Saturday, December 26, 2015


IN December, we always have First of May.

I only recently learned the name of the family making the ice cream that has been a part of the feast my mother-in-law prepares for the holiday.

J, my nephew, was born a day after the changing of the year. For the past 23 years, Christmas, New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day and J’s birthday roll into a cornucopia of flavors. Only the homemade ice cream stands the test of time.

“Lechoneros” come and go. The holidays are tough also on them. The yearlong demand for what is arguably Cebu’s king of feasts tests the ability to not just come up with the crispiest skin and the most flavorful ribs but also best business practices like honesty, consistency and dependability.

As Cebuanos who know their pig, my mother- and sister-in-law have gone through a lot of entrepreneurs, from Talisay to Carcar, in the search for the lechon that’s fit to grace the table for the holidays.

Over the years, lechon came served with a side dish: tidbits about the shifting fortunes of those behind the turning of the spit. We intimately know who subcontracted the roasting without heeding the consequences, who ran away with a younger lover who ran away with the lechon profits.

In contrast with the lechonero discarded like last year’s calendar, the ice cream maker stays. In mango, chocolate and vanilla, the ice cream, which comes in a tall metal drum as high as a grown man’s hips, was like having perpetual summer in December: the children would play, stop, fill up with ice cream, play again.

My childhood was summoned by the melting of my nephew’s birthday ice cream on my tongue. Our elders called it by different names: “dirty ice cream” if it was sold on the streets from a cart-pushing, bell-ringing vendor, “sorbetes” if it was made painstakingly by family helpers.

In keeping with its names were the images: the sweat that poured from the men whipping up the ice cream, the salt sprinkled on the blocks of dry ice surrounding the inner vat of ice cream in the “garapiñera,” the old-fashioned ice cream-maker wrapped in jute sack, the nut-brown hands of the ice cream vendor whom we tried to catch peeing on the road to confirm if he truly deserved the “dirty” tag.

The legends persisted even when the homemade buko ice cream was replaced by other sweets at my aunt’s feasts, when our elders passed away and with them, a way of cooking, bonding, and living.

I rediscovered the sorbetes at my in-law’s feast. In its company, the husband and older son behave as only children can on an endless summer afternoon.

Even though the children are no longer children, the ice cream remains a holiday tradition.

Decades older and several health emergencies later, I watch myself around ice cream, savored best as a childhood memory rather than an indulgence requiring atonement.

But Christmas is Christmas. Last Friday, I asked for and got a bowl heaping with scoops of mellow yellow and a chocolate-flecked ivory. The latter is cookies and cream, a new flavor.

To my surprise, I learn that behind the First of May ice cream is a young couple continuing their parents’ trade. They also limit themselves to orders they can meet. During holidays, that means catering only to the regulars and turning away would-be clients.

That’s a recipe for less profits but better memories. Some traditions are worth keeping.

( 09173226131)

*First published in the December 27, 2015 issue of Sun.Star Cebu’s Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Messenger of memories

THE LAST time I saw him, his sarcasm bristled as the hair that would not stay down. Thirty years or so later, the hair is sparse and sprinkled with grey.

Yet, it was a glimpse of that hair that made me spot him in the swirling holiday crowd.

In the college paper a lifetime ago, he edited and I contributed. When I wasn’t keeping my distance from that black humor of his, as anachronistic as slacks pockets turned inside out in his tucked-in, buttoned-down presence, I listened to his stories.

Last Friday, fittingly the last working day of the year, Jose Sevilla Ho brought a harvest of stories from Washington, D.C. where he lives with wife Marie Frail and their 12-year-old daughter Nadia.

Of the tales that night, two I keep, captured on ink and paper.

Kiddie Lim sent “Mornings in Jenin” by Susan Abulhawa. Published by Bloomsbury, Abulhawa penned the story of a family dispersed as refugees by the conflict in Palestine. The novelist was born to refugees and seemed to have made her escape when she migrated to America and carved a career in medical science.

In 2001, Abulhawa founded the children’s organization Playgrounds for Palestine, which fights for a right we, who live in less fraught climes, take for granted: the right to play for the children of Palestine.

Kiddie introduced me to Asian civilization and Renato Constantino’s critical revisiting of Philippine history. After I finished her courses, she asked me to tutor her precocious daughter Agape who watched us like a hawk as we took Kiddie’s migraine-inducing essay exams.

I confess: I plotted to take my revenge on the brat. I ended up reading Kiddie’s books, some of which Agape was finished with. Agape is a lawyer now for the United Nations and her mother still sends me stories.

“Hope you’ll enjoy these shared memories” is Kiddie’s note handwritten on the cover page of “Mornings in Jenin”. Like Kiddie, I write on books: my name, notes when I found the title, who I was with when I chanced on the find, when and where I finished the book, how often I’ve revisited the tale, dedications to the one I pass on a title to.

Like birds, do readers of the same persuasion read alike?

Ho is another scribbler of books. On the cover page of “Roses from San Gabriel,” he writes a dedication, “To… a fellow traveller on old literary roads”.

Ho wrote “Roses from San Gabriel,” a tale of two motherless brothers raised by a servant woman. When he reaches across the table, I accept the books.

How can something existing only in the imagination have such heft? “Three years before their mother Rosanna died, she found someone who loved her more than their father,” opens Ho’s tale.

It occurs to me that he has carried these books from one terminal to another, a reconnection not just of points in an itinerary but also a recoupling of time, faces, memories.

Nearly at the same time, we blurt out how we stubbornly stick with paper books.

I smile broadly. On an e-book copy, I wouldn’t have seen again Kiddie’s opulent cursive or Ho’s spikey text. In the age of email and status updates, it’s not just penmanships that are sidelined.

Ho observes that paper books have no rival in allowing the reader to easily go back to a passage, a scene. I smile across this fellow traveller, content to watch the past take shape and pulse before us.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s December 20, 2015 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, December 12, 2015


CHRISTMAS parties are here. For two days in a hotel, our group of academics was cooped in a training to generate research proposals.

Since clear glass panels separated our venue from the hotel lobby, I noticed how, throughout the day, different groups approached the elevators to reach the upper function rooms. The groups had one thing in common: every member was dressed to party.

If it’s harder to find a free cab these days, it may be because people are on their way to parties. The yearend bash held at the office, where in- and out-trays were cleared hastily for lunch buffet, seems to be out.

Gauging from the heavy traffic in and out of the hotel elevators, many company parties to celebrate the closing of the year are held in hotels. What seems even more popular is for these parties to have themes.

When our group moved to the veranda for our get-together, our next-(function) room neighbors followed an “Arabian Nights” theme. We felt a bit like kids gawking through the glass at the sight of women poured into diaphanous harem pants and tiny bits of cloth glittering with tinsel.

The choreographers guiding the different groups rehearsing their party presentations may have been more inspired by Disney and Hollywood in recreating Arabia. Not in sight were traditional wear like the “abaya” (long black robe), worn with a “hijab” (scarf covering part of the head and the back of the neck) or “niqab” (head covering that leaves only a slit for the eyes).

Mingling with the Filipinas were foreign males in Western clothing. The theme should have been “Harem Nights”. The following day, the lobby was full of folks in safari clothing. I placed my bet on “Out of Africa,” with “Jurassic Park” and “The English Patient” following closely. I felt as if I had wandered into the sets where many movies were being filmed all at once.

A communal people, we enjoy Christmas parties. Other cultures may see a company party as an indulgence that can be dispensed with. One expat was invited to a Christmas get-together by his Filipino counterparts. The invitation shocked the visiting executive, who knew of the mother company’s directive to do away with yearend parties as an austerity measure.

In another export zone locator, employees were expressly prohibited to post any selfie or photo taken during the office party because the main headquarters and the rest of the global operations, except apparently in the Philippines, were cutting down on costs.

After Yolanda’s devastation, employees of a multinational company were split between those who wanted to divert the party budget to relief distribution for typhoon survivors, and those who felt the traditional get-together was a well-deserved reward for the whole team. In compromise, the Yolanda aid was sent to Leyte and the staff shared supper with a karaoke showdown after.

It briefly crossed our minds to don flimsy fantasies for next year’s get-together. But after we remembered our manners and stopped staring at our Arabian neighbors, our group settled down to dinner and then competed fiercely in the parlor games to win polvoron and other sweets that were certainly going to add to our waistlines and cholesterol levels.

Before the year ends, I wish you, dear reader, may share a meal with those you’ve shared the journey this year.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s December 13, 2015 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, December 05, 2015

Confessions of a medical tourist

A MAMMOGRAM can be a girl’s best friend.

Ever since I discovered a lump in a breast four years ago, I’ve always treated myself at the end of the year.

While reading reports of horrendous traffic during the weekend opening of the newest mall, I planned the trips I would be taking to visit—who else?—the doctors, medical technicians, clinic receptionists and health maintenance organization (HMO) coordinators that have been part of my Christmas ritual.

I don’t care a hoot about the unpronounceable foreign brands invading Cebu. But I will juggle my schedule, don sneakers for the inevitable walkathon, and read the medical journals, bulletin board notices and conference posters that make the waiting time sprinkling these medical marathons slightly less freaky than a Stephen King novel.

For no matter how skewered a doctor’s sense of time is, how well-aimed a receptionist’s sarcasm, or how stomach-churning the photos of sliced suppurating organs decorating medical journals, knowledge is always better than ignorance.

Certainly, don’t expect bliss.

Four years ago, I discovered the lump, with well-defined borders like a chico seed, while waiting for New Year to roll in. I didn’t realize it then but that breast self-exam (BSE) in the shower was another reason to keep Dumaguete in my list of favorites.

Feeling around or looking at one’s breasts in the mirror helps in the early detection of any change in the breasts or underarm area, which alerts one to possible breast cancer. Early detection increases the chances of survival.

My hands were slippery with soap and water, which made it easier to detect and probe the lump. Still I had to take several cold showers before I could talk to the husband and sons about the lump.

However, it took watching actor Javier Bardem perform self-surgery in the dramatization of Cormac McCarthy’s “No Country for Old Men” to move me from my BSE moment to keeping an appointment with a specialist in obstetrics and gynecology.

The online references on BSE never mention the denial and prevarication that swamps one after discovery of that wee lump. On the last day in Dumaguete, while waiting for the bus, I watched Bardem play Anton Chigurh. The maniacal murderer operates on his leg after it’s blasted by a shotgun and then sews up the wound.

I realized I could never be that crazy and looked for a doctor as soon as I returned to Cebu.

Compared to the surprises hidden in magazines lying in wait in doctors’ clinics, mindless movie mayhem has a certain Disneyesque mystique. I’ve sat with women whose major complaint against mammograms is the waiting required in a room with extremely cold air-conditioning.

Cold is an issue. I wish technicians had warmer hands when they’re positioning my breast for a shot with low-dose X-rays. Or that a Pap smear didn’t feel like an entire movie crew, with all the hardware, is filming a Star Wars prequel to the prequel inside my cervix.

Yet, aside from wanting to live, I keep my December dates because my doctor taught me a simple trick for remembering (“time your yearly screening with something that always happens, like Christmas”). Because everyone, from the lab technician to the doctor’s receptionist, checks the database and reminds me of the year I missed.

Because, better than diamonds, a mammogram, Pap smear and other screenings are really a woman’s best friends.

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s December 6, 2015 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Bookavores, unite!

BEFORE E. could leave the country, she had three matters to settle: the cat that adopted her, her books and bookshelves, which she couldn’t lug back to Melbourne.

With prescient feline wisdom, the cat spared E. by disappearing a few weeks before her departure. It knew what E. did not: that, after finding a dirty ball that pussyfooted into a coffee shop and bringing this home, all clotted fur and lice, E. would never be able to leave it.

With the novels, E. was less sentimental, leaving several boxes to me, a stranger whose Sun.Star Cebu musings about reading had become part of her Sunday ritual.

Then there were just the bookshelves.

These were beautiful, solid wood mellowed with the patina of age and frequent contact with paper. I yearned for, even dreamt about them. But unless I could convince my boys to sleep on the shelves or move up on the roof, our home could not accommodate another bookshelf.

Less prescient than E.’s cat, I was slower in drawing up a conclusion from the incident of the unrequited shelves: life is short; books, unending; and shelves, finite. Conclusion: share books.

Last Nov. 27 was an opportunity to renew these articles of faith. Since 2008, the country observes November as National Reading Month. Its culmination is on Nov. 27, “Araw ng Pag(b)asa (National Reading Day)”.

Nov. 27 is also the birth anniversary of Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. The play of meanings in “pag(b)asa,” interchanging “reading” with “hope,” was an advocacy of the late senator, in whose honor were dedicated last Friday’s storytelling sessions in public elementary and high schools.

Reading a story to a child can translate into sharing novels with young adults. Familiar with the ways my students read, write and express, I tried to match titles and authors with last Friday’s classes.

I’m happy to report that the appeal of a free book still cuts across generations. For these Cebu-based millennials—only two of us in one class use a basic phone and that’s only because my student said, sheepishly, that she recently lost her smartphone—the paper book is more than a thing inspiring wonder and delight.

Unlike an e-book, a traditional book stuck together with glue, words and imagination can be turned over and sniffed. J., a bookseller, once said that buying books, a luxury in this country, constrains us to stick to favorite authors. A gift of books frees one to take risks and discover new voices.

Paper books are also better for testing your BQ (bookavore quotient): do you leaf or flip through the pages before choosing what to read? Leafing helps one search for the first paragraph (or page) that decides the leap into the tale.

Flipping is for quickly checking if the previous owner left any trace. (E. and I clip book reviews and insert it in novels. After reading, we review the reviewer. Judging by the squealing, a student or two share the same quirk.)

Any separation anxiety over breaking up a book series or works by the same author collected over the years can be assuaged by donating to public libraries. As the librarian of a public school attested, fiction is rarely a priority for scarce funds. Yet, students look for fiction to make book reports.

And for pleasure, I should think. All bookavores live by this article of faith.

( / 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s December 1, 2015 issue of the “Matamata,” an editorial-page column that usually appears on Sunday

Saturday, November 21, 2015

The lost art of paper

I BRING paper to my classes. After three years of studies, I am glad to put to use all these discarded but still useful sheets.

I bring these sheets for reuse also because I’ve noticed that Millennials don’t have much use for paper. Rather than copy the lectures or assignments I scribble on the board, my students take a shot with their phone. They record thesis consultations. They present with PowerPoint.

When I announce an “exercise,” the one or two students with paper often end up sharing the pad with classmates. Perhaps like one awaiting word from someone on a journey, I push this pile of paper on my students because I would like to catch sight of their penmanship or read thoughts that haven’t first been Googled.

A Sept. 4 report from the International New York Times (INYT) confirmed what I always knew. Makers of backpacks—a $2.7 billion industry led by JanSport producer VF Corporation—are redesigning this student staple because Millennials bring fewer textbooks and more electronics.

A team from VF Corporation interviewed two groups of “extreme” backpack users: mountaineers and the homeless in San Francisco. The first group packs gear that must instantly be reachable. Because their life, too, hinges on this packing principle, the second stores disposables in shopping carts but also keeps money and food in backpacks.

All this industrial brainstorming is creating a new crop of backpacks that responds to the digital lifestyle, from designs that can fit solar panels for survival to so-called “Digital Burritos” that ensure cords and chargers will not emerge tangled from a bag.

And paper? The INYT article only mentioned water-resistant materials, which may be regular features that are in place to primarily protect electronic gear. More than three decades ago, I closely examined the straps of a backpack before buying to make sure the bag could hold all my notebooks, novels AND the books I would still be borrowing from the library.

In a coffee shop, where I take an occasional cup of hot choco to chase away midweek blues, I noticed that I seemed to be the first to shake open the shop’s newspapers, whether I came early in the day or just before closing. Even when they don’t come alone, the other patrons are often “in a relationship” with their gadgets.

So when I once saw a fellow writing in a notebook, I stared long and hard just to verify the pencil wasn’t a stylus pen and the platform, a touchscreen gadget in retro disguise, made to look like a notebook in the “classic” style.

As all letter writers, paper book readers, and other pre-digital dinosaurs know, a sheet of paper means communion. Blank or covered in script or text, paper invites indwelling, an emptying and a refilling that I’ve never been able to do in front of a screen.

St. Augustine traced the word’s origin to “com” and “unus,” meaning “with oneness”. His definition embraces every possibility paper can conjure, from a reader’s escape into a world spun by language and imagination to the daily acts of resuscitation that bring together a psyche sundered by timetables and minutiae.

While industries move on and embrace the digital as the future, I think I’ll stay with paper. I agree with mountaineers and the homeless: Keep your lifesavers close to you.

( / 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s November 22, 2015 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, November 14, 2015


KEEPING appearances is as challenging as guessing at appearances.

After a spate of spoiled checks issued to misspelled or misnamed recipients, the accounting office issued a policy that those responsible would be fined P50 for the slip.

The risk of paying for a mistake was more effective than any reprimand. Our office requested two journalists/academics we were tapping as resource persons to email their scanned identification cards.

Revelation. Known by their nicknames, both journalists emailed IDs that showed “Maria” is the first of their baptized names.

Yet, the realization that long-time colleagues are “Maria Lourdes” and “Maria Diosa” on paper was not half as bizarre as the guessing game our family played whenever we met for novena prayers at a chapel in the city.

On the right side of the altar is a man carrying a wooden box of implements. While waiting, relations would whisper, “Who is that saint?”

St. Peter was a popular wild guess until an altar boy made the correction: St. Joseph the Worker.

Years of participating in and covering Labor Day marches left me with the irreverent impression that St. Joseph is the Catholic Church’s unofficial union-buster.

In 1955, Pope Pius XII declared May 1 as the feast of St. Joseph the Worker. The papal move was intended to counter the Marxists’ Labor Day celebration.

Last Thursday, in his homily, Fr. Ramon Echica praised St. Joseph as the patron of a good death. Although scripture does not mention his death, the traditional belief is that he died before Jesus began his ministry.

Fr. Echica said that from this belief stems the assumption that Joseph spent his last days in the company of Mary and Jesus, teaching the latter carpentry.

The image of life easing into the next phase comforts.

Yet the diversity, not to mention contradictions, of narratives niggles: which version is true? The parents who name an infant after the mother of Christ to invoke Her blessings or the renaming by the daughter who grows up to reject all except the material and verifiable as superstition?

Discourse is the way we organize information and represent the world to fit our views. For the French postmodernist Michel Foucault, all discourse, specially language, reveals the “regimes of truth” or the power governing human relations.

“Susmaryosep” was not only invoked when we had to redo a pile of papers required to issue checks to the two Marias.

For weeks, we have been on tenterhooks, monitoring if one of the Marias, who is traveling from Manila, would have her flight cancelled in the ongoing preparations for the Asia-Pacific Economic (Apec) summit.

A total of 1,125 domestic and 239 international flights were cancelled to give way before and after the APEC meetings. Two lanes of Edsa, connecting Shaw Boulevard and a megamall, one of the thorniest stretches, are “dedicated” to Apec vehicles.

Work and school will be suspended in the capital. Even its street dwellers will be sent off on government-sponsored vacations.

All these to ensure the heads of Apec member-economies are spared the harsh realities of the Third World. To ensure the messengers get the message right, 4,000 foreign and local journalists covering Apec await “free-flowing coffee, buffet meals and even free massage”.

Foucauldian discourse has a fancy name for “Apec security” and “Filipino hospitality”. Mine is “Susmaryosep”.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s November 15, 2015 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Pinoy magic

SHOULD amulets now be included in airport prohibitions?

As the controversy over the “tanim-bala (bullet planting)” racket is peaking, Sun.Star Cebu reported last Nov. 5 that the Mactan Cebu International Airport Authority (MCIAA) confiscated 1,040 amulets from travelers since January this year.

That’s a rate of four discovered every day, reported Elias O. Baquero and Rebelander S. Basilan.

Amulets serve as talismans, which are ordinary objects believed to have the power to protect its owner. Not only thought to be imbued with powerful “white magic,” the amulet is also decorative and worn for embellishment.

Not mine. A friend packed incense powder in a small red pouch she sewed herself when I left for Manila. She knew my anxieties about that interlude. Because of its associations with my friend and the protection it promised, I wore the red pouch beneath my clothes until I lost it in Bohol.

So the next red pouch my friend gave me I secured inside a leather purse I kept in my pocket. Flying back to Cebu, I was asked to turn over the leather purse for inspection to a security worker at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA).

The lady pulled out the red pouch and turned it over several times before asking me.

“Anting-anting,” I blurted. She shrugged and returned the red pouch and purse to me. Later, I emptied the leather purse and found other items: a two-colored jade bi, two wooden crosses on a string, a woven bracelet, a wooden heart with a cross-stake and a glass core, a whistle, and a marble deformed into a lozenge.

Only the whistle was carried for a logical reason: for protection, women are advised to carry and use a whistle to summon help.

All the other items were carried for sentiment. Or a tricky memory: coming upon the marble while weeding in Silang, I wondered how much time had passed to change the buried marble from sphere to lozenge. Pocketing the marble, I forgot about it until the NAIA inspection.

Gauging from the inspector’s phlegmatic acceptance of the red pouch, I gathered many Filipinos accept, if not practice, the wearing or bringing of talismans.

Not all these objects are fanciful. While I now keep the leather pouch in my backpack at the airport, I’ve still been asked, after a body check, to explain other contents of my pockets: a small canister of eucalyptus balm, tinfoil-wrapped ginger root, which I said I take to soothe a sore throat.

To each his belief. Dud bullets are common in souvenir stalls in Baguio and Vigan, where I got my kamagong heart with the cross-stake. According to Sun.Star Cebu, MCIAA personnel confiscated the most number of bullet amulets in May.

Is it because more people travel during this merry month of fiestas? There is a whole slew of beliefs covering all possible emergencies during fiestas, from rituals to ensure the food doesn’t run out to protection from schemes to trap you into marriage (by local damsels dying to escape the barrio) or poison you (by jilted swains).

On the other hand, while others are still exploiting the anting-anting practice to stage an extortion racket or discredit the administration, it may be wiser to keep the talismans at home. Or wear something innocuous, such as the local version of the bulletproof vest, an undershirt printed with magical incantations.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu's November 8, 2015 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, "Matamata"

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Viva la muerte

THE DEAD are alive.

In South America, the Day of the Dead is animated by the belief that “los muertos están vivos,” Sam Mendes, director of “Spectre,” the latest James Bond film, told Ruben V. Nepales of the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

The British spy encounters again the ghosts of his past in “Spectre”. Who are more disconcerting to meet: the specters of strangers or familiar ghosts?

While browsing in a Tagaytay surplus store, I came across Mexican folk art that showed skeletons disporting in a bar and a bowling alley. I was fascinated but could not get myself to buy the cheap knickknacks and display them at home.

The tableaux of the dead are popular in Mexico. Celebrating El Dia de los Muertos, Mexicans believe that that dead visit the living on Nov. 1 and depart on Nov. 2.

With paper, tin, and other materials, folk artists feature miniature coffins and skeletons in situations familiar to the living: attending a wedding, reuniting with friends, and enjoying a game.

Those who have left this world may still pine for the old. How do we feel about sharing space with them?

The dead I do not know leave me with a mystical fear, which I chase off with Catholic rituals. When a colleague stored a skeleton in the faculty room for artistic study, half of us wanted a priest to bless the remains and put the wandering soul to rest. It was hard to check papers in the company of that box of bones.

On the other hand, some would rather not meet a departed loved one. After my 97-year-old grandmother passed away, wake regulars retold how people heard her walk around in my grandparents’ bedroom, tap her toothbrush as if shaking off water, or swing open the kitchen door when people had been drinking till midnight.

Despite that vacant bedroom, the many relations who came home for her wake and burial insisted on camping out in the sala. One day, to freshen up the room, a cousin sprayed disinfectant. A helper, who came in, turned hysterical, claiming Lola was visiting, bringing a scent of flowers. My cousin showed her the disinfectant can that bore the label of a floral scent.

I take comfort from my dead. During my graduate studies at the University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman, my father, deceased for seven years, looked out for me.

Once, after a dawn trip by bus from Pampanga and a jeepney ride from Edsa, I reached the campus, bleary not just from hours of travel but also distracted by class concerns.

When my jeepney came to a stop at the UP Oval, I did not immediately step down because I had been mesmerized by the red hood of the private SUV following us. Bright and wet-looking, the paint sheen reminded me of the blue Volkswagen Beetle my father had buffed for hours every day.
It was the shifting shadows made by the UP Diliman tree canopies on the red hood that first made me realize that, while my jeepney had come to a full stop, the following vehicle had not. In the next instant, the SUV crashed against the stepboard of the jeepney. If I had dismounted then, my legs would have been crushed in the impact.

From kindergarten till college, Papang drove my sister and I to school. He was familiar with my habit of reading a novel or cramming for an exam on the way to school. He also knew how bright colors could distract me from daydreaming. For the living, it is so much better that the dead are with us.

( 09173226131)

* First published in the November 1, 2015 issue of “Matamata,” Sun.Star Cebu’s Sunday editorial-page column

Pancit ng bayan

IN this country, we rise or fall but never without pancit (rice noodles). We prepare this for birthdays and anniversaries. At wakes, the final judgment on cooks rests on the degree of saltiness of this noodle dish.

We are a nation of pancit critics because everyone eats pancit.

The best pancit is cooked by our mothers and grandmothers; the worst, by the unconverted who snips the tangled yellow skeins into manageable length. Since uncut noodles augur long life, shortening the pancit strands threatens our only chance to hit the jackpot: good health.

My sister, who has lived too long outside the country, pooh-poohs this superstition. Our national predilection for pancit conspires against our health, she harangues.

Though made of rice, pancit is both viand and staple. In family gatherings, we show our devotion to this unholy starchy combination by piling our plate with rice and pancit.

Teenage boys go through a rite of passage that involves satisfying pre-dinner hunger with at least two orders of instant pancit canton and as many cups of rice. The phase is mercifully cut short when they discover the sabotaging effects of belly jelly on adolescent crush.

Whether eaten as fiesta fare or merienda, the pancit-and-rice combo tests our resolution to stay fit or vulnerability to childhood comforts. Although my sister is right about the nutritional contradictions in pancit-and-rice, there is perfect logic in this pairing, from the Pinoy perspective of “lami (taste)”.

Bland, boiled rice is the perfect foil for pancit, salty and greasy, two flavors that are quintessentially Pinoy. Those coils of rice flour can hide a great number of things. Distracting is the colorful collage of spring onion, carrot, bell pepper, and cabbage.

However, for more carnal palates, pancit’s epiphany does not emanate from “sagbot (forage)” but from the orgasmic intercourse of flavors from dried shrimp, pork, liver, gizzard, smoked fish, boiled egg, deep-fried pork fat and crunchy skin, Chinese chorizo, and chicken broth.

As if the salt and lard from the garnishing are not enough, some pancit dishes also demand a drenching. For instance, pancit palabok is a volcano of dietary traps smouldering under a lava of shrimp sauce.

A garish orange, palabok sauce should set off klaxons of warning. Until I dreaded the ghastly waiting outside clinics, palabok was the comfort food that could cajole me into sprinkling forbidden drops of “patis (fish sauce),” Malabon’s famous extract that looks deceptively golden but, due to its saltiness, must have petrified countless kidneys.

Even at its most celebratory, pancit reminds us of mortality. Birthday noodles should be taken only once a year. Pancit is best solo, never paired with rice or bread ala “pancit spread”.

Three years ago, I sat in a Lipa panciteria fronting a military camp, slurping down batchoy with other regulars: soldiers, salesmen, and tricycle drivers.

The soup came in a vat the size of a small laundry basin; the thick sauce had to be finished before it cooled and congealed like lahar. Dexterity demanded swallowing the pancit while sniffing back rivulets of mucus released by fiery broken peppers.

When we recently stopped for a batchoy dinner at a roadside stall in Mandaue, I left a clean bowl. I don’t recall what I made disappear. Mercifully, pancit, food for the mortal, is also for the forgetful.

* First published in the October 25, 2015 issue of the “Matamata,” Sun.Star Cebu’s Sunday editorial-page column

Saturday, October 17, 2015


THEY don’t make women like Lola anymore.

My maternal grandmother passed away recently. She was 97. These past five nights have been surreal. Except for the fact that my grandmother lies inside a white coffin and the smell of flowers is heavy and cloying, her wake could have been one of her parties.

Since I was a child, I can count the number of times I saw my lola eat during family reunions with all the fingers of one hand. She greeted arrivals with a request that was also a command: “Kaon na (do eat).”

She would repeat the phrase an hour later when she passed us again. Even though we were thoroughly stuffed, our lips still shiny from “bam-i,” “dugo-dugo” and lechon, Lola would urge us again, “Kaon na”.

Moving from room to room, she made sure platters were refilled, the dessert taken out of the fridge just as everybody was ready to tackle it. As the years stooped her profile, children and grandchildren pressed her to slow down or took over the organizing.

Yet, even if she had a plate where she pushed around the food, her eyes never tired of scanning the plates of those around her. In making the family her life’s work, Lola turned to food as her secret fixative: a family that eats together shares more than the same gluttonies.

The privileges of being the oldest batch of grandchildren were manifold. Lost forever, too, I realized whenever I greeted her these past nights. The ivory dress they dressed her in reminds me of the hue of her unforgettable meringue, crunchy on the outside, chewy at the core.

Ivory with flecks of gold was her favorite walnut-sprinkled icing for the lightest, spongiest chiffon cakes created. Ordinarily gluttons for play, my cousins and I competed to assist her baking for the singular privilege of later licking off the icing from the spatula or egg beater.

So we heard her on a few occasions testily tell no one in particular that she was tired of cooking, even on her birthdays. Either due to my youth or haste to reach and lick that last unreachable spot of icing, I did not realize the terrible possibilities if my grandmother had acted on a moment’s weakness.

The complacency of youth assumes the inexhaustibility and constancy of love. Children assume families run on some infallible power that patches and sorts conflicts like laundry. The rituals of keeping together require deprivations and sacrifices made savory by a family heirloom recipe, a harvest of memories.

On the last night of the wake, my aunt, 92, asked me for the cause of Lola’s death. Without waiting for a reply, my aunt recalled how my grandparents met in Zamboanga.

A doctor, Lolo was infatuated with a woman in Cebu City who frequented cockfights. My great grandfather arranged for Lolo’s transfer to Zamboanga, where he met my grandmother, a nursing student.

Though nearly blind, my aunt remains our family’s storyteller. In her retelling, I saw again Lola teaching my cousins and I how to whip the eggs in the same direction. Repetitive, tiring, and monotonous, correct egg-beating may have been the secret behind Lola’s meringue and chiffon cake.

Though there is no shadow of that Zamboanga student in the ivory-dressed figure in the coffin, I am grateful, Avelina C. Solon. For sacrifice without stint, for love without end.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s October 18, 2015 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Bend the rules

EMPOWER the player. The principle of interactivity marks the digital from the traditional.

For three days, the Arts and Humanities cluster of the University of the Philippines (UP) Cebu was cloistered in a room in uptown Cebu, learning the art and technology of new media narratives.

The art side reminds me of scenes in Umberto Eco’s “The Name of the Rose”. In a 14th-century Italian monastery, medieval monks copied books by hand in a labyrinthine library that spawned murder and all the other deadly sins. As centers of learning, Catholic monasteries alleviated the Dark Ages.

Contrasting starkly with the wizened masters of the medieval manuscript culture, some of our new media mentors looked as if they just crawled out of the crib. But there was no mistaking the authority with which these digital natives guided our navigation of the Web.

Loren Kara Leonardia is a multimedia artist. Khail Santia, an indie game developer, is the founder and developer of Moocho Brain and the Bamboard Game Project.

At 24, Kara is an old hand at parking her pony-tailed self in front of a screen for hours that flow into days. That’s partly the reason why she was the perfect guide for our tour of visual storytelling from multimedia articles in the Web to digital storybooks, apps, games, music videos and advocacy.

Creative technology transforms the ageless curiosity of audiences into preternatural storytelling, Kara argued. Taking her cue, I read at home the webcomic “Margot’s Room”.

I didn’t experience the story as it was first released to followers of Emily Carroll, who publishes some of her short comics on her website, For five consecutive Fridays from September to October in 2011, Carroll released a set of verse that serves as clues to what actually took place in Margot’s Room.

Like Kara, I came upon the homepage of “Margot’s Room,” dark save for a slip of poetry and the illustration of a child’s room bearing the unmistakable signs of savagery. While the verses chanted inside my head in an eerie singsong voice, I looked in vain for an arrow or an icon to click so I could leave that room, where horror is made more acute because it is merely hinted at but seemingly inescapable.

At last, I found that the objects in the room are clickable and lead to other verses and pieces of the puzzle-story. Relief mixes with foreboding. Yes, I can finally leave that unspeakable room. Wait, where will it take me?

This interactivity makes digital storytelling superior in many ways to the tales spun by our parents and grandparents, pointed out Kara. By randomly clicking objects in Margot’s Room, the audience can experience the story in a different chronology as it was intended by its creator.

These alternative streams, where the end can seem like a foreshadowing and the beginning can become a flashback, subvert the traditional linear form of storytelling but achieves the same end: the audience rushes to close the tale.

Seeking a social end, game developer Khail partnered with two other Silliman University students to design a bamboo board game. For teaching math as a game in schools that are challenged by technology and the drop-out trend, the Bamboard team was the first Benilde Prize Winner.

Kara and Khail show how the game infinitely changes when the rules focus on the players.

( 09173226131/

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s October 11, 2015 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, October 03, 2015

Spawns of Mabini’s legs

IT’S become a case of the accidental overshadowing the premeditated.

During the Sept. 29 ceremony for the Apolinario Mabini Awards at the Bulwagan ng mga Bayani at Malacañang Palace, the President voiced out his concern that today’s students may be inadequate in their grasp of our history.

He told the audience, which included awardees distinguished for their work with the disabled, that he shared the sentiments of many Netizens reacting to a question posed by three college students to actor Epy Quizon, who played Mabini, on why he never stood up during “Heneral Luna”.

Despite extreme poverty and the paralysis of his lower limbs, Mabini’s brilliance and patriotism stood him in good stead as the country’s first prime minister. My generation was one of those that memorized the “Sublime Paralytic” tribute made to Mabini, also recorded in textbooks as “the brains and conscience of the Revolution”.

In his Apolinario Mabini Awards speech, Aquino called on Education Secretary Armin Luistro to address possible deficiencies in the teaching of history. Luistro later assured the President in a text message that he will discuss this concern with curriculum supervisors.

The spiral of consequences triggered by the furor over Mabini’s legs reveals some of the power unleashed by “Heneral Luna”. Time and history will determine if the movie will join the ranks of classics, immortalized not only for exceeding the standards in filmic storytelling but also for moving us to examine ourselves and aspire for more beyond our usual preoccupations with showbiz and politics.

“Heneral Luna” made me realize how parched we are as a people and as a nation of filmgoers. After stepping out of the theater, I shepherded my sons to the mall’s bookstores to search for a reference.

The dramatization of the past in “Heneral Luna” raised more questions than answers. I wanted to winnow facts from artistic interpretation. I also doubted my memories of the Philippine revolution, memorized under duress of miserable mastery exams and the horrors of class recitations.

It took only a few minutes to confirm that our history is an endangered genre. I could not find the titles that stood out in more than two decades of study under the pre-K to 12 system. Zero copies of Teodoro A. Agoncillo’s “History of the Filipino People,” Renato Constantino’s “The Philippines: A Past Revisited,” and Renato and Letizia Constantino’s “The Philippines: The Continuing Past”.

Later, I found an entire shelf of Agoncillo’s book in a branch that seems to serve as a warehouse. Should the scarcity of scholarly and critical references on Philippine history mean bookstores can hardly replenish their stocks fast enough to catch up with demand?

Or in the face of apathy from readers and schools still adjusting to K to 12 upheavals, are books on Philippine history stockpiled in the warehouse to make more room in mall branches for adult coloring books and perfumed pens?

The most important question spawned by the furor over Mabini’s legs is: If artists, educators and other influencers will not bring the discourse on Philippine history to social media, micro media, and the rest of new media, which is the portal of choice of Millennials and other digital natives, are we doomed to forgetting and repeating history?

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s October 4, 2015 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Guardians of the gates

You can turn martial law and the dead into entertainment. If you’re a nine-year-old with a smartphone and a tablet, you definitely can.

That’s my most memorable take-away message from the recently concluded Cebu Press Freedom Week (CPFW).

I got into the Internet on a tourist visa. I’m not close to a digital immigrant and, most certainly, am not a digital native.

In his 2001 article, Marc Prensky created these distinctions. Millennials, born in the 1980s just as the Internet was booting up, take to technology as anyone in a bib given a digital mouse as a pacifier will.

However, this tourist-nearly-half-a-century-old also digs the Internet, a virtual public playground. Last Sept. 21, Sun.Star Cebu’s “Top of the week” editor singled out the online trend of posting selfie photos with the dead. After a prize was awarded to the best selfie of the week—the “photo of a girl, 13, who died in a car accident, with her relatives grinning beside the corpse”—a popular blog drew the attention of the police.

Last Sept. 21, I was also at the Marcelo Fernan Press Center theater, joining an audience dominated by millennials. A meme showed Rodrigo Duterte comforting a teen stood up by a date. When the Davao mayor mutters about cutting off the head of the fickle lover, a section of the audience titters.

The burning at the back of my neck forces me to count slowly. After reaching 10, I’m glad I’m not about to have a stroke. But the heartburn doesn’t go away until I’ve spoken out in the open forum.

Duterte, that most charismatic of politicians, jokes about summary killings on the day Filipinos remember martial law, the darkest in the nation’s long history of betrayal, repression and rebellion. Some of the millennials, born decades before Proclamation No. 1081, laugh at Duterte’s joke.

In my view, the black humor is watching the young be entertained by a viral meme about Duterte, dark knight of a “separate peace,” whose association with the Davao Death Squads brings back more than a stench of the nameless and faceless dead unearthed from unmarked graves dotting the landscape when the Marcos dictatorship imposed the New Society over the country.

Technology gap? Natives versus immigrants? Open access versus gatekeeping? All of the five CPFW events my students and I recently attended tackled the impact of technology and its potentials for good and evil.

Now on its 23rd year, the CPFW is the only event in the country that the news media industry organizes to commit to collective memory the stories that should never be forgotten. In the many fora held during this week, local students and teachers are not just warm bodies filling a venue. We are at the frontline of preventing mass amnesia.

Despite information overload, epic struggles with school administrators, and extra commuting costs for schools without buses, Cebu academia must make time for the CPFW.

Prensky challenges teachers to reach out and converse with students despite the gaps created by our generational differences in the use of technology. We should not be the last to wake up to the fact that the micro-media mocking history emanate from the young, absentmindedly doodling while we ramble and scribble on the board.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s September 27, 2015 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Tango with millennials

AFTER a three-year hiatus to study, I returned to teach undergraduates and found the ground has shifted.

“How do you find this batch?” asked Ian, a former student who became a colleague. Disconcerting, we agreed.

Class discussions this September reinforced the impression. At the University of the Philippines (UP) Cebu, junior Mass Communication undergraduates dutifully researched on martial law’s (ML) impact on press freedom.

Our attempts to link pre-ML press licentiousness, ML press censorship and early attempts at media self-regulation were fraught. Half of the class had glazed eyes, an invariable effect of history lessons.

Things dramatically improved when discussion bridged the past to the present. Another group of junior undergraduates named Rodrigo Duterte as the presidentiable to watch in 2016.

Duterte’s political tango (Will he run? Won’t?) tantalizes the young. The controversy over his record of human rights abuses does not.

The man who “cleans” the streets of Davao through his speculated links with Death Squads is deemed by half a class of bright, idealistic youths as the country’s next hope.

My younger son, a freshman in a private university, also recalled hearing Duterte’s name among schoolmates attending the prayer vigils for a slain student, a recent victim of crime.

Unlike Millennials, I have a knee-jerk reaction to vigilantism, which I associate not with the cleansing of crime-free streets but with the purging of dissent and opposition by the power-obsessed.

Even the memory-challenged must associate the month of September with the 1972 imposition of martial law.

The Cebu Press Freedom Week and the Cebu Broadcasters’ Month remind Cebuanos how civil liberties were lost and won again at great cost during the dark years of struggling in the iron fist of the Marcos conjugal dictatorship.

Born in 1976, Ian considers himself a “Martial Law baby”. Fond of the Carpenters, the Abba and Sesame Street, this Gen X member was an activist for human rights, then as a UP Cebu undergraduate and now as a lawyer.

Spanning the mid-1960s till the mid-1980s, Generation X witnessed the rise of mass media and the collapse of the Cold War. What prevented Filipino Gen Xers from getting completely lost in the hedonism of the MTV culture—the penetration of music videos shaped the youth culture at the turn of the millennium—was an anachronism called repression.

Born in 1965, I’m in between trains. I qualify for a front seat in Generation X. Yet I think I managed to squeeze in the last trip for the counterculture Hippie Generation of the 1960s, which opposed the Cold War, the Vietnam War, and the Martial Law.

When our family left for work and school early in the morning, we passed a secluded spot where bodies were often dumped. An industrial zone, our barangay’s warehouses and high walls lack eyes and ears, the perfect witnesses for clean-up teams in summary killings.

Once seen, never forgotten. Hogtied and bloated, a corpse rarely resembles the person it was before torture and decomposition.

Millennials, straddling the 1980s till the 1990s, are also called the Generation Y.

“Why?” is a good lens for scrutinizing Duterte, who will never get pass the throwback of my 41-year-old memories of martial law: “Never again”.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s September 21, 2015 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Road trip

IN the country, one of the guaranteed shortcuts for going native is to commute. Take a bus if you are that desperate.

When the husband and I returned to Badian on a Friday afternoon, we found out that, after 30 or so years, the South Bus Terminal has come full circle: from pandemonium to “world class” pretensions back to pandemonium.

Backpacking was the best way to travel in the 1980s. The Cebu City terminal for buses plying the southern route was an obstacle course favoring survivors, not beginners.

One had to be swift and nimble enough to climb and enter the bus through a window to avoid the horde clamoring at the lone entrance/exit. Or ferocious in bawling out lesser mortals lunging for the last seat.

A degree of civilization later settled in the terminal. Pre-departure comforts created the illusion that one was taking the bus to Tokyo, Rome or Ginatilan. Then management changed.

Too stiff-jointed now to fight for seats, I relied on my salt-and-pepper hair. The guard bawled out our silver-haired group because he probably assumed the elderly are all stone-deaf, but he let us in first.

Three young Korean backpackers shook their heads at the shoving. I approved of their luggage but not their choice of footwear. Those heels are not for scrambling in through a bus window.

“Do not overload” is a rule no one follows in the country. There’s a respite following a tragedy drawing a bad press and a public outcry. But in the days that follow, the normal abnormal is timeless.

Even though sidewalks overflow with vendors and their wares, pedestrians, and illegally parked vehicles, bus drivers can spot the lone person in the crowd who doesn’t have to make the right-hand pumping gesture that stands for eternal optimism: willing-to-stand-until-someone-gets-off.

So while you’ve paid and struggled for an aisle seat in an air-conditioned bus, expect to be prodded by an elbow, a hip or the entire person of the eternal optimist and his ilk, who are camped out in the aisle, along with their bags and the all-time favorite cylinder canister of cookies (after the cookies are polished off, the canister becomes a pail).

During peak season, bus aisles go the way of sidewalks in this country: they disappear after planks are pulled out from nowhere to connect the aisle seats for commuters boarding the bus along the route.

To leave the bus, passengers must clear the planks without knocking off the aisle seaters—a challenge one gets first taste of in the disorder at the Cebu City terminal, which proves the principle that for everything, including unreason, a reason.

The conspiracy not to leave any bus space unused is perfected by food vendors. When one nears Carcar City, men clamber in. They hoist huge bags of food. Their specialization is to insert this considerable load past all the animate and inanimate obstacles blocking the aisles to reach the passenger at the back of the bus who will scrutinize a tiny pack before, in keeping with the Cebuano virtue of stinginess, giving this back to the vendor because it is overpriced.

I am for free enterprise even though my principle when travelling is to minimize what I take in to limit the need for public toilets. Our “comfort rooms” deserve more than a column. Next time perhaps.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s September 13, 2015 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, September 05, 2015

Queen’s confessions

FROM slippers to shabu. Hers is the story of Cinderella that went wrong.

Last Sept. 5, Daryl T. Jabil reported in Sun.Star Cebu about the arrest of Badian’s “queen of shabu”. When Jerami Matugas, 49, was arrested in her new home in Poblacion, Badian, the operatives caught her repacking the illegal white crystals for selling. On the streets, the packs might fetch P1.3 million.

Minus the substance, that domestic scene would have complemented the self-reliance stamping the story of Matugas.

According to Jabil’s nuanced report, Matugas once sold slippers made in Carcar. In November, an acquaintance introduced her to shabu so she could “send her children to college”.

Matugas has five children, aged four to 21. She told Sun.Star Cebu that, even without a father, her children “never went hungry under my care”. In February, the family moved from Barangay Awayan, Carcar to their newly constructed and “more comfortable” home in the town center of Badian.

The story moved to a different vein last March, when a warrant for her arrest was issued. Metamphetamine is concocted from several chemicals and then crystallized. Known also as “ubas,” “siopao, “sha,” and “ice,” “shabu” is smoked, snorted or injected by about seven million Filipinos or 10 percent of the population. It is the illicit drug “most used” in the Philippines, reports the United Nations.

Once associated with big cities and corruption, shabu has made inroads in new markets. Queen said the police have yet to catch other “big fishes” in the illicit drug trade in the south, which curves from Carcar City to reach as far as Alegria and Badian on the southwestern side of Cebu.

The day before Sun.Star Cebu reported Queen’s arrest, I climbed to the fourth-floor Capitol office of Vice Governor Agnes A. Magpale to get our copy of the Badian and Alegria town histories. From 2008 to 2011, my husband Roy and I were part of the team of writers, researchers and editors tapped by the Cebu Province and the University of San Carlos (USC) for the landmark Cebu Provincial History Project.

Last month, the 55-volume set of books narrating the local history of Cebu—the province, the Provincial Capitol, nine cities and 44 towns—was turned over to the local governments.

Roy and I met first in Badian. He was tapped by the USC for a research project. I was a development communication worker with the government. One rainy night in 1987, we met at a farmer leader’s house. I escorted a group of Manila journalists interviewing farmers about the impact of a World Bank-funded project.

Presuming he was the farmer’s son, I was surprised when he answered the journalists articulately in English. This bias shamed me, which worsened my ill temper with the journalists, who dawdled in our trip and kept the farmers waiting. Roy thought I was one of the rude visitors, who demanded the farmers be roused from their sleep so they could have their interviews before flying back to Manila.

Despite the checks imposed by all disciplines, from journalism to research, no discourse is ever complete. The shabu trade in the south is not in the town histories I co-authored. The Queen’s confessions reveal a gap that has to be addressed in the threads of “sugilanon (story)” interwoven one night in 1987.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s September 6, 2015 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Food pyramid

THE RETCHING sounds in the supermarket drove me to instantly try to locate the source of distress.

Instead of a choking baby, I saw young tourists clustered around a display of durian. One of them bent close to the odorous pile, retched and theatrically retreated while her friends laughed.

Watching them replay that scene, I realized once more how food touches us at the gut level. Aside from satiating hunger, food leaves us vulnerable with its associations.

Complaints about their meals were recently aired by police officers deployed for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) meetings held in Cebu. The Police Regional Office (PRO)-Central Visayas is probing nine caterers preparing the officers’ packed meals, reported Daryl T. Jabil and Princess Dawn H. Felicitas in Sun.Star Cebu last Aug. 28.

Why were the cops dismayed? Reports quote unnamed cops who compared the food to pig slop. According to Sun.Star Cebu, one packed meal included a boiled egg, two pieces of vegetable rolls, a cup of rice and a bottle of water.

Since I have to avoid overeating and certain food triggers for my health, my typical meal is just as sparing. There can be no arguing, though, with the same meal’s rejection by a policeman deployed for hours under grueling conditions.

Certainly, the perception of food sufficiency varies among individuals. By taking on the impossible task of satisfying the taste buds, not to mention gut capacities, of more than 5,000 cops assigned for the Apec, the PRO-Central Visayas embarked on an impossible mission.

Yet the practice of packed lunch works quite well in a commercial setting. An entrepreneur who has to convince a customer to order packed lunch has to offer the most favorable terms on many aspects, from quality and variety of food to sanitation, affordability and convenience.

With a captive market—such as cops who have no say about their food allowance—the quality of packed meals slides drastically.

So why does the government insist on packed meals? Last January, the National Capital Region Police Office (NCRPO) also had to deal with criticisms about the meal allowances of police officers securing Metro Manila during the visit of Pope Francis.

For the Pope’s eight-day visit, a meal allowance of P2,400 was budgeted for every cop. Some of the Metro Manila officers posted on Facebook that they received only a portion of this allowance; others complained that they received neither food nor money.

According to NCRPO officials, an “organized messing” was made to ensure that cops would not leave their posts or go hungry because they were deployed hours early so they would be unable to personally pack their meals.

Like most jargon, “organized messing” has unfortunate associations. From the institutional perspective, to “mess” is to take meals with a particular person in a specified place. An “organized messing” is to carry out joint eating exercises for fellowship or efficiency.

For humans, a “mess” has other synonyms: disorder, chaos, trouble. This is a situation where persons (cops) get upset (hungry or frustrated) by conditions they cannot control (despite poor field feedback and official probes, packed meals prevail).

Another synonym would be “food pyramid”: the ones on top decide what crumbs to throw down to the bottom feeders.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s August 30, 2015 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Breathing lessons

“WE tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

The line came back to me as I squeezed in a room full of students waiting to view documentaries. The University of the Philippines (UP) Cebu declared alternative classes for the Aug. 20 afternoon screening of entries for the 4th Cebu International Documentary Film Festival (CIDFF) 2015.

The following day would be a holiday. Twenty-eight years ago, Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. came home after three years of exile. Instead of uniting the divided forces opposing the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, he ended on the tarmac of the Manila International Airport (MIA), shot in the head by Rolando Galman. The hired gun’s ties to Marcos were widely speculated but never definitely proven.

One can speculate, too, if Ninoy, alive, could have united the restless but cowed middle class and the militant Left. There is no arguing, though, that Ninoy as a bloodied white-clad body crucified on the MIA tarmac galvanized the country.

In UP Cebu, students declared “alternative classes”. An intolerant and impatient bunch, we did not appreciate the black humor of sitting inside classrooms, pretending that theory did not make us fall asleep, while the country was coming apart.

Last Aug. 20, the UP Cebu dean declared alternative classes. Unlike the walkout staged 28 years ago by our generation, clustered under the trees and plotting how to rewrite history, the students were released by teachers from their regular classes for the CIDFF screening. Can viewing documentaries substitute for learning?

Standing at the back of a darkened room illuminated by a screen replaying stories from Canada to UK, including the Philippines, I learned how Joan Didion, writing then as a California hippy struck by the precariousness of narratives in the 1960s, was timelessly prescient when she wrote in “The White Album”: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

For a storyteller, there can be no audience scarier than a room full of teenagers with smartphones and tablets. While Jethro Patalinghug’s “My Revolutionary Mother” traced a son’s rediscovery of his mother’s journey as a former community organizer, I watched for but did not see tiny subversive screens lighting up among the audience. The story dwelling on the personal sacrifices of a political activist triumphed over the well-known Millenial itch for Facebook updates.

This should reassure freelance film maker Joni Sarina Mejico. When Joni studied news writing and interpretative writing with me more than four years ago, she was enterprising but diffident.

Joni has found her voice. She wrote and directed “Abakada ni Nanay,” the story of Librada Gemal, 80, school gardener, “hilot (folk healer),” and oldest grade 4 student of Tisa II Elementary School. When the camera lingers on Librada’s face in the closing shot, I find that I have lost the ability to speak. The documentary runs for about eight minutes.

How many eight-minute classroom lectures can silence listeners into sentient inarticulateness?

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s August 23, 2015 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Sunday, August 16, 2015


ONE of the tricks seniors play on a freshman at the University of the Philippines (UP) Cebu is to ask this classic conundrum: 04B or O4C?

04B jeepneys take the Capitol route; the latter means commuting along Gen. Maxilom Ave. Up against scheming seniors, no freshman ever answers this riddle correctly.

I suggest trying both. Both routes will help you know this city. Both routes also end in Carbon Market.

After three years of whining about commuting in messy, noisy and smelly Metro Manila, the first ride I took in Cebu brought me back to messy, noisy and smelly Carbon.

We tend to be more forgiving of the shortcomings of our home. It would have given me a deep sense of displacement if I took a whiff just minutes before the jeepney entered the city’s historic wet market and didn’t bombard my lungs with a hefty dose of eau-de-Carbon: a heady mix of essential oils and aroma compounds that overpoweringly exude methane, manufactured exclusively by garbage rotting in dumpsites and 21 times more toxic than carbon dioxide.

If Carbon smelled as usual, at least it looked less unkempt. No mountains of garbage landscaping the streets and sidewalks; no discarded vegetables clogging canals like mutant flora.

Such consolation was short-lived. A young woman with several bags boarded our jeepney. From Freedom Park to UP Cebu, she fascinated me. For a quarter of an hour, she ate three fried lumpia, two medium-sized meatballs, and one lemon candy. She threw outside of the jeepney the plastic bags holding her breakfast-on-the-road.

From bottled water bought from a street vendor, she took a few sips before borrowing the jeepney driver’s Cebuano daily, where she delicately wiped her fingers before reading sports news on the back page.

Seated behind her, I regarded the tabloid-wiping as the coup de grâce. Here is a young person able to carry several totes loaded with meat and provisions. She has the energy and will to wake at dawn, make her way through Carbon’s human sea, and dash with all her purchases for a sought-after jeepney seat.

Yet, she cannot carry back with her two empty plastic bags and a wee wrapper, a wad that would fit in an infant’s fist.

Fortunately, the jeepney, with its open doors and windows, is invented for commuters like her. No vehicle is structurally better designed to create utmost convenience for chucking out trash.

A city ordinance requires operators to install a garbage receptacle inside a public utility jeepney. Since the bin is placed only in the main passenger section, a passenger seated beside the driver may be excused for treating the city streets as a free-for-all dumpsite.

We can always rationalize the irrational: the commuter who thoughtlessly disposes trash and panics when a sudden downpour turns streets into flooded obstacle courses; the smoker who cannot drop a butt into a bin but can aim it perfectly for the nearest much-abused bush. And the onlooker who sees all but does nothing.

It takes more than one person to abuse the earth. A “carbon footprint” refers to the total impact of greenhouse gases created by a group of people. Carbon Market, over a hundred years old, is a tourist attraction. Do we Cebuanos also want to be known for the carbon footprint we create with our garbage?

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s August 16, 2015 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, August 08, 2015

Of gods and aliens

Dear God,

How are you? I marvel at your patience. It is beyond me to speculate why you ever chose us. These days, we seem to be even harder to understand, let alone accept.

Last Sunday, the Iglesia ni Cristo (INC) celebrated its 101st anniversary. Learning from last year’s horrendous traffic choking areas in Manila where the INC gave away food packs, we stayed home.

I’m a Catholic but am apt to forget this when I am stewing inside public transport for hours because authorities would rather sacrifice the general welfare than turn down a request to hold public assembly on a weekday in key flow points by a group that counts 2.25 million members in 104 ecclesiastical districts all over the country.

However, there was no way to avoid the numerous, large newspaper ads placed by politicians over the weekend. By definition, a politician is a creature that will take a selfie with you and hire a team to make it “viral” on social media.

Falling short of this goal, a politician will pose with religious leaders. Or pay for advertisements that congratulate a religious group that practices unity or bloc voting. If I were running for public office, I might also be a little more pleasant to the INC, whose 2.25 million followers believe “working together for one purpose” expresses your will.

An old, cranky reader, I want to see grey columns of text when I flip newspaper pages, not ads that use a whole page or full colors as a social pretext for a political end to curry personal favors with a religious group. Too many adjectives spoil a sentence, Ernest Hemingway said, a lot more elegantly.

And the artwork makes this cross even heavier to bear. Some ads display a collage of Felix Y. Manalo, first INC leader, Eduardo V. Manalo, current INC executive minister, and “Yours Truly” (the politician placing the ad). The Unholy Trinity: Is the religious symbolism supposed to work as a political anointing or an artistic irony?

If the Tolentinos, Estradas and Revillas used their own money, I might just close my eyes and read news features about alien-sightings. But nearly all the ads displayed the official seals of government. Is that right to use thousands of public funds to greet your powerful friends while taxpayers line up for clean water, cheap rice, daily rides, subsidized hospitalization, public toilets, free coffins, and packs of “Lucky Me” noodles and sardine cans given after calamities?

“Hay, Ginoo ko (Oh, my God),” Davao Mayor Rodrigo Duterte was quoted as replying to talks that he will run with Sen. Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. in 2016. OMG, too, I said when I first saw the large billboard showing “Rody” posing beside a motorbike and cautioning Cavite motorists to drive carefully. When Rody showed up everywhere, a billboard saint for safe travel, I close my eyes, infantile avoidance but at least not adding to my considerable transgressions against Christian patience and charity.

I wish I could experience the visions of Jejomar Binay. After giving away rosary bracelets with his name at the back of the cross, Binay told reporters he will win the presidency, relying on “99-percent prayer”. He prays in the morning and in the evening. A mist gathers in front of his eyes when he talks to you. Lord, why is it that when I close my eyes at every politician’s foible, I just see a dark, dark hole?

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s August 2, 2015 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

WHAT do we know of rivers? Like other city dwellers, I remember rivers only when, swollen by torrential rain or clogged by refuse, these overflow and confront us with the detritus of urban life, ranging from the inconvenient to the tragic.

Alongside reports of metro flashfloods worsened by unfinished drainage projects ironically called “flood interceptors” are stories of children who drowned while swimming or after falling into a swollen river as they were going home from school.

I Googled and found out that nearly all searches associate rivers with disaster. Trash, not riverine life, dominates six of Metro Cebu’s major rivers, reported Sun.Star Cebu’s Jujemay G. Awit last June 4. Leading the Guadalupe River in Cebu City, Sapangdaku in Toledo, Guindarohan in Minglanilla, Luknay in Liloan, and Cansaga in Consolacion is the Butuanon River, classified as one of the nation’s worst by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) central office.

In some reports, rivers and creeks are left unnamed as if these waterways were not newsworthy except as sites of calamities.

Perhaps there lies the tragedy of rivers in our time.

How many of us retain a memory of rivers before we despoiled these? How many of us have seen a river without floating garbage, industrial waste or illegal settlements? How many of us can name a river? Or want to know its name?

What we cannot name, we cannot care about. What we cannot feel concern for, we cannot take part in its solution.

I realized this after reading and rereading the Sun.Star Cebu special report, “Swamped: Flood-proofing Mandaue City”. Written by Rebelander S. Basilan and edited by Isolde D. Amante, the four-part series was published on May 24-27.

Basilan reported on the incentives given by Mandaue politicians, from exchanging groceries for recyclable trash to offering food-for-work to weed out trash from creeks and rivers. Instead of dole-outs, local leaders should encourage “bayanihan (self-help volunteerism)”. In DENR river clean-ups, residents simply look on or point out garbage to the volunteers, reported Awit.

Poet Myke U. Obenieta once planned to compile the local lore surrounding rivers. His idea predates the Rivers of the World project. Through a British and Philippine partnership, elementary and high school students and teachers make artworks capturing the history of local rivers.

By following the meandering of history—“river of life, river culture, river city, resourceful river, polluted river, and working river”—it is hoped that the youth see and treat rivers as part of their community.

Long before Myke dreamt of following wherever riverine stories will take him, my cousins and I detoured from hearing Sunday mass to explore a “canal” along Mango Ave.

City-bred, we did not have the range of words that rural children have for natural waterways that are interwoven with their life: “suba,” “sapa,” and “sapa-sapa”. We thought “canal” was the Cebuano word for the Mango Ave. waterway that often overflowed, spilling slime and smell; hence, our name for it.

Later, odorous in our Sunday’s best clothes, we ogled our catch. Tiny and nearly invisible in the jar of tap water, the “canal” fish was a creature of wonder. Before evening, it went belly up.

Our youth deserve better memories of rivers.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s July 26, 2015 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

The readers

ALL I could see of the girl was two lavender ribbon barrettes that kept her hair in place.

But I could hear her very well. In the crush of boarding the MRT train for women with children, the elderly, and disabled, I wasn’t immediately aware of her.

But as the train went through its stops, I gradually noticed the girl and her father. Early morning rides are often the quietest. Even if half of the planet seems to be squeezed inside the train, morning commuters are cocooned in private, silent preoccupations.

Not this girl. From the window, she had an unimpeded view of the surly, smog-blanketed metro. Her father, squatting, had his head close to her. I thought they were chatting until I realized the girl was reading road signs, billboards or anything he was pointing out to her.

Unlike other commuters, the man did not have a mobile phone in his hand. The blue of his shirt was like something glimpsed under the waves. The girl’s clothes, too, were leached of color from frequent washing. The ribbons, though, were new. In that grey morning, they were like butterflies flitting astray in a silent train full of people.

The girl could read very well: Pepsi, Penshoppe, Jesus is Lord. For the first time, I saw the billboards of Edsa used as flashcards by a man who was talking to his child, not to a phone in his hand. Holding on to the hand strap, I forgot about my heavy bags and the fear of losing my gadgets to a pickpocket so I could follow the girl with the butterflies in her hair read anything the world threw back at her.

Travelling by MRT above the poor and the rich mired in Edsa, I’ve often reflected how civilizations rose in the deltas surrounding bodies of water, which served as ancient highways. Epifanio de los Santos Avenue, also known as Edsa, is notorious for traffic, billboards and flash floods.

That morning, a girl changed my mind. Edsa public library?

At Boni station, the train paused due to some glitch. The girl saw a sign and quickly read the first line in Filipino: “Bawal kumain.” The second line, a translation in English, made her pause: “Ea-ting not a-LOW-wed. Ano ‘yun, ‘Tay (what does it mean, Father)?”

What quirk decided this combination of English words? “No eating” is shorter and easier than “Eating not allowed”. An editor will point out that the second phrase is twice as long as the first, actually eighteen characters with spaces compared to nine.

My concern, though, is not with the science of creating signs or even translating for the masses. What made the day turn bleaker was the power of the past tense form of an ordinary verb to stop the girl with the butterflies. How could anything as pedestrian, phlegmatic and replaceable as “allow” suddenly become despotic and omnipotent?

When I got off at my station, the girl and her father had stepped out a station earlier. They held hands as the crowd eddied around them. If the girl is as sharp as I think she is, a second language will open doors, not keep these shut against her.

Watching the man pull his daughter into a sea of bodies, I could still hear him responding to her question: “Galing mo, ‘Nak (very good, daughter)!”

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s July 19, 2015 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Of termites and men

AGE makes it irksome to wake up at night and go down to the toilet. But if not for this nocturnal trip, I might never have discovered the quiet pleasure of looking down our sleeping street.

We live at the end of a cul-de-sac that sees more canine and feline traffic than the human. However, from the upstairs windows, I can see Laguna de Bay. On the way to church, we drive past a highway overlooking Taal Lake. When we go down to buy groceries, Mt. Makiling rises in the distance, often wreathed in mist in this season of monsoons.

It is disorienting to reconcile the many sides of Silang, Cavite. The province has many quaint-named barangays, like Putingkahoy, Pulong Bunga, Pulong Saging, Balite, Banaba, Iba, Ipil, Yakal and Pasong Langka.

But just as anachronism splits the old names of places and modernization, this part of Cavite juxtaposes roadside stands overflowing with fruits, ornamentals and heavy wooden furniture with export processing zones, business process outsourcing enclaves, and malls.

Looking for a second home, the husband and I wanted to live as far away from Metro Manila. Cool and green, Silang is low-key, overshadowed by its southern neighbor, Tagaytay.

Who would have thought that “conurbation” would make Silang part of the southward expansion of Metro Manila to as far away as Lipa City in Batangas? In his 1915 book, “Cities in Evolution,” Patrick Geddes coined a neologism to capture the agglomeration of contiguous cities and other settlements into one urban market interconnected by electric power, modern transport and industry. Geddes cited as examples the conurbations of Midlandton in England, the Ruhr in Germany, New York City-New Jersey in the U.S., and Southern Metro Manila.

Outside the blueprints and jargon of urban planners, our corner of Silang seems less a niche in a conurbation than a slice of the animal kingdom. The frogs keep me awake some nights with their incessant mating or arguing. In place of a TV reality show, I watch all kinds of creatures, some I cannot even name, converge on the closed windows lit by the outdoor lights. On most nights, the lizards win, 3, versus etc., 0.

One night, I looked out of the upstairs window and saw the street lamps sprout roiling dreadlocks. “Ibos (winged termites)” swarmed around the lamp heads in a kind of light rage that lasted till dawn.

According to Timothy Gibb, an insect diagnostician of Purdue University’s Department of Entomology, winged termites are called “swarmers” because they come out in large numbers, usually after a rain. I grew up thinking ibos “warned” of approaching rain.

It’s not the only bias against termites, a colony of which can destroy a home. We use their attraction to light to position a pail of water under a lit bulb; the reflection ends with the insects drowning. The broken wings and carcasses are easier to dispose of.

Gibb wrote that termites mate for life, with the queen producing as many as 100 million eggs in a typical “marriage” of 20 years. Only a few of these eggs become reproductives, the winged termites. Despite being given only one purpose in life—mate and reproduce—few ibos survive, eaten by other insects and predators or killed by humans.

Drawn by the light, two creatures with different outcomes: conurbation and swarming.

( 091732266131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s July 12, 2015 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

The good, ugly and dirty

DON’T be high blood.

There was a time when such an expression would have merited a sniff, the kindest snub Pinoys give to someone using “poor English”.

English may not be our mother tongue. Yet many Filipinos are obsessed about this second language, even more so than their own mother tongue or the national language, which many Visayans still refer to as Tagalog, not Filipino.

One only has to listen to the comments of those watching beauty contests. Whether it is a national tilt or a barangay pageant, audiences invariably gauge each candidate’s facility for pronouncing and stringing words of English as proof of “talent”. It does not even matter if the English-speaking candidate does not make sense. “Basta” proper English (sniff)!

Our pride as English speakers is understandable, given that many scrimp to put their children in the best private school (where English must be spoken even in the toilet or corridor) and hire an English-speaking yaya (“Bisaya-a aning bataa, uy” reproaches not just the nanny from Cebu or other parts of Visayas but also the parents hiring her for their Cebuano-fluent child).

Nurturing our love/hate affair with English is the recent recognition of “Philippine English,” meaning the “Filipino variety of English usage”.

Last June 26, the Philippine Daily Inquirer (PDI) reported the Oxford English Dictionary (OED)’s inclusion of 40 Filipino words in its June 2015 update. The OED includes words used for at least 10 years in newspapers and novels.

The PDI also reported that the OED cited “Philippine English” for the first time, a “legitimization” of English spoken not just by Filipinos in the Philippines but also in parts of the United States with large Filipino populations.

More significant than the elevation of Philippine English into scholarly study, at par with British and American English, is our acceptance of the way we have adopted and adapted English for our expression and communication.

Every time I’ve received a backhanded compliment from a Tagalog speaker that I speak “good English,” presumably for someone coming from the “provinces,” I’ve always wanted to retort that the choice of language is only secondary to the abilities to think and to articulate one’s thoughts.

But let’s not be high blood.

According to the OED, Philippine English, like other global varieties, shows how English accommodates “loan words” and “changes in the usage of common English words”.

For instance, Filipinos turn the noun “high blood” into an adjective meaning “angry, agitated”.

That’s what the Puerto Galera Council became when they recently declared Kees Koornstra persona non grata. The Dutch citizen, residing in the country for 14 years, posted in his Facebook group photos of uncollected garbage with the caption “Puerto Basura (Puerto Garbage)”.

According to the “mangled English” of the council resolution, Koornstra’s namecalling was an “insult” to the “dignity of Puerto Galerans”. Yet the foreigner’s photographs do not lie: the mounds of garbage bags look like commuters descending on Edsa on a Friday afternoon when malls are holding monster sales.

So when will “pikon (onion-skinned)” make it to the next edition of OED?

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s July 5, 2015 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Commuting joys

I AM going home.

After three years in Manila, I’m wrapping up my studies. I’m packing odd mementoes of my exile.

Boxes are bursting with drafts and notes, a nauseating forest of paper I cannot leave behind. The Lenovo netbook, bought at the start of my course work, just gave a death rattle. Rather than replace the battery, I just plug this wheezing companion, which has stored without fail all the drivel I dished out these years.

But there is one partner I cannot take back to Cebu: the Metro Rail Transit (MRT).

My friend Olive, who took me on an MRT tutorial when I started my studies, texted me: “ur lucky ur graduating also from the MRT now that it’s falling apart”.

Three years of regularly commuting from Makati to Quezon City via MRT entitles me to claim personal knowledge of at least one extreme sport: MRT-riding.

MRT trains are “five times more deadly” than counterparts in other countries. Last June 19, The Philippine Star reported that the Advocates of Science and Technology for the People (Agham) disclosed that 3.48 injuries were recorded for every 100 million passenger-miles covered by the MRT in 2013. This is 2.78 higher than the 0.7 injuries recorded for U.S. trains.

The advocacy group’s findings were based on a comparison of the MRT and U.S. trains that were of 15-16 years. Trains of this vintage were plying US railways from 2003 to 2008. Since 2013 up to the present, the Metro Manila public commutes on MRT trains of the same vintage.

Agham’s call for better maintenance echoes the demand made for years by commuters, other advocates, and Netizens. A June 24 report in The Philippine Star disclosed that the delivery of 48 new trains intended for the MRT-3 will be moved from the last quarter of this year to January next year.

For commuters, this demands more endurance for MRT realities: queues snaking like human trains, crowds, frayed tempers, vulnerability to pickpockets and gropers, and discomfort and other risks for the elderly, pregnant women, nursing mothers, disabled, and adults with young children.

In Manila, home of a million and one malls, Fridays are to be fervently avoided by faint-hearted commuters. Since the MRT-3 covers about a dozen or so stations, which are connected to major malls, the eternal cycle of weekend mall sales redefines torture for commuters who must resort to the most primal instinct for survival just to hold on to their stake in a spot in the MRT no wider than their two feet.

Throw in the rainy season, flash floods, and people who dive under speeding trains—that’s the unlovely slice of commuting life in the bowels of the MRT.

So why will I miss the MRT when I go back to Cebu soon?

In a country where normal means nothing goes right, the MRT inarticulately argues why Pinoys deserve better. I sat beside a young mother and her toddler during early afternoon rush hour. Holding on to her son with one hand, she used her other hand to retrieve a water bottle from the knapsack she locked with her feet, cover herself preparatory to nursing him, wipe his face, chuck him under the chin, and brush her hair.

She did this without fuss as the ageing train lumbered past 10 stations. During one of those days when half of the metro seems to be inside the trains and the other half, waiting to go in. Don’t they deserve better?

(mayette.tabada@gmail.con/ 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s June 28, 2015 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”


TECHNOLOGY helped the good guys when “salisi” gangs hit Cebu recently.

According to Sun.Star Cebu reporter Daryl T. Jabil, “salisi” is Filipino for “going in different directions”. That’s how the gang operates, one member distracting the prey while the others steal his or her valuables or act as lookout.

When one becomes the object of such dedicated hunting, the end is foretold. Then Netizens rewrote the ending.

Last May 30, a businessman lost his bag containing P30,000 cash and other valuables in a fast food branch in Mabolo. His family got a copy of a security camera video of the incident and uploaded this on the social media site Facebook.

Last June 12, jeepney passenger Dirk was too scared to warn a fellow passenger when a “laglag barya” gang put her and her bag within their pincers. Yet Dirk had the presence of mind to use his smartphone to record how three men first distracted the woman with a coin dropped in a public utility jeepney plying the Talamban route.

The videos of the May 30 and June 12 incidents became viral. These did not only alert the public but helped the police identify gang members, who held records of previous arrests.

Jabil’s reports emphasize these lessons. Salisi gang members post bail and return to their old tricks. Public vigilance is needed.

Jeepney thieves also distract a victim by putting gum on the hair or throwing an insect at his or her feet.

The fight against street crime begins with victims reporting to the police and later filing charges. It’s an act that demands will power I was not capable of.

I’ve been a victim of street thieves. I was too shocked to do anything at first. Then I blamed myself for behavior that made me vulnerable to crime: wearing jewelry while commuting, bringing a bag that was easy to open, glancing at a jeepney passenger who dropped a sack with a clatter. I resolved to put those incidents behind me and move on.

Later, after talking to other victims, I realized how keeping silent perpetuates crime. It’s even more important to report crime when the modus happens away from the public eye.

For instance, con artists struck family and friends at home, managing to take away substantial savings and valuables. The modus shows common themes: a solicitation on one’s sympathy (i.e., an old woman seeking directions, a priest raising funds to go to Rome); the gang leader’s gift for talk, often described as a power to hypnotize victims; and after the criminals strike, the dawning realization of being duped, shame, fear of being judged and rejected by loved ones, and deep sense of violation that can immobilize a victim for weeks.

In much the same way that the police and the media keep a profile of criminals and their modus, criminals also profile potential victims. In their list, nice guys must top the list. A couple was too polite to quiz a fake priest. The husband assumed his wife knew the priest she invited in their home; the wife thought her husband was distantly related to the priest. The con artist took away the couple’s savings and shook up their belief in each other.

Criminals write the end of the story unless we let them.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s June 21, 2015 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”