Friendships at UP were always political and unpredictable, but I believe none quite close to our past 45 years of wildly romantic youth and bittersweet middle years. Think of the impossibly daunting gauntlet we had to go through — FQS, martial law, exile, EDSA People Power, the bizarre 1992 presidential race, the Erap Estrada phenomenon, Hello Garci scandal, Cory’s portentous funeral, etc. — and all of that lived through six rough-and-tumble presidencies. We were bound to be friends and enemies many times over as alliances and feuds shifted with the fickle winds of change.
I am glad some redeeming measure of warmth and civility remained among us two old buddies as Jerry faced and succumbed to his final health crisis at the Makati Medical Center over the last six weeks. Always a gentleman who would never harm a fly, he was nonetheless a tough cookie who, I earnestly prayed until he breathed his last on October 3 at 9:15 p.m., would be granted one more chance to put his star-crossed life in order. He was only 65.
I am just one of numerous friends of Fernando Tiongco Barican, his forbidding formal name in lieu of instant face and name recognition as Jerry Barican. Some say he got the nickname from the Tom and Jerry cartoons he loved as a child, but somebody in the know still has to confirm this fanciful account.
We came from two different worlds — his Baricans from old uppity Ermita and my Navarros from back-country Malaybalay — but we instantly clicked because this was during the high summer of the Romulo-Lopez years when politics was the decorous, if intoxicating spice of campus life and not to be taken too seriously beyond pesky elections and occasional rallies before the citadels of power. It helped that we were not direct rivals and our admittedly outsized egos blended rather than clashed.
I remember 1968 only too well, hailed by Time Magazine as the Year of Student Power. I was on the way out as Philippine Collegian editor-in-chief; Jerry was on track as the upcoming year’s student council chairman. We were both bound for law school and aspired for some grand future in public service in the manner of Senator Jose W. Diokno and, closer at hand, of Enrique Voltaire Garcia, the then-living UP icon who, evoking Manuel Roxas and Ferdinand Marcos, seemed destined to be a future president of the Philippines.
Also a gifted politician who debated passionately but exuded personal warmth, Jerry seemed cut out to be next great hope of this UP-ordained apostolic succession. My dream was just as presumptuous, but of a lower key: to be our generation’s historian and, on an off chance, my buddy’s biographer. “I know you will be brutally truthful but kind to me,” he would say with a prescient laugh.
All those airy dreams burned out with the Battle of Mendiola of Jan. 30-31, 1970 as the twin scourge of Maoism and Marcosian dictatorship swept across Diliman and all but devoured what passed for Philippine democracy as well.
In Jerry Barican I had found the perfect soul mate. Self-fulfillment, not politics, consumed us more than anything else. We were unabashed snobs and nerds in a privileged time and place that nurtured such affectations. Fascinated by history, we were anglophiles to the bones. He loved Churchill’s stentorian prose. I was mesmerized by Yeats and Wordsworth. We would rattle off the English line of succession from William the Bastard in the Battle of Hastings of 1066 all the way down to the prissy but toothless matriarchy of Elizabeth II.
Our standing joke was about punishing each other by simply clamming up because neither of us could find anybody else within 500 miles who could blab nonstop on the Plantagenets, the War of the Roses, the Hanoverian succession or Victoria’s devilish dynastic schemes. We also shared a morbid fascination for the Romanovs, Habsburgs, Bourbons, Ptolemys, Moghuls and Manchus of vanished centuries of cruelty and splendor. And this was before we belatedly contracted severe francophilia when I was exiled in New York and he was pursuing a master of laws degree in Harvard.
Few people know that Jerry was the father confessor of my exile years. Almost weekly without fail for 17 years, I wrote him long, typewritten single-space letters of everything I did, where I went and my most private thoughts. If I have perfect documentation of those years and unworried about any indiscretion that may leak out, it’s because Jerry generously returned those letters upon my return to Manila.
We of the FQS generation were in close touch in the pre-Internet period of the dictatorship. Take December 1982: I spent Christmas with Jerry who flew in from Manila to join me and Gary and Baby Olivar at their Mid-Level Hong Kong apartment. The next day I flew to Beijing for Mao’s birthday with our China-based comrades: Eric Baculinao, Chito Sta. Romana and Jimmy FlorCruz.
Post-Marcos period but before the ominous 1998 triumph of President Joseph Estrada tore us apart, Jerry and I hooked up with political guru Tony Gatmaitan in the irreverent Group of 40, named mainly on account of our advancing years and waistlines. Our contentious but amiable ranks boasted of Dong Puno, Rod Dula, Jullie Yap-Daza, Ninez Cacho- Olivares, Zeny Seva, Susan Calo-Medina, Butch Valdez, Rick Blancaflor, Cito Lorenzo, Andre Kahn, and others.
In the run-up to the 1992 election, almost anybody who was anybody in Philippine life (except dour Coryfic and batty Imeldific) pandered to our self-appointed group of pundits and diviners of the nation’s destiny. In those days of coups and counter-coups, we masterminded joint editorials in the nation’s newspapers and broadcast media that Malacañang often tagged as seditious “Cory-bashing.”
Top movers and shakers of those halcyon times — Laurel, Ramos, Enrile, Danding, Erap, Mitra, Orbos, Salonga, Angara, Yorac, De Villa, Miriam, Lim, Binay, Mathay, De Venecia, the brothers Osmeña, Jun Magsaysay, Drilon, Soliven, Benigno, Doronila — dutifully trooped to our Thursday powwows in Makati or invited us to private homes or swanky restaurants, there to float trial balloons, sow intrigues or, at the very least, keep on the good side of confessed busybodies who thrived in the brief afterglow of Edsa democracy.
Indeed, I date the gradual mellowing of my friendship with Jerry to 1998 when, to everyone’s utter surprise and outrage, he enlisted as Erap Estrada’s spokesman, and the Group of 40, by sheer coincidence, signed off as a cohesive entity. We neither fought nor exchanged harsh words in public or even in private about the taboo subject of the movie heel turned president. The Gloria Arroyo years, which saw Jerry ensconced in the board of a government bank, widened the gap and for long periods we were like total strangers or just ships passing in the night.
But let it be said that in mid-2013, some 15 years after we all but lost touch, a persistent mutual friend arranged for Jerry and me to meet one fine afternoon at the Rockwell Mall. Just the two of us. He had been ill, and I had been frequently away.
There were no fireworks, no recriminations, no tears. We both played safe and meant to be on good behavior. We gingerly talked of old times, old friends, youthful dreams and passionate causes of yesteryear. Like the wonderful autumn Jerry and his visiting mother, Doctora Cely, stayed with me in New York and, after the fall of Marcos, when Jerry had Christmas eve dinner at my Makati apartment, just him and my then-Seattle-based dad who flew over to bond with me.
Jerry and I literally lived across the street from each other for some 20 years after the Edsa revolt brought me home. Salcedo Village was just that — a low-rise residential enclave, far from today’s congested pseudo-Manhattan; it was largely vacant lots and the only convenience store around was on the ground floor of my nondescript building, Blanco Center, today reinvented as a pricey boutique hotel.
I could always have a free and sumptuous meal over at the hoity-toity Eurovilla III Condominium’s Apartment 303V, even if Jerry wasn’t home. His ever-loyal household staff of Auntie Paning and Lourdes and driver Diony regarded me as family. Late nights on short notice, I would join Jerry and close friends like John Osmeña to people-watch at the Peninsula Hotel lobby into the wee hours of the morning. On some weekends, we would lunch at the Polo Club, or drive out to Tagaytay and drop by his Sta. Rosa, Laguna folks.
One little footnote: Jerry and I actually first met as unknowing infants at his parents’ clinic on Herran Street, perhaps in late 1952 just before my family moved to Bukidnon. His mom was my Mom’s pediatrician and I would tag along. “Jerry was the little boy you played with in that clinic,” mom always reminded me of the time she was pregnant with my brother Paul.
What were our differences about? How did these arise and how did we end up? I believe our paths simply diverged and that was that. Jerry was more of a free spirit when FQS rudely intruded into our close friendship. I was radicalized much more than he was. I submitted to political correctness of the day, not totally but enough not to be ostracized. The irony was that neither of us became Communist Party members; in fact, the commissars knew better. Compared to more fiery contemporaries, the two of us were branded as “bourgeois nationalists” or incorrigible liberals with one foot in the Establishment.
Jerry’s UP Prep stint in high school had led him to the Samahan ng Demokratikong Kabataan (SDK), which was to the far left of Joma Sison’s Kabataang Makabayan (KM). I was a promdi frat man (Alpha Phi Beta) and fancied myself a free agent. That’s why I was the only one the three squabbling leftist factions (KM, SDK and the pro-Lava MPKP) could agree on as first national spokesman of their umbrella group, the Movement for a Democratic Philippines (MDP). My good luck was to be out of the country (I was home-bound in San Francisco on a Presbyterian church grant) when Plaza Miranda was bombed on Aug. 21, 1971 and this incident led to my long exile. I was spared the harsh fate of non-radical activists like Jerry who faced the dictatorships of the left and the right at home.
Because Jerry was UPSC chairman when FQS erupted, he was forever held hostage by unforgiving partisan memories. People expected him to lead the revolution, to go to jail in defiance, and, frankly, to die for the cause in a blaze of glory. But he never saw himself in that heroic, if tragic role. He had no death wish. He was a man of high culture and he was too much in love with the good life.
After the FQS trauma and a few years as a well-loved, respected but lowly-paid UP law professor (in the same breath as our dear friend Haydee Yorac), Jerry wanted to really move on, to chart a different direction in his life. He did not have to work too hard. He was the heir of two successful medical practitioners who left him a substantial inheritance. Still, he wanted to earn his own fortune, not to be the absentee rentier of rice-growing Laguna and Nueva Ecija properties he was bound to lose or dispose of in the wake of land reform.
Because he had mastered the intricacies of corporate mergers and acquisitions at Harvard, Jerry easily found his way to the rock-solid Bank of the Philippine Islands on Ayala Avenue. When the Castilaloys (Spanish mestizos) angrily split up over the sale of the San Miguel conglomerate to Danding Cojuangco, he turned to international trading under the wing of Enriquito Zobel. He put up his own Makati law firm (Balane Barican Alampay Tamase) with fancy quarters just a short walk from his residence. He was called “Don Fernando” in jest and it amused him no end.
Jerry was to be the victim of his early success, beginning with million-dollar fees for brokering the sale of a few Boeing 747 jumbo jets. At one point he owned choice properties in California, including a San Francisco mansion bristling with modern art and equipped with heated in-door pool and state-of-the-art security system high up in the golden Berkeley hills. He had two BMWs in his automated garage. He flew first class, staying in luxury hotels and dining in the best restaurants. He was about to launch his own Manila TV talk show in anticipation of a political career free of shady patrons and vested interests when the bottom fell.
Financial overstretch, the 1988 US recession, and, in time, the killer 1997 Asian meltdown did him in with creeping but lethal force. He was not much unlike those Silicon Valley bright boys who soared up to the skies and crash-landed just as spectacularly in the twinkling of an eye. Years of denial wouldn’t alter his fate. Worse, going into politics under vested interest auspices after this sharp reversal of fortune brought back the ghost of the past with even more ferocity and spite.
It pains me to say that Jerry erred badly in making this move into trapo (traditional politics) politics; it left him to the tender mercies of cold-blooded operators, pitiless ideologues, yellow morality police, and tabloids eager to pounce on fallen stars and heroes.
Not only did he support Danding Cojuangco for president in 1992, he unwisely ran for senator in the latter’s ticket. Danding lost and Jerry landed at the tail end of 160 or so senatorial bets, many buffoons and lightweights in the craziest election ever in Philippine history.
Jerry was left out in the cold during the Fidel Ramos years. To add to his financial woes, he was kicked out of the law firm he co-founded and wholly financed, it was said, for his fatal alliance with Danding, a man unforgiven by the yellow crowd even after the Cojuangcos and Aquinos buried family hatchets in 2007.
By 1998, however, Jerry had bounced back on the winning side of Joseph Estrada, who was reviled by the Establishment but adored by the masses. Perhaps he was intemperate and risked too much in a highly vulnerable job as palace spokesman. He could have opted for a quieter post in the Cabinet or palace staff or a sinecure in a government corporation, which he eventually got. But the die was cast and the media, with sadistic glee, poked fun at the roly-poly spokesman with an embarrassing political past to live down.
In his own defense, Jerry wrote in one newspaper column that he simply wanted “to have a front seat in the making of history” as Erap’s mouthpiece. But he lasted only a few months in this thankless job and Erap’s stormy presidency itself would be aborted less than halfway into its six-year term. Important connections with the incoming regime enabled Jerry to hang on to a semblance of power and privilege over at DBP. Well, for a few more years until his patrons bitterly parted ways with President Arroyo and he became part of the collateral damage.
What happened to Jerry after that sweeping crackdown I only heard of second-hand. I was too busy writing books and attending to my octogenarian father who decided to spend his last years in our Bukidnon hometown. Jerry’s version to some friends was that he got talked into a get-rich-quick scheme that turned out to be a grand scam at his expense. Desperate to stem looming bankruptcy, he bet his shrunken nest-egg possessions, including his Makati condo, and lost it all.
Virtually homeless by 2011, Jerry frequently moved residence and changed phone numbers. He was reduced to “borrowing from Bob to pay Sam,” to put it mildly.
When we last met at Rockwell’s recently defunct Cafe Brida, I did not have the heart to inquire about his money situation. He assumed I knew. He just said, “Nels, I am in bad straits like you’ll never believe, but I will bounce back. Don’t worry.” We recalled Mommy Cely, by then long dearly departed, and our madcap week in New York and felt good.
Down on his luck, Jerry was not angry or bitter and he blamed no one. Not even a hint of self-pity. “It’s just the way the cookie crumbled,” he said with a brave smile. He wanted to believe he still had an ace or two up his sleeves. It was a class act I had expected of him in his darkest hour. I could not help but embrace my dear friend, half-wishing we would meet again and it will be like old times. We were holding back the tears.
That’s how I want to remember Jerry Barican — a gentleman who just wanted to lead a happy and meaningful life in a world unraveling at the seams. I cannot forget him in the full bloom of idealism and hope at his Vinzons Hall chairman’s desk, just down the hall from the Collegian’s corner room. We were young and ambitious when the world favored those who dared to dream of bright tomorrows and of the nation’s great destiny aching to be fulfilled.
First published in Philippine Star.