Pete Lacaba & Marra Lanot: On marriage and the muse

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This Valentine’s month, we present to our readers a time capsule; a love story first put into words by noted journalist Pablo A. Tariman in a 1981 article published by the defunct Celebrity Magazine. It speaks of a time when multi-awarded writers Jose “Pete” F. Lacaba, editor of the BusinessMirror’s Tony&Nick, and Marra PL. Lanot, editor of the Philippines Graphic Reader—met, fell in love, married, and survived the political upheaval that engulfed the youths of their time.

Strains of something like Mozart emanate from what looks like a cottage in this family compound in Quezon City. Standing by the gate, I see the family pets streaming in my direction and I hear a familiar voice bidding me to come in and not to worry, the dogs don’t bite.

    The invitation is cordial. Still the instant “at home” atmosphere is hard to define. The smile is familiar, yes, and so the one coming from the lady of the house.

    And yet this is not the first time I will see both of them together on their own terrain.

    How does one go about poking into the life of a couple whose occupation is like one’s own? What if the crises one unearths seem like those one went through in the past? How does one start to be personal about a writing figure whose articles from a defunct favorite weekly one used to follow every Thursday, at a time when one was contemplating the idea of quitting college? And the wife who writes poetry, will she agree to talk about things less poetic, or confront an issue all of us are familiar with but which we would not dream of putting in print?

    Even the house seems familiar. Rows of books, a piano, again a roomful of books, a child alone in his room watching tv, a typewriter beneath a blow-up photo. Did I inhabit such a house in a former lifetime?

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Jose “Pete” F. Lacaba

    Pete Lacaba, the Jose F. Lacaba during the widely read years of the defunct Philippines Free Press, looks hale and trim and still has the gait of the then enfant terrible of Philippine journalism who weekly regaled his readers with tales of the times.

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Marra PL. Lanot

    His wife, Marra PL. Lanot, looks like his college chum except that she is also the mother of his nine-year old son, Kris. Like Pete, she is not keen on flaunting the English language for the benefit of the interviewer. She cooks dinner, the music plays.  I face the journalist, much admired writer of my youth.

    As far as I was concerned, it was more than a five-year-old author-reader affair that started at the Free Press and ended at the barely two-year old Asia Philippines Leader. Some of the memorable pieces I read from fair-haired boy of the Free Press were those culled from the then now scene: The Clash of ’69, The New Thing (Notes on the Age of Aquarius, Cabra-Adabra—The Strange Happenings on Goat Island, that witty satire on the local columnists of the time, A Gaggle of Geese and a profile of the harbinger of the times, The Children of the Quarter Storm.

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    While he was deeply involved with the issues of the day, the Jose F. Lacaba that I read and was fond of was also the journalist who advertised himself as a pariah in prose reminiscent of Norman Mailer.

    “Where have all the young warriors gone” wrote the young Lacaba, bewailing the loss of idealistic young men swallowed by the establishment of the time…” The death of ambition has given birth to luxury and security and daily lunches at the Rotisserie and dates with famous fashion models; but all I have to show is a name printed every other week in large letters, battered pair of fake Hush Puppies, and a library of paperbacks I have yet to read, nothing more, inspite of the  to-me-incredible-four figures a month that I get before taxes, not even a single centavo in the bank, unless I count my social security premiums I wallow in delicious self-pity as I hop into my long time-not seen-friend’s Volkswagen and ask him to drop me off where I can get (self-pity is one of my favorite vices)  and I make  another resolution to cut down on my two packs of Marlboro a day and my 10-bottle-of-San  Miguel a night even if I know that when the next day  dawns, I’ll say f-k it to the resolution, anyway.” (A Is For Apple, Rosy and Red, FP Oct. 10, 1970).

    My next hints of his personal life were his getting married and his being a father for the first time in the article Life as An Erpat (APL, February 11, 1972).

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KRIS’ CHRISTENING (L-R) Ninong Nick Joaquin, Ninang 10-year-old Cecile Licad, Ninong Xyrus Lanot, Marra PL Lanot holding baby Kris, Pete Lacaba, and Lola Fe Flores Lacaba (extreme right)

    “If I weren’t the author of this article,” wrote the brand-new father of Kris, “I probably wouldn’t bother to proofread it. But this, in case you haven’t noticed, our Valentine’s Day issue and an occasional (‘belonging or suitable to some special occasion – Funk and Wagnalls) article was called for, or something connected, however remotely, with love. I chose fatherhood. I chose fatherhood for the plain and simple reason that I became the father of a six-pound, 20-and-a-half inch boy last November and I feel I can at least fill up a page or two of this issue with the bits and pieces of nonsense and common sense that I have picked up since then.” The article in effect told of how the young Lacaba stopped worrying and learned to accept fatherhood.

    And here we are, face to face.

    Pete Lacaba’s college years started and ended in Ateneo de Manila where at the time he wasn’t decided on what career to take. “At that time I was confused,” he says. “I wasn’t decided on getting a degree. It was the time of my adolescent angst—existential angst. It was a time for soaking in a lot of experiences.”

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Serafin Lanot and Nick Joaquin

    Marra, on the other hand, was enrolled at the University of the Philippines and very much in love with writing poetry. But she had an original childhood ambition though: “Noong bata pa ako, I really wanted to be a journalist. Parang gusto kong gayahin ang Papa ko (Serafin Lanot, a former editor of This Week magazine) and besides I was wondering why kokonti ang mga babaeng journalist. And I wanted to go out. My idea of journalism at the time was para bagang napaka-exciting na life; and I thought it would be glamorous and didn’t think of material rewards. At the time, I was just obsessed with meeting people and overcoming my shyness and being able to write. But first I have to earn a degree at UP. I was very shy right after college.  I got introduced to the right people with the right connections and that probably was the reason I collected less rejection slips. Soon I was accepting assignments from Joe Luna Castro and Baby Orosa. But this didn’t last.”

    At Ateneo, Pete was dabbling in poetry and fiction but wasn’t sure he could make a career out of it. “When I was in Ateneo, I wasn’t decided on being a writer kasi interesado din ako sa painting at saka drawing. Nagwu-wood cut din ako noon.”

    At UP, Marra was in the company of Willie Sanchez, Joe Carreon, Jorge Arago, Gelacio Guillermo and Franklin Osorio.

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    At Ateneo, Pete was in the company of Salvador Bernal (now CCP stage designer who used to write poetry and now National Artist for Stage Design), Nick Tiongson, Jolly Benitez (now deputy minister of human settlements), Pandy Aviado and Julian Dacanay. For a time, he was influenced by his mentors Eric Torres, Rolando Tinio and Bien Lumbera.

    “We had mutual friends even before we started taking each other seriously,” Marra recalls. “Kakilala ko rin mga kakilala niya.”

    The first time the two met was during the writers’ workshop in 1965 before Pete joined the Free Press. It was the first UP workshop, Siliman University being the pioneer in writers’ workshop at that time. Pete was still in college when he received the invitation to join the workshop.

    The first meeting on that bus to Baguio didn’t exactly set the right  sparks flying.

    Recalls Marra: “He was reading poetry but I didn’t pay extra attention. Tipong he was just one of the fellows and I was just one of the fellows and everybody was hooked on poetry. There was nothing unusual in that meeting.”

    Recalls Pete: I was attracted to her in Baguio but it wasn’t strong enough to keep me pressing for a strong commitment. In Baguio, I remembered we met in Maxwell Restaurant and I took turns sketching her on a napkin, which she kept until now.”

    He joined the Free Press shortly afterwards. He got fed up with college and an odd job as researcher and thought the new job would probably give him enough time to think of a career.

    “We led separate lives during my Free Press days although we bumped into each other pretty often because we have mutual friends,” Pete reminisces. “Usually she drops by the office with her friends, only to submit an article or poetry. The closest I got to her was treating her and her friends at the canteen.”

    But in 1970, the friendly relationship took a sudden close turn.

    It was the year the Free Press was rocked by internal dissension due to competing labor unions; it was also the year student demos were at their peak.

    Continues Pete: “I don’t exactly know what happened but during that year, Marra was there more often and suddenly I was becoming interested in her again. And then we started dating by going to the movies and watching plays together. Isa pa, we were organizing the Free Press labor union. Her father owned a printing press and I needed things printed. I got to see her more often.”

    On her part, Marra says she just went through the rituals without considering anything on her or her husband’s side. “I didn’t have to consider or weigh things because unang una, whirlwind ang courtship. Pangalawa, we didn’t plan marriage and specially our life after marriage. Nobody taught me what marriage is and its problems. Walang kaplano plano iyon. What I was sure of was that we had many things in common. For one, I was also sympathetic with the movement at that time. I joined demos. Most of my friends were activists and so were his. Of course, at that time, you can’t help being influenced by several lines of thinking.”

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WEDDING DAY PHOTO, Dec. 24, 1970 (compliments of X’or Photo Studio). Front row (L-R) Lalli de Vera (wife of Eman Lacaba), Almatita Tuazon, Pfootsy Lanot (sister of Marra), Gloria Licad Lanot (mother of Marra), and Serafin Lanot (father of Marra); Second row (L-R) Fe Flores Lacaba (mother of Pete), Belen Lanot Pascual (sister of Pete), Marra and Pete, Bonifacio Flores, Eman Lacaba (poet and brother of Pete); 3rd row, (L-R): Virgilio Lacaba and Antonio Lacaba (brothers of Pete), Xyrus Lanot (brother of Marra), and Ricardo Lanot (cousin of Marra), and Leopoldo Pascual

    And so, the marriage took place in a rather unorthodox setting typical of youthful impulses. In the bride’s own words: “parang nagkayayaan lang. Parang we just went out on a date except that our parents were with us.”

    The site was the Pateros townhall for the civil rites (they were married in a Quezon City church on the same day).

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WEDDING RECEPTION. At the house of Marra’s parents in Quezon City (L-R) Nonong Tuazon, Almatita Tuazon, Eman Lacaba, Eulalia de Vera, Marra, and Pete

    Says Pete: “At that time, I didn’t think marriage was necessary. Pero we had to give in to what people will say. I felt our relatives would feel it was necessary. Sumunod na rin kami sa convention.”

    Noon of the same day the two were to exchange “I do” in the afternoon, the bride and her mother were rushing to a Cubao department store for a wedding dress. The bride wanted a red wedding dress but the mother insisted on a white one which they couldn’t find. They settled for a cream-colored dress which she gave away after the wedding.

    The groom, on the other hand, appeared in casual pants and long sleeves and a borrowed pair of leather shoes. “At that time,” Pete recalls, “I couldn’t afford leather shoes.”

    The circumstances were not exactly rosy for a couple settling down. For one, Marra wasn’t keen on getting a job. For another, Pete was losing his Free Press position although, he along with the group of Nick Joaquin, was sure of being employed by a new publication, the Asia-Philippines Leader.

    Why did they get married in the first place?

    The woman who thought of getting married in a red dress attempts to explain: “For one I found him intelligent. Pareho kaming mahilig sa libro, sa sine. Besides, I didn’t find him arrogant. I find him a very good writer pero hindi ko naman type.”

    On Pete’s side, the decision to get married was a combination of many factors. “Nandoon of course ang physical attraction. And then maraming nangyari sa buhay ko noong 1970. It was the time of the demos, the First Quarter Storm, when everything was unstable and insecure. I organized a labor union…Another factor, perhaps, was that I was looking for something to anchor my life on. At that time, of course, that marriage came, I was being introduced to ideas that were new to me.”

    As it turned out, martial law was declared, rendering Pete jobless shortly after Marra gave birth to Kris. It was the first series of events that would put their relationsip and their marriage to a test.

    The year martial law was declared, Pete went underground, leaving Marra and their son Kris.

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A bishop blesses baby Kris Lanot Lacaba being held by Ninong Nick Joaquin and Regina de la Paz

    “It was a difficult period,” Pete admits. “I tried to convince her to join me but she thought it was much better that was for the sake of Kris. At that time, napaka intense ng feeling ko about writing. It took over my whole life so completely I felt I even had to sacrifice my family.”

    He was with the underground movement for more than a year until he was arrested one day in April 1974.

    In his first year in the detention cell, Pete was allowed to see his wife and son once a week for about five to ten minutes. Conjugal visits were not allowed at that time. It was at this phase of his life that he felt much closer to his family. “When you are inside, it is inevitable that family life begins to have its attractions again. I was cut off from the rest of the world and my only link was my family. The condition was made more untenable because I couldn’t write, not even poetry.”

    To Marra, Pete’s detention was both a test and a challenge. It was one of the chain of events that would change his outlook after marriage.

    (Indeed, marriage has changed both of them. Pete slowed down on his coming home late and frequenting Indios Bravos and the nightly rounds of beer with the Free Press drinking group—Nick Joaquin, Ding Nolledo and Greg Brilliantes. Marra says marriage forced her to work and to learn the value of a job. “When we were newly married, I wasn’t keen on getting a stable job. Siempre noong una may paiyak-iyak pa diyan dahil hindi mo alam ang gagawin mo.”)

    But with Pete landing once more in the public eye because of his arrest, Marra had to bank on her own inner strength. “It was my mother who told me to be firm and strong and to learn to stand on my own feet. She gave me moral support while I continued to write poetry. Someone called to offer me a job and I accepted. When they learned about Pete’s arrest, my friends’ sort of reprimanded me with something like, “May problema ka pala hindi mo sinasabi.’ Bakit ikinahihiya ko daw ba? Of course not. It’s just that I don’t want people asking questions. They can’t accept the fact that I can face unfavorable circumstances of that magnitude.”

    Looking back, Marra feels she had no time to worry then. Aside from her son Kris and her poetry, the only other thing she was preoccupied with was how to get Pete out. “I didn’t feel kawawa. I never felt that way. It’s part of my mother’s admonition not to indulge in self-pity. It was the time of our life when I felt I had to be doubly strong.

    Pete’s release was a new phase in their married life. It was also another period of adjustment. “Come to think of it,” Pete muses, “Mas maraming period na hindi kami magkasama since we got married. The first of course was the period I went underground and then the years in detention. When I was released, it was like starting all over again.”

    On her part, Marra’s first move was how to make the transition smooth. She made him relax. They enjoyed their summer vacation and she encouraged him to write again. “The first thing that I encouraged him to do was put out a book, a collection of poems launched two years ago.”

    It was also the period they gave their marriage a new firming up and a new perspective.

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Marra with the late Ambassador Antonio L. Cabangon Chua.

    After Pete’s release, the marriage looked brighter. The years they lived separately gave them enough time to think where they went wrong or what they could have done when they were still together. It was also the phase of their life when they thought they could work out a marriage better than they had. “I was given the time to learn to be more tolerant, and so did Pete,” she says.

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    Pete turned to a new medium—writing scripts for the movies and was quite successful in the first attempts. His tie-up with Lino Brocka (Jaguar which he co-wrote with Ricky Lee and for which they won an award and Angela Markado) were considered milestones in the local movie industry.

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    Marra on the other hand shifted from poetry to essays and feature pieces. She wrote two books on poetry, Sheaves of Things Burning, second prize, 1967 Palanca Awards; and Flowers of the Sun. She won first prize in the essay category of last year’s Palanca derby. She is coming out if her third book of poetry, Passion & Compassion in March.

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Book launching of Cadena de Amor at Iago’s. (L-R) Pete Lacaba, Adriana Agcaoili, Tessie Jose, F. Sionil Jose, and Marra PL. Lanot

    Their reunion also marked certain changes in their writing habit.

    Pete who consumes packs of cigarettes come deadline night, had to learn to write at day time minus the previous vices of beer and cigarettes. He considers himself an agony writer during his Free Press days: he was always the last to submit an article. “Yong mga typesetters usually nakatabi na sa makinilya ko para paglabas ng page derecho na sa typesetting.”

    And now he finds himself unable to write in the pace he used to keep. “Compared to that time, I was more prolific. I could write more easily and much longer. I find it more difficult to write now because first, I am not as interested as before in writing in English. Kung minsan binabasa ko old articles ko sa Free Press and I get an inferiority complex. Noon I would tell myself, nakakasulat pala ako ng ganoon. Ngayon ang hirap nang gawin.”

    As for Marra, she thinks her writing poetry was not affected by martial law and what it brought to their family life. And even marriage for that matter. “Marriage only affected my writing in the sense that it gave me new experiences and new things to write about. I am not like other writers who have to sit down everyday and wait for the call of the Muse. Poetry, as it comes to me, is not scheduled. It comes anytime—parang dictation. I can write poetry in a car, while swimming or in a jeepney. It is not difficult because it is not something I always think about.”

    As for Pete, poetry comes like a warning sign from the sky. “Sometimes I think of a line and I write it down and the whole poem comes quickly. Sometimes I put in a few lines aside and come back to it weeks or a month later and start re-writing.”

    As for his writing for the movies which is comparatively rewarding, remuneration-wise, Pete can’t ask for more. At least scriptwriting supports my poetry. I am not ungrateful.”

    Meanwhile, he looks at the future with a hint of optimism. “Now that people talk of things going back to normal, I’d like to try many things like writing for the stage and more scripts for the movies. I may give journalism another try although I am going through a period of not being prolific again. If there is an outlet for serious Tagalog journalism, I’ll probably write more in Tagalog.”

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    Does their writing life blend well with their marriage?

    Marra thinks so. “As far as we are concerned, there is no problem. Marriage will probably affect actors and actresses because of their hectic schedules but writers usually manage. Besides, I can write anywhere. Of course there is this minor thing in the family set up about not having a maid and not having all the time to write. Otherwise our marriage complements our writing life.”

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SILVER WEDDING ANNIVERSARY. (L-R) Gloria Licad Lanot, ninangs Africa Licad Alfonso, Elena Roco, Paulina Flores Bautista, Marra and Pete; ninongs Geronimo Lanot, Jr., Amba. Antonio L. Cabangon Chua, and Nick Joaquin

    That from the poetess who had thought of getting married in a red dress. Of her life with Pete and Kris and the Muse. she could be speaking in terms of the color with which she had expressed love –

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Mara and Pete with son Kris

    Color of red: I love you

    Red is the fragrance of summer

    Apples doting a dawn horizon

    Proof of roses in bloom before

    They wilt with flametrees

    At sundown.

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AT THE 2023 NICK JOAQUIN LITERARY AWARDS (NJLA). Marra and Pete with Charo Joaquin-Villegas, niece of Nick Joaquin, and Bing Villegas.


Pablo A. Tariman
Pablo A. Tariman
Pablo A. Tariman, 73, joined the old Graphic Magazine in 1971 as proofreader. He covered politics, travel and entertainment apart from his proofreading chores. He is the author of the book of poetry, “Love, Life and Loss—Poems During the Pandemic,” published by Music News and Features. Two of his poems are included in the anthology The Best Asian Poetry 2021 published by Kitaab Publishing in Singapore. His poem The Woman On A Motorcycle also appears in the anthology 100 Pink Poems Para Kay Leni. He was born in Baras, Catanduanes and has six grandchildren.


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