Saturday, March 24, 2012

An unfinished tale

Tito owed me a story.

In a Jan. 8, 2012 email, he said that “one of these days,” he “maybe” will tell me the “story behind the making of ‘Amen (So Be It)’."

On that day, this space ran my thoughts after I went to the “Contemporary Cebu” exhibit mounted at the Cebu City Museum.

I wrote in “Instructive accident,” the “Matamata” column for Jan. 8, 2012: “In ‘Amen (So Be It),’ white smudges obliterate a sea of faces. The symbol of purity, white here is anything but restful. (Wenceslao ‘Tito’) Cuevas wields the color with the icy precision of an executioner expunging, reducing the canvas not to the original state of blankness but the bleakness of a death-soaked field.”

That same evening, Tito wrote to thank me. He capped that email with the promise of a story, a promise I remembered last Wednesday, when my fellow teacher, Karl Roque, told us in the faculty room that Tito passed away last Sunday, Mar. 18.

It’s hard to think I won’t be running again into Tito. I first met him in the year 2001, when he lent some of his works to accompany an essay Raymund Fernandez wrote about Cebu art for the maiden issue of The Cebu Yearbook.

When Tito brought out an immense abstract work from his Volkswagen Combe (which has his artwork covering the windows like avant-garde sunscreens), I fidgeted but had to admit aloud that I didn’t know which was the right side up as I would have to instruct the photographer. Tito pointed out his signature, a swirl I first mistook as part of the art.

Rather than dismiss this ignoramus, Tito talked, and talked in the parking space outside the P. del Rosario office of Sun.Star Cebu. Later, when I knew him better, I told him he would make a good teacher, not because he knew the answers. Even though I was hardly more than an acquaintance, I saw that part of Tito his family and friends value in him: he was generous with himself, and gentle with those who stood outside the sanctum of art, admiring but never initiated into its mysteries.

The last time I saw him was in a clinic. I was picking up medicine prescribed for my son, and he was waiting for his doctor to show up.

A conversation about his battered leather satchel digressed into an exhaustive, passionate discussion about the virtues of the Volkswagen Beetle left by my late father. My sister and I were mulling about selling it. When I told Tito that it was a Beetle assembled in Germany and despite being older than me, had retained nearly all of its original parts, he argued why we should restore it, why selling it would betray my father’s efforts to preserve it.

How could a piece of pre-Berlin Wall vintage fire up a modernist? I would not have been able to string together all of Tito’s stories if I had not met Nena.

Nena was a regular at the 7 a.m. masses I once heard before walking to my class. When we became friends, we often talked about children, folk cures and the unpredictability of the weather and AM radio announcers (listening to them was a routine for Nena and my late father).

When I first visited her at home, I found out that my self-effacing friend had two surprises: she has a gift for quilting and she married the man who gave me a crash course on art in a downtown parking lot.

At first, whenever Tito was around, it was hard to focus on Nena. Tito’s stories and interest in people are as grand and sweeping as his art. Nena’s quilting consists of long silences working the Singer sewing machine her mother owned and tiny, nearly invisible stitches that put together a canvas of intersecting minutiae.

With every visit to the Cuevas home, though, I discovered two people who could inhabit the same room, even after years of marriage, in perfect complementation. I saw Nena at church, never Tito. I saw Tito at exhibits and on the road, never Nena.

At home, though, one completed the other: Tito couldn’t find something without asking Nena where she had thoughtfully filed it away; Tito spun stories behind the quilt his Inday, as he called her, was silently piecing together before my eyes.

Though he has rushed away again, leaving another tale unfinished, I’m grateful. “Padayon (continue),” Tito.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Mar. 25, 2012 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Demons and heathens

THE minute I upload the last set of my students’ final grades, I’m heading for the churches.

Summer used to spell two months of reading, my reward for working for 10 months.

This summer, I plan to take advantage of the long, dry days to visit first the church of Sibonga. I want to see the face of the devil.

It was my town history editor, Dr. Madrileña dela Cerna, who first told me about this rare depiction in the mural that adorns the ceiling of the Church of the Nuestra Señora del Pilar of Sibonga.

Then last January, my fellow teacher Raymund Fernandez revived the intrigue while chatting about the ways and reasons artists depict religious figures. Mons was then holding an exhibit of his works with this theme. I thought that his sculpted and carven images of the Blessed Virgin had faces or body parts, such as bare feet and a child-swollen belly, I’ve never seen in traditional Catholic literature or iconography.

Mons told me about the devil sharing the Sibonga church ceiling space with God and the other celestial beings. What inspired the artist to create this image of a “pak-an ug sungayan nga demonyo (winged and horned demon)”?

While Mons is understandably curious about art history and theory, I am more drawn to the man behind the ceiling art. Glimpse the artist in this “Point Cebu” profile ( “What is most eye-catching (of the Church of the Nuestra Señora del Pilar of Sibonga) is the yellowish light that suffuses the interior and lights up the predominantly brownish-amber tones of the mural on the ceiling done by Raymundo Francia.”

Who is Francia? Of the young artists that created in the late 1920s the “obras maestras (masterpieces)” in Cebu’s churches built in the Spanish era, Francia distinguished himself.

In an article about the 2008 exhibition on Bohol’s church masterpieces (, “Kisame: Visions of Heaven on earth,” Francia is referred to as “Cebu’s Michelangelo”.

This tribute impresses because Francia was self-taught, having never undergone formal training in art.

Two towns away from Sibonga is the church whose ceiling art was painted by “Maestro Canuto”. Arching above the heads of devotees or sightseers in the San Guillermo de Aquitania Church in Dalaguete are scenes from the Bible and religious symbols painted by Canuto Avila on the church’s barrel-like ceiling.

According to art historians, Avila and Francia were commissioned to create the art decorating the interiors of the Spanish colonial churches in Cebu and Bohol during the 1920-30s. Since the Sibonga church ceiling art is established as done by Francia and that of Dalaguete is solely credited to Avila, I want to visit both churches and compare.

My curiosity stems from the puzzle stirred up by the religious artworks Avila and Francia jointly created in the Bohol churches: who was the better artist? Because he was often referred to as “maestro (teacher),” Avila is deemed by some as the mentor. Cannot the mentored surpass the mentor?

Avila and Francia are fortunate to have created art that endures, primarily because their works are part of “living museums,” the Spanish era-built churches that are not just massive and solidly built but continue to sprawl with prominence in our physical and interior spaces.

What about the backdrops Avila created for plays? Where are the landscapes of Francia?

For although Cebu can claim to a wealth of creativity, its people still treat artists and their works as below the level of entrepreneurs and merchants, even not quite at the level of politicians—a back-handed slight to be fervently grateful for.

While I was recently checking papers in our faculty room, a Capitol employee came to borrow the artworks of my colleague, Javy Villacin, for an event the Cebu Province was mounting. As the Capitol employee was carting away the three massive works, I wonder if the fellow or his bosses know the difference between a raw sheet of plywood and a canvass distilling a mystery not even science can solve.

Visit at least the churches while art survives in Cebu.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Mar. 18, 2012 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The changeable lechon de Cebu*

CAN food be a reliable guide for tracing history and heritage?

It’s after all accepted to turn to a native to find out what is the local specialty and more importantly, where to get it. Yet, will someone from the inside see actually eye-to-eye with an outsider?

While documenting a regional seminar, I was asked to recommend the “best lechon” in Cebu. Noting my pause, the visitor asked if he had made a mistake in assuming I was a Cebuano.

I wasn’t able to answer right away because I was debating which information would be useful to him. Confidently, I can suggest a number of lechon makers whose roast suckling pigs travelers love to take home as “pasalubong”.

That’s not to say that, if I were younger and less protective to the point of paranoia of the state of my arteries, I would line up outside these sellers for their version of pure fat-saturated sin.

One’s harder to please for being born in the island that ranks at the top of Anthony Bourdain’s “hierarchy of pork”.

Bourdain has a multimedia following as a food guru who’s adventurous and irreverent in wit and taste. Writing in his blog, “Heirarchy of Pork,” Bourdain crowed: “It can now be said that of all the whole roasted pigs I’ve had all over the world, the slow roasted lechon I had on Cebu was the best.”

Benefiting from Bourdain’s endorsement is a local lechon maker whose branches have sprouted around the city. Yet, it’s interesting that in an all-Cebuano meeting I joined, where the choice of lechon maker, unlike other items in the agenda, had to be reached by consensus, not once was Bourdain’s anointed mentioned.

Thus, I conclude that travelers prefer Cebu lechon for reasons a local may never think of. First, it’s easily accessible. This means a stall in a mall. This rules out commuting for an hour at least to Carcar plaza, disembarking and walking (not riding) to get inside the wet market, running the gauntlet of rivals to reach a “suki (regular)” who will pack the meat while you get a free “taste,” arrange on top the neatly chopped chessboard of crispy skin, and separately bag the “inagos” or meat droppings and more fat-saturated juice for pouring on piping hot rice to match your lechon when you get home another hour or so after you catch a ride back again at the plaza.

I shy away from lechon in a mall. Not only does it cost more, the poor porker should don a jacket to prevent goosebumps from the centralized air-conditioning.

The best lechon means, for a citizen in the Age of Travel and Terrorism, travel-friendly packaging. No banana leaf wrap can get past an X-ray machine.

Yet for a Cebuano, it wouldn’t really be lechon if it were not wrapped in banana leaf (to enhance the aroma, perfectly complementing the traditional herb-and-spice stuffing) before being placed in a plastic bag (to keep the oil from a lap or the family car seat). Most strange to a Bisdak is the cosmopolitan version of lechon de Cebu, perfectly camouflaged inside a styro pack or a box.

During hours of waiting at the Mactan airport, I lost count of these immaculate white boxes dangling from or blending in modular harmony with Samsonites and Jansport trolley bags. I thought these were minimalist-designed travel packs stashing gizmos until I noticed a jaunty pig swinging a generous behind ending in a twirly tail. It might have been designed by Walt Disney himself.

As a Cebuano whose elders earned a living roasting pig, I can reconstruct from memory how an animal can get berserk with anger and pain as every struggle for life impales it deeper into the knife-edge, how every squeal shatters and shatters again the cold of dawn with something quick and hot, how before it becomes the toast of the fiesta table the resigned corpse gleams, hairless, drained, ghostly, waiting for the charcoal pit to give its holiday coat of brown-turning-reddish bursting split skin, what goes into the making of a bowl of “dugo-dugo (blood pudding),” which no trick of pepper or metaphor has ever really spiced or sanitized enough for me.

Don’t worry. If you ask me for the “best lechon de Cebu,” I’ve simplified the choices: stuffing of lemongrass, heart of banana or Arroz Valenciana?

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Mar. 11, 2012 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

Saturday, March 03, 2012

“Matamata”: Picking bones*

CAN you eat and sleep with human bones?

It was with a jolt that I learned from a colleague that the room where we ate lunch and rested also stored a skeleton.

Someone donated the remains for students to study the human body. When there was a hitch in constructing the model, the bones were moved to the darkroom.

The box containing the bones resurfaced to our attention when the room was renovated. While our group talked about stopping wood rot and condemning power outlets, the box containing what used to be a person reposed not two feet away— not quite yet in a state of eternal rest due to an earthly conflict of theory and practice.

Who was he? Or she?

In the confusion of awareness, ascertaining the gender seemed as important as determining what should be done for what was in the box. This after all was someone who moved around in this world before moving on.

What if the family of cats that slinked in and out of our rooms had helped themselves to the box when the waste basket pickings were lean, say, over a long weekend? After all this time, we might not even have enough to honor the dead or to construct a model for artists to sketch.

Yet not one of us approached and opened the box, lying on top of old term papers.

It’s more than superstition that makes us uneasy around bones. When my great grandfather passed away, the clan placed him to the right of my great grandmother’s remains. I was told couples should never be separated, even by death.

Behind the expansive slab of stone where they reposed, workmen constructed smaller square shelves.

This became a favorite place for us children to hide behind in our games. It was a two-day wonder for me when they transferred other bones in the cabinets I thought were made to hold unused flower vases or candle holders. When you were buried for a long time, how could people tell this pile of dust was you, not someone else?

Recently, over coffee, my friend E. recounted how she and her cousin searched in cemeteries for ancestors that migrated from Germany to Australia. They had only a few handed-down stories of the mother and older siblings of their patriarch. If family history is a many-roomed complex, E. and her cousin never played near these locked, boarded-up rooms of their clan’s past. How can you find the past without memory as your guide?

With the assistance of a local historical foundation, E. and her cousin gained access to a database, which listed all the deceased who shared the family name as their patriarch. Their search eventually ended with them, reunited, walking around cemetery plots, whose coordinates were specified in the database.

In the National Library of Australia, amateurs piecing together bits of their family history can help themselves to all kinds of records and indexes in paper, microform and electronic formats: births, deaths and marriages, immigration and shipping, naturalization, parish registers, censuses and, yes, cemetery transcripts.

In this country, knowing the past is racing against the inevitable: memories decaying, paper decaying, lives ending. Bones cast a superstitious pall but are poor storytellers. While trying to trace how my family’s history began, I realized I did not even know where my great great grandparents were buried.

I called my uncle, who, at 87, can vividly trace our ancestors’ route from the old Catholic cemetery to the bone chambers in a private cemetery. The very same cabinets I left my offering of candle stumps, wilting flowers and balls of wax. Whose marble slab released the day’s heat to our flushed cheeks, pressed against it while hiding and giggling those long endless afternoons when the young played beyond the reach of ancient, mute bones.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Mar. 4, 2012 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

Finding Lonso and Amoros

PERSONAL history is the business of raising phantoms.

In this country, memory—even of the intimate—is at the mercy of termites, fire, war, even lack of a permanent address.

Even worse, since it does not only leave no trace but creates no tracts, is apathy.

I felt this gossamer flutter when I researched recently about my great great grandfather Juan “Hantoy” Solon. He is the stranger preserved in a sepia photograph stored by my elders.

His wife Jacinta “Intang” Palacio Solon is different. In 1998, I wrote a newspaper article about my great great grandmother and the hojaldres named after her. My source was my aunt, Juanita “Niting” Solon Villarosa.

I was often at Tita Niting’s home to read magazines. She had a hobby of cutting out recipes. I was indifferent to cooking but liked listening to her stories of the old days. She recalled how her grandmother created a dainty that became a favorite pre-war “pasalubong,” delivered by horse-drawn “tartanilya” from the Calle Zulueta home to the pier, where their buyers awaited.

After Intang died, her husband Hantoy and son, Filomeno “Menoy,” continued Hojaldres de Jacinta Palacio de Solon, later known as Hojaldres de Cebu.

In 1998, I was fascinated with Intang. Aside from being a wife and mother, she was an entrepreneur at a time when to be female was to fulfill a manifest destiny that rarely extended beyond home and church. Yet, she died young. As her figure retreated to the shadows, my excursion to the past ended.

Recently, I revisited the Zulueta period to seek more clarity about another phantom: Intang’s widower Hantoy.

My guide is my uncle, Jesus “Etot” Francisco Solon, grandson of Intang and Hantoy. At 87, he can not only outwalk many of his peers, his memories are more lucid and detailed than the records and memorabilia he stored over the years.

What he regrets deeply, though, is losing the notebook where he jotted down the “balak” (poems) Hantoy dictated when he was bedridden. According to a 2005 Philippine Graphic article written by Fr. Miguel A. Bernad, one of their pre-war student boarders, Hantoy spoke in Spanish but wrote poems in Visayan.

Rainy days inspired Hantoy. Dressed in a cap, sweater and loose balloon trousers tucked into socks—Fr. Bernad nicknamed him as “The Baseball Player”—Hantoy penned poetry that was published in the local dailies under the pen name “Lonso,” a play on his family name.

When the Americans bombed Cebu, the family evacuated to Kotkot, Liloan. In the chaos, Tito Etot lost the notebook containing many of the Lonso “balak”. Only one endures, a 1928 poem entitled “Alang sa Mga Inday,” republished in the Cebuano Studies Center anthology, “Cebuano Poetry (Sugbuanong Balak)”.

After I read Lonso’s original Cebuano and the English translation by Simeon Dumdum, Jr., Tito Etot then turned the anthology’s pages and showed me a “balak” penned by another Solon relative. Reading the title and first stanzas struck a chord in me.

According to “Cebuano Poetry,” Hermenegildo Solon wrote “Garbosong Bukid (Proud Mountain)” in 1907.

On May 5, 2009, the noontime heat was making me drowsy in my note-taking at the Badian Municipal Hall. My husband and I were interviewing local sources for the Badian town history commissioned by the Cebu Provincial Government. Garrulous old-timer Venancio N. Español banished all thoughts of sleep with his anecdotes.

Here is my retelling in the Badian town history of the Badian poet known as Amoros: “(Hermenegildo) Solon was the secretary of Badian Mayor Tranquilino Agravante (1906-1908) when the former incurred the ire of Tankinoy, the nickname given to the mayor. Solon was imprisoned indefinitely, an experience that fueled his writing of ‘Garbosong Bukid’. Although it has been written that respect and recognition eluded Solon in his hometowns of Dumanjug and Badian, Badian native Venancio N. Español recalled that ‘Garbosong Bukid’ was used as the electoral campaign theme of Flaviano Taboada, Badian’s mayor of 1915-1917.”

Amoros composed the music, too, that made his balak into a popular song of protest, using analogies of nature to caution against arrogance and the impermanence of power.

To Tito Etot, Amoros was the relative who regularly visited the Calle Zulueta home to read newspapers in Spanish. The room he stayed in became known as Cuarto ni Amoros.

Nothing more was known about Lonso and Amoros until that recent afternoon when our resurrection of family phantoms yielded nuggets we could read and savor, despite the passage of more than a hundred years.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Feb. 26, 2012 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column