passenger say thank you to a driver. Baby Quezon walked with a limp—we did not talk much; she merely shook my hand and said something about her brother being lucky to have a student writer friend. Years later, Nonong used to visit my bookshop in a wheelchair, and one morning, he brought me a sheaf of manuscripts. It belonged to his son, Manolo. He wanted my opinion about Manolo’s writing.

Some years back, I was with my brother-in-law, Norberto Jovellanos, in New Jersey; he took me to his doctor for I had a prostate problem and who would he be but a former classmate in Pre-med, who then recounted how, I wrote several love letters for him. Young people do not write them anymore, but in those days, we did. It was not just for him but for several others and my reward? Merienda again, which I always welcomed, because I was not eating well.

I don’t know if my classmates noticed it, but I was self-conscious of the fact that three years after 1945, when the war ended, I was still wearing my GI khakis and combat boots for I was a poor, self-supporting student, and also walked everyday from Antipolo to Santo Tomas In November 1949, there was a job opening at the United States Information Service in the American Embassy; the exam was a breeze. Now, I had a job that required me to be in an office eight hours every day. I quit school and the Varsitarian; I never considered a degree important so I did not graduate in March the following year.

Every so often, I go to Santo Tomas to lecture on Philippine culture; for a time, I was also a staff member of Ophie Dimalanta’s writing center. How the campus had changed! The trees that were saplings once now so tall and leafy, the spanking new buildings, the refurbished museum, and the separate library building—it has some of the oldest and rarest books in the country.

The old UST Press in the corner of Espana and P. Noval had long been torn down and I wonder what happened to all those antique letter presses. The Varsitarian now has such a big office, too, and from the occasional copies that I get I see that the young writers of Santo Tomas are carrying on the grand literary tradition for which my alma mater has always been known.

In those four years that I was in Santo Tomas, I never got to appreciate its venerableness, although I knew “it was older than Harvard,” that the university press produced the first printed book in the country, that the antique campus in the Walled City, where I studied for three months—surrounded by that old masonry, now gone forever, was that ancient. At the time that I was in the main building, I visited the museum only once. But it was in Santo Tomas that my perception of history, of class differences, and the tyranny of the oligarchy really developed, not because that kind of education was imparted by my teachers, but because they made me aware of how literature nurtured this social consciousness.

The University of Santo Tomas—all universities—is elitist not in the social sense, but in the way it develops humanist attitudes, the probity that comes with superior education. What distinguishes Santo Tomas from the other elite schools in the country is its democratic spirit, the mingling of social classes and ethnic groups which, though reared in the unique Thomasian cosmos, endures long after the students leave the university.

In Santo Tomas, there is none of the uppity notions, the noxious exclusivism that prevails in the other upscale schools, and particularly now, The Thomasian ethos is populist, catholic, and believe me—very liberal in a way Thomasians themselves do not quite recognize.

The happiest days of my youth were also spent in Santo Tomas. Thanks to the Varsitarian, I had a small pay and a scholarship as well. And most of all, although it was not in the campus where I met her, it was at UST where my future wife, Teresita Jovellanos, was studying, too.I first saw her in 1949—she was 17—at the birthday party of the poet, G. Burce Bunao; she went there as the chaperon of my classmate, Sally Aldas. In those days when girls went on dates, they always had chaperones. I asked if she had read me. She said, no.

I said I was the editor of the Varsitarian. Did she not read the Varsitarian at all?

Again, she said, no. It was a monumental put down, but it did not faze me. V

*National Artist for Literature F. Sionil Jose is one of the most widely-read Filipino writers in English. One of his most famous works is the Rosales Saga, which has been translated in 22 languages. He founded the Philippine Center for International PEN (Poets and Playwrights, Essayists, Novelists) in 1957 and became the Varsitarian editor in chief from 1948-1949.