Hindsight No. 12: The Color of Danger

Hindsight for Monday, April 4, 2022

TWENTY-FIVE YEARS ago, I took on the first of what would become many biographical assignments: the life story of the Lava brothers. In many ways, they remain the most fascinating of my subjects, brilliant men with PhDs and other advanced degrees from such schools as Columbia, Berkeley, and Stanford who, despite their upper-middle-class origins, were counted among the most dangerous subversives in the 1950s and 1960s. 

Three of them—Vicente, Jose (Peping), and Jesus—became general-secretaries of the Partido Komunista ng Pilipinas. Never Party members, Horacio and Francisco (Paquito) were nationalists and civil libertarians who served in high government positions—Horacio as one of the new Central Bank’s top economists and Paquito as chief legal counsel of the Securities and Exchange Commission, which he helped organize. (A sixth brother, Pedro, also became a Party member in the US but died before the war.) 

I remembered them last week when I read the reports of bookstores being splashed with red paint and of a certain government official spewing the same substance out of her mouth. No, I’m not going to defend Vicente, Peping, and Jesus Lava against Red-tagging; they were proud communists to the end. 

What has stuck in my mind from the many interviews I held with Peping and Jesus in their home in Mandaluyong was a moment with Peping—who, when I met him in the mid-1990s, was a frail and white-haired old man. Peping had graduated salutatorian from the UP College of Law in 1937 and his thesis, hailed by Dean Vicente Sinco as the best they had ever received, was published by the Harvard Law Journal. In his dotage, Peping seemed stiff, dour, and humorless, but as a young man he had played the banjo, with “Always” and “Five-Foot-Two” among his favorites.

At some point, I asked Peping: “Among all the figures in history, whom do you admire the most?” Without batting an eyelash, sitting ramrod-straight in his wooden chair, he answered: “Stalin and Marcos.” 

The mention of Joseph Stalin, the Soviet Union’s brutal dictator for over 30 years until his death in 1953, was disturbing but not surprising. The PKP looked up to the Soviet Union as a model, and some of its members had been trained there, although the Lavas themselves downplayed the connection, citing the Philippines’ greater affinity with the Chinese experience. Upon his release from prison in 1970, Peping had gone to Moscow, and then to Prague, where he and his wife lived for the next 20 years. Clearly, even if Stalin had long been officially repudiated in Russia, he left a deep and positive impression on Peping. 

What I didn’t expect—although it would make sense in retrospect—was his admiration for Ferdinand Marcos, whom he had never personally met. Why would Peping Lava, a hardcore Communist, admit to being a fan of yet another dictator, whose martial-law regime was responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of so-called “enemies of the State,” many young and idealistic revolutionaries among them?

The answer might be found in the relationship that Marcos cultivated with the old Left, including a meeting between Marcos and representatives of the Movement for the Advancement of Nationalism (MAN) in 1968. Negotiations between Marcos and the PKP leadership reportedly followed, resulting in the release of Peping in 1970, and of Jesus Lava and Casto Alejandrino in 1974; Luis Taruc had been released even earlier in 1968. (The PKP had been decapitated by the arrest of Peping and many leading members in 1950, followed by the arrest of Jesus in 1964.) 

The Lavas were convinced that, despite all his liabilities and abuses, Marcos was a nationalist at heart who was aware of, and opposed to, American imperialist control over the country’s economy and politics. The Americans, not Marcos, were the main enemy. (Peping believed that the Americans were responsible for the deaths of Ramon Magsaysay, Claro M. Recto, and Ninoy Aquino.)

They were attracted by his “independent” foreign policy, especially his diplomatic overtures to China and the Soviet Union. Citing international sources, they even surmised that their release had been a precondition attached by the Soviets to rapprochement with the Philippines. Jesus Lava would contend that as of 1974, the PKP had entered a “negotiated political settlement” with the Marcos administration and had therefore been legalized. (Meanwhile, breaking away from the old PKP, Jose Ma. Sison had “re-established” the CPP in 1968, and it would be his CPP-NPA-NDF combine that Marcos would go after under martial law, as would Marcos’ successors.)

If any of this sounds familiar in light of our recent history, you win no prizes. When Rodrigo Duterte came to power in 2016, my old friends on the Left bubbled over with excitement, believing they had found a trustworthy ally who was prepared to unfriend America in favor of rosier relations with China and Russia. I was dismayed then by what I thought was fatal naivete, or miscalculated opportunism; he played them, not the other way around. 

Today, with such instrumentalities as the NTF-ELCAC and even education officials at the vanguard, going against the Reds is back in fashion. The “threat” they pose is allegedly serious enough to warrant billions in the budget for anti-subversion programs, never mind that the CPP-NPA’s military significance has been severely diminished over the past 40 years, and that we need that money for more pressing concerns. 

Never mind, too, that Russia and China—the erstwhile centers of the global Red revolution—are now universally condemned as oppressors of their own people and aggressors beyond their borders. Stalinism is back with Vladimir Putin, and Xi Jinping is trying to out-Mao Mao. (And another Marcos threatens to return to Malacañang. Peping Lava could feel right at home today.) Our government says it hates communists with a passion, and yet the best it can do is remain “neutral” in Putin’s war on Ukraine, and “realistic” in dealing with China’s encroachments on Philippine territory. 

All this leads me to conclude that the old Marxism-Leninism—which is barely recognizable in today’s Russia and China—is no more than a bogeyman, and even the government knows that. Red-tagging just happens to be a convenient cover to attack the real enemy: the liberal middle forces now at the forefront of reform and of democratic regime change. The color of danger is pink, not red. 

Hindsight No. 11: A Political Playbook

Hindsight for Monday, March 28, 2022

I WAS rearranging the books and periodicals in my library the other day when I came across a copy of a journal from more than 60 years ago—the 3rd quarter, 1958 issue of Comment, self-described as “a quarterly of Philippine affairs… conceived in the observation that absence of thought has resulted from a prevailing atmosphere of conformity and dread of ideas.” 

It was quite an assertion to make, but the journal’s mainstays were up to livening things up in the Cold War chill that had turned many Filipinos—both in government and academia—into rabid anti-communists. On Comment’s editorial board were F. Sionil Jose, Onofre D. Corpuz, and G. Burce Bunao (on leave for their studies abroad were Alejandrino Hufana and Elmer Ordoñez). Then only in their early thirties or even younger, these men would count among the most prominent intellectuals and writers of their time. 

What particularly caught my attention was an article written by Corpuz on “Filipino Political Parties and Politics.” O.D., as he would be known, had just recently returned with his PhD in Political Economy and Government from Harvard, on the verge of a long and prominent—though sometimes contentious—career in public administration that would see him serve as Secretary and then Minister of Education, founder and president of the Development Academy of the Philippines, member of the Batasang Pambansa, and president of the University of the Philippines. 

Another political scientist and UP president, Jose V. Abueva, gave due praise to Corpuz upon the latter’s passing in 2013, citing his landmark scholarship in economic history. But Abueva also pointedly noted that O.D. was “soft in his judgment of Marcos’ authoritarian rule.” (Interestingly, Corpuz had described martial law as “an anti-democratic but constitutional coup” and EDSA as “a democratic but unconstitutional coup.”)

I was curious about what O.D. Corpuz observed of Philippine politics in the 1950s and if those observations would still hold today. Let me share a few choice quotations from the article, and you tell me if they don’t remind you on some level of what we’ve been seeing lately.

First, he notes the political centrality of the family and the elite:

“The importance and strength of the family and of its manifold of values, interests, ethics, and behaviors is one of the basic facts in the cultural context of politics and government in this country…. Close association between party and family was natural from the outset. 

“The first elections in this country in this century were municipal elections. This meant that, as a general rule, during the critical time when the foundations of political leadership were to be established in this country, those foundations had to be local…. The organization of national politics that later came after 1907 was essentially a superstructure resting on local foundations, in which the locally dominant families were the primary factor.”

I knew that only men could vote until 1937, but I didn’t know until I read Corpuz that, early on, you also had to own “real property worth at least five hundred pesos or paid at least thirty pesos of the established taxes annually” and read, write, or speak English or Spanish.

These requirements of maleness, wealth, and literacy lodged if not locked political power within the elite. Citing the French political scientist Maurice Duverger, Corpuz then goes on to classify political parties into “cadre” and “mass” parties, with practically everyone falling into the former category (the communists being the notable exception), comprising individuals bound by common interests and goals. These groupings were temporary, opportunistic, and shared the mindset of the elite from where their members came. These members also freely defected from one party to the other as circumstances required or suggested:

“The frequency of defections is a unique and interesting characteristic of Philippine politics. No party system abroad seems to breed that adventurous individual in whom ours abounds, who changes his party affiliation almost every season…. Defectors do not defect by themselves. They have personal and independent followings that go with them wherever they go, and it is these, as much as the defectors themselves, that are coveted by the parties.”

All parties needed money, and they knew where to get it:

“Cash contributions come in the form of large donations. M. Duverger calls this the system of capitalist financing…. The majority party would enjoy a positional advantage over the minority in the matter of contributions, forced or voluntary, from business firms. It is similarly favored when it comes to per capita levies from aliens, especially the overstaying Chinese, who render their donations unto Caesar during the Christmas and political seasons.” 

Corpuz predicts, presciently, that the old landed aristocracy would at some point be matched or supplanted by new wealth coming out of commerce and industry, which would then control the political levers. Ultimately, family trumps party and ideology; its survival and prosperity are what matter most:

“A somewhat more important factor is the existence of private and family interests that are not subordinated to the demands of administration unity or party discipline. Some families affiliate themselves to a party only as a tactical maneuver, with the basic aim of acquiring a means for aggrandizing family interests.”

Finally, Corpuz observes the existence of a significant “floating electorate”—today’s “undecided” or “convertible” voters—and how to win them over:

“In the Philippines, to a degree rarely matched elsewhere, the slogans of the parties belong to the corpus of political myths…. The lack of ideological meaning in the party platforms is often lamented… (arising from) the fact that the attitude of the floating voter is unpredictable…. As a minimum condition, they must not alienate the floating vote. In this case, therefore, the safest course of action for the campaign planners is to declare the party’s unswerving dedication to generalities.”

I’ll leave it to your imagination what those “generalities” might be today. But I have to say that for a minute back there, I thought I was reading a political playbook for the 2020s.

Penman No. 436: A New Blooming at Milflores

Penman for Sunday, March 6, 2022

CHAIRMAN MAO’S dictum about letting “a hundred flowers bloom, a thousand schools of thought contend” must have been on the mind of former activist, writer, retired UN official, and later gentleman-farmer and entrepreneur Antonio “Tony” Hidalgo when he founded Milflores Publishing in 1999 to publish books that would “meet the needs and wants of the Filipino masses.” His wife, the celebrated author Cristina Pantoja “Jing” Hidalgo, could not have been more pleased. Aside from building a lovely heritage home in San Miguel, Bulacan with a cock farm for Tony behind it, the Hidalgos were eager to do their part for Philippine literature beyond teaching and writing. 

Milflores would go on to publish 80 titles on such varied subjects as suburban living, cockfighting, and 20th-century masculinity, on top of the usual fiction. It was beginning to make a mark as a small but quality press—and then Tony sadly and suddenly died in 2011, leaving a devastated Jing to carry on with distributing their titles. Busy with her own professional life, Jing soldiered on as far as she could, until 2020 when a white knight entered the picture in the form of Andrea Pasion-Flores, who had been her student (and mine) at UP many years earlier. 

Since graduation, Drea—a fine fictionist in her own right—moved on to become a lawyer, then executive director of the National Book Development Board, then our first international literary agent, and until 2020 general manager of Anvil Publishing. Post-Amvil, Drea was looking for fresh challenges and opportunities, and she found it in Milflores. Her husband Javi, also a lawyer, put her up to it: “Javi and I thought about starting a new publishing company, which might’ve been cheaper. But Javi gave me the idea of buying Milflores. First, because of the name—it fits with ours. Second, it already had some goodwill that would be a shame if it were forgotten. Third, it wouldn’t hurt to ask Jing if she had any plans for it. In a heartbeat, she said yes.”

Since that takeover, Milflores has already come out with an impressive list of titles that herald a new blooming for both the company and Philippine literary publishing as a whole. Against all the odds thrown her way by the pandemic, the tenacious Drea managed to secure publishing rights from top-drawer Filipino authors such as Charlson Ong, whose wild and wacky novel White Lady, Black Christ became Milflores’ flagship offering in May 2021. As Charlson’s agent, Drea had already sold an earlier novel of his to a Malaysian publisher, so this was a natural follow-through.

This was followed by a new edition of Nick Joaquin’s Rizal in Saga. Drea had also sold NJ to Penguin Classics. “I wanted this book more than anything because, as Ambeth Ocampo said, the book went out of print the moment it was published because the government gave it out as a souvenir during the centennial of Rizal’s death in 1996, and was never reprinted.” Drea pulled out all the stops, and went for a hardcover edition. “If I was to deserve this book, there would be no cutting corners. I had to make people realize the value of this book. It had to be an object to be desired. And, as Ambeth told me, we both made sure it came out well because we both felt NJ deserved no less. When I die and go to book heaven, I want to hear Nick and Rizal tell me, I did well by them, haha!”

Simeon “Jun” Dumdum’s Why Keanu Reeves Is Lonely and Why the World Goes on as It Does, a small collection of poetry, was another risk worth taking. “Knowing I wouldn’t be raking in millions with this book, why did I want it? Because anyone who reads his poetry will be uplifted. It’s a book to treasure, really. Jun Dumdum was so game with whatever we did with it, even if we said we’d like the book to be neon pink and green. He was onboard! I like those kind of writers.”

Writer and noted bookseller Padma Perez brought Milflores its biggest book yet, Harvest Moon: Poems and Stories from the Edge of the Climate Crisis, co-published with the Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities (ICSC). Most books with a political agenda tend to be preachy and off-putting, but Harvest Moon is unique in its concept and execution. Twenty-four writers from around the world were given evocative photographs as prompts, with the further stipulation that they were to avoid buzz words and phrases such as “sustainability” and “climate change.” The result is visually and textually moving, investing the project with deep personal insight. This book is being sold at a deep discount, thanks to a subsidy from ICSC.

Drea Pasion-Flores has followed these up with other provocative projects, including many more in the pipeline. Robby Kwan Laurel’s Ongpin Stories is a timely reprint; former Sen. Rodolfo Biazon’s biography by Eric Ramos is a gripping narrative of a man who rose from doing other people’s laundry and selling in the market to become a general and senator, and one of the heroes of EDSA 1; David Guerrero’s The Crap Ideas Book is an inspirational book on creativity; the bedridden Nick Carbo’s new book of poems, Epithalamion, is, says Drea, his “shot at immortality.”

Milflores also has something lined up for younger readers: Kat Martin’s debut novel At Home with Crazy is the story of a 14-year-old girl dealing with the stress of living with a mother with a mental illness. Internist-oncologist William Liangco’s Even Ducks Get Liver Cancer and Other Essays is a hilarious romp through the travails of med school in a charity hospital. Drea will also publish two graphic nonfiction books by the feminist Swedish graphic illustrator Liv Stromquist and a cookbook by artist and cancer-fighter Robert Alejandro.

“I have big dreams for Milflores,” says Drea. “I want to try to bring a Philippine company out there, not just here. I’m guessing it’s not going to be the next Coca-Cola Company. It’s going to take time and lots of good books, but I have no doubt I can get there—or somewhere close to it.” (More information at milflorespublishing.com)

Penman No. 434: Wanderlust in Quarantine

Penman for Sunday, January 30, 2022

(Image from the Philippine STAR)

YOU KNOW that the pandemic has gone into triple overtime when you realize that it’s been two years since you got on a plane and did something more exciting than checking your temperature and waiting for Season 9 of The Blacklist on Netflix. For a guy who splurged on visiting nine countries right after he retired in 2019—something I will forever be happy to have done when I could—this long period of immobility should feel like prison. 

In some ways, it seems like it. I’ve worn nothing but a pair of Crocs flip-flops all these months. I’ve been to Makati no more than four, five times, and to Los Baños once for a wedding. My leather shoes have gone moldy, and my blazers musty. I have a couple of shirts I put on for Zoom meetings and replace on their hangers afterwards, and I wear long pants maybe once or twice a week.

To be honest, however, I’ve found the long lockdown more than bearable. The misery and depredations of the pandemic aside (and I acknowledge my uncommon position of privilege as a retiree), I’ve been able to use the time and enforced confinement to catch up with long-standing deadlines and get some new writing done. I know how lucky I am to be alive and functioning at all, and I can’t see any fun or relief in traveling under this regime of nose swabs and quarantines.

But that hardly means that my wanderlust—and that of my fellow footloose—is gone. Where the feet can’t go, the mind travels, imagining vistas yet unseen, horizons uncrossed, gateways opening to new adventures. Before the pandemic, Beng and I had been planning on visiting St. Petersburg, which was then offering free eight-day visas online, to see its famous Hermitage; that will have to wait for kinder times. But we can always revisit the past and take consolation in happy memory of journeys completed and challenges survived.

So I went on a daydreaming binge last week, going over my digital albums, posing a question that each of us will have a different answer to: “What’s the most beautiful place in the world you’ve ever been to?” Curious as to what other people had in mind in this respect, I put out an informal survey among my FB friends, and gathered an interesting and colorful list of places that might as well be a bucket list for others seeking their post-pandemic Shangri-la.

For National Artist for Music Ramon Santos, it had to be Petra, Jordan, “where we listened to a live symphony concert at the steps of the temple facade.”

For UK-based travel writer Wendy Daw, it was remote Tetiaroa in French Polynesia, where she stayed at The Brando, described as “the world’s most luxurious eco-resort.”   (Prices begin at $3,500/night for a standard room—I think I’ll have to stay on the beach, or the canoe.)

For children’s advocate Naida Pasion, Old Bagan in Myanmar exuded “an otherworldly beauty” she couldn’t forget.

For writer Alma Miclat, following in the footsteps of Jose Rizal to Litomerice in the Czech Republic in 2019 was bittersweet, as it would be the last trip abroad she would take with her husband Mario, before the pandemic set in and before Mario passed away shortly after.

For calligrapher Lorraine Nepomuceno, Carcassonne in southern France, with its medieval citadel overlooking the countryside, was the pinnacle of her many travels. 

For writer and professor Gerry Los Baños, Florence gave off a certain frisson, an electricity in the ubiquity of its art. (I know the feeling—you hardly know where to look—having had just a day to spend in Florence with Beng, after also just a day in Venice.)

The view of Lake Como from Villa Serbelloni.

For poet Joel Toledo, Oxfam regional director Lan Mercado, and—yes!—myself, it was Bellagio in northern Italy, where I woke up every morning for a month to a breathtaking view of Lake Como, silvered by the overhanging mist. (I was on a Rockefeller writing fellowship at the Villa Serbelloni as was Joel, after Krip Yuson, the late FSJ, and many other Filipino writers, but to tell the truth I got much less writing done than I would have in our humble abode in Diliman. Beauty can overpower the senses and I spent much of my time just enjoying the scenery—but for writers and artists, that qualifies as work.)

Of course, many others preferred settings much closer to home, if not home itself. For musician and Kontra-Gapi founder Edru Abraham, nothing can take the place of the Callao Caves in his home province of Cagayan; for writer Bebang Siy, Ermita’s sunset will never lose its charm; UP professor Roli Talampas met sublimity at the summit of Mt. Pulag at daybreak.

The number and range of responses I got suggested that I had released a wave of longing from friends who understood, as I did, that the world we knew had changed forever, and that the magic we felt in those encounters with ethereal places would have to last us for the rest of our lives. 

There will be other opportunities, for sure, after the pandemic, especially for the young. But we’re happy and fortunate to have seen the past, such as it was. Every life deserves a brush with beauty—whether under a shower of cherry blossoms in Tokyo or under the stars in Antipolo—and we had ours.

Villa Balbianello, across Lake Como.

Hindsight No. 2: Myth over Matter

Hindsight for Monday, January 24, 2022

(Image from indiatimes.com)

THERE’S HARDLY a week that goes by without me receiving a Viber notice from a friend warning me about another incoming message containing some innocuous line like “Let’s go to Latvia” or “Your mother will love this,” clicking which will trigger a dizzying spiral into digital damnation: your phone will freeze, all your passwords will be stolen, your half-naked selfies will be posted to your Village Association chat group, and whatever gender you declared will be reversed in all your official records. 

It’s all well-meant, of course; some friends will even add “Sharing, just in case”—meaning, they also suspect it’s fake, but meaning further, they’ll pass final judgment on to you, a privilege you should be thankful for—on the one-percent chance that it’s true.

I’ve taken it as my civic duty to look up the particular hoax online (easy: just add “hoax” or “scam” to whatever the key words are, and Google away) and to inform the senders of their mistake. Many will reply with a terse “Thank you.” Some will protest: “It wasn’t me—it was my silly sister-in-law who swore it was true, so I passed it on!” A few (some of these senders have PhDs) will even argue back: “Now, how sure are you that snopes.com is a real fact-checker? Who’s funding them? What’s their angle?” (Makes you wonder: if they were going to be that investigative, why didn’t they ask it about the hoaxer in the first place?)

Living in the age of fake news (or “alternative truths” as Donald Trump’s aide so nicely put it), we can’t be surprised any longer by the seemingly infinite pliability of the truth, which can be warped and twisted to the point of being barely recognizable. But as it turns out, that “barely recognizable” element is key. 

An article in WIRED from 2019 on “Why People Keep Falling for Viral Hoaxes” points this out: “The narrative that Big Bad Instagram is going to take all of your most intimate personal data points and use them for nefarious secret purposes is the sort of story that is primed to appeal to the average person… because it contains a kernel of truth: You have all this data out there on the internet, and God knows who has access to it.”

We sort of knew that already—the best lies have a little truth in them, encouraging our gullibility. When Ferdinand Marcos claimed to be a war hero with 33 medals to his name—only two of which were actually given in 1945, and both contested by his superiors—all the fellow basically had to show for proof was his picture in a uniform, surrounded by pretty hardware that you can buy today on eBay, and that was enough to make many believe that he had to be a hero.

What’s more breath-taking—and possibly more dangerous—are the outright fabrications, the brazen claims to this and that outrageous deed or achievement. You’d think that they’re too absurd to be swallowed by even the most credulous, but think again.

The story of the Tallano gold, now being trotted out on social media as the source of the Marcos fortune, is a case in point. The story that went around on Facebook is that the Tallano family—the descendants of the rulers of a pre-Hispanic, pan-Pacific kingdom called Maharlika—had paid the young lawyer Marcos 192,000 tons of gold. With one kilo of gold today at around P3 million, I don’t have enough zeroes on this line to tell you what that’s worth. And for what lawyerly labor, one wonders—a gazillion affidavits and deeds of sale? 

Never mind that Imee Marcos herself has denied this story, and even the “Yamashita gold” that her mother claimed in 1992 to have found its way to Ferdie. The late Bob Couttie had been exposing the Tallano claims as a fraud even in 2018. But the story has legs. You just have to go online to find testimonials like this from a “BQ”: “It’s true but they’re burying the truth. I myself held those documents—three reams of A4-sized paper, including the mother title of all the land here in the Philippines, which came from Great Britain!”

Never mind, too, that it’s clearly a minority of believers. It’s how and why they believe kooky fantasies like this that’s more intriguing. The WIRED article again points to a reason: that, for many people, mythmaking provides a coherent narrative, a story easier and more convenient to believe than the truth, which is often too messy and complicated to figure out.

In my fiction writing class, I often bring up my favorite quote from Mark Twain, paraphrased: “Of course fact is stranger than fiction; fiction, after all, has to make sense.” Like myth, traditional fiction has a familiar beginning, middle, and end—and even a “lesson” to clarify the haze in which we stagger through daily life.

As I said in a lecture sometime ago, “The most daring kind of fiction today is out of the hands of creative writers like me. It is being created by political propagandists who are spinning their own versions of the truth, and who expect the people to believe them. The short story and the novel are no longer the best media for this type of fiction, but the tweet, the Facebook feed, the YouTube video, and even the press conference.”

Today’s savviest political operators know this: spin a tale, make it sound appealing, trust ignorance over knowledge, and make them feel part of the story. “Babangon muli?” Well, who the heck who dropped us into this pit? It doesn’t matter. Burnish the past as some lost Eden, when streets were clean, people were disciplined, and hair was cut short—or else. Never mind the cost—“P175 billion recovered in ill-gotten wealth” is incomprehensible; “a mountain of gold to solve your problems” sparkles like magic.

Imagination is more powerful than reason—myth over matter. I hope the forces of the good and right can work with that.

Hindsight No. 1: A Time for Telling

Hindsight for Monday, January 17, 2022

IT WAS with great shock and sadness that I received the news of Manong Frankie Sionil Jose’s passing two Fridays ago; my recollections of him appeared online later that day. But just as jarring a surprise was a call I later received from Millet Mananquil, my editor in the Lifestyle section, and then from Doreen Yu, our Op-Ed editor, informing me that I had been chosen to take over FSJ’s column-space on this page.

It was a great privilege, of course, and I accepted it gratefully. But it also carried with it an awesome responsibility—to be honest, to be fair, to know enough about an issue to speak with some legitimacy about it, and also to be modest and open-minded enough to remember one’s inescapable fallibility. I don’t think that last one’s going to be a problem, because I’ve made mistakes often enough to know that—well, I make mistakes, some of which may have hurt people badly.

But last Saturday I turned 68, and with that age comes a keener sense of doing right, of accountability for one’s choices and judgments, as well as a greater tolerance for the shortcomings of others, though not of evil or of wrong itself. I intend to maintain those bearings in this new capacity.

Some readers may wonder how a Lifestyle writer like me—obsessed with fountain pens, old books, Broadway showtunes, and digital gadgetry—ends up doing op-ed, which seems a far more serious and consequential calling. A brief self-introduction might be in order.

I dropped out of UP as an engineering freshman in 1971 and, against all odds (not having spent one day in Journalism class, and being all of 18), landed a job as a features writer and general assignments reporter with the Philippines Herald in 1972. My first task was to fill up half the Features page every day—something that schooled me forever on the importance of deadlines and of resourcefulness, because I had to come up with the topics on my own. I moved to Taliba as a suburban correspondent; was arrested for my activism shortly after martial law was declared; spent seven months in prison; and upon my release joined the information staff of the National Economic and Development Authority, where I would work for the next ten years, picking up a diploma in Development Economics along the way.

I returned to school, finished up my academics all the way to a PhD (more for teaching than for my writing), and taught full-time while writing stories and film scripts. In the mid-1990s, thanks to my friend and now fellow-columnist Jarius Bondoc, I was hired as an editorial writer for the newly opened newspaper TODAY. Being busy with other aspects of management, our boss Teddyboy Locsin trusted me to do about three editorials a week, including the newspaper’s very first one. 

I discovered that opinion writing was exhilarating—but also, again, fraught with responsibility. It got to the point that I found myself wishing I could write something less driven by analysis and conscience—small things like my rickety VW Beetle, double-knit pants, and my love of crabs, instead of ponderous topics like prison reform, the defense budget, and Philippines 2000. (I still have 113 editorials that I wrote on my hard drive.) So I asked for—and got—a Lifestyle column called “Barfly” on the back page, which helped me decompress and kept me sane, reminding me that life was much more than politics and that beauty and fun were as important as anything else to happiness.

I’m going to keep that escape valve open—I’ve promised Millet that I’ll continue contributing my “Penman” column every now and then—but I’ll approach this new task with the loftiness of mind that it deserves (although you’ll excuse me if I sometimes prefer to take a more comic tack, as the best criticism is often served up with a smile). 

Unfortunately I’m not a political insider; I don’t make the rounds of kapihans and have become something of a happy recluse over the Covid lockdowns. You’ll see my politics soon enough—unabashedly liberal (with a small L), middle-force, intensely uncomfortable with both Right and Left extremes. (I came out of the Left and worked briefly for the Right as a sometime speechwriter for five Presidents—but not the last two.) I thank God every night for my family’s safety and for our blessings and for the well-being of others, but I’ve had my differences with Church dogma and would rather spend my Sundays reflecting on human frailty and redemption by reading a book or writing a story.

But I do have a deep and abiding love of history, of which I have so much more to learn. This is why I’m keeping FSJ’s “Hindsight” for this column’s title. (When I returned to UP to resume my undergraduate studies, I dithered between English and History, and chose English only because I was likely to finish it sooner). I agree with Manong Frankie, among many others, that one of the greatest obstacles to our nationhood is the fact that we have a very poor memory—much less an understanding—of our past. We’re reaping the bitter fruit of that amnesia now, in the prospect of electing a dictator’s son to the presidency, a full half-century after the father plunged this country into political and moral darkness by declaring martial law to perpetuate himself in power.

There—it’s when vexatious thoughts like that cross my mind that my fingers begin to itch and I want to editorialize, the complete opposite of my impulse as a fictionist to show and not tell. (I often begin my fiction-writing classes by comparing an editorial on, say, justice for the poor with a short story dealing with the same concern, but without once mentioning “justice,” “poverty,” and such abstractions.) But even as I remain a fictionist at heart, there’s a time for telling, for gathering up the threads of an unfolding narrative and declaring, in plain language, what they mean. That’s what I hope to do.

Penman No. 432: In memoriam, FSJ

Penman for Friday, January 7, 2022

TO THE chorus of voices mourning the passing of Manong Frankie Sionil Jose, let me add my own.

For a very long time, Manong Frankie and I were not what could honestly be called friends. I had said hurtful things about him and his work, and I could feel that he took that to heart. 

But we did begin on a very high and encouraging note. In 1983, he selected me and a few other Filipino writers—Rey Duque, Marj Evasco, and Fanny Llego among them, as far as I can remember—to attend a writer’s seminar in Bali that he and his friend the late Takdir Alisjabanah had organized to bring young Southeast Asian writers together. It was my first big international conference, and it was exhilarating to be talking literature on the fringe of a crater lake. I deeply appreciated that gesture on Manong Frankie’s part; through him I met such luminaries as Edwin Thumboo, Shirley Lim, and Cecil Rajendra. At that point I had read and appreciated The Pretenders and many of FSJ’s short stories.

Some years later, I was in America studying for my MFA in Michigan and then my PhD in Wisconsin, and at some point I was interviewed by National Public Radio about Philippine literature—I can’t recall why, or why me (it was probably just after EDSA, when the world’s eyes were upon us, and I was conveniently available)—and when FSJ’s name came up I indelicately repeated what I thought was the prevalent opinion then (and until much later) of his work among my fellow writers in English: that while he wrote about all the right things, his prose was far too plain and lacking in certain qualities. (It was an opinion that would understandably provoke a backlash from FSJ’s supporters who valued his substance more than his style.)

That must’ve gotten back to Frankie because—whether I just imagined it or not—I felt that I got the cold shoulder from him from then on. It didn’t help that he seemed to have a bone to pick with UP and creative writing workshops, and held the notion that we were out to create clones of our snooty selves, detached from the harsh realities of life on the ground. I (and many others) continued to be exasperated by his cantakerousness (I even called him “cranky Frankie”) and groaned at his propensity to lecture young writers to the point of scolding them for one shortcoming or other.

But even so no one could deny his massive and meaningful contributions to our literature and to the idea of a literature grounded on history and social reality. When I happened to serve on the preliminary committee vetting candidates for the National Artist Award the year he eventually won it, I had no problem putting my minor misgivings aside and voting for him.

I’m not sure when the thaw in our relationship began, but it must have been when we were both invited in 2017 to an NCCA-sponsored seminar in La Union where I was asked to give a talk on Manuel Arguilla. I knew he was going to be listening, and I have to admit that I wrote my lecture with him specifically in mind, wanting to reassure him that I wasn’t some city-boy snob who didn’t know one end of a carabao from the other and who couldn’t write about anything but professors sipping cappuccinos at Starbucks. Through Arguilla, I wanted him to know that I felt and understood—and indeed wrote about—his concern for common and unarticulated lives.

Later that year, when I spoke at the annual Palanca Awards dinner about how writers in our society often have to write for others for a living but also need to redeem themselves through their art, he approached me from below the podium and extended his hand to congratulate me, and I knew we had reconciled.

We were brought even closer when he and the late Sen. Edgardo J. Angara founded the Akademyang Filipino, asking me to serve as a trustee along with such stalwarts of civil liberties as former Justices Antonio Carpio and Conchita Carpio Morales. He would remind me, among the most junior members of that board, to make sure the Akademya survived him, pleading his age. (His daughter Jette, who sadly died just weeks before Frankie, was our very capable executive secretary.)

He and Manang Tess would invite me and Beng for dinner, and he was very happy and surprised when I presented him once with a copy of the maiden issue of Solidarity, which he had lost. In private, he told me something that assured me that we had, again, become friends.

Still, for all that, his mercurial politics continued to confound me. Separated by the Covid lockdown, our meetings stopped, although even if we had met I probably would not have been able to ask him to his face how he could reconcile his loathing of dictatorship with his approval for Marcos’ successor. Not I nor anyone else could have changed his mind. It was sad to see him savagely reviled for his contentious remarks about ABS-CBN and Maria Ressa, among other issues, but I suspect that there was a part of him that courted and reveled in the notoriety.

And that was what I learned about F. Sionil Jose: you had to take him as he was, all of a package, or reject him outright, which would also be a pity. Nearly all great writers had their quirks and imperfections, but it’s their work that survives and surpasses all our momentary misgivings.

Farewell, Manong!

Persian Rose

(Some years ago I was asked to contribute to an anthology of “sudden fiction”—short stories no more than about 500 words each—and at that time I had just found two bottles of a very rare Sheaffer ink from the 1950s called Persian Rose, although sadly one bottle was spoiled, so I decided to write a story about it, and here it is.)

HIS HANDS trembled with excitement when the parcel arrived; it had taken three weeks to cross the Pacific—and a few days more before that to find its way to the main PO in Los Angeles from someone named W. Kiffin in Broken Bow, Nebraska. He had no idea who “W. Kiffin” was, if “W” was a man’s or a woman’s name; he usually knew his eBay sellers, and got his vintage pens and inks from established dealers with positive feedbacks of 1000+. These were aggregators for whom pickers trawled the backwoods of Kansas and Wisconsin for that burgundy 1937 Parker Senior Maxima in mint condition, very possibly a gift put away in a drawer and soon forgotten. Why? Did the owner die—a plane crash, a ferry accident, a bullet in Iwo Jima? Each old pen hobbled in with a story, and there were hundreds of them now in his collection, from a continent and sometimes a century away. By the time he had run the pen through the ultrasonic cleaner, put in a new rubber sac, and polished the cap and barrel, the pen looked new and the stories were gone down the drain.

This time he had bought a Lady Duofold in jade green and a bottle of ink from W. Kiffin. Kiffin was new on eBay, had a feedback of 6, and had apparently been disposing of his or her grandmother’s effects. That’s what the advertisement said: “Nana’s stuff, found in a drawer.” It was the ink more than the pen that excited him: a possibly unopened bottle of Sheaffer’s Persian Rose, a bright purplish pink from the 1950s much sought after by connoisseurs the way wine collectors prized something like a Petrus 1947. A small bottle of Persian Rose could sell for as much as $85, and he had bagged the ink and pen for just $16.50 both, plus shipping.

As he opened the Jiffy bag he saw that the pen had browned with age, as he expected. Its nib was stubbed and well used; Nana had probably written with it to the last. But the ink was still in its original box, which was a little frayed but intact. Eagerly he opened it and slowly uncapped the bottle; Persian Rose was always a question—would it keep fresh, retain its vivid hue? What drove Nana to get it? A flush of joy? An expectation of many long letters to be written over that summer in Broken Bow? 

The cap came off with a slight twist and he realized it had been opened—maybe once or twice. The ink looked darker than blood. He dipped a clean new pen into the liquid and wrote a line on the sheet he had laid out for the ceremony: the ink was spoiled. He shuddered with disappointment and put the bottle away.

Later, he worked on the Duofold, and ran the nib under tap water. The brightest rush of pink bled out of the nib—the truest Persian Rose, dried out for longer than he had been alive—and vanished in a floral swirl, like Nana’s last breath.

A Visit from GPS (long story follows)

I HAD a surprise visit—and present—this morning from one of the people I have always acknowledged to be my life mentors, Dr. Gerry P. Sicat, my former boss (and Beng’s) at the National Economic and Development Authority. He brought me a bound special issue of the New York Times Book Review from 1996, featuring the first reviews of such literary luminaries aa Dostoyevsky, Conrad, Woolf, Hemingway, Gordimer, and Updike. He had saved the copy for me back when he was still working in Washington, when he heard from his daughter that I was “doing well” in UP; somehow he had misplaced the copy for 25 years, finding it only recently, and thus today’s visit.

The “doing well” remark goes back to the long story of my ten years at NEDA (1973-83) and how GPS (or “DG” as we all called him, for Director-General) shaped my life at a crucial stage.

I was just 19 in August 1973 when I stepped out of martial-law prison. I had dropped out of UP at 18 with 21 units to my name, but I had already worked for the Philippines Herald and Taliba as a reporter before my arrest for subversion. In Bicutan, I had studied drawing with the printmaker Orly Castillo, and upon my release I joined Orly at the Printmakers Association of the Philippines studio in Ermita to study and practice printmaking—something I would do for several years. It was at the PAP where I met Beng (I should say, met her again, as I had seen her in UP and admired her from a distance—she was a pretty senior on the Student Council, and I was a bumbling freshman), and within three months of our getting together, I told myself that I wanted to marry her. (Ours was a generation steeped in fire and blood—scores of comrades had died fighting the dictatorship, and we had come to be convinced that we were not going to see our 30th year, maybe not even our 25th. So if we had anything important to do—like marry and have children—the sooner we did it, the better.) 

I shared the bold announcement with my mom: I had met a nice girl and I was going to ask her to marry me. “Are you crazy?” she responded. “You don’t even have a job!” Well—I said—I suppose you’re right, I should find some gainful employment.

(Above, a drypoint print of Beng from 1973;
below, an aquatint and drypoint print of my grandmother Mamay from 1975. )

That same day I went to the PAP studio to work on some prints and to mull over my future. Printmaking was fun—and I got to hobnob with such brilliant (and real) artists as Bencab and Tiny Nuyda, among others—but it wasn’t something I could live off, let alone support a family with. A kind dealer came by every few weeks to buy prints from me and other PAP members for P15-25 each to serve as fillers for the frames she was selling to US servicemen in Clark and Subic. I needed a real 9-5 job.

That afternoon I walked around the Padre Faura neighborhood, and on the street I ran into an old friend and comrade, Jun Medina, who had been a newspaperman pre-ML and was now the PR chief at NEDA. He was so happy to see me—he had known I was in prison—that he literally emptied his wallet to give me whatever he had, a kindness I would never forget. He asked me if I was back working. “No,” I said. “In fact I’m looking for a job.” He lit up and said, “We’re looking for a feature writer! Why don’t you apply? Let’s go up and see the boss!” Sure, I thought, what’s there to lose?

(Puffing and dreaming–at my worst, I smoked four packs a day;
quit smoking with Beng cold-turkey in 1994.)

And just like that, a few minutes later, I was talking to NEDA Director-General Dr. Gerardo P. Sicat, whom I had never met before; he was only 38 then, trim and fit (he was a tennis player and marathoner), but cool and laid back, asking just a few questions to see if I had anything in my noggin. Jun vouched for me and my writing, and that apparently was enough. “Let’s start you at P700,” said GPS, and lightbulbs popped in my head; in 1973, P700 a month was good  money.

That night I went home and had the pleasure of informing my mother that “I found a job, and I’m getting married!”

Of course I had to ask Beng first, so I sat her down at the old Skorpios in Cubao and probably over batchoy and puto I got a napkin and scribbled some figures on it, starting with “700.” How much would an apartment cost? Food? Transportation? “We can get married!” I concluded, although I guess I turned that into a question, because she agreed (and would later tell me, “I don’t know why, but I did!”).

We met at the PAP in September; on January 15, 1974, on my 20th birthday, we were married by the CFI judge my mother worked for—took less than five minutes—and had a merienda cena reception at The Bungalow for less than a hundred people at P8 per head; when the management realized that we hadn’t made arrangements for a wedding cake, they hastily and kindly provided one.

So Dr. Sicat made that possible, but his unbidden intercessions wouldn’t end there. Knowing that I was barely a freshman when I left UP, he sent me to the UP School of Economics as a special student to attend the one-year graduate diploma Program in Development Economics, so I could learn something more substantial about the things I was writing about. That course introduced me to outstanding teachers (some of them just instructors back then) like Agustin Kintanar, Gon Jurado, Rosalinda Tidalgo, Dante Canlas, and Ruping Alonzo, and made lifelong friends of batchmates like Meynard Guevarra (now DOJ Secretary) and Vicky Bataclan and Libran Cabactulan (later DFA ambassadors), among others. Against all odds, the salimpusa passed. (And I was ever aware that my “special student” enrollment was vaguely anomalous, but I suppose there were advantages to GPS being a UP regent at that time.)

On the strength of that diploma, Dr. Sicat later endorsed me to the United Nations Development Programme office in Manila when the security watchdogs at NISA complained about my access to sensitive documents at NEDA, as an ex-detainee who still had to report regularly to the military authorities. GPS was sending me to the UNDP to cool off—they even had to create the position of “National Professional Officer” for me, which was later adopted by other UNDP offices in the system—and for a year, I did project evaluations and liaised between the UNDP and NEDA. I was even given a chance to move over to the FAO and to work with NEDA’s External Assistance Staff, but after a year of role-playing as the economist I truly wasn’t, I asked to return to my PR job at NEDA and to my creative writing, which was what I most enjoyed. (For a time, my closest friend and officemate at NEDA was the late Bienvenido “Boy” Noriega, my Alpha Sigma fraternity brother and fellow playwright. Many other writers like Patty Rivera, Fidel Rillo, Lilia and Jess Santiago, and Eric Caruncho would join our Economic Information Staff.)

(With fellow playwrights Boy Noriega and Paul Dumol, ca. 1981.)

In 1980, GPS had another surprise for me: he was sending me to the US for three months on a USAID grant to study media operations—and I enjoyed and learned from that immensely, but I knew that GPS had really sent me out as a writer who needed to see a bit of the world outside, to broaden my horizons; it was something he routinely did for his young staff. I have since been to the US dozens of times—our daughter lives there—but that first visit remains incandescent in my memory: first snow, first tour of the Smithsonian, first glimpse of New York, Broadway, the raw material for my story “Oldtimer,” long walks in yellow forests. 

When I returned, I was filled with a fresh resolve to just go back to school, to study and write and perhaps to teach for the rest of my life, which I did. For two years, I shuttled between NEDA and UP, racing to get a proper AB English degree; I resigned from NEDA in 1983 as the political climate was heating up so I could focus on my studies full-time, graduating in 1984, with Beng working doubly hard to support us in the interim.

Also in 1984, Dr. Sicat left NEDA himself to take up a post with the World Bank in Washington, DC. Before leaving, he asked me and Boy Noriega to visit him at his home in La Vista, where he gave each of us 30 minutes to select ten books from his library. I was beside myself picking out those books—I recall choosing, among others, Kenneth Clark’s Civilization, William Pomeroy’s The Forest (which I had read in high school and was deeply impressed by), the two volumes on the Philippine short story compiled by Leopoldo Yabes, and Mao’s Little Red Book (because mine had been confiscated upon my arrest). They remain with me to this day.

And then I took my MFA and PhD in the US on a Fulbright grant (basically just a plane ticket and a book allowance, because Fulbright funds were running low then—so I had to work, among others, as a cook for a Chinese fast-food) from 1986 to 1991, and returned to UP to teach full-time, become a professor, and publish more books. I suppose this was what Dr. Sicat’s daughter meant when she told her dad that his former recruit was “doing well.” 

(From around 1992, going by the hair.)

When I retired in 2019, one of the guests I made sure would attend my retirement party was GPS, and shortly after I followed in his footsteps as Professor Emeritus. 

He must have been shaking his head—but smiling—when he left our place today. (Beng and I were—at 86, GPS looked a whole lot slimmer and fitter than my 67.) Many thanks, DG, for the job and the visit, and for everything in between.

(At my retirement party, with GPS, my friend Julie Hill, and EVP Ted Herbosa.)

Some Families, Very Large (A Christmas Story)

(I wrote and published this story twenty years ago for the Christmas issue of The Philippine STAR, and I’m posting it here as a Christmas offering to my readers, who may not have come across it yet.)

A FUNERAL parlor was the last place Sammy expected to be on Christmas Eve—especially since no one he knew had died. And despite his father’s assurances that the man who lay in the shiny white coffin was a distant uncle of his—maybe one of those people who had come over for games and drinks and had mussed his hair—Sammy could not remember the long, rat-like face in the picture that hung over the burial announcement. 

Sammy was only nine, but he had a good head for faces. The names escaped him—his father kept teasing him for being hard of hearing—but he made a game of attaching a face to something else: mud-caked shoes, yellow nails, pitted cheeks. Most of them were his father’s friends, and while he had seen very few of them between this Christmas and the last one, he felt reasonably sure he could recognize any of them again, if he met them on the street. They had walked many streets that morning, and he had seen many new faces, but he had met no one even vaguely familiar. 

Sammy also knew something about death and funeral wakes. When he was six, his playmate Leo had drowned in the black froth of the estero. He had watched from the bank as they fished out the boy’s body with a hook-tipped pole. Leo looked very fat and very oily, and his tongue stuck out of his mouth like a peeled banana. They had stuffed him into a coffin and set up a wake on the sidewalk, where the borrowed candelabra outshone everything else at night, and passersby threw coins into a plastic can, which Leo’s mother emptied into a large pocket in her apron now and then. Leo’s mother sold fish at the talipapa, like Sammy’s own mother, who sold vegetables when she wasn’t turning scraps of fabric into hand mops. 

But she was gone now, like many things they had let go of over the past few years: the motorcycle, his mother’s sewing machine, the television set, even a typewriter said to have been used by his grandfather, a writer of dramas for radio. Indeed, a small transistor radio was the only thing they had left over from the old times, and Sammy would sometimes imagine hearing his grandfather on it, saying all kinds of important, grown-up things, although the man had died many years before Sammy was born.

That morning, his father had shaken him awake with an unusual gleam in his eyes. “Eat and get dressed,” his father had said. “I’m taking you out.” 

Sammy shot up. “Where?” It had been weeks—months—since they had gone anywhere interesting, like the seawall or the basement of the mall, where there were all kinds of food—and rides, fabulous rides on pastel dragons and rampant horses and bug-eyed fish. That was the one time his father had won anything big—five thousand pesos, his father had said, although Sammy couldn’t imagine what five thousand pesos could buy. It certainly was enough for a few days of roast pork, fried rice, and noodles, and he could run to the corner store and ask for anything without having to mumble that word he had learned to dread, “Lista.” 

That moment came and went, replaced by the old routine of making his own meals—opening a can of sardines and dunking a piece of bread into the red mush, leaving the best parts for his sleeping father—before rushing off for the twenty-minute walk to school. He had never come around to hating his father, although he had many questions to ask. His child’s instincts told him that something was terribly wrong, but his father seemed to have an explanation for everything: Mama had gone back to her hometown, very far down south, to take care of her own dying father, and the government was having a hard time keeping her island from drifting farther away into the ocean; Papa lost his job as a filing clerk at the factory because someone didn’t like the way Papa cheered for his favorite basketball team; the kind and quantity of food on their table depended on one’s success at dilhensya, which was in turn dependent on one’s abilidad

These two words burned themselves into young Sammy’s brain: they were what got you ahead in the world, or at least what saved you from curling up in a spasm of hunger. That was a man’s most important job, Papa said: to put food on the table, no matter what. Sammy had some vague idea of what his father did: a classmate said that he had seen Sammy’s Papa at the jeepney stop, barking out destinations and herding passengers onto waiting rides. When Sammy asked him about it, the father said that he was actually a kind of policeman’s assistant, a volunteer enforcer of traffic rules and regulations. People needed to be told where to go, and how to get there fast. People paid for that kind of abilidad.

That day, they had visited three houses on opposite ends of the city. They waited all morning outside the gate of a large compound on Roberts Street in Pasay. Through a vent in the wall, Sammy could see a lawn as wide as the sea, and a fleet of cars and vans on the far side. There was an armed guard just inside the gate who spoke to them through perforations in the iron. “He’s my congressman,” his Papa said. “We were born in the same hometown. I voted for him in the last election. I just wanted to say Merry Christmas. I brought my son to greet him as well.” 

The guard snickered and said, “I’ll send him your compliments. Go home, he’s not here, he left very early.” A metal panel dropped in front of the holes. 

“I’ll wait! We’ll wait! He knows me, he shook my hand once at a wedding!” They stood outside and then sat on their haunches for another hour. 

“Let me tell you something. This guy,” his Papa whispered to Sammy, “this guy, I saw him hand out crisp new five-hundred peso bills during the campaign, like he was giving away mint candies. I know he’ll be good for something.” At a quarter to eleven, the heavy gate swung open, and a large Mercedes-Benz the color of midnight slid out. Father and son jumped to their feet. The Mercedes paused just out of the gate for a second as the guard exchanged words with the unseen passenger, then the car lurched forward and sped rightward, and the gate closed again before Sammy’s father could say anything. “I don’t think he recognized me,” the man said to the boy. “The last time he saw me, I was wearing a barong.”

They next went to Concepcion in Marikina to look for one of Sammy’s godfathers, whom neither Sammy nor his father had seen since his baptism, but when they got to the neighborhood and the address that Sammy’s Papa remembered, there was nothing there but the charred hulk of a plastics factory that hadn’t even been there the last time. Sammy’s father had only a hundred pesos left on him, and they used some of that for a lunch of two bowls of arroz caldo at a roadside stand. Sammy loved arroz caldo, and would have been happy to let the day end there, but his father had another address on his list. Sammy didn’t mind moving around—the rides themselves were interesting, and he marveled at how his father knew so many places. Even so he was getting tired and teary-eyed, his eyes and nostrils smarting from the dust and the gas fumes. Many jeepney transfers later, they reached Damar Village in Quezon City, where his father convinced the guard to let them into the village. 

They found the place they were looking for—a large white house with Roman columns and statues of fish with coins in their mouths. This, the father said, was the home of his former employer, Mr. Cua. Mr. Cua always had a soft spot for him and would not have let him go, he added, but too many people felt threatened by his smartness, and in the end Mr. Cua had no choice but to sacrifice him for the sake of industrial peace. Sammy’s father announced himself to another guard—this was, Sammy thought, truly a city of guards, and he wondered if his father had ever considered becoming one himself, seeing how they held the keys to everything—and again they waited while the guard checked them out with Mr. Cua. But even before the guard could get in the door, Mr. Cua himself emerged, wearing a Santa hat and leading a group of children out to the yard, where small tables had been set. Some of the children wore masks that made Sammy’s heart leap with envy—Batman, King Kong, and other cartoon and fairy tale characters he could only guess at. Sammy stared at a pigtailed Chinese-looking girl who stared back at him, and his father stepped forward to get to Mr. Cua before he could vanish. The guard still stood between the two men and Mr. Cua shrank back as if by instinct, but Sammy’s father began to speak. “Mr. Cua! How are you, sir? I was a clerk in your factory, remember me? My name is Felipe Dinglasan—” At this point the guard drew his gun and the children shrieked, and Felipe Dinglasan, not knowing what else to do, seized Mr. Cua’s hands and said, “I just came to say Merry Christmas, Mr. Cua! Look, I brought my son Sammy, he’s only nine, but he knows—I told him—what a great and generous man you are! Say good afternoon to Mr. Cua, Sammy!” The boy stepped forward and said, gravely, “Good afternoon, Mr. Cua.” The guard lowered his gun. Still shaking from what he thought might have been an assault on his life, Mr. Cua forced himself to laugh—to come up with his best Santa ho-ho-ho—and patted Sammy on the head. “Good afternoon, Sammy! Ho-ho-ho!” Sammy’s father sidled up to them and said. “Wait for your present, Sammy. Santa will give you a present.” Caught in the middle of another ho-ho-ho, the befuddled Mr. Cua reached for his wallet, looking desperately for small bills, but finding nothing smaller than a five hundred, he peeled out a bill and made a show of presenting it to the boy. “Merry Christmas, Sammy! Be a good boy!” All the children cheered as Sammy mumbled his thanks and as Mr. Cua glared at Felipe Dinglasan, who had the good sense to begin walking backwards, flashing his most non-threatening smile.

“What did I tell you, boy?” Felipe said as he flipped the five-hundred-peso bill between his hands, before folding it neatly and sticking it in his wallet. “All you need is a little ability—well, more than a little, more than a little!” Sammy got the feeling that he, too, had done something marvelous for the both of them, and the boy smiled in anticipation of a reward—a movie, perhaps, or, dare he say it, the one Christmas present he wanted most, the battery-powered laser sword he had seen at a Rizal Avenue shop window.

The sun had fallen now, and Sammy could imagine that incandescent saber cutting swaths in the gathering darkness.

But they walked past that store, and as large as the lump in his throat was, Sammy did not complain. “You must be getting hungry,” his father said, and Sammy nodded. “There’s this special noodle place I know, just around one of these corners, your mother and I used to go there. We deserve something special—special beef noodles, what do you say?”

“You’re the boss!” Sammy chirped, and they veered off into a warren of streets and alleys. Half an hour passed and still they could not find the noodle shop Felipe remembered. In the dark the streets looked even more alike. Sammy trudged behind his father, wishing, praying to be carried, but he was too big for such favors now, and he soldiered on as one alley led to another. Finally they emerged into a street with one side lit up like a carnival and smelling like flowers. Boys Sammy’s age ran from one end of it to another, and men and women sat in chairs on the sidewalk, smoking and chatting, scratching their ankles. Vendors sold fried bananas, jellied drinks, and duck eggs on the street. It seemed incredibly alive, this nook of the city, and Sammy soon understood why: it was a street of funeral parlors all in a row, and even Christmas saw no let-up in business here. Sammy himself felt his senses quicken, awakened by the sweetness of caramelized sugar.

Felipe Dinglasan felt revived as well, for in a trice he had spotted a group of men in a corner, huddled over what he did not need to see to know. Breathing even more hoarsely than when he had been walking, Sammy’s father drew a ten-peso bill from his wallet—the remainder of his last hundred—and gave it to the boy. “Get yourself something to eat,” he said. “I won’t be long.”

The money was enough for a large glass of gulaman and a packet of cookies. Sammy watched his father insinuate himself into the group of men—at first watching, then chatting the others up, then finally taking a place in the circle, his back to Sammy. Once or twice, Felipe cast a furtive glance over his back toward his son, knowing the boy would never stray too far away. When Sammy approached him, wanting only to ask if they were waiting for someone again, Felipe excused himself from the game and quickly found themselves a solution. “Aniceto Navarrete,” read the sign on the door, but it meant nothing to the boy. “You wait here,” his Papa said. “I knew this man, he was a cousin of mine in Dipolog, it’s always good to meet new family at Christmas.”

And this was how Sammy—finally yielding to boredom and fatigue—found himself straying into the quietest and most desolate funeral parlor of the lot, the Funeraria Dahlia. Indeed there was no one and nothing in it but the white coffin when Sammy stepped in. A weak bulb kept flickering overhead like a solitary Christmas light. Sammy took one of the back pews, and soon fell asleep. 

When Sammy awoke hours later, jarred by the retort of a tricycle on the street, there was a woman seated beside him, holding a glass of milky coffee in one hand and a lighted cigarette in the other. A curl of lipstick marked the coffee glass. She had a large, hooked nose, and she looked much older than Sammy’s mother. She wore a collarless black dress, and her hair towered above them both in a pile of buns. The first things that struck Sammy were the bags under her eyes, and her broad red lips.

“What’s your name, boy?” the woman said.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” Sammy cried. “I was just waiting for my father!”

“I wasn’t telling you to go,” she said, flicking her ashes on the floor. “I was just asking who you were.”

“Sammy,” the boy said. “Samuel Dinglasan, ma’am.”

“Thank you,” the woman said, bowing to the boy. “My name is Mrs. Concordia Navarrete, and that’s my son Necing over there. Do you want some coffee? Are you old enough for coffee? Go get something to eat.” There was a small table on one side of the room with a thermos bottle, a jar of coffee, three or four Chinese apples, and a tin of butter cookies.

“No, ma’am, thank you, ma’am.”

“Well, then, suit yourself. Where’s your father?”

“Out there, ma’am.” Sammy could see his father, still hunched over the card game. 

Mrs. Navarrete looked at the men and blew a cloud of smoke in their direction. “He’ll be there all night. Unless—”

“Unless what, ma’am?”

“Nothing. My son Necing, he was going to be a lawyer. Do you know what a lawyer is?”

“No, ma’am.”

“A smart person—but never mind.”

“I know about smart persons, ma’am. My Papa is very smart.”

“Oh, is he, now?” Sammy noticed that Mrs. Navarrete’s eyebrows had no hair on them. “And just how did you find that out?”

Sammy began telling Mrs. Navarrete about his father, and the events of the day, as far as he understood them. When he got to the part about Mr. Cua and the guard with the gun, he giggled, although Mrs. Navarrete seemed very upset. “What’s so funny about that?” she asked.

“Well,” Sammy said, gesticulating breezily, “they were pointing a gun at Papa—and then they gave him lots of money!” It wasn’t how things worked—even Sammy knew that from the movies and from their games at recess.

“Well,” Mrs. Navarrete said, mulling over the story, “I suppose that’s funny. And where’s your mother, by the way?”

Sammy fell silent, and he looked fervently in Felipe’s direction, wanting to go home. The lady took his hand and her fingers felt like a bony animal perching on his. “Some families are large, very, very large,” she said. “Some families are small—very, very small.”

“My Papa says—” Sammy began, then paused, seized by a sudden doubt.

“Your Papa says?”

“My Papa says he knew your son. My Papa says they were cousins in Dipolog.”

“Is that soooo?” the woman said, arching her eyebrows again.

“What did you say your name was, again?”

“Samuel Dinglasan, ma’am. Samuel Occeña Dinglasan.”

“Dinglasan…. Weeell….. Like I said, some families are very large.  What else did your Papa say?”

“Papa says—”

“Papa says we should go home,” a voice behind them said, and there Felipe Dinglasan was, looking for all the world like he had lost everything, and while Sammy could not recall Mrs. Navarrete ever coming to their house, it did seem to him that she and his father had met before by the way she was sizing him up and his fortunes, that they were all relatives like he said, and therefore family. “I’m sorry if he’s been bothering you—”

“Not at all,” Mrs. Navarrete cried, getting to her feet. “Mr. Dinglasan, how good to see you, how nice of you to come and to pay your respects, it’s been such a long time!”

“But how—”

“Sammy here, of course, told me everything, reminded me of our connections—Dipolog, wasn’t it? Yes, Necing often told me about Dipolog, and how well he was treated by family when he came to visit. Please, have a seat—”

“But we really have to—”

“Go where, do what? It’s Christmas Eve—what should I call you again?”

“Ipe, ma’am—”

“Don’t call me ma’am, it’s always been Tita Connie. Lola Connie to you,” she said to Sammy. “But of course everyone forgot. That’s just how things are these days. I’m used to it. Tonight we meet, tomorrow no more, maybe never again. So take a look at your, uhm, cousin, go pay your respects—you, too, little boy, don’t be scared of the dead—while I make us some coffee.” Without taking another look at Felipe, she went to the small table and busied herself, lighting up another cigarette while pouring the water.

Sammy’s father lifted him up so he could see into the coffin, so they could both look very closely at Aniceto Navarrete for any kind of family resemblance. The dead man’s skin was very dark, and long thin whiskers stuck out stiffly from both sides of his mouth.

“You were right, Papa,” Sammy whispered. 

“Here, have an apple,” Mrs. Navarrete told Sammy when they regathered in the back row. “Rest up a bit and tell me stories, that’s all I ask, tell me stories. You, too, Ipe.” Leaning closer to him, she added, “And I’ll give you your fare in the morning.”

“Thank you,” Felipe croaked.

The woman made like she didn’t hear, and took the lid off the can of butter cookies. “Dunk these into your coffee, then close your eyes, and imagine you’re having ham and cake and grapes and cheese. The imagination, it’s a wonderful thing.” She demonstrated her technique with flair, holding the coffee and a cookie out as far as she could in front of her and shutting her eyes while joining the two.

“Yes!” Sammy shrieked, aping the woman. Even Sammy’s father found his own eyes closing.

The errant bulb flickered again and finally gave out, but not one of the three or the four of them knew it, not for a long moment.

(First published in the Philippine Star, December 24, 2001)