Learning from Gemma

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ASPIRING journalists have many things to learn from the experiences and words of wisdom of Gemma Cruz-Araneta, not only as a writer but as a public servant, and a beauty queen as well.

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Cruz-Araneta, who chairs the non-profit Heritage Conservation Society, regaled students of mass communications, journalism, and English from various universities with stories of the challenges she faced in covering the Vietnam War in the late ‘60s.

Although she is not a graduate of a journalism course, it was fitting to have her as a third lecturer in The Manila Times College Lecture Series on Journalism last Friday, given her fascinating experiences as a writer. Writing and the arts run in her blood, being a daughter of respected writer and historian Carmen Guerrero-Nakpil.

She used to write stories for The Sunday Times, the weekend edition of The Manila Times. She now writes a column for The Manila Bulletin.

“Journalists have to read, read and read. Know grammar rules. Be a master of one language. Know your history. Read classic literature.” She kept repeating these messages to her audience, drawing from her experiences that honed her journalistic skills and discipline.

A great grandniece of Philippine national hero Dr. Jose Rizal, Cruz-Araneta chronicled her account of the Vietnam War as a 25-year old in 1968, in a book entitled Hanoi Diary. The 148-page book was digitized in 2008. On the 67th national day of Vietnam in 2012, Hanoi Diary’s second edition was printed for young Vietnamese to learn about what their parents went through during the war.

The 1964 Miss International, who still looks stunning and far younger than her 72, encouraged students to “know your history, know your current events.” Her penchant for reading history books and current events won her that beauty title in Long Beach, California, she said.

She recalled that she did not really like to join a beauty contest, but two of her friends submitted her name to the organizers and it was too late to back out when she found out about it. Her family had no choice but to support her. She was barely out of her teens when she became the first Filipina and first Asian to capture the international pageant crown.

Bringing home the crown was far from her expectations until she made her mark in the Question and Answer portion. “That year, there was this Vietnam War [which hogged the headlines until the early 1970s]. I told them that I had feared I wouldn’t be able to make it to the pageant. ‘Why?’ they asked. I told them there was this war in Vietnam. And they all nodded.” Reading current events and history served her well even at a beauty pageant, she told the students.

“How can you write about your country if you don’t know its history?” she pointed out. “Don’t read too much fiction. You need background materials. History is more exciting than fiction.”

“Don’t just read things like how to lose weight, or what to do when you lose your boyfriend. Read literature, classic literature,” she added.

Cruz-Araneta holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Foreign Service from Maryknoll College (now Miriam College). She worked as information writer and chief docent at the National Museum, later becoming its director.

To get the students to participate in the discussion, Cruz-Araneta turned the tables and asked her audience about their opinion on the much-criticized interview of Karen Davila with Alma Moreno. One of the students said Davila only did her job of asking questions, which were not even difficult to answer, but Moreno came unprepared for the interview.

“Why are you taking up journalism?” she asked. When nobody stood up to reply, she told them: “Journalists couldn’t be shy…dapat curious ka, matanong. Dapat alam mo ang grammar. Paano ka magsusulat kung hindi mo alam ang tamang grammar? [You should be curious, inquisitive. You should have a good grasp of the English grammar. How would you turn in good reports if your grammar is lousy?”]

She urged the students to make reading the news a habit. “You should be aware of what’s happening around you. You have to read, read and read. And you have to know how to write well.”

She, likewise, stressed the importance of fact-checking and verifying information to make sure that what they pass on to the readers is accurate.

Asked about her take on the statement of President Benigno Aquino 3rd that the tanim-bala issue was being sensationalized, Cruz-Araneta said that, in general, she noticed a tendency of the local media to sensationalize news to attract readers’ attention.

“There’s a degree of sensationalism and repetition,” she said. “I think President Aquino should be careful [in making such sweeping statements]because the media is sensitive. [But] maybe he was just being candid.”

She shared with her audience her observation that toward the end of a President’s term, there always seems to be a new intrigue or scandal that emerges involving the outgoing leader. “Bakit at the end of a presidential term kailangan may gulo? [Why should there be trouble abrewing round him?”]

Having been tourism secretary under the Estrada presidency, Cruz-Araneta lamented that political tirades have become “very rude, very impolite.”

When martial law was imposed in 1972, she went to Mexico where she lived for 18 years. While there, she took up Masters in International Relations at the Mexican State University, worked for a presidential think tank – the Third World Studies Center – and the United Nations Development Program.

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