Nick Joaquin Was Among the Madmen of Martial Law’s Most Dangerous Café

Elvira Araneta recalls the glory days of an unrivaled asylum from respectable society

by Rogue

The Café Los Indios Bravos was the epicenter of pre-Martial Law bohemia that gave breathing room to the artists, diplomats, and revolutionaries suffocated by the strictures of 1960s Manila. Elvira Araneta recalls the glory days of an unrivaled asylum from respectable society.



Café Los Indios Bravos. To those of the younger generation who have only heard stories, it carries an almost mythical cachet, suggestive of bohemian behavior, creative ferment, subversive notions, and revolutionary passion. To its denizens, Indios Bravos was a cultural oasis in a social desert, a haven where laissez-faire and tolerance ruled, original ideas blossomed, and visions were brought to fruition. And it all emanated from an intelligent, avant-garde, free spirit named Beatriz “Betsy” Romualdez.

It was 1965. Twenty-two-year-old bohemian Romualdez, back from the broader horizons of New York and Cambridge, England was feeling stifled by Manila’s parochialism and semi-feudal attitudes. In rebellion against societal strictures, she sought a spot where she could be free and genuine to herself. A fount of creative energy, she took it upon herself to not only seek but to create such a space.

Her first attempt materialized in the form of the Black Angel. In a pre-war house in Mandaluyong that looked like a Southern plantation house in the US, she put up the first discothèque in the Philippines, where she and her chums stomped to music of the Rolling Stones, The Beatles, The Byrds, and other 60s music icons spun by a young Ishmael Bernal. The nightclub was wildly successful, and was even cited by New York’s Esquire magazine. Perhaps too successful. Gun violence perpetrated by some clients led to its shutting down, and Romualdez later left for a New York sabbatical.

When she returned, she longed for a center where stimulating discourse could be found, something she’d experienced in the cafés of New York and Paris. Not one to rest on faded glory, her brain cogs churned. She had some property in Malate where she decided to put up such a bistro. What to name it though? A historian uncle suggested “Indios Bravos.” It was the name adopted by Jose Rizal and his group of émigré Filipino nationalists living in Europe at the turn of the 19th century. The aspirations of these Indios Bravos resonated with Romualdez’s own quest for freedom and authenticity, and so Café Los Indios Bravos was born.

Romualdez tried to evoke the ambience of a turn-of-the-century salon, the type in which Rizal and Juan Luna would hang out in the 1890s. She used stained glass windows, antiques, and tables and chairs of bent wood in the mode popularized by Viennese furniture maker Michael Thonet and fashionable in Europe during the mid-to-late 1800s. A Tiffany lamp hung over the long main table that stretched across the center of the room. The antique-like decor remained a constant in the main area, but contemporary features would later be added in the recesses of Indios. Artist Pandy Aviado remembers one room in which Indio denizens fluoresced under a black light; another room had bodies pulsating under its strobe lights. There was a Red Room upstairs for those looking for some privacy. Betsy brought in an old family retainer and served comfort food such as calamares en su tinta with garlic fried rice, pochero, chicken liver adobo, cannelloni, lamb chops with mint jelly, chocolate with pinipig, and tsokolate with pan de sal and kesong puti.

Although she had at this time only partially fulfilled the myriad roles that she would fill later on—poet, journalist, biographer, playwright, composer, furniture designer, flutist, artist, sculptor, clothing designer, activist, and more—Romualdez was already a leading light in the Manila cultural scene. “When Betsy came back from abroad in the early 60s, being a writer, she naturally drifted towards UP and where the writers hang around: the UP Listening Centre, set up by Virginia ‘Virgie’ Moreno as headquarters for members of the UP Writers Club,” says expatriate artist and writer Jun Terra. “That was where we met this gentle, soft-spoken girl with dreamy eyes who was cultured, well-read, and spoke French. She was an instant hit among us young writers.”

Having followed Romualdez to Black Angel, her UP friends now followed her to Indios Bravos, assisting her during its building, furnishing, and inauguration. Along with her UP friends, Romualdez’s group had grown to include Ben Cabrera (as BenCab was still called then), cinematographer Romy Vitug, writers Sylvia Mayuga and Bibsy Carballo, and cartoonist Nonoy Marcelo. But they weren’t the only ones who followed. Apparently strait-laced, stratified Manila society was restless. The respectable, repressed bourgeoisie was poised for new directions. “Indios was immediately embraced by Manila’s artists, writers, musicians, and open-minded businessmen and women,” recalls musician-architect Ramon Faustmann, who soon became one of Indios’s habitués along with his brother Tato. It helped that right next door Carballo and Ben and Badong Cabrera put up the Indigo Art Gallery, and down the road Aix-en-Provence-educated Ishmael Bernal, who was Black Angel’s disc jockey, had set up his coffee shop, When It’s a Grey November in my Soul. The area became a cultural hive.

At the table d’honneur, which could sit 16 people, Romualdez usually occupied one end, Moreno the other, and in between one might find poet José Garcia Villa (when he was in town), novelist Nick Joaquin, US Ambassador William Blair, poet Larry Francia, artist Hernando R. Ocampo, print master Maning Rodriguez, art critic Leo Benesa, and other notable personages. “Villa or Nick Joaquin would preside at the center table and keep the rest of us in fits of laughter,” Romualdez recalls. In Indios, waves of laughter often traveled from one table to the other.

The music repertoire ranged from Vivaldi, Edith Piaf, Carole King, Dave Brubeck, Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles, avant-garde, tribal, jazz. Peter Plontsky, Henry Francia’s genius musician friend from New York, played the entire history of jazz one night. On another evening, Kuku Grewal, son of the Sikh Temple High Priest, played his tablas, echoing its sounds with his surreal voice, while Pakistani diplomat Mukhtar strummed the sitar and American vet Mac whispered into his flute. On other nights, wild rock would be blasted by the likes of Pepe Smith, Bing Labrador, Alex Cruz, and Edmund Fortuno.

Indios was a watering hole for artists of all disciplines—painters, sculptors, novelists, poets, journalists, art critics, photographers, filmmakers, actors, directors, dancers, musicians. They came to discuss work, plan projects, catch up on what was current. “Indios became the headquarters of my closest friends in media and the arts, and a darn good listening post for whatever was happening in Manila and the world,” Mayuga says. “It was a live Facebook.”

Excerpted from “Fear and Loathing in Los Indios Bravos” by Elvira Araneta, published in Rogue’s 2015 Art Issue. Read the full story in the issue, now on sale in newsstands, bookstores, and for the digital edition.