Filipineses


Like a heap of sand

Santa-lucia-gate-intramuros

Built or erected in marble or stone, though some cast in metal, as landmarks in a country’s history or reminders of heroic deeds, monuments are so aimed at permanence or impregnability that for it to crumble one day hardly sound possible.

From what I learned from a restoration architect, my late husband Felix N. Imperial II, who studied the art at Escuela Superior de Arquitectura de Madrid, and came home with quixotic dreams to apply what he had learned in Intramuros, keeping monuments intact requires more than stone masons, brick layers and other such hands (because it is as much a handiwork as building them), it asks of governments a political will—monuments belong to a nation, after all.

Indeed, a great number of such buildings or structures have defied decay from both centuries of natural and manmade disasters like tropical weather and wars such as San Agustin Church but especially elsewhere, those well-kept palaces and temples we often dream of walking into, if only to experience a moment of greatness or a glorious past that for many of us exists only in ether. Virtually a young city of 140 years, I see no such buildings here in Vancouver the likes of Philippine colonial structures most of them sadly left for time to eat away.

But why must a country like the Philippines struggling to stave poverty feed its past of non-living things? Answers to this all too common question with what seems obvious can drag into either despair or acrimony those who belong to the many sides of upholding or not patrimony. Such complex imbalance of forces to Felix had first, scaled down then later, hazed his dream: Intramuros would have given the Philippines a niche with the only medieval walled city in Asia among nations who showcase an inimitable past.

Except for the four gates, major parts of the walls, and the esplanade at Parian, a few of which he restored from the ground like Puerta Santa Lucia, most of his dream—if but one of the palaces, the Ayuntamiento, would have risen again—like moth wings slowly powdered and blown away. He died though, realizing how tiny a vessel man’s body to bear his dreams.

I think Felix was luckier in that he found closure and acceptance, in contrast to my paternal great grandfather who had built not a national monument but a personal one, which I suppose most families would recognize, “for his heirs”. Of these, there are several in Vancouver, most of them exquisitely cared for as living museums—one of them, the Colbourne House still breathing right across our gate.

My great grandfather’s house was of brick and mortar townsfolk of Bacarra called, kabite; its frame had been all I grew up with, a hulking shadow right across from our then fragile wood and bamboo house; apparently its interior was burnt. While almost a myth to Santiago, a nephew my age, and me, as adults we dwelt on snippets of what sounded like tall tales about it. Such as: a short bridge spanning a narrow moat, circling the house, washing the base of a fat rectangle of what we heard were stables, and dark wooden doors and windows that would open at midmorning to the camino real.

As Santiago and I sometimes sat on ruined steps of what we thought must be a grand staircase, we imagined a giant chandelier flooding a hall. Long dining tables like those stacked up under the creaky house we lived in must have been set on those monogrammed linens I once found in my grandmother’s trunk. Guests must have taken their liqueur from those Depression shot glasses, which we thought were toys in the buffet shelf of Santiago’s mom.

He and I hardly met during our university years in Manila. Not even when a court case stirred enmity in our families in a fight over yet another property, the land where our house stood—we had since lost the one where the kabite stood through another heir. Two decades later, poring over a heritage book about our town, we closed the pages miffed at nary a word about it.

During a rare visit to town after yet another decade, I missed seeing the landmark. As I later retraced my way with an aunt, I learned why: it was gone. Where it had loomed solid as a small mountain, there sprawled a thick growth of poison berries and cactuses.  “Why, didn’t you know,” my aunt had said. “It crumbled like a heap of sand in the last earthquake.”

I would have to tell Santiago about it, I had vowed. But I decided to keep to myself a realization that no matter how massive some structures are like what my great grandfather built to defy impermanence, these could vanish. On the other hand, Felix’s view of Intramuros may yet be fulfilled: “it had lived through three centuries without me it would stay for others to dream of more.”

In photo: Puerta Santa Lucia facing the bay was totally ruined in WWII when a tank rammed into it; it was restored from the ground up by restoration architect Felix N. Imperial II, using traditional techniques of merely fitting the stones and without any reinforcing bars. He restored all four gates of the Walls.

Peregrine Notes, August 26, 2012, Business Mirror Philippines Opinion Page

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‘City of my affections’

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A city is

not a

landscape I now realize; it is a heart’s structure recalled blindly within its chambers. But it has taken time for me to sense that I prowl Vancouver’s streets in search of Manila, ‘city of my affections’, an endearment borrowed from my idol, Nick Joaquin.

Disbelief over this thought would strike anyone who has lived in it. Indeed, what do I miss in Manila? How could I not remember chaos in its streets, the high decibels of groaning engines, grating brakes of buses and jeepneys, music from stores and snack nooks vying for ears from across each other in streets? What about the grime, the rawness that has become its nature? Could these be what have heightened my senses?

In contrast, Vancouver is calm, rarely frazzled. Even during rush hours, only staccato steps, light laughter and snatches of conversation counter the deep breathing of pneumatic brakes plying their routes on main streets—no honking except when extreme danger of an accident pops up; only an ambulance and fire truck tandem is allowed to rent the air.

Buskers, as street performers with permits are called here, sometimes crochet music in the breeze. I once stood with a small crowd, letting pass a few buses I had walked on a stop to board, for a concert violinist stage an engaging performance of a few Beethoven concertos. With all my senses Manila has sharpened, none such moment passes without me plunging in it.

And because buses run on electric and no diesel in gas pumps, skies always tend to be iridescent except on foggy days in the fall and hazy ones in the spring, and especially when frozen in the winter. Perhaps it is under such clarity that has made Vancouverites commit to a clean city. I can’t say how it is achieved because I hardly catch cleaning dirt monsters with circular brushes in between wheels creeping through streets as in those mornings I did in Manhattan, and from a deep mist, Imelda’s orange clad sweeping brigade.

Once in a while when on my way to a meeting, I’d have to skirt around from getting sprayed by a power hose, dislodging dirt on the just-poured-with-disinfectant sidewalk. I had met waste pickers, too, donned in neon-striped, yes, orange vests, combing the streets and picking up bits sweepers missed. Discreet CCTV cameras notwithstanding, I’ve learned as a Vancouverite to keep my garbage or toss it away where I must.

And yet when drawn within to write, what creeps in are more of what I don’t see like Manila’s mangy dogs prowling and sniffing at the air like ghosts under a day moon or starved cats meowing their hunger at shadows. But more heart rending, who wouldn’t agree, are children on Roxas Blvd. who dart by your car window, a sniffling runny-nosed baby strapped to their fragile bodies, joints protruding, right hand up with eyes begging for sympathy or alms—and you later find out, the baby is no kin and whatever is given goes to whoever hired them.

Vancouver, too, has a few dark spots like a stretch of Hastings St. by Chinatown. Once in a while, I’d stumble on a homeless man in a corner. A couple of them have taken a permanent post by the granite steps of the cathedral. I had talked to youngish woman I caught sniffling as she counted the coins thrown into a hanky she knotted in the corners as in a box, learning of an abusive husband she just left but tearing her heart out was a daughter too, she hoped to go back for once she recovered from the horror of that day. Didn’t I listen to a similar story of a woman who cradled the asthmatic child she fanned as it labored to breath through an uneasy slumber by the entrance of Harrison Plaza? Could poverty of hearts possibly incarnated into ghosts possibly haunting me, I had wondered then.

Ahhh..but there’s Manila Bay that overpowers with its irony of vastness, fullness even grandeur at its incomparable blaze at sunset. And for true-blue Manilenos, the romance of pocket corners in stonewalls and intimate streets scented by champaca, veiled in shivering shadows of ilang-ilang trees like those in Malate. I merely close my eyes to find my late husband sketching on his favorite dappled stone bench at Paco Cemetery, as he waited for me to finish up at the then Inquirer offices.

Like carrying a hidden side of the day moon, I stroll on Vancouver’s West End relishing shades of giant chestnut leaves, often pausing in a pergola by a formal English garden once a private estate, then promptly getting on to the end of the street on English Bay. Most times silky smooth unlike swollen Manila Bay, this bay unfurls at the feet as if cajoling in tiny wave rolls. Even its late summer sunsets are sweet peach orange, bouncing against slopes of mountains framing it as if it were a stage for dreams. Now, do I sound like I’m switching my affections? I think I’m two-timing! 

Published at Business Mirror Philippines in my weekly column,

“Peregrine Notes”, August 5, 2012



Filipino Catholics in Vancouver (at Business Mirror Philippines)

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WE’RE easy to spot, like her this first Friday: In the throbbing warmth of the almost-empty cathedral after Mass, she puts on her winter coat, slings her purse on her arm, tugs down a bit the selvage edge of her veil to her brow so that it shields her eyes, and kneels in the middle aisle, that straight line to the now-exposed Blessed Sacrament at the altar of the Metropolitan Cathedral of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary here in Vancouver.

Closing the pages of a novena from where she has read a prayer, she creeps on her knees, fingering her beads, and lips muttering more prayers. In my mind, as perhaps in hers, even as we’re swathed in winter slate-gray light pouring through stained glass windows, as I watch her—she’d later lie prostrate at the altar—we’re transported to Quiapo Church, the Shrine of the Nazarene.

In the hush, the clink of vigil candles being cleared of drippings and replaced with fresh ones rhythmically floats with silent prayers. An elderly Filipina, covered from head-to-toe with a bandanna, thickly layered with padded coats, and a long skirt barely showing her thick boots, finishes off the last row of candles right under the gaze of the Divine Mercy and Our Lady of Guadalupe images.

Earlier at Mass today, her readings in Southern singsong with that distinctive familiar accent, echoed in the cathedral’s vaulted ceiling. She has also assisted in the offertory, later cleaned and kept the purifiers and folded away the linens. A few more have remained, with bowed or nodding dark-haired heads like mine, some dyed blond or auburn, who count among the 70 percent of daily Mass-goers.

Though we’ve blended in our fervor with the French, Eastern Europeans, some Asians, English and Americans, still on Sundays and liturgical feasts, which the archbishop often celebrates, our presence reverberates; from the altar boys and a girl, lectors and the long line to communion, it’s us. In most parishes, we greet Mass-goers as ushers and sing in choirs, of course.

Like an exclusive club, some of us compose take-charge crews that include preparing the altar for Mass, arranging the flowers, watering plants in the grotto, cleaning altar crevices and polishing the brass candelabras. Filipinos also comprise the cathedral’s multiple Legion of Mary presidia. In my parish, a Filipina had been president of the Catholic Women’s League; another acts as coordinator of the Blessed Sacrament chapel adorers and a few, members of the parish council.

But not only do we go to Mass and serve in church, we have also carried on with our devotions from home. In an archdiocese where our kind of fervor is not really recognized, we’ve managed to find approval for them. The Guardian Angels Parish in the Westside, for one, holds Wednesday evening novenas for the Santo Niño; unfortunately, an Ati-Atihan celebration earlier this month endorsed since by Vancouver City Hall highlights only the ati revelers, with the Santo Niño thrown in only as an icon.

Here in our Southwest parish, Saint Anthony de Padua’s feast in June draws most Filipinos from neighboring cities to the novena Masses concluded by a procession around the block—the last Mass often overflows into the church’s basement, where devotees follow it on a giant screen. We then troop to partake of fiesta food, last year laid out in the parish school parking lot, half of which were pancit, lechon, puto, suman and pichi-pichi.

The same feast happens at Saint Patrick’s in the Eastside, when on the last day of the Virgen de Peñafrancia novena Masses in September, we sing the Our Father in Bicol, also join a procession around the block and a feast at the parish hall—laing, being the dish most sought after. This was the first church I’ve entered in Canada, when I joined fellow devotees of “Ina” on a 1997 pilgrimage to gain support then for the restoration of her shrine in Naga. Her image has since been ensconced on a side altar.

We do, indeed, live up to our being “Amada de Maria,” which was how Pope John Paul II called us in his second papal visit to Manila. In most churches, it’s us who often lead the praying of the rosary before and after Masses. As well, on first Saturdays, a random group, that includes an octogenarian, gathers at a meeting hall in Saint Mary’s Parish to pray a round each of 20 petitions with 100 Hail Marys or 2,000 in total, like an army barraging heaven for answers to gnawing needs and healing of ills.

Even as our prayers hum with undertones of pain in a life of exile with its sacrifices and loneliness–especially among caregivers, who compose a significant number–perhaps our grip on our beliefs and faith, which we often manifest as joy, spills over as a distinctive mark; apparently, it shines even in as faintly as walking briskly to Mass like this morning, when an elderly man sensing my obvious rush smiled at me at a red light, saying, “You’re off to the cathedral, aren’t you?”

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Peregrine Notes, January 12, 2013, Business Mirror Philippines, Manila

In photo at top: The Holy Rosary Cathedral on a Friday noon Mass; at bottom: spires of the cathedral



Homecoming (Peregrine Notes, my column at Business Mirror)

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The word makes me wonder if most of us, like me, were born to leave home and later pine to return. Are we somehow reflections of homing birds, like the swallows of Capistrano, or the terns and geese of North America? Or closer to what I know, do we return where we come from like the salmon of British Columbia that swims back when matured to the river where it was spawned?

But unlike birds and fishes, home, for me, is no longer a place. I suppose it has ceased being one as I changed from one whom I recall even as recently as a year ago. This sense of being alien, which in a way is a reality, could have started to deepen like a whorl in my heart since six years ago when I hurriedly unloaded six decades of my life to live in Canada. At first, I couldn’t imagine going back home.

Where is home? Not that last apartment I emptied not only of accumulated debris but also of mementos and tags of moments lived, which my mother moved from house to house. Or an architect’s house that stood in an ancestral lot owned by five generations I was married into, which I had to sell. Where my sister and I lived with our parents for twenty years close to her high school is now a meaningless shell along smoggy Ramon Magsaysay Boulevard.

Not even where I was born already a vacant space shaded by an ageing pomelo by the time I learned how to read, the borrowed hut lent by an uncle of my father for my mother’s family driven into homelessness by WWII. Or where I grew up with my father’s mother said to be another temporary home built after their stone house from across was burnt. When my mother had to move back to her mother’s for care on the birth of my sister and my other grandmother debilitated with arthritis had to be hauled to a daughter in Manila, I watched it painfully torn down piece by piece and hoisted on to a carabao cart, with my childhood in it.

Massive convent walls where I was sent after high school and the dormitory run by nuns from across UST where I lived for six years sort of healed the gnawing loss I nursed from seeing those fragile walls just gone but I couldn’t call them home. Where then lies home? In my recent homecoming to Manila, I realized that home is both not a place and a structure but something “visible only to the heart” as The Little Prince of Antoine de Saint Exupery told the fox.

My homecoming last month was both ideal and deeply sad. Like a tide surge, my cousin’s death, Ceferino ‘Nonoy’ M. Acosta III, left no space for me to waver about a flight and waffle about gifts to bring. I was so wrapped up in my emotions that the smog, which swarmed the path of United Airlines on its descent to NAIA, failed to daunt me. Nor did the snarl in Baclaran, being a Wednesday, through Roxas Blvd. unnerve me. The landscape though felt shrunken and tighter with buildings now unfamiliar to me, and a crowd thrice multiplied; yet as the SUV that fetched me coughed through clogged streets, it had seemed normal.

I couldn’t guess how I would feel arriving at Paz Memorial Homes; it would be my first as a balikbayan. But with my first step into the chapel where Nonoy lay in state, I felt like I’ve been in it the day before—how many times have I bristled in the arctic air conditioning during a wake of relatives and friends? My uncle and aunt soon swept me in their grieving arms and we wept, sobbing words for the smiling Nonoy, a scene I have watched with other relatives countless of times.

When I turned to the faces riveted on us, there were my other uncles, aunts, cousins, nieces, nephews, relatives, and former neighbors sniveling with us. While most like me bore marks of time’s subtle scratches, each was whom I knew through the eyes—that invisible space impermeable to time, where I met theirs and my unchanged self.

We laughed, relishing not what was said but simply from the thrill of retrieving lost moments of being together. In the few days that followed, as we exchanged more of such moments–some with Nonoy in our midst–we kept flinging open the closed doors that had been shut by years. And as the burial crowd thinned out, when our clan gathered for what for me was yet another last time together, I had ceased to wonder if I have a home to go back to.

So like a homing bird and the salmon I had managed, indeed, with a tracker so precise scientists remain baffled, to land in or swim back to the same exact spot called, home. Yet unlike them, it’s not a spot I arrived at but a roof with walls I carry around unseen.

Published on January 6, 2013 Peregrine Notes, Opinion Page, Business Mirror Philippines

Photo: waders roosting at high tide in Roebuck Bay, Australia courtesy of wikipedia