On Everyday Filipino Heroes

Excerpt from a book-length essay for 5 Years of Looking for Juan, a monograph aimed at educating secondary school-age readers on nationhood, art, and its publics

Tadeo, Si Rosita
Brendale Tadeo, Si Rosita at ang Anatomika ng Sari-saring Bagay sa Kanyang Kaisipan (2010)

Forthcoming from CANVAS, aka The Center for Art, New Ventures, and Sustainable Development; for more information, visit CANVAS.ph or like their page on facebook

Not so long after Looking for Juan began reaching out to the public in 2009, shirts, stickers, and posters proclaiming that “Where I am from, everyone’s a hero” were released, alongside the outreach operations that alleviated the havoc wreaked by Typhoon Ondoy. That was the year a great number of citizens linked arms against complacency, with a common cause to uplift those whose lives had wiped out by the storm and submerged under meters and meters of floodwater, in good faith that the Filipino spirit was indeed–as later versions of the campaign said—waterproof.

Linking arms against common enemies are what make an island into a country, then into a nation – bound not only by borders, but by a common vision for a future that will do justice to our past. Considering our country’s troubles, it is possible we still do not know what it really means to be part of a nation, except for the short bursts of unity we experience in the wake of disasters. For 2010, the theme “Everyday Filipino Heroes” attempted to express what it meant to go beyond these short bursts of nationhood and to translate heroism into everyday acts.

But should the term “heroism,” even accommodate the everyday acts that could—and should—be part of our duty not as Filipinos, but as part of this global community called “humanity”?

Through art, we are brought closer to what it means to be human. Paintings, photographs, and prints allow us to see this, but we must not forget that art engages all our senses. We hear music, we touch good sculpture and good design, we enter architecture. Through its efforts to occupy public space, Looking for Juan reminds us of art’s role in changing the environment—socially, politically, and culturally – all of which are integral to this question of our humanity. In its own seemingly small way, art has that capacity to transform the everyday. […]

Like heroes, the act of Looking for Juan puts us on a quest. To quest is about agency and going beyond one’s limits. The hardships we endure on this quest test our mettle, or the stuff we’re made of. The choices we make each day that bring us closer to what lies beyond could be filled with heroism. This is what everyday heroism is about: as everyday heroes, we move in pursuit of something greater.

Asking “What is a hero?” is not a simple matter of looking for an answer, but a process – a way to both prolong the search and expand the conversation. Our eyes in this sense are the windows not only of the soul, but of the mind, through which we can observe possible outcomes, without overlooking the fact of the ever-broadening horizon of what heroes are, as well as what they will be.

The hero is often cast as an ideal—and should remain so. The many ways we form our ideals make it difficult to come up with a single answer to what makes a hero. But true heroism, as shown by these Everyday Filipino Heroes, is a matter of how every step we take should bring us closer to the humanity that nurtures a community – whether that community is the nation or the world.

Taking in the Light

Antonio 1Exhibition notes for Angelito Antonio’s Recent Works on Paper, which opened yesterday evening at the Liongoren Gallery;

Writing In Praise of Shadows in 1933, Japanese novelist Junichiro Tanizaki compares the use of paper in the Western modernist tradition to that of the East, claiming that “Western paper is to us no more than something to be used, while the texture of Chinese paper and Japanese paper gives us a certain feeling of warmth, of calm and repose…Western paper turns away the light, while our paper seems to take it in, to envelop it gently, like the soft surface of a first snowfall.”

There are no claims about the geocultural origins of the medium used by Angelito Antonio, however the same can be said about the capacity of these pieces to evoke warmth by taking in the light. On paper, the tip of a brush, the weight of a hand, and an inky pigment come together as a series of strokes.

Compared to his past works, what is most obvious in this series is an absence of colour; but there is no lack of texture, as the weight of narrative bears down more heavily through the impressions left by black oil on white paper. In the language of art, black and white is typically used to make an impulse visible. As a streak or a gash, black drives the point home, while leaving room to risk an idea. Similar to sketches, this series treads between the abstract and the calligraphic; lending themselves more easily to storytelling.

Like music notes or lines of poetry, Antonio’s brushstrokes show equal parts luck and intention, with the multitudes that a story of a life well lived can contain. Running across the aged page, the lines sketched before us appear light and airy; and yet, the impressions left by pigment on paper signify that these aren’t sketches, but fully-formed ideas, communicating that Angelito Antonio has said what he has come to say.

Mourning Diary

Not to manifest mourning (or at least be indifferent to it) but to impose the public right to the loving relation it implies.
Barthes, Mourning Diary (2009 [1977])

Sometimes the kids in this building try to follow me back to my apartment, so they can get a look at the cats. “Try” being the operative word, because it’s impossible not to notice a group of 5 to 10-year-olds lurking a few steps behind, rustling whispers, as you turn the corner. Because they seemed sweet, I let them come in one morning to see Maki and Heidi, who were my fosters at the time, but neither kitten wanted to be ogled by strangers, so the kids left right away, but not without letting the whole floor know that I was its resident cat lady by shrieking, “DAMI MONG PUSA, ATE!” (tr. “LADY, YOU’VE GOT LOTS OF CATS!”) repeatedly, and almost in unison.

There’s something special about getting along with kids from your neighborhood, something about it shows a healthy balance of being both approachable and self-possessed. That wasn’t me, growing up, that was my sister. Some of my earliest memories involve seeing my sister among the streams of kids just running from house to house, up and down our block, while I stayed in and…read. Or hung out with our dachshunds (Wiener dogs > loud neighbors). When I would go out, it would usually be a short walk across the street to buy Fanta, and from there I’d see my sister being her friendly, neighborly self.

After one of these improvised playdates, my sister came home with two girls: Raquel and Dada. I remember their names, because of the two, only Raquel ever came back for a second visit. When we asked her where Dada was, she replied, matter-of-factly, that Dada had been sold by her dad.

These were kids from the neighborhood we grew up in, which is, incidentally, the same neighborhood I’m living in now, and the neighborhood where I was born. I was born in Banawe Children’s Medical Center at 3:00 am on September 1, 1985. My mom finds this funny, because both of my siblings were delivered at the very posh St. Luke’s Medical Center, which is closer to my grandfather’s very posh neighborhood. We lived in this area until I was 6-years-old, then my parents separated and it took a little over a year before we finally settled in New Manila, where we would live for about 18 more years.

It’s strange to move back to a place you haven’t lived in for over twenty years, but it’s not like I’m on the opposite end of the earth, I’m not even in another city (although sometimes, it feels as if I could be). It has its little rituals. On weekends, I often sleep in, then go to the market across the street and buy bread from the baker who barely speaks any English or Filipino and keeps his money under a miniature altar, then I get coffee from the bean suppliers a few stalls down, to go with it. Then I watch people—but even this isn’t entirely true, because I haven’t even done this often enough for it to turn into a ritual and, as of today, it’s already beginning to feel a little tired. Maybe the only ritual I have is pretending not to see the kids following me back to my place, so they can get a look at my cats. That stopped being true as of today (or maybe a few weeks ago), because the kids have gotten friendly enough to wave when they see me, and to ask politely if they can see the kittens.

I now live less than ten blocks from where my grandmother, my Lola, lived. The D.Tuazon house was her dream house. Sta. Mesa–which for a time had become the bastion of postwar society’s most affluent members–was her and my grandfather’s dream neighbourhood, and a lot of work went into earning their place in it.

She died at 3:00 am on Christmas Eve, in 2012. She had been hospitalized for more than two months after a stroke, shortly before her 89th birthday, and was left her with no control of her body from the waist down. Just a year before, we had lost our grandfather, my dad’s dad, Abe Sarmiento, to pneumonia, while he had been visiting my aunt in Prague. My grandmother had spoken fondly of him, addressing the other justices and judges at the necro given in his memory by the Supreme Court. A little over a year later, she too would be gone, lost to the consequences of her age.

What’s remarkable about these notes is a devastated subject being the victim of presence of mind

“Carolina G. Aquino came to Manila to study law at the University of the Philippines. Because she was a special student, she never earned her degree. There was also the added confusion of this coming right after the Japanese occupation. She did, however, manage to top the bar exam, and after abandoning private practice, became a judge in the Court of Appeals, followed by an appointment with the Supreme Court.” This was the life story I sat through every night, as people filed in and out of the D. Tuazon house to pay their respects to my grandmother. Losing four family members (first my grandfather then my uncle followed by another uncle) in two years is more than enough to become familiar with the logistics of death, the wake being an expensive rehearsal for the massive production that is the funeral, and the finality of literally putting someone in the ground.

Right after she died, I called my sister and tried to look for flights to get her back home in time for the funeral—which proved impossible, given that this was Christmas Eve and she would have to take three connecting flights and be up in the air for almost thirty hours to bury a loved one who constantly reminded her to save her money. When it came to me, the concern was always safety and schoolwork. Both in elementary and high school, I went through periods where I hated school so much that I would stay home for weeks at a time, and it was my grandmother who would call to tell me, please, not to waste my parents’ money. This always backfired because she had also hated school as a child, and had sat out an entire year, only to be accelerate upon her return. Other calls were to scold me for riding my bike around the neighborhood and for walking home alone.

My grandmother was a conservative woman with conservative tastes. She had grown up in the province (although at the time, Iloilo may have been a bustling metropolis at par with Manila), and carried those values with her through the rest of her life; even after decades of living and working in Manila, she still warned us constantly about what people would think – that a woman who drove couldn’t afford to be driven around (which was only of any consequence if you were a judge in a third world country); that girls were not to be seen alone in public with boys who were not their boyfriends; that girls were not to be seen alone, period. When my sister was getting ready to expatriate, one of the last things my grandmother warned her about was to “not go out at night. It’s too dangerous. Even walking from your car in the parking lot to the apartment.”

We told her relatively little about me, but she always acted surprised when I would climb into the driver’s seat to take my mom and my little brother back home after our weekly dinners at her place. “You’re driving!” she would say. I’d like to think she was pleased by the fact.

Right after my grandmother died, my job was to drive my mom to wherever she was needed – to the bank to close accounts, to the hospital to settle them; by noon of that first day, I was too tired to trust myself behind the wheel, but too anxious to get any rest. I volunteered to walk to the grocery to get some instant coffee and cups. By the time I got back, I had already cut a deal to trade my old bike in for another, newer one (which got stolen after a few months). By the end of the week, I had put down a security deposit for the place where I now live.

Everything began all over again immediately: arrival of manuscripts, requests, people’s stories, each person mercilessly pushing ahead his own little demand (for love, for gratitude): no sooner has she departed than the world deafens me with its continuance.

I will not deny that her death has been made easier by its inevitability, especially given her age. Neither age nor inevitability however can diminish how much she suffered in those last months. Carol Aquino prided herself on her youthful looks—being part of a generation whose female members essentially looked exactly the same from their mid-40s well into old age. She was not a materialistic woman and almost never went shopping, but she did seem to enjoy getting her hair done (even if it always turned out exactly the same), and I remember spending a lot of time sitting behind her while she had it teased and sculpted into this 6-inch-high wall of dark brown fuzz. Then we all went to court, where my mom would read and I would tinker with Wordstar.

It was not easy for her to see her colleagues suffering as they aged. My mom recalls how Lola would talk about Justice Whatsis or Attorney Someone now being confined to a wheelchair or bedrest, and how the horror in her voice would increase alongside the image of having to go through the same thing. By then it was probably already in her bones.

There isn’t much to be said about death if one has been reduced to waiting for it to strike. Except, maybe, the hope for it to be easy, to be merciful. And if it isn’t—and it usually isn’t—then what.

To a loved one, the most we can give, in terms of mercy, is a take it or leave it proposition. At all costs, we try to reclaim what is left of another person’s life, and in those two months my Lola had left, there was the nagging thought that we were doing this not for her sake, but for ours; for the sake of saying that we did what we could, even if it meant confinement, even if it meant delaying her chance to get some rest. Another day meant another 24 hours of hoping for a miracle, for the promise and possibility that went against the certainty that came with losing her forever.