Many less acclaimed (to put it kindly) writers refuse to be edited and complain when even a preposition is changed.
But not internationally recognized and award-winning poet/playwright and former University of the Philippines (UP) Humanities professor Virginia R. Moreno, who passed away recently at age 98.
She knew her verse-like articles might not be an easy read for a newspaper’s broad and diverse audience. Her phrases and clauses were not often in sequence as in simple prose, especially journalese, and her punctuation marks sometimes appeared in unexpected places.
But her stories were always engaging and interesting so we had to find space for them. And, of course, any publication would have been proud to carry that byline.
Poet as journalist
At 80-something, she decided to start putting into paper some of those stories only she could tell. I think she was also encouraged by the fact that she had friends and fans at the Inquirer.
The late Inquirer editor in chief Letty Jimenez-Magsanoc was very fond of her and Isagani Yambot, the late publisher, was a neighbor in Tondo. Chelo Banal-Formoso and I, though we were not among her students (she was in self-exile in Paris when we were at UP), knew enough of her to be among her admirers.
Fortunately, I could “translate” and “interpret” her prose. Perhaps because I was the most accessible physically (I live on Singalong, Malate, a few blocks from her residence that used to be Café Orfeo, watering hole for artists, their friends and fans, on Gen. Malvar Street, also in Malate) and by phone, she would let me know if she was sending a feature story to the Inquirer and explain to me what it was all about.
Those background sessions often lasted more than an hour on the phone and at least five hours when I went to visit her, first at her own house, then younger brother Pitoy’s, just two blocks away on the same street, after he was moved to a hospital suite for 24/7 professional care.
When Letty got one of Virgie’s stories, she would often ask me to transform it into an article for a newspaper of general circulation, knowing that the author had given me the background.
I must confess it seemed sacrilegious to touch the copy of THE Virginia Moreno. It was with trepidation that I talked to her after the first time we published her story in “plain” language. But she did not care about how it looked in print, relishing only the positive feedback. Although she did not become a journalist like her dear friend Nick Joaquin (aka Quijano de Manila), she fully understood that journalistic writing was simple and unadorned.
So she wrote some more. Virgie was a voracious newsreader. She would read a newspaper, her preferred medium for keeping abreast of recent developments, from front to last page. She did not subscribe to any newspaper, preferring to give her business to the street corner “newsboy.”
She read every Inquirer columnist and she often had me in stitches with her acerbic commentaries on some she did not particularly like.
Her memory remained sharp and clear to the end that she vividly remembered events from her childhood in Tondo, then Manila’s affluent district, where family and neighbors knew her as “Nena,” the girl who was always reading a book.
Virgie proudly proclaimed she was educated in public schools from elementary to college. As she remembered it, her violent reaction to being sent to a school run by Belgian nuns “banished” her to public educational institutions.
Not even five feet tall, Virgie would always be feisty and fiercely independent. I once bumped into her at Robinsons Place Manila window-shopping alone. She was in her early 90s by then. I walked her home, as she preferred, instead of getting a Grab ride and dropping her off.
Her public school education was capped by college at UP, an institution she would serve as a professor and remain loyal to despite some disappointments and grievances. The ancestral home would later become an off-campus hangout for members of UP’s Upsilon Sigma Phi fraternity to which brother Pitoy, later dubbed the fashion czar of Asia, belonged.
Interestingly, despite her close association with Upsilonians, she did not become a member of its sorority, Sigma Delta Phi, not even an honorary one. But Lynett Ad. Villariba, former Inquirer art director, said Virgie was so often in the company of Upsilonians that they considered her a bona fide Sigma Deltan.
Lynett said, “Sigma Deltans owe her a debt of gratitude (for writing) the zarzuela ‘Mariang Maya,’” which was presented by the sorority in 1953. Sigma Deltan Felichi Pangilinan, younger sister of Senator Kiko, said the playwright told her and her sister that the zarzuela was inspired by the love story of their parents. Their mother Emma was a Reserved Officers Training Corps sponsor while their father Dony Pangilinan was the UP corps commander. Both starred in the zarzuela Moreno directed.
Mariang Maya is now the name of the Sigma Delta award it has presented every five years since 1983, on the sorority’s 50th anniversary, to outstanding sisters. In 2018, Virgie was honored by Sigma Delta for her contributions to the sorority.
Virgie’s commitment and loyalty to Sigma Delta, to which she was connected merely by association, were typical. She was loyal and very protective of those she held dear. Usually cheerful and calm, she could be instantly triggered by slights against her beloved brother and dear friends and fellow writers, like Nick, Raul Ingles and Adrian Cristobal.
She defended Pitoy at every opportunity against people who opposed his being named a National Artist and called him just a custorera or ordinary dressmaker. She fumed that “activists” who depended on Adrian’s generosity during martial law, forgot what he did and even badmouthed him after the People Power Revolution.
Sometimes, when something really maddened her, she would raise a clenched fist, not in the cartoonish way of today, but in the truly defiant French Revolution style and would even say her favorite cuss word in French.
Had the pandemic not put everything on hold, Virgie would still be telling her stories to a wider and younger audience through the pages of the Inquirer. And, as independent as she was, she would probably bring the stories personally to the Inquirer, taking a taxi by herself, although this time, she would not have to climb three flights of stairs to the editorial offices.
News of her passing was a surprise, despite her age. She seemed indestructible and, Chelo said, “eternal.” —CONTRIBUTED INQ