Saturday, December 17, 2016


I WILL always think of this time as the Year of Walter.

He is a marmalade cat that adopted our college.

Perhaps, because our building has laboratories for dissections, any cat that strayed in our part of the campus avoided close contact, eyeing humans from a safe distance.

Not Walter. My first encounter with him was set, typically, on Walter’s terms. A mewling outside the newsroom interrupted my lecture.

I hastily opened the door, thinking a cat may have its tail trapped in the door.

The cat tilted up its broad, well-stroked supercilious face, obviously pleased I responded correctly to its summons.

Walter began to weave a sinuous dance, drawing figure eights in and out of my legs before sauntering inside the room, tickled orange to have the students pay more attention to his Fred Astaire number than they had given to my impassioned discussion on creative nonfiction.

Such a shameless creature was bound to steal not just attention but affection. When His Orangeness tours the corridors, the students stroke, feed, and even include him in their study sessions.

During an art exhibit, I watched, more avidly than I wanted, the bright tip of an orange tail trace the edge of the table where the guest of honor was seated with university officials.

The tail tip was as inexorable as a shark fin sliding through the sea like a scythe. I was wondering how the august, immaculately groomed guest of honor would respond to Walter’s Fred Astaire moves when the tail suddenly disappeared.

The young handsome son of one of the exhibiting artists carried away Walter, looking purrfectly smug. To a Cat, being a Cat is the only rationale for existence. Magnanimity to humans is a feline concession.

I must admit, though, that Walter gives more than he takes. When I stay late in campus, I sometimes look for Walter to give him dinner scraps. A nocturnal hunter, he is rarely in his usual perch.

On these evening walks, I discover, instead of Walter, the passion of a solitary group of students rehearsing for a class project. I have time to gaze at the gallery paintings I am too distracted to notice in the day. I smell the quiet of the night; I listen to a pensive moon, waxing with the unattainable.

If Walter comes, I hear first the red bell and see the red collar emerge from the surrounding dark.

Given by an admirer, the red collar and bell show up starkly against the ginger of his coat. When Walter was first seen wearing this, his fandom was disappointed. To know Walter is to want to do things for him.

Like give him names. The orange tabby goes by many monikers, given by different persons and groups. “Walter” was given by a young teacher named Reginald Michael Quirong.

I wonder what Reggie would have thought about belling Walter. Before Reggie passed away unexpectedly, he and fellow teachers planned to bring cat food for Walter. I doubted that would diminish the cat’s overweening drive to court and collect admirers.

Unlike Walter, I can be petty about the impermanence of affection. I gnash at the inconstancy of felines and humans. With Reggie away, there is no one with whom I can go over the minutiae of Walter’s perambulations, the complacent curl those saffron paws have on human affections.

On evenings Walter deigns to share the remains of my dinner, he first does his Fred Astaire routine around my legs. I wish you could hear the sound his bell makes, Reg.

( 0917 3226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s December 18, 2016 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, December 10, 2016


CHRISTMAS happens every year. Its rituals, though, are far from predictable.

On a recent trip to Manila, I got caught for three hours in the pre-midnight rush hour.

So after unearthing a sugar-free wad of gum in the black hole of my tote, I settled back, attuned my ears to the barker announcing bus stops, and gazed at the Edsa billboards flashing past.

Alas, instead of gift ideas, I found guilt instead. Twenty-seven days before Christmas and I didn’t even have a matchbox to wrap.

Part of the stress brought on by the season is the competitiveness. I have friends who bought gifts for this year by raiding last year’s post-Christmas sales. Not only does this friend keep a color-coded, handwritten journal tracking past presents to avoid repeating a gift, he claims to have recycled everything he has given, past, present and future.

In the midst of these fantastic creatures, I am the perfect anomaly.

I planted pepper seeds, planning a potted gift for an uncle who loves to cook the fiery dishes of his childhood. The pods turned out sweet.

I took a short cut with potted plants sold in a bazaar. The purple chili hanging from the branches looked like miniature bells but would ripen, assured the seller, into habaneros, hottest of the hot.

I went home before the ripening. A few days before my uncle’s 75th, anticipating a harvest of pepper to break the Scoville heat index, I called and learned the habaneros gave up the ghost.

Similar trials and failures won’t change my mind that the secret of giving is in the planning. Anticipating the birth of our firstborn, I started to embroider a piece of cloth he would someday roll on and play before he learned to crawl and then toddle.

Our older son is 23 now. The three small blossoms I satin-stitched in a corner of what should have been his blankie may find more appreciation in a future granddaughter. Who said I didn’t plan?

Yet, more than the ability to see the future, giving asks that we pay attention to what’s here and now. Married friends of ours gathered this insight from online shopping.

Wife bought a pair of stonewashed denims from her favorite shopping website. She surprised her husband and to please her, he wore the pants to Misa del Gallo and then Noche Buena with their families.

When we anticipate one feast after another, we know we are better off with an old worn comfortable pair of pants—perhaps a little loose around the waist—than with a strange stiff pair, styled for someone younger and trimmer than the person we have been married to all these years.

Our “kumpare” was glad to get out of that pair before his blood circulation was cut off and the holidays turned tragic.

We think giving is easier when we know the recipient. Knowing is nothing compared to observing and verifying.

Trying to buy a belt online for the husband, I realized I didn’t know the size of his waistline anymore.

When the belt was delivered, the husband couldn’t still use it. It was too wide to go through his belt hoops.

The husband wondered if I harbored a secret passion for Elvis “The Pelvis” Presley, and I learned never to take for granted men’s fashion.

May this year’s giving make us wiser than we are.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s December 11, 2016 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Many-splendored thing

HOW do we experience miracles in this age?

Given the past weeks—the extrajudicial killings, the Supreme Court betrayal, the Marcos burial sundering the nation, the vomitous lynching of Leila de Lima—perhaps the question should be: can we still expect miracles?

Miracles are among us.

Scholar Reza Aslan writes in “No god but God” that time and place determine how humanity experiences “the miraculous”.

In the age of Moses, magic was required to change staff to snake or part the Red Sea. Judea tested Jesus by expecting Him to cure the sick and raise the dead.

Then language replaced magic and medicine. Aslan notes that oral societies “believe that the world is continuously recreated through their myths and rituals,” transmitted through words “infused with magical power”.

The Greek bard singing of Odysseus, the Indian poet chanting “Ramayana” verses, and the North American shaman recounting the myths of recreation—they were not mere storytellers but “mouthpieces of gods,” with the “divine authority necessary to express fundamental truths,” writes Aslan.

In these uncertain times, the divine resides in Art’s kernel of courage to bear witness. Last Nov. 14, the link between storytelling and truth-telling was reinforced by writers Richellet Chan and CD Borden during the “Udtong Tutok” series organized by the Creative Writing Program (CWP) of the University of the Philippines (UP) Cebu.

Chan discussed how the child Josephine negotiates her neighborhood’s labyrinth of deceits and betrayals in the coming-of-age short story, “Kiyawkiyaw.”

Borden used a hired killer to testify about the execution of a contract in “Abat,” his spare, stark meditation on how Philippine society is a many-chambered pit of the doomed. Emerging voices, Chan and Borden nevertheless are wizened and all-seeing witnesses and truth-tellers.

During martial law, artists were among the few who broke through censorship by spinning fantasies that held a kernel of truth. Yet, despite our debt to them, artists to this day remain among the neglected and persecuted.

To support gifted but financially challenged Fine Arts (FA) students of UP Cebu, 40 FA alumni and faculty contributed works to the “Pamalandong” exhibit.

Running from Nov. 23 to Dec. 14 at the Jose T. Joya Gallery of UP Cebu, the exhibit is also a collective tribute to the program’s backbone, the early mentors of Cebu’s only formal institution for the arts when it was established in 1975.

Remembering professors Martino Abellana, Julian Jumalon, Lucille Agas, Carmelo Tamayo, and Jose Joya, alumnus J. Karl Roque, wrote that, as the exhibit title suggests, the participating artists looked back on their own struggles as students and pledged to contribute a portion of sales to “pay forward” to young aspiring artists.

“We hope to raise funds to pay off student loans or buy art materials,” said the FA professor and Jose T. Joya Gallery director.

Art is an indwelling. In Cebuano, “pamalandong” can mean a “musing,” “meditation (palandong),” or “shade (landong)”.

Art provides the break needed by body and soul. According to CWP coordinator Lilia Tio, “Udtong Tutok” refers to the high noon gaze, which is “to look unflinchingly” during the middle of the day when we take a break, eat with colleagues, or bury our secrets.

Again and again, Art brings us to the peaks of confrontation and the valleys of contemplation.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s November 27, 2016 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, November 19, 2016

“A very bad man”

IN the strange saga of Ferdinand Marcos, his many burials should qualify for a citation in Ripley’s “Believe It or Not!,” an illustrated series about the bizarre.

While exiled in Honolulu, Marcos died on Sept. 28, 1989.

After President Corazon Aquino banned his remains from returning, he was stored in a refrigerated crypt in Honolulu.

Under President Fidel Ramos, the body was transferred from Hawaii to Ilocos Norte on Sept. 7, 1993. Marcos ended up in another refrigerated crypt, which became the major attraction at the Ferdinand E. Marcos Presidential Center in Ilocos Norte.

President Joseph Estrada resurrected the move to bury Marcos at the Libingan ng mga Bayani, but cancelled the planned burial on July 11, 1998 in the face of fierce public opposition.

In 2011, President Benigno Aquino III delegated Vice President Jejomar Binay, who recommended the interment of Marcos in his hometown of Batac, with full military honors. PNoy ignored the Binay proposal.

Last Nov. 18, 27 years after his death, Marcos’s remains were finally buried at the Libingan ng mga Bayani during a “private burial” that took place at noon.

In this predominantly Catholic country, burials traditionally take place at 3 p.m., timed with Jesus’s death on the cross.

While workers broke off for lunch or stepped out to withdraw their yearend bonus before the weekend queues and monster mall sales began, Marcos slipped in to lie down with heroes, a place history denies him.

This actual “private burial” contrasted starkly with the mock public burial of the effigy of Marcos at the Inayawan Sanitary Landfill last Nov. 15.

I interviewed Linya Ocampo Fernandez, 17, who created with her father, Raymund, the effigy buried in the “Libingan ng mga Basura,” as well as the dummies of the nine Supreme Court magistrates who ruled that President Rodrigo Duterte was within the bounds of law in ordering the burial of Marcos at the Libingan.

Soft-spoken and calm, Linya often collaborates with Mons, the latest being the dictator’s likeness constructed from chicken wire, stuffed with garbage, and used clothes, including a fake medal.

On a rickety cart, the effigy of Marcos had its mock wake at the University of the Philippines Cebu’s Oblation Square before joining multi-sectoral participants of the mock funeral march and burial.

Given only three days to make the effigy, Linya recalled that she and her father were still enthusiastic about the commission. She said that, after living through Martial Law, her Papa did not want his children to go through a similar experience.

Linya learned about the Edsa Revolution from her elementary teachers but read little about “what actually happened” under Martial Law in textbooks. Now homeschooled by Mons, Linya understands that the late dictator was “a very bad man”.

She recalls tagging along with her father to a rally protesting against the vice-presidential bid of Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. After listening to survivors talk about how their children and classmates disappeared during Martial Law, Linya realized how the late dictator was “much much worse than what I had imagined”.

“I heard that kids my age like Bongbong Marcos' s son who they say is very ‘gwapo’,” she emailed. “I think that if they had the chance to listen to victims, they would change their minds… I hope they won't vote Sandro Marcos for president.” 

( 0917 3226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s November 20, 2016 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Trial by headline

WHICH headline generated more cringes? A broadsheet ran this headline on the day the US voted for its 45th president: “Clinton has 90% chance of winning”.

The headline was a teaser placed in the ear or the spot beside the masthead or the name of the newspaper. In radiant yellow, the ear headline was superimposed on a photo of a celebratory Hillary Clinton. The tips of her extended right hand overlapped a blue ribbon that carried the newspaper’s motto: “Balanced news + fearless views”.

The day after the US elections, I retreated to a coffee shop and sat down with the Nov. 10 issues to check out how the local and national dailies covered the electoral turnout.

I scalded my throat by taking a premature sip of hot tea. The scalding took a back seat after I noted that two national dailies, the “Philippine Daily Inquirer” and the “Philippine Star,” carried identical front-page headlines, “OMG! IT’S TRUMP!”.

I’m an old-fashioned reader. I prefer reading paper over virtual. I buy local, national and international dailies. For my money’s worth, though, I don’t appreciate journalists making up my mind for me.

Segregation is inviolate for news and opinion. Facts—meaning anything that’s verifiable—is found on page one and the news sections. The interpretation of facts—which can be limitless to fit all the biases and agenda the media see fit to carry—is found in the opinion-editorial section of a newspaper.

So why should reading a headline truncated into three capitalized letters be even more dispiriting than a Trump victory? According to online dictionaries of Internet slang, the acronym “OMG” stands for “Oh my God,” an expression of either surprise or disgust.

“Surprise” is neutral enough, compared to “disgust”. However, consider background and context. Aside from running the Nov. 9 ear headline predicting a Clinton victory, the Inquirer threw in an extra exclamation point in their Nov. 10 banner headline to make a slight distinction from the identical Star headline. The “OMG” headlines carried more shock than awe.

These headlines pale in comparison to others that made it to global front pages. According to a Nov. 10 article published online by “The Straits Times,” Trump’s victory did not just bump off “Madam President,” a headline The New York Times never got to use on Nov. 10, it inspired other “flustered headlines”.

“WTF,” the New Zealand paper, “The Dominion Post,” exclaimed in all caps before adding in smaller fonts, “Why Trump Flourished.”

The French newspaper, “Liberation,” carried the photo of a man standing in silhouette against the US flag. Only two features are spotlighted: the top of the man’s toupee and his right hand, cocked as if holding a gun. The headline: “American Psycho”.

Yet, when editors pull out the stops to invent startling headlines like “Trumpocalypse” and “Trumpquake,” or quote Homer Simpson’s 16-year-old prediction of a Trump presidency, I miss the journalism of old.

“Writing is selection,” wrote John McPhee of The New Yorker. In his classic essay, “Omission,” McPhee quotes Ernest Hemingway, who turned simplicity into both the Art and Theory of Omission: “Back off. Let the reader do the creating.”

Under the old rules, when journalists slipped, they owned up to the error. Resigned to the coverage of world leaders like Trump and Duterte, I know better than to sip hot tea when checking out the day’s headlines.

( 0917 3226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s November 13, 2016 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, November 05, 2016

Sleepless in Changi

MY favorite in Singapore’s sprawling, stupendous Changi Airport are the toilets.

During two recent stopovers, I learned that this hub, serving “more than 300 destinations in 60 countries,” offers free Skytrain and shuttle bus services, as well as travellators, a slow-moving conveyor that replaces walking, to connect terminals.

Those missing the free guided city tour can console themselves at over 350 retail outlets in the Changi Transit Area, selling everything from duty-free diamonds to gold-plated orchids.

If Omega, Bottega Veneta and Hermès leave one cold, there are alternatives: the Orchid Garden, Kinetic Rain Sculpture, Porcelain of Asia Exhibition, swimming pool, 24-hour movie theater, and others, all housed in this gateway-city. Heaven forbid boredom will ever flit, however fleetingly, in the mind of a Changi visitor.

But even Changi sleeps.

Past midnight, the airport temperature drops to an Arctic chill. Some retreat to the Transit Hotel where, for 110 SGD, one can have six hours of sleep and a shower. I sat down to read in a “snooze chair,” a free amenity in the public areas of Changi.

Either the bright lights or the eternal chill woke me at 3 a.m. Or most likely, encroaching age. I walked, avoiding the insidious travellators. I walked past clots of black-uniformed airport security with high-powered weapons.

I walked with a silent army of cleaners, all Asians. The young and dark-skinned shampooed and vacuumed the omnipresent carpet and couches.

Stoic elderly Asians form part of the force maintaining Changi’s outward perfection. They change, blossom by blossom, the imposing orchid installations. They feed the fat, lazy koi. They push sprinklers, which spray a fine mist on the indoor bamboo groves, gigantic ferns, and alien cacti, whose moisture-storing spikes must compensate for the absence of sunlight and fresh air.

This silent geriatric army looks after the waste left by the foraging hordes. Every pluperfect toilet in Changi has a computer screen showing the profile of the cleaning lady, along with a touch-screen system of emoticons for rating the facility from excellent to poor.

Rating the toilets excellent every time, I gazed at the screen image of the toilet ladies. Outside Changi, they could be grandmothers and elder aunts; in Changi, they are the perfect workers, never seen except for the work they leave behind: the spotless, scented toilets.

Then during a pre-dawn ramble, I came upon a toilet lady. A cardboard box was disassembled and spread under her sleeping, uniformed figure. A square of cloth covered her face.

But I recognized my Asian sister. Back home, cardboard boxes are also reused: for the homeless to sleep on; for those servicing laborers who, in the contemporary version of Russian roulette, may get sexually transmitted infections along with paid sex; for passing cardboard justice on the extrajudicially murdered.

This faceless woman gambled in choosing sleep over duty. Foreign workers comprise 29 percent of the labor force of Singapore, the highest in Asia. Never lacking a queue, even in the blue hours of dawn, is Changi’s immigration and checkpoints terminal.

Which is stronger: fear of poverty or the desire to sleep and forget? Two Asian sisters—one sleeping, the other sleepless—sought answers in Changi’s most hospitable: its toilets.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s November 6, 2016 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, October 29, 2016

English in transit

ONLY in the presence of The Other do we spare a thought about how we communicate.

On the way to Yogyakarta, the capital of the Yogyakarta Special Region in Java, Indonesia, we stayed overnight at Changi. The airport in Singapore seems more like a city than a gateway.

Its website claim of being connected to “more than 300 destinations in 60 countries” is no boast. Arriving near midnight, we emerged from a flight where at least two infants were babbling and being babbled to in languages or accents my ear was unaccustomed to, and found the airport in Singapore as busy as a hive.

In an anthill, an ant may not probably comment about his companions if they were also from the same anthill.

More arresting than the number of people passing through Changi is the diversity of faces, the Babel of voices. How does one navigate in this disorder?

Even in the age of information, with fingertip-ability to summon data as needed, people still turn to other people. Perhaps an atavistic urge compels us to seek clarity first from the human than from the automaton.

For Bel, my fellow teacher, and I, it was a lady with a clipboard.

The authority implied by a clipboard was easy to decode; her English brought me to the mouth of other language tributaries. Was our accent as mystifying, too, for her ears?

Fortunately, a clipboard stood for efficiency with this worker. She answered all our concerns, sent us on our way, and attended to the next group of befuddled transients.

English may still be the universal language. But in a polyglot world, English undergoes transformations. The spoken word is a far cry from its printed relative, cosseted by the rules of grammar.

At Changi, where the major preoccupation is to wait in between connections, the common medium is not language but purpose. Where is the toilet? How will I confirm my final terminal? What is the wifi username and password?

The wings for communication are clipped when a bridge is needed to cross cultures, penetrate the personal borders of experiences and insights. Can one be really assisted by any of the many Englishes available in our increasingly porous world?

Even Changi sleeps.

In the blue hours of dawn, the workers with their cleaning automatons emerge. We leave the frigid laptop station, where people have long ceased to surf, as if a sleeping spell was cast, catching and casting in stone each one in the act of holding a smartphone or cradling a laptop, gateways and getaways.

We espy a nook but there is another Filipino, garrulous and still eager to unload, while we feel we are nearly running on empty.

A group of workers warns us away from some coaches, which they are about to shampoo and vacuum. We think they are Filipinos; they turn out to be Malaysians. We wonder about the army of worker ants streaming in to replace the duty-free shoppers: Vietnamese? Indians? Sri Lankans? Middle Easterners?

What gives Filipinos the confidence to cross portals is the English we wear like an old but reliable coat.

But at 3 a.m. in Changi, my English is of no use. The roar of the cleaners’ machines overpowers the snores and susurrus of other tongues.

I take refuge in a bookstore, empty and waiting. I think of the billion words of English inside all those pages, shrink-wrapped, inviolate, remote from all contact.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s October 31, 2016 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, October 22, 2016


A VETERAN photojournalist said he was “sad” over the “dissolving” role of today’s journalists.

Last Oct. 19, visiting professor Mahdi Nazemroaya invited Pablo S. Quiza to address a class of Mass Communication students at the University of the Philippines Cebu.

Prior to living in Cebu City, Mr. Quiza was a freelance photographer who transferred to Singapore as a photojournalist and editor working with the international news agency Reuters.

In over 30 years, he has covered all subjects, from culture to politics and war, in many places, including his home, the Basque country straddling France and Spain, a region whose history of divisions prompted professor Nazemroaya to compare this with Mindanao in the Philippines.

All of the photos Mr. Quiza showed the class, except for one, featured conflict. The scenes varied in the elements posed as counterpoints: people versus people, people versus the machines of war, and people versus nature.

The images converged on one point: veracity.

Mr. Quiza said that the photojournalist has a commitment to witness all sides. Once refusing an assignment to cover Afghanistan as a photojournalist embedded with the U.S. military, he commented that immersing in one side curtails the journalist’s independence to tell the whole story.

Yet a photojournalist can never be truly objective because he or she is human. The trick is to find a balance, said Mr. Quiza.

As witnesses, photojournalists may be purveyors of ugliness but these images help “make the world a better place”. The photographers of the iconic images of the Vietnam War galvanized sectors of the American public to oppose the war and pressure the government to end it earlier, Mr. Quiza pointed out.

But truth’s greatest adversary may neither be governments nor corporations. Technology has brought changes, including the improved capacity to manipulate images, information and the balance of power.

While a trained eye is required to detect computer manipulation of photos, access to technology transforms any smartphone owner into an instant photojournalist.

His retirement from photojournalism stemmed from Mr. Quiza’s disillusionment with an industry and an audience increasingly inured to images. I was willing to risk my life to take photos but people prefer those that don’t ruin their breakfast, he mused.

A day later, I listened as my students discussed a TV footage showing a police van mowing into a crowd of protesters outside the U.S. Embassy. Thesis advisees studying how Netizens engage online, these young women are too harassed to be active in campus politics.

Yet, they cried each time the cop behind the van drove into, reversed, and drove again into the crowd of national minorities protesting their displacement by American companies and state interests.

When matter dissolves, doesn’t it change into other forms? What will journalists give way to?

( 0917 3226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s October 23, 2016 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, October 15, 2016

“Matamata”: Tips from beasts*

SHARING lunch at the cooperative-run canteen, my students and I learned a few things.

Some of us cannot stand vegetables. So we scraped all our leftovers and went to the back of the canteen and near the dorm entrance.

This is a hangout of feral dogs and cats, aside from students taking an alfresco break or making their projects under the canopy of trees.

The day before, we shared our packed lunch with Puti. That day, it was Mal for “malnourished.”

Watching the yellow-coated pooch gobbling leftovers, we saw he had a bit more meat now on his bony frame. That’s how Mal came to be Mellow Yellow, or Mel for short.

Three years of studies at the Diliman campus of the University of the Philippines (UP) showed me how the “feral” tag only describes the animals’ lack of human owners, not their temperaments or proclivities.

At the College of Mass Communication (CMC), where the cats are as territorial about their niches as the tenured professors, some resident divas draw a following among students, faculty, and staff.

A TV network crew once interrupted my study in a CMC gazebo because they were looking for the cat that saved a night-duty guard when it jumped on his lap and broke his nap. He woke in time to prevent an intruder from hitting him with a plank.

For academics, who dwell in their own worlds, feral cats and dogs make the best listeners. They keep silent and appreciate everything from Alinsky to Zero Vector, specially if a bit of sandwich is tossed after.

Animals show us how to listen to each other’s discourse without interruption or eruption.

Marga, the pet of the chief of security, accompanies her chief everywhere in the Cebu campus. When he was in an inter-agency meeting, Marga sauntered in as I pushed open the conference door.

Used to long meetings, Marga made no fuss until the session extended beyond noon. Then she started a low-register whine, pacing back and forth to the closed door.

My fellow teacher sought to distract her with his packed lunch. Marga ignored him and kept her dignity.

Perhaps we should have dangled research funds. That would have appealed better to Marga’s academic soul.

Though we classify them as feral, stray animals teach humans about co-existence with other humans.

Even in UP Diliman, where our furred brothers and sisters have inspired a Facebook page devoted to the “Cats of UP Diliman” and a Geography student project charting the movement of campus cats that was uploaded on YouTube, there are other humans who think it’s uncool to have corridors smelling of cat piss or worse.

Stray animals are also campus risks because they may bite, spread rabies, or cost the government P7,000 to repair an engine damaged by fur left by cats huddling overnight for warmth.

However, the solution is never to go as draconian as “total eradication”. Twice—in July 2015 and again in July 2016—the UP Diliman community arrived, after consultations and dialogues, at “humane” solutions, such as “retraining” and neutering, to address all concerns, including the safety of humans and the welfare of animals.

Cloud Sarmiento’s post, shared by “Cats of UP Diliman” on Facebook, shows a cat sprawled out in sleep. Beside it is a cardboard sign, with this message: “Wag tularan pusha ako”.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s October 16, 2016 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, October 08, 2016

I am Leila

THE YOUNG woman was distraught. She had been looking forward to celebrating with her friends. Then her father fired several bristling questions: Why? When? Where? With whom?

To seal that disastrous day, she ran into a particular young man just when her eyes were puffy from crying.

She had not seen him in campus for days. Then they walked into each other just as the covered walk was deserted. There was not even a scrap of poster she could pretend to read as he passed her, oblivious.

Why do men bookend our disasters?

My student’s rollercoaster Friday channeled my thoughts to misogyny. A parent’s concern and young love’s throes hardly manifest the deep-seated, even unconscious, contempt against women.

Yet, men socialize women: fathers, brothers, playmates, classmates, lovers, spouse.

Not to mention the usual suspects: the construction worker, the president, the troll and their rape jokes.

The catcalling variety of misogyny may have lost much of its novelty. It has swaggered from the streets and dunghills to straddle Malacañang and the once hallowed hall of Senate.

The first 100 days of this administration has ushered the most maddening honeymoon between President Duterte and Filipinas, 28 million of whom comprised 52 percent of the 54.4 million voters who turned out in May 2016.

We bristled and seethed as the president and his men made a new twist of the old carrot-and-stick approach with Vice President (VP) Leni Robredo.

First, he shut her out of his Cabinet, saying he was “non-committal” about Robredo, elected by 14,418,817 voters, because he did not want to hurt the feelings of his good friend, defeated rival Sen. Bongbong Marcos.

Then, after he “courted” her into heading the Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council (HUDCC), we had to read his nauseating “compliments” to the “beauteous” vice-president.

“You won't listen to a female president, you will just stare at her because she's beautiful,” said the president, who has told journalists he often gazes at Robredo during Cabinet meetings.

President Duterte has defended that he was not patronizing Robredo, a vocal critic of extrajudicial killings and the president’s move to give the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos a hero’s burial.

Misconceived as hatred of women, misogyny can be disguised as the idolatry of “women as divine creatures.”

“What is repugnant to every human being is to be reckoned always as a member of a class and not as an individual person,” wrote Dorothy L. Sayers in her essay, “Are Women Human?”

For other women, though, who don’t fit into the president’s mold of "lady-like and kind" paragons of femininity, the prince will readily turn himself into a frog.

In his brutal, relentless public destruction of Sen. Leila de Lima, the president has pulled out all the stops. He has even used standard English, for once eschewing his colonial curses.

An “immoral woman”. The greatest English monarch, Elizabeth I had been called “diseased,” “deformed,” a “man in disguise,” wrote Sayers.

From Elizabeth I to Leni and Leila, slut-shaming is not so much about women going out of control as the desire to control women by men, who are, if they would admit it, afraid of them.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s October 9, 2016 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Monday, October 03, 2016

The nuns, father, and son

IT was a rare outing for a person who stepped down three months ago after six years in power.

If the front-page story published by the Philippine Daily Inquirer last Sept. 25 riveted, it was because I learned something new about my former mentors, the Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (ICM), who run St. Theresa’s College (STC) Cebu.

Last Sept. 23, former President Benigno Aquino III joined ICM nuns in a forum held at the STC in Quezon City to reflect on the lessons of martial law.

With my silver hair, spectacles and grandmotherly mien, I was often mistaken by students and staff as an ICM nun when I was a college lecturer in my alma mater until 2012.

The mistake tickled me pink but also challenged. The ICM sisters may look like whimsical members of a knitting sisterhood but they are fierce social gadflies, weaving solidarity with the poor, respect for human dignity and ecological awareness with our lessons in English, Math and Religion in the 1970s.

I knew from experience that the ICM sisters were active in the anti-martial law movement not just now but then, when the country was still in the stranglehold of the Marcoses, when being an activist was at its most dangerous.

However, from the article I learned that Sr. Iluminada Torres and Sr. Consuelo Varela smuggled out of his cell at Fort Bonifacio the letters of former senator Benigno Aquino, Jr. President Aquino’s father was one of the “dissidents” rounded up and jailed by President Ferdinand Marcos for destabilizing the nation, which was the pretext for putting the country under his dictatorship for nine years (1972-1981).

If you had studied with Sr. Consuy, as Sr. Consuelo is also known, you would never imagine her committing any wrongdoing. The ICM sisters are known for being sticklers of taking the high road, whether it be writing in English or conducting one’s life.

I can only surmise that the two nuns’ decision to act illegally stemmed from a belief that it was the morally right thing to do. Her parents aptly named Sr. Iluminada!

Listen to lines taken from a letter written by the father to his only son on the eve of his “moment of truth,” just before he faces the military proceedings that will try him for illegal possession of firearms, violation of the “Anti-Subversion Act,” and murder.

“It is a rare privilege for me to join the Motherland in the dark dungeon where she was led back by one of her own sons whom she lavished with love and glory…

“I have no doubt in the ultimate victory of right over wrong, of good over evil, in the awakening of the Filipino…

“Live with honor and follow your conscience…

“There is no greater nation on earth than our Motherland. No greater people than our own. Serve them with all your heart, with all your might and with all your strength.”

Reading and rereading the letter written on August 25, 1973 at 11:10 p.m., I am reminded of the scene in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy when the Lady Galadriel bequeaths farewell gifts to the members of the fellowship before they embark on their quest.

She reserves the gift of illumination for the one with the hardest task. To Frodo the Lady of the Wood gives a crystal phial that glitters with the light of Eärendril’s star.

She tells the Ring-bearer: “May it be a light to you in dark places, when all other lights go out.”

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s October 2, 2016 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Of trolls and crabs

NOW on its 22nd year, the recently concluded Cebu Press Freedom Week always has a lot to offer. One of the most anticipated this year was the Sept. 21 forum organized by Sun.Star on “Trolls, Online Comments: Journalism’s New Challenges.”

Sun.Star Network Exchange (Sunnex) editor-in-chief Nini Cabaero spoke to a standing-room audience that turned out for the “Reaching Out to Future Journalists” forum at the Marcelo B. Fernan Cebu Press Center.

Joining her were Sun.Star Cebu columnists Anol Mongaya, Bobby Nalzaro, and Lorenzo P. Niñal, Sun.Star Superbalita (Cebu) editor-in-chief Michelle P. So, and Kevin Maglinte of

Ms. Cabaero’s talk was a reasoned argument to keep the digital public sphere clear for critical, impassioned discussion, minus the hating and bullying.

As Sun.Star Cebu editor-in-chief Isolde D. Amante noted in the closing address, the need for Netizens to respect differences of opinions and practice self-regulation was reinforced by the historical significance of the forum date: September 21, the 44th anniversary of the declaration of martial law, which suspended all civil liberties, including the right to freedom of expression, for nine years (1972-1981).

Ms. Cabaero struck a chord when she observed how the online trash talk jars with the countdown that has begun for Christmas.

Like a nightmare spilling from a tale by Kafka, the online heat/hate generated by the electoral campaign continues till now. Many remain blind to the difference between debate and the odium that hides behind online anonymity to threaten the unspeakable against those whose views are simply different from their own.

“Don’t feed the trolls,” advises Ms. Cabaero.

Choose one’s words, advised Mr. Niñal, citing how Twitter’s 140-character limit can unclog online traffic, as noxious as the highway version.

Mr. Nalzaro, known as “Super Bob” by the legions of followers of his newspaper, radio and online commentaries, hurled a challenge to trolls and would-be ‘tards: Use your real name online.

In his long media career, Mr. Nalzaro has mocked, cursed, named the unfortunates he disliked, called them names—but openly, never behind an avatar. For using his real name, Mr. Nalzaro eats libel suits three times a day, including merienda.

Cyberlibel may be the counter-curse for trolls.

As someone who writes and observes how words increasingly lose traction in a world besotted with images, I think we are in danger of losing our soul for lack of respect for the word.

When one hopes a critic of Mr. Duterte gets “ma-gangrape,” is the verb chosen for its power to do the most damage or for the images instantly conjured by rage?

“Words begin as description,” writes Susan Brind Morrow in “The Names of Things.” “(But) they are alive.”

Morrow’s memoir traces her journey from New York to the deserts of Egypt and Sudan in search for the “birth of language”. For those of us stuck in social media and trying to survive the next encounter with trolls, let her words serve as talismans:

“You could begin with the crab that scratches in the sand. The name of the animal is the action or sound it makes, or its color. The name parents other like meanings belonging to other things, leaving the animal behind: grapho (Greek—to scratch, and so, to write), gramma (the scratches), graph, grammar, grab.”

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s September 25, 2016 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, September 17, 2016


WHEN I ask my students to reflect on the person who influenced them most to write, many credit parents who read them to sleep or filled their hours and homes with books.

Teachers come close. Decades separate my generation from those of my students. Yet, almost as if we came to a tacit agreement, the popular choice of writing mentors was not among the brilliant, distinguished writers who cast their spell in college or writing workshops.

They were the ones who, in elementary and high school, made us look forward to making book reports and filled our hearts to bursting when they chose a poem or essay for publication in the school paper.

These early mentors had incomparable patience and wisdom because they saw past our misspelling, clichés and platitudes. “Juvenile” wasn’t a genre or a bad word to them.

After she received her first draft back from me, a student of mine became too disconsolate to come up with another draft.

Then she passed an essay about her high school mentor. After reading it, I realized that while Journalism emphasizes the rule of getting the story right the first time, mentoring is more about encouraging a person to want to get the story right.

This September, which is Literacy Month, I pay tribute not only to parents and mentors in Language and Reading. Librarians share the stake in keeping open for every child the portals for discovery and escape.

A library card was to my generation what a smart phone is to this generation. Perhaps, the digital generation may not even know where to find a brick-and-mortar library in the campus.

In my time, the library towered over the life of the mind. Vladimir Nabokov, D. H. Lawrence and J. R. R. Tolkien were not required in high school. But I knew where their books were shelved.

More importantly, no librarian in our all girls’ school considered a book too dangerous for a young girl to take home. A librarian ferries readers to the heart of a library, as I rediscovered in Audrey Niffenegger’s “The Night Bookmobile.”

A young woman comes upon a library on wheels while aimlessly walking the streets at night. She accepts the invitation from an old gentleman, who is the librarian of the Night Bookmobile, to check out the collection.

Inside the library—which “smelled of old, dry paper, with a little whiff of wet dog”—she discovers that the entire collection contains everything she has read, “from Jane Austen to Paul Auster,” including the “ephemera—cereal boxes and such”.

The reader requests to borrow the diary she kept as a child. The librarian sticks to the rules: no borrowing, closing at dawn.

She returns the following night, expecting to be reunited with “the perfect lover”: “a portrait of myself as a reader”. But the library and its librarian never materialize.

Over the years, when she looks for it, the Night Bookmobile never shows up. When she least expects, it does.

Why do we pine for the past? Where will our desires take us?

When I came upon the first drawn panel of the bookshelves, I automatically craned my neck to read the book spines: which ones did the Reader and I read? Which ones to hunt for?

Returning again and again to the unforgettable last panels, I imagine how the smell of “old, dry paper” conjures many forms of escape. Only some lead to freedom.

(For Janicah and Danielle)

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s September 18, 2016 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, September 10, 2016


A PUBLIC relations veteran and I shared a sense of impending disaster when we separately heard the reporter in Davao ask President Rodrigo Duterte how he would respond if U.S. President Barack Obama questioned him about the extrajudicial killings in the War on Drugs.

The answer sent a shudder around the world.

Much of the commentary over the incident and its repercussions has focused on President Duterte’s failure again to calibrate his language.

“Words matter” was the U.S. advice for Duterte on the future of Philippine-U.S. ties.

Duterte has earned the notoriety of a dirty mouth. He called Pope Francis a “son of a whore” for congesting the streets in his 2015 papal visit. After he was criticized for trivializing rape and degrading women, Duterte catcalled U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines Philip Goldberg a “gay son of a bitch”.

Yet, on the 15th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks by the al-Qaeda group in the U.S., the rhetoric of political correctness (“words matter”) must be seen in context.

Review the footage of the Davao City presscon on Sept. 5. Duterte vented after the reporter asked the question, with its implication that he would be like an errant pupil chastised by a teacher with a lecture on human rights.

“I am no American puppet,” said Duterte. “I am president of a sovereign state and we have long ceased to be a colony. I do not have any master except the Filipino people.” These statements are frequently left out in reports about Duterte’s name-calling of Obama as a “son of a whore”.

Last year, I watched “Heneral Luna,” a movie about another hot-headed leader, Antonio Luna. As portrayed by John Arcilla in the movie, Luna was unrelievedly foul in temper, speech and action.

Yet, Jerrold Tarog’s oeuvre attests that the man who asked, “Bayan o sarili (country or self)?,” was not just toying with rhetoric.

According to Ria Limjap’s “Heneral Luna,” which is based on an interview with Dr. Vivencio R. Jose, author of “The Rise and Fall of Antonio Luna,” Jose’s research led him to conclude that Luna “was the best general in the Philippine-American War.”
However, he fell victim to the intrigues spun between his enemies and the country’s first president, General Emilio Aguinaldo, who had already plotted and carried out the murder of Andres Bonifacio, another rival in Aguinaldo’s “boundless appetite for power”.

Here is Jose’s take on why the Filipinos lost in the revolution against the Americans: “The Revolution failed because it was badly led, because its leader won his post by reprehensible rather than meritorious acts, because instead of supporting the men most useful to the people, he made them useless out of jealousy, identifying the aggrandizement of the people with his own, he judged the worth of men not by their ability, character and patriotism but rather by their degree of friendship and kinship with him; and, anxious to secure the readiness of his favourites to sacrifice themselves for him, he was tolerant even of their transgressions.

“Because he thus neglected the people, the people forsook him and forsaken by the people, he was bound to fail like a waxen idol in the heat of adversity. God grant that we do not forget such a terrible lesson, learnt at the cost of untold suffering.”

In a dirty world—post-First Philippine Republic, post-9/11—a dirty mouth is the lesser evil.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s September 11, 2016 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, September 03, 2016


LAST week’s column (“Parsing Cebuano”) stirred up a hornet’s nest in the family.

After I posted on Facebook the article, first published in Sun.Star Cebu last Aug. 28, my sister and aunts reacted to Cebuano words for garden fauna.

One lives in Sydney; another in New Jersey. However, our mother tongue remains a puissant link across time, place, and even communication platforms.

The contentious stemmed from the disrobing of the familiar. When I wrote last week that “alindanaw” translates to dragonfly, an aunt expressed her confusion over the Visayan folk song, “Ako’y Pobreng Alindahaw”.

Many Cebuanos, or at least those of my generation, grew up hearing the lilting lyrics and melody of an “alindahaw” flitting among plants and flowers: “Ako'y pobreng alindahaw/ Sa huyuhoy gianod-anod/ Nangita ug kapanibaan, Ahay!/  Sa tanaman ug sa mga kabulakan”.

Based on the context of the song, I always assumed the song was about butterflies. Writer and fellow teacher Lilia Tio pointed out that “alindahaw” means a drizzle. Google validated with several articles and even a book that referred to an error that still flits across generations.

I wonder how Tomas Villaflor, credited in the Philippine Music Registry website as the song’s composer, immortalized the wrong word.

Yet, listening to a version sung by the Mabuhay Singers and uploaded on YouTube, I feel that the slip, though linguistically unfortunate, doesn’t mar the nostalgia that warms the heart of those who remember and often yearn for the Cebu of old—“ang kinatam-isang Cebu”—before traffic, Oplan Tokhang, and the unofficial but more feral Toksil.

Recalling how our family scrambled over the Cebuano words for spider, butterfly and moth, I remembered Lily’s observation that Cebuano is an earthy language.

Not only are many words in the vernacular rooted in agriculture and nature, our mother tongue is as uninhibited and robust in its literal and symbolic associations with desire, procreation and regeneration.

Listen to blogger, poet, and fellow teacher Jona Branzuela Bering’s dirge to the late Temistokles M. Adlawan, part-time “habal-habal” driver, “balak” poet and recipient of the First Taboan Literary Awards, along with Erlinda K. Alburo, Merlie M. Alunan, Resil B. Mojares, and Rodolfo E. Villanueva (also known as Renato E. Madrid).

In the second stanza of “Sa Imong Pagbiya (Alang Kang Nyor Tem),” Jona writes: “dinhi/ ang katri nakadungog / sa imong gipang-agu/ samtang gadamgog ugdo/ hamis, dughan, sampot”. And she concludes in the final stanza: “dinhi/ ang abog nahimong/ kabahin sa tanan/ ang tanan nahimong/ kabahin sa abog.”

In five short stanzas, the speaker invites the listener to revisit the latter’s home before departing. Only Cebuano can turn a short circuit of the earthly abode into a meditation on desire and decay, the fleeting and the enduring: “ayaw kalimtig tan-aw/ ang sulod sa imong payag/ hinumdomi, kini ang nag-inusarang/ saksi sa imong kaugalingon.”

“Sa Imong Pagbiya” is taken from “Alang sa Nasaag,” “balak” written by Jona from 2008 to 2015, published by Bathalad Inc. and launched last Aug. 27.

Thanks to her many lovers—Lilia, Jona, Nyor Tem, Bathalad, and—Cebuano endures and transports a yokel like me to appreciate the sublime nuances of sound and sense: “tam-ison (sweetish),” “tam-is (sweet),” “tam-is-tam-is (sweeter),” and “kinatam-isan (sweetest).”

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s September 4, 2016 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Parsing Cebuano

“TOKHANG o toksil?”

Freshly minted from the jargon of politics and media, these two words show how extrajudicial killing (EJK) has come a long way.

The “Philippine Law Journal” carries an article discussing the dispute over the definition of EJK. Should the term refer only to state-sponsored acts? What about the killing and enforced disappearances carried out by others besides the police and the military?

But it is these two words in Cebuano that measure how EJK has traversed from a technicality to reality, from Marcos to Duterte, from the vigilantism in Davao to the culture of impunity threatening to take over the country.

“Tokhang” is a contraction and fusion of two words. In Cebuano, “toktok” means to knock; “hangyo” is to plead.

National media translate these words into “katok” and “pakiusap”. However, there is no catchy equivalent for “Tokhang” in Filipino, primarily because it is the official name of the Duterte administration’s anti-illegal drugs campaign, also known as the “War on Drugs”.

According to a MindaNews article, Philippine National Police (PNP) Chief Ronald de la Rosa first “hatched” Oplan Tokhang when he was the police director of Davao from 2011 to 2013.

Countless Oplans have been hatched and passed without catching the public’s attention. Even Oplan Sagittarius is obscured in the infamy surrounding Martial Law.

Why would “tokhang” pass so fluidly and seamlessly from officialspeak to plain speech? Is it because the bodies of users, pushers, couriers, and other drug suspects have spilled from news photographs and footages into our streets and backyards?

Is it because the sweep of Duterte’s War on Drugs deprives the poor of their life and the right to clear their names, the very same class that ironically turns up in many presidential speeches and promises for change?

Or because “tokhang,” like social cancer, comes with an even more vile twin: “toksil”? According to the same June 3 MindaNews article, De la Rosa already foresaw the pincer strategy behind Tokhang before he implemented the nationwide campaign on June 30.

“We (knock and) appeal to you to stop. If you do not stop, we will stop you.”

It was not unexpected then to overhear during a Vhire ride two women, who were chatting in Filipino, fluidly switch to the Cebuano words when discussing the fate of a missing neighbor.

They speculated that if their neighbor did not listen to the knock-and-appeal “tokhang,” his fate had surely been decided by “toksil” (meaning knock-and-shoot; “pusil” in Cebuano means to fire a gun).

Porous and malleable, language is vulnerable, specially when barbarians are waiting outside the gates. Catching sight of my dragonfly pendant, Professor Lilia Tio, my colleague at the University of the Philippines (UP) Cebu, taught me its Cebuano name: “alindanaw”. An award-winning writer, Lily teaches Cebuano writing and Sugbuanon literature.

More than grammatical usage, Lily instills an appreciation of the beauty and expressiveness of Cebuano. She pointed out the “alindanaw” is often mistaken for “alindahaw,” meaning a drizzle.

From Justiniana Catubig Tagayong, my yaya, I learned the uncommon Cebuano names for common garden creatures: “anunugba” (moth), “kaba-kaba” (butterfly), and “higop-higop” (small yellow butterfly).

My wish is for other Filipinos to discover there is more to Cebuano than tokhang and toksil.

( 09173226131)

* First published in the August 28, 2016 issue of Sun.Star Cebu’s Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, August 20, 2016

The rescue

SURROUNDED by a phalanx of reporters and recorders, Presidential Assistant Michael Dino presented an unenviable sight before and after the Cebu Citizens-Press Council (CCPC) quarterly meeting.

But during the Aug. 18 meeting of the CCPC, where he was a guest, the Visayas alter ego of President Rodrigo Duterte mentioned a detail that made me curious.

He said that even before he has moved into his office at the Malacañang sa Sugbu, “half a sack” of letters is already awaiting.

I turned this fact over and over in my mind, wondering if I ever would receive such a bounty in my lifetime. When my boys—a husband and two sons—were younger, they wrote me letters, often with a drawing or two.

And then text and email came, followed by Hangouts and Facetime.

Also kept as keepsakes are the yellowed notes that a class presented me during one birthday. Now yellow and curling in a paper box covered with news articles, my students’ letters linger longer than the chocolate cake we shared.

Letters, of course, have different flavors. Mr. Dino implied that some of the letters may be divulging more names that may end up in a narcolist.

As a child, I woke up every morning to my late father’s favorite radio commentators reading aloud letters demanding official action. These were sent by “concerned citizens”.

The current War on Drugs and the lengthening “Kill List” stain the civic letter-writing of old with a repute that puts it more in league with medieval plots, wily whispers, and Judas kisses.

More than political vagaries, technology accounts for the dramatic decline of letters. Reading the missives drafted by students for news sources, I am appalled at times to discover how the curtness, informality and self-entitlement of instant messaging and Tweets have turned the letter into a Frankenstein creation of mismatched intentions and expression.

So Education Secretary Leonor Briones’s decision to continue the “Salamat Po (Thank You) Letter Writing Project” on its fourth year should be celebrated by all those who believe there is more to communication than composing and reading “Wer U :-)”.

The Department of Education (DepEd) and the Philippine Postal Corp. (Philpost) will award P50,000 to a student who mails at any post office a handwritten letter to any person he or she is grateful to.

Written in Filipino or English and using the proper format, every letter sent locally entitles the student to a raffle coupon. If sent abroad, the letter writer receives two raffle tickets.

Prizes of P10,000 will be given to students, as well as to their teachers and schools, in the semi-grand draw on Mar. 15, 2017. The grand winner will be announced on April 2017, also the Philpost anniversary.

I would have preferred that the contest involves reading and selecting the winning letters. Other stakeholders have to take up the slack to get more than the luck of the draw to restore the lost art of writing letters.

For instance, will newsrooms recognize the most unforgettable letters written by the public? Do editors still print a letter that’s handwritten? Who has the patience to untangle penmanship?

Letter-writing, penmanship—what else is for the rescue?

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s August 21, 2016 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Beyond pages

WHAT do you call the second or the third copy of a book you lend or give to friends?

And how do you call those books that first mushroom and then tower beside your bed?

Do you organize your bookshelf by author, title or genre? Or just by a book’s peculiar hold on your book-mad self?

I took away questions when I left the Presents & Such Café & Tea Room one Friday evening. I walked back to the university, retraced my steps, and somehow ended home without minding the weekend traffic for once.

Even as I sit to compose this piece, the questions still niggle: what do you call the books you first read as a child, lose in the interstices of a life, and then remember while looking through a window misted by a late afternoon drizzle?

Is the feeling the same for books you come back for in a store and never meet again?

How do you describe the daze with which you wander around for days after the last page is turned?

Or the bizarre conditions that afflict readers dealing with the last page. Some must first read the last page. Others are torn between rushing to the end and slowing down to delay the moment of emerging from the spell and returning to life beyond the pages.

Books weave a spell. We agreed that afternoon in the café and tea room along Gorordo Ave.

Eileen and I discussed syllabi. Loy juggled, from answering messages about her coming book launch to ruminating how the zucchini’s confusion about its identity makes it ideal for her ratatouille.

By the time Frankie opened up about her plan to set up a public reading nook in Bantayan, books, past and present, had long been sitting with us and steering the conversation.

Loy remembered when the arrival of a book was so rare, it had to become collective property. She and her siblings and cousins passed a book around until that novel’s characters became an intersecting circle of invisible friends.

Regularly taking a bus to the city, Loy noticed the owner’s son often rode as well. That he was tall, lean and dashing did not escape her attention.

Neither did his books. She found not just a way to get him to lend her, a complete stranger, the new titles but also to wait until her circle of family and neighbors had finished the novels.

Till now, Loy still has the habit of walking inside her kitchen to bring out some titles from her collection.

Eileen calls these books the “keepers,” such as the mint and illustrated copy of Gene Stratton Porter’s “A Girl of the Limberlost,” discovered when Loy was a girl and seen again in a secondhand bookstore.

She has another copy you can borrow from her. The books shelved in the café belong to a second category. Loy doesn’t mind if, after lingering over apple pie and coffee, a customer brings a volume home.

Ei, though, cannot find a specific name for these extra copies. Yet, while keepers effortlessly hold our heart and imagination within their pages, the ones we give away often have the strongest spell.

After Frankie parted with her heirloom collection of “National Geographic” magazines, given by an aunt who stirred her love for reading, to start a reading nook for mothers at the daycare center, she overheard a woman whisper in awe to a companion as they scanned the photographs in this classic publication about explorations: Who knew such worlds existed?

Reading brings us inward but also releases and liberates. Now, how do you call that?

( 09173226131)

* First published in the August 14, 2016 issue of Sun.Star Cebu’s Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, August 06, 2016

Cardboard justice

THE CORPSE had clean feet.

The body was deposited beside a highway that would soon be crawling with motorists getting away for the weekend to Tagaytay and Batangas, favorite watering holes for Manila’s middle class and affluent.

On a weekend, the site would have been risky for an execution or a disposal. There are nearby malls, arcades, and the restaurants and excursion sites of Tagaytay and the beaches of Batangas.

But late Thursday evening or Friday dawn? A few meters from a university and situated beside an open clearing, the spot is located along a stretch of road that is unlighted and uninhabited.

The body wore denim pants and a white shirt. Any onlooker could see the packaging tape winding around the head, the hands tied behind the back, and the ankles.

All during the ride to Metro Manila, I wondered if the theft of the shoes was an afterthought of the crime. A man’s life was negligible; his shoes were not.

“Bloody PH drug war catches eye of int’l media” was the title of a Philippine Daily Inquirer page-one story on Aug. 6.

After I searched “death toll in PH,” Google turned up 1.7 million references in 0.61 seconds. The first page of the Google search contained only two references to the Typhoon Haiyan casualties; all the rest were about the body count of President Rodrigo Duterte’s War on Drugs.

The extrajudicial killings have been condemned by the Church, media, and human rights organizations, here and overseas.

“Will the human rights people still be noisy when their rights or their loved ones’ lives are violated?” That’s the reaction of Boni, a taxi driver in Lapu-Lapu City who voted for Duterte primarily because of his tough stance on drugs. He said only Duterte is capable of taking on the rich and powerful who are preying on the common people.

Yet, there is a pronounced class slant in the profile of victims falling in the War on Drugs. In photo after photo, the victims shot down in the streets or abandoned in gutters, dumps and grassy lots seemingly come from the lower socio-economic brackets.

The news photos show not just the cocooned faces and the blood bath but also the dead men’s feet in slippers. If bare, the soles are dirty, as these would be if the men had earned their living, shod only in slippers, out on the streets or had just run for their lives.

While drug financiers and narco-politicians are paraded in news conferences or given a presidential face-to-face castigation, the men sharing their crime but not their status end up as statistics. According to another Inquirer report, Oplan Tokhang was not carried out in a gated village after the homeowners’ president certified in writing that no resident was engaged in drugs.

Jennelyn Olayres, widow of a slain drug user, protested against this form of cardboard justice. In an Aug. 1 Inquirer report, she asked President Duterte to look into the deaths of those “judged by a cardboard”.

Beside the body of her partner and many other victims of extrajudicial killings were pieces of cardboard, labelling the body as a “drug pusher” or repeating a moral: “Don’t do drugs”.

To the homeless, discarded grocery boxes have infinite use, whether as a sleeping mat, temporary roof or kindling. Thanks to the War on Drugs, we have another use for cardboard.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s August 1, 2016 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

My complicated weekends

IT pays to read a newspaper.

I subscribe to one national daily. I borrow my mother’s two local dailies. My son and I subscribe to one international daily.

All these papers complicate my life. Only someone of my age will spend part of her weekends, holed up with old newspapers. When the husband and I are in coffee shops, I notice that while everyone is engrossed with everyone else, we are rolling our eyes at newspaper grammatical slip-ups.

I have to thank newspaper howlers, though, for making me appreciate lapsus calami more than lapsus linguae. The former is a slip of the pen while the latter, a slip of the tongue.

Both are actually interesting but I associate lapsus calami with the more calamitous. As one who writes, I find errors that end up in print last for at least 24 hours (the shelf life of printed news) or, if online, forever. For a slip of the tongue, one can blame the listener’s hearing, Catholic guilt or the usual suspect.

Only age can equip one for the hidden pleasures of newspaper reading.

I read the International New York Times (INYT) issues days, even months, late. The older son reads the digital version daily but I wait until I get to Manila, where the papers are delivered.

So how does it feel like to go through a box of old newspapers? As a college undergraduate studying journalism, I learned that news must be recent; anything beyond the 24-hour cycle of newspapers is fit only for history or an epitaph.

Well, like wine that gets better with age, the INYTs make me realize that if the writing is any good, it will keep well and linger better than journalism theories.

Take obituaries, for instance. I used to think that The Economist cornered the market on articles that inform the public about the passing away of a newsmaker until I discovered the INYT writes them shorter and no less distinctly.

The obituary comes from the medieval Latin verb “obit,” meaning “perished”. But a well-written obituary makes the reader realize the fullness of a life lived well.

On June 17, 2016, the INYT’s Margalit Fox wrote about the death of Gregory Rabassa at the age of 94.

When I was in college, an aunt gave me “One Hundred Years of Solitude”. This groundbreaking novel of magic realism is written by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and translated by Mr. Rabassa.

In rendering the Spanish novel to English, Mr. Rabassa is credited as much as Mr. Garcia Marquez for the “cathedral of words”. The son of a Cuban who immigrated to New York, Mr. Rabassa recalled that his father spoke only Spanish “when he cut himself”.

However, the son’s love for words—Spanish, Portuguese, and English—eventually led to his first confrontation with the novel. How to translate “cien” in the title “Cien Años de Soledad”: “a hundred” or “one hundred”?

Fox writes that, “Professor Rabassa was an ardent believer in the aurality of text. To him, ‘a’ was an acoustic flyspeck, little more than a fleeting grunt. He chose the more durable ‘one’.”

While online portals open borderless worlds, I find that only traditional newspapers allow the reader to experience again and again what Fox describes unforgettably as Mr. Rabassa’s journey: “It is the translator’s lot to be afflicted with chronic, Talmudic agonizing—over sound, over sense, over meter, over meaning.”

Now you know why my weekends are complicated.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s July 31, 2016 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Living heritage

THE SON raised an eyebrow: You bought not just another one but two?

He was reacting to my sudden appearance at his side, with an unplanned purchase of two Abel Iloko hand towels.

Made of cotton and undyed, the small towels are made of cotton, woven by hand in the looms of Northern Luzon. I’ve collected about two dozens of them, while accompanying the husband to trips in Vigan.

Abel can be made of many materials, colors and designs. The most beautiful ones are bedcovers, blankets and table runners that deserve to be framed and admired, as works of art.

I cannot afford the prices of these heirloom pieces, which run to thousands of pesos. I wash the Abel by hand and don’t see myself doing the back-breaking washing demanded by a heavy sodden blanket as generations of finicky housewives may have done.

The hand towels, though, are a good compromise between art and utility. My old ones were sold at three pieces for P100 at Vigan’s Calle Crisologo.

When I was commuting to UP Diliman, the Abel would be grimy at the end of the day. After being hand-washed, the Abel would be back to its creamy softness. During the monsoon months, the towel converted into a cozy neck warmer.

Fast forward to a mall in Makati where, on the way to the MRT, our group strayed to check out a Christmas fair organized by the Department of Trade and Industry. The exhibitors were micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) selling holiday decors, gifts, processed food, bags, gems and accessories, and other products.

Wandering among the stalls, I reached the periphery and came upon a young woman tending a stall which displayed Abel Iloko.

In jeans and shirt, the young woman was a quiet counterpoint to the gemlike colors and tapestry of designs of the Abel. The other MSMEs were minded by salespersons.

However, it adds value when the vendor has a connection to the product, specially the intangible aspects that distinguish a traditional handicraft from a factory-produced commodity.

A smile swept her face when I mentioned Abel. Their firm has its own looms. It takes an experienced weaver a month to produce the panels that go into a queen-sized bed cover.

When I touched a cream-colored sheet, she said that cotton was used for the design but polyester comprised the panel. She was also honest to admit that she did not know the names of the designs displayed in the bolts of weaving. Honest and informed: a surfeit of virtues in a person so young.

The hand towels were sold at P50 apiece. Cream-colored, the cotton rectangles had, at each end, three parallel lines in color to relieve the simplicity. If one looked closely, the Abel was not plain at all. There was a web of hexagons connected by a chain of links. Like the Vigan towels, every Abel weaver has a particular design.

It is hard to imagine that a lot of effort and artistry goes into an article used to wipe away sweat. Even harder to ponder is that Abel, priced this low (one is spared the whole-day drive to Vigan, one way), will have to compete with a thick, heavy imported hand towel made of “100% cotton made in India,” sold in supermarkets and priced thrice as much.

This is my longwinded reply to my son’s query. If we want heritage to surround us and not gather dust in museums, we must buy Filipino.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s July 24, 2016 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Love letters

“MARKING papers” is an inevitability if one embraces teaching as a calling. The expression may confuse some but is actually more accurate than the Filipinism we favor: “checking papers”.

In reply to an expat colleague, who commented on the uncommon number of teachers bent over their desks in the faculty room, I explained that we were “checking papers”.

When she came back to the room to refill her mug of tea, she said that the expression was quite new to her. Indeed, reviewing papers means more often pointing out slips and gaps in the work than making neat little check marks.

Generations of students have this one abiding memory of being in my class: a trail of “bloody” papers inevitably demanding to be rewritten and resubmitted for more “marking”.

The journalist who taught me how to write news in college narrated how her teacher favored a green pen for checking copy.

The tradition was to use a blue pencil since typewriter ribbons came then in only two colors: black and red. “Blue penciling” meant scribbled “love notes” an editor left on copy that should not be ignored by a “green” reporter who wanted to spend a lifetime with ink-stained fingers.

Personally, I like red pens. Nothing like the impact of red against white paper to stand as visual semaphores: Replace that verb! Are you stringing along adjectives? What’s wrong with a period? Check, spell, get it right.

The advent of computers was supposed to lessen the writer’s post-editing traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Tidy, neatly-aligned-to-the-right balloons contained the editor’s comments, insertions and deletions instead of the slashes and unreadable, unprintable comments of the blue-pencil era.

I don’t mark copy in this virtual, bloodless manner. I tell my students it’s a compliment to have this kind of close, obsessive, ferocious reading of their works. Pay attention to your reader. Listen to what she thinks. If the copy is returned to you without marks, it may be already perfect. Or it was never read at all.

This midyear, seven students chose to apprentice with print newsrooms. That’s about 10 percent of a batch whose predominant choices leaned towards corporate or development communications.

This “Magnificent 7” intrigued me. Millennials have a different way of reading and, presumably, of writing. Of all the kinds of writing, news writing for the print medium is the least expressive, the most self-effacing, the most enveloped by conventions and standards.

At least two student moaned that they would never get a story published.

That was at the start of the course. The stories told by their writer’s journal tells another thing. At the completion of 200 hours, an intern submits a compilation of their published works. I require they pass the entire printed or online page so I can see how the editor treated their article and grade them accordingly.

More telling than the editorial treatment is the student’s filing of their body of works. Some articles were filed in the folios as if the writer was in a bloody hurry, impatient with an assignment once passed, already focused on the next one and the next deadline.

Other interns file their articles, even those of a few column inches, in a scrapbook to be scanned some day with a grandchild on one’s lap, hanging on intently to the retelling of the backstory behind each article. Once upon a red pen…

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s July 17, 2016 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, July 09, 2016

Now showing

I CAME home after three days of being closeted in research proposal writing. The decompression of one’s world jolts when, after three days of trying to read the code embedded in a piece of loom-woven fabric, the same pair of eyes scans the front pages of newspapers.

July 8, Philippine Daily Inquirer, page 1: “Probe of killings pushed,” “PH may become a killing field,” “Drug killings,” “Vigilantes kill Bulacan policeman,” “Rody names 3 Triad drug lords, pins Garbo,” “Inquirer ‘Kill List’,” “Drug-related killings hit 72 since June 30,” “Drug deaths add more life to funeral trade,” and my favorite: “Buhay na buhay ang negosyo ng patay!”

Death used to be a mystery; now it’s commonplace. Occasionally, the mind-numbing march pauses to allow a distraction: the coffin of slain drug personality Jeffrey “Jaguar” Diaz seems to float in a sea of mourners in Amper Campaña’s unforgettable photo splashed on page 1 of the June 28 issue of Sun.Star Superbalita (Cebu).

According to Arnold Y. Bustamante’s report, more than 2,500 people walked the 1.7-kilometer distance from Duljo Fatima, where Jaguar lived, to accompany the body to the cemetery in Calamba. The vivid imagery of Bustamante’s journalese rivals the Campaña banner photo and shames pallid translation into English: “Halos nahabwa and tibuok barangay nga nitahod kang Jaguar busa nagsugwak ang mga tawo sa simbahan…”

What more is needed for a blockbuster? A cast of thousands, a central figure who became even larger than life with his death and burial, the church, the police providing comic relief (the Mambaling police chief had to send officers for Jaguar’s spectacular exit “kase nagka problema na tayo sa ‘traffic’ doon, eh”) and, last but not the least, the drum and bugle corps leading the funeral procession.

In this wired word, an event is an event only when it draws a reaction. Watching the televised coverage of Jaguar’s funeral cortege, I overheard my companion mutter, “Why don’t they arrest all those drug users and pushers accompanying Jaguar? Look, they’re even in uniform(ed shirts). Are the police blind?”

The culture of death is creeping inexorably from the peripheries and the undersides to the center. Just like in a nightmare, our thinking and actions defy what we suppress when we are awake and aware. Those of us who think that the “others” should be “neutralized” to keep the world “safe” for “us” are as abnormal as those of us who gave a man labeled by the police as the no. 1 drug lord in Central Visayas a hero’s burial.

So, are we in a nightmare we need to wake up from? Or do we pretend death is just another movie and we can take a leak during commercials?

Last June 30, I was at the University of the Philippines (UP) Cebu Digital Fabrication Laboratory (FabLab), watching an XO? performance.

Raymund Fernandez played a riff with the sax. Linya Ocampo Fernandez rolled inside a black swath of cloth, one hand swaying like a leaf. Aldrich Maligsa pantomimed with pursed lips, emitting the sound of a leaf being played like a flute. The XO? performance was dedicated to the passing of drummer Winston Rallosa Velez.

The performance ends with the destruction of artwork by the artists who created this. Long after the last banging reduces creation to waste, my heart still hammers. I never heard Velez play in life but I can hear what death silenced. And could not.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s July 10, 2016 issue of “Matamata,” the Sunday editorial-page column

Saturday, July 02, 2016

Which orifice is talking?

THE ARTIST wore a checkered polo, jeans and running shoes. He uncapped a tube of toothpaste and brushed his teeth.

He bent to put down the tube of toothpaste and toothbrush on the floor. He picked up a megaphone and whispered into it.

I don’t know about my fellow onlookers but I wasn’t sure at first if I heard him right. He said “Patya… patya” as if he were whispering a secret or entreating a lover.

Then the megaphone was replaced on the floor. The artist picked up the tube and brush and repeated the act of brushing.

Then the switch again, the megaphone covering the lips that repeated the words, clearer now because after the second and third and other times, the man was screaming: “Patya… patya… patya sila (kill them).”

A scent of peppermint permeated the silence inside the room occupied at the center by the artist in the checkered polo and his manic monologue.

With each brushing, the man’s lips, chin then the lower half of his face glistened with red. He was a harlot gone amok with lipstick. A clown prowling to get out of a nightmare. A demagogue drunk with power.

To some of us, the performer dripping red reminded us of the man who, just that noon, took his oath as the country’s 16th president.

Later, the artist Roy Lumagbas, known better as Roylu, informed us that the title of his performance was “Sipilyo/ Si Pilyo”. The homonyms are not interchangeable: the first use refers to a toothbrush; the second means “The Mischievous One”.

Some of us wanted to know if Roylu has an advocacy against President Rodrigo Duterte, whose campaign promise to end criminality by any means, even extrajudicial killing, was embraced by more than 14.8 million voters, representing 39 percent of the electorate.

Roylu, who now lives in Bolivia, is a member of XO?, pronounced as “So?,” the quintessential question that triggers doubt, inquiry and criticism. XO is a group of Fine Arts alumni, students and faculty of the University of the Philippines (UP) Cebu.

Artists in their own right, the XO members occasionally gather to use performance art to draw the public’s attention to issues. The audience gathered last June 30 at the UP Cebu Fabrication Laboratory (FabLab) was composed of artists, students and teachers.

We had earlier listened to visiting multimedia artist, professor Leticia R. Bajuyo of the University of Notre Dame and Hanover College, talk about her work with “momentary monuments.”

Retrieving the detritus of commercial culture, Prof. Bajuyo constructed monumental artwork from metal slugs, Styrofoam peanuts, compact discs and other throwaway materials. Unlike monuments that are traditionally built to last, Bajuyo’s art is about using transience to “make the matter matter.”

People are fickle, she observed. We suffer from “social amnesia”. Yet, art connects people so we can reflect on “what we remember and what we forget.”

UP professor Raymund Fernandez, a co-founder of XO?, said that unlike actors who play a role, an artist is “not acting” in performance art. During martial law, Roylu, Mons and I had classmates, students, and friends who “disappeared” for being political lepers: activists, human rights workers, Reds.

Now we hear again the unspeakable made popular and official: “Kill the others”.

When artists speak—or say, brush their teeth—it pays to listen.

( 01973226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s July 3, 2016 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Quest for Rizal

THANKS to reader Lucille Lozada’s question, I found an excuse to recently visit a bookstore, guilt-free.

After reading last week’s “Finding Rizal,” Lucille texted me. A retiree, she had read the national hero’s biography, and was now “ready to tackle his 2 novels and last poem.”

“Where can I buy a copy of ‘Noli Me Tangere’ and “El Filibusterismo’?,” asked Lucille.

Last Sunday, I directed her to this national chain of bookstores. By some coincidence, I was near a branch last week and decided to check out my advice.

I expected the Rizal novels to be in the textbook section because these are still required reading in high school and college. Functional reading is still the strongest motivation for many Filipinos to open a book, let alone buy one.

Reading for a utilitarian purpose—defined for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) by William S. Gray in 1956 as literacy to enable adults to “meet independently the reading and writing demands placed on them”—seems to be a disservice to Rizal’s classic novels.

In the tradition of the American Adult Education Act of 1966 and the British Right-to-Read movements of the 1970s, functional literacy targets raising an adult from illiteracy to a survival level of literacy. If our educational system and reading culture only promotes reading so that we can, say, know how to read signs and follow written instructions, how will we aspire to read with sensitivity and depth the great written works, which Rizal’s two novels unquestionably are?

On the other hand, my Filipino teacher in high school, Prof. Rosario Montaño of St. Theresa’s College Cebu then, is the reason why I think of Noli and Fili as, first and foremost, love stories. Noli weaves the flowering of the first blush of romance between Ibarra and Maria Clara with the soul-destroying love of Sisa for Basilio and the doomed Crispin. In Fili, love’s underside—betrayed and vengeful—consumes Simoun, the resurrected Ibarra, as he plots to wrest his twin loves—Maria Clara and the country—from the Spanish usurpers.

Prof. Montaño got her students to read and reread the entire Noli. My first Noli copy was a Filipino translation riddled with words I could not find in my pocket Filipino-English dictionary.

If I persevered and later searched for the translations by Leon Ma. Guerrero, National Artist Virgilio Almario, and Charles Derbyshire of The Project Gutenberg, it was due to the probing questions of my Filipino teacher who made me curious about and then later care for the characters of Ibarra/Simoun, Sisa and Basilio.

Functional, school-required reading must then be also seen as a boon for reading in the Philippine context. In the hands of mentors like Prof. Rosario Montaño, the classics will always be with us.

For reader Lucille and other curious souls, this bookstore’s shelves occupied by Noli and Fili are not exactly groaning under but decently occupied by sweet-smelling copies of titles devoted to Rizal, who had his 155th birth anniversary last June 19. I brought home Ambeth Ocampo’s “Rizal Without the Overcoat,” which deserves another column. Cheers and a belated happy birthday to the Pambansang Pepe!

Question: Why is Pepe Rizal’s nickname?

Clues: Felice Prudente Santa Maria’s “In Excelsis,” the National Historical Commission, or Rappler

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s June 26, 2016 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Finding Rizal

ON the evening of the last day of pre-enlistment for the coming first semester in our school, I received frantic messages from graduating students.

These incoming seniors were worried that they might not be able to graduate on time because of a misunderstanding over P. I. 100, which is the mandated course on Rizal’s Life, Works and Writings.

The University of the Philippines (UP) system requires all undergraduates to enroll in P. I. 100 in compliance with Republic Act (RA) No. 1425. Some students mistakenly presumed that P. I. 100 is one of the options to meet six units of Philippine studies, which are also prerequisites for graduation.

Millennial frustrations with Jose Rizal come to mind today, June 19, the 155th birth anniversary of the national hero. Students gripe about the relevance of Rizal to their lives, specially since P. I. 100 is required during the final year of college, when seniors address weightier concerns, such as thesis, internship and the dilemma to date or go solo on their last prom.

So while the course description is Philippine Institutions 100 on paper, among generations of students resentful of the “useless” academic burden of studying the “national sell-out” chosen by American imperialists for epitomizing the unheroic values of accommodation and assimilation, P. I. 100 is sometimes referred to in less exalted terms as “P__ I__, Rizal” 100.

Long before the curse-spewing presidential elect Rodrigo Duterte turned this profanity into a statement of “cool,” I noticed how the youth may be the most irreverent but they’re not alone in being cavalier in their remembrance of Jose Rizal.

One of the quizzes I give to test students’ power of observation is to ask them to recall the heroes and historical figures featured in our coins and bills. While reviewing the mistakes I made in taking the quiz, I noticed for the first time how the profile of Jose Rizal is featured in the P1.00 coin.

Among the coins of lower denomination—P0.01, P0.25, and P0.10—P1.00 is the coin that’s most commonly used. It’s telling that I didn’t even remember the familiar profile before taking the pop quiz.

Passed on June 12, 1956, RA 1425 was posted on Vol. 52, No. 6, p. 2971 in the June 1956 edition of the Official Gazette. Viewed online on, the law mandates the youth to read Rizal’s “Noli Me Tangere” and “El Filibusterismo”.

Section 3 directs the Board of National Education to translate the novels and other Rizal works into “English, Tagalog and the principal Philippine dialects”. It also stipulates that Rizal’s works should be printed in “cheap, popular editions” and distributed for free through purok organizations and barrio councils throughout the country.

In the 60 years since the passage of RA 1425, Section 3 remains a pipe dream, a delusion, even an unkindness. It is not just our failure to translate Rizal into all the mother tongues and make him accessible to the masses. Not even the absence of free copies of Rizal’s great novels of national consciousness in the barangay and pure.

The phrase that cuts is buried, fittingly, in Section 3: free copies of Rizal’s novels should be made available to “persons desiring to read them”.

Where do we find them?

( 0917 3226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu's June 19, 2016 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, "Matamata"

Making memories

AMERICANS take to the road. According to a June 7 article in the International New York Times, lower gasoline prices and a shift inpost-recession values are spurring Americans to get behind the wheel.

The “great American road trip,” writes Clifford Krauss, comes on the tail of the 2008 financial crisis. Americans are savouring their money to “buy happiness” in the form of “adventures and memories”. Unlike “tangible goods that expire and wear out,” a marketing executive described memories as the ultimate acquisitions: “you can’t take away my memory”.

Contrasting with this view of a memory that can be fixed and insured from loss or theft is a line I encountered in Haruki Murakami’s short story, “Yesterday,” published in The New Yorker’s June 9 & 16, 2014

Murakami’s story about lost youth and lost love revolves around a confusing youth named Kitaru, his obsession (or not) for the too-nice-to-be-real Kuritani, and the confused narrator who was Kitaru’s close friend (or not) Tanimura.

However, “Yesterday” isn’t about the eternal love triangle. Murakami starts and ends the story with a meditation over Tanimura’s recall, broken by a16-year gap, of the Kansai translation Kitaru makes of the
Beatles’ classic, “Yesterday”.

When they were 20 and working in a coffee shop, Kitaru translated Paul McCartney’s lyrics into the Kansai dialect. Tanimura listened to Kitaru sing this version as he soaked for an hour or so in the bath: “Yesterday/ Is two days before tomorrow,/ The day after two days ago.”

Trying to make sense of this translation is impossible. I grew up with my yaya’s portable radio always blaring love songs while she ironed clothes and I was supposed to stay put and avoid mischief (and trouble with my parents for her).

So my memory of “Yesterday” is stuck on the groove of these lines, “Yesterday/ All my troubles seemed so far away/ Now it looks as if they’re here to stay/ Yesterday came suddenly.”

Kitaru’s Kansai translation is impenetrable, given my memory of “Yesterday”. Even if I comprehended Kansai (Murakami’s story was translated for The New Yorker by Philip Gabriel), I would not still be able to choose which was the better remembrance of Paul’s poetry: Kitaru’s or mine.

But I take solace in Murakami’s line: “As time passes, memory, inevitably, reconstitutes itself.”

Reading about America’s post-recession wisdom was disappointing. I understand how it is to lose one’s job and lose one’s home. I, too, would cling to something. But memories?

There is no recipe for making memories. I recently emailed my sister photos of my late father’s Beetle. She emailed me that seeing again the old dashboard made her cry. She remembers holding tightly on to the handle placed in front of the passenger seated next to the driver when my father was in one of his moods.

When I was sorting his things, 11 years after he passed away, I cried only once. My father watched over me while I delivered my first born. He scrubbed for exactly an hour. When I didn’t cry during the worst labor pain, he directed my doctor to open me. My daughter never cries, he said. Ergo, she must be in pain.

I found a paper bag where he saved everything he used in that dawn delivery, including the gloves. When I opened the paper-wrapped maroon scrub gown, I cried. I don’t recall him wearing red at all. Memories cannot be counted on.

( 0917 3226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu's June 12, 2016 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, "Matamata"