Penman No. 277: The Wealth Within Us (1)

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Penman for Monday, November 13, 2017

 

THIS ASEAN week and next, I’m sharing excerpts from a short paper I presented at a conference on ASEAN Leadership Amid a New World Order that took place last November 8 at the Shangri-La Makati, under the auspices of the Stratbase ADR Institute and the Asia Society. Ours was a panel on ASEAN cultural cooperation, and I spoke as a writer and academic engaged in regional networking.

As a creative writer and professor of literature, I’ve had many opportunities over these past 25 years to meet and mingle with my Southeast Asian counterparts in various conferences.

Until recently, there weren’t too many of these regional networks for writers and artists to get together, but today, some formal networks are in place. In my field, for example, the Asia Pacific Writers and Translators or APWT—which held its tenth annual conference just two weeks ago in Bali—has been very active in making connections between writers, translators, teachers, scholars, and publishers around the region. APWT goes well beyond Southeast Asia to include China, Japan, Korea, India, and even the United States and the UK, and very recently its major sponsor has been Australia, which is seeking to expand its Asian footprint.

I’m sure that similar associations exist in the other arts—in theater, music, and dance, for example. But let me use these writers’ gatherings as an illustration of the challenges and opportunities we Filipinos face on the cultural front.

Cultural cooperation presumes an awareness of each other’s culture. The problem is, there’s very little of that kind of connection, people to people, around the region, or at least between us and the rest of the region. Chalk it down to the fact that we have been separated from the rest of Southeast Asia by geography, by history, by language, and by religion. Scholars, writers, and artists—and let’s add OFWs—should of course have a deeper understanding of regional cultures, but that’s their job.

And even so, at nearly every regional conference I’ve attended, I’m acutely reminded of how out of the loop we Pinoys are—out of the Sinic loop up north, out of the Indic loop out west, out of the Malay loop down south, and out of the Commonwealth loop to which many of those countries belong. Having cast our lot with America and English, we find little in common with most everybody else, beyond the color of our skin and our shared legacy of colonialism.

Ironically, cultural commonalities and exchanges of a kind do happen around the region, and even around Asia—largely as a result of globalization, the Internet, satellite TV, and their impact on youth and pop culture. Witness the spread of K-Pop, anime, rap, telenovelas, and anything from Hollywood, especially the Marvel and DC universe.

But while these influences have arguably injected new vitality into traditional cultures and media, they have also, to a significant extent, contributed to the homogenization of those cultures, and to the forgetting or even obliteration of traditional knowledge, leaving our youth in a cultural limbo, divorced and alienated from the common experience of their own people.

Consider this: young urban Filipinos don’t consider agriculture as a career option, don’t like to eat fish unless it’s imported salmon, have no idea where or what Quiapo is, see Mindanao as another country, and know more about Japanese manga and Star Wars than they do about our heroes. Their world-view is shaped by Facebook and Netflix and spread by Twitter and Instagram, and not by direct immersion in their societies, much less by the societies around them. Indeed the fashionable thing today is to propose that the very idea of “nation” is a thing of the past, even as the rabidly resurgent nationalisms of some of our neighbors reveal that to be a precarious fantasy.

Clearly this indicates a failure of education, but as we all know, subjects related to culture and history have increasingly been relegated to the back rows of our curricular priorities in favor of science, technology, and mathematics. As a graduate myself of the Philippine Science High School and an abortive engineer and economist, I have no quarrel with pushing those competencies in the name of competitiveness and national development.

But there are also powerful arguments to be made for supporting cultural programs and endeavors instead of diminishing them. I will focus on two: what I will call the moral argument, and the economic argument.

The moral argument is that culture is an essential element of national growth and development, as it helps define our national identity and our national interests. Without culture, we have nothing to stand on except our territory. Cultural cooperation begins at home, first of all with an awareness of what culture is and how it can not only explain but enhance human life.

Culture is a dynamic description of our commonalities and differences, without understanding which we will be moving forward blindly, guided only by the political and economic interests of our elites.

Politics and economics may dominate the news and people’s consciousness, but many of our problems are cultural in nature—indeed, our politics and economics are significantly shaped by culture, from the ascendancy of Rodrigo Duterte to the conflict in Marawi.

The problem is that we often see culture as little more than entertainment, a musical interlude between presumably more important matters. Even overseas, Filipinos think of culture as the obligatory pancit and tinikling on June 12—not the underlying reason why there are hundreds of Filipino organizations in Southern California alone but few major statewide Fil-Am political leaders. (More next week)

 

Penman No. 274: Acronyms for Authors

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Penman for Monday, October 23, 2017

 

AS YOU read this, I’ll be in Bali, Indonesia, attending this year’s Asia Pacific Writers and Translators (APWT) conference, about which you’ll hear more next week. But today I’m going to throw in a few more terms aside from APWT into our literary alphabet soup, so you’ll know a bit more about what our writers are doing.

APWT, of course, is the region’s primary and most active network of writers and translators. While many of its members are also teachers, APWT is refreshingly non-academic, meaning you can actually understand what people are saying at its conferences, which are devoted to practical issues and questions of craft. You can find out more about the organization here (apwt.org) and maybe even think of signing up so you can attend next year’s meeting in Brisbane.

If you’re just starting out as a writer and feel like you’re still a long way away from APWT, perhaps you should try out for the next ALBWW, which is the Amelia Lapeña Bonifacio Writers Workshop. Now on its second year, the ALBWW was initiated by the University of the Philippines Institute of Creative Writing (UPICW) to help and encourage young, beginning writers.

UP, of course, had been supporting novices since the workshop itself began in 1965, but since its main summer workshop shifted toward mid-career writers in the 2000s, beginners have had to choose from a roster of workshops offered by other schools. The ALBBWW—named after the country’s foremost exponent of children’s theater—is UP’s way of saying “We haven’t forgotten you.”

Devoted to young adult writing, this year’s ALBWW was held from October 6 to 9 at the Oracle Hotel on Katipunan Avenue, and brought in 12 of the country’s youngest and brightest writers. They included Ivan Khenard Acero, Angeliza T. Arceño, Gabriel Carlos T. Cribe, Sigrid Gayangos, Ivan Emil Labayne, Kid Orit, Steno Padilla, Rayjinar Salcedo, Rai Aldrin B. Salvador, Krizelle R. Talladen, Carlos Valdes, and Sofia Zemana. They came from as far north as Isabela and Baguio to as far south as Butuan and Zamboanga, with backgrounds as diverse as Math, public relations, illustration, and book design, aside of course from literature and creative writing. Veteran writers Dean Alfar, Eugene Evasco, Mina Esguerra, Vim Nadera, and Christine Bellen walked the fellows through discussions of their works and of aspects of the craft.

A highlight of the ALBWW was a group visit with Ma’am Amel at her home, which also happens to be the headquarters of Teatrong Mulat, her pioneering children’s theater group which performed excerpts of their puppet plays for the visitors. The fellows were also treated to a tour of the Ateneo campus and the Rizal Library.

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Another important ICW event last month was the third iteration of the IBF or Interdisciplinary Book Forum, an activity co-sponsored by the UCW and the UP Press. I conceived of the IBF a couple of years ago when I was still ICW Director, thinking how interesting it would be if a new book—in any field, not just literature—were to be read and discussed by a panel of experts from a broad range of disciplines. How would a book on colonial architecture be read by, say, a sociologist, a historian, and a civil engineer? How would a novel on OFWs be received by a labor economist, a diplomat, and a psychologist?

We began this new IBF series last year with discussions around books on tattooing in the northern highlands on new speculative fiction written by Filipinos. For our third book, we chose Dr. Ma. Mercedes Planta’s Traditional Medicine in the Colonial Philippines: 16th to the 19th Century—a book recommended by UP Press Director Neil Garcia not because it was intrinsically interesting but because it also connected us to what its author, a historian, calls “our usable past.” Valuable insights into that past and our appreciation of it were contributed by the archeologist Dr. Victor Paz, the historian Dr. Ma. Luisa Camagay, and the physician Dr. Salvador Caoili. You can find the videos of this and other ICW events at http://panitikan.com.ph/media/.

Last, there’s KSA—Kutura, Sining, Atbp.—a cultural talk show that I host on TVUP along with Drs. Neil Garcia and Cecilia de la Paz. TVUP (tvup.ph) was started last year as UP’s Internet TV station, creating and broadcasting new programs—on significant and important topics, but presented in a popular and accessible manner (one of my favorites titles is “Hairy Balls and Donuts: The Fascinating World of Geometry” by Dr. Joey Balmaceda, a mathematician). On our show—which is bilingual, by the way—we’ve done episodes on film, theater, creative writing, and visual arts, among others, and are looking forward to taping further episodes on architecture, music, and dance, once we get the right mix of guests together.

There’s a few more acronyms for authors I can think of—we’ll soon be looking for our next NSWW fellows (that’s the National Summer Writers Workshop), the big mid-career gig that we’re hoping to be able to move to other UP campuses around the country, possibly in the Visayas next after two years in Los Baños—but you get the idea. In this life of letters, we try to make every word count.

Penman No. 271: From Balagtas to Gloc-9

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Penman for Monday, October 2, 2017

 

It would be easy and comforting to praise director Treb Monteras’ Respeto as a testament to the redemptive power of poetry, to art as a transcendent force in the universe—but it’s not that simple.

Yes, there’s quite a bit of that, and happily so for occasional poets like this viewer. We want to believe, in our heart of hearts, that poetry will save us, will elevate us from the sordidness of our surroundings and from our own sad and sorry failings. Two of my favorite quotations about poetry which I often bring up in class address that notion.

The first comes from that quintessential poet of the city, the Frenchman Charles Baudelaire: “When (like a poet) / the Sun descends into the city / It ennobles even / the vilest of its creatures.” So, poetry ennobles, raises up the poet from his or her pedestrian reality, no matter how vile that reality may be.

The second comes from Anne Sexton, who took her own life at age 45 after a long bout with depression, but who could still understand that “Suicide, after all, is the opposite of poetry.” Poetry was the life-force, the contributor to the poet’s heightened state of being, as Sexton would advert to in another line: “Saints have no moderation, nor do poets, just exuberance.”

These ideas were swilling in my head hours after my wife Beng and I stepped out of the cinema, still trying to figure out what I was supposed to think. We had missed Respeto during its Cinemalaya screening—they ran out of seats for us at its last showing—but had heard great things about it and weren’t about to miss it again during its regular run.

The movie itself isn’t hard to follow, even for a pair of senior citizens whose virgin ears opened up to Pinoy battle rap (always good to learn something new) for the first time. The Brockaesque descent into the urban jungle is such a familiar move for Filipino filmmakers (Hamog and Pauwi Na most recently come to mind) that it’s practically a given, but Respeto deepens the milieu by opening a door to the hip-hop subculture that many middle-class and middle-aged moviegoers have no inkling about whatsoever.

The fast and furious exchange of expletives aside, you could take Respeto as an Araby-type coming-of-age story where a young man falls for a woman, tries to gift her with something marvelous, and fails in the effort but learns something about himself in the process. Well, it’s a lot more complicated than that, because many other dualities and intersections abound in the story beyond just man and woman: that between youth and age (Hendrix, played by the ace rapper Abra, and Doc, played by Dido de la Paz), between apartment and slum, between bookshop and bar, between wisdom and wit, between Balagtas and Gloc-9, between Marcos and Duterte, and even between people who suffer and die for their beliefs and those who simply die out of poverty and crime. And perhaps, in the end, the movie asks, are they really so different? Is there some overarching reality that yokes them all together?

That reality seems to be that they’re all Filipinos living in the time of tokhang, a reality that pointedly intrudes into the narrative at key points and provides the inevitable climax. The environment seethes with menace and aggression—from the verbal violence (and blatant machismo) of the rap battles to the chilling corruption of the rogue cop Fuentes (played with understated competence by Nor Domingo). Without providing too much of a spoiler, I’ll just say that there’s no happy ending here, no triumphant reversals of fortune where the good guy bucks the odds, wins the prize, and gets the girl.

A perceptive review online by Tristan Zinampan puts it this way: “Respeto tells us that—given the cyclical oppression of Philippine society—going your own way, resignation, and apathy are not enough a vehicle to escape. Injustice is widespread; there’s simply no room to hide in this little archipelago. Just because you’re looking up, it doesn’t mean the chains on your feet aren’t there.”

Respeto’s Pinoy ‘hood is fertile ground for confrontation between good and evil in all their forms, with life and art insistently if desperately seeking to survive in the most hostile environments, even within the rap arena itself, where originality seems to be at a premium. The movie’s consistent use of a cemetery as a place for the creation of new art in words and images highlights this struggle.

Ultimately, however, at least for this viewer, Respeto affirms the inescapability of politics—especially the politics that kills—in our society, and its intrusion into our most private spaces, our most fervent dreams. There’s no doubt that the film draws much of its appeal from its running political commentary, but it’s less the topical references that create Respeto’s critical value for me than the power games that define it, some larger than others.

My takeaway isn’t a soothing one: poetry won’t save us, but guns—maybe even a rock—could, if that’s what it takes to overcome evil. And then again, the poetry—the truly great poetry, like all great art—will survive all of us: killers, victims, and bystanders alike. Catch Respeto the next chance you get, maybe on the campus film circuit, and tell me what you think.

 

Penman No. 268: What This Prize Should Mean to You (2)

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Penman for Monday, September 11, 2017

 

ONE OF the strangest moments of my life happened in 1993, when my first novel, “Killing Time in a Warm Place,” shared the grand prize with the late, great Tony Enriquez’s “Subanons.” The guest of honor then was none other than President Fidel V. Ramos, among whose speechwriters was none other than me.

There were four or five of us doing his speeches then, and the assignments were farmed out at random, and I can’t remember now if I accepted that Palanca Awards night job with delight or dismay. I suppose I could have swapped assignments with somebody else, but I had to think deeply about the situation. I was one of the awardees, so the young novelist in me wanted to sit back and hear my President’s sincerest thoughts about literature.

But the speechwriter in me also knew that those sincerest thoughts were just going to be written by somebody else in the room, so I figured, it might as well be me, to make sure that he would say nothing terribly wrong, and that he would say something very nice. And of course he did.

Incredibly enough, the same situation happened a year later, when I received a TOYM Award for Literature at Malacañang Palace, again from FVR. In both instances—because we ghostwriters preferred to remain spectral and worked far out of his sight—he had no idea that the hand he was shaking had also crafted his speech. In fact, it wasn’t until a few months ago, when I interviewed him for another book, that I finally introduced myself as the writer of 500 of his speeches, which remain on my hard drive. We had a good laugh.

I’ve written speeches for five Presidents and innumerable senators and CEOs, as well as the biographies of such diverse figures as Communist guerrillas, capitalist icons, and Marcos cronies. At any given time, I’m working on three or four book projects. I teach, write a weekly column, and peck away at stories, essays, poems, my third novel, and my unfinished oral history of the First Quarter Storm. And, oh, I also get to dress up and play the part of an academic bureaucrat.

I say this neither as a boast nor a lament, but simply to show that it’s all in a writing life. I’m happy and fortunate to have all of these writing jobs—although I must confess to being happier with some than others—because, despite all the challenges and compromises I have to face, this was what I signed up for.

Many other writers in this room have done the same thing, in varying degrees, both out of necessity and desire. Quite a few have approached me and said, “I want to do what you do,” but I wonder if they realize what they are asking for. I remember, early on, typing away at a commercial film script I had to complete, with tears streaming down my face, because what I really wanted to do was to join the Palancas, and I was out of time. That’s my greatest anxiety—to run out of time.

There will always be those who will scoff at what I do and who will insist that every word you write should be God’s own truth, as if that were humanly possible. God might as well smite all lawyers, copywriters, and PR professionals—and let’s throw in all politicians—with his righteous hand.

In a course I designed called Professional Writing, which I’ve been teaching for the past 20 years in UP, I begin every semester with this admonition: “There’s writing that you do for yourself, and writing that you do for others. And don’t ever get those two mixed up, or you’ll come to grief.” I also remind them that they can always say no, as I’ve done many times without regret.

If you embrace writing as a lifelong and life-sustaining profession rather than a weekend hobby, then you will not be writing every piece as if it were destined for the Palancas, although, as a professional, I do every job I accept as if it were my first, last, and only job, no matter how big or small.

But that again is exactly why we should value the Palancas. Too often, we lend our words to others. With these prizewinning pieces, we reclaim our words to ourselves, for ourselves, for whatever it was that first impelled us to write.

You remind me of that 21-year-old who, even as he had to write speeches, scripts, and stories for others, burned with the desire to write for himself and for his people at large—as this 63-year-old still does, awaiting blessed retirement 16 months hence so I can write the best of what remains in me to write.

Writing for the truth, writing for honor and glory, writing for the love of language—these are what your being here is all about, what the Palancas have existed for these past 67 years. While the generous cash awards are nothing to sneeze at—as the Foundation’s accountants will certainly attest to—the Palancas have always been about more than money. Your certificate tells you, this is how good you are; you look around you and you realize, that is how much better you can be.

This is our real reward, our hope, and our redemption. Whatever else you may have had to write or had to do, what you submit to these awards is your finest self, your truest words, your ineradicable proof of citizenship in the community of letters.

Let me quote President Ramos—well, in fact, let me quote myself: “It is both literature’s virtue and responsibility to reaffirm our fundamental humanity, and the unity of our interests and aspirations as a people. Every act of writing rehumanizes us, both writer and reader.” This is especially important in these darkening times, when megalomaniacal and murderous despotism threatens societies across the ocean, debases the truth, and cheapens human life. The best antidote to fake news is true fiction.

You and I have much to write about. You will not even need to wait until the next Palanca deadline to do what only you can do, and to say what only you can say. If you write for truth, freedom, and justice, and for the beauty and value of life itself, you will always be a first-prize winner in my book.

Penman No. 266: The Pinoy Film Family

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Penman for Monday, August 28, 2017

 

LIKE MANY Filipinos, I really should see more locally made movies than the Hollywood and Netflix confections that have become our staple entertainment. That statement’s even more ironic in my case, having scripted about two dozen movies, mostly for the late Lino Brocka, between 1978 and 2003.

I missed out totally on this year’s Cinemalaya offerings because of a toxic schedule at work—I tried to catch Respeto on its last day only to find all the tickets sold out—so I made sure to make time for the Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino the following week. I suppose I more than made up by managing to see four of the PPP entries over as many days: Patay Na si Hesus, Pauwi Na, Birdshot, and Hamog, in that order.

I might have chosen these movies because I’d heard good things about them, but I also wanted to see how they represented the Filipino family—for me an eternally fascinating subject, even from the days when Lino and I explored its complexity in such films as Tahan Na, Empoy and Inay. Filipino society (and politics, for that matter) is nothing if not about family, which seems inextricably connected to our struggles for survival—we survive for family, and also because of it.

Directed by Victor Villanueva, Patay Na si Hesus has a long-estranged wife and now a widow, Iyay (Jaclyn Jose), drive her ragtag family in a minicab from Cebu to Dumaguete to attend the wake of her husband Hesus. Along the way and at the wake itself all manner of misadventure happens: a nun liberates herself, a lesbian relationship crumbles, a boy with Down Syndrome seems to get lost but actually finds his way, a coffin collapses, and a dog dies (curiously—and sorry for the spoiler—the three dogs in three of these movies all die). The dog’s demise has all the characters wailing and shedding the tears they couldn’t muster for the absent dad.

Pauwi Na is another family-on-the-road movie, with Mang Pepe (Bembol Roco) and his wife Remy (Cherry Pie Picache)—crushed by eking out an existence in the slums—transporting their brood back to the Pinoy fantasy of a paradaisical province, not by train or bus but by pedicab. Director Paolo Villaluna’s project is a long and laborious journey that ends in tragic loss, but the family’s dogged faith in a better life elsewhere infuses the film with both power and poignance. Mang Pepe is every Filipino tatay who’s gone the extra mile—many miles—to put food on the table and bring a smile to his family’s faces. (I’ll admit to having teared up remembering my own father, a highly intelligent man who wanted to become a lawyer but never quite got the right breaks, and who at one point had to work as a jeepney barker just to tide us over.)

Directed by Mikhail Red, Birdshot juxtaposes the coming-of-age of young Maya (Mary Joy Apostol) with the brutishness and brutality of political power in the rural hinterlands. The endangered eagle that she shoots dead is precious, but it’s hardly the most grievous loss the place suffers, although there’s little official interest in investigating the bigger crimes.

Hamog is set in another jungle—the bowels beneath and around Guadalupe Bridge, in the city’s slums and tenements where street urchins become almost feral in their predation. The movie is actually a diptych, an exploration of two lives—Rashid’s and Jinky’s—and it opens doors to what to most Filipino viewers would be unusual relationships (a Muslim man with several wives, a woman with a husband and a lover under one roof). While doubtlessly powerful, the narrative needed, I felt, a bit of rounding out, even assuming that its director Ralston Jover precisely wanted to make a point of leaving ends loose, as life often happens.

I’ve already mentioned the 100% mortality rate for canines in these scripts; another interesting parallel was the appearance of phantoms—Jesus Christ, a shadowy forest figure, Supergirl—in three of the films, which seemed more organic and necessary in Pauwi Na but too deliberately cinematic a touch in Birdshot and Hamog.

Their minor flaws aside, all four movies were well worth my time and money, and I was glad to see full houses for a couple of them, and appreciative audiences who clapped as the credits rolled. For someone who’s been out of the film industry for a while, it was heartening to witness such a wealth of new young talent—both on the directorial and acting sides (Chai Fonacier, who appears in the two road movies, has a great future ahead of her)—emerging to take over from the likes of Brocka, Bernal, de Leon, and the other masters of that generation. If I were to hand out my own awards just among these four, I’d give the top prize to Patay Na si Hesus, for its refreshing quirkiness and dark comedy.

What struck and impressed me from a writer’s perspective was the non-linearity of the plots and the moral ambiguity of the characters and situations—a far cry from, say, Brocka, in whose movies it was always clear who the villain was, and why.

Most important, of course, was to see how the Pinoy nuclear family had morphed in response to changing times—to nontraditional sexuality, to absentee parents, to the pressure to survive—and yet also to see the love and affection in it undiminished and even intensified by need. Bravo!

 

Penman No. 265: Photography as Propaganda

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Penman for Monday, August 21, 2017

 

I HAVE a cabinet in my home office where I keep shelves of my most valued books—first editions, signed copies, antiquarian volumes, and such. One shelf is occupied by a special mini-collection of books from the turn of the 20th century, from the late 1800s to the early 1900s, most of them having to do with what we’ve come to call the Philippine-American War. Bearing titles like War in the Philippines and Life of Dewey, Under MacArthur in Luzon, and An Army Boy in the Philippines, the books purport to chronicle—“celebrate” might be the better term—the occupation of the Philippines by the United States from 1898 onward.

I picked up many of these books more than 20 years ago when I was a graduate student in the American Midwest and on the prowl for Philippine-related material in used bookstores and flea markets. When eBay came along, I found many more, and was pleased to secure a few, often for less than $20 plus shipping.

While old, these books weren’t necessarily rare, because they must have been printed in the high tens or hundreds of thousands as a form of patriotic propaganda that straddled journalism and popular entertainment. Often written in a triumphal tone and exulting in the victory of America—then a rising naval and imperial power—over decrepit Spain, they blended into travelogues exploring the US’ new possessions—Cuba, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and the Philippines—turning a military project into a story of adventure in exotic lands.

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These stories—and their accompanying illustrations—were very much on my mind last week when Beng and I attended a fascinating lecture at Ateneo de Manila University by an expert who had made that dark period (which few Americans and, sadly, just as few Filipinos seem to remember) part of her academic specialty. Dr. Nerissa Balce was in Manila to read from and talk about her book Body Parts of Empire: Visual Abjection, Filipino Images, and the American Archive (AdMU Press, 2017; U of Michigan Press, 2016), and we thought it was a good opportunity to catch up with and learn from an old friend (she married my Trivial Pursuit antagonist, the poet Fidelito Cortes).

After working as a journalist in Manila, Nerissa went to the University of California-Berkeley for a PhD in Ethnic Studies, took a postdoc at the University of Oregon, and taught at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst before joining the State University of New York-Stony Brook’s Department of Asian and Asian American Studies.

Through photographs and a refreshingly lucid lecture shorn of much of the academic jargon that often renders these presentations impenetrable to many listeners—even fellow professors like me—Nerissa showed how American photographers who were (to use a later term) embedded with the US military forces used their work to celebrate but then also obliquely if unintentionally criticize the violence of a colonial war. Photographs, she would argue in her book, have a life of their own, once taken and published; they may have been originally meant to depict the power of one side over another, and the abject position of the presumptive loser in the conflict, but seen or used a different way, they can convey other messages, like the subject’s insistent humanity or resistance.

I’d seen many such images in my books from that war; one of them—F. Tennyson Neely’s Fighting in the Philippines—typically portrays American soldiers towering angularly over the slack corpses of Filipino “insurgents” (as our fighters would be referred to for the longest time) as Filipino gravediggers prepare to bury their compatriots. This was what Washington wanted the American public to see: visual proof of American power and dominance. It must have been effective propaganda, especially when accompanied by narratives explaining America’s “civilizing” mission.

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But, as Nerissa and other scholars point out, the very same photographs proved useful to those opposed to America’s imperial expansion. The Anti-Imperialist League published a collection of antiwar poems using a picture of a corpse-filled trench as its frontispiece. “The different political uses for the same photograph suggest the paradoxical power of the photographic image, and how photographs can celebrate as well as expose the violence of colonialism and war.” She goes beyond the battlefield to discuss how the empire shaped our image, and how that image, in a way, shaped the empire. Pictures of native women doing embroidery suggested a colony stabilizing into happy domesticity under a benign regime.

I’m not a historian, but if you want a reasonably reliable account of that period, read Brian McAllister Linn’s The Philippine War 1899-1902 (The University Press of Kansas, 2000); to see how that war was waged on the cultural front, Balce’s book makes a great companion piece. In this present time when, more than ever, pictures speak louder than words, and dead men’s bodies have begun to pile up again, we’d have to wonder what new empire is growing out of the shadows.

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[Photo from philstar.com]

 

Penman No. 263: Geekdom Galore at Comic-Con 2017 (2)

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Penman for Monday, August 7, 2017

 

LET’S START with some stats: last month, Beng and I were two of the 35 million visitors who would have trooped to San Diego, California by the end of the year. We go there regularly for our daughter Demi, but most others would probably mention the beaches, the ships, the Mexican food, the whale-watching—and, for 130,000 people in late July, that long weekend of masked madness called Comic-Con International. Those fun-seeking fans will book all of San Diego’s 40,000 hotel rooms—many a year in advance, at room rates easily triple the normal—and on the average spend over $600 per person, injecting some $80 million in direct spending and another $70 million in multiplier effects.

Geekdom, in other words, is serious business, and there’s no stronger pitch that the spinners and purveyors of fantasy can make to their market than Comic-Con, which began in San Diego itself in the dim and dingy basement of the rundown US Grant Hotel one day in March 1970. Since then, the US Grant—where Demi works—has been refurbished into the city’s swanky grande dame, and Comic-Con, like the superheroes it glorifies, has morphed from a pimply kid to a sleek and powerful machine.

I’m sure the fans aren’t thinking much about the history when they stream through the doors of the SDCC on opening day and emerge with bags and boxes of new Funko Pop Justice League figurines, Deadpool Wooden Push Puppets, and one of this year’s exclusives, a Twin Peaks Agent Cooper Bobble Head, all yours for $14.99. The comic-book collectors could dwell on decades past, but most of Comic-Con is decidedly future-oriented, always looking around the corner for the next TV season’s plot spoilers and the next sequel’s new villain.

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There’s even been an urban-dictionary term coined for the phenomenon: “FOMO,” or “fear of missing out,” the hidden impulse behind the surge of the pop-culture hysteria best exemplified by Comic-Con. It’s all fun, of course, on the level of cosplay and souvenir shopping. For others, it’s also a profession and the work of a lifetime.

There were two such professionals and icons I sought out in this year’s Comic-Con: the Filipino-American artists Whilce Portacio and Alex Niño. I’d already met and interviewed Whilce in last year’s event, and subsequently at the Asia Pop Comic-Con in Manila, but it was good seeing him again in top form, signing autographs and artworks for fans in his booth in the Artists’ Alley.

Whilce actually wasn’t there yet when we arrived, as he was being interviewed by Syfy about his work, so Beng and I wandered off to observe a long queue forming for the autograph of another artist whom we frankly had never heard of before—the very young Patrick Ballesteros, another Fil-Am and San Diego native.

“We’re everywhere!” Whilce would remind me later. “Marvel, DC, Pixar, you name it, we’re there.” Whilce himself would co-found Image Comics and create Bishop for the X-Men, and he has been going back and forth to the Philippines to mentor young graphic talents such as Leinil Yu and to set up a studio that can meet the growing global demand for illustrators and animators.

I missed Alex Niño last year—at 77, he now attends only the last couple of days of Comic-Con, leaving it to his son Jules to mind the booth—but I caught him this time at Comic-Con’s closing hour for a quick chat about his struggle to rise to the top of his profession in the US. Tony de Zuñiga blazed the trail for all of them, but Alex, Nestor Redondo, Larry Alcala, and later Whilce and his peers followed shortly after in the 1980s and 1990s.

Alex recalled a crucial moment at the beginning when, still in the Philippines, he was approached by DC to draw a comic, he came up with a carefully drawn work, only for DC to balk at his price. “I tore the pages up,” Alex said. “I preferred to do that than get short-changed.” Unknown to him, his wife Norma had painstakingly pieced and pasted the drawings together overnight, and had sent it to DC—which, understanding what had happened, paid Alex’s price. This sense of self-worth would serve Alex and his compatriots well.

He moved to the US in 1974, and I’ll leave you to check out Wikipedia for his voluminous credits since then. Time may have slowed him down a bit, but it hasn’t stopped him from working, albeit more traditionally than others. He has just finished illustrating a book on wines for Jay Ignacio. “I don’t mind technology, but I never got used to a tablet. With digital art, you can’t tell what or where the original artwork is. I still use a pen and ink, and markers. I had to evolve my own style to be different from the others. None of my five children have taken after me, but my grandson in the Philippines works in animation. I can’t retire, because I’ve yet to be satisfied by what I’ve done. I feel that my best work, my masterpiece, is still out there.”

Way to go, Alex—spoken like a true Pinoy superhero! Until next year—if we get those badges.

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Penman No. 262: Geekdom Galore at Comic-Con 2017 (1)

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Penman for Monday, July 31, 2017

 

I MUST’VE been a really good kid to deserve this fortune, because much to my surprise—and possibly the chagrin of my 20-something students for whom this would be the closest they could get to heaven without dying—I got to attend Comic-Con International in San Diego with my sidekicks Beng and Demi (and Demi’s husband Jerry) for the second year in a row. I’d given up on returning to the show after failing to score tickets (“badges,” in CC parlance) twice online, but again our San Diego-based daughter pulled off a miracle at the last minute and got badges for us for the opening and closing days of the four-day convention, smack in the middle of what’s become our annual US vacation.

As all of my undergrads and junior colleagues know, San Diego’s Comic-Con is the world’s largest and most-awaited extravaganza of popular culture, running now for 47 years and attracting 150,000 attendees from all over the world. This is geekdom galore—a global gathering of fans of comic books, superheroes, fantasy, toys, animation, TV, and basically anything that levitates, teleports, or transmutates.

If you’re my age (63) and can’t relate to anything I’ve said, I can’t blame you. The average age of the Comic-Con attendee is 25; until recently, about 60 percent were male, but that’s been changing with the emergence of strong female superheroes such as Wonder Woman and Supergirl and intriguing characters like Stranger Things Eleven.

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But while seniors (yes, we got a discount on the tickets) may seem out of place at Comic-Con, the fact is, we were the original comic-book fans who grew up not just on DC and Marvel at a time when Adam West still played Batman on TV and George Reeves, not Christopher Reeve, played Superman; we were also followers of Lastikman, Palos, Gagamba, Darna, and other Pinoy heroes in the local komiks. For older folks like me, Comic-Con is rejuvenation, if not resurrection.

Here, everyone who was ever made to feel weird or was left out because of, say, a desire to wear blue hair, green skin, or an extra eye will feel at home, because Comic-Con is just like that Star Wars bar scene, with patrons from a dozen galaxies, multiplied a hundred times over. Fans come to the show dressed as their favorite superhero or cartoon character, and you don’t even need the body (or, for that matter, the gender) of Gal Gadot to be Wonder Woman. I’d give this year’s Most Astounding Cosplayer Award to the Princess Leia who had all the right buns—and a beard. Before I could snap a picture, she/he was off to Alderaan (aka home).

Also ubiquitous this year were various iterations of Harley Quinn (the girl from Suicide Squad), Spider-Man, and Deadpool, and even a knotty Groot or two. Beng was swept off her feet by a Jack Sparrow lookalike who had the accent and the bow down pat. I swallowed my shyness and agreed to Beng’s prodding to have my picture taken with Wonder Woman (one of them, anyway). We were unabashed fans for the weekend, and enjoying ourselves, although we had to squat on the floor and eat our lunch sandwiches, like hundreds of others, for lack of seats at the San Diego Convention Center.

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That’s because almost all the seats were in the meetings rooms and halls upstairs. The SDCC is a lot like the Mall of Asia’s SMX, only larger, with a huge exhibition hall downstairs and meeting spaces of various sizes for the convention itself upstairs. While the ground floor had hundreds of booths exhibiting everything from collector comics (I saw one, All-Star Comics No. 8 from December 1941which introduces Wonder Woman, selling for $75,000) to what happens in a Hollywood make-up studio, on the second floor were endless queues of fans who had come for the four days of panels. If downstairs was merchandise, upstairs was talk—and lots of it.

It’s at these one-hour panels, running in parallel sessions all over, that fans can actually meet the stars, who just might let some spoiler slip about a show’s forthcoming season (the Game of Thrones panel, hosted by Hodor, ended with a snippet about Melisandre) or give a definitive answer to some lingering mystery (was Bladerunner’s Deckard a replicant? Harrison Ford remained evasive). Most other panels are smaller and more practical, with titles like “Career Paths into Game Development,” How to Color Comic Art,” “Basic Star Wars Robotics,” and “Villains: Creating the Perfect Antagonist.” I wish I could say I attended even one of these, but the long lines quickly drove us back downstairs.

The biggest panels take place at Hall H, which can accommodate 6,500 people. A Comic-Con badge is far from a guarantee of entry into this cavernous space, for which the queue spills out to the yard and street outside—beginning days before; Demi’s brother-in-law Ray had planned on standing in line for his daughter Mia for the Stranger Things panel on Saturday, but had to give up when he learned that the line had begun forming on Thursday.

Madness, indeed—but of a happy kind, especially for host San Diego, which stood to gain $150 million in revenues from the July 20-23 convention. More on Comic-Con next week, including the highlights of my interview with Pinoy comics icon Alex Niño.

For more of my Comic-Con 2017 pics, click here.

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Penman No. 256: Get a Life (2.0)

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GET A LIFE Ver. 2.0

Jose Dalisay Jr., PhD

Address to the Graduating Class

University of the Philippines Baguio

22 June 2017

 

Chancellor Ray Rovillos, Members of the UP Baguio Faculty and Staff, Distinguished Guests, Members of the Graduating Class and their Proud Parents, Families, and Friends, Ladies and Gentlemen:

 

GOOD AFTERNOON, and thank you all for having me here today as your commencement speaker.

Let me begin with a confession. If you were expecting someone more famous, more accomplished, and more handsome than me to be standing at this podium here today, well, so was I. No one is more surprised than I am to be your guest speaker.

I woke up at 5 am yesterday to attend the UP Manila graduation at the PICC, rushed back to Diliman to pick up my bags, then took the long, leisurely ride up to Baguio, recalling the days when, as a young boy, I eagerly anticipated visiting this city, which used to involve a train ride to Damortis, La Union, before transferring to a bus that would wind its way up Naguilian Road. I recall my nostrils tingling when they caught the scent of pine. In high school in the 1960s, Baguio meant the CMLI, Teachers Camp, marching on Session Road to proclaim “student power,” pretty faces from a school called St. Theresa’s, and a dark and exciting place called the Basement—which some of your older teachers might remember.

Those happy memories embraced me as I arrived in my hotel last night. Chancellor Ray had thoughtfully sent me a copy of the program, and after dinner, just before I went to bed, I opened the program, curious to see who the commencement speaker was going to be. And then I saw my name. Oh my god—it was me!

And it’s all my fault, because I’d told Chancellor Ray that President Danicon couldn’t make it—he sends you all his warmest congratulations, by the way. But I had volunteered to represent him, because it would give me the best excuse to enjoy Baguio all over again, to sit here and listen to some wise person talk. Apparently, Chancellor Ray reasonably took that to mean that I was also going to speak in the President’s stead. So here I am, the dutiful surrogate who can’t refuse.

But I shall speak for myself, so you cannot hold our President responsible for the outrageous things that I will be saying to this hapless audience.

Thankfully, I had the perfect speech in reserve. That happens when you’re a professional writer and you write many speeches for other people. In this case, it was a speech that I had written for myself and delivered 12 years ago—at the Baguio Convention Center, to the graduating class of UP Baguio of 2005.

Since none of our graduates today was presumably here then—unless you’re a very slow learner—I thought I would resurrect that speech and update it as Ver. 2.0 for our very interesting if troubled times.

Former President Dodong Nemenzo—my old boss—was frankly not too fond of the phrase iskolar ng bayan to describe the UP student. We are all, of course, scholars of the people in this university, in the technical sense that our studies are subsidized by the sweat of the masses, whose hopes we bear upon our shoulders.

But his point was that scholarship was a distinction to be earned not merely by scoring well in an entrance examination, but by adopting a lifelong attitude of critical inquiry and rational judgment.

This, sadly and ironically, is something that many of us lose upon our entry into the University and our immersion in its life. The curiosity ends, the magic fades, the writing dries up, and we retreat to a cocoon—to a dimly lit room marked “Me & Myself”—there to spend the rest of our career fretting over the next fellow’s salary grade and so-and-so’s appointment as dean or chancellor.

Many years ago, when I ran for the chairmanship of the Department of English and Comparative Literature—among the oldest, largest, and most pala-away of our departments—I gave the usual homily about achieving excellence in teaching, research, and extension work.

And then, I said in my vision paper: “I expect our members to be actively engaged in interests other than their immediate subjects—in social and political concerns, in creative projects, in new technologies—to save them from the kind of small-mindedness or tunnel vision that can result from locking yourself up at the Faculty Center. In other words, get a life.”

“Get a life” has actually been one of my lifelong mantras. I have always believed that while a formal education is a wonderful thing, what I call an active life—with all its serendipitous detours and little accidents—is even better. It’s a cliché by now to say that there are many things we can never learn in school—but for those of us who are in school, it’s even more important to remember this.

As a mentor to many young students, I have always advised those burning with the desire to teach or to go on to graduate studies—in other words, those who want to stay in the university—to spend a few years first outside of it: to sell insurance, work at a call center, make some money—so they can get a sense of what everyone else goes through, and give their poor parents some relief. And then they can return, enriched by their experience.

When people complain to me about the emptiness and confusion in their lives, I feel sad because I know that only they can ultimately help themselves. But there’s a principle in fiction writing—in plotting and characterization—that might offer a solution to the perplexed. When my writing students tell me that they no longer know what their characters should do to solve their overwhelming problems, I tell them to take their characters out—literally and figuratively. Get them off their butts, make them walk, make them ride the MRT, put them on a Ferris wheel, bring them to the Navotas fish market at four in the morning. Too many stories try to resolve themselves in small cafes and bedrooms, behind shut doors and windows.

Some of the best things happen when we step outside of our own lives and begin to be engaged in those of others. Often, the answers to our own problems lie in others, and in their larger predicaments. While involvement in a great cause can also create its own kind of blindness to everything else, I believe that, at least once in our lives, we should embrace a passion larger than ourselves; even the disillusionment that often follows can be very instructive, and will bring us one step closer to wisdom.

I would not have been the writer I became if I had chosen the safe path and stayed where I was supposed to be.

At 17, shortly after graduating from the PSHS and entering UP as an engineering major, I dropped out as a freshman—over the tears of my mother, whose fondest hope was for me to graduate from UP just like she did. I wanted to join the revolution, like many of my comrades; at the same time I was impatient to get a job. At 18, I was working as a newspaper reporter covering hospital fires, US embassy rallies, bloody murders, factory strikes, and disaster operations. I spent most of my 19th year in martial-law prison.

At 20, I was a husband and father. At 22, still a dropout, I studied Development Economics as a special student, and later worked as an economist with the UNDP. At 26, I took my first foreign trip. At 27, I learned how to drive—and went back to school. At 30, I got my AB, and decided that what I wanted to do was to write and teach for the rest of my life. I found a scholarship in the US. It took me two years to finish my MFA, and only three to finish my PhD, to make up for lost time, and came home, and here I am, about 30 years and 30 books later.

It’s been a messy, crazy, but blessedly glorious life. I have been shot at, imprisoned, and worst of all, rejected by more crushes than I care to remember. Aside from my abortive career in journalism, I once worked as a municipal employee, checking the attendance of street sweepers at seven in the morning. And then I studied printmaking and sold my etchings cheaply by the dozen in Ermita. in the US, I worked as a cook-waiter-cashier-busboy-janitor, cutting 40 pounds of pork and chicken everyday before turning them into someone’s dinner.

Some of these events have found their way to my writing; most of them have not and never will. I believe that creative writing should generate its own excitement, beyond whatever may have happened to the author in his or her own life. But neither can I deny that my outlook has been influenced by what I have seen out there, as bright, as indelible, and as disturbing as fresh blood.

If we are to abide by the Phi Kappa Phi motto to “let the love of learning rule humanity,” we should first ourselves be ruled by the love of learning—learning from books, and learning beyond them.

On the other side of the equation, let me observe that there is, today, a nascent but disturbing strain of anti-intellectualism in Philippine politics and society. The vulgar expression of this sentiment has taken the form of the suggestion that we can dispense with brains and education when it comes to our national leadership, because they have done us no good, anyway.

It’s easy to see how this perception came about, and how its attractiveness derives from its being at least partially true. Many of our people feel betrayed by their best and brightest—the edukado, as we are called in our barangays—because we are too easily bought out by the powers that be. Marcos and Estrada had probably the best Cabinets in our political history, well-stocked with prestigious PhDs; but in the end, even they could do nothing against their President and his excesses.

Sometimes we never learn. Today, once again, some of us are tempted by the notion that because we seem to have made a mess of our freedom, because EDSA didn’t seem to work, then maybe giving up our rights and freedoms and letting someone else do the thinking and choosing for us is a good thing. Think again.

That’s what we UP people are good at—thinking, and thinking again.

To be a UP student, faculty member, and alumnus is to be burdened but also ennobled by a unique mission—not just the mission of serving the people, which is in itself not unique, and which is also reflected, for example, in the Atenean concept of being a “man for others.” Rather, to my mind, our mission is to lead and to be led by reason—by independent, scientific, and secular reason, rather than by politicians, priests, shamans, bankers, or generals.

You are UP because you can think and speak for yourselves, by your own wits and on your own two feet, and you can do so no matter what the rest of the people in the room may be thinking. You are UP because no one can tell you to shut up, if you have something sensible and vital to say. You are UP because you dread not the poverty of material comforts but the poverty of the mind. And you are UP because you care about something as abstract and sometimes as treacherous as the idea of “nation”, even if it kills you.

Sometimes, long after UP, we forget these things and become just like everybody else; I certainly have. Even so, I suspect that that forgetfulness is laced with guilt—the guilt of knowing that you were, and could yet become, somebody better. And you cannot even argue that you did not know, because today, I just told you so.

I thought that my hardest days as an activist were over at EDSA. Now I have to think again. I thought that I had done my bit for UP by serving as Vice President 12 years ago. When President Danicon asked me to take on the same job last January, I had to think again. I said yes, because you can’t refuse when UP calls—di rin magbabago ang damdamin. I actually wept when I told my undergraduate class that I was going to be a VP again, because nothing makes me more fulfilled than teaching a roomful of undergraduates, and working in Quezon Hall was going to pull me away from them. I’ll tell this to all of you now, 18 months short of retirement: teaching people like you has been my greatest privilege.

In the first edition of this speech that I gave 12 years ago, I told my young audience to do things like read a good book, play the guitar, learn how to swim, and have fun. I’m going to update that by sharing the sort of things I told my undergrads, things my wife and I have told our only daughter all her life.

  1. Do something different, do something stupid, do something risky. Just don’t die, or land in jail—although landing in jail gave me a prizewinning novel about martial-law prison 20 years later. Nobody who didn’t take risks ever made a difference.
  2. My teacher in German taught me a saying: “Ein Fehler ist kein Fehler”—one mistake is no mistake. Or as my billiards buddy used to say, “We’re all entitled to one big failure.” Nothing will teach you better than that one big mistake you’ll make—so go ahead and make it, but make it worth it.
  3. And finally, I’ll repeat what I said at the end of that first speech—get a life, and get a good one!

Mabuhay kayong lahat, mabuhay ang UP, at marami pong salamat!

 

 

 

 

 

Penman No. 253: Wealth You Can’t Buy

IMG_1773Penman for Monday June 5, 2017

 

BENG AND I flew down to Iloilo City two weeks ago—she to hold a workshop on art restoration at the University of San Agustin, and I to attend Pagtib-ong, an International Conference on Intangible Heritage organized by the University of the Philippines Visayas at Casa Real—so it was a culture-heavy weekend, but happily so.

And what, exactly, is “intangible heritage”? Simply put, it’s wealth you can’t buy, of the cultural kind—the songs, stories, dances, traditions, practices, and beliefs of people, especially of those outside the increasingly homogenized and globalized mainstream. At a time when we’re all watching (and paying for) the same shows on Netflix and having the same Americano at Starbucks, younger Filipinos are fast losing touch with their own cultural roots. “Pagtib-ong” means “putting on a pedestal,” so this time and for a change, it’s our intangible heritage taking center stage.

UP President Danilo Concepcion framed the context well in his message that I read for him: “As nations and societies modernize and move deeper into the 21st century, the emphasis on material growth becomes even more pronounced, often obscuring all other considerations. Those considerations include intangible heritage—the cultural threads that bind not just people together but the past and the present, and indeed the present to the future. Our intangible heritage speaks to the very soul of our cultural community. It may not have much monetary value, if at all, but it is priceless in terms of containing, preserving, and propagating the values we seek to transmit from one generation to the next.”

Politicians will wonder how studying folk songs, kitchen practices, and the vocabulary of obscure languages can be important to national development, and it will be for us—both as scholars and cultural advocates—to show them how and why. Gatherings of scholars such as Pagtib-ong are rare and valuable, but we should also learn how to translate and communicate the significance of these events and their implications for our societies to a larger audience.

Just to give you an idea of what went on at Pagtib-ong, I’ll give you a sampler from the talks of the scholars who presented their research at the conference, and note the Asian and Filipino values and practices that I culled from their work.

Harmony. Pham Thai Tulinh of Lu TuTrong Technical College in Vietnam, the granddaughter of a general and a poet, had this to say about “QuanhoBac Folk Songs”: “The women traditionally wear distinctive round hats and scarves, while the men wear turbans, umbrellas and tunics. The Quanho folk songs are always performed voluntarily in groups of male or female (singers)…. A group of females from one village sings with a group of males from another village with similar melodies, but different lyrics, and always with alternating tunes. In each group, one person sings the leading tune and another sings a secondary part, but the two should be in perfect harmony at the same timbre.”

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Continuity. Anna Razel L. Ramirez of the University of the Philippines Visayas reported on “Dungkulan: The Eternal Fire”: “A dungkulan is a large piece of wood that provides kitchen fire and ensures that an ember is always available to start a fire in the absence of matchsticks…. More than a fire starter for food, dungkulans are significant in the lives of people in the countryside and in the mountain areas. It is the source of warmth at nighttime, a reliable source of coffee on cold mornings; a steady source of warm water for health emergencies; and what many others need from that slow burning log that sustains the dapug and the lives of the people attached to the dungkulan.”

Conversation. Jose R. Taton Jr. of the Philippine Women’s University spoked on “Talda for Mixed Chorus”: “The talda is one of the various forms of musical repartee practiced by the Panay Bukidnon of Central Panay. Considered as a tukod-tukod (creative invention) tradition, it involves a dynamic altercation of deep sentiments of longing and love from singers who actively and spontaneously stream words (gina-gato) using metaphorical and figurative language. It is sung at leisure at any occasion, and the length of the musical conversation varies depending on the conscious and willful response of both parties.”

There were dozens more of these fascinating talks on the menu—I was especially taken by a lecture on Panay’s fabled golden boats by Dr. Alicia Magos, herself a legend in folklore studies, because it reminded me of the golden boat with my grandfather’s name emblazoned on it, reported to have been seen in Romblon off Calatong, our own enchanted mountain—but alas, we all had to return to our more tangible existences.

Many thanks and congratulations to UPV Chancellor Dr. Rommel Espinosa and Conference Chair Prof. Martin Genodepa for reaffirming the position of both the Visayas and intangible heritage in our cultural and social maps.

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