As soon as the news broke early yesterday afternoon, the words attributed to Claro M. Recto came to mind. When he passed away in Rome, his contemporaries widely quoted him as having said, “How sad it is, to die away from one’s native land.”
Carlos Celdran died in Spain, the land of his forebears and the stomping grounds of the Indios who dared to be Bravos, and whose words pillorying frailocracy had inspired Carlos to the extent that he dared incur punishment for violating the Penal Code. There was something ironic about our present-day Código Penal, a concept inherited from Spain, having been invoked to punish him for protesting something over which no present-day Spaniard would bat an eyelash.
Carlos had many talents, from painting to performance art, and his nature found conformity abhorrent. He was outspoken, he could be rash, he defied convention in all aspects of his life, and variously entertained, entranced, charmed, repulsed, irritated and exasperated friends and foes alike. Only when such people pass — because otherwise we are too busy passing judgment on them, moment by moment — does it occur to us (I hope) that there are too few maraschino cherries in our vanilla world. Now he is gone, suddenly, one less thick daub of colorful paint in an otherwise all-too-easily whitewashed reality.
Back at a time when we agreed, politically, I asked Carlos Celdran to lend his verve and panache to the country as a tour guide for Malacañan Palace. He delivered. But during one tour, he caused a scandal among the courtiers by cheekily pointing to a door and breezily telling his public, “And in there, Gloria lives!” There was much tsk-tsk-ing (“He pointed the way to her room!” “He called her – gasp! — Gloria, and not Madame President!”), and it became compounded with an official alarum as, it turned out, in his haste to be punctual, he’d screeched to a halt in front of the Plaza Liga Anti-Imperialista, parked his car helter-skelter, and ran to keep his tour date, which might have been pardonable except he’d left a gym bag on the passenger seat. His vehicle ended up surrounded by a pack of not merely inquisitive, but frankly alarmed, presidential security guards. So his lèse majesté, compounded by a “security breach,” cut short his official Palace guide career.
He rolled his eyes at the hyperloyalist indignation of the Palace courtiers, and was a bit more subdued over the trigger-happy nature of the military; but he never held it against the then President. He continued to give tours elsewhere, and like the best of them, he managed to provoke discussion after each one. Everyone’s a critic, to be sure; his reviews were sometimes mixed. He would go on to wholeheartedly devote himself to the Manila Biennale, which proved a success. This was a side of him often overlooked: He was not, by any measure, a destructive, but instead, a constructive person.
Our views did not become congruent for many years thereafter. In the meantime, he staged his protest in the Manila Cathedral, and was briefly put behind bars, which gave pleasure to his critics, even a certain fond amusement to some of his friends and fans, all overlooking the fact that here at least was a man who’d stood up for his principles. He would become a convinced, even prophetic, critic of the current dispensation and would not — because he could not, being who he was — shut up about it. He was a dissenter at a time when it was not merely impolitic to be that: It was draining, emotionally and physically; those nearest and dearest to him couldn’t help worrying about his welfare.
And so, to Spain: Where, true to form, he was busy, tireless—and very tired, because each tour was a bravura performance—and following in the footsteps of a generation who’d preached that to be a Filipino required relinquishing timidity, passivity, resignation. Yet always, glancing back to his homeland.
Having begun with Recto, it would be fitting to end with Recto. At the end of his ill-fated campaign in 1957, Recto sadly remarked, in a phrase that endures in our political phrase-book, “Tapos na ang boksing.” Nick Joaquin recalled in 1963 that it was a phrase “which will always sound unbearably sad to those who heard the great Recto saying it.”
For you, the fight is over, Carlos; time to take a bow. The internet that pilloried you lit up, for a moment, in a dawn-like blaze of warm light, in happy remembrance of you.
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