By Stephanie Dychiu

Philanthropist, cultural vanguard, and sometime governor of the Central Bank of the Philippines, Dr. Jaime Laya shares a piece of his collector's mind.

The disease is called collectivitis, and it is infectious and incurable.

Dr. Jaime Laya caught it at a young age, when his father foisted a shoebox-full of used envelopes on him, stamps still attached, to keep him busy and out of trouble. “Since then,” Laya writes in his book Consuming Passions, “I’ve had both continuing passions and casual flings with all sorts of collectibles—animal, vegetable, and mineral.”

The chairmanship of his high school philatelic society was his first managerial role, foretelling an epic future in art and antique collecting that would run parallel with his achievements in business, education, and public service. Retracing these twin paths leaves one feeling that Laya always seemed to be at the right place at the right time, with an enviable knack for spotting talent.

He was certainly born at the right place at the right time. His father Juan wrote the award-winning Commonwealth-era novel His Native Soil, and was friends with the popular painters of his time—Amorsolo, Manansala, and Ocampo. Art and nationalism were fixtures in Laya’s childhood millieu, but he grew up to be . . . an accountant. In the sixties, he became a professor at the College of Business Administration of the University of the Philippines. He struck up friendships with fellow teacher Jose Joya, and radical artist Ang Kiukok. When he became dean of the UP school of business, he cut “ex-deals” with the future masters—paintings for tax deductions—to perk up the school’s dreary walls. In his own office, he hung a market scene bought for P35. The painter was Cesar Buenaventura.

In the mid-seventies, Laya became Budget Minister. To spruce up his department’s mind-numbing annual report, he got an artist to make drawings for the cover. The artist was Onib Olmedo. Thanks to collectivitis, Laya had the foresight to save the original sketches for posterity.

In 1981, he was appointed Governor of the Central Bank and Chairman of the Monetary Board. While grappling with the Balance of Payments deficit, the Latin American debt crisis, and various emergencies wrought by the assassination of Ninoy Aquino, he went on an art acquisition mission (“statistics on growth and trade are not enough to know a country and its people”). Cesar Legaspi, Arturo Luz, Anita Magsaysay-Ho, and Ramon Olazo were prevailed upon to donate works. Priceless pieces from all over the country were rescued from mite, mold, and mildew, such as the only signed oil painting of Damian Domingo found in a bodega of the Paterno family, and a rare interaction work by H.R. Ocampo’s Saturday group of artists, signed by “half a dozen of the brightest lights of Philippine art”, gathering dust at Rustan’s Galerie Bleue. Gold pieces dating back to the pre-Hispanic barter trade were also added to the Central Bank’s Money Museum.

For these and other accomplishments as Chairman of the Intramuros Administration and the National Commission for Culture and Arts, Laya is lauded as the man who gave the nation palpable reminders of its cultural identity.

It was all serendipitous, of course. Laya did not consciously set out to amass the collections he built for public and private enjoyment. In his book, he jokingly ascribes collectivitis to a “hunting gene” that causes people to “diligently search for paint on fraying canvas”, “gurgle over chipped little jars with brown spots”, and “gleefully drag home cannon, bell, plow, or creaky bed”. In prehistoric times, homo erectus stalked rhino and lugged it to his cave. Today, Laya snares “armless, legless, sometimes headless” santos to bring home.

“I was always collecting one thing or another, beginning with stamps, coins, then books,” he says on the afternoon of our visit at his office in Philtrust Bank, where he currently serves as chairman. “The first paintings I ever saw were from my grandmother. She had these two little amateur paintings, done by a friend. Yun ang tinitignan ko nung maliit ako.” The first painting he bought was the 35-peso Cesar Buenaventura that hung in his office in UP. It was followed by an Amorsolo, a wedding gift to Laya and his wife.

Naturally, collectivitis made Laya itch to find companions for his lonely Amorsolo. Budget was tight, so he researched before making any purchases. He took note of the pieces art galleries chose to exhibit, and observed what knowledgeable friends bought. He studied the works that won competitions. He played secret judge at shows, comparing his personal picks with the works critics praised or vilified in the newspapers.

“People were more fortunate before, when there were real art critics in the newspapers,” he says. “Today, what’s published is simply a biography of the artist, and a plain description of the exhibit. ‘This gallery opened, this artist exhibited, he’s a graduate of UP, or UST, he’s exhibited before, and he paints flowers.’ Ganun lang. There’s no judgment. Before, we had critics like Leo Benesa and Rod Paras-Perez. They didn’t care who got mad at them. They just said what appealed to them and what did not. And it helped develop the judgment of readers like me who were uninformed. This is why Contemporary Art Philippines is an important contribution. Through it, people can have an idea of what is good or bad. They don’t necessarily have to believe it, but at least they will see how other people think.”

Art enthusiasts feel a constant need to have their judgment validated, and Laya says even he still feels that need up to now. Price is the most obvious indicator of value, but his rule these days is “maganda at mura”. Better to acquire a nice work by an unknown, than a lousy work by a famous name. In his book, he cautions against “artists not above mounting their own publicity campaigns”, who build careers out of media hype. He also laments the practice of producing “large-format books lavishly illustrated in color with so-so works”, done by some dealers to hock mediocre work to people who go for “book pieces”.

With these ploys proliferating, what becomes of authenticity in the art market? “That’s the traditional question that has never been answered,” Laya chuckles. “Rembrandt, for instance, was very popular in the early stages, but eventually, nobody bought his works anymore. In the end, it was his works that nobody wanted that stood the test of time. Same with Van Gogh. In his lifetime, I think he sold only one painting, but now he is the record-breaker. So to me, collectors should just collect what they like, and painters should paint what they think is best.” He says he has never bought a painting he didn’t like but thought would appreciate in value. “Swerte na lang that most of them did.”

Wish lists no longer plague him. “Painting is just something I enjoy. Okay lang kahit wala akong makita. In fact, better nga kung wala akong mabili eh, at least the money is still with me! If I find something, I’m happy. If I don’t find something, I’m not unhappy.”

Things have a way of finding their way to him, anyway. “Sometimes it takes twenty years. There was one watercolor I saw in a book printed in 1958. Nakalagay doon kung sino may-ari. I kept track of it. Painted by Jose Honorato Lozano, a nineteenth century artist. It took thirty years. Tinatandaan ko lang siya. Serendipity lang naman yan.” He points to a small Santo Niño kept under glass on one table in his office. “I saw that in a book on Philippine religious imagery by Fernando Zobel in the late sixties. I got it in the eighties. Twenty years. Inabangan ko lang siya.” How to hunt for a random relic seen in a random book? “Lagi mo lang i-on ang radar mo, baka sakaling nandiyan. When I’m really interested in something, I remember. I don’t necessarily pursue, but I remember. And then"—the power of visualization—"it shows up."

Will he ever open more of his personal collection to the public? “Well . . . there are better things in the Intramuros Museum, but nobody goes there,” he hedges. “How many visitors are there in the National Museum? You go there at any one time, siguro you have less than a dozen willing visitors. Yung mga unwilling, yun ang mga estudyante na nakapila na ikot ng ikot.” And why is that? What prevents art from gaining a broader audience? “First, it’s a matter of education. Why does the elite appreciate art but the masa does not? Because teachers in public schools are less interested in art than teachers in private schools. Maybe the thing to do is to improve teacher education, so it has more elements of art and culture. Second, maybe the media should have greater coverage of real art criticism. Newspapers, television, they cover fashion and cooking very well, they cover home décor, makeup, skin improvement. Maybe they should also have greater coverage for fine arts. Interiors is a good starting point, because you have visual arts there.”

Laya has accummulated countless masterpieces for the national patrimony as well as his personal collection, but one of his top three favorites is still the amateur painting that fascinated him as a boy. “It shows a woman walking toward the viewer on a street. May bamboo trees, may nipa hut. Very ordinary. But it reminds me of my grandmother.”

Collectibles, he says, are “keys to memory”, “handed by someone reaching across time and eternity”. This thought is echoed in the Juan Luna pen-and-ink stationery design he donated to the Central Bank many years ago. It shows a country girl holding a book with the words non omnis moriar—“not all of me shall die”—taken from a verse Horace wrote two thousand years ago to equate his poetry with immortality:

I have created a monument more lasting than bronze,
And higher than the royal site of the pyramids,
Which neither harsh rains nor the wild north wind can erode,
Nor the countless succession of years,
And the flight of the seasons.
Not all of me shall die,
My praise shall grow and never end.

Away from the critics and the pundits and the galleries and the auction houses, collecting, like all art, is simply a yearning to remember and be remembered. Nearly fifty years since he bought his first painting, Laya is far from done. At his office, we spot a freshly bought canvas leaning sheepishly against one wall, still swathed in bubble wrap. “The normal person stops adding to his paintings when his house and office walls are full,” he writes in his book, “but collectors are not always normal. Some follow the jeepney driver rule: there is always room for one more.”

(This article originally appeared in the April-May 2009 issue of Contemporary Art Philippines magazine.)
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Stephanie Dychiu MARIE CLAIRE - Manila's Park Avenue Gangstas

Editor's Letter, Marie Claire, January 2009:
. . . about her story 'New Lives for Teen Gangs', Stephanie Dychiu says, "meeting the Park Avenue gangstas was a reminder that change and hope don't always have to come in big sweeping moments--they can take place in small acts aimed at one person at a time." A group called Community and Family Services International whose spokesperson is comedienne/actress Tessie Tomas helps these kids change the course of their future.

By Stephanie Dychiu

Named after New York City’s wealthiest address, Park Avenue in Pasay City is a narrow side street where teen royalty go by the names Bad Boi and Shawtababee instead of Blair and Serena. Only 15 minutes by MRT/LRT from the real Park Avenue of Metro Manila (Ayala Avenue in Makati), Park Avenue, Pasay is a parallel universe where fortunes are made not on the stock market but on the Libertad Market, and social status is attained not through money and pedigree but through brute strength and a flair for rap.

Typical of most mean streets that make up the underbelly of the metropolis, the alleys around Park Avenue are patrolled by youth gangs who are fiercely protective of their turf. Here, traditional trappings of civility such as work, school, and family have a long history of failure, so the gangsta becomes the surrogate that brings identity and structure to the lives of the out-of-school and out-of-work. Furthermore, when all it takes to be the victim of a brawl is to walk past someone who is “lasing, tapos nayabangan sayo”, it makes sense to join a group sworn to mutually protect each other before the violence actually happens.

“Minsan may atraso talaga, pero madalas, away-alak lang,” says Melanie*, 24, a native of the area who joined the West Side Mobstahs* at age 15. “’Pag naka-inom ka, matapang ka.” Where does a tambay get money to buy booze? She nods toward the Libertad Market. “Madaling dumiskarte diyan. Halimbawa, may namili. Buhatin mo yun. Bibigyan ka ng P20 o P60. Yung iba, humihingi ng ulam sa mga nagtitinda, tapos binebenta nila.”

A skirmish her cousin got into in a recent fiesta shows how trouble can start randomly when tambays get soused. “Nag-iinuman sa labas, kasi may videoke dun. May nagpaputok ng baril. Warning shot lang, pataas ang putok. Yung pinsan ko, lasing, lumabas. Naghahamon ng away. Pinagsusuntok yung iba. E, siempre, may gang, e. Yung pinakamatapang sa kanila, nakita. Sinugod. Hanggang ngayon hindi siya makapunta dun.”

“Yung taga-umpisa ng banat, ang tawag diyan Starter,” Melanie continues. In a fight, the Starter throws the first punch (or takes the first blows, if on the defensive). Seems like a role few people would want, but Starters actually like their posts because it gives them power over other members.

The Starter, however, is not top dog. “Yung pinaka-lider, ang tawag Founder.” How does one become a Founder? “Maghahanap ka ng grupo mo.”

Launching a new gang is no different from launching a new shampoo. First, create a distinct brand identity: “May sign-sign, minsan tattoo.” Second, build brand awareness: “’Pag naglalakad, isigaw mo ang pangalan ng gangsta. ‘O, ano ako. . .!’ Ganyan.” Third, reinforce brand recall by popularizing a slogan or jingle. “May ginagawang mga kanta, mga rap. Kumakalat. Naririnig na lang dito.” Finally, demonstrate superior product performance: “Pakita mo matapang ka. ‘Pag hinamon ka, patulan mo kaysa masaktan ka.”

How will a gang leader know his campaign has succeeded? “’Pag pinaguusapan na siya. ‘Pag naririnig na ng mga bata.”

When females want to join a gang, Melanie says the Founder usually gives them two choices: “Hirap o sarap. Yung hirap, sampal, 15 times. Yung sarap, sex.” The preferred choice? “Siempre sarap na kaysa maghirap. Kaya maraming babae na nagiging pokpok.” An older cousin of Melanie was already a member of the West Side Mobstahs when she was initiated. “Sinalo ako ng pinsan ko. Siya ang nagpa-sampal.”

For the all-male Real Pinoy Tribe*, hirap is the only route to becoming a member. “Ang ginawa sa amin ‘jump-in’. Ginulpi kami for 30 seconds,” says Jason*, 19. He joined the gang at age 15. “Six kami nun, tapos mga 20 katao bumugbog sa amin. Hinika nga ako nun.” The gang has rules to prevent serious injury during hazing. The head, neck, and face are off limits. “’Pag tinamaan ka dun, pwede kang sumigaw na ‘Foul!’ Stop na yun, kahit wala pang 30 seconds.”

Why go through all that just to be part of a gang? “Gusto ko kasi maranasan kung paano magkaroon ng power sa isang lugar.” That power comes at a price. Like NATO, gang members are bound to a mutual defense pact that views an attack on one as an attack on all. “Kahit wala kang ginagawa, pero yung iba mong kasama may atraso, pwede ka nang gulpihin.”

Hence the importance of allying oneself with the right leader. “Ang basehan namin, yung nandiyan para sa amin lagi,” says Jason. “Kasi, ‘pag may kaaway kami sa school, kung hindi na namin kaya i-handle, tinatawag namin siya. ‘Rekta na yan. To the rescue na siya.”

The rescuer Jason is referring to is Randy*, 21, the leader of their branch of the Real Pinoy Tribe in Pasay (the gang has several chapters spread across Metro Manila). “Siya ang Manny Pacquiao namin.”

Small, quiet, and soft-spoken, Randy at first glance would never be mistaken for a gang leader. In fact, he objects to the title. “Walang leader, mas ahead lang,” he says, attributing his seniority to having joined the gang before the others.

His reason for joining: “Marami akong nakikilala, kahit sa Cavite, kahit sa ibang bansa. Sa Korea, sa Japan. Dito rin sila dati. May mga Mexicano din, sa L.A.

The Real Pinoy Tribe does not allow females to become members. “Pinagmumulan kasi lagi ng away.”

The gang activities, as Randy describes them, seem harmless enough. “Inuman three times a week. Basketball. Computer.” How then does trouble start? “’Pag ginugulo kami ng mga taga ibang lugar. Bigla na lang pupunta diyan, maghahagis ng bote. Makikipag-away.”

It was in this arbitrary manner that a major blood feud erupted around one year ago. The feud was so intense, it drove Randy to embrace his current lie-low status.

It all started when a man on a motorcycle went to the gang’s turf pretending he needed to ask something. “Lumapit ang isang kasama ko,” recounts Randy. “Bigla na lang may binunot, kutsilyo o ice pick yata. Nakita ng isa pang kasama ko. May hawak siya na fluorescent na itatapon na sana niya. Pinalo niya sa mukha ng naka-motor. Tapos mga limang bote ng Emperador. Pinagtanggol niya lang yung kasama namin.”

The man on the motorbike promptly went to his own gang to report the attack. “Nagsumbong din sa pulis, kasi maimpluwensiya siya dun, may kamag-anak yata siya. Na-ospital siya, puro tahi ang mukha. Dinemanda kami.” Randy and his friends went into hiding. The matter with the police was settled only after Randy’s older brother, a seaman, paid P26,000 to get him off the hook. “Ayaw ng kuya ko na makulong ako.”

Things did not end with the police. There was street justice to contend with. “Yung resbak nun, matindi,” says Jason. “May pinatay sa amin.” Late one night, while the gang was hanging out on their street, a man armed with a sumpak, or homemade shotgun, came and fired several shots. As the most prominent member of the gang, Randy was one of his main targets. But it was someone else who was killed. “Parang araw na talaga niya,” Randy philosophizes. “Twelve gauge yung shotgun, kumakalat ang buletas nun. Isang buletas lang ang tumama—sa kanya.”

Reprisal was swift. A hit squad was dispatched to hunt down the gunman. He wasn’t found, but one of his cohorts who happened to be near his house when the squad arrived was killed in his place.

Just like Randy, a close call caused Melanie to distance herself from gangsta life—she almost landed in jail because a friend filched (tekwat or shoplift) a bottle of cologne from a supermarket and put it in Melanie’s pocket. “Bumukol, e. Nakita. Pinababayaran ng ten times. ‘Pag di nabayaran yun, dun ako sa kulungan.”

One of her cousins—the same one who bore the 15 slaps in her behalf when she joined the West Side Mobstahs—got wind of what happened and went to Melanie’s mother so the money owed could be paid before she got locked up. “Binato ako ng orasan ng nanay ko. Tapos umiyak siya. Nakakahiya. Magkano lang yung cologne? P20? Nahuli ako sa halagang ganun.”

Meanwhile, the West Side Mobstah gang was disintegrating. “May nasaksak kasi sila, tapos namatay. Kaya naglayo silang lahat.”

HANAP- BUHAYWatching the mayhem from not too far away were the people behind Community and Family Services International (CFSI), an NGO that happens to be located in an old building along Park Avenue. The group’s primary focus is helping displaced persons in far-flung conflict areas like Mindanao and Myanmar, but it became clear the gangstas in CFSI’s own backyard were also displaced persons—displaced from mainstream society—whose lives were being ripped apart by conflict.

CFSI set up the Hanap Buhay, Bagong Buhay program to take tambays off the streets and into vocational courses so they can eventually find work. The most popular course has been food and beverage (F&B), because those who complete it are guarranteed jobs at restaurants that are allied with the vocational school. The course costs P13,000 and runs for 6 months. CFSI shoulders only half the cost of the tuition. The other half is paid for in installments by the youths themselves once they start earning, so they have a sense of personal responsibility.

Ruth Solis, the social worker assigned by CFSI to the program, explains how the gang’s own psychology and dynamics are being harnessed by the NGO to reshape their lives. “As you can see, they are very territorial. Kada-street may grupo. If we gather members of different gangs here [in Park Avenue], mag-iinggitan yan. ‘Ma’am, baka nandiya si ganyan . . .’ So we take them out of town. Tagaytay, Mount Makiling. ’Pag inalis mo sila sa teritoryo nila, they become less mayabang, because they become dependent on you, for food, for transportation.”

Outside their turf, the boundaries between gangstas start to blur. The trip out is like a vacation—no pressure, no pontificating, lots of fun and food. But life skills training is subtly woven into the activities.

CFSI also puts the gang members’ advanced capacity for loyalty and solidarity to good use. Winning over just one leader can mean winning over an entire gang. Randy, for example, has been a valuable ally to Ruth. “Ang advantage ni Randy, magaling siya makisama,” says Ruth. “Tapos, ‘pag kaibigan ka niya, talagang hindi ka niya papabayaan. That’s why a lot of the other kids look up to him.”

Jason hopped on board because Randy was in. After spending 2 years in first year, 2 years in second year, and 2 years in third year high school, then dropping out altogether, he passed the Accreditation and Equivalency Test with CFSI’s help recently. “If you pass that test, it’s like the equivalent of passing high school,” explains Ruth. The test is administered to people who feel awkward going back to high school, but want to have the credentials. “Manny Pacquiao also took this test.”

The streetsmart Melanie is one of CFSI’s most successful Hanap Buhay, Bagong Buhay participants. She has completed vocational courses in computers, cosmetology, and food and beverage. Her favorite is food and beverage, “kasi may trabaho kaagad”. Her first job as a waitress was in a restaurant in Mall of Asia, and she was asked to come back for a second stint after her first 6-month contract ended. Hard work surprisingly agrees with an ex-tambay like her. “Gustong-gusto ko yung napapagod. Halimbawa, closing ako ngayon. ‘Pag sinabi ng sir ko na wala tayong opening, ako ang magvo-volunteer. So straight na opening at closing ako.” Why does she like it? “Pera. Tapos mas marami akong nakikilalang tao.

Saving is a challenge, however. When not on “service break” (the idle period between 6-month contracts), Melanie earns an average of P7,000 a month from waitressing. She gives three-fourths to her mother to pay for household expenses. At the end of her first 6-month stint, she was able to funnel her last pay to a small venture that tided her over the service break. “Nagtinda ako ng sigarilyo, kendi, tinapay, noodles, diyan sa kanto.” At the end of her second 6-month stint, there were no more savings. “Bumili kasi ako ng gamit,” she says. Deprived of life’s little luxuries for so long, she splurged on a TV, DVD player, “slide-up MP4”, and silver bracelet “na may bato-bato, maganda”, all bought in “gives”.

Currently on “endo” (end of contract), she is hoping her third 6-month assignment will come soon. Her long-term goals are simple. “Gusto ko lang may tirahan kami na malayo ang mga kapatid ko sa gulo, tapos may trabaho sila. Yung matinong trabaho ha? Hindi yung nagbebenta ng kung ano-ano. Yung kapatid ko dati, nagbenta siya, marijuana. Ang ginawa ko, nilagay ko sa tubig. Di na pwede.”

There is also the matter of getting pustiso for her younger brother. “Sawa na rin siya sa pagiging tambay. Gusto niya mag-apply sa fastfood. E bungal siya ng isang ngipin kasi nabagsak siya sa scooter. Hindi siya natatanggap.” She told him to apply again only after his dentures are in place, which she expects to happen in a couple of months, “kasi magkakapera ang kuya ko. Gas boy siya, malakas kumita.”

Randy briefly worked as a busboy after completing Hanap Buhay, Bagong Buhay’s food and beverage course. He was assigned to a posh restaurant in Greenbelt, where he has seen “KC, tsaka si Pops” in the flesh.

“Gusto ko yung nagdadala ng food, kasi hindi ko nagagawa yun dati. Pero nakakatakot mag-saulo ng order.” A 12 gauge shotgun does not faze Randy the gang leader, but he balked when he was asked to take over bartending duties at the restaurant. “Naunahan ako ng kaba. Hindi ko alam mag-mix ng cocktail. Tinuruan naman kami pero hindi mo naman makukuha yun sa isang beses lang.” He was so panicked over the assignment that he stopped going to work after the first 15 days. He was even too ashamed to call.

Ruth, whom Randy has taken to calling the real gang leader, has arranged for him to personally deliver the check for the balance of his tuition to the food and beverage school, to force him to set things right with them after going AWOL. A job transfer is being worked out.

Jason, meanwhile, is still high from passing his high school equivalency exam. He is now eyeing college. “Gagawa ako ng paraan na maisabay.” (He will start working in a restaurant soon, after completing his Hanap Buhay, Bagong Buhay training.) “Kahit two-year course lang.” Which school? “Hindi ko pa alam. Hindi ko rin alam yung schedule, kung magkano. Kelangan malaman ko muna kung saan ako maa-assign.”

Then, there’s his music career. “Nasa banda ako dati, alternative. Pero acoustic na ako ngayon, blues na ang tinitira ko. Idol ko si John Mayer.” Wide-eyed and well-built, the affable Jason actually looks a bit like John Mayer. But showbiz is not for him—or so he says. “Mas sikat ka ‘pag underground artist ka. Magpapakalat ka lang ng CDing burn.” Sample nga? “Ay, ayoko! Ano kasi e, yung lyrics ko, hindi naka-copyright. Iniiwasan ko magka-leakage.”

Finally, his political career. “SK councilor kasi ako sa amin.” What? “Oo. Nangampanya ako, tapos nanalo. Dapat nga chairman na lang ang tinakbo ko e, kasi mas mataas pa ang boto ko sa kanya!” He turns serious. “Gusto ko rin magkaroon ng mark dito, para magkaroon ng change.” How? “Una, sa aming magto-tropa. Hanap ako ng pagka-busyhan namin. Hindi na yung vices.” Sports? “Hindi na magki-click sa amin yun. Ganun na rin ang project nila lagi. Sports daw nang sports. Bibigyan kami ng bola, ng dart board. Wala namang gumagamit. Gusto ko yung habang tumatagal, mas magiging interesado sila. Diversionary tactics lang. Kasipag busy ka, wala kang oras para sa bisyo.”

As Melanie, Randy, and Jason struggle to keep themselves busy, the work also goes on for CFSI. Barangay officials and parents of out-of-school youths are being closely involved in the Hanap Buhay, Bagong Buhay efforts so progress is sustained. Many kids still need to be placed in vocational courses to keep them away from drugs, violence, prostitution, and criminal activity. But more funds are needed to pay for 50% of their tuition. At only P6,500 per life-changing course, it’s money well-spent.

“Hangga’t hindi pa sila namamatay, meron pang chance,” says Ruth. “Ang tingin kasi sa tambay laging masama. Pero actually, ‘pag sinabi mong kelangan nila tumulong, tutulong sila. Mabilis sila kumilos. At ‘pag sinabi nila walang manggugulo dito, talagang walang manggugulo.”

Such is the gangsta’s uncanny charisma. With Park Avenue, Pasay only 15 minutes away from the real Park Avenue (Ayala Avenue in Makati), it’s wise to work with it rather than eradicate it.

To sponsor a Hanap Buhay, Bagong Buhay scholar and know more about other ways to help, call CFSI at 519-0048, or email More information about CFSI’s other projects can be found at
*Names of gangs and gang members have been changed.
Teysi ng Tambayan
Tessie Tomas on celebrity philanthropy and finding meaning among the tambays.
While making buzz-worthy films (Ploning, 100, One True Love) and top-rating soaps (Kim Samsoon), Tessie Tomas works as Public Relations Officer for Community and Family Services International (CFSI), the NGO behind the Hanap Buhay, Bagong Buhay program that provides jobs and training for disadvantaged youths.

What bothers you most about tambays?I lived in Tondo when I was younger, and also in Blumentritt. Nakakakita ako ng mga tambay, but it was not as bad as now. At age 10, I was doing radio soaps. I would take a jeepney to the radio station to record until nine in the evening. You cannot imagine a 10-year-old girl now taking a jeepney and feeling safe by herself. I felt so safe at that time.

Some people will freak out if they knew the waiter or waitress serving them is a former gang member.I would tell them to focus on the positive instead of being afraid. Be happy for the person and give him or her encouragement!

Many celebrities exploit social causes to boost their image. Has your sincerity ever been doubted?Sometimes people think I am running for public office. But the reason why I [became active in] social work was my mid-life crisis. I had a 10-12 year conflict that started at 40. Then one day, parang I heard a soft voice that said, “Stop searching so far for the meaning of life”. I was already helping CFSI then. I realized that was the work that made me happy. This is my second passion. Nagugulat ang mga press. “How come you didn’t tell us?” Kasi it was something private e. The same with Regine (Velasquez, her co-star in Kim Samsoon). I told her, why don’t you come and visit my NGO before our season ends? I explained what we do. She wanted to donate 20 sacks of rice. She didn’t want any TV cameras. Halos ang buong Pasay naghintay kay Regine Velasquez. Sabi ng mga bata kay Regine, kumanta ka naman sa amin. Sabi niya, anong gusto niyo? “On the Wings of Love”. Kinanta niya ang buo, hindi excerpt ha, acapella. Naiyak ako. Biruin mo, Regine Velasquez singing. And she did it so casually, one morning.

How do you cope when things don’t work out, or when people take advantage of you?Yung rate of success, I don’t focus on that. Hindi ako nagpapaka-result oriented. I just focus on helping. I have no expectations. When I hear that voice that says ‘You help’, hindi ko yan kinu-question. Hindi ko iniisip na, pucha, baka igastusin ito sa iba. Every single time I have a chance to help, I just do it.

Why were fame, fortune, and family not enough to make you happy?I had my first Pajero in 1992 when I had Teysi ng Tahanan. I looked at it and I said, this is really the car that I like. Glistening, it’s the right color, it’s so ganda, I have a driver, I live in a nice condominium in Ecology Village—I was still single then—daily show and all. And I looked at it, and in two days, the euphoria was gone. When I organize a medical mission, the joy lasts for a month. Why? Because it is soul work. I am feeding my soul when I do social work. It is when you are of service to others that you feel so fulfilled. Pala.

What keeps me going is the balance. Nag-burnout ako sa showbiz. If I kept going on that route alone, it was really dangerous for me na. I might say I’m gonna drop all of this. But because of my social work, I am more motivated to do showbiz. At this point in my life, I really, really know na what counts.

(This article originally appeared in the January 2009 issue of Marie Claire magazine.)
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Stephanie Dychiu GMANews.TV - Catholic Church Battles Abortion

By Stephanie Dychiu

For the Catholic hierarchy, it must be a dreaded case of the barbarians finally reaching its gates.

Two years ago, at the bidding of Cardinal Gaudencio Rosales, Monsignor Jose Clemente Ignacio became rector of the Church of the Black Nazarene in Quiapo, home of the miraculous 400-year-old statue of the kneeling Christ that is the object of frenzied adulation by millions.

To head what the Cardinal calls “the premier church of the Philippines" is an esteemed post any man of the cloth would be eager to assume—except the plaza outside the Quiapo Church also happens to be the abortion capital of Metro Manila.

While the clergy has been steadfastly championing the pro-life cause and battling artificial birth control, the bloodied fruits of unwanted pregnancy have come to besiege its acropolis. “It angers me," says Monsignor Ignacio. “Sometimes I cannot sleep because it is our responsibility."

“The Nazarene performs many miracles"

On any given day, but especially on Fridays, multitudes gather among the blind, the sick, and the lame at the Quiapo Church to beseech the Black Nazerene for favors. The air becomes thick with vulnerability and desperation, so anything paranormal is easily pawned. Black candles for hexing philandering husbands. Towels to wipe on the Black Nazarene’s foot and keep as an amulet. Roots and leaves that cure all ills. And the artfully named pamparegla, an acrid potion for inducing menstruation. Originally devised to treat dysmenorrhea (menstrual cramps), it can trigger miscarriages in pregnant women when taken with the restricted anti-ulcer drug Cytotec.

“Maraming himala si Nazareno. Ang hindi buntis, nabubuntis. Ang buntis, biglang hindi na buntis (The Nazarene performs many miracles. Those who are not pregnant become pregnant. Those who are pregnant can be made not pregnant)," syllogizes Roger, one of the many vendors who illicitly sell Cytotec to troubled women flocking to the church for the magical return of their monthly period whenever they are “delayed" and need not be. A large tattoo of the Black Nazarene covers most of his upper arm. “Fanatic ako ni Señor Nazareno (I am a fanatic of Señor Nazareno)," he boasts.

“It started in 1995 . . . “

Sister Nelia, a loose-lipped peddler who has roamed Quiapo for forty years and claims she supplied Ferdinand Marcos with banaba leaves when he was ailing in the US, offers some history. “Nagsimula yan dito 1995. May dumating na babae. Uminom daw siya ng Cytotec nung buntis siya. Reseta ng duktor kasi may ulcer siya. Nalaglag ang bata. Kinalat nang kinalat ang istorya. Ang daming naghanap. Siempre, ang mga tindera, ‘pag may naghahanap, bibigyan (It started in 1995. A woman came. She said she took Cytotec when she was pregnant. Prescribed by a doctor because she had an ulcer. She lost her baby. She spread the story around. Many people started looking for the pills. Of course, vendors give people what they are looking for)."

And who are the people who come looking for the pills? “Ang mga hustisya," cackles Roger. “Ang mga pang-gabing hostess. At tsaka mga asawa ng taga-Saudi. Nami-miss nila asawa nila, nagkakaroon sila ng pagkakasala. Meron ding mga asawa na ayaw nang magdagdag ng anak. Meron ding estudyante (Prostitutes. And wives of contract workers in Saudi. They miss their husbands, so they commit adultery. Also wives who don’t want more children. And students)."

Where do the vendors get the pills, which have been banned from drugstores? “May umiikot dito. Nira-rasyon yan (Somebody goes around. The pills are rationed)," Sister Nelia answers. She adds hastily, “Noong araw, nagbenta ako niyan, pero ngayon, hawak na ako ni Mama Mary (I used to sell those pills in the past, but now, I am with Mama Mary)."

Sometimes, she continues, it is the mother who buys the pills when those who get pregnant are very young, or have sensitive professions (lawyer, doctor). The mother also does the buying when rape or incest caused the pregnancy.

Not just the poor girl’s pill

Middle-class women impregnated under less sordid circumstances are not beyond turning to Cytotec in their hour of need, often with full support from husbands and boyfriends.

“Please advice… I’m positive 8 weeks," writes yummee439 on the internet. “Di naka-pullout hubby ko, ejaculated inside me. We can’t afford another child. Where can I buy Cytotec na orig?" A good samaritan points her to Quiapo. “But look around first, sis. Bring P1,000-P2,000 because you have to buy pampahilab with Cytotec."

The pampahilab referred to is Methergine, a drug used in hospitals to control the bleeding of the uterus and expel the placenta after a woman gives birth. Like a chaser, Methergine is always sold with Cytotec in Quiapo.

Little guilt is shown in taking the pills, which are simply seen as a means of getting one’s period back after it stops due to fertilization. Never mind what else comes out when the flow comes gushing back.

What to expect when you’re aborting

“Malalaman mo na tapos na ‘pag nakita mo na siya (You will know you have succeeded when you see him)," says Dolores, a vendor whose unnerving calm could crack Hannibal Lecter’s composure. She describes the debris that comes out with the menstrual flow. “Kung one month, parang egg yolk lang ang lalabas. ’Pag two months, ganito na kalaki (If the fetus is one month old, it will look like egg yolk. If it’s two months old, it will be this big)." She holds up a hefty thumb, shaped like a stubby chorizo.

“’Pag nilagay mo ang two months sa platito, buo na (If you put a two-month-old fetus on a small plate, it will already be whole)," Sister Nelia elaborates.

“Hangga’t maari, one month to two months lang (As much as possible, the fetus should only be one to two months old)," warns Dolores. “’Pag three months, tao na siya (At three months, it will already be human)." Past the sixth month of pregnancy, the fetus expelled by Cytotec may already be a mature baby that can survive outside the body.

“Pero ‘pag sa pera, yung iba wala nang buwan na binibilang (But if the price is right, some vendors no longer count the months)," chortles Roger.

Does it hurt? “Wala lang (It’s nothing)," replies Dolores. “Lalabas lang regla mo (Your menstruation will just come out)."

Do you need to take a leave from work? “Hindi na. Pumili ka lang ng oras na relaks ka, tapos uminom ka ng dalawa every six hours (No need. Just choose a time when you are relaxed, then drink two pills every six hours)." Cytotec can also be inserted inside the vagina to speed up the dilation of the cervix.

How will you know it’s working?

“’Pag nag-L.B.M. ka (When you experience diarrhea)," says Roger. “Hindi lahat nag-e-L.B.M. (Not everyone gets diarrhea)," Dolores corrects him coolly. “Antayin mo twelve hours. ‘Pag wala pang nangyayari, mag-text ka. Baka kailangan dagdagan. Depende kasi yan sa lakas ng kapit ng bata (Wait twelve hours. If nothing happens, send a text message. You might need more pills. It all depends how strong the child is, how long it can hang on)." A normal dosage of Cytotec is six pills taken two at a time. Some women take as much as eighteen before they start bleeding. The bleeding usually lasts three or four days, in intermittent spurts.

“The fetus fell into the toilet bowl"

A girl who took the pills while eight weeks pregnant relays her experience on a social networking site. “I took Cytotec orally and inserted vaginally. I started bleeding and felt like peeing and pooing, so I went to the bathroom. My stomach hurt, like I had diarrhea. A big blood clot came out. The fetus fell on the toilet bowl, then the placenta. I wanted to cry but I was happy that my problem was over. I got my original Cytotec from XXXXXXX, 091X-XXXXXXX."

Another girl took the pills on her twentieth week. The trauma was more intense. “I drank four Cytotec and put four in my pussy. I prayed and did the sign of the cross on my bump. I got a fever and started shivering. When I went to the bathroom to urinate, the baby came out of my vagina. It was fully formed, with eyes and feet. I bled and bled for days. I’m sick all the time now. I want to go to the hospital but my parents might find out I had an abortion. Can the doctors tell?"

“Wash your vagina before you go to the OB"

When Cytotec fails to thoroughly expel the fetus and the placenta, body parts and excess tissue are left inside the uterus. Curettage (raspa) in the hospital becomes necessary to prevent infection and septic shock. This malfunction happens so often that tips on how to handle it are common among Cytotec users. “Wash your vagina very well before you go to the OB," instructs one girl, “because they might find traces of Cytotec and not believe you had a normal miscarriage."

Cytotec can also cause the entire uterus to rupture, which can lead to death or permanently damage the reproductive system. Future childbearing becomes impossible. If the pills are unable to induce an abortion (usually because they are fake), and the woman decides to continue her pregnancy, her child may be born with serious mental and physical defects.

But the vendors do not dwell on the negative, maintaining that their customers are satisfied.

“Bumabalik sila (They come back)." Stern Dolores musters a smile. “Nag-a-abroad, pagbalik dito, may pasalubong ka pa (They go abroad, then give us gifts when they come back)."

“Nagbibigay ng prutas at kung ano-ano (They give fruits and all sorts of things)," echoes Roger.

Sacred shock treatment

“Pregnant? Confused? Problems? Handa kaming tumulong (We’re ready to help)," says a poster on the bulletin board at the entrance of the Quiapo Church. The contact numbers of the church’s counseling center are printed underneath. “Did you know?" asks another poster of a blood-spattered fetus stuffed in a bowl, umbilical cord still attached. “This baby was killed by a self-poisoning abortion when his mother was 4 ½ months pregnant."

At high noon on selected days, the video wall outside the church that is used to broadcast masses to the spillover crowd on Plaza Miranda airs ultrasound footage of an eleven-week-old fetus floating happily in its mother’s womb while sucking its thumb. Suddenly, an abortionist’s curette appears, and the fetus frantically tries to evade it. With nowhere to hide, the fetus is ultimately scraped out of the womb in bleeding chunks. Last to go is the head, which is crushed for easy removal. The footage is taken from the 1984 documentary The Silent Scream, spliced with even more graphic video of dismembered fetal limbs, heads, eyeballs, and the voice of a child dramatically pleading for its life in Filipino.

These are just a few of the radical steps Monsignor Jose Clemente Ignacio has taken to squelch the Cytotec trade since he became rector of the Quiapo Church two years ago.

“There is a syndicate operating"

“You know, the Philippine Constitution says the State shall protect the life of the unborn from conception. And the Revised Penal Code says abortion is illegal. The BFAD (Bureau of Food and Drug) says they have already banned this drug. The media, the senators, the congressmen, the mayors have tried to bust the trade. But it’s still there."

So what makes a priest think he can do anything about it?

Pause. “The Cardinal told me it would be a difficult assignment." Tough-minded “Father Clem" was handpicked for the cleansing of the temple.

He pulls up some data on his computer screen. “According to a 2008 study done by the Guttmacher Institute and UP Population Institute, half of the 3.4 million pregnancies in the Philippines were unintended, and there were 560,000 cases of induced abortion. That’s 1,534 attempted murders of babies per day, or one baby per minute. This is worse than the deaths caused by terrorism."

He grabs a calculator. “Quiapo is the distribution center of Cytotec in the Philippines. The average price here is P1,000 for six pieces of Cytotec. If this is the minimum amount for the first stage of abortion, and we multiply this with 560,000, this is equal to P560 million. Being the distribution hub, this is big business for Quiapo. There is a syndicate, an organized market operating."

Why Quiapo? “A lot of people come here because of the Nazareno. It’s the busiest church in the Philippines."

He clicks another slide. “Most of the sellers are the herbal vendors. But since the police started catching them, they’ve changed tactics. Now, they are soliciting verbally. Even vendors of religious articles might be selling Cytotec."

Feeding the trade is a highly profitable protection racket. “Plaza Miranda policemen are offered vague bribes by vendors. When this doesn’t succeed, threats are used. Media, political relations. Here in the church, we have received bomb threats."

Police connection

A top target of threats, and the focus of an ongoing smear campaign in the tabloids, is the new police captain who was assigned to Plaza Miranda three months ago and has been working closely with Monsignor Ignacio. “If Captain Samoranos is being persecuted, it means he is doing a good job," says the priest, flipping through a folder of tabloid clippings lambasting Samoranos.

Out comes the calculator. “When a policeman or barangay official is assigned here, there is a very strong temptation to collect from the vendors. In Plaza Miranda alone, I counted about 1,000 vendors. Assume the minimum is P30 of kotong (bribe) per vendor everyday. P30 x 1,000 is P30,000. You multiply that by thirty days. P900,000 in one month. Multiply that by twelve months. [P10,800,000.] That’s just one collector. You can see it’s a multi-million-peso business. Cytotec is just one. Count how many vendors there are in the whole Quiapo. Even sampaguita vendors are paying collectors just to be able to operate."

No law in the land

Kinks in the law do not help. At his outpost overlooking Plaza Miranda, Captain Samoranos explains that a Cytotec vendor needs to be caught in the act to be arrested, and can only be detained for twelve hours. For charges to be filed, the BFAD needs to certify that the drugs confiscated are indeed Cytotec. This takes around two months, by which time the twelve-hour detention period has long expired. “Isa lang magiging rekomendasyon ng piskal diyan-—release (The fiscal will have only one recommendation—-release)."

Even if a case is filed, Captain Samoranos says the only charge that can be slapped is selling drugs without a license or prescription. Under the Pharmacy Law (Republic Act 5921), this is punishable only by a fine of P1,000 to P4,000, or imprisonment of six months to four years.

Monsignor Igancio shows a letter he wrote Senator Miriam Santiago asking for a law making the sale of abortion pills a crime of solicitation to commit murder. “That would make it non-bailable."

Church vs. State, Coke vs. Sprite

Monsignor Ignacio agrees that the demand for abortion pills exists because there are too many unwanted pregnancies. But are there too many unwanted pregnancies because there is too little knowledge about contraception?

“My best friend drinks Cortal with Sprite after she and her bf (boyfriend) have sex. She never gets pregnant,“ blogs sabsganda. “Coke, dear, not Sprite," biboysmom clarifies. “I take Cytotec right away when I’m delayed. Nagkakaroon ako kaagad (I get my period immediately)," shares brownsugahbeyb. “Ikaw ha, bad ka, my husband bought that, that’s for abortion," chides ludettski. “Stork with Red Horse is more effective." (Cortal is a brand of fever medicine. Stork is a menthol candy brand. Red Horse is a beer brand.)

“Unwanted pregnancies cause illegal abortions, that’s a fact," says Monsignor Ignacio. “But are we now supposed to promote contraceptives? Contraceptives will produce more abortions. Contraceptives will create a [culture of irresponsibility and selfishness]. The more people engage in selfish sex acts, the more you produce unwanted pregnancies, because contraceptives are not 100% [foolproof]."

(Not that anyone needs another recap, but here’s the gist of the birth control debate: The Roman Catholic Church supports family planning, but only through natural means such as the withdrawal method and the Billings method. Advocates of artificial contraception in government and the medical community say this is unrealistic, because most people do not have the high degree of discipline and clockwork ovulation necessary to make natural family planning work.)

More sex = more abortions?

If women who use contraception have more sex, do they also have more abortions? Data from the 2008 report of the Guttmacher Institute and the UP Population Institute shows only 11% of the women who induced abortion were using artificial contraception when they conceived. Majority or 54% were not using any birth control method, while 35% were using natural family planning. The same study lists the chances of getting pregnant while using different contraceptive methods: 2% for IUDs (intra-uterine devices), 3% for injectables, 7% for birth control pills, 13% for condoms, 26% for withdrawal.

But the Church is immovable. “Sometimes we get into something because we think it’s a good tool," says Monsignor Ignacio. “What we don’t know is there’s a whole culture behind that tool. Like computers. It can facilitate things, but there are dangers. Computers are now also being used to pollute the minds of the young, for the sex trade, for terrorism. There’s a whole world behind the tool."

The Reproductive Health Bill being debated in Congress promotes both natural and artificial contraception. The Church is flatly opposed to it. The bill says, “Abortion remains a crime".

Abortion is the one thing the Church and the lawmakers actually agree on. This can’t be good news for Cytotec vendors.

Money before religion

But out on the streets of Quiapo, there is little interest in ideological debates. Abortion is strictly business.

“Kung ibibili kami ng pagkain ng pari diyan, hindi na kami maghahanap-buhay (If the priest buys food for us, we will no longer have to earn a living)," says Roger, he of the Black Nazarene tattoo. “Yung mga abuloy diyan, hatian niya kami rito (He should split the church donations with us)."

Another vendor, Sally, whose T-shirt says Patawarin Mo Po Sila, Hesus Nazareno (Please Forgive Them, Jesus of Nazareth), is more pragmatic. “Kung gusto nila pigilan ang pagtinda, bigyan nila ng kapalit, ng suporta (If they want the selling to stop, they should give alternatives and support)."

The profits from selling abortion pills are hard to top. Per transaction, vendors sell an average of six pieces of Cytotec at P150 each and ten pieces of Methergine at P50 each. The average transaction is thus worth P1,400. (Of this amount, a source says the mark-up is as much as P1,000. But this is difficult to verify.)

That’s the supply side of the curve. On the demand side, economics also trumps ideology—-72% of the women who attempt abortion in the Philippines (87% of whom claim to be Catholic) cite financial reasons for not wanting to raise a new child, according to the 2008 study of the Guttmacher Institute and UP Population Institute. More than half (57%) are mothers who already have three or more children, and don’t want another one.

Do vendors use Cytotec?

Even within the vendors’ personal lives, economics determines whether or not a child will live or die by Cytotec.

Nini, over six months pregnant but still peddling abortion pills, is obviously in favor of having children, but only because she can afford it. “Kung walang tutulong sayo, gawan mo ng paraan hangga’t meron pa (If no one will help you raise the child, do something about it while there’s still time)" is her outlook.

Roger asked his own daughter to take Cytotec when she got pregnant. She had just graduated from college, and he had already borrowed P130,000 to pay a recruitment agency so she could work abroad. She chose to stay and keep the baby. He was furious, but he let her marry her boyfriend. “Civil engineer, e. Dose ang sahod. Umaabot ng kinse kasama allowance (He’s a civil engineer. His salary is P12,000. It goes up to P15,000 with allowances)." Had the guy been jobless, what would he have told his daughter? “‘Uminom ka! Tapos ituro mo sa akin, papatayin ko ang putang ina!’ (‘Drink [Cytotec]! Then point him to me, I’ll kill the sonofabitch!’)"

Illegal means profitable

What if, just if, pigs could suddenly fly and the BFAD lifted restrictions on Cytotec?

The vendors are surprisingly ambivalent. Operating underground is more profitable, they say, because they are not subject to the same capital and regulatory requirements as real drugstores, and they can undercut pricing easily.

Astute Dolores cunningly points out that Cytotec is becoming more popular because of constant news coverage. She notes that the fastest way to make people want something is to ban it. “Tsaka nagkakaroon ng ibang intensiyon ang iba (And some people acquire unusual intentions)," she adds, alluding to the tendency of persons in power to exploit the illegality of a trade to extort protection money.

Monsignor Ignacio calls their business “selling weapons to kill unborn children". Do they feel any guilt at all? “Wala (None)," they chorus. “Marami nga kaming natutulungan, e (In fact, we are able to help a lot of people)," says Sally. “Sila ang lumalapit, nakaupo lang ang mga tindera (The customers are the ones who come, the vendors are just seated)," says Roger.

Mercifully, there is one exception. “Ako, ang tawag ko sa Cytotec na yan, salot (Me, I call Cytotec poison)" sniffs reformed Sister Nelia. “Kung wala yan, napakaganda sana ng hanapbuhay namin sa herbal (If not for that, we would have a good livelihood selling herbal cures)." She wags her finger in the air. “Pinapangaralan ko sila. Napakabigat na kasalanan niyan, sabi ko. Tayo hindi permanente sa lupa. Pagbabayaran niyo yan, ‘ka ko (I lecture [the other vendors]. What you are doing is a big sin, I say. We will not always be in this world. You will pay for what you have done)."

As she saunters away in a righteous huff, a policeman leans over and murmurs, “’Yan, kaaalok lang niyan ng P1,000 per week nung isang araw (That one, she just offered P1,000 per week [of protection money] the other day)."

The economics of abortion

Economic theory presupposes that human beings are rational, making choices by weighing costs against benefits. On the supply side, Cytotec vendors see that the financial benefits of breaking the law far outweigh the costs, because, as it turns out, there is no law. On the demand side, the women contemplating abortion are faced with a lose-lose situation, but think they have less to lose by sacrificing an unborn child than absorbing another financial burden they can ill afford.

Quiapo’s parish priest and the Plaza Miranda police have made moves to choke off supply. What will the congressmen and senators do to curb demand? As the arguments continue over condoms and pills, the barbarians are at the gate and one baby has died per minute that you have been reading this story.

Note: Names of vendors and women’s web aliases have been changed. Web comments have been paraphrased for brevity. The 2008 report of the Guttmacher Institute and University of the Philippines Population Institute cited several times in this story was written by Susheela Singh, Haley Ball, Rubina Hussain and Jennifer Nadeau, of the Guttmacher Institute; Fatima Juarez, Centre for Demographic, Urban and Environmental Studies, El Colegio de México, and independent consultant; and Josefina Cabigon, University of the Philippines Population Institute.

(This story was originally published on GMANews.TV on October 18, 2009. Photos by Howie Severino and Miranda Angeles.)
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Stephanie Dychiu MARIE CLAIRE - Mestiza vs. Morena

(Kayumanggi = brown skin in Filipino) 
By Stephanie Dychiu

Brown beauties break barriers to thrive in their own skin.  But can beauty really be color-blind?

On July 21, 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first man on the moon, and a morena became the first Filipina Miss Universe.  For pageant-obsessed Pinoys, the triumph of Gloria Diaz almost eclipsed man landing on the moon.  More than just an honor for the nation on the world stage, it was a victory for all morenas who had long been sidelined by the mestiza ideal.

Tisay Supremacy

There is scant information on pre-colonial standards for beauty in the Philippines, so preference for fair skin often gets blamed on colonization.  No less than Jose Rizal lampooned this in his 1887 novel Noli Me Tangere.  The book’s social-climbing character Doña Victorina sports artificial ringlets, a fake Andalusian accent, and a face thick with rice powder to appear white and Spanish.

“Four centuries of being called ‘indio’, and, when marrying above one’s class or into a mestizo clan, often hearing the line ‘para mejorar la raza’ (in order to improve the race), even in jest, has driven the point that brown simply doesn't matter in society,” says veteran fashion and advertising savant Bobby Caballero.

In the 1940s to 1960s, the reign of Hollywood stars like Elizabeth Taylor and Audrey Hepburn further fanned the flames of mestiza worship.  Virtually all leading ladies in Philippine cinema were high-nosed alabaster beauties—Paraluman, Carmen Rosales, Gloria Romero, Amalia Fuentes, and Susan Roces, to name a few.  Even the Binibining Pilipinas winners that preceded Gloria Diaz, such as Myrna Panlilio and Pilar Pilapil, were mostly mestizas.

And then came Nora Aunor.

The Anti-Tisay

“Nora Aunor totally upset society,” says Joann Maglipon, editor-in-chief of YES! Magazine and (Philippine Entertainment Portal).  “Suddenly, a small brown girl with very Filipino features had become the country’s superstar—making producers wait, moving politicians to send for her by helicopter, leaving advertising executives lining up.  The country’s media were carrying daily images of a dark-skinned, wavy-haired girl who had once sold water by the railroad tracks.  Seemingly overnight, the masa was dictating its taste upon the scene, sweeping aside an aghast elite, which fought back by looking down on the superstar.  There is a reason why they call Nora phenomenal.”

The girl called “negra” by her schoolmates was able to command manic adoration from millions, and she hosted one of the longest running TV shows in Philippine history (“Superstar”, which ran for 25 years).  To date, her record of acting awards is unsurpassed, and her legendary fanbase remains solid despite a prolonged absence from the entertainment scene.

“Nora was popular because of her wonderful voice, and people were in dire need of role models who were accessible,” says Professor Jose Wendell Capili, Head of Graduate Studies at the College of Arts and Letters of the University of the Philippines, and editor of the book Mabuhay to Beauty.  “There were big stars after Nora, like Sharon [Cuneta], Maricel [Soriano], Judy Ann [Santos], but nobody can duplicate the phenomenon that she was during her prime.  With the possible exception of Vilma Santos.”

Santos, however, was of the standard fair-skinned mold.  As the original Eskinol girl, her translucent complexion drove a generation of Pinays to use astringent every night before going to bed.

Brown Sex Appeal

In the 1980s, “chocolate beauty” Tetchie Agbayani set another kayumanggi milestone by posing nude for the German edition of Playboy magazine.  Twice.

“I think when Playboy came out, it dawned on people here na maganda pala ‘pag dark ka,” says Agbayani.  Before Playboy, it took more effort for her to get noticed locally.  “I was already in movies, but parang ang bagal.  My late manager Franklin Cabaluna had this collection of Playboy magazines.  Out of frustration, I joked, ‘If Playboy comes, I’ll pose for them.’  Months later, Playboy contacted him.  They needed to do a feature on women of Asia.  He was handling a lot of celebrities, so he brought this thick wad of pictures and showed it to them.  When they gave him back the pictures of the girls they wanted, natawa siya.  It was all me, I just looked different [in every shot] because the pictures were taken from different stages of my life.”

Agbayani went on to star in Hollywood films like The Emerald Forest, The Money Pit, and Gymkata.  “I don’t think I would’ve stood out if I weren’t dark.  Europeans, Westerners, they think that when you’re Asian, you have dark skin, dark hair, dark eyes.  They don’t see an Asian girl to be mestiza.”

Bambi Arambulo was another sexy icon of the 1980s.  She played the debutante in the camp classic Temptation Island, a movie about shipwrecked beauty contestants.  “I was not morena, although my features were,” she says.  “I was always envious of the ones who were born with a natural tan.  But during my time, I truly doubt one's skin tone was ever the reason not to get picked for a show.”  Arambulo has been based in the US since 1983.  Does she feel more beautiful abroad where she can be considered exotic?  “I never noticed the difference.”

“Personally, I find the morena beauty more magnetic, more sensual,” says Joann Maglipon of YES! Magazine.  “She looks tighter and just more solid.  But then I catch myself, What am I thinking?  Why am I pitting one against the other?  Must pigment actually define beauty?  Pigment—which is an accident of birth, of race, of continent, of circumstance?”

Masa Media

If Nora Aunor were starting out today instead of 1969, Maglipon feels she will have a tougher time gaining acceptance.  “The rise of whitening products tells you so.”  She adds, however, that it might be wrong to say skin color is the dominant variable producers look for in actresses they want to build up.  “Being businessmen, they are going for who the public will like.  There are many informal feedback sources that they can use, such as their maids—it has to be the masa—also their colleagues, but they have to pick up the public pulse.  They cannot do it in isolation.”  Other intangible factors come into play, says Maglipon, such as feedback about work habits and viability for stardom.  But all things being equal, if skin color was the only difference between two talents, she says the mestiza would have the edge.

There are exceptions.  “A welcome surprise is the continuing viability of the Sex Bomb Dancers who have a show called Daisy Siete.  It’s a minor surprise in the industry that this show has [lasted] way beyond what was expected, even after [the Sex Bomb Dancers] were booted out of Eat Bulaga, although later they returned maybe twice a week or so.  They still managed to keep the show going.  That means people can relate to them.  Also, because they feature problems that are real to those of their age.  So, maybe that’s the thing.  But I wouldn’t be surprised if there was also pressure on these girls to look fairer.”

Morena model-turned-actress Bubbles Paraiso says she has so far not experienced any stereotyping.  “I don’t know if my complexion limits my roles, because I’ve only started in showbiz. Before, they would always have mestizas portray rich roles and morenas poor roles, but so far, most of my roles have been rich!”

Undeniably, though, many comic acts still portray dark people as objects of ridicule.  “When you have TV shows making a mockery out of all these snub-nosed people,” says Maglipon, “then you create another generation that’s going to believe their noses are not good enough, a generation that feels bad about itself, that must go for cosmetic surgery.”  By her observation, dark and flat-nosed people are only able to avoid comic typecasting “when they’re very tall, and have the features of a ‘black beauty’, because then they take on some Caucasian or Western features that offset the Pinoy features.”

A recent trend in show business has been the sudden whitewashing of the skin tone of erstwhile morena celebrities.  “The young . . . are pressured when [they see] their kayumanggi heroes turn fair,” comments Bobby Caballero.  “We’ve become racists in our own brown islands.”

The media plays a huge role, concludes Paraiso.  “The more the media presents a Filipina beauty as someone beautiful, the more Pinays will take pride in [their] skin color.  ‘Fair is beautiful’ has to be forgotten, and ‘I am beautiful’ should be instilled.  The more the media features morenas, the more people will accept that our natural complexion is indeed beautiful.”

But advertising is the hand that feeds media, and things get complicated.

Morenas in Advertising

Nandy Villar, Managing Director of McCann Erickson, says that twenty years ago, morenas usually got their break in advertising only after winning major beauty pageants.  “Even then, they weren’t big icons.  Those who made it big were all fair-skinned.  One of the biggest was Alice Dixon, who became famous for her ‘I can feel it!’ Palmolive ad.”

Other morena beauty endorsers usually had a prior claim-to-fame before they bagged advertising contracts.  “Twenty years ago, toilet soaps like Palmolive and Lux were the beauty brands,” says Villar, “and Eskinol seemed the only other beauty product advertised on top of the soaps.  Lux used the two biggest names in 1988, Sharon Cuneta and Kuh Ledesma.  [Kuh] had always been as she is now, morena.  But her celebrity status allowed Lux and its fans to go beyond her skin tone.  Soon after, came the pre-glutathioned Regine Velasquez, and Pops Fernandez, who was also morena.”

Villar says beauty products today still favor fair-skinned women.  “That’s our cultural standard for beauty, especially among the mainstream market.  Many times, the choice for morena beauties happens when the ad wants to portray characters that are closer to real women, like Lumen of Surf.”

Model Rissa Mananquil is an exception, having clinched coveted beauty endorsements like Pond’s and Vaseline lotion despite being dark.  “When I was a kid, I had a playmate who called me ‘negra’,” she says.  “But I never grew up thinking I was ugly.”  In 2001, she was part of a Bennetton international ad campaign in New York.  She does not recall losing any modeling jobs because of her skin color.  “Thanks to kayumanggi forerunners in the industry like Anna Bayle, Tweetie de Leon, and Angel Aquino—they paved the way for my morena batchmates and myself.”

In the late 1970s, Anna Bayle’s exotic looks and distinctive walk transported her to Paris and New York, where she became the “First Asian Supermodel”.  Tweetie de Leon won the Supermodel of the Philippines title in 1987 and has outlasted many of her fairer-skinned contemporaries as a product endorser.  In the early 1990s, Angel Aquino was one of the first unknown morena models to spearhead the launch of a major shampoo brand (Pantene).

The openness toward darker models ebbs and flows, however.    Morena TV host Bianca Gonzales, whose first name ironically means “white” in Italian, started out as a commercial model in 2000.  “It might be harder for Pinay models like me this time around,” she says, “more than three, four, five years ago, with the influx of half-Filipino, half-foreign models around.”  She says she has lost jobs to fairer-skinned models twice in the past.

Bubbles Paraiso began modeling in 2001.  When she first started going to VTR’s, her manager told her she needed to get bleached white if she really wanted to get jobs.  “I kind of got discouraged thinking the only way was to go white, which I didn’t want to do, but fortunately after that, I landed a TV commercial because of my color—it was a summer TV commercial for a soda, so they wanted someone tan.”

Kayumanggi Chinese-Filipino model Trixie Chua, a runner-up in John Casablancas’ Look of the Year in 1988, did not experience any direct discrimination while auditioning for commercials, but saw subtle signs that her skin color was an issue.  “They'd tell you, ‘thanks, we've booked someone’, and you'll just hear that [the job] went to a non-morena model.  I landed more campaigns in Singapore in a shorter period of time than in Manila.”

Bobby Caballero witnessed many mestiza vs. morena encounters during his heydays in fashion and advertising in the 1970s and 1980s.  “[In fashion shows], mestizas were the top choice.  Dark-skinned models were plugged in when shortages came up.  Dante Ramirez shook the scene with his towering dark goddesses—Diwata, Dayang Dayang, Elektrika—[but] the buzz was short-lived.  Mag editors and ad agencies still preferred ‘kutis porcelana’.  I was with Ace Compton (now Saatchi), and kayumanggis didn't even make it past the brainstorming talks.  [Mestiza beauty] Maritess Revilla, the Camay Girl, held the throne for years.  We'd shoot test commercials and air them in Cebu and Davao, but we never invested in kayumanggis for the acid test.  My ‘Iba na ang matangkad’ Star Margarine campaign had [fair-skinned] Aurora Pijuan, then Miss International, but she was [still] considered [dark] by the client. When we launched Levi’s, no kayumanggis made it to the list.

“Then, we were signed up by Hyatt Hotel with Tita Chito Madrigal for the La Concha fashion shows.  It took a cosmopolitan mind like Tita Chito, prodded by gutsy Santiago de Manila (designer Ernest Santiago), to get the white girls worried about getting tans to win solo spots.  Exoticism became the rage, and Gary Flores produced Kalipayan.  The tisays begrudgingly worked up tans by the Hyatt pool.  Controversy ensued when Gary created Group A and Group B models.  Group A were the tisays, Group B were the morenas.  Anna Bayle was put in Group B, and she stormed out of the Hyatt, and later on to Paris, New York, and Vogue cover fame.

 “When I did our Clio award-winning TV commercial ‘The Beauty of the Philippines, Philippine Air Lines Shining Through’, we used sultry olive-skinned Tweetie de Leon and Melba Arribas, together with not-so-mestiza PAL cabin crew, [the] Charisma Girls.    “I continue to work with fashion directors, like Raymond Villanueva.  In his book, Ria Bolivar is today's top kayumanggi ramp star.  Rajo Laurel, light years ahead in attitude and style, uses dusky Anna Casas.”

Kayumanggi Rising

What spurred the increased openness to a non-white paradigm?  Professor Capili enumerates key incidents in history:  “The emergence of the African-American and Asian-American movement; the liberation of colonized countries in Asia and Africa after World War II; the emergence of non-white artists in mainstream cultures, as exemplified by the domination of Motown music during the 1960s and 1970s; the emergence of colored supermodels like Anna Bayle, Naomi Campbell, and others—these are circumstances that were not there before World War II.  It is still a white man's world, because the world is controlled by leaders of predominantly white cultures, but the glass ceiling has been broken.  It is now possible to move across disciplines despite skin color.”

To Joann Maglipon, however, color and race biases are still very much around.  “Right here, you see it.  How Filipino parents and Pinoy media teach kids to think that short-legged, snub-nosed, and dark-skinned are funny caricatures of the human form.  Sure, there’s been a bit of progress, but not enough to acknowledge that brown is beautiful.”

In Fairness . . . 

Most Pinays still want to be fair.  In 2004, a Synovate study showed 50% of Filipinas used a skin lightening product.  Today, whitening products control more than half of the local skin care market.  Even the 22-year-old daughter of trailblazing morena beauty Gloria Diaz (Isabel Daza) is endorsing a whitening product.

“I think now [being white] is more associated with beauty than with one's rank in society,” says Villar of McCann Erickson.  “It matches our standards for cleanliness and hygiene. Culturally, we see the maputi as mukhang mabango, fresh, and neat.  In fashion, we also believe that if one is maputi, one can wear any color of clothing.  [Wanting to be white] is really an Asian thing, more than a Pinoy thing.”

Rissa Mananquil says if she met a girl who used whitening products, she would not try to talk her out of it.  “Just because you think something is ugly, doesn’t mean the world agrees with you, but to each his own.  Being a beauty columnist as well, I get to interview foreign principals of global make-up brands.  They are always puzzled why Asians and Filipinos want to look fairer.  In the US and Europe, women go crazy for self-tanners and bronzers because being tan is their definition of beauty.”

“I am anti-whitening for myself,” says Bianca Gonzales, “but if I have friends who want to have fairer skin, I will support them.  What I am for is supporting Pinays who choose to love their brown skin . . . and not feel pressured to spend [their] allowance on whitening products.”

“This whole beauty thing ends up making things ugly,” observes Joann Maglipon.  “That desk job, those house chores, being of modest means.  Why?  Because beauty tells you these things keep you from having access to the huge vacation, the wealthy and indulgent partner.  It’s hard to have smooth, fair skin when you have to take the tricycle, then the jeep, and finally the MRT, to get to your desk job.”

Tetchie Agbayani is more bothered by the lack of self-acceptance than by whitening per se.  “If you’re going to be happier with fairer skin, go for it.  But why are so many women not happy with what they have?  I would address the root causes of that mindset.”  She cites the black-to-white mutation of Michael Jackson as an extreme example.  “It’s called body dysmorphic disorder.  You look in the mirror and see many things wrong, but when others look at you, there’s nothing wrong.  So maybe what’s wrong is not how you look, but how you see yourself.”

Beauty Beyond Color

Black, brown, or white, natural or induced, beauty comes in many colors, and to deride a person’s preference for one or the other seems equally hackneyed in this enlightened age.  Could it be that the rise of kayumanggi beauty is significant not only because it opened eyes to the merits of a darker coloring, but also because it stirred a deeper and more universal chord among mestizas and morenas alike?  Nora Aunor represented something more than just her dark skin—she was a myth made real.  Talent enabled her to rise above society’s prejudices and create a more egalitarian model for attractiveness based on ability and empathy more than external looks.

Maybe kayumanggi beauties earn their place in the hearts of people not simply because they are brown and proud of it, or because they don’t try to be white, but because they prove that, brown or white, bleached or spray-tanned, a person’s worth is not to be judged by the color of her skin.


Skin color bias, according to a morena icon turned psychologist

When it comes to beauty and skin color, Tetchie Agbayani is in the rare position of celebrated subject and trained observer—from beauty queen/fashion model in the late 1970s and Playboy model/movie actress in the 1980s-1990s, she became a psychology teacher at St. Joseph’s College in 2004.  Now completing her Master’s Degree in Psych from the Ateneo, she ponders the origins of skin color bias:

  • “We can’t attribute it solely to colonial mentality.  Let’s look at Japan.  Japan is extremely nationalistic.  They like their own.  They’ve never been colonized.  They have fair skin.  And yet, they still use whitening products. So it’s hard to say it’s [due to] colonial mentality.  It’s more deeply rooted, I believe.”
  • “It has something to do with the collective unconscious, I think.  Carl Jung talked about this wellspring of knowledge that connects all people, all cultures.  He talks about archetypes.  All communities, from the Inuits to the Eskimos to the tribes of the Amazon, recognize certain universal symbols.  I think it has something to do with the notion of white is good, black is bad . . . because of that collective unconscious.”
  • “In our bird farm, the birds with more colorful feathers attract more mates.”  (Related to natural selection, standing out from the crowd is an advantage in the biological competition for mates.  This evolutionary construct could partly explain the desire to be whiter or darker than one’s peers.)

(This article originally appeared in Marie Claire magazine, November 2008.)
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