Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Layers of fiction

WHAT must it have been for the family of Private First Class Joseph Scott Pemberton when they first heard the news?

One day, he’s tottering, discovering these sticks called legs. Then he’s rolling in the mud, it’s summer and the hose dribbles on the ground, the kid is a fish then a log of carnivorous teeth watch out he’s about to leap, he’s a frog. And he’s accused of killing a transgender woman named Jennifer or Jeffrey somewhere in a place called Olongapo the sin city and he’s a grainy profile caught by a newsman’s camera that could not get close enough to zoom in on his head no it’s a helmet to hide him from the pack baying for his blood is that our son?

This is fiction. What may be true is what was reported. U.S. media reports quoted Pemberton’s mother, Lisa, saying that she was not aware of all the details of the case but their family loves him “very much. Nothing is going to change that.”

The late Jennifer Laude’s mother, Julita, also said the same thing: she is loved.

Mother’s love, which we believe is pure and singular, can then be two things. Despite not knowing if her son is guilty of the crime he is implicated with, his mother declares her love for Joseph Scott.

The Laudes love Jennifer, too. She is Jennifer to them. While we grope for the correct pronoun to use, she is Jennifer to the woman who gave birth to him. Who would not flinch at Julita’s cry of despair: who would kill my child?

On the Internet, ignorance and awareness do not constitute the same love. Netizens are taking sides on the gender divide. “Justice for Jennifer Laude” is one Facebook community. “Support For Joseph Scott Pemberton” is another.

Some Netizens claim that discovery of the “deception” pushed the U.S. Marine “over the edge,” as if murder could be justified. A U.S. news website quoted an unidentified neighbor of the Pembertons in New Bedford, Massachusetts: “I wouldn’t want to be with a guy and find out it’s a girl. I’d freak out.”

What can justify reducing someone to an “it”? Other Netizens point out that it is perceptions like this that give away the gender bias and intolerance for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. They are the “Others” for choosing the “abnormal”. And for being different, the rules can be bent for them, too.

The online community is harsh on the LGBT’s “deception”. I would have expected the online portal to be more predisposed to sympathy for diversity and divergence. In the mediated worlds of the Internet, where avatars, role-playing, codes and cyber identities are normal, what is unusual about taking on a gender you prefer to your sex at birth?

Even today’s workplaces find use for multiple layers of fiction. Upon learning that a friend works at this outsourcing company, I asked if she met a former colleague of mine. I gave my former colleague’s name but my friend looked blank.

I said she may not have met him because of the number of employees or offices.

What name does he go by? my friend asked. When it was my turn to look confused, she explained that upon hiring, each employee was given a name, complete with a fictional biography, to be committed to memory. Overseas clients prefer to talk to a “Raven” of “New Jersey” rather than “Chinky” of “Poro Island”.

To help their role-playing, employees call each other by their fictional names even when they’re off duty.

This is an anecdote that may just as well be fiction for unbending moralists and online machos who brag that they would rather go to bed with the ugliest “real” woman than the prettiest transgender. Fiction is not for everyone. But if I’ve learned anything from a lifetime of reading, it’s that empathy begins once you step into the shoes of the character.

(mayette.tabada@gmail.com/ mayettetabada.blogspot.com/ 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s October 26, 2014 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Monday, October 20, 2014

Down the toilet bowl

WHEN you lose your way, try Googling your way out.

After a week of listening to television reports about the death of Jeffrey Laude, I went online to clear up my confusion. It was not just the event and the circus that immediately pitched tent. The way it was reported and the manner I was filtering the story made me doubt if I understood myself at all.

How could the killing of a 26-year-old Olangapo resident shake my world?

First, I am the type of consumer who digests television news to stay updated. I know the risks of eating fast food (and being as cavalier with my news consumption) but news is a commodity I want served, at the end of a day of technical writing, as light as dinner and as a prelude to the series of soap operas that I hope will usher in at least eight hours of sleep.

But Laude’s death offers no easy escape.

First, he didn’t just die; he was killed. Second, Jeffrey was better known as Jennifer. According to accounts, he preferred to be her. That’s a choice that defined/defines him/her in life/death.

(Blame not just media but our entire culture for the slashes (/) that are liberally sprinkled in this story. According to punctuation rules, the slash frequently substitutes for “or,” referring to a choice of mutually exclusive conditions, as in “he/she” means “he or she,” assuming the one cannot be the other. But the slash can also be a way of not taking sides in a contentious point: for instance, using “freedom fighter/terrorist” to sidestep accusations of labeling or stereotyping. And the slash can be used to surface submerged connections between apparent contradictions: “love/hate”.)

All the TV reports I heard referred to the “killing of a Filipino transgender woman”. Would it have mattered if the media was simply reporting the killing of one Jeffrey Laude, not the Jennifer Laude?

I think the circus came to town the minute someone first reported, “Filipino transgender woman”. Male or female, news anchors latched on to the phrase, with voice inflections and glances more pregnant with innuendoes than a herd of promiscuous slashes. I saw how the phrase broke the composure of an official, asked on camera to theorize why Jeffrey/Jennifer was killed. Either the protocols of police training or broadcast performance prevented the poor man from raising his hands to cover the smirk that bloomed like molds as he imagined for us the murderous instinct that must have seized Jennifer’s companion when he came face to face with Jeffrey in the motel room.

On print, a reader of the phrase focuses on “killing” first, followed by “Filipino transgender woman,” according to the words’ order of appearance. A reader less lazy than I may even get up and Google “transgender” to better understand. Unlike a transsexual who resorts to medical intervention for sex change, a transgender chooses a gender identity different from his or her sex at birth.

But for a TV viewer like me, the eyes and ears are faster to the draw than vocabulary checks. I heard “gay prostitute,” “German fiancĂ©,” and “American serviceman”. I saw nightly the death scene, described by a top-rating talk show host as “iconic”. She didn’t elaborate except to say, with portent, “we all know what this means”.

The head crammed into the toilet bowl may have one meaning, many or none at all. A TV host acting like a semiotician poses as many dangers as a journalist speculating on a police investigation within the time constraints of primetime TV news. When the case shows no fresh leads, the recourse is to turn on the victim, and disassemble his/her life. What happens to the victim and his/her family’s right to justice?

Yet, justice, too, is at the root of gender. What we consider as masculine or feminine is not determined by nature but nurture and culture. In a world that holds up the heterosexual as normal, we see only as shadows in our periphery the “others”: lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.

The news media can correct the myopia of gender-based crimes. Or join the queue in perpetuating violence against those we judge as “different”. We don’t have to actually ram heads into toilet bowls; we can just replay the image nightly.

(mayette.tabada@gmail.com/ mayettetabada.blogspot.com/ 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s October 19, 2014 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday editorial-page column

Monday, October 13, 2014

Looking for art

ON campuses, it is easy to spot the Fine Arts students. Their hands are often tinkering with paint, clay, or bottle caps to be hammered into a towering anemone-like installation that reminds me of mobile breasts.

In the outside world, the artist is a creature so seldom spotted, I have begun to think that as soon as they get their diplomas and leave the gates of academe, artists dissipate like bubbles.

That’s not to say that I’ve given up hope of rare sightings. I ran into a most persistent fellow while trying to find my way past the idle rich in station 1 of Boracay’s White Beach to the more plebian surroundings of stations 2 or 3.

It was my fortune to dispossess him of his last wooden carving of the Holy Family, the fellow insisted. To prove that I was in the right place at the right moment to take home a one-of-a-kind souvenir, he rummaged through the crumpled sheets of newspaper in his tote as if to conjure the other carvings that he already sold.

It took me a day to carve the Holy Family but it will bless your home longer than eternity, he intoned while I traced the plaque’s crowd-pleasing features, which came from a plasticine mold and had never surfaced from wood grain, cajoled by a deft chisel.

Half an hour later, I was still wandering when I spotted again my artist friend, now showing the newspaper nest inside his tote to a Korean couple who had unlinked their hands to hold the man’s last great sculpture-please-bring-this-back-with-you-so-I-too-can-go-home-and-have-lunch-with-my-wife-and-seven-small-kids-thank-you.

To be fair, three days and two nights of wandering among the crowds in Boracay do not constitute a serious effort of tracking down artists in Aklan. I anticipated more from an afternoon’s jaunt in Paete, Laguna, named the capital of carving in the country during the administration of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

Traveling along the shores of Laguna de Bay, the husband and I passed first Angono, Rizal, which, according to a marker, is the Arts Capital of the Philippines. I saw several papier-mache “higantes (giant effigies)” along the road, which reminded me of fiestas and flag-burning protests, highlights defining the temperaments of the nation.

It’s not only an hour’s drive that separates Angono from Paete. Angono is a first-class municipality resembling any metropolis aspiring to have its first mall. A fourth-class municipality, Paete is tight and curled around itself, the streets clinging to the town center as the inner whorls curve possessively around the heart of a shell.

According to legend or history, the town was so named after a carpenter answered “paet (chisel)” a Spanish friar asking for the name of the place, thinking the man of God was interested in the implement he was wielding, not proselytization.

The chisels of Paete are still the major draw of this small town, although, according to reports, they are less applied now to wood and stone than to vegetable and ice sculptures dominating the banquets of cruise ships and luxury hotels.

In the falling rain, we walked the narrow streets and peered into shops. “Taka (papier- mache” masks and figurines, another legacy from a colonial past, competed for space with potbellied Santa Clauses on parachute, preening cherubs and American Folk (Faux) - styled birdhouses. If I were an artist, there is no contest between the siren call of dollars and local patrons who buy art only when it is decorative and not bulky for transport.

Neither dusk nor the brownout swamping the town for hours cloaked the monumental figures of San Miguel trampling the devil and the body of the Christ taken down from the Cross. Both were carved by the same man, one who worked with stone, narrated the store clerk. Only a master’s chisel used to stone could move on rare hardwood, without exposing an apprentice’s indecision or the indelibility of a mistake.

When we departed, night closed in on Paete, caught in the counterflow of stringent environmental laws, the Filipino diaspora, and a local art market that pigeonholes art into crafty birdhouses no self-respecting bird will ever make its nest in.

(mayette.tabada@gmail.com/ mayettetabada.blogspot.com/ 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s October 12, 2014 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Letters in Simala

LAST year, when my niece had to be operated twice to relieve bleeding in the brain, family members prayed to the Birhen sa Simala for her recovery.

This September, my niece turned 17. My sister and her daughters recently came home, and I joined them in visiting the Simala church in Sibonga.

A trip down the south of Cebu usually offers a scenic respite from the city and its tawdry charms and charmless hustlers. Today, one can still string a couple of sleepy southern towns, where a dog sauntering across the street constitutes the biggest excitement in a week.

Yet, the church in Simala, with its reputation for miracles and its droves of devotees and tourists, has raised the local threshold for spectacles by several notches. I prefer empty churches, where one can hear oneself better. After several visits, I conclude that the church in Simala will never lack for two things: people and construction projects underway.

The pilgrimage up the hills of Lindogan in the barangay of Simala requires the same mindset and skills required to survive in the cities, if one chooses to visit on the 13th of the month or on weekends. On these days, the “habal-habal” drivers waiting at the junction connecting the highway to the upland road will be more snobbish than Manila taxi drivers mobbed by mallgoers in November when ATMs are disgorging Christmas bonuses.

The scenery in Lindogan is verdant and unspoiled, save for the parking signs that demand P50 for the privilege of parking under swaying coconut trees. Patronizing local sellers is a bit of a challenge, specially when a jackfruit about the size of two basketballs will make the buyer poorer by P700.

To avoid these vexations, we went to Simala on a weekday and ate fast food in Carcar. Leaving Lapu-Lapu City at midmorning, we reached the Simala church a little after noon, just in time to hear mass.

It’s been at least two years since I’ve visited the shrine. At the carpark, my reaction to the view of the church silhouetted against the bright blue mantle of a cloudless sky was the same as my nieces, who were there for the first time: It’s a castle! It’s a church! No, it’s a castle church!

What does it say of a faith if believers require monuments in stone and gilt to worship? I had no time to answer my question as I quickly packed bottles of mineral water and chips, revealing a mindset that perhaps answered adequately my confusion as to whether I was stepping inside a place of God or a theme park.

Fortunately, the rest of the churchgoers seemed to be less muddled than I was. In comparison to the church exteriors, with its towers, curtain walls and Disneyesque features, the place where the mass is heard is small and intimate. I found myself listening to the homily, singing the hymns.

There were children but they were nearly as solemn as the grown-ups. As we made our way to the image of the Birhen sa Simala, my niece whispered that no one jumped the line, a rare experience for her in the country.

The church interiors still resembles a warren but there is better documentation and organization now. The curation is interesting, the collection of crutches, wheelchairs and testimonials donated by the healed and the aided as riveting as the narrative accompanying the multiple images of the Virgin Mary.

To experience Simala is to be pulled in different directions all at once. We bought rosaries and religious items. We got our change along with the information that our purchases had already been blessed. It’s pretty efficient: from buyer to sales clerk, cashier and priest. Look, Ma, no lines.

What tames the heathen in me is not a miracle. It’s the tables with their sheaf of paper and pens. Like many others, I don’t consider a visit to Simala complete without writing a letter to the Virgin and dropping the folded sheet into a box.

The box slit is too small to accommodate a pair of crutches or even a graduation medal. Like the perpetual construction and trading occurring in the place, there must be a system, too, that sieves the letters of the faithful for archiving and showroom display.

Yet, in the near silence of bent heads and whispering pens, it is not impossible to believe in the impossible. In the Age of Disbelief, that surely counts as a miracle.

(mayette.tabada@gmail.com/ mayettetabada.blogspot.com/ 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s October 5, 2014 issue of “Matamata,” Sunday editorial-page column