Franz Arcellana was my neighbor in the UP campus in Diliman in the ’50s and ’60s. My parents moved us there when I entered Grade Five and I left after finishing college, some graduate school, and teaching at the UP for a couple of years.

The campus was very different then. There were far fewer residents, students, faculty, and everything else. No traffic, hardly anyone on the streets, and lots of empty sawali houses left behind by the Americans, who had used the campus as a military base for some years after the Second World War.

We lived at the very edge of Area XIV, just a few steps away from Area XVII, where Franz and his family lived about a block away. Between the Arcellanas and us lived O.D. Corpuz, Pepe Encarnacion, the spouses Socrates of UP High, Favila of the Math Department, and Nepomuceno of the Accounting Department. Further down Area XVII lived the Abuevas, and way across the campus in Areas II and III lived the Manalangs and the family of NVM Gonzalez.

As a boy, I had no inkling of the importance of my older neighbors in the country’s intellectual and cultural life. That many of them would later be honored as National Scientists and Artists for their achievements never entered my mind. They were just my neighbors who worked at their jobs to keep the UP community running. My father was an army officer who ran the ROTC. Franz taught English, as did NVM Gonzalez and Priscilla Manalang; Emerenciana Arcellana taught political science, as did O.D. Corpuz; Pepe Encarnacion taught economics, the spouses Socrates taught in the high school, Favila taught mathematics, Nepomuceno managed the accounting department, Billy Abueva taught fine arts and Pepe Abuva taught public administration. My friends and I were students. In the small and simple UP community then, we all had our roles and daily worked at them.

Over some years, images of my older neighbors were formed in my young mind out of their idiosyncrasies. Pepe Encarnacion liked to stroll leisurely to work in colorful Bermuda shorts, under a large umbrella in the hot sun, and with a bottle of San Miguel Pale Pilsen in his hand. Billy Abueva rode a Roman-style chariot pulled by a horse to his classes. It was a small chariot that he drove while standing, just like a Roman soldier in the movies. O.D. was still a soft-spoken scholar who talked carefully and deliberately. He had yet to release the inner drives that later led him to ride large, fast motorcycles while clad in jeans and a denim jacket. The Favilas always spoke in Ilocano in their house. NVM liked to play the violin late in the evening. My mother often hitched a ride with the campus garbage truck to the bus stop on her way to play mahjong. The spouses Arcellana occasionally had monumental shouting quarrels that we could hear across the street from the Area XVII playground where we would hang to secretly smoke our lungs out at night.

In high school, some of my neighbors in Areas XIV and XVII became my teachers. Mrs. Pineda taught me Filipino and gave me my first failing grade. A lifetime later, we met at a reunion and I proudly told her that I had written eight books in Filipino and that I might not have done it if she hadn’t awakened my drive to learn the language with the failing grade. Mrs. Dela Cruz became my homeroom adviser and made me class president, only to be severely disappointed when I abdicated because it was interfering with my learning to play billiards. Mrs. Socrates entered me in a declamation contest and patiently coached my delivery of “Casey at the Bat” to the point of scrounging up a real baseball uniform with a cap and a bat. I placed third and I thought I disappointed her, too.

In college, I finally realized what important intellectuals some of my neighbors were and I sought them out to enroll in their classes. I took two subjects with Pepe Encarnacion and marveled at his wizardry in mathematical economics. I liked that he never hovered over us during exams and allowed us to refer to any book while taking them, for the answers to his questions could not be found in a book. I didn’t like that he forbade us to smoke in class while he chain-smoked when lecturing. I also enrolled in NVM’s class on fiction to learn from the master. In those days, NVM taught in the old style, by inflicting pain on bad writers. He singled out our least talented classmate and spent hours deconstructing a terrible paragraph she had written that described a canal. He summed up the exercise by telling her that he hoped she would become the best describer of canals in the world. I was so appalled that I stopped writing fiction for years. I understand that later, after NVM had taught for a number of years in the US, he became a great teacher of literature who inspired an entire generation of young writers.

I also enrolled in a graduate course in philosophy under Ricardo Pascual, another neighbor in Area XIV. He had an enigmatic style of teaching that hinted at, rather than told us, how to understand the core ideas of the great logical empiricists and logical positivists. He never gave straightforward lectures and liked to ask us a series of vaguely stated questions that he would never answer. It forced us to forge our own thoughts on the subject.

When I went into college debating, I often walked across the street at night to consult with O.D. Corpuz on my preparations for a forthcoming contest. He patiently took the time to help me, though sometimes I would interrupt a chess game he was playing with a faculty colleague. My teammate, Macapanton Abbas, and I went on to win the national championship for UP, and, this time, I didn’t disappoint my mentor.

I didn’t have the opportunity to study under Franz or Emerenciana Arcellana, though, by college, I was fully aware of their intellectual stature. However, at certain points in my life, Franz became more than just a neighbor to me.

In 1962, I was into student leadership and took the competitive exams for the Philippine Collegian, the UP student newspaper at the college level. Franz was the chair of the board of judges. He disqualified me from taking the exams because there was a rule that required that all examinees should not have a grade lower than 2.5 in their English classes (the Collegian was still in English then). I had gotten a grade of 3 in my Business Writing class.

Because he had known me as a boy, Franz went out of his way to personally explain to me why I had been disqualified. With some heat, I explained the unfairness of my situation to him. I told him that all my other grades in English were 1’s, except for this class, that I had to take because it was required by my degree course, which was Business Administration, major in Economics. I reasoned that business writing had little to do with campus journalism. Also that it happened that this course was taught by only one faculty member who never gave any other grade than 3. He never failed anyone and never gave a grade higher than 3. Franz found it hard to believe that this was happening in his department. But he did check his colleague’s grades and found that I was right.

Franz changed that particular rule the next year. However, by then I had already won the competitive exams for The Philippinensian, the UP yearbook, and was no longer eligible to take the Collegian exams. Franz was also the chair of the board of judges for the Philippinensian exams. I appreciated the decision of Franz to rectify the Collegian rules, though I could no longer benefit from it. The 1964 Philippinensian was my first book. It is probably the reason why I returned to writing and publishing books after many decades of working in other fields.

Another important interface I had with Franz was at one of the lowest points in my life. In 1967, I foresaw Marcos’s drift to authoritarianism and wrote two essays on impending martial law for the Graphic magazine under the pseudonym of Ricardo Lawin. In 1970, while taking up my M.A. in Political Science in Ateneo, I left my cushy job at Esso Fertilizer and joined the activist movement against Marcos to help try to prevent martial law. I taught full-time at the Philippine College of Commerce, then the center of student activism, and became a staff writer of the left-wing Graphic magazine.

As we all know, Marcos declared martial law in 1972. The PCC was closed for several months and I learned from the only newspaper that was allowed then, The Daily Express, that I and about a dozen other faculty members had been fired from the PCC for subversion. The Graphic magazine was closed down and I was banned from writing in the media. The Manila Times, where my wife, Cristina, wrote regular movie reviews, was also shut down. And Cristina was summarily fired from teaching at the UST because of my political activism. From holding four full-time jobs between the two of us, my wife and I were suddenly jobless with a little daughter to feed. It was the bitter fruit of our defeat and the temporary Marcos triumph.

The first glimmer of hope in the bleak horizon that we faced then was the induction of Cristina and me into the UP Writers Club by Franz Arcellana in the same year that martial law was declared. This is an honor society open to all Filipino writers whose achievements merit membership, which is solely by invitation, much like in an academy of letters. It is not so easy to understand now how courageous an act of Franz this was. I had just been punished by the martial law government for my teaching and writing and banned from writing for the media. It was the early days of martial law and fear haunted all of us. No one knew how far martial law would go, or whether a bloodbath was in the offing. A sea change had been forcibly imposed on life in the Philippines and many of the things that we took for granted were taken away—the media was tightly muzzled, constitutional rights like the freedom of assembly, the Writ of Habeas Corpus, and free speech were revoked, major elected opposition politicians like Senators Ninoy Aquino and Pepe Diokno were arrested and jailed, a night-time curfew was imposed, and heavily-armed soldiers were highly visible in the streets. Yet Franz inducted Cristina and me into the UP Writers Club in a public ceremony during this dangerous time.

Franz was also instrumental in Cristina’s getting a teaching job at the UP English Department—the first job either of us got after martial law. Franz gave us courage when we most needed it, for he showed us that all was not lost simply because martial law had been declared by a despot. He demonstrated to us that more sensible points of view continued to exist and he gave us hope that these would survive the dark decades that were coming.

Posted on November 14, 2008