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”