Laughing and crying at the first ‘Vuisitarian’

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Jan 2 2011

By Nestor Cuartero

Nestor CuarteroIt was June 1970, the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, a period of brewing student activism, poetry of protest, mind-blowing diversions, from marijuana to drugs and booze to rock n’ roll.

Everywhere, young people cried for change. It was to be known in the history of student activism as the First Quarter Storm, the eve of the declaration of Martial Law by President Ferdinand E. Marcos.

I had just entered the University of Santo Tomas’ Faculty of Arts and Letters as a lanky, wide-eyed freshman dreaming of becoming a journalist and following the footsteps of its fabled alumni in the world of letters. Amid rowdy student protests, cries for Filipinization of UST, and the shock of ever-rising flood waters on España and Dapitan, I answered an advertisement in the Varsitarian, which was then in need of five---became four---new junior reporters.

The editors explained it was a freak situation they were facing, as normally, staff members were recruited in summer, at the end of every school year.

I considered myself lucky having been one of the four ‘freaks’ accepted into the hallowed halls of the Varsitarian on my first year and first try at that, after a battery of written and oral tests. The three others were Rhonda del Pilar, Virgilio Umandap, and Hermogenes Villasenor.

The Varsi at that time was published as a tabloid once a week and as a literary magazine every two months. I covered several colleges, the hospital, and ROTC. Arturo Cuevas, a Journalism senior, was my news editor. On top of him were two of the most feared, most menacing people in the newsroom as far as I was concerned: the ever-unsmiling and stern Rosalinda de Leon, editor in chief, and the English-speaking and therefore, alienating mestizo, Richard Morallo, managing editor.

Three months into my beats, the editors gathered us all in a meeting one afternoon at the old ‘V’ office on a corner at the ground floor of the Main Building to announce we were coming up with a lampoon issue.

Everyone was so excited. What’s a lampoon issue, I asked Ma. Corazon ‘Peachy’ Evangelista (now Yamsuan), who was a senior reporter at the time, together with Rafael Castillo, now a top cardiologist and health columnist. We tossed ideas left and right and laughed at our own sordid imaginings. A deadline, too close to our final examinations, was set.

The night before deadline, I twisted and turned in my bed at the boarding house on one of the side-streets crossing Dapitan. I had to file at least three stories for the lampoon issue, ordered Rosalinda with the sober face.

It was the first time I ever heard of a lampoon issue. I didn’t know any better about its limitations and responsibilities. We certainly didn’t have any of that in Batangas.

The next morning, lacking in sleep and stressed at breakfast, I caught a glimpse of The Manila Times reporting that Pope Paul VI was coming to the Philippines, and to the UST, specifically, for a visit.

I didn’t know what moved me, perhaps it was the devil himself in the person of my dormmate, Wilfredo, a pre-med student at the time, who suggested I toyed with that idea.

He completed the scenario for me by saying that the Pope, to be called Pop-eye VI in my story, was coming to the UST Hospital for a brain transplant!

At this point in my confession, I utter this short prayer of forgiveness. Oh, God, through the intercession of my patron saint, Saint Joseph, and Mama Mary, Mediatrix of All Grace, please forgive me now as I confess this for the very first time in public, at the risk of being disowned by the university all over again, and being stripped of the faculty tenure I have yet to earn, so be it, but I’m willing to accept all punishments now, including 400 quadricentennial ejaculations, if you wish. Mea culpa. At that time, Dr. Christian Barnard had just completed the first human heart transplant operation in the United States.

We figured that if the Pope could trust UST doctors with his brain transplant, it was going to bolster furthermore UST’s reputation in the field of medicine.

I remember having written a news story based on that wild imagining, along with two other crazy stories I’d rather not mention at this point, lest I be sent back to another course on The Sociology of Deviant Behaviour, which Prof. Almadora Zipagang taught so well.

The Popeye story didn’t come out in full, thank God, but it served as the germ of an inspiration to Dicky Morallo for a wicked photo caption on the upper front page, which probably made things worse. The picture showed the Pope smiling as he conversed with someone, a priest or a bishop.

When the four-page issue came out Oct. 17, 1970 and caused a ruckus on campus, I didn’t know where to hide the office logbook on which we wrote the leads of all submitted stories with our names beside each story.

I feared it was going to be used as evidence to prosecute me. I was never more afraid in my entire 16 years, far more afraid than when I laid down cold and helpless on an operating table to be circumcised when I was 13.

I feared I was going to jail, thrown out of school, excommunicated. I thought of the La Salle brothers, who were my teachers back in Lipa high. What would they say of what I have become only months after I had left them?

What about my parents, who were against my choice of Journalism as a course? I feared Tatay was going to coerce me to revert to B.S. Agriculture, which was what he wanted for me, if I wasn’t going to be a doctor.

The succeeding episodes were even more traumatic and fast-paced for a newcomer on his first semester in his first year at the university. Incensed by the reckless act and seeming lack of responsibility or remorse on the part of the 21 staffers behind the lampoon issue, the Vice Rector for Student Affairs, Atty. Andres Narvasa, later to become Chief Justice of the land, issued a memorandum suspending all of us as Varsitarian staffers. My dream to become a journalist was fast collapsing, and with a bang, later on, a double bang.

We were barred from entering the Varsi premises, and not allowed to use any of its facilities, those ancient typewriters that made lots of noise as one whacked at them, and the dark room of the photographers where secret lovers kissed and made up, not out.

The UST administration, headed by its Rector, Fr. Leonardo Z. Legaspi, previously issued a warning to the staffers to apologize for their irresponsible, insensitive action. The Vuisitarian made fun of administration officials, reported in a story that Dean Narvasa had won as president of the Central Board of Students, and posted photos of priests and academic officials on the wanted list, like common criminals.

There were also stories alluding to the Holy Name Society sponsoring showing of bomba films on campus, and alumnae like Pharmacy’s Minnie Cagatao, who had just won the Miss Philippine Republic pageant, dancing in the same show as a member of the Saling Pusa (Salinggawi) Dance Troupe.

In issuing our suspension, Atty. Narvasa, then Vice Rector for Student Affairs, wrote each staffer on Oct. 24, 1970 that the staff had printed statements, descriptions, and photographs, which are defamatory of His Holiness, Pope Paul VI, as well as of other persons and officials in the University. In his letter, Narvasa also said that we had treated the Holy Father and said other persons with gross disrespect, ex posing them to humiliation to humiliation and public ridicule. Our act, he said, was ‘in derogation and violation of the respect due to their persons and rights.’

While we, underlings, thought nothing of the order to apologize, (‘Eh, di mag-apologize’), our bosses at the ‘V’ refused adamantly. We were torn between warring parties; I was tempted to say between the devil and the deep blue sea. The lampoon issue had earlier caused the resignation of Celso Al. Carunungan, a respected journalist and novelist, as publications director. While he believed the lampoon issue was done in bad taste, it was not enough for UST to issue such a drastic order, reported The Manila Times on Oct. 29, 1970. In a letter to Fr. Legaspi dated Oct. 27, 1970, Carunungan noted that authorities may have made too much of a small thing.

When the staff refused to issue an apology after snubbing an invitation from the Rector for a dialog, UST did the unexpected. Much to our consternation and panic, the University expelled all 21 of us. That struck a double bang on my youthful dream. I was ready to become a farmer.

As UST did this, the University of the Philippines was quick to issue an invitation accepting for enrolment all 21 expelled staff members. Various organizations of campus journalists came to our rescue by issuing statements of condemnation and support.

By this time, the Vuisitarian had ballooned into a national issue, carried by all newspapers, reported on TV and radio. It had become an issue of academic freedom, an attack on freedom of the press.

The fact that it had occurred at a time when the University Belt and nearby Plaza Miranda in Quiapo were already turning into a hotbed of student unrest didn’t make things easy for UST. The school was unfairly dragged into a controversy far detached from its usual serenity and graceful existence.

Furiously, I clipped, cut and pasted on a large brown book of memorabilia stories written about the V and those 21 brave, arrogant students who figured in the news during that turbulent period of the Varsitarian. I dug up that album to reveal some of the headlines at the time. Samples: ‘Lift suspension, Varsitarians ask;’ ‘UST rector airs side; Hearing for UST staffers set today;’ ‘21 Varsitarian staffers expelled;’ ‘PPI (Philippine Press Institute) appeals to Corpuz on UST problem;’ ‘UST puts student power to a test.’

The issue was never resolved for most of the staffers, especially those whose names appeared in the upper echelon of the staff box. Many of them walked out of UST altogether, in a huff, and didn’t bother to come back to say sorry, re-enroll and finish their courses.

Five, maybe six of us younger staffers, including Peachy and I, made it back to the roster of enrolled students halfway into the second semester of that school year.

Behind our back, our parents had done the talking for us. They apologized on our behalf, made us sign a piece of paper that was to be our act of reconciliation with the University of our affection and affliction

*Nestor Cuartero was managing editor of The Varsitarian during his senior year as a Journalism student. He is currently an editor at the Manila Bulletin and Tempo and Coordinator, Department of Journalism, UST Faculty of Arts and Letters