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Remembering Letty

/ 01:59 AM December 27, 2015

AN EARLY memory of Letty was my barging into the bathroom of our family home in Cubao during a clan reunion and finding her there smoking and then frantically waving away the smoke to escape detection. Later, hearing that her then fiancé Carlitos was on his way, she asked my older sister Neneng for some gum so Carlitos wouldn’t detect the smell of cigarette smoke.

Of course, in the course of their life together, Carlitos would inevitably find out about the smoking, which Letty indulged in even more as the pressures of a journalist’s life increased. But some years back, when her sister Lulut (“Ate Luds” or “Inday Badiday” to the rest of the country) was still alive, Lulut complained about Carlitos’ monitoring of her diet, something he didn’t do with Letty. “But remember,” said Dr. Magsanoc, “Letty has stopped smoking and now eats mainly chicken and fish.”

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Indeed, in the genetic lottery of life, Letty seemed extremely lucky. As far as I can tell, she never gained weight and kept fashionably slim through the years (a gift her daughter Kara inherited).

I don’t know where Letty got the gift of maintaining a slim figure, since most of us Jimenez women have had to battle weight issues for much of our existence. Or where she got the journalistic guts to take on a dictator and most authority figures in her storied career. One thing about the Inquirer, it was and has been (and will always be) an “equal-opportunity” annoyer of the powers-that-be. Whatever the administration, regardless of who was president or if many of the officials in the current administration were her friends or companions-in-arms in the struggle against the dictator Marcos, the Inquirer—and in many ways Letty—went after them with zeal and determination.

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IT was only some years back, for instance, that I found out that a close ally of the former administration would regularly drop by the Inquirer offices near midnight (a normal occurrence in Letty’s nocturnal work schedule) and try to convince her to hold a story or demote a headline item to “below the fold” or even the inside pages.

As far as I can tell, none of the pressure worked—though I’m sure she turned down the petitioner with a gentle refusal or even a humorous aside. When politicians or cause-oriented groups would be the guest of the Inquirer’s frequent “roundtable” sessions, Letty would drop by after the front page had been laid to bed, and then perk up the proceedings by shooting provocative and even uncomfortable questions. But she leavened these with a dose of humor and even naughtiness, although she never forgot to nudge the reporter assigned to do the story when a good lead item came to light.

This approach she shared with the Inquirer’s founding chair, Eggie Apostol, who recruited Letty, despite her initial reluctance, to take on the post of editor in chief. “Tita” Eggie spent much of her journalistic career as a feature writer and magazine editor, and believed that a journalist’s biggest weakness was taking himself or herself too seriously. So even if they both peppered their work with self-deprecating humor or impish asides, they were dead serious in their pursuit of the truth. And I’m sure both would squirm with embarrassment should they be reading this.

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AS a columnist, my biggest gift from Letty was to be left alone, to decide all by myself what I would write on or what approach I should take when tackling a particular issue.

Not once in my nearly 30 years with this paper have I been told what to write in this space by Letty—or any other editor, or by the paper’s management, for that matter.

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Once, as the staff was preparing for the coverage of a national electoral campaign, the editorial board came up with guidelines for reporters. This included paying for their own transportation and other expenses on out-of-town sorties. I asked Letty if this was also applicable to columnists, since some candidates would sometimes invite us to cover them. Well, I was told, the editors assumed that we had more than enough experience to know if we would allow ourselves to be exploited.

And so it has been for me, and I daresay most of the other columnists, in all the years we have been meeting our deadlines. I don’t know, for instance, how many angry rebuttals or demands for rectification have reached the editors, how many were blocked or diverted, or gently dissipated by Letty’s mix of humor and steadfast support for everyone whose bylines appeared in the Inquirer.

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WHEN I entered college and had to choose a major, my mother objected when I said I wanted to become a journalist. “Why do you all (she had nine children) refuse to make money?” she demanded. Her actual dream was for one of her daughters to take up nursing, work abroad, and then send dollars home.

But I had strong role models, my father, for one, and of course there was Letty, who sparked my early fascination for the profession with her glamorous appearance at family events, her throaty laugh, her witty remarks, her acquaintance with the rich and famous.

She also set the standards for a journalist’s life—hard work and dedication, stamina to face daily deadlines despite the pressures of life, and a pleasant sort of cynicism that allowed one to be skeptical of grandiose dreams, but supportive all the same of those who attempt to do good.

Phone calls and text messages were exchanged feverishly on Christmas Eve among us cousins as we tried to find out if there was truth to the news that Letty had passed away after being rushed to the hospital a few days before. The confirmation of the news has left me, for one, feeling hollow and bereft. But today, there is also gratitude, admiration, and pride.

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