‘Legends’ about my tito Chito Cool

Priceless moments with the uncle who was a student activist, went on exile in China, became a veteran journalist, and finally became the Philippine ambassador to China

Chito Sta. Romana with son Chris in 2020 at El Nido 2020 (Photo from Sta. Romana family)

This eulogy was delivered by the author on the 8th day novena for his uncle, Chito Sta. Romana, a veteran journalist who was ambassador to the People’s Republic of China until his death on April 18, 2022. It is published here with his permission.—Editor

Good evening, beloved friends, family and colleagues of Tito Chito. As I mentioned earlier this week in a Facebook group set up to remember my uncle, despite all the stories shared over the past few weeks, it’s still difficult to find the words to encapsulate our loss. There are so many treasured memories of my uncle. Who was ever vibrant, kind-hearted, and damn cool.

Growing up in our particular branch of the colossal Sta. Romana family tree, we found it inevitable to be aware, even if only peripherally, of the many near-mythic figures and stories going around, overhearing snippets from down at the “adult side” of the table during countless reunions and gatherings. None more mythic than the uncle who got exiled in China. I’m extremely grateful for all the stories generously shared the past week that have filled in the blanks. But for nephews and nieces such as Tanya, Aina, Victor and myself, we have our own myths and legends that will be retold time and again. Legends of the Tito Chito Cool.

Sta. Romana with sister Neni during a fun family reunion

It was indeed standing on the shoulder of giants, another inevitability in my family, securing my vision of my country’s past, and what one must do for what one believes. I always tell people, especially my students, how fighting for our country by any means necessary, courses through my veins—leading me, of course, to join one notably precarious protest rally/mañanita at UP at the height of the pandemic. My mother, ever the graceful one, said, “What if you get apprehended? We won’t be able to bail you out.” I immediately replied, “What are you talking about? If anything happens, I’m calling Tito Chito.” Mere minutes later, Tito Chito sent word of the specific official I should contact in Quezon City, and followed up by telling my mom, “Good for him.”

For a second, I felt I did him proud, even doing just a tiny part compared to what he did. But that’s how cool he was: never arrogant or boastful, always making sure the kind of resistance, love, guidance, expected of him, by his country and his family, was always purposeful, tangible, never frivolous or abstract.

I found and would keep his many Maoist pamphlets and booklets… I was still trying to reconcile the man with the myth

It wasn’t the type of cool I was in the middle of hastily assembling when this exiled uncle finally came home and would regularly show up at Sunday family gatherings, suddenly humanized before my eyes, and I, with my Gen X deviant haircuts, piercings and gradually exposed tattoos, trying to be cool. He would never flinch, just look at me with the same transcendently affirming smile we all know, as if saying, “Oh you’re a rebel? How cute. Just do your thing kid, you’ll find your way soon.” But he was never condescending at all. Back then I never told him or my mom that while regularly rummaging through my parents’ vast library, a vital part of my education, I found and would keep his many Maoist pamphlets and booklets, well used and read as evident from the roughened pages and covers, his name signed on each one. I was still trying to reconcile the man with the myth.

Over the years he became more of Papa Cheeto to us (as Tanya’s Triple D coined), rivaling family stylist extraordinaire and culture expert, Aina, in knowing all the hip places, clad in his colorful stylish barongs and polo shirts, and his dark sunglasses. He never bragged about his many achievements, or his vast knowledge, always downplaying his role, always making you feel what you were saying was most important and vital at the moment—generously giving advice on Aina’s career, encouraging me when I got into sports journalism, calling it “stream of consciousness sports writing,” which I knew was a euphemism for “a bit sloppy.” But I took it as a badge of honor, given the trademark encouraging manner in which he said it. Because he was cool like that.

He reminded me to always look at all sides of the truth, then the gray areas would emerge more clearly

Recent photo of Sta. Romana with sons Norman and Christopher

I would always seek him out, with all my anger and frustration and anxiety especially towards the end of 2015 when history was being revised right before all our eyes. I would often bump into him at Fully Booked High Street which we each frequented, or after Sunday gatherings, and start pleading for some clarity, or answer, or even any semblance of the anger I was feeling. But he would always just look at me with that smile, explaining his optimistic perspective, talking to me as if we were equals, and not the confused rebel-wannabe that I was. Even optimistically he reminded me during our last shared trip in 2020 when Filipino lives were being engulfed by all sorts of propaganda, while the young ones were island-hopping and I was old and relaxed enough to be left with the breakfast buffet-loungers, to always look at all sides of the truth, then the gray areas would emerge more clearly. That unflappable optimism I envied so much which makes Obi-Wan Kenobi just seem like an angry boomer.

That damn smile, that damn coolness, that calm strut and stride, whether along the streets of BGC or the many beaches on family trips we’ve shared—as if knowing some secret the rest of us were only still scratching the surface of, of what truly made the world and history run its course, of how love for family and what one believed in all just melded in harmony, so easily, so smoothly, never a burden, but a gift and an honor. Always a privilege.

I’d continually have to coax him for stories about the First Quarter Storm, as he would routinely downplay his role, always emphasizing there were many others who fought and sacrificed more. So aside from what happened in Acacia Lane the night Martial Law was declared, a story oft-repeated over Sunday lunches, during one December gathering in Tahanan I was able to make him tell the story of how he met Tita Nancy, who it turned out, was a courier, bringing him a new pair of glasses while in exile. And Tita Nancy blushing and giddy, shared how at the time she wanted to leave her comfort zone and engage in activism herself. A love story for the ages. Just making him much cooler.

But of course, the more time we spent with him as he settled into retirement, there would always be a point during lunches and dinners when he, my mom and Tito Nelin would huddle at their end of the table to talk about Sta. Romana affairs. That was most sacred. Whatever was going on in the country, the state of family affairs would never take a backseat. We are Sta. Romanas, after all. As Chris and Aina can attest, that Viber group is more active than all the group chats for my high school classes combined. Way busier, but certainly much more delightful, than NDRRMC SMS alerts during typhoon season.

From FB Remembering Chito Sta. Romana

From FB Remembering Chito Sta. Romana

I would always steal time, so he and I could talk about important pop culture matters (comparing the level of violence in Quentin Tarantino movies post- and pre-Django Unchained, the unpredictable fortunes of the DLSU men’s UAAP basketball team, Jon Stewart vs. Stephen Colbert, Salman Rushdie’s fatwa) with the same focus and joy when he’d talk about politics and history with my dad and Tito Nelin. We ended up watching many DLSU games together, even volleyball games and pre-season games in smaller arenas, rushing to our seats just to watch the warm-ups especially against Ateneo. There is a family myth going around, repeated as often, or maybe even more, as stories of arrests and exiles, that back in 2008 we both heckled a player from the opposing team (not from Ateneo so please relax, friends from the hill) inbounding the ball right in front of us, (Tito Chito, my dad, Tito Boying and I) getting a glare in response, seconds before a DLSU comeback and eventual win. I have to dispel even just this particular revision of history, as I was the one who did the heckling. Ever the diplomat, even before he was ambassador, he was just sitting beside me laughing gleefully. But I must say he was obviously relishing it the most.

Papa Cheeto would be the first clapping his hands and bobbing his head to the beat, whether it was covers of the Beatles or The Clash

One of the last times we gathered in Tahanan, and were able to convince younger relatives to perform, a tradition both archaic and refreshing, Papa Cheeto would be the first clapping his hands and bobbing his head to the beat, whether it was covers of the Beatles or The Clash being played. But of course, he had that special twinkle in his eyes, that extra bob in his head, whenever Chris would perform. Undeniably, Papa Cheeto could rock out, and was always game for Aina’s Kardashian-esque color schemes for family photo shoots, or putting on silly hats from my days as a professional children’s storyteller, even always taking time for all the Zoom productions/slash family celebrations over the past two years masterfully orchestrated by Aina. Because that’s just how cool he was.

With siblings Neni and Nelin

That last time we gathered a little over a month ago at Serendra (my parents, Aina, Chris and his girlfriend Charms, me introducing the three elders to her as “troublemakers”), he was in top form, looking forward to stepping down. I teased him about why he wasn’t running for senator and he laughed it off. I guess I should have aimed at a higher office. He hadn’t lost an ounce of coolness, or optimism, or warmth. Diplomatically we “fought” over the Milky Way hito we were both enjoying the most, laughing at how I fumbled Aina’s instructions (which for well-prepared Sta. Romana mini-reunion meals were always at IATF protocol-levels of complexity, only with so much more efficiency and purpose) on how to put together halo-halo ingredients which he had done so much more deftly, sharing stories again, only after being urged, about well-needed trouble he stirred up at La Salle back in the day, then shifting the focus to other leaders and activists. He was eagerly asking me about the DLSU basketball recruits, and I was convincing him to watch live games with me again—in between dispensing sage advice and encouraging Aina, and catching up with my mom and dad on both global and the family’s state of affairs. All with the same attention and focus. Making you genuinely feel that each one of those things was of equal importance. Maybe that was the secret to the Chito Cool.

From FB Remembering Chito Sta. Romana

I’ve had this constant image of him the past week, during one of our trips to a beautiful beach every December to celebrate New Year’s together. After dinner, after all the chatting and catching up was done for the day, he’d pull up Tita Nancy, or Chris or Norman, or all three, to take a long stroll with him along the shore. Then he’d look back at me, with that Papa Cheeto smile, enjoying the secret of which, I’d like to believe, we’ve all gotten small glimpses more and more the past week, as if telling me, while embodying a literary uncle of sorts, “Stop this day and night with me and know the origin of all poems…I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun, I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags. I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love. If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles. You will hardly know who I am or what I mean, But I shall be good health to you nevertheless, And filter and fibre your blood. Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged, Missing me one place search another, I stop somewhere waiting for you.”

From FB Remembering Chito Sta. Romana

Our generation will always be richer, armed with our own version of the “Back in my day” spiel whenever we encounter a youngster feeling lost and overwhelmed by life, which will inevitably, rightfully, start with the words “Let me tell you about my uncle who was exiled…”

So Tanya, Aina, Chris, Norman and Victor, and I look forward to one day resuming our gatherings, Sunday meals, or out-of-town trips to the sea, now with our own families, passing down these stories, securing the next generation’s vision of its history and its roots—stories of what love for family and country really means, of how even going on exile can and should be a means, not an end. Then hopefully we’d become even half as cool as Papa Cheeto was.

Then he would definitely turn to us, laughing, embarrassed, saying having us around was enough, his rowdy, persistent, strong-minded sons, nieces and nephews, and how playing our respective roles to the hilt was equally essential, ensuring history runs its proper course—whether we be educators, marketing executives, entrepreneurs, tech industry experts, musicians, pillars of our own families. And with his trademark humility, warmth and kindheartedness, he’d also remind us that just being present in any way you can to always fortify familial bonds—that, after all, is what made someone truly cool.

The author (far right) with his parents Neni and Elfren Cruz,  uncle Chito (second from left)  and cousin Chris

About author


Roel Sta. Romana Cruz teaches 12th grade Literature at the La Salle Green Hills Alternative Education Department, and is a writing mentor for Write Things, a creative writing center he co-founded with his mother Neni Sta. Romana Cruz and sister Aina. He occasionally writes fiction which has been published in the Philippine Graphic and Philippine Free Press.

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