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”