music Pinoy

Where’s The Other Pinay?

Dear Mr. David Byrne,

You mean to tell me the one single Pinay singer who actually has a lead vocal on your project didn’t get to be on your cool poster? I mean, she sings lead vocals and all!


The Wily Filipino

p.s. Thanks, though, for the big spike in visits on my very old Wit and Wisdom of Imelda Marcos page. And I dig the album, though I wish you’d written more about the horrific abuse of human rights (and corruption, and poverty) that the Marcos dictatorship perpetrated upon the Filipino people. That’s all.


Ramona Diaz, “Imelda” (2003).

Saw Ramona Diaz’s Imelda with Barb last night, and my head is still reeling. It is a fine, fine documentary, and I am glad that there will be a theatrical release in the U.S. at some point this year; more people should see it (though a DVD is apparently coming out in 2005).

The film’s chief virtue — and there are many, from Grace Nono’s soundtrack to the careful editing (more about this in a second) — is the fact that Diaz lets Imelda talk on and on. We are treated to what seems like a severely delusional Imelda, completely in denial of reality — or so we are led to think.


On Beauty.

There’s a long blog conversation on beauty going on in cyberspace, and I’d thought I’d jump in with what little I know (precisely because it has little to do with gender and “ethnic”/national notions of beauty, but more on the pageants themselves).

Too long to quote here are two brilliant high-wire ethnographic accounts of gay beauty pageants and balls in Fenella Cannell‘s Power and Intimacy in the Christian Philippines (Cambridge University Press, 1999) and Martin Manalansan‘s Global Divas: Filipino Gay Men in the Diaspora (Duke University Press, 2003). (The latter also has an exhaustive discussion of “byuti.”)

I’ll just cite a couple of passages, pulled somewhat out of context (since they’re talking about two different places), from a couple of recent books:

The first, from Mark Johnson‘s Beauty and Power: Transgendering and Cultural Transformation in the Southern Philippines (Berg, 1997).

…the forms and idioms of beauty that are circulated… are informed by a Western image of glamour and beauty… …gay beauty contests have a familiar resonance about them, from the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Madonna, to the ‘ethnic/national’ costumes which faithfully reproduce familiar stereotypes (53).

…beauty contests are filled with instances of stylistic and verbal discourse which are clearly embedded in colonial ministrations. Beauty is about education and the mastery of the English language. Beauty is about good citizenship and a professional orientation (54).

And from Rick Bonus‘s Locating Filipino Americans: Ethnicity and the Cultural Politics of Space (Temple University Press, 2000).

Filipino Americans find in these pageants social spaces that reflect their tenuous positions as Filipinos who, in their eyes, are not fully American (by virtue of their first-generation immigrant status) and not fully Filipino anymore either (owing to their departure and distance from the homeland). The orientation to the bayan, both in the context of activities in the United States and in reference to the homeland, is one anchor they hold onto to mitigate these tensions (122).

And I’ll end, out of chronological order, with a recounting of Philippine News‘ “Quest for Magandang Filipina – USA” beauty contest in 1979. This was, somewhat sadly, a replacement for an Outstanding Youth Contest which was cancelled for lack of response. “In place of it,” they wrote, “we are announcing the start of a new contest which according to our survey is the kind of contest you want us to run.”

Open to any permanent resident of “Filipino or Filipino-American descent (irrespective of blood ratio)” — an interesting throwback to the days when “Filipino American” exclusively referred to people of mixed racial heritage — the Quest for Magandang Filipina – USA was launched. Regional finals in eleven different cities culminated, after much front-page hype, in the crowning of Yvonne Flores from Suisun City, California after her “stirring vocal rendition of George Benson’s ‘The Greatest Love of All.'”

[I suspect some of you might be amused by the pageant’s details. Sponsored by the Fil-Am Veterans and Federal Retired Association of Fairfield, California, Flores defeated, among others, first runner-up Lisa Manibog (who could have only been related to Monty, probably the first Filipino American mayor ever) from Monterey Park (who performed a “very symbolic American-Indian ritualistic dance”), Theresa Abueg (who “played ‘The Entertainer’ on her flute”), Jacqueline Guerrero (who danced “a jazz-ballet interpretation of Gary Wright’s ‘Dream Weaver'”) and Rose Tibayan (for “a Malayan dance interpretation on disco roller skates”). [From Aljovin, Andrea. “Yvonne Picked as Magandang Filipina in Dazzling Grand Finals.” Philippine News December 1-7 1979: 1, 12.]

I just had to write that again: “Malayan dance interpretation on disco roller skates.”]

(What Philippine News de-emphasized, however, was that contestants had to buy 35 subscriptions each to enter the pageant, which earned the nice sum of $56,000 for the newspaper altogether.)

Sudden digression into historical context: 1979 was a crucial period in Philippine News‘s history — a time, for instance, when one of their regular columnists, Steve Psinakis, would coyly allude to participation in the Light-A-Fire Movement. It was also a time when — seven long years after the declaration of Martial Law, but still four years away from Ninoy Aquino bleeding to death on that airport tarmac — the anti-Marcos opposition in the United States was riven (perhaps they always were) by ideological conflicts. This was also a period when the Movement for a Free Philippines-affiliated Philippine News was consistently red-baiting the Katipunan ng Demokratikong Pilipino, headquartered on the other side of the San Francisco Bay Bridge; the sniping between PN and Ang Katipunan reached its height this year.

Rather predictably, AK went straight to the politics of the contest, describing it as “a strange blend of fashion show, talent contest, an anti-KDP lecture, and slideshow all rolled into one.” In an unsigned editorial, the KDP pointed out how such pageants promote sexism, calling the swimsuit contest “downright disgusting:”

The pageant’s sponsor, Philippine News… [claims] that the contest was meant to promote Philippine heritage and unity. Anyone… however would surely agree that there was neither a performance nor presentation… which vaguely resembled Philippine culture or heritage.

No, the Magandang Filipina pageant was not an innocent competition, a meeting of the community’s “best and beautiful.” Rather it was a masked business venture which [sic] exploited the contestants and sections of the community.

…Like grand terno balls, cocktail parties and other expensive forms of social activities, the beauty contest diverts our attention from more pressing concerns. …if we expended the same amount of money, energy and time on a fund raiser for some community cause or for the political refugee problem… we could justifiably claim that our efforts were progressive, positive and productive. A beauty contest can hardly claim the same. [From “Beauty Contests: An Exercise in Irrelevance.” Ang Katipunan, December 1-15, 1979: 3.]

Paradoxically, the Philippine News would probably also agree with the above statement; back in those days, the newspaper constantly trod a fine line between the two images of heroism (as part of the self-proclaimed oppositional vanguard against the Marcos regime) and profligacy (look no further if you wanted pages and pages of pictures of couples in their tacky finery). (I argue anyhow that the newspaper was beset by contradictory impulses: to consistently demonstrate immigrant success, and to strive for political awareness by highlighting the community’s marginality.)

But back to the pageants then and now — rather than taking one side or the other, I would propose a more nuanced middle ground: one that recognized the problematic gender politics inherent in such spectacles (that reproduced colonial aesthetics and ways of seeing) but simultaneously understanding the temporary cohesive social function (and a “necessary” evocation of an arguably reified Filipino tradition) that the pageants afforded an alienated Filipino American community.

Last digression: beauty pageants in Manila are a different story, however. Gloria Diaz and Margie Moran’s Miss Universe victories in 1969 and 1973 lent an odd veneer of legitimacy to Imelda Marcos’ increasingly glittery and warped aesthetic project; only two years after Martial Law, Manila would host the 1974 contest in the newly-constructed (supposedly in 77 days!) Folk Arts Theater, with the crown going to Amparo Munoz, hailing from the Philippines’ old colonial master, Spain.

Okay, I really will end this rambling post with an anecdote about Imelda (shades of white picket fences around squatter areas!), serving to remind us that her “truth and beauty” campaign wasn’t merely conducted on an individual level, but aimed as well at the urban landscape of “the City of Man:”

Workers, up day and night in an effort to finish the interior and grounds of the Philippine International Convention Center, were forced to cut corners in order to finish the job [in time for the IMF/World Bank conference in 1976]. One patch of brownish grass was even sprayed with green pain to freshen it up. But the entire conference was nearly ruined because of one stubborn bulldozer. It had become hopelessly stuck the night before the grand opening in the thick mud surrounding the PICC. …workers frantically tried to remove it only to see it sink more deeply into the muck. When Imelda arrived on the scene, she was predictably outraged. But… she, with a little help from the toiling workers, remedied the problem in time. Full-grown coconut palms were rushed to the site and planted in concentric rows around the offending bulldozer. The visitors never knew that the instant coconut grove was not part of the original landscape plan…. [From Victoria Luna, “Another Extravaganza In The Making,” Ang Katipunan, May 16-31, 1979, p. 5.]


Burning Effigies.

Borgy Manotoc is one of Swatch’s signature models, and the other day in the Philippine Daily Inquirer there was a full-page photo spread / entertainment column on him. There he was, modeling Olympic-related Swatch designs, posing with boxing gloves or a bow and arrow.

Tim Yap wrote:

Borgy Manotoc is on a roll these days. Back from New York for just the weekend to pass the Swatch torch… Borgy made sure that his three days in Manila would be worth the trip.

As soon as he arrived, he made a pit stop at Nuvo for a quiet drink with friends. The next day, he was at the Swatch counters… Who can say this hot-blooded heir does not know the meaning of hard work?

I am trying very hard to read some sense of irony in the article. Here, “hard work” seems like George Bush’s “hard work” serving his country during the Vietnam War. (Granted, a 19-20 hour plane flight and having to work while jet-lagged out of your mind is tough, but I’m sure Borgy wasn’t flying economy.) But his good looks (and brains, according to reports), and industriousness and perseverance and all the accompanying virtues surely aren’t the main reasons he’s gone so far; he is, after all, Ferdinand Marcos’s grandson and the life of privilege he has led all his 21 years devalues the semantic currency of “hard work.”

I really have nothing personal against Borgy Manotoc; he may, in fact, be the nicest, most self-effacing guy on earth. He may even be embarrassed about his grandfather. Indeed, one can easily use the “sins of the fathers” argument against me: Borgy, after all, was not responsible for Ferdinand’s crimes.

But I am more interested about the fact of his celebrity, or rather, what his celebrityhood may represent. His is a different form of celebrity -– not the regular kind that comes with entertainers, or the kind that attends notoriety -– but it is a form that celebrates his good looks even as his origins are alluded to, then discursively erased. In the warped world of Philippine politics and its happy entanglement with entertainment, the lack of retributive justice – encapsulated here in Borgy’s stardom -– is the appalling failure on the part of the government (in collusion with the media, and the amnesiac fans) to learn from the errors of history. To see the smiling face of Borgy is to see the face of his grandfather laughing.

Sometime a year ago I wrote a rather angry post on the Marcoses, and was met with unsurprisingly negative comments. Most of the responses, however, were oddly ad hominem -– that I was envious of Borgy, that I was a fag, and that I would never, in my lowly state as a blogger, ever be like the Marcoses (shudder!) -– and very few of them bothered to defend the family I was attacking. I think this is because it puts Marcos supporters (on the net, at least) in something of an ethical dilemma; attempting to defend the Marcoses’ record of murder and torture and theft puts you in the same irrational camp as the delusional former First Lady.

This moral clarity -– at least in my mind -– is precisely why the absence of justice is so unfathomable. One of the more-circulated images of the EDSA uprising were crowds of people rushing into Malacanang, kicking and breaking apart a painting of Ferdinand Marcos. This, sadly, is as far as the Filipino people ever got towards any form of catharsis. In 1983 one could only burn effigies, and we are doomed, in 2004, to similarly futile gestures. The fact that Borgy -– or to be more precise, the generations before him -– are still free to blithely live their lives of privilege in the Philippines is an insult. The very fact of Borgy’s stardom is an obscenity.

Some people will argue that the Marcoses are relatively small fry, that there are graver problems that need to be addressed before the country can improve. This is completely true. But I think their going scot-free is also symptomatic of a more overarching, systemic problem -– a deep-seated corruption, perhaps, or maybe the pathology of amnesia -– that may, in the end, hobble the Philippines in other profound ways.

Some people (my mother included) have asked me about forgiveness -– that this would be the Christian thing to do, that this would lead to healing and so on. Quite frankly, I cannot think of anyone so undeserving of forgiveness as Imelda Marcos; as far as I can tell, she has never expressed any regret or, indeed, asked forgiveness -– why give her something she has never requested?

One day, maybe soon, Imelda will finally die. But she will not die penniless; she will not die behind the bars of a jail cell. She will die surrounded by her adoring fans. Her death will be eased by the best painkillers that money can buy. Her money will remain in Swiss bank accounts. She will die smiling, knowing she is to be reunited with her Ferdinand. She will die unpunished. Her children and grandchildren will mourn her, and then move on. And the Marcos dynasty will live forever.


movies Pinoy

On Imelda.

On Imelda.

Saw Ramona Diaz’s Imelda with Barb last night, and my head is still reeling. It is a fine, fine documentary, and I am glad that there will be a theatrical release in the U.S. at some point this year; more people should see it (though a DVD is apparently coming out in 2005).

The film’s chief virtue — and there are many, from Grace Nono’s soundtrack to the careful editing (more about this in a second) — is the fact that Diaz lets Imelda talk on and on. We are treated to what seems like a severely delusional Imelda, completely in denial of reality — or so we are led to think.

Imelda starts off portraying Imelda as a charming, witty woman who, even in her current, less glamorous state, exudes a faded, almost regal presence. The charm is absolutely critical to understanding Imelda and, most important, her large retinue of hangers-on and thousands of Leyte residents who voted her back into office. But very slowly, the film darkens — martial law couldn’t be portrayed as anything but, though certainly the Marcos government tried hard to — and Imelda’s fantasies about representing the people become, at turns, laughable and horrible.

There is some amazing film footage as well, from ’70s propaganda reels to shots of Imelda dancing with Kissinger, or George Hamilton singing. (The end credits alone — where you see Bongbong and Imee dancing to Depeche Mode’s “Just Can’t Get Enough” — are priceless.) One scene — a little tendentious, but very effective — juxtaposes Imelda’s maids airing out an entire rack of her ternos, with squatters living by a railway.

Perhaps my only real quibble with the film is this. Okay, there were some omissions — no Dovie Beams, no mention of Mindanao, despite some tantalizing footage of a dance troupe dancing the singkil and the infamous Tripoli meeting with Qaddafi — but perhaps understandable given the limitations of the length. (Diaz explained later that she didn’t include events that couldn’t be verified independently, but it doesn’t excuse the oddly Manilacentric view of things.)

Okay, back to my personal quibble, which isn’t really one as you’ll see in a second: The viewer is initially seduced, but not necessarily repulsed. That is, one comes out of the theater with a vision of a wacky but charming woman, but not of one that was deeply corrupt and responsible (if indirectly) for human rights violations. Perhaps the fact that the film would never have been made without Imelda’s consent explains this. (Diaz did say during the Q&A session that Imelda had to leave the room a couple of times so as not to answer questions — whether they were confrontational or embarrassing or “too emotional” was not clear.) You come out shaking your head, but not necessarily your fist.

The film takes a fairly even keel throughout, but it is only sympathetic to her in the sense that we hear Imelda explain her side of the story. Imelda doesn’t shy from showing her and her tacky extravagance in a bad light; the camera lingers on her face in moments of self-doubt, and slows down the film to somewhat crudely emphasize this point. Events are indeed placed in the proper historical context — we see Pete Lacaba and Jo-Ann Maglipon talk about being tortured — but the audience is oddly distanced from this (as was, in her own way, Imelda). But there is no mourning, few tears, no talking head explicitly reminding the audience that we are watching a criminal. (To her credit, maybe Diaz felt little need to beat the audience over the head with it.) But there is little sense of outrage; one comes away with the feeling that the enormity of her crimes are still not so keenly presented.

And perhaps this is also the other great virtue of this excellent, must-see documentary: that the enormity of her crimes are not so keenly felt in any case. The screaming, adulatory crowds of people that greet her at every campaign stop, the landslide election victories of her son and daughter — Diaz never poses the question “Why are they even back?” Instead, she, in her filmic wisdom, lets the film speak for itself, and one is faced with the horrible answer: Perhaps one feels no real outrage in the film because, as should be clear by now, an unfortunately large number of Filipinos didn’t either.