It’s a cafe frequented by Manila’s elite—where scions of old rich and nouveau riche families hobnob with wealthy expats and the city’s artists, writers, and other intellectuals.
The sound of cowbells, trumpets, conga, bass, güiro and the piano enliven the syncopated beat of Cuban music that fills the air. It’s the cha cha cha, guaracha, son, danzón and bolero that you will hear.
It was here in Cafe Havanna that cultural activist-graphic artist-researcher Alex Umali found himself, one afternoon in 2010.
Umali, a mainstay of the country’s left-leaning culturati, was there to interview one of the country’s most respected writers, Carmen Guerrero Nakpil.
“I was part of the team that produced the ‘Leon Maria Guerrero Anthology.’ I was there to ask her to answer a set of questions about her brother, the late Ambassador Leon Maria Guerrero, his work habits as a writer and journalist,” he said.
A University of the Philippines Filipino Department professor recommended Umali to David, Leon Ma. Guerrero’s son, to be the book’s researcher.
Time disappears and reappears eight years earlier in the mind of Umali. He remembers meeting for the first time this statuesque woman, slightly taller than his five feet-six inches frame.
“She was dressed in style,” Alex recalled, adding that Nakpil wore a long-sleeved, below-the-knee dress in muted lavender, with not-too-high stiletto heels in a matching lavender shade. She wore a pearl necklace and pearl earrings.
Coinciding with the meeting of Nakpil’s Wednesday Club, the 30-minute interview was conducted in the presence of her friends—fellow essayist Adrian Cristobal, longest-serving director of the National Library Serafin Quiazon, and columnist Francisco ‘Kit’ Tatad.
Umali remembered that Nakpil asked him where he had graduated. “Her voice was low, soft, well-modulated, and clear. When I said I studied in the Salesian school of Don Bosco, she mentioned her uncle, Bishop Cesar Guerrero, who encouraged the Salesian priests to establish schools in the Philippines.”
He added that Bishop Guerrero was falsely accused by the Americans as a Japanese collaborator because he continued the Filipinization of the Catholic Church during the Japanese occupation.
National Artist and former Philippines Graphic editor-in-chief Nick Joaquin later wrote an article that told the truth about Guerrero.
The second child and only girl in a brood of three, Nakpil showed a warm fondness for her eldest brother Leon, a diplomat, lawyer, and writer.
Said Umali: “She always recalled Leon’s experience in the Bataan Death March; of American’s wearing steel helmets while Filipino soldiers wore coconut shell helmets. Filipinos ate bad rice as Americans partook of good food. And always, Filipinos were the front liners in the trenches. She told me that Leon recounted the unequal treatment suffered by Filipinos in the hands of Americans.”
In the Leon Maria Guerrero Anthology, there is a chapter on Leoni, the family nickname for Leon, with this quote from Nakpil: “He had a fresh, open, handsome face with a dazzling smile which he could hold indefinitely. He was chief altar boy, cadet commander and champion debater. He had been born charming and he knew it. On Christmas morning, he was irresistible.”
Nakpil, according to Umali, also had vivid memories of the horrors of the Second World War, when the Guerrero family had to subsist on ersatz coffee or toasted rice coffee during the Japanese occupation.
In essay after essay she wrote on World War II, Nakpil vividly captured the rape, pillaging, and other atrocities committed by the Japanese Imperial Army and the rabid shelling of Manila by American soldiers.
Her views on America spilled to her columns in “Rewind,” published in the Philippines Graphic from 2007 to 2008.
“The U.S. got what it wanted: a nation that loved America not wisely but too well for its own good. American education all but made Filipinos forget their country.”—Carmen Guerrero Nakpil, “Rewind: Educating the Filipinos,” Philippine Graphic, Nov. 26, 2007.
Umali said that Nakpil, a journalist identified with the Marcos regime during the Martial Law years, had the respect even of journalists aligned with the underground Left.
He said that Antonio Zumel, one-time National Press Club president and leader of the National Democratic Front (NDF), spoke fondly of Nakpil in his dying days.
Reports had it that Nakpil cooperated with the Marcoses to protect her daughter Gemma, a member of the Makibaka and her son-in-law Antonio ‘Tonypet’ Araneta.
There is also a story of Nakpil’s role in Nick Joaquin’s acceptance of the National Artist Award in 1976 and the subsequent release of then jailed writer Jose ‘Pete’ F. Lacaba.
According to Lacaba, Joaquin told him that he planned to seek Lacaba’s release from jail as a condition to his accepting the National Artist Award. It was Nakpil who advised that he (Joaquin) first accept the award and then talk to Marcos who would be at the Awards gathering. Soon after, Lacaba was freed.
Born in 1922, Nakpil spent her most productive years as an essayist, author, and public servant.
She died in her Makati home on July 30. She was 96.
*Alex Umali is a cultural activist, graphic artist-researcher, and once curator of the De La Salle University art gallery. A resident of San Andres in Manila, Umali is a member of a friendship society between Filipinos and Latin Americans from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua.