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”