In her own words

Published August 30, 2018, 12:05 AM

by Charissa Luci-Atienza & Bernie Cahiles-Magkilat



Gemma Cruz Araneta
Gemma Cruz Araneta

Carmen Guerrero Nakpil, my famous mother, once described Philippine history as “300 years in a convent and 50 years in Hollywood.” That has become her most quotable quote which people have often plagiarized and coopted without bothering to find out who had said it first.

A few years ago, I went to the Ortigas Foundation Library to attend a lecture by Glenn May, the American historian who said we Filipinos invented Andres Bonifacio; he used my mother’s words as an opening gambit. I interrupted, somewhat rudely, to state that he was quoting my mother. In a coffee table book he authored, an English lit professor of the State University attributed my mother’s famous quote to Teodoro Agoncillo on the strength of columnist Teddy Benigno’s previous error.   I made a fuss.

I dare say that no one else, whether historian or literature professor, could have devised such a brilliant and all-encompassing phrase.  Neither the eminent Teodoro Agoncillo, nor fearsome Renato Constantino, nor trailblazers Epifanio de los Santos and Gregorio Zaide, nor any other writer, English lit teacher, Filipino or foreigner, young or old, could have thought of such a deliciously sardonic phrase that distills our star-crossed history.  Let us give credit where credit   is due. Never again should that inimitable phrase — “300 years in a convent and 50 years in Hollywood” — be attributed to anyone else but  Carmen Guerrero Nakpil.

Throughout her lifetime, Philippine history was her obsession. Perhaps it was because her parents lived through the anti-colonial revolution against Spain and the Philippine-American War; her maternal grandfather wrote anti-American zarzuelas.  One of her early articles as a young journalist was about Maria Rizal, her grandmother-in-law; she was always delving into “the good old days,” the title of her weekly page in the “Women’s Magazine.”

She sent me to the University of the Philippines  for a summer course on Philippine history, as soon as she found out that in my school (Maryknoll College) an American nun was going to teach us Philippine history, and that there was no Rizal course.

She cajoled my stepfather, Arch. Angel Nakpil, to bring home a Blair & Roberson set she had spotted in a forlorn corner of Ariston Bautista’s residence in Quiapo; she plowed through all the volumes, specially during martial law when history was the only safe subject, and wrote witty essays that connected the past to the present. An admirer of Jose Rizal, Mommy opened the book of the past to make us understand the present and catch a glimpse of the future. She may not have been the first public historian, but she was certainly the most incisive and entertaining.

This is not the country Rizal, Bonifacio, and Mabini envisioned, she often lamented. The mere thought made her blood pressure rise, so her doctors told her to stop reading the newspapers.  Why is it so difficult for Filipinos to love their country? Why is it so hard to be Filipino? – She was tormented, in her later years. In fact, when my mother was writing her autobiographic trilogy, she seriously considered calling it  “The Last Filipina,” but I told her it was unfair to us who were leaning from her and whom she had purposefully inoculated against the dire effects of those “50 years in Hollywood.”

I am putting together a modest collection of essays, published by this newspaper, about the beginning of those  “50 years in Hollywood,” a turbulent transition period marked by deceit, hypocrisy, false hopes, and a terrible war of conquest that crushed the First Philippine Republic, and with it our hard-won Independence. Alluring as it may sound, “50 years in Hollywood” was Carmen Guerrero-Nakpil’s subtle indictment of the American colonial period during which the once indomitable Filipinos became little brown Americans.

My mother passed away imperceptibly at the crack of dawn, on 30 July 2018, eleven days after her 96th birthday. She was the grandchild of the First Philippine Republic and the generation that won the anti-colonial struggle against Spain, survived the Philippine-American, War and those heady  “50 years in Hollywood.”

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