Letty’s continuing challenge
“BITTERSWEET” IS a word I normally associate with chocolate bars, but last Christmas Eve it took on a new shade of meaning because it was the worst day of the year for Letty Jimenez-Magsanoc to pass on.
As in previous noche buena, I was seated at a table groaning with sugar-rich, artery-clogging fare, surrounded by cheerful relatives. No matter how hard I tried to share the merriment, this year’s Christmas was dulled by private mourning for an editor who gave me this column space and a continuing challenge to make Philippine history engaging and relevant for general readership.
Letty was editor of the Sunday Inquirer Magazine when I first pitched an article for Bonifacio Day 1987. That first meeting was memorable because the Inquirer was then situated on Edsa, in a building that in better days was the Madrid restaurant. After passing the guard and gaudy gold-painted furniture (remains of the iconic restaurant), I entered a makeshift office, submitted my copy and waited nervously. Letty read the article once, then on second reading she marked it before sitting me down to discuss the editing. Pointing out two words encircled in red, she asked what exactly it was I meant by them. She showed me how changing one word could alter the sense of a sentence and improve it, and how moving one sentence at the end to the top of the story made for a stronger read.
She fostered my eye for detail, promoted my conversational tone, and encouraged the dash of irreverent humor that makes Philippine history less forbidding than it is made out to be.
That Bonifacio Day article was followed by a Rizal Day article a month later, and like the first time, she took me by the hand through corrected copy. Having seen how male editors in another paper imparted hard lessons to cub reporters through public humiliation, expletives and, occasionally, copy torn in the newsroom for all to see before ordering a complete rewrite, I appreciated Letty’s maternal touch—light but firm.
This year, out of the blue, she texted and asked me to write Page 1 articles for Bonifacio Day and Rizal Day, bringing us back full circle. Now that she is gone, I look back to realize that she taught me to see and retell Philippine history from the eyes of our heroes.
Letty kept in touch when I wrote a column for the Lifestyle page of the Daily Globe in 1987; knowing she was reading over my shoulder always kept me on my toes. However, her mentorship was not confined to writing, for her humility taught me to appreciate my worth. When she congratulated me for a Catholic Mass Media Award for culture, I did not know how to accept the compliment and replied by making light of the crude rock from San Mateo on the trophy. Her trademark throaty laugh roared on the other end of the line, and then she said she herself had yet to receive such an award: “Ako nga wala pa n’yan!” It was a lesson in accepting recognition with gratitude, humility and grace.
Early in 1989 Letty advised me to speak to the Globe editor in chief and ask to be moved from the Style section to Opinion. I replied that I was happy in Style, where I was allowed to use photographs with my text. She then remarked that history was serious enough to be placed in Opinion, adding that readers would not take my columns seriously if these appeared beside a photograph of Dolphy clowning around. I don’t recall now how it happened, but my column migrated from Style to Opinion in the same year.
In 1991 Letty invited me to visit the Inquirer, which was then housed in yet another makeshift office on Romualdez street in Paco, Manila, to meet Eggie Apostol, who welcomed me to the pages of the newspaper. That’s roughly a quarter of a century ago, half my age.
In 1996, the centennial of Rizal’s martyrdom, Letty assigned a series of Page 1 articles on the hero that appeared on the four Sundays of December. In 1998, the centennial of the declaration of Philippine Independence, she published a series of 100 Page 1 articles on the Philippine Revolution that turned into the official countdown to June 12, 1998.
After all this Letty asked me: “Why do you have such a negative view of the past?” I explained that the picture I painted was based on the primary sources I had dug up. Later, I was so disturbed by her remark that in 1999 I wrote another Page 1 series as a 100-day countdown to the turn of the millennium. This time it was good news from the past on the front page, focusing on 100 cultural objects that made Filipinos proud.
I have one pending assignment left—to write an overview of Philippine history from the prehistoric period to the present in 100 Page 1 articles. I don’t know if I will ever accomplish this without Letty around, but if there are two life lessons I learned from her it is that: First, you don’t ask for a blue moon to write because the only inspiration you need is the deadline, and second, you don’t back down from the challenge of a difficult assignment because you will only learn by doing.
Letty Jimenez-Magsanoc may be history now, but what she taught me all these years remain, and will remain as long as I can write and be the best that I can be.
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