Gemma fondly remembers her mom, iconic writer Chitang Nakpil

t would seem to friends and relatives, neighbors and fellow inhabitants of Ermita, that Chitang Guerrero had reached the end of her world after she lost her first husband, Lt. Ismaél A. Cruz I. But Chitang would soon bounce back, wake up from a period of apathy and stupor, and begin her career as a journalist. She would marry the dashing Architect Angel E. Nakpil and, with him by her side, raise Gemma into the world-class beauty-and-brains girl that she would become.

Although her daughter, Gemma, would speak of Chitang as “not the usual mother,” Chitang nevertheless supported her daughter, especially in the latter’s intellectual pursuits.

WELL-KNOWN essayist Carmen Guerrero Nakpil.


Meeting the masters at the PAG

In an essay, Gemma described how her mother and her stepfather, whom Gemma called Daddy Nakpil, would hang out at the Philippine Art Gallery where she would recall being fortunate “to have met some of the masters and seen them sketching and painting, talking to each other at the PAG. Romeo Tabuena did the creatives for Promotions (before he fled to Mexico), Vicente Manansala was a regular and so was Nena Saguil who later went to France. She had appropriated a corner of the white-tiled kitchen; there were dozens of tubes and canvases, rolls of ingres paper, brushes, palettes; the place was perfumed with a combination of linseed oil and turpentine. When I visited her in Paris many decades later, she remembered those afternoons when she taught me the basics of oil painting.”

It was a brief romance with oils because as soon as “Nena left for Paris, he (Daddy Nakpil) hired a private teacher to give me formal lessons at home. I have always been grateful for my stepfather’s stabilizing influence.”

GEMMA Cruz Araneta was the first Filipina to win the Miss International crown in 1964.

Hanging out at the PAG meant watching lectures about art, ceramics and creative writing. She wrote of her “mother (who) began to take a course in scriptwriting under a visiting American playwright, Rolf or Ralf Baer, I had never asked for the correct spelling of his surname. Unfortunately for my Mom, the course was suspended because most of enrollees gave up. I heard Rolf exclaim with exasperation, ‘Why can Chitang can?’ — which probably meant that only my mother could handle the work.”

Getting anemic in school

Around this period (give or take a few years), Gemma was having difficulties in school, to be sure, not for lack of brain power. Instead, as Chitang herself had explained, “she was getting very sick, she was getting anemic” (because of the Theresian nuns) She then transferred Gemma to Maryknoll College where the American nuns welcomed her with wide smiles all over their faces.

Chitang had written about an alumnae homecoming, and there was an alumna heavy with a child, and Chitang described how the pregnant mother felt. Then, a nun, too, was thinking, as she observed the mother, about not knowing how it is to become a mother. The nuns of the school did not look kindly to her story, and the alumnae sided with the nuns.

Gemma recounted, “Ang mommy biglang nainis, biglang nandun na ako sa Maryknoll (Mommy suddenly got peeved and suddenly. I was at Maryknoll).” She was in Grade III then.

‘LEGENDS and Adventures’ by Carmen Guerrero Nakpil.

The country’s youngest columnist

“Maryknoll was different,” Gemma said. “The atmosphere was more, parang liberal, American eh. And the nuns were more friendly. I noticed that right away. They were very friendly, they would talk to you as if you were friends.”

All went well for Gemma after she transferred to Maryknoll College. She even became the country’s youngest columnist.

“That was mommy’s idea. It was for Women’s Magazine, the first Women’s magazine. So, she told me, ‘Oh, you know, you can write a column there. You can interview children your age about their hobbies, but we have to choose children with creative hobbies.’”

As the daughter of the well-known essayist, Carmen Guerrero-Nakpil, Gemma was exposed to the world of literature and journalism. She witnessed her mother pounding at the typewriter every day. She also met a lot of her mother’s writer friends. “Even then, I had a feeling writing was something I would love to do,” she remembered.

‘MYSELF ELSEWHERE’ focuses on Carmen Guerrero Nakpil’s growing-up years in Ermita before the war.

At the age of nine, Gemma Cruz was a columnist for Women’s Magazine, the precursor of women’s publications in this country.

“It was just a two- or three-paragraph thing about other children who had hobbies or accomplishments. But I was receiving P10 per column.” she recalled. Unknowingly, she was also learning the value of work and its rewards.

Gemma recalled interviewing “a young man who was living near La Salle and he would stuff birds. And then I interviewed two brothers who made little boats you put in the bottle.

“When I won Miss International they got in touch with me, they sent me a letter. And then I interviewed a young American boy whose hobby was mechanics. He would make little constructions.”

Through it all, the mother who was not the typical housewife was a constant presence to Gemma and her other children. Especially when it mattered most. And many of the things that mattered most to Chitang were not the usual concerns of mothers.

CARMEN Guerrero Nakpil was a constant presence to Gemma and her other children.

A summer at UP

For example, before Gemma started in college at Maryknoll, Chitang found out that an American sister would be teaching Philippine History. Chitang much preferred that a Filipina taught Philippine History to Gemma.

“‘How could that be possible?’ my mother exclaimed. ‘Di pwede yan, you better enroll this summer at UP, take Philippine History and Philippine Government’ so one summer I was at UP. Sabi ko, wow, iba pala dito inaaway yung mga teachers (wow, it’s different here, they argue with their professors) I was so shocked they were arguing about the simplest things.”

Gemma remembered “Dr. Carpio, my teacher in Philippine Government. He was very strict, lagi niyang inaaway mga estudyante (he always quarreled with his students), and I was very shocked kasi sa Maryknoll because you cannot argue like that.

“And then the greatest shock, one day, at Dr. Carpio’s class, siyempre may homework nuon ano, he brought one out. He said, ‘you know, your work should be like this. Look at the margins, they’re very straight. Look at the writing. What, sabi ko, sa akin yun. I didn’t know whether to be embarrassed or proud. I was mortified that he was bringing it out. Kasi naman sa Maryknoll the nuns would always tell me ‘Gemma, will you please improve your writing? ‘Yun ang unforgettable experience ko.”

GEMMA Cruz Araneta’s homecoming.

‘Only Princesses can be archeologists’

After graduating from Maryknoll, Gemma worked at the National Museum where she was further exposed to Philippine arts and culture.

“I told my mother I wanted to be an archeologist,” Gemma relates. “I was just really interested in things like that. Sabi niya ‘naku you will starve to death. Only princesses can be archeologists.’ Sabi niya, ‘I will tell Tito Anding.’ He was the secretary of Education and the National Museum used to be under the Department of Education. Sabi niya, ‘Sige, I’ll call him and you can go there and apply.’ Siyempre I was hired. I looked there in the archeology and anthropology section, para siyang bodega (It looked like a storage room). Being an archeologist was nice to hear. Sometimes I had to restore yun bang mga excavated things. Tapos if somebody booked a guide, I would guide them.”

It was in the Mountain Province that she learned how to play the nose flute.

(To be continued)


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *