Notes & Essays

Carlos Celdran: The Philippines Is in the Heart

He moved even those turned off by the history refracted through his lens enough to inspire protest or to trigger deeper reading and analysis.
IMAGE Jason Mariposa
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Like the word ‘love,’ ‘exile’ is both a noun and a verb. To Carlos Celdran who loved his country with intensity, to be exiled and to be an exile could only be a sentence that shatters the spirit.

I had known Carlos for years but never really felt compelled to forge a friendship beyond nodding hello to each other when our paths crossed because I didn’t really think we ran in the same circles even if we had mutual friends. And because I prefer to give folks with some measure of celebrity the measure of privacy I think they’re due. Even when I participated in the Manila Biennale, an art festival that promoted Manila culture which he organized last year, I did not go out of my way to engage him beyond voicing logistical concerns where warranted. I was privy to, even on the receiving end of, the headaches the biennale’s chaos created. But when he was trounced for it by critics and detractors after the fact, I jumped to his defense. It was not the paragon of perfection [not even the most heavily bank-rolled biennales are]; but for all its shortfalls, I was impressed at how idea was willfully given form within a matter of months. And for all its many hiccups, it was an enterprise I was both proud and grateful to have been part of.

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It is in this alchemy of giving ideas mass and substance that Carlos was singular and thus deemed dangerous. He did not just love Intramuros, mine its history in order to understand it, or host salons in his Syquia apartment for those he could fit in it at any given time. He infected others with that love, that thirst for understanding, that realization of the romance and the tragedy of it all. He moved even those turned off by the history refracted through his lens enough to inspire protest or to trigger deeper reading and analysis.

It was the same with his advocacy for reproductive health. A theatrical act invoking the colonial friars’ abuse of power in affairs that conditioned the oppression of many sparked the fire of national debate over the legislative bill that had languished in oblivion for more than a decade. His contribution to efforts made toward evolving the nation’s laws was repaid with the weaponizing of an archaic law from colonial times against him for “offending religious feelings.” Never mind that the case was filed against him not by the church but by a private citizen. Never mind that of all the religious leaders interviewed (the Catholic clergy and Protestant bishops who happened to have convened for a meeting at Manila Cathedral the day of his Damaso demonstration), only one actually claimed to have been offended by his act. Never mind that Cardinal Luis Tagle himself had said the church had forgiven him. But mind that his performance helped push a long suppressed but much warranted bill into law. And for his provocation he was tried and convicted.

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Carlos fought and appealed the conviction multiple times over the years not just out of self-preservation but out of fear his conviction could set a dangerous precedent in curtailing freedom of speech. But when it became crystal clear there was no fight left to be waged, much less won, against the system, his only recourse was flight. It was then that I felt compelled to reach out to him more as a friend. In ancient times folk etymology derived the second element of the Latin ‘exilium’ or ‘exsilium’ from the Latin solum, meaning "soil." I felt so strongly that this man, if extracted from the terroir of his soul, could very well wither in exile. Maluluoy kapag tinagpas ang ugat mula sa kaniyang tinubuang lupa. And so over the ensuing months we bonded over our chats about art, politics, and his life in exile.

Carlos Bulosan wrote in America Is in the Heart, “The days of hunger and loneliness came. Aching hunger and stifling loneliness. Every dawn was the opening of a cavern of starvation and exile: from the touch of friendly hands, of friendly voices. And every hour was a blow against the senses, dulling all impulses toward decency.”

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But Carlos Celdran did his damned best to keep from falling into that cavern. In a matter of months, a short documentary film was made about him. He organized walking tours in Madrid, his chosen city of exile. He gave talks in Germany. Another tour of his Livin’ La Vida Imelda was in the works. [Even as I am among those who felt the show was a walloping condemnation of the Marcoses that somehow snuck in an unsettling sense of an apology for the Marcoses, it was his act to tour where it was welcome.] He opened his home to those who would visit himto break bread with and to “cry in Madrid” with, as Nash Tysmans recalls of her visit to him not long ago. He cried for Manila but fought the self-pity. Nash reports his having remarked, “Look at us crying in Madrid, worrying about how to make money and eat when so many people at home are just trying to stay alive and not get shot.” He cried in exile but never forgot his place of privilege. Nash also recalls, in her tribute addressing Carlos directly, “You turned somber and asked me what it would be like if we had come here on a boat, instead of freely, like we did.” He indulged his anguish but he also relished discovering that to save on his food shopping he could grow scallions in an egg carton. He refused to wither. He did his best to continue to live in exile. But he died. Perhaps literally of heartbreak. In exile.

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Carlos was angry. St. Augustine wrote, “Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.” His being vocal earned him admiration and hatred. He’d get entangled in vituperative word wars that sometimes fed and bred more hatred. But the courage of his conviction also fed and bred hope. Some of our chats teetered toward cynicism. I wanted to rally him on. To suggest that the cruelty of history comes in waves. And ebb will always chase its flow. That there’s always that next chapter yet to be written and he could still be among its authors, be he chastened or goaded in exile or upon return some day. He refused to wither. But he died. Come to think of it: What his anger, curiosity, creativity, contradictions, thirst, and love wrought is in fact already writ.

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Calls have been made for a street to be named after him in Intramuros. I myself, being a professional in the arts, thought that there ought to be a biennial next year to honor him. But where it would matter most is to repeal the blasphemy law, which is a vestige of Spanish colonial rule, ensuring the ascendancy of church over state then and allowing now for its misuse toward infringement of freedom of speech or toward severe containment of critical and independent thought.

Months after I had defended his biennale, we eventually got to talking about it. He told me he spent many a night during the biennial sitting next to one of my pieces, a video projection of a candle flickering to the translation of text by Amado Hernandez in Morse code. He said the Morse code sounded like birdsong and gave him a sense of refuge. There’s something bittersweet in this, given Hernandez’s text was about his incarceration as a subversive after being a guerrilla in the resistance during the Japanese occupation. I mentioned that I noticed one of the kutseros plying through Intramuros pronounce biennale ‘bayanale’ to my delight. He said that kutsero actually made enough money during the biennale to buy another horse that he named ‘Bayanale.’ Minsan sa mundong ibabaw, may dumaraang bulalakaw. Caloy, ang ningas mo’y alab ng pusong sa dibdib ng bayan mananatiling buhay.

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