Gemma Cruz-Araneta in her ageless state of beauty, charm and wit

The invitation said she was turning 80, to her invitees’ utter disbelief, of course. Gemma Cruz Araneta, our first international beauty title holder, Miss International of 1964, looks much younger than her avowed age. One wonders how she discovered her fountain of youth but one would suppose she always knew how to take care of her physical self as much as she has never left her reading and writing.

GEMMA, elegant, youthful and gracious, is a champion of heritage conservation.

Physical aesthetics, combined with intellectual prowess, indeed maketh a woman we can all admire, respect and emulate for the good things she had done with her life — from that first act of donating her winnings to the Boys’ Town, to upholding the dignity of women by questioning the relevance of beauty contests, and then living the life of a single mother in Mexico and turning into a first class social scientist. She came home, started her jewelry business and went on to book and column writing which, of course, affirms her heritage as a Guerrero, Rizal and, of course, her mother’s daughter, the illustrious Chitang Nakpil. Gemma has been at the forefront of heritage conservation work and has contributed significantly to promoting our National Museum which she once headed.

Let me share with you my online interview with Gemma whom I consider a dear friend, for she is always accommodating whenever I ask for an interview, and has introduced me to the members of her family who, too, have become special to me.

GEMMA with friends (standing from left) Mav Rufino, Pam Bañez, Celina Cristobal and Ica Laurel.

Here’s Gemma for you in her usual candor and wit, very much in keeping with the outspokenness of her many famous forebears on her father’s and mother’s sides of the family.

DAILY TRIBUNE (DT): What puts a smile on your face?
Gemma Cruz Araneta (GCA):  Manifestations of kindness, sincerity, unexpected acts of thoughtfulness, evidence of deeply rooted integrity, bravery during crucial moments all that put a smile on my face. My grandaughter Aurora’s paintings.

DT: What was the movie that you enjoyed watching as a teen-ager?
GCA: I was not a movie-goer, simply because my mother wasn’t. She mocked Hollywood, although she must have been touched by Gone with the Wind. I would hear her and her cousin Tita Leni talking about Scarlett O’hara and Rhett Butler. I think the movie projected the hardships they both went through during the Japanese occupation.
In my pre-teens, I saw Badjao, which must have been directed by Lamberto Avellana who was a family friend; that was why we went to see it.  Then there was a Manuel Conde movie about Juan Tamad, Ang Prinsipeng Hindi Tumatawa and Maria Cristina a Christian martyr. Mommy took my cousins along and one of them began to cry and begged Mommy to take us home. Then, Ben-Hur. My mother and I went to the premier which I think was held at the Cinerama designed by my stepdad, Arch. Angel Nakpil. That was spectacular. Mommy was quite strict about movies. She was very selective, and I probably saw only two or three movies a year. But in Mexico, we would go to the movies almost every weekend.

DT: What was the one thing that you brought along in your travels as Miss International 1964?
GCA: My makeup kit because I like doing my own makeup. I am prone to catching chills so I always have medicine for sudden colds and coughs. My respiratory system is always the first to give when I am tired. A sudden change in temperature is also fatal for me. I am not superstitious so I don’t have fetishes tucked into my coat pocket, like Pavarotti and his rusty iron nails, or like an aunt of mine and her dog-eared daily missal.

GEMMA as Miss International 1964.

DT: What is your crime of passion when provoked?
GCA: Total abandon of the provocateur! I will never again be seen with them, and I can never ever be cajoled for a second chance. That is absolutely passionate but I don’t consider that a crime. I protect myself by learning from my mistakes . But I do  wish I were a witch, a mangkukulam of sorts.

DT: Which animal in the wilderness  would you have for a pet?
GCA: It will have to be a feline. I love cats and have always had pet cats since I was a child. I had a couple of Siamese cats in my life but I am quite happy with simple puspins (pusang Pinoy). I have three rescued cats: Milonga, a calico cat who is disabled; she lost a leg when only a month old; Jarocho, a butterball I adopted from Nancy Howell’s cat shelter; Milonga needed a friend. Jarocho is the most affectionate. Merengue used to be called Arabia because we rescued him near the Saudi Arabia embassy. After a couple of years, my son Leon asked me to adopt him because they already had one too many felines. I renamed him Merengue which is also a dance like Jarocho and Milonga. It is true that cats develop their own personalities and they do come whenever I call them. Jarocho is the only one who jumps on my lap.  They are all tri-lingual, like me.

SIGNING her book for National Artist Virgilio Almario.

DT: What is your favorite cause?
GCA: Heritage has been my favorite cause for the last 20 years, but it is an uphill struggle because corporate gains reign supreme in this country. In 2002, I became the chairperson of the Heritage Conservation Society which was founded by the late Bambi Harper, Architects. Toti Villalon and Rene Mata. As  we were already advocates and not getting any younger, we decided to open a youth chapter in universities and colleges with faculties of architecture. To our surprise, heritage conservation was not in the curriculum, as it is today. The late Senator Eduardo Angara invited us to committee hearings and to task force groups while he was drafting Republic Act 10066. It took 10 years of it to pass both Houses and be signed into law, yet it is quite difficult to enforce.
The HCS can stand on its own now, thanks to the youth we recruited 20 years ago like Ivan Henares, Kara Garilao, Architects Manuel Noche and Melvin Patawaran (+).
Now, the other cause is literacy which I share with descendants of Jose Rizal’s sisters and brother. The pioneer is Liza Tinio Bayot who formed “Binhi” many years ago. It is quite an effective literacy program and during  the last  family reunion, we pledged our active support for “Binhi.” Imagine, the Philippines, is at the bottom of the literacy list in Asia! Why did we allow that to happen? That is what we have to tell Jose Rizal should he suddenly come back to life. He will surely reprimand each one of us
— except  Liza — for not doing our part. Well, the Rizal family foundation does have scholars in the National Teachers College (owned by a relative), but that is apparently not enough.

DT: What is the junk food that you crave?
GCA: I have to give my mother credit for saving her offspring from being junk food addicts, although junk food was called by another name when I was growing up. We didn’t even have soda or cola drinks in the house, but we had fresh juices and were slowly introduced to the delights of having wine with our meals. Are potato chips and French fries junk food?  I love them, but not the type you buy in fast food places. I also love chicharon which I eat with guacamole (Mexican influence), and all types of nuts especially kasuy (cashew).

DT: What is your favorite Indian dish or delicacy?
GCA: Anything with lamb, I love. I also like goat meat. India’s Diwali cakes, the ones covered with very thin sheets of silver I find quite irresistible. When I went to India in 1967 to visit my uncle Leon Guerrrero who was then our ambassador, it was Diwali time and he served those special silver-coated cakes after dinner. That was the first and last time I had them, can you imagine? Leon, my son, does not serve them in Kashmir, his restaurant.
As you know, the function room in Kashmir is called LMG in honor of Ambassador Leon Maria Guerrero. I named my son after him.
DT: What beauty enhancement products do you not need?
GCA: I do not need the whitening stuff; I like being morena, brown-skinned. Many years ago, while I was in a mall, a lady came to me and said, “You’re Gemma Cruz, aren’t you?  I want you to know that you changed my  life. When I asked her how, she said that when I won the Miss International it was a vindication for her and other brown-skinned Filpinas like her. She thanked me. That put a smile on my face.

DT: How would you define beauty to a young woman who asks?
GCA: There are a few young women in my orbit, my two granddaughters, Aurora Yol (heart, in Nahuatl) who is 21 and Uma Leona, 19. They are both almost as tall as I am. Aurora flew in from Canada (she’ s enrolled at the Emy Carr Fine Arts school) and I was pleasantly surprised to see her wearing my 1970 vintage silk palazzos she found in my closet in Mexico. OMG, was I ever that slim? Was my waistline ever that tiny? As for Uma, she has inherited all those shoes I bought at a boutique in Berkeley when I used to break my trips to Mexico there.  I also have a niece, Carmen Cruz, named after Mommy, who is just as tall and lovely as my granddaughters. Well, Jojo, none of them have ever asked me to define beauty; they must have their own standard, or perhaps they would rather ask AI or Chat Gpt.

DT: What do you you love about  this century?
GCA: As a writer, I love the internet, Google, cut and paste, and everything else my electric typewriter could not do. Had cell phones been invented when I was still in college, my life would have taken another track, probably. Don’t you feel that way as well? Everything is at your fingertips, even those ancient erudite archives buried in obscure monasteries, churches and forgotten libraries all over the world. Overwhelming!

DT: What was the most valuable advice that your mother gave you?
GCA: There were two. The first was given when I was about to flee  to Mexico with Fatimah, aged 9, and Leon, aged 4. She said without a smile on her face that we must have three meals a day at the same time every day. It sounded easy, but it was not always easy. I followed my mother’s advice strictly, to the letter because I could see that she was right. The second valuable advice was: Treat someone as if you know he/she will die the next day. (From her wartime experience, perhaps?) On three occasions, I heard my mother’s voice, and  had I not followed her advice, there would have been a lifetime of regret. Those three people literally died the next day. One of them was Larry Francia whom you probably know.

DT: What is your advice to would-be writers?
GCA: Naku, would-be writers, you have to master the grammar of the language you choose. Although today  “grammar and spelling” features are conveniently available and you might feel you do not have to learn grammar. And AI can write for you.

DT: What puts a frown on your face?
GCA: Poor grammar, cruel, avaricious people. Ill-mannered people;  politicians who steal with impunity, without shame;  people who are not punctual, who waste your time; those who are cruel to animals, bullies and weaklings.

DT: What is the one national cultural treasure that you want every young Filipino to see, including balikbayans?
GCA: The fantastic mural by Carlos (Botong) Francisco which is now in the old Senate Session Hall in the National Museum of Fine Arts. Commissioned by Manila Mayor Antonio Villegas in 1963, it was titled History of Manila that is why the scenes of the Malolos Congress and First Philippine Republic are not the important ones. During the Centennial of the Revolution, Botong’s mural was the only  visual and dramatic source material available so it was renamed “History of the Struggles of the Filipino People.” Once again, the fruit of those struggles, which were not prominent in Botong’s mural, were not given importance during the Centennial. How ironic. I think we lost the chance to highlight the importance of the Malolos Congress and the First Philippine Republic and declare a national celebration. To this day, the fruit of the Revolution is celebrated only in Bulacan. Be that as it may, Botong’s mural is what every Filipino, balikbayan or local,  must see.
DT: If you were to rewrite the beauty book, what is your advice to someone who is ugly?
GCA: My sister, Lisa, and I will not rewrite that beauty book because — wala nang pangit ngayon.

DT: What is your formula for successful mothering?
GCA: I have my own formula based on the advice my grandmothers and mother used to give me; it may not work for other mothers, each one has to have her own formula, but which should not be a rigid one. It is best to make children participate in planning family activities, and decision-making. When they were growing up, I encouraged my children to express their ideas, opinions concerns, and complaints but always respectfully and politely. I was never afraid to admit my mistakes and children do appreciate that. I gave primordial importance to academic work, to reading and critical thinking, and to faith in the Almighty.
Leon and Fatimah are now responsible parents and good citizens. Both are industrious, creative and determined to make  their business projects grow and prosper. Even if we live in different parts of the world, we have remained in close touch.  They have always  showered  me with love, attention, and warmth. I feel pampered and protected, now that I am 80. They anticipate my needs, I do not have to ask. I must have done something right.

DT: What is your birthday wish?
GCA: For my Fatimah and Leon  and my grandchildren to be successful in their endeavors and their studies. I do not want them to go through wars like my parents and grandparents. I want the Philippines to strengthen its institutions, to recapture lost values of integrity, love of country, patriotism so that my children and grandchildren can thrive and fulfill their own life projects and dreams. And a few more years for me, dear Lord, so I can enjoy being with them and so I can finish reading most of the books I have accumulated.