Saturday, September 14, 2019


AND then there was one.

In stories about quests, going to the mountain focused on the solitary self. It did not matter how many persons made the journey or if the traveler went with a guide.

Only the individual goes to the mountain. Only a person returns from it.

Or perhaps I misread the tales. One person enters the mountain; another emerges from it.

After about an hour, our group recently crisscrossed from the Poblacion of Dalaguete to sitio Talayong in the town of Alegria, a journey that connects the southeastern to the southwestern side of Cebu, the coast to the uplands, the known to the unknown.

We had dinner at a roadside eatery that had changed its menu and setting over the decades but still had a guard/receptionist who missed a tooth or two but not an opportunity to chortle while explaining the difference between plain chopsuey and Sun Yat-sen chopsuey (answer: the ham bits that gave away a taint of decadence in the vegetarian mishmash).

It had begun to drizzle when we began the ascent, the wind and the rains whipping and shaking the canopies of the tallest sentinels that towered above the dark, watching mass looming above us by the time we mounted to about 600 meters above sea level.

After we made the crossing, we debated the wisdom of choosing the Mantalongon route to reach our host. The husband, an old hand in these mountain ranges, preferred crossing Nug-as in Alcoy to Lepanto, Alegria, but caution prevailed over adventure as we would make the journey at night.

Our host said that the sparsely dispersed households lull travelers until they are approached by strangers along the Nug-as route for handouts. Nightfall, said our host, is not a good time to refuse strangers who will remember and make sure you remember as well that refusal when you lose your way and have to double back on the road.

In these times, few mountains remain virgin territories, unreached by motorcycles. A single-lighted Cyclops transporting a returning resident disgorged by a late bus from the city sometimes breaks the fog-wreathed stillness and silence.

Aside from droning invasions of the “habal-habal (passenger motorcycle),” clusters of the cone-shaped “bukag (basket),” woven from unbreakable rattan to hold as much as 100 kilos of lettuce, pechay or sayote balanced on the forehead and back of a farmer, huddle by the dark roadside like jaded commuters awaiting the trucks of middlemen that dawn brings.

I was beginning to think the old tales had to be rewritten when I saw the first kachubong dripping silver in the crosshairs of the car lights. Flute-shaped bells of the mountain, the flowers toll a note for this traveler: never does the same person return.

[Photo: Roy S. Tabada]

( 09173226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s September 15, 2019 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, September 07, 2019

Queer peaks

BRIBES for the ferryman of the dead.

The obol is the coin the ancient Greeks placed on the eyes and the mouth of the dead to keep them dead.

I thought of Charon’s obol when, during a recent mammography, laboratory technicians taped metal discs on my nipples, my first experience as a mammogram veteran since I started taking this annual procedure to monitor a lump in my breast discovered more than four years ago.

The procedure entails the positioning of one breast at a time between two plates, which compress and take an image used for screening for or diagnosing possible cancer. Since one breast mass had been aspirated years ago and required the regular monitoring, I have become a veteran at donning on a robe that opens in front to make it easy for the mammo technician to take one breast at a time and position this on the plate like a slab of meat I might consider buying and grinding for all-lean-meat patties to munch on while binge-watching horror movies at home.

This particular hospital, though, followed different protocols from the other one where I usually had the mammograph. Instead of a dour technician who splashed alcohol on her hands after positioning each tit (shudder my udders, could have been her mantra), two young women gently coached me to moving this way or that so each breast could have her best angle taken for the radiologist to read and interpret.

“You are so courageous,” praised one of the nice ladies. So unlike the other woman who wept copiously, observed her colleague. I wondered why the lady was reduced to tears when the plates clamped with a grinding sound like teeth gnashing as I screamed and forgot to ask the question.

To endure previous mammos, I taught myself to think of language. Take “abreast”. The word means “side by side and facing the same way”.

Human breasts are attached from birth like twins that yet grow estranged. Has one breast ever looked at the other to comment on the weather or the putrid state of politics? Yet ours is a culture that ogles breasts obsessively when these are cut off and displayed like specimens or pop trophies.

The mammogram room then is a disguised confessional. It is not pain that I flinch from but the discomforts of self-examination. Charon ferries the boat that takes souls to the underworld. His obol provides the soul sustenance for the journey, as well as prevents it from rejoining the living.

The pleasant ladies forgot to remove the discs taped on my nipples. I peeled away the tape to rejoin the living, feeling I had left behind two strangers holding Charon’s coin.

[Photo source:]

( 09173226131)

*First published in SunStar Cebu’s September 8, 2019 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, August 24, 2019


THE GARDEN, at first, was a shortcut, a quicker way to reach the cashier, the labs, the blood bank squirreled behind the bleakest of alleys.

Then I noticed that few took this path: the nurses with their color-coded trays of pills and paraphernalia, the residents in billowing white like avian escapees, the caregivers clutching little grey slips, anxious lest the prescriptions flutter away like the flimsiest of hopes.

For the minute or so it took to saunter through the garden, I avoided the hushed bright corridors where a consultant whispered to stone-faced relatives about a metal heart valve, the shroud on the gurney creaking on its way down to the morgue.

Moving through the hospital maze, I know the corridors by smell more than sight, the odors of disinfection layering over the stream of maladies, an olfactory map to the mysteries of the human body and its infinite ways of disintegration.

This theatricality cultured in hospitals is muted in the garden where life is not tracked by medical doses or accompanied by the clicks and electronic murmurs of life-extending machines. It is reassuring to find the sap at its riotous, its most fecund, flowers hypnotizing butterflies, bees ravishing pollen-sticky stamens, this old soul drunk on sunshine, breeze, the fuzz of grass as unruly as morning-after love.

Certainly the nuns had more pious intentions in creating this oasis. As with plants, we grow more assuredly towards the light when we are firm in our moorings.

To see the connections not just of this organ to that, to dwell on the consequences of desires on mortality, to see in suffering and tribulation the profoundest confirmation of the indestructible and the eternal—our science has yet to catch up with the ancients.

When the Spanish colonizers reached our shores in the 16th century, nutmeg was among the “first drugs” discovered, wrote the priest-scholar Ignacio Francisco Alcina.

Nutmeg trees bled sap like blood; hence, their repute as “blood trees” warding off illness. Much prized was a variety called “doghan” because the natives believed its sap was blood.

Alcina enumerated at least 11 local words rooted in “dugo (blood),” including “dugoon” (the monthly cycle of women), “nakadugo” (blood flowing through the male or female genital), “dinugo” (bleed to death), and “hinugo” (penalty for extracting another’s blood).

The tiny red blossoms in the garden I escape to have no scent. Remembering the tubes coding my mother’s blood (red clamp for the stream leaving her body and blue for the returning flow, she explains), I repeat my own mantra: red blood for oxygenated; purple for deoxygenated. Red now is the new favorite.

( 09173226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s August 25, 2019 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, August 17, 2019


THE JACKFRUIT turned out to be a changeling. For days, the bulbous green object lay in a box, where the husband had heaved it since Sunday after we bought fruits from a roadside stall in Batangas.

The avocados were naturally ripened, their seed giving a muted knocking when the fruits were shaken. We could already taste those creamy, healthy meals.

The jackfruit, though, made the husband hesitate. Both of us had always eaten the yellow, fragrant fruits already peeled and pithed. The farmer advised sticking a piece of bamboo into one end of the fruit; she said the impalement hastens the ripening.

Long after the avocados were mashed and consumed, the jackfruit went undisturbed under the table. Just when we thought it was a dud, the house was suddenly enveloped in a fragrance that grew stronger each day.

I had ignored the farmer’s advice, thinking that I was not hungry enough to ram a stick into that thick green rind. Yet, the ingratiatingly sweet scent emanating from the now yellow jackfruit had a peremptory presence that led me to clear the table after one breakfast.

Over newspaper sheets I rolled the heavy fruit. On a saucer, I poured edible oil, rubbing this on my hands and knife. Our longtime yaya advised that the oil will keep off most of the sticky sap. Before ringing off, Yaya said: “Pagbantay (be careful).”

As a child, I squatted on the ground as Yaya and companions shucked the “nangka (jackfruit)” in the dirty kitchen. The smell of wet newspapers mingled with that of kerosene; over these layers hung that penetrating perfume, sticky as the white filaments clutching the yellow flesh I was swallowing as fast as I could chew.

In the greed fed by the peeled nangka, it never occurred that what I desired is something the living tree finds extraneous. The jackfruit animating such merienda staples as “turon” and “benignit” is merely the aril, the sweet yellow flesh coating the seeds, the small kidney-shaped achenes.

Boiled jackfruit seeds are bland; some throw these away. Until I took apart a jackfruit, I never realized how, with everything in its nature—rind, core, and sap—the jackfruit resists all attempts to expose the achenes. In my oiled, slippery hands, I turned away the knife’s edge and sawed outwards after earlier attempts nearly impaled the knife on my stomach.

By nightfall, with a large portion of the jackfruit still uncarved and unshucked, the taste and smell of the aril filled me with revulsion. The achenes—the jackfruit “seed” that is actually the “fruit containing the seed”—I stored.

Aches and cuts yielded such a harvest, as insight follows the stripping down of language, as truth confronts after delusion.

( 09173226131)

*First published in the SunStar Cebu’s August 11, 2019 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”


Hello, Death, old friend.

Will I recognize You when You come again? Fourteen years ago, as the family sat down in Papang’s hospital room for a silent supper, the flat line on the monitor announced itself like a hive of bees drawn to a riot of flowers.

In the electric distraction of extreme medical measures reviving his body, Papang slipped away with You and went home.

How else can I explain that in the same minute the Code Blue team was ramming a tube down the trachea to open an airway, neighbors spotted his figure pacing outside the house and his longtime companion saw a dark shadow going around the magnetic blue 1964 Volkswagen Beetle, older than I, his first child, by a year and arguably his first baby?

Death, You trickster.

Or were You hiding behind Papang’s feet, which splayed like the open wings of a resting moth, framing the imperturbable green of the flat line punctuating his 81 years?

A few nights ago, while washing dinner dishes in Silang, Cavite, I opened the door after hearing a strange meowing. Instead of one of the feral cats lounging around our place, an empty porch awaited. The brown moth was already resting against the ceiling when I went back to finish clearing the table.

In folklore, moths are harbingers of death, war, and disaster. The last two are anomalies but death, I disagree, is far from being a stranger. As a child waking up from afternoon siesta in the cavernous room of my great grandparents’ house, I cried shrilly to find myself alone and she would come running.

While dusty motes drifted in the shifting shafts of afternoon light, I dreamt of You, sniffed at the sweetly odorous mustiness of my great grandparents’ room across ours, where I imagined my great grandfather drowned in his sleep, where the pickled ham of my great grandmother’s amputated leg brooded, not far from the dirty kitchen where the turtles wept as they boiled.

Yet, whenever Mama entered the room, You stepped back. When she slipped me on her lap in the dentist’s chair, when I followed her voice and smile to emerge from motherhood’s anaesthetized dreams, You always deferred. Death is the terminus except where love is concerned.

The brown moth slipping in that night may have been You, up to Your usual confounding tricks. Except it wasn’t a moth, resting with open wings. Like hands folded in prayer, those wings marked the brown creature as a butterfly.

In my late grandmother’s garden, butterflies preened like orchids. The visitor that night was dun and modest but I listened and heard my mother’s labored breathing on the phone, the voices of my dead across the void: death is the terminus except where love is concerned.

( 09173226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s August 18, 2019 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Sunday, August 04, 2019

Street wars

WHEN it starts to rain inside the bus, times are really tough.

Cold on the trail of Cebuano newspapers published during the American colonial era, I dive these days into the longest, dirtiest river snaking through Metro Manila: Edsa.

The Epifanio delos Santos Avenue (Edsa) is a major thoroughfare that has been compared during traffic gridlocks, by sharp-eyed netizens, to a world titlist’s shimmering sinuous scarlet gown when the highway is turgid with the red taillights of vehicles paralyzed by the curse of neverending rush hour.

When the monsoon gods unleash the sky’s torrents, Edsa transforms into an urban river, awash in flash floods, dead cats, and detritus floating straight out of the most putrescent phantasm conjured in Third World porn.

I can only wish then I were a crocodile, river denizen of power who can inure itself by merely closing those primeval lids and reducing the horrors of the present into the toothless myths of the past.

In reality, I am only one of Edsa’s minions, a public commuter whose magic extends only to the unfurling of an umbrella while riding a bus whose ceiling started to drip steadily in one of the recent downpours. My companion covered her head with a fuchsia shawl while my umbrella, already drenched from use, trickled more tears of dust, rust, and the unthinkable on our heads.

Yet, I cannot complain. When technocrats announce the orange alert for dangerous levels of rainfall—Stay home! Stay safe! —that is when the streets are at their cleanest. Rains flush clear streets and sidewalks of most of the peddlers, vendors, and beggars that require extraordinary measures like an Isko Moreno for “street clearing”.

The current darling of the press, Moreno’s claim to political will was sealed by blitzkrieg operations moving out the hardiest vendors occupying Divisoria, Recto Avenue, and other enclaves notorious for sidewalk and street “squatters”.

The rains, pitiless as politicians rushing to hurl ordinance, bandwagon, and all at encroaching members of the informal economy, lacks a political agenda to reach for higher political offices by interpreting public service with social blinders, stopping short of offering relocation and sustainable space-sharing alternatives to vendors, as much part of the public as the bourgeoisie and businessmen claiming right of way for their cars and delivery trucks.

If politicians swam regularly in asphalt rivers with the folks peddling boiled peanuts, corn and bananas, foot socks, umbrellas, phone SIM cards, and “sari-sari,” they will not mistake the call that unites us all: to survive.

( 09173226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu
’s August 4, 2019 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Sunday, July 28, 2019

The placid ones

THE BIBLICAL injunction to let sleeping dogs lie does not count on Udo, the family aspin (“asong Pinoy”).

When he first arrived about a decade ago, we lined a small box with the younger son’s unwashed shirt in an attempt to quiet him. He was given away from a litter of pups born from an unsupervised coupling between a Labrador and one of the local bitches.

During the drive from the dog farm in the south of Cebu to our home in the city, the black ball of fur ate and sniffled from my son’s lap. Except for the whites in his eyes, he was black all over. Black muzzle, black paws, black pools of misery reproaching those who tore him away from his mother’s side.

That was probably what made the superstitious stay away from him. All that presentiment of darkness.

Or perhaps it was just the noise that he made that first night. A low prolonged thread of keening that dogged and found us wherever we tried to escape in our small home. Thunder, rain, the dark, and sleeping alone made Udo notch his wailing even higher, seemingly beyond human endurance.

When he finally quietened down, we discovered he had overlong ears that flapped, twisted, and upended when he became engrossed: wolfing down pan de sal, chewing shoes, and sitting down with us for meals even though limbs and tail untidily spilled from chairs too quickly outgrown.

The puppy that once kept the whole household awake has become sedate in his senior years. Each time I come home, I find his long dark shadow almost always stretched on the floor, beside my chair.

He still rouses a shadow of the old friskiness when he hears the breakfast rustling of the bag containing hot pan de sal. But even before night has fallen, Udo is a dark comma curled beside our bed, sometimes snoring but no longer yipping puppy dreams.

One thing remains unchanged: a keen hearing in those silken socklike ears. Deep in sleep, he will suddenly leap up and bark in a frenzy when he hears what he alone can hear: someone familiar approaching our home and pushing, predictably minutes after he sounds off the alert, the rusty gate we have never been able to oil properly.

A dog they say ages seven times faster than humans. I doubt that. The disorder that makes one sleep longer than usual afflicts not just aging pets.

Every day, I take in the news. I follow the killings that take place daily, the bodies that go unremarked.

Occasionally, an odd detail catches the eye, a body swinging from the bridge greeting early risers. Or a child catching a bullet like a common cold.

The proverb to let sleeping dogs lie means to let things be. Rise only for the ones you love. That is what the family aspin does while I prefer the long sleep.

( 09173226131)

*First published in SunStar Cebu’s July 28, 2019 edition of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Put to bed

ONCE upon a time, to “put to bed” in publishing meant to make content ready for printing.

That expression may fade away, in the wake of digital-led revolutions overtaking print. Recently, major academic publisher Pearson announced it will update more frequently the digital rather than the physical versions of its 1,500 academic titles.

A company official said this “digital tipping point” responds to the preference of the “Netflix and Spotify generation… to rent not own” their textbooks, reported the BBC.

Digital books are easier on the pocket and on the shoulders. Few students want to invest in an imported academic reference in paper format, which can command four or five figures in pesos. Students prefer to download free PDF copies of books or share e-copies within their networks.

Given the time it takes to write a book, submit to a publisher, review, and finally print and distribute the title, it makes more sense to consult journals, many of which are already on digital portals, rather than physical books for the latest in research. Digital books also have other add-ons not found in print, such as assessments for feedback, videos for a more interactive immersion into the subject, and other links.

A hybrid approach works best for now, with students using the resources at hand and making their own innovations. Borrowing physical books from the library but avoiding extra weight in their knapsacks, many students take photos of needed pages, an act of virtual self-service that is an advance from paying a vendor for photocopies.

When a reference I needed was not yet ready for circulation, I made the most of the room-use rights given by the librarian by taking photos of the pages with the smart phone I am still learning to use.

A linear manner of comprehension, nurtured by a lifetime of reading paper books, means I read from start to finish, turning a page from the right to the left side of the spread, and then flipping back the pages to reread. Add to these the marking of passages, jotting on the book’s margins, sticking of notes in the pages, and writing in a notebook with ruled lines.

These traditional survival skills are displaced in the flurry of scrolling, swiping, and metalink-clicking involved in ebook-reading. Persevering in reading the images of pages in a smart phone screen or an electronic tablet, I effectively put myself “to bed.”

Soft snores hardly herald a revolution. It will do for now as I cling for life to the coat- tails of the digital juggernaut.

( 09173226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s July 21, 2019 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Absent ones

WE are only as good as the way we treat the others we view as “lower” than us.

The Golden Rule is often interpreted as espousing the principle of reciprocity: treat others the way we want to be treated.

Yet, reciprocity implies a relationship between equals, as between person to person. The lens with which we “other” the sentient beings we judge to be essentially “different” from us—such as animals— does not only shift the planes that put us on unequal footing but also severs any link connecting us to them.

Nonviolence then, more than reciprocity, demands that we cause no harm, not even when we condescend to “be kind to animals”

In this altered state I left the Bohol Enchanted Zoological and Botanical Garden in the Poblacion of Bilar. I have visited enough zoos in this country to associate the experience with trepidation but cannot also resist the flutter of hope anticipating that the next animal “sanctuary” will turn out to be closer to Mahatma Gandhi’s vision that, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”

V., our driver and guide, informed us that the facility was recently opened and is monitored by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. The animals—civets, owls, lizards, monkeys, lemurs, tarsiers, butterflies, rabbits, guinea pigs, and a crocodile fish—are placed in enclosures that would have blended in the sprawling landscape of lush trees and brightly hued flowers and bushes were it not for two distractions: the cages and their disgruntled occupants.

Every enclosure has a marker of information worth reading. The Cebuano interjection of “ay, kagwang!,” expressing displeasure or insult, refers to the Philippine flying lemur or Philippine colugo. Feeding and sleeping high up in the trees, the lemur is the object of many human misconceptions, mistaken for the mythical “aswang,” which preys on the unborn, perhaps because it hunts by night and sleeps by day, with upright head.

Ensconced in high branches, the facility’s two lemurs, unreachable and invisible in their resemblance to shriveled jackfruits, may have been the most fortunate of the inmates. The “cutest” attracting the most attention from us—the sleeping civets and the tarsiers, both nocturnal and arboreal—were curled and perched where they were within our importunate attention and pitiless smart phones.

Standing apart from the cage of tarsiers and the photo-frenzy, I noticed a forlorn pool. There was no marker, just fallen leaves, mossy pebbles, and two brown sticks. Or water snakes. Or maybe not.

To survive, animals shut us out. Or must learn to.

( 09173226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s July 14, 2019 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, July 06, 2019


HOW many types of “friendly” are out there?

Crisscrossing Manila and Cebu, I picked up a new word: “checkpoint friendly”. I had to Google to understand why airport inspection personnel have shifted their interest from my clothing to my gadgets.

A laptop can hide a bomb, confirms the search. The Transportation Security Administration advises that carrying laptops in a “checkpoint friendly bag” with a “butterfly style, tri fold style, or sleeve style” speeds up the airport checking process.

Just when I choose shoes that are easy to slip on and refrain from using a belt, airport security personnel no longer demand that I remove my jacket, shoes, and belt before undergoing the electronic and manual checks.

Recently, I had to take out a laptop and notebook from a tote and put these in separate trays. On another occasion, the person manning the scanner and a colleague discussed lengthily the image of the same tote before the latter requested me to open the bag and remove for closer inspection two pouches containing the gadgets’ accessories.

Peering at my purple MacBook Air power cord, the officer asked me what it was. Irony is the last thing I expect from the bureaucracy. I answered: my friend crocheted this for me, referring to the yarn in shifting shades of purple that Y. devoted her weekend to in covering the white-coated loops.

Both men looked back at me. Crochet hooks or knitting needles? I wondered suddenly, seeing Y. work with her hands: driving motorcycles, cleaning them, painting, cleaning her brushes, crocheting…

Then I remembered that Y. loops and ties the yarn by hand. She joked then I was so obsessed with keeping my year-old cord white and clean, she would make it easier when I reentered the university as a graduate student.

Indeed, in the library where other students’ cords of white and black are snaking on the floor, mine is the only purple serpent. An undergraduate once asked me where I purchased my cord. Because this was a library and not an airport and I was facing a fellow admirer of art and not security authorities, I smiled and remembered Y.’s hands and their movements as she sent me off with waves of purple.

“they taught me different is wrong,” Ani DiFranco sings in her poem, “My IQ”. In the airport, I took another look again inside my bag and saw the notebooks and pens I bought as gifts to encourage two friends to write.

“'cause silence/ is violence/ in women and poor people,” writes DiFranco in the same poem. “'cause every tool is a weapon -/ if you hold it right.”

( 0917 3226131)

*First published in SunStar Cebu’s July 7, 2019 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Discomfort women

WE never see her. For many students at the University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman, the restaurants at the Ang Bahay ng Alumni are too pricey for gobbled down meals. This hub, though, becomes a favorite when folks are celebrating a reunion, the turning in of the final paper or just one’s grip on day-to-day sanity.

Rushing past her, many of us hardly glance. Distractions are not just of the intimate, academic or ruminative kinds; the Bahay ng Alumni is just one node in the campus network of art and history.

The whole school is a people’s museum, where any citizen can freely enter and gaze at the works of National Artists and creatives sans titles. In this treasury, it is understandable to overlook the “Alma Mater,” the 1996 sculpture of a woman offering a wreath to visitors entering the lobby of The Home of the Alumni.

Created by National Artist for Sculpture Napoleon Abueva in homage to UP, the “Alma Mater” is frequently left out in online posts extolling the bounteous legacy in Diliman. It was only during the fifth year of my studies that I spared her a moment of curiosity—who is she?— when my friend M. and I asked a security guard to take our photo at the lobby.

Both of us are inept at taking a selfie but we looked around for a hallmark for our reunion, perennially postponed by the disruptions afflicting working women who are also wives and mothers.

That shot of our beaming beneath the bronze woman was shared by M. on social media, but my scrutiny of the “Alma Mater” only came six months after the taking of the photo I have mentally captioned as “Tulo ka Babaye (three women)”.

I was in the cemetery in Cebu, visiting my father, when a family friend stopped to chat. He beamed when he said their youngest child recently graduated.

Son, he told this child in Cebuano, as your mother and I don’t have a daughter and you have no job yet, I will use you as a daughter. Please wash the dishes.

T. and his wife put all their sons through college from what they earned in “maintaining” the graves of several families in the cemetery. T. is no stranger to manual labor nor to the cooperation needed for partners to raise a family. Yet, why would he put a gender to housework with no pay or recompense?

Abueva’s works invite a meditation to break expectations, from the iconic “Risen/Dead Christ” at the Parish of Holy Sacrifice in UPD to the quietly subversive “Alma Mater”. The term in Latin literally means “generous mother” or someone who nourishes.

Those invisibles behind countless hot meals, ironed clothes, and enlightened minds are gendered by social edict. Can we finally see her only when she breaks out of these comfort zones?

( 09173226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s June 30, 2019 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, June 22, 2019

No problem

CLIMBING presents no problem to Tigre, a marmalade stray whose favorite perch is the topmost shelf in the kitchen. On it is a still shiny pan, which the cat likes as a pillow when he slinks in for a midmorning nap.

When I rinse a cup, I automatically look up. The fallout, either from a dislodged pan or an oversleeping feline, would be hard to explain in a pithy epitaph.

Tigr considers all these as nonsense. Many a time, those lambent sulfurous orbs are trained on me just as I look up. Excuse me, is this your fur drifting in my tea? An answering yawn, if I am lucky, is all I get.

I accept that being alone is a condition for writing. And thinking often means talking to oneself because some ideas have to be hung out like clothes on a washline that have a lot of flapping around to do before they can be worn.

Still, it is no small comfort to seek out Tigr when the writing stutters. For him, there is no problem. When he scrubs our ankles with his madly purring visage, the husband asks aloud if he has picked up an ear infection and I wait with trepidation for my ankles to get nibbled.

The problem with humans is that to be human is not to be without a problem.

Tigr reminds me of John Puruntong, the beloved character played by Dolphy in the Ading Fernando-created sitcom, “John en Marsha,” which dominated Philippine television from the 1970s to the 1990s. John was television’s version of Juan dela Cruz who slept, too, on a dented pot, curled every night on a hard narrow bench in the family shanty.

John is loved by his family: Marsha, Nida Blanca’s jewel of a wife, who never nagged or envied the neighbors; daughter Shirley, spunky but loving, played by Maricel Soriano; and Dolphy’s son Rolly Quizon, who played reel son Rolly.

Marsha’s sinfully rich mother, Doña Delilah Jones, ruins the domestic harmony, constantly hectoring her son-in-law with the catchphrase, “Kaya ikaw, John, magsumikap ka (keep striving).”

Does John bite the bullet or bite off his monster MIL’s head? He does neither. Every weekly episode finds John browbeaten by Doña Delilah, who orders her maid, the screechy-voiced Matutina, to sweep the bills off the floor of her mansion and offers these to solve John’s problems.

John does not accept the money because he understands that the lack of money is a false problem. In portraying the Filipino who, with peace of mind, can sleep on a pillow of aluminum, Ading Fernando and Dolphy captured the nature of a conundrum, problematized by Plato and Martin Heidegger.

A problem does not merely counter “doxa” or common sense, writes Audrey Wasser. “In perplexing, problems disrupt our worn-out stories.”

Or, purrs Tigre, “no problem”.

( 09173226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s June 23, 2019 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, June 15, 2019


TO READ is to be moved.

Yet, surveying the books remaining at home that have survived purges and “Hunger Games” (as a former student called those occasions when I gave away books to classes), two categories emerge, going by appearance: obelisks and sponge cakes.

Like cakes whipped from eggs and butter, these novels, comics, and illustrated books are soft all over, from cover to spine and page edges, obviously not just read but much reread. Sponge cakes open by habit to pages marked by pen and striking fancy, frowzy and matey from familiarity.

The obelisks are studies in dignity at first dusting, with nary a crease or dent. On second glance, I feel the pathos of holding a book I have barely read or even opened.

Read for instruction and rarely for pleasure, obelisks are untouched by obsession. I travel or ruminate in the toilet with sponge cakes; I require a table and a good light to open an obelisk’s pages and make notes. I take a sponge cake to bed; an obelisk puts me to sleep.

Physically moving books to outwit termites with a gusto for paper, I assembled the obelisks on a table, where they eyed me reproachfully like overaged babies still trapped in too tight christening suits.

Many of the obelisks are Filipiniana, a number on Cebuano studies. Nearly two decades ago, after editing an article written by Dr. Resil B. Mojares for the “Cebu Journalism and Journalists,” a magazine published during the Cebu Press Freedom Week, I left the newsroom and crossed over to the Cebuano Studies Center, then located at the P. del Rosario St. campus of the University of San Carlos.

I found his book, “Cebuano Literature,” continued reading his treatise on the symbiosis of Cebuano literature and journalism, and bought a copy of my own. Mojares was honored as a National Artist in 2018. His “pioneering work” surveying Cebuano writers and their milieu is now out of print, according to Dr. Hope Sabanpan-Yu, current Center director.

“There is an urgent need for enlarging the present critical awareness of vernacular literature in the Philippines,” writes Mojares. “… the Filipino, by virtue of an education weighted in favor of the assimilation of western culture, has found himself alienated from his native literature.”

Bought in 2002, my copy opened to a yellowed brochure of the San Carlos Publications; an official receipt for P65, the cost of a paperback copy in 2002; and a postcard of a central Kuala Lumpur bookshop discovered by S., guided by her inimitable nose for reading.

A deep lateral crease mars the face of the Father of Cebuano Letters, Vicente Sotto, on the cover of my copy. Even in 2002, despite my unknowing, reading about the Cebuano already moved me.

( 09173226131)

* First published in the June 16, 2019 issue of the SunStar Cebu Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, June 08, 2019

Paper trail

PAPER’S time is nearly over. When I hold today’s thinner, narrower newspapers, whenever I encounter the academic jargon for newspapers and magazines printed on paper (“legacy media”), when my search for notebooks on Ebay and Marketplace cascades photos of gadgets, I accept the inevitable: paper will be jettisoned for other things bright and new.

Yet, paper is a kindred creature. When I recently came home to clean and clear after two years of being away, I realized that about a third of our household is made up of paper. Paper occupies space, attracts the most unrelenting pests, and traps dust, dog hair, and cat fur. Paper is the bane of virtuous housekeepers.

Such a surfeit of flaws hardly explains why paper is addictive. I find it nearly impossible to throw away paper. Can you take a photo of the sheet a son scribbled on in kindergarten, store the image as data in the Cloud, and deposit in a trash can that yellowing slip with ragged edges, misspelling, and the glimmerings of a young person emerging into his voice? One might as well consign love to oblivion.

Paper releases, along with dust motes and a mini-colony of silverfish, expression. Recently at the University of San Carlos Cebuano Studies Center, I spent a day going through the card catalogue, not the online public access catalogue that inventories the linked libraries in an institution but the old-fashioned cabinet with wooden trays holding index cards containing bibliographic information. Plus all shades and slants of librarians’ scribbling.

I first searched using key words but then shifted to alphabetical trawling. And that was how, in between Abac-Azne and Ga-Kyzyl, I stumbled on Epifania Labrada Magallon’s 1977 list of Cebuano antonyms and pseudonyms and John Wolff’s 1967 paper on the history of the dialect of Camotes Island.

In Greek, Latin, French, and English, the anonym is a person “without a name”. A pseudonym is a “false name” used by a writer. What was it about publication in prewar newspapers that drove Cebuanas to hide behind anonyms and pseudonyms but released their souls?

And remembering how Camotes village women once code-switched to Cebuano Visayan from Porohanon or Camotes Visayan, described as a combination of Cebuano, Waray, Boholano, and Ilonggo, when addressing visitors from Cebu City, I reflected how Wolff “put on paper” and articulated beyond ignoring and forgetting the cultural imperialism with which mother tongues drown and silence “minor” dialects with their discrete and irreplaceable history and stories.

Digital is king, but every time, I choose to follow paper trails.

( 09173226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s June 9, 2019 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, June 01, 2019

Sip, steep & muse

IN these caffeinated times, a café is not just about the coffee. Going to a reunion with an old friend, I asked my son to write down the instructions for the fruit and herbal infusions I consider to be healthier and less confusing than the labyrinthine complexities one has to hurdle to get a cup of coffee these days.

When I was an AM radio intern in the 1990s, Danny, the reporter mentoring me on shoe-leather field reporting, always started our street-roving by parking our rattletrap “mobile” on the gutter so we could hop out and slide into a bench always kept free for Danny, radio man, local celebrity, and sweet bear with a sweet tooth for sweet coffee.

That summer was hell. Writing in Cebuano was hell. Reporting on air was hell. What redeemed that time was the coffee-and-fried egg Danny and I shared in his favorite sidewalk café: a tiny table covered with a flower-patterned plastic sheet, topped by a flower-patterned “thermos” and cut-glass containers of instant coffee grains reused to hold instant coffee, the poison of choice for early risers, security guards, office workers, reporters, and ulcer-prone interns trawling to meet the day’s quota of stories.

While the vendor’s children and grandchildren shrieked bathing on the sidewalk and skinny cats with interrogator eyes unblinkingly followed our every move, Danny made our coffee, first putting a spoon in the glass so the steaming water from the flowered flask wouldn’t crack the glass (a Danny trick) and dumping sinful amounts of coffee grains and then condensed milk as an afterthought or atonement.

He left the swirling to me because, being Danny, he was in the thick of things: monitoring the news blaring from the parked radio “mobile,” talking to other regulars, pulling the shirt over his gut (we were a tight fit in that tiny bench), hollering to the kids about not missing the flag ceremony, pulling down the shirt again, and drowning his sunny side ups in his Danny signature coffee, “black as hell, strong as death, sweet as love” (an old Turkish proverb used by essayist Matthew Green to describe eighteenth-century coffee served in London coffeehouses). And, yeah, coaching me without stinting on the coffee.

In the mall café, I got out my phone to show the barista the instructions my older son typed for a healthy fruit-infused drink: “no water, no syrup, just pulp, less ice.”

My tongue, picking up a phantom sweetish-queasy taste of egg yolk and coffee lodged behind a tooth, betrayed me. When I gave the order, I asked for extra pumps of syrup and cream in remembrance of a mentor who spared nothing to shore up a young person’s lack of faith.

( 09173226131)

*First published in SunStar Cebu’s June 2, 2019 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, "Matamata"

Saturday, May 25, 2019


THE BRIGADA Eskwela brings together a community to prepare public schools for the start of classes in June. Conducted from May 20 to 25 this year, the collaboration pools teachers, parents, line agencies, and other volunteers to make the classrooms ready for classes.

In some areas, efforts are made to check safety and equip the school to respond to disasters and other emergencies. Based on television news coverage of Brigada 2019 activities across the nation, I’ve noted these positive developments.

And one glaring absence. I have not read or viewed any report about the preparation of books and other learning materials to stimulate students, whose numbers have grown since enrollees trooped in for last year’s opening, as administrators attested.

A conducive environment is essential for learning. Yet, we must prioritize content over form for education to be meaningful, empowering, and transformative. These adjectives emphasize important and lasting changes taking place in a student not just while she or he is in school but throughout a lifetime.

Such changes are more likely brought about by examining and updating libraries and classrooms rather than just repainting school walls and replacing broken pots.

It is not to disparage the collective efforts of parents and teachers to make public schools not just welcoming but attractive for youths entering this June. Many factors beyond the campus are keeping some youths from returning to class.

For one peso, one activates a computer to play online or research for one’s homework in any of the numerous PisoNet vendors proliferating near schools and public places. Too many parents and fellow teachers know from bitter experience that Dota rules.

Last midterm elections, I sat inside a grade six classroom for an hour. While in this holding area waiting with other voters to cast our ballots, I examined, then read and reread the posters, aphorisms, poems, word-for-the-day in English and Filipino, and other learning aids. A teacher labored and spent to come up with these classroom aids.

However, I could not connect this content with a 12-year-old seating in this classroom for a certain number of hours five days a week for 10 months each school year. From the perspective of a digital native surfing Facebook and YouTube, this classroom will seem at best like a musty collection of artifacts or at worst, a cell.

In a corner of the classroom was a pile of returned textbooks, gathering dust. No novel nor book nook in sight. Lack of classrooms and broken chairs are just the tip of public education woes. The real face-off is with the banality of public learning.

( 09173226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s May 26, 2019 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, May 18, 2019


I AM a product of the public educational system. Since college, I have been studying in a state university. A public elementary school shared a fence with the house my family lived in for years.

During one summer, the women in my family enrolled in a dressmaking course offered by the local school. Whenever community dances, school programs, and graduation exercises were held at the covered court, we watched from the second-floor bedroom.

Even when we didn’t want to watch, the grills and glass panes of our windows would reverberate whenever the dance music started booming during evening school events. No other space could accommodate communal affairs in our industrial/residential zone.

Working with communities lying outside urban centers, I estimated the true worth of a community by the number and condition of the local public school buildings. Coastal public schools are generally better-off than upland ones.

Households in remote areas counted themselves lucky if there was a nearby public school, even if this was a one-room affair where the teacher taught students of two or three grade levels at one end and crossed to the other end to teach the higher levels.

Taking part in school feeding, I learned that the walking required from home to school and back again, often on an empty stomach, and the family’s need for extra hands for farm work pruned many public classrooms of students even before a week was through.

Some teachers came late on Monday mornings and left early on Friday afternoons. The most orderly room in some schools turned out to be the library where visitors tucked into the food teachers paid for and prepared, sometimes in the presence of a few books locked inside cabinets.

To cast my vote on May 13, I waited for three hours, perhaps spending a third of that going through the sitting-standing-sitting sequence in a public classroom, labeled a “holding area” for citizens waiting to be summoned to enter another classroom to finally cast their ballots.

My fellow citizens, thinking that two hours of standing in line were finally culminating when we first stepped inside the holding area, ruefully called the classroom “para laming,” which is the practice of starving a live creature that will shortly be eaten in order to keep its digestive tract clean and clear before the slaughter.

In the “laming” classroom, it was not exaggerating to imagine we were being purged: acutely harder to breathe and move around, one just stopped thinking.

When I recall the midyear elections of 2019—the hope for changes, the crushing aftermath—I will add to my memories of public classrooms the phrase: “para laming”.

( 09173226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s May 19, 2019 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, May 11, 2019

A difference

WAITING at the airport helped me reflect on whom to vote for during the May 13 midterm elections.

Thanks to a persevering son and an online airfare promo, I lined up for a quick trip to Cebu. The lines for the airport counters existed in theory; Ramadan, election day, and school break meant passengers churning like vortexes rather than filing orderly and efficiently.

Since I was hours early for a trip that was likely to be delayed (it was), I took in the scene. A lady and her grown-up daughter queued behind me; mother and daughter, noting the lack of system, filled in the gap, sharing information and politely directing folks to the end of the line before they could cut into the queue and create a situation.

I heard the daughter ask her elderly mother to take a seat many times when it seemed no one was inching forward; each time, the lady said that they will both take a seat after finishing their business at the counters.

This tandem was more helpful to fellow passengers than an officious gentleman walking around, wearing his authority like a uniform and not offering anything else to anyone. After a time, we formed a respectable line without a sour face in sight.

Lined up before me was a group of women wearing the khimar or head scarf. They had many belongings to check in; a young woman juggled these tasks while assisting her elderly companion to a wheelchair provided by the airline. Unlike with the tandem behind me, I could not overhear their conversation and only assumed they were related, a possible mother-and-daughter team, too.

Later, in the pre-departure area, the travelers in their bright khimars stood out. The young woman and her mother went to the toilet twice; each time, she slung a backpack and placed a small bag on her mother’s lap before they wheeled away to a toilet that is challenging to maneuver, given its cramped space and heavy use (with just a heavy gadget bag and a sling, I found it so).

It wasn’t the wheelchair that stood out but the young woman’s manner of bending down to her mother and smiling, as if sharing the thrill of embarking on an adventure. Decades ago, their roles must have been reversed, the older one being wheeled around then whispering to and encouraging the younger one held in her arms or toddling beside her. It was a privilege to watch these two come full circle.

Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, explaining to Martin Luther King the self-immolation of monks protesting the Vietnam War, said that this act of making one’s voice heard to save one’s country was borne out of compassion, not of despair.

Tomorrow, may we vote according to deep and abiding love for our nation, not out of despair.

( 09173226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s May 12, 2019 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, May 04, 2019

Cat food

MEALTIMES in the household fall short of a “clash of civilization”.

About seven cats drop by, expecting tuna biscuits or, the hands-down favorite, sardines in tomato sauce. All are feral except for the human who, to do her credit, knows the drill well enough.

The food is placed in several containers kept apart to keep the strong away from the weak, the young from the old. Except for a dam and her young sons, all the cats are adult toms, deeply entitled and long in fang and nail.

Each newcomer pauses at the top of the stairs from the street to survey the scene. If the cats eating are social inferiors, the latecomer pads forward, the smaller cats melting like shadows at high noon.

If the toms are still supping, the young ones tuck their paws under, fur balls in waiting. Sometimes, a young fool will creep like a hovering rain cloud, drifting towards unattended bowls.

Sometimes, a yowlfest breaks out, shards of fur from arched backs and distended tails suffusing the air, shrieks eye-sparks fangs puncturing what was a commune, an oasis, a construct of human caprice.

For sometimes the human cannot resist and dispenses what she thinks of as justice, ass-patting away the sated toms and offending their leonine dignity, standing over the old and half-blind, dropping tidbits for the queen, the only dam among toms, the smallest of the lot and the feistiest.

A sociopath that long unlocked the secret codes of the human heart and is scrambling messages for species domination, every cat convinces the humans it has domesticated that the latter order feline existence just because the cats show up for meals.

More accurately, the human is primed to feed and the felines oblige such a needy, suggestible factotum. Once you see a just fed cat play for hours with a creature it has trapped before it pops the poor, crippled thing in its mouth and looks back at you with unblinking mass-murderer eyes framed in heart-shaped furriness, you will have a second of clarity and see your own subaltern self in the pink, skinned tail dangling from that steel trap of a sweet maw before you shake off the disloyal thought and scratch the tummy, behind the ear, under the chin.

Well-done, human (those rolling purrs actually decode into: well-done human).

Cats are true solitaries. Only the self is real; all else are peripheral, instrumental, human.

In between the feeding, the cats walk around the human with her book. What sparks interest is a patch of sun, a bald spot in the scorched lawn that dips from bodies rolling and stretching for a good dust bath.

Pause the button on rest and recreation. Check out the human, abandoning her book, expectant. Old chum, didn’t we just eat?

( 09173226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s May 5, 2019 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Friday, May 03, 2019

A girl thing

(Don’t read; GoT spoilers ahead.)

“To live without hypocrisy”.

This line written by Dolores Stephens Feria writing about early Filipina writers came to mind when I was viewing for the nth time one of the YouTube videos featuring the knighting of Ser Brienne of Tarth in the “Game of Thrones” series. I lost count of the times the videos blurred before I finally kicked myself in the head: who in that room was the equal or better of Brienne?

In the honor department: no one, at least in my books or the five published ones written so far by George R. R. Martin in the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series. In the television series, which has outpaced the books, Brienne “finally” receives what she deserves, according to a plot written and directed by men, kneeling before a man invoking a medieval code of honor he has broken beyond count and she has never, and applauded by men who have schemed, deceived, and compromised beyond count.

So why did I binge on the “fireside scene” of episode 2 of season 8? Ah, thanks to being an avid subscriber of the patriarchy, I expect that if the episode writer had set Brienne in a room full of women, I would have felt disoriented: are they knitting the secret weapon to defeat the armies of the undead?

The power of archetypes lies beyond the spinner of tales or the audience. Feria implies in her essay studying women writers who wrote against the tradition of patriarchy controlling not just literature or journalism but human history that the freedom to write and express had to be done within the confines of how women of a certain period were permitted to live out their lives.

It galls to watch Brienne bend her knee in front of a man with two swords and one swordhand—for in a patriarchy, one cannot have too many phallic symbols for conferring and symbolizing power, specially over a woman, positioned in an appropriately submissive position—when in the narrative arc of five books or eight television seasons, this character has never slipped in choosing the path of honor, at great cost to her life or her happiness.

Shouldn’t Brienne be the one patting the shoulders of these men with her Valyrian sword Oathkeeper and exhorting them to keep to the path of honor? Ah, but until that night, she cannot knight because she is not a knight. She is not a knight because she is not a man. She cannot become a man. How can she be a knight?

She can benefit from the generosity of men. Directed to rise, by men.

The archetypes are fixed. That is not just storytelling but tradition.

The acts a woman must do for validation.

Or for love. Amounts to the same thing, yes?

( 09173226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s April 28, 2019 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Wednesday, April 24, 2019


I HAVE the earring of a “crazy” woman. After I lost a “sinubong” earring to a downtown snatcher in Cebu, the husband searched long for a replacement as the three-ball design, from old coins melted down, is hard to find.

An old woman sold an earring to him. Drinking with a group of men in the uplands of Cebu, she said she lost the first earring after she got drunk. Her companions told the husband she was so drunk, she forgot she sold that earring to buy liquor. She is crazy, gestured the men who drank the “tagay” round she bought them.

A man has two balls. A woman needs six, a “sinubong” trio dangling from each ear, for what’s in store for her.

In Dolores Stephens Feria’s essay, “The Patriarchy and the Filipina as Writer,” published in her book, “The Long Stag Party,” a sure sign of craziness in the 1800s was the obsession to write. Penury awaited men but when women showed symptoms of this lunacy, society buried them alive.

Leona Florentina is the “Sappho in Ilocos,” whose statue in the plaza fronting the Florentina mansion across the Vigan Cathedral is as serene as the “circumspect” history buttressing the public memory of the “mother of lyric poetry in Ciudad Fernandino,” the “third oldest Spanish settlement in the Philippines,” wrote Feria.

However, seeking the other Leona—“feminist, iconoclast, and descendant of the pre-Spanish free woman”—is “very difficult,” contended Feria. The University of the Philippines (UP) academic argued that the pre-Spanish free woman was the “repository of the imaginative,” nearly wiped out in Manila, the bastion of colonial patriarchy, but enduring in provincial areas where folk traditions lingered.

Daughter of one of Vigan’s wealthiest families, Leona married her cousin at 14 and gave birth to a son at 15. She discovered poetry at 10 and even when married, wrote all night for “poetry was her meat and drink”.

Her husband, the Alcalde Mayor, forced her to choose between him and poetry. She chose to write, reverted to her maiden name, and lived the rest of her days in a farm house. Nothing beyond faded anecdotes of a solitary figure on horseback or a drinker of “basi” spirits would have reached us if it were not for the efforts of Isabelo de los Reyes—revolutionary, founder of the Philippine Independent Church and labor movement, and son—to compile his late mother’s works, which were published in Paris and Madrid.

Recognition from the centers of the empire restored the shade of Leona the prodigal daughter into the bosom of Ciudad Fernandino. What would this early Filipina writer have made of her resurrection, she who was remembered by her son as saying: “He who bends too much ends by showing the buttocks.”

( 09173226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s April 21, 2019 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata"

Monday, April 15, 2019

Before Eve

WHEN we were girls, my sister and I pretended we owned an island and did absolutely nothing we did not want to do and everything we wanted to. At those ages, our indulgences ran to: not doing house work, sleeping when we wanted to.

Remembering that childhood game, I wondered if it had been at the backs of our minds then to not marry, not bear children, not lead domestic, thoroughly domesticated, lives in that Isle of Not’s.

Couching that fantasy requires a series of negations. No, sustaining that imaginary demands exploding social myths, for instance: if a woman is not a wife and a mother, what is she?

Cebu in the 1970s was a bastion of traditions bookended by family, school, church, and state. Even just conscious of the first three, my sister and I created the Isle of Not’s as a backdoor, almost as if we already foresaw our futures.

It was then with a shock of recognition that I came across Dolores Stephens Feria’s essay, “The Patriarchy and the Filipina as Writer,” which is part of her book, “The Long Stag Party” (1991).

Dolores knows the women of the diaspora. Before global migration, colonization imploded the Filipina. An American who married a Filipino academic despite the anti-miscegenation tide in the U.S., Dolores joined her husband in returning to the country after the Second World War. She taught English and literature at the Silliman University and the University of the Philippines Diliman. Shortly after martial law was imposed, she was arrested and detained without charges for three years.

In the journal she kept clandestinely during her incarceration, Dolores wrote how state oppression made Filipinos stateless in their own country. For women, the oppressions were more restrictive.

Likening to one “long stag party” the Spanish and American colonizations that subjected women to the double bind of imperialist and masculinist domination, Dolores argued in her essay that the colonialist and androcentric writing of Philippine history buried women who, in pre-colonial times, were the “babaylan,” “dumandang,” and “mandadawak”.

These pre-colonial healers, psychic interpreters of a tribe’s inner life, and priestesses were supplanted by men by way of the pulpit, the bedroom, the classroom, and the political sphere. When assimilation did not work—most women had their uses as wives and daughters—society turned these ill-fitting ones into Others.

At the turn of the century, women who wrote were regarded as treacherous as uncharted islands on which men could dash and lose all plans and ambitions for progeny. Outside of my sister’s and my imagination, these female Isles of Not’s existed. Who was Dolores referring to?

( 09173226131)

*First published in SunStar Cebu’s April 14, 2019 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata"

Saturday, April 06, 2019

Leaf fall

ONE morning, birdsong was not my customary greeting. It was the sound of hacking and breaking.

A homeowner in our cul-de-sac hired men to cut down the mahogany trees growing outside the perimeter wall. Every summer, we reap the avalanche of leaves shed by the trees.

Owners fear for vehicles parked under the quickly balding canopies. Homemakers wage a futile war against leaves, wind, and gravity. Only a few—kids biking in the prolonged sunshine, commode-seeking cats and dogs, and a secret admirer of trees—revel in the shedding wars.

Informed that it is illegal to cut without a permit, the neighbor halted the project.

In summer, mahogany trees shed off all their old coats and don new emerald ones faster than I can wield a broom and sweep their faded majesty into bags for disposal. Burning leaves, hazardous to people and environment, is also illegal.

Not being a cat or a dog, I cannot swim into the pile, play hide-and-seek, and then nonchalantly walk away after pooping in my playground. So I sweep and bag and cough and squint—a chore immeasurably repaid by drinking without stint in the symphony nature orchestrates with trees, sky, and birds.

What can match a view of the green of trees, the blue of sky, and the rainbow flashed by birds passing through? The blinding whiteness of Little Egrets, the gold of Orioles, the turquoise and aquamarine of Kingfishers. Even the brown of Shrikes shames language; writer Jonathan Franzen tried to pin down the “nearly infinite shades of brown” reducing everyone, from avian taxonomists to bird admirers, to tongue-tied raptness: “rufous, fulfous, ferruginous, bran-colored, foxy”.

No one can dress up like a tree; birds know this. While we bemoan trees as street litter or hazards, birds have more wisdom. That comes with the territory; birds are more evolved than humans, being around “150 million years longer” than us, as Franzen wrote in his January 2018 essay for the “National Geographic”.

The only thing he notes that we can do better than birds, or trees for that matter, is master the environment. Yet, this is all that matters.

Afternoons of sweeping and bagging leaves have given me a deep desire never to look at another pet turd again, as well as two nests. One is shaped like a pinwheel; the other, an elongated box. Mahogany leaves are intricately folded and joined by a paper-thin yellowish-white material I am guessing is bird saliva.

Ecologists have noted how birds in the Italian Alps use plastic, foil, and cigarette butts to make their nests, instead of natural materials. I placed these found nests on the altar, praying we will never reduce birds to weaving with our trash.

( 09173226131)

* First published in the April 7, 2019 issue of SunStar Cebu’s Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Dreaming Edsa

TAKE time and smell the billboards.

For four consecutive days, I recently commuted from Silang, Cavite to Diliman, Quezon City to take exams. Daily, that was approximately six hours of travel by car, bus, jeepney, and MRT trains to sit for an exam taking four hours.

I survive Manila by commuting via the Manila Metro Rail Transit (MRT) System, which feeds the Epifanio de los Santos Avenue (Edsa) with about 650,000 passengers every day, according to 2012-2013 data.

More than half a million people “captured” like livestock transported from the farm to the abattoir makes the Abenida irresistible for every street hawker, from the merchants of everlasting youth to the political chameleons of utopia.

I am not one of the cattle plugged in to their smart phones during these Edsa “flights”. I am more bovine, napping even while standing. My favorite MRT activity, though, is to urban-gaze. Even whizzing past, the giant billboards of Edsa exude a potency more mind-bending than a hallucinogen.

This week, the billboards have nearly succeeded at convincing me to buy an overpriced set of triangles (“It’s SUMMER. LiberYAYte yourself!”), as well as use my vote to put the public at the mercy of a mass murderer and bald-faced liar (“TRUST me. LiberYAYte the nation!”).

Trusting a bikini and a politician marks a deficit of sanity, I shout to myself with a bullhorn. But every time I pass their billboards, Nadine winks at me and Bato smiles as if we both share the private joke behind the War on Drugs.

This week, if my brain wasn’t standing-room-only (yeah, Gramsci, Foucault, and Fraser, get your butts off poor Habermas; step out, Heidegger, and bring National Socialism with you), I might have succumbed to a buy-in of these bikini dreams.

Edsa knocks sense in me. Not the Abenida but the great Filipino after which it is named. Don Panyong was a multifaceted genius who defied the conventions of his time to serve Filipinos, including future generations. The First Filipino Academician was a giant of the Golden Age of Fil-Hispanic literature but as the journalist using the penname of “G. Solon,” he co-founded and edited newspapers opposing the Spanish colonizers.

Gregorio Zaide wrote that Don Panyong’s Filipiniana collection was unrivalled, the fruit of the scholar’s indefatigable search across many nations. After he died, his heirs sold the collection to the government for P19,250, an act of patriotism benefitting scholarship re-imagining the narratives constituting the Filipino.

More than an urban nightmare, today’s Edsa reminds us that the struggle to liberate the Filipino continues to saturate our worlds, the everyday as well as the imaginary.

( 09173226131)

* First published in the March 31, 2019 issue of the Sunday editorial page column of the SunStar Cebu’s “Matamata”

Sunday, March 24, 2019


I FINALLY found meaning in Heidegger. Unable to penetrate the German philosopher’s writings about Being, I escaped from my notes to stare out of the window and noticed that the trees growing in front of the house look peaky.

Rain or shine, Martin Heidegger’s world of Dasein offers no respite, but I took the excuse anyway to water the trees at day’s end. Most mornings leave a film of dew but it soon dissipates in the aridity of the day.

These clusters of trees are offshoots of fruit peelings and seeds turned into humus. One of the trees briefly flowered but none has borne fruit yet. From the times I’ve pricked myself on the trees’ prominent green thorns, I am fairly certain these cannot be calamansi (native lemon). Dalandan (native oranges) and lemons are other lazy guesses.

Despite not knowing the nature of these sapling trees, I gaze at them often, even without being driven by Heidegger’s “tortured intensity”. One of the trees has been claimed by a Brown Shrike. Resembling a masked bandit, with a dash of black streaking behind its eyes, this fat brown fellow is brave and daring, frequently perched on a spike-covered branch while loudly insulting the lounging neighborhood cats that watch it, with metronome tails.

According to Amado C. Bajarias Jr.’s “A Field Guide to Flight,” the Shrike (“Tarat” to the Tagalogs, “Tibalas” to the Visayans) has a fearsome reputation, going by the name of “Butcher Bird” because it impales its prey on spikes and thorns before tearing it apart.

One afternoon, I looked closely at the tree’s thorns to see if this bandit bird left gruesome trophies but found instead that the trees were exuding from their bark globules of amber. Dark-tinted and clear, the substance gave off a piny scent.

I was entranced with the amber crystal balls, which resemble the Palantir that Pippin stole from Gandalf in the Orthanc—a scene from J. R. R. Tolkien’s classic fantasy trilogy—until I read from the Net that this ooze is gummosis, or the tree’s essence leaking from wounds or cuts sustained from “environmental stress,” damage from machines, or infestation.

Heidegger supported National Socialism, the doctrine of the Nazi Party that persecuted and killed Jews, blacks, women, and the Others not considered part of the Aryan master race. In the book considered as a canon in Continental Philosophy, “Being and Time (Sein und Zeit),” Heidegger postulates that Dasein is the mode of being unique to humans. One interpretation is that while plants and animals are driven to reproduce and survive, only humans choose the lives they lead.

If a lower form such as a tree can bleed beauty, shouldn’t the wounds of Dasein bear fruits other than ugliness?

( 09173226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s March 24, 2019 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Monday, March 18, 2019


SNUG in its father’s chest, with only its small head poking out of the sling, the infant slept on as its parent checked out merchandise. In a mall during a weekend, I spotted father and baby among the people milling about the infant section of a department store.

At first, I was drawn to the ring sling, a frontal variation of the papoose that’s made with a loop of cloth threaded through two rings. When my sons were babies some 30 years ago, the ring sling wasn’t trendy yet. Nor was babywearing a man thing, too.

Then I noticed what hogged the young father’s attention while his baby napped. It was a tube he kept upending then peering into with an eye at one end. A kaleidoscope.

A favorite back when I was a child, the “magic” tube occupied me endlessly. I held it to the light, shook the tube, and watched the colored bits inside dissolve into crazy patterns, no two ever alike. When I first held my parents’ gift, I thought it was cooler than a book.

I mentally added the kaleidoscope in my rapidly filling bucket list for future grandchildren, and then moved to a secondhand bookstore. Bookstore browsing is my weekend contact sports, with reading titles sideways or on my knees having the highest level of difficulty so far, while other bookworms around me trawl, read, diss/defend authors, flirt, and, once, write what must have been a book in the making.

Stepping out to take a breath, I realized, not for the first time, how all of us must resemble ants tunneling around merchandise, which can be summed up in three adjectives: American, popular, and cheap.

There is a smattering of authors with non-North American names but rarely anyone representing the Global South, which, in transnational or colonial speak, stands for developing or less developed countries. Only in Cebu did I buy books written in English by Cebuano authors in a branch of this popular secondhand bookstore.

As a reader whose obsession for books outranges her budget, choosing to read works about the Filipino written by the Filipino is an act of will that often gets eroded by what’s left in my wallet even after I forego brewed coffee and “turon”.

Yet, to quote anthropologist Arturo Escobar, “we are… placelings”. “To live is to live locally, and to know is first of all to know the places one is in,” Escobar quotes philosopher Edward Casey.

Since I was a kid, the imaginary, imagined, and imaginative lures and beguiles, like magic glimpsed at the end of the kaleidoscope. Yet, life, enfleshed and quivering, can only be in the here and now, what’s in place and in contact, enrooting, transforming, transposing.

( 09173226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s March 17, 2019 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Sunday, March 10, 2019


FOR as long as I have known her, my friend Brigada’s homecomings have always been marked by the discovery of one or more foibles of her nieces.

At one fiesta, a brother’s daughter failed to introduce the young man she was entertaining with friends at the hut adjoining the house. Imagining that Brigada’s ancestral home was full to the rafters with guests—in their barrio, homes opened doors so anyone could just walk in and pick up a plate—I wondered that she had time to notice the snub.

Brigada said the last time this impertinent chit remembered her manners was the day she turned five and Brigada brought a small cake sweating icing from the city.

In recent years, Brigada’s blood pressure has gone up and down over the diminishing pieces of cloth the nieces wear to the barrio dancing that caps the festivities on the eve of the fiesta.

When Brigada and her sisters were still maidens with willowy waists, I listened till late at night to them plan, engrossed to the last detail, over the cut and color of the dress they were saving for the “sastre” to sew and dieting to fit in for that evening’s “kalingawan”.

Now all Brigada can talk about is the tininess of the shorts each niece trots out to wear for what Brigada hesitates to call as dancing. After Brigada commented that she could already see one girl’s soul through a particularly wee piece, this niece responded by swinging her hips like a pendulum gone haywire.

Those shorts will precede the fall, Brigada darkly predicted.

But contrary to expectations, it was a grandniece—14, in first-year public high school, a government scholar, newly flowered—that became the youngest in their clan to be in the family way, unwed.

The child’s father is the girl’s classmate. How can children make a baby? my friend wailed.

Brigada and I believe in rising expectations: every generation is an improvement on the previous one. Our children are taller, healthier, smarter than us. Our grandchildren will even be better.

Only Brigada’s youngest sister finished high school. By toiling and saving, Brigada and her siblings have put more than one of theirs through college.

A college diploma opens a vista of options Brigada and her siblings never entered.

An unwed pregnancy closes these choices.

Until reproductive health is opened up in families and schools, we will have to live with choices, the hardest being the ones we should have educated others from taking.

( 09173226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s March 10, 2019 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, March 02, 2019

The long sleep

THE AIR-CONDITIONING inside Cine Adarna contrasted with the campus grounds, which already had more than a dry-as-summer whiff. Inside the cavernous Film Center of the University of the Philippines (U.P.) Diliman, I was in the audience, watching a silent film, “A Filipino in America”.

I had stayed up late writing, feeling an ant nest roiling behind each eye. The film was narrated in an unfamiliar language: silent scenes of two Filipino friends trying to make it in America, flashing a caption or two that expressed in English what the characters thought or said.

I dozed, woke up, nodded off again while the film rolled.

And yet, despite missing scenes during the movie’s approximately 30 minutes of playing time and patching sound quirks, scratched images, and disjointed storytelling, I found that Doroteo Ines’s 1938 pioneering silent film spoke volumes not just of the Filipino shuttling in the 1930s from being colonized to going independent but also of our people’s eternal suspension in the colonial, post-colonial, and neocolonial purgatory.

How does the colonial subject negotiate identity?

That was the tantalizing question raised by UP Film Institute professor Rolando B. Tolentino in the second part of the Pelikula Lectura 2019 at the Cine Adarna last Feb. 28. Entitled “A Filipino in America: 1930s Filipino Films, American Colonialism, and the Negotiation of Coloniality,” a revised title was presented by Tolentino that morning: “Lagi na kayong buntot sa kanilang pagsulong (you are always tailing their progress)”.

What do the centuries of being ruled by the missionaries and then Hollywood produce? Is it the colonized clinging to the hem of the colonizer’s robes? Or is it the independent and modern trajectory of a former colony that’s still shadowed by its master, who keeps the satellite within its sphere of influence no longer through military occupation but cultural domination and manipulation?

Tolentino discussed how film scholarship is challenged by limited extant materials. Poring over the same data because no other records survived or have surfaced, scholars must also contend with dwindling budgets and space that result in precious materials culled or junked.

“We can’t learn from history if we don’t save it,” Jacqui Banaszynski posted in Nieman Storyboard.

As great a threat is the pop culture we stay awake for and avidly consume without criticism and self-reflection. According to legend, Tantalus is a king condemned in Hades to stand neck-deep in a pool of water under boughs heavy with fruit. Whenever he tried to eat or drink, the fruits and water receded, leaving him eternally empty. As fraught as our search for identity.

( 09173226131)

*First published in the March 3, 2019 issue of the SunStar Cebu’s Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Pinoy fiction

“PANIC buying.” This was how a national daily captioned the snaking queues of people pushing carts loaded with books during a recent book fair in Pasay City.

The event duplicated the mammoth crowds that turned up and hauled away brand-new copies of books that had as much as 90 percent of their selling price slashed off in similar fairs conducted last year in Manila, Cebu, and Davao.
According to the organizers, the popular choice last year was fiction. 

Stories created from imagination appeal to readers looking for “light” reading to relax with. Yet, short stories and novels frequently bring us to unexpected places, confronting what we may have avoided without even being conscious of avoiding such.

Fiction is my first and abiding love. Yet, it was only a few years back, in a graduate class on poetics, that I realized how I was blindly reading fiction.

In that class, I was the only one majoring in journalism. All my classmates and the professor were writing poems, short stories, and novels. My classmates who were at least a decade younger than me, and my professor, decades older than me, did not just bracket the generations of Filipinos.

So I made it a habit after class to walk to the university bookstore and look for the works of Filipino authors that cropped up in the discussions. Whenever I was in mall bookstores, I looked for Filipinos writing in English because while fiction is my natural environment, the Filipino language plunges me into deep-seated anxieties and sinkholes of meaning.

Following this collect-and-read pattern, I note that the past seven years have seen greater visibility of Filipino fictionists in bookstores. Yet, there is still a proliferation of established authors whose “classic” works are being reprinted. 

Remembering my classmates’ manuscripts-in-progress, as well as speculating on the works being critiqued in writing workshops and awarded in literary contests held across the nation, I wonder about the paucity of publicly accessible titles written by Filipino fictionists: the young, the emerging, the regional, and the transnational.

Where do the works go? If we yearn to be a nation of readers, shouldn’t we also be reading the works created by Filipinos to balance a diet nourished by other imaginations?

Some years ago, a novel by a Filipina was marketed as the “first Filipino detective story”. My friend R. countered that Nick Joaquin’s “Cave and Shadows” deserves that first distinction.

What about the second, third, fourth…? There’s a hunger to be sated.

( 09173226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu in its February 24, 2019 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Hold the line

THERE is only one Maria Ressa.

That she posted bail last Valentine’s Day after her arrest the day before on charges of cyber libel speaks loud and clear for those of us who are NOT Maria Ressa.

The chief executive officer of the news website Rappler received the 2017 Democracy Award given by the National Democratic Institute and the 2018 Golden Pen of Freedom Award from the World Association of Newspapers.

She was one of “The Guardians,” journalists fighting the global “War on Truth,” named by the international newsmagazine “Time” as its “Person of the Year 2018”.

Malacañang has denied it is applying political harassment against Ressa and Rappler, vocal critics of the Duterte administration. It has accused Ressa of “weaponizing” the issue of press freedom to attack government and escape accountability.

“Weaponizing” is a neologism referring to how something previously unconnected to warfare—like information, the Law or freedom of expression—is converted into a tool for attacking or defending oneself against an enemy.

In the age of disinformation, bodies and bloodbaths are replaced by doubts sown, credibilities destroyed, and political will diluted.

Political liquidation was first raised into a cottage industry during the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos. With our country being the most dangerous in Southeast Asia to practice journalism—as tallied in 2017 by the International Press Institute—this administration may yet elevate impunity against the press by turning a top-drawer journalist like Ressa into something more useful than a statistic: the weaponizing of permissibility.

One doesn’t require permission to express views. One thinks one doesn’t require permission. One does.

Martial law in 1972 created this leap in the progression of the freedom of expression. No one spoke what was on their mind. Too many people disappearing; too many bodies reduced to litter.

By the 1980s, the quality of air had improved but the lesson was learnt. The first gatekeeper of information are not the censors nor the liquidators: it is the person with a thought.

Noting how public executions faded by the nineteenth century, Michel Foucault wrote that state power brought about the “age of sobriety in punishment”.

Torture took a bloody long time. Horses tied to tear a man limb by limb were prone to panic. How can the punishment of rule-breakers be made more edifying for the public?

“Since it is no longer the body, it must be the soul,” wrote Foucault. “The soul is the effect and instrument of a political anatomy; the soul is the prison of the body.”

Ressa, weaponized by an onion-skinned administration, appealed to those who love this country: “hold the line”.

( 09173226131)

*First published in SunStar Cebu’s February 17, 2019 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, February 09, 2019

“Matamata”: Storytellers

IN the flesh. Enfleshed.

An artist’s rendering shared on social media brought me back to those mornings in Sanciangko, the street behind my son’s downtown campus.

Whenever we brought him to his morning classes, I often saw this woman washing clothes like any dutiful homemaker.

Yet hers was no humdrum chore. She wore not a stitch, all fleshy contours carnally glisteningly wet as she squatted on the sidewalk, rinsing clothes in an overflowing canal.

My first reaction was to look away. Where was this woman’s family? What if she came to be harmed by more than the fetid wastewater or a jeepney driver racing to meet the day’s rent?

I spared her the few seconds it took to form these thoughts and then forgot her. Life took over.

It became part of the morning ritual to see and not see her, this woman who blended with the city waking up around her, the still-shuttered stores, bars, honky-tonks. She was a face on the other side of our car windows.

Yet, she was me. We had chores; on some days, I could not say I looked forward to mine the way she pinned her attention on those bits she rinsed along with the city’s waste.

Then my friend H. shared a sketch of the woman posted on the Facebook page, “JuanMiguel does Art”.

Juan Miguel Cañeda, a comics creator who started and manages the page, transformed the woman I saw years ago washing in the gutters of Sanciangko into a graphic novel “bida (hero),” surrounded by a halo of half tones and dingy blotches on bulging acreages of exposed skin.

Only rabid comics readers recognize the sigil representing the power of this misbegotten creature: the half-note or minim, universal notation for music.

In his caption for “Our Nudist Neighbor,” Cañeda wrote: “I don’t know her personally but she reminds me to just do what you love to do…”.

Like the spinners of tales of old Cebu, Cañeda’s sketch sparks other riffs. Some of the 900 people following his page commented that they have seen the same woman turn up in other streets, other gutters in Cebu City, still washing clothes. One Netizen recognized her, saying the woman’s family looked for her and brought her back home each time she ran away. In the end, they let her be.

Through their FB page, Cañeda and his partner, Rio Maghinay, make and sell shirts and hoodies. Their real passion are the stories of the people sketched by Cañeda.

Or enfleshed. Just as the woman washing in Sanciangko brings me back to the days my mother brought me across the same street to the now defunct Paul’s Bookstore, which started my girlhood’s collection of novels.

And, yes, I learned her name: Helen. In my favorite stories, no one, not even a character named Nameless, remains nameless.

( 09173226131)

*First published in SunStar Cebu’s February 10, 2019 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”