A child of the university

Sylvia Estrada Claudio
A child of the university
The urge to write about UP returned recently because some in the UP community protested the plan to give President Duterte an honorary doctorate degree

I have a lot of debt in the area of “writing about the University of the Philippines”. And it’s a debt that comes from several sources, has been unpaid for several years now, and has therefore accumulated.

I first began to seriously consider that I  should write when there was a call for essays during UP’s centennial in 2008. That call has been repeated through the years for various reasons. Recent calls have been more specific: can I please write about my memories of UP’s Faculty Center? This famous building burned down last year and it broke our hearts. The fire destroyed the thesis and dissertation drafts of many faculty members holding office there. Rare collections of senior faculty members in various fields of expertise also went up in smoke. Soon what is left of it will be demolished and the physical site connected to so many memories of generations of UP people will be gone.

The urge to write about UP returned recently because some in the UP community protested against giving the current Philippine President an honoris causa degree. The conferment of degrees on sitting officials has always raised a howl in the past, UP being home to the obstreperous. But this is the first one in the age of weaponized social media. The protest seemed sufficient to come to the attention of supporters of President Duterte so that UP was bashed on social media for being arrogant, conceited and elitist. The President eventually refused the honor, leading others to proclaim victory for their protests.

Alas, I find that having decided to sit down and write something about the university can no longer be so straightforward. This year I officially became a senior citizen. Arbitrary markers like a birthdays  or a senior citizen card do not necessarily reflect that a person is aging. But for me there is a confluence of both the outward indicators of aging and the mental and emotional processes that mark a different life stage.

I realized that the task of writing “something, anything” about UP at this point in my life is one that is overwhelmed by memory and the value of memory in the way that I now assess my experiences.

With regards to UP, my experiences are deeply embedded and long-standing. I came to its Diliman campus, the child of a faculty member.  I took all my schooling in UP.  And I now teach there. So this article can only cover a small part of my experiences.

Born and raised

My “memory” of UP predates my own capacity to remember. Two months after I was born, my mother moved me and my four-year-old brother into one of the first batches of cookie-cutter cottages in Area 1. The year was 1957. The house was awarded to my father, Horacio Estrada, who was then a faculty member (my mother was at that time still teaching at the FEU), but he was away at the University of Pennsylvania. So my mother, Rita, moved in without my father’s help.

I recall seeing a picture of her standing in front of our new home, holding the infant that was me. The house is not the one I can remember because the garden was bare and both the house and the garden are inseperable from the road on which she was standing. The trees, grass and hedges my mother would plant later had not yet grown. On the back of that picture is her description which was obviously meant for my father.  My mother proudly notes that here was the new baby and the new house. There is something of it that captures the early enthusiasms of a new mother and a new couple about to begin their lives and their careers together. Their lives and their careers would turn out to be  intimately bound with the UP too, because my mother also joined the faculty when I was 8. And my parents did not leave Area 1 until they retired. Much, much later, my mother was one of the first professors to occupy the huge and modern rooms of the brand new Faculty Center. Her room was on the third floor where the Department of Psychology was assigned.

Old neighborhood

I and my younger sibling Cynthia, were some of the youngest of the first batch of kids that grew up on the campus in Diliman. And it was an odd childhood, albeit a happy one. National artists like NVM Gonzales or National Scientists like Reynaldo Lesaca were merely the friends of our parents and mostly just benign adults to us. They were at that time just building their life work.

We moved down the road 9 years later to a bigger house on 59 Agoncillo street. (When we moved into our first house the streets had no names yet and our house was designated “P16” because it was the 16th  house that UP  considered “permanent” housing as opposed to the earlier sawali huts built during the war by American forces.) Our next door neighbor on Agoncillo was a madcap musician named Jose (Pepe) Maceda. At least as an adolescent I though he was madcap. He would go off to strange places to study weird musical instruments and record  the music of various indigenous peoples. In 1971  we joined his four daughters and a hundred others, as we lugged tape cassettes around the Faculty Center in what I would realize was his avant-garde and now classic work, “Cassettes 100”. In 1997 Tito Pepe would be recognized as a National Artist. Though he is renowned for his work on indigenous music, I remember lazy evenings and afternoons sitting alone or with my parents on our porch while listening to him play classic piano concerts. Our very own private performances, for free.

These days, I see the works of Napoleon Abueva, the father of modern Philippine sculpture, and another National Artist (1976) and try to reconcile that with the man who used to ride around campus in a chariot and once promised me a ride. A promise that he never fulfilled.

There was also haute cuisine pioneer Nora Daza who lived 3 houses in to us in P16 and in whose kitchen I learned to eat, not fancy french food, but a raw egg over steaming white rice.

The last time I went to London I made sure to visit with “Uncle” Ted Crunden, his wife “Aunt” Margaret. The campus used to be home to UN expatriates and Uncle Ted was one of the first UNESCO experts. They became close to my parents because on one of those few days when my Dad was home from his never ending work in his laboratory, he saw this English couple all dressed up to go to the races in San Lazaro. Realizing that the Crundens were expecting the atmosphere to be like the Ascot races, my Dad had to intervene. He made them dress down and drove them to San Lazaro. That started a long friendship. Aunt Margaret was thrilled to be considered and addressed as an aunt,  and took comfort when they left for the UK that she had “family” in the Philippines.

I hope I have not given the impression that these people were any more prominent than the other neighbors. There were others who played larger roles in my life. Dolores Feria who taught in the English Department , Priscilla (Cil) Manalang of the College of Education, and Andrea (Andy)  Cailao, the wife of a faculty of the erstwhile College of Physical Education, come to mind instantly. Dolores Feria had to go underground when Marcos declared martial law but  my mother, Tita Andy (still  alive and kicking in her 90’s) and Tita Cil were close throughout their lifetimes and our families were in and out of each other’s homes. 

I remember also UP’s non-academic personnel who also populated my world. Though class distinctions can never be erased, their children were my playmates too. Sometimes I think the socialist part of my soul stems from those early years in Diliman. We lived in the similar houses, our parents had the same jobs. They worked in the same place, walked home through the same streets. Those whose parents were not professors were nonetheless part of the neighborhood and playmates.

Building a nation, one argument at a time

This neighborhood of scholars had no doubts about the nature of their job. They understood that they were providing expertise to help build a nation. They understood this meant continuing explorations and exchanges. For them it also meant that they had to teach people the ways by which they themselves learned – continuous inquiry, never-ending debate and critical thinking. It is also why they eventually became national artists and scientists. It is also why I am convinced that many more of them deserved these awards.

Having observed several generations of faculty, students and other personnel, I know we have never been united on any issue except perhaps our understanding that we are helping build a nation by being a rowdy bunch who will never really agree on anything but that we disagree. Perhaps our only arrogance is that we try to disagree in erudite and elegant ways. 

As for our pride in ourselves, some of it is indeed arrogance. But we aren’t all arrogant and we all disagree about what that means. Who among us are arrogant? Is the accusation well grounded? Where does it come from? Does the arrogance come from the limitations of our disciplinal canons? What is the difference between arrogance and conceit and pride? And how is that related to the concept of “yabang” which has been hurled at us repeatedly? And this goes on and on. It is in the nature of the UP beast.

Through the years UP has been threatened by high officials because it has challenged some desire of the powerful.  This latest anger over UP’s arrogance and the threats of defunding it leave me unimpressed.  So some of us opposed yet another President. So we managed yet again to irritate the powers-that-be. It is not the first time that a high official has cursed the University and then had to take cognizance of it’s rambunctiousness anyway. Nor will it be the last. 

In the succeeding decades of my life, because it remained intertwined with UP, I would experience first hand more events of greater national significance.  But these stories must be left left for another day.

Present is also the past

For now, as I write, I conjure a map of a neighborhood which now lives only in the memory of those who lived in that neighborhood in that era. The houses are still there. But UP personnel leave their houses upon retirement. The geography remains but the community that was in that place is long gone. 

In reunions with my childhood friends, we return to that community and its geography. We  still remember who lived in which houses. We can recall who left to go to a newer house down the road, who left permanently, who came back, who moved in to the houses that were left. We remember what houses stood in which lots, which were demolished and replaced by newer ones, which were demolished and not replaced. We have memories of what the elementary school was like, the high school and the colleges we attended.  We have memories of the infirmary, the Catholic Church and the Protestant Chapel and the shopping center. All these structures have changed. But as it is for us, so it will be for all those who come through the homes and halls of the University – we remember what it was like back then.

Once in a while, in walks around the campus, I pass the houses where I grew up. I look with a large amount of ambivalence at the homes, wondering what claim I have to them when that claim lies in a past that was not just about place but was about relationships, a way of life, and a purpose. Yet I know that the fire tree in that garden was planted by my mother and I am proud of the tall ylang-ylang that I noticed growing out of the gutter and I thought would never survive. Under that santol tree, I buried the umbilical cords of all my children because tradition has it that they would return to where I buried these and I never could imagine that this would not mean returning to their grandparents and to me.

I dare not stare long out of fear that I may bring suspicion upon myself. What if the current occupants speak to me? Would it not disturb them to know I feel a certain birthright over their home?

So I move on quickly. Though the pathways have changed, my old UP comes back to me. In overlayed memories of jaunts I have taken since I learned to walk, through teenage years of despair when walking gave me ease, through the robustness of early and middle adulthood, to the slower more sedate ramble of a senior. Dusk is when I love the campus best. When the Carillon sounds its melodies and the sunset marks its western border.

Often in the glimmer I am almost certain that as I turn the corner I will meet them all again. My mother and her friends taking their own walks and in furious discussions about baking or philosophy. Billy Abueva in his chariot. Jose Maceda in his ancient car  named “Trixie”. Danny Purple, one of our schizophrenics, shambles towards the Church to continue his argument with God. Engineer professors Dominador Ilio (who was also a poet) and Ernesto Pacheco come happily to the door because it is Saturday and they will play endless rounds of bridge with my parents. A neighbor walks up the road to seek my father’s medical advice. Another neighbor walks down the road to play a game of chess. And as I myself walk from Area 1 to Area 2 to Area 14, they are all there again – each family in each designated house.

I still go almost every day to teach or consult with a student or have a meeting or sign some document. And usually it seems all so ordinary. But when I have time to think about it, the University of the Philippines is not just for me a daily workplace and a current set of relationships. It is also a story that begins way before I was born, has brought me to where I am, and will remain when I myself walk with those spirits that I can almost see when I turn the corner at dusk. – Rappler.com









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