Forms of Solidarity in Land and Life: The Tumandok People of Panay and Their Struggle

Reflecting on the Tumandok massacre of December 30 2020, I wrote elsewhere that the incident didn’t register very long in the public’s consciousness because of the fatigue from scandals and several occasions of ineptitude of the Philippine state’s pandemic response, a lockdown considered to be one of the longest and the most brutal in the world. Similarly the pandemic is as if a ghost in the award winning short film Panambi (Myra Angeline Soriaso, Jane Mariane Biyo & Katya Marie Corazon Puertoliano, 2021) which recreates the testimonies of women who witnessed the said massacre talk about their life and struggles. If they weren’t wearing face masks, you’d think the COVID-19 pandemic is non-existent. This juxtaposition, where one crisis seems to pale in comparison to another, is important to keep in mind when learning about the fraught experiences of the Tumandok people of Central Panay, it is simply another episode to the decades of their neglect and displacement. In an opinion piece written a few weeks after the incident, writer Rae Rival aptly asks, why is no anyone talking about the Tumandok massacre? Land and Life: The Tumandok People of Panay and Their Struggle, a slim book that functions as a history, testimony, and documentation all at once, responds firmly to this silence. Prepared by the Iloilo Legal Assistance Center (ILAC), with support from the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, the book aims to not just to prevent total erasure of the massacre from public memory, but also to assert that the need for solidarity efforts are far from gone.   

Land and Life is made up of a primary essay that covers the long history of the Tumandok people, interspersed with generous amounts of photos and captions, along with two eye-witness testimonies of organizing efforts over the years. Since it is prepared by lawyers, special attention is given to the legal aspects of the Tumandok people’s experiences, but not to the point of being too technical for a lay person. In fact, the book takes tremendous effort to show a comprehensive view of a community. This includes brief discussions on language, cultural practices, artifacts, and economic livelihood. These details are integral to dispel the image of a tokenized indigenous peoples, and to show that the Tumandok have collective agency to assert their rights. They chant their epic poems and perform courtship dances, but ultimately they push back as community when control over their ancestral domain is at stake. Moreover, the narrative doesn’t begin in the massacre itself, but fifty years back. In the early 60s a military based was established in Central Panay on area covered by the Tumandok’s ancestral lands. After the land grab, they are then forced to pay tumado or rent to continue farming nearby. This begins the thorny relationship of the Tumandok and the state, especially with the military. Land and Life concisely connects various incidents of harassment, including deaths, of members of the community leading up to the unfolding of the Jalaur Dam project in the 2010s. A familiar pattern is exposed, indigenous groups’ lives, culture, and rights being treated as expendable for the state’s artificial version of development.

This history is complimented by two testimonies, twenty years apart, of participants to people’s assemblies organized by the community with help from progressive groups representing various sectors. If the attacks have been persistent over the years, so have been the solidarity efforts. Paz Garachico, writes in 1998, “It is very ironic that the government that has recognized the Tumandok as an indigenous people with unique and distinct cultural heritage is the same government that is attempting to drive them away from their ancestral domain through the intimidation of the Philippine Army. Two hundred terrified families evacuated due to military war exercises last December 1995. The same exercise wounded four Tumandok women and children when a mortar exploded. They took refuge in makeshift huts in the forest. Exposing the children and the elders to the elements and intense fear caused ailments.” Phillippe Angelo Hiñosa, meanwhile recalls his experiences immersing with the community, and highlights the dangers of the construction of the dam, “The Jalaur mega dam is endangered by an active fault nearby, landslides and a poor foundation at the construction site. A powerful earthquake could destabilize it and force it to collapse, drowning the Tumandok who live downstream. Meanwhile, those upstream could endure habitat degradation, reduced water quality, and unfavorable changes in biodiversity, which might ultimately lead to the extinction of aquatic species. Worse, it could accelerate climate change.” Hiñosa then attempts to come into terms with  grief of learning that one of the community leaders he had meaningful exchanges about aggressive development in 2019 would be killed in the massacre the following year.

The book concludes detailing with the aftermath of the massacre, which I consider to be very important. Despite the gravity of the violent events, barely being one in the first place, the massacre inevitably stopped being ‘breaking news’. Pictures of the nine community leaders killed, along with those of the sixteen arrested, are shown with their names and the communities in Tapaz, Capiz where they lived. I don’t think any mainstream media outlet took this much effort to humanize the victims. The ensuing evacuation was also discussed, along with the spill over violence that occurred in early 2021 namely the murder of Julie Catamin, a community leader and key witness to the raid, and to the attack against Angelo Karlo Guillen, one of the volunteer lawyers representing the detained Tumandok. Weaponization of the law is most pronounced in these sections. For example, the investigation of the perpetrators is summarized, “The Regional Internal Affairs Service (RIAS) of the Philippine National Police conducted its own investigation on the bloody operation. In April 2021, it recommended the filing of charges for grave misconduct and grave irregularity in the performance of duty against 14 police operatives from Luzon who participated in the simultaneous raids. In June 2021, RIAS exonerated the 14 operatives who were charged because none of the families of the victims came forward to present evidence during the conduct of summary hearings.” Almost all the detainee have been release through the help of members of ILAC, however the communities still live in fear and under surveillance. Construction of the Jalaur dam is underway, and this time, the massacre is the ghost presence in the state’s press releases.

Land and Life is an excellent addition to the country’s long list of literature of solidarity. It is be best read alongside recent titles like Gantala Press’ Dawwang: Kababaihang Tagapagtanggol ng Kordilyera (2021), a comic book about Leticia Bula-at’s experiences of organizing against the Chico River Dam since the 70s, and the lessons imparted to younger generations of land defenders and allies who, just like the Tumandok, have to be vigilant even amid a global pandemic. On the other hand, Vijae Orquia Aquisola’s Awit ng Bakwit (Sentro ng Wikang Filipino-UP Diliman, 2019), uses poetry to tackle the experiences and perseverance of displaced Lumad children. This book is not merely a refusal to forget, but a challenge to carry on the fight for the rights and well-being of indigenous peoples. Land and Life, proves that we are not as far removed as we’d imagine to these stories of struggle.

Permanence and Mobility in Dili Pwede Mogawas ug Ubang Mga Sugilanon / Can’t Go Out and Other Stories by Elizabeth Joy Serrano-Quijano, translated by John Bengan (Ateneo de Davao University Publication Office, 2022) [Book Review]

There is a strong current of orality in the stories of Elizabeth Joy Serrano-Quijano, presented bilingually in her debut with translations by John Bengan. The pieces in Dili Pwede Mogawas ug Ubang Mga Sugilanon/Can’t Go Out and Other Stories are similar to  narratives one has grown up listening to, they could be gossip heard or memories one reconstruct for one’s self. This is shared early on by Serrano-Quijano when she cites the influence of her grandmother and father to her love for storytelling. On top of this mode, it is the themes of permanence and mobility, and their various permutations that figure prominently. Why do people stay or leave, what motivates them, and what is the aftermath of their decisions. Particularly, movement is carried out by walking, taking the bus, or riding the habal-habal. These episodes remind me of the essays of Teng Mangansakan or the fiction of Rogelio Braga, where the traversing of space in a large land mass like Mindanao is both a setting and a subject. Since I only have an elementary understanding of the region’s geography, I had to look up the where exactly the places are. The stories unfold in Davao del Sur, namely in Blaan communities that are part of the neighboring rural municipalities of Magsaysay and Matanao. Both are approximately 30 kilometers to the provincial capital of Digos, and over 80 kilometers to the regional center of Davao City. Macario Tiu in his foreword writes that these “stories are raw, unadorned, and tell of real conflicts and struggles. We are fortunate that Joy has chronicled the dynamics of the socio-economic and political changes that are taking place in her hometown.” Meanwhile Bengan’s translation has maintained the casual and distinct language of Serrano-Quijano, and even kept some words and colloquialism in Bisaya as they are more effective rather than finding equivalents in English. He adds that these stories “are unmistakably of their time and milieu–Mindanao, at present.” Throughout this review, I will quote both Serrano-Quijano and Bengan. Aside from tone, themes, locations, and language explored, another consideration in the stories are their length which is consistently brief, each “a few hundred short of two thousand words” according to Bengan. Hence the ‘real conflicts and struggles’ tackled are done by Serrano-Quijano in a brisk and deflected manner often with slice of life approach, ending up with various results. This collection is a first of its kind, providing a portrait of a precarious reality and history to a region that seldom crosses the minds of people in centers.        

Undeniably a lot of oral tales are cautionary in nature, often with gruesome and tabloid-like details or outcomes. Some of the best stories in the collection pushes this familiar, not to mention simplistic, format further. Aside from concise plots and quick pacing, these stories are a window to a social condition that is fraught in itself. In Pikpik/Tap, a young teacher seeks better opportunities outside her hometown, and finds it in a school two hours away. There she encounters sinister stereotypes still widely accepted, specifically of scheming residents wanting to poison outsiders through a simple touch. In a classroom, the students asks, “if it was true that there were sorcerers and tappers in Matanao. My eyes widened and I quickly denied the accusation. I was amused thinking about the various ways people from other places peddled false beliefs and spoke evil of other towns, like the often-heard story about Siquijor as the land of ghouls./ Nibalos sab silag pangutana kung tinuod ba na nay mamarang ug mamikpik sa Matanao. Misiga akong mata ug abtik nga milimod sa maong akusasyon. Malingaw ko maghunahuna sa mga tinuohan ug mali nga panghadlok sa mga tawo sa ubang lugar, sama pananglit sa sulti nga sa Siquijor daghang wakwak.” In the end, the teacher’s rational frame of mind would be challenged as she herself fell victim to an supposed attack. Ako si Robin Nabaro/I Am Robin Nabaro, on the other the hand, doesn’t need to dabble in folk beliefs to present horror in people’s daily lives. The protagonist, also a teacher, is on a bus ride from the city as she takes note of fellow passengers and the often chaotic scenarios of the long commute. In the process, she exposes her anxieties as well as her arrogant disposition. “Sometimes, it was scary and worrisome to take the Mindanao Star because of the accidents their drivers had been involved in. But it was the same with the passenger vans. Because of their reckless driving, a lot of horrifying accidents had happened, which were quickly posted on Facebook. You could clearly see the blood and brains splattered everywhere. That was why whenever I took the bus or a van, I never forgot to pray and looked up at the sky. Even if there was a fear of accidents, I had to go to Davao every so often to transact with GSIS, NSO, and other agencies of government./  Usahay makahadlok ug makabalaka kung mosakay sa Mindanao Star tungod sa mga aksidenteng gikalambigitan sa mga drayber nini. Apan mao man sad ang mga van. Tungod sa ilang pagdali-dali sa dalan, daghan na kaayog mangilngig nga aksidente ang nahitabo, nga tulin kaayong ma-post sa Facebook. Klaro ra ba kaayo ang mga utok ug dugo nga nagkatag. Mao na nga kung mosakay ko sa bus o van, di gyod malimtan ang pag-ampo ug paghangad sa langit. Bisan may kahadlok kinahanglan man gyod moadto sa Davao kay naa man didto ang GSIS, NSO, ug uban pang ahensya sa gobyerno.” During stopovers when passengers get the opportunity to relieve themselves, she dreads a possible terrorist attack, “Sometimes I’d think, what if there were bombs inside the bags that they left behind, we’d all perish. /Usahay makahunahuna ko nga kung naay bomba ang mga bag nga ilang gibilin, hurot gyod ming tanan.” Beyond the risk of accidents or violence, what gets her ire the most are people asking for alms that gravitate to public places like terminals for a captured market of sorts. One man in particular has been a mainstay of her commute episodes that she has come to memorize his script. She goes on her mind about laziness and lack of initiative, and even articulates the Anti-Medicancy Law to rationalize her obliviousness to what she considers an act. However, the harmful road infrastructure would later prove to her that what she percieves as being an upright citizen means next to nothing.    

The dialectical relationship between reason and myth is present again in Ang Buntis gikan Zamboanga/The Pregnant Woman from Zamboanga, basically structured as a ghost story. The narrator, a young school girl who has to cross the river to get home, encounters an unfamiliar pregnant woman. She recalls an eerie story from her grandfather, one whose awful details has left a deep impression on her, much more compared to common stories of enchanted beings in the forest. This girl is another rationalist at heart, paying attention to the relationship of superstition and material conditions, “Further up our sitio, some children were taken to the hospital because of stomach pains. According to the village healers, the children had offended those-not-like-us because they played in the river and were making noise last Friday. But our teacher said that possibly the stomach pains were caused by the germs from drinking water. Maybe, it wasn’t the children or the engkantos’ fault that they had stomach aches. Maybe, the ones to blame were the parents who dirtied the environment./ Sa unahan sa among sityo, adunay mga naospital tungod kay nagdaot ang tiyan. Sumala pa sa mga mananambal, nakasala ang mga bata sa mga dili-ingon-nato tungod kay nagdula-dula sila sa sapa ug nagsaba-saba niadtong Biyernes. Apan ingon sa among maestro, ang sakit sa tiyan posibleng dala sa kagaw nga makuha sa inumong tubig. Tingali di sala sa mga bata o sa mga engkanto ang pagsakit sa ilang tiyan. Tingali sala sa ilang mga ginikanan nga naghugaw-hugaw sa kinaiyahan.” Remaining restless from the sighting, she asks her grandfather to tell the story with the figure of the pregnant woman again. As a young man, apparently he was a construction worker employed to build roads in the area in the mid-70s. In one phase of the project, the equipment suddenly stopped working while employees started getting sick. The only remedy to crises ending up being a blood sacrifice. He recalls in vivid details the incident of a woman’s death, “I couldn’t believe what I had witnessed. The noise of the cicadas grew even louder. The wind that slapped me seemed damp and smelled of blood. From the woods emerged huge monitor lizards with skin the color of gold and crawled over to the woman and in a blink, the dead body and the monitor lizards were gone!/ Halos di ko katuo sa akong nakita. Misamot kakusog ang mga huni sa mga gangis. Ang hangin nga mihapak sa akoa daw basa ug bahong dugo. Migawas gikan sa lasang ang mga kolor bulawan nga mga dagkong halo ug miadto sa lawas sa babaye ug sa pagpilok nako, wa na ang patayng lawas ug ang mga halo!” Perhaps myth is not the opposite of reason, but rather it’s underbelly. This is especially true in cases like that of massive postwar road expansions in Mindanao, nature is penetrated and changed forever. Even after decades, the life of settlers is one filled with hauntings. A parallel story that tackles communal unease, Gambalas Ago!/I Have Avenged Myself! unfortunately comes off more melodramatic rather than macabre. Again from the point of view of children, Serrano-Quijano skillfully inserts the social and economic dynamics of a small sitio in Magsaysay. A glaring fact is the need for children to work, “One of the ways children in Kanapulo made money was by doing raha or gathering firewood. The stores bought a bundle of firewood for five pesos, and sold it for ten. Because so many people were doing raha in Kanapulo, chopping trees and making charcoal were prohibited. The children and local youths were now doing raha in secret. As they said, “If you’re caught, you’re dead. If not, enjoy life!”/ Usa sa pangwarta sa mga batang taga Kanapulo ang pa-raha o pagkuha og kahoy aron ibaligya nga sugnod. Tagsingko ang palit sa mga tindahan sa usa ka bugkos nga sugnod us ibaligya nila kini og tagdiyes. Tungod sa kadaghan sa naga-raha sa Kanapulo, gibawal na ang pagputol sa mga kahoy ug pag-uling. Kawat-kawat na lang ang pag-raha sa mga bata ug mga batan-on. Ingon pa nila, “Kung masakpan, patay! Kung di masakpan, lipay-lipay!” The town was rattled when a widowed store owner got pregnant, igniting marital fighting in various households. The woman was later reported missing, and the incident is suggested to start a longer conflict between spouses, specifically the parents of the narrator, instead of closure.The final confrontation however felt unnecessary. We end up with a infidelity trope where one woman is pitted against another, where it would have been a more fascinating investigation of how a community is complicit in their silence after a crime.

Though presentation of issues are consistently done, there are evident stories where they are deliberately the take off point of the narrative. Dili Pwede Mogawas/Can’t Go Out, is about a child growing up in the middle of armed conflict between communist rebels and state forces. The title refers to an absurd rule of her mother, on top of their family’s already impoverished life. The child narrator again has casual innocence in making sense of her situation, “Mama didn’t agree that I’d be married off to our neighbor Randy. Mama wants me to finish at least high school. Will I be able to finish it? I’ve repeated grade three twice. Every week Id be absent thrice to help in the cornfield. My playmates are better off, they get to go with their Mamas when the 4Ps are released. We didn’t join the 4Ps because Papa won’t let us. We don’t know our birthdays and Ma’am Edna kept asking for my birth certificate. Mama said to me, you don’t have that because you can’t go out!/ Wa nisugot si Mama nga ibuya pod ko sa among silingan nga si Randy. Gusto ni Mama mohuman ko bisag hay eskul. Makahuman pa kaha ko? Ikaduha nako nibalik og grid tri. Sa usa ka simana, moabsent kog katulo kay motabang sa maisan. Maayo pa ang uban nakong kadula, maka-uban sa ilang Mama kung rilis sa 4P’s. Wa daw mi apil sa 4P’s kay di mosugot si Papa. Wa mi kabalo sa among birtdi ug sige nag pangayo si Mam sa akong birt sertikeyt. Ingon si Mama, wa mo ana kay dili ta pwede mogawas!” This narrative approach is paradoxical. By focus on a child’s perspective, and her parent’s avoidance of discussing matters in the open, we see an experience of war that is intimate and visceral, but falls short on comprehensively providing hints to the roots of insurgency or to the gravity of the state’s chosen response. The loss of innocence arc runs very a strong risk of perpetuating an ahistorical view of conflict, resulting the difficulty of imaging alternatives to what Serrano-Quijano described as a ‘ceaseless war’. This tragedy is interesting to compare to Baryo Tai/Barrio Tai, a story that has more hopeful look into the displacement being done in communities. The name of the place, literally ‘shit town’, is a moniker agreed upon by outsiders relying on two levels of meaning; a large presence of livestock and its overall poverty. It is worth noting that before the arrival of a mining company planning to set up operations, peasant families are already dealing with years of neglect, “The harvests had become less. Sometimes, the water supply was limited. The prices of pesticides for the rice went up and the interest rates of the loans for the pesticides were increased by the lenders. Before harvest time, we were already drowned in debt./ Nagminus ang ani. Usahay limitado ang patubig. Nagkataas ang mga medisina sa humay ug nagtubo ang interes sa mga nagapautang og medisina. Wa pa maani, nalumos na mi sa utang.” Caught between a rock and a hard place, the story illustrates how the state’s own incompetence is used to justify the ushering in of capital. In a town meeting with residents hesitant to sell off their lands, the barangay captain reasons, “My fellow barangay folks, before we think or say anything negative, we should listen first to the representative of the SAMARA Mining Company so we’ll know their plans. It can’t be denied that we are having a hard time with our water supply at present. The NIA keeps increasing the charges.”/ “Mga ka-barangay, una kita maghunahuna o mosultig negatibo, ato usang paminawon ang representanti sa SAMIRARA Mining Company aron sab madunggan ang ilang mga plano. Di ikalimod nga naglisod na ta sa tubig karong panahona. Nagkataas ang singil sa NIA” While local officials are bought off, the community, informed of other cases of environmental problems mining brings, came to together in resisting. It is very curious to see that the National Irrigation Administration is shown as unconcerned, but mentions the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) as having a more proactive role in empowering indigenous communities. In 2019, President Duterte appointed an ex-military officer that was formerly involved in a smuggling controversy in his prior position. Critics pointed out the frequent clashes between the military and indigenous groups, the glaring example being the massive evacuation of Lumad communities. Remaining in position in 2022, the NCIP chair red-tags indigenous groups resisting a dam project in the Apayao. There are other cases that posits that the agency often has a hand in facilitating the entry of corporations in resource-rich area under the ancestral domain of indigenous groups. Because of the story’s large scope, events are rushed and incidents occasionally heard in the news are filtered through. No mention of militarization, harassment or outright murder of resistant community leaders. The teenager narrating the story even pursues a degree in agriculture technology in the end, establishing the story as a liberal polemic to the manifold problems, one that reads a lot like a wishful fantasy.  

Discernible by now, Serrano-Quijano prefers perspective coming from young characters. In stories where the point of view is that of an adult, it is alternatively nostalgic. This frame is largely due to the circumstances of adults who have pursued careers in urban centers and look back to their hometown fondly. I feel that this results to the compromise of the issues these stories try to raise. Ang Loyalista/The Loyalist is a recollection of a grandmother who had a life-long fascination with a figure of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos. The narration is so earnest and uncritical, that by the time a sense of irony is inserted in the end–admittance of a life-long material hardship, it seems that it didn’t have the impact it aims to achieve. It conclude matter of factly, “I might have not understood her being a Marcos loyalist, but I understood her abiding loyalty. If I would be asked whose granddaughter I am, without hesitation, my answer would be: “I am the granddaughter of Julia, the Blaan Marcos loyalist.”/ Tingali di man nako masabtan ang iyang pagka loyalista kay Marcos, apan nasabtan nako nga ang iyang pagka-loyal way utlanan. Kung pangutan-on ko kung kay kinsa kong apo, sa way pagduhaduha mao ni ang akong tubag: “Ako ang apo ni Julia, ang Blaan nga Marcos loyalista.” Meanwhile Kasiawa/Kasiawa, is a remembrance of a Chinese neighbor and his relationship to the community. “Siawa was the only Chinese man in our village. There were also Kapampangan, Ilocano, and Blaan, but the lone Chinese man was considered the most respected among the settlers in our place./ Si Siawa lang ang Instsik sa among sityo. Aduna sab mga Kapampangan, Ilokano, ug Blaan apan ang nag-inusarang Intsik ang giila ug pinakarespetado nga dayo sa among lugar.” This would have been a perfect venue to discuss migration paths and stories, or the role of a merchant class, often Chinese, in an import-dependent and export-oriented economy. The story however, settled on being an impressionistic character study.

In contrast to the fast action of most stories, the collection is actually bookended by narratives of permanence, similar but contrasting versions of peace. Abogmaya/ The Maya Birds functions like a procedural of routines in a rural household. Despite material hardships and conflict with family, the grandmother who mostly lives alone is content. This could be taken as due to her being in her twilight years, or simply humble acceptance of her place in nature. This is illustrated in her peculiar relationship with birds. “Tomorrow, the work continues, the work continues,” Adela said to herself. When she turned to look at the ricefield she saw that the maya birds had gathered again. Anger wasn’t what she felt for the birds. On her lips formed a smile. “Here come my visitors, but I must drive you away”/ “Ugma, padayon gihapon ang mga buluhaton, padayon gihapon,” matod pa ni Adela sa iyang kaugalingon. Paglingi ni Adela sa basakan nagtapok na pod ang mga maya. Dili kapungot ang nabati ni Adela ngadto sa mga maya. Sa yang mga ngabil nilutaw ang pahiyom, “Ania na sab ang akong mga bisita, apan kinahanglan ko gayod kamong abogon.” However the life goes on standpoint is pushed to its ironic end in Salibo sa Baryo Bagol/Rain Spray in Barrio Bagol, making it the most poignant and enraging piece in the collection. Story of a mother trying to fix a window in her hut so the water won’t come in. She takes on jobs to make ends meet, and later applies for government aid, only to be rejected based on a technicality. In an interview for her application, a detached staff fail, or refuse, to see the deeper contradictions poverty brings. “Indeed, the people from DSWD arrive in our house. I answer them to the best of my ability. One of the things they notice is that we don’t have a toilet. One of them tells me that we really need a toilet because it is dangerous to just cover our shit with a coconut shell. It can be the source of many diseases./ Tuod man, niabot ang taga DSWD sa among balay. Gitubag nako sila kutob sa akong makaya. Usa sa ilang namatikdan kay wa mi kasilyas. Sumala pa sa usa kanila, kinahanglan naa gyod mi kasilyas kay delikado ang among pagtabon og bagol sa among tai. Mao unya kini hinungdan sa mga sakit.” Here, she and her family is one with nature, but not necessarily living with dignity. Fatalism is unveiled, and has deep roots in underdevelopment. Contentment in the first story is subverted, it is nothing more but making do.  

I finished this book in one sitting. It is after all, as I’ve mentioned, fairly short and immensely engaging. The sheer number of subjects they exhausted will haunt you, though I think the treatment is done unevenly. What is certain is that Serrano-Quijano carries deep humanistic care about the people, places, histories she has encountered and has preserved the stories in an accessible fashion. The collection is an juxtaposition of the intrusion of capital, dysfunctional public institutions, armed conflict, poverty, and how all closely intertwined and inseparable. These fragments of perseverance and making do, are admittedly heroic but they also expose their own limits. I highly recommend this book to those looking for stories from the regions, and discover why such stories rarely reach the centers, or the national imagination, in the first place. An excellent gauge of the modernity the nation-state espouses after all, is to look not in its supposed achievements, but to those who it leaves behind.

Dili Pwede Mogawas is available for purchase in Ateneo de Davao University Bookstore’s Lazada account


Process Notes:

This suite of seven poems is an erasure project based the first section of the book Paralyzing Summer: The True Story of the Ann Arbor V.A. Hospital Poisonings and Deaths (University of Michigan Press, 2016) by Elizabeth Zibby Oneal and S. Martin Lindenauer. The said section is also titled The Investigation. In 1975, two Filipina nurses, Filipina Narciso and Leonora Perez, were suspects to several poisonings of patients, with some resulting to deaths, in the hospital where they work. The book recreates the baffling episode in a true crime-like narration based on testimonies, court records, newspaper articles among other sources. What I find fascinating with narrative is how the two subjects were presented, how the language and their story both reveals and obscures various discourses of US-Philippine relations. Throughout the first section of the book, I paid attention to the parts that directly refers to the Philippines, and to the two nurses. Each poem is titled with the chapter where the erasures take place. Notice for example, that the policy of US hospitals employing Filipina nurses was only contextualized in Chapter 3, and in the total of 18 chapters in the section, the experiences of the two nurses were only directly discussed in seven. Aside from the obvious theme of errors on the investigation pointing towards racist biases, the erasures attempt to expose the nuances of the Philippine state’s labor export policy that had its roots in the American colonial occupation. At that time of the events in the book, this policy was then being institutionalized by Ferdinand Marcos’ military rule, a regime supported by the US so the country could continue serving as an important Cold War outpost in Southeast Asia. The Investigation is a series of interdependent noir poems, with stakes larger than the specific lives or the specific incidents involved.

Chapter 3

Then, as now,
too few nurses were being trained

hospitals that needed them
seeking nurses trained elsewhere

A great number
came from the Philippines

between 1966 and 1985
twenty-five thousand Filipino
nurses immigrated
to the United States.

nurses were eager to make the move
seeing it as a positive career choice
in terms of salary
and experience

hospitals were eager to employ them

Filipino nurses were well-trained, conscientious workers

the Ann Arbor hospital was one of many
employing nurses
from the Philippines

Chapter 10

a slender, dark-haired RN,
a native of the Philippines.

She, too, had been attending patients,
she said, dispensing medications.

she had been standing near his room

she had given him his medications but no injection
she had given no patient an injection that day.
at the time of this interview

the nurse identified  
as having given him a shot just a few seconds
he blacked out in respiratory arrest

recognized the nickname belonging to

Now she sat, another young RN from the Philippines.

She was small, slightly plump, and seemingly uncertain.
Her dark hair was cut in a sensible bob.
Her smile was shy. Her voice was quiet.
Sitting with her hands folded in her lap,
she spoke politely, answering questions.

She had been standing near the isolation room when the arrests began, she said.
She went into the room.

to help with the resuscitation.

To make him more comfortable she had added extension tubing  
Then she returned

she explained what she was doing
Possibly twenty or thirty minutes earlier, she said.

an unlikely suspect

It is easy to doubt that this small,
courteous young woman,

sitting so patiently answering his questions,

could be responsible for a ghastly series
of poisonings and murders

Full suite better read in PDF, available here.

values are values: ten iterations


In January 23 2023, Canadian Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre posted a tweet that began with ‘Filipino values are Conservative values.’ The said tweet then detailed his pro-immigration stance, especially relating to Filipinos, along with pictures during his visit to what appears to be Filipino grocery store and restaurant. The post provoked responses from people belonging to various positions in the political spectrum; from the anti-immigration right, the radical left who primarily sees Canada as an exploiter of foreign labor, to a more liberal position claiming that the values Poilievre enumerates applies to all Canadians not just Conservatives. Unsurprisingly, such essentializing tweet was also met with ridicule, mostly for its unabashed election pandering to one of the largest and fastest growing ethnic communities in Canada. After all, Poilievre has expressed his desire for running for prime minister in the next federal election. However, what I find fascinating in the tweet and the conversations it generated, is how its language, despite being so short, encapsulated so many discourses all at once; the intertwined policies of Canadian immigration and Philippine labor-export, and locating the role of work and family in imagining the nation/s. These erasures aims to flesh out these various ideological currents some more. This is not the first for such incident, and I doubt it will be the last.      

Full suite best read in PDF, available here for download.

Supply Chain Hauntings in Nocebo (Lorcan Finnegan, 2022) 

There are two scenes integral to understanding to the type of horror conveyed in Nocebo (Lorcan Finnegan, 2022). First, is when newly hired nanny – though a better term would be domestic helper, Diana (Chai Fonacier) brings breakfast in bed to her employers, husband and wife Felix (Mark Strong) and Christine (Eva Green). Both were surprised as they were still asleep. As part of her scheme to study the house, Diana tries to create small talk, but instead she’s called ‘intrusive.’ Second, is much later in the film when Felix starts to get bothered about how Diana appears to deeply influence Christine’s behavior as she has since then functioned as both doctor and  therapist to her, through folk medicine in order remedy her mysterious illness. Felix goes into the Diana’s quarters late at night to confront her. Expressing her discomfort, and noting he is drunk, Felix declares that he can do whatever he wants since ‘this is my house.’

For a film that has no short supply of horror, both psychological and visceral, shown directly or through tension between characters, I find the aforementioned scenes the most dreadful precisely because both are realistic, not to mention common, scenarios in regards to live-in care work involving migrants, often female and coming from labor-exporting countries like the Philippines. On an economical sense, the set-up saves the domestic helper on living costs on the host country (in this case, Ireland), but as the same time it is conducive to labor violations like blurring of work hours or outright abuse. You are expected to work and live in a space never truly yours, and where you never totally take a break. Aside from the more obvious class and gender dimensions, this politics of space as a theme extends masterfully throughout Nocebo. To echo Slavoj Zizek, a good illustration in finding out what a horror movie is truly about is seeing what is left when you disregard the horror or fantastic elements.

One day, out of nowhere Diana arrives at Christine’s posh home claiming to the house help she asked for, from a recruitment agency presumably (though this procedure or option is obscured in the film’s narrative). Christine is a fashion designer, taking time off and appearing to be distraught after a fiasco at work, goes with it. The bewildered Felix, later gives in, and explains that his disoriented wife could use an extra pair of hands. When asked about his wife’s condition, he explains that she’s suffering from guilt. Diana immediately tries to win over the still uneasy family’s affection through her cooking. They admit unfamiliarity to Filipino cuisine but nonetheless appreciate it, while Felix talks about its ‘potential.’ Diana then strategically presents herself to be able to help Christine relieve her of stress through faith healing or folk medicine. The two lead women then play a game of domestic cat and mouse of who truly has the power over the other. I don’t think I have anything more to add to the discussion about the portrayal of the said rituals, especially since it doesn’t depart very far from the depiction in Holy Emy (Araceli Lemos, 2021).

Lemos’ debut film, not as publicized beyond film festival circuits, is a meditative story of Filipino migrant sisters living and working in Greece. It uses visually compelling faith healing procedures, such as extraction of objects though massages, to reflect on life and death. Nocebo is more deliberate and bold, pushing further the alarming visuals, such as in showing a black chick leaving or entering someone’s mouth to show transfer of abilities or power. Even I only read about this in Ricky Lee novel’ Si Amapola sa 65 na Kabanata (2011), but haven’t seen it in any Filipino horror films, which frequently tackles such rituals in a very sanitized manner. In such films, the figure of the Other is often being pinned on the rural folk as a default.

In both Nocebo and Holy Emy, the material roots, or the reason for persistence, of these folk practices in the present is ignored. In a recent study on health expenditure in the Philippines, people still resort to these alternative or traditional medicine practices because of the inaccessibility, or even the total lack, of public health infrastructure. Other ‘catastrophic’ steps explored by the researchers involve people begging politicians for financial aid (thereby reproducing patronage ties) and falling prey to loan sharks in times of medical emergencies. This presence of barely functional social safety nets is in fact also a driving force behind labor migration of Filipinos, personified in the occupation of Diana. What emerges is a global care deficit – one leaves to care for others, in order to care for one’s own.


As the film goes on, we further see these symptoms of underdevelopment in Diana’s flash backs. She flees the rural community where she resides as it is terrorized by paramilitary groups to usher in mining operations that are almost always foreign corporations. She and her partner find themselves living in a slum community in Manila, while she works in a sweatshop that manufactures garments. We see a lead hand ruthless to the women employees he manages, but bows down to a female foreign client, revealed to be Christine, once she demands an unrealistic production quota. An unmistakable delineation of unequal flow of bodies, goods, and capital through national borders, with clear winners and losers. Eventually Diana notices a work room in the large house and appears to be long inactive. She asks Christine if she also makes clothes, and she replies ‘I only design them’. It was quite predictable, but also so fitting that this is where the final confrontation between the two will happen. While there’s extra space in Christine’s home for her craft, Diana brings her own child to her crowded and poorly ventilated workplace. 

Nocebo caused a stir online as soon as its trailer came out, with discussions especially zeroed on Fonacier’s accent as a marker of her othering. I feel that this turned out to figure very little in the film, as it took painstaking care to establish the social roots of Diana’s motivations. People might focus on the actress getting a break in an international film, but it is an Irish-Filipino co-production after all. The rituals however are exoticized to be sinister and Christine having a nightmares about a giant tick is a bit on the nose, though these might seen as a compromise to the genre’s formal demands. Interestingly, a feat that the film accomplishes is adding a transnational dimension to Rain Rain Go Away (Chris Martinez, 2011), a episode in the Shake Rattle and Roll horror franchise inspired by the massive flooding caused by Typhoon Ondoy in 2009. The episode is about an affluent family being haunted by child laborers who didn’t survive the storm. I think very few people recognized the boldness of its critique and how well the plot and genre worked together to delivered it when it came out. An exception is Rolando Tolentino, in his review, later expanded into a journal article, arguing that in the unequal experience of calamities and its aftermath, horror serves as a wish fulfillment – where the underdogs actually have a chance to fight back and win a pyrric victory.

For contrast, a another film that comes to mind is The Maid (Kelvin Tong, 2005), where a Filipina domestic helper goes to Singapore for work, but soon tries to uncover the reason behind the disappearance of her employer’s former maid. Here, closure is conflated with returning home, and by extension, justice. After watching Nocebo, this feels like a cop out. The emotional turmoil that Christine suffers from isn’t going to redeem her from actual lives lost. Folk horror is commonly framed as when pre-modern forces intrude contemporary rational lives. Nocebo on the other hand, asserts that even this paradigm is a facade. What happens is that the modernity in the centers feed and is sustained by barbarity in the peripheries.

2017 art work by Renz Lee, from Tambisan ng Sining FB page.

Towards the end of the closing credits, ‘JUSTICE FOR ALL KENTEX WORKERS’ appears while the tribute song Pugon by The General Strike plays. Unfortunately, a translation or context is not provided. Kentex is a manufacturer of flip flops in Valenzuela City, where a fire broke out in 2015 killing seventy two people. It is one of the worse fire incident in the country’s history, and is largely blamed on the poor working conditions in the site, included iron barred windows. The chorus goes, ‘Nagliyab itong kahon / kinulong at binaon / naabo sila doon / sa pabrikang naging pugon’ which loosely translates to, ‘This box was ablaze / imprisoned and buried / people were turned into ashes / there in the factory that turned into furnace.’ In 2020, after a long legal battle, company and local fire officials were found not guilty on the charges of reckless imprudence resulting into multiple homicides and injuries. Nocebo, even with all its flaws, is still a significant attempt to depict the horrors of global supply chains, and the quest for justice. Beyond representation, the film also provokes several other questions. How can stories mobilize others in the face of injustice? How to build solidarity ties in a international level? Urgent questions that should be answered not just in regards to cinema alone.

Horrors of the Mundane in Libing-Isa by Malayo Pa ang Umaga (Anino Comics, 2022)

It would be very convenient to call Malayo Pa ang Umaga as a Filipino Edward Gorey or Maurice Sendak, whose works are also a mix of creepy and tenderness. The artist behind the pseudonym, identical to the Rey Valera song, who has considerable following in social media came out with the debut book Libing-Isa (Anino Comics, 2022). It is made up of eleven independent short comics that are thematically tied. A few are completely wordless, some are accompanied with text following either rhyme or meter scheme, and while mostly have a plain narrative. All stories, except one, are based on rural small town sensibilities, with scenarios that might be called folk horror — arguably the dominant horror mode in the Philippines even before the category has received its current amount of attention in cinema. The choice of subjects is best articulated in the afterword, “Ang labing-isa ay isang paghihintay at hindi ang hinihintay. At doon sa hindi napapansin, sa mga kalyeng nilalagpasan at mga pangalang nakalilimutan ako nabibighani- sa mga iniwan at inilibing natin bago tayo nagpatuloy.”     

Aside from Gorey and Sendak, I would also like to mention Libing-Isa’s affinities to the work of Bong Redila and Julius Villanueva. Especially how they utilize genre, cyberpunk for the former and horror-fantasy for the later, as an approach to depict and mediate local realities as seen in Meläg (Anino Comics, 2016) and Ella Arcangel (Haliya Publishing, 2017 & 2018). Like them, Malayo Pa Ang Umaga doesn’t force or tokenize local icons and narratives into ready made templates, primarily known as foreign or Western conventions. Instead, reality is presented in such a way that is already frightening, done through emphasize or focus. Such as the haunting blurring of ghosts whether real or imagined, or everyday objects that appear innocent are reframed as sinister.

An immediate stand out is the second story, as it weaves strong imagery and powerful verses, taking on a subject that is both emotive and absurd. Pag-ibig sa Pagitan is told from the point of view of a carabao, one that is loyal and affectionate is suddenly plagued by deep insecurity when his owner, a young man, decides to marry. “Iniibig ko ang aking sungay/Matulis, matikas, at magara/Ito ang haligi ng aking sarili/Tunay itong kahanga-hanga” At the threat of his horns being sawed off, he flees. The former source of pride would later be a bitter reminder of his fear, in his eternal demise.

In the fifth story, Hindi na Ako Takot Kay Lola, a young girl narrates a relationship with her grandmother, even after her passing. The sinister figure creeps around her; below her bed, in the kitchen cupboards, while she hangs freshly washed bed sheets. The child however remains cheerful, “Mula sa dilim ay ramdam kong nakatitig siya sa akin,/pero parang hindi naman niya ako nakikita/Kahit ilang beses pa ako kumaway at ngumiti kay Lola ay wala siyang imik.” Turns out her resolve is rooted from coming into terms with grief. An even more lighthearted story is the tenth one, Ayos Ba? Another account filled with wonder about a child who presumably lived in a community near a public cemetery, and his bond with a friendly sepulturero or gravedigger. The two always point finger guns at each other, as the man works while the boy observes. Business of death has been ingrained to be part of life.     

The most terrifying story is the one most subtle. The fourth story, Ang Kasaysayan ng Bigas, takes place in a dining room where a father enumerates the steps of rice farming to his blind daughter. However, the idyllic agricultural images in popular imagination takes a morbid turn. Rain fed fields are receiving a shower of bullets, a paddy ready for harvest has gravestones, and while rice being dried mats on the roadside beside them are corpses covered in drapes that might be rice sacks. Behind the father’s detached and mechanical narration, it is revealed that he is probably more involved in what is being done to countryside than what he is presenting to his daughter. To paraphrase what I think is a statement from Slavoj Zizek, one of the biggest horror in society is accepting that people who carry out evil are also loving members of their families.  

Libing-Isa is a welcome migration or adaptation of Malayo Pa ang Umaga’s art from online to print. Instead of content that captures one’s attention for a few seconds before moving on, the book, though relatively short, elicits more contemplation. You will find yourself rereading it, either to catch details you missed in the illustration or immerse yourself once again to its eerie language. Malayo Pa ang Umaga has gathered or retold stories of the mundane and the nonsensical to rethink horror, ones that are hidden but also those out in the open.

Libing-Isa is available on the Adarna House website, and in their Shopee and Lazada accounts.

Labor Export Poetics


This project alludes to labor export policy (LEP), a set of institutional mandates wherein the Philippine state prioritizes deployment of workers abroad rather than generating jobs locally. Labor Export Poetics asks what exactly is the language of migration? How is language found in spaces, and how does it imagine the traversing of spaces, namely national borders? This suite of poems is the result of a combination of techniques borrowed from documentary, found, and erasure poetics. It is the intent of this project to reveal the lengths of how LEP is ingrained in everyday life, spaces, and language. Though the case study is a city in the Philippines, these may also manifest in other developing countries with populations leaving en mass ‘North-ward’. Such juxtapositions and rearrangements of meanings in Labor Export Poetics will hopefully be helpful in order to come up with and map radical alternatives.

This the second part of a planned trilogy of erasure projects, the first one being Let Me. This is better read in its PDF format, available here.

Nostalgia and Premonition

Book Review of Casanave: An American Photographer in Iloilo by Nereo Cajilig Lujan (National Historical Commission of the Philippines, 2021)

At the onset, it is already clear that Casanave as a coffee table book has humble, but nonetheless ideologically loaded, intensions. In his foreword, historian Demy Sonza considers the book “most valuable in the study and appreciation of the history of Iloilo” (p. xi) and claims to bring readers back to the city’s and the province’s “glorious past” (p. xii). Meanwhile in Nereo Cajilig Lujan’s preface, he asserts that the photographs could serve as “time machines” (p. xiii) to the early 20th century. Indeed, the book published by the National Historical Commission of the Philippines is primarily structured to serve these appreciative, if not nostalgic, goals. Reception of the book has confirmed this. Vic Salas calls it a “tribute to what many consider a “Golden Age””, while Tara Yap, using social media lingo, dubbed the book as “photographic throwback.”

Lujan went through the painstaking task of hunting down and gathering a portion of photos Pedro Casanave produced during his professional career lasting more than three decades. He never published an album, hence the photos had to sourced from museums, libraries, private collections, and online resources. Lujan also provides a biography of Casanave, and how his life “intertwined with Philippine history” (p. xiii), namely the developments of the American colonial period and the then still young practice of photography in the country. With these overlapping narrative directions, an immediate issue with the book is the absence of labels for photos or an index at the end. Lujan frequently oscillates between a chronological and thematic ordering of photos that it is quiet hard to focus while going through the first sections of the book. In referring to selected photos, I will indicate the pages where they are found, similar to identifying where direct quotes are located.

Image from Manila Bulletin

Lujan admits being a photography and history enthusiast, he’s a trained journalist, rather than a scholar of visual culture, which lays bare the book’s premilinary, but at the same time, equally pathbreaking nature. “The story is incomplete and I hope, should more questions arise in the future,” he writes, “another historian will fill whatever gap is found in this work.” (p. xiv) I think there is little to add to the rigorous research Lujan has already done (see Lujan, 2016). Instead, I approached Casanave in a more critical and interdisciplinary lens, underscoring the meanings produced by the images presented and how Lujan contextualized them.

The opening four chapters of the book centers on Casanave’s life, along with that of his family, and later of his studio and practice in Iloilo. As a young man Pedro Casanave trained under photographer Theodore Lilienthal in New Orleans, before shifting to a career in music. When the Spanish-American War broke out, erupting amid the wars of independence in Cuba and the Philippines, he enlisted in the US Volunteers Regiment becoming a staff in its band. When the Americans started establishing colonial institutions in areas they have pacified in the Philippines, Casanave briefly worked as a state treasurer in two provinces. He left his government post in 1905, and went to Iloilo City with a young Filipina wife coming from the local elite, to set up its first photography studio.

He wasn’t the first photographer, whether foreign or local, to record the region but setting up operations here granted him the opportunity to witness the development of Iloilo City, and its nearby rural municipalities, as it rose from the ruins of war to becoming an important economic center second to the national capital, Manila. Unfortunately, the handful of documents and letters in the book didn’t reveal any of his creative motivations aside from commercial purposes. Casanave had considerable success doing portraiture, dabbling in photojournalism, and most especially producing Real Picture Postcards (RPP) sold as souvenirs to foreigners. The book right away frames that because of Casanave’s position, especially his settling in the colony, his work is different from his more popular contemporaries and how they contributed to the US’ imperial imaginary of its territories.

Casanave didn’t take staged pictures of indigenous peoples like Dean Worcherster (see Rice, 2014) or publish an album like Frank Tennyson Neely that contained morbid images of dead Filipino revolutionaries (see Niedermeier, 2016). However, a purely commercial frame is not immune to the slippages of the US’ imperial project. Casanave’s photos obscures colonial violence through showing the literal facade of its achivements; along with its implementors, collaborators, and beneficiaries all in diginified poses. This is a ample opening for intervention by Lujan through his annotations and captions, but by only providing “historical trivia” (p. xiv) for context, he in turn reinforces the original purpose of the photos being catered to the colonial gaze. Following Allan Punzalan Isaac (2006), Casanave’s photos, and their re-presentation by a state agency no less, is a symptom of the continuous reproduction of US imperialism’s invisibility to itself.

When not photographing structures and landscapes, Casanave’ pictures are of people either in labor or in leisure. Portraiture is only accessible to an affluent clientele, and by extension Casanave documented house parties and events like concerts in high society circles. On the other hand, Casanave also recorded the daily scenes of the lower class population; farmers working in rice fields (p. 86), harvesting of salt beds (p. 94), and women weavers at work (pp. 52-3). It is curious where Lujan decided to locate a portion such images in the books’ structure. Specifically, in the early part where he is introducing the geographical and economic features of the region. In a collage of idyllic rural scenes; people in thatched houses, a woman bathing in a river, a man on top of a water buffalo (pp. 42-3), Lujan has a section about the “origins of the people of Iloilo.” (pp. 42-3) He cites the Maragtas legend, a controversial migration narrative previously considered historical fact but has been proven to be otherwise (see Scott, 1984). Introducing the native population through this, gives them an air of legendary origins, as if they are part of the landscape when the Americans arrived.

Image from Manila Bulletin

These anonymous natives are uncannily exotic in contrast to Casanave’s peopleless architectural photography, the genre making up majority of his work found in the fifth and largest section of the book. For example, an obvious landmark of America’s civilizing mission are hospitals, Casanave has photos of the two earliest ones in the city, Iloilo Mission Hospital (p. 153) which first opened in 1905 and Saint Paul’s Hospital (pp. 66-7) following suit in 1916. Lujan contextualizes these institutions by providing basic information like their locations, patrons, and the religious orders that managed them. In sum, players belonging to the power elite during American period. Regarding Saint Paul’s Hospital he writes that it was “managed by the Sisters of Saint Paul of Chartres, it was built…at the behest of Msgr. Dennis J. Dougherty, bishop of Jaro” with “Dr. Samuel Carson of the Philippine Railway Company, [as] the hospital’s first director.” (p. 66) Trivia like these feel wanting as numerous studies have been made about locating the ulterior motives of setting up a public health care infastructure in colony, namely the training of a cheap nursing force able to remedy the shortages in the US (see Choy, 2003). Nurses and other healthcare workers remain a top ‘export’ of the Philippines to this day, as the postcolonial state continues to fulfill its labor-brokerage function first institutionalized during the American period (see Rodriguez, 2010).

A similar altruistic tone can sensed in the captions discussing photos of university buildings, like what would become the University of the Philippines Visayas (UPV) (p. 29) and Central Philippine University (CPU) (p. 146). Before being donated to UPV after World War Two, Lujan considers Iloilo City Hall as a “foremost landmark”, and emphasizes its formal prowess, “designed by renowned architect Juan Arellano while Italian artist Francesco Riccardo Monti created the magnificent sculptures that adorn its facade.” (p. 28) The neoclassical structure is of course part a of larger scheme of American colonial policy in using the architectural style to assert what Gerard Lico calls a “visual narrative of imperial ambition and cultural attainment” (2021a, p. 271). Meanwhile the philantrophic nature of CPU was highlighted, “Founded by the American Baptist Foreign Mission Soceity, it was initially an elementary vocational school for poor boys who worked for their board and tuition.” (p. 147) Lujan mentions that though it was established in 1905, CPU only started admitting female students in 1913. Modeled after American institutions, these schools, and an overall public education system, would be pivotal enforcing a proficiency in English and training a pacified technocratic class—a process Renato Constantino (1966) bluntly labeled as miseducation. A case where the colonial racial order is most undeniable is illustrated in the photo of the Iloilo Golf Club (p. 173), the oldest one in the country. Lujan considers this a “legacy” of British and Scottish engineers that built the railway system in Panay. Admittedly, it was “exclusive for expatriates” (p. 172) until 1920 when it allowed membership of Filipinos, Lujan then lists prominent politicians and industrialists.

Image from Manila Bulletin

Though Casanave’s photos of the local population are reverent and those of structures are made to stand on their own, an underlining theme in his body of work is revealing the how far is the extent in which the city and the region is integrated into the political and economic networks of the US empire. The dominance of images of early ports, roads, warehouses, railways, and airport brings to mind Marx’ claim, in Grundrisse, that capital “Capital by its nature drives beyond every spatial barrier. Thus the creation of the physical conditions of exchange – of the means of communication and transport – the annihilation of space by time – becomes an extraordinary necessity for it.” Not as sensational as the work of his contemporaries, they nonetheless are taken and circulated to attract investors, or at least visitors, to Iloilo. Casanave’s photos, and Lujan’s book, at its most sincere, then serves an origin myth of a city and a province, while at its worse, a yearning for a lost Eden. Viewing these images at the present confronts readers of the contradiction of this “glorious past” as one is also exposed to colonialism’s uneven development though this is done subtlety and can only be extracted by close reading of the trivia provided. For example, it is a big loss when the regional railway system wasn’t properly rehabilitated during the postwar years, but one must come into terms that it was built to primarily accommodate the needs of the lucrative sugar industry, with the US as its biggest market, and not for mass public transport (pp. 108-9).

In the light of recent campaigns to push for preservation tourism one can sense that Casanave’s images of colonialism taking root has parallels with the further entry of neoliberalism glimpsed in the renewed interest in the period’s remaining structures, if not ruins. Portions of Iloilo City, as well as other places in the country, also continue to mimic foreign architectural designs, an “obsession for legitimacy though invented European heritage”(Lico, 2021b, p.762). Casanave’s photos, circulating in social media might elicit nostalgic responses, but a deeper look would reveal they are in fact an anticipation of the city’s current sprawl and its manifold and persistent problems. This premonitionary aura is a reason why Lujan’s book should be read and be engaged with. In order to rethink what is now lost, and ask how and why did it exactly happened. Acts that unfortunately are largely contained by the coffee table book’s formal limits. By intervening in this suspension of the past in photos, may an imagining of more egalitarian alternatives begin.



Lujan, N. (2016). The Life and Works of Pedro Casanave. The Journal of History, 62(1), 30-69.

Rice, M. (2014). Dean Worcester’s Fantasy Islands: Photography, Film, and the Colonial Philippines. University of Michigan Press.

Niedermeier, S. (2016). “If I were King” – Photographic artifacts and the construction of imperial masculinities in the Philippine-American War (1899–1902). In H. Meyer, S. Rau & K. Waldner (Ed.), SpaceTime of the Imperial (pp. 100-131). Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter Oldenbourg.

Isaac, A.P. (2006). American Tropics: Articulating Filipino America. University of Minnesota Press. 

Scott, W. H. (1984). Prehispanic Source Materials for the study of Philippine History. New Day Publishers.

Choy, C. C. (2003). Empire of Care: Nursing and Migration in Filipino American History. Duke University Press.

Rodriguez, R. M. (2010). Migrants for Export: How the Philippine State Brokers Labor to the World . University of Minnesota Press.

Lico, G. (2021a). Arkitekturang Pilipino: A History of Architecture and the Built Enviroonment in the Philippines, Volume One: Early History to American Colonial Era. Arc Lico International Services & College of Architecture University of the Philippines.

Lico, G. (2021b). Arkitekturang Pilipino: A History of Architecture and the Built Enviroonment in the Philippines, Volume Two: Post-colonial to Contemporary Era. Arc Lico International Services & College of Architecture University of the Philippines.

Constantino, R. (1966). The Miseducation of The Filipino. In The Filipinos in the Philippines and Other Essays. (pp.39-65). Malaya Books.

Promotional poster of the book used in the recently concluded Manila International Book Fair, image from NHCP official Facebook page.

Bodies in Labor in Holy Emy (Araceli Lemos, 2021)

Two young women starts their day early preparing for work, heading out to a fish market in Athens. Teresa (Hasmine Kilip) wears a short skirt, which her older sister Emy (Abigael Loma) scolds her for. They go to a shop owned by another Filipino lady, frantic and reliant on Teresa. Emy, presumed to be there because of her sister’s referral, is absent minded. Later Teresa hooks up with another employee Argyris (Mihalis Siriopoulos) in the supply room, while a customer asks if the story is open. Emy hesitates but later responds in Greek, yes. She then ruins the fish she is supposed to slice and starts bleeding, at first suggested from the nose. Later while Teresa helps her clean up, both are pretty calm about the blood coming out of Emy’s tear ducts.

This opening is significant in that it shows one of the few moments in the film where both of them are actually working, or at least trying to. One would think that Emy was undocumented, or newly arrived, or both. But this seems to be not the case. The aural binary between the sisters, which will be elaborated further, is set; Teresa is outgoing and street smart, while Emy is not. The elements of speculation and suggestion dominates the entirety of Araceli Lemos debut Holy Emy (2021), a composite of Filipino migrants’ episodes in Greece, opposing paths of coming of age of two sisters, overall told with understated body horror. The film’s ambition may justify its approach, but ultimately it is also its greatest burden.

The next day, Teresa prepares for church and asserts that Emy can’t come. Wait, I thought, so maybe she is undocumented after all, since she can’t even show up in a small closely knit Filipino church. The real reason is much more perplexing. Emy shows up anyway, alarming Teresa in the middle of the service. Linda (Angeli Bayani), a pious looking aunt-figure, talks to them and explains to Emy she can’t join mass because she is still unbaptised. After the service ends, an elderly Greek woman, Mrs. Cristina (Eirini Inglesi), recognizing Emy approaches her and offers her work in her house, a job formerly held by her mother. Linda immediately intercepts and tells Cristina is not welcome here. Emy is told to not even consider it as her house is ‘full of sin’. The three of them proceed to a community hall of the church for a group debutante party, Teresa is one of the girls who turns 18. Every time Teresa addresses Emy as ‘ate’, it is not being translated as ‘big sister’ in the subtitles. The dynamic between the sisters is off putting especially whenever Teresa’s maturity is contrasted to Emy’s stubbornness, who is in fact a few years older. 

Linda turns out to be a caretaker of sorts to the girls as their mother is in the Philippines. They live in the same building, but their mother in a video call, reminds Teresa firmly to keep Emy away from Linda. A very odd set up. One that is never fully explained how it came to be. To shut down completely Emy’s interest in working for Cristina, Linda revealed that Cristina took advantage of their mother, who she labels a mangkukulam, translated in the subtitles as witch doctor. Based on how religious Linda is, we can assume that is exactly what she meant. My first guess as Cristina’s house as some sort of brothel with Filipina or other migrant sex workers is now out of the question. Almost the entire first third of the film is made up of these fragmented scenes, building up on migrant experiences, but taking them in other more bizarre directions.

The pacing greatly improves when Teresa discovers she is pregnant, while Emy pursues the job offer of Cristina. When the pregnancy was announced to their mother, she casually says Teresa doesn’t have to get married, or even go after Argyris. Sneaking out on day, Emy goes on a tour of the house where she will work as an overall caregiver for Mrs. Cristina. She sees her mother’s former living quarters, while Cristina narrates their relationship, both personal and professional. Emy meets Luis (Ku Aquino), Cristina’s Filipino partner and well, resident healer, a more fitting translation than witch doctor. Emy witnesses an ‘procedure’ where Luis rubs a patient’s stomach, his fingers eventually covered in blood as he pulls out small organ-like material causing ailment to the person. This is a very uncanny scene of a phenomenon usually given the tabloid treatment in the Philippines. Other stories mention faith healers pulling out stones, nails, or glass shards from bodies without cutting their flesh. But those of course would stray too far from the film’s theme.

Emy is ready to embrace this. Soon, she becomes Cristina’s star employee, attracting affluent patrons seeking treatment for otherwise hopeless medical conditions, and being celebrated for her skills and who she is. The validation feels amazing, Emy takes a breather from being infantilized by Teresa, Linda, or her absent mother, all preoccupied with other things. Faith healing, in this diasporic stage, becomes a seemingly artisanal practice, but still offers a window to its inherent class dimension. In a country with a decrepit health infrastructure like the Philippines, the spiritual practice persists. It is an alternative for the rich, a test of faith, but a first response, and often the only form of medical attention, received by the poor vast majority. When exported to Lemos’ horror narrative, this material dimension is shed off. A lost opportunity for the film to have a richer portrayal since the lack of social safety nets is after all a major driving force of migration of Filipinos to countries like Greece, among others.  

Emy is however pulled back by her sister as she shows she has as much control on harm as much as healing. Accompanying Teresa in a clinic for a check-up, pregnant women collapse at her presence. In a family dinner, she makes Argyris choke on a fish bone. What they have is very hard to see as a form of sisterly bond. It is difficulty to comprehend what goes on in Emy’s mind as she barely speaks and keeps a tortured look all the time. Lastly, anyone is barely speaking to her about her abilities including those who have working knowledge of it. This is excruciatingly maintained all throughout the film. Emy is a spectacle, one that is distant and hard to remain emphatic with.

Which is unfortunate since the film has several subplots, if fleshed out more, would actually put the body horror dimension in a better position to move forward the story and explore its themes. Two sisters in a foreign country with their mother absent, or one of them dealing with an unplanned pregnancy, a religious guardian witnessing changes in their bodies and behaviour, all has the potential to be compelling migrant narratives. Instead, we have inarticulate characters navigating themselves to random encounters of life in one moment, of death in another. Holy Emy is a bricolage of underexplored stories about faith, fractured nuclear families, and migration, without any concise statement about any of them. All of these became even stranger worlds in the end than in the beginning.    

Prose Poem ‘Pagbukas…’ Republished in Dx Machina 3

Volume 3 and 4 of Dx Machina, a special issue of Likhaan: The Journal of Contemporary Philippine Literature were launched late last year. They were finally made available for download a few months ago. My long prose poem on the Tumadok Massacre of 2020 has been revised and republished in volume 3. An even more recent version, along with a translation into English and an accompanying poetics essays will appear soon on Issue 2 of Practice, Research and Tangential Activities (PR&TA). The said poem in Dx Machina 3 available for download here.

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