Call for Papers: International Conference in Honor of Prof. Resil B. Mojares

Bridging Worlds, Illumining the Archive: An International

Conference in Honor of Professor Resil B. Mojares

Organized jointly by

Philippine Studies: Historical and Ethnographic Perspectives

School of Social Sciences, Loyola Schools

Ateneo de Manila University


Southeast Asian Studies

Center for Southeast Asian Studies

Kyoto University

To be held in Quezon City, Philippines

30–31 July 2018



In a prolific career spanning five decades, Resil B. Mojares has produced a remarkable body of work that combines meticulous research, incisive analysis, and elegant, lyrical writing.

An exemplary home-grown and -educated activist, intellectual, institution-builder, and man of letters, Mojares has made important, often pioneering, contributions to diverse fields and subjects, ranging from Philippine literature (Origins and Rise of the Filipino Novel: A Generic Study of the Novel until 1940; [co-ed.] the two-volume Sugilanong Sugboanon), architecture (Casa Gorordo in Cebu: Urban Residence in a Philippine Province, 1860–1920), theater and social history (Theater in Society, Society in Theater: Social History of a Cebuano Village, 1840–1940), to intellectual history (Brains of the Nation: Pedro Paterno, T. H. Pardo de Tavera, Isabelo de los Reyes, and the Production of Modern Knowledge), biography (Vicente Sotto: Maverick Senator; The Man Who Would be President: Serging Osmeña and Philippine Politics; Aboitiz: Family and Firm in the Philippines), history and politics (The War Against the Americans: Resistance and Collaboration in Cebu, 1899–1906; [co-ed.] From Marcos to Aquino: Local Perspectives on the Political Transition in the Philippines).

Apart from book-length works, Mojares has also produced occasional essays (collected in House of Memory; Waiting for Mariang Makiling: Essays in Philippine Cultural History; Isabelo’s Archive; The Resil Mojares Reader; and Interrogations in Philippine Cultural History) that have done much to illuminate “what is obscure, hidden, and marginal” in a plurilingual, pluricultural Philippines. His works blur “the boundaries between academic and literary writing,” while simultaneously building on, and questioning, the “idea and performance of the archive—capacious, diverse, makeshift, open-ended, and polymorphic, and one ‘national’ in its motive and ambition” (Mojares, “Writing the Archive,” Manila Review Issue 5, Sept. 2014).

The perspectives Mojares brings to his study of Philippine history, politics, society, culture, and the arts are methodologically eclectic and capable of moving effortlessly between and across local, national, regional (subnational and supranational), and transnational scales.

This international conference celebrates the life, career, and writings of Resil B. Mojares. It aims not only to assess Professor Mojares’s influence, but also to engage with the ideas, issues, and contexts brought up by his writings on and across various fields of inquiry.

Scholars and academics with papers and panels related, but not limited, to the following topics are invited to participate in this conference:

  1. Historiography and the Archive: Issues and Debates
  2. Precolonial, Colonial, Imperial, and Postcolonial Histories
  3. Biography
  4. Intellectuals, Intellectual Histories, and Philippine Studies
  5. Philippine Languages and Literatures
  6. Philippine Architecture, Theater, and the Arts
  7. Nation-Making, Nationness, and Nationalism
  8. Politics, Politicians, and State Building
  9. Social Histories
  10. “What is Obscure, Hidden, and Marginal” in Philippine History and Current Affairs
  11. Local and Regional Histories
  12. Cultural Studies
  13. The Philippines in Asia and the World

Selected papers that pass the refereeing process will be included in a special issue of Philippine Studies: Historical and Ethnographic Viewpoints, the quarterly published by the Ateneo de Manila University since 1953. Articles in this journal are indexed and abstracted in several global databases such as Historical Abstracts, Project MUSE, JSTOR, Scopus, and Thomson Reuters Emerging Sources. Other publications may also be planned.

Submission Guidelines

Interested paper presenters are requested to submit a 250-word abstract. Panel proposals are also welcome and should include a brief description of the proposed panel as well as the abstracts of the individual papers in the panel. Proposals should include a brief note about the paper proponents.

Please submit abstracts and panel proposals by 1 October 2017. Submissions must be in Word format and include the name, institutional affiliation, email address, and bionote of the paper proponent(s).

Decisions on abstracts will be released on 31 October 2017. Presenters whose paper and/or panel proposals are accepted are requested to register by 1 February 2018, which is also the deadline for the early bird rate.

Inquiries as well as panel and paper proposals can be addressed to:

Michael D. Pante, PhD <>

Associate Editor, Philippine Studies: Historical and Ethnographic Viewpoints

School of Social Sciences, Ateneo de Manila University

Travel and Conference Subsidy

Participants are encouraged to seek funds for travel and conference participation from their home institutions. Paper presenters will arrange their own flight and hotel accommodations in Manila.

Registration Fee (inclusive of meals, refreshments, and conference materials)

Overseas                    Philippine-based

Participants               Participants

Early bird rate                                   US$100                      P5,000

(until 1 February 2018)

Regular rate                                       US$120                      P5,500

(2 February–30 June 2018)

Late/On-site registration                 US$140                      P6,000

(After 30 June 2018)


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Open Access Movement

Peter Suber, Director of the Harvard Office for Scholarly Communication, defines open-access (OA) literature as “digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions.”

He also gives the definition from the Budapest Open Access Initiative. “There are many degrees and kinds of wider and easier access to this literature. By ‘open access’ to this literature, we mean its free availability on the public internet, permitting any users to read, download, copy, distribute, print, search, or link to the full texts of these articles, crawl them for indexing, pass them as data to software, or use them for any other lawful purpose, without financial, legal, or technical barriers other than those inseparable from gaining access to the internet itself. The only constraint on reproduction and distribution, and the only role for copyright in this domain, should be to give authors control over the integrity of their work and the right to be properly acknowledged and cited.”

Then he gives the Bethesda and Berlin statements. “For a work to be OA, the copyright holder must consent in advance to let users ‘copy, use, distribute, transmit and display the work publicly and to make and distribute derivative works, in any digital medium for any responsible purpose, subject to proper attribution of authorship ….’”

In its strict sense, OA refers to scholarship published in open access academic journals. It can be viewed as a segment of the bigger entity of OER or open educational resources which, according to Creative Commons, “are free and openly licensed educational materials that can be used for teaching, learning, research, and other purposes.”

The array of OERs and OA literature, at this point, is wonderfully vast. Available to us are academic resources like the MIT Open Courseware ( and the Digital Access to Scholarship at Harvard (; multimedia collections like that of the New York Public Library ( and the Library of Congress (; repositories from institutions like the Asian Development Bank ( and governments like the U. S. ( We can get free ebooks from Project Gutenberg ( and watch smart people give talks at TED (

There’s so much good free stuff online (Khan Academy! Coursera! Caltech Authors!—the list goes on and on) that it’s easy to feel overwhelmed, perhaps even jaded by it all.

But it’s inspiring how people use these resources. I open CUNY Academic Works and look at the map and see where the downloads are coming from—Nebraska, California, and Ohio in the U.S.; Brisbane, Australia; Airai, Palau; Akershus, Norway. People are looking at papers about Italian architecture, media representations of Asian-Americans, rhetoric and violence.

I look at stories people have shared about how they have used the open access publications. There’s a nurse in an Australian aboriginal community who entertained herself in her remote location by accessing scholarship about Cormac McCarthy. There’s a high school debater in the U.S. who does her research in institutional repositories because she cannot access scholarship behind a paywall. There’s a scientist in Mexico whose investigation in climate change is aided by research shared by other scientists and offered free of charge.

In the various definitions I’ve read of OER and OA, they sound not so much a collection of resources but a movement—a vibrant, worldwide, diverse movement. It seems unstoppable, and I hope it is.

Posted in Links | Leave a comment

The Literary Kontrabida

Although the rich, the powerful, and the pretentious are stock villains in Philippine literature, one would be hard pressed to count the truly memorable kontrabida on the fingers of one hand.

The reactionary Padre Damaso, in Jose Rizal’s Noli me tangere (1887), may have cuckolded his “friend” Capitan Tiago, but his deep enmity against the Ibarras is revealed in the end to be rooted in a father’s understandable fears that his daughter Maria Clara will have a hard life if she were married to a patriotic (and therefore subversive and doomed to be persecuted) Filipino.

Doña Consolacion may have had no compunction about making an ashtray of her husband’s torture victims, but even a woman in whose veins run “vinegar and gall” (as Rizal puts it) cannot completely purge herself of humanity. This self-styled “Orofea” (Europeo) is so moved by madwoman Sisa’s plaintive song that she begs Sisa to stop singing, for “those verses hurt me.”

The only out-and-out villain in the Noli is Padre Salvi (not counting the serial rapist Padre Camorra in El filibusterismo [1891]). Rizal doses him with the cardinal vices of wrath, pride, envy, and lust, with lashings of greed and hypocrisy. Affecting the airs of an emaciated saint, Salvi turns out to be a voyeur: the sight of Maria Clara bathing in the woods, her shapely arms, elegant neck and bust, and small rosy feet, is enough to arouse “strange sensations” in his “burning brain.” Salvi hatches a conspiracy to bring down Ibarra by implicating him in a fake rebellion. Rizal strongly implies that Salvi rapes Maria Clara after she enters the convent. And he’s kuriput (stingy), too, to quote Sister Rufa.

Then there’s the sinister, ironically named Colonel Amor in Ninotchka Rosca’s State of War (1988). Head of the secret police, he presides over the interrogation of martial-law detainees. Calling his lair “the romancing room,” Colonel Amor, like Padre Salvi, is a voyeur who watches the physical, mental and psychological torture through a two-way mirror. Unlike Padre Salvi, Colonel Amor leaves the actual manhandling to his men, preferring to “fuck the soul” and viewing the extraction of information from the unwilling as a form of “exquisite rape.”  Colonel Amor’s dissertation, “a distillation of so much human pain,” so horrifies the university committee that they unceremoniously graduate him without requiring him to defend his thesis and lock the manuscript away in the archive.

Charlson Ong’s An Embarrassment of Riches (2000) has Alfonso Ong, a refugee fleeing Suharto’s Indonesia who settles down in the Victoriana islands. Ong makes a fortune from logging and acquires an island that doubles as a New Age “laboratory” for sheltering the “tribal minorities” and endangered animal species as well as a Twenty-First-Century model city and special economic zone. Alfonso Ong is eventually exposed as a drug dealer who not only steals the archipelago’s election and installs a puppet, drug-addled female president, but harvests the kidneys of the minority peoples on his island for his own kidney transplant and uses prison labor supplied by the mainland Chinese to develop his island-city. The reason he reveals himself as the real father of Jeffrey, the protagonist, is that he needs his son’s kidney.

As for the female kontrabida, the most memorable is arguably Leonora “Nora” Cosio, who blazes across Kerima Polotan’s short story “The Giants” and novel The Hand of the Enemy (1962).

Nora Cosio is the wife of bigwig Albert, an obscure army major who rides on the coattails of a Magsaysay-like Man of the People and lands in the all-powerful “anteroom outside the President’s sanctum” in Malacañang Palace.  She is the doyenne of an exclusive club of women married to powerful men. In “The Giants,” magazine writer Carmen Reyes’ boss Agana calls this gaggle of women “[e]xpensive, girdled monsters, waving checkbooks, taking slimnastics, slumming through Chinatown, playing mahjong, dabbling in stocks and real estate! Lovely-faced Frankensteins smelling of eau de musk! They’re ruining the country.”

These women devote themselves to luxury and to advancing their husbands’ careers.  One of Carmen Reyes’ interviewees, for example, is the loquacious wife of a general, Mrs. Borres, who machinates to secure her husband’s promotion: “There was trouble with the commission. They gave us a hard time, did you hear of it? Finally, I couldn’t stand it any longer—I called up Senator Tagle’s wife and I said to her, ‘Hoy, Bebang, magprankahan tayo. I don’t like to collect old debts but Lucas must have his star, don’t you think? If not, the papers will know about the time the PC raided that house in Novaliches, you know what I mean?’ It was as simple as that.” And how does her husband reward his wife’s zeal on his behalf? With a mistress tucked away in an apartment above a grocery store.

Not so Nora. “[E]very perfumed and powdered inch of her, the quintessence of good, expensive living,” Nora is fortified by the love of a powerful husband who is able to “surround…[her] with all the by-products of that power so that she gave off an air of class.” She is frank about what she expects from her husband: “He was the campus poet and we met at the university. Can you imagine that Bert seriously thought he would make a living by it? But I changed all that for him. Sure, I said when he proposed, I liked the sonnets, but I also liked satin, and silk, I liked meat for my meals and cologne on my person, do you understand what I’m trying to say? So I gave an ultimatum, ‘All these things on one side, Bert,’ I said, ‘and your poetry on the other, and Nora Cosio the grand prize. Which will it be?”

Nora is not above pulling rank on her sorority. At a despedida party in Chinatown for a friend who is off to Hong Kong, the women talk about the scarcity of corned beef, and Nora startles an American guest by declaring that “I must get some corned beef myself—the dogs will eat nothing else.”

Nora can be smug: “I like to think that I’ve lent a distinction all my own to what I have today”. But she can also be charming, wooing Carmen with handwritten, personalized invitations to cocktails and breakfast in the Cosio mansion, with gifts of flowers, and with solicitous attention. Carmen thinks Nora “flippant and frivolous and flighty,” but finds in Albert’s poetry—and one line, in particular, “Gray shadows in the quiet sepulchre of my soul”—an appealing hint of the “thin, dreamy youth with dark, brooding eyes.”

One can always rely on the redoubtable Kerima Polotan to pop the bubble of patronizing pomposity. Carmen comes to realize that when Nora Cosio takes her up and spreads her around, “like a disease,” being “bought” by the Cosios means being owned by them, becoming “one of us” means becoming an alalay and being ordered around. Her disillusion is complete when Agana triumphantly holds up a small book where the line “Gray, gray shadows in my soul’s sepulchre” appears under another poet’s name: “Did I warn you or did I warn you? The goddam bastard couldn’t even be original!”

Emma Gorrez’s encounter with Nora Cosio proves even more disastrous. In Hand of the Enemy, the Gorrezes help the Cosios campaign for the Man of the People in their province, and after the election, are lured to Manila by the Cosios with the offer to go into business together, the Cosios putting up the capital for a printing press. Nora Cosio is predictably capricious, and refuses to infuse more money when business slows down. In their final big quarrel, Nora hurls invectives at Emma, calling her “thief,” “robber,” and “swindler” (in “Giants,” Nora refers to the Gorrezes as “patay-gutom”). An enraged Emma tears off Nora’s dress and pins the woman’s arms under the cutter of the printing press.

Polotan dissects her kontrabidas’ self-images and public personas by flashing vivid , corporeal snapshots of these people—stripped of their carapaces of titles, money, and influence–before her protagonists’ (and readers’) eyes. Carmen Reyes has a vision of the snooty, Spanish-speaking woman waiting outside Cosio’s office: “In another time, she might be in tatters, barefoot, raising a fist and screaming, Rice, Rice” (it turns out the woman wants dollars for her daughter’s abortion–“I send her to a finishing school and she ends up in bed with an Argentinian!”). A wealthy matron who at first snubs Carmen now lifts her arms to “fell…Carmen with a caress…and Carmen saw that she needed to shave.” Polotan reserves her best barb for Albert Cosio: Carmen “banished an unkind image of Cosio in the bathroom, writhing and constipated.”

Kerima Polotan herself was a larger-than-life character. Nick Joaquin wrote of Polotan that she was a “large woman with a sharp tongue and a fearful reputation. Some years ago, after she stuck fictional pins all over the images of a couple she had quarreled with, the joke in literary circles was: ‘Don’t quarrel with Kerima, or she may write about you.’” With ten children (among them the gifted fictionist Katrina P. Tuvera) and eight literary prizes (including five Palancas), Polotan has “lasted as a writer longer than any of even her male contemporaries. She is practically the only survivor of that group of writers who were young and promising during the decade after the war.”

Polotan passed away in 2011. I should say, though, that when I met her (through my friend Kimi) at the booklaunching of her reissued collection of stories and novel in 1998, she was very gracious and soft-spoken, patiently answering my stammering questions about The Hand of the Enemy with such modesty and clear-eyed forthrightness that I came away humbled and thrilled by the experience of meeting her in person after admiring her writings for many years.

It is a testament to Polotan’s formidable talent that she can transmute rage into art with seeming effortlessness. Her fecund imagination has given us the indelible kontrabida we all love to hate, Nora, whose eau de musk lingers in the mind long after she has vanished into the pages of the book.


This article originally appeared in Letter to Narcissus.

Posted in Essays | Leave a comment

As Seen on Japanese TV

Tune in to Japanese television, and chances are that you’re likely to have come across one of the following:

  • a bunch of “talents” (tarento) riding trains and buses and stopping by scenic spots, restaurants, shops, onsen, hotels, and ryokan
  • a bunch of “talents” doing restaurant-hopping, eating their way across Japan or elsewhere, trying out one particular dish (ramen, gyoza, yakiniku, tonkatsu, pasta, pizza, dimsum) in different restaurants
  • a camera crew following farmers or fishermen or artisans or entrepreneurs as they go about their work
  • a camera crew ambushing either Japanese or foreign visitors in the street, asking them questions or else trying to convince them to let the camera crew tag along with them, in one case all the way into their homes
  • a battalion of “talents” being quizzed on anything from how to write kanji characters to identifying countries by their initial letters or flags to whatever it is that the TV producers can dream up
  • talk shows where a bunch of experts (some of whom have become “talentos” in their own right, with their own groupies) discuss current affairs with nice peel-off or magnet visual aids
  • experts lecturing on all sorts of medical conditions, from cancer to diabetes
  • cute clips of cats, dogs, plus sundry other clips collected from around the world of freak accidents, mysterious happenings, exotic practices
  • house reform, “before and after”
  • classical music performances and special features on art exhibitions on Sunday nights
  • cooking shows

The format is often pedagogical, drawing talents and viewers back to the classroom as someone—narrator, host, expert—asks questions and, after talents and viewers exhaust themselves trying to answer them, gives out the correct answers, accompanied by explanations. Showbusiness personalities sit through two, or even four, hours of this, just so they can spend the last twenty seconds of the show plugging whatever movie, concert, or project they are performing in. There are professional “know-it-alls” whose job it is to lecture on anything and everything, whether it’s the North Korean missile test or Trump or Japan’s ageing society and inequality or the Syrian crisis.

On an average week, one learns the following from these TV shows:

  1. A half-teaspoon of cinnamon eaten everyday promotes blood circulation, as does soaking in a forty-centigrade hot tub for ten minutes each day.
  2. Sliced avocados retain their fresh-green color when they are stored with bits of sliced onions (tops are ok) in airtight tupperware.
  3. Boiled eggs are easily peeled when they are slightly cracked with a spoon before boiling, and after boiling, plunged into cold war and then transferred to another bowl with a few centimeters of water and gently agitated.
  4. Lettuce stays fresh longer in the fridge when three or four toothpicks are inserted into the base.
  5. For easy peeling, make a five-millimeter-deep cut all the way round the middle of a potato.
  6. The juices from Japanese canned tuna make good salad dressing when mixed with a tablespoon of soy sauce.
  7. Japanese artisans are so good at their craft that: a) an onsen owner can tell the exact temperature of the water by just dipping his hand into the hot spring; b) a train driver does not need an odometer to tell him how fast his train is running; c) a cutter can manually slice up castella sponge cakes with precision using just one long knife; d) a pâtissier can measure out the proper weight of the dough in grams, even without a baker dough scale; e) Japanese temples are still largely hand-made, can be dismantled and reassembled in the process of being repaired, and their post-and-beam structure is rigid and strong yet flexible enough to withstand earthquakes; f) the best Japanese knives—light, thin, sharp, and hard—combine the best steel technology can produce with age-old techniques of metallurgy and swordmaking; g) a chef can distinguish, with his tongue, the provenance of a matsutake mushroom, particularly a Japan-harvested one.
  8. Oil-stained shirts can be cleaned with a toothbrush and cleansing oil over a cup of hot water.
  9. One can stop coughing at night by putting an extra cushion under one’s pillow (if this still does not work, best consult a doctor!).
  10. Kyoto people eat more bread than rice.
  11. The prices of wagyu beef are going up because the farmers who supply cattle farms with feed are ageing and their numbers declining.
  12. There have been increasing numbers of car accidents involving senior citizens who confuse the accelerator and the brake. This is part of a larger trend of increasing senior citizen crimes, which account for nearly 20% of all crimes committed. The rate at which Japanese aged 65 and over are arrested for crimes now stands at 162 per 100,000 residents. Almost sixty percent of these crimes involve shoplifting.
  13. The global stock of tuna is declining due to overfishing, despite the existence of Japanese laws requiring fishermen to return tuna weighing less than 30 kilograms to the sea.
  14. Japan had 24.04 million visitors from abroad in 2016, and these visitors spent a total of 3.75 trillion yen (USD 33 billion). Chinese visitors accounted for about 26% of the total number of tourists (a record 6 million last year) and nearly 40% of the tourist spending. The government, though, has set the benchmark high in its hopes of 8 trillion yen in tourist spending by 2020.
  15. The Tsukiji fish market will not be moving to the Toyosu site yet because the Tokyo metropolitan government is still weighing the pros and cons of the move (it also doesn’t help that the groundwater samples in the Toyosu site reveal the presence of benzene and other toxic chemicals well above the safety limits).
  16. A former head of the parents’ association of an elementary school in Chiba  Prefecture is charged with killing a nine-year-old Vietnamese schoolgirl.
Posted in Lists | Leave a comment

“Elites and Ilustrados in Philippine Culture”

The Filipino “elites” have a starring role as heroes and villains in Philippine history. So-called “ilustrados” were vanguards of the Propaganda Movement whose writings helped inspire the Philippine Revolution in the late nineteenth century and from whose ranks have been drawn many of the country’s “National Heroes.” The urban middle sector and municipal elites actively participated in the Philippine Revolution. But the Filipino elites have also been taken to task for “betraying” the Revolution, for putting their selfish, factional interests above those of the nation and the “masses”, for collaborating with the colonizers, and for being the principal beneficiaries of the American-era “colonial democracy” and post-war “elite democracy” that have plunged the country into crisis for most of the twentieth century.

This book shows how Filipino literature has intervened in the intellectual and popular debates on the historical origins, ascendancy, power, and legitimacy of the elites. Writers like Jose Rizal, Nick Joaquin, Ninotchka Rosca, Miguel Syjuco, and Ramon Guillermo are unsparing in their criticism of elite authorship of the Philippines’ past and present woes while seeking to recuperate the critical stance once represented by the “ilustrado.” The book identifies a number of emblematic cosmopolitan figures— the “middle sector” or “middle element” in Manila and other urban areas, Manila men and musicians, Overseas Filipino Workers, intellectuals, and Fil-foreigners—whose emergence as social forces points to the ongoing redefinition of the elites and the transformations of Philippine society, politics, and economy.

Coming out in May 2017 from Ateneo de Manila University Press.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

A Pasta Obsession

Cacio e pepe, literally cheese and pepper, is a dish so simple that it’s hard to get right. Recipes for this dish abound, many of them with as few as three ingredients: pasta, grated pecorino Romano, ground black pepper. Some include butter or olive oil or specify a mix of cheeses—Parmigiano-Reggiano or Grana Padano in addition to the pecorino Romano. All include an additional ingredient: the pasta cooking water.

eataly4We tasted this dish in Rome, in an inexpensive but well-regarded chain restaurant. The dish came to our table, the pasta heaped in the center of a white pasta plate and wafted the heady aroma of the cheese. I don’t know if this restaurant used one cheese or two cheeses or three, if they used butter or olive oil, but their cacio e pepe was a marvel: the pasta the perfect state of toothiness, the black pepper visible and perceptible to taste but not overpowering, the pecorino Romano intensely flavorful.

I wanted to go for another plate of cacio e pepe in Rome, this time in a fancier restaurant. I had the perfect place in mind: Ristorante Roma Sparita, the restaurant that, according to Anthony Bourdain, serves the best cacio e pepe in the world. It’s in the Trastevere neighborhood of the city, east of the Tiber River, south of Vatican City, an easy half hour walk from our apartment near the Colosseum.

But events conspired and we were not able to go, and I was not able to get another plate of cacio e pepe. In Florence, I got to try pasta alla gricia, yet another classic pasta dish. Similar to cacio e pepe in its utter simplicity, this one trades the butter with tiny chunks of lightly fried guanciale, an Italian cured meat made with pork jowl. We tried this dish in a neighborhood restaurant and were amazed by how delicious it was. The dish was simple yet absurdly rich, with what I felt were tiny explosions of lush smoky pork fat in my mouth.

eataly3Back in New York, I have become somewhat obsessed with the two pasta dishes and the two ingredients required in both. Pecorino Romano is made from sheep’s milk. It’s hard and crumbly, salty and exceptionally savory. It’s supposed to be one of the most ancient of cheeses, eaten during their marches by the Roman legions and cited by Roman authors like Pliny the Elder and Hippocrates. It’s widely used in cooking, but also wonderful to snack on and robust enough to hold its own when paired with a glass of red wine. (Just the thought of such a snack—slices of the cheese, some grapes, a glass of red wine—makes me happy. Add some crusty bread and good olive oil, and perhaps another glass of wine, and it’s a spare, elegant dinner.)

The cheese is easily found in New York, available in most markets with a cheese case. It’s not inexpensive, but you use very little of it at a time. You can’t use too much of it, otherwise the dish will become unpalatable—so easily does intense flavor become inedible.

Since coming back from Italy, I’ve tried to cook cacio e pepe but, of course, it never comes out the way the dish tasted or even looked in the restaurant in Rome. Pecorino Romano, it turns out, is hard to cook with—it doesn’t melt easily the way, for example, Parmigiano-Reggiano does. A temperamental ingredient, it clumps up, sticks to the pan, refuses to cooperate with the pasta. A number of solutions are offered in various websites: the addition of butter and eggs, for example, but then the dish becomes almost a carbonara. What seems to work is to whip the grated cheese with the pasta cooking water quickly to emulsify the mixture and to release some of the heat. There seems to be a counter-intuitive principle at work here: the cheese requires gentle heat to melt properly and cling to the pasta.

eataly2Last week I dragged my family to a place in the city called Eataly. It’s a fancy food market curated by the royalty of Italian food in America, Mario Batali and Lidia Bastianich. A sprawling space filled with jams, cookies, candies, cheeses, pastas, and charcuterie from Italy, it also has areas for eating—charcuterie and cheeses in one side, fish and vegetables in another, and pizzas and pastas in another. It has a gelateria, a pastry shop, and two coffee bars. The place is trendy and expensive, beautifully laid out with rustic wood surfaces, marble countertops, gleaming stainless steel details, one of those temples to food porn where a tiny jar of jam costs nine dollars and a pound of artisanal pasta is ten dollars.

eataly1But I was obsessed and needed (yes, it was a need) to be near Italian food items. We went to the pizza and pasta restaurant and ordered two pizzas and a plate of cacio e pepe. The pizzas were terrific. And the cacio e pepe? It came while we were halfway through the two pizzas, carried by a man who did not wear the waiters’ black and white uniform but instead jeans and an untucked plaid shirt. He had a Roman nose, beautiful eyes, a mop of black curly hair. He looked, in other words, as if he was an owner or a manager or some other official Italian food authority.

As he laid the plate of steaming pasta on our table, however, he asked me, “Would you like some cheese?”

I was mystified. On the one hand, I understood the question: Americans always want more cheese. Even the humblest pizzerias in the country have glass shakers of Parmesan flakes (and we’re not going to debate whether or not that’s cheese at this point). On the other hand, I wanted to eat a professionally cooked plate of this dish exactly because I did not want to think about the amount of cheese the dish required. The dish, it seems to me, is all about balance.

“But doesn’t it already have cheese?” I asked him. “Well, yes,” he said. Then added, “So you can try it and you can always ask for more cheese.”

Dear reader, the cacio e pepe was terrible. The pasta was undercooked instead of al dente, oily instead of rich, tasting one-dimensionally of butter instead of the complex mouth-filling umami of good cheese.

It was disappointing. But I did get to buy guanciale in the market and what looked like a superbly fresh wedge of pecorino Romano. So in my next essay, I’ll write about pasta alla gricia, my other current pasta obsession.

Posted in Essays | Leave a comment

When in Rome

It’s hard to escape pop culture in Italy.

We trooped through the Colosseum and I recalled scenes from the Russell Crowe movie Gladiator. We climbed up the Palatine Hill overlooking the Roman Forum and I remembered the opening scene in Colleen McCullough’s First Man in Rome when the patrician Caesar met the brilliant general Marius. I thought of Roman Holiday and The Talented Mr. Ripley at the Spanish Steps and of La Dolce Vita and Three Coins in a Fountain at the Trevi Fountain.

One can combine high and low culture and remember: E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View and Sarah Dunant’s Birth of Venus in Florence; Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice and Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities in Venice.

I read The Agony and the Ecstasy, Irving Stone’s historical novel about Michelangelo’s life and art, a long time ago. And presented with Michelangelo’s genius at every turn—on the famous ceiling of the Sistine Chapel; in the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica; in the Pieta; in the sculpture, the replica, and the parodies of the David in Florence—I vowed to myself to use the words “agony” and “ecstasy” only when referring to Michelangelo’s art.

A photograph of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel that I did not take because photography, after all, is not allowed

A photograph of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel that I did not take because photography, after all, is not allowed

In the Sistine Chapel, amidst the milling crowd and the museum guards who intermittently shouted out the need for silence and the no video/photography policy, I craned my neck to view the famous masterpiece. It’s hard to focus on anything else but the iconic center—god the father and Adam, their fingers almost touching, in the artist’s thunderous representation of the creation of humanity.

But my vision also kept gravitating towards the right corner where the Delphic Sibyl was painted. It’s a beautiful cameo—the sibyl’s figure muscular, her face expressive, the colors of her robes richly glowing. It was strangely familiar and, just like that, I was back in pop culture territory. I remembered: it was on the cover of my younger daughter’s coloring book entitled Color Your Own Italian Renaissance Paintings.

In the smallest country in the world

In the smallest country in the world

We went to St. Peter’s Basilica and, in its vastness and silence, it felt like a reprieve from the crowds. Many things in and about it are magnificent: marble cherubs bigger than grown humans, their dimpled limbs larger than my thighs; Bernini’s baldacchino, the ornate and massive bronze structure hovering over the altar; the delicate Pieta, looking tiny amidst the immense scale of the building, but affecting nevertheless, even when viewed through its bulletproof glass protection.

We went out to a crisp and sunny Roman afternoon in St. Peter’s Square. Looking around at Bernini’s columns, I kept imagining the countless footage set in the place, packed with nuns and priests and other visiting faithful, that I have seen on TV when one pope died and another one was elected, when one pope retired and yet another one was elected, when one or another pope held one or another papal mass. And again: Wasn’t there a scene in the Tom Hanks movie Angels and Demons set exactly here?

The most famous, but not necessarily the best, gelateria in Rome

The most famous, but not necessarily the best, gelateria in Rome

When in Rome, one eats pizza. So we did. We ate pizza with prosciutto, pizza with artichokes, pizza with four cheeses. Pizzas in Rome come in different fashions—thick squares from cheap bars sold by weight; rustic oblongs with tomato sauce and olives in grocery stores; and small thin ones in restaurants. The best pizzas were small and delicate, tender, chewy, and aromatic and we ate them with the flavorful low-alcohol wines that Europe seems to refuse to export to America. I remembered a show where Mario Batali sang the praises of puntarelle, a bitter green vegetable in season in the Roman province of Lazio in winter. We hunted for it and found a restaurant where it was served raw and drizzled with olive oil and anchovy sauce. We walked a lot, so we felt justified in eating gelato every day, sometimes twice a day. I tried the sweet milk flavor because I couldn’t resist the name, fior di latte, in Italian. Other memorable gelato flavors were hazelnut, rice (rice!), strawberry, pear, and single-malt whiskey. Every morning we had cappuccino in a neighborhood bar, standing up at the counter like the locals. The Italians invented the drink and they are so good at making it, the espresso intense, the milk creamy and frothy, and the price, at one euro and thirty cents in most bars, wonderfully affordable. Of the many cool things about Italy, this has to be one of the coolest: The price of their delicious coffee is regulated by the Italian government.

Coins tossed in the fountain are supposed to be gathered everyday and used to feed the poor in Rome.

Coins tossed in the fountain are supposed to be gathered everyday and used to feed the poor in Rome.

December is supposed to be a good time to go because it’s not as crowded with tourists as it is in the spring or summer. But it was still crowded. The Trevi Fountain, in particular, was always packed with people taking selfies and tossing coins. I realized, looking over the balcony on the side and watching the melee right in front of the fountain, that one has to enjoy these places as if they were theater or spectacle. Forget having a meditative silence to appreciate the art or to reflect on the march of history. The boisterous crowd is an intrinsic part of the experience. In that spirit, I took my young daughter by the hand and joined the crowd in front of the fountain. We held our coins in our right hands and tossed our fifty euro cents over our left shoulders and wished to visit Rome again. I took her picture, then we fought our way back out.

Back in New York, I think of Italy and remember more pop culture: Bernardo Bertolucci’s Stealing Beauty, Frances Mayes’s Under the Tuscan Sun, the second and third movies of The Godfather. There are more. Even Shakespeare, after all, set a few of his plays in the country.

And I’ve come up with a reason for all these pop cultural references, for the crowds, for my wanting to go back.

The reason is this: Even when we’ve never been there (I know I was even before this trip), we’re all in love with Italy.


Posted in Essays | Leave a comment

Kill the Pushers

The death toll for Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs, now entering its fifth month, is said to exceed four thousand.

Dubbed “The Punisher” by Time magazine, Duterte has projected the kind of macho persona that Pinoys often associate with action stars like Fernando Poe, Jr. and Joseph Estrada, both of whom had attempted to parlay their silver-screen charisma into careers in politics (cut short, in the case of Poe, by his death from a stroke following his failed bid to become president in 2004). Joseph Estrada has had a long career as a politician, serving as Mayor of San Juan, then as Senator and Vice-President before becoming President. Surviving impeachment, he is currently Mayor of Manila.

Naming Duterte after a Marvel comics character—Duterte is also routinely compared to American cinema’s quintessential vigilante cop Dirty Harry, played by Clint Eastwood, another actor who dabbled in politics in the 1980s—shows how blurred the line between fiction and fact, acting and real-life living, can be.

If Joseph Estrada rode to political stardom on the basis of the action-star persona he had carefully honed on screen, Duterte represents the opposite case of a real-life tough guy (he claims he has killed) now learning to play the role of president on the national and world stage after devoting the better part of his career to playing local politician before a smaller, local, domestic audience.

Anyone who has ever walked onto a stage knows what it’s like to talk and move self-consciously with the knowledge that one is being watched and assessed by the crowd. The best actors are, of course, the ones who manage to wear their personas “naturally,” appearing folksy, down-to-earth, plain-speaking, even refreshingly foul-mouthed, speaking the language of Juan and Juana dela Cruz.

Wasn’t it Alexis de Tocqueville who talked about the “democracy of manners” in which, no matter how privileged their backgrounds, American politicians need to present and carry themselves in public and talk as if everyone were their social equals?

Ronald Reagan was particularly good at playing Everyman, and he reflected back to his fellow Americans the optimism they needed to emerge from the shock and humiliation (not shock and awe) of stagflation, the Vietnam War, and the Iran hostage crisis. His critics dismiss him as lightweight, perhaps even a dimwit, but voters put their confidence in the city-on-the-hill, American-exceptionalist dream he peddled.

Duterte is no lightweight. Unlike Trump, he has had extensive experience as a local politician. He is serious about the drug problem in the country (even as critics debate the accuracy of the statistics he cites to bolster his campaign).

Though trained as a lawyer to be attentive to language, Duterte is not one to stick to the presidential script. He’s more likely to ad-lib and improvise, going off tangent from the speeches that his policy team has carefully prepared for him. It is said that only his family can tell him that he has gone on (and on and on) and needs to step down.

Duterte’s war on drugs is not a flash in the pan either. Here, one cannot help recalling another war on drugs that a “strongman” president waged more than forty years ago, a war that provided cinematic tough guy Joseph Estrada with one of his most memorable movies in the early 1970s.

Joseph Estrada starred in, and produced, this 1972 film, which won the FAMAS Award for Best Picture.

Joseph Estrada starred in, and produced, this 1972 film, which won the FAMAS Award for Best Picture.

Most people have forgotten that Joseph Estrada’s JE Productions won the FAMAS award for Best Picture for the film “Kill the Pushers” (1972), in which Estrada had a starring role.

The film chronicles the Ferdinand Marcos administration’s war on drugs that led to the passing of the Dangerous Drugs Act of 1972, the creation of the Constabulary Against Narcotics Unit (CANU), and the capture of the businessman-turned-drug dealer Lim Seng.

Four months into Martial Law, Lim would be executed by firing squad in Fort Bonifacio (yes, the same Fort Boni that we now call Bonifacio Global City). Never mind that Lim Seng was actually the underling of an even more notorious Big Boss druglord, who was able to escape abroad with the help of his influential circle of friends in higher places.

Years later, under Estrada’s presidency, the execution of child-rapist Leo Echegaray—the first judicial execution since Lim Seng’s, but not the last (six more would be executed)–led Imelda Marcos to gloat that at least under her husband’s presidency, no “Filipino” was executed, Lim Seng being just an intsik, after all.

The problem with the current war on drugs is that it puts too much trust in the power and integrity of the police to bring “criminals” to justice, when most Filipinos, from their own personal experience of the rottenness of the system, actually don’t fully trust either their own government or the police. Motorists see with their own eyes the ways in which traffic cops demand tong and pang-kape from jeepney and bus drivers and car owners, and prey on homeless and pedestrians alike. Politicians are not pejoratively known as “trapos” for nothing.

In fact, a cursory examination of the action films in the Philippines shows that “good cop vs. bad cop” is an abiding theme, along with the notorious failings of the judicial system. While there are no doubt plenty of honest, hard-working police who do their best to uphold the law, there are also plenty of corrupt cops who give the police a bad name, engaging in drug-dealing, extortion, kidnapping for ransom, murder-for-hire, arbitrary killing, and other nefarious deeds.

When police prey on civilians, all that stands between an ordinary tao and the powers-that-be is the law, which is why due process is important. Granted that criminal law is often compromised in practice, and justice perverted to favor the rich and the powerful.  We rage at the corruption in government and the judiciary, the slowness with which the wheels of justice turn, if they even turn at all. This explains the so-called “People Power fatigue,” the exasperation with an electoral system riddled with money politics and no better than a musical chair for oligarchs, media stars, business people, and close relatives of politicians. This impatience with a democratic system that fails to address poverty and inequality or even impose law and order no doubt fuels the nostalgia for authoritarian rule under Marcos.

Ironically, this nostalgia thrives precisely because people have come to take for granted the freedoms that they or their parents and grandparents had fought so hard for when they joined the People’s Power Revolution that toppled Marcos in 1986.

The nostalgia for the authoritarian past rests on shaky, selective memory. The middle classes remember only the first few years of Martial Law, when economic growth rates were decent and applications for a PLDT landline—which used to take years to process—would be responded to within days. Memories are tricky, with the tendency to edit out such inconvenient, unpleasant facts as

  1. Marcos and his family and cronies monopolizing power as well as pillaging the economy
  2. Censorship and the muzzling of free speech: had there been internet at the time, no one would be allowed to comment freely on articles, let alone criticize the government, or perhaps even have access to Facebook, Gmail, Scribd, YouTube, Dropbox, or Google
  3. Control over who can or cannot leave the country: no more trips to Hong Kong, Bangkok, Tokyo, New York, London, Paris for anyone who didn’t agree with the powers-that-be, or whom the powers-that-be simply didn’t like
  4. The decline in skilled and unskilled urban workers’ wages
  5. The suspension of the writ of habeas corpus
  6. Imelda’s humongous shopping sprees and expensive building projects, which led Rafael Salas, the Marcos technocrat who later fell out with the Marcoses, to coin the term “edifice complex”
  7. The routine harrassment, rape, torture, and killing of civilians and dissidents
  8. Military abuses in the countryside in the name of counter-insurgency
  9. Rebellion in the countryside (including several liberation movements)
  10. The state-brokered export of labor: a 1982 “Forced Remittance” Executive Order signed by Marcos required Overseas Contract Workers to remit between 50 to 70% of their earnings (depending on their category of work) through only a select number of official banking channels
  11. The economic crunch that began with the raising of interest rates in the late 1970s by the American Federal Reserve Board and the Dewey Dee scandal in the early 1980s, and the decision to bail out crony companies at the expense of other companies that angered the business community
  12. The political crisis sparked by the assassination of Ninoy Aquino
  13. The collapse of sugar prices and a powerful El Niño that brought drought and, as a result of the failure of the government to respond promptly, famine and malnutrition in Negros

“Kill the pushers” sounds logical, even necessary, as long as it’s not you or your own family and friends who fall victim to the police who are authorized to serve simultaneously as judge, jury, and executioner.

Imagine then, if this happens to your son, and you know for a fact that he is not into drugs, and yet the police insist that he is. How would you be able to prove his innocence when he’s already dead? Who are you to question the authorities if they plant drugs on your son after killing him, or plant drugs on your person when you refuse to play along with their extortion schemes? Police playing extortionists or planting “evidence” is sadly not unheard of in the Philippines and elsewhere, not just in the movies, but in real life.

Oh yes, Duterte’s war on drugs is as exciting and dramatic as an action film–even better than Reality TV!–until you find yourself the dispensable bit player, the “extra” whose fate it is to be shot down by the “bida” in a hail of bullets.

Posted in Essays | 10 Comments