Saturday, May 18, 2019


I AM a product of the public educational system. Since college, I have been studying in a state university. A public elementary school shared a fence with the house my family lived in for years.

During one summer, the women in my family enrolled in a dressmaking course offered by the local school. Whenever community dances, school programs, and graduation exercises were held at the covered court, we watched from the second-floor bedroom.

Even when we didn’t want to watch, the grills and glass panes of our windows would reverberate whenever the dance music started booming during evening school events. No other space could accommodate communal affairs in our industrial/residential zone.

Working with communities lying outside urban centers, I estimated the true worth of a community by the number and condition of the local public school buildings. Coastal public schools are generally better-off than upland ones.

Households in remote areas counted themselves lucky if there was a nearby public school, even if this was a one-room affair where the teacher taught students of two or three grade levels at one end and crossed to the other end to teach the higher levels.

Taking part in school feeding, I learned that the walking required from home to school and back again, often on an empty stomach, and the family’s need for extra hands for farm work pruned many public classrooms of students even before a week was through.

Some teachers came late on Monday mornings and left early on Friday afternoons. The most orderly room in some schools turned out to be the library where visitors tucked into the food teachers paid for and prepared, sometimes in the presence of a few books locked inside cabinets.

To cast my vote on May 13, I waited for three hours, perhaps spending a third of that going through the sitting-standing-sitting sequence in a public classroom, labeled a “holding area” for citizens waiting to be summoned to enter another classroom to finally cast their ballots.

My fellow citizens, thinking that two hours of standing in line were finally culminating when we first stepped inside the holding area, ruefully called the classroom “para laming,” which is the practice of starving a live creature that will shortly be eaten in order to keep its digestive tract clean and clear before the slaughter.

In the “laming” classroom, it was not exaggerating to imagine we were being purged: acutely harder to breathe and move around, one just stopped thinking.

When I recall the midyear elections of 2019—the hope for changes, the crushing aftermath—I will add to my memories of public classrooms the phrase: “para laming”.

( 09173226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s May 19, 2019 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, May 11, 2019

A difference

WAITING at the airport helped me reflect on whom to vote for during the May 13 midterm elections.

Thanks to a persevering son and an online airfare promo, I lined up for a quick trip to Cebu. The lines for the airport counters existed in theory; Ramadan, election day, and school break meant passengers churning like vortexes rather than filing orderly and efficiently.

Since I was hours early for a trip that was likely to be delayed (it was), I took in the scene. A lady and her grown-up daughter queued behind me; mother and daughter, noting the lack of system, filled in the gap, sharing information and politely directing folks to the end of the line before they could cut into the queue and create a situation.

I heard the daughter ask her elderly mother to take a seat many times when it seemed no one was inching forward; each time, the lady said that they will both take a seat after finishing their business at the counters.

This tandem was more helpful to fellow passengers than an officious gentleman walking around, wearing his authority like a uniform and not offering anything else to anyone. After a time, we formed a respectable line without a sour face in sight.

Lined up before me was a group of women wearing the khimar or head scarf. They had many belongings to check in; a young woman juggled these tasks while assisting her elderly companion to a wheelchair provided by the airline. Unlike with the tandem behind me, I could not overhear their conversation and only assumed they were related, a possible mother-and-daughter team, too.

Later, in the pre-departure area, the travelers in their bright khimars stood out. The young woman and her mother went to the toilet twice; each time, she slung a backpack and placed a small bag on her mother’s lap before they wheeled away to a toilet that is challenging to maneuver, given its cramped space and heavy use (with just a heavy gadget bag and a sling, I found it so).

It wasn’t the wheelchair that stood out but the young woman’s manner of bending down to her mother and smiling, as if sharing the thrill of embarking on an adventure. Decades ago, their roles must have been reversed, the older one being wheeled around then whispering to and encouraging the younger one held in her arms or toddling beside her. It was a privilege to watch these two come full circle.

Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, explaining to Martin Luther King the self-immolation of monks protesting the Vietnam War, said that this act of making one’s voice heard to save one’s country was borne out of compassion, not of despair.

Tomorrow, may we vote according to deep and abiding love for our nation, not out of despair.

( 09173226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s May 12, 2019 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, May 04, 2019

Cat food

MEALTIMES in the household fall short of a “clash of civilization”.

About seven cats drop by, expecting tuna biscuits or, the hands-down favorite, sardines in tomato sauce. All are feral except for the human who, to do her credit, knows the drill well enough.

The food is placed in several containers kept apart to keep the strong away from the weak, the young from the old. Except for a dam and her young sons, all the cats are adult toms, deeply entitled and long in fang and nail.

Each newcomer pauses at the top of the stairs from the street to survey the scene. If the cats eating are social inferiors, the latecomer pads forward, the smaller cats melting like shadows at high noon.

If the toms are still supping, the young ones tuck their paws under, fur balls in waiting. Sometimes, a young fool will creep like a hovering rain cloud, drifting towards unattended bowls.

Sometimes, a yowlfest breaks out, shards of fur from arched backs and distended tails suffusing the air, shrieks eye-sparks fangs puncturing what was a commune, an oasis, a construct of human caprice.

For sometimes the human cannot resist and dispenses what she thinks of as justice, ass-patting away the sated toms and offending their leonine dignity, standing over the old and half-blind, dropping tidbits for the queen, the only dam among toms, the smallest of the lot and the feistiest.

A sociopath that long unlocked the secret codes of the human heart and is scrambling messages for species domination, every cat convinces the humans it has domesticated that the latter order feline existence just because the cats show up for meals.

More accurately, the human is primed to feed and the felines oblige such a needy, suggestible factotum. Once you see a just fed cat play for hours with a creature it has trapped before it pops the poor, crippled thing in its mouth and looks back at you with unblinking mass-murderer eyes framed in heart-shaped furriness, you will have a second of clarity and see your own subaltern self in the pink, skinned tail dangling from that steel trap of a sweet maw before you shake off the disloyal thought and scratch the tummy, behind the ear, under the chin.

Well-done, human (those rolling purrs actually decode into: well-done human).

Cats are true solitaries. Only the self is real; all else are peripheral, instrumental, human.

In between the feeding, the cats walk around the human with her book. What sparks interest is a patch of sun, a bald spot in the scorched lawn that dips from bodies rolling and stretching for a good dust bath.

Pause the button on rest and recreation. Check out the human, abandoning her book, expectant. Old chum, didn’t we just eat?

( 09173226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s May 5, 2019 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”