Reading and Such

They don’t make ‘em like Abe anymore

Jullie Yap Daza learned that ‘the best fried chicken comes out of the kitchen of a motel’—new book’s ‘juicy morsels of art and history’ on the life of Emilio Aguilar Cruz

Emilio Aguilar Cruz, also known as Abe Cruz (after whom the famous restaurant Abe was named) or E.Aguilar Cruz, in his younger years: He was newspaperman, literary writer, translator, painter, gourmet, diplomat, raconteur, bon vivant, gadabout—and more!

Woman Undressing by E. Aguilar Cruz (contributed photo)


Book Haul by Cecil Robin Singalaoa, watercolor on cotton rag paper, 2020, 4×6 inches

Emilio Aguilar Cruz was a man after my own heart. To this day I wonder why he escaped my radar during a long life steeped in the arts and letters, not to forget food. I half envy the parents of historian Ambeth Ocampo, who practically begged their fellow cabalen Abe “to take the young Ocampo under his wing.” Thus did writer Therese Cruz, Abe’s daughter, recall Ocampo’s entry into and frequent presence in their lives.

Another name bound for glory, who slept on the Cruz sofa and was Abe’s breakfast, dinner, and daytime (they worked in the same newspaper) companion, was the late Nonoy Marcelo. Apparently, the cartoonist took a liking to the Cruz family library, which explained his staying there for about six months at one time.

Book cover of E. Aguilar Cruz (contributed photo)

Such juicy morsels of art and history abound in E. Aguilar Cruz: Stories and Sketches Drawn from Memory, recently launched by the Holy Angel University (HAU) Press in Pampanga. The HAU Press, by the way, is one of the more active presses outside Metro Manila under the aegis of Robby Tantingco, director of the Center for Kapampangan Studies at the HAU campus. The books churned out are of high quality.

Newspaperman, literary writer, translator, painter, gourmet, diplomat, raconteur, bon vivant, gadabout—name it, he was it, and more!

No, they don’t make ‘em like Abe anymore. The roster of writers that lauded him was at a loss at what to call him, for he was all of these: newspaperman, literary writer, translator (self-taught in French), painter (also largely self-taught), gourmet, diplomat, raconteur, bon vivant, gadabout. Name it, he was it, and more!

As Juan Gatbonton recollected, such was Abe’s appetite for the good life that “he thought it nothing to drive the 80 kilometers to Angeles City in search of some tribal delicacy—mole crickets; stuffed frogs; yellow bellied catfish on a bamboo spit; horse-flesh pemmican or wild duck asado.”

He was a connoisseur of cheeses, including kesong puti, and kept in his small refrigerator a “rabbit paté en croute from a hotel delicatessen,” thereby delighting art critic Leo Benesa.

Journalist Jullie Yap Daza learned from Abe that “the best fried chicken comes out of the kitchen of a motel.” Furthermore, he taught her that “ugly girls have few (or fewer) sex partners. That’s why they’re safer.”

Women at Rest by E. Aguilar Cruz (Contributed photo)

The writers paying tribute to this renaissance man are a distinguished lot. Adrian Cristobal wrote of how Abe might have dismissed the idea of putting the latter’s essays in book form as an unworthy venture. But in the older man’s hands, when he wrote his pieces for Daily Mirror or Daily Globe, “the apostle of ‘timeliness’ has become ‘timeless.’ The topical became epochal.”

Cristobal listed the subjects that Abe could handle with dispatch: “the Balugas and the annual descent of the Igorots during Christmas time, vigilantes, the LRT, garbage, political dynasties, the anti-jueteng drive, Sin, ASEAN summits, language, EDSA, safe travel, etc.” Although these were written more than eight or seven years ago, they still have currency.

Other contributing writers include: Ocampo, with whom Abe bonded over books, and who was a recipient of a book or more every time they met each other; Claude Tayag, who knew the older man as a boy and whom he addressed as Tatang Milio; Alya Honasan, whom Abe surprised with the intimate question, “What do you dream of?” when she was in her 20s; Nice Rodriguez, whose relationship with him started with a crush on Therese; Sol Jose Vanzi, who repaired Abe’s precious Afghan prayer rug that was chewed by his dog; Fred de la Rosa; Andres Cristobal Cruz, who lauded Abe’s good taste “in food included”; Carmen Guerrero Nakpil, whom Abe protected from a stray dog on a street in Paris; Romulo Galicano; Rene Q. Bas; Rod. Paras-Perez, who described Abe the painter as “more interested in the human condition rather than just the effects of certain visual relationships”; and Mercy Tolentino Steenwyk, who described Abe’s generosity in giving away “a notebook, a pen from his travels, candies from a world of cherries, chocolates and cognac.”

Serafin Quiason praised the translation prowess of Abe, as he considered it ‘a high form of scholarship’ that left a deep mark in Philippine historiography

Serafin Quiason praised the translation prowess of Abe, as he considered it “a high form of scholarship” that left a deep mark in Philippine historiography. Among the books he translated from French into English are Paul Gironiere’s Journey to Majayjay; The War in the Philippines as reported in 1899 by French journalists; and Due D’Alencon’s Luzon and Mindanao, 1986.

Quiason said such was Abe’s fluency in French “that he could use (it) with unusual ease and in a mellifluous way. His astonishing proficiency in French was ably demonstrated in his conversations with foreign delegates, and the Unesco staff in Paris, owners and waiters of literary landmark cafes like La Rotonde, and Café de Flore, as well as bookshop keepers at Brentano’s and La Hune.”

Abe met up with Gemma Cruz Araneta, then on exile from her country during the martial law years and working for a time as a model for Karl Lagerfeld in Paris. Abe chose Les Deux Magots, a brasserie, for their rendezvous. He later told her “it was a favorite haunt of Jean-Paul Sarte and Simone de Beauvoir.” She likened him to her mother Chitang who, “armed with grit and talent, rose from lowly proofreading jobs to editing the most prestigious local dailies and magazines. Abe was also an illustrator; what he could write in a thousand words, he could also express in a pithy editorial cartoon.”

Another rendezvous he had, this time illicit because the other party was involved with the underground, was with writer Carolina S. Malay at the Dulcinea coffee shop in Makati. Their repast ended with him promising to donate his portable Olivetti typewriter to the revolution.

The book’s second half, A Life Well-lived, is a sumptuous folio of the artist’s graphite drawings, cartoons, nudes, ink and watercolors of interiors, even of a casino, or a stage impression of the controversial musical Oh, Calcutta, landscapes, notes and doodles during a board meeting of the Philippine National Bank, a charming portrait of Therese on rue Therese, women in various states of repose, sleep and undress.

Nude in watercolor by E. Aguilar Cruz (Contributed photo)

The book is available at the HAU Center for Kapampangan Studies. Email [email protected] for orders or inquiries.

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About author


She is a freelance journalist. The pandemic has turned her into a homebody.

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