What it is like

MY TURN - Gemma Cruz-Araneta (The Philippine Star) - July 15, 2018 - 12:00am

More than half a century ago, I won the Miss International beauty pageant in Long Beach, California and became the first Filipina to bring home the coveted crown. Since then life has never been the same.   

What is it like?” People who think my life has been an exciting sequence of romance and adventure often ask me that question. They want to know how it feels to be in the public eye, subject to scrutiny, the object of adulation. More than half a century ago, I won the Miss International beauty pageant in Long Beach, California and became the first Filipina to bring home the coveted crown. Since then life has never been the same again.   

Let me dredge up some things from my memory file: in 1968, after coming home from a clandestine trip to North Vietnam, I was summoned to Malacañang, for a scolding I was sure, because we had no diplomatic relations with communist countries.  Instead, President Ferdinand Marcos announced he had to make changes in the “arteriosclerotic government” so he was appointing me as director of the National Museum. He expected me to “pierce the consciousness of the youth” and make them proud of Philippine culture. I was flattered; instead of resting on my laurels, I was given an opportunity to put the beauty title to good use.

However, the appointment was a great leap over the heads of career scientists and academics who had dedicated their lives to the institution; they must have felt like impeaching me, but quo warranto had not been invented yet. I had worked at the National Museum straight from college, starting as a humble “casual” in the Division of Archeology and Anthropology, after which I was promoted to information editor, when I passed the Civil Service exams with flying colors. However, I resigned in 1964 after I won the Miss International title. I became the object of adulation, was lionized wherever I went, so it was quite impossible to go back to work.

That presidential appointment pushed me back to center stage when I was already happily married to Antonio Araneta with a first child, Fatimah, barely two years old. My former boss, the eminent surrealist painter Galo Ocampo, was deeply wounded when he was unceremoniously replaced by an underling; he blamed me for conniving to steal his position. I later learned, to my horror, that it was Mrs. Marcos who had plotted the downfall of poor Galo, to punish and humiliate him for an imagined slight.

Modesty aside, with a beauty queen at the helm, the National Museum, despite its decrepit surroundings, attracted busloads of students from Manila and environs. After going through the exhibits, I was always asked to pose for pictures with students and teachers who revealed that they had come to see me; I felt like one of the artifacts on display, but the glare of publicity was just what the museum needed. 

One fine day, an elderly, white-haired European-looking gentleman, suave in linen slacks and a casual shirt, was ushered into the director’s office. He stood in front of my huge narra desk and demanded to see the director of the National Museum. “ I am the director,” I said, extending a welcoming hand, which he warmly clasped, then he literally rolled with laughter. When he caught his breath, he said apologetically: “The joke is on me, Madame. My friend (he mentioned the name of a previous visitor) who was here last month told me that when I am in Manila I must not fail to call on the museum director, who is a nice old gentleman and a good friend of his.” We both laughed at the joke; I was barely 26 then, the youngest ever National Museum director.

A decade later, when I fled to Mexico with my children, (after being “invited” to Camp Aguinaldo for questioning), I landed a dream job as a researcher at the Third World Economic and Social Studies Center, a think-tank of sorts established by a polemical former president, Luis Echeverria. I applied for the position, like everyone else, and was hired on the basis of my academic record. My immediate boss was Adolfo Aguilar, an affable young bachelor, a latter-day creole ilustrado who had a doctorate in international relations. A few weeks after I signed the contract, he left for Southeast Asia and Manila was in his itinerary. When he returned, Adolfo had a hilarious story about me, which he loved to tell during cocktails and dinner parties.

Adolfo said that he took an airport taxi to the hotel and, just for fun, he asked the taxi driver if he knew Gemma Cruz Araneta. He was so sure the answer would be “No, never heard of her, who is she?” Adolfo had planned to tease me about my being totally unknown in my own country. To his great surprise, the first taxi driver said, “Yes, I know who Gemma Cruz Araneta is.” The second, third and every other taxi driver also said they had heard of me. They told him about my being the first Filipina to win an international beauty title, that they were proud of me; two of them said I was a descendant of national hero Jose Rizal, and one knew that I was living in Mexico.  As it turned out, the joke was on him; Adolfo was so overwhelmed by my fame, he ended up bragging that he was my boss in Mexico.  That was in 1978.  A year ago, when I boarded a taxi in Salcedo Village in Makati, the driver asked where I was from; he thought I was a foreigner.

In the 1990s, before I returned to the land of my birth, I had dinner with a Mexican family who had just taken a Mediterranean cruise. They noticed that most of the hospitality staff were Filipinos, so during the first formal dinner on board they asked a waiter if he knew Gemma Cruz Araneta. Yes, he did and so did the others; they knew all about my being Miss International, the first Filipina to win, etc., etc. When my Mexican friends announced that I was practically family, they were pampered with the most solicitous and cheerful service during the entire cruise. “Why didn’t you warn us about your being so famous?” they exclaimed. They thanked me profusely for the special attention they got from my paisanos.

Back in Manila in the 1990s, I went to the GSIS Museum in the bay area and while admiring a fine collection of Amorsolos, a young lady guide in her 20s told me that I should join “one of the beauty contests” because of my height. “I am sure you will win,” she said with an encouraging smile. I was 47 by then so I thanked her for that rather ironic compliment.

I was back on the radar again when I served as Secretary of Tourism from 1998 to January 2001. During my trips to the provinces searching for new tourism destinations and attending regional meetings, I must have posed for hundreds of thousands of photos, and that was before the iPhone and selfie phenomena.  I met many tocayas or namesakes, Gemmas who declared their mothers held me in such high esteem that they had been named after me. They were amazed at how tall I am, even in flat shoes. I encountered a lot of adolescents, young enough to be my children, who would happily say that they had heard their parents, aunts and uncles talk about me. “Oh, so you are THE Gemma,” a statement followed by requests to pose for pictures with them, to show their parents and relatives. I dreaded the day when I would hear, “My grandparents know you!”

Well, that did happen eventually, around 2010, when I was working for Mayor Alfredo Lim of Manila. President Noynoy Aquino had formed a Private Public Partnership (PPP) team and I would represent the Manila Mayor at meetings held in the Department of Finance. The PPP project on the drawing board was the Manila Post Office, which was about to be taken over by the Fullerton Hotel of Singapore. There was a young lawyer in charge of consolidating all the land titles in the area of Liwasang Bonifacio (formerly Plaza Lawton) and he told me,  “Mrs. Araneta, last night my lolo said that he knows you.” His venerable grandfather was a cousin of my best friend in high school.

I feel it is my duty never to disappoint the mothers and fathers who named their daughters after me, the uncles and aunts who spoke highly of me and, the grandfathers who still remember that euphoric moment of victory in August 1964. In the beginning, I could feel a rippling unease as my life became a matter of public interest, bereft of privacy, the object of fake news. But that is a minor inconvenience compared to the good that can be achieved through a crown. Public adulation can bolster one’s advocacies and the limelight opens many doors. It can be very demanding to manage the ravages of time, to keep the “fighting form” that brought one fame and glory. It has been more than half a century, and I have learned to live with it and, yes, to like it.

*  *  *

Editor’s note: Thanks to Emil Yap and Jun Icban of Manila Bulletin for allowing Gemma Cruz-Araneta to be our guest columnist today.

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