At 12:40 am today (Sept. 17), Emerita Quito, one the Philippines’s greatest philosophers, finally got her wish. The 88-year old former De La Salle University dean and author of more than 20 books died of respiratory failure in Manila. She was a trailblazing scholar, a prolific writer, and a sought-after lecturer. She was also my grand aunt.
Once at the apex of Asian philosophy circles, Quito passed away in near-obscurity, quietly whiling away her last years watching reruns of her favorite French game show, Des Chiffres et Des Lettres. ”I have one prayer to God when I wake up every morning: Take me. I’m ready,” she said when I last visited her in June 2016. Without a hint of nostalgia, she said, “I don’t only feel old. I’m ancient—I feel ancient.”
Quito dedicated her life to the realm of ideas. Educated at the Universite de Fribourg in Switzerland and the Sorbonne Universite in Paris she was a lifelong academic who garnered the Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Palmes Academiques—France’s highest academic decoration—in 1984, and was honored as the Philippines’s most outstanding educator a year later. She mastered six languages (including Urdu) and was a superb writer who chewed, challenged and interpreted Western philosophy for the Asian context with great insight and precision. Her 1969 dissertation, La Notion de la Liberté dans la Philosophie de Louis Lavelle (The Notion of Participatory Freedom in the Philosophy of Louis Lavelle) is the first work written by a Filipino to be published by the Universite de Fribourg.
Philosophy isn’t very popular in the Philippines. Culture usually means pop culture there—Beyonce will always trump Barthes, and Rihanna rules over Ricouer any day. Philosophy is even linguistically associated with foolishness or glibness in the national language. “On the popular or grassroots level, the term ‘pilosopo’ (Filipino word for ‘philosopher’) is a pejorative name for anyone who argues lengthily, whether rightly or wrongly,” wrote Quito in a 1983 essay analyzing the Filipino’s cultural aversion to rigorous thinking. “The term ‘pilosopo’ has seeped into the academic consciousness with a damaging effect.”
Perhaps that is why one of the Philippines’s most decorated intellectuals—and mould-breaking female professionals—never gained a larger following outside the classroom. Or maybe it was because she was a challenging personality—an uncompromising figure who refused to preen for the celebrity-obsessed media. “There are many things that people are interested in that I’m not interested in at all,” she told me. She hated taking pictures when traveling and didn’t understand why people were so enamored with selfies. “Why do we need a selfie? I’m here flesh and blood next to you. And if I wanted to see myself, the mirror is right there,” she said.
Quito rarely broke out of her serious, no-nonsense demeanor while on campus. She wore an ascetic’s uniform for years—straight black skirt and simple, short-sleeved blouse—recalling the nun’s habit she wore as Sister Mary Paul when she briefly joined the Catholic convent of Assumption Sisters in Paris.
To her fellow teachers, she was a formidable figure who shaped higher education. She believed that schools should engage in politics and in the 1970s had a reputation in the media as “the darling of student philosophers, rebels, intellectuals, and even demonstrators.” Espousing the tenets of Herbert Marcuse’s “The Great Refusal,” Quito preached the value of civil disobedience. She was a founding member of the Philippine National Association of College and University Professors that championed the faculty’s role as “a third force in directing the country’s social and political transformation.”
Quito’s students remember her as a brilliant but stern scholar who had no tolerance for laziness. “We were afraid of her. But we wanted to like her. So we tried. All we needed to do was read around 2,000 books,” says her former student, Milette Zamora. “She moved us to learn. She never really gave us the answers, she made us get them on our own,” she recalls.
“She has no patience for bullshit,” adds Laureen Velasco, another of Quito’s students. “I remember her saying, ‘I might have made some mistakes in the past, but hypocrisy was never one of them!’ She would have made a very bad politician.” Velasco and Zamora would later become teachers at De La Salle and got to know their former professor during their frequent visits to her home in Caloocan City after she retired. They jokingly called their regular visits with their austere teacher, “Tuesdays with Cutie.”
Her former secretary Gabi Bongales recalls how popular her classes were despite her reputation. “[Students knew that] if Dr. Quito gave them a failing grade, they deserved it, so no one complained.”
Those who breached Quito’s stern veneer saw her generous and nurturing side. ”I was struck by her sincere professional interest in my work in creative writing and my feminist advocacy to expose and eradicate insidious practices of sexism,” recalls fellow De La Salle University professor Marjorie Evasco-Pernia, who co-edited a compendium of Quito’s writing (or festschrift).
Evasco-Pernia witnessed Quito’s rarely-seen playfulness while waiting to be called on stage to receive a teaching award:
We sat together in the holding lounge for the awardees. I told her that I was now committed to the process of mastering by heart my favorite poems in order to keep my memory sharp and singing. She was delighted to hear this and we started taking turns reciting poems from memory. Her first salvo was William Wordsworth’s Daffodils and I returned her serve with William Butler Yeats’s Sailing to Byzantium. We continued throwing each other lines and fragments of other poems we have retained in memory and had so much fun! It was a literary tennis match to remember.
Lola Emy, as we call her, was also the intellectual braintrust of her sufficiently nerdy family. The youngest of five children, she spent nearly a decade in Switzerland in the 1960s during a time when very few Filipinos—much less females—could travel abroad to pursue further studies.
Sharply observant and generous with both praise and criticism, she modeled what we could achieve if we worked hard in school. Among my fondest memories of Lola Emy is sitting on her checkered living room floor for French language lessons with my cousins. Fresh from a trip from Paris one weekend, she rewarded each child who managed to twist his or her tongue to utter a perfect “bonjour” or “croissant.” The prize that day was a retractable ballpoint pen printed with the words “je ne suis pas un stylo.” It was an existential joke, my dad later explained. I cherished the plastic pen, smiling at the gag gift from my usually impassive grand aunt.
After she retired at age 59, Lola Emy continued to travel and give occasional lectures abroad. She collected paintings and lived on the royalties of her books. The last time we were together, I watched her divide her money among her nephews and nieces, gleefully distributing banknotes like cards from a deck. Never married and with no children, she was determined to give it all away before she died.
Unsentimental till the end, she refused a wake and asked to be cremated right away.
It may be too late to fete one of the Philippines’s greatest thinkers, but it’s not too late to discover her work. In the age of fake news, social media-fueled vanities and a populist demagogue ruling the country, Quito’s uncompromising belief in critical thinking and independent action may just be the sobering tonic Filipinos need today.
Late in her career, she was consumed by defining philosophy for the masses. “I grasped at Asian philosophy as a solution, like a drowning man would clutch a floating log in turbulent waters,” she wrote her 1991 book The Merging Philosophy of East & West. “I believe in giving Asia its due, and will try to express Asian thought in simple, lucid and readable terms, intelligible to anyone.”