A year after its founding in 1908, the University of the Philippines established its first campus outside Manila. At the foot of Mt. Makiling, on grounds freshly cleared of jungle, and near rice fields fringing Laguna de Bai, five professors and 12 students, led by a Thomasite dean, Edwin Copeland, pioneered an agricultural school. They were joined by their forestry counterparts the following year.
Some forty years later, students would still see members of the first batches of students and American professors going back to the campus during Loyalty Day, UPLB’s biggest community event. The students would hold them in high regard, not only for the esteemed academic traditions established on campus, but in recognizing them for planting the seeds of a peculiar way of life for their then-small UP community.
Florendo Quebral, who entered UPLB in 1951, was one of those students. He admits to have enjoyed the legacy of rodeos, horse-riding ranchers and grand floats on parade, Halloween, barn dances, and the regular Saturday square and boogie dancing. A couple of years after Quebral arrived in the College, a young Romulo Davide from Cebu would be introduced to this same social scene.
All throughout the sixties, Mimi Cortez, a gregarious college freshman, would see not much difference, coming to UP from nearby San Pablo. She would dress up for the same Rodeo events as a cowgirl in a checkered blouse and balloon skirt, riding on a hay-strewn cart pulled by a tractor. There were new parties though, or names for such, as the newly-coined TGIFs at the Senior Social Garden. Also, she would spot new status symbols on campus which included Impalas and Harley Davidsons, lined outside the party venues.
Thus, the UPLB social scene, like the rest of UP, continued to bustle with modernity of a distinctly imported variety. But like any foreign influence, modernity in the UPLB community had to contend with the overwhelming presence of the local living, reality, and people.
UPLB was a far cry from the America where those traditions originated. And most UPLB students came from diverse Philippine regional backgrounds. For Quebral, Davide, and Cortez, the parties served purposes other and deeper than a relief from boredom or from the rigors of academia. With social events, they had a way of connecting to other and larger circles despite their isolation from family and old ways of life. New circles meant a new independence, social skills, and with it, being part of a distinguishable UPLB way of life.
Davide recalls that early in the 1950s, nurses from the Philippine General Hospital and students from the Philippine Women’s University were invited to UPLB’s social balls, and he was excited to test his burgeoning dating instincts on these visitors. In those days, UPLB, particularly the College of Agriculture, had men far outnumbering the women, and competition among the males was fierce.
And so there was a need to prepare and dress up for the parties, and finding creative means to make good impressions on the ones they fancied. Davide uses the term “pasikatan,” which could mean sartorial, terpsichorean, and other arenas of oneupmanship.
The rigodon de honor holds a special place in Cortez’s heart because, in that formal dance with professors, she got to meet esteemed professors and be treated by them as a peer. During practice, she was thrilled to have them relate to her on first-name basis. Knowing her teachers up close inspired her to achieve more academically.
While students from same provinces and organizations tended to party together, the administration encouraged campus-wide social gatherings, which, given that the campus was still a two-college affair, were easy to manage. Everybody got to know everybody, and once the ice was broken, ensuing parties with other groups became even more attractive. Cortez said this was a major reason there were no “rumbles” during her college days.
The multisectoral party scene thrived this way. Cortez found herself at one time attending three parties in one night. But it was far from the wanton and decadent party scene of the West of the sixties. The women, most of them staying in the Women’s Dorm, had to be chaperoned by the dorm matron, who would hop from one party to another to look after her wards, bringing with her the other young wards. Moreover, social graces were part of the curriculum.
In the swirl of party nights at Baker Hall, or in Copeland Heights, or the posh ACCI auditorium, non-academics exuded a special attraction.
When the parties stretched well into the night, there were no jeepneys or carretelas to ride back to the dorms. Like barriofolk, the students then traveled in groups across a landscape of rough trails, forest, hills, and fields. The ladies brought a pair of chinelas to save them the agony of making the trek on high heels. And this was why when they were later sent to remote communities for extension work, the students knew how to deal with long walks late at night.
Locals from surrounding barrios took the students’ laundry and washed it on the nearby creek using palo-palos. Davide blames the wooden mallets for his missing buttons. He says that dormers also needed mosquito nets to sleep for the whole four years in college.
There were only a few eateries near “the grove” at the Gate. And student politics during Quebral’s time was big on the alleged poor quality of food being served in the dormitories. Most dormers had to cook their own food, many learning to cook for the first time aided by their more independent mates, with produce bought from the nearest market. Cortez found this a great way to save money for her next extra-curricular activities, which on top of the socials were mostly in campus performing arts.
During Quebral’s and Davide’s time, student council elections were associated with food, not just as a subject of protest. For after the announcement of results came the tradition of “the grove march” where the winners treated colleagues to a free lunch.
Behind the vibrant College social scene, much was improvised. The spirit of bayanihan was much in demand. Making floats for the Loyalty Day parade entailed working from scratch—sourcing and shaping bamboo for frames before wrapping them up with paper. Campus fairs, such as the September Affair and later February Fairs, popular during Cortez’ time, had no concessionaires for the booths. Students had to produce their own wares to sell or costume themselves crazy for fun booths. Cortez remembers a particularly hilarious day with her group’s “Dungeon of Horror.” Food for grand campus occasions such as Loyalty Day, where national political figures were invited, was cooked by the students of Home Technology, who included Cortez, who would also hope to be among the few selected to serve the meals to the guests.
Laguna nature became central in the students’ college lives, not for purposeless walkabouts but as inspiration. Quebral and Cortez, both coming from cities, were drawn to the campus by the environment, thinking it was perfect aid for study and meditation. Later, they would learn that it could also serve affairs of the heart. But while there was a fertility tree, there was also, at the grove, a chismis nook and a chismis tree, serving the purpose of today’s tambayan.
Going upstream in Molawin Creek up to the Flat Rocks and picnicking by the banks where they saw the tall, magnificent trees of Makiling became a traditional outing for students. As a plant pathologist, Quebral was naturally interested in trees, but Cortez of Home Technology, who later went into extension education, community development, and public affairs, turned tree-planting into a hobby.
Without a bustling town outside, nights were relatively dark; and moon and star light shone all the more. Students celebrated the sky. Quebral’s group, with maize-studying members bringing corn to eat, climbed Higamut hill where IRRI now stands, sat in a circle on the grass, ate, talked, and sang.
Usually in March, when the night sky was clear and the moon was full, students brought guitars, rode a trailer truck, and invited everyone to join them riding around campus singing songs about the moon. Davide compliments Quebral’s singing as member of “The Trailer Song Group.” And Quebral responds by singing:
“I see the moon and the moon sees me
The moon sees someone I want to see
God bless the moon and God bless me
God bless that someone I want to see…”
Settling into seniority, Quebral, Davide, and Cortez (now Cortez-Ocampo) don’t know which of these traditions survive, aside from Loyalty Day to celebrate the “UPLB spirit,” but they hope their younger counterparts have as much fun in Los Baños as they did in their time.
Email the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.