Rica and meanings

Writer-teacher Rica Bolipata-Santos loves naming things.
She also has stories.
Lots of them.

A four-year-old girl used to hold pseudo classes by the brick wall of the Bolipata house. In her hand was a piece of stone — a substitute for chalk. Her siblings were all in school and she was alone, pretending that she was a teacher. At that time of innocence, something deep inside would tell her that someday, it would no longer be a game.

Now, the woman who has become of that little girl walks around Ateneo de Manila University, not as a student but as a professor in Western Literature. But goals do not end there for Rica Bolipata-Santos. There is a husband to keep surprising, three children and a mother to take care of, stories to tell, books to write, and people to meet.

Life still goes on and there are things to name.

Raised by a father who valued excellence and a mother who had Ramon Corpus, the first Filipino concert violinist, for a father, Rica’s activities as a child revolved around artistry. This kind of rearing would be greatly influential in the choices that she and her siblings would make regarding their career choices.

“When we were growing up, we were everything — we were all musicians, we were all writers, we were all painters,” she said. “Then when we grew up nadifferentiate lang which one we will be from that point on.”

The six children would grow up choosing creativity over nine-to-five professions. The boys all became musicians — Jed as a pianist, Chino as a cellist, and Coke as a violinist — known as the Bolipata Brothers. The girls took different routes. Plet became a painter, Non a lawyer, and Rica a writer and professor.

“Since I come from a family of artists, the choices that we make, we don’t think of them as professional choices, but as artistic or creative choices, which is not easy kasi normally you need a professional or a rational choice,” she said.

A strong sense of dedication was something that Rica and her siblings learned from their father. A poor boy from Bukidnon who became a scholar in Ateneo because of the Jesuits who taught him after he helped them during World War II, the late Ricardo Bolipata taught his children the importance of giving the best in everything that needed to be done.

“It’s not just excellence for the sake of excellence,” she said. “You always have to do your best — to be the best — for your country.”

Rica considered this lesson from her dad both a gift and a burden, for there could never be a room for second-rate work. The habit would linger and show, anyhow.

Kunwari kahapon nagreport ako sa UP, I was overprepared! My report was 25 pages, on a 17-page epic. Di ba parang katangahan yun?” she related with a laugh. “But I think my family has a strong work ethic kasi there’s always the voice of my dad saying ‘It can never be half-baked. If it’s not good enough, it will never be good enough.’”

At the young age of four, Rica already knew what she wanted to be when she grew up — a teacher — and patterned her life on that childhood memory.

“I knew I wanted to teach and I knew I wanted to teach Literature,” she recalled. “I was very planado. I took up Humanities in college because it allowed me to not only take up Lit but to take up Philosophy and other Humanities courses. Then for my Master’s, English Literature, so it was like a progression.”

The profession that she had been preparing for so long officially started in 1991 when she landed her first job in St. Paul Pasig, where she stayed for two years before moving on to her alma mater, Ateneo.

But spending most of her life preparing for this job did not shield Rica from the nerves of being new in the field.

Dati, yung kaba ko sobra na parang gusto ko na lang magpakamatay,” she recalled with a smile. “You know Cyan Abad-Jugo? We used to teach together. We would pray na mag-end of the world, na sana magearthquake along Marikina faultline.”

However, Rica knew she could not let the feeling hinder her love for the job. In their fourth year of teaching, she told her colleague and friend Cyan that they should just change the term scared to excited.

“It had a big psychological effect,” she said fondly. “Instead of naming that feeling in the pit of your stomach as fear, why don’t you just admit that you’re excited?

Ang tawag ko sa teaching ko “flying lessons”; I really feel like I fly when I teach. I love it, even when it’s a bad teaching day.”

It was Rica’s mother, Elenita, who would drive her to write well. But it was not done with plain sweet encouragement.

Despite being the youngest — or perhaps because of it — Rica said she often feels inadequate in the eyes of her mother, who she refers to as her “god.”

“The conflict between me and my mother is that I never feel — and I’m sure all daughters feel this way — I never feel I measure up to the kind of standard that she has, which in fairness naman she can’t herself kasi the standards she has are the standards of my brothers and my brothers were internationally known. Di ko matatapatan yun,” she shared.

The rift between mother and daughter would eventually become an instigator in Rica’s wanting to write good pieces. Though she has been told by her mother that she was doing great, she seemed to opt not to believe it.

“I’m thinking, maybe if I got her approval, maybe I’d stop writing. Maybe I imagine the disapproval kasi anger and wanting to please someone are good motivations. At the end of the day, siya pa rin naman ang first reader ko.”

It was also the mother who taught Rica and her siblings to be wide readers. This would come in handy for the writer, but one habit would become her primary source of stories — everyday life. She claimed that she would often just observe everything in silence and wonder what the story is behind it.

“I’m obsessed with naming things,” she added. “If I can name it — if I can diagnose it — then I’ll know what to do with it.”

Today, Rica’s works reach more people, not just her mother. Her essays have come out in publications like Philippine Free Press and Philippine Star, and her book, Love, Desire, Children, Etc. (Milflores Publishing, 2005), a collection of essays, won the 2007 Madrigal-Gonzales First Book Award. With only three years in the literary circle, she was declared to be mid-career in 2008.

But Rica’s interest for the field does not lie in the awards she could garner, but in the people — her fellow writers.

“We live in interesting times kasi ang bata ng Philippine Lit. So ang gods ng Philippine Lit, buhay pa silang lahat — sina Ophelia Dimalanta, Lito Zulueta,” she said.

A late bloomer who had her start in the 2005 Dumaguete Workshop, Rica considers everyone in Philippine Literature worthy of admiration. But she gives more to the writers who were with her in Dumaguete, and those who have helped her a lot, like Jing Hidalgo and Butch Dalisay.

“I like being mothered by writers because all my issues come out when I write,” she shared.

But winning an award and getting recognized for her work do not mean anything when placed beside the fact that she has Teodoro, her 12-year-old special son.

Her first time as a mother, she said, was hard because she was living with her in-laws while adjusting to motherhood. Plus the fact that Teodoro was “a difficult child to begin with.”

But it wasn’t until her firstborn was about three or four years old when he would be diagnosed as a special child. Teodoro, Rica said, is what keeps her grounded.

“You can’t be mayabang with a son like that,” she said. “Everything that I accomplish means nothing.

“I remember after winning the Madrigal Award, I was thinking to myself ‘This doesn’t change anything.’ When I come home, he’s still gonna slap me. He’s my great equalizer.”

After Teodoro came Margarita, who Rica described as “very creative, calming, and filled with refreshing points of view,” and Antonio, her ‘baby.’

Ten-year-old Margarita, or Marty, is a visual artist and a dancer, the first in the Bolipata clan. Asked if she sees herself in Marty, Rica was quick to say yes. Her only girl has picked up her habit of keeping journals.

But with Marty moving closer to adolescence, Rica revealed something heartbreaking.

“Marty was four and I said ‘Promise me we’ll never have secrets,’ and she was like ‘What does that mean?’

“Now she keeps secrets from me. Yung mga ‘Mommy I’m not ready to tell you yet.’ I hate that! Yung ‘Mommy, I have a secret but I won’t tell you.’ Kainis. It really breaks my heart. Bittersweet ‘yun because it’s a sign of growing up.”

Her youngest child, Antonio or Ani, is also catching up on the growth. Rica proudly said that he is their prodigy — at six, he can play the violin very well. She also called him ‘ang boyfriend ng bayan.’

Her young son, she recalled with a smile, “promised never to get married, and if he does, he will make sure his wife will love me.”

Asked about a heartbreak from Ani, Rica said there was none.

“He’s too young to break my heart. I’m sure he will, it’s inevitable, right? But so far he’s broken just his teeth, he hasn’t broken my heart.”

Before the three kids, there was just Rica and Dino. They met in Ateneo and got married in 1995.

But in the years of being together, Rica has learned that married life is not always easy.

“I don’t think people know how hard it is to get married and just how hilarious the premise is. You see, the premise is forever. Everything about the world tells you that nothing lasts and you want this institution called forever in the midst of this environment. Di ba ang funny ‘nun?

She said that the key ingredient of the strength of her marriage was the breaking of an illusion — that she needed her husband to make her happy. Although helpful, she admitted it also hurt to think that way.

But it was in the breaking of this misconception that Rica learned to respect her husband’s privacy and cherish her own.

“It’s very important for me to balance myself as an individual being and myself as a married woman. Virginia Woolf has the perfect quote for it, from Mrs. Dalloway — ‘You would not want to steal anyone’s solitude any more that you want anyone to steal your own.’ That’s how I feel, that there’s the individual me that I owe allegiance to. Most people think your allegiance is to your husband, ako no. I’m a modern woman that way — my first allegiance is to myself. I cannot be a good wife to him if I don’t protect myself. But that is also something I learned from him because he’s very private, very solitary. I used to be insulted by that because there were parts of him that I couldn’t reach, but then I realized that it’s okay.”

They have been together for 15 years, and Rica admitted to telling her husband that they should “project the next 15.”

“We have to face that our kids are growing up and eventually they’re gonna need us less. So it’s just the two of us and I asked him ‘Are you still fun?’ Kasi that’s what I call him, My Number One Fun.”

Asked about her plans, Rica said that her second book will be out soon and that she hopes to be able to write a book on the Magsaysay women, who are her grandmothers.

For now, she will go on juggling married life, motherhood, her duties as a daughter, her obligation as an educator and her tasks as a writer. There are many things to do and Rica only has one thought in mind.

“I follow the curve of pain, presuming it would bring you to some place amazing, like labor. You just trust that it will bring you somewhere kasi kung hindi, suicide na naman ang nakikita ko. For everything, I just believe and say ‘Bring it on!’”


This profile was written as a prelim requirement for a feature writing class in 2009, posted as is.

The interview for this remains to be one of the author’s favorites.

Rica Bolipata-Santos — Dr. Rica Bolipata Santos — is now director of the Ateneo de Manila University Press. Her kids are growing up (her Teodoro is in school); she does, too.

Example: She’s very much into Instagram.

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