The emotional peak for that day for me came early. We had just finished doing our presentations on four specific aspects of gay lives—Prof. Michele Joan Valbuena, former chair of the Psychology Department at Silliman University, talked about the spectrum of gay identity; Atty. Golda Benjamin, instructor at the College of Law, talked about current legal groundings of the LGBTQ; J Marie Maxino, instructor at the Department of English and Literature, talked about the nuances of gay living; and I talked about gay representation in culture, focusing mostly on movies. There was a huge crowd gathered around the American Studies Resource Center of the Silliman Library, and we were fielding questions.
Soon a girl came up, and in a shaky voice that ran the gamut of being scared and being tired revealed to the crowd how she was recently forced to “come out” to her family and how she was now flailing in her relationships with them, essentially asking us the panelists in that Pride Month forum how to be brave in the face of all that.
This is the thing many people don’t get about queer lives: often there is the heartbreaking ostracism from the very people who are supposed to care for us, no matter what. The details of the girl’s story and how she delivered it shook me—and I must admit I cried in front of everyone. It was a very emotional moment, an unexpected one, simply because it struck me as being so brave, that decision to speak up, in public no less. It must been such a driving thing for her, to be compelled to ask.
I remembered a friend from five years ago, for example, who was told by his father that if he didn’t “turn straight” in six months, he would be forced to leave home. A former student also told me that once she was in a fast food restaurant with a very close relative who, upon seeing a couple of lesbians exchanging affection in the line at the counter, promptly told her that if she behaved “like that,” she would also get the boot. How many more stories like these are out there? I bet thousands.
For J Marie, her emotional moment came right after our panel when a boy came up to her and revealed how he had to flee from his hometown all the way to Dumaguete to get away from all the bullying.
And that was when I realized this was why we were doing all the things we’ve been doing for Pride Month in Dumaguete: to make visible all these issues no one wants to talk about, to create a safe space for discourse, to allow people to reveal of themselves without fear.
Truth to tell, when I found myself starting 6200Pride three weeks ago with only about seven people eager to help, and with no budget whatsoever, I made an effort not to think about the gargantuan demands of pulling off a Pride Month, which suddenly had ten major events to manage. I didn’t ask for these ten events; other people suggested them with so much enthusiasm I felt compelled to help them realize what they wanted.
“You want a drag show?” I remember telling Sol De Castro, for example. He had been, for the longest time, the leader of Silliman’s ISPEC, the campus’ organization for LGBTQs and allies, and had developed a drag persona called Solé, but had yet to put on a show in all the years he had stayed in Dumaguete. “Fine, let’s do a drag show,” I finally told him—without actually knowing how it was to actually pull off a drag show. But we did it, and it was an awesome success.
“You want a panel on coming out?” I remember telling Felix De la Pena Mosqueda III, the local leader for the Ten Outstanding Students of the Philippines Alumni Community-ISLAS. “Fine, let’s do that, too.”
Victor Giorgio Villegas was adamant about having a talk on HIV, and a free testing. Karl James Villarmea wanted a separate panel on queer faith. And so it went.
So sure, June 25 had been a very long Monday, and June has been a long month—but so far, we’ve done eight events out of the ten we’ve set out to do. We did the coming out stories last June 22—and that was an eye-opener for everyone, because we took care to have good representation: we had a lesbian, a gay man, a trans woman, and a trans boy still calling himself queer, all talking about the challenges and repercussions of coming out. We did the HIV talk last June 23, and the free clinic for testing as well—and that was huge challenge, stigma-wise, but we did it anyway.
We did a fun run and walk in the name of ecology and gender rights last Sunday, because Karl thought we should start thinking about the interlacing of disparate issues in our complicated lives.
Then on June 25, we did four [and a half] events in total: a jampacked panel on gay issues; then the panel which tackled queer faith—which was a long, very interesting event, held at Magdamo Hall at Silliman, the home of its Religion and Peace Studies Department; a zine fest; a poetry+music event; and the unfurling of our gigantic rainbow flag.
In the end, I went back again to my early question: why were we doing this? Because we didn’t have to, you know.
But I’ve realized it is for that girl who cried, and for that boy who escaped his bullies.
Some things are bigger than ourselves; and long Mondays are fine in the light of all things.
The choir started singing Mozart’s Requiem on an early Sunday evening—it was the June 17th, at the tail-end of Father’s Day—and we were transfixed by the music until the very end. When the performance was over, no one moved; no one could quite believe it was finished and felt there should have been more. More music, another piece perhaps. [There was alas no encore.]
That pregnant expectation for more was very much a testament to the performance by Ating Pamana/Silliman University Gratitude and Goodwill Ambassador, directed by Elizabeth Susan Vista-Suarez—and it was without question superb, the kind of performance you know has been wrought by someone who is equal to the passion and to the demands of the music.
Once again, Dr. Suarez has demonstrated the immense gift she has in conducting music: exquisitely aware of how to “timpla” sound [her word], eschewing the loudness that has come to characterize much of the country’s choral efforts and believing instead in precision, in massaging the notes and the spaces between them just enough to create a richness that is also about finesse. In her program, the famously unfinished piece by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart felt quite finished—although she did take care to include the pieces composed by Francois Xavier Süssmayer to finish out the composition after Mozart’s death. (Süssmayer had been a pupil of Mozart and had been much with him during the time he had worked on the Requiem.) From Dies Irae to Tuba Mirum to Rex Tremendae Majestatis, from Recordare to Confutatis Maledictis to Domine Jesu, from Hostias to Lacrymosa to Sanctus and Hosanna, and from Benedictus to Agnus Dei, the choir conquered each movement with panache, each voice vibrant—and I could only imagine the what-if had this also have been accompanied by a full orchestra. But I’ll take my blessings where I can. As it is, the choir was the star.
It goes without saying that Dr. Suarez and the Ating Pamana/Silliman University Gratitude and Goodwill Ambassador deserved the applause they finally got: hearty—and grateful. It did feel that way, the applause. Because listening to music such as this was indeed a gift.
Was this a good choice to open the 56th Cultural Season of Silliman University? By all accounts, it was. As a season opener, it was a good harbinger for things still come—and the cultural calendar is without question chockfull of delightfully anticipated events, including the Philippine Madrigal Singers, the ABS-CBN Philharmonic Orchestra, and Ballet Philippines.
But to go back to Mozart Requiem…
The sound. Let us talk about that heavenly sound which reverberated around the Ariniego Art Gallery in a kind of fullness I have never heard before in any other venue in Dumaguete City. There was an uncanny precision even to the echoes. Can you imagine music “soaring”? I have always read that description, and it is in fact a cliché. But the performance demonstrated exactly this effect, and it made all the difference.
And it occurred to me that this was always the dream. Once upon a time, in 2014, a group of us—Diomar Abrio, Grace Sumalpong, Leo Mamicpic, Edna Mijares, Annabelle Lee Adriano, Moses JoshuaAtega, and a bunch of others—went to Tagaytay City for dinner with Dr. Romeo Ariniego after having invaded his art collection at his house in Dasmariñas, Cavite, which later on became his fondest donation to Silliman University.
We were frank with our wishes: that perhaps we could have an art gallery to house it all, and that perhaps we could have an art gallery to also function as a venue where we could have a more intimate time with chamber music and choral music, even poetry readings, surrounded by great art. (The Luce was beautiful and grand—but it was too big for certain things.)
We had no idea Dr. Ariniego was listening to us intently in Tagaytay, and three years later, we now have that building that the Silliman University Culture and Arts Council and a bunch of Manila alumni were only wishing about years ago.
This was always the plan for the Ariniego Art Gallery—and when we approved the final architectural design, we took note of that as well, first in giving the specifications, and then finally in choosing the design that best fitted all our expectations.
But there’s art here, and there’s finally music in it too.
And tonight, listening to Ating Pamana sing so magnificently, the genius of Mozart splendidly evoked, all was right in the world.
Response to a tweet by @APompliano that read: The most successful people I've met: 1. Read constantly 2. Workout daily 3. Are innately curious 4. Have laser focus 5. Believe in themselves 6. Build incredible teams 7. Admit they know very little 8. Constantly work to improve 9. Demand excellence in everything they do
The most successful people I've met:
1. Have well-connected parents
2. Who are also wealthy
3. And work in a related field
4. But have a different surname
5. Which allowed my successful acquaintances to "come out of nowhere"
6. Because that's a feature hook
7. Easily arranged
The next most successful group:
1. Married someone
2. With no goals of their own
3. Who are happy to be secretary
4. And valet
5. And unidirectionally monogamous
6. And crawl off silently after separation
7. When the successful person trades up to a better servant
The third group:
1. Are good at quantitative reasoning
2. Read a lot
3. Work sixty-hour weeks
4. Spend their energy covering for their incompetent bosses
5. Usually burn out at 40
6. Grow a stupid beard
7. Can't even get laid at Burning Man
8. Accidentally tweet porn at 3am
The fourth group:
1. Are immigrants
2. From countries with authoritarian governments
3. Who don't like to talk politics
4. Because their parents were part of the regime's intellectual elite
5. And have nicknames like "The Bloodthirsty Tiger"
6. And that $800 handbag is too cute
The fifth group:
1. Are utterly unexceptional
2. worked hard
3. got injured in car accident or fall
4. or were racially/sexually abused by bosses
5. and kept their mouths shut for once, didn't say "partially my own fault"
6. got a big settlement
7. blew it starting a small press
The last group:
1. worked pretty hard
2. got lucky with timing, then
3. coughed hard once and up came some blood
4. or experienced bad thoughts about their phones
5. vanished for years
6. took the bus once; recognized me
7. I said "How you've been?"
8. "Oh God, Nick, oh God."
Everyone else pretty much just has something on SoundCloud and wrote a book you've never heard of.
In perhaps its most ambitious undertaking since it started celebrating Pride Month in 2016, Dumaguete City is poised to make the 2018 edition its most comprehensive and inclusive, with ten events scheduled throughout June to cater to various interest and concerns of local LGBTQ.
I’ve found myself to be the lead organizer for this event—for reasons I’m still trying to sort out—although I vaguely remember deciding to do this when, a few months ago, Ren Dy, a good friend, made a totally uncharacteristic remark, and resolve. He doesn’t usually follow other people’s lead regarding activism and assorted social concerns, but one time he remarked on the death of two local gay men—one of them a good friends of ours—who had recently under “mysterious” circumstances: “It’s time we do something,” he said.
I found that simple resolve Ren declared quite amazing, and I realized that most of us do feel finally moved when things approaches the personal. Because we knew those two young men died from complications of AIDS—a specter we are still beginning to grapple with in Dumaguete—although we had to decode from the official medical reasons given: “pneumonia,” usually, and sometimes “tuberculosis.” And we knew they didn’t have to die, because HIV is a perfectly manageable condition with recent advances in medical technology—except that these were closeted individuals whose families could barely grasp the heavy intricacies of their situations, because of the stigma.
I’ve always believed that in Dumaguete the biggest problems regarding LGBTQ life and welfare are misinformation and invisibility. These create stigma, and that is the biggest obstacle towards making any headway regarding problems besetting the community. The entrenched conservatism, of course, makes sure no one talks properly and in public about anything, hence the misinformation. And the stigma regarding the lives of gay men renders them invisible; the closet is still where many local gay men live—maintaining a strict cis persona for their families, and a flamboyantly gay one for their friends. Most learn to live in that grey area. And while I firmly do not believe in “outing” anyone from their closet, I can still say it’s a fraught place to live in, even if you have learned to negotiate its shadows.
But I think it’s also time to start making deeper explorations into the various issues of LGBTQ life, because we are not just defined by our sexualities—we are also defined by how we do culture, how we engage in spirituality, and how we link our advocacies to other important concerns like the environment. Hence, there is Pride Month in Dumguete in June.
Pride Month is an internationally recognized celebration advocating for LGBTQE rights and welfare, and it was first celebrated in Dumaguete in 2016, although the first Pride Parade was organized in 2011. The Dumaguete initiative of Pride Month is called #6200Pride, which links Dumaguete’s zipcode to the popular expression of LGBTQ activism—but #6200Pride is not an organization; it is a loose network of organizations and individuals in Dumaguete who are dedicated to the LGBTQ advocacy. Part of this network is local organizations such as the Illuminates of the Spectra [ISPEC] of Silliman University, led by Sol De Castro and a team of other students, and PETALS Dumaguete, a newly-formed LGBTQ group in Dumaguete led by Prof. Carlou Bernaldez of the Negros Oriental State University.
A drag show featuring local drag artists Sole, Maningning, and Kendra Heart starts Pride Month on June 16 at 7:30 PM at Hayahay Treehouse Bar.
Other events include “When I Came Out: A Panel on Coming Out Stories” on June 22, Friday at 4 PM at the American Studies Resource Center of the Robert and Metta Silliman University Library; a talk on HIV/AIDS by Dr. Ma. Lourdes E. Ursos on June 23, Saturday at 9 AM at the Physicians Hall of the Silliman University Medical School, to be followed by a free and confidential testing and counseling at the Ursos Clinic at the Silliman University Medical Center at 2 PM; and the EcoPride Fun Run and Hike on June 24, Sunday starting at 5:30 PM with assembly at the Lee Super Plaza Hypermart, ending at the Valencia Plaza.
June 25 will see a slate of activities, including the Pride Panel on Gay Identity, Gay Culture, Gay Living, and LGBTQ and the Law at 10 AM at the American Studies Resource Center of the Robert and Metta Silliman University Library; a talk titled “Why Queer Faith Matters” at 2 PM at the Magdamo Hall in Silliman campus; and a Pride Poetry and Music event at 3:45 PM at the Silliman Library foyer. A Pride Zine Fest threads throughout these activities starting at 10 AM. A screening of Joselito Altarejos’ award-winning film Tale of the Lost Boys is slated at 7 PM at CityMall Cinema [still pending though].
Dumaguete’s Pride Month culminates with a Grand Pride Parade on June 30, Saturday, starting at 3 PM at Portal West in Hibbard Avenue. We are encouraging not just the local LGBTQ community to participate, but also our cis or straight allies. We hope to compose it with many organizations and individuals in a celebration walk around the city.
6200Pride also includes other local organizations and individuals in Dumaguete City such as Youth Advocates Through Theatre Arts [YATTA], Ten Outstanding Students of the Philippines Alumni Community-ISLAS, the Dumaguete Amateur Roadrunners and Striders [DARS], Dumaguete City Tourism Office, Dumaguete MetroPost, 6200 Film Society, and several organizations and academic departments in Silliman University including the Culture and Arts Council, American Studies Resource Center of the Robert and Metta Silliman University Library, Religion and Peace Studies Department, Psychology Society, Silliman University Medical Center, Silliman University Medical Students Association, English Society, DumAlt.Press, and others. Sponsoring groups include the BASILBAN, Hayahay, and Dy-Dael Dental Clinic and Associates.
That’s a lot of people invested in this advocacy—as it should. In June, we will paint Dumaguete City with all the colors of the rainbow.
When Looking first premiered in HBO in 2014, it promised to be a series that would explore, with some rainbow thoroughness, the ferris wheel of gay lives, at least that which can be found in and around San Francisco. Created with intimate care by Michael Lannan, it was also a television show shaped from the creative genius of Andrew Haigh, its director, someone who had previously given us Weekend in 2011, a now iconic gay drama about two men hitting it up for a one-night stand, but find themselves incredibly drawn to each other’s lives.
I loved Looking; it was a well-written, well-directed, well-acted series that was both romantic and realistic, with characters that were complex, in equal measure infuriating and relatable. I loved it the most for what it promised: gay lives in mainstream culture, necessary representation in the checkered history of the LGBT in television.
But what was surprising for me were the criticisms lobbied at it from the most unlikely source: gay men. What was wrong with Looking, according to them? It was too white. It was not diverse enough. It was too sexy. It was too vanilla. There were no lesbians. It was too romantic. It was not romantic enough. Et cetera, et cetera—and at the end of it all, the show lasted only two seasons and a movie, eventually cancelled.
And so we are largely back to live in a world where television is predominantly heterosexual. The Real O’Neals was uproarious and promising—but that got cancelled, too. Thank God at least for the revival of Will and Grace and Queer Eye, and the juggernaut of RuPaul’s Drag Race, which has become such a mainstream pleasure, it’s incredible how much cache it has come to carry.
In the movies, at least in American cinema, we’ve had a breakthrough of sorts with Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight surprising everyone for exceeding its indie roots, and came to be the cinematic critical darling of 2016, eventually winning the Oscar for Best Picture in 2017—and fulfilling the promise denied Ang Lee’s seminal Brokeback Mountain which lost that same accolade to the bewildering bleeding heart that is now the much-maligned film Crash. Moonlight may have won film’s top prize in recent memory—but it is still largely a product of independent efforts; it didn’t start as a mainstream studio offering, embraced only by everyone else when it proved too big to ignore.
Can there be a film about gay and queer people from a studio with a mainstream sensibility, essentially constituting an effort at cracking this particular glass ceiling? The conventional wisdom has always been that gay lives could never be embraced by mainstream cinema; films of that sensibility could never turn a profit—because apparently there is only a miniscule audience for such—hence, gay lives could never be taken seriously as a subject matter fit enough for multiplexes. They tried in 1982, when 20th Century Fox made Making Love, directed by Arthur Hiller. It proved to be a box office disappointment, and the reviews were withering—although it has of late garnered a cult following, making it a mainstream film truly ahead of its time. The traditional home for gay-centric films has always been the independent cinema scene, where the taboos—because the distribution is niche—are often broken, and sincere filmmaking has always been the vanguard. To list all the gay films made from this side of world cinema is to risk overindulgence. There has been hundreds, a lot of them good, and many of them fantastic—Moonlight is only one of the most recent efforts. In 2017 alone, there has been Call Me By Your Name, Beach Rats, Princess Cyd, BPM, Thelma, God’s Own Country, Patay na si Hesus, 4 Days in France, A Fantastic Woman, Strong Island, Paris 05:59: Théo and Hugo, 2 Cool 2 Be 4gotten, Battle of the Sexes, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, and The Ornithologist.
Here comes Greg Berlanti’s Love, Simon—a film from Fox 2000 Pictures, essentially from the same studio that gave us Making Love. (You have to hand it to Fox for trying.) The film, about a teenager who feels compelled to confront his own gayness when an anonymous persona starts posting about being gay in an online school forum, is based on the popular YA novel, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli. I expected to like Berlanti’s heart-fluttering adaptation of the book—given that he directed The Broken Hearts Club in 2001, a film that was quite impactful for me when I was a much younger man.
I did not expect myself, however, to tear up near the end, to see a gay version of the pivotal moment in Never Been Kissed. And it occurred to me that representation indeed counts, and in the movies much more so.
But this one had a bit more gravity that it purports to be about an ordinary boy perfectly accepting of the fact that he’s gay. No self-hating angst here, no terrors of the closet; the landslide that he has to navigate through is not even about the usual self-pitying refrains about having to hide; it’s about the repercussions of having to lose love.
During one dramatic highlight in the film, Nick Robinson as the titular hero, upon being outed online to the rest of the school, tells his sister matter-of-factly: “Why should I deny [being gay]? It’s not something I’m ashamed of.” And that statement felt very revolutionary, indeed, to be uttered in a mainstream teen romantic comedy.
Most older gay people I know who have seen this movie has said variations of the same sentence: they wished this movie came out when they were teenagers. I completely understand that sentiment. I wished I saw this when I was younger.
But still the criticisms of the film from a gay men—particularly of an older generation who just cannot buy the romantic premise of the movie. A friend of mine commented: “I heard this joke before, maybe it was a punchline in a sitcom, or perhaps a stand-up comic’s schtick. Anyway, I’m paraphrasing here: ‘I’m for same-sex marriage. After all, why should heteros have all the misery?’ I was reminded of that while watching Love, Simon. Its movie poster repeats a line that Simon says in the film: ‘Everyone deserves a great love story.’ Sadly, this isn’t it. Sure, the actors were appealing, the performances heartfelt, and I actually allowed myself to be taken in by the movie. But then I also realized, so this is what it’s like to be normalized. This is what it’s like to get our own Hollywood-style romantic comedy full of well-worn tropes, unrealistic clichés, and familiar beats—just with a gay lead. Well, okay fine, the film does tackle the difficulties of coming out, a topic unheard of in hetero romances. But the quirky vice principal? Check. The sassy black teacher? Check. Friend with unrequited feelings? Check. Grand romantic gesture? Check and check. Yes, I’d love for homosexuality to be normalized. What I don’t like are films, gay or straight, that further fuel the stupid Hollywood fantasy of Happy Ever After. Gay viewers deserve something better. Heck, gay and straight viewers deserve a great movie. Period. As the Timeless (yes, really) Gay Icon Cher says: ‘Snap out of it.’”
But I honestly found the film—and its banking on formula—very refreshing. In all my years of watching films, I’ve come to see a lot of gay, non-mainstream, very independent cinema which has treated homosexuality with more nuance and better representation than Love, Simon. These films were able to do that because they weren’t compelled by the expectations of mainstream market forces, and thus were freer to do what they wanted—but they had to stay “niche,” which is both a positive and a negative.
Love, Simon is an experiment at doing the mainstream with a gay lead—and in this, it is actually both revolutionary and “normalized.” For that, I applaud it. I felt a lump in my throat when I first saw the scene I’ve illustrated above—because I am 42 years old, and it took this long for me to see and hear something like that in my neighborhood cinema. Of course it’s a Hollywood fantasy, and it was designed like that. It’s the first step, a necessary one. One day, we will get our gay version of Moonstruck, with a gay version of Cher.
Love, Simon was clearly not made for us older gay men who are perhaps a little too jaded, because we’ve seen so much already, and consequently have experienced so much as well, given society’s slow evolution in mores. (It is changing though.) This is a film for the gay boy [and girl] of today. I was with my 23-year-old boyfriend when I saw this, and his face was the very picture of rapt attention, especially that scene between the lead and his mother. Afterwards, he said, “This is the first time I’ve seen a real gay kiss in a regular movie.”
My friend remarked to this: “True, I am not the audience. Which brings me back to what really irks me now that I’m older: are fairy tales really necessary? Kids need simplified tales growing up, but I think, in this day and age, teens (and even tweens) should be given more complex tales. Or if not complex, at least more grounded.” But most of us—and truer still for the heterosexual majority—started with simple happy ending romantic comedies [starring straight people] when we were younger, and we swooned over them. And then we graduated level by level to demand more complexity. Of course fairy tales are necessary, as any fairy tale expert would tell us. They may seem “simple,” but they are in fact complex mirrors to human psychology. Love, Simon is not that simple: it tackles blackmail, coming out, coming out to a society deep in social media shenanigans, bullying, the complexity of friendship, and others. But these issues were treated with a light touch, which does not necessarily mean shallow.
The ending with a Ferris wheel struck a lot of people as being needlessly romantic and unreal, but for me, it was a throwback to Drew Barrymore’s ending in Never Been Kissed. Why did we cheer for that, and can’t cheer for Simon? I applaud both happy endings. If you have seen The Celluloid Closet, you will learn that in all of Hollywood’s history of gay stories, gay and lesbian characters—either overt or obscure—always ended up with these LGBT characters being dead or depressed, “punished” for being deviants. It took many decades, until 1968’s The Boys in the Band, to have a movie with gay characters who would all survive the ending of the movie, and actually get to have a party! The regular trope for endings for gay boys and girls in Hollywood movies is a sad ending. Recall the latest: Brokeback Mountain, sad. Call Me By Your Name, sad. A happy ending is very, very rare.
Clip from the iconic 1968 film The Boys in the Band, directed by William Friedkin from the play by Mart Crowley: "It's not always as it happens in plays. Not all faggots bump themselves off at the end of the story."
Most teenage movies involving a coming-of-age arc that also has romance thrown in for good measure, strive for a bittersweet feel, still happy but with a certain knowingness that adds texture to that optimism. John Hughes was the perfect storyteller for that kind of teenage film. But ultimately, Samantha Baker got her cake, candles, and kiss from Jake Ryan in Sixteen Candles, Claire Standish and John Bender exchanged kisses and earrings in The Breakfast Club, Andie Walsh got her Blane in Pretty in Pink, and Ferris Bueller got his ultimate day off from school, with his girl and his best friend. I like happy endings, and I like them more in gay films for teenagers. Because is sadness what we want to model for gay boys and girls to learn from their formative movies? “Be gay, and be miserable for the rest of your life,” is not the tagline I want to foster. I want some happy endings, too, along with the sad endings.
I’m not suggesting that all films have happy endings. Have a movie with a sad ending? Applaud that. Have a movie with a happy ending? Applaud that as well. It’s all about the intent, and if the intent has been earned. Love Simon is intended to be a happy gay romance. Why hate it for what it sets out to do? But movies are really Rorschach tests: our reactions to them illustrate so much the murk of our hidden psychology. I like diverse endings—happy and sad—because I’ve had both in my own life, and I believe in the possibility that both can happen in equal measure.
Films can only do so much to “accommodate” our expectations of them, and I’ve always tried to appreciate narrative that triy to do its best given the limitations of the form it chooses to tell its story. Ultimately though, I am a romantic and also a realist, both in equal measure, and I appreciate happy endings in a romantic comedy, because the genre demands a happy ending. I remember romance novelist Mina Esguerra insisting all the time that if it does not have a happy ending, it is not a romance novel. [The genre is strict about that.]
Movies, especially the mainstream ones, are our fantasy lives unfolding in a magic mirror, film critic Edward Behr once said. Love, Simon is wonderful fantasy rooted in realistic problems. I do feel that the romantic ending was earned, although I’m aware that for some people it isn’t. Which is the great thing about art, it is always different to different people. I will always remember this workshop admonition in creative writing I’ve once gotten from an esteemed writer: “Never crucify someone’s story for what you want it to be instead.”
All stories have a place. All of these is a gamut, a range. Love, Simon is a step—one step hopefully among many others still to come—taken in the right direction.
I was six when I saw my first big fire. It was 1981, we lived in an old building—a rickety wooden affair that had plenty of rooms for several tenants and creaked during rainy days—which was owned by someone we called Tiya Tansing, and the house just happened to be located right near the corner of Calle Sta. Rosa and Calle Real, a stone’s throw away from the tianggue.
The tianggue in the old days was two or three blocks worth of stalls—mostly wooden and makeshift—constituting a grand maze of no discernable design, although I remember there was a movie theater there somewhere, where we saw the latest Snooky Serna and Maricel Soriano teeny bopper films from Regal. I can’t remember the name of the theater, but I can recall the heady topsy-turviness of the place, and the inescapable smell of vegetable rot and fish entrails.
One night in 1981, while Dumaguete slept, the whole tianggue burned down, a grand conflagration that was so immense, it felt like the apocalypse. That we lived nearby pushed us to panic, and I remember my family trying to evacuate what possessions we had—the dining table, boxes of clothes, assorted items marking lives suddenly seeming so fragile—from our apartment in Tiya Tansing’s house and right onto the street, which was swarming with onlookers who were in equal measure frightened and excited. I remember the rain of embers from the night sky—dots of firelight that looked like fireflies, but here and there were creating new fires in nearby houses.
That scene remains indelible in my memory. In 2006, when I wrote my short story “A Strange Map of Time,” which is included in my book Heartbreak and Magic, I memorialized all of that in this passage, where the hero confronts a similar fire to get to a mystical gate: “[H]e opened his eyes to a strange night, a fiery brightness everywhere in Dumaguet he could not shake away like a bad dream. The world crawled into his consciousness. His senses took time to recover, and only little by little did he make out the details of things: the smell was of acrid burning; the feel was of far-off heat licking the sensitive hair on his arms and face; the noise was of shouts in crescendo, the wailing of alarm constant in the air.
“It was the year of the Big Fire. The sight disconcerted him: a huge city block was in flames, the fire ravenously licking wood and toppling cement walls. There seemed to be an endlessness to the devastation, with fire spreading everywhere. It seemed like the end of the world. From everywhere, strange and old-looking earthbound trucks, painted red, buzzed about in fashion, sending gushes of hosed water into the air, into the heart of the flame, onto the surfaces of buildings opposite.
“The young man who used to be Sawi stood up and walked towards the fire and the gathering throng. Around him, people panicked, grabbing hold of so many things—a very thin old man was carrying a refrigerator, an old woman had six toddlers in her arms, two boys were rushing towards the crowd with a huge aparador between them—all of them running around to somewhere and nowhere. He saw that there was also a growing crowd—hundreds—that also descended to watch, in a clinch of awe and horror, the conflagration.”
I write this about fires and the grim fascination over them because only last Wednesday, Times Mercantile along Dr. V. Locsin Street burned down. Again.
Photo by Sho Tuazon
This is the second time this has happened to this local grocery store, arguably a Dumaguete business icon, something all locals know to go to for the best priced liquor and the like. With Fortune Mart also gone, only Ricky’s remain of the Dumaguete of old. In 2000, Times’ old front along Perdices Street burned down along with the old Ricky’s, a fire that claimed two lives and reshaped how Dumagueteños did their after-hours grocery shopping.
But fires have an interesting history in Dumaguete, a terrible but decisive shaper of its landscape. The local church historian Fr. Roman Sagun has an interesting article about local conflagrations, and in “Fire and the Changing Cityscape of Dumaguete City,” he writes: “In 1990, a massive fire leveled down commercial establishments and residences along Real and Cervantes Streets. It affected two adjacent blocks that were mainly occupied by 34 families and eight commercial establishments. The fire started at 3:00 A.M and was contained two hours after. There were no casualties … but all 34 families were left homeless. The fire rapidly blazed all that was found within the adjacent blocks since most of the houses were made of nipa. Witnesses said that two fire trucks arrived early but one of the hoses snapped, [which] was because the valve was opened too soon before an additional link could be installed. [There was also looting, as] people pretended to help but … stole from the victims and commercial establishments [instead].”
The 1990 fire started at what was then VJR Kitchenette, which was located behind the old Rhine Marketing, and it quickly engulfed the surrounding commercial establishments including Tat’s or Goldy Theater, Dove Theater, Glecel’s Kitchenette, Luzonians Restaurant, Lamp Lighter, Badon Repair Shop, City Barbershop, GM Furniture, Anchor’s Tailoring, Tan’s Rechargeable Shop, and Vesin’s Store.
Fr. Sagun also wrote of the 1992 fire that damaged the Gold Label Grocery Store along Locsin and Ma. Cristina Streets caused by faulty electrical wiring. In 1994, the New Bian Yek Commercial Building along Real Street also caught fire, and while the concrete structure remained, the shops in the interior were decimated. In 1996, the Philippine National Police headquarters went up in flames.
The 1990s was a decade of fires in Dumaguete. Most of these fires occurred downtown, and usually happened in the early hours of morning—and while all these are devastating, there is no denying that fires have been instrumental in shaping the landscape of the downtown area.
In the 2000 fire that consumed the first Times Mercantile and Ricky’s Bakery and Grocery Store, the whole episode began around 5 A.M., and in its wake caused 10 million pesos worth of property damage, and the lives of two sisters, Natalie and Ivy Acuña. Fr. Sagun writes of that terrible night: “According to the only survivor, Ronnie Baldoza, a working baker from Ricky’s, the hotdog freezer had a short circuit and caught fire. The two sisters, together with [Ronnie], tried to [contain] the fire with a fire extinguisher,” but the highly flammable materials that were stocked around the store fueled the flames too quickly, and Ronnie managed to escape, but the sisters had passed out from smoke inhalation.”
The new fire, which originated from the clothing store beside Times, lasted five hours long, according to reports by Raffy Cabristante for GMA News. Many of the boarding houses within the block were not spared, although most of the commercial frontages nearby are still intact because of their high firewalls. In retrospect, that now-gone old building housing Times Mercantile had indeed seen better times—but it was a grand wooden one of a style that used to grace the streets of Dumaguete, some of which still remain and are in perfect need for restoration.
What will rise from the ashes of that building? The landscape of Dumaguete changes some more.