Learning and curiosity
Aguilar Cruz was a name I first encountered on the spine of a book when I was a college student desperate for a term-paper topic. When I pulled “Maynila and other explorations” off the library shelf and opened to the title essay, I expected to merely skim through it. But I read the essay in its entirety, amazed that history could be delivered with such a light touch, so different from the deadly textbook history I endured in school.
I borrowed the book and read it that night from cover to cover, going back to some essays twice. Looking back, I see that my writing has always fallen short of the standard set by E. Aguilar Cruz.
From “Maynila and other explorations” (1978), I explored Kapampangan folk tales and found a connection with the language and culture of my father. I asked my professor, Doreen G. Fernandez, if Cruz was still alive since he wrote about a time long gone. “E. Aguilar Cruz is very much alive,” Doreen replied. “You are likely to find him at a corner table in Café Adriatico, enjoying a cup of chocolate.”
As I planned to stalk Cruz in Malate, my father made the Kapampangan connection between Cruz and the painter Claude Tayag, son of the Angeles-based writer Renato D. Tayag. He suggested that it might be easier to go through my first cousin Corito, who had married into the Tayag family. So the appointment was set and Claude took me to Cruz’s apartment on Menlo Street off Taft Avenue. Upon entering, Claude greeted Cruz’s driver familiarly and asked if“Amba” (short for “Ambassador”) was up.
Inside the apartment, Claude shifted from “Amba” to “Tatang Milio” and introduced me to an elderly gentleman in a linen bush jacket who motioned us to sit around a turn-of-the-century marble-top table where hot chocolate and ensaimada were laid out. I explained my research paper on Pampanga folk tales and Cruz provided enough stories and leads for me in 15 minutes. That done, he served the chocolate, explained the difference between “chocolate eh” and “chocolate ah” as described in Rizal’s “Noli me tangere,” then for the next three hours held forth in a conversation on things Philippine from past to present.
That visit was the first of many in a teacher-pupil relationship that lasted for over a decade until he passed in 1992. I recall that almost every lesson was centered on a meal: from fancy five-star hotels to a nameless carinderia off Remedios Circle that we referred to as “Café Raso” in comparison with Café Adriatico, where we often ended up for hot chocolate.
Sometimes we dined in the back of Seaside Market in Pasay, where he chose fresh crabs and fish from the stalls. There I was introduced to live freshwater eel (palos) and developed a taste for it cooked in coconut milk and yellow ginger. Another time we spent an afternoon in Chinatown, having peanut soup in one place, tea in another place, roast pork in another, tikoy and hopia in yet another, machang and white chicken in still another, ending up on Carvajal Street to take home fresh fruits and vegetables not available in supermarkets. There Tatang Milio led me to a section with dressed chicken, pointing out the “black chicken” whose skin was black but whose feathers were snow white. Most important, he introduced me to: kamaru (mole cricket), betute (stuffed frog), duman, tibuk-tibuk and a galaxy of other dishes that eventually led to my undergraduate thesis on food in Pampango culture.
Looking back, I realize that Tatang Milio introduced Kapampangan culture to me through my palate, rounded it off with historical and cultural context, and eventually made me appreciate what it is to be Kapampangan.
The 46-year gap in our ages was bridged by a common love for books and reading. Tatang Milio gently steered my focus to Filipiniana, which led to my career as an historian. I remember that incident clearly. We had just finished a three-hour lunch when he opened Mariano Ponce’s “Cartas sobre la revolucion” (Manila, 1932) to the frontispiece, covered the photo caption, and said: “Point out Ponce to me.” There were two Asian men in the vintage studio photograph and I thought it was a no-brainer—Ponce was the seated man in the suit, not the one in Japanese attire. Tatang Milio smiled and uncovered the caption that showed I was wrong. Ponce was the man dressed as a Japanese. However, the real surprise was that the seated man in a suit was Dr. Sun Yat-sen. There was a connection between our wars of independence with the rise of modern China.
Tatang Milio gave me the gift of curiosity—the ability, not just to see, but, more importantly, to notice.
Aguilar Cruz—Abe, Tatang Milio, Amba, or plain Mr. Cruz—was interested in young people and helped jump-start many careers in the arts and letters. He cooked up Jullie Yap Daza’s column name, “Medium Rare,” and gave me “Looking Back.”
September being National Teachers Month, I remember those who formed me in a classroom but, more importantly, the ones who taught me out of school. E. Aguilar Cruz is unfortunately remembered today for a popular Filipino restaurant that bears his nickname, Abe, but those who were fortunate to have known or encountered him remember the lessons he imparted simply by being his curious and good-natured self. One can only hope that his kind, although rare, is not extinct.
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Next week the E. Aguilar Cruz Hall in the National Museum will open to the public and introduce his art to a new generation.
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