My first trip to the idyllic mountain hamlet in the Cordillera was way back in 1962, as an adventurous teenager, when the town had absolutely no tourists and much more of a mystical aura. A good buddy and I stayed in a smoky native hut in a village right smack in the middle of rice terraces. It was very cold, always foggy or misty, and we felt as if we had entered an entirely new world.
Two years later, I went back with an artist friend and stayed at Bishop Joseph Abellon’s residence that overlooked the Episcopalian grounds, including the church. There were still no lodging places, until the early 70s when St. Joseph’s Guesthouse opened with eight second-floor cubicles that had the names of women saints on the doors. And that was where we had ourselves billeted and relied on kerosene lamps at night in 1975.
Among the small company then was my partner Sylvia Mayuga, also a writer, and Boy Yuchengco, a relatively new friend, with his photographer-buddy Bobbit Sison. One lamp-lit evening after supper at the guesthouse, after indulging in some organic smokes, Boy brought up the possibility of starting a counter-culture-type magazine.
At that time, most of us had been marveling over the Whole Earth Catalogue produced by Stewart Brand. I told Boyu (as we learned to distinguish him from Boy Yñiguez, who was Boyñi) that yes, we could make a go of it, produce a monthly compilation of grab-bag articles and features that would highlight art and literature, alternative lifestyles, the then-bohemian choices and leanings, travel and photography, music, books, etc.
One lamp-lit evening after supper at the guesthouse, after indulging in some organic smokes, Boy brought up the possibility of starting a counter-culture-type magazine.
Back in Manila, we assembled the core team for the magazine. Boyu found a small office in a stately old building on Ma. Orosa St. in Ermita. Thus, the name for the mag. The ground floor unit consisted of an anteroom that could fit two desks and a larger room to serve as our general work room.
Pulled in were Victor Jose “Bimboy” Peñaranda, a gentle young poet who, with Sylvia, would be my fellow writers and associate editors, and Yñiguez as the designer.
So that was the core group, with me as EIC, Sylvia and Bimboy as co-editors, Boyñi as art director and supplemental photographer, Bobbit Sison as official photographer, and Boyu as publisher. At one point in our start-up days, Boyu asked if we could bring in a certain Gina Lopez, his friend from the Makati villages who needed a job, as a secretary. So she joined us in that small office, basically as a receptionist, filer of materials, and occasional researcher.
I asked artist-friend John Altomonte for permission to use a photograph of the charcoal mural he had rendered on a concrete wall of the bedroom we had offered poet Emmanuel Lacaba for his use with his partner Lali at an apartment turned into Café Hurri-manna in 1970.
I ran Café Hurri-manna for a little less than a year. It was an attempt to replicate the earlier editions of similar venues such as Ishmael Bernal’s When It’s A Grey November in Your Soul Café and Beatrice Romualdez’s Café Los Indios Bravos, both on A. Mabini St. in Malate. Our new café became very popular for several months, but didn’t quite last a year since the people involved (namely myself and Iskho Lopez who served as general manager) also had the inclination to rest on our café-hosting laurels and frequently take off for Baguio without leaving anyone else in charge.
Left: A photograph that accompanied an invitation to subscribe to Ermita which read, in part, “Twelve issues will cost you only Thirty-Five Pesos; six issues go for Twenty. Don’t delay. Earthquakes are abloom in all parts of the world, and its a Dragon Year till January next, and the newsprint costs are going up, and our undermanned and overworked staff is on the verge of either mutiny or collapse. Right: The first issue, dated January 1986, which had for its cover, “a detail from a mural done by Johnny Altomonte. From the collection of Fred Elizalde.” The issue featured “Hare Krishna recipes” and the first part of an essay on Bacolod by Peque Gallaga.
In any case, it was basically the same artist-friends who frequented Café Hurri-manna, and those we partied with in Baguio, who formed the outer core of contributory support and initial readership for ERMITA.
Altomonte’s wondrous mural that featured a comely, svelte woman in full figure (reputedly modeled after Oya de Leon, the sister of the director Mike) went well as an attractive first cover for a new, alternative magazine in newsprint with an irregular large format that made it look more like a newspaper, if larger than tabloid size.
It soon became the toast of the town (that is, of the counter-culture-inclined crowd—or as some would say, the cognoscenti). The first issue came out in January 1976. I wangled a deal with Tony Abaya, proprietor of Erehwon Bookstore on Padre Faura St., to carry the magazine. By the next few issues, it was selling quite well. I believe we only had a thousand copies printed of each issue.
Friends in the gathering tribe (from UP Diliman to Ermita-Malate and Pasay, then Baguio, Puerto Galera, and Dumaguete) joined in as contributors, readers, and supporters. The artists included Santiago Bose, Pandy Aviado, Ray Albano of the CCP, Larry Francia, Ben Cruz and Fil de la Cruz, among many others.
Bose produced the pointillist pen-and-ink renditions of the Sagada landscape for front and back covers of a subsequent issue. On the inside pages, the strongest feature article was “Brahma in the Mountains” by Mayuga, the first-ever travel piece on Sagada published in a local magazine. It was complemented by a black-and-white photo essay that, together with the article, totally betrayed our secret hamlet in the mountains and started the increasing incidence of pilgrimages towards the latter 70s and 80s.
On the back cover that showed Santi’s detailed rendition of the limestone rocks that used to be called “The Three Kings”—a geological feature that signified entry to Sagada—the simple text was a quote from Nick Joaquin’s essay “Our Heart’s in the Highlands.”
In another issue, we featured Albano’s collection of poster designs for CCP productions, the same that eventually adorned the ceiling of the CCP cafeteria until the entire magnificent collage was inexplicably taken down.
BenCab honored us with a graphic print of a defiant “Kamao” or “Fist” which we featured as a centerfold poster on brown paper.
Early that year, the tragic news reached us that Lacaba, who had joined the NPA, had been gunned down in Mindanao. I retrieved my keepsakes that were his typewritten poems, including the now legendary “Open Letters to Filipino Artists,” and we featured several pages of his “Suite As Cycle” poetry, together with an early photo I took of him in close-up, reading a book.
Another bosom buddy in a small group of Ateneans that used to get together and stay overnight in his den, Tikoy Aguiluz, wrote about Mt. Banahaw, which he was filming a documentary about at that time. That group had included Lacaba and me, Freddie Salanga, and Linggoy Alcuaz. It was Aguiluz’s grandmother, who suspected us of indulging behind closed doors in something she called “hurrimanna,” that gave the early-70s café its name.
Editor-in-Chief Alfred “Krip” Yuson photographed by Wig Tysmans.
Soon we found better office quarters for ERMITA on a higher floor of the same Marietta Apartments. This time it had a capacious receiving room that ran the whole length of the unit, half of which had a sala set for visitors, and the other half a large dining table that also served as a catch-all for materials: photos and laid-out pages, etc.
There were two bedrooms. One served as editorial office space for Sylvia, Bimboy, and me—for office hours. By night, it was transformed into the nocturnal living quarters of our resident writer Cesar Ruiz Aquino or “Sawi,” who had come in from Dumaguete and didn’t have a place to stay. The arrangement was for him to have free quarters in return for a monthly essay plus editorial assistance.
Aquino’s series of essays, beginning with the classic “Proheme to Zamboanga,” became celebrated pieces for their brilliance—as memoir, fiction, meta-fiction, or whatever other cross-genre cyborg of exciting literature he could produce, including a chess interview-analysis played as moves with grandmasters from Eugene Torre to Boris Spassky.
The other bedroom was used by Yñiguez as his design studio, as well as his quarters with his partner, folk singer Evelie Horilleno. They kept a pet turtle that disappeared for weeks at a time, during which Evelie suspected Sawi of malevolent design and conduct against animal rights.
But the odd threesome was well-behaved whenever important guests came to discuss plans, or party with us after office hours. At the start, our daily visitor or hanger-out was Pepito Bosch of Pasay, who was to gain legendary status as the “Ermita Outlaw” who specialized in philosophy, metaphysics, booze and drugs, raconteurship, and an uncanny musical ability to step up and join a band onstage, unasked, and beat on the conga without his hands ever touching skin. Everyone soon learned how to chant with him, however.
Nick Joaquin and Franz Arcellana came by to finish all our beer and caterwaul into the night. Franz, my UP Humanities professor a decade earlier, and who would also be named National Artist for Literature, came up with his classic rejoinder to Joaquin’s booming verbal allegations: “It wasn’t me, it was Greg (Brillantes)!”
One day towards sundown, the US Embassy’s cultural affairs director Warren Obluck, who had early on acknowledged that he was much impressed with our publication, brought in the visiting American writer William Gaddis. I was ignorant of his cult status, until the much-better-read Sawi Aquino pointed out that his first two novels, The Recognitions and J R, though not commercially popular, were regarded by critics as works of genius.
We had a literary discussion for an hour or so at the sala of our ERMITA office, then met him again over dinner at a social where the poet Virginia R. Moreno, another Humanities professor of mine in UP Diliman in the late 60s, joined us at the table.
The friendship with Mr. Obluck eventually led to an invitation for me to attend the International Writing Program of poet-impresario Paul Engle in Iowa City in 1978, as a State Department Fellow.
Pepito Bosch hanging out at the Ermita office.
Our third-floor unit also had a balcony that overlooked Ma. Orosa St. An adjacent building protruded beyond ours, thus offering a large sidewall where we found we could project a slide show in the evenings. Street waifs and passers-by soon found themselves being treated to large images that ranged from exotic landcapes to architectural marvels to seductive portraits of women, sometimes scantily-clad, that had been featured, or would be, in ERMITA’s pages. Someone warned us of the possibility of a traffic accident, so we stopped the nightly ritual.
One afternoon, I took a break from work and popped in at Erewhon Bookstore to check out new titles. While browsing, I overheard a girl’s voice with a clipped British accent inquiring from the store clerk, “Is this for real?” Turning around, I saw her holding up a copy of ERMITA magazine. I couldn’t help but approach her, a well-dressed, smart-looking young lady. “Yes, we produce it,” I piped in, “and our office is just around the corner, in case you’d like to check out our reality.” She immediately assented, and we left the bookstore together.
After a few paces, as we turned the corner into Ma. Orosa Street, and even as we chatted preliminarily about the magazine that had caught her attention, I noticed that a number of burly men in polo-barongs were following us. A couple walked ahead, silently anticipating where we were going, while glancing backwards frequently. It began to dawn on me that the young lady I was escorting into the building, into the elevator and up to our office door, must be someone important. She did look like someone important, and vaguely familiar.
But it wasn’t until we walked into our ERMITA office, and I saw how my colleagues’ jaws dropped, that I slowly realized who she could be. True enough, when introductions were made, it was confirmed that she was Imee Marcos. She said she was visiting home, on vacation from her London schooling. She spent a very charming half an hour with us, regaled by our efforts to show her our materials for the next issue. And by engaging her in brisk socio-cultural chitchat. She insisted on paying for multiple copies of our back issues before she said goodbye.
Upon her exit, I had to face my colleagues with a sheepish grin. And I don’t think my shrug could be described as smug. A good thing that we made it a practice to stock up on air fresheners with which we sprayed the entire apartment every time we started work close to noon, for the benefit of prospective visitors who might mind the smell of smoke, especially of a distinct kind.
The First Daughter also came away with our business cards, while leaving hers. It wasn’t long before I got a call from her inviting our entire staff plus any interested friends for a private viewing of some French film at the Palace. She arranged easy access for us, about a dozen or so strong, and soon we found ourselves sprawling on the carpeted floor in some capacious hall where a screen had been set up on one end. We were fed with lots of pizza, too.
The friendship with Marcos led to other invites, for other film screenings and cultural events at the CCP, as well as a project that she herself initiated. At some point, she disclosed that she had shown ERMITA copies to her dad, who she recounted had nodded appreciatively as he went through them, then made a remark that more or less acknowledged our magazine’s creative quality, while expressing the admonition that we might be served better with more of Filipino aesthetic orientation in lieu of obvious Western influence.
Legendary writers Franz Arcellana and Nick Joaquin drop by the Ermita office for a drink.
Manila hosted the IMF conference that year. Imee asked if we could produce a special mini-issue, independent of our regular monthly, that would feature the IMF, including an interview with its head Robert McNamara that she herself eventually conducted and wrote up. We did produce the special folio, fast, with fewer pages than our usual 40 or so. It was distributed for free during the conference, and everyone seemed happy about it.
Boyu was particularly pleased, and we could imagine how he proudly showed it to his dad, Mr. Alfonso Yuchengco, who had been bankrolling the venture from the start. Now his son could claim that some income was generated by other than sales of our regular copies, which still suffered from a lack of advertising other than for RCBC and the rest of the burgeoning Yuchengco Group of Companies, those and a few radio stations, restaurants and entertainment venues.
Previous to that, the only time Boyu had reported positive comment from his taipan-dad was of a hearty affirmation of what was written in some article we published, about how the woman-superior position was most preferable.
When Yuchengco wrote a piece on his boyhood in Forbes Park, titled “Notes on the Neighborhood,” he had it credited to a pseudonym. Another important contribution he effected, for another issue, was a definitive piece on the conduct of tai chi, augmented with a well-laid-out series of photographs of the exercise phases as performed by Boyu’s own tai chi master.
Much of ERMITA’s appeal was credited to its visual design and layout, exceedingly well done by our art director, Boy Yñiguez (who went on to become a notable cinematographer), with photographs and illustrations given as much premium space as the text. Artists loved to contribute and see their works become so central in the presentation.
Boyñi’s design for the IMF special folio, while appearing to be more formalist, retained the elegant typefaces and contemporary look of our regular ERMITA issues.
Back to the affiliation with Imee Marcos, at some point she invited Sylvia and me to join her for an ASEAN Youth festival in Olot, Leyte, where we were lodged at the famous beach house built by her mother Imelda. I can’t recall now if we were supposed to cover the event, or if we ever did write about it, for ERMITA or elsewhere. It seems not. In any case, the friendship with her eventually led to my designation, a few years after ERMITA, as a member of the Film Ratings Board, after she established the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines.
A photograph for an in-house advertorial endorsing the merits of reading the magazine. The page, which also included beautiful women wearing the Ermita shirt, had a copy that read: “Men read Ermita, Women wear it.”
Another major international activity that transpired on that year was the filming of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. We had friends who served the production, so that there was some reportage on the filming, mostly in the Pagsanjan location.
At around this time, too, Peque Gallaga had joined us as a contributing writer, with a feature on his favorite cinematographer Conrado Baltazar. We also had authorities and personalities like the anthropologist David Baradas and businessman Jaime Zobel de Ayala contributing, at least to a forum-in-print billed as “Cityscape Citations.”
A run-away issue was one thematically devoted to the Year of the Dragon, with a resplendent color cover designed by Bose, and inside, archival images with notations as well as personal sketches of dragons, one of these by Bosch. Cited in that issue, among other notes of interest, was the fact that Bose’s father who had been a Baguio policeman, as well as Pepito and Boyu, were all born on the Dragon Year.
One issue reprinted, with permission, Joaquin’s essay “A Heritage of Smallness.” Another had a contribution from Davao-based poet-writer Jose Ayala, titled “Kulamin Kita.” A poem by Francis “Butch” Macansantos of Zamboanga-thence-Baguio drew the following comment from Joe Ayala’s better half, poet Tita Lacambra Ayala: “He’s daguerrotype.”
More than anything, it was that kind of exchange and crossbreeding (some said in-breeding) that proved priceless with the monthly venue that ERMITA provided everyone of kindred spirit—one of freshness, originality and innovation, of quaintness or outright weirdness, of everything but the commonplace, and even that if presented in a unique new way.
I wish I could recall more names among those that helped sustain us throughout ten issues. The 10th and last issue stands out since it’s the only one that wasn’t included in the thick compendium that was The First Nine. I’m not sure now how and why we even came up with the idea of binding together most of the remaining copies we had of those first nine issues. I suppose that just like the idea of coming up with t-shirts featuring the covers of certain issues, which also became collectibles, it was done as a lark and nothing but.
The photographer Wig Tysmans was among the publication’s highly creative visitors in its Marietta Apartments headquarters. The office had a receiving room, and two bedrooms: one served as a workspace for the editors, the other the design studio.
After the 10th issue, ERMITA folded up. No one was rendered aghast by the fact that financing couldn’t be kept up. It was a year-long gig that everyone had enjoyed and came away from with an infinitude of good memories.
We had provided a comfort zone for everyone seeking relief from the mundane, for a touch of irreverence and fun, for quality sharing of poetry, stories, anecdotes, memoirs, fables, art, music and film reviews, outrageous reportage, occult tales, astrology, astronomy, martial arts, sexual expertise, eroticism, surrealism, heroism, myths, academic papers, psychedelia, why, even snippets of subversion in the subtlest way.
The times needed ERMITA. They met at some streetcorner during Martial Law, recognized one another and said hello, shook hands, and traipsed arm in arm a long ways together, revelling in newfound familiarity.
From St. Joseph’s Guesthouse in Sagada to the 3rd Floor of Marietta Apartments on M. Orosa St. in Ermita, that trippy trek together proved to be a joyous engagement of discovery. It had to be brief, before it became old and tiresome. Just like a riproaring rock ‘n’ roll party.