Saturday, December 17, 2011

Niño, by way of Nora

CHRISTMAS is a visual feast.

Of all the indelible memories I retain from my youth, the belen is at the center.

The tableau of the Child born in a manger, witnessed only by his parents, animals and shepherds, still spins many versions in my mind.

Long before I saw the irony of the world’s salvation prefigured in that rude birth, I was drawn to the infinite opportunities of storytelling fulfilled from merely standing in front of a belen.

This must have been fueled by the traditional visits we made to grandparents and aunts. Theirs was the generation that did not merely set up a belen but staged one, complete with several hands to paint and spruce up the figurines and backdrop, and create a Bethlehem landscape that, in its reinterpretations, strayed far from the factual and Biblical settings.

One aunt had chalets and castles and hail, made of tiny balls of Styrofoam, littering the orderly streets overlooked by the Child beaming from an animal’s feeding trough placed inside a cave. Every December, another aunt reconstructed on her own the tedious, painstaking mechanism that made this woman-made waterfalls trickle as backdrop to the Child receiving guests, the human and the beastly.

When my eldest was born 18 years ago, I, too, started my family’s belen. I searched for a figurine of the Child not long after my son’s birth in September. Yet, it was only a few days before Christmas that I took home a box padded with wood shavings to cushion a tiny figure.

The quest almost became fruitless because I often took an instant, unshakeable dislike to the vapid, simpering, sly faces of nearly all of the figurines I scrutinized from downtown to uptown, from shelves thickly coated with an air of neglect to the glass-encased displays that once carried the cryptic sign, “Lovely to look at but yours to take home once broken”.

One I eventually took home, not because I intentionally dropped it to get a sales clerk to decode the shop’s English but because the figurine passed the “Nora Aunor eye test”.

According to a movie critique read once, the eyes hold the secret why Nora happens to be the greatest living actress of the country.

Prepared to risk his life at the hands of fanatic hordes of diehard followers of other actresses like Vilma Santos, this critic argued that only Nora can pass the challenge of having one’s face, hair, body and even screen partner covered so that only her eyes are unmasked.

Only the great Nora has those fathomless pools of feelings. Everyone else is just acting.

So at this store selling religious items where my grandmother once had a stint of selling at a time when married women were expected stay home, I found the Child. I also took home the crib of twigs it was lying in.

At the headrest is a cross with an errant horizontal bar. It always looks as if some wind is doing its best to blow away that feeble cross.

Both the cross of twigs and the Child with Nora’s eyes have stood well the years.

The plastic Little Tikes barnyard animals, then the K’Nex assembly and later, the Star Wars crew have all been given away. These were the toys my sons played with, the same ones they arranged around the Child when Christmas drew near.

Makebelieve can be rough. The figurine has lost the tip of one little finger. When the neck snapped, we performed emergency reconstruction. Fortunately, there is always glue at home.

Following the story-bending traditions of the women in the family, my sons and I recreate the Belen around the Child every year. Luke Skywalker may not have been in the scene at Bethlehem, but in the boys’ stories, he was. The kid with the Force in him and the other Kid, born one silent night.

Now, instead of toys, the boys ask for permission for sleepovers. Now, the Transformers fellows hanging around the Child are “collectibles,” grown-up toys teenagers will never move around or weave stories about.

The Child still has Nora’s eyes. When my hands cover everything else except for those depthless pools, I hear the boys’ stories again.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Dec. 18, 2011 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

Saturday, December 10, 2011


EXCELLENCE and service.

For embodying these intertwined values, 50 alumni of the University of the Philippines (U.P.) received Oblation statuettes from the U.P. Alumni Association Cebu Chapter Foundation Inc. (UPAACCFI).

The statuettes symbolize the “Tatak UP” award, given for the first time by the UPAACCFI during the Alumni Homecoming held last Dec. 2, 2011.

The figure of a nude man, with an upturned face and arms fully extended at his side, is the icon most associated with U.P.

Found everywhere—from official logos to the shirts UPians pair with slippers and shorts—the Oblation endures in its original symbolism.
Weathering climactic, ideological, political and administrative turbulence, even media homogenization—the eponymously named Oblation Run of streaking nude men is a primetime TV staple, often shorn of the reasons behind the protest—the Oblation stands for “selfless sacrifice”.

Guillermo E. Tolentino made the original sculpture, which is found in the U.P. Diliman Main Library Building. He was commissioned by then U.P. president Rafael Palma, who suggested for inspiration the second stanza of Jose Rizal’s “Mi Ultimo Adios”: “In fields of battle, deliriously fighting,/ Others give you their lives, without doubt, without regret/ … If the home or country asks, it's all the same—it matters not.//”
Of this creation, Guillermo wrote: “(The Oblation) symbolizes all the unknown heroes who fell during the night.”

Whether irreverently nicknamed as “Oble” or the politically correct “Pahinungod,” the Oblation statue gracing every UP campus is a thing to behold, silhouetted against the purity of an early morning sky or the palette of colors seeping in the horizon with the dying of each day.

Gazing up the statue, viewers are often mystified by the leaves that twine at the base, rooting the feet to the mound of rocks that symbolize the different islands.

The sculptor explained this detail: “The ‘katakataka’ (wonder plant) whose roots are tightly implanted on Philippine soil, is the link that binds the symbolized figure to the allegorical Philippine Group. ‘Katakataka’ is really a wonder plant. It is called ‘siempre vivo’ (always alive) in Spanish. A leaf or a piece of it thrown anywhere will sprout into a young plant. Hence, it symbolizes the deep-rooted patriotism in the heart of our heroes. Such patriotism continually and forever grows anywhere in the Philippines.”

In the present, who are the katakataka “rekindling the U.P. spirit,” the homecoming theme?

The UPAACCFI chose 50 individuals whose contributions lie in the areas of science and medicine; social change and advocacy; law, public service and governance; business and entrepreneurship; art, design and culture; education; and media and communication.

The first batch of U.P. Tatak awardees are not just graduates of different campuses. They vary in their prominence. Some are well-known to the public but were distinguished by the alumni association for their service in areas many may not be familiar with. Some closely hew to Tolentino’s description of “unknown heroes”. Some have made it their life’s work to pursue advocacies before these become political catchwords.

As a metaphor for patriotism, the katakataka creates a sense of ambivalence: does this plant still exist? What is its local name?

Rereading Tolentino, I realize that the spirit of excellence and service is more enduring than expected. Love of country and belief and stakeholdership in its future is the flame entrusted to every Filipino to keep “siempro vivo”.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Dec. 11, 2011 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

Saturday, December 03, 2011


LAST Dec. 2, journalist Carol Arguillas from Mindanao posed a question to the students filling the Center for Performing Arts at the University of San Jose-Recoletos: do you want to become a journalist?

Arguillas, news editor of the online news service Mindanews, is the 2011 Marshall McLuhan Prize winner. The Canadian Embassy, which initiates the annual search, awarded Arguillas last June for the excellence of her body of works as a reporter and editor.

During the Dec. 2 Marshall McLuhan Forum Series on Responsible Media at the USJ-R, the audience, dominated by coeds taking up Mass Communication in different colleges and universities in Cebu, answered Arguillas with a soft but instant, “No”.

Arguillas then discussed the demands of journalism—read, research, serve the public—and showed images of a beauty-drenched Mindanao rarely glimpsed in the war and conflict coverage of national media.

When Arguillas posed again the question—“Do you want to be a journalist?”—the answer became a resounding, “Yes”.

What caused the change of heart? I mused in my seat. On the jeepney ride back to my college after the forum came the second question: how many of those aspiring to be journalists write for a campus publication?

A few years back, when a local newsroom advertised for applicants to fill the posts of reporters or editors, the advertising copy cited that a campus journalism background was an asset.

Based on expectations, writing for the student paper seems to be an essential rite of passage for a person intending to devote his or her professional life to journalism.

Realities reveal the contrary: if anything, the campus press is at risk of losing a mass audience and a deep pool of talented individuals that could have committed to the unrelenting, uncompensated rigors of campus coverage.

Let me qualify key terms. By campus press, I refer to the publication that is funded by every student who “contributes” every semester, whether he or she likes it or not, a fixed amount for a publication, which may find print or not.

This suspension of several conditions any publisher lusts for: a regular stream of funds to ensure publication of material that may or may not be read by a mass audience. Outside campuses, publications survive to print another day because these are patronized by their audience.

The condition for survival? A publication must be read. To be read, a publication must be credible, viewed as filling a need for information and meaning. Nowhere but in campuses can you find ghost or irregular or ignored publications that continue to be printed for ghost audiences.

To be relevant, who should campus publications be addressing? The studentry, whose fees sustain the production of the so-called student publication. A mass audience is not a select niche of individuals. It is not the administration or the faculty. Nor is it any student party or the student council.

Like the administration and faculty, campus politicians and student councils are subjects of coverage. A student paper controlled by any entity or ideology enters conflicts of interest that will eventually bleed it of balance, accountability and credibility.

In the 1980s, I was a campus journalist. In the words of my editor, I am now a quasi-journalist: one foot in the academe, the other in the industry.

My younger and older selves agree: the campus paper has to keep its balance between reportage and advocacy, somehow connecting the sleepwalking majority to those who are awake to and vigilant about student rights and responsibilities.

My older self, though, has seen what the younger couldn’t even imagine: that technology would advance and open campus journalism to desktop publication, blogging and online networking.

In the 1980s, students still got copies of campus publications, unreadable or not, to fan themselves with or sit on.

Today, with Facebook, Blogger and scan-and-print, who will wait for you?

( 0917-3226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Dec. 4, 2011 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column