Let’s take a little break from our excursion—historically and sociologically—on the Dumaguete night life. It would not have been right if I had devoted this space to something so utterly banal in the context of our suddenly grief-stricken lives. I just cannot bring myself to write further about the topic for now. Not now. Not when too many people—many of them our friends and families—suffer from the rash onset and then the sad and deadly aftermath of Ondoy’s wrath.
But then again, I must also wonder: what else can I say or write? No words can equal the depths of their sufferings or the heights of our sympathies. No words from those of us who are miles removed from the epicenter of woe, mere bystanders to the tragedy, can even attempt to console the ones who were there. I beheld only the horrors from across the divide, through my TV and computer screens. To attempt to say anything runs the risk of sounding out empty words. We can only offer prayers and the generosity of our donations. But to experience the horror and live to talk about it?
“The water was waist deep in Anonas,” my best friend Mark Fabillar told me over chat in Facebook. He had just gotten out of work, and soon found himself battling the increasing levels of water. It was a taste of the Metro he was not prepared for. He had just transplanted himself in Manila after years of relative safety in Dumaguete—he had never seen flood waters that high. “Can you imagine the garbage, the feces, the slicks of oil that were gurgling all around me?” he said. He told me to imagine the smell. He told me to imagine the sheer horror of having to go against the current.
And that was all I could do: imagine.
And to think Mark was one of the luckier ones. He managed to get home in Quezon City safely, where the house he shares with film director Jay Altarejos was blessedly perched on higher grounds. In Marikina and in nearby Rizal province, and in many other places around the Metro, others were not so lucky. The deluge claimed lives and upended the eternal divide between the social classes. As of this writing, the casualties number now above the 200 mark—but the rest of the affected ones, the ones who have been uprooted from their homes, nay, their lives, number in the high thousands.
And, as often the case with things like this, we turn inwards and ask ourselves whatever led to these things happening. The writer/artist Elbert Or emailed me today, and this is what he partly wrote:
But no one is telling me what I really want to know: Why did this happen? How can this be avoided? Is that even possible? What does this mean for all of us? What happens next? Beyond the short term relief and rescue efforts, what can we do next?
He's asking us to participate in a book project for relief efforts towards the Ondoy tragedy, with contributions answering some of those questions.
One, after Fernando Poe, Jr. died on Dec. 14, 2004, they did an inventory of his things. In one bodega, they found cartons of relief goods that were meant to be delivered to Infanta, Quezon. Infanta had been buried in mudslides a couple of weeks before his death and, along with many others, FPJ had bestirred himself to help.
With one difference: While all the other relief-givers were busy putting their names on their donations—or as in the case of many public officials, putting their names on other people’s donations—FPJ was not. His people would swear later he would not hear of it. He gave strict orders for the relief goods to be unmarked and just sent where needed. It altered my view of the man completely and made me vow to make amends to his family for some of the things I had said about him.
That is class. Which makes me furious today about the politicians who want to exploit the misfortune of others for their ends. Or indeed their continuing travail, many of them having lost everything in one of the worst disasters ever to hit this metropolis. It’s a sentiment I know is shared by many, even those who were not directly ravaged by the floods, as I’ve seen in news reports and blogs.
Heading the pack is Willie Revillame who was busy announcing that “kami nga ni Senator Villar” have been tireless in delivering relief goods to the needy. You’d think the guy would have learned a thing or two from being crucified after he vituperated about Cory’s coffin being shown on his show, consequently disrupting his and his audience’s fun. Clearly his chastisement hasn’t chastened him enough. Or he’s just fundamentally tasteless he cannot see that the last thing the victims want is to be treated like contestants, or supplicants, of “Wowowee” waiting upon his generosity.
Thankfully the tack is likely to backfire. People are in a foul mood and are not likely to remember Revillame—or his principal—with fondness come election time.
The last thing we need is to see politics mix with relief. “When you want to shoot, shoot,” as Eli Wallach said in “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” finishing off the guy who was threatening him with all sorts of mayhem. Same principle here: When you want to give, give, don’t advertise. All you’ll get back is mayhem in the minds of the beneficiaries.
Two, on Tuesday government’s disaster council gave a briefing. They were three days late. The time to have done that was Saturday at the height of the rains. The time to have appeared in public to calm down a metropolis in the grip of panic was last Saturday. The time to have gone to the aid of people who had every reason to panic (some of them were huddling on the roofs of their houses, along with their children and their aged, pounded by unceasing rain) was last Saturday. The time to have unleashed the full resources of government, which should have been there because government has—or should have—billions of pesos in calamity and emergency funds, was last Saturday.
In fact the monumental thing that happened last Saturday was the complete absence of government. The only government there was were the media, notably ABS-CBN and GMA-7. You can forgive both for advertising their wares, or relief efforts, under the extenuating circumstances. They were the government. They were the central authority apprising the public of the situation. They were the central authority coming to the aid of the victims. They were the central authority running the country.
The Internet is full of reports that the emergency fund is depleted, having gone to fund Arroyo and company’s not-very-emergency trips abroad. I’ll leave that for when it’s confirmed. But the breakdown of government is staggering. Arroyo should thank God, or whatever entity she worships, we have elections—the same elections she tried to monkey with earlier with Charter change. Without that she would probably not last this week, given an incensed citizenry, given an aroused citizenry, given a citizenry that will no longer brook abuse. This is as angry as I’ve seen residents of Metro Manila in a long time.
Three, indeed to this hour, what government we have is courtesy of the private sector where voluntarism has sprung like wildflowers. That is the bright spot in all this, the light amid the darkness, the blazing sun after the storm. Truly the Filipino rises to his finest self during trying times, the more trying the times, the finer the rising. Or it is in times of disaster that the Filipino ceases to be a disaster, thinking of others first before self.
It’s especially heartening to see the kids go en masse on relief mode. Many of the kids in my neighborhood have done so, teeners who normally while away the holidays playing basketball, flipping rollerblades, and drinking beer in the stores. They’ve enrolled themselves to help without thought of pay, without thought of recompense, without thought of reward. Just the thought of doing something nice for a change, just the thought of doing something to make things better.
It rekindles memories of the July-August floods of 1972, when students also went in droves to places in Greater Manila no longer traversable by land, or indeed outside the metropolis where they were greeted by a greater ravaging. But then there was activism to fuel, or goad, or flagellate the youth to idealism. Well, there was also the prospect of meeting a cool chick or a cool cat while on your best form. Today, there’s just spontaneous goodwill to do the trick. And the prospect of meeting a cool chick or a cool cat while on your best form. The kids come home happy, comparing the welts and bruises on their arms from lifting crates while drinking beer in the stores.
Makes you wonder what on earth you need government for.
From the Philippine Daily Inquirer 30 September 2009
These are the plays to be presented by my Literature 21 classes (sections B, G, and H). Please take note of the venue, which may change, so please be updated in this blog. All presentations must and will begin at 7:30 PM.
Guys, remember to project your voice. And proper blocking is very important, and must be well done. We're not asking for Meryl Streep-acting, but try to be true to the personas of the characters as much as possible. And please respect the playwright and stay true to what they have written, or else we will not be able to appreciate the literariness of the materials. We need to hear the writer's voice.
Attendance to all presentations by all sections is a must, and each is given 30 points per show. I also would like to remind the presentation leaders to give me their evaluation form as soon as they can.
September 28, Monday Section H Group 1 Luce Auditorium Jun Lana's "June at Johnny"
September 29, Tuesday Section B Group 1 Second Floor, Hibbard Hall Dean Francis Alfar's "Short Time"
September 30, Wednesday Section G Group 1 Woodward Little Theater Rene O. Villanueva's "Asawa"
October 1, Thursday Section B Group 2 Woodward Little Theater Nikki Alfar's "Life After Beth"
October 5, Monday
Section H Group 2 Silliman Hall Julian Cruz Balmaseda's "Sino Ba Kayo?"
October 8, Thursday
Section G Group 2
Woodward Little Theater Glenn Sevilla Mas' "Games Young Boys Play"
Our last lecture for Sections B and G will be on October 1 (regular hours), and October 3 (1-5 PM) for Section H. Please download the following materials from a format of your choice (although I advise on downloading all formats): Lecture on Poetry (PPT or PDF or MS Word); Lecture on the Novel (PPT or PDF); and Lecture on Komiks (PPT). The files are all stored in my FileDen account, which accommodates fairly large files. Just click on the links to download them.
All I wanted to do on Saturday morning was to go to my doctor. After getting off the MRT station in Kamuning (about 10 am) I waded through ankle-deep floodwaters to accompany my wife to the TV station where she works. The rest of the day was already clear in my head: Go to the doctor, finish my business there by around lunchtime (there are usually quite a number of patients, and I wasn’t expecting to finish earlier than that), pick up my wife and we go home for some needed time with the kids.
I thought nothing of it when the doctor’s nurse texted me to say that the doctor’s clinic was already flooded. The clinic is in the low-lying Kamias area. Fine, I told myself, I’ll just go to Hi-Top and buy a bottle of wine and ingredients for dinner. My daughter had requested that I cook for dinner.
After Hi-Top, I proceeded to the TV station where my wife works. I was walking the whole time because of the rain. I felt no danger despite the rain. The rain wasn’t that strong by the time I left Hi-Top. Then I reached the corner of Panay Avenue and Sergeant Esguerra. Holy shit. The floodwaters were neck-deep in Esguerra!
I turned left on Panay, planning to take the train at the Quezon Avenue MRT then disembark at Kamuning station, so I could just walk towards the TV station. I reached Hen Lin (a Chinese fastfood) which is right under the MRT station. I was surprised to see that Edsa was flooded. The area in front of the McDonald’s outlet was waist-deep in flood.
There was a guy—he was soaked from head-to-foot—who was warning people getting off the Quezon Avenue MRT station. He was telling everyone who could hear him:
“O, wag na kayo dyan sa Esguerra. Hanggang leeg doon. Dito sa may Edsa hanggang baywang. Mamili na lang kayo kung saan niyo gustong magpakamatay.”
[Don’t go to Esguerra. The water there is neck-deep. Over there at Edsa it’s waist-deep. You guys choose which side you prefer. You choose where you want to kill yourself.]
The guy was trying to be funny. I went up the MRT station, boarded the train and got off at Kamuning. When I reached the TV station, my wife texted me that she won’t be going home. All TV news staff were required to stay because of widespread flooding.
I called the kids at home. Thank God there wasn’t too much rain in Cavite. Finally, I saw what was happening in Marikina and Rizal on the TV set at the visitor’s area. Shit. I won’t be able to go home. Then I also learned that the way to Cavite was impassable.
After talking to my 9-year-old daughter some more and assessing that Cavite would likely not be affected by the typhoon, I made up my mind to wait for my wife. I didn’t think it would be a good idea to let her go home alone, with floodwaters rising in Quezon City.
People were coming to the TV station. Every single one was asking for help. They had loved ones trapped inside their house by floodwaters. There were loved ones already on rooftops. The floods were rising too fast in some areas. And so began my long day: filled with the weeping of women, worries about friends trapped in rooftops, worries about my kids (what if the typhoon turns and hits Cavite?), and a feeling of utter helplessness.
My wife worked till about midnight. We tried to get to Cavite but even before we reached the tollgate of the expressway leading to Bacoor, huge trucks were already turning back. We were in a cab. I decided not to risk whatever was ahead. There could have been floods, an accident, etc.
My daughter kept calling my mobile phone. She was crying. When were we going to get home? After getting assured that there was no flooding in Cavite, that our kids were not in danger of any flood, I told my wife we should just wait for morning. We turned back and stayed in a hotel—the hotel lobby to be exact. All the rooms were booked. It was already 2am. We couldn’t sleep. We simply waited till the sun was up.
When I finally got home today, the first thing I did was gather wife and kids for prayers. We prayed out of gratitude. We were all safe. Then we prayed for all those who were still trapped, who were still struggling to stay alive amid floodwaters. I was crying.
I find myself unable to sleep after being awake since 6 am yesterday morning. I’m still keyed up. My wife’s asleep, finally, after getting a massage. I want to sleep but each time I manage to doze off, I jerk awake at the slightest noise. So I’ll just write.
I can’t get the sound of weeping mothers out of my head. That’s how I spent the night while stranded in Quezon City. All these mothers kept talking about their kids. One mother, Lina, could not help but cry for her kids, who were trapped in the third storey of a neighbor’s house for out eight hours already by the time she spoke to me. Her husband was also trapped by floodwaters—he could not leave his office in Quezon City.
Here are some things I learned from the experience. I can write them down in the comfort of home with my wife and kids safely with me. I actually feel guilty that I’m in this situation. I feel guilty that I’m not out there on a rubber boat saving people.
So I’ll write some more and go to bed. After I get some sleep, I might have a saner perspective.
Our families are not prepared for climate change. Typhoon Ondoy was true to its name, which means “little boy”—it wasn’t a supertyphoon. And yet, we all failed in so many fronts.
In our own home, we don’t have an emergency kit. The flashlight is no longer where I always put it. Furthermore, I’m not aware of any evacuation plan in our community. Who do we call? Where do we evacuate when waters start rising? I have no idea. It’s the sort of ignorance that kills.
One friend of mine lost her possessions in the floods. Her husband and kids are safe. She had the quick and sensible thinking to have her family evacuate shortly after the water began seeping into their house and after the power was cut off. They left everything and booked themselves in a hotel. “I lost everything,” she told me over her mobile phone. I told her that the most important things in her life were saved.
Our government—both the national government and the LGUs--is not prepared for climate change. If people are safe now—relatively, for some, because it’s again starting to rain and many are still trapped on rooftops, awaiting rescue—it’s because of prayer. So many people were—are still—praying. It’s seems the prayers were heard because we all got a respite from the rain.
Filipinos have a saying, “Nasa Diyos ang awa, nasa tao ang gawa” (God dispenses mercy but man has to do the work). God has already dispensed his mercy. Will we do our part?
There’s no excuse for the lack of rubber boats, for example. We have floods every year. But every year, we are unprepared. The two rubber boats that began rescuing people in Marikina were a relief to know about, but why only two?
Philippine National Red Cross Chairman Dick Gordon tried to transport several more rubber boats but these had to come all the way from Olongapo. And with the traffic jams at the expressways, they could not get to Metro Manila in time.
The headquarters of the National Disaster Coordinating Council and the headquarters of the Armed Forces of the Philippines are both in Quezon City. And yet, for nearly 12 hours, Quezon City residents trapped in floods could not be rescued. The AFP, if I remember correctly, usually has the biggest slice of the national budget every year. But where were the choppers? Where were the rubber boats? Clearly something is very wrong.
Then we recall how General Carlos Garcia, former AFP comptroller, was caught (by US authorities, not by Philippine authorities) trying to bring in millions of pesos in cash to the US. It does not inspire faith in the military leadership.
We also recall a lot of things that are disquieting: government resources being used to secure a questionable telecoms deal with a Chinese firm; millions of pesos spent on Presidential dinners abroad; millions of pesos in campaign contributions unaccounted for; millions of pesos spent on a California mansion; billions of pesos spent on foreign trips; and a cancelled plan to buy a new Presidential jet.
How do you explain all that to kids trapped on their rooftop for nearly 24 hours—soaking wet, hungry, crying for their mothers and going insane with fear?
How do you explain the fact that the government can spend millions upon millions on so many other projects, but could only produce two rubber boats to rescue scores of residents trapped in a flooded Marikina village? How do you explain the President’s lobster and steak dinners to Rizal residents neck-deep in muddy floodwaters?
Every year, we get floods and typhoons. Every year, we give money to the AFP and the NDCC. And all that the Marikina residents get are two rubber boats?
And wasn’t Marikina always being trumpeted as some sort of “First World City in a Third World Country”? Clean and green Marikina. Disciplined Marikina, a jewel of law and order in the chaos of the Mega Manila.
The Marikina River floods every year. Every year. But when it really mattered, the City Government of Marikina did not have enough emergency equipment, did not have enough rubber boats. Or if it did, it did not have the capacity to deploy these resources in time. It seemed to have no plan for the evacuation of residents at Provident Village before floodwaters could reach it.
And former Marikina mayor Bayani Fernando wants to run the rest of the country the way he did Marikina—or at least, that’s the impression we get. We could be wrong.
To be fair, none of us expected something like Typhoon Ondoy. But the lack of rubber boats, the seeming lack of coordinated response, the empty promises made over the media—these are simply not acceptable. These do not inspire our confidence in government once the next super typhoon hits.
I mentioned Marikina only as an example. I’m not blaming Fernando or his wife (the present Marikina mayor). I’m just stating how things appear. The real story about the slow rescue, etc. might unfold in the next few days.
What happened to Marikina can happen anywhere. The local governments of Bulacan, Pasig and Rizal fared no better. Are our local governments prepared for climate change? Are they prepared for typhoons like Ondoy, or much stronger ones? Your guess is as good as mine.
What would have happened if Ondoy didn’t leave the country in the hours following the massive flooding? What if it was a super typhoon that decided to stay for a few days?
The answer is so obvious that we’re scared to state it: Death and Chaos. So many people, so many children will die. Our loved ones will die. We will die.
The next few days, weeks and months will tell us whether the government cares to prevent this, or whether it wants to use climate change as a kind of population control.
The government’s priorities have been clear in the way it spends its money and allocates its resources. For example, the AFP budget keeps growing. But what about the budget for the national weather agency PAGASA (Philippine Atmospheric Geophysical and Astronomical Service Administration)? There were reports a few years back that the budget was actually slashed.
During a report on GMA-7 news last night, PAGASA OIC Nathaniel Cruz said that there was a piece of equipment that could help the agency estimate a typhoon’s potential amount of rainfall (very useful in the case of Ondoy, which poured a month’s worth of rainfall in about five hours)—a Doppler radar. Does PAGASA have this equipment?
No. The national weather agency, the only one that could warn us if we should evacuate because a typhoon will bring a deluge, does not have a Doppler radar. But it’s on its way, clarifies Cruz.
PAGASA, in Filipino, also means “Hope”. Based on how the government seems to prioritize PAGASA, the weather agency, do we have reason to hope?
It was drummed into my head a long time ago that when we use the term “government” in a democracy, we should really refer to ourselves. After all, in a democracy, governance must be by, of and for the people.
So it’s either we’re not really a democracy (because we always stand back and just let a bunch of evil yoyos run things for us) or we’re all just not getting this governance thing right. We’re not governing things the way we should.
It’s raining again. I hope we get our acts together soon.
As I write this I am flanked by weeping women. One is from San Mateo, Rizal. Two others are from Novaliches, Quezon City. We’re all stranded in Quezon City.
They are weeping for their children. Their kids are trapped on the roofs of neighbors’ houses. These houses are three storeys high but the floodwaters have reached the second floors. The updates they get from their trapped relatives don’t give them much comfort. Their relatives have been trapped for hours. No food. No water. No electricity. The rains have not stopped. And the darkness is upon us.
How will their young kids make it through the night? Through the cold, the rain, through their hunger? And the most disquieting question of all:
Where are the rescuers?
My wife and I are fortunate that our village isn’t flooded. But we’re so far from our house in Cavite. We’re hoping the storm abates and doesn’t put our own kids and others in the same danger faced by other children, other families.
One of the women with me is the wife of a soldier. She tells me she already went to the headquarters of the Armed Forces of the Philippines. She's angry. In gist this is what she told me:
“Nagpunta na ako doon, pero parang wala silang mga puso. Ang tagal na nang nasa bubong ng mga tao sa amin. Ang lakas ng agos ng tubig. Bakit wala man lang nagdadala ng pagkain sa mga nasa bubong?
“Parang walang puso ang mga namumuno dito sa atin. Ang tagal na wala pa ring rescue. Ang daming chopper, ang daming rubber boat sa AFP. Bakit parang di man lang sila makapagpadala doon sa mga lugar na may baha?
“Grabe na ang agos ng tubig doon sa amin. May mga inanod na raw na gamit at mga tao. Bukas, kung dumating man ang mga rescuer, magbibilang na sila ng mga patay doon. Magdala na rin sila ng kabaong.
(I went to the headquarters but it’s like they have no hearts. People in our village have been on the rooftops for hours. They’re surrounded by water. The currents are strong. Why has no one has brought food to them?
It’s like our leaders have no hearts. It’s been hours with no rescue for the victims. The AFP has so many choppers, so many rubber boats. Why has it been hours and these have not been deployed to the flooded areas?
The currents in our village are very strong. Appliances and possessions have been washed away, and even some people have been taken by the currents. Tomorrow, when the rescuers come—if they come—they will count the bodies. They should also bring coffins.)
As I write this, I’m getting the first unconfirmed reports that rubber boats are being sent into the flooded areas. I’m praying that as many people as possible, especially children, are rescued.
The Secretary of National Defense wants to run for President. The Chairman of the Philippine National Red Cross wants to run for President. The Chairman of the Metro Manila Development Authority wants to run for President. Is it reasonable for us to judge their potential capacity as President based on how they performed their duties on this disastrous day?
And is it right for us ask: ‘Was there anything they and other officials could have done to help the victims?’
For example, was there enough foresight and forward planning on their part to ensure a quick response system, enough emergency supplies, enough rescue boats, etc.? in anticipation of a really powerful storm hitting Metro Manila and its surroundings?
All the women I spoke to had this complaint: Rescue and relief on the part of local and national government were too slow—their kids and relatives have been stranded for hours on rooftops, with floodwaters still rising. It’s already nightfall and there’s still no rescue in sight.
Metro Manila and its surrounding areas have been fortunate in the past few years to have been spared from catastrophic floods. Not anymore, it seems. If this is all the result of climate change, what are the oil companies doing to reduce the carbon emissions that are making the weather so dangerous to us? And are our political leaders exercising enough political will to make sure the oil companies do what they should to lessen the effects of climate change?
I praying that the woman’s angry prediction doesn’t come true. I understand the sentiments welling up within her, as she sits here helpless, wondering if she’ll see her family and relatives alive again after tonight.
It has been a while since we last read anything from the marvelous Kit Kwe, whose historical fiction, tinged with the fantastic, always stirs literary envy in me. ("She's so young! And yet so brilliant and so mature in her writing!") That doesn't mean she hasn't been writing, however. She has been sending me a couple of her new stories that I think defy everything we've come to expect of her -- although I'm not sure whether she will ever go as far as submit those disturbing stories for publication. (But why not?) A new story from her is always a reason for celebration, given that she never really quickly warms up to the idea of publishing. But, in any case, here's a new Kit Kwe story from the pages of the August issue of Rogue Magazine:
My grandmother was a phenomenal cook, better than anyone in her generation of the family, or my mother’s, or mine. In fact, my mother and I could not cook an egg any better than chickens could fly, and that seemed the only thing that we shared in this wild, wearying world.
But my grandmother, as I’ve said, was a force in the kitchen. She cooked so much and so well that she had to open a canteen, else the food would overwhelm the entire household. But this was in the early fifties, right after the war, when everyone was so haunted by the ghost of lack that they ate even if they were not the least bit hungry.
Read the rest here. Better yet, buy the whole issue.
For many years since 2003, I usually made an issue of Literatura (now defunct) devoted to the winning works of the annual Palanca Awards.
This year, I missed out on that for some reason. (Okay, okay... I was too busy partying. Or perhaps becoming a Palanca judge this year kinda made me want to remove myself from the whole hoopla? I'm not sure. Perhaps it's also due to the fact that a writer kinda admonished me about my efforts, citing "the dangers of online plagiarism," and what not. That bummed me out for a while. Anyway, let's blame partying instead.)
Still, that did not stop many people from asking me when they could read the stuff. I told most of them I had no plans to put out a Palanca issue, much to their dismay. Besides, the Palanca already boasts of a website, and I was sure they would be putting out the works online soon.
But perhaps it's not too late to put out a version of that, eh? Let me see if I can get the winning writers to submit their stuff.
My good friend and fellow UP Workshop batchmate Jun Balde is coming out with his nth book, 60zens, released by Anvil Publishing. The launch will be on October 16, at 6 PM, at the National Bookstore in Glorietta 5. The book teases us with questions about growing old: "Ikaw ba ay sisenta anyos na? Nasa bingit na? Rumarangkada palapit? Nakalampas na? Ikaw ba ang tipong... Naghahanap ng salamin na suot mo pala? Natitinik lagi sa isda kahit na nga? Naiidlip sa sinehan kahit ang palabas ay bakbakan? Pag tumatawid sa daan ay tumitigil lahat ng sasakyan? Pagdating ng kompleanyo ay wala nang kakontemporanyo? Sadyang ganyan ang tumatanda, huwag kang mabahala."
These days, I am thinking deeply about movies again.
I can’t help it.
Because after a few years of not doing so, I am once again teaching a course in film in Silliman University’s College of Mass Communication—and there’s nothing like a teacherly preparation factor to revive an old passion. (My students’ final project is to individually direct a short film, which I have told them to mount in a mini-film festival of their own making at the end of the semester. It’s a big challenge, and they are all scared by the idea—but I always tell them to invoke Luc Goddard’s famous plea, that the only way to critique or appreciate a film is to make one.)
Because I have suddenly found myself writing a new screenplay, for a movie set in Dumaguete, after years of fits and starts. (My poet friend J. Neil C. Garcia once quipped to me recently, “Literature is dead. The future’s in the movies.”)
And because only a few months ago, the Cinemalaya Organizing Committee invited me to sit in a panel for the Cinemalaya Film Congress scheduled later this month where I am to talk about “Indie Filmmaking in Dumaguete.” (And the first question that came to my head was, “Is there any?”)
But I have always loved the movies.
Yet you can also always say, “Who doesn’t?” Quite honestly, I know there’s truth in that retort. Because film may be the truest democratic art form today: it is, after all, a painstakingly-wrought symphony of many other art forms (from performance to design to music), and finally it also tends to level all sorts of human barriers—from class to language—and everybody everywhere else in the world can subscribe to it the way the opera cannot, or a painting cannot. Everybody has their favorite movies, and movies, for the most part, become portal to our deepest fantasies. As Edward Behr once famously said, “Films are our unlived lives unfolding in front of a magic mirror.”
I have always loved the movies. Truth to tell, it was my first love. Before I even deigned to become a teacher or a writer, and before I had that first pragmatic childhood wish of ending up a medical doctor, all I really wanted to do was the movies. My best childhood memories, first in Bayawan and later on in Dumaguete, often consist of separate flights of fancies in the darkness of various movie theaters, the only thing constant being the feeling of being enraptured by the flickering, moving lights set before my eyes. I don’t exactly remember the face of the person I had my first kiss with—I think it was with a girl named Kate, who lived in the apartment next to ours in my old neighborhood along Sta. Rosa Street, and I was only six years old—but I still remember, down to the details, my first movie experience. It was Irwin Allen’s The Swarm, in 1978, and I was only three years old. I can still vividly recreate that atmosphere of terror and ecstatic joy which I felt in equal measure in the middle of a small theater, an affair called Oriente, in Bayawan, which is now only a faded shadow of its former self.
Later, still in grade school and high school, I made myself a cineaste, a self-educated one, and I voraciously read up on books on film technique, film history, and film theory. I began reading the intelligent criticism of Roger Ebert and Paulene Kael and David Bordwell when I was thirteen. I picked apart screenplays and montage techniques. I studied auteur theory. I began watching the Oscars earnestly the year when Kathy Bates won Best Actress for Misery and Jeremy Irons won Best Actor for Reversal of Fortune.
I became a mad borrower of obscure film titles—first in Betamax, and then in VHS—in an unassuming video store near the Dumaguete public market called Good Luck Store, from which I learned to carefully watch movies made by Martin Scorsese, Jim Jarmusch, Quentin Tarantino, Neil LaBute, and other directors whose films you won’t see displayed today in VideoCity. (I’m not sure the Chinese owner of Good Luck Store knew he had all those titles—most of them terribly great but also terribly uncommercial. I mean, who would rent Kevin Smith’s Clerks? Larry Clark’s Kids? Steve James’ Hoop Dreams? Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb? David O. Russell’s Spanking the Monkey? Gregg Araki’s Doom Generation? Save maybe me?)
I swallowed movies day and night. When I was finally in college, I became president of Société de Cinephiles, the only film society (now defunct) in Silliman University, and we invited the Japan Foundation to stage Eiga Sai in Dumaguete, where we introduced locals to Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies. We invited the French Embassy to do a François Truffaut mini-film fest in AVT1. We screened films from Iran and Vietnam and China and HongKong before anyone in Dumaguete heard of Majid Mahidi’s Children of Heaven or Tran Anh Hung’s Scent of Green Papaya or Zhang Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern or Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express. We studied films by Lino Brocka, and Ishmael Bernal, and Mike de Leon. We dissected Hollywood film noir. We had weekly film screenings in my old apartment in Bantayan, where we watched all sorts of weird movies like James Bidgood’s Pink Narcissus and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo. In retrospect, I think we gave the country the first ever gay and lesbian film festival, in 1995, before anyone else did. (We were always pushing the envelope. Once we had to fight a teacher who complained that Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine was pornographic. It isn’t.)
Finally, I directed my first short film—a hysterical drama titled Trahedya sa Kabila ng Liwanag—which can only be found in VHS, and hopefully rot away to mold heaven.
Sometimes I would wonder, where did I find all that time to do all of those? Chalk it up to the irrepressible energy and defiance of youth.
And then I stopped. Because life happened.
... But there is finally no getting away from the old enchantment of childhood. The truth of the matter is, once one becomes a cineaste, one will always remain a cineaste.
And yet one must admit, however, a scaling down of old passions: adulthood, after all, requires such sacrifices—which may be its greatest tragedy. The wanton days of hunting down obscure movie titles in even more obscure outlets and video rental stores, the sleepless nights devouring cinematic gems (and busts)—all that must wane a bit in the light of adult responsibilities. The consuming life becomes work, and cinema becomes the abandoned mistress. It is something we nevertheless revisit once in a while, on weekends and sick days. Sometimes we have gloriously rebellious days when we just want to do a staring down contest versus an avalanche of work and what-not, and we turn on the DVD for the now impossible march towards a fuller film education. (“There is that Bergman, that Altman, that Brocka, that Kurosawa I have not watched yet! That Buñuel, that Sirk, that Gosiengfiao!,” we scream, sometimes, in defiance.)
Sometimes it pays to get a broader picture of the source of this obsession. Film, barely a hundred years old, is said to be the youngest artform—but it is also the one that most defines the sensibilities of this century (and the last).
It is also the most popular: by far, compared to literature or the fine arts or the performing arts, it enjoys a privileged status as a medium of entertainment that has tickled the fancy of most people from all walks of life. Was it Nicanor Tiongson who once said that the true Filipino religion is the cinema? He wrote that immortal line in the 1980s, when mainstream Filipino cinema was at its most popular. Today, that devotion has largely given way to teleseryes, but there is more than a grain of truth in what Tiongson had to observe. And to pay attention to that is also to heed the fact that film is also a communication medium where ideas and concepts can ferment, and in this regard, has become a tool of influence the power of which cannot be denied.
In the first weeks of my film class in Silliman University, I introduced my students to two films—one short (Albert Lamorisse’s ecstatic The Red Balloon) and the other feature-length (Giuseppe Tornatore’s celebratory Cinema Paradiso)—which for me strongly demonstrate the power of film.
Two of my best students (from the College of Mass Communication) wrote of both films’ power to enchant in our group blog, and as a delighted teacher, I want to quote both of them verbatim. Eliora Eunice Bernedo wrote:
Good movies don’t need a complicated plot. Cinema Paradiso and The Red Balloon are excellent examples of simplicity. Balloon was a wonderful ageless story that contained a universe within itself—it brought life to a normally inanimate object. I see it as an authentic vision of childhood retreat into an inner world that is free of bullies, mean parents, and scornful teachers. The last scene was my favorite—it showed a great symbol for the escape from the loneliness and pain of growing up that many children experience. It’s evident that even adults can empathize with the little boy in the story as he tries to make his way in the world that seems so cruel. For the most part, I love the innocence of the story and the purity in which it is told. It clearly didn’t need dialogue to capture its beauty. It was moving, evocative, and ceaselessly charming. The cinematography was amazing, and it continues to fascinate.
Cinema Paradiso is also one of those rare motion pictures that speak of something remarkably meaningful, but to me, it succeeds by any measure. It mainly played a world of memory and evoked a study of life—from romance, drama, to humor. My favorite bit would have to be beginning, when it focused on the life of little Salvador (Toto). Somehow it reminded me of the main character in The Red Balloon, who was very curious and persistent. The film operated in three periods of time: Salvador’s childhood, adolescence, and middle age. Each is manifested by a different quality to the memories, and the nostalgia they invoke; as it kept on emphasizing the redemptive role played by the movies. Unlike The Red Balloon, the story was told through flashbacks. It was sometimes poignant, sometimes funny, yet it gave a sense of fulfillment. Although it was medieval in its symbolism, to me its conclusions are uncompromisingly postmodern.
Anthony Gerard Odtohan wrote:
The Red Balloon, though it was produced in the 1950s, to me, is a classic masterpiece that uses minimal dialogue as it transcends the language barrier. The story is told effectively as a narrative by the use of imagery and crafty editing (which to me is a step beyond its time). The power of this film lies not only in the technical prowess undertaken to create the illusion of a red balloon with a life of its own but also in the deliberate sequence of events. Lamorisse is a masterful storyteller who anthropomorphizes an otherwise mundane object and portrays it as the little boy’s best friend. Rarely do we see such a friendship in actuality; instead we can associate to some extent when we look back to our own childhood years when we held dearly to our toys as if they were real people.
Technically, it was amazing to notice how the red balloon, as a prop, was realistically and artistically maneuvered. The balloon’s movement looked natural and believable. The balloon not only interacted with the boy, but also with the other characters in the film and even with the environment itself. The climactic chase scene with the mob of little boys attempting to steal the balloon from the boy, and eventually attempting to destroy it, showed an expert handing in camera angles and editing. The balloon seemed to have a mind of its own and the scene in the end of its slow death mimicked the death of a person in actuality. The final scene of redemption for the child featuring all of the balloons clustering together and taking the boy to heights unknown required technical skill. Although it went against the natural laws of physics, the final scene invites us to ‘fly’ with the boy to the realm of fantasy.
Cinema Paradiso was a powerful narrative film: a story that begins in the present and flashes in and out of the past. The power of this film is that it invites is on a personal journey through time. This centers around an unlikely friendship between Alberto, the film operator, and Toto, a little boy with passion and immense curiosity. A turning point occurs, a reversal of roles in fact, when Toto rescues Alberto from a fire that breaks out in the cinema. Alberto sustains life-crippling injury to his eyes which make him blind for life. Alberto, who has also become Toto’s father figure, still continues to mentor the little boy. Eventually, Toto grows up and falls in love and dares the unthinkable: to win her heart. Elena, however, eventually doesn’t show up in a critical time just before Toto leaves for conscription and it shatters his hopes of consummating his love for her. Nearing the end, Alberto tells Toto to leave and never return after urging him that a better life awaits Toto outside their town. In hindsight, this is a coming of age movie. It is filled with a full range of emotions and a compelling narrative. The final gift, left by Alberto for Toto in present time, is a montage that, to me, represents an explosion of love that eluded him. He never got to marry Elena. In the end, in front of his eyes, Alberto left a reminder of that which was once forbidden (censored by the town priest) could have been his.
Both films succeed in presenting compelling stories. Both involve powerful friendships. One was between a boy and his balloon. The other was between a boy and a man who was like a second father to him.
And I listen to both, and I realize that love for film -- reel love, I call it -- is something of a sweet infection. And that made me happy.
They are masters behind the camera, capturing emotions through their lenses and bringing them to life. But now, the focus is on them. Instituto Cervantes, in celebration of the 8th edition of Película, presents a photo exhibit featuring several fundamental figures of the contemporary Philippine cinema from October 7 to 31 at the Cultural Center of the Philippines.
Dubbed as Filipino Filmmakers, the exhibit displays the work of renowned Spanish photographer Oscar Orengo. Over the years, Orengo has tried to capture the character of various film directors through his camera. Just last year, he brought to Manila his series of 44 black and white pictures of Spanish Filmmakers.
It was then that he realized to take advantage of his stay in the country and begin a series of pictures of Filipino film directors, which, he said, is an interesting subject for exhibit and for the promotion of the Philippine cinema to Spain. “The quality of the first pictures and its attractive potential for the Filipino and Spanish audiences inspired us to start the production of a new exhibit, Filipino Filmmakers, which would be exhibited in the Philippines and Spain,” Orengo said.
For his Filipino Filmmakers series, Orengo took photographs of 44 local directors and actors. He said the series is a good way to document an exceptionally creative period of the Philippine cinema as well as to strengthen the Spanish-Philippine cultural relations through cinema and photography.
Top-billing the exhibit are photos of award-winning and renowned local directors like Peque Gallaga, Jose Javier Reyes, Eddie Romero, Joel Lamangan, Maryo J. delos Reyes, Brillante Mendoza, and Jeffrey Jeturian.
Filipino Filmmakers is organized by Instituto Cervantes, in cooperation with the National Historical Institute, Spanish Embassy in the Philippines, AECID, Ministerio de Cultura of Spain, Filmoteca del Ministerio de AA.EE. de España, Cine en Construccion, Spanish Program for Cultural Cooperation, Philippine-Spanish Friendship Day, LRT, MRT, Cultural Center of the Philippines, College of St.Benilde, Greenbelt and Ayala Malls Cinemas.
“College life is really not about pseudo teachers and their boring classes. It’s zigzagging from Escaño to Barefoot to take a leak.” —MARIANNE TAPALES, former student
Our nights become because of the city we have.
Let me start by saying that the city always seems to stand on the brink of clashing peculiarities that often make it difficult to describe. Dumaguete is—so the tired cliché goes—a city that really is a small town at heart—but not exactly. It is a place so far away from the center of things that it is permeated with a semi-rough probinsyano air—but not really. It’s conservative to the bone—but not really; it can be quite liberal—but not really either. It is a beautiful, romantic place you can easily fall in love with—until you see pockets of it that make your heart bleed.
It is this and that, a place of constant flux in the guise of a slow tartanilla.
These things make it the capital of infuriating constancy as well as head-turning reinvention. But see how that goes? Our contradictions become us. “It’s the capital of schizoids then,” a friend once casually observed. I nodded and shook my head at roughly the same time.
Dumaguete is place where not too many people from the rest of the regions know very well—and there are people who are even more familiar with Silliman University than the place where it is located. (“Is Dumaguete in Silliman?” so the question goes. But perhaps this is in the same vein of how we think of Princeton but not New Haven.) Mention that it is in Negros (omitting the Spanish terms of direction that divide the island), and they think it’s a town near Bacolod.
And yet it is a celebrated city in spite of itself: it is a place of cultural ferment, and a place of breathtaking romantic beauty that more often than not finds itself splashed, like a surprised virgin, on the pages of Island Magazine (“one of 20 best islands in the world to live in!”), the New York Times (“I grew attached to the small harbor town,” writes travel writer Daisann McLane), or the Lonely Planet travel guide (“If you were beginning to develop an aversion to regional centers, you’re in for a pleasant surprise with Dumaguete. It’s a nice place. Seriously. Everyone raves about the Rizal Boulevard promenade, and it’s true there’s something genuinely charming about this harbor-front ‘quarter mile’: the faux-antique gas lamps; the grassy median strip. But there are other things to like about Dumaguete: it’s big but it feels small, and it’s less congested, less polluted and—being a university town—far more hip and urbane than your average provincial capital”).
To the eyes of the world, it is our merry contradictions that make us.
Still, Dumagueteños love to shroud themselves in the promise of calm, slowness, and silence. We call it a “city of gentle people,” after all—a gentility bred by Spanish sugar nobility, I suppose, which does not really say much—or perhaps it is a throwaway description of how passive things can be here?
Historically, the silence has always been part of the old Dumaguete charm, and the first complaint now from any returning Dumagueteño long gone from the scene is to express dismay over the traffic and the surprising flood of people. Writer Krip Yuson, adopted son of the city, speaks of the old silence with such nostalgia in his book The Word on Paradise: “I remember it as clearly as yesterday, that first rite on a slow-moving tartanilla, May of 1968. How I marveled at the manner of entry, at the fresh air of provincia, rustic indolence, aged acacias lining an avenue I instantly knew would lead to a long-imagined, long-elusive fountainhead...”
I also remember an anecdote Jacqueline Veloso-Antonio once told me about how the sound of someone’s car from not too far away—the screeching of tires on asphalt or gravel road, the sound of brakes—can immediately be registered sight unseen. “That’s So-and-so’s car, we would say,” Jacqueline laughed, remembering the old days. “Nipauli na sya.”
And then there is also the “university town” label, a moniker that promises an abundance of youth culture that always must be on the cutting edge of things and sensibilities—inherently defiant, gloriously rough, astoundingly creative, aggressively hip. How does one reconcile that image with a Dumaguete that is also a bucolic capital smack in the middle of countryside?
Everybody knows everybody else, and conservative fronts—nurtured both by Roman Catholic piety and American Protestant missionary zeal—still remain the standard order of things. But there’s also an ironic awareness among most Dumagueteños that there are not-so-subtle waves of transgressions that run like undiscovered waters beneath this general impression of “nothing happening.”
When Peyton Place came out—first as a scandalous 1956 novel by Grace Metalious and then a 1957 hit movie directed by Mark Robson and starring Lana Turner—it wasn’t such a great surprise that many locals saw too many parallels between Dumaguete and that archetypal American small town of sweet hypocrisy, where a pristine white picket fence mentality also bristles with delicious scarlet secrets that threaten to explode like a vat of raw sugar.
Such places on the quiet edge of things beget nocturnal lives that are the stuff of scandalous dreams. Dumaguete is so small and so quiet, that to vent—in one way (drinking) or another (dancing)—becomes the thing to do. Which brings us to a truism that Moses Joshua Atega, a Dumaguete transplant from Davao, always tells every new visitor to Dumaguete, in a kind of wicked reassurance: “Nothing bad will happen to you in Dumaguete. But, if something bad happens, you will like it.”
It is into that tradition of billowing quiet and vapid slowness that Music Box—before it was known as Why Not?—came in, and radically altered the nighttime landscape.
There had been other disco places and clubs in town before Music Box arrived, of course, and there were social events of various stripes where the young of Dumaguete raged against the overwhelming quiet of the everyday.
Moses Atega told me that before there were “official” party places like El Camino and Hayahay, Dumagueteños were already hosting strings of private parties in casa blancas everywhere in town, including the posh ones hosted in American missionary homes in Silliman campus. Even older than that, there were the bayles during sipong among the sugar cane workers.
“When I was in high school in the 1970s,” local TV host Glenda Fabillar told me, “we had jam sessions held in friends’ houses with only katol as light.” She said this laughing at the memory. “Then, in college, we partied in Silliman’s Catacombs, and there were more—but I can only remember the places we went to, but not their names. There were a lot.”
“In the 1970s,” Professor Cecilia Genove told me, “it was Town and Country Bakeshop, or TCB, which had a disco. That’s located near the Gallardo Building where Mr. D is now. I remember we would climb the fence near the SU Church to cross to Town and Country, to buy hot pan de sal. There was also North Pole, which is now Why Not, where you can have dinner and a nightcap. No disco there, however. I remember the spaghetti of Maricar’s [which is now the boarded up place fronting Taster’s Delight]. Their pastries were our favorites. There was also Dainty, an ice cream parlor. Life was truly laidback then.”
Understandably, Dumagueteños ate out more than partied then. For Rural Bank’s Toby Dichoso, to go out in the 1970s was to visit Speed Meals, where Body and Sole is now. “They had really good food in a jiffy,” he said. “And when merienda time came, who could forget those ice cream sundaes of North Pole, which was located in the Boulevard then. They served the best sundaes and banana splits. Remember, these were the time when we had to take two flights to Dumaguete from Manila. We took flights from Manila to Cebu with BAC 1-11, and upon reaching Cebu we changed to a plane with a turbo propeller bound for Dumaguete. And we used to go to Cruztelco just to make long distance calls. All phones were analogue then—only four numbers—and we went through an operator and we would ask her to dial the number for us while we waited in the lobby. As soon as the operator would connect us, she would direct us to a booth with a number, and there we would converse.”
U.S.-based Al de las Armas remembered that time as an opportunity to be creative: “When we ran out of allowance, we shared, we treated, we donated, we pahulam to our fellow Sillimanians. I’d walk from the campus to Ricky’s and bum for piso-piso, and I’d got lots of money after the social walk... Then, of course, we spent it all having a good time... Nowhere else can you do that!”
Local Globe manager Jacqueline Antonio remembered her parents mentioning Red Pepper in the 1970s, where Monterey of La Residencia is now. “There was Rainbow Pub in Piapi, a bar with billiards—but I was too young then. Not sure if it had a disco. There was also Windmills in Banilad and North Pole—both in the Boulevard and then in Bantayan—in the late 1970s and 1980s,” she said. “There was Tavern’s soft bar in the late 1980s—‘80s music was the best!”
“Definitely Tavern in the 1980s,” says businesswoman and writer Sonia Sygaco. “It had a disco, a resto bar with a band. And billiards. Tavern, I think, was the only elegant place to go because Dumaguete at that time only restaurants with no additional forms of entertainment.”
“In the early 1980s,” court clerk Angel Quiamco remembered, “there was Blue Wave in Escaño. And pwede pa pa-inoman sa Boulevard then, after which mag-bayle sa SU gym, or Hibbard Hall’s second floor, or Silliman Hall’s first floor. This was during Fridays, with events sponsored by different campus organizations. Then there was inoman sa Silliman Beach, or mga bayle sa mga barangay during fiesta.”
But Music Box was the hinge that changed the course of things. The year was 1992, the world was still fresh from the wounds of the Gulf War, and a young Swiss named Marcus Kalberer took over what used to be North Pole, a beloved watering hole for locals, and put into place what was then the most ambitious party club in Dumaguete. The city until then knew no such things. To cap that plan, he installed a jazzed up jukebox on the roof of the old Medina sugar house, with dazzlingly colorful neon signs blaring out the words: “Music Box.”
For the young in the early 1990s, it was an electric current into the common placidity and the brutal ugliness of the boring. It was also the new excuse for the hip to return to Rizal Boulevard, which had become, by the late 1980s, a mecca for drunkards and prostitutes who plied their alcohol smell and their skin trade in a virtual city of tambay vendors and barbecue stalls. The whole boulevard nightlife until then was defined by sleaze, its headquarters being Rainbow Lodge (later The Office), which is now the Sol y Mar Building where the Globe office is located. It used to be part motel, and part bar.
To go to the Boulevard then was reason enough to be mocked by friends. “You’re going to the Boulevard of Broken Dreams?” they would say. But the strip was slowly undergoing a cosmetic make-over then, spearheaded by the dynamic new mayor Agustin Perdices, who came in after the chaos of the Quial years. The grassy lawns were being manicured, the seaside promenade cemented and prettified, the garish fluorescent lights nailed to haphazard wooden posts replaced by the Spanish-style posts now emitting a more romantic yellow light. The sugar houses along the stretch suddenly took on a different shine. Some opened their doors to new business. There was now Sans Rival in the old Sagarbarria house, for example, and the old Villegas house was now Hotel Al Mar (later La Residencia). But there were unforeseen changes, too, that shocked: North Pole—the old Medina house, which was leased by the Wuttriches for 25 years—suddenly became Music Box.
And the young flocked to it like it was the answer to their dreams.
In the long-gone layout of the Music Box of old, you made your grand entrance after a cursory inspection by a bouncer—a new thing in Dumaguete then—and once you’ve passed through the heavy, padded doors and straight into the inside, you were introduced into a dark, very glamorous interior that was leveled in many places, red sofas dotting surfaces everywhere. The dance floor was right on the far-side. The walls were covered by screens that played the latest videos from MTV, when MTV was still new in the country and it still had currency as the symbol of cool. There were glittery things that hung from the ceiling. And the bar, right in the center of things, was party central. People dressed up to go to Music Box. The coolest cats and the most ravishing girls in town partied in Music Box.
Music Box was the place to be seen. “MB,” its patrons lovingly called it. And for the next five or so years, Music Box reigned as Dumaguete’s center of the social universe, where the young and the rich (and the social climbers) went and partied. To arrive by car was de riguer. Motorcycles were frowned upon, but tolerated. But if you arrived by tricycle, it was a common—although unspoken—rule that you had to alight by the corner near Chin Loong, and walk the rest of the way to the entrance of Music Box.
And for what it is worth, Music Box opened the floodgates for more contemporary sensibilities that shook the old silences and the geriatric drool of the old Dumaguete.
It barged into the scene at the same time as DYGB, which blasted into the air as Power 95. It was the new FM station in town, with the swanky new chrome-and-white cement headquarters right in the heart of town—so swanky it even had a popular video store in the ground floor called Midtown, which rented out the latest in laser discs! DYGB threatened the longtime ascendancy of DYEM and its easy-listening vibe. (Remember “Album Covers”?) Barely a month into operation, the Dejarescos had taken it to court, to have it dial down to a frequency that was not to near its own. Power 95 soon became Power 91. But it was a hip new FM station with an alien sound, with fast-talking American-sounding deejays, playing scandalous songs like “Let’s Talk About Sex, Baby.”
Dumaguete’s head spun.
I still remember those days. I was still in high school—a sophomore in Silliman High—and one day, DJ Alan felt compelled to explain the nature of the next song in his playlist. “We don’t mean to hurt the sensibilities of the people in the community,” he said, “but we are here to play for Dumaguete the latest hit sounds. I hope nobody gets offended by our next song…”
And then the music played:
Let’s talk about sex, baby Let’s talk about you and me, Let’s talk about all the good things, all the bad things that may be. Let’s talk about sex… Let’s talk about sex.
Dumaguete’s head spun some more.
Later on, in early 1993, our first section of high school seniors from Silliman, led by our gangleader for merrymaking Gerard Anthony Adiong, trooped to our favorite party place in town, and painted the night away in hues of red and blue. Someone saw us partying like mad, and duly reported us to the authorities. The principal admonished us. “And to think you belong to the first section!” she said.
And thus began Dumaguete’s 10 P.M. curfew—with matching sirens blaring out like a mad sound from the heart of City Hall.
It is not difficult to map the geography of Dumaguete’s night life.
The simple answer is: there’s nothing.
Nothing resembling the sophisticated rough and tumble of metropolises, anyway—say Manila’s Embassy and Greenbelt and The Fort, or Cebu’s Vudu and Doce, or Baguio’s Vocas and Rumours, or the whole sandy stretch of Boracay. There are no sights of night creatures in the city all bedecked in the signature wardrobe of painting the town red as they descend on the enviable hot spots of the moment, to party all night to the latest musical concoctions of the deejay du jour, and to emerge only in the near morning light smelling of sweet smoke and an amalgam of alcohol, cigarette, sweat, recreational mind-warpers, and perhaps somebody’s saliva.
Dumaguete is never a city that “never sleeps.”
It’s too small, some people say, and knows no variety. Everybody goes to the same places all the time, and everybody dances to the same music again and again. A “night life” is worth its reputation only in way it provides escape from boredom of the every day. You can’t have that when tedium becomes the escape itself.
But there’s also this indefinable something—or perhaps a clustery kaleidoscope of everything: a scattered constellation of bright (and not-so-bright) nocturnal buzzing that follows a strict schedule lasting more than half a week, creating a social swirl that is governed, by and large, by a strange Negrense sense of social class.
One always starts with coffee and dinner and light talk at Gabby’s Bistro, in the enclaves of Bantayan, where the bright lights and the cheerful colors always seem to beautifully kick in the start of a good evening. Some choose to spend nighttime in the old tagay tradition, not on anonymous sidewalks outside residences, but in places like Garahe along Noblefranca, or Qyosko along Santa Rosa, or Sted’s near that. (But this is not an essay on beer circles.)
Everything really begins on Wednesdays, when the B and C crowd—mostly college students but also a generous smattering of young professionals—all ache to get over the hump day, looking forward to the looming weekend ahead. They flock to the Pinoy/Jamaican sounds of Hayahay’s Reggae Wednesday, where Sande Fuentes, often with Mickey Ybañez and the rest of the Hayahay regulars in tow, hold court. The beer in their hands will be ice-cold.
Hayahay attracts a loyal customer base—has always been since it opened in 2000. Its charms are rustic and simple: just a hodge-podge of mini-bars and tables, mostly in the open air, in an arrangement of managed chaos gelled together by a bohemian spirit. This is true Dumaguete night life at its purest form.
Its two observation decks will be in full capacity, and so will be Chez Andre’s pizza corner to the left-most side of the entire compound, where three large round tables accommodate a plethora of barkadas, with a vantage sight of the amused observer staring down the rest of the lion’s den. The band for the night—a mix of Boyan’s Law, Stand Out, Souljah, Front Page, or Silent Vibe—will start playing around nine, perhaps even earlier, and by the time midnight comes along, a throng—bodies rubbing and hopping to the quirky reggae sound—can be found on the tiny dance floor in front of the band.
Everywhere, everybody is uniformed in careless shirts over shorts pants, feet clad in sandals and espadrilles. Wednesday is when you let your hair down but still party. Wednesdays are sweaty. Wednesdays are dread locks nights.
On Thursdays, a taste of the weekend finally begins, but nothing too ostentatious—Hayahay still mostly closes by midnight, and its neighbor El Camino Blanco may blare out dance music but the place is often near empty.
Nobody goes to Camino on Thursdays. That is taken as an unspoken breach of night-life logic.
And so the only recourse, perfectly acceptable to many, is to park one’s car or van along the beachfront stretch of Escaño Boulevard, then take out the plastic shopping bags containing junk food and assorted pulutan, Tanduay rhum, and endless beer—and then party till the wee hours with the music blaring from the car’s stereo.
The spot that tops the T-shape of the stretch is ground zero for grill parties. It’s the choice spot to be in Escaño, which has since replaced San Moritz (along Agan-an) as the nighttime beach side hangout of Dumaguete. There is a certain headiness to being Escaño—perhaps the effect of the collision of the orange tungsten lights running smack against the black horizon of the sea, the twinkling lights of Cebu towns in the distance.
On Thursdays, the scene is small—only a few cars and a scattering of motorcycles dot the Escaño landscape—but already, the oldish couple manning the small stall at the corner of Piapi Beach and E.J. Blanco Drive is making good business selling packs of cigarettes, soft drinks, bottles of Tanduay (with a choice of long neck or flats), and packs and packs of ice. Business for them (and for the peanut vendors that now ply the long “runway” walk of Escaño, which ends at a sari-sari store/beer garden rightly named Tambayan sa Escaño) will pick up some more intensity in the next two days.
On Fridays, Payag sa Likod, nestled in the bowels of unassuming bodegas fronting the provincial hospital, unleashes what it calls Reggae Friday, and students (mostly from nearby Silliman University) descend on cheap beer, wallowing in the strange bamboo-hut-intimacy of Payag’s open door ambience. Here, the charming Christine Torres reigns, ready to pour you a swig of Pagay Sling, its pinkish concoction subtle but ravishingly deadly. Admittedly, there is a roughness and an earthy aroma to the place that may confuse the uninitiated—but this is where the kids hang out, a cocoonish respite from the vastness of sea sky of Piapi Beach. And the beer is cheap. And the place is the only spot in town where the maddening crowds—all distinguished by the pecking order of schools around town—are allowed, somewhat, to mingle. The NORSU crowd are here hobnobbing with the Sillimanians, the Foundation people with the Paulinians who are careful to keep a low profile lest the nuns know.
In Gimmick, things are not the same: the Sillimanians with their airs have left the scene, and the NORSUnians have taken over. In Maychen, right across the road from Gimmick, a kind of social black hole—awashed in Beer na Beer—exists amidst the heaps of trash, the slaking rivers of urine across the dirt floor, and the monobloc tables and chairs jammed against jagged cement edges of what used to be a house. It is a different kind of party in Maychen.
But the main party still remains in Escaño, which, on Friday nights, is now beginning to pick up steam. The stretch—which starts right in front of Hayahay and goes all the way to the dark beyond, would now be filled to capacity, crammed with all manners of cars and motorcycles creating a drunken patchwork of parking. Nobody cares.
In one corner, near Barefoot Bistro, the policemen keep watch. Many moons ago, this was dangerous ground—I have friends who have been stabbed or mauled here—but the atmosphere has arguably since changed. It has become the place where the kids can “safely” party. There is a kind of harmony in the orchestrated chaos—everybody knows everybody—and people dance, flirt, drink, and make speeches to the moon and the stars.
Still, only the desperate goes to Camino on Friday nights, and most will probably end up in Hayahay, to binge on sisig and sinuglaw, and rhum and vodka.
On Saturday nights, the party in Escaño comes to full blast—and the well-heeled crowd now finally descends on Camino, with full intentions to gyrate to house and R&B. The ladies are in their best small black dresses, hair and makeup perfectly done—but with full expectations to be fully undone by the time the night comes to a close. These days, it is local designer Josip Tumapa who comes in with his posse to start the night right. (In olden days, that role would have been Al de las Armas’s.) And the deejay plays his selection of dance tunes—mostly R&B, because the Dumaguete crowd simply does not get house or trance music—but nobody dances until Mitz Meliton dances. It always begins with Paper Kisses doing contemporary covers. On some (bad) nights, a deejay’s sidekick would bark into the microphone, shouting, “Aw! Aw! Aw!” or “Seleman! Seleman! Jump! Jump, jump, jump your hands!” Some would, of course, jump. Some would curse back, telling him to go shut himself. DJ Joeren is the local deejay for the days—but sometimes, a Manila-based one, such as DJ Ace from Embassy, would be flown in, ready to give Dumaguete a taste of edgier stuff.
In Music Box, the dance hall of the entertainment and dining compound generally known as Why Not?—an alternate universe exists—where the garishly made-up and the truly crazy hobnob with the white trash to the sound of 90s dance music, creating the grand spectacle unique to the place: people dancing, not with each other, but to their reflection on the mirrored panels surrounding the squarish dance floor as everybody looks on in strange fascination. It is a different kind of fun, something to subscribe to when you’re already too drunk to care.
The Rizal Boulevard—previously the center of Dumaguete’s night life universe—is a ghost of its former self, crippled by pious but misplaced city regulations, and done to death by the spectacle of Japayuki-style entertainment on a makeshift stage outside CocoAmigos. “Nobody I know has been to CocoAmigos in months,” says a friend. “Too many boorish foreigners and their brown women.”
“That’s a bad thing to say,” I told him.
“But isn’t that how it goes? The moment they come, the locals disappear.”
And then the party stops at three o’clock on a Sunday morning—and slowly, the crowd dissipates for an after-midnight chow at Connie’s or Qyosko or Chowking. They will look tired and happy, like the very picture of merry stupor and delirium.
10:25 PM |
This Weekend in Dumaguete : Sandosenang Sapatos the Musical
Sandosenang Sapatos (A Dozen Pairs of Shoes), a Palanca award-winning story that has reaped numerous accolades in the Philippines and abroad and has touched the hearts of many, is now a musical and will be staged by the Valenzuela City Center for Performing Arts (VCCPA) this September 19, Saturday (3 PM matinee and 8 PM gala) at the Claire Isabel McGill Luce Auditorium, in Silliman University. The presentation is sponsored by the Silliman University Cultural Affairs Committee.
Written by Palanca Hall of Famer Luis P. Gatmaitan, Sandosenang Sapatos tells the story of Karina and Susie. They are the daughters of the town’s best shoemaker, but only Karina gets to wear the beautiful shoes their father makes. Susie can never wear shoes because she was born without feet. Will her father and her family love her less? Soon, Susie is surprised by the discovery of her father’s incomparable love for her.
Sandosenang Sapatos celebrates the love and acceptance of a family in the face of adversity. Artistic Director Roeder Camañag says, “This is a story of hope grounded in reality. It’s something that will help fight the cynicism we see around us nowadays. It’s not a fairy tale. It’s fresh and relevant.” Sandosenang Sapatos: The Musical stars veteran stage actor Luisito “Kuya Bodjie” Pascua, popular host of the 80s’ children’s TV show Batibot.
The musical begins with vivid imagery: a dozen luminescent dancing shoes on black The music is playful and bright, and lyrics are remarkably fresh and original. Heartrending melodies lined with poignant words underscore particularly moving scenes.
Author Luis Gatmaitan, also known as Tito Dok of the popular Mga Kwento ni Tito Dok series, is happy with the results. “Isang malaking karangalan para sa isang manunulat tulad ko ang makita ang nilikha mong kwento ay nagkaka-buhay sa entablado, na mula sa mga pahina ng libro ay naging isang musical. (It is a great honor for an author like me to see the story I’ve created come to life on stage, from the pages of a book to a musical.)”
Sandosenang Sapatos: The Musical is directed by Andre Tiangco, with music by Jesse Lucas and libretto by Jose Jeffrey Camañag, featuring Luisito “Kuya Bodjie” Pascua and the VCCPA Theater Group.
Tickets and Season Passes for the second half of the 2000-2010 Cultural Season are available at the College of Performing Arts Office and the Luce Auditorium Office, and at the theater lobby before every show. For inquiries and ticket reservations, please call/contact Gang-gang at (035) 422-6002 loc. 520. See posters for more details. Schedule may change without prior notice. For more information, please go to the website.
9:32 PM |
This Weekend in Dumaguete : Ramon del Prado Lectures on Digital Animation
Filmmaker/digital animator Ramon del Prado, fresh from his Fulbright stint in New York City where he studied 3D animation, will give the second Albert Faurot Lecture on Culture and the Arts for the 47th Cultural Season of Silliman University on September 19, Saturday. His lecture titled "What Egg Hatched: The Digital Animation of Ramon del Prado" will also feature a screening of his short films. The lecture begins 1 PM at NEB Conference Room, Silliman University, Dumaguete City.
11:36 PM |
Why Literature is Literature; Or Why This Must Be Beyond the Grasp of the Obtuse Carlo J. Caparas
By Virgilio S. Almario Translated from the Filipino by Marne L. Kilates
Towards the end of An Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy, Karl Marx suddenly mentions the mysterious appeal of Greek art and epic poetry. Why do they “continue to give us esthetic pleasure and are often considered the standard and incomparable ideal” of art and literature even up to the present?
Deliberately or mentioned only in passing, this was a big anomaly Marx himself felt was present in the political economy he had constructed. It is not possible that what had been created in ancient slave society could continue to be admired in the modern capitalist state. According to Marxist analysis, the appeal of Greek art should have died together with or after the death of Greek society and civilization. And like the great thinker that he was, Marx tried to explain the problem in the succeeding chapter. He compared ancient slave society with civilization’s age of innocence and proposed that the appeal of Greek art might be equivalent to the joy we feel towards little children and our happiness in recalling times past and unrecoverable.
But his explanation was rather brief and “un-Marxist.” Especially remarkable was that it even used, perhaps unintentionally, the Hegelian metaphor for civilization. Or perhaps his materialist dialectic was simply inadequate in grasping the “mystery” of art and literature—the esthetic of how art is art and literature is literature. Even here in Asia, the Taj Majal, Angkor Wat, and Borobodur are not just simple tourist attractions. Part of the fascination for them is their amazing ancient art and architecture which today’s mechanics and technology would be hard put to equal. Not only is the Mahabharata amazing because it is prodigiously longer than the Iliad but more so because of the imagination that shaped the narrative and lured the listener or reader into the intricate details of war and adventure and let them “believe” in the intervention of the gods and the use of wondrous weaponry. From the orthodox Marxist perspective, these are products of labor, and because they are products of labor, they are the result of the prevailing relations of economic production. Thus, the products of labor are fated to disappear when change occurs in the prevailing relations of production that created them. The Angkor Wat is the result of what was then the setup and which has since disappeared—the religious society of Cambodia. Darangan has been the Maranaws’ folk epic even before they embraced Islam. But today’s tourists are wide-eyed, not at the power of the religion that dictated Angkor Wat but at the opulent imagination that was poured into the intricate ornamentation of the walls and other parts of the temple. Until the American period, the Muslims’ chanting of the Darangan epic echoed along the banks of Lake Lanao in order for them, as it were, not to forget the magnificent narrative of their forefathers. And it is here that I am more trustful of the critiques from the Frankfurt School, especially those of Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and Herbert Marcuse, who insist on a distinct and independent respect for the subversive and revolutionary work of esthetics, the interior and psychological components of form in order to recreate a reality that cannot be dictated upon by the relations of economic production and class conflict.
The Freedom of Literature
Literature has its own and firm standard as to why it is literature. It recreates the world through the world it creates in literature. That is the basic tenet of its freedom and, if ever, of its liberating power. Perhaps, this was what Marx couldn’t accept while addressing the problem of the long-lasting attraction of Greek art and literature. Why literature is literature is precisely what the obtuseness of Carlo J. Caparas cannot, at the very least, contemplate.
[My mention of Carlo J. Caparas needs an explanation. How does a junkie comics-maker suddenly become part of this decent conversation? That’s why I must, first of all, apologize for this. But it was a good opportunity that I wrote this as the National Artist controversy rages—the DNA (Dagdag National Artist) proclaimed by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo one Wednesday, on 29 July 2009. Caparas is one of the four DNAs and currently the busiest and most diligent in defending himself against the brickbats coming his way. In cahoots with him are second wife Donna Villa, co-conspirators NCCA Executive Director Cecille Guidote-Alvarez and Undersecretary Vilma Labrador, and fellow racketeers like Manuel Morato who just about stormed the radio and TV networks, and tabloids to (1) defend the prerogative of the President of the Philippines in selecting National Artists, (2) insist on their own qualifications as artists, and in the hard labor of ass-licking (3) praise GMA to high heavens as a good leader. The case concerning Presidential discretion has been elevated to the Supreme Court. But Caparas’ assertions of his own qualifications are laughable if not altogether strange for unintentionally using the “class struggle” or what he considers as the class struggle in national literature. The PDI put on record his 10 August statement thus:
“I am thankful for this experience because I have seen the height of our society’s hypocrisy. The elite are angry because I was able to enter their territory. I’m from the bakya (masses). They are not.”
Caparas wants to split literature in the middle according to its readers. The one kind with its scarce population of readers, he calls “elitist” literature, where current National Artists F. Sionil Jose, Bienvenido Lumbera, and yours truly, belong. At the other end of the weighing scale is literature “for the masses,” which he leads as merchant for his comics creations and commercial movies.]
In brief, literature has one standard because there is, after all, only one literature. Other literatures always need modifiers to their names, for example, children’s literature, academic literature, political literature (especially the type used in political campaigns), campus literature, popular literature, and Caparas’ specialization, commercial literature. The adjectives are needed to clarify either the noble or the earthly intentions of the writer who entered these distinct worlds of writing and not to let him bear the weight and dignity of the overall standard of literature. There should have been a daily literature (the origin of the journal, the daily, and the diary) to distinguish the service-in-a-hurry rendered by newspapers but this kind has become a republic unto itself under the name of “Journalism” although there are often journalists who attempt in their articles or columns what they dream to be recognized as “literary” essays.
A Case of Rulers and the Ruled
On the other hand, Caparas’ protestations using the labels of “elitist literature” and “literature for the masses” bears many traces of the long-opened dichotomy of society into the small ruling class and the broad ruled and oppressed classes. Such protestations echo the pre-War debate among writers on Art-for-Art’s-Sake, represented by Jose Garcia Villa, and the socially committed writers led by Salvador P. Lopez. But the split intensified even more during the period of activism at the close of the 60s decade until the early 70s, and was due as much to efforts to present the protests against the Marcos regime as Marxist in nature, including the concurrent and surrounding political upheaval. If there is such a thing as class struggle, according to the formulation of PAKSA (Panitikan para sa Kaunlaran ng Sambayanan)—the writers’ arm that the activist movement created for the National Democratic Front—then class consciousness pervades all writing and authorship. Accordingly, there is a reactionary literature that serves the interest of the ruling class, and opposite is the hoped-for revolutionary literature that participates in the oppressed classes’ struggle for more freedom and justice.
Caparas’ problem is that the writerly manner he wants to revive has long fallen into disuse. After almost half a century, the prophets of socially conscious writing have widened their horizons, taken longer views. These days, to be politically correct, the socially conscious writer must recognize other prevailing oppressions besides those coming from the ruling classes lording it over the economy and society. Even if Caparas is for the masses, he might not make the grade if assessed from the safety standards of phallocentrism—since he seems to be flaunting his machism—by the feminists and by the standards of racism from the Blacks, as he seems to be moving in the opposite direction of the dominant mindset of Orientalism in Europe, the United States, and other White societies.
Neither can the obtuseness of Caparas comprehend the notion that it is not sales that dictates the standards of literature. If his commercial standards were applied, then J.K. Rowling should have won the Nobel Prize after her second book, and so should the creators of Marvel superheroes whom Caparas imitates. But where are the bestsellers from the ranks of Gabriela Mistral, Octavio Paz, James Joyce, William Faulkner, Boris Paternak, Kawabata, Wole Soyinka, Derek Walcott, Nadine Gordimer, Tagore, and Wislawa Szymborska? Well, the best selling among Nobel Prize winners would be Saul Bellow and Gabriel Garcia Marquez but they would eat dust behind the bursting warehousefuls and container-shipfuls of orders just on the first day of release for the newest Harry Potter book.
And Rizal would be pathetic if measured according to the commercialist yardstick. It is not even known if the hundred copies of the Noli ever ran out that’s why he needed financial help once more from his Propagandist friends to be able to publish the Fili. And he would be pitiful, from Morato’s point of view, if he happened to walk alongside the likes of Caparas on Manila’s sidewalks. No one might recognize him while fans would swarm over their favorite, Caparas. For all we know, this might be the origin of the urban legend that Rizal did not die at the Luneta. Because no one among the ranks of the guardia civil would know or recognize Rizal, they arrested a different person. According to another legend, a Rizal substitute submitted to the arrest, got himself imprisoned at Fort Santiago, underwent trial, and sacrificed himself to the firing squad on 30 December 1896. And so it was even hoped that Rizal was alive and would later surface to lead the Filipino people during the time of the Americans.
But Rizal himself is proof contrary to the senseless claim of Caparas’ commercialist yardstick. How many Indios could have read the Noli and Fili? Maybe less than ten. Or maybe none, since none of them knew how to read novels, especially novels in the Spanish language, the language of education, the education denied them by the colonists. And only a small group of ilustrados could have claimed they read Rizal before the Revolution of 1896 broke out. And that was enough. It was not necessary that every Filipino set eyes on the Rizal novel. Enough that there was a small and “elitist” group that could read Spanish that was stirred by Rizal’s analysis of the colonial society to spark the tinder of revolution and form the subversive Katipunan that tore down the three-hundred-year-old redoubt of colonization in the Philippines.
Still on the other hand, for what purpose is the enticement of hundreds of thousands of people into the comics and commercial movies if not to entertain them and make money from them? Well, the weekly “to be continued” comics episodes simply outdo the similarly weekly sermons on hope and self-sacrifice of the Church. Both are legal opiates of the people. No wonder then that a security guard could succeed in the comics and be able to build himself a house in Ayala Alabang, in the same manner that a bishop of the new faith had been able to build a church to the tune of P1 billion culled from the alms of the blind and the sick. The millionaire prophets of commercial literature are never shot in Bagumbayan nor are made to drink hemlock.
The Desire of Literature
And so Caparas would neither understand Walter Benjamin when he says, “a literary work can be politically correct only if it is correct by literary standards.” This is an extremely metaphorical, if not altogether venomous, statement even for the activists at UP who have complete faith in the decisive function of the “economic base,” and especially of the “relations of production.”
Benjamin’s statement is founded on a liberating principle that has to do with why art is art and literature is literature. It proposes a literary consciousness that is within but not necessarily subsumed to a social and political order, moving according to its own and independent hopes, motivations, visions to create change in both the world of literature and in the present world that overarches literature. According to this point of view, literature is not society’s obedient tool for economic and political change. Instead, it actively moves and participates in scrutinizing the present and in shaping the possibilities of the future.
In 1957, Northrop Frye stated that the whole structure of civilization was not only the imitation of nature, like the idea of mimesis that we picked up from Aristotle, but a general form of desire—the desire of man to shape nature according to his own will. Example, he needs food and shelter. This is the desire that urges him not to be satisfied with tubers and caves for his uses but to put together and create the art and science of agriculture and architecture. Fry involved Marx when he said: “The efficient cause of civilization is work,” only to add “and poetry in its social aspect has the function of expressing, as a verbal hypothesis, a vision of the goal of work and the formation of desire.” Thus, according to Frye, the expert envisioning of archetypes is the work of critics in order for them to look at literature not only as mirror to nature but as part of civilization or the overall history of the human desire to give nature a human shape.
It was way back in the 1920-30s when the Frankfurt School spread the idea that there are no honest mirrors. If literature were a mirror, it was a deceptive one. Each metaphor or figurative in literature is a mechanism for distorting the truth. Distortion that results in what they call estrangement or what Slovski calls defamiliarization or even Todorov’s fantastique. Every metaphor in literature is a product of the intense and acute experiencing of the reality of the world so that it comes to us in the reading as not-ordinary, puzzling, and often unbelievable. And here, I think, is what must be marked from the Moscow, Prague, and Frankfurt schools. Distortion in literature happens in language—through the various games and operations of language—by way of amazing and unexpected comparisons and ironies, in imbuing the sentence with tone and music, in compressing or loosening the line of verse or paragraph, in the restraint or letting loose of emotion after the prolonged contemplation of memory and experience, in the refining of the roughages of pain and joy in daily life.
Popular Literature and History
Now, Caparas sobs, the “elitists” look down on him because he is only a comics writer. Apart from belittling his own livelihood Caparas is truly ignorant of history.
If he even bothered to read Rizal, he would have discovered that Rizal first admired a popular writer like him. This is Balagtas, also recognized as the first great poet of Filipino literature. Balagtas rose to fame at a time when the awit at korido was the equivalent of the comics for the masses’ popular consumption. What did Balagtas do in Florante at Laura? He raised the level of the metrical romance from whimsical verse narratives about princes and princesses to an original and symbolical romance of love for the beloved, for parents, and for country. Apart from Balagtas’ refining of the verse form and use of fresh metaphors, Rizal admired Balagtas’ political vision, thus pronouncing him a great poet and philosopher. When Florante expressed his grief thus:
Sa loob at labas ng bayan kong sawi Kaliluha’y siyang nangyayaring hari…
He only wanted to present the grave conditions of the kingdom of Albania, but Rizal read in the verses the grave conditions of the latter’s Filipinas and became a beacon that guided the national hero in his writing of the Noli. Another Balagtas admirer and the most popular poet of the 20th century, Jose Corazon de Jesus, makes such melancholic sentiments reverberate thus:
Ibong mang may layang lumipad Kulungin mo at umiiyak; Bayan pa kayang sakdal dilag Ang di magnasang makaalpas?
And this was the song sung during the American period and until EDSA I against the Marcos dictatorship.
The author himself cannot hinder or thwart the power of his own words. It is possible that Filipinas was not in Balagtas’ mind when he made Florante protest about “my country of grief” but Rizal was able to read it. Surely Batute could never dream of the Marcos dictatorship but his complaint about the “bird that’s free to fly” found its home and lodged in the heart of the Coristas. On the other hand, what did Caparas do with the comics? Did he attempt to shape them in order to, in the Frye’s words, make them part of the shaping of civilization?
No. Because he wrote for the comics only to earn a livelihood. At best, to entertain the masses. “Entertain the masses?” That is the most despicable purpose of writing. As filthy and as evil-smelling as the capitalist motive of profiting from anything sold. The capitalist studies the masses’ preferences, needs, dreams, and weaknesses to sell them products no matter that it might kill the consumer or destroy our planet. Likewise the entertainer studies the masses’ preferences, needs, dreams, and weaknesses in order to sell his comics, telenovella, or CD no matter that beggars and the homeless swarm the streets and the country drowns in debt from the World Bank. Which does not mean that the writer must become the “voice of the masses.” There are voices upon voices “of the masses” who only want to replace the trapos in Congress to become the next trapos.
The Country of Literature
Truth is, literature cannot be the “voice of the masses.” It was a Marxist illusion, a crazy dream of the apostles in Christ’s time for a “literature from the masses and for the masses.” Often the writer with this ambition has two options. First, study the cultural condition of the target masses and adjust to their capacities the kind and manner of writing he must do. Second, study likewise the cultural condition of the target masses and give them the kind and manner of writing that will elevate them from their condition and unite them in a revolution against the prevailing order.
If the “voice of the masses” really and truthfully studies his target public, he will soon discover what entertainers, capitalists, and traditional politicians have long known. Because it is a beggarly life, the public’s heart and mind are as beggarly. They are the same victims of the powerful exploitation and deception by businessmen and politicians and of the long history of frustration in dreaming of salvation and the instant satisfaction derived from public entertainment, vices (from liquor to drugs, from numbers games and lotto to the casinos), and sex. Thus the mass mind is far removed from the Marxist ideal of the “proletarian consciousness.” Instead of being progressive and revolutionary, it carries all the qualities of a seemingly eternal state of ignorance—broken dreams, distorted values and worldviews, and a superficial, easy-to-please kind of happiness.
What is the prevailing condition of culture? Here is how Joaquin Sy summarizes it while mourning the death of Aunt Cory:
And nowadays we are a nation having corruption anomalies for breakfast, Wowowee and Eat Bulaga for lunch, candied scams for the afternoon snack, and for supper an eat-all-you-can of scandals, after which we are lulled to sleep by the Korean telenovellas and the comics stories of Carlo Caparas, whose naming as national artist is being protested by national artists as I write this.
In these conditions of the national culture, where could the two options of the “voice of the masses” lead him? To bring down or to elevate? In the first option, it is impossible for him to write literature tailored to the capacities of his readers. He will be incomprehensible to the masses anyway. In the second option, he will need urgently to become a propagandist, a fiery propagandist, rather than a poet or novelist. As W.H. Auden said, the masses will not rise even if you wrote a thousand “When All Your Tears are Dry, My People” and read it daily at Plaza Miranda.
Country and society are now captive of this historic cultural condition. A cultural condition that begs for the transformative and liberating force of education, if not of a radical political and economic revolution. This maddening cultural state of affairs is being nurtured by Caparas as a commercial writer and by his capitalist and political co-conspirators. They nurture it to hold it captive and to profit from it. This is the same cultural condition that casts literature outside the prevailing order. Contrary to the good fortune of Greek art, which Marx admired, the poet and artist today are outsiders. On the one hand, he would not be welcome to the ruling classes. The capitalists will not patronize him because there is no profit to be had from his literature. Poems or short stories don’t make big and instant earnings. He will be considered a dangerous risk by government and other established institutions. On the other hand, neither would the oppressed classes love him. Why? The people can’t understand his own insistence on the humanity of man, because that’s not what is taught them by religion, television, their favorite commentator, or by the textbook they read in elementary school. Due to their ignorance, which is no different from the ignorance and obtuseness of Caparas, they might even condemn literature as “elitist”—useless because it doesn’t bring coffee and bread for breakfast, a dud at the tills because it fails to deliver sex and violence, too obscure if filled with mythological allusions (native or Greek), and when bold enough to expose the rot of their society, they themselves might accuse it of being an Enemy of the People.
Speech Delivered at the UMPIL Convention GSIS Museum 29 August 2009