Sunday, November 30, 2008

For Frodo, fellow female

Reposting this column, which was a runner-up for the best opinion/editorial piece in the 4th PopDev Media Awards. Started in 2005 by the Philippine Legislators' Committee on Population and Development Foundation (PLCPD), the awards scanned 406 entries in 2008 to award "outstanding and responsible journalism on population and development." The Mindanano Times' Rene Ezpeleta Bartolo won for best op-ed piece for his "The seesaw for survival." His other piece, "Hunger," was also short-listed for the award.

Sunday, March 09, 2008
Tabada: What a woman can expect
By Mayette Q. Tabada

THE CAT is at it again.

From my desk, I espy the white cat sleeping on its perch: a pot of flowers with maroon petals.

Later, I see the cat has transferred. It is now napping on a pot of herbs.

Of all the cats that treat our place as a half-way home and diner, this white cat alone sleeps so unusually. Perhaps it thinks it is a plant, improved a little by way of four feet for hopping from pot to pot.

For a while, I thought the vegecat was a “he” until I saw it being sniffed at and then tailed by an orange Tom. Although I can’t be sure, the din he makes around her has me convinced that the white cat beds in a pot because there is no space for him to join her.

If I were reincarnated as a cat and had to bear a litter three or four times a year, I might also pretend to be a potted herb.

Reproduction and survival of the species inevitably came to mind last March 8, observed as International Women’s Day (IWD). When a male friend sent me an early morning text greeting, I was befuddled at first. Then I thought of my sons and wondered what I had, if at all, contributed in making them become better, more empathetic and truer friends and partners of women.

More than two centuries of observance of IWD seems to counter Sigmund Freud’s theory that “biology is destiny.” Yet, typically, every IWD commemoration is accompanied by findings that the survival of future generations rests on the promotion of the quality of women’s life.

Investing in mothers is the only way to ensure children’s survival and well-being, points out the “State of the World’s Mothers 2006,” a report produced by Save the Children.

This US-based humanitarian organization releases with its annual report a Mothers’ Index, which ranks the best and worst places to be a mother and a child. According to the 2006 report, Sweden led other countries in Europe and Northern America as the best places to be a mother. Somalia and other countries in sub-Saharan Africa were at the bottom of the ranking of 125 countries.

The Save the Children highlighted that education and access to health care, specially family planning services, are factors that guarantee women survive child birth and their children live beyond the first month or year of their life.

In the Mothers’ Index 2006, the Philippines fell in the median. Improvements in the typical Filipina’s life-cycles were predicted, though, by a 1974 University of the Philippines (UP) Population Institute study that found life expectancy improved dramatically: in 1900, a Pinay was expected to live to the age of 25; in 1960, it was 52.5; and in 2000, it is expected to be 67.5.

The chances of the Filipina and her husband surviving to old age have thus risen. According to a March 7, 2008 Inquirer Research item, women in Central Luzon have the highest life expectancy (74.42 years) in the country, with those in Eastern Visayas having the lowest (69.79).

The same UP study found that infant rearing will be delayed and shortened substantially by 2000. “A woman's first grandchild arrived around age 39 in 1900, around age 42 in 1960, and will not arrive until about age 50 in 2000.”

According to the National Statistics Office (NSO), women also live longer. Life expectancy is estimated at 72.2 years for Filipino women and 66.9 years for Filipino men.

It has been noted in the 2000 population census that around 76 percent of the 2.6 million widowed persons were females and only 24 percent were males. Explanations forwarded for this is that Filipinos generally pass away before their wives while Filipinas are less inclined than their male counterparts to remarry after the death of their spouse.

In the NSO’s Family Planning Survey of 2001, nearly half of married Filipinas (49.8 percent) used contraceptives.

This survey of figures convinces me that, at least in this life, women in this country will not have to take to the pot.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

A harvest of questions

HOW many women enter the orbit of a 10-year-old boy’s attention?

Only one, as I happened to learn one night when my son, Juan, and I played with the Cebu Province’s Heritage Cards.

A friend had given me the maroon box, which contained cards showing the photographs and profiles of the “Cebuana Trailblazers (Sugboanang Tag-una).”

Launched in August 2006, the heritage cards honored 60 Cebuanas, selected by a research team drawn from the academe and non-government organizations during the 437th founding anniversary of the Cebu Provincial Government.

Although I’ve seen the maroon box displayed at the University of San Carlos’ Cebuano Studies Center, I never got to scan the contents until that night.

And I might never have explored the cards if Juan had not asked me about the lady on the box’s cover.

The photograph showed a Cebuana, in native finery, posed against a painted studio background of oversized leaves. The sepia tone, the shadow of a smile hovering along those prim lips, the butterfly sleeves in gossamer piƱa brought to mind a gentle spirit warming some pre-war hearth.

Except for those anachronistic eyes. With a stare as direct and unflinching as any pants-wearing, take-charge alpha female of the Now generation, the cover subject seemed to coolly appraise me as I faltered before Juan’s question.

Hers were not the only eyes that saw through my ignorance. Juan, a schoolyard veteran at trading cards, and I had wrangled over his Filipino assignment a few nights ago.

Aren’t you a teacher? Juan asked, much too innocently, the woman with the butterfly smile.

I frowned but still barged into the trap when I explained, feebly, that I didn’t know the woman as she was born decades before my time.

To make up for that asinine excuse, I shuffled the deck until I found her card: Ines S. Villa-Gonzalez. According to the researchers, she was the only woman among four Cebuanos given the Premio Zobel, the country’s oldest award for excellence in Spanish literary writing.

In the 1930s, Gonzalez was an educator, a journalist, and an advocate for women’s suffrage. The woman with the butterfly smile and fighter’s eyes made me ashamed that I failed to cast my vote in three national and local elections.

Juan and I ended up taking turns, flipping 10 cards at a time and challenging the other to correctly name the Cebuanas. My three-decade headstart allowed me to show off (and recover face) before Juan.

But, gradually, I felt proud for another reason: to be mentored by and to work with Cebuanas like outstanding teacher and researcher Felisa Etemadi, journalist and historian Concepcion Briones, broadcaster Virginia Vamenta and gender advocate Portia Dacalos is to be aware that “heritage” is not old history but continuing present.

For 10-year-old Juan, heritage was even stranger than mastering verbs in Filipino. He wondered if the prolific writer Lina Espina-Moore was the mother of Hollywood actress-singer Mandy Moore. He took another look at Julia Ramon-Gandionco only after I explained that it was her avatar (using computer lingo for the gaming alter ego) used in Julie’s Bakeshop, maker of his favorite cheese bread and cornbread with the crunchy tips.

Juan did perk up when I flipped one card. “Gwendolyn F. Garcia,” he crowed. “Horse lady.”

When we came to slain lawyer Arbet Sta. Ana-Yongco, Juan said she was a “hero.” A teacher told their class that Yongco helped many women and children “find justice.”

One of her sons is his batch mate. He was on the second floor of their home when someone shot his mother, narrated Juan. “If (my classmate) didn’t see (the killer’s) face, how will he take his revenge?”

History can’t be dead if it raises such a bristling harvest of questions.

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Nov. 30, 2008 issue

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Cut that hurts

THE PAST semesters have made me change my views about call centers.

A student had to quit school to support herself last sem. Since it was midterms and her performance was exemplary, I proposed a flexible arrangement so she could at least continue the subjects she had with me.

The nature of the family crisis that figured in her decision to work seemed, to me, an even better reason to finish her studies.

After some weeks, though, she emailed that her training schedule changed. She had to pass this course because she needed the call center work. I respected her decision.

As I write this, I’m not sure if she’s back in school. But quite a number of the 80 students I’m working with this semester are working at call centers.

I used to flinch when I learned this. By the late 1990s, a few of my students just managed to drag themselves to my 7:30 a.m. class, except they often reached their seats with just a few minutes left before dismissal. Writing assignments’ 8 a.m. deadlines confused them, even though I’ve never bent this rule in over two decades of teaching.

And these were the survivors. Working on the graveyard shift seemed like a mordant prediction for preterminated university life. Unable to make up for the make-up work they missed in their classes, call center-working students dropped their school loads.

Or they wrote us off as an irrelevance. I once did the math while seating in my favorite chair, which has this student’s doodle: “push button to eject teacher.”

To acquire college “excellence,” a Mass Communication student pays, conservatively, P20,000 for one semester’s tuition and fees. She sits for three hours a week in a class moderated by a lecturer that might get P300 per hour. She spends another P20,000 for assignments, transportation, meals, lodging, all-night cram sessions. Upon completion of a writing class, she might now qualify as a neophyte reporter at P10,000 a month or at P300 per article, as a correspondent.

The math becomes increasingly malicious, based on figures: aside from a basic pay of P11,000 to P13,000 a month, a call center worker gets a monthly P2,500 food and transportation allowance and a performance appraisal bonus of P4,000. An agent meeting target quota sales gets an additional P11,500 commission plus a 30-50 percent night differential. “Spiffs” like appliances, cellular phone loads and gift checks boost the workers’ “sales per hour capacity.”

“All in all,” notes, “a well-performing agent gets a gross monthly income of more than P31,000.”

Unable to reach them in the confines of writing standards and class deadlines, I connect with them better when we’re both carping about jumping life’s hoops: work loads, bills, families.

For many a student, call center work is heaven-sent, specially when one’s parents decide they want a second adolescence. While many do support latte-and-Replay lifestyles, a lot also help younger siblings get the college education they defer for themselves. Supervisors and personnel officers haunt them every time they play musical chairs with call center employers.

“We must,” some say when they stumble in before I even open the classroom. The early morning light is no kinder on their tired 18-year-old faces as it is on my middle-aged wattles. After eight hours or more of professionally-induced self-control, they’re drunk with the desire to talk. Or keep one of the hardest silences.

Recent news of hundreds of Filipino workers getting laid off due to call center clients going under in the US meltdown has sparked anger, denial, jitters and fears on Internet forums. “Shove (layoff rumors) up your arse,” commented one, scoffing: where else can you find labor cheaper than the Filipino’s?

During early mornings with students, I listen and try to remember I’m not anyone’s mother. Still, I warn them from drinking too much coffee, smoking, unprotected sex. Listening to them rant against policies forcing them to fake accents and nationality, I really want to tell them to save their earnings, get their college degree and be whole.

But what is “whole?” For some 18-year-old breadwinners, a contact worker’s pay is passport to independence and family support.

So I never thought I’d see the day when I’d wish the business process outsourcing centers would remain the “sunshine industry.” Life’s tough when there’s no contest between losing the young and keeping them whole. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Nov. 23, 2008 issue

Saturday, November 15, 2008

In the presence of malice

BAITING bishops is a reprehensible pastime in this country, even for a dog like Monsi.

Monsi is not the real name of the mongrel that barks and chases the personal vehicle of a certain priest whenever it leaves the convent of a certain town somewhere near the tip of a certain province.

Although calling his name makes Monsi wag his tail more and give an answering comradely grin, work ethics demand I should withhold his real name.

One must protect the innocent, even canines that, due to a habit of chasing a cleric’s wheels, are at serious risk of losing either their teeth or immortal soul.

Those with malice in their hearts may read anything in Monsi’s barking-mad behavior: from the most uncharitable (“even the dog knows what the priest is up to”) to the simply impatient (“keep it shorter, is what that dog thinks of his last sermon”).

Since no one has ever said this to the face of the man behind the wheel that attracts Monsi’s constant aggravation, I presume no malice exists in the town.

But when I heard my students discuss how a packed crowd hearing novena in one of the historic churches in the city was urged to sign a petition denouncing the Reproductive Health Act, I not only remembered my irreverent wheel-chasing pal but also felt my incisors perceptibly lengthen and my saliva production increase—in Monsi, a sure sign that the priest’s vehicle was leaving the driveway, unholy opportunity for a chase and a chance to sink teeth.

During a chat with my teenage son, I again had this wolfish desire.

We were both reading in bed. While flipping a page of my book, I asked him if he had signed in school any petition on House Bill 5043.

What’s that?, came the mumbled response from behind his book.

I told him that it’s a law some lawmakers are trying to enact. If passed, HB 5043 will provide for population and reproductive health programs to be implemented from the barangay to the national level.

I added that the Reproductive Health bill mandates government agencies to inform Filipinos of the available safe choices about managing the size of one’s family, protecting the health of the mother and children, preventing sexually transmitted infections and other concerns related to reproduction.

Sex education will also be introduced in schools, I concluded.

Yes, was the only reply coming again from behind the book.

Unsure whether it was my son speaking or his book ricocheting sounds from the chaotic jungle of adolescent thoughts, I asked him to explain what the “yes” referred to.

Now recalling what transpired then, I realize that I didn’t ask only one follow-up question at a time, as the tradecraft of interviewing dictates so the source does not feel he’s dropped in the eye of a storm (or being chased by a tire-happy mongrel).

What I actually did was to bombard my son with questions, some of which ended with an interrogative inflection but with an imperative tone: what were you told before you signed the petition? How can you sign a petition for or against anything and not know what the matter is all about? Did you consider not signing that petition?

When my son finally put down his book, I saw that he considered the last question as one of those silly-mother thoughts: Ma, who would do anything against the priests?

I reversed tactics, hid my bared fangs: do you ever discuss sex in your lessons?

The book again went up: No.

Though I know my son sometimes despairs for my soul, my record of bites and misses attests that I am better than Monsi in resisting the lures of baiting bishops, if only because it feels that, as a Catholic, I am trying to bite my own tail.

For the nation is least at risk of impassioned debate, whether for or against the Reproductive Health bill. I cannot say the same for the Catholic form of obedience. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Nov. 16, 2008 issue

Saturday, November 08, 2008


G is a bottomless wonder. Since college, I’ve seen her cram in a lot of stuff—communication theories, jokes about men, law studies, jokes about men, liaison pressure, jokes about men, possible studies in finance.

Looking at that unflappable, endless profile, a stranger can have no inkling of the oceans sloshing inside.

But if you were to spend an hour with her, G can’t help but give herself away.

One, she whets her waspish wit on anyone born unfortunately not female.

Two, food commands her absolute focus but not as much as obsession no. 3—coffee.

Yet, last Friday, I was racked with doubt and seriously considered revising the Rules of G after my friend exhibited alarming unpredictability.

For a full 20 minutes and 37 seconds, she abandoned a steaming platter of spicy back ribs.

After placing her order for lunch, G excused herself, saying she would return after “quickly checking out something” in the mall.

When she finally returned, I thought my friend was a little too bright-eyed.

Later, after G ignored her brewed coffee for a full millisecond, I watched her with concern.

Just as I was beginning to wonder if something, or someone, she ate was wreaking havoc inside my bottomless friend, G takes out three things from her purse, which holds a notebook, phones, a coffeemaker and its back-up.

The three books rivet my attention.

And I end up plotting to murder my friend.

G turned out to be one of the first to check out “Their Books,” a benefit sale of books and magazines that were owned, read, reread and hoarded by what must be the most rabid sub-species of book lovers: writers.

Those familiar with the malady know that reading is a two-edged possession. At the outset, a person simplistically thinks that buying makes one own a book. But when turning a page already holds one in thrall, the balance of power shifts to the irreversible, and the possessor becomes the enslaved.

Short of the divine, can any earthly force induce a book lover to part with his opiate?

Now on its third and last day on the second floor of Ayala Center Cebu, positioned just across Watson’s, the sale is organized by the Tsinelas Association Inc., a group of volunteers that has been helping public school children and their families.

(Check out The Tsinelas Diaries ( to find out what this tireless bunch has been doing, from contributing chairs and setting up libraries to sending upland high school scholars through college.)

To fund two months of free art lessons for selected public schools, Tsinelas cajoled journalists, artists, musicians and just about anyone that cannot be trusted around a pen to contribute the books that moved them, blew a chill through them, made them howl when they saw the moon.

If you want to feed a book habit on a Third World budget or just desire to own a copy that was possessed by (or once possessed) your favorite writer, check out “Their Books” before mall closing today.

G’s coffee actually went cold while we examined her finds. We smelled the paper, tasted how the first pages read, and left the best for last: finding out who owned the books.

Her “Chicken Soup for the Soul” was well-thumbed by Louie Nacorda, memory warrior extraordinaire, whose collection of antiques and intimacy with old Cebu and Church lore confuse many to refer to him, very seriously, as “Monsignor.”

Black without relief and nearly unreadable, the signature scrawled on the inside cover of Ernest Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories” is unmistakably Insoy’s of Missing Filemon. The disenchanted seminarian and Bisrock diehard is also the tireless idealist behind Tsinelas and their collective dream of helping children discover the world of ideas and possibilities.

G’s last book was the easiest to place. Handsome, pristine and rare, the hardbound collector’s copy of Sylvia Plath’s poems was signed by the flowing but precise pen of Isolde D. Amante. Plath rivals Hemingway as America’s most prominent writer-suicide. Less morbidly, she shares with Amante, Sun.Star Cebu journalist and Peryodistang Pinay blogger, an ear for words and feel for nuances.

Looking across at G, I contemplate slitting my friend’s throat and walking away with her copy of Plath/Amante’s poems. Then I shudder, and the murderous thought abandons me. I return G’s books, smiling.

I have my revenge: her coffee’s cold and “Their Books” is still on. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Nov. 9, 2008 edition

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Identity crisis

IF you could take a piece of Cebu with you, what would it be?

The supermarket of a mall near the Mactan airport was an education. The native delicacies ranged near and far, such as Bacolod, Iloilo and Camiguin.

It might have been due to my eyeglasses, but I swear the dried mangoes from Guadalupe looked a little sallow and overshadowed.

Munching later on toasted peanuts from Iligan, I wondered if Cebu, as an entrepot, can still offer something unique and vibrant to visitors.

Somehow, the lechon of Cebu has become quite the cosmopolite, often boxed and ready for claiming from many an airport's conveyor belt.

In one TV magazine show episode, the host lifted a grimacing compatriot from its airport box, peeled away its suit of tinfoil, cubed the rubbery skin and meat, and then slathered the cuts with the sweet sludge-like sauce favored in the nation's capital.

If that lechon could protest about the disrespect, I bet it would have gathered what remained of its bodily parts and walked out of that show. Cebu lechon must be crispy on the outside, moist inside. It needs nothing more than a dash of pure coconut vinegar, with kolikot pepper and tiny but pungent Bisaya nga ahos.

It's not just the lechon that's having an identity crisis.

When my New York-residing cousin was here last month, he had an unusual request. Ito wanted to read about the alibata, the 14th-century native writing, or anything about the Cebu of our childhood.

For the record, he was born less than a year before I was. For complex historical as well as plain personal reasons, I set out to look for books to correct my cousin's time-warped recall, mainly that we were not born before the era of Spanish contact.

As it turned out, the task demanded a missionary's zeal.

After visiting bookstores around Cebu's malls, I concluded that publishers think there is a voracious market out there for the secret lives of cats, and none at all for Cebu and its past.

Going through one of my accidental purchases ("The Tribe of Tiger"), I had to agree. (To mark its territory as inviolate from other toms, a cat can twist his penis to spray even the undersides of leaves, where the rain cannot wash away the spray.)

As I had no intention to arouse in my cousin a deeply atavistic and competitive side, I shelved the books about the super cats and continued the search for the invisible Cebuano.

For the evidence seemed incontrovertible: Cebu has changed and yet remains the same.

In my childhood, there was only the Paul's Bookstore along Sanciangko St. Today, there are even specialty bookstores fulfilling every bookish desire except the wish of a Cebuano to bring back with him a whiff of the old home to his children, born across the seas.

My cousin would have gone back to Huntington with only just the murmuring of desire, if not for the excellent Cebuano Studies Center.

Here, I came upon a copy of Ayala Foundation Inc.'s "Cebu: More Than an Island." Published in 1997, the coffeetable book is unrivalled for its essays and photographs distilling the essence of being born in the kinapusoran (navel) of the country, to cite the unforgettable opening in Dr. Resil Mojares' essay.

I would have bought more than a copy except the few remaining ones in the library were reserved. When the Cebuano Studies Center's last stocks will be claimed, there will be no more copies left for purchase.

I hope there will be a reprinting, or a coming out of new works preserving what is surely passing.

Back in Huntington, my cousin found that jetlag or age was making it difficult for him to settle down.

Reading "Cebu: More Than an Island," Ito once "imagined tartanillas passing by my house at the crack of dawn."

Even more disorienting than hearing a horse-drawn carriage break the stillness of the New York suburbs is trying to glimpse the Cebuano in the narratives back home. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu's Nov. 2, 2008 issue