Making history at UP’s FC
WHEN PROF. Nieves Benito Epistola returned from Harvard University in the late 1960s to the University of the Philippines Diliman, she found that she had been assigned the most unprepossessingly located room at the then newly built Faculty Center. Hers was right beside a washroom with two toilet cubicles. It was the room nearest the entrance/exit, the one where hundreds of people passed on a regular school day. In other words, napagpilian na.
Her colleagues had beaten her to well-appointed locations deeper into the FC, with views of rows of acacia trees and the wilderness where
Vargas Museum eventually rose. Nieves being Nieves, she shrugged and calmly said, “That’s fine. I’ll be the first one out of here in case of a fire.”
After all, she it was who told me stories of the professional jealousies in the academic world. There was another Harvard-trained scholar who returned to the former home of the College of Fine Arts on the top floor of the University Library, only to find that instead of a desk on which to do his work, a typing table awaited him.
I always thought my most beloved of mentors was a seer who could look into her students’ and the UPD’s future. And so it came to pass that the FC, home, too, to the College of Arts and Letters of which Nieves once was associate dean, went up in flames on the early morning of April Fools’ Day. The irony in that cannot remain unnoticed. How absolutely Bard-ian, Nieves would’ve said if she were alive, adding, “What fools these mortals be.”
Priceless books, artworks, memorabilia, drafts of student dissertations, undergrad and masters’ theses turned to embers before finally becoming ashes. I hope the advisers of these students give them enough extensions of deadlines so they can recover from their trauma and reconstruct their work.
Next to the University Library, the FC is UP’s other heart, symbolic of many things, including academic freedom for which Nieves always said during the martial law years she was willing to go to jail to protect.
But let’s not kid ourselves about the FC’s loftiness. In this former coed’s time, the third floor, where the Department of Philosophy was housed, gained notoriety. I don’t know if tales about some lusty professors’ appetites for willing young flesh are bits of apocrypha. The trade-off went like this: “Kuwatro or Kuwarto?” In UP parlance, that meant a 4.0 (conditional failure) or use of the private office as short-time motel room. That’s why it was also called F*ck Center.
But the FC had many glorious moments. The Department of Political Science was a target of the mad dogs of Proclamation 1081, which served as the declaration of martial law. The offices of teachers perceived to be leftists were raided. A former instructor recalled how he lost mimeographed manifestos, pamphlets, Diliman Commune and First Quarter Storm leaflets, and newspapers, photographs, and books apart from treasured bottles of makabayan wines made from duhat and bignay.
Though I’m a “martial law baby,” having entered UP Diliman in 1973, there was talk from our profs, newly released from political imprisonment, about how at the height of the Diliman Commune, some of their colleagues kept those mimeo machines running and churning out protest statements.
There were stories about how the FC rooftop was used as base for launching skyrockets against the state’s helicopters. I recalled reading that activist Jerry Araos, who went on to become a sculptor, dropped his pants on that same rooftop and mooned the chopper pilots and soldiers.
I know of how one classmate, running from plainclothesmen, headed to and hid in an FC toilet. Those toilets then were the few ones that flushed properly on campus. One by one she tore up and flushed down the toilet the batch of anti-Marcos leaflets she had on her.
In her memoir “Project Sea Hawk: The Barbed Wire Journal,” Prof. Dolores Stephens Feria, also of the English department like Nieves, recalled the eve of martial law when a professor overstayed at the FC. Stumbling out of his room, he saw soldiers walking toward him with a list. They asked for directions to the offices of his colleagues who were to be arrested.
Behaving as though bleary-eyed from overwork, the history professor yawned and, in those few seconds, memorized as many names as he could from the list. He told the soldiers it was late, everyone had gone home. His own name was in that “wanted” list. He hotfooted it out of FC, gathered students from the dormitories, and ordered them to go to Professor So and So’s house in Area So and So. His instructions were to tell them to flee right away and seek a safehouse.
Many lives were spared of arrest, torture, or involuntary disappearance because of that unidentified man’s presence of mind.
Prescient Nieves observed that the FC structure of letting each faculty member have a room of one’s own worked against a sense of collegiality. It upheld the cult of individualism. The members of each department were more united and sought what was best for the common weal when they once shared tables, and even meals, in a big room at the old Palma Hall.
When the university rebuilds what was lost, it would be wise to listen to the voices of its stalwarts, those who used to walk the corridors of FC with a scholar’s, and a child’s, curiosity. Remember them for making history, for fighting a worthwhile fight against a fascist state and for holding on to the good.
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