Saturday, January 16, 2016

Children of the Sto. Niño

IN the land of eternal rush hour, my fellow passengers and I had time to meditate while waiting for our jeepney to move in the sludge-like flow of uptown traffic. At the end of a work day, no one perhaps had the interest or energy to comment on the traffic, swelled by the fiesta for the Sto. Niño.

When two young boys clambered on, passengers checked their belongings before lapsing back into traffic-induced stupor.

The boys started to sing. The kid hanging on to the right side of the jeepney could definitely carry a melody.

He turned heads, though, with his clear enunciation of the lyrics. A family in a parallel lane became part of his audience, with a teenaged son mouthing the lyrics.

This young troubadour turned Kurt Fick ft Paola Sandiego’s popular Cebuano hit, “HAHAHA Hasula,” into a poem of the streets, transforming a daily encumbrance into a moment of clarity, self-mockery and musical appreciation.

At the heart of the devotion to the Sto. Niño is a love for children. For nine days, the sons and I heard dawn mass at the Basilica Minore. Even among the devotees hearing mass on the streets surrounding the church, where one either stands the whole time or brings a chair, many parents and grandparents brought their children.

The patience and perseverance to carry a sleeping infant, quiet a fussy tot, or teach one’s child to wave while singing the traditional “gozos (hymn of praise)” attest that the church is right in trusting the Filipino family to be its frontline vanguards. More than one homilist recalled the childhood start of his devotion to Cebu’s Patron.

Looking at the posters and tarpaulin displays promoting the Sinulog, the older son questioned the popular depiction of a woman carrying the icon. Why the bias for the feminine when many fathers also sacrifice for their children?

The portrayals can be traced to history (Hara Humamay, queen of Humabon, converted and received Magellan’s baptismal gift of the Sto. Niño), culture (only women offer candles and the “Sinug (traditional dance prayer)” outside the Basilica), and aesthetics (winsome and graceful, women remain the favorite choices of choreographers to lead Sinulog street-dancing contingents).

If there is a blind spot in the fiesta of the Sto. Niño, it is for the other children, the ones not borne for hours on their father’s shoulders as the solemn procession winds down city streets, for the youths who are, in the unforgettable euphemism of one writer, “other men’s children”.

A friend recalled, while having a staycation in one of Cebu’s hotels, sharing the elevator with an elderly foreigner and two prepubescent girls whose manner of dressing and talking was “incongruous in the setting”. Both groups were heading to their rooms.

My friend and her partner encountered the girls on other occasions. These elevator rides marked a contrast of moods: between the young girls who always “looked so happy” and my friend and her partner, depressed by this star-crossed realignment of young girls and elderly foreigners during the world’s longest holiday centered on children.

One novena homilist waxed rhapsodically over the virtues of children: their innocence, smiles, obedience, joy. May the Holy Child shield the young, including those who, in some men’s eyes, remain “other men’s children”.

( 09173226131)

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

Saturday, January 09, 2016


WE desire; we attain. What we cannot attain, we desire all the more. Simply put, that is how complex humans are.

For the first time, the boys and I joined the first mass that was the opening salvo of the nine days of prayers for the Sto. Niño. Anticipating the competition for parking space, I was the first to prepare at 2 a.m.

An early riser, I don’t find waking up a challenge. Yet my sons, too, woke and dressed without a fuss. We parked at the Cebu Cathedral grounds, which was nearly full. I felt the same surprise when, entering the Basilica, we found all the seats inside the church and in the Pilgrim Center taken.

This was at about 4 a.m. I have rarely been in the midst of a crowd of that size gathered in an enclosed area. If someone gave me the actual numbers of all the people standing between the nearest exit and my sons, I might have panicked.

Yet, the most outstanding feature of that dawn crowd waiting at the Basilica was the discipline. The numbers only became impressive after I noticed the crowd’s uncharacteristic docility and amiability.

Many devotees carried images of the Holy Infant, some nearly as tall and heavy as a toddler. A group of men lifted a bier carrying a statue that may have been used in processions. The crowd parted to give way to them without fuss.

According to Sun.Star Cebu’s Justin K. Vestil and Daryl Niño T. Jabil, about 300,000 devotees joined the “Walk with Jesus” dawn procession that covered the two kilometers from Osmeña Boulevard to the Basilica del Sto. Niño.

Starkly eloquent, Amper Campaña’s photograph on the Jan. 8 front page of Sun.Star Cebu captures the drama of the moment when the image of the Sto. Niño leaves the streets and enters the Pilgrim Center.

The photo is great storytelling without words: the passion of veneration moving thousands of pilgrims to spontaneously raise hands, replicas, candles, cameras and phones at the Sto. Niño, set off by the discipline and unity sheathing each speck of humanity, unmoved by hours of waiting or walking, to act as one synchronous whole.

It is a tale of binary opposites, oppositional by convention but, in this context, complementary. There is passion balanced with restraint, the individual merging with the collective, all made coherent by the globe of light at the heart of that dark sea of humanity, the Sto. Niño.

Even more beautiful than Campaña’s Jan. 8 banner photo on Sun.Star Cebu is the Cebuano word, “pangaliya”.

According to online dictionaries, “pangaliya” means adoration. In the Catholic tradition, “pangaliya” is interchangeable with “pangadye (prayer)”.

In implying an entreaty offered to a higher being, “pangaliya” is closer to “panguyo,” “pamalihog,” “hangyo” and “petisyon”.

The devotees gathered for the dawn opening mass of Jan. 7 give another meaning to “pangaliya”: discipline.

To venerate requires discipline to wake up early and adjust daily routines to join the novena. The discipline extends to consideration for other devotees sharing limited space and respect and obedience for the authorities implementing measures to maintain order and system.

For Sto. Niño devotees, the challenge is to translate “pangaliya” day by day. Beyond the Sinulog, is there “pangaliya”?

( 09173226131)

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

Thank you, 2015

Our new school calendar, which starts the first semester in August and concludes this in December, posed one of the toughest hurdles last year.

I realized this when Christmas approached. Unlike previous years when the academic pace also winded down to give way to rehearsals for silly, giddy Christmas party presentations, our college yanked up the pressure with final exams and all the refined torture of “hell week”.

The worst for me was deciding to fail a student.

Underneath all that wrapping, Christmas teaches compassion. My dictionary defines “compassion” as the “desire to help” someone in suffering.

I imagined myself as a young person checking online and finding out, a few days short of Christmas, that one has to repeat a course or know with certainty that one will not be graduating with the rest of the batch. How will a setback like this help?

In a room in Tagbilaran, where I finished the final checking and grading, I remembered my late father’s philosophy. A physician-surgeon who trained post-graduate interns, he believed that every student’s failure was also shared by his or her teachers.

He viewed failure, though, as going beyond a failing grade and repeating a course. Whenever he was asked by the registrar to respond to complaints from students that had to repeat a course, with all the attendant expense, my father said he owed it to future patients that his students didn’t become doctors because my father passed them out of pity.

When a doctor fails, his patients are never around to complain, he said.

This year, I also learned about teaching—work that threatens to become but never really lapses into being routine after all these years—from my students. One of them is K., who could infuse a variety of emotions in intoning “Sayang ang learning,” his stock response whenever I gave his class another assignment.

When a young person complains about the excess of opportunities for learning, teachers like me are prepared for the usual fusillade of sarcasm, followed by creative displays of mediocrity.

I think K. found sarcasm too predictable, preferring the literal and straightforward. Since I believe a sure way to learn writing is through rewriting, I gave students opportunities to rewrite articles and earn a better grade with every rewriting, provided the copy improved rather than deteriorated.

K. wrote a review about a café serving macaroni and cheese that made me write with red pen on his first draft: I think there’s too much cheese here. He rewrote and rewrote his copy until I felt a gooey mass was actually stuck irretrievably down my gullet.

So, thanks to K. and his peers, I’ve relearned to reread not just language and ideas but the young. Just when I think age and experience give a vantage point, the young show there are more insights to be drawn from changing vantage points.

From the year that was, here are other things I am grateful for:

Family. I know myself better when I am with people who don’t draw back in letting me know how much I irritate them and why they’ll still be around, despite the first reason.

Families. Bloodlines are not the only ties that bind. Work creates families that deserve the same commitment. For a writer, sharing history with a community focuses the work and recharges the passion.

Faith. Each year brings the gift of remembering and moving forward.

( 09173226131)

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