Saturday, May 27, 2017


ON my first visit to Camotes, I count it as a blessing that I ate at the house of a resident.

Having breakfast at the ancestral home of the Borlasa clan in Poro, I was fortunate to not only break fast with colleagues who have become friends, I escaped the tourist handicap of seeing a new place as being created for the express purpose of amusing me.

Jiji, who once sat in my classes as an undergraduate and now teaches at the same state university, recalls spending summer with cousins who homed in from many parts of Visayas and Mindanao.

The home of her grandparents may have been transferred to above the street after a truck veered off and rammed into it, but it still retains many reminders of those endless summers of reunion.

If by some quirk of fate, the Borlasa home in Poro will lose all its material connections to the past, there’s still Jiji’s aunt.

Josefa “Pipay,” 82, does not only give obvious cues about how Jiji will look when she breaches her 80’s. Aunt and niece share, beyond a puckish humor and a direct but inoffensive way of speaking, a sense of place.

When the expression, “take root,” is used, it often refers to how something germinates, flourishes, takes hold.

Over the course of four days, I’ve seen how Camotes takes root in people, no matter how dissimilar they are.

Perhaps due to an economy that has remained agrarian and maritime, the two generations of Borlasas reflect how the people of Camotes are segregated between the native-born who never leave like Josefa, and those like Jiji who live and work elsewhere but never fail to go home.

Yet even among her sons and daughters who cannot escape the diaspora, the hold of Camotes on their sensibilities implies a complexity lying below its pastoral and placid charms.

Wrapped around the island is a thick belt of mature, verdant mangroves that serves as a natural buffer for disaster.

This resource so vital for marine ecology and disaster preparedness co-exists with the beach resorts, caves, and other hangouts in Santiago and Mangodlong.

Yet, more than political will prioritizes sustainability over present gains.

The community decides and participates, down to the “barangay,” ”sitio,” and “purok”.

A dialect named Porohanon is still spoken fluently despite the influx of Cebuano and English. Traced to migrants from Bohol and Leyte, Porohanon fascinates: “Nikuligi na l’at an puza (the child is crying again).”

A nylon sack, that’s reused after storing rice to holding trash, hangs outside every home in Camotes. It speaks volumes to visitors, perhaps not in Porohanon but of the ethos of interdependence: my home is your home. Treat it as you do your own.

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* First published in SunStar Cebu’s May 28, 2017 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”)

Saturday, May 20, 2017


A LUNCHBREAK encounter brought my attention to a book my fellow teachers were holding close to their chest.

One more copy will wend its way to a friend in Australia, which, for once, was viewed as backward: its bookstores had yet to display copies of the Penguin Classic edition of Nick Joaquin’s “The Woman Who Had Two Navels and Tales of the Tropical Gothic”.

My friends’ expressions telegraphed the quiet exultation of having finally nabbed Nick, whose birth centennial was last May 4.

The new media has irretrievably changed why we read and how we read, but working daily with teachers and students, I confirm that technology leaves untouched an older, enduring obsession for books.

For knowledge workers, books are necessities. Yet, the books that occupy permanent, though cramped, space in our hearts and minds are the ones that open doors and windows to an imagined life.

I have no functional use for a black-bound book with tarnished gold-edged pages, picked up in a store of secondhand books.

Published in Amsterdam in 1905, “Het Boek der Psalmen” has all its pages covered in musical notes and Dutch lyrics, which I cannot read.

On the flyleaf of this hymnal is written the name of Minnie De Zeeuw. Handwritten under her name is March 27, 1908, Minnie’s 12th birthday.

I cannot imagine a 12-year-old plotting to get her hands on a hymnal, even in 1908. Yet, when I turn slowly the brittle pages, I can conjure up Minnie and her book of psalms.

That is perhaps why I keep between the pages of this 112-year-old book a handwritten letter my grandfather wrote to my father from his hometown in Magting, Mambajao on July 2, 1971.

Unfolding this letter, sandwiched between the indecipherable, I resurrect the man who was a dry cheek pressed against my sweating, flushed ones when his visits interrupted my playing.

In a June 17, 2016 interview by CNN Philippines, Penguin Classics publisher Elda Rotor explained the decision to include Joaquin in its roster of the world’s classics.

“The main joy is bringing an audience to a work that would otherwise lead a quiet life,” she said.

Between the pages of a book, up close and personal, has never been about absolute solitude.

Forty-six years separate now and the time my grandfather penned that letter. In that interim, four of the persons mentioned in the letter are dead, including my grandfather and father.

I will never be able to ask the questions raised from reading the domestic minutiae unraveled by the upright penmanship in blue-black ink: Did Lolo Tatay live to see the house he was constructing in two months? Were three of his teeth pulled out the following week, as planned?

I will never know but I can imagine.

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* First published in SunStar Cebu’s May 21, 2017 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, May 13, 2017

My favorite Mocha

THERE’S a graduating senior behind every Mocha Uson.

When I saw the face of my colleague emerging from the faculty room toilet, I guessed we were out of water again.

It was much worse.

Mocha Uson was not just appointed as assistant communication secretary last May 9, her salary grade level makes her capable of earning as much as a chancellor, the highest official in a constituent university within the University of the Philippines (UP) system.

How entitled is Mocha Uson to our taxes in the war against misinformation?

Nearly everybody I asked has a derisive opinion about Ms. Uson. This was long before she jumped into the rarefied company of those classed between SG 27 and SG 29, which has a base pay ranging from P87,000 to P106,000 a month.

Yet, whenever I probed about Ms. Uson, I received a stock response so vexatious, I had to search online to name this logical fallacy. Circular definitions use the term being defined in the definition.

For instance: “Who is Mocha?”

Circular definition: “She’s behind Mocha Girls.”

So I remember the answer that stood out because it was informed by several sources of information and a critical consciousness.

Graduating seniors Andrea So and Mary Louise Guerra were, like many others, upset by the blogger during the 2016 elections. However, they convinced their thesis panel to let them analyze why this former sex-advice blogger became a social media influencer engaging more citizens than the most respected news outlets.

The students reviewed the blogger’s posts and generated comments, including comments to comments. To double-check their biases, the students interviewed key informants.

Before this month ends, a research panel will decide if Drea and Louise have succeeded through their scholarship to prove what every Mocha hater has already prejudged as being virtually impossible: that the “Queen of Fake News in the Philippines” can teach us a thing or two about truth.

Some Mocha assertions have become classic, overshadowing even the notoriety of her exertions in shorts and bra. Answering back critics of extrajudicial killings, she posted a photo of a raped victim and challenged human rights activists for remaining silent. It turned out that the crime took place in Brazil.

Yet, it is through these “alternative” facts that this generation receives incomparable instruction. Assistant Communications Secretary Mocha Uson rallying for the “strengthening (of) social media through the help of true members of the DDS (Die-Hard Duterte Supporters)” will be more viral than a dry lecture about fact-checking.

Even with clothes on, Mocha will turn out to be just as revealing.

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* First published in SunStar Cebu’s May 14, 2017 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, May 06, 2017


THE image was upside-down.

A seminar my class recently coordinated was delayed when the image projected on the screen was inverted.

Desiring to orient stakeholders about human trafficking, the students invited speakers to discuss programs that could help trafficked victims move on.

During the lull, I spoke with a speaker representing the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (Tesda). He was interested to promote their training programs.

Aside from including materials and a certification of completion, the trainings are free. Residents can also register at their barangay, and the agency will conduct the training on-site, making it more accessible.

Recalling the SunStar Cebu special report series, published last Mar. 3-6, about the rehabilitation of those who surrendered under Project Tokhang, I asked the speaker if Tesda was training drug surrenderers to consider options that did not include peddling illegal drugs.

The speaker said that the reluctance of the Department of Health to certify that they were psychologically stable barred drug surrenderers from certain trainings.

Would you conduct a training in automotive servicing or hairdressing with cosmetology if you feared the screwdriver or scissor in the drug dependent’s hand? he asked.

His candid comment surfaced again amidst the celebration over the passers of the 2016 Philippine Bar Exams.

Not only was the passing rate of 59.06 percent among the highest in recent years, the Bar topnotchers were graduates of schools outside of Metro Manila.

Among the most stirring stories were accomplishments made by ordinary people facing extraordinary challenges: juggling law studies with work, a family, past failures, advanced age, poor health.

Emerging consistently in these tales was the person’s sense of self-worth.

Belief in oneself trumps being born into wealth, having innate brilliance, or developing self-discipline.

How is self-esteem developed? Over the decades, I’ve often wondered how adversity has different effects on different people.

The slightest pressure can pull a person under. And unimaginable obstacles make others soar higher.

Remembering the comment of the Tesda representative, I’ve wondered if I had paid equal attention, too, to the outliers on both ends of the spectrum: the ones who are brilliant, and the ones who are not. The ones who succeed, the ones who don’t.

It only takes a slip of the tongue to pronounce “paso” two different ways. Put the accent on the second syllable, the word means “march,” a metaphor for graduation, a transition prized by every student and parent.

Fix the accent on the first syllable, and the word means “burn”.

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*First published in SunStar Cebu’s May 7, 2017 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”