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Letters from the 70s

These letters from home were letters from the 70s. The writers of the letters – my father and my brother, Pempe – have both passed on. Letter-writing has also passed on. It is dead or almost. I am talking about letters that are written with hands, placed in envelopes, sealed and stamped, brought to the Post Office, and delivered by the Postman.

Letters were ordinary in those years when there was no Internet, no emails. Phones were not mobile but are rather known to be landlines. Satellites were like stars, except that stars merely flickered and satellites moved fast against the walls of heaven.

There was a reason for many letters to be written to me during the period. I left for Tokyo as an exchange scholar. It was the first time I was leaving home and first time to be staying far from my family alone. I was also 19 years of age.

My father’s first letter was thus a letter explaining why he was writing something that would tell me they are worrying about me. He would, however, phrase it the way fathers of that period would express themselves: “Though I am with high hopes expecting you could go about your life in Tokyo with ease, I had to write you and the ICYE (this was the organization behind my exchange program) just to appease your Mama and the two old folks (my maternal grandparents who were living with us) of their too fertile thoughts about (im) possibilities.” My father was playing with the word “possibilities” by inserting the prefix “im” in a parenthesis. Then he continued: “Yes, I am confident without fear of contradiction that you could make it there.” He was an accountant and thus was given to these legalese and words.

Written in September, my father wrote about the “Traslacion” of our Lady of Peñafrancia: “Everybody here in 21 Del Pilar saw the procession except for your Mama and me. Ebit (my sister) grouped with her CSI (now USI) high school classmates in their usual knee-length white gala uniform. Carlo (my younger brother) cordoned the procession together with other ROTC cadets and your Manong (my brother Pempe) joined the voyadores.” Then he wrote in Ticao language: “Pinanluya kag sinarakitan san iya te-el pag-abot” (He was weak and suffered from pains in the legs when he came arrived home). That language was the language used at home.

Then, after talking about birthdays of relatives, my father shifted to the news in the dailies: “Our dailies carried the news of the earthquake in Wakayama (western part of Tokyo), Japan. Was it felt in your place?” He closed the letter by thanking my foster family who also wrote them when “the earthquake in Mindanao was flashed on TVs in Tokyo.”

But there was more: “While writing this, our radio announces the fire at the 5th floor of the PNB Building in Naga City, temporarily occupied by the Provincial Governor and Provincial Assessor of Cam. Sur. The Naga City Fire Department controlled it in half an hour so that nothing was there to put off when the Libmanan fire truck arrived.”

In every letter, my father was informing me of the works he was doing for GSIS. He was going to the field and this made him proud and happy that he could help disseminate the services of this office. In one of these letters, he informed me of the good news: “Your Manong (Pempe) will soon leave for Manila for the staging of their drama. Enclosed is the write-up about it published in Bulletin Today, August 12…” Inserted in the letter was the clipping from the said paper: “The Bikol Night on Aug. 26 will feature Asisclo T. Jimenez’ “An Balo nin 15 Años” and Justino Nuyda’s “Anti-Cristo” to be presented by the Bikol Music Circle and the Compania Zarzuela Jimenez of Sorsogon, Sorsogon. ‘Variations on Bikol Folk Music’ will be performed by the Satuito family ensemble.” This was the first time I heard of Lilia F. Realubit, who was pioneering Bikol studies then in UP.

The details of the trip to Manila would come from Manong, the stage actor. He would play the lead in Nuyda’s “Anti-Cristo.” He wrote thus: “Anti-Cristo was a tremendous success based on the reviews in the newspaper.” My brother confessed he was very nervous that night because the UP Theatre was full: “The ‘new’ (meaning non-Naga audience) crowd was just too much for me, especially with the presence of Behn Cervantes, Nicanor Tiongson and Doreen Fernandez. Thank God, Rod (Rudy Alano, their director), was with us. Rod kept on assuring me that everything would go well. I was the only one congratulated by [Behn] Cervantes!

Then Manong started to talk about the accommodation at the UP Hostel. He was sharing the room with Rudy Alano. He described the room as having a Mexican motif.

“A funny thing happened to our group,” my brother wrote. He said that night the dinner was served in the hostel. The other members of the troupe who were in Benitez Hall were not informed that the canteen servicing the guests was in the hostel. Manong and Rod had a fantastic dinner that night even as they wondered where the other Bikolano delegates had eaten. They assumed the others had better reception. The next morning they learned from Jess Grageda how their group had nothing to eat: “They ate the guavas that we bought along the way and some leftover sandwiches. The other members were mad while one elderly member of the group just prayed.”

When I left Naga, we had a favorite place. It was called “The Gallery.” Owned by painter, Cesar Natividad, it was a gallery, with paintings of Cesar. Every now and then, we would stage plays inside the gallery. Manong Pempe wrote: “Our dear friend, Cesar, is right now swamped with Gallery problems. First, [there was] Romy’s complaint with the Bureau of Labor for illegal dismissal (Cesar dismissed him for gross dishonesty) and then there are these girls… He (Cesar) was ordered by Sibulo (then City Mayor Vicente Sibulo) to close shop for allegedly using Gallery as front for prostitution.” The complainant were two Catholic schools in the city.

From this scandal, Manong Pempe turned to another scandal: “What is really the truth behind that Lockheed Scandal (a bribery scandal in Japan)? It made a heated discussion between the lawyers-to-be from UNC and Ateneo’s intellectuals. The move to oust Miki (Prime Minister) made the headline here. You know how politically aware we are.”

“BIGGEST SCANDAL,” Manong Pempe wrote in all caps: I am not sure if I have told you this already, but the innocent and God-fearing ____ is pregnant. The father is the 4th year High School brother of _____.

There are more letters, letters that tell us how many things have changed and how many things have remained the same. I am reading them, and laughing, and missing all these writers and the world they describe to me with such candor and warmth.

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