Bombay Bazar, they spelled it. Without the second “a” that turned the word into a Thousand-and–One-Nights exotic. But an old store nevertheless. My brother called it Bombay Bizarre the sort of joint where you get the feeling you’ll never get out alive, snickered our friend Chee-bee. Where they played what Chee-bee’s brother Tito called “that curvaceous music”; blaring out into the hot noonday asphalt smell of Alfonso XIII Street, its plangent diatonic swoops sinuous as the S-curves of the carved deities on Khajuraho, the music sounded harsh.
It was rumored they sold “pawned goods’ at the Bombay Bazar. Chee-bee’s brother had once hocked their sister’s hair dryer there, to plug a craving for speed and marijuana, but we never found out if they got it back or not. The proprietor of the Bombay Bazar interjected a spurious “eh wot?’ into his conversations and sounded like a dubious proposition on all counts. It was the “Bombay,” meant to sound exotic, that placed a kind of generic stamp on the place and doomed it, I thought; no one would ever wander in there looking for bargains.
Filipinos pronounce it “boom-bye.” That’s how Filipinos designate all South Indians, whether they’re actually from Bombay or really from Delhi or Calcutta or Poona or Kashmir. A resonance redolent of the bulging sacks of traders’ goods, hefted by hairy forearms; mixed in with muddled racist images of “curly shoes” and ankle-length bloomers, and the turbans one later learned to associate more correctly with the Sikhs; boom-bye: red onions, dark streets, and drums.
The Bombay Bazaar was the newest in the trio of Indians stores that triangulated Locsin Street, a tacitly competitive corner of local merchandising, teeth gleaming hostilely at one another like concealed daggers from across the street. One assumed their respective owners to be scarcely cordial with one another—but who knows: that aspect of their relationship remains enigmatic. At least they were not in sinister consortium the way the Chinese monopoly worked, with their secretive Chinese Chamber of Commerce weekly meetings, carving up the local economy, from town to town, according to the expansionist fiefdoms of Hunan and Formosa imperialistically transplanted.
There was a sort of mercantile hierarchy among the three Bombay stores. The Bombay Bazar, although the most recent, already reeked of decrepitude. It was an old time bazaar in the most authentic sense, and probably might have been transported, whole, from one of souks along “the street called Straight, in Damascus,” judging from the haphazard variety of somewhat cheap merchandise piled into its one small showroom.
The owners apparently never figured out their demographic targets or their marketing focus—what it was that customers were supposed to go to their store to buy—since they sold a hodgepodge of goods: aluminum kettles dangled weirdly, strung on hemp ropes from the low ceiling; tinny gilt photograph frames shared counter space with plastic barrettes; and one might even spy the dirty-white fringe from a bit of rolled-up carpeting among the bales of thin garish clothing goods. It was all rather unattractively placed, but in actuality, the store arrangements were probably more authentically “Bombay” than the other two stores, when one came down to it, if it were atmosphere one was looking for. I’d would have only been in there once or twice and wandered out again, vaguely relieved, as Chee-bee would have said, to have merely come out again alive, to have escaped the silent speculative glance of the store owner and returned to the hot open-sewer stink of Santa Catalina Street, pursued only by the shrieking sitars.
The owner of the “new” Ramanujam’s Shop-O-Rams, farther uptown, inherited the shop from his father. I have vague recollection of the “old” Ramanujam’s store, fronting the wet market, with old Ramaujam himself rotundly presiding over the cash register, and the startling glare of Coleman lamps sizzling alongside the 200-watt fluorescent bulbs: an efflorescence of illumination, as though to discourage would-be shoplifters, in the-not-unlikely event that the town’s unreliable electric power “browned out” unexpectedly. I think the old store burned down. Perhaps one of the redundant Colemans exploded one night.
“New” Shop-O-Rama was always New, even twenty years later, when it had turned itself into “the shopping capital” of Negros Oriental. Thin salesgirls guarded the glass cabinets containing Charlie cologne and the shelves stacked high with Levi’s dungarees. Watched coldly by the owner’s rather dour wife, the clerks rustled adeptly around the store, gift-wrapping packages and creating pouf bows with skillful twist of the wrist.
The natty owner, “young” Satish, a judicious sprinkling of gray at his temples, rested his neat plump elbow on the glass counters, benignly offering discounts—as much as twenty percent off the net—for favored customers, his twinkling eyes, underneath their outrageously curly eyelashes, resting perhaps a shade too long on the shapely backsides of the coeds as they emerged from his store, their buttocks smartly outlined by the studs on the Levi’s bought from his store.
It seemed to me that Satish had been Ramanujam’s Shop-O-Rama all of its life, even as the store stayed forever “new.” There was a childishness about him that probably derived from the store’s avowal of its unchanging regeneration. But for the name of the store one would have forgotten there had once been an Old Ramanujam. But for that—and for the small alcove set into the wall beside the curtained changing-room on the ground floor—one’s eye might almost miss seeing the small brass jar of joss sticks, and sitting beside it on the alcove shelf, the black-and-white photograph of old Ramanujam himself, now thin-cheeked, his eyes already sinking back into the shadows that no cheerful glare of Coleman lamps could hold away.
Hand-lettered underneath the photograph, the reverential but matter-of-fact care with which the words were formed was almost like a cry of grief: “Father expired on 31 December 1967.” Expired, like a battery, or a license to sell merchandise, on the last day of the year.
Yet it’s not quiet right to say Satish never changed, though the turn-over on his merchandise was a veritable model of successful retailing-as-perpetual motion. He was inordinately proud of his store’s participation in the university social life, such as it was: he’d cultivated a town-and-gown relationship, literal and exemplary—as haberdasher to the studentry. More specifically, he gloried in his role as the beaming supplier of jeans that the flashier nursing students strutted and swiveled in during the Founder’s Day “Miss Silliman University” beauty contest and fashion show.
He recounted to me one day his excitement at the visit paid by a movie star who’d dropped into town for a couple of hours’ filming by the famous Dumaguete seaside. She was a pretty, pouty girl with dewy eyes, on the second or third tier in the current Philippine hierarchy, and Satish’s cheeks gleamed moistly as he told about how she’d dropped by and tried on a couple of pairs of jeans right there in the store. (Behind the picture of Expired Father, I thought somewhat cynically.)
He leaned forward over the glass counter, propelled by the naïve pleasure of the moment, and asked: “Your husband, he makes movies right? I have a good idea. I been thinking about it some time. Maybe he makes a movie, you know, just a simple movie. I get sponsors from, maybe, the Mount Kaladias Lions Club, you know? I provide the costumes, like, you know, a real movie. Simple story. About young life. About the campus.”
I was too startled—and unaccountably touched—to think of a reply, and took refuge in mere dissembling; hoping I did not sound increasingly bright or patronizing, I said a shade too fervently, “Oh, that would be nice. I’ll tell him about it right away.” At that point the some total of my husband’s movie making was a couple of documentaries for the University, and several short films he’d successfully placed in the national short-film festival. He was deep into his Herzog hero-worship phase—having just emerged blinking into Aguirre’s Amazon sunlight from the Nordic darkness of a short-lasting Bergman influence—so he gave a scoffing, brief chuckle when I repeated Satish’s moist suggestion, and the whole thing was forgotten.
Satish did not mentioned the movies again during the next couple of years, even on those occasions when I’d buy the Chaps cologne and the tall Levi’s that were obviously meant for my husband. Perhaps it was the long-term residence in the town of another movie outfit that resurrected Satish’s “simple idea.” This time my husband was a unit manager of the film, and we and some of our friends and neighbors actually appeared briefly in it. After our very short moment in the sun as Christopher de Leon’s family (trailing along after him down various forest path and dry riverbeds, dressed in authentic pre-Hispanic garb), we attained to an uncomfortable fifteen seconds of local celebrity. Satish approached me again, over the counter, while his wife rang up my purchases behind him, a serious little pucker furrowing the friendly brow.
“I’m thinking about that movie,” he said, while my heart quailed cravenly at the prospect of fielding yet another movie proposition for my indifferent spouse. Now I’d have to accept Satish’s over-generous thirty percent net discount while pretending I’d forgotten all about that earlier business three years ago. “I think,” he said earnestly, his consciousness having apparently evolved, in the intervening years, into a weltanschauung far beyond the simple pleasures of garbing coeds in Levi’s for a movie about young life, “I think we make a movie about, you know, serious. World hunger. About Eenjah.”
Each year, three times a year, my Dad gives my mother a bottle of perfume: at Christmas, on her birthday in April, and the following month for their wedding anniversary.
He goes to the store of a particular Indian merchant for these gifts—usually on the day before the event, an hour before closing time.
Unlike the Bombay Bazaar with its mournful violence of plangent sitars, and the upbeat rock music that Shop-O-Rama’s favored to set the mood for the buying of jeans, Ranjit’s Department Store considered it déclassé to play music. Ranjit’s was the Macy’s of Dumaguete City. Stodgy and reliable, it was there that one went to buy wedding presents for people, a store one’s parents turned to for anniversary gift. In our town we had no department-store bridal registries (among my wedding gifts were three identical cake-server sets), but whenever a big wedding was coming up, someone at Ranjit’s could be counted on to whisper discreetly into one’s ears if a particular item had already been purchased, thus steering the giver away from redundancies.
The owner, a soft-voiced genial man who was in Rotary with Dad, had numerous daughters, and his fortunes—and the prices in his store—fluctuated according to the stages of negotiation leading to the ever-proliferating family nuptials. Dowries were the store’s raison d’etre. They had two sons, on whom his wife was pinning their fiscal deliverance, though Jayanta Misra was too seemly, or maybe already just too Filipinized, to make much of their marketable potential.
Their younger son, Harresh, had a thin face and wary measuring eyes—not tragic mellifluent liquidity floating over an excess of whiteness that were the eyes of his favored older brother, after whom the store was named.
Ranjit, more outgoing and seemingly less bright, was easy to be around with, but had a tendency to burble that made me vaguely uneasy. I had Harresh (he signed himself “Harry” then) in one of my Introduction to Literature classes when he was a sophomore or junior in college, and I was fresh out of school myself. His work had brilliant brevity, and his papers were submitted in tiny, scrupulous handwriting, with exclamation point judiciously placed.
I thought it was his being younger son that had probably given him the twist at the corner of his mouth, a mark of incipient bitterness that deepened upward into mirth when once or twice I’d tried a joke that sailed over the heads of the rest of the class. He had narrow fastidious nostrils that quivered in the sardonic stillness of his face, appreciating the knowledge that there were nuances he alone could catch, not bothering to nudge his seatmate on the elbow, or even to chuckle: just the twist of his mouth and the faint wing to the nostril.
There was something of the same reserve in his father’s eyes, a sharp absence that was like a judgment withheld, underneath the smooth mercantile jocundity. Sometimes I imagined it was almost the loneliness of an intellect gone undeveloped, that should have gone into theology and not retailing. Perhaps that was why he liked Dad so much—they could trade jokes, no matter how superficially, and that beyond the ritualized exchange of buying and selling, there was the novelist-professor on one side of the counter and, on the other, the heir to the Rig-Vedas and the Bhagavad-Gita. It was always tacit, a coinage never exchanged—an appreciation for the other—held in mutual reserve, as it were: a fiduciary note of intellectual respect.
Or perhaps I was just imaging it all. He was certainly the quintessence of the smarmy trader (his manner had an excessiveness that seemed almost ironic) whenever he’d spot Dad and me standing at the entrance to his shop three-quarters of an hour before closing time on Christmas Eve. In our town, the storefront entrances run the whole length of the shop, stopping at the pair of plate-glass displays that flank each establishment. These entrances open directly onto the street or sidewalk, and are laboriously closed each night with stout wooden panels and a metal grille that is pulled across the paneling and latched. Except in shopping malls, stores in the America do not exude this kind of daytime, wide-open informality, and recalling them now—and their dichotomous shuttling between trust and mistrust—is like stepping back into the third world again, with all its knife-edged vividness.
Jayanta strides amiably towards us from the back of the store, beaming with warmth that is meant to convey more than a merely professional pleasure. He has an unfortunate tendency to rub his hands together as he approaches favored customers, and observing this mannerism, time and again, gives my mother and me a kind of cynical enjoyment.
Hair crisply anointed with Brylcreme and his Countess Mara polo shirt reeking of Aramis, he stops smartly before us, rocking a little on the balls of his feet, his hand clasped together and the smile fixed relentlessly in place. “Ed, Ed, good to see you. And something for Edith today?” he says. His ebullience never varies, despite the prices of merchandise that go up wildly after each calamitous dowry-giving.
After all these years he knows that it’s perfume that we’re after, but is too mannerly to make that assumption in front of us. Or maybe it’s simply that he and Dad relish every station in his ritual, so he waits until Dad has explained our errand before turning to the business of selecting the merchandise.
“Maria,” he says, turning to one of the dozen or so slowly aging counter clerks, all but snapping his finger at her to have her unlock the glass case where the perfume is kept.
For some reason all the clerks seem to be named Maria. Or maybe he just calls them all Maria. They all speak excellent English, and in their dealing customers or the owners, they emanate the soft-spoken familiarity of household help who have been with the family for many years.
Examining the selection in the glass cases is usually just a formality, because the choice selections are all kept in the back room. When he’s had time to size up the occasion and the seriousness of Dad’s spending, Jayanta gives order to the Maria currently in attendance to bring out some of the stock from the back room.
There are no sample bottles of scent in third-world merchandising. The gilt or pastel boxes containing Anaïs Anaïs and Nina Ricci, of Ysatis and Madame Rochas and Givenchy III, are painstakingly opened, and a cautious nostril is reverently applied to the atomizer head. “It is the spray you want, not the plain?” Jayanta ask. “Of course, it’s to be the spray; these women, Ed, these women.”
When we have made the selection between us—Dad opting for the deeper woodsier scent, and I holding out for the flowery-citrus—we enter the delicate phase of transacting the price. Polite skirmishing ensues between Dad and Jayanta (the attendant privileges and obligations of their Rotarianship hovering in the background of their negotiation like the gaudy muses of merchandise retailing).
Sometimes the transaction is interrupted by another of the Marias, who approaches Jayanta tentatively, bearing a message from his wife who is working the cash register. Mrs. M., too, waves a heavily ringed hand in greeting whenever we enter the store, but prefers to keep her position of power behind the register. I have sometimes uncharitably suspected the message to contain a certain cautionary element that goes into effect when she senses, from afar, that Jayanta is about to cave in and give up a soft sale to us. At any rate, the Maria might say, “Mister, Mrs. says that the key to the stockroom, we cannot find.”
And Jayanta, interrupted at this delicate stage of the negotiations, throws up his hand in exasperation and says, “Oh, heavenly day!” and moves fussily toward his wife where they hold a brief consultation in Hindi.
Dad politely averts his eyes and pretend to examine the merchandise in the glass counter in front of us, but I’m less inhibited by the imperative for good manners and pass this brief interregnum wondering how Mrs. M keeps the sari from unwrapping and speculating on whether she ever gets gas pains from not covering up her tummy, and watching the pocket of exposed, hanging-over midriff heaving emphatically once or twice as she expostulates with her husband.
He returns grinning grimly and he and Dad move into Phase Two of the haggling. Both of them are trying not to think of those daughters. Or rather, Jayanta is thinking, Now Ed’s thinking about how many daughters I still have to marry off, and he is determined that Dad should not feel sorry for him.
“Now, Ed, Ed, this is for a special occasion, right? This is for Edith, right? And for the wife, why, one must give only the best.” And Dad makes some joshing remark about Jayanta’s obvious prosperity, and the town’s reliance on his store, stocked as it is with his discriminating good taste, and they move with mutual accord into the third phase, settling the price.
For his part, Dad, having transacted a price satisfactory to them both (and in order, too, to give some grace to the awkwardness implicit in all this), finally brings out the same jolly assurance he always gives Jayanta at the end of the haggling session: “I have a marriageable son, a good-looking boy; he can pass for an Indian, you know.”
Jayanta bares his teeth in a pained smile and sedately completes the charade: ”Well, well. Let’s talk about it sometime, shall we, Ed.”
I was witness to many of these transactions and at first they mortified me, until (out of a sense self-preservation, perhaps) I began to recognize a certain underlying esthetic.
I’d only seen Jayanta slip out from his well-Brylcremed punctilio once, and that was when Dad had made some casual remark referring to his being Indian, not Filipino. A glaze of hurt came over the bright, measuring eyes; and he said plaintively, “I am a Filipino, Ed. My father died, like yours, fighting the Japanese during the war, here.”
Years later, after our family had moved to the States, we learned that his son Ranjit—the young eminently marriageable doctor who never wed, and for whom the store was named—had died and died a hero. He went with a critically ill patient who was being airlifted to the next island, flying the child over to the Cebu General Hospital in a light aircraft owned by the son of one of the sugar plantation owners. They ran into a storm on the way back, crossing the Tañon Strait that separates Negros from Cebu. It is said that on a clear day, standing at dawn on the beaches of Dumaguete, facing Cebu, one can hear the cocks crowing across the strip of sea, in Santander. The wreckage of the plane was found but the bodies were never recovered. Jayanta, who used to sit in a back pew at the Silliman Church on Sunday mornings, the light from the windows picking up the silver streaks in his shiny hair, was a broken man, and within a year store was closed. At some time over the years, unobtrusively and not wanting to make a big deal out of it—still ruled by habitual courtesy, as it were—he’d turned Christian, it seemed, as his son Ranjit had, earlier; and perhaps, who knows, that finicking silence behind the merchant’s spiel did not, in the end, play him false—and he found the store was no longer enough to fulfill that unspoken esthetic, recovered from the wreckage.
Maybe it was that same ancient ontology (made durable and comfortable by the ritual of buy-and-sell), a sense of otherness persisting beyond the souks and the Khajuraho music transplanted to the far shore, that caused Satish to lean over the counter, to make his shy and clumsy offer of subsidizing a movie, as he thought, that might appeal to this customer’s discriminating taste—and to fill some hunger of his own: “About Eenjah,” he said, “something about Eenjah.”
Rowena Tiempo Torrevillas was born in Dumaguete City in 1951, the daughter of writers Edilberto Tiempo and Edith Tiempo. She received a BA in 1971, and an MA 1978, both in creative writing, from Silliman University, and went on to earn her Ph.D. in English Literature, also from Silliman. She worked for the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa as associate program coordinator, and for the university's English department as adjunct faculty. member. She has won several Palanca Awards for her fiction and poetry, and was the recipient of the Distinguished Author Award from the Writers Union of the Philippines, as well as the National Book Award. Her books include Upon the Willows and Other Stories , The World Comes to Iowa: Iowa International Anthology [1987, co-edited with Paul Engle and Hualing Nieh Engle], Mountain Sacraments , Flying Over Kansas: Personal Views , and The Sea Gypsies Stay . She was former director-in-residence of the Silliman University National Writer's Workshop.
1. Go there at an impressionable age—say, fifteen or sixteen. Go to college there and convince yourself you have come, not just for a degree, but also for a heightening of sensations. Enroll in Silliman University (the Vatican in Rome), in some benign program you can coast through without sacrificing the wave you want to surf: the living of a full life.
2. Say you hate it, the place and the people—give yourself six months to one year to wallow in your youthful angst. Hate the pedicabs and the tartanillas and the eternal sunshiny smile of the conformist inhabitants. The lazy, laid-back atmosphere of it—the smugness of people who have to go to church on Sundays, the brown Americans who have inherited the New Englandish traditions of the colonial missionaries. The Protestant predictability of it all.
3. But relish the Cebuano language you have to learn. If you feel frustrated or bored, bury yourself in books. Or watch every movie at Park and Ever theaters, the alternative secular cathedrals of a traditionally religious city. Gloat over the mediocrity of your teachers and classmates, tell yourself you are too good for the school and for the place. Glance sideways at the beautiful girls, practice the eyes of a short story writer to exercise “the art of the glimpse.”
4. After the last full show at Ever or Park, walk the streets. Note the desolate silence of the town after ten o’clock: only the tocino stands catering to drunkards remain open. Walk: it is the 1980s and there is no nightlife in the city to speak of.
5. Let a year of solitude pass by before breaking out of your shell. Then join plays at the Woodward Little Theater, audition at the Luce Auditorium. Run for the Student Government. Meet the geeks who will be your life-long friends and who will teach you to drink beer and experiment with marijuana as you talk of poetry and love and anything that makes you giddy with being alive. Hang out at Manang Siony’s tocinohan until the wee hours of the morning but drag yourself out of bed for your seven o’clock chemistry exam.
6. Top the exam. Push yourself to the limit, stretch those wings: read the most difficult books in the library, audition for the Men’s Glee Club, court the most beautiful girl on campus. Succeed. Fly.
Take note of the pink sky at sunset at Silliman Beach in March. That shade of color will come only once in your life, like the strange feeling you have as you hold her hands there at the end of the airport. Dumaguete sky pink when you’re in love at nineteen. Hold her tight. Violins.
7. Graduate with honors but maintain the arrogance of someone who knows he does not deserve it. Preserve a sentimental contempt for your diploma, tell yourself you got nothing from four years of studies there except memories of being drunk, of acting in plays, of singing in the glee club, of mustering the courage to page a name in the girl’s dorm. Never admit that you, in your self-deflating assessment, have fallen in love with the place. As the bus departs for your first job after graduation, as you leave the city behind, catch the lump in your throat. You are mourning for love, for a girl you’re leaving behind. The place has nothing to do with it.
8. Come back after six months for graduate studies.
“Hey, you’re back. Where did you go?”
“Couldn’t hack it in the real world, eh?”
As if Dumaguete is the Neverland for the Peter Pans of the Visayas.
Come back to school, be the perpetual student! Enroll in creative writing class, join the dreamers club! Spend the next ten years of your life in arrested development, reading fiction and poetry books while your contemporaries buy houses and cars, go abroad to get rich. Become a bicycle-riding college instructor in the school you used to hate.
9. Teach: it’s the best way to earn your bread while flattering your ego. Take midnight walks after hours of grappling with thick novels: disregard the string of nightspots emerging along Rizal Boulevard. You are still encased in the texture of the novel you haven’t finished reading.
10. Fall in love and break your heart again and again. Pedal to projects fringes the city, past Banica River, to the new grids of suburban housing projects where you may bring your girlfriends on long walks. On weekends climb up Camp Lookout in the mountains of Valencia for the satisfaction of looking down at the seaside city you have left behind: there, obscured by coconut crowns, the city of our dreams, your Paris, your New York. Climb down to the disenchanted.
11. Fail. Make crazy forays into law school in a bid become rich and famous, or respectable and useful to society. Fail but remain a believer. Write to your girlfriend: “But I believe in the power of words in the same way that I have faith in my love for you.” Aside from her, you have to convince yourself about this.
12. Wake up to realize you got your latest girlfriend pregnant. You’re thirty years old, you will need to feed a family—buy a house, get a car, join the rat race. Wake up, there’s life beyond college.
13. Leave the place a second time, this time without the urge to look back. You might turn into a pillar of salt.
14. Live in big, noisy ugly cities where, in the midst of the asphalt jungle, you can relish the memory of that city you left behind: the tang of sea air, the shade of acacia trees, waves breaking on the boulevard. The city of my youth! My Paris! My New York! Toil under the burden of this romantic hangover.
15. Let twenty years slide by. Bungle your marriage, bungle your writing. Adopt a cynic’s posturing. Disavow poetry, stop believing in love. That place, that time, was too good to be true. What’s real is the noise and traffic and grime of the big city where the self is crushed into ordinary dimensions. Dumaguete was a dream, a whiff of brine in the air, an echo from a passage of a Chopin nocturne. Don’t confront the fragments of your present life—the inane pop song blaring from a jeepney is the true test of taste and toleration. Don’t mind the beggar children tapping on the car window.
16. Meet the disillusioned writer friends who have gone through the same wringer: fell in love in Dumaguete, fell out when they left it. They wax poetic about something in the past: “Oh, yes, I was happiest when I was there…” and later they trail off into the vocabulary of the damned: “I don’t believe in love anymore…” Hogwash, opiate of the hopeless romantics. As if the place and the emotion attached to it have hardened into an embarrassing synesthesia. It had its place in our lives, but we have outgrown it.
Nod in drunken assent.
17. Revisit the place once in a while, nevertheless. Business, pleasure, whatever. An antireligious pilgrimage, you tell yourself. To brace yourself against the encrustations of romanticism. There is only one city and you have become a stranger to it. Think of it as the heart of the country, the hub of an airline map where all the colored strings converged. But you have settled for a tourist’s deal—a hotel room and hotel meals. The old school has shrunk in your vision and the dorms where you used to stay too seedy. Walk the same old streets in search of the old you. New sounds, new lights. There is now a twenty-four-hour heart beating in the place, thumping to the disco sounds of tourist hangouts along the boulevard. In the quiet bystreets, listen to the echo of your footsteps. Don’t be afraid of the shadow you drag along. Laugh when you remember the joke about a prostitute’s transaction. You have to leave as fast as you come.
18. Believe in miracles when you meet her again after two decades, she who made you feel giddy as a teenager while you held hands at Silliman Beach a long, long time ago. From the debris of both your marriages, walk past the gauntlet of cars at the Manila airport. Hold her hand, wait for the violins to swell again. Inside her car, stare at her and try to see what middle-age pain and suffering has cast on her beauty. It’s not the disjunction of what is remembered and what is perceived that bothers you. It’s the fact that you meet her again in another city, another time. You realize that all your life you have been in transit, and that city of your youth was not the hub of all your journeys but a mere stopover. And so you embrace her again after two decades, feeling like a child cheated out of his chance to say goodbye before the parents met a fatal accident. But it had to be in Paris, this reconciliation, if not in Dumaguete. You cry together as you tell each other’s stories, tracing the trajectory of your separate lives from some point of origin that is more time than place. Dumaguete was where you last saw each other almost two decades ago.
19. Go back, go back there with her. Try to reclaim what was lost. Walk the streets of the city again with her—two middle-aged lovers navigating the traffic of a modern city. The cell phone–toting youngsters don’t know it; the laptop-flaunting students in the old school overlook it. There, the simplicity of it, the clarity of it, the brightness of it. Yes, it’s there. But not in the slick Robinson’s Mall, not in Jollibee, for they were not there twenty years ago. Ask a security guard to do it for you, hoping he will catch it. Stand in the bright sunshine, a little bit to the right of the acacia shade. Smile. Post it later on Facebook.
It’s not a quotation you can post on your Facebook wall. You have to wait for an opportune moment to be able to say it. Maybe a cynical tipsy friend complaining about his wife has to ask a jokey question over bottles of beer and give you a chance at philosophical revisionism. “Love—does it exist?”
Let a second pass before saying it.
20. Write it down.
Yes. But only in Dumaguete, a place you carry in your heart.
Wherever you go.
Timothy R. Montes is from Borongan, Eastern Samar. He studied in the Creative Writing Program of Silliman University under the tutelage of Edilberto Tiempo and Edith Tiempo, and published his first story collection, The Black Men and Other Stories [Anvil] in 1994. He also co-edited, with Cesar Ruiz Aquino, Tribute: An Anthology of Contemporary Philippine Fiction, in memory of his mentor Edilberto K. Tiempo. He has been the recipient of various national awards, such as the Palanca, the Philippines Graphic Literary Prize, the Philippines Free Press Literary Prize, and the Writers Prize from the National Commission for Culture and the Arts. He has taught at Silliman University, the University of the Philippines in Mindanao, and De La Salle University Taft.
I never understood what happened to my father that night. Nor did my brothers and I talk about it. We remembered how our aunts, a few months later, would go ballistic whenever we went near the clothesline or that abandoned house where electrical wires played possum. Susmaryosep! You kids get away from there! Then, we’d be reminded of how our Father looked that terrible night.
My father was not really superstitious, but he had a reverence for his faith, a reverence so profound one might even call it superstition. He found it blasphemous to use God’s name when one cursed or made Bible jokes. At best, we’d get a severe reprimand from him; at worst, he’d give us a whip of his belt. My older brother got the latter when he proudly asked us why Jesus, on the cross, asked God the Father to forgive them for they know not what they do. Why? we asked. When he revealed the answer, father overhearing us went livid. Blasphemous child! Busongon gyud ka! He was outraged at the punchline that it was Joseph of Arimathea who, having offered to carry the cross for awhile, ended up getting crucified instead of Christ.
My brother suffered ten blows from Father’s belt. After that, when we exchanged Bible jokes, it was in secret and always filled with fear.
We understood that if we did something sacrilegious, something bad would happen to us. So we took care not to blaspheme—if we could help it—and to revere our faith and everything it stood for as something essentially connected to our lives.
When his kids were not yet in college and life was easier, Father indulged in the luxury of a post graduate course, enrolling at a university in the city. On Saturdays before going to his class, Father would wake us up at five thirty, always frighteningly on the dot, for morning devotion. He would never force us to get up though; he had less conspicuous ways of making us join family devotions. He and Mother would sing church hymns for a full thirty minutes. By then, we would have been woken by their throaty rendition of “Morning Has Broken.”
On some days, I would pretend to sleep, waiting until there was only a few minutes left for the clock to strike six before getting up. “Turn to Jesus, turn to Jesus. He waits …” Most days, however, I would get up as soon as I heard my father’s voice, low and guttural, prodded by my guilt and my childhood fear of being stricken because of my irreverent pretense and for making God wait.
After breakfast, Father would be gone for the entire day, and we would be left to our own devices. TV wasn’t attractive; our own TV, a fourteen-inch Panasonic squat box with two antenna rods, offered only two channels. When the soap opera about a miserable young girl facing frightening adult tribulations got too depressing and the other channel showed only cockfights, we turned to the fields.
We were fascinated with catching dragonflies. My brothers said they looked like helicopters. I disagreed, but my eldest brother said that an eight-year-olds’ knowledge of dragonflies was limited. I was willing to accept this as a fact, especially since when dragonflies were rare, I knew we would play with something more fascinating. We fashioned guns from small bamboo stalks, about one foot in length. The trigger was a small bamboo stick attached to a handle, thin enough to slide through the hole in the stalk. Those days, we’d keep our test papers, so we could wet them, squeeze out the water and pinch a small piece to fit into the bamboo gun. Soon enough, we’d be shooting each other with moist paper bullets.
Sometimes these games threatened our childhood happiness. One Saturday afternoon when Father came home, Mother felt playful. She grabbed one of our bamboo guns and shot at him. I don’t think she had intended to shoot him right in the face, but the paper bullet landed on father’s wide forehead, dirty water trickling down his nose. We saw how his eyes turned a darker shade. Without saying a word, he went to our rooms and snatched all our bamboo guns and headed to the kitchen. On his way, he stopped mid-track and, with sacerdotal sternness, extended his hand to Mother. Meekly, she placed the offending gun in his hand. The following day, we saw it with the others, in pieces, in the garbage.
At night, Father would make us read Psalm 23. Then he would find out who among us had read the fastest. I always won.
“I am reading.”
“No, you’re eating the words. That is good, but you have to chew them before you swallow.” Like others, Father believed that men did not live by bread alone. When we read the Bible or recited verses, the premise was that we were consuming the word of God. But we also had to fully understand it—chew, then swallow.
Later, he would find out who had memorized the most Bible verses. When the prize was enticing—like a promised ten-peso addition to my allowance every day for five days—I’d make sure to memorize two verses every night, albeit very short ones. And at times, when read in isolation, they turned out to be very cryptic, like John 11:35—Jesus wept. Was it John or Matthew? I wouldn’t find out why Jesus wept until I was in college.
Father never explained the verses that we recited in front of him and Mother. He just presumed that we’d find the meaning in our hearts. Nobody had the audacity to confront him about such a presumption, and we never asked for an explanation; we just wanted to go back to watching Ninja Turtles.
I was in grade one when I first understood the concept of God as a shepherd. I hadn’t known what a shepherd was until our Sunday School teacher showed us a picture of David tending sheep and lambs. “David was a shepherd boy who fought the giant Goliath,” said middle-aged, bespectacled Miss Luz who had the sweetest voice and who turned the violent story into something heroically romantic. (I often wondered why she never got married; she could have easily crooned her husband into submitting to everything she wanted.) Shepherd, Miss Luz would point at the picture with a polished fingernail. The closest association I had with a shepherd was a goatherd on a field my brothers and I often frequented in our games. But the goatherds I saw were so unlike the shepherds pictured in our Biblical storybooks. Storybook shepherds looked young yet strangely wise, with their turbans, long white robes and shawl-like coats.
Nonetheless, I knew that a shepherd, like a goatherd, was someone who looked after sheep. By deduction, I likened myself and my family to lambs, knowing that God looked after his lambs, or even goats for that matter. It was in this syntax that I sublimated God and the Bible into my little world. It worked quite well, and like the child that I was, I was content with the knowledge that I’d harnessed. The Lord is my shepherd started to make sense.
Around the time his course was about to end, Father came home one Saturday and told Mother about a joke his professor had told them. It punned on a very familiar phrase in the Bible, “only begotten son,” by syllabicating the second word into two syllables, the first of which was to be pronounced as “big.” Of course, the remaining syllable, “otten,” pronounced with characteristically Cebuano vowel enunciation, punned with the native word for the male organ. My father was smiling, but his eyes weren’t.
“Goodness! Irreverent brute!” Mother looked amused. Then she added, “What did you do?”
“What do you mean? What did you expect me to do?” Father asked, his voice getting louder. I did not understand the rest of what he said, but by the time he was finished, he was furious.
“I mean, how did the class react?” Mother asked calmly.
For a moment, Father was speechless. He looked embarrassed by his outburst and my mother’s placidity.
“They laughed.” Then he added, almost in a whisper, “I laughed with them.”
His face went white when he saw me. For a moment, he looked like he was going to get sick. “Tita wants to trim my hair. Scissors, I’m looking for them.”
“But you just had a trim last week, Lana.” Mother knowingly gave my pixie cut a cursory glance.
“I want another one,” I said, hurriedly thinking of an explanation for my presence and unintended eavesdropping. “Now.”
When I left, I thought of the word Father had said. It was an ugly word, one of those that was forbidden in the house. Grown-ups said it was vulgar and lewd. To use it on God was unimaginably offensive! And Father hadn’t done anything. Instead he’d laughed with the offender thus he’d offended too, making the devil happy. Divine justice was swift and exacting; this I’d gathered from Sunday school. I was scared for my father.
That afternoon, while we were forced to take a nap, Father got electrocuted on a “dead wire” my aunts used as a clothesline for the laundry. Nobody had minded where the wire came from; nobody had bothered to ask if it was live. It had been there when we arrived, and we had just presumed it was “dead” because it came from the abandoned house adjacent our own. But that afternoon, we found out we were wrong. He was adjusting the clothesline, cutting and knotting it, when all of a sudden, we heard his bellow, like cow in a field.
From my window upstairs, I saw how Father shook with intensity. His bare chest and shoulders heaved furiously, as he struggled to free himself. In my eyes, he was no longer formidable; he was as helpless as a child. Mother rushed downstairs calling for him repeatedly, my brothers tagging behind. I wanted to follow, but I couldn’t peel my eyes away from the scene. Father’s eyes dilated and went almost entirely white. His head limped to the side. I tried to call to him, but my lips seemed to be sealed.
Later, I was told that it was my aunt who, pulling my father’s hair at the crown, saved him. The doctor, who happened to be my grandfather’s close friend, said in between sighs that “it’s a good thing you’re robust or else …” He left the rest of the thought unspoken.
“It’s a good thing as well that Lanie and the kids were not at the deep well,” Father added weakly. On Saturday mornings, Mother would help my aunts do the laundry at the deep well a few meters from our house, while we joined in, playing with the suds or simply getting everyone else wet. The clothesline hung only a few feet from where we did the laundry.
We did not have Bible readings and recitations after the accident, at least for quite a while. Psalm 23 was dormant, and I had forgotten some lines from the verses I’d memorized. Out of habit, at night, I would say Psalm 23 while lying in bed looking at the sky. From the bamboo slatted window, the sky looked like a field of little diamonds, sometimes glittering here and there. Often, the sky was dark, and I would forget which came first: leads me beside the still waters or makes me lie down in green pastures. Somehow, I’d always manage to say the first few verses, even if not in sequence, but I’d stop when I got to the fourth. I would feel the hair on my arms standing on end—Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death. I always felt an awful gloom and anticipation in that line; its cadence strangely hypnotic. Then I would sleep, disturbed. The following day, I’d wake up regretful for not having said the next line: I will fear no evil for thou art with me.
It had been almost a month since the accident, and Father remained unwell. He was unable to spend time with us in the evening, and Mother had to teach during the day and take care of all us, Father included. Our aunts cooked, did the laundry and kept house. They’d prepare us food before we ran off to school, and Father would be left at home. Our neighbors often wondered if he would ever go back to work. But I knew Father was still sick. I would hear him at night groaning and shaking, delirious—but never uttering a word.
One night, I heard Father speak. I don’t know. Maybe. I knew it wasn’t Mother he was talking to for I did not hear her answer. Then I heard him say Papang, the same term he’d used to address my grandfather who had passed away several years earlier. When one is young, it is difficult to make sense of things, because of ignorance or sheer innocence or mere forgetting.
The excitement of summer vacation soon made me forget what I’d heard. My brothers and I laid out our itinerary for the long break. First, we would hunt for good spiders, and then we’d build rooms in matchboxes for their houses. My brothers suggested we look for spiders at night in the fields where the weeds grew tallest. We’d bring flashlights or little torches, knowing spiders from the tall weeds were usually the bravest of the lot.
Then we’d make big colorful kites like the ones we’d seen two summers ago on the school grounds during the competition organized by that milk company with a smiling bear logo. At night, our eldest brother would draw his envisioned kite on a piece of paper, and my younger brother and I would study it in fascination. Then we’d throw in a few ideas about how big it would be or what colors would go well together—both to conceal our excitement and to mark the kite as our own.
It was during one of these nights, when Mother was out, that Father came running to us from the kitchen. He was in a frenzy, talking in a voice higher than the one he used when cross with us. At first, we thought he was angry at one of our aunts. But the terror in his eyes belied what was really happening. I looked in the direction he was looking. Nobody was there. Then he ran back to the kitchen as if to stop somebody from getting to us. His arms were spread wide, then entangled, as if wrestling with an invisible being. He was shouting the whole time. “Panulay! You demon! Be gone!” His face contorted hideously. We could see how saliva swished from his mouth as he bared his teeth. His eyes looked different, like the eyes of a beast we had imagined claiming us when we’d done something evil.
Then he was down on one knee, struggling to get up. It seemed that there was a force bearing down on him, and for a moment, it looked as if he was about to face defeat. My brothers and I squeezed next to each other, terrorized by what we were witnessing. We were scared even to breathe. Father growled, and with all his might, pushed the invisible enemy away until he regained his footing. I remember seeing his lower lip trembling uncontrollably. But I also remember seeing him press his lips together and curl his fists.
“Get away from my children,” Father said quietly but with a firmness that surprised me. He gathered us slowly and hugged all three of us. I felt tremors running through his body and then course through our own. Then he started humming one of the songs he used to sing early in the morning. Sometimes his voice faltered; other times, nothing came out but air. Gently, he swayed with the tune—forwards and backwards—and we swayed, too. When I looked at my father, there was a quietness in his eyes, the same look he had when highlighting Bible passages with our used crayons. He looked peaceful all of a sudden. We stayed like that for awhile—Father hugging us and afraid to let go; my brothers growing squeamish but still dazed by what had just happened; me finding myself wanting to cry but unable to.
Later that night, when Mother came home, we did not talk about what had happened. We were afraid to say anything, and even if we had mustered the courage to say something, we could not have explained what had occurred. We just wanted to forget.
Mother read us to sleep that night. The last time I remembered being read to sleep was when I was in kindergarten. Stories of a little orphan girl becoming a queen or of a feast created from five loaves of bread and two fishes had made me imagine I was an orphan myself and would become powerful and special. Or I would imagine that if I prayed enough, big fried chicken slices and sundaes would suddenly appear. Perhaps we were now a little old for such stories because mother read us Psalm 23 instead. Years of reading to seven-year-old pupils had made her a good storyteller. I liked the way she let the soft round vowels flow. He restores my soul. The rhythm evoked ease, the peace of green fields, and suddenly I felt sleepy though I had pretended to fall asleep much earlier. Mother kissed my forehead.
That night in bed, I cried so hard. I thought of what I had seen and tried to understand what it was. I got nothing but a sense of foreboding and the hairs on my arms standing on end. Then I became angry—that evil clothesline and that ugly word Father had learnt from his teacher! I was angry at the teacher and how he had made Father laugh at his joke and made God angry. I thought of how the electrocution had changed him and how he now looked. He was no longer my father. What if God would summon him to heaven to explain, and he would never return to us? What if it was God’s angel that Father had wrestled but he hadn’t recognized it because he had laughed at that joke!? What if God would find him guilty and give him to the devil?! I started to panic and a felt a terrible despair come over me. I thought that no matter how many Bible verses I recited, Father would never be the same again. But I was also so tired that my mind simply obeyed my body and made me sleep soundly and dream of shepherds looking after their sheep on green fields.
Early the next morning, I heard my father singing for the first time since the accident. It was a peaceful song. I did not open my eyes; I simply floated with the melody. I listened for a little while, then I drifted back to sleep loving the sound of the song on my father’s quivering voice. The clothesline was forgotten, the ugly word buried. I knew then that my father had come back to us. God had forgiven him.
Alana Leilani Teves Cabrera-Narciso graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree, major in English, from Silliman University in 2003. She took up Law studies but left in 2008, and applied into the Graduate Teaching Fellowship program of Silliman, eventually completing her MA in Literary Studies while teaching English and literature classes. She was eventually invited to join the faculty of the Department of English and Literature, and became its Chair in 2016-2018. She recently completed her Ph.D. at The Chinese University of Hong Kong.
It has been a few years since the online publication of Conchitina Cruz’s “The (Mis)education of the Filipino Writer: The Tiempo Age and Institutionalized Creative Writing” in the Kritika Kultura Journal of the Ateneo de Manila University’s Department of English. I used to teach in the said department–and while I was already teaching in another unit when the essay came out, I felt its undeniable sting. It had to do with being both an Ateneo de Manila teacher and an alumnus of the Silliman National Writers Workshop, which the essay’s subjects, Edilberto and Edith Tiempo, cofounded in 1962.
The years offer some relief due to chronological distance, which also allowed for a critical assessment that, though still holding the writer and publisher accountable for what is I believe is an unbalanced portrayal of the Tiempos, I have been able to frame the critique in a different vision. The delineation where “The (Mis)Education of the Filipino Writer” fits is that of an anti-imperialist project, wherein it is the great structural forces that need to be focused on and rebalanced, even when the tone of the essay goes polemically overboard. Such a project has great value, especially at this crucial time when demagogues are trying to stay in power, our national sovereignty in the Philippines is under threat, and oppression based on class is rife.
The presentation that Cruz does is a multilayered one, and I hope to address these concerns, some of which hold water and will do well to be considered. The following four points, I believe, summarize the concerns that Cruz sought to address:
The Silliman Workshop was modeled after the Iowa Workshop, which is linked to American Cultural Diplomacy.
The Silliman Workshop’s focus on New Criticism prevents writers from seeing the political aspect of writing.
The Silliman Workshop’s focus on English prevents writers from seeing the political formation and dynamics of language.
The Silliman Workshop, having focused on works in English, also perpetuated a local elite in Philippine literature, which has enabled gatekeeping of those who might produce new literary works from within and outside the academe.
Although I am trying to take the most useful material from her presented concerns, I believe it important to present the problems that I have seen in her paper. The goal is not simply to put the Tiempos and the Silliman Workshop in a more appreciative light. It is to forward a possible fruitful approach to criticism in relation to national concerns, in which literature and creative writing play a part.
I would like to propose that “The (Mis)Education of the Filipino Writer” must be read with care because it is problematic in its assessment due to  the deployment of a framework that does not match its purposes, and  there are gaps in the presentation of the Tiempos, which can be alleviated by more research. I will develop this thesis by going through the following:
An elucidation of Renato Constantino’s “The Miseducation of the Filipino,” and an assessment of how it does not complement the project of Cruz;
An examination of ideas by Jose Maria Sison and Gelacio Guillermo that might provide a better framework for Cruz’s anti-imperialist project; and
A filling-in, so to speak, of what I see as gaps in the research of Cruz, which should complicate the way we view the Tiempos, the Silliman Workshop, and the anti-imperialist project that Cruz sought to launch.
I have elected to take a track different from critics such as Charlie Samuya Veric, who makes a formidable claim that Edith Tiempo, by being critic and poet, is able to place the two aspects of her life into a dialectic that synthesizes into work that breaks through the form-focused New Criticism that she was reared in (258-259). Critics such has Veric have focused more on addressing the claims echoed by Cruz in her work. My paper is an act of listening to her project and sorting out what has not been articulated properly in the process.
This paper, I believe, calls for a different approach as compared to the typical academic paper wherein one usually borrows an overarching frame from an established critic or theorist. Although I will refer to established theories and ideas, I choose to begin with a set of lyrics that Edith Tiempo had used as part of her essay entitled “When Music Sings in the Hearts of the People.” In doing so, I hope to frame my project, which is to enable a potentially useful understanding between writers and critics.
Pahaloka Ko, Day
Boy: Pahaloka ko, Day! (Let me kiss you, Miss!)
Girl: Halok lang sa uban! (Just kiss others!)
Boy: Ikaw may gusto ko! (But you’re the one I want!)
Girl: Nganong ako nga anaa may uban? (Why me when there are others?)
Boy: Sigi na lagi, Day! (Come on now, Miss!)
Girl: Dili ako kay waa ako gusto! (I won’t because I don’t like to!)
Irog-irog! (Please move)
Boy: Unsay irog? (What do you mean move?)
Both: Irog-irog ngarig diyutay! (Move a little closer!) Irog-irog ngarig diyutay! (Move a little farther!)
Boy: Kanindot unta sa gugma ta, (How wonderful our love could be!)
Kun pahalok pa ikaw kanako! (If only you would let me kiss you!)
Girl: Iasa ko man kanang imong halok, (Why should I want your kiss,)
Nga dili man ko mahimuot? (When I could not be pleased?)
Both: Ay! (Oh!) (Repeat first part)
The composed song, which has aspects of Filipino folk songs and what seems to be a broad appeal to the people from Visayas and Mindanao, is akin to the balitaw form. The topic of the song is courtship, and it may be taken that what is happening in the lyrics is a moment of flirtation. However, it might also be said that it is also about the negotiation of boundaries and the sharing of space. After all, these matters are not irrelevant to the complications of courtship and romantic relationship.
One aspect of the lyrics has to do with a call for appropriate space. Edith has two takes on this matter. One is that a violation of space might occur if one forces the self on the other (Tiempo, Bernad and Tiempo 270). The other one, in “When Music Sings in the Hearts of the People,” is about the pretense that people who are in love hold on to while they avoid closeness and intimacy (Edith Tiempo 24). Ultimately, what is necessary is a negotiation between the two parties involved in a courtship situation. Talking things through in a thorough way with another will ensure that everyone can share a space and enjoy it.
Talking things through, according to the lyrics of the song, might enable us to understand each other better. The instruction and request “irog-irog,” clearly, is something that can only be understood if one truly felt deeply for the other. One other way to get to the core of the statement is to ask for clarification. The lyrics of the song, in my opinion, do not portray this level of communication between the boy and the girl. Thus, one might say that one grants space to someone by giving this person an open ear.
I believe that the lyrics of “Pahaloka Ko, ‘Day” might be explained from the philosophical viewpoint by Albert Alejo, SJ, who had written about the concept of loob, a word that though with Tagalog origins is still shared conceptually by people from different regions. What he writes, however, already goes beyond the mere understanding between two persons. What is really important is the benefit that companionship bears—the ability to understand the self better when the other person sees through you and communicates this with you in openness:
Hindi ko kayang mamalayan ang lahat ng nagaganap maging sa aking sarili mismo. Hindi ko kayang madama ang lahat ng tuwa at lungkot ng aking kapwa. At sa aking sarili, kung minsan, ang akala ko’y napatawad ko na ay nakatanim pa pala sa kaloob-looban ng aking kawalang-malay kaya hindi ko pa rin hawak. At hindi lahat ng nakikita kong maganda at dapat ay abot ng aking kawalangmalay kaya hindi ko pa rin hawak. At hindi lahat ng nakikita kong maganda at dapat ay abot ng aking kakayahan. Totoo, ang aking kalayaan ay nakasalalay sa sariling galaw ng aking loob. Subalit posible lamang ito sa loob ng isang daigdig na mayroon akong kasama, sapagkat kung ako lang, hindi ko alam kung hanggang saan ang aking abot. Kailangan kong mamulat na hindi ako nag-iisa, na kahit anong mangyari, meron akong kapiling na kapanalig na kapwa ko na nagnanasang magpakatao at lumaya ring tulad ko. At sa gitna ng ugnayang ito, mayroon pa akong makakapitang lubos na kasama ko, narito sa pinakaloob ng loob ko at hindi ako iniiwan. Siya ang pinaka-nakikisangkot sa lahat ng galaw ng aking loob. (115)
What is notable in Alejo is that the belief pakikipagkalooban can be a channel of healing. Forgiveness is something that might not be given by a person only because one does not see the resentment that still festers within. On the other hand, the beauty aspired for is still not attained because this beauty is not yet seen–and can only be pointed out by a companion who is willing to share another’s inner space, the kalooban. It is important to note that what the kalooban affords is not just healing on the personal level:
Naroon ang loob sa isang namumulat at dahan-dahang nagpapalawak ng abot ng kamalayan. Naroon ang loob sa nakikiramay at unti-unting nagpapalalim ng pakikiisang-loob sa kapwa lalo na sa mga gipit na gipit at hindi makahinga nang maluwag. Naroon ang loob sa nagpapasiya at pasulong na nangangatawan sa kanyang paninindigan sa harap ng mga hangganan at kamaarian ng makataong kalagayan. Naroon ang loob sa isang taong tahimik na nananatiling tapat sa minamahal o sinumpaan. Naroon din ang loob sa pagliliwayway ng mga likhangsining mula sa kaibuturan ng ating pagiging isang lahi. Kaya’t kasama ng mga lathalaing akademiko, hayaang umambag sa literatura ng loob ang mga salaysay at kuwentong-buhay, ang mga dalit at daing ng sambayanan, ang mga tula na nagmumula sa mga piitan, at ang mga pansin at di-pansing “kadakilaan ng loob” na hindi naibabantayog sa ating kabihasnang kung bakit ba naman lagi nang natutukso sa “ningning ng mga panlabas.” (Alejo 117)
It is apparent that for Alejo, changes can be effected beyond the personal through getting in touch with the kalooban. What might be a problem on the structural level might even be changed through the efforts of people in touch with their inner power, who are able to relate with each other on this level. It is clear that work against any structural imbalance is always rooted in the human and moves towards what benefits individual persons–and this can be done through endeavors that are artistic and creative, all of which are in touch with the kalooban.
What I am doing through writing this paper is to address the anti-imperialist concerns of Cruz through making the attempt to understand her work better and fill in what it has not been able to do. This attempt, I believe, comes from the attempt at appreciation, and hopes to foster a pakikipagkalooban among Filipino critics at a time when structural forces dominate Philippine life. This kind of relating, I hope, will help derive what is best from the approaches of people, even those we may not agree with. This should contribute to a greater sense of community, and possibly more collaborative approaches to the work of liberation.
My Subject Position as Critic
Coming to terms with writing this essay was a challenge, given that I feel a certain closeness to Edith, whom I learned to call Mom Edith after she asked my batch of fellows to call her that during my workshop in 2003. Maybe, it was because I had newly graduated from college that I decided to take a risk and find a way to live in Dumaguete. I ended up staying in the city for two years, and had quite an adventure. I regularly met with two of the workshop’s resident panelists at that time, Bobby Flores Villasis and the late Ernesto Superal Yee, while there were days that I would just drop by CAP Building to see Mom Edith as she worked on student modules for what was then CAP College.
It was a sense of closeness to both Mom Edith and Ernie Yee, whom I fondly called my Mamah in Dumaguete, that eased me into the work of helping out with the establishment of the Dumaguete Literary Arts Service Group, Incorporated, which was more commonly known as DüLA, Inc. I worked as secretary of the organization, which helped source funds that would augment the already present resources of the workshop  while being a Graduate Teaching Fellow at Silliman University–both a student of the MA Literary Studies program and a teacher of a few basic writing and reading classes.
I was able to get 32 units from my studies at Silliman, but I did not finish my degree. Generally, my mind was directed towards attempts to write poetry, other creative endeavors, and a way of enjoying life that I thought was part and parcel of my being a writer. As a matter of focus and in order to avoid hurting the feelings of the people whose stories are intertwined with my adventure, I will be selective in presenting certain details from the two special years that I stayed in Dumaguete. The ultimate point of telling a few stories, after all, is to support the objectives of this paper as well as to complicate my location to a sufficient degree.
Some of the material I will be using will be comprised of creative and critical texts selected from the work of the Tiempos and some of the students that they have had over the years. Selected interviews, done online because of the current pandemic situation, will also be excerpted and used to clarify fine points. As mentioned earlier, I will be including my own personal anecdotes, tailored in such a way that they honor the other persons involved in the narration by doing it in a way that respects human agency. Hopefully, my subjectivity will be complemented or interrogated by citing ideas from other critical thinkers.
I hope that it is apparent that the cue for this kind of perspective, wherein I try not to simply debunk any side of an argument, comes from the image that is derived from a close look at the lyrics of “Pahaloka Ko, ‘Day.” Indeed, one might say that what is encouraged is a healthy kind of relationality, which can contribute to people having the space that they need.
In our contemporary times, I think that sound relationships between parties that do not agree are needed because, as mentioned earlier, the point of our debating is liberation—something quite urgent at this point in history.
Problematizing the Framework of “The (Mis)Education of the Filipino Writer”
The title of Cruz’s paper is a clear reference to Renato Constantino’s landmark essay “The Miseducation of the Filipino” from which the following excerpt comes:
The first and perhaps the master stroke in the plan is use education as an instrument of colonial policy was the decision to use English as the medium of instruction. English became the wedge that separated the Filipinos from their past and later was to separate educated Filipinos from the masses of their countrymen. English introduced Filipinos to a strange, new world. With American textbooks, Filipinos started learning not only a new language but also a new way of life, alien to their traditions and yet a caricature of their model. This was the beginning of their education. At the same time, it was the beginning of their miseducation, for they learned no longer as Filipinos but as colonials. They had to be disoriented from their nationalist goals because they had to become good colonials. The ideal colonial was the carbon copy of his conqueror, the conformist follower of the new dispensation. He had to forget his past and unlearn the nationalist virtues in order to live peacefully, if not comfortably, under the colonial order. (6)
It is clear from the above portion that Constantino sees language as an important factor in forwarding nationalist goals, all of which serve the interests of the nation. The essay contains proposals that move towards the strengthening of one’s national identity in order to be conscious enough to subvert neocolonial forces and forward national interests. The essay has a wide range, spanning issues on language, education, history, and economics. It is no wonder that even though it was written in the 1960s, it continues to be influential.
What I think must be considered first in the appropriation of this Constantino essay by Cruz is that her approach to human agents is different. Indeed, Constantino places a big focus on the matter of language in “The Miseducation of the Filipino.” However, there are other considerations and allowances that he makes which Cruz does not. This, to me, speaks of need for a more qualified appropriation because Constantino seems to advocate for reflexivity and a closer examination of matters pertinent to the choices that Filipinos need to make for the nation. This kind of approach is not clear from the Cruz essay, if not at all absent.
If I may say so, what is present in Constantino might be a kind of openness that borders on playfulness. He is able to put his foot down on matters that will exacerbate the Filipinos’ subservience to neocolonial forces. However, his essay also makes allowances that enable a tolerance of things that can be useful for the nation. For example, the learning of English for Constantino, though limited, is something that is useful and advantageous:
This does not mean, however, that nothing that was taught was of any value. We became literate in English to a certain extent. We were able to produce more men and women who could read and write. We became more conversant with the outside world, especially the American world. A more widespread education such as the Americans desired would have been a real blessing had their educational program not been the handmaiden of their colonial policy. (4)
Constantino was an advocate of critical thought, which would help us be objective about colonial forces that we interact with. For him, it is important that what has not been done in order for us to view our colonial masters with objectivity–“seeing their virtues as well as their faults”–should be rectified. As he said, “The function of education now is to correct this distortion” (19). Overall, one might see Constantino’s advocacy had a view of the Filipino as capable of conscious choice-making and utilizing what has been received from the colonizers and using these to advantage.
This kind of approach, unfortunately, is not the approach that is reflected in Cruz’s “The (Mis)Education of the Filipino Writer.” The essay in general takes on a firmly polemic tone that seems to have fixed or limited views on the Edilberto and Edith Tiempo, which seem not to extend the benefit of doubt as to their agency. Cruz’s words (with quotations from Isabel Pefianco Martin) on Edilberto, the half of the couple less examined in the paper, prove the point clearly:
English was the language of creative writing at the onset of its disciplinary codification, and it cemented the role of the educational institution as the primary habitat of Philippine literature in English. The first Filipino writers in English were campus writers trained under a curriculum that excluded literature in the local languages. This turned the Anglo-American Canon, tailored specifically for the colony through selections that explicitly valorized colonial rule, and promoted colonial values, into the sole resource of models not only of “good English” but also “great literature.” (Martin 92, 95) As a Filipino officer who served the United States during the war, a product of American colonial education in the Philippines, and an Iowa-trained pioneer in teaching creative writing to Filipinos, Edilberto Tiempo is a clear-cut embodiment of the colonial subject shaped by both militarization and education. (9)
The way that Edilberto is portrayed as the ideal colonial subject by way of education and militarization lacks nuance and contextualization. Hence, I am led to think that the portrayal goes against the invitation of Constantino towards remembering the past, using what has been received from the Americans to our advantage, and using a greater level of critical thinking and reflection.
One of the things that can be gleaned from the novels of Edilberto K Tiempo is the keen eye focused on thorny questions pertaining to human concerns. From this alone, one would begin to question the clear-cut assessment that was made by Cruz. The literary scholar, Robert D. Klein, partially quoting from an essay by Lim Thean Soo, has this to say about the novels of Edilberto:
Edilberto K. Tiempo’s early novels are set in wartime Central Philippines and capture the spirit of the times from an insider’s perspective. As head of the Historical Section of the 7th Military District, United States Armed Forces in the Far East (USAFFE), he compiled documentation of Japanese abuses and torture of civilians, They Called Us Outlaws.
Portions of this book were used in the war crimes prosecution trial of Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita and incorporated into his novel The Standard-Bearer. (1985).
As the first Filipino student in the Iowa Writers Workshop in 1946, he submitted Watch in the Night as his M.F.A. Thesis, coming out in print in the Philippines in 1953. It was later published in England and America as Cry Slaughter (1957) and quickly translated into several languages.
All of Tiempo’s subsequent novels have a similar focus on the choices and dilemmas its main characters have with the forces of history. Lim has called Tiempo’s heroes “basically contemplative, driven to judgmental evaluation of incidents and people around them all the time...His choice of protagonists—e.g., minister, lawyer, politician–fittingly demonstrates the questioning frame of mind that, given the centrality of moral questions to Tiempo, his novels ultimately require.” (1993b, 119-120) (66)
The assessment brings a number of questions to mind. Would a novel that is written in English not serve the interests of Filipinos even if the subject matter is a first-hand account of the Filipino experience of suffering during World War II? When one looks at the ideas presented by Constantino, Edilberto’s act of remembering the point of view of Filipino victims of the war might serve the nation despite being written in the English language. Looking at Cruz’s view that Edilberto was exposed to an Anglo-American canon that “valorized colonial rule, and promoted colonial values,” and thus inclined to such values, his act of remembering is cast in a bad light, seen as serving the cause of American Imperialism.
A More Appropriate Framework in Sison and Guillermo
One way to view Cruz’s perspective is that it makes less allowances for ambiguities–and there are other political views aside from Constantino’s that might allow for such takes. In this regard, I propose that it will be useful to examine the structural model of national liberation as proposed by Jose Maria Sison, which is informed with more structured ideas about feudalism and imperialism and which sees education as one means of propagation.
Although the model that Sison proposes does not fully correspond to the view of Cruz, it does provide a basic dichotomy which might undergird the latter’s reading better. There are a few people who hold the resources material and otherwise, and they keep most of it for themselves so that those of the lower class will always stay within a relationship of dependency.
What complicates this dependency is that it ties in with the emotive aspect. Feudalism, according to Sison, is fueled by familial relations.
In his case, it was through this set of relations that he almost got into such a way of life:
A great deal of the inculcation of feudal values was done through stories about my great-grandfather who was supposed to have accumulated wealth because of hard work, intelligence, and the sacred right to private ownership of land and other assets. From childhood onward, I was encouraged to study law and become a lawyer so as to be able to defend the family property, become a political leader and revive the fading feudal glory of the family. The family was already assailed by fears of continuing land fragmentation from one generation to another and by the vigorous postwar political rise of professionals coming from the rural bourgeoisie as represented by President Elpidio Quirino. I was not very much impressed by the stories about my great grandfather’s hard work and accumulation of land. That was because my classmates and playmates in the local public school were children of our tenants and the local middle class and they told me stories about the way their own grandparents and great-grandparents had been dispossessed of land of their land by my own great-grandfather. I enjoyed bringing home and using those stories to make fun of the self-serving stories at home. (3-4)
Sison states that it was through the home that he received stories about his great grandfather, and how these served as guides towards retaining the feudal system. It puts the focus on hardwork and earnestness as factors that lead to success, and put under wraps the factors that promote the subjugation of the lower class under the hand of a few. What is interesting is that Sison, through this exposure to his classmates, is able to see beyond the stories. The short anecdote gives us both a dire outlook as well as a potential solution, which begins in the immersion in the lives of others.
For Sison, the arrival of the American regime would reconfigure the feudal system to serve imperial concerns. The power would move towards government as well as rich investors who run corporations, and the application of the feudal relationship would happen through the business framework (Guerrero 90). The shift is something that is seen in a critical articulation of the framework by Gelacio Guillermo, who had written a review of Edilberto Tiempo’s novel, To Be Free. The title of Guillermo’s take is very telling: “How Not to Be Free.”
The novel, spanning three generations of characters, involves the Alcantara family of Nueva Vizcaya, and the travails of its members. The focus of the novel, in a way, is discursive. It problematizes, indeed, how to be free. The answer comes in narrative form, through the lives of characters from three generations: Lamberto Alcantara and his brother Hilarion, Lamberto’s daughter, Teodora, and Teodora’s daughter Louise, whose apperance is very much like Lamberto’s wife, Luisa. Each generation has a specific answer to the question, unexpected and based on individual agency.
It seems that the project of Edilberto is to present how each character manages his or her own subjectivity. This is not what Gelacio Guillermo focuses on in his argument. For him, the focus is on what, in a way, lies at the back of the character action and introspection. He focuses on the social structures and apparently disparity and–perhaps to our advantage and disadvantage–creates a reading both compelling and problematic. He begins his assessment with a clear articulation that might sound positive:
Ostensibly, the main argument of Edilberto K Tiempo’s novel, To Be Free, is that individuals, bound by the ceremonious rigidities of traditional custom or swept away by the freewheeling whims of personal conduct, prove their worth and dignity through a long process of testing, whether this concerns the lives, loves and politics of the landowning class or the faithfulness of the ruled class, the aripans. The novel seems to be a search for the so-called bedrock decency that abides in the midst of changes that have transpired in Philippine history and ways of life for more than fifty years, starting from the late Spanish colonial administration up to the postwar period. For the principal character, Lamberto Alcantara, this search involves, first, a progress in the quality of discernment–that in matters of moral rectitude, the substance may remain where the form no longer avails–and second, an optimism in civilized man’s capability to adapt himself in all circumstances at whatever time and place. (109)
However, the heart of the critique beats for a structural view that the literary work does not exactly abide with. For him, it is important to examine how bigger forces such as capital and imperialist power impinge on human relations, and it is a focus on this that matters more than looking at how each character can make a decision for himself or herself:
Moral values, as well as political ideas have a life in the matrix of a specific historical period, whether such values and ideas serve to prolong such a period or undermine its ascendancy. To regard morality as a matter of private integrity alone, and politics as a process of unfolding an all- time, all-place concept of freedom whatever social forces are involved is to take issues in such a vacuum. This is clearly anomalous in a novel that presumes to situate the moral and political worth of its characters in well-defined strands of Philippine history. (Guillermo 110)
What is important, in the long run, for Guillermo is to uncover the matrix and eventually act on it so much that it falls apart so that the feudal lords may lose control and the dominated be given an opportunity for a better life. Only when system is broken can it be possible to install a new system in which people might act in more just ways.
A look at the framework on which Cruz built her argument makes me think of the greater alignment of her perspective not with Constantino’s, but with the reading of Gelacio Guillermo. This reading also ties in with Eric Bennett’s Workshops of Empire, which Cruz utilizes to forward her reading of the Tiempos. In this book, Bennett examines the formation of workshops by two major figues, Paul Engle—of the Iowa Writers Workshop—and Wallace Stegner, renowned fictionist who was instrumental in the workshop scene in Stanford University. Edilberto and Edith Tiempo are both alums of Iowa, were both close to Paul Engle, and had used the Iowa Workshop model for the one in Silliman.
What makes the Iowa Workshop problematic, says Bennett, is its complicity with the US Department of State, which is known for having conducted activities that enabled the propagation of imperialist ties with other countries. This propagation might be called Cultural Diplomacy, and it was in the analysis of Bennett that the State Department’s funding of the International Writers Program of the Workshop (IWP) was presented (112-113). This kind of complicity complicates the invitation of international writers to the program, making it appear that it was a kind of neocolonial methodology.
The choice of Conchitina Cruz to frame her reading of the Silliman Workshop and the labors of the Tiempos within anti-imperialist ideations moves it towards a structural reading in broad strokes.
This kind of reading enables one to see the movement of power from those who hold it to those under their control. I would agree that in certain contexts–like the present day–this kind of reading is useful. Capital, in its various forms, moves people and institutions in certain ways, in which individuals have no say in the matter.
However, such a reading is not entirely compatible with an appropriation of Constantino’s “The Miseducation of the Filipino.” To say, from this view that the Tiempos and the Silliman workshop had miseducated students of creative writing by providing an education focused on English and a New Critical approach that led towards an apolitical literary production, is therefore very problematic. Such a claim can lead to a misappreciation that can prevent future readers of Philippine literature to see the usefulness of the Tiempos’ writing to the concern of the nation—a claim that is justifiable via Constantino.
Filling in the Gaps: A View of the Tiempos and the Silliman Workshop
What might account for the heavy criticism imposed by Cruz on the Tiempos can be found in an assessment that aligns her project more with the views of Sison and Guillermo. I propose that a review might clarify the view of the Tiempos, who had foundational ideas that are in tension with the more structural approach of Sison and Guillermo:
The Tiempos have indicated in their critical work that they are deeply rooted in their Christian faith. This might have informed their liberal humanist approach to education and politics.
The Tiempos utilized their Filipino heritage in their creative work, as seen in the exploration of other modes of expression such as music.
The Tiempos built on the local focus on family, affecting their critical positioning and their approach to education and to the Silliman Workshop.
The Christian and Liberal Humanist Politics of the Tiempos
If there are persons who might have the most stories about Edilberto and Edith’s exercise of human agency in light of nationalist motives, it probably will be their children who must have been witness to much decisionmaking day in, day out. The following is an account from Rowena Tiempo Torrevillas, the elder of the two Tiempo children, about what happened to the family’s plan to move to Tehran, Iran in 1972, the year martial law was declared. Edith spoke to the late Leticia Ramos-Shahani, then Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs:aa
Mrs. Shahani put her arm across Mom’s shoulders and quietly led her outside the office to stroll in the corridor, where they could speak more privately. She whispered, “Alam mo, Edith, ang inyong familya…writers kayo. And writers, Marcos does not trust.”
We should have known. Dad’s entire career was founded on the principle of resistance. In 1972, he should have won the National Heritage Award…but the title of his latest book was To Be Free. And that was the year martial law was declared.
Dad was also known for his outspoken, uncompromising voice. Throughout his long teaching career, his colleagues would look to him to speak up, whenever a thorny issue arose at the Deans’ Conference or other faculty meetings. In 1971, when the writ of habeas corpus was taken away from the populace, and student activist unrest was sweeping the nation, General Fidel Ramos (Letty Shahani’s brother) was sent to Silliman, where he spoke at a university convocation there. Dad good up, and in his forthright way spoke directly to the general: “You’re aware, aren’t you, that your president is about to turn our country into a dictatorship?”
Alarmed, the faculty sitting next to Dad reached out to tug at him to sit down, whispering, “Ed! Ed, be quiet!”
Of course, Dad could would not, and could not, remain silent. (Torrevillas)
The family was set to move to Iran two days after martial law was declared, the plans ironed out. Apparently, it was the stance of Edilberto, ready to speak out against oppressive forces both via speech and creative writing that might have been the reason for the Marcos administration to prevent their departure at that point in time.
And not only was Edilberto willing to put himself on the line in front of government people, apparently. He was willing to present the problems of the nation even on the international stage:
On returning from an ambassadorial mission such as her Iran trip, one important Malacañang Order of the Day was for all school children in Metro Manila to line up along the ten-kilometer route from the international airport to her palace on the Pasig, each child waving a flag or strewing flowers as she passed. The world has not known that the Queen of Thailand demanded that kind of homage. (Edilberto Tiempo, “That Oxymoron, Freedom” 63)
Edilberto received the SEAWrite Award from Thailand’s Queen Sirikit around a decade after their family was not allowed to travel–and he would use the opportunity to deliver critical remarks about the ostentation of the First Lady in the face of the nation’s more than economic woes. Not long after this, he would publish what I think is a clear jab at the Marcos administration, a portion that nonetheless fit well with the narrative that Edilberto was writing:
“I remember now,” said the driver, unfazed. He turned right at the first corner, obviously to backtrack. He pointed to a high wall to their left. “Inside, Mister, is the house of the first wife of the president.”
“What president?” Delfin was still smarting at the deception of the man, who, it was quite evident now, really knew the streets of Greenhills.
“You know, the Old Lipunan.”
“What Lipunan?” In spite of himself he felt like laughing. “You know, the New Society and the Old Society.”
“The president of what society?”
“Everybody around here knows it. I will not tell you. You have to find out yourself. If you are interested.” He was thoughtful for a moment. “You know, Mister, if I were president I could afford three wives. I would build a house for Loretta Gutierrez.” (Cracked Mirror 62)
The above excerpt is taken from the novel Cracked Mirror, which is about the journey of a young man named Delfin Olivar through different levels of self-awareness. The taxi ride scene takes place when he goes in search of a girl who looks exactly like a sister that he lost through unusual circumstances.
Edilberto makes good of the trip and makes it a short illustration of how deception happens in daily life, as exemplified by a driver who tries to lengthen the trip for higher fare. Edilberto takes a swipe at the Marcoses’ Bagong Lipunan, which is juxtaposed with mansions created for wives and mistresses. The mention of Loretta Gutierrez in the excerpt makes reference to a bold star that Delfin and the driver were speaking of earlier–I would like to think that this alludes to the Dovie Beams scandal that the former president faced before the declaration of martial law.
From the above quotations, and from other materials too, one will see that Edilberto had been an active agent in fighting against the Marcos regime. If we look at this administration as allied with the US during the time of the Cold War, providing spaces for bases that were strategic in case a war took place with the USSR and China, then would Edilberto not also show aspects of agency that defines with greater detail the possibility that he was not simply the colonial subject Cruz calls him?
A good way to begin reassessing the life work of the Tiempos is to revisit their graves in Dumaguete City. Visiting Edilberto’s grave was something that I used to do when I lived in Dumaguete City. Thus, I am familiar with the words inscribed on the piece of marble on his grave, a quote from the Epistle of Paul to the Romans: “We are more than conquerors through Him that loved us.” It was years later when I would see Edith’s epitaph, during a visit to Dumaguete in 2019. It was from the Book of Micah: “He will bring me forth into the light, I will behold his deliverance.”
Beginning a revisit through their respective epitaphs should help one branch out into the different connected aspects of their lives. Firstly, the Tiempos were church elders in Silliman Church, a Christian church which is Presbyterian in orientation. They were involved in the affairs of the church, and thus it might be safely assumed that they were concerned with its Christian teaching and way of life. From this alone, one might see the divergence of their position to Sison and Guillermo: the work of church, without eschewing the structural, always has a sense of the personal and relational .
It is, I think, complementary to this personal and relational aspect of Christian life, which I will call “relationality,” that the Tiempos espoused a liberal and humanist framework. This framework is what might be said to have been the beacon of the Silliman Workshop and the relationships that the Tiempos had with their students, which is widely known for its family aspect. I believe that it is reasonable to connect this orientation to the family to the Tiempo’s commitment to Filipino life and culture, which was something that, despite the criticism, had bearing on the Silliman Workshop.
A reconsideration of the epitaphs of the Tiempos will show that there is a relational and communal focus that can be found in the words. In the case of Edilberto’s, the verses that lead up to the exclamation that is the epitaph has to do with the commitment of a shepherd to his sheep. The idea is that the sheep will not be left to perish alone and that the shepherd will be given extraordinary strength to face the dangers that might beset the sheep .
On the other hand, the epitaph on Edith’s tombstone is one that comes from a text that speaks of how the savior will come and redeem those who have been treated unjustly . In fact, this is the precise scene that is depicted in the epitaph of Edith—there is a trust that the one speaking will meet the one who will take her from the difficulties of her situation. In a way, both epitaphs speak of a community in a less than ideal situation, as well as a trust placed in someone who will come for them.
What is interesting is that this person who will be there for others is what differs in the two epitaphs. In the quotation for Edilberto, the regular person is enabled to be “more than conquerors” by grace, while in the quotation for Edith, the person awaits the coming of the one who will bring the transformation. I personally would like to interpret the quotations as both significations of faith and commitment: the human being is an agent, but also one that is dependent on grace, and one that is gifted such by the presence in community and relationship.
What enables one to fully engage in community and relationship, I think, is the capacity to be conscious. A person must have a certain hold on subjectivity and agency in order to interact with others in a way that is liberating for the community. It is in this regard that I surmise that this might be the reason why the Tiempos encouraged a liberal and humanist take on education–because of the possibility that one might see one’s independence and agency, and having these, enable people to relate well and justly with others.
This is what Edilberto tells us of what a liberal education should be:
The first business of the university is the promotion of the expansion of the mind, for there is no true culture without acquisitions; in other words, the first business of a college student is the striving for enlargement, for illumination. This means acquiring a great deal of knowledge on a good number subjects, and translated into the program for a bachelor of arts degree it means about 147 units, or the equivalent of more than forty different courses. All this means a great deal of reading, a wide range of information. Matthew Arnold says that the function of criticism is the search and propagation of the best that is known and thought in the world in order to create a current of true and fresh ideas. Such a function is indeed the primary function of a university. This necessitates, for the student, the possession of a curious, exploring mind; a mind that can be both shocked into recognition of a folly or error, and startled into a new discovery; and finally a mind that dares to be challenged. A student with such a mind and with a willingness to buckle down to work has his university career more than half accomplished. (“On Liberal Education” 183-184)
Without saying it, the orientation of a student of liberal education would be relationality and its prerequisite openness. One receives and one responds in the most appropriate way possible. It is only through this that the Arnoldian invitation might be met: to be able to offer criticism, and be part of the “current of true and fresh ideas.”
Edith, sharing Edilberto’s ideas on liberal education, would manifest these in her writing about the creation of poetry, which must have what “a bright coherence”:
Thus, when Robert Frost speaks up he does not say, “Love thy neighbor.” Rather, he says in whimsical indirection and understatement, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall and would want to tear it down. Like the Great Wall of Ancient China, the Bamboo Curtain of the China of today, the Iron Curtain of Russia. Our cryptic modern poet says, Speak, but not a pretty affirmation, not a formula like “Love thy neighbor.” But more different than arresting, more cognizant of inhering complexity, our modern poet would speak and say, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”
The ways of yesteryears, even the ways of writing and of saying things, are not for us today. We must make our own metaphors for thinking and living in our own age. Even the Bible has to have new translations to bring it closer to our modern experience and make it more meaningful to us.
Finally, in such a shaky atmosphere as ours today, the best poetry becomes a kind of crusading poetry that would preserve for man his finest and best self. Thus it is that all enduring poetry becomes tinged with the religious. We scrutinize the significant poems of all times and find them inevitably religious. Even our own tough-minded modern poetry is religious and spiritual, often in its peculiar terms. For spiritual communion is the unity that holds together the most heterogenous elements, whether in the diversified macrocosm of society or in the no less diversified microcosm of the inner person. (Edith Tiempo, “A Bright Coherence” 107)
From the lengthy quotation, we find Edith’s own application of liberal education in the discipline of poetry–the search for new poetic expressions and being aware of what had come before, the continuous need to make things contemporary and relatable. The call towards the religious can also be found here–hence the reference to Christianity and the psalms. One will also find here a discreet calling out of what Edith might have viewed as something that might go against the liberal vision of individual agency—references to the Iron Curtain and the Bamboo Curtain.
The metaphorical references to the Soviet Union and China in middle of the 20th century, I think, imply Edith’s possible preference for a politics other than the positioning of these countries, which would be Maoist and Leninist, involving the proletariat and the peasantry in the a cultural revolution that is supposed to eliminate determined feudal forces, all to promote a more communal way of life.
In this regard, I think it will be fair to reexamine whether the kind of writing advocated for by the Tiempo couple was truly apolitical or not. The fact that Edith speaks of contemporary realities in relation to writing, as well as Edilberto’s adherence to an idea of Matthew Arnold, who was certainly not an “art for art’s sake” figure , will lead us once again to reexamine the adherence of the couple to the New Criticism.
Writing about the charge that the Tiempos were “propagating a purportedly politically impotent movement of literary criticism,” Cruz presents the sides of the accusation:
On the one hand, the New Critical belief in the autonomy of literature tends to function as a convenient shorthand to justify the easy dismissal of the Tiempo school as indifferent to socio-historical realities in general, and the nationalist project in particular. On the other hand, the primacy of craft as the content of a creative writing education serves as a catchall explanation for the lack of emphasis on social consciousness in the Tiempo’s pedagogy. Both arguments rely on the deadlock that pits aesthetic against political investments and maintain that the Tiempos, for better or for worse, privileged the former over the latter. (6)
It has already been asserted by other critics that the Tiempos had made New Criticism their own. However, I think that a return to the words of Edilberto himself shows us how he really viewed writing:
The creative artist is not a chronicler; he synthesizes what has been recorded. He plows through the confused details and chooses only those that are relevant; he organizes them to achieve order and coherence and point up their meaning and significance as dramatized in terms of credible interrelationships among the personae, and to compel belief through the work’s integrity. The author of a novel which deals with a Filipino family through three generations, from the Philippine Revolution and the Philippine-American War to the two world wars, received a high compliment when Ansuri Nawawi, an Indonesian visiting professor at Silliman University who holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from Princeton, said, “I have learned more about the Philippines and its people from that novel than from any Philippine history book I have read.” (“People Power and the Creative Writer” 28)
From the above, it is clear that the writer takes material from the substance of real life. In the case of writing To Be Free, it probably would not have been possible to divorce oneself from tackling political issues, on which the anti-imperialist concerns of Cruz would be inextricably related.
For Tiempo, one writes because it is intended to serve a function in society.  How can this be apolitical? He writes in the same speech from which the above was lifted, “to understand the role of the artistic writer as a contributor to People Power, we should be able to see first his contribution as the writer’s responsibility in humanizing people’s perceptions, not only of other people, but also of events and, ultimately, history.” (29)
It certainly looks plausible that the Tiempos had a purpose for their writing, and it was to make one sensitive to the needs of others, with the intent of making good of that sensitivity in society. This is clearly not apolitical–and hence I must say clearly that to focus on this assertion is a regrettable error on the part of Cruz. The politics might have been focused on the relational, but certainly the Tiempos were not apolitical writers, nor was their teaching of writing apolitical.
If ever there was a focus on form, it was for the sake of the delivery of ideas that are humanized and relatable to readers. This alone, according to Edilberto, might have a profound and transformational effect on readers:
The ideas preserved in the best literature that the 3,000 years have produced do not conflict with the Christian ethics; on the contrary, the best literature and Christian ethics complement each other; and on points where they converge, they produce the transformation that comes with an encounter with greatness; they may produce a conversion through the illumination of the spirit. If the best literature may not “save a soul” in the theological sense, still it is enough that the best literature awakens a keener awareness of life and the world and of the sense of goodness and truth and beauty. Jesus was angry with those who had eyes but saw them not, with those who had ears but heard not. I think it is demanded of us, as students in a Christian university, to develop ears that hear, eyes that see, minds and quicken, hearts that can laugh and weep. And one excellent ground for this nurture is great literature. (“The Christian Faith and Literature” 242)
It should come as no surprise that Edilberto connects the Christian faith and literature as he sees that the function of literature is to make the heart sensitive and, hopefully, lead one to human transformation that will be of good to society.
The Tiempos, it may be said, had taken what they need from New Criticism–the ability to create an effective means of communication–as well as the strengths of a liberal education in order to be able to write humanizing pieces that are transformational. This, I would like to assert, is the liberal humanist theory behind the Silliman Workshop, and this is what Cruz, with her insistence on her particular lens, might not see.
The Combination of Modes of Expression
It is fair to ask–if such is a Tiempo theory of literature and creative writing, then what would be its praxis? It will be safe to say that it was the Silliman Workshop and their own creative practice. And a closer look at the workshop will not be close enough if one does not see that the notion of family is something associated with it. Before proceeding to this topic, it will be good to take a look at an aspect of the liberal humanist education that the Tiempos espoused, which put it in a suspicious feudal and imperialist mold–the role of English in the workshop.
English was known to be the language of the Silliman Workshop. Until recently, only works in this language were accepted for discussion. According to an email by Jaime An Lim, writer and former Silliman Workshop Director, it was in the year 2018 when the workshop accepted balak, poetry in Cebuano, for workshop applications. I believe that this shift is an important one; however, it needs to be considered in light of the reasons behind the use of English.
The primary reason behind Cruz’s focus on English as the language of the Silliman Workshop, as already stated in her assessment of Edilberto Tiempo, has anti-imperialist motives as impetus. Based on Cruz’s assessment, the formation of the Anglo-American Canon that was accessible to Filipinos early in the twentieth century was formative, and the formation had both language and values in view. Though her assessment of Edilberto might not be fair, it is valid that she problematizes the choice of language: because of the closeness of the formation of language use and the actuations of the person learning English, one might as well say that the use of language is reflective of character.
What Cruz would have wanted to happen was that the Tiempos unpack this relationship between language and life as an anti-imperialist stance—hence, subject English to variation from the Standard English that couple was teaching at the workshop. However, for Cruz, there is no openness to variation in the language, which does not conform with the notion of heteroglossia, reflective of a cacophony of voices within a particular social context. (23)
I propose that, though this idea is a good one to explore, perhaps Cruz was expecting the Tiempos to act the way her structural vision compels her to. This is because Cruz seems to be focused on the linguistic mode of expression in her vision of the theoretical concept of heteroglossia, whereas Edith was encouraging–as early as the 1960s–a combination of disciplines as a means of creating something new. One key to the Tiempos, I think, is to consider that they were more than focused on literary matters. Understanding their literary work involves being familiar with their other commitments and interests.
The dichotomy of divided writing that Cruz does well to point out in Edith’s essay “The Use of English in Philippine Creative Writing” can be supplemented well by a set of remarks given during a folk music conference once given at Silliman University:
One great danger from our times is the tendency to separate the form from the spirit in our thinking. As seen in the procedures of art, this deplorable tendency is displayed by some of our artists today in the dichotomy of form from substance, or technique from feeling. This dichotomy or separation is evident today in the strong emphasis upon form, often without the corresponding life and spirit in the artistic work. And ironically enough, it is this very life and spirit which can quicken the art and make it communicate itself and move people to respond.
Folk music does not have this trouble at all, of course. No one can accuse a folk song of being pure form and having little or no spirit. Quite the contrary.
Folk music is almost absolutely unguarded expression of a people’s spirit in every type of mood: The folk music in countries of the world over show this spontaneous outpouring....
Let us turn away from the great danger of our times, the danger of separation from feeling, of looking on unmoved at the crucial issues of our day; the danger of looking on at cruelty and imminent disaster, and at man’s inhumanity to man, as if these were mere ideas, mere items of knowledge that have no power to touch us, to move us to tears or to rage or to indignation. This is our danger.
This is the terrible dichotomy whose warnings are echoed today in the divided performance of many an artist and many a scientist, both. And the study and appreciation of our folk music is surely a step toward this return to sensibility. (Edith Tiempo, “When Music Sings in the Hearts of the People 21)
This lengthy but key portion in “When Music Sings in the Hearts of the People” speaks of a notion of spirit that animates a community, and which leads to the formation of a particular song, which is not the same as the one written according to the traditions we have received through Europe and the United States. By extension, Edith’s suggestion for the writer is to be immersed in this music from the folk and let it inform what must be the content and form.
If the language taken from what is known as the West is taken and broken into through an immersion not only in folk stories and images, but also folk melodies and rhythms, then would that not be a combination of modes of expression that will result in something hybrid? The colonized one, therefore, can use such hybrid material as performance against the colonizer, all in light of the linguistic turn which can considers the materials of music as comprising a kind of language.
Though there will be scholars who will insist on the music-ness of folk music (perhaps in a range of what can be called by musicologists as musics), it can be argued that it has a function of signification in the way language signifies. This will make it possible for me and others to read Edith’s poetic work as heteroglossic because it employs elements from a multimodal range which expresses various voices from her community.
I wish to illustrate this by expanding her own discussion of the poem “The Pestle,” (Edith Tiempo, “The Pestle”) which I personally claim to be a poem that can be read to contain nationalist and anti-imperial significations. I quote this important poem in full–it is relatively short, and there are no stanza breaks:
... in the beginning the sky hung low over the earth...and the woman took off her beads and her crescent comb and hung them up on the sky, the more freely to work. As her pestle struck the blur arch again and again, it began to rise, rise...
~ “The Origin of the Moon and the Stars,” a Philippine myth
… the bamboo split and out stepped Malakas [Strong] and Maganda [Beautiful], the first man and woman.
~ “The Story of the Creation,” a Philippine myth
On the bank the wash-stick is beating out time,
Time and wise words and riddles in a wooden rime;
Why should he listen, just to cross its dark message! If he,
A good smith beating his tempered muscles into plows,
And she (in prayers), folding her mildewed safety between bleached vows,
Once wrought for Beauty and Strength, if they be
Splinters from the cracked bamboo,
They shouldn’t listen to that crude tattoo!
To grapevine its heresies through some crumbling bole—
Why should they?—they, the divine stems? Yet strange, he stokes the fires,
Burns himself in a thousand spots. He is not done.
And she?—he sees her rinsed-out fears a whole
White line slacked, flopping through the mire.
Old woman, best leave the wash-stick in the sun;
(The pestle pushed the thigh-bone comb
And the beads of clay high, too high)
Our tough hands shake and our sweaty lips smirk and lie,
We had stored our treasures in a maggoty home.
Edith, without saying it, offers her own reading of this work in the key essay “Myth in Philippine Literature,” which tells us that the way to cross the divide created by language and culture is through accessing the universal images that connect us, presumably via the collective unconscious:
One common Philippine myth, the myth of creation, can give body to the idea of the impact of industrialism on the local sensibility, which is generally characterized as gentle and unsophisticated. Instead of an outright dramatization of this idea in a story or a poem (a procedure which would leave the outward terms of the situation strange and unreconciled to alien eyes, unless indeed made more detailed than artistic propriety would advise), the myth of Malakas and Maganda coming out of a split bamboo can be most happily used as a basis. Then one can rely on the universality of human behavior thus exposed in primitive terms; also one can take full advantage of the ironical connotations attached to the “bamboo underpinnings” evident in so many of our enterprises today, as contrasted with the steel rods and trappings of industrial efficiency. (265)
While Edith focuses on the content of the poem within the excerpt above, I would like to call attention to the internal rhythm that supports the whole poem. The rhythm is built only on strong-sounding consonants like d and b, but also soft-sounding ones such as m, as well as repeated vowel sounds.
Indeed, this might be the tattoo that Edith refers to in the middle of the poem.
I believe that her use of repetition, which is ambiguous in its signification of both cold industrial machines and repeated beating of the wash-stick by the river, is indicative of her efforts at multimodality, combining materials from music and language (Edith Tiempo, “When Music Sings in the Hearts of the People” 23-24). In any case, the structures of Standard English might be considered broken because of the repetitions of words and poetic torqueing that happens because Edith was following a distinct internal rhythm.
The quoted excerpt from “Myth in Philippine Literature” indicates that the reading of the poem might be framed in terms of the issues brought about by industrialization and class struggle in a primarily agricultural nation such as ours. However, I would consider it leaning towards a nationalist and anti-imperialist statement by virtue of the thigh-bone comb that is pushed away when the clouds go higher because of the up and down motion of the pestle used to separate chaff from the rice. The tines of the comb subtly indicate stripes, whereas the baked beads that hang with the comb–could those be stars?
The multimodal reading that I offered above will not suffice for an anti-imperialist reading premised on the pushing away of “stars and stripes,” so I choose to be frank and say that, in my conversations with Edith, she has told me of her determination to retain her Filipino culture–even in the way people address each other–not only when she was studying in the US, but also when she was studying with the American teachers at Silliman University.
Going beyond this and moving into her life context, husband Edilberto was also someone to problematize what it is to be Filipino. It is not well known these days that he had clearly presented his stakes about the national language in 1983, when he published the essay, “Tagalog: the Fourth Colonization,” in Panorama Magazine.
It is clear from the title that Edilberto refused to be dominated, indicating that the imposition of Tagalog as the basis, for the national language goes against the idea of freedom. He writes that “the allegation by the Tagalistas that English is the language of the elite is mindless and myopic; they seem to forget that propagating a Tagalog-based national language is creating their own brand of elitism” (“Tagalog: The Fourth Colonization” 214). It might be safe to say that the sting of colonization was still felt by the Tiempo couple, after all. 
It was Edith’s choice to retain manners Filipino and the concern for quashing the colonial and its extensions that Edilberto must have shared with her, that I take as handle for an anti-imperialist reading. Without a doubt, this also makes sense in light of that bigger act of moving back to the Philippines with Edilberto and her children even if options for her family to stay in the US had opened up.
Overall, the above details will place the use of English by the Tiempo couple and the Silliman Workshop under a different light–and it might add a dimension to Cruz’s take that it was an imperialist tool that the Tiempos were not able to address.
Reading the Family in the Silliman Workshop Context
Returning to the concern for a different political approach to the search for greater freedom, I am proposing that the Tiempos did not focus on creating a structure that would go against feudal and imperialist forces. However, the relationality that could be read from their Christian orientation, as well as their commitment to the return to local materials and interactions, must have led to what might be a logical return to the fundamental family structure, the basic unit of Philippine society.
The Silliman Workshop has long been known to be built on the family image. Edilberto was called Dad, and Edith Mom. I called them by these appellations even if I did not meet Edilberto in the flesh, not all workshop fellows did. I think that the family structure is easily relatable to the fact that Edith had miscarriages during the war, a fact of her life that would be reborn into poems such as “Lament for the Littlest Fellow.” However, to say this would be to immediately stop looking at other aspects of the Tiempos’ life that might enrich our understanding why the workshop was viewed as family.
Not all workshop fellows felt that they were part of a family structure, to be sure. To look at the Silliman Workshop and immediately associate it with the family might then be inappropriate although it would be on point to speak of it as a nurturing environment . There are many stories that attest to the sense of nourishment one got from the Silliman Workshop. It was not just being fed in terms of knowledge, nor was it just about food. It was such a well-rounded experience that one might as well call family. The writer Merlie Alunan, in an email dated September 4, 2020, elaborates on how it was to be at the Tiempos’ old family home in Amigo Subdivision, Dumaguete:
Ed and Edith drew people into their circle, like moth to candle flame. It was probably out of mutual need. People attracted to literature rarely find good company anywhere they go in the world. In the environs of the Tiempo home, especially in the old Amigo house, literature breathed down upon one’s head from the santol and the mango trees that Ed had tended with so much love, the old furniture, the paintings, Mom Edith’s special way with her table, the little touches of refinement on china and sparkling fresh fruit drinks they loved to serve. One’s soul is fed, as well as the body. Conversation under the trees, under the moon, with the noontime serenade of the cicadas in the background scintillated. They lingered in the memory. Until now these memories are still with me. Where but in Amigo can you savor the refined air of poetry, not just in a book but as it is lived?
It was not only at the table that fellows feel like family. The dynamics of the relationship, if I might say so, had an inward and outward motion. It was as if one gave and one received both. Anthony Tan writes via Facebook Messenger, “Dad would go to the airport/wharf to welcome the arriving fellow. Cesar Aquino  was so impressed by this gesture of generosity and hospitality that he wrote a glowing tribute to Dad and called him ’a man whose heart was as large as Africa.’ No other workshops/heads of workshops that I know of, would do this. They usually send their staff/subalterns to pick up the writing fellows.”
There are many more former fellows of the workshop who can say more about the nurturing quality of the relationship with the Tiempos. However, perhaps the one who might be able to represent best what was the workshop family is the late Ernesto Superal Yee, who had written a short story illustrating the relationship. It is unabashedly titled “Valencia Drive: A Tribute to Dad.” A good part of the story illustrates similar memories as some details of the story, but Yee was able to direct the reader towards what the purpose of such nourishing was –the hopes of forming a more well-rounded writer and person:
Now it was time to write fiction. His first attempt (which was actually a mutant of that genre), was mildly criticized by Dad as lazy writing. After the session, Dad told him, Myles, if you can write a poem, then you shouldn’t find it hard to write fiction. Give the writing of stories the same amount of drive, energy and love as you do for your poems. If you can do that, show me your work. And while doing it, keep in mind the artisans at work. He who holds a blowtorch endures heat and glare while melding two edges of steel to form a design; and he who has conquered his fear of heights may measure space’s precise length and width from which his structure shall rise. Dad was right. The work he submitted was haphazardly done. After supper, Myles, bearing seriously Dad’s words, tackled the dizzying and crafty art of fiction. The revised work entitled “Anniversary,” altough there was a minor obscurity that Dad wanted cleared (nothing Freudian about it!), got Dad’s warmest smile and hug of congratulation. (Yee 52)
It might be said that the “amount of drive, energy and love” that Edilberto calls from Yee, who gave himself the name Myles (in reference to the Frost poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” maybe?) is the same thing called for when Mom and Dad Tiempo ask him to drive up the mountain of Valencia town in Negros Oriental. The story, which happens internally, is really just about a car drive up challenging terrain. Yee’s character surmounts the challenge—and the writing challenges too—because of nurturing presence of the Silliman Workshop parents .
The closeness that is developed through nurturing makes the following words of Cruz particularly hurtful:
The filial logic that camouflages the colonialist enterprise embedded in the institutional history of the Silliman Workshop is replicated in the logic that deflects criticism of its institutional power over the literature produced, circulated, awarded, and studied in the Philippines. It is awkward, at the very least, to cast a critical eye on the legacy of a literary figure one has been taught to call “Mom” on the workings of a community one has been invited to regard as family. It is no wonder that the writings on the Tiempos by those they mentored tend toward hagiography. To regard the Silliman Workshop as family, while inspiring affection and harmony, also naturalizes a culture of deference and loyalty in an institutional setting. (15)
However, the call of criticality tells me that there is more. Firstly, it was not simply a camouflage, but a lived nurturing reality, which grew for some into a family relationship. To speak of a family relationship and say that what comes out of it in terms of writing is hagiographical is an unbalanced conjecture. The reason for this is that though affection might be seen, it does not mean that it always a condition towards deference. In fact, can the fullness of a family relationship not end up with individuals who exercise their own agency, utilize their independent judgment?
Anthony Tan, when asked about the expectations of the Tiempo couple on their writer students, gives the following response on the side of agency in his Facebook Message dated September 4, 2020:
Absolute autonomy. Write what you know best, in the language you are most capable of using. Choose your own genre which befits your abilities…. That’s what students learn in workshops. You can’t learn that from books. They didn’t stop me from writing my ”Sulu” stories. I don’t think they really ”love” the subject, especially Mom Edith, but they didn’t tell me: ”Hey, leave that subject alone.” They respected my choice.
Besides, I am sure they saw that that is the only subject close to me since I am from that place. They respected my choice… When ”The Cargo,” my story about Sulu massacre at sea was going to be anthologized, Dad Ed was asked by the editors Jaime An Lim and Christine Ortega to write the intro. Dad Ed thought—in that intro—that I had written a very good story in ”The Cargo.” The subject is a violent, gory one which could only be found in Sulu. So write what you know best, was a kind of unwritten law to them, and in a language that you know best, and in a genre which befits your talent.
This autonomy extended well beyond the writing life. As there is no separation between both, the students also had the freedom to exercise their own choices when it came to the visions that are the foundation of their endeavors.
It is notable that the Silliman Workshop, according to An Lim, gave birth to many workshops, stating that “it has spawned numerous local, regional, or national counterparts at UP Diliman, UP Mindanao, UP Tacloban, UP Iloilo, La Salle Manila, La Salle Bacolod, UST, Ateneo de Manila University, University of San Carlos, Far Eastern University, MSUIIT, not to mention the various workshops sponsored by such literary groups as LIRA or Linangan sa Imahen, Retorika, at Anyo. As a whole, these writers workshop have had arguably some impact on the development and direction of creative writing in the country.” (An Lim, “Keynote Address”)
What must not be consigned to forgetfulness is that the above workshops specialize in the encouragement of writing in the regional languages. This surely resonates with Tan’s assertion above that the Tiempo couple was not particular about the writing student’s language of choice, but one can immediately see that the couple did not exert control outwardly and otherwise. How can we therefore assume that the family relationship necessarily brings about deference ?
According to Edilberto as narrated by Yee, what enables the creation of a work of art is love. What is passed on through the nurturing and the family relationship within the Silliman Workshop community, in its different degrees and appellations, is love. It is this that allows for the students and writing children to be their own human agents, and it is this dynamic agency that has arguably enabled the rise of many workshops that put into question the idea that the Silliman Workshop propagates a feudal system and the American imperialist agenda.
Could the love fostered in the Silliman Workshop, being a parent-workshop, have contributed to decolonizing motions in the country via the nurturing of literature in the regional languages? This kind of idea is not an implausible one, if only through the lens of other people proposing similar theories. In fact, love as a decolonizing factor is a key concept in Chela Sandoval’s Methodology of the Oppressed, which views the wounds that love creates in a colonized context as Barthesian puncti from which decolonial movidas come about  (139-140).
What about the idea that the workshop has “gatekeepers?” I personally would think that any endeavor bound by various resources will always have limits, and the padrino system might always take place because of the vulnerability of human actors. Still, one needs to listen more. For example, my own recommendation to the workshop came from the writer Alfred “Krip” Yuson, whom Cruz criticized for his elaboration of the idea of the workshop family. I did not feel that padrino system she speaks of protect me when Ernie Yee, a member of the selection committee, told me that I was not top-ranked by the selection committee in 2003 .
Yuson, in a Facebook Messenger chat dated September 13, 2020, wrote me the following: “The matter of recommending? That came naturally. Former fellows and panelists would of course be an important source of dissemination about the workshop, and thus encourage friends and acquaintances to try getting in. Those who seemed impressive were recommended or required to come up with the note of support from workshop alumni or distinguished academics / lit profs / writers. Siempre it would turn into what was eventually condemned as ‘gatekeeping.’ But how else could info about the workshop spread out? But the evaluation for final fellowship selection was mainly based on manuscript quality. A factor was regional distribution.”
It was clear from the online chat that Yuson views “gatekeeping” and the padrino system was connected to the Silliman Workshop’s way of dissemination. To me, these are aligned with the idea that the Tiempos had prioritized relationality as part of a Christian-Liberal Humanist-Filipino approach—wherein love and the fascination for the literary work would have a place. As mentioned earlier, human actors are vulnerable. The fact that the Silliman Workshop had a safeguard in the screening committee must, however, be considered as a positive point.
I see the risk of the feudal possibilities that Cruz decries. This is also something that is clearly reflected in the thoughts of Sison, mentioned earlier, about how family becomes the means through which feudal relations are replicated. I think it prudent to return to the Tiempos’ philosophical perspective and give appropriate focus on individual agency when passing critical judgment on the matter while facing head-on the theorizing of structural power and dominance.
The individual actions taken by Edilberto in his own quest for freedom, I find it worth noting, could have come to fruit in the promotion of regional languages which he and Edith did not write with because of certain turns in their lived reality–including their having come from different provinces. It is entirely possible that coming to fruit happened through the family relationship that Cruz simply judged as “camouflage.” The family relation might have been the operationalization of the optic through which the Tiempos lived and taught, and which had its own vulnerabilities because of the focus on human actors.
Ending by Way of Story
There are three things that I wish to do as I conclude this critical analysis.
The first of these is to make clear ideas that arose while trying to listen carefully to “The (Mis)Education of the Filipino Writer”:
Firstly, it is not fair to frame the Silliman Workshop under the aegis of American Cultural Diplomacy without an attempt to formulate the approach of the Tiempos to creative writing. This, I theorize to be based on Christian, liberal humanist, and Filipino elements that still need to be accounted for better in the future.
The second point is that for the Tiempos, writing is always integrated with one’s life experience, and politics is part of life. This idea, which resonates with Constantino, should be a clear indication that the Tiempos, though they utilized New Criticism, were not New Critics and not apolitical.
Interpreting the choice for English in the Silliman Workshop should factor in the high-level debate about the choice for the national language, and a perceived inclination of the Tiempos towards interdisciplinarity. Upon looking closely at their work, it might be seen that they might have worked, consciously or not, towards a multimodal heteroglossia, which enables anti-imperialist gestures beyond language.
The last point I wish to make is that the family quality of the Silliman Workshop, though not something shared by all workshop fellows, is something that needs a closer examination. From my viewpoint, because of the element of love, there is something that makes the Silliman Workshop both transformative and vulnerable on many levels. It so happens that there has been a transformation of the Philippine writing scene, thanks to students of the Tiempos institutionalizing workshops that nurture the regional languages. Though the possibility of the padrino system is a vulnerability rooted in the focus on relationality, there might be something anti-imperialist in the Silliman Workshop after all.
The second major point I wish to make is that there might be a view that it is impossible to find middle ground between the Christian-Liberal Humanist-Filipino approach that the Tiempos used, and strictly structural approaches to feudalism and imperialism. I would think that Cruz, for all the possible good that anti-imperialist criticism can bring, might have been caught in the dichotomy because she had clearly taken one side.
My only wish is that it creates a dwelling—a new space—within the difficulty. What best represents this for me is the framework I had chosen for this paper. We must always make space for one another, even in our criticism and theory, and focus on pakikipagloob. It may seem to have a harmonizing function, but that is not the end goal. What is important is to make space for one another in a world where people wrest power and resources from others. Perhaps the expression irog-irog might work as a gentle reminder. Perhaps criticism can be geared towards listening and making space in discourse, not just the assault and wresting of power that seems associated with it.
The final point I wish to make is that that the answers we look for might be elsewhere. In the case of the Tiempos—how would it have been possible for me to see that their interdisciplinarity could have resulted in a multimodality, which might just be another way towards an anti-imperialist project?
Let me end with a story. Mom Edith Tiempo and Ernie Yee were once invited to judge a literary contest in Tagbilaran, Bohol. Ernie took me along perhaps so that he could have a companion when Mom Edith spent time with Ma’am Marj Evasco, who is a Bol-anon, and other friends in the city. After the judging was done, and while Mom Edith and Ernie were asleep in their respective rooms–or so I thought–I went down to the empty ballroom of our hotel to try the grand piano.
I was overeager back then to take lessons again, though Ernie, himself a pianist, wondered at how I could make time to practice. I had my MA studies and my involvement with workshop-related matters to attend to. I played Mozart’s Sonata K 545, movement 1. I remember how uneven the tempo was, how I infused the playing with a passion that I would most likely temper now. Lo and behold, Mom Edith entered the ballroom and approached me, watching closely until I finished the movement.
What I remember most are her words: ”You play like a college student!” My familiarity with her approach told me that she was both encouraging me and challenging me. After this, we would have conversations about music back in Dumaguete, which culminated with the advice that I should not let go of my music.
She taught me poetry at the workshop, Mom Edith, but her most direct piece of advice was to keep my music going. If I did not heed her advice, I would not be in a graduate program in musicology now. Without concepts from musicology, how could I even begin to have a fuller appreciation of the Tiempos’ lifework as an iteration of the dynamic connection between creative writing and nationalism?
If we don’t step away from perspectives that we are inclined to, how might we find new ways of understanding?
The song “Pahaloka Ko, Day” is more commonly available as “Pasayawa Ko, Day” on YouTube.
The folk song is composed by the community in a combination of conscious and unconscious ways. On the other hand, a composed song has a specific person who wrote it. “Pahaloka Ko, Day,” according to critic and professor Jose S. Buenconsejo (284), was written by Cebuano composer Ben Zubiri. It has a dialogue structure plus what seems to be a section that connects back to the beginning, making one think that there is a composer who put the music together. Still, it has elements of the folk—the differing titles indicate the influence of various communities on the song. I thank Dr. Jose Buenconsejo and Ms. Sol Trinidad of the UP College of Music, and Mr. Paolo Pardo, for allowing me to consult on the distinctions of the folk song and composed song.
The Creative Writing Foundation (CWF) had been the group that helped the Silliman Workshop when the university had withdrawn its support in the mid-1990s. Alfred “Krip” Yuson sent me the following as part of a message on September 13, 2020: “Re CWF, among the donor-friends we managed to secure financial assistance from were: Tonyboy Cojuangco (in a big way), Sen. Edgardo Angara, Dr. Jaime Laya, Erlinda Panlilio, and several other private donors who addressed individual fellowships.”
Writing as Amado Guerrero in Philippine Society and Revolution (85), Sison states that “feudalism still persists in the Philippines although US imperialism has introduced a certain degree of capitalist development. US monopoly capital has assimilated the seed of capitalism that is within the womb of domestic feudalism but at the same time it has prevented the full growth of this seed into a national capitalism. The persistence of feudalism and the growth of a limited degree of capitalism can be understood only by delving into history. Feudalism is a mode of production in which the principal forces of production are the peasants and the land which they till and the relations of production are basically characterized by landlord oppression and exploitation of the peasantry. The most immediate manifestation of feudalism is the possession of vast areas of cultivable land by a few landlords who themselves do not till the land and who compel a big number of tenants to do the tilling. Feudal relations between the parasitic landlord class and the productive peasantry essentially involve the extortion of exorbitant land rent in cash or kind from the latter by the former. Such basic relations leave the tenant-peasants impoverished as their share of the crop is just enough or even inadequate for their subsistence. They are further subjected to such feudal practices such as usury, compulsory menial service and various forms of tribute. The old landlord class which utilizes land rent essentially for its private pleasure and luxury is satisfied with the backward method of agriculture because it gets more than enough for its needs from the sheer exertion of physical labor with simple agricultural implements by a big mass of tenants. On the other hand, the tenant who has only his own assigned plot to till is further impoverished by the low level of technology.”
Although well beyond the flow of argumentation of this paper, I am putting down ideas of the philosopher Slavoj Zizek in this footnote, as he had articulated a value that Christianity has in a reexamination of a Marxist viewpoint. Touching on Zizek here shows that there have been recent ideational developments that bridge Christian ideas, leftist frameworks, and ideas of liberation–the last one approached by the Tiempos differently through their Christian background. Zizek borrows from a psychoanalytic position when he writes that “In Lacanian terms, the difference here is the one between idealization and sublimation: false idealizing idealizes, it blinds itself to the other’s weaknesses—or, rather, it blinds itself to the other as such, using the beloved as a blank screen on to which it projects its own phantasmagorical constructions; while true love accepts the beloved the way she or he is, merely putting her/him into the place of the Thing, the unconditional Object. As every true Christian knows, love is the work of love—the hard and arduous work of repeated ‘uncoupling’ in which, again and again, we have to disengage ourselves from the inertia that constrains us to identify with the particular order we were born into. Through the Christian work of compassionate love, we discern in what was hitherto a disturbing foreign body, tolerated and even modestly supported by us so that we were not too bothered by it, a subject, with its crushed dreams and desires—it is this Christian heritage of uncoupling that is threatened by today’s ‘fundamentalisms,’ especially when they proclaim themselves Christian.” (128-129) This quotation intersects with my proposed view of the Tiempos upholding the personal because this is not a denial of other overarching forces that influence lives. Though there is a focus on the personal, it is marked by the detachment, the uncoupling that Sizek writes about, that allows for a dynamic movement from the broad to the intimate—the structural to the personal.
Romans 8: 35-39, King James Version: (35) “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword? / (36) As it is written, for thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. / (37) Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. / (38) For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, / (39) Nor height / nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” The epitaph of Edilberto is to be found in verse 37.
Micah 7: 9, King James Version: “I will bear the indignation of the Lord, because I have sinned against him, until he plead my cause, and execute judgment for me: he will bring me forth to the light, and I shall behold his righteousness.” Only the italicized section appears on Edith’s tombstone.
National Artist for Literature Bienvenido Lumbera makes a distinction of the criticism of Arnold and the notion of “art for art’s sake:” Modernist standards, set by Western artists reacting against commercialism and the worship of technology in the industrialized economies of their society, were appropriated as norms for young Filipino writers seeking to keep abreast of the times. For instance, when the UP Writers Club was founded in the late 1920s, it borrowed its artistic credo, “Art for Art’s Sake,” from turn-of-the-century Western artists who wanted to break away from the hold of Matthew Arnold’s concept of literature as a “criticism of life.” (186)
In an email dated September 3, 2020, writer, administrator and critic Jaime An Lim shares a memory that proves the above point. He writes, The Tiempos were not always formalist. For instance, at one time Dr. Ed Tiempo criticized a well-written but ”sexually racy” piece of work as a waste of the writer’s creative talent. He saw literature as a vehicle for a more useful end. This was clearly not formalist anymore but already verging on the ethical and moral considerations. Moreover, he knew a wide range of critical theories. I took his graduate course in Literary Criticism which covered some of the important critics and critical concepts from Plato and Aristotle and Longinus to Shelley and Sydney and Arnold and Marx and Eliot and Brooks, etc.” The range of Edilberto’s readings in criticism and theory from this email must be considered as well.
What might be considered problematic in Edilberto’s notable argumentation is the idea that education is available to all of people elect to go to school. These days, poverty and other structural imbalances continue to make this difficult. However, what we must put our attention to is the likely intensity of the debate, so much so that it merited a non-mention from a well-known teacher from the University of the Philippines, SV Epistola, who proposed another way of going about the national language problem. “Instead of making a nation out of us, this only disunited us even further. Instead of breaking down the barriers that divide us, it has in effect made them even more implacable. Predictably someone in Dumaguete declared he would never submit to another colonialism, which sadly was how he perceived the propagation of a Tagalog-based national language.” (122) For Epistola, the solution was to have one national language and promote the reading of regional literature. Personally, I find the proposal problematic given that it does not address the signification of Tagalog being the basis of the national language. In any case, I present the stinging quote above in order to open up spaces to discuss the commitments of Edilberto on language as well the nation.
Jaime An Lim, who would become one of the foundational persons behind the Iligan National Writers Workshop, presented me with possible explanations aside from making it clear that not all the fellows felt that the workshop had a family structure. The following comes from an email from An Lim dated September 1, 2020: “During my time as an MA student, I never called the Tiempos Dad and Mom. I saw them first and foremost as my professors not as my parents. There were those who worked closely with them, helping out with the running of the workshop, etc.) and they perhaps felt entitled to call them Dad and Mom. I don’t know. I was never encouraged to call them that. But they were always kind to me and helpful in any way they could (getting me a scholarship, writing a recommendation letter, etc.) Because Silliman U was a relatively small university, they did not have so many students (there were only less than 15 MA students during my time) and could afford to give personal attention to every student. In a much bigger university (UP, Ateneo, La Salle) this might not be possible. But the workshop itself was more collegial rather than familial. When they discussed anyone’s work, that person was treated as a writer rather than as a son or a daughter. Rowena, the daughter of the Tiempos, was also a student at Silliman. The Tiempos were of course Dad and Mom to Rowena, so the other students probably got the cue from her and started calling them also as Dad and Mom.
Cesar Ruiz Aquino, one of the earliest fellows of the Silliman Workshop, was also said to have looked for potential students from his home of Zamboanga upon being instructed by the Tiempos. It is through this action that the late poet Francis “Butch” Macansantos had an opportunity to study under the Tiempos. This is how Macansantos’s daughter Monica, herself a writer, recalls her father’s story, which shared via Facebook Messenger on August 30, 2020.
It needs mentioning that Susan Lara, during a piano recital and tribute to Ernie Yee that I delivered in Silliman University on May 9, 2019, gave her own tribute to him, which included these words: “He was generous with everything he had–time, energy, talent, yes, even money–in everything he did, as writer, as pianist, as panelist in the National Writers Workshop (and for several years, as Workshop coordinator), as lawyer, as RTC clerk of court, as friend. During those years when the Workshop had to operate on a shoestring budget, Ernie helped out by sponsoring a number of workshop fellows and hosting them in his home in Dumaguete.”
The ideas of Judith Butler, though mostly based on theorizing that is distant from our lived reality, provides a useful parallel to the family relationship that was borne out of the Silliman workshop. For Butler, a subject begets a subject; and in the discussion above, a parent who is a subject will produce a child who will come to one’s own power and be a subject. According to Butler, “a critical analysis of subjection involves: (1) an account of the way regulatory power maintains subjects in subordination by producing and exploiting the demand for continuity, visibility, and place; (2) recognition that the subject produced as continuous, visible, and located is nevertheless haunted by an inassimilable remainder, a melancholia that marks the limits of subjectivation; (3) an account of the iterability of the subject that shows how agency may well consist in opposing and transforming the social terms by which it spawned.” (29)
Chela Sandoval, considering the idea of punctum, makes this clear and moving statement: “It is love that can access and guide our theoretical and political “movidas”–revolutionary maneuvers towards decolonized being. Indeed, Barthes thinks that access to the spectrum from which consciousness-in-resistance emanates might best materialize in a moment of “hypnosis,” like that which occurs when one is first overwhelmed or engulfed by love.” The moment when one is “first overwhelmed or engulfed by love”–one can find the punctum there.
I remember sitting in with Ernie Yee, Bobby Flores Villasis, and Cesar Ruiz Aquino during one screening committee deliberation—likely for the Silliman Workshop in 2004. I also remember seeing committee members sift through the recommendations, and even disagree with some of them. What I remember most was a conversation with Ernie Yee. He told me that the panel gave writers whose works were exemplar higher ranks, while selecting others whose works showed indications of benefitting from the workshop.
Alejo, Albert E., S.J. Tao Po, Tuloy! Isang Landas ng Pag-unawa sa Loob ng Tao. Office of Research and Publications, Ateneo de Manila University, 1990, Quezon City.
Alunan, Merlie. “Answers.” Received by Niccolo Rocamora Vitug, September 4, 2020.
An Lim, Jaime. “Keynote Address: The Iligan National Writers Workshop at 25.” Unpublished remarks. Sent via email September 1, 2020.
An Lim, Jaime. “Re: Questions regarding the Silliman Writers Workshop.” Received by Niccolo Rocamora Vitug, September 1, 2020.
An Lim, Jaime. “Re: Questions regarding the Silliman Writers Workshop.” Received by Niccolo Rocamora Vitug, September 3, 2020.
Bennett, Eric. Workshops of Empire: Stegner, Engle, and American Creative Writing During the Cold War. University of Iowa Press, 2015, Iowa City.
Buenconsejo, Jose S. “Re: Research on the Balitaw.” Received by Niccolo Rocamora Vitug, August 23, 2020.
———. “Philippine Heritage in the Popular: Examples from Villame’s Rhyming Songs to Surban’s Kuradang.” The Journal of History Vol LXVI January-December 2020, issue edited by Rolando O Borrinaga. Quezon City: Philippine National Historical Society, Inc., 2020, pp 279-300.
Butler, Judith. The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection. Stanford University Press, 1997, Standford, California.
Constantino, Renato. “The Miseducation of the Filipino.” In Renato Constantino, The Miseducation of the Filipino. Letizia R Constantino, World Bank Textbooks: Scenario for Deception. Foundation for Nationalist Studies, 1982, Quezon City, pp. 1-19.
Cruz, Conchitina. “The (Mis)Education of the Filipino Writer: The Tiempo Age and Institutionalized Creative Writing in the Philippines.” Kritika Kultura, no. 28, Feb 2017, pp. 3-34, doi:10.13185/kk2017/02802
———. “The Christian Faith and Literature.” In Literary Criticism in the Philippines and Other Essays. De la Salle University Press, Inc., 1995, Manila.
Epistola, S.V. “Literary Tomorrows.” Pieces and the Old Inkstone: Post-EDSA Essays. Kalikasan Press, 1990, Manila.
Guerrero, Amado. Philippine Society and Revolution, KM 50 Edition. KM50 Committee, Institute for Nationalist Studies, Anakbayan, League of Filipino Students, Student Christian Movement of the Philippines, Kabataang Artista para sa Tunay na Kalayaan, College Editors Guild of the Philippines, National Union of Students in the Philippines, 2014, Philippines.
Guillermo, Gelacio. “How Not to Be Free.” In Ang Panitikan ng Pambansang Demokrasya/The Literature of National Democracy. Kalikasan Press, 1990, Sampaloc, Manila, Philippines.
Klein, Ronald D. “Moral Dilemmas of War in Edilberto K Tiempo’s Watch in the Night.” In The Other Empire: Literary Views of Japan from the Philippines, Singapore, and Malaysia. Quezon City: The University of the Philippines Press, 2008, 66-91.
Lara, Susan S. “Tribute to Ernie.” Unpublished remarks. Sent via email September 1, 2020.
Lumbera, Bienvenido L. “Young Writing and the Subversion of the Academe.” In Writing the Nation/Pag-akda ng Bansa. University of the Philippines Press, Quezon City, Philippines.
Macansantos, Monica. Facebook Messenger. Received by Niccolo Rocamora Vitug, August 30, 2020.
Pardo, Paolo. Facebook Messenger. Received by Niccolo Rocamora Vitug, September 11, 2020.
Sandoval, Chela. Methodologies of the Oppressed. University of Minnesota Press, 2000, Minneapolis, MN.
Sison, Jose Ma. The Philippine Revolution: The Leader’s View. Taylor and Francis, Inc., 1989, New York, New York, USA.
Tan, Anthony. Facebook Messenger. Received by Niccolo Rocamora Vitug, September 4, 2020.
Tiempo, Edilberto K., Miguel A. Bernad, S.J., and Edith L. Tiempo. Introduction to Literature: Fiction, Poetry, Drama. R.P. Garcia Publishing Co., 1977, Quezon City.
Tiempo, Edilberto K. Cracked Mirror. New Day Publishers, 1984, Quezon City.
———. “On Liberal Education.” In Literary Criticism in the Philippines and Other Essays. De la Salle University Press, Inc., 1995, Manila.
———. “Tagalog: the Fourth Colonization.” In Literary Criticism in the Philippines and Other Essays. De la Salle University Press, Inc., 1995, Manila.
———. “On Liberal Education. In Literary Criticism in the Philippines and Other Essays. De la Salle University Press, Inc., 1995, Manila.
———. “People Power and the Creative Writer.” In Literary Criticism in the Philippines and Other Essays. De la Salle University Press, Inc., 1995, Manila.
———. “Tagalog: the Fourth Colonization.” In Literary Criticism in the Philippines and Other Essays. De la Salle University Press, Inc., 1995, Manila.
———. “That Oxymoron, Freedom.” In Literary Criticism in the Philippines and Other Essays. De la Salle University Press, Inc., 1995, Manila.
Tiempo, Edith L. “A Bright Coherence: The Outlook of the Modern Poet.” Silliman Journal, volume III no. 2, April-June 1956, p 103-109.
———. “Myth in Philippine Literature.” In An Edith Tiempo Reader. University of the Philippines Press, 1999, Quezon City.
———. “When Music Sings in the Hearts of the People.” Silliman Journal, volume VIII, no. 1, Jan- March 1961, pp 20-24. Tiempo, Edith L. “Myth in Philippine Literature.” In An Edith Tiempo Reader. University of the Philippines Press, 1999, Quezon City.
Torrevillas, Rowena T. “A ‘Brief History of Time’ by the ‘Daughter of Time’.” Unpublished essay. Sent via email September 26, 2018.
Trinidad, Sol Maris. Facebook Messenger. Received by Niccolo Rocamora Vitug, August 22, 2020.
Veric, Charlie Samuya, “The Formal is Political: Revaluating Edith L Tiempo.” Philippine Studies, Vol. 51, No. 2, 2003, pp 256-283.
Yee, Ernesto S. “Valencia Drive: A Tribute to Dad.” In Ember Days and Other Tales and Stories. Giraffe Books, 1999, Quezon City.
Yuson, Alfred. Facebook Messenger. Received by Niccolo Rocamora Vitug, September 13, 2020.
Zizek, Slavoj. The Fragile Absolute, or, Why is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting For. Verso, London and New York, 2001.
Niccolo Rocamora Vitug is a Ph.D. candidate at the College of Music of the University of the Philippines and an instructor in the Department of Literature at University of Santo Tomas. He is an alumnus of the Silliman National Writers Workshop. He holds a BFA in Creative Writing and MA in Literary and Cultural Studies, from the Ateneo de Manila University. His poetry collection Enter Deeply, selected as a finalist for the 2020 Gaudy Boy Poetry Book Prize, is a forthcoming publication of the University of the Philippines Press.
In 28 August 1974, when Cesar Jalandoni Amigo received the Outstanding Sillimanian Award for Screenwriting and TV/Film Production, he was riding a crest of recognition for a body work that, starting in 1949, had been consistently impressive, and straddled two creative worlds—that of literature and that of cinema, although his fame leaned towards the latter. His citation for that award begins: “[His] world is the world of film, some of them fiction, but in that world, Mr. Amigo is real. His contribution to the art and profession of filmmaking in the Philippines has been substantial and for this he has been amply awarded.”
What is the sum of this contribution? In quick consideration, there are the thirty-three films to his credit—all of which he wrote or provided the story for, and four of which he also directed. There are the four FAMAS Awards for his screenplays [plus a few more nominations]. And then there are the stories themselves—always with a social bent, geared towards a deeper consideration of what he felt to be the vital issues of the day.
In 3 June 1973, when he received the Patnubay ng Kalinangan [Guardian of Culture] Award, an honor bestowed by the City of Manila, which is considered by many local artists to be one of the most prestigious and the most sought-after cultural award in the capital, the noted writer and civic leader Celso Al. Carunungan addressed Manila’s Commission on Arts and Culture in testament of his friend:
“Cesar J. Amigo has used his talents not merely for self-aggrandizement, but also as weapons, however modest, in humanity’s fight against traditional enemies: communism and population explosion. In the mid-1950s, Amigo devoted almost two years of his life writing and directing anti-communist films in Vietnam and Cambodia. The early 1970s see him gradually switching from theatrical movies to film featurettes on family planning, which Cesar Amigo now produces and directs for the National Media Production Center, in collaboration with the Population Commission.”
He was the most lauded scripter of his day, and people could readily recognize his authorial signature in the films that he wrote—one could say he was the precursor, together with Clodualdo Del Mundo Sr., to the likes of Amado Lacuesta, Clodualdo Del Mundo Jr., Ricky Lee, Raquel Villavicencio, and Jun Lana, all of them celebrated screenwriters that came after him.
Cesar J. Amigo was born in Manila on 22 September 1924, but grew up and spent his formative years in Dumaguete City, Negros Oriental, where he had family. [He is related to the famed Amigo clan in Dumaguete.] He went to kindergarten at what was then Silliman Institute in 1929, proceeding to the primary grades at the same school in 1930. For his intermediate grades, he attended West Central School [now West City Elementary School], graduating in 1937. He attended Negros Oriental High School for his freshman and sophomore years [1937-1939], but transferred to Mindanao and studied at Cotabato High School, where he graduated in 1941. He returned to Dumaguete soon after to study Pre-Law at what was now Silliman University—where he was subsequently elected Vice President of the Silliman Literary Guild [already betraying his literary inclinations at age 17]—but his college education was interrupted by the outbreak of World War II.
When he returned to school in Dumaguete in 1945, right after the war, he shifted gears and this time pursued a degree in political science. He also became part of what was later called the Class of Reconstruction—the cohort of college students at Silliman University who witnessed the biggest social change and cultural development thus far. The war had disrupted their lives, and those who survived the Japanese occupation and its terrors came back to the classroom with a renewed vigor. They brought with them, according to Silliman University President Arthur Carson, an “enthusiasm and … sober maturity,” which then “brought stimulus and reward.”
What should be noted is that this returning group of students—particularly the Class of 1948 [to which Amigo belonged]—brought together at least two generations of young people into war-ravaged Silliman campus: those who had yet to experience college life but were now of age to begin higher studies, and those whose own tertiary matriculation was cut short. The former brought with them fresh vigor, and the latter returned more than ready to begin again—and this combination became a melting pot from which would come much of the creative ferment that cemented Silliman’s [and Dumaguete’s] contribution to the national culture. The next five years after 1945 became a period when the student population more than doubled, despite the glaring challenges of post-war education, including the lack of classrooms and the lack of faculty to teach. Because of the massive enrolment that only became even more massive with each passing semester, certain liberties in completing courses were instituted, and the schedule between semesters was tightened. 1946, for example, is known as the year without a summer vacation, as students raced to complete their courses to accommodate incoming students. In 1947, three commencement ceremonies were held for seniors who were able to complete their requirements.
The title “Class of Reconstruction,” which was given to the Class of 1948, is the cohort that felt the joy and the challenges of post-war reconstruction and rehabilitation in campus the most. Swirling around Amigo and his classmates were many things in the local culture that were beginning to stir. In 1948, the Student Government came back to operation, publishing its Constitution in the September 18 issue of The Sillimanian. [The school paper itself resumed publication only in 1946.] Plans for the reviving of the yearbook, The Portal, was also underway. [Its first post-war publication would eventually be released in 1949, reprinting with permission Rafael Zulueta da Costa’s poem “Like the Molave” as a centerpiece to underline a popular post-war sentiment of strength after adversity.] Theatre made a dramatic comeback, with Gilbert and Sullivan musicals and Shakespeare plays being staged to popular reception on campus in the late 1940s on to the 1950s. In 1947, Edilberto K. Tiempo, a returning faculty member, was accepted into the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop, followed the next year by his wife, Edith, who was also admitted into the same program. Campus publication flourished, with Rodrigo Feria at the helm.
And lastly, in 1948, the Sands & Coral was launched.
The first issue of the Sands & Coral was edited by Cesar Amigo and Aida Rivera [now Ford], under the guidance of Rodrigo Feria and Ricaredo Demetillo. This magazine would later make its mark as the preeminent literary publication of Silliman University. The folio caught the attention of national literary circles, was reviewed favorably in newspapers, and signaled Silliman’s growing importance in the contribution to the national literature, particularly that in English, which would be the main engine of the burgeoning Dumaguete literary culture in those years. Alongside Amigo and Rivera would be other Silliman writers who would soon win national accolades and see constant print in national publications—including Jose V. Montebon Jr., Eddie Romero, Kenneth Woods, Reuben Canoy, James Matheson, Edith Tiempo, Edilberto K. Tiempo, Graciano H. Arinday Jr., Ricardo Drilon, Leticia Dizon, David Quemada, and Ricaredo Demetillo. Many of these names would be part of a campus literary group who called themselves The Barbarians, Inc.
Among Amigo’s literary output as a Silliman student are several items published in the 1946 issue of the Sillimanian Magazine, including a poem [“Postlude”] and a short story [“Rain Without Meaning”]. After his editorial stint for Sands & Coral in 1948, he would contribute one more time to the folio, this time with a criticism piece titled “Ideals and the Man” for the 1951 issue edited by Reuben Canoy, Claro Ceniza, Honorio Ridad, and Lugum Uka. In this short piece, Amigo crystallized an abiding philosophy:
The man who considers his ideal as a thing apart from his actual being, a distant goal, makes a perilous mistake. For the ideal is forever enmeshed with the courses of our lives. It never leaves us. A man may indulge in gluttony, but invariably he will despise another glutton because the perception of it revolts his innate principles of abstinence, which is only a factor of a more complex Ideal. In this case, the ideal manifests itself in a physical reaction, as it does in the more superficial motions and opinions of a human being.
Let there be no mistaking it: no man can isolate himself from the Ideal. He may be unconscious of it; he may despise ideals. But there is not a single human being of a sane mind, however stupid or dissipated, who does not erect [consciously or unconsciously] a standard of behavior, a Principal Attitude. What is this standard? An Ideal.
His son Bob would remember his literary inclinations: “Like most accomplished writers, [my father] was a voracious reader. For the most part of the day, he would soak himself in reading novels, the local dailies, Time and Newsweek, Reader’s Digest, and just about anything he could get his hands on—including spiritual books from almost any religious persuasion. To be sure, this was the foundation that made him the consummate writer that he was. It would seem that this love for the printed page was a passion he learned from his mother, Belen Jalandoni.”
He continued: “As a writer, he was most comfortable working late at night. I remember waking up in the wee hours of the morning hearing him pounding away on his typewriter. And when he was exhilarated about a story or screenplay that he was doing, I would hear him relate this to my mother, Ursula. Oh, how he loved telling her his stories. I suspect that she was the only audience who mattered most to him.”
Soon after graduating from college in 1949, Amigo would return to Manila, where he landed his first job—that of senior scriptwriter for Sampaguita Pictures, following the lead of Romero, who had begun writing screenplays for Gerardo de Leon, starting with Ang Maestra in 1941. [The two would have a long collaborative relationship in the coming decades.]
His stint at Sampaguita would last until 1951, whereupon he began working as a freelance scriptwriter. The gambit paid off, and his screenplay for Buhay Alamang [co-written with Romero] would finally be produced in 1952. The film would also net him his first award, the FAMAS for Best Screenplay. But the following years also saw him drop off from screenwriting altogether, and between 1953 and 1956, he turned to journalism, becoming a movie columnist for Sunday Times Magazine.
In 1956, he began working for the propaganda arm of the U.S. military, specifically as senior scriptwriter and documentary film director for the USIS-Saigon (Vietnam) and USIS-Pnom Penh (Cambodia). In this period, he would write and produce films with an anti-communist bent, notably with Saigon (1956), a film directed by De Leon and starring Leopoldo Salcedo, Ben Perez, Cristina Pacheco, and Khank Ngoc [a famous Vietnamese film actress and singer who would win Best Actress for Anh Sang Mien Nam (1955), a joint Vietnamese-Filipino production, at the Philippine Film Festival Award]. Saigon is a revenge melodrama about ill-starred Vietnamese lovers fleeing the Viet Cong from North Vietnam.
The stint with the U.S. military would last until 1957, and Amigo soon returned to the Philippines to write Ang Kamay ni Cain for De Leon, from a story by Clodualdo Del Mundo Sr. Soon, film assignments rolled in with more regularity, and the rest of the 1950s would see him write the screenplays for Sweethearts (1957), Bakya Mo Neneng (1957), Be My Love (1958), You’re My Everything (1958), Laban sa Lahat (1958), Hanggang sa Dulo ng Daigdig (1958), Rolling Rockers (1959), Eva Dragon (1959), and Hawaiian Boy (1959). Of these titles from this period of resurgence, he would be known most for Hanggang sa Dulo ng Daigdig—a crime film directed by De Leon, about an outlaw [played by Pancho Magalona] out for revenge—for which he would win once more the FAMAS Award for Best Screenplay. For that film, Reel News critic Francisco Villa would write: “[The film boasts of a] treatment at its most imaginative… and realism in its rawest and most stunning presentation.” Amigo’s reputation as a screenwriter was secured.
In the 1960s, his screenwriting credits would include Escape to Paradise (1960), Sandakotna Alabok (1960), Kadenang Putik (1960), Sa Ibabaw ng Aking Bangkay (1960), Vengavito (1961), The Moises Padilla Story (1961), Halang ang Kaluluwa (1962) Labanan sa Balicuatro (1962), Falcon (1962), Sa Atin ang Daigdig (1963), Barilan sa Pugad Lawin (1963), Intramuros (1964), Blood is the Color of Night (1964), Magandang Bituin (1965), The Ravagers (1965), 7 Gabi sa Hong Kong (1966), The Passionate Strangers (1966), Gold Bikini (1967), Ang Limbas at ang Lawin (1967), Virgin of Kalatrava Island (1967), Brides of Blood (1968), and Igorota (1968)—a run of films that would exhibit Amigo’s wide-ranging capabilities in handling different genres, from film noir [The Passionate Strangers] to horror [Brides of Blood], from action-filled drama ripped from the headlines [The Moises Padilla Story] to war epics [Escape to Paradise], from historical melodrama [Igorota] to romantic comedies [Magandang Bituin], from musicals [7 Gabi sa Hong Kong] to spy capers [Gold Bikini]. He would also begin writing B-movies for Hollywood around this time, often in association with Eddie Romero, Gerardo De Leon, and Cirio Santiago.
He would also win the FAMAS for Best Screenplay for Kadenang Putik in 1961, and The Moises Padilla Story in 1962. The latter film [directed by De Leon]—about a real-life Occidental Negrense politician who becomes a martyr after a brutal election-related skirmish with a powerful provincial governor—has become an undisputed classic in the canon of Philippine cinema. This film, together with The Passionate Strangers [directed by Romero, and co-written by fellow Sillimanian Reuben Canoy]—which is set in Negros Oriental and is about an American factory owner who faces his demons as he confronts a labor strike and further muddles it with murder—completes Amigo’s duology on Negrense moral horrors.
In 1963, he would direct his first film, Sa Atin ang Daigdig, a story following six people “from the gutters” as they strive for success. [The movie’s press bills it as a film that “will startle you with its frankness and stir you for its truth.”] It became the Philippine entry to the prestigious Venice Film Festival—an honor that Amigo took in stride, proclaiming both the success of the production and its inclusion in Venice as “beginner’s luck.” He would also direct two more films in the 1960s—7 Gabi sa Hong Kong [a musical extravaganza starring Gloria Romero, Shirley Gorospe, and Juancho Gutierrez], and Wanted: Johnny L [an anti-crime anthology film he co-directed with De Leon and Romero].
Igorota—directed by Luis Nepomuceno in 1968—would also be a landmark film in Amigo’s screenwriting career, although contemporary critics would come to deride the film for being a “misguided” attempt by the Filipino film industry to crash the international market with its sensational tale of an Igorot maiden who falls in love with a man from the city in the lowlands—their union stirring cultural conflict that end in tragedy. The film would, however, win eight FAMAS Awards in 1969, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress [for Charito Solis, for whom this would become a milestone role]. Amigo would also serve as associate producer for the film.
The 1970s would herald a trickling down of Amigo’s screenwriting outputs, which would include The Hunted (1970), Pipo (1970), Ang Larawan ni Melissa (1972), The Pacific Connection (1974), Hindi Kami Damong Ligaw (1976), Babae … Sa Likod ng Salamin (1976), and his last film, Sa Dulo ng Kris (1977). The Hunted, which Amigo would also direct, was Nepomuceno’s follow-up to the success of Igorota, also starring Solis. The actress would return for a final engagement with Amigo as director in Babae … Sa Likod ng Salamin, the first film produced by Reuben Canoy. It is a psychological melodrama about a woman with dual personalities—that of a faithful wife by day, and a seductive mistress by night. “I’ve always had a soft heart for Cesar. [He is mild-mannered, soft-spoken, and intelligent director.] Besides, he is really good,” Solis would speak of Amigo in Crispina Martinez-Belen’s Celebrity World column for Manila Bulletin.
In 1972, he would win Best Director and Best Screenplay for Ang Larawan ni Melissa at the Quezon City Film Festival.
In 1977, he would direct Sa Dulo ng Kris, an expansive tale set in contemporary Mindanao detailing the challenges that people from the South regularly faced [including the conflict between Muslim natives and Christian settlers], which was produced by Canoy and starred Joseph Estrada and Vic Vargas. It would prove to be his final film, earning him his last nominations for Best Director and Best Story at the FAMAS.
Sometime in the early 1980s, Amigo returned to journalism full-time, becoming Managing Editor of The Evening Post. From 1983 to 1986, he also became a regular writer for The Manila Paper, which Reuben Canoy published and edited, putting out a column called “Bench Warming with W. Somerset Moghum.” [W. Somerset Moghum, his pen name, was derived from W. Somerset Maugham. Moghum is a twist of his nickname Mogoy—which only relatives and close friends from Silliman would call him.]
His wife Ursula also would pass away in 1982 at age 52, and he started to develop a love for cooking—perhaps to fill his late wife’s role in the family, as she was known among their friends for her culinary expertise.
In the twilight of his life, he would also return to his literary [and Sillimanian] roots, and help produce Abby R. Jacobs’ wartime memoir We Did Not Surrender in 1986. [Jacobs was an American missionary who taught at Silliman University, and was in Dumaguete when World War II broke out. Together with other American teachers, she evacuated to the hills and mountains of Negros to hide from the Japanese occupying forces, and where they bravely assisted the resistance movement. She taught at Silliman until 1953, and was one of Amigo’s mentors in his student days.]
He later became editor of HOY!, a monthly magazine, in 1987. The April 1987 issue of the magazine would be his last work, as he was diagnosed with colon cancer towards the end of April. He immediately had surgery in May, but the surgery was only a solution to ease his last days. He passed away on June 5 in his house in Mariposa, Quezon City, surrounded by family.
His eldest daughter Marika would remember his passion for his work, and his devotion to his family: “Papa’s passion for film was evident with every line he wrote and every frame he shot. But what his patrons would never know was that the only thing this decorated filmmaker loved more than his craft was his family. And his countless home movies and family photographs prove that. The glitz and glam of the limelight never fazed him. His life at home was his priority and he made sure that we all felt the same way. Our dinner table was always bursting with excitement, as each of us would eagerly tell each other of our day. Our guests would even point out that dinners at the Amigo house would always run long because everyone had so many stories to tell. But no one told stories quite like Papa. His eccentricities and his cinematic narration were uniquely his.
“His love for film poured into these conversations, too. This dinner table was where we would unleash our inner movie critic and conduct lengthy discussions on the films we just saw. Film was not just in our blood; it was part of our soul. Papa made sure that the very art form we loved would bring us closer to our loved ones.
“And as the years went by, this has not changed. The Amigo table still has the longest dinners that are chock full of stories we eagerly tell each other sprinkled with unabashed critiques of the latest box office hits. Papa’s love for family was infectious, so much so that we became each other’s closest friends. And although he did not get the chance to meet most of his grandchildren, they share that very same closeness my siblings and I share. Their dinner tables ring of enthusiastic storytelling and meticulous movie critiques too!
“As a daughter that still misses her father, I’m grateful that Papa’s passions are still immortalized for the world to see. His award-winning films, and most of all, his influence in his family for generations to come.”
His second-born, Bob—or Bebop, would remember his tenacity regarding film production, insisting always on the paramount importance of story, but also not at the expense of the bottom-line: “As a film director, [my father] believed that the storyline was the centerpiece. But he did not indulge his creative senses in stories that his audience could not relate to. He understood the balance of doing a film that told a good narrative and returned a profit to his producers’ investment at the box- office. To this end, he did not believe in wasting raw footages that merely ended up on the cutting room’s floor. Thus, during production, he meticulously crafted every detail of his shot with the purpose of cutting down on outtakes.
“’Economy of words,’ he once told me, ‘is a skill that every writer should develop.’ I cannot help thinking that many today could benefit from his wisdom—particularly in an age when almost anybody can fancy himself a writer by merely putting out his work on the internet. Cesar J. Amigo belonged to an era of writers whose pen was golden.”
We get the same sense of Amigo as writer from son Ike, the fifth in the brood: “I did not have the opportunity to watch many of my father’s movies, because his prolific writing days were on its tail-end when I was old enough to go to the movie house. However, it’s not hard to see why he was a good scriptwriter. The stories that he’d tell us on the dinner table were always interesting—from how he won over my mother in marriage, to why he lost two fingers on his left hand, to his experiences in Saigon that closely resembled the adventures of Indiana Jones, even though that character wasn’t invented yet. That’s why I looked forward to our time on the dinner table, because it was a guaranteed front-row seat to my father’s next storytelling adventure.”
From Gigi, his fourth-born, we get a sense of Amigo as a man with many facets, including an inherent quirkiness—and further explanation for those two missing fingers: “[My father] was quite the character. He was funny and quirky and a great storyteller. He had a way with words, which is no surprise since he was a writer. But growing up in Dumaguete, his main language was English and Bisaya. His weakness was Tagalog. So what did he do? He invented some Tagalog words. These words seemed so real to us that it was only when I started school that I learned from classmates that I’m using made-up Tagalog words nobody understood. For example, ‘tudoy,’ which apparently was not Tagalog for ‘toe’! He gave funny names to our pets as well, like our dog A-shit, our goldfish Quasimodo, and a pair of carp he named Mr. and Mrs. Carruthers. Even the clueless mailman was baptized as Mr. Estonactok.
“But what everyone who ever met him would probably remember was that he always wore a two-fingered black glove on his left hand. This glove covered two fingers cut in half. Papa had a lot of versions on how he lost his fingers. Some stories were funny, while others were outrageous. But the best story was the real one. He accidentally cut them off with an electric saw mishap while attempting to build a bookshelf! He rushed himself to a nearby clinic just as it was locking up for the night. Papa knocked on the door with his bleeding hand and a beautiful woman opened the door to let him in. And that was how he met the love of his life, my mother. That is a story worth telling through the ages.”
From the youngest, Cesar Jr.—or Jun—we get a sense of a carrying on of that passion for filmmaking: “Pursuing a career in film or production was never a dream of mine. Sure, I was proud to be a film director’s son, and of course I loved movies growing up. But the thought of following in Papa’s footsteps never crossed my mind. Still, Papa had such a unique and impactful personality that it’s almost impossible not to be influenced by him. Seeing him a few times in action on a film set and having those endless discussions about movies during mealtimes gave my siblings and me an appreciation for film production, and depth of cinematic perspective far beyond others our age. So it doesn’t come as a surprise that four of his six children eventually ended up in production at one point or another, myself included. Papa’s been gone for awhile now but his legacy continues on… even to his grandchildren.”
My thanks to the Amigo family, especially Marika Amigo Bulahan, for their assistance in the writing of this article, as well as for the treasure trove of archival photos.
Ian Rosales Casocot teaches literature, creative writing, and film at Silliman University in Dumaguete City, Philippines where he was Founding Coordinator of the Edilberto and Edith Tiempo Creative Writing Center. He is the author of several books, including the fiction collections Don’t Tell Anyone, Bamboo Girls, Heartbreak & Magic, and Beautiful Accidents. In 2008, his novel Sugar Land was longlisted in the Man Asian Literary Prize. He was Writer-in-Residence for the International Writers Program of the University of Iowa in 2010.
I. The Night Lives on the Boulevard and Escaño, Circa 2010
It is not difficult to map the geography of Dumaguete’s night life.
The simple answer is: there’s nothing.
Nothing resembling the sophisticated rough and tumble of metropolises, anyway—say, Manila’s Embassy and Greenbelt and The Fort, or Cebu’s Vudu and Doce, or Baguio’s Vocas and Rumours, or the whole sandy stretch of Boracay. There are no sightings of night creatures in the city bedecked in the signature wardrobe of painting the town red as they descend on the enviable hot spots of the moment, to party all night to the latest musical concoctions of the deejay du jour, and to emerge only in the near morning light smelling of sweet smoke and an amalgam of alcohol, cigarette, sweat, recreational mind-warpers, and perhaps somebody’s saliva.
Dumaguete is never a city that “never sleeps.”
It’s too small, some people say, and knows no variety. Everybody goes to the same places all the time, and everybody dances to the same music again and again. A “night life” is worth its reputation only in the way it provides escape from boredom of the every day. You can’t have that when tedium becomes the escape itself.
But there’s also this indefinable something—or perhaps a clustery kaleidoscope of everything: a scattered constellation of bright (and not-so-bright) nocturnal buzzing that follows a strict schedule lasting more than half a week, creating a social swirl that is governed, by and large, by a strange Negrense sense of social class.
One always starts with coffee and dinner and light talk at Gabby’s Bistro, in the enclaves of Bantayan, where the bright lights and the cheerful colors always seem to beautifully kick in the start of a good evening. Some choose to spend nighttime in the old tagay tradition, not on anonymous sidewalks outside residences, but in places like Garahe along Noblefranca, or Qyosko along Santa Rosa, or Sted’s near that. (But this is not an essay on beer circles.)
Everything really begins on Wednesdays, when the B and C crowd—mostly college students but also a generous smattering of young professionals—all ache to get over the hump day, looking forward to the looming weekend ahead. They flock to the Pinoy/Jamaican sounds of Hayahay’s Reggae Wednesday, where Sande Fuentes, often with Mickey Ybañez and the rest of the Hayahay regulars in tow, hold court. The beer in their hands will be ice-cold.
Hayahay attracts a loyal customer base—has always been since it opened in 2000. Its charms are rustic and simple: just a hodge-podge of mini-bars and tables, mostly in the open air, in an arrangement of managed chaos gelled together by a bohemian spirit. This is true Dumaguete night life at its purest form.
Its two observation decks will be in full capacity, and so will be Chez Andre’s pizza corner to the left-most side of the entire compound, where three large round tables accommodate a plethora of barkadas, with a vantage sight of the amused observer staring down the rest of the lion’s den. The band for the night—a mix of Boyan’s Law, Stand Out, Souljah, Front Page, or Silent Vibe—will start playing around nine, perhaps even earlier, and by the time midnight comes along, a throng—bodies rubbing and hopping to the quirky reggae sound—can be found on the tiny dance floor in front of the band.
Everywhere, everybody is uniformed in careless shirts over shorts pants, feet clad in sandals and espadrilles. Wednesday is when you let your hair down but still party. Wednesdays are sweaty. Wednesdays are dread locks nights.
On Thursdays, a taste of the weekend finally begins, but nothing too ostentatious—Hayahay still mostly closes by midnight, and its neighbor El Camino Blanco may blare out dance music but the place is often near empty.
Nobody goes to Camino on Thursdays. That is taken as an unspoken breach of night-life logic.
And so the only recourse, perfectly acceptable to many, is to park one’s car or van along the beachfront stretch of Escaño Boulevard, then take out the plastic shopping bags containing junk food and assorted pulutan, Tanduay rhum, and endless beer—and then party till the wee hours with the music blaring from the car’s stereo.
The spot that tops the T-shape of the stretch is ground zero for grill parties. It’s the choice spot to be in Escaño, which has since replaced San Moritz (along Agan-an) as the nighttime beach side hangout of Dumaguete. There is a certain headiness to being Escaño—perhaps the effect of the collision of the orange tungsten lights running smack against the black horizon of the sea, the twinkling lights of Cebu towns in the distance.
On Thursdays, the scene is small—only a few cars and a scattering of motorcycles dot the Escaño landscape—but already, the oldish couple manning the small stall at the corner of Piapi Beach and E.J. Blanco Drive is making good business selling packs of cigarettes, soft drinks, bottles of Tanduay (with a choice of long neck or flats), and packs and packs of ice. Business for them (and for the peanut vendors that now ply the long “runway” walk of Escaño, which ends at a sari-sari store/beer garden rightly named Tambayan sa Escaño) will pick up some more intensity in the next two days.
On Fridays, Payag sa Likod, nestled in the bowels of unassuming bodegas fronting the provincial hospital, unleashes what it calls Reggae Friday, and students (mostly from nearby Silliman University) descend on cheap beer, wallowing in the strange bamboo-hut-intimacy of Payag’s open door ambience. Here, the charming Christine Torres reigns, ready to pour you a swig of Payag Sling, its pinkish concoction subtle but ravishingly deadly. Admittedly, there is a roughness and an earthy aroma to the place that may confuse the uninitiated—but this is where the kids hang out, a cocoonish respite from the vastness of sea sky of Piapi Beach. And the beer is cheap. And the place is the only spot in town where the maddening crowds—all distinguished by the pecking order of schools around town—are allowed, somewhat, to mingle. The NORSU crowd are here hobnobbing with the Sillimanians, the Foundation people with the Paulinians who are careful to keep a low profile lest the nuns know.
In Gimmick, things are not the same: the Sillimanians with their airs have left the scene, and the NORSUnians have taken over. In Maychen, right across the road from Gimmick, a kind of social black hole—awashed in Beer na Beer—exists amidst the heaps of trash, the slaking rivers of urine across the dirt floor, and the monobloc tables and chairs jammed against jagged cement edges of what used to be a house. It is a different kind of party in Maychen.
But the main party still remains in Escaño, which, on Friday nights, is now beginning to pick up steam. The stretch—which starts right in front of Hayahay and goes all the way to the dark beyond, would now be filled to capacity, crammed with all manners of cars and motorcycles creating a drunken patchwork of parking. Nobody cares.
In one corner, near Barefoot Bistro, the policemen keep watch. Many moons ago, this was dangerous ground—I have friends who have been stabbed or mauled here—but the atmosphere has arguably since changed. It has become the place where the kids can “safely” party. There is a kind of harmony in the orchestrated chaos—everybody knows everybody—and people dance, flirt, drink, and make speeches to the moon and the stars.
Still, only the desperate goes to Camino on Friday nights, and most will probably end up in Hayahay, to binge on sisig and sinuglaw, and rhum and vodka.
On Saturday nights, the party in Escaño comes to full blast—and the well-heeled crowd now finally descends on Camino, with full intentions to gyrate to house and R&B. The ladies are in their best small black dresses, hair and makeup perfectly done—but with full expectations to be fully undone by the time the night comes to a close. These days, it is local designer Josip Tumapa who comes in with his posse to start the night right. (In olden days, that role would have been Al de las Armas’s.) And the deejay plays his selection of dance tunes—mostly R&B, because the Dumaguete crowd simply does not get house or trance music—but nobody dances until Mitz Meliton dances. It always begins with Paper Kisses doing contemporary covers. On some (bad) nights, a deejay’s sidekick would bark into the microphone, shouting, “Aw! Aw! Aw!” or “Seleman! Seleman! Jump! Jump, jump, jump your hands!” Some would, of course, jump. Some would curse back, telling him to go shut himself. DJ Joeren is the local deejay for the days—but sometimes, a Manila-based one, such as DJ Ace from Embassy, would be flown in, ready to give Dumaguete a taste of edgier stuff.
In Music Box, the dance hall of the entertainment and dining compound generally known as Why Not?—an alternate universe exists—where the garishly made-up and the truly crazy hobnob with the white trash to the sound of 90s dance music, creating the grand spectacle unique to the place: people dancing, not with each other, but to their reflection on the mirrored panels surrounding the squarish dance floor as everybody looks on in strange fascination. It is a different kind of fun, something to subscribe to when you’re already too drunk to care.
The Rizal Boulevard—previously the center of Dumaguete’s night life universe—is a ghost of its former self, crippled by pious but misplaced city regulations, and done to death by the spectacle of Japayuki-style entertainment on a makeshift stage outside CocoAmigos. “Nobody I know has been to CocoAmigos in months,” says a friend. “Too many boorish foreigners and their brown women.”
“That’s a bad thing to say,” I told him.
“But isn’t that how it goes? The moment they come, the locals disappear.”
And then the party stops at three o’clock on a Sunday morning—and slowly, the crowd dissipates for an after-midnight chow at Connie’s or Qyosko or Chowking. They will look tired and happy, like the very picture of merry stupor and delirium.
II. Walking the Ramp
“We do too many fashion shows in Dumaguete.”
—Patrick Boglosa, event organizer
Sometimes, the city night life is all about shows. The big event. This is the story of one of them.
It was already 6 o’clock in the late Saturday afternoon of August 29—and Dumaguete was at the start of the difficult process of winding down after the weeklong founding celebration of Silliman University.
It was the last day for a partying month—and the night to come was to be the last call for letting down one’s hair. “It was party to the limits, or bust,” recalled Gerard Anthony Adiong.
The entire month was already a veritable beehive of activity, but the seven days before this day had been particularly crackling with the excitement of a mob let loose: Silliman’s collegiate throng—and this is the only crowd that actually makes the city alive—saw no classes, and there was suddenly the excuse, the daily invention to party.
Mostly, they descended on Hibalag, the booth area near the Silliman gym—a bastion of tradition, and in the old days even bigger than the city fiesta, that had lasted decades. The year’s edition of Hibalag, even if small, was still surprisingly particularly zesty, its sense of fun miraculously infectious after seven years of morass that had its size and ambition contract year by year. This year’s Hibalag, needless to say, still mostly paled in comparison to the booths of more than a decade ago, when the soccer field became a virtual bustling city of nipa and amakan and kawayan, filling the entire span from Larena Hall to the Silliman Library, from the gymnasium to the Divinity School. There were a maze of byways and little streets that it was easy to get lost in the storm of organizations ready to spring on you both pranks and innovative commerce.
But even then, all throughout the week, there had been food fairs, and class reunions, and private parties, and exhibitions, and concerts, and horror chambers, and beauty pageants, and fashion shows, and tattoo artists plying their trade. August 29 was the last day of all that—and people seemed bent on giving the month that one last fling before they settled to the ides of September.
On that date, at six o’clock, Jaysun Penales, an event organizer and a clinical instructor at the College of Nursing, was still at Barefoot Bistro doing last minute preparations for the event he would be hoisting on the city late that night. It was the third edition of an annual “fashion fling” he called D’Ramp—and all pressure was on him. Already this one was the fourth—and the last—fashion show to hit Dumaguete in a week. Only that Wednesday, and in the same venue, Toto Marquez and his crew had already unleashed their Sneak Foam Party that featured a revealing ramp show of models wearing nothing but the skimpiest of beach wear. (The foam party part, however, was a bust—there was no foam, and nobody partied.) The following night, annexing Barefoot Bistro and El Camino Blanco this time around, Tyrone Tejam amped the ante with his X International Fashion Party that brought in a Manila deejay and a batch of international models, purportedly Eastern European and Brazilian.
Was Dumaguete already in a fashion fatigue? The tickets for the previous shows had already been priced quite high, one at P200 and the other at P500—enormous sums for the notoriously cheap Dumaguete crowd. The lingering question remained: was there a paying crowd left for D’Ramp 3, even at P150 per ticket? Better yet: would anyone be left to care for what passed for a fashion show in the city?
Fashion shows in Dumaguete are relatively a new phenomenon—although Dumaguete society had long since done their share from the 1960s on with private fashion shows exclusive to their well-heeled ilk. The city had never really been fashionable, given everybody’s predilection for tropical uniform: a white shirt, a pair of “city shorts,” and sandals. The idea of couture is largely lost in this small town pretending to be a city, but in the late 1990s and finally in the 2000s, “fashion shows” became almost an epidemic—and it came out in all sorts of disguises, from low-brow bikini opens celebrating the carnal, to wedding shows at the boulevard at the height of May.
Some call the phenomenon a travesty.
“Sometimes,” says local fashion designer Josip Estolloso Tumapa, “I do agree that we do a lot of fashion shows in Dumaguete. But it is quite an insult to attach the word ‘fashion’ in relations to many of these shows. Because some are done with intentions other than serving fashion. They’re more like Monterey ‘walking-meat’ shows. They’re partnered mostly RTW boutiques that make everything look … commercial. If I were to pay P150 to see clothes that I see anytime I want just by walking the streets of this city, then hell I would rather sweat it by walking rather than paying. It’s getting kapoy. And it’s getting generic. That is why I do filtering on the events I am invited to—to only work with established or semi-established and competent, well-experienced people in the field of production whom also I can learn from. And to check the production plans and see that everything won’t be half-baked. Lisud naman gud especially from my side. Here I am working and enslaving myself making clothes and—ugh, utter disappointment. But I think it comes in stages. Hopefully Dumaguete will get there sooner than later if we do serve the growing Dumaguete ‘fashion crowd’ with something deserving and worth the money. Nothing run-of-the-mill.”
Mr. Penales, in the meantime, hung on to what he thought would make his show a little different—this was going to be a bigger show, featuring almost fifty models culled from the various social sets around Dumaguete and Cebu. And he was also launching Faces magazine, a project he was editing for Negros Chronicle, which for its first issue would showcase what he called “the fifteen hottest bachelors of the city.” Most of those bachelors—which included the ragtag bunch of Gabby del Prado, Ian Lizares, Marco Ongsingco, Dudly Mark Realuyo Rios, Farzad E. Pakdamanian, Jonathan Keane Camat, Jacob Carl Jumawan, Ian Rosales Casocot, Saturnino Pacencia Jr., Bernard Piñero, Kyle Janruss Delfino, and Ralph Percidenes—would open the show and walk the ramp. He believed people would come. It was the last night of the Founders Week, after all. People would come.
And then it started to rain hard.
Dressed only in a plain orange shirt and shorts and a pair of slippers, Mr. Penales had been doing last minute preparations, checking that everything was set—the lights, the sounds, the stage that had been hurriedly set up only that morning, the makeshift dressing area, the sponsors’ various tarpaulin, the arrangement of the models’ clothes. It would have been a logistics nightmare, but his production assistant Bogy Lim, a quiet young man whose unassuming air belies a sharp fascination for dealing with details, was busy zeroing in on the essentials. Somewhere in the chaos, Angel Gonzales, another production assistant, counted out the clothes, and the choreographer Janjaran was busy plotting out the intricate finalities of the models’ movements on the long runway, a not-so-sturdy plank made of lawanit that was now beginning to get soaked in by the pouring rain. The models, meanwhile, were billeted in three hotels around town—in Hotel Carmila, in Hotel Nicanor, and in Ildesefa. Call time was six o’clock, and all were busy getting their makeup. They were all getting hungry, but no one dared eat—it wouldn’t be good to look puffy and stuffed in front of a crowd. And some of them would be wearing lingerie and stylish briefs in a few segments. In Room 303 of Hotel Nicanor, event organizer Kathleen Hynson Patacsil was helping put on the makeup for the boys while the newly made-up Aesha Amigo Villanueva gingerly brushed away the hotel’s curtains and looked out the window to see the rain pouring down like mad on San Jose Street. “Do you think it’s still going to rain at 10 o’clock?” she asked no one in particular. “Will we even have a show?”
The show, of course, was still a distant four hours away, but the rain was not helping anybody—including those who planned to see the show—feel at ease. In her house somewhere in Valencia, Arlene Delloso-Uypitching was a little worried about the tickets she was promised, and also the possibility of getting wet. In Hotel Carmila, Miss Dumaguete Maria Luz Catan was not happy with her make-up, and swore to hop to another hotel and another make-up artist, her boyfriend and fellow model Ian Lizares in tow. Back in Barefoot Bistro, sitting quietly at the bar, Mr. Penales was already thinking in terms of contingencies—what he would do if the rain persisted, or if a blackout would occur? But he was also thinking: what would I wear? It had to be something that would make him look good on stage. He wanted to go home, take a shower. He felt sticky and sweaty despite the cold air.
Earlier that Saturday morning, things were the very picture of preparations going well. The day was fine and bright, the skies blue. It had been rainless all of August, and no one would foresee the drench of rains ahead. That morning, El Camino Blanco and Barefoot Bistro—the twin venues for things nocturnal in Dumaguete—looked quite different in the daylight that at nighttime, at the height of weekend parties where the darkness hide the empty beer mugs, the ashtrays filled with discarded cigarette butts, the curious flirtations between friends and strangers alike. In the daylight, the remnants of Friday night were all too clear and topsy-turvy—it looked like the aftermath of a battle. The tables and chairs were haphazard, some in a dance of tumbled madness. Everywhere, the carpenters and electricians were busy putting in the effects for the duo events for the night—D’Ramp 3 and the Philip Morris Party. The ramp in the bistro was being built—a plywood runway held together by a flimsy wood frames. The speakers were being put in place, the tents unfurled. Inside Camino, new lights—better, more dramatic ones—were being installed, and a new deejay’s booth being placed on stage. The models were in clusters were everywhere, all trying to get last minute instructions for how to move that night. Still, this was going to be my first time to walk the ramp—I have never “modeled” before, if that was the word for it, as I was always in the background of things as these events go. But I took to the experience as an observer of new things—and came to this conclusion once said to me by a friend, a socialite: “I like fashion shows. They’re shallow fun, and vanity is the perfect excuse for being in the center of things.” But considering the rain later, I asked ruefully, would the “debut” even happen?
But by nine o’clock, the rain was slowing down—but it would not readily vanish away. It slowed down in spurts. It was still cold, but at least nobody was going to get wet, except by stray showers. By ten o’clock, the two red billowing tents that graced the catwalk and the rows of chairs that surrounded it were filling to the brim, and by the time the fifteen bachelors walked the ramp to open the show to the tune of Pitbull’s “I Know You Want Me,” the crowd was screaming. At nearby El Camino Blanco, the now legendary Philip Morris Party was also starting.
The night of August 29 was going to be a night everybody would remember.
Later on, Mr. Penales would tell me it was not glamorous at all, the staging of fashion shows—it was all of grit and tons of headache. But it was fun.
“Why do you do it then?” I asked.
“Passion,” he replied.
III. A Brief History of Dancing and Commotion
“College life is really not about pseudo teachers and their boring classes. It’s zigzagging from Escaño to Barefoot to take a leak.”
—Marianne Tapales, former student
Our nights become because of the city we have.
Let me start by saying that the city always seems to stand on the brink of clashing peculiarities that often make it difficult to describe. Dumaguete is—so the tired cliché goes—a city that really is a small town at heart—but not exactly. It is a place so far away from the center of things that it is permeated with a semi-rough probinsyano air—but not really. It’s conservative to the bone—but not really; it can be quite liberal—but not reallyeither. It is a beautiful, romantic place you can easily fall in love with—until you see pockets of it that make your heart bleed.
It is this and that, a place of constant flux in the guise of a slow tartanilla.
These things make it the capital of infuriating constancy as well as head-turning reinvention. But see how that goes? Our contradictions become us. “It’s the capital of schizoids then,” a friend once casually observed. I nodded and shook my head at roughly the same time.
Dumaguete is place where not too many people from the rest of the regions know very well—and there are people who are even more familiar with Silliman University than the place where it is located. (“Is Dumaguete in Silliman?” so the question goes. But perhaps this is in the same vein of how we think of Princeton but not New Haven.) Mention that it is in Negros (omitting the Spanish terms of direction that divide the island), and they think it’s a town near Bacolod. And yet it is a celebrated city in spite of itself: it is a place of cultural ferment, and a place of breathtaking romantic beauty that more often than not finds itself splashed, like a surprised virgin, on the pages of Island Magazine (“one of 20 best islands in the world to live in!”), the New York Times (“I grew attached to the small harbor town,” writes travel writer Daisann McLane), or the Lonely Planet travel guide (“If you were beginning to develop an aversion to regional centers, you’re in for a pleasant surprise with Dumaguete. It’s a nice place. Seriously. Everyone raves about the Rizal Boulevard promenade, and it’s true there’s something genuinely charming about this harbor-front ‘quarter mile’: the faux-antique gas lamps; the grassy median strip. But there are other things to like about Dumaguete: it’s big but it feels small, and it’s less congested, less polluted and—being a university town—far more hip and urbane than your average provincial capital”).
To the eyes of the world, it is our merry contradictions that make us.
Still, Dumagueteños love to shroud themselves in the promise of calm, slowness, and silence. We call it a “city of gentle people,” after all—a gentility bred by Spanish sugar nobility, I suppose, which does not really say much—or perhaps it is a throwaway description of how passive things can be here?
Historically, the silence has always been part of the old Dumaguete charm, and the first complaint now from any returning Dumagueteño long gone from the scene is to express dismay over the traffic and the surprising flood of people. Writer Krip Yuson, adopted son of the city, speaks of the old silence with such nostalgia in his book The Word on Paradise: “I remember it as clearly as yesterday, that first rite on a slow-moving tartanilla, May of 1968. How I marveled at the manner of entry, at the fresh air of provincia, rustic indolence, aged acacias lining an avenue I instantly knew would lead to a long-imagined, long-elusive fountainhead…”
I also remember an anecdote Jacqueline Veloso-Antonio once told me about how the sound of someone’s car from not too far away—the screeching of tires on asphalt or gravel road, the sound of brakes—can immediately be registered sight unseen. “That’s So-and-so’s car, we would say,” Jacqueline laughed, remembering the old days. “Nipauli na sya.”
And then there is also the “university town” label, a moniker that promises an abundance of youth culture that always must be on the cutting edge of things and sensibilities—inherently defiant, gloriously rough, astoundingly creative, aggressively hip. How does one reconcile that image with a Dumaguete that is also a bucolic capital smack in the middle of countryside?
Everybody knows everybody else, and conservative fronts—nurtured both by Roman Catholic piety and American Protestant missionary zeal—still remain the standard order of things. But there’s also an ironic awareness among most Dumagueteños that there are not-so-subtle waves of transgressions that run like undiscovered waters beneath this general impression of “nothing happening.”
When Peyton Place came out—first as a scandalous 1956 novel by Grace Metalious and then a 1957 hit movie directed by Mark Robson and starring Lana Turner—it wasn’t such a great surprise that many locals saw too many parallels between Dumaguete and that archetypal American small town of sweet hypocrisy, where a pristine white picket fence mentality also bristles with delicious scarlet secrets that threaten to explode like a vat of raw sugar.
Such places on the quiet edge of things beget nocturnal lives that are the stuff of scandalous dreams. Dumaguete is so small and so quiet, that to vent—in one way (drinking) or another (dancing)—becomes the thing to do. Which brings us to a truism that Moses Joshua Atega, a Dumaguete transplant from Davao, always tells every new visitor to Dumaguete, in a kind of wicked reassurance: “Nothing bad will happen to you in Dumaguete. But, if something bad happens, you will like it.”
It is into that tradition of billowing quiet and vapid slowness that Music Box—before it was known as Why Not?—came in, and radically altered the nighttime landscape.
There had been other disco places and clubs in town before Music Box arrived, of course, and there were social events of various stripes where the young of Dumaguete raged against the overwhelming quiet of the everyday.
Moses Atega told me that before there were “official” party places like El Camino and Hayahay, Dumagueteños were already hosting strings of private parties in casa blancas everywhere in town, including the posh ones hosted in American missionary homes in Silliman campus. Even older than that, there were the bayles during sipong among the sugar cane workers.
“When I was in high school in the 1970s,” local TV host Glenda Fabillar told me, “we had jam sessions held in friends’ houses with only katol as light.” She said this laughing at the memory. “Then, in college, we partied in Silliman’s Catacombs, and there were more—but I can only remember the places we went to, but not their names. There were a lot.”
“In the 1970s,” Professor Cecilia Genove told me, “it was Town and Country Bakeshop, or TCB, which had a disco. That’s located near the Gallardo Building where Mr. D is now. I remember we would climb the fence near the SU Church to cross to Town and Country, to buy hot pan de sal. There was also North Pole, which is now Why Not, where you can have dinner and a nightcap. No disco there, however. I remember the spaghetti of Maricar’s [which is now the boarded up place fronting Taster’s Delight]. Their pastries were our favorites. There was also Dainty, an ice cream parlor. Life was truly laidback then.”
Understandably, Dumagueteños ate out more than partied then. For Rural Bank’s Toby Dichoso, to go out in the 1970s was to visit Speed Meals, where Body and Sole is now. “They had really good food in a jiffy,” he said. “And when merienda time came, who could forget those ice cream sundaes of North Pole, which was located in the Boulevard then. They served the best sundaes and banana splits. Remember, these were the time when we had to take two flights to Dumaguete from Manila. We took flights from Manila to Cebu with BAC 1-11, and upon reaching Cebu we changed to a plane with a turbo propeller bound for Dumaguete. And we used to go to Cruztelco just to make long distance calls. All phones were analogue then—only four numbers—and we went through an operator and we would ask her to dial the number for us while we waited in the lobby. As soon as the operator would connect us, she would direct us to a booth with a number, and there we would converse.”
U.S.-based Al de las Armas remembered that time as an opportunity to be creative: “When we ran out of allowance, we shared, we treated, we donated, we pahulam to our fellow Sillimanians. I’d walk from the campus to Ricky’s and bum for piso-piso, and I’d got lots of money after the social walk… Then, of course, we spent it all having a good time… Nowhere else can you do that!”
Local Globe manager Jacqueline Antonio remembered her parents mentioning Red Pepper in the 1970s, where Monterey of La Residencia is now. “There was Rainbow Pub in Piapi, a bar with billiards—but I was too young then. Not sure if it had a disco. There was also Windmills in Banilad and North Pole—both in the Boulevard and then in Bantayan—in the late 1970s and 1980s,” she said. “There was Tavern’s soft bar in the late 1980s—‘80s music was the best!”
“Definitely Tavern in the 1980s,” says businesswoman and writer Sonia Sygaco. “It had a disco, a resto bar with a band. And billiards. Tavern, I think, was the only elegant place to go because Dumaguete at that time only restaurants with no additional forms of entertainment.”
“In the early 1980s,” court clerk Angel Quiamco remembered, “there was Blue Wave in Escaño. And pwede pa pa-inoman sa Boulevard then, after which mag-bayle sa SU gym, or Hibbard Hall’s second floor, or Silliman Hall’s first floor. This was during Fridays, with events sponsored by different campus organizations. Then there was inoman sa Silliman Beach, or mga bayle sa mga barangay during fiesta.”
But Music Box was the hinge that changed the course of things. The year was 1992, the world was still fresh from the wounds of the Gulf War, and a young Swiss named Marcus Kalberer took over what used to be North Pole, a beloved watering hole for locals, and put into place what was then the most ambitious party club in Dumaguete. The city until then knew no such things. To cap that plan, he installed a jazzed up jukebox on the roof of the old Veloso sugar house, with dazzlingly colorful neon signs blaring out the words: “Music Box.”
For the young in the early 1990s, it was an electric current into the common placidity and the brutal ugliness of the boring. It was also the new excuse for the hip to return to Rizal Boulevard, which had become, by the late 1980s, a mecca for drunkards and prostitutes who plied their alcohol smell and their skin trade in a virtual city of tambay vendors and barbecue stalls. The whole boulevard nightlife until then was defined by sleaze, its headquarters being Rainbow Lodge (later The Office), which is now the Sol y Mar Building where the Globe office is located. It used to be part motel, and part bar.
To go to the Boulevard then was reason enough to be mocked by friends. “You’re going to the Boulevard of Broken Dreams?” they would say. But the strip was slowly undergoing a cosmetic make-over then, spearheaded by the dynamic new mayor Agustin Perdices, who came in after the chaos of the Quial years. The grassy lawns were being manicured, the seaside promenade cemented and prettified, the garish fluorescent lights nailed to haphazard wooden posts replaced by the Spanish-style posts now emitting a more romantic yellow light. The sugar houses along the stretch suddenly took on a different shine. Some opened their doors to new business. There was now Sans Rival in the old Sagarbarria house, for example, and the old Villegas house was now Hotel Al Mar (later La Residencia). But there were unforeseen changes, too, that shocked: North Pole—the old Medina house, which was leased by the Wuttriches for 25 years—suddenly became Music Box.
And the young flocked to it like it was the answer to their dreams.
In the long-gone layout of the Music Box of old, you made your grand entrance after a cursory inspection by a bouncer—a new thing in Dumaguete then—and once you’ve passed through the heavy, padded doors and straight into the inside, you were introduced into a dark, very glamorous interior that was leveled in many places, red sofas dotting surfaces everywhere. The dance floor was right on the far-side. The walls were covered by screens that played the latest videos from MTV, when MTV was still new in the country and it still had currency as the symbol of cool. There were glittery things that hung from the ceiling. And the bar, right in the center of things, was party central. People dressed up to go to Music Box. The coolest cats and the most ravishing girls in town partied in Music Box.
Music Box was the place to be seen. “MB,” its patrons lovingly called it. And for the next five or so years, Music Box reigned as Dumaguete’s center of the social universe, where the young and the rich (and the social climbers) went and partied. To arrive by car was de riguer. Motorcycles were frowned upon, but tolerated. But if you arrived by tricycle, it was a common—although unspoken—rule that you had to alight by the corner near Chin Loong, and walk the rest of the way to the entrance.
And for what it is worth, Music Box opened the floodgates for more contemporary sensibilities that shook the old silences and the geriatric drool of the old Dumaguete.
It barged into the scene at the same time as DYGB, which blasted into the air as Power 95. It was the new FM station in town, with the swanky new chrome-and-white cement headquarters right in the heart of town—so swanky it even had a popular video store in the ground floor called Midtown, which rented out the latest in laser discs! DYGB threatened the longtime ascendancy of DYEM and its easy-listening vibe. (Remember “Album Covers”?) Barely a month into operation, the Dejarescos had taken it to court, to have it dial down to a frequency that was not to near its own. Power 95 soon became Power 91. But it was a hip new FM station with an alien sound, with fast-talking American-sounding deejays, playing scandalous songs like Salt N’ Pepa’s “Let’s Talk About Sex.”
Dumaguete’s head spun.
I still remember those days. I was still in high school—a sophomore in Silliman High—and one day, DJ Alan felt compelled to explain the nature of the next song in his playlist. “We don’t mean to hurt the sensibilities of the people in the community,” he said, “but we are here to play for Dumaguete the latest hit sounds. I hope nobody gets offended by our next song…”
And then the music played:
Let’s talk about sex, baby
Let’s talk about you and me,
Let’s talk about all the good things, all the bad things that may be.
Let’s talk about sex…
Let’s talk about sex.
Dumaguete’s head spun some more.
Later on, in early 1993, our first section of high school seniors from Silliman, led by our gangleader for merrymaking Gerard Anthony Adiong, trooped to our favorite party place in town, and painted the night away in hues of red and blue. Someone saw us partying like mad, and duly reported us to the authorities. The principal admonished us. “And to think you belong to the first section!” she said.
And thus began Dumaguete’s 10 P.M. curfew—with matching sirens blaring out like a mad sound from the heart of City Hall.
Blame us. That’s our fault.
IV. The Long Party Closes
“We were gods and goddesses of dance and light. Everywhere we went, we glittered.”
—Eric Samuel Joven, on Dumaguete of the mid-1990s
All what ifs, given the right nurturing and a little kick of imagination, are excuses to party.
Like all good ideas that become infectious and are soon carried through by the sheer push of will and word-of-mouth, the one I am about to tell you started out as a broad stroke of such kind of speculation.
But let us begin by noting that What Ifs was the game to play—bordering sometimes on the wicked and the suggestive—in the boredom-infested, pre-cellphone, pre-Facebook days of the mid-1990s. This was when, for a brief moment, a kind of affluent flowering enveloped a suddenly burgeoning Dumaguete, turning the city into a frenetic beehive.
It was a brilliant bubble of a time, coming right before the Asian financial crisis (which shook our lives, and from which we have yet to recover). President Fidel Ramos was in power, and the Philippines—just coming out of the dark ages early in the decade that saw the country crippled by endless blackouts that ravaged the economy—was suddenly enjoying a belated (and, alas, short-lived) reputation of having become the new economic miracle of the region, Asia’s “new tiger.”
Those were the days when Dumaguete began stirring from the slumbering pace, when old and new began to clash and to accommodate each other. Its narrow streets were no longer so quiet. By 1998, Felipe Antonio Remollo was the new and dynamic mayor. Everybody suddenly seemed flushed with extra cash. The air was drunk with unbridled optimism (there was talk of a Metro Dumaguete, of urban master plans that would change the way Dumagueteños lived and interacted…). Every day felt like a promise of bigger things. And every night was a party.
There was no such thing as a slow night at the Rizal Boulevard, for example. In the heady days of the 1990s, it was Party Central every night of the week—even Sundays. Newly rehabilitated from its bleak 1980s reputation as a red light district, the seaside promenade was suddenly a slick stretch of simple but handsome design, thanks to outgoing mayor Agustin Perdices. The place practically leaped away from its previous incarnation as a concrete monstrosity with bad lighting. Suddenly, it became postcard perfect. There was now a set of faux-antique lampposts lining the walkway, as well as a meticulously cultivated landscape of carabao grass with brick (and later, brown slate) borders. Families could picnic in the new Boulevard in the daytime, and nocturnal creatures could cruise a thriving scene after hours, drinks permitted.
The famed Sugar Houses along the Boulevard stretch, long “abandoned” by their hacendero owners to the ravages of time and fortune and the red blinking lights of streetwalkers, were suddenly being spruced up. Tocino Country—the collective name of the mass of barbecue stands that dotted the Boulevard—was transferred to the vacant lot fronting West City Elementary School, where it thrived for years. (Now it is situated on the lot beside the City Engineer’s Office in Lo-oc.) New restaurants were opening along the stretch, and new hotels, too. Bethel Guest House, the Cang family’s idea of a “Christian” hotel, was a swanky addition to the Boulevard cityscape—and Honeycomb followed suit, settling in the old Medina mansion, which was refurbished to suit its new function. The Lees, too, took over the old house where the legendary local mystic Father Tropa used to house his exotic pets, and made it into a slick bar called Lighthouse. This became the nightly hub of the young social set. (This is now Shakey’s.)
Over at the other end of the stretch, near Silliman University, some things strained to get on with the bandwagon—like Ocean’s Eleven across old Silliman Hall. (This is now Blue Monkey Grill). The restaurant didn’t quite catch on, and for years, the place was reduced to a rubble of an empty lot. But, near it, Hotel Al Mar suddenly became a more posh La Residencia; across the street, the honky-tonkish building housing a pub called The Office became a private condominium where Globelines now is; and the barely-used lot beside The Office became an outdoor grill and beer garden called Ang Boulevard. Much later, that beer garden became a popular bar done up in a ‘50s diner-style and was called, appropriately, Happy Days. (This soon became the short-lived Grin Life, and is now CocoAmigos.)
Happy Days… This was where Tina Alcuaz, the proprietress of exceeding proportions (a cheerful demeanor included), reigned over the black and white chessboard-tiled floor, flanked by screaming red walls with framed posters of Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, and the whole pantheon of classic Hollywood icons… This was where her friend Zaldy would tether his horse outside, after a gallop at the Boulevard. (Yes, a horse…) This was where the A and B Crowd descended regularly for their fix of Budweiser, then the beer of choice. In the island bar that dominated the middle, a kind of social Mount Olympus existed. On one end, Vincent Joey Alar—the 1990s poster boy for partying—trafficked the crowd, introducing everybody to everybody else. “Gideon of Caballes Printing Press,” he would say, for example, “this is Star of Wuthering Heights. Say hi to each other.” The placed buzzed with beso-besos everywhere… Every night was dance night. This was where Wednesdays happened, before there was ever a Reggae Wednesday in Hayahay… This was where we held plenty of erotic poetry readings—courtesy of the shenanigans of the posse of the resident intellectuals Eva Repollo, Jean Claire Dy, Bombee Dionaldo, Jesselle Baylon, Tintin Ongpin, and Aivy Nicolas—complete with smoke machines, a ceiling full of condom balloons, and throaty deliveries and a lot of moaning… This was where Tuesday Nights were Girls Nights, Thursday Nights were (unofficially) Gay Nights, and the rest of the weekend a merry mix of Everybody Else.
Those days, indeed, were happy.
It suddenly seemed that Dumaguete was becoming truer to its cityhood. It was starting to feel like one; it was no longer so much an overgrown town, although much of its charm was still derived from a lingering sense of smallness as well.
It became a kind of secret destination, a Filipino city that was like no other. Soon, celebrities—film and TV actors and singers of all stripes—were constantly flying in from Manila, not to perform, but to bask in the Dumaguete sunlight as adopted locals. Here, they could not be harassed as they would be in Manila’s public places. They could walk the main stretch of Alfonso Trese (which was renamed Perdices Street), and not be gawked or rushed at by hysterical fans.
Then again, it was an old Dumaguete (now gone) that didn’t care much about local celebrities, nor fawned over them. It was a city that was not capable of being star-struck. (The teleseryes of ABS-CBN and GMA had yet to come in with such popularity to make a bakya masa of all of us.)
It was a city where actors like Mark Gil could come in to set up shop. In the old Perdices mansion along the Boulevard, where Mamia’s is now, the actor opened Limelight—a grand forerunner of El Camino Blanco, only better—which was a fine dining restaurant by day (and all throughout dinnertime) and a VIP club by night. This was where the best parties happened—its kidney-shape bar overflowing with the partying days of Daniel Fernandez, who was Dumaguete’s Party King and Ultimate Ringleader.
And the city, of course, felt like partying with him. It partied for the rest of that decade, to the soundtrack of Paul Van Dyk, Alanis Morisette’s Jagged Little Pill and Madonna’s Ray of Light.
“In 1996,” now Manila-based Dr. Gideon Caballes recalled, “the place to hang out in was El Amigo, our version of Minimik. It had great food, cheap too, but it was generally a nice place to chat over beer. And I remember Orient Garden, fronting what is now Gold Label Bakeshop. It was around from 1987 until probably 1990. It had a band famous for overplaying ‘The Name Game’ song. I remember hanging out at St. Moritz in Agan-an a lot. It was a nice seaside place to have a cheap date. This was the place to go to before Escaño became popular. Then there was Colors Disco in front of West City Elementary School. Then there was Music Box and that disco on the second floor of Gemini Building around 1991 or 1992. In 1996, there was Gimmick. Remember when Warren Cimafranca first broached the idea of opening an outdoors bar in the family property in the middle of all those residences in Claytown? We all told him the idea won’t work. That it would flop. We ate crow later on, didn’t we? We had no idea it would become so successful. Is it still the place to be seen in right now?”
The long party would go on until a little beyond the worldwide welcome for the new millennium (which unleashed the biggest Boulevard party in local history—complete with fireworks and spontaneous dancing in the streets).
The party would go on into the frenetic months of the Silliman Centennial, culminating in August 2001 when—for an entire month—Dumaguete did not sleep. That August was the peak of Dumaguete’s partying: it was filled with hundreds of random 24-hour parties everywhere, lasting all of its 31 days. How busy was it? Imagine the ultimate in traffic gridlock—at four o’clock in the morning, every day.
Then September 11 happened. When we all lost our innocence that day, our world shattered and shaken, the party ground down to a halt. For the next five years or so, all we had were shadows and memories.
Every generation in Dumaguete’s social set always has a muse who sets the tone for the party scene of the moment—a list that would include Jacqueline Veloso, Lua Khanum Padilla, and Christine Torres.
Flashback to 1996. Campus beauty Cherokee Dawn Esguerra—known more affectionately as C.D.—decided that she wanted to remember her twenty-first birthday the best way possible and in a manner that staid Dumaguete had never seen before. She was then the reigning Miss Silliman, and she would have none of the usual birthday buffets. None of the usual inuman at St. Moritz either. And none of the usual beach parties in the Bais sandbar, or Dauin. The speculation she hatched that soon raced through town like wildfire and had every one clamoring for the “exclusive” invitation to the shindig was—what if she invited the Who’s Who of the young Dumaguete set and ask them to dress up in 70s vintage costume, would they come?
A costume party. In the bell-bottomed, tie-dyed, sideburned, miniskirted gloriousness of the Bee Gees and their 1970s ilk.
The idea worked, for the most part, because of the promise of exclusivity. You were either invited, or you were not. For days before the party, those who still did not get the purple envelope with instructions to descend in full vintage regalia on the Joshua Room of Bethel Guest House—then the newest hotel in town—were feverish from anticipation and worry. It became, so to speak, a question of sociable existentialism: if you did not get the invitation, were you in fact a nobody?
In retrospect, the theme of the party was perched on an idea of risky novelty, given the notorious tendency of many Dumaguteños to spoil the fun in the name of “keeping a low and humble profile.” This is often the excuse for dressing down and going around in typical pambalay wear—a plain shirt (several sizes loose), a pair of “city shorts,” and sandals or espadrilles. Even for parties. And yet, perhaps for the first time ever, people heeded the sartorial challenge and began digging into their parents’ kabans. I went in as Elvis Presley in his Las Vegas years, minus the drugs and the paunch and the air of eventual doom. My pair of bell-bottoms was hot purple, my shirt a blazing LSD rainbow in brilliant Technicolor. My hair was too short, however, to be coifed into the standard Presley style—but I promptly made do by sporting fake sideburns. Everybody else—save for a staggering few who came in dressed as typical Dumaguete killjoys—dressed to the nines, and came in droves to the Boulevard, down to Bethel. They became a spectacle the likes of which this small city has never seen before. Everybody danced to the merry hits of the Village People and the Bee Gees and Gloria Gaynor until the wee hours, and soon everybody spread out around the city to satellite social hubs—the neighboring Lighthouse Bar was the next best thing—to prolong the party.
And for the longest time, that 1970s shindig was billed as the ultimate Dumaguete party to beat. It took five more years—with the month-long centennial celebration of Silliman last 2001—and another eight years—with the Philip Morris party last August—before the sheer audacity of C.D.’s party could be eclipsed. Great parties in Dumaguete, we soon learned, always came far between.
But in the final analysis, the 1990s would forever be marked as the decade where the city flowered and changed. Variety bloomed, for one thing. “In my time,” artist Sharon Dadang-Rafols said, “it was Silliman beach and Wuthering Heights, and it was always ‘action’ with friends, inom, tsika, poetry readings…”
“The places we went to,” recalled Silliman University’s students activity head Jojo Antonio, “were Lighthouse and Gimmick. In Lighthouse, new bands played every two to three weeks, and they were all from Manila and Cebu. The music ranged from the usual latest pop hits to retro. Everybody knew everybody then, and one didn’t worry over getting stabbed and shot after the late night fun. We could even leave our rhum or tequila bottles in the bar with our names scribbled on them, ready for consumption for the next day’s hangout.”
“Limelight was the ultimate!” remembered medical representative Jesselle Baylon. “It was great because of its cool house music. Great service, too. And in Lighthouse, we got different bands from all over the country, every month. And for your last stop if you felt like partying at 2 AM onwards, there was Detour. I loved that placed. It was hard to get another drink, and you just stand the entire time because there were no chairs—but people danced like crazy and you couldn’t help but bust your own moves… Dumaguete party places back then were better—but the number of people who knew how to party was even less than we have now. Now you have cross-generations of partygoers from their teens, their 20s and 30s. I wonder why they don’t open any more bars or clubs…”
Ian Rosales Casocot teaches literature, creative writing, and film at Silliman University in Dumaguete City, Philippines where he was Founding Coordinator of the Edilberto and Edith Tiempo Creative Writing Center. He is the author of several books, including the fiction collections Don’t Tell Anyone, Bamboo Girls, Heartbreak & Magic, and Beautiful Accidents. In 2008, his novel Sugar Land was longlisted in the Man Asian Literary Prize. He was Writer-in-Residence for the International Writers Program of the University of Iowa in 2010.