Just 17 and done with two years of finishing school in Spain, with a side course in France and travels across Europe, I was back home for revalidation by my paternal grandparents.
They had sent me off after high school, with two cousins, in the hope of us, their eldest granddaughters, being transformed from ganzas—literally, dissonant geese, but stretched in our case to awkward ducklings—not only into poised and cultured swans, but swans conversant in both Spanish and French.
I had thought Europe the best thing to have happened to me until I realized that, if it had given me some sophistication and breadth of vision, it also had inspired in me some misinformed dreams, in particular the dream of becoming a journalist.
One Sunday in Lola’s house, where I had been staying while waiting for work on my room in my own home to be completed—it was being remodeled and refitted for a swan—I announced to Uncle Anding, one of Dad’s nine brothers, a Journalism graduate from the University of Arizona, that I was inclined toward the same college course.
“No, don’t!” he said, vigorously shaking his head. “Take up English Lit, instead. Learn the language well, and read, read, read.”
He quite surprised me, and it was only much later that I would find out where Anding may have been coming from. Uncle Marquitos, the second to the youngest, told me Anding’s story.
After the war, his father asked Anding to take up Mining Engineering in preparation for work in the family mines in Palawan, and, like a good son, he obeyed. He enrolled at Mapua and, once it became possible, resumed his undergraduate studies in the States—his own father was Stateside college-educated. He would have followed older brothers to Notre Dame, in Indiana, but his asthma decided it for him—University of (warmer) Arizona.
Running short of funds once, Anding decided to enter a literary contest that offered cash prizes. He won in all categories—essay, short story and radio script writing—a feat unprecedented at UA, whose president became even more incredulous to discover that the winner was a foreigner nonnative to English and enrolled in Mining Engineering.
He asked Anding how he was doing in his course, which was badly, and advised him to shift to Journalism, which he promptly did.
He didn’t become a journalist, although he did become, among other things, a writer (before his death, he was named National Artist for Literature, in rather controversial circumstances) and possibly he suspected that, like him, I was looking at the wrong course for the wrong ambition: I, too, wanted to become a writer, but felt presumptuous saying so.
Knowing no better, I enrolled in Journalism, anyway, at St. Theresa’s College, where I also had done my high school. For the most part, the course consisted of being fed theories and visiting newspaper plants.
At any rate, I was beginning to discover that what I really wanted was just to write and that, if I felt attracted to journalism, I could begin my real education in it after journalism school.
But I got married—I was only 21. That marriage broken 20 years later, I found myself chasing journalism again.
On the advice of a friend, Aida Sevilla Mendoza, a legitimate journalist herself to this day (they seem to never retire), I enrolled at the Asian Institute of Journalism, housed right in a daily newspaper’s headquarters. There I was fated to meet my future husband, an editor, and he would be instrumental in drawing out the closet writer in me: he was Vergel O. Santos. Before him, I may have published as few as three or four magazine pieces.
As a student apprentice, I was baptized on the police beat for his paper, People’s Journal, whose technical quality of writing impressed me.
All those years of education and miseducation come flooding back to mind as I sit at the seminar that precedes the annual Jaime V. Ongpin Journalism Awards. On the panel are the finalists, speaking from experience, taking questions from an audience of learners, mostly journalism students—it is a course in itself. My husband has been more or less a permanent juror for the awards, going on for 18 years now.
Coming face-to-face on this occasion with some of journalism’s best practitioners, whose doggedness, fearlessness under threat to life and limb, passion, commitment—all in the service of the truth—come forth through their time-tested words, I always ask myself, however could I have thought of becoming a journalist myself? Indeed, how can anyone with no background in reporting come up with any credible journalism?
My husband cannot stress it enough. When, for instance, he reads a piece by Babeth Lolarga, a comparison he always holds up to me being, for one thing, a fellow of mine in First Draft Club, he points out its virtues—focus, accuracy, clarity and simplicity of language—then rounds out his remark, “Nag-reporter kasi.”
And for anything that falls short: “’Di kasi nag-reporter, ayan, kalat na kalat.”
I get it myself for, say, incomplete names, unspecified dates and unattributed quotes.
No doubt about it: I feel happy and fulfilled writing this little, soft column (“Nothing is soft or hard, only good writing”—that’s him again), especially since my own dad, a law professor, had supplementally fed us by writing a daily column, “My Daily Bread,” in The Manila Times until he became a congressman. Still, I never for a moment forget that I’m no journalist.
And that’s precisely why I did the next best thing: I married a true-blue one.