That trip to Sarrat  

Going to Sarrat is usually fun and relaxing. We’ve had countless family picnics in the town’s charming river resorts, visits to President Marcos’ birthplace, or just strolls around the sleepy town. Each journey is memorable, but it’s the one we made on August 4, Tuesday, I will never forget.

That trip was the saddest I have taken in my whole life. Seated on my passenger seat was fellow writer and office mate, Reynaldo Andres. We were headed to the morgue to see the body of a slay victim Sir Rey would later confirm is his only child.

That morning in our office, Sir Rey looked worried and upset. He received a text message from his daughter Mai-mai, saying that she is in Cebu and that she needs money for her return fare. Sir Rey was surprised, for she thought his only child, a graduating student, was just working on a group project as she occasionally does with trusted classmates she has treated as sisters. The text message said money should be sent to a certain “Francis Domingo Ortega” with an address in La Union because her daughter’s identification card is not with her. She said they were in the Waterfront Hotel.

Sir Rey immediately went out of the office to send his daughter P15,000 through a money transfer outlet in Batac. That was around 9:00 a.m. I, too, went out of the office to attend my classes. When I returned for lunch at past twelve, Sir Rey was doubly emotional and nervous. When he called his daughter to say that the money has been deposited, the phone can no longer be reached.

Then came a phone call from another office in our university. The caller informed Sir Rey that she saw a Facebook post referring to her daughter: RIP. Sir Rey immediately went out of the door. After a few seconds trying to absorb the turn of events, I and our colleagues in the office–Ma’am Kat and Sharon–joined him. And thus our trip to Sarrat where radio reports say a body of a woman, with a bullet wound on her head, was found at dawn.

As it turned out, many already knew about the identity of the victim a couple of hours before Sir Rey was informed. Her classmates who earlier identified Mai-mai  at the morgue did not know how to tell Sir Rey, but they immediately gave their statement to the police.

The travel took at least forty-five minutes. I could have sped up so we can get there soonest, but I was extra careful as my knees were wobbly and I was feeling cold all over. Sir Rey, the tough guy and brilliant Ilocano writer Bannawag and Agriculture Magazine readers are very familiar with, was on my side weeping… weeping for her daughter and also for himself.

“She is the joy and hope of my life,” he said as he shared stories about Mai-mai: how the English language major was very good at writing poems and how proud she was about inheriting her father’s writing skills, how she dreamt of going to Law School, how her charming and jolly personality brought cheer to friends and family, and how happy she was turning nineteen just a few days ago.

Mai-mai was my student in Logic when she was a sophomore. Hands down the most stunning in class, she was also the most convivial. As her friends attest, she can brighten up a dark day with her ready smile and jolly disposition. But I only discovered only a year after that semester, that she is the daughter of Sir Rey, an institution in Ilocano literature and one of the country’s top science writers. The free-spirited Mai-mai was proud of her father but she wanted to establish her own name.

Sir Rey’s stories kept us all teary eyed. I would have cried with him, but all of us had to show some semblance of strength and hope. Maybe it was not Mai-mai. May be it was a mistaken identity. But then calls came one after the other. Some offered very clear clues. On the victim’s tattoo was the word “Jem” and Roman numerals that translate to July 28, 1996. Is that her nickname? Is that her birthday? “Yes,” said Sir Rey who was losing whatever hope he still held on to. “Nagulpiten ti tao..”, he said sobbing, wailing, and without propagating gender stereotypes, I say it struck me so hard to see a typical macho like Sir Rey weep unrestrained. He cried for justice even as the suspect was initially believed to be related to a powerful political clan.

Indeed, the trip to Sarrat was a crash course for me on the society we live in today: the value of family (Sir Rey narrated both the joys and hardships of fatherhood), the power and responsibility of the media and the Internet (and how Sir Rey, also a media practitioner, was among the last to know), the weight we give to education (Mai-mai was determined to graduate in April next year), our strong faith in God (“Dios ti makaammon,” said Sir Rey as he immediately called their church pastor who also immediately proceeded to the funeral home), and the impacts of politico-economic imbalances (that feeling of powerlessness when the suspect is believed to be influential).

When we arrived in Sarrat, we decided to go to the police first before proceeding to the funeral home. At the morgue, Sir Rey confirmed what we hoped was just a confusion, a bad dream, or just a distasteful joke. Jemima Keziah Andres, our beloved Mai-mai, is dead.

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What we know about the culprit so far.

The suspect, who is in his mid-20s, was initially named as “Francis Domingo Ortega” and was believed to be from La Union province and a relative of the provincial governor, but the name turned out to be an alias. Said to be charged with estafa and in running, he created a false persona for himself, creating a fake Facebook account.

When the suspect’s picture was widely circulated in social media, concerned Netizens revealed his true persona.

Victorino “Jay Ar” Mangabat Jr is his real name. Originally from Cauayan, Isabela, he has also lived in Gapan, Nueva Ecija. He has three Facebook accounts by the name Jay Ar Mangabat. One account indicated that he studied at the Ateneo de Manila University while two other accounts listed his schools as University of Sto. Tomas and Our Lady of the Pillar College, Cauayan City, respectively.

He is engaged and has a three-year old son. Mysteriously, his fiancé is said to have been missing for around a year now under mysterious circumstances.

The suspect, together with his son and mother, rented an apartment in Barangay Aglipay, Batac City on July 3. They hurriedly left the place at around 3:30 a.m. on August 4. A source said they stayed in a lodging house in Laoag City for three days in June.

He is driving a white Montero with a fictitious plate number.

Those who have met the suspect describe him as the silent type, haggard, had unkempt hair, and “lutang”, a term specifically used for drug users. He pretended to be rich, but it was not clear what work he did.

If you have any information leading to his arrest, please contact the authorities immediately. The NBI Laoag Hotline is (077) 771-3885.

May we, my dear friends, altogether pray for the eternal repose of Jemima, fight for justice, and work for a society where no person, man or woman, will have have to suffer the same fate, and that no father will have to take the same sorrowful trip to Sarrat or elsewhere.

*****

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Golden Epal

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We, the people of Laoag, will celebrate our golden anniversary as a city tomorrow, June 19, and I am glad that the scheduled activities are modest. I hope the event will be meaningful, and for good reason.

Indeed, there are a lot of reasons to be grateful and to celebrate. Laoag today stands as one of the finest cities in the country, having reaped various distinctions including those on, but not limited to, the environment, peace and order, governance, literacy, and the arts. All these were achieved not due to one person or two, but on account of our collective good work as a people.

However, a few weeks before the celebration, tarpaulin posters of a former politician have dotted the city’s public spaces. The posters bear the name and face of ex-councilor Melvin de la Cuesta (yes, that guy who could not make up his mind on who he really witnessed was the killer of Laoag City Vice Mayor Jimmy Chua in 2005) and in big print, “Thank you so much for your research!”

Almost all who see the posters are puzzled. What research? And who is thanking him?

Let me give a background. De la Cuesta authored the city ordinance mandating the anniversary celebration of Laoag City’s charter (RA 4584) signed on June 19, 1965 by President Diosdado Macapagal. The ordinance was the subject of controversy as other councilors, including Atty. Toto Lazo, insisted that Laoag’s cityhood must instead be celebrated on January 1 because RA 4584 clearly stipulated January 1, 1966 as effectivity date after its approval by the people through a plebiscite.

The research being referred to here is De la Cuesta’s very simple effort of going to the National Library, and maybe the Senate archives, to find details about Laoag’s Charter. In the advent of the Internet, that is something even grade school pupils can do. Only real “researchers,” especially those who immensely contribute to society– for instance, scientists who successfully discover cure for cancer or HIV/AIDS, develop a machine producing free and sufficient electricity, or invent an equipment swiftly detecting and exterminating epal politicians–deserve such grand show of gratitude.

But, who is thanking him?

It is very obvious that the tarpaulin posters are self-advertisements. It is De la Cuesta thanking himself. The city government could not have propagated those tarpaulins because, according to well-placed sources, the top city officials ordered the removal of those posters in the downtown. Those hung in the barangays are still abound.

At least four of the incumbent city councillors are barred by term limits to run again next year, probably a golden opportunity seen by De la Cuesta—who, after ruining his credibility due to the Jimmy Chua case, has perennially lost in elections in Laoag and Sarrat.

De la Cuesta made confusing testimonies on the death of Chua before implicating, and later clearing, then mayor, now vice mayor, Michael V. Fariñas. On account of the fickle-minded whistleblower’s recanting, the case was since dismissed by the Department of Justice due to lack of probable cause.

If there is anyone we should be thankful to hence, it is our beloved city Laoag who has nurtured us in the past 50 years and more–not some flip-flopping, self-aggrandizing politician. But if indeed we are in the mood to thank individuals, how can we forget Congressman Simeon Valdez, who sponsored the bill for Laoag’s cityhood? And how about Eulalio Siazon, our city’s first mayor, who earnestly campaigned for a yes vote in the plebiscite?

Today, there are no tarpaulin posters in their honor, but they deserve to be remembered by a grateful people.

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Terrible Ilocos Norte hotels and resorts based on TripAdvisor

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ILOCOS NORTE has definitely made a mark as one of the Philippines’ top travel meccas, given the province’s amazing natural, cultural, and historical attractions, plus fun activities to boot. But, given the influx, how are our hotels meeting the demands of guests?

Many tourists depend on Internet-reviews to check the quality of hotels, restaurants, and other travel-related establishments. The most popular site is TripAdvisor.com which allows reviewers to provide both quantitative ratings and qualitative information based on their actual experience. Guests rate the establishment on a scale of 1-5 based on the following criteria: location, sleep quality, rooms, service value, and cleanliness. The written reviews are very useful for people planning their trip. One would not pay a budget price and demand five-star accommodation, but would expect decent services and facilities. In the same breath, expectations and demands run high when the price paid is high. At the end of the day, value for money weighs heavily.

I will write about the best and average hotels next, but let me devote this post to the bad and the worst.

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Not just a beauty pageant: A review of Miss Ilocos Norte 2015

from the Miss IN Facebook page

from the Miss IN Facebook page

The Coronation Night of Miss Ilocos Norte 2015 held May 9 at the Centennial Arena before a crowd of around 6,000 measured up to the hype it generated in the past weeks. One can argue that it is one of the best provincial beauty pageants in the country and, no exaggerations here, probably among the world’s finest.

I offer the following review.

A visual feast The set design by Ohm David, a resident in big Ilocos Norte events, was stunning as usual. The images on a giant HD screen were carefully chosen and animated, providing ambiance to the competition’s various parts. For instance, flashed for the long gown competition were the buttresses of the Paoay Church on a starry night. Miniature windmills and huge harps also accentuated the stage in succession. I am amazed by the organizers’ eye for details from the grand set to the flower arrangements on the judges’ table. The lighting was perfect, but, given the inherent acoustic limitations of the venue, the sounds could have been better.

All the production performers were good, but the background dancers during the swimsuit competition nailed it best. Wearing avant-garde costumes that fused Ilocano and Japanese elements, the dancers’ vogue movements were a joy to watch. They delivered a fresh presentation that did not steal the show from, but instead trained the spotlight on, the real stars: the 23 beauties. I have seen a lot of performances choreographed by Christian Espiritu, but that one, a total work of genius, is yet the best.

The gowns and costumes created by our local designers were mostly remarkable, some of them even world class. In the evening gown competition won by Miss Pagudpud in an Amor Albano creation, the work of Jaynny Lao perfectly donned by Miss Laoag was also a hit. I am really glad of the fabulous display of artistry and talent. But organizers says some of these designers already have attitude problems even before they make it really big. Our source did not elaborate. One wonders, by the way, why Windell Madis of Batac, the third fashion designer from Ilocos Norte to make it to a fashion-oriented reality TV show, did not make anything for anyone, not even for his own town. Something, dear karikna, is amiss here.

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My dream summer workshop for 2015

phone workshopI am grateful to my parents for sending me to workshops–mostly held during summer when the young kid’s mind is idle and is potentially a devil’s, well, workshop.

I remember being in a theater company and starring in two one-act-plays–Dionisio Salazar’s Makapaghihintay ang Amerika and another play which title escapes my mind, but I do remember that it was one heavy, very meaningful piece where all of us actors wore black. I was, ehem, best actor in that one-night-only performance, and you can check with my fellow actors–Dennis Raquiza and Philip Zenon Diego, two of the most sought-after Ilocano creatives today–about this claim. The summer heat was intense but it was no match to the sizzling friendships I forged both with my fellow trainees and our passionate teachers.

If I were to bring back the proverbial hands of time to that part of my life when I had no responsibilities but to prepare myself how to be a productive member of society, I now have in mind what workshop to attend. Obviously, dear karikna, it’s on the poster that goes with this write up.

I can personally guarantee of the excellent artistry, craftsmanship, and versatility of the three workshop trainors: Ms. Jane, former manager of Samtoy Books, have conducted a number of successful workshops and exhibits. Ms. Marianne is one of Ilocos’ most sought-after photographers who has put together an amazing picture book. The 3rd member is Russel Andrew Villena whose expertise in digital photography and graphics technology is difficult to match.

I can entrust my own kids to them, only that I don’t have any yet.

 

 

 

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Batac a genius… no loser!

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Judeleah Pucan, best female performer

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pictures from the Tan-ok ni Ilocano Festival of Festivals Facebook Page/ Alaric Yanos, PGIN

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(This is the second of a series of articles comprising my critique on the Tan-ok ni Ilocano Festival of Festivals 2014 held Nov. 29 at the Marcos Stadium in Laoag City. Read also the article Why I am proud of Laoag this time.)

Not a few people are concerned about Batac’s apparent downfall in their Tan-ok performances as shown by their skidding rankings. They were champion in the Festival of Festivals’ debut in 2011, 2nd place in 2012, 3rd place in 2013, and fourth this year.

It’s easy to believe in these numbers and hastily conclude that Batac is losing its artistic prowess, but I strongly contest this. They, in fact, won not just trophies, but even more for themselves and Ilocos Norte for doing what they do best.

The best thing about Batac folks is their healthy dose of insanity which I think is good because human civilization advances not because of those who blindly conform but on account of men and women who bravely challenge the status quo, and dare to be different. After all, this Home of Great Leaders is not known for people who remain comfortable with the world as usual.

Last Saturday, they landed only fourth, but did you, dear karikna, realize that Batac made history that night by staging the grandest musicale Ilocos Norte has ever seen?

On the Tan-ok stage where many of the contingents are still infected by the Visayan fever (ala Sinulog and Dinagyang), Batac dared enough to present something fresh, and excel in it. Let me discuss in detail my observations not only from the show but during some of their practices which I had the chance to watch.

Delicious story

The empanada was shown in response to the shifting tastes of the Spanish-era Ilustrados. Immersed in the lifestyle of their colonial masters, the tastes and preferences of these educated elite were strongly influenced by the West, but time came when their palates looked for something novel. They wanted a fusion between the Western way of cooking and rich native flavors. Thus, the Batac Empanada which is one reason why Ilocos Norte today is known as a gastronomic mecca. This was shown in the well-executed Kitchen Musicale where, in a party hosted by a Señora, Ilustrados refused to eat the usual fare (e.g.hamon, paella, lechon, embutido), moving the servant Indios to serve the Batac Empanada. Continue reading

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Why this time I am proud of Laoag

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All pictures, except the two below, are from the Tan-ok ni Ilocano Festival of Festivals Facebook Page/ Alaric Yanos, PGIN

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(This is the second of a series of articles comprising my critique on the Tan-ok ni Ilocano Festival of Festivals 2014 held Nov. 29 at the Marcos Stadium in Laoag City. Read also the article Batac a genius… no loser!)

It was the fourth edition of the Tan-ok ni Ilocano Festival of Festivals, now considered as the biggest gathering of Ilocanos, having drawn almost 50,000 in the Marcos Stadium last Nov. 29 at the Marcos Stadium. Celebrating greatness in most creative forms, the show featured once more performances from each of the 21 municipalities and 2 cities of Ilocos Norte.

Tan-ok, arguably the most anticipated event organized by the province, has steadily led to a state of maturity, taking small steps since its debut in 2011.  Without blinking an eye, I’d say that last installment was the best ever. There were a lot of breakthroughs—not just steps but strides towards even greater planes for this phenomenon. Let me, dear karikna, detail my observations through this series of critical notes.

Truthful, clear stories

“Your stories are your wealth,” the judges posited during the debriefing meeting held the day after the competition. They expressed amazement over the clarity and richness of the narratives they saw unfold in most performances. Unlike the street-dance based festivals in the Visayas like the Sinulog and Dinagyang, the strength of Ilocano presentations indeed lies on our people’s tales.

Personally, I am glad that the stories presented this year were not only entertaining, but more truthful. Indeed, as confessed by Edna Vida Froilan, one of the country’s dance icons, who sit as one of seven Tan-ok judges coming from diverse backgrounds, judges are like “babies” who don’t know or know very little about the culture of the locality. They thus evaluate performances based only on what they see. The burden of determining authenticity, therefore, are not on their shoulders.

It was wise of the festival organizers headed by creative director Aian Raquel to hold a story conference prior to the big event. I am happy (and humbled) to have been invited to share my thoughts to choreographers and key people involved in drafting the storylines of every contingent. I would usually just write critiques after the show, just like this one. Interacting with our local artists early on was a welcome experience because it allowed me to talk more on the future, and ramble less about the past. During the conference, I already had a feeling that this year’s Tan-ok will be very different. That feeling was right, and it was very evident in the case of Laoag. Continue reading

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