West Philippine Sea: These are Our Islands.


These are my Islands.
‪#‎westphilippinesea‬ ‪#‎WestPHsea
Digital paint/ Cintiq
2016 Arnold Arre

It really reads like a good bedtime story. One such tale I sorely needed told to me as an adult living in this strange world. When the verdict arrived at sundown, I was caught in monster traffic looking out my window at the faces of tired Filipinos waiting to get places. It’s the same story day in and day out, at least in the metropolis. The city grates at us. Few things seem to work in our favour and all of us little Davids fighting our Goliaths are feeding off each other’s fears and anxieties everyday. Yesterday I ran a quick survey to ask how people formed opinions and how they got themselves informed about issues and things. The general sentiment (though I still have to do ground work across classes and sectors) was that we don’t trust the information we get. We are uncomfortable to rely on institutions, be they media, the police, or the state. We are somewhat paranoid, quick to react, and have no real sense of whether what we know is true. We’re lost for the most part but not without opinions.

But you know, for good or bad, we rely deeply on each other–to be informed, to belong, to matter.

That sense of solidarity is what makes tonight special for me. Tonight I choose the bedtime story over the lengthy FB analyses of ‪#‎CHexit‬ and everything else. I celebrate the victory of a little country out in the Pacific to assert itself in a fair, legal fight against a world superpower. I credit the small but bright, Team WPS, for their gutsy move at the Hague to remind us of our rights. I cherish the valor and courage of quiet men and women who patrol our borders day and night, sometimes aboard a rusty ship. I think of leaders like retired Lt. Gen. Juancho Sabban who, in 2013, despite little direction from above, chose to err on the side of duty and declare the Spratlys’ as ours. His men stood their ground. No fanfare, no applause, just a sense of right against immense might.

The decision comes at a strange time too, when, in the same breath, I am thinking of immigrants challenging the necessity of borders in Europe and counting the few nations where Filipinos cannot be found. Do these places exist kaya? I wonder. The hypocrisy of nationalism has also been a mainstay in the papers, in the gestures of many over time. How many more wars to raise flags that are eventually draped over the coffins of those who fight? And what of the faceless nameless many, young and old, whose beings are shattered by taxpayer’s bombs? How many more insults hurled at people because we are too fascinated by our spectacles that color others white, black, yellow, Muslim, terrorist?

I worry about these things everyday because this is all I feel I can do to keep sane and afloat, connected to humanity, warts and all. But on nights like this one, I’m grateful for the giddy cause for pause. It’s a brief reminder of the faith I have in the good men and women of these islands whom I am lucky to call my compatriots, fellow Filipinos.

Mabuhay, and good night!

Education and Elections: Running for K to 12.

It’s always when elections are upon us that I feel a huge dis-ease slowly building, rising like a wave inside me. It used to be a sensation triggered by theory–by my mind telling me that something was amiss when Politician X shifted parties or “changed his mind” suddenly about things as if he hadn’t believed them to begin with. Then today, no longer working on the assumptions of the naïve, I saw for myself how ambition and a bid for relevance turned an otherwise sweet supporter of the K to 12 Program into a sour opponent. He spoke with an air of expertise and asked questions as if his truest intent was to uphold the right of every Filipino to access quality education. Surely, his current antics as a Representative will win him a seat in the Senate. It helps, too, that he carries the name of an old guard, memorable to many. But then, with all sobriety, I wonder what the real cost of his attempt at relevance is to the Filipino people? Don’t we all stand to lose more when we elect leaders who are only driven by a thirst for power and have no appetite for service? When we elect leaders who are unfit, lacking in experience and aspiration–not for the self but for the nation? For our people?

I sat red-faced today listening to him talk, recognizing the need to hide my emotions–because feeling, they say, gets in the way of professionalism and wins us enemies. I “fixed” my face, smiled, spoke in a sweet tone until it was over and I forgot all about it.

Before entering the Department of Education, I was outspoken about education because I trusted my intuition. I went out of my comfort zone, traveled to different localities, listened openly to the heartaches of teachers, students, and parents alike. I withheld judgment knowing that it was an easy path that would lead nowhere, except to take me further from the truth. I won myself a slot to a “prestigious” fellowship because I knew that “the best decisions concerning development are not made from comfortable positions.” Then, upon entering the Department, I grew a certain impotence from having nurtured fear. I stopped writing about education because I felt I didn’t know enough and could not teach myself what I needed to know to be credible. I did not want to be wrong and/or outspoken because that’s a terrible combination. I imagined the impact my mistakes would make on this already tired agency–burdened by the size and scope of its responsibility–whose people could use more than just my two cents. A lot of our teachers and personnel work so hard, quietly, to make education a reality for many of our learners. What if I eclipsed that because I was wrong? Maybe (you think that) I think too much of myself–I do. 🙂 But, seriously, having seen how people react to my posts, I know I’ve grown a following. You are good audience whose time, talent, and patience I don’t want to waste especially seeing as a few lines shared here can trigger August movements in Luneta for good governance or the delivery of toys to Zamboanga’s children caught in the crossfires.

I apologize for having relinquished the responsibility to hold an opinion on education–on the need for K to 12, specifically. I made a fake offering of my silence because I was afraid to be wrong. My ego could not bear it but I know better now. What changed? I was struck by what my boss (Sec. Armin Luistro FSC) said to the press today when asked about our readiness for K to 12 amid calls for its suspension:

“Ready na ready na tayo! Para tayong tumatakbo ng marathon nito eh. Ang kulang nalang natin, “the last mile.” Tapos [biglang] sasabihin sa atin, “Hindi mo kaya.” “Eh, nakikita ko na eh, nakikita ko na yung finish line! Anong kailangan ko? Extra boost at tulong para sa lahat kasi talaga namang hindi kaya ng DepEd mag-isa ito. [Nandito na tayo]—kulang nalang, a little prayer and a little support for the DepEd team who is actually implementing [K to 12]. Aaminin ko, hindi kami perfect. Maraming, maraming mga pwedeng baguhin at i-improve. Bukas na bukas kami dyan. Pero sana sabay tayo—sabay sa batikos, sabay din yung tulong na [sabihing] “Kaya mo yan!”

That’s a leader: One who, without flinching, recognizes our inadequacies, knows there is bound to be other ways to get things done and is willing to listen to whoever can help us do our work better. He is not afraid as I am to make mistakes because he knows it’s par for the course–but more than that, he knows that building on a reform requires engaging everyone–naysayers and supporters alike. Why? Because relevance to him is measured by how well we do the work we set out to do. It’s measured by our commitment not to our office’s reputation but to our mandate: to protect and promote the right of every Filipino to quality, equitable, culture-based, and complete basic education.

Concerning the young representative, the wave of my dis-ease and anger toward him will surely crash at the shore. The sea, I know, will grow calm again, erasing my memory of his opportunism in favor of just having to “deal with the necessary evil.” It will be as if nothing’s happened and I will go by my business as usual–I will see my anxiety over elections as simply an ebbing and flowing of events that mark our nation’s history. It’s in our DNA as Filipinos to search for narratives to believe in, for heroes to save us and so, even the most unlikely become iconic and saintly in our eyes. Perhaps this time (and as early as now) I just want to register, for myself, that in the coming elections I’m not buying into that bullshit anymore. I will look for people who uphold good, time-tested qualities and values which I know exist among a quiet minority. And having known the effects of being uneducated, kept in perpetual poverty and indebtedness, separated from a world of opportunity by the inability to read, write, and understand–I certainly will not lose the will to speak up for every Filipino’s right to an education they deserve. K to 12 is it and in the coming days I will write more about what I know (and don’t know)–because this reform has the capacity to take us from where we are to where we want to be–and we best be prepared to understand how, why, and for whom it works.

Peace & Pata Island.


Pata Island, Sulu, 2014.

“Salaam alaikum kanyu katan. Ako si Nursima H. Tolentino, Grade 3 pupil. Ito po ang ginuhit ko, isang pulis. Gusto ko sa aking paglaki maging pulis at maging isang tagabantay ng bayan.”

“Gusto ko pong tumulong sa mga mahihirap at may sakit.”

“Sana po matupad ko ang pangarap kong maging isang guro.”

Scenes from better days, worth remembering today. We ventured to Pata Island (mentioned today by Mohagher Iqbal as among the sites where gruesome massacres occurred in Mindanao) to turnover classrooms and we were greeted by young students who were asked to draw what they hoped to be.


We were joined by no less than Gen. Guerrero of WestMinComm–a proud product of the Philippine Public School System. I keep these images in mind and replay the video I took of them speaking whenever I feel as if I’ve lost hope in our nation. Why? Two things: First, out of tragedy can spring hope–as it does in Pata today, where children can dream and are not bound to repeat mistakes of the past. Second, individual acts matter–the commitment of few to their communities and the will of others to see a future for our children through education–this is what has taught me to work hard and hope even more. If you doubt that there can be peace in Mindanao, just you watch. It will happen. These kids will make it happen.


A Mourning Diary: Things I Need to Explain to Myself.

Having always been in a state of mourning, carrying with me an infinite supply of things, people, and places to feel for–I find it helps to write. To explain things to myself, to delve deeper into my motivations, to challenge my assumptions, to question why things are the way they are.

I’m not an angry person (or maybe that depends–have I had my coffee? have I eaten? how much stupidity have I had to deal with on top of an exhausting day?) I just really feel very deeply and while I used to be ashamed about this, I’ve learned to write–to listen to others, to understand myself, to see things as I know them to be true.

Here is a record of my mourning. A diary of sorts, a record of every Facebook post I’ve made since becoming aware of the fate of those who died in Mamasapano, Maguindanao.

January 26, 10:14pm Could we kindly ask all media outlets to please refrain from publishing images and videos showing the mangled bodies of our PNP-SAF? Everyone publishing it has apologized or warned us about their use which proves to me that they know it’s not correct and yet they insist on publishing it anyway–for whose right to know, I wonder? What benefit is it to the public and to the families of those who’ve lost loved ones to have these images shared online? What is the justifiable need to have these photos out for consumption? Where is the respect and dignity for the dead?

January 27, 8:49pm All-out-war and Auschwitz on my feed. I don’t want to be a kill joy especially when friends make jokes about the South, talk funny about “terrorists,” or give Muslim-sounding nicknames to bearded friends. I try to convince myself that it’s all just humor–then again, I have friends in the deep South and even without them, books taught me that things like the Holocaust happen. Who’s left to laugh then? Bleeding heart over all those who were killed in Mamasapano. They are proof that a world like ours needs tolerance, peace, and compassion.

But God, today, I nearly bit my tongue off holding in the need to tell so many people that they’re assholes for wanting to go to war. Assholes.

January 28, 10:11pm My to do list: To embrace the mothers, the fathers, the wives, and the children of the fallen. To embrace my friends in the AFP and the PNP. To tell them that their sacrifice isn’t wasted on rhetoric, isn’t lost on us. To affirm that without them and their engagement there can be no lasting peace. To convince them that though there is a chain of command, it is to the people that they are accountable–not to legacies of proud men. To say, with full conviction, that they have served US–THE FILIPINO PEOPLE–well. Justice is the measure, justice is the measure.

January 29  Sir, all due respect, your men needed you today more than yesterday. No need for speeches, frills, and thrills–just your presence on the tarmac so those left behind wouldn’t feel as alone as they do now. The power of your presence, not the presence of your power–which they already respect because no matter what you tell them to do, they will do it as part of their duty. Karangalan po nilang paglingkuran tayo, trabaho po nila ito. 42 caskets arrived in Manila today bearing only some of the deceased. 42 people.

January 29  Today was emotionally taxing. Exhausted, weary but very much moved by the Chaplain who earlier prayed for a sense of belonging–that we might all feel like we belong to one family, one nation.

Time stops when we lose lives the way we did but work continues. It must. What did I learn today? I learned to value purpose and responsibility. In the context of management, what gives employees pride is knowing they can get things done, knowing they contribute to a greater whole. In the context of a nation, it’s that reminder that we are all accountable to and for each other. No more comments on leadership. Basta, my sense of belonging is intact–I know and am responsible for you. Thank you ‪#‎SAF44‬ for taking care of me.

January 29   A Cautionary Tale of Mourning. At around this time last year, I lost a few friends to a horrible bus accident in Bontoc. What I learned then was that sometimes, though we see the capacity of events to become “triggers for reform” and “better ways of doing things,” it pays to just be present to the pain of those who lose their nearest and dearest. Without meaning to judge, past or present, let me just explain: I watched then as some of the bereaved became driven by the loss they felt coupled with the public’s ire and anger to protest. Granted, it’s their right and I support them, because better transport benefits all–part of me felt like I needlessly fed the grieving person’s pain and anxiety. It struck me then that we, that I, fought on the energy of my conviction and yet returned to the comfort and joy of my family while friends related to the deceased did not.

What of those who lose people and fight only to come home to empty beds, quiet rooms where the laughter no longer echoes? Does our anger console them–did mine? Or did it cast a darker shade on an already moonless night?

I feel the need to explain because I’ve just left a comment on the wall of a former government official. Many of them have spoken and some journalists have compelled them all to share their expertise. The result is a flood of ‘what ifs’ and ‘what should have been dones’–and I catch myself nodding saying, “Oo nga naman! Talaga” or “What a hypocrite!”

But the truth is–we are not there anymore–we are HERE where so many on all sides have fallen. Families are grieving. Do we really want to manipulate them (the way we do with the poor, the farmers, the fisherfolk, transgender men and women, and all other marginalized sectors) when they are most vulnerable–just so we can pat ourselves on the back and say we are right? Or so we can move agendas forward but remain divided, hurt, broken (in the truly Jesuit sense)?

This is the message I left on that person’s wall (I hope he reads this and understands what compelled me to call him out on his ‘what if’):

Well Sir, all due respect, you aren’t president. I understand your frustration but I wonder how much it helps to share these kinds of opinions at a moment when tensions are high and emotions tend to cloud people’s judgment? Is this really what a nation in mourning needs to hear? Granted, everyone has a way to do (or not do) what needs to be done. I share the public’s hurt but feel that now is the time to be in solidarity with those who lost loved ones. I cannot imagine the pain of a mother who, on top of mourning for a deceased son, must also make room for suspicion and anxiety. That said, I do truly respect your having been there, and done that–but all the more, I count on you and those you served with to exercise the kind of leadership we all criticize the current administration for not having.

January 30, 1:31pmEverybody complains about the speech but I wonder how many of you would find the words and the wisdom eloquent enough to please everyone? To capture the essence of the hurt and hard choices? As part of our mourning, maybe we can also reflect on our own shortcomings? THE FACT THAT WE AREN’T ALWAYS WORTH OUR SOLDIER’S LIVES. Maybe it’s good to examine choices we make? How many times have we let ourselves down? Wasted the blood of the young, the upright. Yabang lang natin to criticize but always remember–the pain is not yours. It belongs to the families, the leaders who make tough decisions. Remember too what Mr. Noli Taliño said: Get to know your men and women in uniform. Listen to them, listen to understand–not to judge. Perhaps when we make individual choices about who to vote, when to duck a ticket, or break the law, or cheat–we might remember the 44?

Sorry, but just for today, let’s declare a Twitter/Facebook truce and stop spitting on the graves of these valiant men. Let’s grieve, not opine.

Sarap maging Pilipino kapag may SAF na proprotekta sa’yo. Salamat mga kapatid. Mabuhay kayo!

January 30, 11:44pm Met with the families of our 44 and bade our men goodbye. It was a night of sweet stories–what they were like as fathers, what their wives loved about them, what their friends used to call them. Moved by the sacrifice of the Bisayas and the Mindanaoans–but became very, very emotional when I realized that I understood the Ilocano vocabulary for grief. So many of them from places I know by heart. Kakabsat ko, Dios ti agngina. Agyamanak kinyayu.

Off they go–I had the supreme pleasure of practicing Iloko tonight and you know what moved me? During the departure honors, SAF officers were lined up saluting the fallen. I positioned myself near the doorway where the women were and as each casket passed, tears streamed down their faces as they held their salute. Later, I asked if they served with these men and one of them said, “Haan ngem uray han mi nga gagayem, kakabbsat mi amin da.” (No, they aren’t our friends but all of them are our brothers.) #salute

January 30, 12:19am Public grieving is a bit funny. Watched ex-generals, some personalities awkwardly approach–some held my hand thinking I was family and in loud voices offered condolences, gave advice as to what medals the boys should have taken home etc etc. Naturally, I couldn’t take the bullshit so I smiled and closed my eyes. Meanwhile, the President and his cabinet members are in a holding room able to comfortably speak to and grieve privately with the families and the SAF Commandos. Maraming salamat din, Sir. Nabalitaan ko sa mga asawa, kapatid, at magulang ng magigiting na naginhawaan daw sila. Happy to be proven wrong. Pero siyempre, justice is the measure. Justice is the measure.

January 31 Overheard last night: “Magiting rin pala ang pulis noh? Hindi pala sila lahat masama.” We have been afraid of them, rightly so because of the few abusive ones who make justice elusive for many. But my takeaway from all of this is understanding institutions. They are complex and not to be judged as a whole but one thing is certain: good men and women, people of integrity–they are the key.



Two guys share a smoke from a distance. They quickly toss the butts away when I pass them. Proof yet again that the most civilized people I know are often dirt poor, hungry, pushed by society into being monstrous. “There’s no dignity in being poor.” This debate has been running between me and an octogenarian for years now. He tells me I’m giving excuses, trying to look for silver linings to prettify a picture, to contain the objective reality. I am about to concede. Perhaps he is right. But isn’t this nice? Sharing a smoke with a friend, the last bastion of civility in fantastic conditions.

In Defense of Alienation: The Road to Freedom.

Dear Don,

Your article on yesterday’s Youngblood column really captivated me. I hope you don’t mind that I’ve referred to you in the familiar, as opposed to the formal. Your words were once mine and so I feel a deep sense of recognition–mine, of your current disposition, and yours, of what mine used to be. I appreciate your honestly and your openness to questions. These are foundations one must nurture to build a spine to tread a course that’s uniquely your own. I hear that in your writing and the sound is sweet, similar to the sound of a flowing creek in the mountainside.

Your desire for freedom, for the triumph of good over the many injustices that plague our fellow men and women really moves me. It’s the world’s way of saying that sometimes we do not have to be like Atlas, carrying the weight of the world solely on our shoulders. I am selfish at times and I bear it forgetting that there are others, like you, who share this anxiety, this dis-ease over the way things are. In your own essay of what you know to be (un)freedom, I hear you ask, sometimes angrily (and rightfully so): WHY? Why must things be the way they are? Why are we so complacent when we could all be asking the same of the world? I hear in your voice the alienation that Marx so clearly identified and though his words have been used and abused so callously, I ask that you trust what you’ve felt yourself. Ignore, for a moment, the din of critics, of our teachers, of theories and books–even of our friends who might call us out on being so predictable. In the quiet room of your mind, allow yourself the feeling of being alone, of being alien–to others–but never to yourself. Nurture what the poet Rainer Rilke calls, solitude.

In this choice of ours to care so much and to hold so firmly to our convictions, we will often need the gifts afforded by our solitude. Many will criticize you for your questioning and regard you as a gadfly without even giving you the courtesy of a question as a premise for a conversation. Already you are being told that your youth and inexperience do not qualify you to come to these conclusions.

You are being told that the same academic institution that gave you the freedom of choice, to think or not to think, lacked in educating you for “the real world.”  The same people whose taxes funded your education now doubt the gifts they’ve endowed you with. Really? Well. Thousands of students pass through those academic halls year-in and year-out. How many of them have given a thought to their lives? How many of them have probed beyond the necessary yet mundane realities of their days? I am not even asking how many of them have thought of the real value of being young and Filipino in a country like ours. I am only curious to know if the multitude has chosen to think, just THINK, as you clearly have.

They’ve asked you to learn the ropes of life so you can fix institutions, like UP, and make them run better, then they close by counselling you against giving excuses. I agree, you must never dish those out. We have no room in our hungry, burning bellies, for excuses–so do not listen to theirs, no matter how seemingly well-meaning they are. It is the folly of the elders who perceive themselves wise to tell the young that they must fix what they have left broken. Learn early on to distinguish between the truly wise and the mediocre.

Your responsibility, as a student, is to get an education. So get one. Learn as much as you can from your professors who are generous to share their knowledge, their reading lists, their own musings. But beware of their dogmas. We all have them but it is not our place as teachers to replicate them into sweaters for you to wear until they become second skin. They are for you to try on, to cut, and form into other things. Discard them completely if they do not answer what calls to you in the dead of night. Relish the feel of ideas coming over you when you least expect it. Enjoy the pleasures of good books and find, for your own sanity, a pool of friends to speak with about everything and nothing. Bounce off each other extremes of trivial, noteworthy, and sacrilegious over good music, cheap oily food, and long nights spent asking–always, asking–“WHY?”

For each of our failings, we will be judged according to our alma maters. The critics will deem our schools lacking, catering only to the few, coddling the elite. Those who cry out in our defense will do so with the added pinch of nostalgia, claiming these institutions are not what they were in some heyday of yore. Right.

Our critics ask the university to find you employment. They consider your education only as good as the value that society gives you in accordance with your pay-check. Here you can already learn much about our country. The value of an education in the Philippines is so cheap and shallow, at least until it earns you higher figures.

Grow up or grow bitter? What kind of life is this that narrows choices down this way? It’s as if you’re being asked to grow familiar with your anxiety and certain of regret. Please, I implore you, do not pay heed to these commands just yet. Instead, listen. Listen because even the oldest, most jaded, most cynical, of our people still harbour hopes and it is our responsibility to acknowledge them. They will not always admit this, of course, but if you allow them to respond to earnest questions, they will betray their own self-image and remember what it was that once gave them a spring in their step. This, my friend, is the true gift both generations give to one another. It is the privilege of both the old and the young–a shared right of passage that allows both to bloom, one into the grace of old age and the other into the fertile grounded-ness of the present.

You will need to apply the praxis you speak of because it is the only way to do justice to all our shared hopes and visions. Praxis will allow you to test the certainty of theory against the uncertainty of the world. Our words in the academe are our only economy and grounding them on substance is what ensures the integrity of our institutions. This is not blind allegiance to the academy but rather, a bold acceptance of the scholarly life–however difficult it may be to live our questions.

Everyone thinks those who don’t do, teach or study, as you and I have chosen. They may be wrong but if our output isn’t commensurate to the task of expanding knowledge and exploring the depths of meaning, then we are just as they say we are.

In practice, you will enjoy the chance to try different things. There will be an option to fail and I hope you do, preferably on a magnanimous scale that shakes you out of your stupor, out of your comfort. If it breaks you completely, you will have defined “struggle,” overcome it, and you’ll no longer accept it for it’s own sake.

You will triumph in the end because you will still be YOU–you with the questions, the one who nags this country back to its senses. I know you will succeed.

In the meantime, thank you for this rare chance at authenticity. You’ve given me much to think of and aspire to. Here’s hoping our path’s cross one day and when they do, I hope the road finds us both a step closer to freedom.