Saturday, January 30, 2010

Abno and other avatars

“I SEE you,” repeated by the protagonists of the hit movie, “Avatar,” captures the empathy of persons who are in communion with others despite their manifest differences.

In the scifi vision that James Cameron wrote and directed, an unexpected bond develops between a crippled mercenary and the humanoid he has spied on and will betray in exchange for a new pair of legs.

When the earthling and the Na’vi exchange the lines after a devastation that strips away the lies and pretences, I see how the moment redefines a popular romantic notion of love.

As the saying goes: love is blind.

In the moon called Pandora, orbiting somewhere in the depths of the Alpha Centauri star system, love is not love until you see the other, the self masked by skin, whether tinged a luminous blue or dull with a dying Earth’s pallor.

Though I did not see the movie on the wide screen and thus missed out on the three-dimensional effects that partially catapulted the Cameron opus to fame, I like this particular work of his.

To echo what is tantamount to a moment of realization among the moon-dwellers: I see you, Cameron.

He has been criticized as a filmmaker lavish with spectacles but myopic and simplistic in his view of the internal, more telling changes.

With “Avatar,” the man reminds us how quickly we fall into traps when we see without knowledge and understanding.

In computer jargon, an avatar is the recreation of a human being into a computer image. A three-dimensional model, a talking head or a real-time reproduction of an image is given a complete identity, which is called a telepresence.

In order to interact with others in a virtual environment, the human must become a virtual being.

Geeks did not invent this concept; it’s what happens in real life.

Recently, it was reported that the Cebu Pacific Airlines faces a P5-million civil suit for attempting to offload a child with developmental disability.

Last Dec. 23, Marites Alcantara and her son, John Arvin, was pressured by Cebu Pacific's purser and cabin crew to get off a plane bound for Manila from Hong Kong.

John Arvin has Global Developmental Delay, also known as Autism. The crew cited airline company rules that ban two special children from boarding the same flight.

The Alcantara family’s legal counsel said that the Cebu Pacific violated several laws, among these Republic Act 7277 or The Magna Carta for Disabled Persons.

After the filing of the lawsuit, the company released a statement that the crew’s attempts to refuse John Arvin from boarding his flight came from a “misinterpretation of government regulations designed to assure the safety of passengers."

The company also said it has “no policy that discriminates against persons with special needs.”

I first heard the news of the civil suit while waiting in a mall lounge. When John Arvin’s developmental disability was mentioned by the news anchor, I heard murmurs from the crowd I was with. “Abno diay (he’s abnormal after all).”

In “Avatar,” the traitor, before becoming the redeemer, is the operator of one of the Na’vi avatars, genetically engineered so that the humans can relate with and gain the trust of the Pandora natives.

In his interview with Time magazine, Cameron said that the movie “Avatar” was inspired by all the science fiction he absorbed as a child. In the nebulous future, scientific advancements make it possible to inject a human’s intelligence into a virtual and remotely located body.

On the other hand, in explaining what the movie’s title meant, Cameron also cited an older, pre-computer meaning of the word. “Avatar,” in Hindu, is a god reincarnated in the flesh.

In relating with people with disability, whom do we see: flawed others or people embodying the divine essence called life?

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Jan. 31, 2010 issue of “Matamata”

Saturday, January 23, 2010


The Jan. 23, 2010 issue of Sun.Star Cebu ran an article by Princess Dawn Felicitas, “‘Hubo’ mass marks end of feast, start of Lenten season”.

It is an excellent example of how revealing the narrow news hole can be.

The feature contains the basics of the news formula—when, where and the rest of the Ws and H—but includes details to make long-time observers thoughtful.

In the last paragraphs of her article—which made this reader think how in disrobing, the last items to be removed are the slightest but the ones lying closest to the skin—Felicitas narrated how the image of the Holy Infant had its crown removed first, followed by the orb, the scepter and the armlet, the bands, cape, tunic, the inner garments and finally, the boots.

The image was then dipped in perfumed water.

“The Sto. Niño was dressed up again with a less ornate attire and prayers were recited for each of the 33 pieces of clothing, which signifies an event in the life of Jesus on earth,” the reporter wrote in the article, which can be read in

Quoting from the “Hubo” mass homily of Fr. Raymundo Alcayaga, Felicitas reported that the rite represents the “self-emptying of the Lord,” as well as a call to “wear the coat of God.”

Attending the 7 a.m. mass, one of the 15 masses scheduled in the Basilica for last Friday’s “Hubo,” I heard the same message reiterated in the homily: to follow the Sto. Niño, be humble and be for others.

For this message alone, the “Hubo” rewrites the spectacle of a public undressing. Self-abasement, as a rule, does not travel on the same road as spectacles and performances.

Unlike Cebu’s devotion to the Sto. Niño, which spans centuries, the “Hubo” ritual was revealed for the first time to the public by the Augustinian fathers only in 1990. Before this, according to the same Sun.Star article, the Basilica fathers conducted the “Hubo” in private, witnessed only by a select group.

As a common noun, though, “hubo” has long been in use. These versions in Cebuano and English are more deeply rooted in the popular psyche.

In English, for instance, “to shed” can refer to acts natural and unnatural.
Only the intent of the act differentiates a snake molting skin from a performer shedding fake scales for the finale in an exotic entertainment number.

According to online dictionaries, “to shed” can also mean to “pour forth (tears),” “radiate (light),” or “repel without permitting penetration,” as duck feathers shed water.

Interesting, too, is the dialect’s variations of “hubo”.

When the word is repeated twice, “hubo-hubo” is not just a striptease but a travesty and a contradiction of the real thing.

In the shedding of inhibitions and dignity, the “hubo-hubo” mocks the revelation of the self. It turns persons—both the performer and the audience—into objects for exploitation.

In this season of politicians courting the electorate, will “Hubo” or “hubo-hubo” apply?

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Jan. 24, 2010 issue of “Matamata”

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Walking in the rain

I SMELL rain.

I’m writing this hours away from the grand procession capping the nine-day novena for the Holy Infant, Cebu’s favorite son.

This year the route seems to be longer than the previous ones. Walking in the rain will certainly be different.

A drizzle accompanied some of the novena masses I attended. “Blessings,” one priest said in a homily.

When I was a child, playtime in the rain had no word to describe it.

But the rain is just chill to me now. Around me, umbrellas are unfurled. I see many look at a leaden sky and see it as only heavy with obstacles. Traffic. Sickness. Flood. Tardiness.

Under the pellets of rain, the balloons bob up and down in the vendors’ hold. They remind of me of children pulling away from the grasp of handlers.

Escape? Processions mean crowds.

And water bottles.

In Cebu, where most people prefer to ride than to walk and political demonstrations do not count as local pastime, any massing on the streets nearly always has religion at its roots.

This year the faithful are called to protect the environment.

In a few hours, will we see what we’ve always seen in the past: water bottles discarded along the procession route?

Man left his footprints on the moon. Why not water bottles?

Processions involve walking.

And walking is thirsty work.

Throw in vendors who flit in and out of the crowds like mosquitoes, hawking bottled water and whatnot.

A trail of plastic tracks the paths taken by devotees. Piety is also a form of thirst.

This year, can we desire to replenish more than lost bodily fluids?

Can we keep with us a lightweight bottle emptied of its contents as easily as we carry for hours a representation in wood or resin of the God of all creation?

Can we expect trash receptacles labeled for segregation to be as conspicuous as festive arches and buntings along the streets?

The Copenhagen Summit in December 2009 recognized the role of each one in keeping temperature increases to below 2°C.

Reducing CO2 emissions seems disconnected from the tiny figure in red and gold bobbing in a human sea. So grand, so distant.

In the crowd, I am closer to the children and youths darting in and out of the procession, collecting water bottles in the sacks they carry.

More than once, I’ve seen a youngster fish out bottles that fell in open manholes or canals. Does anyone see them, the clogged waste and the child knee-deep in filth?

We walk. We desire to complete the circuit. We chase a vision.

We cross paths with these unappointed street sweepers. We find them a nuisance: they break cordons, get in the way, distract us from the red-and-gold vision.

Ignorant of Copenhagen, the plastic chasers also ignore us. They see only the litter they can convert to cash.

Driven by different kinds of thirst, our lines snake back to where they came from.
I smell rain but don’t for a moment believe that it can wash us clean.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Jan. 17, 2010 “Matamata” column

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Boknoy’s complaint

STEPPING inside C’s, the family’s barbershop for a decade or so, I figure a haircut is in order for the new year.

Then I meet Boknoy, 10, one and one-third fingers short. (Minors’ real names are withheld.)

At first, my eyes are fixed on Natan’s scissors. Haircuts are reliable pick-me-ups, but only when your barber is not whacking your head as if it were the economy.

This kid walks in. His grin is bigger and more crooked than the right arm he suspends from a blue sling. He squats on the chair to my left, dials the payphone and engages someone in a meandering discussion about the spaghetti that is taking its sweet time to find its balls or something.

The squeaking monologue makes the dozing man on my right sit up. “Buhi pa diay (so he’s still alive?),” he cuts in on Natan, dissecting the mayor.

The shears pause. Natan breathes in, fills both lungs, and plunges back into the deep.

That’s how I first met Boknoy, a bright fourth grader whose wrist bone and fingers were blown to bright red bits by a Super Lolo a day after Christmas.

On Christmas eve, Boknoy and friends came upon this illegal explosive, discarded in a trash heap, during their wandering.

After the overnight carousing on Dec. 25, while most adults were still asleep, the friends slipped inside an empty lot and tried to ignite the canister with a firecracker.

The first two tries failed.

On the third attempt, Boknoy, hearing a faint whistling coming from the core, picked up the canister to throw it away.

According to Bobby, his uncle, the explosion in the empty lot was heard as far as the barbershop, blocks away.

Nisang, Boknoy’s maternal grandmother, who was peddling her native cakes then, shrieked. An explosion that loud must have taken off someone’s head, she was overheard to mutter.

The need to earn for herself and her grandchildren explains why Nisang had already left the barberohan for the next suki (regular customer) when Boknoy pushed past the grimy glass door of his uncle’s barbershop , cradling what was left of his right hand.

Like a king indulging his courtiers, Boknoy allows the men around him to tell his story. Whenever someone walks in and the storyteller rewinds the tale, the kid allows the braver ones to look at the purple stump.

With eyes as huge as his, he doesn’t have to say anything. In the presence of those eyes, I can’t say anything.

Natan and company make up for our lack. They’re so proud of him, they use the hardest, crudest jokes to jostle him, expecting him to hold steady because he is after all Boknoy, survivor.

Sleeper: It’s a good thing that it was only the older kids with him that morning. What if it had been the smaller ones? They follow him as if he gave birth to them.

Bobby: He looked a little pale but he never cried. Even when I got some cloth to wrap and fold what was dangling. The district doctor said that if the bone fragments were any finer, he would be now known as Boknoy the Sandman.

Natan: When he first arrived with his grandmother and sister, he had no teeth. Now, he has one and a third of his fingers missing. Does anybody have better luck than Boknoy?

Nine years ago, Nisang returned to Cebu with two of her grandchildren, Boknoy, aged one, and his sister, Maritel, about five. In Manila, Nisang’s daughter and her partner often “pawned” Boknoy for shabu. When Maritel complained of hunger pains, her parents got the child to snort.

Scared that her daughter might eventually sell her grandchildren, Nisang left Manila. She sells native snacks, works for a store and washes clothes for a living. Helped by relatives, the grandmother keeps Boknoy and his sister in school.

After that unfortunate comment during the explosion, Nisang treats her grandson to takeout spaghetti. “Boknoy feels he’s so much loved, he’s thinking of blowing up his other hand,” says Natan.

Before I leave the barbershop, I have to ask those eyes: what’s on your mind?

Boknoy of the most long-lasting luck complains: “My penmanship is so ugly.” 09173226131

* First published in the Jan. 10, 2010 issue of Sun.Star Cebu's "Matamata" column

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Marking place

WAITING for a “habal-habal” to ride to the uplands a day after the start of the year is like waiting for lost love: the best, if it ever existed, happened in the past.

The motorcycles for hire that usually whiz up and down these mountain roads like iridescent dragonflies on a nectar binge are predictably scarce on Jan. 2.

Do the drivers refrain from their roadside wait because people usually make it home before the year ends?

Or do travellers take their cue from a near shave in the past, deciding not to entrust their luck on a driver with a hangover?

The discrepancy between the mad rush for home as the old year waned and the desultory trickle trailing after the ushering of the next year makes it always easy to answer the two questions everyone seems to ask at this time:

Where was I when the year came to an end?

Where was I when the year began?

If one stays in place, the answer can be easily found at the end of a countdown: the 60 seconds it takes to separate one set of 360 or so days from the subsequent one.

Tradition also dictates making a racket to drive away ill fortune, eating special dishes to sweeten the start, coming together with other families to continue a shared history, filling to the brim every household container to drive away want, collecting at least 13 round-shaped fruits to summon wealth, hearing mass in thanksgiving and as promise.

My partner and I like to take our chance, loitering in a near empty rural market, waiting for a “habal-habal” driver who might or might not show up.

This year, the season’s blues went on overdrive by sending sheets of rain through the open windows of the bus, distressing several infants with demonstrably powerful lungs and a box of chickens who were, against the trend, returning to the uplands with their heads still connected to their necks.

This year, we left our boys in the city, to their virtual worlds.

“Virtual” sounds so much like “viral,” my choice for the word of the year, if not for this generation.

The contagious spreading of communication among portals, chiefly through the Internet, hooks us to a pastime of keeping lists.

Anticipating the holidays, we list the presents and intentions we can’t afford to forget.

Wrapping up the year that was, we list the best, or the worst, that distinguishes this from the rest of the increasingly featureless past.

While the city around us exploded into a frenzy of counting on the eve of Jan. 1, I followed the lists sprouting on every TV channel, in websites that prided in following every shimmy of popular taste.

Newsmakers were so populous as to be common. One or two resurrected the original meaning and intent of the word when he or she was set up as the person defining the year, for better or worse.

But due to differing news judgments, one can actually form an informal club whose membership ticket could be to hold a “Person of the Year” title.

Many portals pushed on us other choices, masquerading as “The Year’s Losers and Winners.” Can a person be made or unmade by a single event? Apparently, yes.

What about second chances? What about changes made after a list is made and spread?

That’s cause for another list. It’s viral, thanks to the social networks defining what we talk about, what we remember.

The bus that took us away from the city and its hook-ups parked beside a roadside stopover.

Glancing at a bus parked across the highway, heading to where we came from, I saw a woman bury her face in the stomach of an infant she was holding aloft. The child, about a hundred pounds or so lighter and minus a head full of hair, could have been the woman’s twin. Did the woman see where she came from? Did the child see where it was going?

After the usual interval, our fellow passengers returned to their seats.

The bus across rolled forward as we moved on. Someone could very well imagine a looking-glass mirror, from which we sprang, twin reflections headed for opposing ends: they to theirs and we to our yearly appointment with the “habal-habal” that may or may not come to a deserted market a day after the world was again renewed. 09173226131

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu's Jan. 3, 2010 issue of "Matamata"