Saturday, February 22, 2020

Memory and meaning

A LIBRARY, under that quiet, is in ferment.

When I first climbed up to the third floor for the archives section of the University of the Philippines (UP) Main Library, the name of Armando Malay was printed and pasted on several boxes awaiting transfer down the very same stairs I was coming up.

I stopped inwardly wincing about the stairs when I saw what workers were carrying down those six flights: boxes of personal papers and records and tied-up piles of theses and dissertations for relocation while the Gonzalez Hall goes under two or three years of renovation and retrofitting.

Curiosity in the American colonial-era paper published in Cebu, the “Bag-ong Kusog,” led me to the Main Library, established in 1922.

For 14 years after the UP was founded in 1908, students and faculty made do with smaller libraries within the system and outside the campus. The first University Librarian was Mary Polk of Indiana in the U.S.

According to the official website, every University Librarian since Polk “has grappled” with major concerns. Grappling for the first time with a microfiche machine to read the microphotographs taken of a thesis indexing the “Bag-ong Kusog,” I felt sorely the Main Library’s need for funds, the enhancements of information technology, and structural renovations, specially to create access for persons with disability.

Yet, in the age of digitization, a publicly and perennially underfunded library has more than a lesson or two at hand. Wilhelmina Bono Cabellon was Librarian II at the UP Main Lib when she indexed the content published during the first 13 years of “Bag-ong Kusog’s” 26-year existence.

Cabellon’s 1978 master’s thesis is a nearly 500-page typewritten tome she wrote by reading and rereading the articles published in 152 issues. An index seems like an afterthought, found at the end of a book. For researchers, an index is the beam of light steering the swimming among text and ideas.

Even in the neutral terms of library science, Cabellon’s index makes intelligible how Sugbuanon society was split over fighting for and opposing the independence Americans dangled over Filipinos.

A journalist who covered World War II and the Hukbalahap Rebellion and then became a UP teacher and later dean of student affairs during the First Quarter Storm and the imposition of martial law, Malay had a rare ringside view to the schisms dividing Philippine society. Even rarer still, he kept a diary that ran to more than 50 volumes.

The “Bag-ong Kusog” (1915-1940) and the Armando Malay Papers are among the more than 280,000 books, non-books, and other resources kept at the UP Main Library, steward of memory and meaning.

UP Main Library. Lacking some essentials but definitely not stories.

( 09173226131)

*First published in SunStar Cebu’s February 23, 2020 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Slogans of love

LOVE is a tagline.

Like the pails of roses and bouquets inundating the public pulse last Feb. 14, some took to the public sphere of mass media to spread advocacies for lovers, those about to fall in love, those resisting love, and those immune to love.

Here are my favorites, a mix of social good and pithy capsules for that most maddening of emotions (sa Binisaya pa: “makaboang”):

“Wear your feelings.” As paraphrased by SunStar Cebu’s Fe Marie Dumaboc in her Feb. 13 report, this was the essence of Talisay City Mayor Gerald Anthony Gullas’s Feb. 12 memorandum directing City Hall employees to abandon their uniforms in favor of an attire to “express (one’s) feelings” on Valentine’s Day.

His inclusive color code accommodates almost all statuses: red for couples, green for the “single and ready to mingle,” yellow for those neck-deep in “complicated” relationships, orange for the “prisoner to someone’s love,” pink for the solitary ones, gray for those relieved they “got away,” and black for the “dense”.

Talisay City Chief Maj. Gerard Ace Pelare reminds the public to avoid trouble by staying within the law: “make sure your date is of legal age”.

In a telenovela dilemma, a male teacher rejects his undergraduate student, protesting that he is too old for her. What should be emphasized are the reasons why student-teacher romances are inappropriate and must be avoided, regardless of the student’s consent: abuse of authority, conflict of interests, exploitation of the student’s vulnerability, and threats to the student’s emotional stability and academic performance.

“Dili magpataka og partner (choose your date).” Department of Health (DOH) 7 Director Jaime Bernadas advises checking first the recent travel history of the intended before going on a date that may just lead to a possibly fatal exchange of the 2019 novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19), reported Wenilyn Sabalo in SunStar Cebu last Feb. 13.

And not the least is “H.E.A.R.T to H.E.A.R.T,” cautions the Commission on Population and Development (PopCom) 7, whose advocacy launched on Feb. 14 emphasizes these touchpoints for millennials: H stands for HIV, AIDS and STI; E for early sexual encounters; A for adolescent sexuality; R for reproductive health; and T for teenage pregnancy.

Love is a minefield, not just on Feb. 14, one infers from this headline from “Bag-ong Kusog,” the leading newspaper in Cebu during the American period: “Mirisi nga babayhana” (published on May 6, 1917).

Tamely translated, the idiom means “serves her right” but it is not just in matters of the heart that the saltiness of the Cebuano is beyond the ken of English.

Too close for comfort. The 2019 novel coronavirus (COVID-19) [Source of photo:

( 09173226131)

* First published in the February 16, 2020 issue of SunStar Cebu’s Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Monday, February 10, 2020


IN a fast food outlet, a large group of Chinese walked in. Were they tourists, students learning English as a second language (ESL), or workers of Philippine gaming offshore gaming operators (Pogo)?

The slow Sunday tableaus inside the diner froze then restarted. The manager, who had been chatting with crew members in the table beside us, intercepted the middle-aged man leading the group.

We are a group of 80, the man said. We have no space for 80, the manager said.

No, we are only 18, the man clarified. Sorry, no room also for 18, the manager replied.

There are many gaps in my story. Perhaps the second floor was also occupied. Perhaps there was a backlog of unwashed plates and utensils. Perhaps I misheard the conversation while adjusting the straps of my face mask as we left the diner.

In the novel, “The Plague,” Albert Camus shows contagion as a wedge exposing our differences: between the dead and the living, the sick and the healthy, the ones afraid for their bodies and the ones fearing for their souls, us versus others.

Lockdown, quarantine, ban, isolation. The outbreak of the 2019 novel coronavirus resurrects not only systemic reactions to a virus but also human manifestations: fear, suspicion, anger, ostracism. Citizens versus authorities; health workers decrying government insensitivity to their risks as frontliners in disease control and protection. Communities rejecting the local quarantine of migrant workers. Western banning the Chinese and other Asians. Asians banning Asians. Us versus others.

In her 1980 study indexing the 1915 to 1927 issues of “Bag-ong Kusog,” a widely read newspaper published in Cebu during the American colonial era, Wilhelmina Bono Cabellon uses the jargon of library science to paint a familiar trajectory of human responses to leprosy:

Hits Cebu (Oct. 1918). Is still in Cebu (Nov. 1918). Death toll decreases (Apr. 1926). 25 lepers die because of injection (Feb. 1926).

Sugbuanons request for boat to visit relatives in Culion (Jan. 1917). Sugbuanons visit family members in leper colony (Jan. 1917).

Dr. Liborio Gomez finds conditions in Culion penal colony improving (Oct. 1921). Leper describes Culion as hell and having leprosy as purgatory (Oct. 1924). Only serious cases will be brought to Culion (Feb. 1925).

Campaign to free lepers gets support (Aug. 1924). Luz strongly recommends that lepers be set free (Aug. 1924). Members of Asociacion de Damas sign manifesto to free lepers (Aug. 1924).

Sotto sponsors bill prohibiting lepers from marrying (Dec. 1915). Sponsors bill freeing lepers in Culion (Aug. 1924).

Are lepers allowed to leave Carreta? (Feb. 1926). Lepers in Carreta, Cebu form organization (Oct. 1926).

Dis-eased. The American administration passed Act No. 1711 to authorize in 1907 the “compulsory apprehension, detention, and segregation of people with leprosy” in the leprosarium erected in Culion Island in the Calamianes, according to [Source of photo: (Utrecht University website)]

( 09173226131)

*First published in the February 9, 2020 issue of the SunStar Cebu’s Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, February 01, 2020

Masked interiors

THE EYES are restless creatures, fugitive fidgety wary.

Living near enough to Taal Volcano when it erupted last Jan. 12, I relocated to Metro Manila and took refuge behind an N95 mask.

The flimsy sheet of fiber has turned gray from airborne pollutants, whether from Taal’s ash or the metro haze mingling vehicle fumes, industrial waste, and garbage gas.

The garters cupping the mask firmly over nose and mouth have snagged on my hair clip, setting loose a dangling pompom of dingy filament.

The mask is deformed, squashed by books and gadgets inside my tote or damp from constant inhalation and occasional coughing.

This mask of mine disgusts but I cannot throw it away.

It only takes a scintilla—a speck, a jot, an iota—to change life as we know it. For weeks, I have been leaning on science to make the unanticipated intelligible. Volcanic ash, air pollutants, Novel Coronavirus: at the heart is a matter so small as to be undetectable except to the instrumentation of science.

The N95 mask is said to effectively filter at least 95 percent of such particulates.

Yet, it is to the humanities I turn to seek meanings in the meaningless. Commuting daily last week, I observe how an infinity of masks transforms trains, buses, and jeepneys into moving masque balls.

Here a winking cat, there a toothy skull grin. Bee-stung lips blowing a purple kiss in a sea of N95s, N88s, and disposable gauze strips. A vendor on the MRT station fanning out cloth masks, including one with glitter.

Settling in my mask, I unmask other benefits. I yawn without covering up. When I doze while commuting, I don’t worry about snores or a slack mouth.

Releasing the repressed by reining in the lower half of the face shifts the focus on the eyes. Do I hear better from watching my neighbor’s eyes above the mask? If the eyes were masked, too, one would either be a crusader or a vigilante.

This mask of mine told me eloquently that I am not in the best shape to tackle all the stairways encountered in my everyday journey. Two staircases along Edsa, nine to reach the archives in the main library.

Or twelve? I begin counting only to lose my place when the mask makes every step seem inordinately high or faraway.

Logically, I should unmask when I am inside the library, books always being my safeplaces. In the archives section, where they are moving personal papers and university files to a new building, dust motes are flying. Behind the mask, I am safe.

And humming. Despite the time-honored rule of silence, I hum with impunity while reading and handwriting notes under the Gorgon gaze of librarians. Behind the mask, of course.

( 09173226131)

*First published in SunStar Cebu’s February 2, 2020 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”