LUGAR LANG| Days of the Dead

IT WASN’T until I was 25 when I made my acquaintance with death. And it would not be wrong to say that it was what opened the door of creative writing for me. My first attempts at poetry were my attempts to make sense of my grandfather’s attempted suicide, which later led to heart failure and death. But I can barely remember his death anniversary now; I prefer to remember him on his birth anniversary, November 4, which is also my grandmother’s death anniversary. That the day falls so close to the national days of remembering our dead, November 1 and 2, is an arbitrary convenience. We do not need special holidays to honor our dead in our family because we do not bury them. We keep their ashes in urns in a makeshift columbarium in our own garden in Pasay City. In fact, the first time I went to a cemetery during All Souls Day was two years ago, to visit the grave of my partner’s mother. I still think we shouldn’t wait for “Undas” to remember our departed loved ones, but I understand our need to fulfill our obligations. Each year during Undas, I pray and light one votive candle for each of my dead relatives, and an extra two for the writers Edilberto and Edith Tiempo, to whom I owe so much.

But this year, I will buy a large candle for our country. As of latest count in the ABS-CBN death toll chart since May 10, 2016 when Rodrigo Duterte was elected president, 2,236 have been killed in the drug war by police operations and unidentified assailants. 161 of these were found away from the crime scene, usually bound and wrapped in tape, with a cardboard saying “Pusher/Addict ako.” News reports have called these deaths “drug-related,” even without results of full investigations, which may or may not be happening. Every day, there is a “drug-related” death in the news, and every day there is cheering for the “success” of the president’s war on drugs.

Here in Davao, after the elections, a bar featured a mural of Duterte with this quote: “Kung walang Pilipino na papatay para sa taongbayan, walang mangyayari sa bayan na ito.” When I saw it, I spoke to the manager of the bar, asking why they were promoting the idea that killing is an obligation of Filipinos to the country. She replied, “But that is exactly what President Duterte said.” I told her I was leaving and not returning to the bar until they removed the quote. I have not returned since because I’m afraid to see it still there, emboldened by what many Filipinos perceive as justice finally served. Duterte supporters complain in social media about why he is always being blamed for extrajudicial killings. We need to remind them that Duterte gave the orders himself, justified with bloated statistics and false logic.

On October 26, I visited the National Museum in Manila for the first time. As expected, Juan Luna’s Spoliarium (1884), being the most valuable (and most photographed) piece in the museum, greeted me at the main exhibit hall. Of the painting, our national hero Jose Rizal has famously said it embodies “the essence of our social, moral and political life: humanity in severe ordeal, humanity unredeemed, reason and idealism in open struggle with prejudice, fanaticism and injustice.” Standing before it, I felt dwarfed by the actual dimensions of the painting, as well as the images themselves, of the dead Roman gladiators being despoiled of their weapons and armors, while the spectators await their share in the circus. The word “spoliarium” comes from the Latin verb, which means “to be stripped of clothing and property.” On the right side of the painting, cloaked in darkness, an old man with a torch searches for his dead and a woman weeps over hers.

Today, one does not need to go to the National Museum to see similar scenes evoked. We see them in our newspaper headlines: bodies lying in pools of blood, mothers wailing over their dead children, wives holding the corpses of their husbands…it is our new visual culture—the chiaroscuro of extrajudicial killings, shared over and over in social media. Some of you cheer it on. Or think it’s not going to happen to you, until it does.

I do not personally know any of the 2,236 dead, but today I mourn with their families. I grieve for my country that struggles to keep its morality and humanity alive in these trying times.

Follow or message me on Twitter @jhoannalynncruz

Posted in Opinion