Penman No. 440: A Classic Reborn

Penman for Sunday, July 3, 2022

I’VE LONG believed that my late friend and contemporary, Bienvenido “Boy” M. Noriega, Jr., was one of our very best modern playwrights, and indeed worthy of a National Artist Award. I—and many who knew him and his work—had been hoping that he would get that distinction this year, but too much time may have passed since he left us 28 years ago for critics to recall just how good he was.

Still, there’s great news today for Boy’s fans, and for everyone eager for the return of great theater to the Philippine stage. The seminal Noriega play, “Bayan-Bayanan,” which premiered at the CCP’s Little Theater in 1975 and won that year’s Grand Prize for the Full-Length Play in the Palancas, is going to be shown again in Manila this month, rendered as a new musical, “Bayan Bayanan: Letters from Home.”

Directed by Dr. Anton Juan and produced by the Erehwon Center for the Arts with support from the Embassy of France, the updated play promises to offer fresh insights into the OFW experience, having been originally written and presented long before overseas Filipino workers came to be known as OFWs. Back in the early ‘70s, as martial law descended on the country, they were all just exiles, migrants, transients, and vagabonds, some by choice, others by the lack of it. In Europe, and specifically in Geneva where the play is set, Filipinos tended to be middle-class professionals drawn there by their work, as Boy Noriega himself was as a government economist in his early 20s attending global trade negotiations. 

As I’ve written about before, Boy and I were very close friends—and fervid contest competitors—in those days. We were UP Alpha Sigma fraternity brothers who found ourselves working in literally the same office at NEDA Padre Faura. He was two years older than me, so I looked up to him as a mentor, and when he went to Harvard for graduate school and then began flying to all these conferences abroad, he wrote me long letters to share his exhilaration at studying our heroes like Chekhov and Ibsen (he was enrolled in Public Administration, but took side courses in Drama). When he came home, we spent many lunch hours talking about the plays we were writing or wanted to write. 

Boy announced himself to Philippine theater in the most spectacular way—by writing “Bayan-Bayanan” and having it presented at the CCP almost at the very start of his playwriting career. Immediately you knew that you were witnessing a major talent unfolding. His kind of drama was quiet, thoughtful, cumulative in its impact. Writing under martial law and being somewhat more politically engaged, I resorted to historical allegory, but Boy took the present head-on, albeit from another angle, of the young Filipino discovering the world in both geographical and emotional terms.

When I heard that Erehwon was planning to revive “Bayan-Bayanan” as a musical, I was delighted and at the same time a bit concerned how Boy’s material was going to be handled almost half a century down the road. But my worries lifted when I learned that the revival was going to be directed by none other than Anton Juan, who knows the play better than anyone else around, having directed it in Athens, London, Geneva, Paris, Chicago, and Toronto, and having himself been the kind of global traveler that Boy dwells on. “I have directed this play many times before in Europe, and each time there is always something new,” Anton says. “It grows like a pearl, takes shape in the memory and hearts of those who perform it and those who watch it: why? Because it is real. It is grounded on real characters we can identify with, in all their beauty and vulnerability, in all their strengths and their weaknesses.”

Anton Juan composed some of the new songs for the play, along with Cleofe Guangko-Casambre, who had composed for the play “‘Rizal’s Sweet Stranger;” Russ Narcies Cabico, also a theater and television actor and singer; pianist-composer Andrew Bryan Sapigao; and composer-musical arranger Jonathan Cruz.

The cast comprises a mix of veterans and newcomers. Professional theater actress and singer Banaue Miclat-Janssen portrays the central character Manang, while Dino—the “Boy” in the play—is portrayed by theater actor and classically trained singer Carlo Mañalac. Supporting them are Ava Olivia Santos, Roxy Aldiosa, Carlo Angelo Falcis, Jacinta Remulla, Richard Macaroyo, Greg de Leon, and Jane Wee. Of special note is the participation of French-Filipino actress Uno Zigelbaum, through the sponsorship of the French Embassy.

The role of the Erehwon Center for the Arts (of which Anton is Creative Director) is also noteworthy. Founded by another old friend of mine, Raffy Benitez, Erehwon has established itself firmly in our country’s cultural landscape as a sponsor of painters, sculptors, musicians, dancers, and writers, who have come to see Erehwon’s Quezon City headquarters—also its performance and exhibition venue—as a haven for the arts at a time when cultural budgets everywhere have fallen. Funded largely by Raffy’s own generosity and by some other patrons, Erehwon hopes that this collaboration with the CCP and the French Embassy will lead to other significant projects that can ultimately be self-sustaining. 

The play will premiere on  the evening of July 15, followed by a 7 pm evening show on July 16 and a 3 pm matinee on July 17, at the CCP’s Tanghalang Nicanor Abelardo. Tickets are available at Ticketworld. See you there!

Penman No. 439: New Looms for Old

Penman for Sunday, June 5, 2022

WHEN WE first met Dr. Analyn “Ikin” Salvador-Amores at the University of the Philippines Baguio five years ago, she was already the director of the new and fascinating Museo Kordilyera that had just opened to showcase the culture of the northern highlands. Ikin graciously took Beng and me on a tour of the exhibits, which UPB had painstakingly put together from its own collections and from the donations of such patrons as National Artist and Baguio resident Bencab. 

But going beyond what was on display, Ikin brought us to the museum’s laboratory—research is the other important part of its mandate—to show us their growing collection of rare Philippine textiles. Some of these were a century old, retrieved and repatriated from collections abroad by Ikin herself, or donated by collectors. This, she indicated, was going to be a vital aspect of the Museo Kordilyera’s mission—to gather and preserve the threads of the past for the appreciation of new generations of Filipinos. 

Indigenous textiles have a long history in the Philippines, having been woven long before the Spanish came—indeed, more than a millennium before the Christian era. They were used for clothing and also for ceremonial purposes such as the burial of the dead. They come in a wide range of materials, designs, and uses, from the abel and Bontoc of the north to the hablon and piña of the Visayas and the Yakan and tinalak weaves of the south, among many others. Using local fibers and dyes, native weavers employ hand looms to turn their traditional designs—animals, celestial objects, humans, deities, and geometric shapes—into not just functional clothing but works of art and visual bearers of their tribe’s or community’s culture.

But these traditional weavers and their products are under threat from many factors, and unless proper and timely intervention is undertaken, cultural advocates like the Oxford-trained Dr. Salvador-Amores worry that they could decline further if not vanish in this digital century. She points to four major reasons for this decline: the advanced age of master weavers and the lack of young people willing to take their place; the scarcity of materials for weaving such as cotton; new technology, cheaper mass-produced substitutes, even fake “ethnic” fabrics; and ready-to-wear clothes and ukay-ukay, reducing demand for traditional textiles.

Enter the Cordillera Textiles Project or CordiTex, which Ikin is also directing, aimed at finding and employing new technology to revive the ancient art of weaving and train and engage a new generation of weavers. The technology comes in the form of the Universal Testing Machine that analyzes the internal and external characteristics of Cordillera textiles so they can be technically described, and the digital loom, which—with the help of software—can recreate old designs and fabrics, especially those that weavers can no longer make, and assist those weavers in doing them on their traditional backstrap or foot looms.

Before the machines come into the picture, however, much research has to be done. CordiTex is a multidisciplinary endeavor, involving anthropology, ethnobotany, ethnomusicology, ethnomathematics, physics, chemistry, ergonomics, economics, and geography. (I’ll bet some of us didn’t even realize these disciplines existed. And if we wonder why “ergonomics” is important in weaving, it’s because weavers often suffer from musculoskeletal problems of the neck, shoulders and lower back; strain from incorrect posture; and chronic lower back problems.)

Ikin’s team has conducted research not just in the Cordillera region, but also in weaving collections in the US, Germany, and Austria, where samples gathered a century ago by expeditions to the Philippines are kept. In the US, for example, much material and information can be found at the Museum of Anthropology at the University of Michigan, the Field Museum in Chicago, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Newberry Library.

Mathematical symmetry analysis figures out the math behind traditional designs so they can be rendered into formulas, followed by 3-D modeling, to take the physical properties and the weaving structures of the fibers into account. 

Now enter the digital loom—the Thread Controller 2 or TC2—a machine designed, developed and made by Digital Weaving Norway (DWN) to turn design ideas into woven fabrics. Rolled out in 2012, the TC2 is a hand-operated electronic jacquard loom, capable of producing both traditional and contemporary weaves for industrial and artistic purposes. The University of the Philippines has acquired two of these machines—one for UP Baguio, and another for the College of Home Economics in UP Diliman. Six researchers from UP led by Ikin went to DWN to study the use of the machines, and workshops have since been conducted in Baguio and Diliman, assisted by a visiting expert from DWN, to introduce the TC2 and its technology to local weavers and researchers.

Dr. Salvador-Amores is emphatic that their work in CodiTex is not aimed at replacing hand looms. “While CordiTex can now replicate and reconstruct traditional extant textiles through digitization and digital loom weaving, we are doing this so that the younger generation can re-weave these in their traditional looms,” she said. “Hopefully this will empower local weavers, engender ethnic identity, and sustain Cordillera weaving.”

The next time you visit Baguio, take a side trip to the Museo Kordilyera to see what the fuss is all about. You might get lucky and catch Ikin—or if not, then her pioneering book Tapping Ink, Tattooing Identities: Tradition and Modernity in Contemporary Kalinga Society (UP Press, 2014), yet another fascinating topic altogether.

(Photos courtesy of Analyn Salvador-Amores)

Hindsight No. 18: Wisdom from Suffering

Hindsight for Monday, May 16, 2022

(Image from tunedinparents.com)

THERE’S A line I remember from a college course in Greek drama—specifically the play Agamemnon by Aeschylus—where Zeus memorably explains why the gods bring pain and torment to humans, when they could just as easily shower them with joyful blessings: “Justice inclines her scales so that wisdom comes at the price of suffering.” Man suffers, so he will learn.

I kept going back to that line this past week as I tried to comprehend the enormity of what had just happened: by what appeared to be a huge majority, our people had chosen a dictator’s son to lead this country for the next six years. Despite reports of massive vote-buying and irregularities at the polling stations, I wasn’t even contesting the overall results—I was never much of a conspiracist—but asking myself how and why the masses of our people keep making poor choices at the ballot box, voting against their own strategic interests. (Am I being presumptuous to sit in judgment of our average voter? Yes, and I make no apologies, having lived through martial law, all three EDSAs, Garci, tokhang, and Covid.)

Did we not suffer enough over the Marcos years and from the plunder and repression enabled by martial law to have learned that unbridled authoritarianism is a curse on everyone, both despot and citizen alike? Clearly not, or we would not be here today, facing the restoration of that rapacious regime. And it will be because—going by the moral logic that informed the Athenian stage—we have brought it upon ourselves, by casting more votes for the very same people whose greed we continue to pay for, and will pay yet more for, all over again.

In that case, should we flog ourselves over that seeming poverty of collective wisdom? Shall we call ourselves stupid and even hopeless, to have gained the freedom to vote, only to squander it for the benefit of those who took it away in the first place?

Of course, the right to vote never came with any assurance of voting wisely and responsibly, with democratic values foremostly in mind. For those whose lives have never changed regardless of administration, it can simply be another source of easy income. For others, it can be a form of personal revenge for injustices suffered daily, for the sharp tongues and heavy hands of otherwise pious employers. Still others might simply want, for once in their lives, to be part of what they think is the winning side. 

From these “winners,” we can expect a barrage of gloating and taunting, which has already begun. The cynical will remind us that we were wrong to have even hoped and tried; this was all foreordained by the numbers, which are the only thing elections are ever about. Some will even trot out that hoary quote, “Vox populi, vox Dei,” to stamp divine approval upon this outcome. In other words, we were all just exercising our free will, our freedom of choice, which after all is central to democracy. Only sore losers cry.

But then again, free will has never guaranteed critical intelligence. Which leads me—not being a political scientist—to ask these questions of those who might know better:

What if that “freedom” had been subverted and compromised by massive and deliberate disinformation? Was it still a free citizen who willfully cast a ballot for someone provably inimical to democracy, or a wound-up robot executing a series of plotted motions? Can we blame the desperate and the misled? Can we still call it a “free, fair, and clean election” if the fraud already started many years before, in the distortion of history and the rehabilitation of unpunished convicts? 

If and when voters elect a buffoon and a bully president—like they did with Donald Trump, among other such demagogues we know—does that validate buffoonery and bullying, and make them acceptable? Does it wipe the slate clean, erase all liabilities, and establish a new norm for political behavior? Most simply—as millions of us must have been thinking these past few months—if the president refuses to pay his lawful taxes, can we be morally compelled to pay ours? 

Vox populi, vox Dei—if this was God speaking, what was he saying? This is what I’m hearing: “By your own choice, I am giving you this man to be your president—so you will learn.”

I wonder how much more suffering we shall have to endure for our people—especially the generations post-martial law—to learn that voting has personal consequences, that the Marcoses do not represent “moving on” but sliding back into the dismal past, and that this election was their best chance in ages of creating a true “golden era” of humane, honest, and progressive governance, instead of the tinsel fantasy they’d been sold. How and when can we value the truth once more?

Again, Aeschylus—writing half a millennium before Christ—throws us a line from Prometheus Bound, spoken by the hapless girl-turned-cow Io. Hounded by a gadfly, Io is in constant pain, and tells Prometheus her tale of woe; but she insists, at the end of her story, that she wants to know her future, however difficult it might be: “If you can say what still remains to be endured, tell me; and do not out of pity comfort me with lies. I count false words the foulest plague of all.” This campaign saw innumerable “false words” rain down on our electorate, not just words of spite but also of artificial sweetness. 

I am angry and dismayed, but not without hope. In Io’s case, despite her terrible travails, she learns that her future is much brighter than she would have expected—she will be restored to human form, and would count among her descendants the great hero Hercules. 

We can yet be the progenitors of our best selves as Filipinos. We just need to endure, to learn, and to endure some more.

Penman No. 438: The Girl from Guinbirayan

Penman for Sunday, May 8, 2022

THIS MOTHER’S Day is historic enough for happening on the eve of what’s certain to be the most important election we will be holding in generations. For my mother Emy, she won’t only be trooping to the polling station, with her three-footed cane in hand and her caregiver Jaja at her elbow; she’ll be celebrating her 94thbirthday as well, by casting her vote for the president she will be following on the news for the last six years of her first century. 

She’s hard of hearing and her eyesight is failing, and she might forget where she last left her glasses, but don’t make the mistake of calling her “senile” or some such word suggesting a softness in the brain. She’s up to date on the news, and will even call our attention to what this tinpot politician said and what happened yesterday in Ukraine; her opinions can be sharp and scathing, especially when it comes to Vladimir Putin and his fellow despots, and immodest fashions.

But everything else about her is grandmotherly in the usual way we know—white-haired, with streaks of the original black, freckled with age spots, slow-footed, and happy to be with little children. Her four-year-old great-granddaughter Ollie’s visits are the highlights of her weeks. Even our five-year-old apu-apuhan Buboy, our housekeeper’s son and my sidekick, feels relaxed enough with her to play with the soft folds of skin under her arm, with neither of them noticing. Our daughter Demi’s Facetime calls from California are sure to make her Chinese eyes disappear in a crinkled smile. Demi, the first grandchild and the one who grew up with her, has inherited her UP class ring.

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This was the mother who raised the five of us on her meager salary, with my father’s earnest but inconstant contributions. Born bright but poor, he never finished college. The daughter of a merchant with some landholdings, she did—at the University of the Philippines at that, far away from the coconuts and carabaos of Guinbirayan in Romblon, the only one in their brood of twelve to do so. The youngest girl, she grew up her father’s favorite, accompanying him on his trips to the big city (he had a sailboat that capsized in a storm). She could ride a horse, and thought nothing of venturing into Kalatong, the enchanted mountain near her village, where fair-haired people were said to have been seen in chariots, where the rocks glittered, and where the unsuspecting vanished. Even without the fairies, she had a magical childhood, waiting in the afternoons at the water’s edge for the fishing boats to come in with their catch, teeming and leaping in silver arcs, or peering at the fat snakes sleeping on top of the tall rice bins. 

(Kalatong, left)

One day, she recalls, she was walking in Manila when she saw a sign saying that the UP High School was accepting students; so she walked in, applied, and was accepted, graduating the year before UP moved to Diliman, where she studied to be a teacher. But her college graduation would be delayed, because in the meanwhile, she had met and married my father Joe—the smartest guy in town, tall and deep-voiced. I think they met at the pier, waiting for other loved ones (Joe had a girlfriend then, whom I would meet much later, a pretty woman with sad eyes). 

One of my earliest pictures is that of me as a two-year-old, tugging unhappily at a stalk of grass outside the school where my mother was teaching. I must have been wondering why I had to share her attention with other children. Soon there would be other children right at home—my siblings Jess, Rowie, Elaine, and Joey, all born two years apart in Manila, to where we had moved. For a while, life was good; I went to a private boys’ school and learned English. My mother played “UP Beloved” and its flipside “Push On, UP” endlessly, to make sure I would go there and get a UP diploma myself (it took me 14 years, but it worked). 

And then my father lost his job, and the long hard years came. We must have moved around Manila a dozen times in three decades, with the household items on the moving truck getting older and fewer. Emy took a minimum-wage job as a postal clerk, and later as an employee at the Manila CFI and the Sandiganbayan. Plaintiffs and defendants would leave envelopes on her table, which she invariably returned, despite our constant need. When I dropped out of college to become an activist, it must have pained her deeply, but she and Joe supported me, even when I went to martial-law prison. When I married Beng, we shared what was basically a lean-to in Tandang Sora with my parents, my siblings, and a pig in the bathroom—and later, Demi, whom Beng was horrified to discover one morning, beset by a swarm of bedbugs. We were still hard up but happy. Joe had to work in Romblon, writing speeches for the governor; Beng and I found jobs, and one Christmas we gifted Emy with a new set of cheap plastic dinner plates to replace the ones that had warped or been scarred by cigarette burns, and I think she wept for joy, as did we.

Things got a bit better, and we moved to San Mateo, in two small but adjacent subdivision houses. And then my father—whom I had hero-worshipped despite his troubles—died from smoking, and for a while it seemed Emy would follow suit, coughing up blood from late-stage tuberculosis. Miraculously, thanks to care and medication, she survived, and soon discovered that she liked to travel—to America, where my sister Elaine lived, and where Emy even got a green card, to Europe, around Asia, and wherever her feet could take her. She was aging well.

One day I was surprised to find a thin book of poetry from the 1950s titled Diliman Echoes, a compilation of poems written by students—one of which was by “Emilia A. Yap,” a poem on “My Nipa Hut.” My mother was a poet, and I didn’t even know. I felt incredibly proud, but she just smiled at my discovery.

Today she occupies herself playing word games and puzzles on her iPad and iPhone, watching K-dramas on Netflix, following the news and hearing Mass on TV, and walking around the yard in the morning sun. Over meals, she tells us stories about the Guinbirayan of her youth; I had her write her memoirs in a notebook, so others can hear those stories.

When I think I’ve lost something and start yapping about where it could be, she’ll tell me, in that way only mothers know, “Look with your eyes, not with your mouth.” Even at 68, I will always be her boy, her first-born, her “Toto.” In a plastic bag, she’s left her instructions for the inevitable: no tubes down her throat, her funeral policy, what she’ll be wearing, and so on. She returned her green card after her last flight home. “I want to die here,” she tells us. I want to imagine that when that happens, she will dissolve into a cloud of gold dust, and join the fairies of Kalatong.

Hindsight No. 16: The Long Game

Hindsight for Monday, May 2, 2022

(Photo from philstar.com)

NOT SO long ago, before the groundswell of popular support grew into a towering pink wave behind the presidential candidacy of Vice President Leni Robredo, it seemed like she had embarked on a quixotic quest. For a moment back there, even her running was in doubt, spurred on only by the encouragement and faith of a coalition of upright citizens seeking a way out of the darkness of the past six years. 

In front of her was ranged a phalanx of formidable and even monstrous adversaries, flush with money, dizzy with power, armed with the most sophisticated weaponry on the market—data science and mass communications in the service of disinformation. The surveys declared her candidacy dead from the get-go, her campaign futile; her ceiling was this low, and she was bumping her head against it. For her enemies, it was enough to brand her a “woman” to render her incapable: “As a woman,” said the trolls, “she cannot be trusted with the responsibilities of the presidency. She is weak, and she cannot think for herself. She will always be subject to manipulation.”

It is not difficult to find parallels in history and myth for Robredo’s crusade. The foremost image that comes to mind is that of an armor-clad Joan of Arc, riding off to battle against those who had turned their backs on France to support the English. There is a long, long list of women who took up the sword to fight for freedom and justice. In 1521, after her husband fell in combat, Maria Pacheco took charge of the defense of the Spanish city of Toledo in a popular uprising against the monarchy; later that century, Guaitipan or La Gaitana led Colombia’s indigenous people against the invading Spanish; the 17th century is replete with accounts of women going into battle dressed as a man, so they could join the armies. And of course we cannot forget our own La Generala, Gabriela Silang, who fought the Spanish after her husband Diego was assassinated in 1763.

(Illustration by Francisco V. Coching)

But many if not most of these stories end with defeat and death for the heroine, as it did for Joan of Arc and Gabriela Silang. They are immolated, hung, imprisoned, abused, punished in the most horrific ways for the temerity to rise above their lot as mothers, wives, daughters, and servants. It would seem as though the lesson after all is not to rebel or resist, or otherwise be punished.

But martyr or not, the effect has only been to inspire emulation all the more. That Joan of Arc died at the stake at age 19 makes us, in our senior years, ask if we have achieved something even barely comparable—to live, and live on after death, as a symbol of resistance to tyranny.

If Leni wins on May 9, it will be a historic and hard-won triumph, but one that will be immediately fraught with danger, as she will now have to fend off a spiteful and tenacious many-headed hydra that will not slink into the shadows. Her enemies will hound her every day of her presidency, bark at every move she makes, make it extremely difficult for her to govern properly, so they can substantiate their portrayal of her alleged inefficacy.

If her adversary musters more votes, she will have lost a battle, but not the war this has become. Mind that just having celebrated her 57th birthday, Leni Robredo will only be 63 in 2028—younger than even Marcos Jr. is today. If she loses this election, it will not be the end, but only the start of the next stage of a protracted campaign to bring us back to good and honest governance. 

Six years may seem a long time, but it doesn’t feel like it was that long ago when Rodrigo R. Duterte came to power. These past six years have been among the most difficult and dismaying we have had to endure, not only because of the pandemic but also because of an equally devastating malignancy at the heart of government—leadership by fear, terror, and impunity; the patronage and enrichment of friends; the repression of dissent; and the subornation and corruption of the uniformed and civil service. 

In another six years, should the Marcos forces now prevail and if they stay true to form, they will have unraveled and self-destructed. We will not be surprised, but their followers will be, when the promised manna never rains, when the Palace is ruled by incompetence, indecision, and intrigue, when No. 2 chafes at her humble station, when China attacks and the First Family rushes off to Paraguay with half the treasury (nothing is too absurd in politics today), when citizens cry out for simple answers to urgent questions and are told, “The President is busy,” in a dull echo of his excuses for avoiding the debates. 

But guess what—here we are; we endured, we survived, and we fight on. The ones behind us are even much younger and stronger, and more knowledgeable about the intricacies of digital and house-to-house persuasion. “Pink” is already being demonized as some mutation of the Reds and Yellows, but it will not fade away. Unless they are outlawed, or painted over by the newly reconstituted Kabataang Barangay, the “Kulay Rosas ang Bukas” murals will stay on as reminders of what could have been and could yet be. There may not be an EDSA IV—having once lost to peaceful protest, they will not hesitate to arrest and fire at the slightest signs of a new uprising—but the Internet will not be muted, nor will the mounting clamor of the disappointed poor.

The Marcos forces have waited almost forty years for this moment. What would six more years be to a resurgent opposition? We can play the long game.

And then again, we Filipinos just might surprise ourselves next Monday, and decide that the opportunity for change, for a real “moving on,” is not to be delayed but to be claimed at once. That will be sweet victory for the woman they made the mistake of calling “incapable.”

Hindsight 14: Weaponizing the Youth

Hindsight for Monday, April 18, 2022

ONE OF the most troubling episodes of the war now raging in Ukraine happened a couple of weeks ago not in Kyiv or the eastern region—where ghastly atrocities have taken place—but in Penza, a city in western Russia. A 55-year-old teacher named Irina Gen was arrested after a student reportedly taped her remarks criticizing the Russian invasion; the student’s parents got the tape, and turned it in to the authorities, who went after Ms. Gen. She now faces up to ten years in prison for violating the newly minted law against “spreading fake news” about Russia. Earlier, in the city of Korsakov, students also filmed their English teacher Marina Dubrova, 57, for denouncing the war; she was arrested, fined, and disciplined.

That the Russian state is punishing its critics is nothing new. It’s reprehensible, but you expect nothing less from the place and the party that invented the gulag, that frozen desert of concentration camps where millions suffered and died over decades of political strife and repression, mainly under Joseph Stalin. 

What I found particularly alarming was the role of students as informants, a virtual extension of the secret police that are the staple of repressive societies. This, too, is nothing new. Throughout modern history, despots have drawn on their nations’ youth to lend a semblance of energy and idealism to their authoritarianism, ensure a steady stream of cadres, and at worst, provide ample cannon fodder.

In Russia, the Komsomol rose up in 1918 to prepare people between 14 and 28 for membership in the Communist Party. Four years later, the Young Pioneers took in members between 9 and 14, and just to make sure no one who could walk and talk was left out, the Little Octobrists were organized in 1923 for the 7-9 crowd. 

The Hitler Youth was preceded and prepared for by youth organizations that formed around themes like religion and traditional politics, and it was easy to reorient them toward Nazism. An all-male organization matched by the League of German Girls, the Hitler Youth focused on sports, military training, and political indoctrination, but they soon had to go far beyond marching in the streets and smashing Jewish storefronts. Running short of men, the Germans set up a division composed of Hitler Youth members 17 years and under, the 12th SS-Panzer Division Hitlerjugend. It went into battle for the first time on D-Day in June 1944; after a month, it had lost 60 percent of its strength to death and injury.

Chairman Mao relied on China’s teenage cadres—the Red Guards—to unleash the Cultural Revolution in 1966 against the so-called “Four Olds” (old customs, culture, habits, and ideas, which came to be personified in elderly scholars and teachers who were beaten to death or sent off to prison camps for “re-education”). 

Under Ferdinand Marcos Sr.’s martial law, the Kabataang Barangay was created by Presidential Decree 684 in 1975 to give the Filipino youth “a definite role and affording them ample opportunity to express their views.” That sounds innocuous enough, and indeed the KB would go on to engage in skills training, sports, sanitation, food production, crime prevention, and disaster relief, among other civic concerns, under the leadership of presidential daughter Imee. 

At the same time it was clearly designed to offset leftist youth organizations like the Kabataang Makabayan and the Samahang Demokratiko ng Kabataan by drawing on the same membership pool and diverting their energies elsewhere—more specifically, into becoming the bearers and defenders of the New Society’s notions. (Full disclosure: I was an SDK member, but my younger siblings were KB.)

I would never have thought that the “Duterte Youth” meant something else, but it does; evidently, it’s just shorthand for “Duty to Energize the Republic through the Enlightenment of the Youth Sectoral Party-list Organization.” Organized in 2016 to support the Davao mayor’s presidential campaign and later his policies as President, the Duterte Youth have affected quasi-military black uniforms and fist salutes. Its leader, Ronald Cardema, reportedly brushed off comparisons with the Hitler Youth by pointing out that the Germans had no patent on the “youth” name, which he was therefore free to use. (Uhmm… okay.)

Adjudged too old to represent the youth in Congress (his wife Ducielle took over his slot), Cardema was appointed to head the National Youth Commission instead, from which perch he then directed “all pro-government youth leaders of our country… to report to the National Youth Commission all government scholars who are known in your area as anti-government youth leaders allied with the leftist CPP-NPA-NDF.”

I acknowledge how Pollyannish it would be to expect young people and even children to be shielded from the harsh and often cruel realities of today’s world. The war in Ukraine, the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the pandemic are just the latest iterations of conflicts and crises that have turned 12-year-old boys into executioners in Sierra Leone and child miners in Bolivia, Madagascar, and, yes, the Philippines. 

Their enlistment in political causes—of whatever orientation—is another form of maltreatment or abuse for which we have yet no name, but few governments or anti-government rebels will let them be. Their minds are soft and malleable, their fears obvious and manipulable, their rewards simple and cheap. With the right incentives and punishments, it can be easier to turn them into monsters or machines than to safeguard their innocence. They can be weaponized.

I’ve mentioned this in another column, but there’s a scene in the classic movie Cabaret, set in the Nazi period, where a handsome and bright-faced boy in a brown uniform begins to sing what seems to be an uplifting song about “the sun on the meadow.” But as it progresses we realize that it’s a fascist anthem which is picked up by ordinary folk with chilling alacrity. Watch this on Youtube (“Tomorrow Belongs to Me”) and then look at your son or nephew, or the children playing across the street. If you want, you could vote to have them marching and singing a similar tune in a couple of years.

(Photo from Rappler.com)

Hindsight No. 13: The Imperfect Good

Hindsight for Monday, April 11, 2022

The Good and Evil Angels 1795-?c. 1805 William Blake

I’VE RECENTLY come across a number of posts online by people complaining about the “self-righteousness” of campaigners for a certain candidate to explain why they might, or will, vote for the other guy—yep, the tax evader, debate dodger, academic cipher, political under-performer, and, if the surveys are to be believed, our next President. 

Now, I can understand their irritation. Nobody likes to be told they’re wrong to their faces, or have the truth shoved down their throats. 

I can just hear someone muttering: “How can you be so sure of your manok? Don’t you know she’s an airhead, lost in space, a Bar flunker, an unwitting decoy for the (choose your color—Reds or Yellows)? There may not be much I can say for my bet—and okay, I’ll admit I don’t really know or care what he thinks because he’s not telling—but I prefer him to your insufferable assumption that you and your 137,000 friends are torchbearers for the good, the right, and the just. (And you’re such a hypocrite, because I know what you pay your maids, which isn’t more than what I pay mine, but at least I don’t pretend to be some crusading reformer.) To be honest, it’s you I can’t stand, not since you put on that silly all-pink wardrobe and plastered your gate and walls with pink posters. But guess what—you’ll lose! All the polls say so, and I can’t wait to see you crying your eyes out on May 10.”

Whichever side of the political fence you’re on, I’ll bet my favorite socks (which I haven’t worn for the past two years) that you know someone on the other side who’s thought of or verbalized what I just wrote. The forthcoming election has become a test not just of friendships, but of how far some of us are willing to pretend that all politicians are the same, all opinions are equal and should be equally respected, XXX number of people can’t be wrong, and that whoever wins, democracy will, as well.

This presumes a parity of political, financial, and moral power that just doesn’t exist and probably never did, at least in this country. The playing field is far from even. It’s been horribly distorted by disinformation, vote-buying, intimidation, and who else knows what can happen between now and May 9 (and the days of the vote count, after). The dizzying game of musical chairs that preceded the final submission of candidacies to the Comelec last October (resulting, ridiculously, in the ruling party being frozen out of serious contention for the top two slots) was but a preview of the seeming unpredictability of Elections Ver. 2022. I say “seeming” because there may be outfits like the former Cambridge Analytica that will presume to be able to game everything out and bring a method to the madness that will ensure victory for their clients.

What we know is that this will be the first presidential election, at least in recent memory, where the presumptive frontrunner refuses to be questioned about important issues, faces legal liabilities that would crush anyone less powerful, campaigns on little more than a vapid slogan, ignores China’s encroachment into Philippine territory, claims to know next to nothing about his parents’ excesses, and takes no responsibility for them. Even more alarmingly, his lead in the polls suggests that these issues don’t matter to many voters, thanks to miseducation and disinformation. 

So, no, not all politicians are the same, and not even all elections are the same. But for all its surface complications, May 9 truly and inevitably comes down to a simple choice: that between good and evil—between those who stand for truth, freedom, justice, and the public interest and those who side with falsehood, dictatorship, oppression, and corruption. If you can’t distinguish between the two, or refuse to, or prefer to obfuscate the matter by repackaging it into, say, a war between families or between winners and losers, then you have a problem. 

This isn’t just self-righteousness; it’s righteousness, period. You can’t justify preferring evil because of some perceived shortcoming in the good. It’s in the nature of things that “the good” will forever be imperfect, forever a work-in-progress. It can be clumsy, patchy, plodding, long drawn out, and sometimes, if not often, it will lose skirmishes and battles to the enemy; fighting for it can be wearying and dispiriting. On the other hand, evil is well thought-out, comprehensive, well-funded, and efficient; it can attract hordes to its ranks, and promise quick victory and material rewards. Evil is often more fascinating and mediagenic, from Milton’s Lucifer to Hitler and this century’s despots. But none of that will still make it the right choice. 

Commentators have pointed out that Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s embattled president, may not be the shining hero that the media has served him up to be, because he had repressed his enemies before the Russian invasion and had established links with neo-Nazi groups. Now that may well be true, although it will be hard to believe that the Zelensky that emerges out of this crisis—if he does—will be the same man he was before.

But none of that excuses Vladimir Putin’s murderous rampage, nor elevates his moral standing, nor permits us to turn our eyes away from the carnage in the smoking rubble. The “Western media” and “Big Tech”—the favorite targets of despots, denialists, and conspiracists—may have their problematic biases, but only the radically lobotomized will accept the alternative, which is the Chinese, Russian, and North Korean interpretation of what constitutes journalism, and of an Internet within a net. 

We cannot let the imperfections or even the failures of the good lead us to believe that evil is better and acceptable. You don’t even have to be saintly to be good. If you’ve led a life of poor decisions, making the right one this time could be your redemption. There are far worse and darker crimes than self-righteousness in others.

Penman No. 437: Cherubs, Columns, and Capitals

Penman for Saturday, April 2, 2022

IT’S NOT very often that I stumble on a new source of beauty and wonder, especially not too far from where I live in Quezon City. But sometime last month my wife Beng and I drove out for just about half an hour to a place on the periphery of old Cubao and stepped back three-quarters of a century into a line of work that hasn’t changed much in all that time. What was especially delightful about this encounter was that, as a collector of all kinds of old things, this was new to me.

If you’ve ever looked around in church to see a fat little cherub on a pillar, or spent quiet time in a garden mesmerized by water cascading down a wall fountain, or walked down the stairways and corridors of old buildings appreciating the corbels and the balustrades—the fine, graceful touches of a bygone age—then you’ve seen the products of The House of Precast, the pioneer and still the leader in its field.

From the outside, its new office building along E. Rodriguez Avenue speaks of the modern efficiency with which its business is conducted, but its interiors quickly lead to the heart of the ancient art that still thrives within: the crafting and production of precast, or molded concrete, for architectural ornamentation and other uses. Behind the building can still be found the postwar home and workshop that started everything.

“This place dates back to 1948,” said Martin C. Galan, who runs The House of Precast with his lovely wife Michelle. Martin had met Michelle when they were both law students at UST. (Martin’s grandfather was the distinguished lawyer-banker Miguel Cuaderno.) How they got into the business is a story unto itself. Michelle’s dad, Conrado de Leon, was the son of master artisan Inocencio de Leon, who had worked with the renowned sculptor Isabelo Tampinco, a contemporary of Rizal’s. When the Americans came, they brought concrete, which Tampinco and his associates began to use for their commissions. 

A student of architecture, Conrado apprenticed with Don Isabelo’s son Vidal and later with Guillermo Tolentino, learning the craft and imbibing the high standards of quality and craftsmanship he would bring to his own trade. “He worked for Tolentino on the Bonifacio Monument. They used each other as models. They slapped on the clay and the old man finished it up. The statues were bronze but everything began as clay. They made a mold, which was brought to Europe for casting,” Martin explained. Another important mentor was the Italian sculptor Francisco Monti, who escaped the brownshirts in Italy and was on his way to Australia when he was enticed to go to the Philippines instead. “Monti had his own studio, but he came here to work so Conrado could make his molds for him. There were chickens here, so Monti would get six eggs and drink their contents, and start flinging mud as he sang an operatic aria.”

In 1950, Conrado opened The House of Precast where it remains today, and began filling orders for such premium clients as Malacañang Palace and the mansions of New Manila, Bacolod, and Davao. “When he did well, Conrado hired Vidal Tampinco, as a way of thanking him for his earlier mentorship, and also to learn more secrets of the trade,” said Martin. 

Conrado de Leon died in 1988, and was followed shortly after by his wife; by this time, Martin had married Michelle, and at her deathbed, Michelle’s mother implored the young couple to carry on the business. Despite coming from a very different background and knowing next to nothing about precast, the couple agreed, and have been at it ever since. “We began with a month’s capital and five old employees. We faced many challenges. No one knew us except the old architects. Internally, I had to deal with resistance to change, to modern techniques and methods of management.” 

Martin brought in new knowledge, and also began training a new generation of apprentices. “When Michelle and I went to London in the mid-‘90s, I took the opportunity to learn how to make a rubber mold. Today I use three types of rubber as well as cement, and sometimes I mix wood, rubber, and cement. It depends on the job. You can innovate—you can use glass fiber instead of jute–but the basic processes remain the same. Our advantage is that we still know how to do it the old way. I made sure of that.”

The idea of precast can be traced to as far back as the Romans, who used a form of it for their famous buildings, but its modern version really takes off in the late 1890s and early 1900s with the growing use of precast and prestressed concrete in construction and ornamentation (the first recorded use of reinforced concrete, by Joseph Monier in 1867, was for a flower pot). The larger part of the precast industry today involves the production of structural elements for bridges and other infrastructure, so Martin’s and Michelle’s corner of it—architectural ornamentation—is relatively small, but the combination of tradition and technology that it demands also allows for the kind of artisanal care and excellence that only love and practice can create.

“The basic idea behind precasting is to make the object somewhere else and then bring to the site,” explained Martin. “The architects or clients can show us their designs, and we make their vision a reality. We make molds out of concrete, plaster, or rubber. Some molds are for one-time use—the molde perdido, or lost mold. But we can do what others can’t. Today we use CAD, and we work interactively with the client in developing the project. We have references for things like columns and capitals—there are equations and formulas for these classical forms. But for things like how a leaf should turn, our people rely on direct observation. Others might use pictures, and the two-dimensionality shows. To make a good mold, your mind has to think in three dimensions. You’re doing it in reverse—you’re making a negative. So we talk about the alsa and lubog, the rise and fall of the figure. We ask, what does the leaf want to do?”

Quality is The House of Precast’s topmost consideration. “We don’t scrimp on materials, and we abide by international standards.” This quality is evident in the high-ceilinged office that also showcases some of their finest creations.

But the workshop at the back, beside the old house and garden, is the heart of the operation, where skilled hands turn plaster and water into cherubs, columns, and capitals, among dozens of other shapes, familiar adornments often taken for granted that please the eye and tease the imagination. Stepping into it, I began to understand the Galan couple’s commitment to their craft, and to sustaining it into a future more concerned with cost than culture. 

The pandemic hit the business hard—“We’re ornamental, so we’re an expendable item in the budget,” Martin said—but they’ve survived and should recover. Their son Diego—a familiar figure in the watch and pen forums online—is learning the ropes. Martin has ambitious plans for the new building, which he wants to transform into “a venue for the humanities.” He has another business as a consultant in acoustics, and swears that he can see sound moving around in space—nothing strange for a man who fusses about how leaves should curl and open in nature. As long as the Galans find wonder in the world around them, so will we.

Hindsight No. 10: A Princely Welcome

Hindsight for Monday, March 21, 2022

IT WAS a little burp in the flood of election-related stories that we’ve been wading through all month so it may have gone unnoticed by most, but it piqued my interest strongly enough to take note of it for a future column, and here it is.

Last March 8, the faculty and staff members of Kalinga State University in Tabuk, Apayao received a memo from their president, Dr. Eduardo T. Bagtang, informing them that the KSU Oval was going to “be utilized as the landing area of the choppers” of presidential and vice-presidential candidates Bongbong Marcos and Sara Duterte the following day. Accordingly, all teaching and non-teaching employees were “requested to welcome the aspirants but no one is allowed to approach them. We are to welcome them at a stationed area in the College of Education.” 

The memo was replete with misspellings and other small infelicities that initially caught my attention as an English teacher, but let’s get past those to the substance of the memo, which was clearly aimed at giving the “Uniteam” combo a warm and hospitable reception. 

Was there anything wrong with that, legally or morally? I’m not entirely sure, which is why I’m raising the question. To be honest, my knee-jerk reaction—as a self-declared non-fan of candidates who avoid debates—was to say yes. To be fair, however, it’ll be good to look at it from both sides, as a study of our culture and its political aspects. The DepEd, the Civil Service Commission, and the Comelec all have rules prohibiting public officials and employees from electioneering. Did the KSU memo cross that line? Was a “request” tantamount to an order?

Just between us Pinoys, it seems the polite and civil thing for a state university president to welcome political candidates. State universities and colleges depend on government support, and whichever parties or officials come to visit, we deem it acceptable if not adroit for SUC presidents to (let’s not say “curry favor”) establish cordial relationships with those in power, or expect to be. (And before we forget, let’s congratulate CHED Chairman Dr. Prospero “Popoy” de Vera, last year’s KSU graduation speaker, for having been named an “adopted son” of Kalinga just this month on the occasion of his visit to KSU.)

Hospitality is arguably ingrained in the Filipino. When then vice-presidential candidate Mar Roxas visited Davao City in November 2009, then Mayor Rodrigo Duterte pulled out all the stops to give him a royal welcome, and even endorsed him for being “clean.” Of course seven years later, running against each other, Rody was calling Mar “the most incompetent Filipino ever to run for president,” but they could both look back to happy memories of walking the streets of Davao together, and of Mar even driving Rody’s pickup truck then. 

Political incumbents routinely welcome campaigning candidates to their territory, which the visitors can spin to their advantage. When Isko Moreno visited Cotabato to meet with BARMM Interim Chief Minister Ahod Ebrahim last month, newspapers were quick to interpret the Manileño’s introduction by Ebrahim as “our incoming president” as a “virtual endorsement” of his candidacy. It was denied the next day by the BARMM spokesman, but denials don’t stick that well in the memory. 

Of course there are thorny exceptions to this ritual politesse. The logistical obstacles reportedly thrown in the way of VP Leni Robredo’s massive rallies by some local politicians and their allies come to mind. Not only were these hosts inhospitable but openly hostile, as if they had been visited and threatened (they probably were) by a pink virus. 

In contrast to the red carpet prepared by KSU President Bagtang and his staff for the BBM-Sara team, a “welcome activity” being planned by the Baybayog National High School in Alcala, Cagayan for Leni set for March 12 had to be scrapped after questions about its “official” nature. The school had sent consent forms for parents to allow their children to attend the activity—deemed “official” because Leni was still, after all, the sitting Vice President, and waving as her convoy passed would have been part of their “civic duty”—but the plan was dropped, to avoid controversy.

This reminds me how it used to be pretty normal for us, when we were kids, to stand at attention under the hot sun for visiting dignitaries, wave flags or flowers, and cheer like our lives depended on it (and maybe, in some ways, they did). We thought politicians, priests, generals, and CEOs were all respectable people and worthy of our admiration. When we realized they were not, the flags and flowers turned into streamers and placards. This is why all but the bravest and most progressive politicians have been loath to set foot in liberal citadels like UP, where a reception of another kind awaits them.

Now, KSU is clearly not UP, by which statement I do not wish to denigrate the strides KSU has made in higher education, which can be found on its website. I refer to the intellectual atmosphere and spirit that inhabit each school and how these are fostered by their constituencies and leadership. KSU, I now recall, was also one of three SUCs that pulled out “subversive” books from their libraries last year in compliance with a much-criticized CHED memo urging them to toe the anti-Red line. Given that background, I shouldn’t have been surprised to find it opening its arms wide to the “Uniteam,” which says it wants national unity for and with everyone—as long as they don’t read, teach, and keep certain naughty books. 

But let’s not be too judgmental, as the campaign season is far from over, and it’s possible that candidates Robredo, Lacson, Pacquiao, Moreno, and de Guzman might yet decide to visit Tabuk, and land their choppers on the greens of KSU. In that case I expect Dr. Bagtang to be his old congenial self and to issue more memos requesting the faculty and staff to welcome the visitors, although I doubt that VP Leni and Ka Leody will be landing in such princely fashion.

Hindsight No. 9: Only the Stupid

Hindsight for Monday, March 14, 2022

(Image from the diplomat.com)

MY BELATED foray into Facebook and the whole FB notion of “friends” led me to ask myself if—in these contentious times—it would be wise to apply a political filter to the many “friend requests” I receive every day, 90% of which come from total strangers.

My simple, old-fashioned liberalism said no. Keep it open. If I were confident in my beliefs, values, and principles, then I shouldn’t fear the presence of contrary ideas, which could be a springboard for a lively and high-minded discussion of alternative futures. 

Maybe I could even make fast friends from the other side, people who were equally concerned about our country’s situation and the need for capable leadership. Maybe we could even meet sometime for coffee or a few beers, engage in playful joshing about other’s politics, and end the day with a soulful rendition of “Kumbaya” around a bonfire. We could show the world the true meaning of unity, love, compassion, and all those nice words politicians can’t resist mouthing every five seconds.

It sounded good—at least in theory. Agree to disagree, turn the other cheek, and all that. Embrace the enemy, and the burrs, bumps, and other imperfections of democracy. Celebrate political diversity as a strength. Accept whatever happens in May as the sovereign will of the people, and yield gracefully to the new president’s wisdom. 

I wish I could say that that I took that high road—but I didn’t; I couldn’t. I did leave the door wide open on my first month on FB, during which I said yes to practically every request that came my way, and kept all my posts public. Soon enough, as my political preferences became obvious, I began to be cursed and trolled. Okay, par for the course—you express an opinion, you expect blowback. I tolerated it for a while, and then I asked myself—do I really want or need this, in my personal space? Were these silly comments enlightening me in any way, except to prove how much savagery you can draw from the tiniest scrap of brain? 

And so I learned the other side of Facebook that everyone else seemed to be adept at: delete, block, mute, unfriend. I began screening every “friend” request to reject dubious characters outright, including and especially those openly campaigning for candidates perpetually too busy to attend public debates. Now, I realize I’m being politically suicidal that way, by hunkering down in my hermit’s cave and refusing to participate in the time-critical mission of conversion. So please don’t do what I did, and be nice. 

But forget the trolls—that’s like talking to your toilet. So far, my toilet’s been telling me this: “Our guy will win. Look at the polls. It’s over. Only the stupid think otherwise.” I flush it all down, but it keeps floating back up. 

Seriously, going beyond paid-by-the-click trolls, I want to find an intelligent, articulate supporter of He Who Will Not Debate and ask just one question: “Why?” 

Do such people exist? They certainly do—I’ve personally known quite a few. Brilliant, eloquent, educated in the world’s best schools, well-traveled, at the top of their professions. They will claim to have been there, done that; some may even have been torchbearers and ideologues for the Left. Somewhere along the way, for reasons known only to them, they make a complete about-face, declare liberal causes dead, and cast their lot with the same people they once found repugnant. They become the gurus of the Right, the stylists of a fashionable authoritarianism they try to invest with narrative inevitability. 

Odd as it may seem, like Franco and his fascists, they will profess to be servants of God, and can be judged only by Him. They are not in it for the money, they will insist, although they live very comfortably. They affect a carapace of cynicism—they support He Who Will Not Debate, not out of love nor confidence in his admittedly mediocre talents, but because he will win, like it or not, so they are already thinking ahead to how he can be manipulated by his No. 2, their real horse. They are in it for the long game.

Sure, they’re smart, or seem to be. The only problem is, they’ve lost a fundamental sense of right and wrong. They’re beyond outrage. Proficient at turning fiction into “fact,” and inflated by their proximity to power, they mistake cleverness for conviction, and survival for salvation. In the end, they believe in nothing but themselves; they are their own echo chambers. “I don’t care what people think about what I think,” one such pundit told me, and it told me enough. 

So if and when I ask these people “Why him?”, I don’t expect a gush of praises for the fellow’s virtues, but rather a PowerPoint lecture on why he will win, regardless of everything. “Only the stupid,” they will remind me, “look at elections in terms of good and evil.” 

Even academics can over-analyze things and ignore or forget the basic question: Is it the right and the good thing to do? “Realpolitik”—a pet word of cynics—is no excuse for resignation and acceptance. 

All the scholarly explanations for Vladimir Putin’s Russo-centric world view can’t justify Russian aggression. Putin may have a right to feel threatened by a pro-NATO Ukraine, but he still doesn’t have a right to invade it and shell it to pieces. And we need to say so. As so often happens, to pose as “neutral” in this case (ostensibly because we have no dog in this fight) is to support the oppressor. We do have a dog, and it isn’t so much Ukraine itself but justice. 

So when I choose my Facebook friends, I choose people who still believe passionately in truth, freedom, and such things as the strategists of the Dark Side find foolish and irrelevant. I choose people who will restore and reinforce my faith in humanity, and who will remind me that we, too, are in this for the long fight, way beyond May 9.

“Only the stupid” may refuse to surrender in the face of looming annihilation, but I’ll take the Zelenskys of the world anytime over its Putins.