Saturday, March 4, 2023

Benevolent Assimilation by Gemma Cruz-Araneta


The following is an article by Gemma Cruz-Araneta. This is part of the book BEHIND THE WALLS: LIFE OF CONVENT GIRLS ( Anvil 2005), a collection of personal essays by graduates of Philippine Convent Schools.  The collection includes writings by Neni Sta. Romana Cruz, Imelda Nicolas, Herminia Menez Coben, and others. For more information about the book, visit .

Gemma Cruz Araneta  graduated from Maryknoll College with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Foreign Service in 1963.  She worked at the National  Museum of the Philippines as Information Writer and Chief Docent. In 1968, she was appointed Director.  In 1965, Gemma won the Miss International Beauty pageant at Long Beach, California — the first Filipina to bring home an international beauty title

A professional writer since she was nine, she has been a weekly columnist for various national newspapers and magazines and has published six books: Makisig, Little Hero of Mactan, Hanoi Diary, Fashion & Beauty for the Filipino Woman, Sentimiento: Fiction and Nostalgia, Stones of Faith and El Galeon de Manila, Un Mar de Historias (co-author).

Gemma studied in two convent schools, St. Theresa’s College and Maryknoll College for a total of 15 years.



Gemma Cruz-Araneta

copyright 2023 by Gemma Cruz-Araneta

       AT MARYKNOLL COLLEGE, where I studied for eleven years, I was completely enraptured by the ethereal magic of Catholic liturgy and religious pomp. Life was a series of rituals that fortified the spirit. On first Fridays, a high Mass was celebrated at the Marian Auditorium where we sang  Gregorian chants and received the Holy Eucharist. There were joyful processions to the Infant Jesus, floral offerings, and sacred hymns to Our Lady.  How mystical it was to kneel in perpetual adoration  before the Blessed Sacrament,  resplendent in a golden monstrance. Sometimes, we were carried away by religious fervor. A classmate once claimed that Our Lady appeared to her in the chapel and when she was brutally murdered  the summer after, we were stricken with guilt for having doubted her.

              However, I was not sent to Maryknoll only for religious instruction. In my family, we were all God-fearing, devout, thinking Catholics, proud of having two pious Jesuits, an angelic Carmelite abbess and an eminent bishop in our midst. I was enrolled at my mother’s alma mater, which was a convent school with irrefutable academic standards. But I was transferred to Maryknoll College, ostensibly to learn good, American English.

            Since language cannot be taught nor learned in a vacuum, my student life was dichotomized by two perpetually contending perspectives.   American English came with everything else that was American -- images of an alien   lifestyle, cultural prejudices and preferences, and later in college, policies and politics that often clashed with what I was learning at home. In fact, the only common denominator of school and home was the Catholic religion.

            Yet, I only have happy memories of Maryknoll. I had favorite nuns while in the primary and secondary levels.  Sister Catherine Therese was sweet, friendly and energetic enough to teach us how to  do-si-do and sing “Oh, Susana.”  Sister Zoe Marie made us feel like Broadway stars. She produced and directed Tekakwita, a play about the first native American saint. She taught us how to decorate those Indian costumes; we made bead necklaces and trimmed head bands with duck feathers. She lent us books about native Americans and we felt we were authorities on the subject.  However, at home, there were after-dinner comments about Tekakwita and references to a “Philippine reservation” at the St. Louis Exposition.  I suddenly remembered that Sister Zoe Marie did say her father had been worried about her coming here and that he had told her to buy a shot gun. It was only much later, when I had connected all the dots that I finally  understood what they  meant.

            American English was taught systematically and intensively. During those eleven years, I must have written hundreds of compositions and book reports, fragmented and diagramed thousands of sentences, honed tongue and vocal cords during interminable phonics classes.  Our national language was also a compulsory subject, but strangely enough, we could speak it only during that hour-long class.

            Had the Department of Education sent a circular to all private schools forbidding the use of the national language outside the classroom?  To this day, my ex-classmates and I are outraged at the way  we were severely  reprimanded  for speaking in the vernacular.  My nemesis was Sister Celine Marie who often caught me babbling in Tagalog in the school cafeteria. She was not even our English teacher; she was the Logic professor so I felt she had no right to threaten me with expulsion. Besides, I was getting good grades in English. Because most of us were bilingual at home, it was almost impossible not to use both languages (not Taglish) in an animated conversation during our free time.

             In college, the dichotomy went beyond the language debate and into the realm of politics and policies. In defiance to a Philippine law that dictated the inclusion of the Rizal Course in the  curriculum, only a single lecture on the life of the national hero was given at Maryknoll. During a Monday morning assembly at the Marian Auditorium, Sister Miriam Catherine, the college dean, read a paper that compressed the required semesters. As a footnote, we were enjoined not to read Rizal’s revolutionary novels, Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, because the Archbishop of Manila had declared them anti-Church. That really caused a furor at home where the works of Philippine heroes, especially Jose Rizal’s,   were in the must-read list of even my bishop uncle.

             And what else are the nuns going to forbid? — my elders wanted to know. What about Philippine history?  That was how I found out that Sister Joanna Marie had been assigned to teach Philippine History. An American nun, teaching Philippine History?  What is this — Benevolent Assimilation?  But, anything for American English, I suppose.   To remedy that unacceptable situation, I was sent to the University of the Philippines, for the entire summer, to take Philippine History and Philippine Government I,  which I had to take all over again under Sister Joanna Marie.           

            After that, the dichotomy between school and home became more glaring.   Filipino political leaders who were nationalist icons of my family — Claro M. Recto, Lorenzo Tanada, Jose Diokno to name a few — were branded communists in school. Non-alignment, self-reliance, neo-colonialism, US intervention, the military bases, the CIA, the Parity Amendment, including  salvation outside the Catholic Church,  had irreconcilable  definitions at school and at home.  But I survived all that without becoming schizophrenic. Today I have a habit of looking at both sides of the picture. 

            The Maryknoll nuns taught us good American English which has become our comparative advantage in the extremely competitive labor market. Under their tutelage, we became better Catholics, in thought word and deed. But, although they instructed us to love God above all things,  the nuns  could not  show us how to be proud of being Filipinos nor how to love the Philippines more than ourselves.  Fortunately, many of us learnt that at home.


Read also:

Read also:

Neni Sta Romana Cruz's Growing up St. Scholastican 

Herminia Menez Coben's Behind the Walls of St Scholastica College 

Gemma Cruz-Araneta's Benevolent Assimmilation 

Imelda M. Nicolas's Confessions of an Interna 

Watch also: THE CEBUANA IN THE WORLD: Cecilia Manguerra Brainard Writing out of Cebu

Tags: #Philippineeducation #Filipinoschools #Catholicschools #missuniverse #missinternational #missphilippines #filipinabeautyqueens

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