A Tribute to Morayta’s Pen Guru

by ARCHIE CASILAN ©

(Editor’s Note: This article was published by the Philippine Star, Lifestyle, the Arts and Culture, Monday June 13, 2005.)

If only those who passed away could come back (even for a brief moment) to the world of the living, I am dead sure that Jess would pay me a visit to object to this requiem. Or most likely, he would give me a friendly smack on the nape. During the wake of Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero years ago, he got irked listening to the endless praises and honors being bestowed upon the renowned Filipino playwright by politicians, peers and colleagues. Jess was adamant because he knew when Wilfrido was still alive only a few extended a helping hand during the artist’s times of needs. But Jess’ exemplary life and works cannot be left untold and remain within the four corners of the academic institution where he taught for over four decades.

Jesus Cruz was the cigarette-puffing pen guru whose beacon of inspiration shone brightly among the Morayta circle of writers. Though a fiction writer in his own right, a Palanca awardee for short story in the ‘60s, Jess — as he is fondly known among his peers — abandoned the path of prose and committed his life to teaching. On the side, he wrote reviews on music and the performing arts for the Philippine STAR. Like a prophet, he waged a lonely battle, at times, metaphorically crying alone in the wilderness, just to smoothen the path of the new breed of writers emerging from the rugged alleys of the university-belt area. For almost half a century, he mesmerized, with his distinct Zen-like style of class lectures, throngs of students who dreamed of becoming poets and prose weavers. Always an optimist, he built on the strengths of an aspiring writer rather than dwelled on his weaknesses.

With chocolate brown walls, Jess’ small flat along Recto Ave. (just a stone’s throw away from Far Eastern University where he taught, touched and changed lives of many youth, drifters and dreamers) became the watering hole for writers and poets who attended his class. In fact, whenever his birthday came around on the first day of June, his place turned into a reunion venue for all of his students from the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s ‘90s and up the present. So amiable was his persona that his influence over us went beyond the realm of paper and pen.

Even after our college years, we often found refuge at his home whenever we had problems. When someone got pregnant without the benefit of marriage. When someone’s parent died. When one was worn-out and sick of being a pencil pusher. When a writer was about to put down his pen for good. When one could not cope with the painful bites of realities Jess would simply listen and serve us with a cold soda as music from either a Placido Domingo or a Luciano Pavarotti CD escaped from the speakers.

This trick always worked for us. If we were George Lucas’ council of Jedi, he was the ever cool Yoda. He had this gift of making us think clearly before we could do anything stupid. His conscience, like the Star Wars’ Jedi master never flirted with the Force of the Dark Side. Until the end, it remained pure and uncompromising Jess would never pass judgment on anyone. He would just make one realize the impact and consequences of what one had done.

As chairman of FEU’s President’s Committee on Culture, he introduced Transition the university’s literary Journal that opened the flood gates for many aspiring poets and writers. I dare say that this publication remains unparalleled compared to its counterparts in terms of substance and form. Through his projects, he gave us a fighting chance to write like the masters when he sponsored several, workshops and forums, which featured Nick Joaquin, Bienvenido Santos, Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero, Krip Yuson, Gemino Abad, Jose Dalisav, A.Z. Jolicco  Cuadra, and other Literary giants of modern Philippine literature.

Jess Cruz’s first and only collection of short stories, which included the award-winning “Cloudburst” was only published late in the ‘90s by Ateneo University Press. Strange, but it took the relentless effort of Atenean writer and poet Danton Remoto to recognize Cruz’s contribution to modern Philippine literature.

Since he began teaching, Jess was surrounded by students who cared to learn the sullen craft of writing. But it was not only writing that we learned from him. We learned to celebrate life. Here was a, man who redefined life not as a rat race for fortune or career but a slow journey in search of a purpose. He found his purpose whenever one of us gets his work published. Fate had not destined him to be rich. Yet with his meager income, he would still set aside some portion of his salary so some of us could accompany him to stage plays, poetry readings, book launchings, ballet presentations, operas or simply a good film on Thursdays nights at SM Centerpoint. Jess offered us an alternative form of entertainment, a departure from the prevailing underground and grunge music of the early ‘90s. In the process, we developed our taste for aesthetics.

Impeccable wit and sense of humor had been Jess’ most potent armor and shield in life. Once, when I was still working for an eccentric Filipino conductor as a public relations writer, Jess wrote a truthful review about the performance of my boss’ orchestra. Unhappy with the article, the conductor, also a brilliant writer, penned an acerbic and libelous letter attacking the critic’s personal attributes and virtues, and circulated it in various universities, also sending it to newspaper editors. My previous boss even challenged Jess to a public debate about music. Instead of going to a court to get justice, and knowing that the pen is mightier than the sword, Jess wrote a tongue-in-cheek response on his column about the conductor’s allegations point by point to further infuriate the renowned baton master.

Another classic case of Jess’ mischievous wit was when he was first rushed to the Philippine Heart Center years ago when he suffered his first stroke. Technology spread the news faster than the speed of light. We immediately proceeded to the hospital as soon as he was transferred to his room. Our batch made sure that we were there when he opened his eyes. Upon his first glimpse of light and vision our faces appeared to assure him that everything would be alright. For a moment, he just stared at us before blurting out with his baritone voice, “Who are you, people?” We were alarmed by his question, but after a minute or two, his mischievous grin gave him away. Even on the brink of death, he was a good prankster.

With all honesty, Jess belonged to the golden era of poets and writers. This was the time when television, computers and pop culture had not yet tampered man’s ability to think creatively. And I don’t think a genius like him would come around again in my lifetime. Maybe, Jess was FEU’s Renaissance man. He was a poet, a writer, a painter, a teacher, a body builder (when he was younger), a lover of the arts, a critic, a pianist, a mentor, a brother in pen and a true friend. I just hope that the gods and muses at FEU where he served as a loyal soldier of the arts would name a creative writing center after him. It is the only way the next generation of green and gold writers would remember the legacy he left behind. ©

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