During the first few days of the enhanced community quarantine, I still had three bottles of my favorite San Miguel Cerveza Negra inside the fridge. But during that time, I wasn’t aware of any liquor ban as I was fixated more on the rising cases of COVID-19 patients. I gulped down my final bottle about a week into the ECQ. Now I regret doing that because I have nothing to quaff anymore during “Nick Joaquín Week”, a modest online initiative started in 2018 by Pangasinán-based teacher Dave Arjie Manandeg who himself is a big Nick Joaquín fan (I also suspect that he is one of the administrators of the Facebook page Nick Joaquín. He Lives.). He does this by simply publishing Joaquinesque-related posts on social media using the hashtag #NickJoaquínWeek. The commemoration begins on the anniversary of Nick’s death (April 29) up to anniversary of his birth (May 4).
I first heard of the name Nick Joaquín in the same manner that most Filipinos today have first known about him: in school, during literary class. It must have been his “Three Generations” that we tackled, but I wasn’t so sure because during elementary and high school, I wasn’t interested in Filipino Literature in English just as yet (I couldn’t even remember having read that short story in full). I was more into foreign reads and comic books. However, his name has already become a byword. That means that even without having read any of his works, one is already so sure of his value and quality as a writer. After all, he’s been a National Artist for Literature since 1976.
Interest in Filipino Literature in English came during my tertiary years. I encountered his name again during election season of 1998, the first time that I was to join the electoral process (I was then 18). I was at a bookstore when I saw a biography of presidential candidate Alfredo Lim. I was then an admirer of Dirty Harry, drawn by his constant public condemnation of crime and drug use. Since I had the money for a book or two, I decided to grab a copy. My decision to buy that biography (with the corny title of “May Langit Din Ang Mahirap: The Life Story of Alfredo Siojo Lim“, for sure an idea of the presidentiable). But before doing so, I browsed its pages and read a few lines. I didn’t immediately like what I read, in fact it was a let-down. The English was way too off for me. I could clearly remember saying to myself: “Is this really Nick Joaquín?” It was my first time to really read something from him.
Little did I know back then that Nick had his own brand of English, a variation which literary critics refer to as “Joaquinesque” or Spanish-flavored English, the kind of literary language that helped catapult him to the top. And I think the reason for the momentary comedown is that my mind had already been ensconced to too much superhero fiction written in Yankee idiom. But after reading the book, I gradually developed an interest in his other works. His biography of Mayor Lim was not simply a life story as it was peppered here and there with historical riddles that whetted my appetite even more. For instance: why in the world did he even include the story of a Chinese mestizo in Emilio Aguinaldo’s army whose daughter got pregnant which caused trouble in her family? What is the relevance to Mayor Lim’s life story of those treasure-filled pushcarts that were delivered to the poor Chinese mestizo’s daughter? At first, the first-time Joaquín reader would be thinking that the author was simply rambling, trying to fill up pages perhaps to thicken a commissioned biography.
Years later, however, after having read his other works (poetry, essays, novels), I realized that he was hinting at something else. In fact, he usually does these “peppering” in many of his non-fiction. It seems that Joaquinesquerie is not just about language and style but about essence — his life’s work, from personal verses to seemingly sell-out biographies, was all part of a much grander design, but a design that was hinged upon his historical essays, the core of his thinking, his philosophy on national identity.
This could explain why José García Villa, the “divine poet” who had placed our country on the map of English-language poetry, once declared that Nick was the only Filipino writer with a real imagination…
“…that imagination of power and depth and great metaphysical seeing — and which knows how to express itself in great language, who writes poetry, and who reveals behind his writings a genuine first-rate mind.”
My second Joaquinesque experience was Nick’s most famous work: “A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino”. It was in college, and I was already in a relationship with the beauteous but hilarious Yeyette Perey, my future wife who was then my classmate. She was already a few weeks pregnant during that time. We were both in drama class. But our professor, Mr. Joey Dividina (now Project Director of the Children’s Museum and Library), did not require us to read the play in full. Since it was a drama class, we were just instructed to act out certain scenes for a major school stage play at the Saint Therese Auditorium (now the Adamson Theatre). Our class was divided into groups. Humorously, my group’s assignment was to portray that sad practice blackout scene between Cándida and Paula Marasigan. Since Yeyette was the only female actress in our group, I had to go drag just to be able to portray Paula to Yeyette’s Cándida. But that’s OK because according to Sir Dividina, the scene, although sad, really had to be comical. The intention was to make the audience laugh using burlesque acting.
On the night of the play, I was wearing a classmate’s skirt that was too small for me. It failed to hide the hair on my legs, prompting a gay student to shout “¡Balbón!“, much to the amusement of everyone inside the jam-packed auditorium. There was laughter all throughout. I didn’t know if it was the burlesque acting or if it was because of my attire. At any rate, we were able to pull it off.
It was not until a few years later when I finally decided to read the play in full, and I did so while I was taking in customers’ phone calls as a nightshift call center agent. Life was already hitting me hard during those times, but I had Nick’s writings to accompany me for (mental) survival. In between phone calls, I witnessed (in print) the steadfastness of the Marasigan sisters toward heritage and tradition. Their deaths at the end of the play left me in tears, much to the amused wonderment of another gay colleague seated beside me. I don’t usually cry after reading a very sad tale. But Nick was able to make me do so. His Portrait strengthened my resolve to fight for the survival of heritage structures, even as an armchair activist.
Champion of beer
It is but natural for a fan to mimic his idol. One facet of Nick that I copied was his fancy for beer. Nick was not just a National Artist for Literature. He was also one of the country’s most celebrated beer drinkers. During my younger years, I thought it was cool to imitate his beer-guzzling, Bohemian lifestyle. But his signature beer, San Miguel Pale Pilsen, was something hard for my system to tolerate. I experimented with Colt 45, but it made me do unspeakable things in college (running away from guards just for the heck of it, throwing a cardboard box in the middle of another stage play in which I was a part of, toppling down auditorium speakers backstage during a rock concert, puking here and there, etc.). That is why I had to make do with Cerveza Negra, a drink which I discovered when I was already a call center agent (but it was love at first taste).
I read somewhere that, because of his publicized attachment to Pale Pilsen, he was invited by no less than San Miguel Corporation to do a TV commercial (together with other well-known writers) for their flagship product. His widely-read column in the Philippine Daily Inquirer was titled “Small Beer”, a clear influence of his love for the alcoholic drink.
I sometimes wonder if the profoundness of his writings was partly a result of his drunken state (a la Edgar Allan Poe).
In the biography written for him by his nephew Tony Joaquín, there is a section there on testimonials from other famous Filipinos who had the blessed opportunity to have rubbed shoulders with the Manileño legend. One of the most memorable (at least to me) was that of artist Migs Villanueva wherein she recounted a hilarious first-time visit to Nick’s house (she was actually being reintroduced to the National Artist by fellow writer Gregorio Brillantes since Nick had the weird tendency to forget people he had already met). During that rainy day, Villanueva experienced first hand Nick’s sardonic humor in spite of his octogenarian state. It was also found out that Nick was an unfaithful beer drinker:
Nick now offers us beer, and when we accept, he barks for them. One of his boys produces three cold bottles of Beer na Beer and an unopened pack of white table napkins. He puts them on the bare coffee table.
Greg complains. He wonders why there is no San Miguel beer.
“I drink this at home, I drink San Miguel elsewhere, to divide my culture,” Nick says.
“Wala ka bang pulutan, Nick?” Greg says.
“Whoa!” Nick roars. The man is 84, and he has the vocal chords of a 20-year-old. “Where do ya think ya are, the Holiday Inn?” Within minutes, his attendant comes out with plates of tapa, hotdogs and toast bread.
Near brush with greatness
How I wish I had been introduced too to the man who had indirectly instilled in me a deep love of country and national identity. Actually, it did almost happen —twice— sometime in 2002 (or was it 2003)? During that time, I was working part-time as an editorial assistant to Señor Guillermo Gómez Rivera’s Nueva Era, the last Spanish-language newspaper in Filipinas. Señor Gómez was a good friend of Nick. He had told me lots of personal stories between them which I, as a huge fan, listened to intently. I then shared to him how great my admiration was for his famous friend, and that one time, I even played Paula in drag. He was amused and told me: “You make an ugly Paula!” followed by his hearty Iberian laughter.
One day, he told me what if we visit Nick Joaquín in his San Juan residence. I had no reason to hesitate. It was to be an experience of a lifetime!
And that day finally came. We drove in his car from his house in San Pedro Macati (Makati City) but agreed to make a brief stopover in Santa Ana, Manila to take pictures of old ancestral houses that were still there for a future issue of Nueva Era. After about an hour or so, we set off to continue our visit to Nick’s place. But just as we entered his car, his cellphone rang — there was an emergency back home, and we had to go back to Makati (I couldn’t remember anymore what the emergency was all about, but it wasn’t something fatal or anything like that). We had to reschedule the trip to Nick’s house. I was successful in hiding my disappointment on our way back.
The second brush with Nick came a couple of months after that first disappointment. With nothing else to do, Señor Gómez again thought of bringing me to Nick’s house. Unfortunately, visitors to his dance studio —he was then active with his Flamenco engagements— came in trickles. And then the dances didn’t stop until evening. The trip to Nick’s house was completely forgotten. I didn’t remind him anymore after that.
Fast forward to 30 April 2004. I was already a corporate slave working for a data science company in Parañaque. It was a balmy Friday morning. During an idle moment at work, I browsed the Internet for the day’s news. One headline froze me from where I sat: I felt like a cat about to meet its death from a speeding truck.
There was a momentary gasp not from the chest but from deep within me. All sound had deafened. My surroundings appeared like paper images.I had wanted to share the news to my officemates but they were pure muppets when it came to anything literary. With nobody else to share my grief, I slowly stood up, left my cubicle, and sought to find a solitary place where I could compose myself and gather my thoughts. I saw one corner much farther away from all the cubicles: a floor-to-ceiling glass wall right beside the stairway. A handful of robots (my brutally honest description of office workers) passed by during that time. From that area, an airy view of far off Mount Maquiling could be seen. I stood there gazing at the storied lagunense mountain from a distance. I suddenly remember that during Martial Law, Nick had been there (at the Philippine High School for the Arts), delivering a speech at a ceremony that was attended by Imelda Marcos. It is said that he made an invocation to María Maquiling (from whom the mountain was named after) during that speech, angering the First Lady, because the invocation touched on the importance of freedom. He was never again invited by the Marcos regime to address formal cultural occasions.
At that moment of recall, the tears fell down. Silently. I didn’t care anymore if anyone saw. But I think nobody did because my gaze was against the glass wall, fixated toward the hazy blue mountain from afar.
Champion of the Rosary
My daughter Krystal and I were there at the Cultural Center of the Philippines to participate in the nostalgic celebration of Nick’s birth centennial three years ago. Many literary celebrities who had become part of Nick’s life and career were also in attendance. I’m not the type who gets starstruck when seeing celebrities, but I really got excited to see that Nick’s youngest sister (and only living sibling), Carmen Joaquín de Enríquez, was there as well. I had wanted a photo opportunity with her but couldn’t gather the courage to go near her. It took a long while for my daughter to finally pull me toward her for a photo-op. That, I think, was the closest encounter I’ve ever had with my idol.
There was also zero fascination with all the famous people I spoke with (or chatted with on Facebook) who have already met Nick. The conversations that I have had with the likes of Cocoy Laurel, Gemma Cruz Araneta, F. Sionil José, Danilo Dalena, Chino Trinidad, etc. almost always had Nick in mind. In one way or another, I had asked them questions about what Nick was like, how he dressed up, how his voice sounded like, etc. I tried the best I could just to be “near him”, perhaps to compensate for those two aborted meetings.
Sometimes I wonder: what it would be like if we had met? Would he have liked my company? Would we have become friends? Would he have tried my Cerveza Negra? Would he have time to assist me to combat my mediocrities? Would we have prayed the Rosary together? Oh yes, how I’d love to tell him that he (together with my dearly departed grandmother) was my greatest influence as to why I pray the Rosary. And why I have come to like beer (black beer, that is).
How I’d love to tell him in person that I consider him as the “Padre del Filipinismo“. But that will not happen anymore. I only have his books, his philosophy, to cherish.
There is not a single day that I don’t remember him. Not a single day. Because I have already enshrined an altar for him in my mind (an altar with beer and rosary). Everything Filipino that I see or seem always has his imprint…