Wednesday, November 30


From here. Made me wish my last name was Abalos so would have been sandwiched between Gemino Abad and Rio Alma, two old geezers who also happen to be very good poets. Supposedly. Yay.

Monday, November 28


Wrote this essay for my nonfiction class. Two nights ago, met up with Melane and Victor. After dinner at My Thai, we had DQ blizzards and found ourselves standing-sitting by the rails opposite Shopwise. Cubao. O Cubao.


Born and raised in Manila, I am accustomed to its noise, its quotidian chaos. Once or twice, when its violence unnerved me, I found myself wishing I lived in Bacolod or Dumaguete or Roxas instead. Slow cities. And calmer, birds chirping in the morning and crisp air that sharply fills the nose. But after a few days there, I would crave for the madness of Manila. The roaring engines. The reek of diesel. The itinerant vendors hawking their wares. In my city, there are busy intersections that, with neither traffic light nor cop, would witness no road accident for years on end. Foreigners call it Third World disorder. I call it skill, a temerity, a spider sense-like keenness that one acquires after living through the mess. If my city were my room, I like its comforting disarray. I know where everything is.
But a woman sitting across me on a jeepney one night panicked and writhed helplessly in her seat, freshly realizing her purse was slit open, her face misshapen under the red glare of the jeep’s tiny incandescent bulbs. The following day, a bomb ripped through a bus along EDSA, killing five and severing several pairs of legs. I was reminded of Pierre Bourdieu, my best friend during my theory-lathering days with the Philippine Collegian, UP’s student paper. Violence is harshest when it is most normalized. Violence is most effective when it is made invisible.
This violence of the everyday, the everywhere is most palpable in a place like Manila. The traffic, the pollution, the off-chance that the bus you’re riding will explode into smithereens one innocent Tuesday. That bombing rattled me, its sheer nearness. The bus exploded a few meters away from the Buendia station of the MRT, just outside the stories-high earthen walls of posh Forbes Park. I take that route every once in a while, coming from Makati for a writing assignment or from Batangas for a quick getaway to the beach. And so I realized it could have been me or many of my friends who work in Makati. I remember mouthing a silent prayer, then, and soberly thinking, we are survivors all.
These days, as a graduate student, my normal route is from my house in Manila to UP in Quezon City via the Aurora Blvd and Katipunan route. Every time I make that trip, I pass by Cubao, the bustling geographical center of the metropolis. For many wide-eyed adventurers and desperate breadwinners from the province, Cubao is their first real glimpse of the big city, its grimy bus terminals and impure air, its incessant noise and unlawful song. For city dwellers, Cubao is just Cubao. It is there, just like the city, not to be scoffed at or rebuked, but merely to be endured.
I wonder then if I’ve been made immune – enamored, even – to a violence that is rendered unseen by its ubiquity. There is no question: I love my city. But does it love me?
In Cubao, for instance, there is always a need to shout above the din.
“You cannot hear yourself think here,” yelled my friend Kris, a college instructor and Cubao resident for all her 22 years. It’s something a foreigner would say, I shouted back, if said foreigner were similarly sitting on this busy Aurora sidewalk in between parked motorcycles and cars, observing. The British edition of men’s magazine Esquire recently came out with a piece on Filipino cuisine and, tangentially, navigating Manila’s streets. It reached a pleasant enough conclusion, but in prefacing the revelation, the Philippine capital was called, among others, “a fucking armpit,” “a hell-hole,” “a city with a pockmarked face and a horrible limp.” How unkind, I thought, but in the middle of Cubao, surrounded by grime and seeming lawlessness, I had to admit: it wasn’t completely unmerited.
In a National Geographic documentary, where the host visited the slums built atop graves in the South Cemetery and the communities inside the Muntinlupa City Jail, Manila as a city was lauded for its – generous euphemisms, aside – “energy.”
There was, of course, a ready defense, as any Filipino with a cursory knowledge of history should know. Manila was the Orient’s first true melting pot. Aggressively traded with its Asian neighbors, then colonized by Spain for more than 300 years. In its 1945 liberation from the Japanese, it was leveled to the ground, government buildings and churches and schools, along with the priceless gems inside that date back to its founding 420 or so years ago. In the month-long devastation, almost everything was lost, irretrievably, the severe insult to the injury that was the 100,000 death toll.
What, then, of ugliness? We were victims of history!
A few meters away from where we sat, a locksmith idly tinkered with some random lock, his gamut of keys and tools laid out like many little trinkets for sale. The signage advertising his trade is darkened by soot. He’s been there, he said, in his little, dark corner of Cubao for more than two decades now. In throaty Filipino, he added, “Nothing has changed.”
What has not changed is this: there is always a bottleneck in Aurora Blvd approaching EDSA, always a parking lot situation along the underpass, always some obstinate jeep in the middle of the road going to E. Rod. From Araneta Center, there is always a long line of jeepneys waiting to exit and dissect Aurora, from that narrow street between Aurora Tower and Mercury Drug to that even narrower road on the other side, where dingy gay club Palawan is across the similarly decrepit beer joint Bang-bang Ali. More cars crawled elsewhere, on the street where the bawdy “European-inspired” inn Eurotel fronts the gold-decked worship building of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (in the right rooms in Eurotel, you part your curtains, and the first thing you’ll see is one of the several bible verses inscribed on the Christian building’s walls). All around: piles of trash, bevies of scantily clad girls in the midst of negotiation, a vagrant or two. Overhead, one of the busiest train stations in the city looms over the road it tried to decongest, the pall so depressing and permanent, black wires dangling like wayward pasta, the medium-rise structures caked with grime.
What has changed is this: a few minutes’ walk away, in glimmering, upscale Gateway mall, there are places like Cibo, Italianni’s, and Gumbo, which offers “a taste of New Orleans.” There’s Burgoo, Café Adriatico, Kenny Rogers, Krispy Kreme, Le Coeur de France, and the first and one of only two Taco Bell in the country. Posh hotel chain Mandarin Oriental has even set up an al fresco café and deli right smack in the middle, complete with palm trees and various terra cotta greenery that cut across all five floors. Gateway is a pocket of First World in Third World Cubao, while Mandarin is a pocket of nature in the pocket of First World: both are artificial and contrived.
The Aranetas, the clan whose war-era industrialist patriarch Don Jose Amado found the original, radio antennae- and grass-strewn 35-hectare plot on the outskirts of Manila, are trying to catch up with the pace with which the other families have galvanized their turfs. Let’s face it. Makati had become Makati and Ortigas had become Ortigas, while Cubao, well, remained to be Cubao. Left out. Lowly. But with the slew of infrastructure projects in the pipeline, Jorge Araneta, Don Jose’s son, is promising a “renaissance.” Manhattan Garden City, its flagship residential project alone, consists of 18 high-rise towers, 3 of which have already opened. Set to be the pièce de résistance, a giant communications structure called the Manila Tower is envisioned to rival Paris’ Eiffel in height, grandeur, and iconic evocation.
Sir, if you go to Cubao nowadays, it’s had a major refurbishment from the old and scary, decrepit place. It is now being managed and developed by Megaworld Corporation. The area is flood free and now very safe.” This is the promise of real estate broker Karen Manangquil, who’s affiliated with major property developer Megaworld. She’s part of the squadron of annoying, fake-smiling, flyers-bearing, heavily made-up boys and girls who accost unsuspecting shoppers walking along Gateway’s crowded aisles. If they hand you a flyer and ask for a minute, it means you: (1) look old enough to be a home owner, and (2) appear rich enough to afford the price tag that comes with a unit, the lowest pegged at P2.3 million.
Or, she later stressed, you evoke that inimitably magnetic OFW vibe.
The Araneta group is injecting a multi-billion peso investment to try and reconfigure Cubao into an urban enclave similar to the flourishing Bonifacio Global City in Taguig. After all, Araneta Center was a pioneer mixed-used complex not just in the Philippines but in the world. In the 1960s and 70s, Araneta Coliseum, Ali Mall, Farmers Market, and Fiesta Carnival were all, to a certain extent, notable: biggest indoor stadium, first enclosed shopping center, biggest wet market, and first entertainment center of its kind.
But if the Fort is accessible only by private vehicles, cabs, and the occasional yuppie-filled Fort bus, Cubao is found on the signages of scores of public utility vehicle, from jeeps plying nearby Quezon City Circle to buses traversing unpaved roads in far-flung Tabaco in Albay. Two elevated train lines run through it: one, through the city’s main artery, the other, leading to the University Belt. Jeeps: to Libis, Taft, Cainta, Fairview, Cogeo, Quiapo, Antipolo, Kalayaan, Angono, Divisoria. City buses: to Baclaran, Letre, FTI, Tungko, Sucat, Malanday, Leveriza, Alabang. Provincial buses: to Baguio, Bangued, Tuguegarao, Naga, Laoag, Tabaco, Lingayen, Catarman, Catbalogan, Iba, Aparri.
Cubao is the byword for accessibility. It is democratic. It is egalitarian. My best friends from college, who come from Marikina, Taytay, and Novaliches, and I, from Manila, often compromise and make do with Gateway. We are not alone. Data from the Metro Manila Development Authority say daily pedestrian traffic on the EDSA-Aurora Blvd footbridges exceeded 150,000 in 2009, the third busiest in the metro. By Araneta Center’s estimates, close to 1 million of Metro Manila’s 11 million people visit its premises every single weekday, even more on weekends. Cubao is no-frills. Cubao is people.
And in the eye of the enterprising capitalist, people means profit. If consumerism is a cornerstone of capitalism, Cubao is a pioneer, too. It paved the way for the rabid, large-scale consumption that we know today, with our midnight sales, billboard-laden skies, and the predictably impossible traffic in the vicinity of malls. The now worn-out Rustan’s in Araneta Center used to be Rustan’s Superstore, the first time a department store and a supermarket were combined. SM in Cubao was the second to open after the original branch in Quiapo. And as this country’s history of consumerism is almost, I would argue, concurrent with the history of Henry Sy’s empire, Cubao is, once again, a veritable forerunner.
It makes sense, then, that when it started to lose its mall-going public to Makati and Ortigas, Araneta Center came up with Gateway.
My friend Scott, a Denver native who now curiously lives in a street in Cubao called Albany, told me over coffee how surprised he was at the centrality of the mall in Filipino life. Sipping his half-decaf latte in one of Araneta Center’s three Starbucks, he said where he came from, “most [malls] are found on suburban real estate lots. No more than two floors, usually just one. Can you imagine that?” Gruffly, he added that malls in the US have free parking.
I noted that the nucleus of communities in the Philippines used to be the plaza, flanked by the church and the town hall. Does this, I wondered out loud, indicate a shift in the prevailing value system of Filipinos, from theocracy to blatant consumerism? Not quite used to polysyllabic words that end in ism, he added that e-commerce had not been kind to American malls.
The goal, it seems, is to make malls vital, instead of optional. They are placed where volumes of people predictably amass, taking into account foot traffic and transportation routes. Insatiably, they extend endlessly, a monster eating everything in its path. SM in North EDSA, the biggest in the country and third world-wide, used to be just SM North EDSA. Today, there is The Block, The Annex, North Link, Warehouse, and the Sky Garden. Communities have risen out of malls. From them, high-rise condominiums emerge, promising to put all of modern man’s needs under one roof: shelter, dining, leisure. The malls of today offer beyond the customary trades. One can go to a mall to hear mass, view art exhibits, get a perm, buy a book, get a haircut, attend class, deposit a check, get your laptop repaired, attend a convention, even breast feed your baby or undergo minor surgery like liposuction.
But even without Gateway, Araneta Center has embedded itself into the Filipino psyche with Araneta Coliseum. Two spectacles that perpetually bewitch the Filipino mind – basketball and beauty pageants – have found homes in the Big Dome (recently renamed Smart Araneta Coliseum in yet another not-so-subliminal encroachment of big business on cultural iconography). Leagues: the Philippine Basketball Association, the University Athletics Association of the Philippines, and the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Pageants: the annual Binibining Pilipinas and the one time Miss Universe was held in the country in 1994. Those who have graced Araneta Coliseum include Bon Jovi and Andrea Boccelli, Kylie Minogue and Akon, Nat King Cole and Kobe Bryant, Lady Gaga and Pope John Paul II. Having come from UP, I’ve been making a trip to Araneta at least once a year since 2002 for the UAAP Cheerdance Competition. Its 2008 edition attracted a record crowd of 23,448 people, unsurpassed by any PBA Final, Ateneo-La Salle game, or Sarah Geronimo concert.
Cubao, then, is inextricably linked with the Filipino city, the Filipino sense of entertainment, which is fine, I reasoned, except when such connection is commodified and taken advantage of. For instance, desperate for Cheerdance tickets and my Collegian press ID powerless in the eyes of Big Dome management, I succumbed once or twice to scalpers, who sold general admission tickets at 1,000 percent mark-up, from the original P50 to P500.
Conscience-deficient human beings aside, in Cubao’s margins lie places and things that has endeared it to an entirely different market and sensibility. Cubao Ex, the former Marikina Shoe Expo, is on the fringes of Araneta Center and has attracted a new, almost hip crowd. The close-knit, village-like complex is shaped like a horse shoe and plays host to specialty restaurants, art galleries, and stores selling the strangest, most fascinating things: old chandeliers and telephones, funky clocks, vintage wrist watches, antique furniture, secondhand books, old comic books, wooden sculptures, bargain shoes, and one-of-a-kind graphic tees. At night, the unofficial banner spot in Cubao Ex is Mogwai, a restaurant cum drinking joint cum events place. There is always something happening in Mogwai: Peter Folk films on the cozy screening room at the second floor; reggae band Brownman Revival performing upfront; or filmmaker Kidlat Tahimik, a regular, guzzling his bottle of Red Horse. With its battered marquee-style signage, mismatched furniture, fabric-lined mini-chandeliers, and employees cheekily named Mogwaiters, Mogwai’s vibe is the closest I can find to that of Sarah’s, the iconic drinking place on the outskirts of UP in Krus na Ligas. In Sarah’s, where on certain nights you’ll find yourself sitting beside a National Artist or a famous band vocalist, the ambiance is bring-your-own-ambiance. In Mogwai, with its yellow-tinged lights and quiet whirr of conversation, the ambiance is gentle and laidback. This, while a few kilometers away, Cubao raged on until the dead of night.
Sinong hindi mai-inlove sa Cubao sa gabi? Malakas ang appeal, mahirap matimpla, maraming lihim. (Who will not fall in love with Cubao at night? Its appeal is intense, it’s hard to figure out, it’s got secrets.) ” This is Mixka, a playwright whose Streetlight Manifesto was recently staged in Tisch School in New York. During our Collegian days, we held section meetings in Sarah’s. After graduating, Mogwai is a top choice during meet-ups. But already, the more protective of the Cubao Ex regulars feel that their haunt, after being deigned “cool,” is now being invaded by wannabe hipsters who just want to be seen.
Conflict. Cubao is witness to constant conflict. “Cities,” wrote urban theory scholar John Short, “give physical expression to relations of power in society.” In Cubao, the air-conditioned LRT coaches run above the din and confusion of Aurora. In Gateway, the most high-end shops are found on the top floors. In Araneta Coliseum, the expensive patron seats are closest to the action. In Cubao, things go progressively worse from the center. From traffic to air quality, from roads to dining options, from waste disposal to security. Absent my romanticizing gaze, Cubao is a landscape that typifies the deep-seated stratification of Filipino society. I am tempted to use “microcosm” here, but such will be erroneous: there are no factories in Cubao, no farmers, no fishermen. Even the development theory of dependence (positing center-periphery power relations) is inadequate, as Cubao is not a site of production, but mere consumption.
I am prone to nostalgia, and I can easily invoke childhood memories of going to Fiesta Carnival or anticipating the puppets at the COD display during Christmas. After witnessing my first pickpocketing incident, however, I realized that nostalgia is useless without engagement. Plunged headlong into a life – student then, now professional – that is cutthroat and obsessed with achievements, the city I move around in is typically bypassed and excused as inherently chaotic. Of course, traffic is horrible. This is Manila. Of course, the streets are not safe. This is Manila. Of course, there will always be poor people. This is the Philippines.
But the invisible violence in my city is suspect, possibly defended by institutions that are supposed to dismantle it. For instance, the MMDA, faced with the gargantuan task of easing Manila traffic, thought of footbridges (its color – from pink to green – changing alongside dispensations). Once separated, MMDA argued, both vehicular and pedestrian traffic would flow unhindered. Commuters would perhaps disagree, burdened as they are with the need to climb an extra flight of stairs or walk an extra 10 meters or so to and from landings. Motorists, on the other hand, are spared from one delaying traffic light. This bias is despite a Metro Manila Urban Integration Study revealing that 84 percent of all trips in Manila are made via commute or walking, with only 16 percent made using private vehicles. If 4 out of 5 people then are pedestrians at one point in their journeys, shouldn’t policy concerning urban space take them into account?
Exclusion. Cubao seems to be the everyman of places. There’s something for everybody. For Kris, there’s the reassuring noise; for the locksmith, there’s the possibility of business; for Karen, there are condo units to sell; for Scott, there’s gourmet coffee and semblance of First World amenities; for Mixka, there’s allure and mystery. For me, there’s the realization that as with all things deafening, it is better, in the case of Cubao, to examine its silences. The exclusions it makes. The larger system that permits it.
During the time of the EDSA bombing, I was in the thick of writing a paper on a collection by the poet Mabi David. You Are Here is an interrogation, at once historical and personal, of the Battle for Manila. It purposely collides the two, and the result is a crystallized understanding of the crucial junction. Its central thesis – which asks if future generations, safe from the crossfire of battle, can rightly claim solidarity with their ancestors based merely on being born on the same city – has been an ongoing preoccupation for me as an aspiring fictionist and poet. Some realm of experience, I realize, have more ramifications than others, and I’ve constantly wondered whether those that identify me – my “exotic” Filipino roots, my “alternative” sexuality, even the long history of my people – is ethical material for the written word; whether everything, really, is fair game.
In this manner my city becomes material, inevitably: as in writing as in life.
And so in negotiating what I feel for my city, I also clarify my stance as a writer. On one hand, I feel its violence; on the other, I recognize the only way to survive is to embrace it, like the 11 million dwellers who wake up at 6, brave the early morning commute, work for the better part of the day, then brave rush hour traffic at night for a little respite, before doing the same thing again.
On the way to Cubao Ex one typical Saturday night, I noticed that the Araneta Center Bus Station had been transferred. The area where it used to sit is now cordoned off, the high fences draped in tarpaulins vowing great things to come for Cubao. The sound of heavy machinery, near-indistinguishable from the impatient honking and engines raring to go, forebodes of something that operates like clockwork . The violence, just like Cubao, never sleeps.

Thursday, November 24


'My child, we have won'

Won: because it is war. It is bloody. There were casualties. There were spoils. And child: because it has gone on for generations. Because it has gone on long enough.

That said, there is little to gain in romanticizing the Supreme Court's decision to distribute the land of Hacienda Luisita to its farmer-beneficiaries. The machinations of the the powerful are complex, and their ways are many. There are accusations that the decision is more vindictive than just; an attempt to spite rather than to end -- and begin -- a too long a saga to give people what is rightly theirs.

We will never know: what it's like to work ten-hour days for P9.50, to have the sun on your back and neck and arms, to have sweat drop from your brow to the arid land, and to bear the unkind knowledge that this life -- of so little joy -- will also be your children's life, and their children's life, and so on. We will never know.

And so we cry. We, well-meaning middle-class city folk who have neither planted nor harvested a sugar cane in our lives. In our comfortable posture chairs, in our carpeted offices, our twin beds, in our shelves with a history book with a cursory chapter on feudalism, and in our classrooms that echo an indignant rejoinder to a classmate who found the cinematography of "Sa Ngalan ng Tubo" too bright.

But once or twice, our journeys may have brought us to places beyond our comfort zones, our perfect worlds. It doesn't take a lot -- in fact, a mere opening of eyes, the upturning of ears -- to see and hear what had been normalized, what some attempt to disguise. In Hacienda Luisita, there are mini-chandeliers in the McDonalds outlet. Kris Aquino, the "queen of all media," had said, with absolutely no remorse, that her jewelry are "katas ng Luisita." The hacienda is two and a half times as big as Makati.

While this victory is not ours, us in our trifling motions in our uninhabitable cities, let us bask in it for the future that it conjures: a society where grueling work is afforded grueling gifts.

Wednesday, November 16


So: Student leader disrupts Clinton forum in Manila

The terrain of US-RP relations is a tumultuous one. We need not look too far to realize that Uncle Sam's hand is a long, sticky tentacle; that indeed when the US catches a cold, the Philippines sneezes. And so do not tell me about civility and there being a proper forum for everything. There is no "proper forum" when Guatemalans were intentionally infected with syphilis as part of a medical experiment, no "civility" as generations of Vietnamese suffer through the devastation of Agent Orange, no "decency" with some 80 million unexploded landmines remaining in the Laotian hinterlands, and, most oppressive of all because it is most invisible, no "decorum" involved when it comes to how aid entrenches and perpetuates, rather than alleviate, poverty. Good conduct is foolish in the crossfire. Righteous indignation is rightly indignant and never apologetic.

But lest we be accused of mindless sloganeering, we proceed to a theoretical framework. You see this is well within the same discourse that governs lighting rallies at graduation ceremonies, graffiti, boycotts, and even the Occupy movement. This is about power, and seizing - willfully, by force - power because we have been rendered powerless. In a public forum where such trivial things like the contents of Clinton's purse and her fondness for Pacquiao take centerstage (a relief, we're sure, to this insecure nation), a passing mention of the Mutual Defense Treaty and a pertinent call for its abrogation - shouted angrily, from the sidelines, from a young person's mouth - are welcome, if not necessary, departures. It is a repudation of the apolitical nonchalance that organizers wish to gloss over the event by calling it "Conversation in Manila." Manila: this city with a death toll that reached hundreds of thousands in World War II. This city that saw the consistent, and permitted, intereference of foreign powers. This city that is now, as a result, on its knees: "a fucking armpit," "a hell-hole," "a city with apockmarked face and a horrible limp." Conversation: this supposedly civilized discourse. The burden of civility - all things given - is yours.

And so to condone the many sins of the US, symbolically represented by Hillary Clinton, against the Philippines and the world just because we need an ally in the face of supposed aggression by China (although what other country has historically shown a hunger, a capacity for aggression more than US itself?) is cowardly opportunism at best and dogged subservience at worst. It naively turns a blind eye to the historic struggle of Filipinos to clip the wings of imperialism, be it in Balanggiga, in Olongapo, in Manila Bay, indeed, in the thousands of call center facilities in the country. It is an uneven relationship to begin with: talking will have to wait.

Wednesday, November 9


  • Met up last night with Kule's (all-girl) kultura section, which I agreed to guest-edit for remainder of term (was in Zambales over the weekend for consolidation activity). Slightly missed this: brainstorming for possible topics and frameworks. Like Occupy Movement and politics of space, Manny Pacquiao and Barthes, and political correctness and the Other.
  • Tried to insert imagination discourse in Occupy article, mainly based on Zizek assertion expressed in this manner: "Look at the movies that we see all the time. It’s easy to imagine the end of the world. An asteroid destroying all life and so on. But you cannot imagine the end of capitalism." See? Brilliant. What has happened to our collective imagination? What has shaped it to be such? A new writer, pretty and from CBA, noted that with capitalism so entrenched, an alternative doesn't seem to exist. Exactly.
  • Enroled yesterday. Subjects this sem are poetics workshop (under JNG) and fiction workshop (under BD). In spite of myself, quite excited, especially to have T as classmate in both subjects. Now have guarantee that at least one person will understand projects/intentions so will no longer go crazy over disconnects.
  • Restless fortnight. Restless only word to describe it, mostly about work and finances. Last stretch of 2011 - just one year, I told myself, to endure without a full-time job - appears to be putting up a belated (but spirited) fight. Suspect now that prolonged talking with friends have taken away novelty of issue and is now nothing but a bore. But restless fortnight: wish to remember you in the future, either as cautionary tale or lesson not learned.
  • Will also say this here: was rejected for a job I really, really liked. Apparently, willingness to receive minimum wage for an 8 to 5er not enough. But such is only one among trove of recent failures, in this year that is clear to have prematurely, if at all, peaked.
  • Can't wait for 2011 to be over (without, of course, bypassing Christmas, first time in a while am actually looking forward to December; those who matter know why). Will try to be/do better in 2012, to make 2012 better, although as it is preceded by the year when I got fatter, poorer, and lazier, it is sincerely hard to imagine how it cannot.

Sunday, November 6


Right now, I am sure of only two words on my future first book (if ever); on a nice, clear page after the title. To Sophia.