In November 2020, I watched as the elections unfolded in the United States, while storm after storm (the kind that actually involved the weather) entered the Philippines. Before Joe Biden and Kamala Harris could claim victory, days were spent in that proverbial limbo of the results being too close to call, with some counties turning blue by only the slimmest of margins. On my Facebook feed, I would see someone call the turn of events »more entertaining than the final season of Game of Thrones.«
The lives of millions of Filipinos who had migrated to the United States rested on the results of these elections, and it felt as if every time I made the sadistic mistake of refreshing my newsfeed, I would be met with a barrage of comments made by the ones who supported Donald Trump. Watching an electorate vote against its own interests was all too familiar, and my investment in the States came not only with the precarious ties we share with the empire, as a former colony and current military stronghold. Being the home of my sister, the US was the only other country I had lived in, aside from Germany.
From February to June of 2019, I was a resident at the Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart, as a fellow in Cultural Journalism. My research was initially meant to revolve around the alleged disinformation campaigns funded by the administration of Philippine president, Rodrigo Roa Duterte. The period in which I was meant to carry out this research, however, also overlapped with midterm elections, in which the Philippine electorate would be selecting a new senate – an election I found out I would not be able to participate in due to an inconvenient combination of red tape from a third world bureaucracy and the timing for which I had received notice about my grant.
Explaining this to my colleagues at Solitude, I felt that very little actually translated about how it felt to see the Philippines burn from afar, given the grave consequences at stake, should none of the 2019 senate seats go to an already crippled opposition. There were, however, days that I felt lightheaded at having been granted the privilege of distance: »our island of happiness«, was what Solitude had been called on several occasions. To its fellows, Solitude was supposed to grant freedom – time to work on projects that mattered, time to spend however we wished; but in 2019, I used that freedom for moments of peace in which I could forget about the chaos, corruption, and killings that stood in for my home.
With a political situation in perpetual crisis, it was often expected of Filipinos not only to want to leave, but to stay away. So much baggage comes with leaving a country that has for so long normalized migration, especially when one temporarily leaves that country in order to write, resulting in a constant negotiation of one’s experiences of departure, arrival, and eventual return. As a freelance writer and cultural worker, I had few easily available avenues with which to exit the country of my birth. Solitude may have been the first residency to accept me, but it was not the first I had applied to. Aside from writing, I also studied almost every open call that landed in my inbox, firing off proposals and CVs like darts, hoping to hit the bullseye somewhere, before I finally landed in the hills of Stuttgart.
This was worsened by having even fewer options if I stayed in the Philippines, where opportunities for writers existed, as long as they were willing to be outsourced as »content creators« or subject themselves to the exploitative advertising and marketing industries. This longing for elsewhere was fueled by the lack of jobs, funding, government and institutional support, and a general disillusion with the professional environment and possibilities for cultural workers and artists. After all, given the country’s track record when it came to human rights violations, how could our government be expected to care about the humanities, aside from the occasional spouting of platitudes about the »natural artistic gifts« of the Filipino and the requisite hat tips to arts and culture month?
»With a political situation in perpetual crisis, it was often expected of Filipinos not only to want to leave, but to stay away. So much baggage comes with leaving a country that has for so long normalized migration, especially when one temporarily leaves that country in order to write, resulting in a constant negotiation of one’s experiences of departure, arrival, and eventual return.«
By the time Solitude came about, I was already so deep in my disillusion that I didn’t even question what it meant for eligible applicants to be from a country in a »state of transformation.« While most states across the globe were in the midst of some kind of transformation, the state of the Philippines at the time seemed exceptional, even for Filipinos.
When Duterte won the presidential seat in the 2016 Philippine elections, the Philippines was held up not only as a prime example of the spread of populist rule across the globe, but as a cautionary tale of the power that social media wielded in swaying political opinions. Duterte seemed to embody many of the traits boasted of by that year’s crop of strongmen: he was uncouth and proud of his incivility; a trash-talking misogynist who made a spectacle of the ways in which he could identify with the nation’s poor, only to exploit their trust and ardent fandom. Of equal importance was how Duterte’s presidency signified an end to what the rest of the archipelago saw as the domination of »Imperial Manila.«
For my Cultural Journalism fellowship, I had meant to investigate the economies borne of digital content creation at a time when social media platforms were rapidly becoming channels for fake news and divisive political campaigns run almost entirely on memes. While I had planned to look into the 2016 campaign that won the presidency for Duterte, having the constant din of the 2019 elections on my own newsfeed was proving to be a serious impediment to any kind of productivity.
In Stuttgart, I could feel myself buckling under the mental and emotional stress that came with investigating this topic at such a tumultuous period for the Philippines. »You don’t have to be productive,« I was assured by the other residents. »You can use this time to rest,« I was told.
So I rested, but not without scrolling through Facebook, where every update felt like an assault from afar. There was always news of death in the Philippines, but under Duterte’s rule, the numbers peaked in the thousands: men, women, and children left lying in the streets or in their homes, after brutal attacks by masked gunmen. The country became a morbid global curiosity, attracting attention from international filmmakers and journalists. During his campaign, Duterte had promised he would »fatten the fish« in Manila Bay with the bodies of those he had killed. By 2019, it was one of the few promises he’d kept.
»In Stuttgart, I could feel myself buckling under the mental and emotional stress that came with investigating this topic at such a tumultuous period for the Philippines.«
I could have just logged off, or taken more drastic measures by doing what is known as a »cleanse« or »detox,« but I was also working on a research proposal framed not only around the discontent of relegating political discourse to social media, but around my own discontent and disillusion with what was happening at home. I needed to know, needed to watch from adistance as votes were bought, thrown out, or simply disappeared, and the most popular candidates shimmied and sang their way to the Senate.
When »resting« became anything but restful, I walked, often in the company of other fellows. In his essay, »Hospitality, Friendship, and Emancipatory Politics«, Mitha Budhyarto quotes his friend, Ismal Muntaha of Jatiwangi Art Factory, who said that »it’s more important to make friends than art.« Most of the friendships I made at Solitude were borne of these long and aimless walks in the woods, where we would spend the quiet rhythm of these hours fleshing out projects and clarifying ideas. For me, those walks were often a means to simply forget: to enjoy the abundance of public space and the sheer unalderated expanse of nature left for the people of Stuttgart to enjoy. We had forests in the Philippines, but walking through–let alone circling aimlessly around them on a daily basis–was something else altogether. I still think about those long walks and the possibility and potential–the might–one could have when spaces for aimless wandering are a given and not a luxury.
Until then, it seemed as if the only long walks I had been on involved carrying a banner down a wide road, fists raised, chanting protests. Part of me longed for that sense of purpose that came with defining public space as a space to assert democratic freedom. And the more I nurtured that part of me, the more I longed for home.
This is where Carlos came in.
Carlos Celdran arrived in Europe just a few weeks before I had, and like me, he was just beginning to settle in. We watched each other’s wobbly beginnings on social media: his botched attempts to cook rice on his stove, my endless string of depression-induced shitposting, valiant attempts to find familiar food (»or at least food that tastes like something,« his words, not mine) which would turn into long comment threads detailing each other’s Asian grocery discoveries, ignoring how in many cases, these shops were still referred to as »oriental«. I told him I would buy him a rice cooker if I could stay at his place in Madrid that May. We both knew what was going to happen at home, and we knew we needed each other’s company. If we could not go home that month, then at least we would have each other.
Carlos was a performer and a tour guide. He had lived most of his life tucked away in a posh gated subdivision before going to art school in New York, and returning with a renewed appreciation for what the old quarters of Manila, the Philippine capital, represented. The rest of his life (prior to his exile to Spain) would be devoted to this appreciation: first, by turning his apartment into an art space; second, by becoming the most well-known tour guide for Intramuros – a walled city within a city, where the Spanish had shut themselves in during their 300-year rule of the archipelago – a strange but fascinating fate for someone who had already escaped a sheltered upbringing. The irony was not lost on him.
Carlos’s tours were always loud and flamboyant affairs. He wore costumes, used props, gestured wildly, danced, sang, and monologued his way through those centuries of Philippine life, first under the Spanish, then the Americans and Japanese. Each tour was packed with tourists, eager to get this branded take on Philippine history. As a result, Carlos had eyes and ears on him, eventually turning him into a worthy mouthpiece for the opposition, despite not holding any form of public office.
In the middle of all this, Carlos and I became friends when he hired me to help curate what should have been a biennial at the Intramuros. Shortly after the egress of that first (and so far, only) edition, a case against Carlos in 2010 was reopened. My trips to Manila from my home in Quezon City went from installing the exhibitions to protesting with my friend as he attempted to file an appeal in court, one he eventually lost.
That was how we found ourselves on the same continent at the same time, with him narrowly escaping imprisonment and mestruggling to make art or write about it, or even just focus long enough to give it some thought while the apocalypse unfolded in the distance. This is not to say that my struggle compared to his: there was no arrest warrant hanging over my head and no threat of having to suffer detention in one of the world’s most brutal prison systems. But there was comfort in that solidarity and so much to be said for finding a home in friendship, especially when your actual home guarantees little safety and even less love. Maybe Muntaha was not referring to reuniting with old friends, but there we were, boarding trains and planes just to feel understood, to not have to translate how it felt to be so consumed by caring for a country and yet having to leave it.
»No need,« Carlos had said about the rice cooker. »Let’s just eat burnt rice and spend the money on booze.« As for our anger at what we knew was going to be a disastrous outcome, he suggested that we »scream in the park. For free.«
As my visit to Carlos approached, I made another trip to one of a handful of »oriental« supermarkets in Stuttgart, to buy him the rice cooker he claimed he did not need. I knew that having it meant having a staple appliance in his kitchen that would remind him of Manila, even if rice in Europe, according to Carlos, »tasted like dust«. I still have a photo of him smiling from ear to ear at a plateful of unburnt rice topped with fried fish and eggs: a Filipino breakfast.
The park he had referred to was the Parque del Retiro, one of the largest parks in Madrid which literally translates to »Park of the Pleasant Retreat«. Not that I knew this at the time, but it might explain why no screaming was done on the day of our visit: just pleasant strolling through perfectly paved walkways and manicured lawns. »Let’s stop and smell the roses«, Carlos would jest, as I snapped a photo in the rose gardens of a particularly charming variant labeled »Old Cabbage«. Rather than scream together, all we could do that day was quietly marvel at the hectares upon hectares of public space we were free to get lost in, enjoying what we grew up referring to as »the first world«.
The next night was spent at a diner close to his apartment. Drinks in hand, we promised not to look at Facebook (which we both recognized as shorthand for checking on the Philippines) until the polls had closed. As the night progressed, we stumbled to another bar, and then another. By the time the results came in, Carlos was on his nth shot of whiskey and pacing nervously on the sidewalk. I was nursing a spritz and a headache, too stunned to talk.
»A country is not its government«, I had to keep reminding myself of this as I tried to process what I would be returning to: the long haul of being under a demagogue and the aftermath thereof in which we would collectively witness victory after victory of his supporters, coupled with the need to continue making and writing and doing, despite the seeming pointlessness of it all. No one from the opposition even made it close to the slate. At the top were a real-estate developer known for converting farmlands into shoddy housing, a film star in his second term after having been removed from the first on account of being convicted for plunder, and a former police chief who’d gained notoriety after publicly stating that »shit happens« when a 5-year-old was killed by a stray bullet, as one of many casualties in the state-sponsored »War on Drugs.«
This is what it meant for me to be from a country in a »state of transformation,« as the call posted by Solitude had specified. This was also before the pandemic, when a bill criminalizing dissent by tagging these as »acts of terror« would be passed, even as the death toll from Covid-19 mounted. In the middle of this public health emergency, the counterpart of our national health insurance provider was found to have over 15 billion pesos worth of stolen funds. As I write this in the middle of the world’s longest lockdown (fifteen months, as of June 2021), I find myself wishing I had taken Carlos up on that offer to go to Parque del Retiro just to scream.
Within a few months of meeting him in Madrid, Carlos would be gone. We lost him to a heart attack in October 2019. Maybe what Muntaha said about friendship in the context of residencies is not entirely accurate. It’s not one thing or the other, not in friendships borne of art. Sometimes this friendship involved working on a biennial together, and other times it meant taking a walk on my own around Madrid because my friend was too hungover from the whiskey and too heartbroken about the election results.
»You’ll be okay, right?« Carlos asked me, as I showed myself out the morning after the votes were counted. I told him to just get all the rest he needed. We could scream in the park some other time.