Eliseo Dayao Gets Recognized!


Judge Eliseo Dayao, Kidapapawan’s War Martyr, was included last night among the Kidapawan Heroes!

The Kidapawan Heroes are recognized every February as part of the city’s Charter Day. There are three ranks of recognition given in increasing dignity, the Merit of Commendation, the Medal of Honour, and the Legion of Honour. Dayao was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honour

I was the one who nominated Dayao, in partnership with his great-grandson, Elric Yaoto Evangelista. I have trying my best to raise awareness about this tragic local historical figure online as much as I can, and this recognition is one of the culminating moments of this effort.

Dayao is Kidapawan’s most prominent casualty during the War. A Justice of the Peace with jurisdiction over the municipal districts of Cotabato during the Commonwealth, Dayao was caught supporting guerillas during the Second World War. In 1942 he was ambushed and executed by the Japanese forces garrisoned in Kidapawan’s Barrio Lanao. He was buried somewhere in the barrio, and his body has never been found.

He was one of four historical figures posthumously recognized as Kidapawan Hero this year. The other heroes are as follows:

Legion of Honour
– Jose Tuburan Jr
– Alfonso O. Angeles Sr.

Medal of Honour
– Datu Patadon Tungao
– Gregorio Andolana

Merit of Commendation
– Marinius Austria
– Datu Roy Sibug

The Heroes were recognized as part of the city’s Homecoming Gala at Boylyn Pension Plaza in Baranggay Magsaysay (I’ll be making a separate post about the event here later).  His family, headed by his daughter Elma Dayao Yaoto, received the recognition on his behalf.



Writers for Sovereignty: Christine Godinez Ortega

Earlier this month I joined a group of the country’s literary writers in making a stand concerning the debacle of the Securities and Exchange Commission ordering Rappler to cease operating as a mass media corporation (for full details of how the matter unfolded, read the Philippine Star report).

The statement we released was largely in response to earlier statements made by two Writers’ Organizations in support of Rappler and critical of the Duterte government. These statements were unsigned (and from what I heard made without consulting all the organizations’ members), but were phrased in a way that implied it was the sentiment of all the country’s writers, prompting us to make our stance on the issue known. The statement, which has gone viral on social media, may be read here.

Another statement, in response to ours, came out soon after to express (rather redundantly considering earlier statements have been made) disagreement on our stand, starting what was in effect an absurd war of statements.

In spite of the seeming pettiness of it all, our statement had nevertheless served to call to the public’s attention the fact that, contrary to the noise caused by Maria Ressa and her sympathizers, there are actually many among the country’s wordsmiths who see both the malicious deception of the opposition and the good work the country’s first Mindanawon president is doing.

Many of these writers have been writing excellent works of literature, ethnography, and political commentary for decades, but have stayed under the public radar for much of that time, largely known only within the rather prohibitive world of the Academia-Literati Complex. And I realized that, for all the harm Rappler has done, this was an excellent opportunity to let readers get to know these writers better.

With their permission, I have thus decided to start a series here on my blog featuring the names listed on that audacious statement. I ask them questions both about themselves, about their work, and about their thoughts on these politically exciting times.

(The writers have yet to form a coherent group, but some among us are contemplating it. For the time being I will be calling them ‘Writers for Sovereignty,’ after their statement, but I will be editing this post as soon as matters are settled.)



The first writer I will be featuring is Christine Godinez Ortega of Iligan City. Godinez Ortega is famous within the literary community for her work in fostering the emergence of contemporary Mindanao literature, having established the Iligan National Writers Workshop under the auspices of the Mindanao State University – Iligan Institute of Technology. There are many more detailed introductions to her online, and instead of making a lengthy one here I instead refer more curious readers to them (in particular the introduction to her in the Asia Pacific Writers and Translators website).

  1. What genre do you consider your strength and in what language? What drew you to this?

I started with poetry and I write in English.

As a student at Silliman, my mentors, the Tiempos, influenced me to write and I took to poetry immediately. I had been writing short features in high school as a contributor and later Editor of the paper.

I must credit Leoncio P. Deriada because he published my first poem in the Diamond Anniversary of Sands & Coral, which, I later edited. Mom Edith handpicked me as editor and I should say that that started it all.

Then, Kerima Polotan gave me a double spread for my poetry in Focus Philippines. The single recognition convinced me that I could publish on my own without being endorsed.


  1. What do you usually write about? What themes and topics dominate your work? Why do you think this is so?

It all started with domestic subjects, mostly involving subjective feelings, that my late friend Ricaredo Demetillo amusingly called ‘lyrics’.

I remember writing about acacia trees that Juaniyo Arcellana also commented on in his review of my first book of poems (Lanterns in the Sun and Other Poems). Somehow, the writer writes about his environment first, di ba?

As I matured, I turned to other subjects, most of these social-political realities and about relationships, and about my travels.

My early poems were quite formal but today they have a more mature outlook and I guess, a more confident voice even as the form has loosened up.


  1. What kind of readers do you think will love your works most, and why?

Well, I hope I will have readers who will enjoy reading my poems.

But, frankly, I don’t think of that anymore when I publish my poems. I have no more control over those poems when they’re out there. I am happy when someone reads my poems and interprets it the way he sees fit.

For instance, I enjoyed your reading of my poem in your blog, Left-handed Snake.

Sometimes, students write me about my poems but they usually ask me for their meanings. I share the genesis of my poems with them instead.


  1. It’s considered vain to praise your own work, but which of your works would you recommend? Which particular works are your most popular, and which do you think are your best and most important?

Let me think. I guess, I shouldn’t even pick any. That’s for the reader to decide.

Besides, I don’t think I have written that many poems. Less than a hundred isn’t enough for me to say which is best or important. I will let my readers and critics decide that. I will always feel complimented if someone tells me he likes my poetry. That would be reassuring but I’ve always told myself that my works aren’t that important in the overall picture of poetry written in this country. Time will tell.


  1. Aside from being a writer, you are also an accomplished researcher. Talk about the research that you do, and what you think are your most important projects have been?

I find this question funny but serious at the same time. I’m a creative writer first. The vain me says, ‘let others do research of your works’ but my other me says‘don’t say that or you will believe your feelings of importance’.

Anyhow, I’ve done some researches and read these in conferences. The study centers around the folk narratives, in particular, selected epics of Mindanao. I have written articles about them too for the newspapers and magazines aiming to draw attention to these folk materials.

But I did receive a research grant from Sumitomo Foundation for my study of setting in selected folk stories of Japan and Mindanao. I would love to pursue that and theorize about setting or environmental issues in the epic world.

I also tried to study the aesthetics of at least three epics from Mindanao funded by MSU-IIT. That needs some follow through. I want to delve deeper into the communal character and narrative voice in the epics and use local terms in lieu of the term ‘aesthetics’ which is quite Western.


Photo by Jez Timonera Orbe

  1. Let’s talk about the Iligan workshop. Tell us why and how you started it.

The Iligan workshop started as a suggestion by the National Artist for Literature Cirilo F. Bautista to Jaime An Lim and Tony Tan while they were in Manila to receive their literary prizes. When Jimmy returned to Iligan, he talked to me about it and I agreed to help organize it.

I’ve seen its ups and downs but I have continued it with the help of many people and with funding from the NCCA and MSU-IIT. It’s our own way of helping train human resource in this country.

Aside from that, I believed that the workshop could help the marginalized languages develop further by encouraging creative writing in these languages like Higaonon, Chabacano, Maranao, Tausug, the Sebuano variety spoken in Mindanao.

Of course, works in Sebuano, Filipino and English have always been the staples of the workshop but works in other languages ought to be given equal importance.


  1. How has running a workshop changed your writing and your outlook in life?

My writing? Well, you mean by being exposed to different genres and styles of writing? Not much really. I read literature and criticism books and write now and then.

What I learned in running a workshop: how to be a better manager and a better person dealing with many people of different backgrounds and persuasions in order to realize the project.

I learned to be patient and humble before people who approved and monitored projects. I learned to share my meager resources for the sake of training young writers. Instead of buying another pair of earrings or a new watch, I spend on little things for the workshop. I don’t expect anything in return except to help celebrate those who have attended our workshop when they are successful in their professions.

I get ecstatic when I learn that our former writing fellows winprizes for their works, when they launch books and when they are successful in their line of work.

Few may remember us but that’s okay. Some of those who remember us, to name just a few of our alumni, Charlson Ong,Becky Anonuevo, Chris Cahilig, Jason Chancoco, Julian de la Cerna, Vinz Serrano, Jing Panganiban, Anne Carly Abad, Adonis Durado, Hope Sabanpan Yu, Glenn Sevilla Mas, Genaro Gojo Cruz,Totoy Baldesco, Camilo Villanueva, Peach Abubakar, Claire Agbayani, Jondy Arpilleda, RhandeeGarlitos, Peter Solis Nery, Dulce Deriada and the Iloilo writers, Bambit Gaerlan, Amy Bojo, and many others.

There are almost 400 alumni of the Iligan workshop now and I sometimes forget some of their names and faces but they surprise me when some would just come up to me when I’m in Manila or elsewhere to remind me that once they were writing fellows of the workshop. That’s more than enough reward for me.


  1. You’re originally from Dumaguete but have settled in Iligan. What do you think is your place in Mindanao?

That’s a long story. MSU-IIT needed a Botanist at the time and my husband was recruited. I had to come along with the children, of course.

I had no job then but when the School of Arts & Humanities found out I was finishing my MA, I was asked to join the Department of English.

Mindanao is not a new place for me. As a child I used to spend summer vacations in Cotabato, Marbel, Dadiangas (General Santos) and visit Davao. I experienced walking along a highway in Upi and spending time in a hilly farm off Dadiangas among Ilonggo migrants; and crossing streams in a vehicle. As a 12 year old, I witnessed verbal-abuse on some Tirurays by Christians. This is probably why I write about the epics of Mindanao, about the lumadnons.

And my maternal great-great-grandfather was Chinese-Tausug but moved to Masbate and married there. A paternal relative likewise married a member of the Kiram-Maulana family in Jolo. We have many relatives in Southern Mindanao today.

In truth, I had difficulty adjusting to the new surroundings, no more ballet and piano but, I eventually learned to love Iligan, my second home.

Well, my place in Mindanao? That’s tough. Critics ought to give that assessment in the future.

Personally, I feel that my contribution should eventually be in pioneering and implementing projects that promoted the making of literature in these parts; the training of teachers to be better in teaching the literatures of Mindanao, and of encouraging young writers to use local materials as subjects of their works. Finally, and most important, for helping young writers draw attention to local folk narratives through their retellings and study.


  1. How do you reconcile these two homes?

No problem there really. Dumaguete will always be my first home. I have distinct memories of it as my birthplace and a place where I grew up. But, really, Dumaguete, each time I visit, becomes a new, strange place.

There are just more migrants and foreigners in the city. In my latest visit last month, and after three days, I hardly met familiar faces on the street.

Dumaguete is too crowded now and there are many new establishments in place of the homes of families we used to socialize with. Perhaps this is progress because the once sleepy town has morphed into a commercial hub. But, as a hopeless romantic, I long for the old, sylvan Dumaguete.

Iligan is more of a home to me now however after 39 years of living here. The place has its own, old world charm that Dumaguete, it seems to me, is losing. I learned much about Mindanao living alongside the Muslims, meeting lumads and learning about diverse cultures.


  1. Let’s discuss the statement. What led you to joining the statement?

We are thinking people and we are entitled to air our opinions. We need not always follow what the Center says or tells us what to do, nothing personal there. The writing community is small. We know each other.

As one who helped draft our Statement, I didn’t also want any mention of any writers group nor the President.

I got offended by the swift judgments of foreign media. We don’t need them to comment without their deeper understanding of our cultures. We don’t need them to solve our problems.



  1. What are your thoughts on the country’s press freedom?

We’ve never been freer. We are so free to express our opinions about the present. Nobody is told to shut up or nobody’s jailed for his opinions.

The phenomenon of social media as a new platform is available for everybody to discuss their thoughts,ideas and creations. The possible phase out of Facebook is being bruited about by some politicians and is ridiculous. Do we want a state-controlled media?

I don’t understand the cry of assault on Press Freedom,especially in the case of Rappler.  As CEO, Maria Ressa must face the constitutional provision her digital news network has violated with her lawyers. That’s not a difficult thing to do for her, I believe, unless she is hiding something.

On the claims of harassment of media by the government, I say, prove it.

I am also against any foreign intervention on our national affairs especially on our mass media. The Constitution has not been changed yet so let’s follow it.


  1. Let’s talk politics. What do you think about President Duterte and his government?

I support a legitimately elected government. I strongly believe that officials should be allowed to finish their terms. We’re free to complain before the right agency against any department or office.

And all this talk about ‘ibagsak’ is the agit-prop, passé strategy to me. This is no longer the ‘70s. We live in different times and our needs are different.

The Internet is available to all who want to air their grievances, their anger and frustrations. Why endure exposure to the elements, the horrendous traffic, and other discomforts to go to a rally?

Besides, whom will these quarters replace Duterte with?Not this VP who I believe is a weak leader and is closely identified with the dilawans.

The morale of the military is high. Let’s pray to be united to make our country progress. I don’t want to see it torn apart and become another Syria or Iraq. With its diverse cultures and many ambitious leaders of different factions raring to be at the forefront, Mindanao will react badly if this scenario is realized. And, I’m sure there will be chaos. The center wants that?

At this time when the NPAs are taking advantage of the situation amid Marawi’s rehabilitation, there is talk of the continued massive recruitment of terrorists and encounters between government troops and these armed groups in Lanao.

President Duterte must be appreciated for fighting off these groups, the drug problem, corruption in the Police force and other government agencies, and his playing tic-tac-toe with foreign powers.

We’re all aware of how the game is being played. We’re not a powerful nation.We have to accept that there are ways to exert our sovereign rights and that’s what government is and should be doing.

Changing leaders in midstream is likewise a wrong strategy since we know foreign powers lust over our territories.We could end up fighting two fronts and we could lose to a superior power and become colonized again, literally

I hope that our military will remain loyal to the Constitution and traitors exposed and dealt with harshly.

I’ve always been a supporter of President Duterte as soon as he announced his candidacy.

To me, he symbolizes change and decisiveness in a leader.  I have hopes that Mindanao will at last be given the attention it deserves in terms of development and the improvement of people’s lives. Apart from that, someone as street smartas Duterteat the helm can curb the violence and terrorism in these parts.

We hear that the President visits the wounded and the dead without fanfare

and without Manila media trailing him. I also believe the stories about his

helping the poor, abused women and children, and his support for the LGBT.

Most of all, he is not corrupt.

I appreciate the small gains he has started for the country.  I call upon everyone to make him finish his term.


  1. The biggest issue facing the country right now is the proposed shift to a Federal System. What are your thoughts on it?

I edited a book on the theoretical basis of federalism by Sukarno D. Tanggol, Chancellor of MSU-IIT.

The US, Germany, Switzerland, and closer to home, Malaysia, are federal governments. These are models of independence and for equitable distribution of resources, among others.

But really now, no system of government is perfect. There will always be blind spots but if people make the laws, they too can amend or make changes to suit their needs through time and as technology advances. What are we afraid of?

Once upon a time, I was exasperated with the hold of selfish interests and the corrupt in government. Before, I liked the idea of secession from the center. Now, I support federalism, the decentralization of government.


  1. As a resident of Mindanao, what are your thoughts on the present imposition of Martial Law over us?

Our military is a reformed, professional one. We saw that during the Marawi siege as the military came and went aboutIligan City.  The military is composed of human beings, lest we forget. They fight for our country and they help maintain the peace.

I laud the presence of the military around here. Apart from the clan wars and the reports on isolated petty crimes, it is generally peaceful here.

In fact, the military presence comforts us.

During the height of the Marawi siege, people showed their appreciation to our soldiers by giving food and material things to them. I have witnessed the giving of snacks to those manning the checkpoints in particular. At all hours, even late at night deliveries were made by people. Community support has been tremendous.

The imposition of curfew hours has been respected because if one is caught, he is jailed for the night, made to pay a fine of 300 pesos, and told to clean the canals.

Discipline is instilled in people.At the outset, the imposition of early curfew hours was unnerving. Fortunately, the curfew hour has been moved at a later hour to give people time to party, to go to bars, bistros, the movies and the malls.


  1. As a writer and to use that over-quoted description of Shelley, as ‘unsung legislator of mankind,’ what do you think is the present general state of the Filipino people, and what improvement would you like to see?

I can only say about things I have observed.

Sure, I hear about horror stories but I believe Filipinos have come to see the light at the end of the tunnel. There is hope and generally, Filipinos are happy.

There are many more things Filipinos can do however. They must cooperate and allow this country to realize its potential as an industrialized nation in the future.

I’d like to see our OFWs return home and more Filipinos enjoying a higher standard of living brought in by economic prosperity.

What improvements do we need?

Filipinos must be given the best education there is.

Pay teachers well and improve the educational system, provide better facilities and create more parks and ‘forests’ for the well-being of Filipinos.

When one is educated, he aspires for a better quality of life. Then he becomes a partner of his community and of government.

But let’s not demand too much from government. Change should begin with us.

Finally, inculcate love of country through culture and arts.

Like in Malaysia and in Thailand, all Filipino students should be required to memorize and perform a folk song or a folk dance, perform plays, recite poetry by Filipinos regardless of language, retell stories of our heroes and folk heroes, watch films by our filmmakers, watch concerts by Filipino artists, go to museums and galleries before they finish the elementary grades.

Enough of threats to social instability and these ‘bagsak-bagsak’ detractors, and let us help our country stand proudly alongside developed countries.

(Read and learn more about Christine Ortega’s works on Goodreads, Amazon, and the Philippine Daily Inquirer!)

The Real Threat to Press Freedom

Let us talk about Press Freedom with some sobriety.

The Securities and Exchange Commission in the Philippines recently revoked the license of Rappler Holdings to operate as a mass media corporate entity, citing the presence of Omidyar Network and North Base Media among its shareholders as being in violation of Constitutional provisions against foreign ownership of media. In response, Rappler organized a very vocal movement to decry the ‘attack on press freedom.’ A war of words has since ensued between those whose concern is press freedom and those who think the real issue is foreign ownership.

Of course I have publicly associated myself with the latter camp.

But okay, let us talk about Press Freedom.

One of the myths perpetuated by the Philippine press is that of ‘media impartiality,’ the romanticized image of the investigative journalist pursuing the truth for its own sake. ‘Panig sa katotohanan, panig sa bayan,’ as ABS-CBN’s news motto goes.

But this is both an exercise in vanity and a betrayal of naivety, if not duplicity. Truth-telling is a matter of power and interest rather than objective disclosure, Foucault established that for decades now, there is no such thing as an impartial public conveyor of truth. What we choose to tell and to not tell betrays our biases.

This is not necessarily a bad thing, and in fact it takes us (rather paradoxically) much closer to the truth – in healthy Fourth Estates like the British Press, media bias is accepted as fact, and there is an even distribution across the political spectrum among the papers in Fleet Street. None of them are pretending to be only wedded to the impartial truth, what is revealing is what a particular paper is saying.

Because journalism ideally is not a science, it is free speech, it is the telling of facts to prove a point – it is discourse, if you want the technical jargon. It is the pursuit not of truth as it is, but of the ideal as it is envisioned, a matter of principles rather than of documentation, an existentialist pursuit of the Platonic ideal if you will.

And that being said, yes, I agree, the Philippines Press is under threat. Or rather, it has long been under threat.

Because the real enemy of a healthy mass media is when the principles that should motivate its speakers play second fiddle – are perhaps even weaponized – by interests.

Interests? There are a multitude of them.

But the most serious is the commercial. Our press is much less about public service and more about ratings. It doesn’t matter if the truth is useless or damaging, if it sells let’s air it. That’s why we get zero coverage on the national press of police kidnappings in Mindanao by the NPA (who cares about Mindanao?), but we get national reports on Kris Aquino’s son slipping in a swimming pool. That is why local press outlets can report a murder or a suicide as just some scandal for the masses to relish on. That is why reporters will ask the bereaved families of fire victims how they are feeling, a howling mother makes good television. Philippine journalism is just another form of entertainment.

There are of course more sinister interests. I suspect Rappler is betraying one, that of political powers using the myth of ‘media impartiality’ to reinforce the image of tyranny on the government they are criticizing (I do not believe Rappler is guilty. Not yet. I believe in the presumption of innocence until proven otherwise. But I strongly suspect they are, and I only want the courts to decide on the matter.) But whether those interests are there or not is subject for much debate, and there is plenty of that already.

The real threat to press freedom is when the press loses sight of how it should use its freedom, that is, the pursuit of principles.

The creatures of the old press must look at themselves in the mirror, be honest with themselves (for we can only really be honest with ourselves), and ask if they are still worth defending.

Our Fourth Estate is metamorphosing, moulting its old pretenses to become a more mature mass media. The monolithic media is showing its cracks, and the resulting fragmentation of the media narrative (right now broadly grouped into the pro-Duterte, the Liberal, and the Left) will be the seeds to a more transparent journalism.

The next necessary step is tolerance, when we learn to recognize our own and one another’s biases and live with them, when we stop accusing those who disagree with us of being paid trolls or blind followers of evil, when we start talking to each other rather than preaching to our own choirs. That is still nowhere in sight, but I believe we will eventually get there.

Because that is what it means to believe in this country.




An open letter to the Philippine Communists on Federalism

You are a bunch of bumbling idiots.

How can you expect the people – anyone – to support you when you can’t even be consistent on a goddamn idea.

That sounds counter-intuitive considering your decades of paroting the ‘US fascist regime’ in rallies and communiques. But the issue of Federalism foregrounds your inconstancy, your opportunism, and your stupidly.

In the early half of Duterte’s presidency, you expressed support for Federalism, even going so far as to promise to co-fund its implementation.

But as soon as your relationship with Duterte turned sour, you began rejecting Federalism too.

It is understandable – expected even – for you to change your mind on the government. But to do the same for an advocacy you only very recently embraced?

You are a cadre of idiots, the lot of you. Federalism was the only chance you had at actually managing to get power. Your pathetic attempt at recreating our own version of the Bolshevik revolution is failing, so we all know your last chance of being relevant is by soft power and recreating what the Left Democratic Front in Kerala, India did. But with your criticism of that, you have lost your right to participate in any Federal democratic exercise.

Duterte was right, you’re terrorists. And you have the hallmarks of terrorists: an ideology muddled beyond coherence by emotions, reducing you to idiots with a proclivity towards violence.

We Who Seek to Settle: Problematizing the Mindanao Settler Identity

(Published in ten installments in Davao Today, by far my most ambitious work of nonfiction yet)


The Mindanao Settler: few collective identities are as complicated and yet as poorly introspected upon and discussed. Marginalized in the National narrative while paradoxically also guilty of sociocultural oppression in the land of our birth, the Settler’s condition is at once archetypal of the problematique of the Filipino identity and uniquely positioned in the turbulent discourse of Mindanao.


The Narrative of Encroachment: The Mindanao Settler in the Tri-People Arrangement

The very nomenclature of the Mindanao Settler foregrounds underlying tensions. We are defined, in the context of Mindanao’s tri-people paradigm, by otherhood: those from Mindanao who are not Lumad (of the twenty or so indigenous peoples) or Moro (of the thirteen Islamized ethnolinguistic groups). The term ‘Settler’ itself implies foreign arrival – we who have come to settle.

Ideologically, it also connotes peace and order – we who are settled – implying unrest and lawlessness with the alternative Lumad and Moro. For not only are Settlers foreigners in Mindanao, we and our settlements have also always been the agents of encroachment by the colonial Manila State. When Mindanao is called the Land of Promise, the promise is peace and progress and it is made by the State. And the State displays Settlers to reinforce this narrative.

This otherness and agency for dominion goes at the very heart of our identity as Settlers.

A cruder label for the Settler is ‘Christian,’ framing the tri-people paradigm against a religious backdrop. While attempting at positive identity, the term nevertheless proves inaccurate: with the term ‘Christian’ invariably implying ‘Catholic,’ it fails to reveal the complex dynamics of the Spanish-introduced Catholic orthodox with the American-encouraged introduction of the different Protestant faiths. And, particularly in urban Mindanao, there is a growing population of non-Christian Settlers (I, an atheist, included). But the term nevertheless serves to highlight the socio-political role religion has played in defining the Settler identity. The Settler is distinct from the Moro (who, historically speaking, are also Settlers in the word’s purely literal sense) because the settlement that defines us is Bajo de la campana – under the bells of the Christian State.

The Settlers’ presence, it can be argued, serves as the binary other which defines Moro and Lumad identity: with the encroachment of these Christian invaders, not only are Ancestral Domain and the Bangsamoro given a compelling motivation to be asserted, they are foregrounded into positive existence.

The resulting narratives of Tribal and Moro self-determination are all in conflict with the narrative of the Filipino Nation, which has roots in the haphazard colonial bundling of the archipelago’s independent cultures by the Spanish. And in the Mindanao stage, the role of the encroaching Filipino Nation is played by the Settlers.


(Read the whole essay in installments along with my other articles on Davao Today, or in full with references on  Academia!)

The Curriculum of Unfairness

(Appeared on Davao Today 12 September 2017)


In the Philippines, students are not created equal.

A high school student of the special section gets to use a flush toilet in a tiled and well-maintained bathroom which he shares with his just two hundred fellow honour students.

But a regular high school student has to pee in a cubicle made of rotting wood – sometimes simply an outhouse – that she shares with the six thousand seven hundred other regular and heterogeneous students, flushing with a tabo if she’s lucky to have running water. And she has to pay for using this latrine.

The stratification of the Philippine caste system begins in school. Like breeding livestock, we separate the goats from the sheep, our teachers handpicking a small and exclusive portion of our studentry from a young age and grooming them to aristocracy. The vast majority who weren’t anointed would have been culled if they were pigs, but instead they’re simply neglected.

The select, privileged cadre of students are lavished with resources and opportunities almost entirely denied from the rest of the student body: more and better materials, newer and better furnished classrooms, more competent teachers, more chances for involvement.

My girlfriend Nal, who was moved (demoted, really) in high school from the special section to a heterogeneous section in Koronadal Comprehensive National High School, relates to me the sheer unfairness of the system: while their old, pre-war classroom continued to have holes on its rotting wooden floor, the school administration planned to aircondition the special sections’ tiled, concrete classrooms. (as a silver lining, Nal would later cherish the fact that her dilapidated school building was an historic Gabaldon building).

When I was in elementary at Boys (what people in Kidapawan call the Notre Dame of Kidapawan College long after it had ceased being exclusive), I was not handpicked to write on the school paper, and it was only when the school paper moderator in high school – I was already third year – liked my writing that I got my chance. Now I’m writing for this column, while those who had an early start abandoned writing altogether and are busy microscoping stool samples.

In private schools, it’s a matter of common practice among teachers (one they do often get in trouble with), but in public schools the pyramidal stratification is institutional. There isn’t even any of that Animal Farm pretense at ‘some being more equal than others,’ being a public school student meant you had to fit into the rigid caste system. You knew your place and you stayed there.

And the public school caste system is defined by sections: at the top of the pecking order are the students of the special sections (SpEd, Pilot classes, Sci-Cur, STEM, the elite come by different names). Just below them are the regular sections, students who don’t quite qualify as elite but are still relatively decent. At the very bottom of the hierarchy are the heterogeneous sections, what the previous two orders call the “lower classes”, “the stupid students”, “the bulay-ogs”. The delinquent, dimwitted urchins in elementary who grow up to become rugby or Sukarap boys, Three-Rounder girls or teenage mothers in high school. “A basket of deplorables,” to use the Ivy League graduate Hilary Clinton’s language.

This discrimination is systematic, but more seriously it is cultural.

I had recently served to train student publication advisers of the public elementary and high schools in Kidapawan, and I saw this culture first hand. From DepEd district superintendent to the teacher-facilitators, the whole public education machinery was bent on winning student press conferences. Presscons, if you don’t know, involve around twelve student publication staffers per school: in a school of around seven to ten thousand students, DepEd is focused on investing its energies on developing the skills of these twelve privileged students. With the battlecry of “Kidapawan, always number one,” teachers were enticed to make their thoroughbred, showdog students win presscons so they can go to places like Baguio and Boracay. The rest of the student body hardly mattered.

Kidapawan, always number one: the number twos and number threes and number seventy eights do not matter.

Just the simple recollection of names is visible (and to a student, lasting) sign of favouritism and discrimination. Like a farmer naming her favourite piglets but not bothering to name the rest, teachers in Boys will call their favorites by the first names – sometimes even nicknames! – and the rest of us by our family names (if they remember our family names at all).

And of course, where teachers lead, students will follow, but in their own more horrible way. In KNCHS, Nal shares how the culture of special section elitism worked. When a regular student managed to get high enough grades to get into the privileged classes, she is met with hostility: “she’s not one of us!” Doubly so if this happens when a special section student suffers demotion into the realm of mortals, as the other special students will defend the worthiness of their brethren to remain over this lucky stranger. In high school proms, there are proud traditions maintained for the special section students that do not apply to mere commoners. In all programs the special section students sit up front while the mortals sit at the far back. And of course, all the student council seats, varsity team places, and graduation awards are tacitly reserved for the special sections.

When I was a student in Boys our prejudice was against the non-Notre Dameans (I grew up thinking all schools other than my own were lowly public schools), who when they trespassed their way into our walled world of a campus we called “outsiders.” Young women from Notre Dame would agree to always walk together when passing by a public school, lest the lawless public school kids come to include them in their anarchy, while young men were advised to avoid public school campuses altogether because the gang-boy students there were prone to picking fights with strangers. When a classmate found themselves having to transfer to another school, we pitied them. When a transferee from another school entered our ranks, we expected them to be some miraculous prodigy emerging from the wilderness.

The school is a microcosm of the country, and what an accurate microcosm the Filipino school is: run by teacher-bureaucrats preoccupied with promotions and lakbay-laags, dominated by a subservient, self-entitled elite in a teacher-student padrino system, while the vast majority of us are denied of opportunities.

Inequality is a natural result of a healthy society, the best emerge on top while the inefficient lose out as everything works in Darwinian order. I would be the first to point this out.

But school should not be some Hunger Games where you pit student against student until the most toxic wug kills the rest and emerges victorious. School is where we develop our children, give them the skills and opportunities to grow and be prepared for the challenges of a competitive life.

But our schools are limiting opportunities for a select few, justifying it as “rewarding hard work.” How can you reward hard work when you limit the students’ chances to actually try? Non necesse habent sani medicum.

“Rewarding hard work” is far too often an excuse made by schools to justify their misplaced priorities: abandoning quality education for all by limiting their resources to a select few to increase their chances of getting higher accreditation and quantifying success with Sports Meet wins and NCAE high scorers.

What is happening to our schools isn’t simply inequality, it is unfairness. These pilot class students – these oration contest fodder and varsity players – do not become the elite because they excel on their own merits in a leveled playing field. More often than not they’re privileged because of initial advantages. Many of these students have been teachers’ pets since pre-school, and a substantial bulk of them are the children or relatives of teachers and principals (how my mother often deplores the ugly kagid scars on the legs of majorettes from public high schools during city fiestas. “Anak ng teacher, kaya pinasali,” she would mutter in condescension.) A student with no such connections and who is too shy to display her intellect or skill will stand little chance of getting the opportunities and awards.

And there is even less hope for the defiant student, because of course the pecking order is all about compliance and subservience to teachers. I said something my high school chemistry teacher did not like, and she badmouthed me in all the high school sections until I graduated (thank goodness I did not rely on teachers’ opinions for my success as a student). I stepped out of the line, I was banished from Olympus.

This, incidentally, is how we have killed Filipino criticality. Our political thought is mind-numbingly orthodox because we have taught our kids what to think, complete with mandatory Jose Rizal quote. The little actual criticism our people exhibits is more the result of sourgraping (the salutatorian who was sidestepped from being valedictorian) than of any genuine ideological objections.

Instead of producing well equipped, critically thinking intellectuals, what we get from these privileged cadre of “young leaders” are self entitled snobs who thrive by complying and conforming.

A lifetime of being given the privilege of opportunities allows them to grow up subconsciously thinking that they alone have the society’s agency – “l’etat c’est moi,” as Louis XIV would have put it. When they hear (and quote ad nauseam) that Rizal aphorism of “the children being the future of our nation,” they understand that quote to be referring to them specifically. They are the world, they are the children.

And why shouldn’t they think so? They’ve been handpicked since elementary (kindergarten even!) by titateacher to compete in inter-school orations and quiz bees, participant in Leadership camps and Youth fora, go to Tagaytay or Dumaguete to join NSPCs. In high school they were the chosen few anointed by tita-principal to take the UPCAT so the school gets a high passing rate. They are the student leaders (in Ateneo’s case, the inadvertently elitist label “sui generis,” oh how special they are). The elect of God. The future of the nation.

It is a point of profound irony that this is the background of many progressive-leaning, “pro-poor” student activists that serve as rally fodder (remember that their schools allowed only them to take the UPCAT or groomed only them to get high enough grades for a DOST scholarship).

In college, they encounter the plight of the urban and rural poor and the displaced tribal peoples, see this as part of their natural enlightenment, and understand it to be their God-appointed duty to take up Marxism and call for equality. The rest of us who do not fall within the protectionist, nationalist, socialist mould they envision – well, we’ve always been stupid even back in elementary, we were never in the honors lists! They’ve immersed in poor communities for months, interviewed a few victims of landgrabbing and EJKs, joined in many rallies. Of course they understand inequality better than us.

Self-entitlement is the easy precursor of self righteousness.

While Philippine education is becoming more and more accessible, the pace at which it moves to become more inclusive is still deplorably glacial.

And it just goes to show how utterly blind these elitists are to their own self-righteousness when, in spite of this more chronic problem, they called instead for free higher education (and when Duterte signed it into law, claimed full credit for it). It would be being uncharitable to insinuate that they had been rallying to get tuition fee incentives for their own university education, but one does wonder.

Because far from free higher education, what our country urgently needs more is better and more inclusive basic education. High education should be optional in a society where quality education is given in the primary and secondary levels.

The budget that could have been allocated to the improvement and greater accessibility of our basic education services will instead be eaten up by the free college subsidies.

And for what? Because there are no mechanisms to ensure that state-funded education results in national service, the country is not earning back what it is spending: most graduates work in the private sector, with many even going abroad, so at most we’re just adding taxpayers, something the private schools are already doing. Even among that vocal progressive portion of our privileged student activists, most of them that I know are in well-salaried private jobs, their ‘call for social justice’ reduced to angry tweets and quarrels on Facebook.

We will simply be subsidizing – as we always have – the self-righteousness of the elitists we have created.

I daresay we are not only breeding our next generation of snobs, but also our next generation of graft and corruption perpetrators. I so dare because I have at least one case to cite: in 2014, the student president of Negros Oriental State University (where I was teaching at the time) was expelled for failing to account for almost three hundred thousand pesos worth of funds. I’ve seen the culture of “student leaders” in that state university, and it’s just as described: the president of several clubs who has been valedictorian since elementary and who is running for magna cum laude couldn’t even pronounce “voila” correctly. In this case, the word was that the missing funds were used by the president for a weekend outing with fellow student officials to Siquijor. This is just one case, there are many others out there of our “promising youth” pilfering money for themselves.

September will be National Teachers Month, and like our long-established school culture of unfairness and inequality, of elitism and selectivity, we will celebrate it the way we always do: praising our teachers for doing what they’re paid to do, requiring our students to make surprise greeting cards for their class advisers and even pitch in from their meager allowance for a lunch kumbira that they or their mothers cooked – all while their creaky old classrooms remain riddled with holes in the floors and leaks on the roofs, their bathrooms still no more than urine-stained holes in the ground, their battered old books still grossly not enough.

Not the special section students, of course. Why should they cook when they can always ask for budget from tita-principal for catering.


Why Leoncio Deriada Should be National Artist

(Appeared on Davao Today 10 September 2017)

Last week I wrote a review here of Leoncio Deriada’s novel, “People on Claveria Street.” With the nomination process underway, readers will forgive me if I will be a fanboy again this week as I push for the man’s declaration as National Artist for Literature.

To those who don’t know, Leoncio Deriada is a prolific writer of fiction, drama, essays, and poetry, writing in English, Tagalog, Hiligaynon, Kinaray-a, and Cebuano. He has won the Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Award – the Philippines’ version of the Pulitzer prize – so many times that he has been named a Hall of Famer (and he holds the distinction of winning it in the most number of languages). He is also an influential literary activist, organizing lectures and workshops for the past few decades.

The Order of National Artists is the highest honor the Republic of the Philipines can grant to any artist, a recognition of a lifetime of relevant work promoting the country’s arts and contributing to national consciousness. National Artists are named for music, dance, literature, theater, film, visual arts, and architecture.

And these are the reasons why I think Deriada should long have been named National Artist for Literature.

1. He’s a great writer. The awards should be indication enough that Leoncio Deriada doesn’t just join contests a lot, he wins them a lot. Deriada’s fiction manages to strike that difficult balance between good writing and gravitas of theme (far too often, well-written stories are shallow, while socially relevant ones are boring). Deriada’s plots are clever and original (just read stories like ‘Dam’ and ‘The Hunt’), and his language is easy and accessible but often throws out startlingly fresh phrases (I and my girlfriend Nal love how he describes one character’s crossed eyes as ‘a facial calamity’). But at the same time they deal in an insightful manner with some very serious realities: the urban-rural divide in Mindanao, landgrabbing of tribal ancestral domain, the horrors of the war in the countryside, the dehumanizing impact of modernity.

2. He’s the local writer par excellence. The bulk of Deriada’s fiction is set in Davao, with the rest set in his ancestral home of Panay. One of my first exposures to literature set in a locale familiar to me was his work (I started my college life devouring the Ateneo de Davao’s copy of his short story collection “Week of the Whales”). Deriada represents best the power of literature to elevate the local into the realm of creative imagination: the lingering horrors of war in Guerrero Street, the deep knowledge of life among frontier settlers in Mawab, the clash of classes in Artiaga.

3. He created the literatures of two Philippine languages. Deriada has been nicknamed ‘Father of Western Visayan Literature.’ But as grand as that moniker sounds, it doesn’t fully capture the monumental achievement of this man in Philippine literature. Before Deriada, Akeanon (the language of Aklan) and Kinaray-a (the language of Antique) did not have literary traditions. This was largely because these two languages were treated as inferior to the local lingua franca Hiligaynon – which in turn was considered inferior compared to Tagalog and English. In a span of a few decades, Deriada went about looking for young writers who speak these languages, and mentored them to write in their mother tongues. These young writers have gone on to achieve international recognition (“Kinaray-a is now an international literary language,” as Isagani Cruz put it). No other Filipino writer can claim to have started the tradition of one language, and Deriada single-handedly did it with two. In a country where only English and Tagalog are considered prestigious languages, Deriada managed to convince government agencies to give grants to writers in languages which have long been marginalized twice over.

4. We need a regional writer as National Artist. The Order of National Artists fails ridiculously to represent the diversity of Philippine cultures. The rostrum of National Artists for Literature in particular is the crowning institution of Tagalog Imperialism: of the twelve awarded National Artists since the honour was first granted, only one, Edith Tiempo of Dumaguete, is not from the Tagalog area (although she ultimately comes from Luzon). And all awardees were or are writers in either English or Tagalog. Deriada is uniquely positioned to address this gross cultural injustice, being prolific in the most number of languages among the country’s many literary figures. Seriously, the Order of National Artists needs him amongst its ranks to fully deserve the label ‘national.’

5. A Dabawenyo President deserves a Dabawenyo National Artist. Digong’s election as President threw all your Manila imperialist expectations of what is likely in the Philippine halls of power out of the window. There is no better time to name a regional writer and regional literature advocate to the National rostrum of artists than now. And what better way to fulfill this timeliness but with a writer who hails from the same frontier town as our hillbilly president?