Her friends called her “Roxy,” but I always called her “Auntie Aurora” because that was how my mother, who was related to Benito “Uncle Ben” Lim, called her.
Auntie Aurora was a marvelous woman. She had merely to enter a room or into a conversation to light it up, to ramp up the energy level. Not only was she companionable, vivacious, and warm-hearted; she was also visionary, indefatigable, efficient, and no-nonsense. A rare combination.
Above all, she was an inspiration, a model of the life of the mind dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge.
In my mind, she and my mother were forever linked by their association with the University of the Philippines and by their abiding interest in art. My mom was the first person in her family to go to college. Because Tondo was far from Diliman, Mama—who, like Auntie Aurora, was accepted to UP as an honors graduate on scholarship—lived with Auntie Aurora and Uncle Ben in their campus housing on weekdays. My mom was originally a pre-Medicine student, but left school to marry my dad. After raising five children, she eventually went back to UP, shifting to the College of Fine Arts to major in Painting and graduating magna cum laude the same year that I did.
As a UP undergraduate, I once toyed with the idea of majoring in Art Studies because I liked to draw and paint and was deeply interested in Asian art history, but decided to stay on as an English major because I loved reading literature and creative writing (known then as “imaginative writing”—don’t ask me what’s the difference!) even more. Auntie Aurora, too, had been an English-lit major as an undergrad before she shifted to art studies.
It was Auntie Aurora (and my mom) who encouraged me to pursue graduate studies at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Auntie Aurora had been a doctoral student of art history in Ithaca, but had had to cut short her program of study and return to the Philippines because of a serious eye condition that required surgery and long-term treatment. From her, I learned about Cornell’s Southeast Asia Program, the premier area studies program in the United States at the time. From her, I learned as well of Cornell’s famed Wason collection of library and archival materials relating to East Asia. (There was also a colonial connection here, as the First Philippine Commission appointed in 1899 by US President McKinley was headed by Jacob Schurman, the president of Cornell.)
It’s ironic that, in those days, one still had to go all the way to America to learn about Southeast Asia and write a dissertation about Philippine literature. But I look back on my Cornell sojourn with great fondness, because I was fortunate to have learned a lot from my teachers and fellow students there. Like Auntie Aurora, I studied Bahasa Indonesia. Like Auntie Aurora, I have been involved in promoting Asian (and in particular, Southeast Asian) studies through institution-building and scholarship.
Over nearly three decades, Auntie Aurora kindly kept in touch, meeting in person, talking by phone, and later, exchanging emails. At the small wedding dinner party that my parents organized for me and my husband Shiraishi Takashi, while my husband and Uncle Ben happily bonded over their common interest in the politics of East Asia, Auntie Aurora sat next to me and shared with me her painful experience of the Japanese occupation. I was shaken, in particular, by her eye-witness account of the torture and murder of one of her brothers, and the injuring of her father and another brother. But I was deeply honored by her wedding gift of her life story—an injunction to remember that the history of our family (my grandfather had been a guerrilla, too) is also bound up with the history of our country.
My last email exchange with Auntie Aurora was over the passing of Uncle Ben, whose involvement in the policy of mass naturalization of the Philippine Chinese in the mid-1970s—a naturalization that importantly paved the way for the integration of the ethnic Chinese into Filipino society—also inspired me to delve deeper into the Chinese Question in the Philippines. She wrote a beautiful tribute to Uncle Ben for his funeral and shared the text with me and my parents and siblings.
I cannot do justice to the long, productive life Auntie Aurora led, the friendships she enjoyed, the careers of younger people she nurtured, the academic institutions she strengthened, the scholarship she pioneered. All I can say is that I am deeply privileged to have been influenced by her, and my life would have been quite different had it not been for her.