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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.


Thursday, March 22, 2018

entry arrow5:38 PM | Crash

We basically hopscotched on the airport runway when we landed, the plane's wheels screeching on the tarmac for a few seconds -- I could smell rubber burning -- and then the plane was off into the air again, circling Dumaguete for another attempt at landing. The captain then spoke through the PA, something about a safety maneuver, something about the instruments giving off warning signs. People at the airport later was telling me they had never seen anything like it, the plane bopping like that on the middle of the runway. When it was happening however, it took me a few seconds to realize we were not landing. But I felt unusually calm, and I felt a sudden conviction that, if I were to get out of that cabin with another chance at life, the noise in life wouldn't matter. There's only work and integrity, and friends and family.

(Also that I had to take care of myself.)


[0] This is Where You Bite the Sandwich

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

entry arrow10:39 AM | Cuddle

Just the s.o. and me on a cold day, right before Valentines.

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[0] This is Where You Bite the Sandwich

Sunday, February 04, 2018

entry arrow3:48 PM | Language We Breathe In

When I was enrolled in Grade 3 at West City Elementary School here in Dumaguete, I found myself in a pool of pupils who were being divided into two groups—those who would be attending what they called “the regular class,” and those who would be ushered into a pilot program they called FL. How regular was the “regular” class? I had no idea. Perhaps they got regular recess food, I’m not sure. But FL meant “Fast Learners,” which had no meaning for me then, but all I knew was that it was under a bigger program of SPED, or special education, and we were part of an education experiment where grade school students were taught high school mathematics, high school science, high school humanities. We would have the same teachers from Grade 3 until Grade 6, and it was hoped that when we finally graduated, we would become exemplars of grade school teaching using secondary school materials.

But let me focus this trip down memory lane a bit to one school policy SPED was “notorious” for: its “English Only” policy. And my God we were indeed notorious. Not only did we get exhaustive lessons in the English language for four years running courtesy of a very capable teacher named Bennie Vic, but we were also taught to converse in the language exclusively. It was so immersive that most of us not only spoke English in the classroom, we spoke outside, on the streets, at home. And so, if my mother would ask me, in the local Binisaya, “Yan, adto sa tindahan, palit og bugas,” I’d reply in my perfect English: “How many kilos of rice do we need, mother?” which weirded her out at first—but she learned to accept that as part of my personality. Along the sidewalks that surrounded our school, there were also several stalls with various manangs selling things like plastic balloon—remember those?—and Coke in a plastic bag and assorted candies, and every time my classmates and I would approach them, we’d ask in perfect English: “Ma’am, how much is this candy?” They were amused for the most part, but when they would reply with something like “Tulo piso ni, dong”—you could imagine the look of panic on our faces. Because what did she mean by that? What is “tulo piso”?

One way with which our teachers enforced the “English Only” policy is through a game that we later called “The Badge.” Most other schools enforce a specific monetary-based punishment, asking pupils who would speak in the local language to pay 50 centavos or one peso for every word in Binisaya they’d utter. We didn’t have that. We had a game. What is “the badge”? A badge could be anything. It could be a bracelet—usually a bracelet—or a necklace, and it was a thing that gets to be given to the first person in the class who’d speak in Binisaya during a school day. Let’s say you haven’t had breakfast because you had to rush to your flag ceremony, and you carelessly turn to your nearest classmate, and say something like, “Wala pa ko ka pamahaw. Gutom kaayo.” Oops! Your classmate, being a tattletale like everyone else, would immediately turn to the teacher, and say, “Teacher! Teacher! Ian said something in the dialect!” And I’d be given that bracelet, that badge, and I’d have to carry it for the rest of the day—until I’d find someone else in the class who’d speak a word in Binisaya, and I can then gleefully pass it on. The last pupil to hold the badge at the end of the school gets the ultimate punishment: he or she gets to pay the fine. Usually a peso, which was a huge sum those days. And so we became masters of spying. If I held the badge, I’d have my close friends report to me anyone who’d say something in the local language—and I’d run to the teacher, “Teacher! Teacher! Regal said a sentence in the dialect!” We also devised ways for forcing people to inadvertently say something in Binisaya. We’d pinch someone, and when that someone says, “ARAY!” That’s Binisaya—and the badge gets given to them. For some reason, my classmates and I thought that the exclamation “Ouch” was also Binisaya—don’t ask me why. And so, when we pinched someone and they’d say “Ouch!”, the badge goes to them!

We had to find our way around “Aray!” or “Aguy!” or the much deadlier “Ouch!” But was what our English equivalent of “Ouch!” For some reason, we sort of agreed that the English equivalent of “Ouch!” … was “Owwch.”

And so, from Grade 3 until Grade 6, every time I’d hurt myself, I learned to say, “Owch!” I only started saying “Ouch” when I graduated, went to high school in Silliman University, and reclaimed the word for hurting.

It all seems funny to me now … but this was how I was introduced to the English language, and essentially how I learned to express myself, especially in writing.

There are many words for the likes of me, but one stands out: Inglesero. Meaning to say someone who speaks in English most of the time, not just for the ease in communication, but also for creative expression. I write. I have written about six collections of short stories, and truth to tell, I find it so much easier to express myself in the English language—I know its figurative uses, I know its idioms, I know its literary possibilities. If I were to asked to write in Binisaya right now, I’d probably be able to churn out a balak or two, even a sugilanon, but there will always be a feeling deep inside me that chides me that I don’t exactly have the appropriate tools to attempt writing in the local language. Which is quite ironic. Because this is the language I was born into, and yet we have been made to become estranged towards it, especially in the literary sense.

Our writing in English, of course, is an accident of history. In 1898, the Philippines found itself colonized anew by a new world power, the United States, which took as one of its task of colonization the teaching of American English. For many American administrators at that time, teaching the language was not just about education—it was a tool of pacification. They rightfully surmised that the more the native Filipino learned the language of its new colonial masters, the more they would be susceptible to American ideas. When the Americans first came to our shores, they were met with fierce resistance by Filipinos—and not just in terms of armed revolts, but also through the use of culture. We have poems and dramas from that particular period that vehemently decried American excursion to this country. My favorites would be the poem “Al Yankee” by Cecilio Apostol, and the drama “Hindi Aco Patay” by Juan Matapang Cruz, which considered the American adventure into the Philippines a tragedy for Filipinos that could only mean bloodshed. The Filipino American War that erupted, and lasted for at least a decade, was also a bloody affair, which killed millions of Filipinos. But after the first decade of American rule, resistance invariably went down—and much of that was partly because of the power of the new language, the lingua franca of American English. The link is easy enough to see: the more we learn this foreign language, the more we come to think in the cultural ideas that language came from.

There are of course many advantages gained in using English. To cite a couple of these, some scholars contend that it paved the way for a common ground for discourse in a country that has many native languages. Cebuanos learned to speak with Ilokanos, Bikolanos learned to speak to Ilonggos, all using English. This was prior to the popularity that the Filipino language now enjoys for most of the country. According to Edna Zapanta-Manlapaz, English also leveled the playing field in terms of writing between men and women. Male writers, because of the privilege of their gender, dominated Spanish writing in the Philippines. But with the coming of the Americans, both sexes had to learn the English language at the same time. By 1905, among the first poets in English, we had Maria G. Romero, who wrote “Our Reasons in Study,” which was published in The Filipino Student Magazine. By the middle of the 1920s, we had our first acknowledged classic of the short story form—and that is Paz Marquez Benitez’s “Dead Stars,” a story in English written by a woman.

The early generations of writers in the Philippines labored understandably in this colonial language, and because of their privileged status, these writings in English came to be considered, if one believed such early literary critics like Fr. Miguel Bernad, as the meat of Philippine literature, no matter how “inchoate”—even though frankly it wasn’t the main meat at all. As an aside, the writings in Tagalog, in Cebuano, in Hiligaynon, in Bikolano, and in other regional languages were rich and generous—but they were for the most part of the 20th century marginalized, particularly by the academe. For example, it was only in 1964, when Mga Agos sa Disyerto came out and was published, that writings in Tagalog were finally considered as something serious enough for study.

Part of the second generation of writers in English are four writers from Silliman University—Ricaredo Demetillo, Rodrigo Feria, Edilberto K. Tiempo, and Edith Tiempo. Among many others, these four essentially laid the foundation of much of the literary culture we have come to enjoy in Dumaguete City, and they wrote almost exclusively in English, and gained vast renown for their efforts. In Edith Tiempo’s case, she was later proclaimed a National Artist for Literature.

[Strangely enough, Edilberto Tiempo had written intermittently in Binisaya during the Second World War, and Edith Tiempo is known to have loved performing songs in Binisaya, as well as her native Ilokano, having been born in Nueva Ecija. They knew the intricacies and the beauty of the local languages. Mom Edith once told me her writing in English was purely an accident of history. It was the language she was taught to express herself well in, and it was the literary language that she had come to master the most. And while she wished she could have written in Binisaya or Ilokano, she felt it was far too late in the game to master a new literary language. She was a master of the poem in English, and she had already learned to imbue it with a Filipino sensibility particular to her.]

What this meant, for the most part, is that literary expression in the local language—in Oriental Negrense Binisaya, which we call “Binisayang Binuglas”—was relegated to the margins, unfostered, unstudied. I’m going to focus more on Negros Oriental in this consideration. Do a quick survey of our schools, and you do not find a single Department of Binisaya Language and Literature, nor do we have academic subjects that aim to study its linguistics and its literariness. We speak the language in our every day lives, but we do not know its grammar, and we scarcely read in the prose or poetry. We do not have local anthologies compiling its best writings, although that does not mean we do not have practitioners, because there are, but they exist only in the shadows. And in many anthologies that compile Binisaya works that do exist—they make the point of including works from Binisaya writers in Cebu, Bohol, Siquijor, and even parts of Mindanao—but barely anyone from Negros Oriental.

Part of the reason for this absence of Binisaya writings in Negros Oriental is essentially because of the widespread influence of Silliman University, an American university and its vigorous campaigns, especially in the early decades, of championing works written in English. But that’s only part of the story.

What explains for the most part our resistance to expresses ourselves in our local language? Why do we not see a lot of balaks, a lot of sugilanons and sugilambongs?

I stumbled on a possible answer in one of my Philippine literature classes a few years ago. Once I asked my students what was it about Philippine culture in general that prevented them from really appreciating it? To get to the heart of the matter, I asked them to give their descriptions of it in Binisaya, and little by little, I got their responses. Understandably, what came out was a slew of answers in the negative, and what amused me was the fact that a lot of the words they gave me started with the letter “b.”

Baduy. Bati. Barat. Bugo. Binutbot. Bisaya.

These are measures of standard, of course, which delineated for many what was good and what was bad. “Baduy,” most of all. “Kabaduy ani uy,” is the thing we say when we are displeased by something, irked by its lack of quality.

But that last word interested me. “Bisaya.” At face value, I got its context. For who among us here have not used this word to describe “baduy”? Let’s say a girlfriend shows off her new clothes for you, and you don’t like it—and then you say, “Bisaya kaayo uy. Pag-ilis didto.” Am I right?

But what is Bisaya? It is the word we give ourselves as a people, as a culture, as a language. Bisaya is us. Whatever happened along the way that a word we have used to describe ourselves as a people have come to be synonymous with the word “baduy”? How were we brainwashed to think of ourselves as the very synonym of something that’s bad?

And then I remember the badge system I had in grade school.

While on one hand I understand the good intentions of this policy—a policy still being enforced by many schools today—I cannot now help but think that it has also warped our own relationship with our native language, our native culture, and our local sense of self. When we were young, we learned to equate Binisaya with paying a fine, thus invariably molding us to think that Binisaya is bad—and hence baduy.

Paradoxically, an academic practice that taught us to be fluent in one language taught us to demean another one, a language closer to our heart, and molded Bisaya Filipinos with no appreciation at all for their culture.

But there’s also another paradox to this paradox, twisting our tale further. This immense immersion in English could also be the gateway for relearning an appreciation for the local. It could provide the spark, but only for the most discerning. The Tiempos founded the National Writers Workshop in Dumaguete in 1962, and also shaped the English Language Program and Creative Writing Program in Silliman University in the 1950s, immersing most of their students in the formal study of literature and creative writing, done almost exclusively in English. And yet many of the graduates of this program have later come to be experts and profound practitioners of writings in Binisaya. We have Merlie Alunan, Marjorie Evasco, Leoncio Derriada, Resil Mojares, Erlinda Alburo, Christine Godinez-Ortega, and Grace Monte de Ramos, among others, who not only have become champions of Binisaya literature, they have also become fervent practitioners of it. What gives? Did their immersion in the New Critical mode of literary writing give them a unique perspective that literary practice in the language of their homes was also something to be sharpened, to be considered seriously? I do not really know, but that feels right.

It took me a long time to find my way into literary writing in Binisaya. Of late, I have done some sugilanon, but it is the balak form that I most comfortable with. One thing I particularly love about Binisaya writings is the playfulness they often exhibit—an attitude you can call yaga-yaga, which limns humor even though the subject matter could be something serious, like in Cora Almerino’s “Unsaon Paggisa sa Bana Nga Nanghulga sa Asawa Nga Dili Kahibalong Moluto,” which talks about the darkness of domestic abuse, but foregrounds it with a funny take on cooking a human being, complete with a menu. This yaga-yaga attitude could very well be springing from the fact that most of our early balakeros were really men who, intoxicated with drinking too much tuba during a tagay session, would suddenly wax poetic about any subject under the merry sun.

That was exactly the reason how I came to write my first balak in Cebuano. I used to have a creative writing teacher from Canada, a woman by the name of Maya, who would take us to El Amigo, our favorite drinking place in Dumaguete, where she’d teach us the principles and practice of writing fiction and poetry over several bottles of beer. One time, while we prepared to do another writing exercise with her and just beginning to drink our first bottle of beer, Maya told us that she was going to ask us to do a particular writing exercise with us, to write a poem, during a free-writing session, in Binisaya. We protested vehemently, because we were suddenly made aware that our hold of the local language was so flimsy, we weren’t even sure if we had enough vocabulary to write an entire poem!

But she persisted, and so we grudgingly wrote—and at the end of the quick free-writing session, we found ourselves with the first balak we have ever written, much to our surprise. I didn’t know I actually knew some words that could constitute poetry, but there it was. I cannot put down that poem right now, but I’ve noticed that there were certain words there that absolutely defied the barest of interpretation to English. The word “lan-lan,” for example, which in Dumaguete Binisaya is a word you use when you take a spoon and you proceed to eat peanut butter or milk from a bottle with it. The closest English word for “lan-lan” is “lick,” but lick is “tilap”—and you can “tilap” the floor, but you can never “lan-lan” it. I realized that with just that word “lan-lan,” you have the action of licking combined with the element of pleasure, which does not have a direct translation in English.

This is Dumaguete's first ever TEDx, with writer Ian Rosales Casocot on "Language We Breathe In", sports psychologist Bing Valbuena on "The Ego is Most Challenged in Dragonboat," lawyer and LGBTQI activist Regal Oliva on "Quintessential and Queer," environmentalist and artist Ra'z Salvarita on "Artivism: Effecting Environmental Consciousness Through Art," diplomat Stacy Danika Alcantara on "Diplomacy and the City," and TV executive Oliver Amoroso on "Breaking Stereotypes: Promdi and Proud," all lecturing on "ideas worth spreading."

There’s also the word “uyog-uyog,” which means “shaking” or “bouncing,” which is good enough translation—but how unimaginative! If you take a look at the Binisaya word itself, “uyog-uyog” becomes something else. U-yog, u-yog. You pronounce it with gusto, and the word itself shakes and bounces.

And this is perhaps the greatest reason why I find there’s ultimate fulfillment in learning to write, to express yourself, in your own language: there’s no translation for the direct experience of living here, there can only be an approximation of it in English. Writing in Binisaya is writing that we can breathe in: it is our definition, it is our soul, it does not need translation to get to the heart of who we are.

Presented during TEDxSillimanU on 3 February 2018 at the Claire Isabel McGill Luce Auditorium.

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[0] This is Where You Bite the Sandwich

Sunday, January 21, 2018

entry arrow2:43 AM | Garden

How many times have I watched Agnieszka Holland's superb adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett's children's classic The Secret Garden (1993)? Countless of times. This remains one of the enduring films of that magnificent film year, 1993, also the year I first entered college and earnestly deepened my film education. The film is still strong after all these years, its earnestness and easy metaphors totally earned. I'm finding new ways to appreciate it, this time around its redemption arc: not all heroes (or heroines) begin their stories likable. Sometimes their stories are about their eventual thawing to become every inch the agent of spring.

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Tuesday, January 16, 2018

entry arrow12:54 AM | Bed

To make the long story short, I had to break the old bed frame to get to the dead body. I figured it was time to let go anyway. How long have I had this bed? Twenty years? My father slept on this bed, and he died on it, too, and then it became mine. So then there was another dead body, this time beneath it, and to get to the cadaver I had to break the bed, in a manner of speaking. So now I have no bed, and I have to content myself with sleeping on a mattress on the floor, which feels very much like college, twenty years ago. I shrugged; I considered that reliving nostalgia. The bed was a huge frame made of hard wood and moved about on rollers with stem and socket; it was the kind that housed a smaller bed within, which one could slide in and out and provided extra space for a visitor to sleep in. (It had, to be sure, plenty of stories to tell about my decadent 20s.) The frame was heavy. It took a long, laborious time to take it out of my apartment, and place it outside, on the sidewalk, where I left it leaning on the lamppost just outside my door. By the time I finished, it was 2 AM. Then I slept. When I woke up at 7 AM, the bed was gone, like I knew it would be. Its disappearance felt like magic.

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Sunday, January 07, 2018

entry arrow1:58 PM | Privilege

I remember being in San Francisco and being annoyed that an Eastern European friend from a landlocked country was making us late because she decided to take off her shoes and was frolicking in the surf of the Pacific Ocean. What a smug man I was, blind to someone's joy, dripping with the privilege of having lived all of my life in the tropics, the ocean just right next door.


[0] This is Where You Bite the Sandwich

Sunday, December 03, 2017

entry arrow12:54 PM | Dolce Vita

I have just finished off the last bite of some impossibly sweet chocolate cheesecake from Calea. It is 2 AM on a Friday, the robust sugary rush is keeping me awake by design, and I find myself staring into the early morning darkness outside my hotel room window at Circle Inn along Lopez Jaena Street in Bacolod.

I am thinking about the long hours ahead I will have to spend on the road back home to Dumaguete aboard the ubiquitous yellow bus that has come to stand in for Negros travel, and as usual I am ambivalent about the very act of travel—it’s starting stances anyway.

There is no wish to pack, to be honest, no wish to start moving, in anticipation of travel.

In fact, I should have been home already. But somehow, on a whim, while I was lolling about in another hotel bed, in Avenue Suites Hotel along Lacson Street, at the same exact early morning time the day before, I had convinced myself I needed to stay one more day in Bacolod. And after finding out my Avenue Suites room was no longer available, I quickly booked myself another hotel online, marveling at the ease of how these things go these days, and marveling even more at my impulsiveness to stay.

This is not my first time in Bacolod. I had come here for the first time years and years before, on a field trip during college I could remember only in bits and pieces. There were two other times I visited, but always on a rush of some business or other—and once with a boyfriend whose father died the very day we arrived in Bacolod for a vacation, and so we had to rush home the very next day for the funeral.

So Bacolod has always remained a blur—made familiar and distinct only in the films of Peque Gallaga, in the short stories and essays of Rosario Cruz Lucero, in the novels of Vicente Garcia Groyon. When I arrived via Ceres last Monday morning, I swore to myself I’d play the role of the tourist to the hilt, when I can. It was time to get to know this city of smiles, this side of Negros island.

I had a simple Bacolod bucket list.

I swore to eat inasal in Aida’s at the manokan.

I swore to walk the length of Lacson Street—because the only way to get to know a city, at least in the blushing stages of acquaintance, is to walk along its main artery. Google Map tells me the route is long, but I told myself that if I was able to walk the length of Broadway from Times Square to the World Trade Center one long autumn afternoon in New York, I could do Bacolod’s Lacson Street.

I swore to have a photo of me taken at The Ruins in Talisay, to be able to finally jump into the bandwagon of Facebook-posting the very experience.

(I thought about visiting the Angry Christ mural at Victorias—but that felt like a stretch of effort I could not afford to do.)

I came, of course, for an official function: the National Committee on Cinema of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts were holding our annual out-of-town meeting in Bacolod, timing it perfectly to coincide with the first edition of the Sine Negrense: The Negros Island Film Festival, which was being produced by the Negros Museum, with funding from the Film Development Council of the Philippines. The members of the NCC were to serve as resource speakers for various fora on film, and as jury members to select the winners of its two competitive exhibitions.

The days since November 17 were hectic and packed, and did not allow much room for the touristic idyll I had planned. But it was a great time to keep in touch with friends in the arts such as Sine Negrense festival director Adrian Torres, cultural worker Rudy Reveche, and film producer Ria Limjap; make new ones like filmmaker Ben Scharlin and the Negros Museum’s indefatigable Tanya Lopez, and rub elbows with film luminaries like Peque.

And rub elbows as well, and be inspired by, the young filmmakers from all over Negros—both Occidental and Oriental—who now constitute what Peque called the “fourth wave” of Negrosanon filmmaking: from the first generation of Eddie Romero and Cesar Amigo, to the second generation of Peque Gallaga, to the third generation of Erik Matti, Jay Abello, and Richard Somes, to this new one that seems to have risen organically, coming to form as a loose cinematic movement on its own, as Peque himself admitted it during the closing night of the film festival: “We had nothing to do with you, you came to filmmaking on your own volition, and I am amazed and happy.”

“Happy and amazed” very much spells the reception we gave these films from Bacolod, Dumaguete, Silay, and elsewhere. In the end, what took the top prizes were Belle Kay Loyola’s Dalit in the open competition, and Carlo Navarrete’s Singgit sang Nalisdan in the inter-collegiate competition. Dumaguete’s two entries, Val Amiel Vestil’s Adobo and Paul Benzi Florendo’s Hawud, garnered several nominations, with Hawud winning for Best Musical Score.

Still, we—film archivist Teddy Co, film educators Jag Garcia, Patrick Campos, Art Tibaldo, and Rosanni Sarile, film critic Tito Valiente, and film director Baby Ruth Villarama—managed to cram in some tourist time, including the aforementioned inasal at Aida’s on our first night in town. And after the whirlwind of lecturing, judging, and meeting, we hopped on a van to Talisay for The Ruins, and then Silay for the heritage houses. It was a long and happy Wednesday afternoon of fun and laughter, and of food. Glorious, glorious food.

That’s two out of three of my Bacolod intentions down.

When I finally decided to stay one more day, I spent Thursday morning relaxing, noontime transferring to another hotel, afternoon visiting the new government center along the Circumferential Road at Brgy. Villamonte, just because—I actually wanted to walk there from my hotel thinking it was an easy walk, until the hotel security guard strongly advised me to take a taxi, and he was right!—and early evening looking at art over at Gallery Orange at the Mandalagan part of Lacson Street. There, I met Toto Tarrosa, who was glad to know Aida’s inasal was very much a part of my Bacolod bucket list.

Afterwards, there I was: at that part of Lacson—the long stretch ahead towards the provincial capitol an invitation. “If I walk as far as Calea, will that be enough to complete my bucket list?” I asked myself.

I decided it was enough. Passing by Robinsons Place, I did a long detour by watching the new Murder on the Orient Express, and then, when that was over, I continued down Lacson until I finally saw the bright lights of Bacolod’s esteemed cake shop.

Which is how I ended up with that slice of cheesecake I began this article with. It’s 4 AM as I write this, and I’ve finally decided I’m going to take the 9:30 AM Ceres home.

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Monday, November 20, 2017

entry arrow2:10 AM | A Review of 'Don't Tell Anyone'

Patrick Limcaco of Pat Sessions reviews Don’t Tell Anyone: Literary Smut, and has wonderful recommendations. Link here. Thank you for reading, Patrick!

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Sunday, November 19, 2017

entry arrow9:00 AM | A Map of Heritage

Most of us rush past the campanario—or the iconic belltower of Dumaguete—in our pursuit of daily lives barely registering its presence, despite its history or its height: familiarity blinds us to things, which explains everything, and that is perfectly understandable.

But we know it’s there when we care to. We know it is the city’s ultimate landmark when we are pushed for more opinion about it. And when some tourist would insist for a story, we could give the basic outline of it being a watchtower in the olden days, when the people of Dumaguete paid vigil over the seas in a constant lookout for pirates from down south who had a propensity for pillage. “That’s where we got our name for the place,” we say, as if from a script, “from the word ‘daguit,’ which means ‘to kidnap,’ because these pirates regularly came to pillage the village.”

Which is fine enough as tidbit of history—but it is a narrative that erases much of the nuances of history, because incomplete. And incomplete because forgotten.

For one thing, there wasn’t just one watchtower. There were four.

When Father Jose Manuel Fernandez de Septien began building the Dumaguete convento between 1755 and 1760, he also built these four watchtowers, each mounted with cannons, to guard against the aforementioned invading pirates—and Fr. Septien guaranteed, for a time, a village that was largely spared the mayhem that attended many Visayan shore towns in the 17th and 18h centuries. The first of these four watchtowers would be at the corner of Bishop Epifanio Surban St. and Perdices St. [where the Bank of Philippine Islands is located]. The second would be at the corner of Surban St. and Katada St. [the rear corner of COSCA]. The third would be at the corner of Katada St. and Colon St. [the corner of the fish terminal]. (Katada St. is the narrow byway that traverses what we call the painitan.) And the fourth, and the only surviving watchtower, would be the current campanario, which was actually built much, much later by one Father Juan Felix de la Encarnacion upon the ruins of the original Septien watchtower.

From his research on local parish history, Fr. Roman Sagun writes: “With certainty, Fr. Septien must have had the nerves of steel. One can just imagine how in those times, and with so meager sources at hand, he was able to accomplish numerous projects with such tenacity. The massive stone church, which still stands today, is due to his great labors, though its transepts were developed at a later time. The convento was built from choice strong materials, which covered even the rear portion. This edifice, in which remnants of warfare can still be found in its original doorway, was constructed like a strong fort and ensured safety from any attack by the Moros. It was also fortified by a wall over two meters in height from the outside, forming a large square in the center of which the church and the convento were situated; there was also a large plaza where the inhabitants could take refuge in times of necessity … In addition to this arrangement, there was a contravalla, another defense perimeter walling of a smaller size than the former whose remains can still to be found here and there. Aside from constructing the church, the convento, the fortress, the watchtowers, and the contravalla, Father Septien also built bulwarks which were located at strategic positions on the beachfront of Dumaguete. All these were made of stone and were well secured, and they were utilized to keep watch on the coast and prevent any surprise Moro attack.”

Nobody, save local historians, remember Fr. Septien, practically the architect of what we now know of Dumaguete. We don’t even have a picture of him, and much of his life remain a mystery, unresearched. Like the three other watchtowers, he has become lost to us, forgotten.

The human mind, even at the best of times, tends towards forgetting. It is a fact of frailty that’s perfectly understandable: our lives are finite and short, while the world is vast and history is long, and we only have the vessel of our puny lives to witness that vastness, that immense length. Thus we have evolved to create memorials and museums—institutionalized memory markers—to remind us that our present is not all there is, that it is in fact the sum of the accumulation of years and experience.

Heritage is the word for that.

It is, to borrow one popular definition, “anything of value from the past that provides identity to the present and inspires the future generation.” Heritage is significant not only in terms of historical importance, but also architectural, aesthetic, spiritual, and social. Its value transcends and includes many levels, even the economic—and proper heritage management can only be good for any community, establishing not only a sense of identity, but also marking potential economic boon. Think of Vigan and its Spanish colonial houses. Think of Banawe and its rice terraces. Think of Bohol and its chocolate hills.

Traditionally, heritage can be classified into five distinct categories: movable heritage, intangible heritage, natural heritage, built heritage, and creative industries. These categories allow not only mere classification of heritage items, but also a key to what we call “cultural mapping.” Cultural mapping is, as the popular definition goes, “a process of identifying cultural heritage resources of a specific locality for purposes of conservation and development, and enables the community to understand and share culture, to re-think history, and finally to promote creativity and development.” A good program of cultural mapping will ultimately have three specific objectives: first, to identify distinct heritage resources of a community vis a vis another community; second, to thoroughly understand and properly record a heritage resource for future reference; and third, to generate interest on heritage resources among users and non users of heritage.

What are examples of “movable heritage”? Paintings and other artworks, documents, books, photos and memorabilia, costumes, crafts, weaponry, furniture, equipment and machinery and work implements, and musical instruments. Even religious groups and personalities. “Intangible heritage” would include language, local festivals, songs and assorted local music, dance, poetry and assorted local literature, local technology, local sports and games, culinary arts, local jokes, rituals and belief practices, healing arts, and secret local knowledge.

“Built heritage” would include ancestral houses, churches and mosques, plazas and park, schools and government buildings, local marketplaces, bridges, and streets and roads.

“Natural heritage” would include endemic plants and animals, rocks and minerals, forests, lakes, rivers, falls, mountains and volcanoes, valleys, caves, beaches, rice fields, and underwater resources.

“Creative industries and occupations” would include architecture, crafts industry, furniture design, fashion designer, general design industry, advertising, visual arts scene, live and recorded music industry, writing and publishing, performing arts and related entertainment, film and video production, TV, radio, and internet broadcasting, and software and computer games development.

All of these is culture, is heritage—and one can see how vital they are in the making of a community, even of sustaining it. Mapping these is indeed what Dessa Quesada-Palm has described as “a valuable tool for identifying a community’s strengths and its resources,” because it allows identification, and with that comes assessment—Why is it important to us? How do we maximize its potential? What is its current condition, and what can be done to make it better?

We ask, for example: what is the common image we use to promote Dumaguete?

The campanario is a ready answer, because it’s there, and we are vaguely aware of a history. It is our icon for a city that endures. But it is in a frail condition, and it has been dwarfed by an ugly and ill-advised towering addition to the adjacent convent, and the infrastructure that surrounds it diminishes its beauty. Noting these, its future can be mapped out, and proper development can follow, and we not only become instrumental to preserving heritage, we open a way for the community to maximize the draw the campanario holds.

Mapping heritage is a way to forestall forgetting.

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Monday, November 13, 2017

entry arrow1:05 AM | Death and Life

This is Margalit Fox, staff writer for The New York Times, who writes obits for the paper. She is my favorite talking head in Vanessa Gould's documentary Obit (2016), her feature film debut on obituary writing.

[Aside #1: Gould first impressed me with her short subject documentary Between the Folds, which was about the art of paper-folding, an engrossing film.]

[Aside #2: I love the obituaries of the New York Times; have been a fan of the section for years. They're such compelling essays, and I always seek them out when a favorite person of mine -- a writer, an actor, etc. -- dies.]

I love Fox in the film because she gives the most rounded insights, like: "It's counterintuitive, perhaps, but obituaries have next to nothing to do with death and absolutely everything to do with life." How do you make a documentary about death fun and compelling? Gould found a way: celebrate life.

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Sunday, November 12, 2017

entry arrow9:00 AM | The Value of Culture in the Development of Dumaguete

Early this year, the effort to establish local councils in Dumaguete that would spearhead policy with an eye towards heritage and art and culture, began with a simple meeting of individuals tasked to do a quick cultural mapping of Dumaguete. Its facilitator was Dessa Quesada-Palm, working with City Tourism Officer Jacqueline Veloso-Antonio—and the people they gathered were representatives of the arts, cultural organizations, journalism, sports, business, academia, and others.

We were tasked to give initial insights that Dumaguete could use as impetus to make culture and heritage be part of its blueprint for development in the coming years.

In that meeting, Dessa briefed us about the need to set parameters for culture in the name of national, not just local, development: “A couple of years ago, the National Commission for Culture and the Arts set out to ask a very brave question: how can one really say that art and culture has helped economic goals, poverty alleviation, disaster risk management, and others?”

Indeed, what has arts and culture done so far for social development?

These questions needed asking, not because they are fair questions—they aren’t—but because they embody the general dismissiveness that artists and cultural workers regularly get when held up to proclaim measurable contributions to community well-being. This dismissiveness take on many forms: among them, the slashing of public endowment for art programs, the gradual disappearance of music and fine arts in school curriculum [in my high school days, music was folded into one subject that included physical education and health], the destruction of heritage architecture to make way for parking lots, the quizzical looks that students in music, fine arts, and creative writing get when they announce their majors and are then asked: “How is that practical?”

Never mind the studies that actually suggest that discipline in the humanities make fields steeped in STEM more competitive [the Apple story is the best example], or urban design observations that communities that embrace artists are more thriving and make for good economic indicators.

“The bottom line here, whatever it is that was identified by NCCA as relevant,” Dessa told us, “it needed indicators.”

Indicators are benchmarks we could measure the value of things that are often intangible, and this includes culture.

The first focus could be an assessment about what it is in the local community that we have to celebrate—pertaining, of course, to its flagship cultural programs. In Dumaguete, you have Sandurot; Bayawan has Tawo-Tawo; Sibulan has Yagyag. This assessment is important because cultural celebrations cannot just be spun from nothingness; they need an anchor in community life and culture to make the celebration more authentic, more truly a reflection of the community story.

Cebu’s Sinulog gets its spark from the commemoration of the Sto. Nino story in its history and, together with Aklan’s Ati-Atihan Festival, set the blueprint for other festivals in the country to follow in the conception of their reasons for being. At the outset, the impetus from Cebu is a good one. But the drawback has proven to be this: the Sinulog model has ceased to become mere inspiration; instead its very rhythm has been copied wholesale by other festivals without organizers stopping to think, what is the rhythm of my own place? It has become a practice for most festival performers to hire trainers from other places, like Cebu—and this affects the culture. This is why whenever you go to another city or town in the throes of carnival spirit, you get the same percussion beat, the same dance beats that you see performed in the streets of Cebu every January.

There is no value in being a copycat, and that includes socio-economic value. Which is why, for Dumaguete, we had to ask:

What is the Dumaguete story?

What is the rhythm of Dumaguete?

What is the inspiration of being a Dumaguete artist?

From the answers we hope to achieve, we can create a dance from the rhythm that is inspired by Dumaguete itself.

The second focus is on culture and heritage preservation and its link to risk-reduction management, environmental concerns, and socio-economic responsibilities and concerns.

What is the role of local artists and cultural workers in any of these?

And the answer is, truth to tell, simply this: know yourself. The community must know itself thoroughly, and this includes, by and large, its culture and heritage. A community that has a complete map, a complete picture, of what makes it the vibrant community that it is, is indeed a community that can address properly its socio-economic concerns, its environmental concerns, and its risk management concerns.

A few snippets, among many, to illustrate:

When one goes to a pasalubong shop in town, whether you are a tourist, or a native simply interested in sampling local goods, one should not only see on the shelves of these pasalubong shops products that are ubiquitous everywhere else like Boracay; they must have Dumaguete products that can be really be called “Dumaguete’s own.” (But what do we exactly mean by “Dumaguete’s own”?)

When one buys a product made of uway—and by doing so, one is convinced that he is doing his part to support local tradition and artisans—one might not immediately be aware that uway has an endangered status, which might come as a shock to many, and thus its harvesting must be regulated. (What are other natural things that we have in our community that needs protecting?) In a country that is in constant danger of typhoons and earthquakes, when one thinks of reducing risk, what constitutes the list that needs saving beyond people and livelihood, if saving a community also means saving the things that make it the community that it is?

According to the United Nations Office of Disaster Risk Reduction, risk-reduction management “aims to reduce the damage caused by natural hazards like earthquakes, floods, droughts and cyclones, through an ethic of prevention.” Accordingly, “disasters often follow natural hazards,” and a “disaster’s severity depends on how much impact a hazard has on society and the environment.”

This calls then for a mapping of the community’s heritage, which includes not only artistic effects or monuments, but also its natural heritage and creative industries. A cultural mapping is a process of identifying natural and cultural heritage resources of a specific locality for purposes of conservation and development, which then enables us to understand and share culture, to re-think history, and to promote creativity and development.

Only with this map can we consolidate a community’s identity and soul—what makes it tick—and from that can spring a plan for community development that is organic, that is reflective of community ideals, that is finally beneficial to all.

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Wednesday, November 08, 2017

entry arrow4:22 PM | Betty Helps

When I was a teenager [I remember high school*], I stammered a lot -- but only when I read in public. I couldn’t make out the words properly for some reason, and public reading became torture for me. It took some effort overcoming it: when I was alone, Id read aloud and Id be fine, and I kept at it, until the problem went away for the most part. (I still stammer when I am unprepared.) Today, every time Im asked to speak in public, I do a ritual which Ive carried over from my stammering years: I go to a private place -- a CR, for example -- and Id repeat five times this tongue twister: “Betty bought a bit of butter, but Betty said, This butter is bitter. So Betty bought a bit of better butter to make her bitter butter better.” 

It works.

*A grade school classmate just informed me I also stammered way before that

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entry arrow3:16 PM | "After all we're only ordinary men."

This feels like a Pink Floyd singing "Us and Them" kind of Wednesday.

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entry arrow4:59 AM | Chair

The perfect chair, I just learned from BBC's The Genius of Design documentary series from 2010, is every ambitious designer's holy grail of design. My favorite is still the walnut lounge chair by Charles and Ray Eames from 1953. And my most hated -- because of its sheer banal ubiquity -- is the poly chair variation of the monobloc plastic chair by Karim Rashid from 2003. This is what I do when I get insomnia: I watch films or read books about design or religion.


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Tuesday, November 07, 2017

entry arrow10:46 PM | On Watching Almereyda's Experimenter

Three things I pondered about while watching Michael Almereyda's Experimenter (2015):

[1] There are films that strike one as cinematic essays. Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's Howl (2010) is really a dramatized demonstration of several approaches of literary criticism to the iconic Allen Ginsburg poem. In a similar stylistic vein, Almereyda's attempt is a fourth-wall breaking critical reassessment of social psychologist Stanley Milgram's contributions to the field, particularly his work on obedience and authority. Sometimes it doesn't work, sometimes it does. Both Howl and Experimenter work -- they come off as cool dramatizations of academic ideas, and we are enriched simply by just watching.

[2] How is it that in 2015, we got two cinematic takes on very famous psychological experiments on the banality of evil? [Hannah Arendt would have been interested.] There's this film, which takes a very deep look into the Milgram experiment [which posits that ordinary people will render evil acts as long as they are made to do so under authority of someone else; e.g., "I was just doing my job"]. Then there's Kyle Patrick Alvarez's The Stanford Prison Experiment, a less successful film about the aborted psychological experiment of Philip Zimbardo on authority and incarceration [which demonstrated how ordinary people, when given the slightest power and authority over other people in a hierarchy, tend to abuse that power]. Both films in 2015! Did they anticipate the rise of Trump, Duterte, and other neo-despots that started to bedevil us in 2016?

[3] I miss Winona Ryder. She plays the minor role here of Mrs. Milgram, but she makes the most of it, lending the part a quiet but also quirky elegance.

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Monday, November 06, 2017

entry arrow9:00 PM | Reflections on Film Music

Listening to film soundtracks again. The musical scores, specifically. I haven’t done this in a while, years in fact. Here’s the great violinist Itzhak Perlman playing the theme from John William’s score for Schindler's List. It’s impossible not to be moved by this. And yet, at the back of my head, I cannot help but think: Is it all right to swoon, to be so moved, by music that is, in reality, a dirge for six million dead?

* * *

The music of Rachel Portman is so underrated.

* * *

I am convinced Hans Zimmer’s “Time” from the score of Inception is a musical piece of towering beauty. Seven years hence, it’s hypnotic hold remains, and relentlessly so. It starts quietly, like one settling to sleep, and in the course of unfolding, crescendos in echoes of the same musical beat -- but bigger, more urgent, like a dream that grows and grows. And then, just when you think there is no peak to this, just a continuation of unfettered dreamful longing, it settles back down again and dives into the simplicity of piano keys tinkling, a thread of violin to complete a sound of melancholy. And then it ends in a shattered note. Like one waking up, remembering the wisps of a dream, and stupefied by the bright morning sunlight greeting our waking eyes.

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Sunday, November 05, 2017

entry arrow3:49 PM | Calling Your Name

Back in 2011, the Filipino-American fictionist Veronica Montes sent me all the way from San Francisco, CA a copy of Andrew Aciman's Call Me By Your Name. The book consumed me. The prose was deliciously overheated, but it was lyrical and perfectly evocative of the kind of loving and longing we all go through, and there was an incisive intelligence that pulsed in the narrative. I have been Elio. And I have been Oliver. The book stayed with me. In 2015, when I was writing "Compartments," first published in Esquire Magazine in 2016 and now included in DON'T TELL ANYONE, I think Aciman's prose provided the emotional blueprint with which to tackle a difficult story.

Thank you, Ver, for the book!

Get Veronica Montes' latest collection of short stories, Benedicta Takes Wing, here.

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entry arrow8:00 AM | Chasing Heritage

When Prudencio B. Sirilan passed away last October 18, he was 69 years old—and he would have passed on very quietly, remembered as loving father to his family and mentor to many, were it not for a quick notice that the Dumaguete City Tourism Office thought of posting in his remembrance on the day he died. Absent that, I suspect there would have been not much else, although it must be said that he was indeed a beloved figure. Perhaps his being an artist would be recalled by some friends, and the rest of Dumaguete would have moved on quickly, the way it usually does, comfortably ignorant of its history, of its shapers, of its heritage.

Prodi was the consummate cultural worker, and he had given so much of his life to the cultural development of Dumaguete City—and it is only right that we should remember him well. He was one of the original organizers of the city’s Sandurot Festival, conceptualizing the first ceremony in 1988 as a festival that would tell the story of Dumaguete and its people. That alone compels proper appreciation. It felt almost fitting—if we could say that—that he would choose to leave us at the height of this year’s iteration of the Buglasan, another festival he helped shape.

Today, Dumagueteños of course are familiar with Sandurot and Buglasan, but little remembrance is spared the inspired men and women who conceived of them. The truth may be that what they have created became bigger than them—as it should—which ensures an institution that belongs ultimately to local culture and tradition and not to specific names of people.

But I would have liked a memorial of some sort to carve in historical permanence their contributions to very specific heritage work. Thus far, however, Dumaguete as a city has no museums yet to showcase its culture and history, and there is almost an absence of research work and conservation efforts to properly showcase its heritage.

In 2012, when I was editing and putting together Handulanataw, the history of art of culture in Silliman University, that lack made itself profoundly apparent to me, and I finally confessed three years later of that frustration: “One of the things that constantly made my heart break was getting told that the art pieces and book collections and papers of cultural pioneers we were researching on were gone or were scattered to the proverbial wind: photographs destroyed by flood water, paintings burned and lost or stolen, papers eaten by termites, books relegated to dusty corners of stockrooms where they were being eaten by god-knows-what and pooped on by rats. I found old books owned by Albert Faurot that way. I asked for the manuscripts of one local playwright who had died many years back and was told by the family: ‘We burned them. We thought they were just trash.’ And Sendong, of course, destroyed many, many old photographs.”

I continued that confession with this observation: “I have to wonder how come no plucky young local historian is doing some initiative in scanning the old photographs of old families here in Negros Oriental? How come we don’t have a museum that would showcase the works of Jose Laspiñas and Francisco Verano, before they’re eaten away by more termites and neglect? How come no local theatre groups are producing the plays of Bobby Flores Villasis, Amiel Leonardia, Elsa Coscolluela, Ephraim Bejar, and Roberto J. Pontenila Jr.? How come we don’t make concerts of the music of Zoe Lopez and the collected Visayan folk songs of Priscilla Magdamo-Abraham?”

Of late, the digital absence of much of Dumaguete’s history and culture leaves a gaping maw that provides a sad answer to this revision of a popular existential question: “If you google something, and you come up with nothing, does it even exist?”

To test that, I googled “Jose Pro Teves,” Dumaguete’s longest-serving mayor, a politician beloved by generations of Dumagueteños, and instrumental in shaping much of the social infrastructure of this city. The hits in Google gave the most rudimentary returns, nothing at all substantial. I could get his birthdate, but the Internet did not even know when he died.

Everybody also knows about the campanario, the Dumaguete bell tower that has become the city’s enduring icon. But what about Don Jose Manuel Fernandez de Septien, the parish priest who was instrumental in building the Dumaguete convento and the original watchtowers, and Don Juan Felix de la Encarnacion, the parish priest who built the present campanario upon the ruins of one of Father Septien’s watchtowers? We don’t have pictures of them, and we don’t know much about them—although Father Roman Sagun, our indefatigable researcher of local parish history, does try to give what history he could find about them.

Things of late have been changing, of course. In 2017, after years and years of protracted planning and wishful thinking, we have finally created the City Heritage Council, under Dr. Earl Jude Cleope, and the City Art and Culture Council—and they definitely have their work cut out for them, because there is so much to do and so little time to accomplish what needs to be done now, and Dumaguete is in that crucial transition phase in its development where much of its heritage is in the brink of disappearing.

This is why I have decided to shift the focus of this column to local heritage matters, to give voice to what must be done in Dumaguete, and to ensure that our remembrance can become more concrete.

It’s the only way we can give honor to Prodi and to others like him who have toiled for years to give us what we now know—and take for granted—as the unique Dumaguete experience of being the “city of gentle people,” and the “cultural center of the south.”

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Saturday, November 04, 2017

entry arrow6:06 PM | Crazy

I will always feel the pain and dark anger of the likes of Alex Forrest, Angelique Bouchard … and Rebecca Bunch. But dear God, this episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend [S03E04] goes dark so deeply, so deliciously. The insanity makes sense.

And I wish that in life there’d be a Josh Groban accosting me in the dark to sing something like:

Life is a gradual series of revelations
That occur over a period of time
It’s not some carefully crafted story
It’s a mess and we’re all gonna die.
If you saw a movie that was like real life
You’d be like, ‘What the hell was that movie about?
It was really all over the place.’
Life doesn’t make narrative sense.

Dear God, this show.

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entry arrow2:01 AM | It's Easy

Winona Ryder, in an interview with Diane Sawyer for 20/20 in 1999, revealed how it was to be complicit in hiding our deepest pain under a facade of fabulousness: “I used to drive around [Los Angeles] at night listening to music because I couldn’t sleep. [Once] I was driving around, and I was wishing so badly that I had someone to talk to, a friend, someone — and I didn’t. And I saw this magazine stand, and I saw the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine, and it said something like, ‘Winona Ryder, The Luckiest Girl in the World.’ And it broke my heart, because there I was being in so much pain and feeling so confused, and feeling so lost in my life. And I wasn’t allowed to complain because I was ‘so lucky,’ you know, and I was ‘so blessed,’ and I made a lot of money, and my problems weren’t real problems… But the stuff I was going through was difficult… I love the first line of [Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen, a book about a girl going through clinical depression, and being institutionalised for it]: ‘People ask, How did you get in there? What they really want to know is if they are likely to end up in there as well. I can't answer the real question. All I can tell them is, It's easy.’ Which I think is very true.” She produced the film adaptation of the book, she said, to give a voice to people exactly like her.

And yes, to be "interrupted" is "easy."

By 2001, Winona succumbed to the pressure and famously self-sabotaged -- a shoplifting incident that made headline news and ruined her career, but which she, in retrospect today, calls her saving grace.

I'm glad she's back.

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