Penman No. 246: Beauty and Sadness on Calle Bautista

 

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Penman for Monday, April 10, 2017

 

WITH WORK piling up at the office, I’ve increasingly been looking forward to weekends, especially Saturdays, for some fun and leisure. Weeks ahead, I start scouting the cultural horizon for interesting things to do or shows to attend. A few Saturdays ago, for example, Beng and I drove out to Makati to explore the Istorya Vintage Fair at Warehouse Eight—a totally engrossing event that merits its own write-up, which I’ll do in a forthcoming column—before rushing back to Diliman to catch the Ihudyat! marching band competition at the UP Amphitheater.

It was the following Saturday that I’ll write about first, afraid that I might forget some important detail if I wait too long. Indeed, “forget” is the operative word here, because it describes what most people did to our destination: the Boix House (also known as the Teotico-Crespo House) on Ariston Bautista Street in Quiapo, Manila. I tagged along with a posse of UP Fine Arts alumni that included Romy Carlos, Boysie Villavicencio, Ernie Canlas, and Beng—a group that had heard about the house and were interested in seeing if and how they could help in its restoration, perhaps through a benefit art exhibit. (I was delighted to learn later that an old friend, the art dealer and patron Jack Teotico, is a direct descendant of the original house owner and will be pitching in.)

Located in what has become Quiapo’s Muslim quarter, the Boix House is so named because it was acquired by the Boix-Tarradellas family from the Crespos, who got it in turn from the Teoticos. Don Marciano Teotico had the Neo-Renaissance house built in 1895 on what was then Calle Barbosa, and it soon attracted student boarders like the young Manuel Luis Quezon, who reputedly went out partying next door. There, two decades after Don Marciano built his brood a home, would rise the better known and more fortunate Nakpil-Bautista House.

We don’t know what happened next, but at some point, the ownership of the house reportedly passed on to the Society of Jesus, and we lose track of the Boix connection except through the house and what’s been put on the Internet about it—if any reader knows any more, please do share. (I’ve also been wondering about how exactly “Boix” is pronounced; I initially defaulted to the French bwah, but online sources suggest a Spanish or Catalan origin, in which case it would be boish—but then again, what do I know?)

The sad part of this story is how decrepit the Boix House has become, despite the noble efforts of well-meaning organizations such as the Kapitbahayan sa Kalye Bautista to save the house through crowdfunding. Even the World Monuments Fund has taken note of and extended some assistance to the Boix House project (https://www.wmf.org/project/boix-house).

If you pay it a visit like we did, you’ll see why it could use all the help it can get. Just getting across the threshold to the stairs takes—almost literally—a leap of faith: two old doors now serve as creaky planks over which you cross a puddle of water. The wooden stairs and floor are thickly coated with dust and grime; a rat’s carcass molders away in a corner like a forgotten lab specimen. Framed panels provide a history of the house, and tattered flags and ribbons offer proof of some earlier appeals to patriotic fervor. Overall, one’s impression is a commingling of beauty and sadness, the passage not only of time but of care.

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One thing you couldn’t avoid noticing was the fact that while the second floor seemed eerily vacant, it was an entirely different story belowdecks, with the visual evidence of many families crammed into every habitable inch. The undisturbed dust and the odd debris upstairs suggested that the people left that space alone, most of the time, despite the absence of any kind of barrier or restriction. Why? Ghosts? A deep-seated respect of the departed?

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What’s clear is that no restoration project will succeed without taking the house’s present occupants—and indeed the whole neighborhood—into account. Even if you manage to raise the many millions required to return the house to its old glory, its antique opulence will stand in ironic contrast to the very present and very real poverty blighting its surroundings.

The well-preserved Nakpil-Bautista House next door might yield some clues—but not all—to what to do eventually. This ancestral home had seen generations of such notables as the composer Julio Nakpil and his wife Gregoria de Jesus, Andres Bonifacio’s widow. Still maintained by the family and open to public viewing, the house has also served as a home and studio for the past 38 years for master carver Ner Manlaqui, whose religious statues crowd the basement. Priests, churches, and other patrons keep Mang Ner busy, as the half-finished saints and virgins being worked on by his assistants attest to, employing trunks of pale yellow baticulin sourced from faraway Quezon.

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So preserving or reviving the past might necessitate providing for the present, and the cultural activists behind the Boix House project will do well to temper their admirable passion with some dry-eyed pragmatism. Houses are always more than wood and stone, and bringing old ones back to life should also mean ensuring a sustainable future for the people who live in and around them.

I couldn’t have imagined a richer Saturday morning but yet also a more poignant one, spent in the crumbling heart of the city.

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Penman for Monday, November 17, 2016

 

 

IT WASN’T on the official itinerary, but I have to report that the personal highlight of our recent participation at the Frankfurt Book Fair didn’t happen at the fair itself, or even in Frankfurt, but about an hour and a half away by train and bus. This was a plan that a few of us had hatched even before we left Manila: we’d do our jobs and put in our hours in the Philippine booth, then take a day off in pursuit of a pilgrimage that any Pinoy in Frankfurt shouldn’t forgo: a visit to Jose Rizal’s haunts in Heidelberg and neighboring Wilhelmsfeld.

I’ve been a lifelong fan of Pepe, not just for his writing skills and love of country (I won’t mention his charming ways with the ladies) but also his wanderlust which made him, in my book, the first truly global Filipino. Considering that he didn’t live very long, he was still able to do more and see more than most of us do in a full lifetime. The intensity of that life and the excellence he sought at every turn have been enduring inspirations for me, and I’ve realized that sometimes by design and sometimes by serendipity, I’ve been tracking his footsteps around the world.

In 2009, my wife Beng and I, along with our daughter Demi and her husband Jerry, had booked ourselves into the Palace Hotel on Market Street in San Francisco, where it took a waiter (a fellow Pinoy, of course) to inform us that Rizal had stayed there during his only visit to America in May 1888, an event commemorated by a marker just outside the hotel, which we had missed.

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Two years later, Beng and I visited Rizal’s well-kept shrine in Dapitan, where he had spent four fruitful years in exile before being transported back to Manila. How poignant it must have been to catch the sunset along the bay with Josephine Bracken, inflamed and torn by two of the strongest passions to afflict any writer—love and revolution.

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And then in 2014, again with Beng, Demi, and Jerry, I sought out some of Rizal’s locales in Spain, from Plaza Mayor in Madrid to the Castell de Montjuic in Barcelona, where Rizal had been detained before being shipped back to Manila for trial and eventual execution. (The castle has designated a room, Sala Rizal, in his honor and in memory of the many political prisoners who had spent time in that place—ironically, one of the best spots from which to appreciate the city’s beauty.)

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There was no question, therefore, that I would make that sortie to Heidelberg, given the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Five other sojourners made up our group: National Artist Virgilio “Rio” Almario and his wife Lyn, their daughter Ani and her husband, the geologist CP David, and the poet and Inquirer staff writer Ruey de Vera. Lyn and Ani were attending the book fair on behalf of Adarna House and the Book Development Association of the Philippines, but we all agreed that a visit to Heidelberg was well worth a day off.

Rizal had stayed in various places in Heidelberg and Wilhelmsfeld for much of 1886, marking his 25th birthday there, studying ophthalmology with tutors like Dr. Otto Becker while improving his command of German. When he moved to Wilhelmsfeld—a 12-kilometer walk through the forest that Rizal essayed and even today a 30-minute bus ride from downtown Heidelberg—Rizal boarded with Pastor Karl Ullmer and his family, and it was there that he completed the manuscript of Noli Me Tangere (a feat that, achieved at 25, still astonishes me when I consider the juvenilia most of us still produce at that age).

Rio Almario had visited Heidelberg once before but not Wilhelmsfeld, and the rest of us were total newcomers to the area (I had traveled around Germany and reported on it extensively in 2004, but hadn’t gone this far). So it was with giddy enthusiasm that we assembled at the Frankfurt Bahnhof and boarded the 9:20 train to Heidelberg. About an hour later, we were in Heidelberg, where we made a beeline for the information kiosk just outside the train station to buy bus tickets to Wilhelmsfeld. “Filipinos?” asked a clerk at the kiosk, apparently familiar with posses of brown-skinned Asians asking about Jose Rizal, and he whipped out a xeroxed guide to Rizal’s known habitations in Heidelberg and Wilhelmsfeld. There were about six of these sites in Heidelberg alone, so we decided to go for Wilhelmsfeld first, given our limited time.

After a pleasant ride along the Neckar River and the lovely autumn scenery (punctuated only by an unexpected stop during which two European bison appeared fairytale-like out of the woods), we reached Wilhelmsfeld, which announced itself in a most unusual way, with a Filipino flag flying abreast of its German counterpart in front of the Rathaus, or town hall (Wilhelmsfeld and Calamba are sister cities). We were in search specifically of the statue that sculptor Anastacio Caedo had made of Rizal in a special park devoted to him. An initial query led us astray, to the wrong church and into a drizzle of hail (magical story elements we couldn’t have invented to accentuate our pilgrim status), until a kind lady pointed us in the right direction.

Many shuddering steps later, we arrived at a park overlooking the valley, in the center of which stood Rizal’s figure, easily a foot larger than life, as it deserved to be. We celebrated by opening a bottle of Potsdamer beer which CP had brought along for the occasion, and raising a toast to the great wanderer who had preceded us by 130 years but who yet challenged us, as it were, to write a Noli for our own times. After lunch back in Heidelberg, we prepared for another long trek to find his clinic at Bergeimherstrasse, only to realize that we had gotten off on exactly that street, and were only steps away.

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Weeks later, a totally unexpected bonus followed. I was in Singapore covering the Writers Festival when fictionist Cathy Torres—a diplomat who was serving with the Philippine Embassy in Berlin after a stint in Singapore, and had also joined us in Frankfurt—casually mentioned to me that Rizal had taken note in his letters of the black elephant statue beside the old Parliament House where the festival was being held. As it turned out, Rizal had visited Singapore four times—the first time in 1882, on what also happened to be the 21-year-old’s first trip abroad. The tip prompted me to look up Rizal’s Singaporean connections—immortalized in a marker near the Cavenagh Bridge, beside the likes of Ho Chi Minh, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Deng Xiaoping—but what floored me was discovering that he had once stayed at the old Hotel de la Paix at the corner of Coleman and Hill Streets—long gone, but since replaced by the Peninsula-Excelsior Hotel, where I was staying. I felt like I was no longer following Rizal, but he was following me.

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In Dapitan, he had written: “I left, scarcely a youth, my land and my affections, and vagrant everywhere, with no qualms, with no terrors, squandered in foreign lands the April of my life.” If this was squandering one’s youth, what a glorious waste it was.

 

Penman No. 218: History and Irony

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Penman for Monday, September 26, 2016

 

 

I’D NEVER heard of Ramon Cualoping III and Marco Angelo Cabrera until their names were linked to the recent flap involving the use of no less than the Official Gazette in an apparent effort to sanitize the memory of Ferdinand E. Marcos by removing any reference to martial law—you know, the martial law that Marcos invoked to impose his dictatorial rule on his people from 1972 until he was deposed by a popular revolt in 1986. (Yes, he technically lifted martial law in 1981 but he continued to rule with a rubber-stamp legislature.)

Some Googling revealed that Cualoping was an Ateneo Communication Arts graduate, batch 2004, while Cabrera graduated from San Beda in 2013 and interned briefly with the Department of Foreign Affairs; he had also worked for Sen. Bongbong Marcos. Those are both fine backgrounds for jobs at the Presidential Communications Operations Office—just the kind of posting on which many young writers and lawyers aspiring for a political future have cut their teeth—and I can surmise from the dates provided that Messrs. Cualoping and Cabrera must be in their mid-30s and mid-20s, respectively—too young, therefore, to have personally known what the Gazette expunged.

In the interest of full disclosure, I was a government propagandist myself at an even younger age—19, fresh out of martial law prison. Having dropped out of UP and having worked for the Philippines Herald and Taliba just before martial law, I got a job with the PR section of the National Economic and Development Authority. The irony of going from writing incendiary flyers to trumpeting such new government projects as Pantabangan Dam wasn’t lost on me. But I was getting married and needed a job, and all the old media jobs were gone save for the Express and the Bulletin, so I was thankful for whatever came my way. (I would much later write hundreds of speeches for FVR, among other Presidents and political clients—mostly to pay the rent, occasionally for the sheer privilege—so don’t look at me as some crusading journalist.)

I don’t know what drove Messrs. Cualoping and Cabrera to the Palace; I’m assuming their motives were loftier than mine. I also don’t know what made them officially forget (hey, it’s the Official Gazette, right?) that FM declared martial law. I suspect they knew what happened, but chose to ignore the most salient fact about Marcos’ life, for reasons only they can tell. To his credit, Communications Secretary Martin Andanar effectively reprimanded his staff for the deliberate oversight and corrected the record.

I’ll leave further chastisement of these two gentlemen to the netizens who broke the story. From one PR pro to another, what I can tell them is this: I understand the job you have to do and even your private allegiances, but there are things—very big things much bigger than yourselves—that you just can’t sweep under the rug. Denying martial law or its disastrous effects on our society and economy is like telling Jews that the Holocaust never happened, or was actually a good thing. I salute you for your cheek, but what on earth were you thinking?

There’s a book I’d like to recommend to these two, one which I and a dozen other writers—all students during martial law—put out four years ago on the 40th anniversary of Proclamation 1081, titled Not on Our Watch: Martial Law Really Happened, We Were There. (For more on that book, see here: http://www.philstar.com/sunday-life/806191/lest-we-forget.) I wasn’t too enamored of the long title at that time, but now I appreciate the emphatic clarity of the thing; it’s just the sort of book martial law amnesiacs and deniers need to read.

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But even as we review history, there’s one thing that seems to have escaped many: the current debate about how to look at martial law and where to bury Ferdinand Marcos isn’t about the past; it’s about the future, and what kind of people we are and want to be.

I know that millennials tend to get beat up on because they don’t know enough about martial law, which is hardly their fault since we didn’t teach them enough about it. But it isn’t just them. When people my age express bewilderment over how Bongbong Marcos came so close to becoming Vice President despite his dad’s misdeeds, and how the Marcoses have survived so handsomely, I have to remind them that even under martial law, those of us who opposed Marcos were in the distinct minority. Most Filipinos supported martial law, actively or passively, or it wouldn’t have lasted so long. Like the Germans who supported Hitler, most Filipinos stood by while we faced the truncheons and firehoses—and even applauded 1081, early on, as the antidote to Communism (1972’s “war on drugs”). So what should we be so surprised about?

That’s why I’ve never referred to EDSA 1 as a revolution, because it wasn’t one in terms of changing anything fundamental in the structures and workings of our society. It was a popular uprising, a street revolt led by another faction of the ruling class, with broad support from the metropolitan middle class. That doesn’t mean I didn’t feel euphoric that February, and I still get teary-eyed when I remember the moment; I guess the poignancy comes from knowing what came afterward.

I have no doubt that if the Palace incumbent were to declare martial law today for whatever reason, a majority of Filipinos would support him, although a noisy few of us would be up in arms. Martial law ca. 1972 was also like that, and remained popular for many more years, especially among amoral businessmen who sang its praises until it hit them in the pocket. And then it all went downhill.

Contrary to what you might expect, I don’t see Marcos as a one-eyed ogre, but rather as a calculating Macbeth, keenly aware of his actions and perhaps even troubled by them. In my own turn with revisionism, I’ve even managed to convince myself—as I told the BBC in a recent interview on EDSA (a part which never got aired for lack of time)—that Ferdinand Marcos may have done us a final act of kindness by leaving without ordering a bloodbath. It’s an arguable notion (one I wouldn’t put on the Official Gazette) and it doesn’t change the fact that his regime took what it could until we bled, but as a fictionist and playwright, I like to imagine characters to be more complex than they seem.

A couple of years ago, at a cultural function in Quezon City, Mrs. Marcos preceded me by a few steps down a narrow staircase. She was clearly having a hard time navigating the stairs, and she looked back at me apologetically to say, “Hijo, I’m very sorry I’m keeping you.” I smiled and said, “It’s all right, Ma’am, please take your time.” I felt amused and strangely triumphant.

History is sometimes best seen as a series of comic and tragic ironies, which straight journalism and certainly government tabloids can’t dispense. Come to think of it, who gives a hoot about the Official Gazette? If you want to lie and get away with it, try fiction. I’d be happy to see Messrs. Cualoping and Cabrera in my graduate workshop.

 

Penman No. 216: From Bali Song to Balisong

IMG_8436.JPGPenman for Monday, September 12, 2016

 

 

I’D BEEN meaning to write this up for the past few months, but more pressing subjects kept getting in the way—and “pressing” is the word, because this is about the complete opposite: total relaxation with no fixed schedules or time limits.

It was sometime this past summer when I accompanied my wife Beng and a group of her UP High batchmates on a day trip to Batangas to scout some places as possible sites for their upcoming golden anniversary reunion next February. Beng already had one such place in mind—Cintai Corito’s Garden in Balete, not too far from Lipa, which we had already visited with the family a few months earlier, and had been much impressed by.

Like many Manileños, we’d long been looking for day-trip or weekend alternatives to Tagaytay, especially for bringing our foreign visitors and balikbayan relatives to. Frankly, as a bulalo and ukay-ukay addict, I myself never tire of Tagaytay for a quick break from Manila’s madness. But lately, on our sorties to Mindoro and Romblon via the Batangas ferry, Beng and I have been taking the STAR tollway a lot and have often found ourselves wanting to stop over in one of the many towns on the way.

The Balete exit is one those innocuous detours that you’d take only if you really knew where you were going, and the narrow road that you get on leading to Cintai promises little beyond the shops selling honey along the roadside. Cintai itself doesn’t look like much from the outside—until you drive down the winding entranceway. The point of this long prelude is that you’d never imagine such a magical place to arise out of the Batangas countryside—a virtual Balinese-inspired Eden carved out of a rolling landscape that once might have been dotted by coconut and coffee.

Cintai (which means “love” in Bahasa and is pronounced Chin-TAI) is a love offering to the late Corito of the place’s original name, the lady who inspired this outburst of Indonesian exotica in Southern Tagalog. It would be easy to think of the place as a theme park or resort—there are three swimming pools, and you’ll find peacocks, alpacas, roosters, and dwarf horses roaming the grounds—but other such places imply loudness, both literally and architecturally.

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Cintai is anything but loud—visually impressive, for certain, but just on the right side of tastefulness. Given the easy temptation to go over the top, Cintai’s designer wisely decided to make just enough of a statement, but also to take care of the fine details and of their consistent employment, even the patterning of the rocks on the walkways and the Balinese carvings in the bathrooms.

In other words, as in Bali itself (which I had the pleasure of visiting 30 years ago), the appeal of the place is in its soulful serenity. The management could have hyped up the atmosphere by piped-in gamelan music, but they resisted even that, for better effect: the gamelan will tinkle in your mind. (One interesting discovery: the Balinese statues, figures, and accents in the complex were mostly made by Batangueño craftsmen.)

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The complex comprises 18 villas with variable capacities, two large halls, a spa, and a restaurant, among other facilities (for more details, visit http://coritosgarden.com). Beng and her UP High batchmates plan to have the place to themselves for an overnight stay, an ideal set-up for a big group, but walk-in day trippers are welcome, for a very reasonable rate that includes a sumptuous lunch.

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And that’s what we did on this scouting trip—tour Cintai and have lunch with its amiable manager Francis Salanguit—but I had another suggestion for the group, which they gamely took up: go a bit farther down the highway to Taal, about a 40-minute drive away, to give everyone (especially the balikbayans) a special treat of history and heritage. I’d also been to Taal before and had visited one of its fabled heritage houses and its cathedral; I wanted to see more. So we set out after lunch and were in Taal shortly after.

The historicity of Taal was immediately apparent in the old Spanish-era houses lining the approach to the town. But what also accentuated (I was going to say “sharpened”) Taal’s uniqueness were the shops hawking a fearsome array of bladed weapons—specifically the balisong, the fan knife of many a boyhood fancy, ranging from the mini to the outsized version. Batangas, of course, and Taal in particular can look back to a proud revolutionary tradition, and the balisong seems to exemplify that don’t-mess-with-me attitude Batangueños are famous for.

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We didn’t stop that day to buy any knives—imagine the alarms they’d trigger if someone forgot about them on the plane ride Stateside—but we pressed on to our main destinations: the Apacible and Agoncillo heritage houses, both of which can be found on Agoncillo Street. I’d seen the Apacible house on my previous visit and had been charmed by its wonderfully preserved furnishings, but I was pleasantly surprised to see how the National Historical Commission, which manages the two historic houses, had taken pains to provide visitors with a more enlightening and rewarding experience.

Guests (who may come in for free, but are encouraged to leave a donation) are met and led by a knowledgeable guide; the AV show that introduces the place, its previous owners, and its history was one of the most artistic and professionally produced I’d ever seen. Markers, captions, and child-friendly installations were provided where necessary, and additional information was contributed freely by our young guide. The Apacible brothers—Leon and Galicano—were cousins and confederates of Jose Rizal, who came to their house to talk revolution; Leon was a lawyer and soldier and Galicano a doctor and propagandist, and though less known in the pantheon of Filipino heroes, they come alive in the exhibits that pay due homage to their contributions.

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The Marcela Marino Agoncillo Museum and Monument a couple of blocks down the street was just as well kept and well introduced with its own AV production (my kudos to Dr. Maris Diokno, whose dual backgrounds as teacher and historian—not to mention her own proud lineage as the descendant of true heroes—can be seen working here to best effect). Marcela was the wife of diplomat Felipe Agoncillo, but came to be known on her own as the co-creator of the first Philippine flag while on exile in Hong Kong.

Just as Cintai’s gardens had appealed to the spirit, Taal’s heritage houses touched both heart and mind—and it took just a few mouthfuls of the local suman, washed down with barako coffee, to complete our Batangas experience with a boost to our famished stomachs. I’m not knocking Tagaytay, but one of these days, you just may want to go a little farther down the road and try a bit of the best that Batangas has to offer.

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Penman No. 170: History Made Personal

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Penman for Monday, October 12, 2015

THE RECENT upsurge of interest in our history occasioned by runaway success of the film “Heneral Luna” is certainly welcome. While the film and its propositions may have sparked a flurry of debates among netizens about what really happened more than a hundred years ago, the important thing—as I noted in one of those “Heneral Luna” threads online—is that we’re having this discussion at all, when not too long ago, very few people cared.

(One of the most salient comments I came across was posted by a viewer who mused that—for all our newfound admiration for the hothead general’s bravery and principled stand—had we lived in Gen. Luna’s time, or were those circumstances transposed to the present—most of us middle-class Pinoys would probably side with the general’s more pragmatic enemies, arguing business to be more important than anything else. That’s a sobering thought, especially these days when many people seem to think of “nationalism” as being too old-fashioned if not downright irrelevant in this age of globalization, conveniently forgetting that globalization benefits some nations and economies more than others.)

There have been many times when I’ve wished that I’d become a historian instead of a literary person, so I could have looked into our past more deeply and more seriously to make better sense of our present. Indeed, when I returned to the University of the Philippines as a freshman after a ten-year hiatus in 1981, I chose between declaring myself as an English or a History major (I had entered UP in 1970 as a prospective industrial engineer).

Were it not for the need to take the easier path to make up for lost time, I would have chosen History in a flash, as interested as I was in stories of “what happened.” In grade school and high school, I read more books dealing with history, biography, geography, and science than fiction; to this day, when people ask me what single book has influenced me the most, I don’t think twice about answering The Forest by William Pomeroy, a lyrical account of an American’s travails as a Huk guerrilla, which I read in high school and encouraged me to become an activist.

Mine was a generation of students who grew up on the enlightened revisionism of Teodoro Agoncillo, Hernando Abaya, and Renato Constantino. I use the word “revisionism” because the standard historical texts at that time were written by such men as Gregorio F. Zaide, a mimeographed and paperbound copy of whose book—my mother’s college textbook, for sure—was as fascinating to me as a boy as any of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Martian chronicles. In grade school in the early ‘60s, I had yet to become aware of the important qualifications and nuances to be made to telling the story of our past, such as the fact that histories unavoidably took sides, and that it was all too easy to be seduced into taking the wrong one.

These days, I content myself with writing commissioned biographies and institutional histories—which, while they pose their own literary and scholarly challenges, do not by any means qualify me as a historian. I remain ever aware that the true study of history involves an appreciation of the grand sweep of things as much as the little details, and I have to admit that it’s the details I’m more often fascinated by, leaving it to larger minds to scope out the overarching logic or the grand design of the human narrative.

As a hopeless dabbler, hoarder, and kibitzer, I find myself irresistibly drawn to old objects and obscure information, and trade these gilded items with such fellow enthusiasts as my Washington-based friend Erwin Tiongson and his wife Titchie, who together run the Philippines on the Potomac website at popdc.wordpress.com. Erwin and Titchie were in Manila not too long ago for a vacation and a couple of lectures before the Philippine Studies Association and at the Ateneo, Erwin’s alma mater, on their most recent research into the colorful life in Washington of the remarkable Sofia de Veyra (you can read Titchie’s wonderful article on her here: http://www.positivelyfilipino.com/magazine/the-thoroughly-modern-sofia-de-veyra). My wife Beng and I had a chance to meet over lunch with the Tiongsons and with Sofia’s granddaughter Teresa “Binggay” Montilla and her aunt Rita Damian, and the look on Binggay’s face when the Tiongsons showed her pictures of her grandparents she had never seen before was priceless.

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Shortly afterwards, back in the US, Erwin wrote me to say that he had been able to track down an article in the May 20, 1921 issue of the Great Falls Tribune (published in Great Falls, Montana), about the protest launched by Fiipino Chinese businessmen, led by the banker Dr. Albino Z. Sycip, against a new bookkeeping law that apparently discriminated against Chinese merchants. Sycip had taken his case to the US courts, and was on his way to Washington to plead his case there. While he was in the States, on June 30, a son was born to his wife back home, a detail I recounted in a biography I wrote of the man who was that baby boy: “Albino decided to commemorate that visit by naming his new son ‘Washington.’ ‘Up to now Wash has semi-annual recurring bad dreams about what might have happened if the old man had been in Tallahassee or Vladivostok,’ the impish Alex [Wash’s brother] would write.” Erwin relayed the news item to Wash, who gratefully wrote Erwin back to say that he had never seen that article before (and another one reporting on his father’s victory in court).

More recently, Erwin and I have been exchanging clippings we’ve dig up on another outstanding Filipino, a Jesuit icon, the late Fr. Teddy Arvisu, and I’ll write up those findings one of these days (“His father wanted him to marry one of the Quezon girls,” Erwin tells me). I’d found an eloquent and impassioned speech against the rise of fascism by the young Teddy, published in a November 1940 issue of the Philippine Collegian; Teddy would become a soldier and join the Death March before achieving his dream of priesthood. At the moment, Erwin’s hot on the trail of Peyton March, the American officer who went after Gregorio del Pilar at Tirad Pass, and who lived in his last years in Washington. You better hurry, I told Erwin, as they’ll be making a “Goyong” movie soon.

Nothing of the kind of trivia that Erwin or I come across will change the big story of our past, but as avid amateurs, I’m sure we’re happy enough to help in making history more personal.

[Top image from the US Library of Congress]

Penman No. 167: The Real Value of Remembering

Penman for Monday, September 21, 2015

TODAY MARKS the 43rd anniversary of martial law, a time many Filipinos have forgotten or would rather forget. Those of us who went through it sound like a broken record when we say that—with the usual addendum that young people today have no idea what martial law means—and the phonograph gets creakier every year, the echoes fainter. It annoys us when no one else seems to make a big deal of the most centrally formative period of our sixty-something years, but it takes just a little math to realize, “Why should they?”

Forty-three years is longer than the interlude between the two World Wars, and longer even than the time between World War II and Vietnam. In the meanwhile, the world went through computers, VCRs, the collapse of the Soviet Union, cellphones, the Internet, and 9-11. Here at home, we went through EDSAs of various kinds, Pinatubo, Maguindanao, Yolanda, and Mamasapano. That’s an awfully long time, filled with mindboggling diversions and distractions, to keep your mind fixed on a scratchy black-and-white TV image of a man in a barong casting some strange voodoo hex on the the nation.

Thus I’m hardly surprised when my 19-year-old students admit to a blithe ignorance of Marcosian times. You can’t call it amnesia, because they had no memory to begin with; even the fervent clamors of today’s young activists draw on borrowed memory (but then again, isn’t that what history is, a sense-making narrative woven out of someone else’s recollections?).

I’m not a historian, but I try to do what I can to make the past come alive for my students in my Literature and Society class—not even to educate them on the nuances of specific events such as the declaration of martial law, but simply to make them aware of a life beyond the present, beyond themselves. An interest in the past can’t be forced; sometimes the best thing we can do is to open a small window on it, and then to enlarge that opening so they can see the bigger picture, and share in the excitement and the novelty of looking backward rather than forward.

Every now and then, when the urge grabs me and there’s an excuse to do so, I bring some odds and ends from my inestimably deep trove of vintage junk to class, as tinder for discussion. A 1923 Corona typewriter leads to a chat about the technology of writing, and how technology affects writing (Eliot and his typewriter, Hemingway and his pencil, computers and revision); a 1922 issue of the Philippine Collegian shows how little has changed (“Look, UP was asking for a permanent endowment even then!”); an 1830 grammar book, perhaps the oldest manmade thing these kids have ever held (yes, I pass the book around for them to get a feel of old paper), offers proof of the near-immutability of grammar (“It’s like glacial ice,” I say. “It moves, but you can’t see it.”)

A young person’s starting point very often is, “What does this have to do with me?” I try to answer that two ways: (1) “Why does it have to have anything to do with you?” Part of growing up is learning and accepting that the world isn’t your nursemaid, that it could and will often be totally indifferent to you and your little plaints. But also (2) in a gentler mood and whenever possible, we connect the dots between, say, the god Achilles and his choice of a short but glorious life and, yes, the martial-law activist who didn’t expect to live beyond 25.

Last week, I urged my class (note “urged”—I keep absolute requirements to a minimum) to watch the movie Heneral Luna—to my mind, easily one of the most significant Filipino movies of recent years. Beng and I had seen it the night before; the theater was three-quarters full, and when the movie ended, the audience applauded, the two of us included. The movie reminded me of how many gaps remained in my own appreciation of our past; if I, a full professor at UP and a self-styled history buff, didn’t know the full story of Antonio Luna, how could I expect my charges to know anything about martial law?

That leads me to think that it won’t be the textbooks or balding professors like me who will make our youth wonder about what else they missed, but the movies—or, more broadly, literature and its power to make dramatic sense of events, its humanization of history. More than four decades after the fact, not enough novels have been written and not enough movies have been made of the martial law period (Lualhati Bautista’s Dekada ‘70 being the standout in both print and film). Indeed, a definitive and comprehensive history of that time—and an independent one that kowtows neither to Marcos nor to Mao—has yet to be put together, although specific aspects of martial law (legal, economic, political, and personal) have been ventilated in various books and forums.

The real value of remembering martial law or some such national calamity, I’ll hazard, isn’t just in mouthing the oft-repeated “Never again!” I seriously doubt that even those who never experienced it will accept its repetition. Rather, it’s in looking back 43 years to take stock of what we’ve become since, as individuals and as a people—in memoir writing, we call this the difference between the remembered self and the remembering self. The very fact that they’re not the same thing should tell us something. It’s easy to say “No” to martial law ca. 1972, but what exactly will we be saying “Yes” to come 2016? The past keeps getting dimmer, but then again, some days, so does the future.

Penman No. 141: War and Remembrance

IMG_7163Penman for Monday, March 23, 2015

 

A FEW weeks ago, I had the pleasure of having coffee at the Ayala Museum with some good friends visiting briefly from the United States—the historian and professor Sharon Delmendo and her mother Judy, and the retired soldier, consul, and West Point lecturer Sonny Busa.

Both Sharon and Sonny were in town to do research—Sharon on President Quezon and the Manilaners, the Jewish refugees whom Quezon took in just before the War, and the Visayas-born Sonny on the guerrilla movement, for which he’s helping to seek more recognition in the US, especially those who may have fallen through the cracks of the American legal system. (Even Judy Delmendo proved to be a revelation, as I Iearned the story of how, as an idealistic young teacher, Judy signed up for the Peace Corps as soon as she heard JFK’s clarion call about doing something for one’s country. She was among the very first Peace Corps volunteers to ship out, and landed in Masbate, where she ended up marrying a handsome Filipino named Rene.)

Not surprisingly, history—both past and current—dominated our discussion. I’m not a historian myself, but have a keen interest in the subject, and might even have taken it up as my profession. (There was this fork in the road, more than 30 years ago, when I was returning to college from a long hiatus and was choosing between English and History as my major; pressed for time, I chose the path of less resistance.)

It must have been all those movies I saw and comic books I read as a kid, but I’ve been especially and inordinately fascinated by war and conflict—despite the fact, to which my friends will hopefully attest, that I’m a most unwarlike person, and have never fired a gun in all my 61 years. (In her college years, our daughter Demi was a proud member of UP’s rifle and pistol team.) I may be enthralled by the engineering that goes into a piece of weaponry, and I’m easily impressed and moved by tales of courage and heroism in battle, but I never for a minute forget that war is an ugly business, brutal and brutalizing, inevitably attended by grief and sorrow, and by the all-too-human impulse to wage even more war.

Sharon and Sonny had come to the Ayala Museum that morning not just to see me but also to take part in a conference on World War II, coinciding with an exhibit at the museum. I hadn’t known about the conference and couldn’t stay on for the rest of the day, but I did stay long enough to catch the first event, which was an exhibit on wartime Manila, particularly the uniforms worn by military personnel on both sides. The reason for this curious but interesting angle became apparent when we were soon surrounded by people dressed up as Japanese and American officers and soldiers, and also as nurses, guerrillas, and even a Makapili informer.

I turned around to see a familiar face, albeit in a totally unfamiliar context: that of the prizewinning sculptor Toym Imao, son of the late National Artist Abdulmari Imao and an accomplished artist in his own right. I’d last met Toym (so named because of the award his dad received) when he was a speaker at our Fulbright pre-departure orientation last year; he had been a Fulbright scholar in Maryland, honing his skills there. But now Toym the sculptor had transformed into Toym the tank commander, a figure right out of Fury.

“We started out as an Airsoft group,” Toym told me, “but we soon realized that it would be more interesting if we went for historical re-enactments using historically correct uniforms and costumes.” Thus was born the Philippine Living History Society, which had put up that morning’s special display. The society, which now has nearly a hundred members, counts HR managers, call center agents, and media professionals among others in its ranks; older persons, women, and children are also part of the group, which has staged re-enactments of famous battles or encounters (a mere costume parade, I learned, is simply an “impression”; members also have a term, “farb,” for historically inaccurate gear). Some of their uniforms and equipment are genuine artifacts—preserved, rediscovered and restored, or sourced from eBay; others are reproductions, but accurate down to the last button.

Despite their strong military bent, the society’s members are no warmongers. “We just want Filipinos to appreciate history better, and this is a good way of getting their attention,” Toym explained. They certainly got ours—even Sonny Busa, probably the only real soldier in the room (he had served with the US Army’s Special Forces before joining the diplomatic service), was caught up in the drama.

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Speaking of war and remembrance, I’d like to note the recent completion and turnover to the Philippine National Police Academy of a huge and breathtaking mural by the Erehwon Art Collective, a division of the Quezon City-based Erehwon Art World Corporation. We don’t have enough military art in this country, and quite apart from its powerful emotional appeal, this mural will be an important contribution to that genre. Let me draw on the description provided by Erehwon founder Raffy Benitez:

“Tagaligtas: Heroic 44 is a military mural that realistically depicts each and every member of the SAF 44 in their combat gear and uniform, portrayed as they are about to go into combat in realistic formations and stances. They gaze at the viewer with pride and fondness as comrades, sons, brothers, and fathers who have passed on into history. Portrayed across 182 square feet of canvas that measures 7 feet tall by 26 feet long, the SAF 44 are depicted in their various unit configurations, with the commanding officers and senior inspectors in front, middle ranking patrolmen in the middle, and junior-ranking patrolmen at the rear.”

Incredibly, the mural was completed in just three weeks by a talented and tireless team that included Grandier Gil Bella (head artist), Jerico de Leon, Neil Doloricon, Camille Dela Rosa; Lourdes Inosanto, Jonathan Joven, Othoniel Neri (assistant head artist), Emmanuel Nim, and Dario Noche (head researcher and photodocumentor); and Eghai Roxas. The Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry (PCCI) provided financial support for the project, while PSSupt Gilbert D.C. Cruz of the PNP-NCR Southern Police District provided technical advice. The mural design was conceptualized by Dr. Reuben Ramas Cañete.

So whether through the theater of costumery or the quieter grandeur of a mural, the warrior lives on in our common memory.

Penman No. 41: Writing Historical Fiction

Deed of SalePenman for Monday, April 8, 2013

AS I write this, we’re up in Baguio with this year’s crop of 12 fellows attending the 52nd UP National Writers Workshop, and we’re discussing the works-in-progress presented by the fellows, who are all practicing and accomplished creative writers with at least one published book to their name. We’re calling them mid-career writers, but their ages range widely from the mid-20s to seniorhood.

In our youth-oriented culture, we often forget how maturity can have its advantages, and how the literary imagination can improve with age. I was reminded of this when we took up the works of two of this year’s older fellows, Thomas David Chavez and Anna Marie Harper, both of whom happened to be working on historical novels.

Writing the novel is difficult enough, but the writing of historical fiction poses some special challenges, which probably explains why not too many writers essay the medium.

History deals with the past, but whenever we present it today—whether as fact or fiction—it inevitably also deals with the present, and by projection, with the future. In other words, the past is truly important to us—beyond its curiosity value—insofar as it informs the present, and provides clues as to what the future might be.

The “historical” part of the term “historical fiction” apparently requires close attention to factual detail, which means exhaustive research of an almost academic nature, to make certain that one is taking off from solid ground. Just how solid that ground is will of course be debatable and may even be the subject of the fiction itself—“What really happened?”—but no matter what departures from fact are taken, a certain familiarity with the past (perhaps a fictive or imagined familiarity) is assumed.

Indeed the basic proposition of historical fiction can be summed up thus: “We think we know the past, but we don’t.” A more severe formulation might be: “We don’t know the past at all.”

The fictionist’s conceit lies in his or her suggestion that fiction, rather than even more thorough or more scholarly research, can remedy this lack of understanding. It’s the same conceit we carry over to contemporary fiction, which is our response, our proposed alternative, to CNN, to the White House or the Malacañang Press Secretary, to the Departments of History and Political Science. The fictionist’s reason for being draws from one of my favorite quotations, this one from Mark Twain, a man who knew how to spin a fanciful yarn while being engaged in the most significant political debates of his time. In so many words, Twain said: “Of course fact is stranger than fiction; fiction, after all, has to make sense.”

The sense-making of fiction relies, in turn, on dramatic plausibility—or, to put it in Aristotelian terms, on probability and necessity, in the logic of the human heart and mind. (To Aristotle, tragedy—which you can take to be literature itself—was superior to history, because history merely dealt with what happened, while tragedy concerned itself with what could happen). What makes fiction interesting is that this logic of the human heart and mind can often be bewilderingly illogical, although it will, at some point, acquire a frightening inevitability.  I’ve often told my students that characters become truly interesting if and when they go out of character, and these turning points are what we wait for, both in history and fiction.

It is, therefore, the burden of the historical fictionist to offer more than both ordinary historians and ordinary fictionists can offer. The past has to be more than setting or décor, the pitfall of bad historical fiction; and the fiction will require more than an embellishment of known fact. Historical fiction is not fictionalized history; it is not creative nonfiction. It is a fictionist’s creative use of the past as material with which to make sense of the present, of how we came to be what we are, of how we will likely be tomorrow.

Dave Chavez’s novel is set in the American Occupation, told from the point of view of the Filipino butler and cook of an American officer who heads the health service in a time of war and cholera. It goes a bit farther back to 1874, when a boatload of Japanese lepers arrives in Manila Bay from Nagsaki under the command of a Captain Kurosawa:

“Only in the last minute was Kurosawa informed of the nature of his gruesome mission, although two weeks before setting sail, he was told to recruit an able-bodied crew of 14 ocean-tested men, then to stock up on supplies treble that number, and finally, to organize a guild of petty merchants who could assemble on such short notice a credible cargo for trade in Manila. Given the time constraint, the captain orchestrated a passable, if rough and ready nine tons of merchandise. Kurosawa inspected and oversaw for himself the weighing of the bales of Kyushu silk, wax-sealed jars of Shikoku soy sauce and crates of Western-style gleaming steel cutlery from the foundries of Fukuoka.

“Of course, there were special items that were not for sale or barter, but were primed spotless and sheening just the same under orders of the Overlord. In there were intricately- packaged gifts of dolls, fans of gilt brocade paper, ukiyo-e scrolls, pictures of the fleeting world depicting the pillow tales of cloistered Genroku noblewomen, some fancy paper from the presses of Nagoya, and finely-wrought cotton yukatas from the prefecture of Nara. These were presents for Manila’s notables, including Governor-General José Malacampo Monje, the Spanish and mestizo nobles of Intramuros and Ermita, the regidor of the port, and finally the Archbishop of Manila, Gregorio Melitón Martinez Santa Cruz.”

Bambi Harper’s second novel will be a prequel to her first one, Agueda, published last year. While Agueda charted a woman’s and her society’s progress from the late 19th to the early 20th century, The Shadow on the Sundials starts with the British Occupation of 1762, and introduces a colorful cast of characters that includes a visionary beata, a dashing Spanish rake, a native servant girl, and a dwarf. Harper draws the curtains on our bygone days thus:

“The entire upper floor of the house that overlooked the narrow provincial road formed a giant screen with its window panes of capiz shells, while below the sills were ventanillas where as a child Tita dangled her chubby legs through the spaces between the carved balusters. The house stood on the corner beside an old stone bridge and massive doors opened into a saguan where granite steps led to the caida, an anti-sala overlooking a garden of fruit trees. The lower classes waited here to be summoned into the august presence of the owner—even poor relations of Doña Titik unless they were in the kitchen eating with the help. The lucky visitor who was invited into the inner sanctum of the sala meant you were either a friar, a foreigner, rich, or all of the above. No expense had been spared in the décor of the living room that revealed ceilings painted with garlands held up by rose-cheeked cherubs. Trompe l’oeil of receding colonnades on the walls created an illusion of expanding space. No carpets hid the glory of the wide narra floor planks that were rubbed daily with a coconut husk and banana leaves to a mirror finish.”

I look forward to the completion of both projects—indeed, of more novels that draw on our tremendously rich history to examine the emergence of our nationhood.

I’D LIKE to acknowledge and express my appreciation for a message from reader Nikko Salvador, who wrote in to say—in response to my GenSan piece last week—that a museum can indeed be found at his school, the Notre Dame of Dadiangas University, and that a few steps away stands a thorny dadiangas plant. I’ll make sure to visit these spots the next time I fly down to GenSan.

Penman No. 5: Encounters with History

Library

Penman for Monday, July 23, 2012

I HAD an unusual encounter with history last week, by way of two sorties to two different exhibits that turned out to have a bit more to do with each other than I might’ve initially thought.

The first trip was something I’d been meaning to do for years but just never came around to doing—a visit to the Presidential Museum and Library at Malacañan Palace. (Our tour guide took pains to point out that “Malacañan” referred specifically to the presidential seat of power and the more popular “Malacañang” to the entire place itself; I think we’ll go with Malacañang for the rest of this piece.)

It’s one of those sad ironies that we footloose Filipinos can make elaborate and expensive plans to visit the White House and Buckingham Palace without ever setting foot on our own presidential abode. It could be that for far too long—particularly all those years of martial law—Malacañang didn’t lend itself to friendly visitations by ordinary citizens. That, plus the fact that we Pinoys have never had much of a sense of history, beyond routine celebrations of Independence Day and tired if not tiresome commemorations of Edsa 1. We’ve been schooled to think of history as high drama, as a calendar of big events, forgetting that those events were forged in offices, classrooms, factories, and the shade of mango trees.

Malacañang is, of course, the perfect theater for high drama—one of the balconies in the museum was the setting for that famous picture of Ferdinand Marcos and his family vowing defiantly to stay and to fight on, shortly before decamping to America in February 1986—but it was also, and remains, home and office to a long succession of men and women who led the country, people doing nothing more earth-shattering on most days than signing letters of condolences and felicitations and proclamations declaring this or that period to be National Fire Prevention Week.

As a museum rat, I’ve always been fascinated by presidential and royal regalia, and by the mementoes left behind by the high and mighty—not to be awed by them, but to appreciate their humanity behind the pomp and the poses. George Washington’s signature blue coat is on display at the Smithsonian, but so are his dentures, which must have hurt far worse than mine, and I don’t even have to worry about putting a country together; the mock pockets on Jose Rizal’s jacket in Dapitan betray a sharp fashion sense even in exile (and the smallness of his body size—a surprise to many Filipinos expecting a titan of a hero—merely accentuates his real stature).

Last week, thanks to the invitation of Ronnie Geron—an undersecretary in the palace and an avid member of Fountain Pen Network-Philippines—our group of over 30 fountain-pen enthusiasts got to visit and tour the Presidential Museum and Library. Since fountain pens themselves are something of an anachronism, stepping back into presidential history was a treat for all of us, and we can’t be blamed for feeling that the highlight of the tour was staring at Emilio Aguinaldo’s pen, or what remained of it—a piece we quickly identified as being very likely a Waterman 52 in mottled red hard rubber (a sorry shell of a pen, in exchange for which I offered to provide a near-mint example from my collection—but no one seemed to be too interested).

There were no other pens to be found that day in the museum and library, but there were roomfuls of other memorabilia, from the time of the Spanish and American governors-general to the prewar, postwar, and recent presidents: photographs, paintings, clothes, books, furniture, documents, and campaign materials. Every president had either a room or a corner devoted to materials from his or her presidency, and our very knowledgeable guide—a young man named Louie—walked us through the history of every room, mindful that the building itself was historic, quite apart from its residents.

The museum and library are located in what is now known as Kalayaan Hall, a 1921 structure used by the Americans as their Executive Building; the Marcoses called it Maharlika Hall, but Cory Aquino gave it its present name. Aside from the Main Hall and Library (or the Gallery of Presidents), the building also contains the Old Waiting Room Gallery, with materials from the Spanish era; the Old Executive Secretary’s Office, with rare Rizaliana; the Old Governor-General’s Office, the Osmeña Cabinet Room, the West and East Staircases, the Quezon Executive Office, the Quirino Council of State Room, the Roxas Cabinet Room, and the Northeast and Southeast Galleries. Plan on spending at least an hour to see and imbibe everything.

What most Filipinos (including many of us) don’t know is that tours of the Presidential Museum and Library are available for a minimal fee to individuals or groups who make the necessary arrangements beforehand. (Call 784-4286 local 4945 or email pml@malacanang.gov.ph for details.) The entrance is through Gate 6, and parking can be had at the Freedom Park just outside the gates.

Another exhibit that I made a point of looking into was one at the Cultural Center of the Philippines Main Gallery, titled “ReCollection 1081: Clear and Present Danger (Visual Dissent on Martial Rule),” co-curated by Marika Constantino and Ruel Caasi, and staged by the CCP in cooperation with the Liongoren Gallery. ReCollection 1081 brings together a selection of artworks produced by Filipino artists during and after martial law, as well as publications produced by both the underground and alternative press.

Those who lived through martial law can’t possibly miss the irony of the exhibition venue—much hated and derided in Imelda Marcos’ time as the domain of the elite, but long since reclaimed by more ordinary folk.

This show was already written about by Constantino herself a few days ago here in the Star, so I’ll just have a few points to add—chiefly, that the artist’s protest against oppression, injustice, and exploitation both preceded and continued after martial law (see Jaime de Guzman’s Sabbath of the Witches, 1970, and Nunelucio Alvarado’s Tunok sa Dahon, 1986).

It was martial law, of course, that provoked both the most explicit and subtlest forms of protest, demanding both courage and wit of the artist, and this range of responses is on full display in the exhibit. Assembling these works was already a feat in itself, considering how many more such works (and their creators) have been lost in the crossfire. Their survival into another century and their installation in the cultural bastion of the dictatorship is sweet poetic justice.

ReCollection 1081 runs until September 30.