What I owe MVF

Laoag City Vice Mayor Michael V. Fariñas
(Photo from philstar.com)

If there’s one blogger-journalist who has hit hardest on Michael V. Fariñas, both when he was mayor of Laoag and in his tenure as vice mayor cut short by a tragic accident last night, it could be me.

Over the years, I have written about him on a range of issues, nothing personal and all of public interest. Each time I’d do so, people would ask if I was not afraid. He was, after all, the leader of the city, a member of Ilocos Norte’s powerful family, and a man preceded by a certain reputation. Even my editor at The Ilocos Times—deeply concerned with the political repercussions it will have on our publisher who is now back in politics as a barangay captain—once edited out some lines about a throwback issue people today not dare talk about.

Was I afraid? I wasn’t. At all. I think Sir Michael fully embraced critics like me—and here I remember my late friend Steve Barreiro who also wrote explosive columns on MVF—as an important part of a democratic city. To his credit, MVF never caused injury nor harm to me or my family, and my commentaries notwithsatnding, he always flashed for me a smile and extended a firm handshake each time we cross paths. As he does to other people, he prepends my name with “Apo” as in “Apo Herdy.”

On one occasion some years ago, I told him: “Sir, you are my favorite mayor,” to which he replied with a chuckle, “Paborito a tirtiraen.” (You’re fond of hitting me.) Then we had a nice photo together. His wife, Mayor Chevylle and his kids are also very nice to me.

Last April, in what would be our last encounter, MVF visited us at home during the “last night” of the wake for my dad. Surrounded by barangay captains, including my brother Herry, he stayed for seven hours until almost the break of dawn. I sat right beside him for about half an hour during which he told me how he has always respected my thoughts and how he chooses not to get affected by criticisms and unfair accusations and how he prefers to “just do his job.”

Never that night or ever did he tell me to shut up or tone down.

I love living in a city where a person can freely and responsibly express views, no matter how uncomfortable it may be to the powerful. That is why as a dutiful son of Laoag, I share my thoughts and talents in the ways I know, always with pure intentions, always with humility, and a dash of courage.

MVF helped make that possible. He consciously made Laoag a fertile ground to write, a safe place to disagree, a conducive place for the practice of journalism.

I thus say that MVF, simply by being MVF—with all his human strengths and frailties—helped me nurture a career in writing.

For that, I am thankful.

So long, Sir Michael. Rest now. May God be with you.

Discrimination in Mister Laoag decried

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Laoag City could be one of the most LGBT-friendly cities in the Philippines. A third of its elected councilors are openly and proudly gay. There’s Rbee Ablan who comes from a prominent political family, businessman Handy Lao, and Mikee Fariñas who happens to be a daughter of the power couple—the city mayor and vice mayor. All three city councilors ran on a platform of gender equality and promised to promote gender-sensitive legislation. True to their promise, they pushed for the passage of The Comprehensive Anti-Discrimination Ordinance of Laoag City which is currently under review by the Sangguniang Panlalawigan. Moreover, Mayor Chevylle Fariñas is known to be friendly with the LGBT community, and gay people are highly placed under her administration. Gender discrimination was unheard of at the Laoag City Hall…

Until lately. It comes as a surprise that there is much resentment among members of the local LGBT community at this time because of an issue surrounding an event spearheaded ironically by Councilor Lao—the Mister Laoag pageant.

One aspirant is believed to have been rejected on account of his suspected relationship with a gay person. The basis? A photo of him in an intimate pose with a transgender. Note that the picture showed no nudity or any taint lewdness, but did give event organizers a hint that the aspirant could be in a same-sex relationship. During the interview held open to the public, the controversial aspirant (CA) was asked by the seven-member panel if it is true. Out on the spot, he denied it. The panel also felt at liberty to ask CA what roles he played in bed. Note that these questions were not asked all candidates.

Thirty-six applicants vied for 16 slots, and CA did not make the cut. In an interview, Councilor Lao explained to me that every aspirant was assessed holistically and that total personality of each aspirant was assessed. While Lao belived that CA was not rated based on one issue alone, the councilor did not deny that the issue could have, indeed, hurt his chances. It was a split-hair decision. Of the seven members of the selection panel, 4 voted to reject CA while 3 wanted him in. Lao was with the minority.

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Laoag Councilor Handy Lao

According to insiders, the organizers were worried at how having CA would affect the reputation of the show. Lao said they also wanted to protect the candidate from possible bashing and ridicule. They felt it was not time to have a candidate like CA in Mister Laoag.

There was outrage among LGBT members in Ilocos. Feeling insulted and rejected, they cried foul. They were quick to point out about hypocrisy and double standards. They felt betrayed by the bigoted act, especially because it was committed by friends. Those friends send the messages loud and clear: Having a same-sex relationship will deny you opportunities;  LGBT relationships ruin credibility.

Lao was well-aware of the outrage, and, in an interview with me, he confessed to have shed tears over the controversy. While he stands for the collegial decision of the screening panel, he accepts that shortcomings and excesses may have been committed. These, he said, will be seriously addressed in the next editions of Mister Laoag. As of our time of interview, the councilor is yet to reach out to CA or the members of the LGBT community. He said he was still collecting his thoughts and planning how to proceed.

“Needless to say, yes, something like that happened,” remarked Councilor Fariñas, promising to look closer into the matter. As an advocate for equality and respect that is due all human beings in the city, the councilor says he is disturbed by the issue. “I don’t think anybody should be judged based on their relationships because acceptance and respect inspire human persons to perform better and do well.” He said that the mayor is bent on gathering parties concerned to shed light on the unfortunate controversy.

Councilor Ablan, for his part, stressed that he will never tolerate discrimination. “I, for one, suffered from discrimination almost all my life. I know how it feels and I know what a person in this situation goes through,” he shared before asking, “Do we all have to have the same lives to enjoy the same rights?”

Aian Raquel, provincial tourism officer, makes this sad note, “Everybody knows what’s happening. No amount of sugarcoating and euphemism can hide homophobia even within the bakla circles.”

It is my fervent and sincere hope, dear karikna, that this issue is properly addressed so that we can honestly advance the right of individuals to freely affirm their sexual orientation, gender identity, and expression.

As for Laoag City and its illusions of LGBT advancement, the bubble has been burst. Only if we successfully shrug off the medieval, parochial, bigoted tendencies of people—especially those who make decisions that bear an impact on our collective consciousness—can we truly move forward.

We wish the Mister Laoag pageant well, and its pure, immaculate, unsullied reputation, and I seriously pray that this issue is settled in the soonest time. There should be no place for hate and hurt, not only because we will be celebrating the Laoag City Fiesta and Ilocos Norte’s bicentennial in the next days, but more because everyday we struggle in a world already filled with manmade misery and conflict, to live and let live.

The Uncaring “Uncle”

Photo from the Uncle's Bar Facebook Fan Page
Photo from the Uncle’s Bar Facebook Fan Page

After the merriment that was the Parada Iloca-locana Halloween Parade on Oct. 31, some participants went to Uncle’s Bar in Brgy. 23, Laoag City. It had been a long and tiring week which they decided to cap with some cold drinks in the warm company of friends.

But the night ended in tragedy for Wayner Tulali and Lucky Gappi, both from Batac.  In a rumble that ensued a few meters from the bar, they were stabbed multiple times, each of them, as their group was about to go home at past 4:00 a.m. Another man from the opposing group was reportedly hurt.

A criminal case has been filed against one suspect (who was also hurt in the incident), and the victims’ friends say for now they are trusting in the process, though fears of a whitewash can’t be avoided as one of those who they allege was part of the mayhem is a son of an influential politician.

What adds to the anguish of the victims’ friends is the seeming lack of empathy on the part of the Uncle’s Bar management. One Facebook post by a friend of Wayner and Lucky goes:

“There is just one thing I would like to point out openly- what did the management of Uncle’s Bar do during and after the incident? If your customers have just left, about to board their car parked right in front of your establishment, wala na bang pakialam? Aren’t establishments like Uncles supposed to have security personnel? Both were rushed to the hospital na sobrang lapit sa Uncle’s, did they check on these two young men after the incident? Simpleng malasakit lang sana sa customer, kahit ‘yun lang!”

Indeed, dear karikna, that’s too much a lack of empathy, not to mention responsibility, for a business establishment, especially for one whose name refers to a close relative.

One wishes that their concern for clients in distress is as warm as an uncle’s hug, and not as cold as their beer.

Golden Epal

dela cuesta

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.

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.

Continue reading “Terrible Ilocos Norte hotels and resorts based on TripAdvisor”

Notes on the 2014 Tan-ok: Spotlight on stories

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Tan-ok choreographers and tourism officers from around Ilocos Norte
Aian Raquel, Tan-ok Creative Director
Aian Raquel, Tan-ok Creative Director

It’s November and all 23 cities and municipalities of Ilocos Norte are in full swing with their respective preparations for this year’s edition of the Tan-ok ni Ilocano Festival of Festivals happening on the 29th.

I highly anticipate this year’s Tan-ok as organizers have given premium on what I, together with well-meaning Ilocano culture advocates, have been wishing for in previous editions: faithfulness to the Ilocano story. Indeed, any self-respecting festival should have at its core the true story of its people who are celebrating greatness, be it of an object, food, event, or any phenomenon.

Last October 24, your karikna was invited by Aian Raquel, the event’s creative director, to serve as resource speaker in a story workshop participated in by choreographers from the various towns and cities. With the exception of a few who failed to attend, I was glad with the receptiveness of the participants.

I delivered a brief lecture on the history and culture of Ilocanos but not after making a clear caveat that everything that I was to say in the workshop was my own insights as a fan who happens to have some knowledge of Ilocano culture and history, and not of the Tan-ok management. I also said that they are not obliged to heed my humble recommendations.

At the onset, I stressed to the participants that artists like them are powerful personas. They, in fact, could even be more influential than politicians, for they shape their people’s consciousness, help them define their identity, and empower them to preserve their heritage while embracing evolution and change. Any artist who sees his value only by the trophies he has won is underestimating, even insulting, himself.

In the course of making the presentation entertaining and winnable, overeager choreographers either in the guise of claiming artistic license or sheer arrogance and plain ignorance, twist and alter the story to the extent that it is rendered unrecognizable by the people who supposedly own it.

Most notorious, of course, in fictionalizing stories is Laoag City’s Pamulinawen Festival. Ironically, it has, over the past four years, brought home 3 championship trophys, lording over the competition since 2012.  Over the years, Pamulinawen has been portrayed as blacksmith trade (2011), courtship (2012), and songwriting (2013). In the Mini Tan-ok Dance Competition last February, Pamulinawen was interpreted as cockfighting.

In terms of wealth, both in terms of financial and human resources, Laoag, the city I live in and love over and above any place on earth, arguably has the upper hand. I wish that choreographers will finally zero in on a proper story which will properly shape and define the Pamulinawen Festival which still badly pales in comparison, mainly on account of lack of consistency and character, to more established festivals across the nation. Unfortunately, Laoag was the only group which decided not to talk about their storyline during the workshop.

But why has Laoag consistently won? Continue reading “Notes on the 2014 Tan-ok: Spotlight on stories”

P-Noy mentions Laoag twice in SONA but has never visited Ilocos Norte as president

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Then presidential candidate Noynoy Aquino in Laoag City, 2010
Then presidential candidate Noynoy Aquino in Laoag City, 2010

NOT ONCE but twice. President B.S. Aquino mentioned Laoag City two times in his State of the Nation Address on July 28 at the Batasan in Quezon City.
First is when he announced that NEDA (which, incidentally, is headed by an Ilocos Norte native and MMSU alumnus—Sec. Arsenio Balisacan) has approved the Laoag City bypass road; second when he illustrated the extent of national highways his administration has built: it can connect the cities of Laoag and Zamboanga four times, he said.

It is quite refreshing to note that Laoag City bears an imprint in the President’s consciousness, yet he has never come here since he became president. I am not sure why, but it could be two things: maybe he thinks Ilocos is hostile ground for him or, in reality, he doesn’t really care enough about this part of his kingdom. To her credit, Governor Imee Marcos has always spoken well about P-Noy, and would share stories about their experiences in congress—they being together in the opposition during the time of Gloria Arroyo.

P-Noy did come to Ilocos though when he needed our votes, and while he did not rank first in the polls here, with Joseph Estrada and Manny Villar besting him, it was not bad. Compared to her late mother who got zero in a number of precincts in the 1986 snap elections, P-Noy got from Ilocanos a good number of votes, and that included mine and, I guess, most of my colleagues in The Ilocos Times who bought his anti-corruption tack: Mitch Esmino, Steve Barreiro, and Jun-B Ramos.

Not only did I vote for P-Noy; I wore yellow for almost two months preceding the 2010 presidential elections. But I have not worn those shirts in a long while. It is odd that he mentioned Laoag twice regarding roads which connect us to the rest of the country while he has seemingly disconnected himself from us since we became part of the body he collectively calls “Boss.”

I may be P-Noy’s boss, but Nora Aunor is my idol. As a Noranian, I was deeply hurt when the country’s one and only Superstar was rejected by Malacañang as national artist. I hope it had nothing to do with Ate Guy’s glorious Ilocos Norte visit and her being declared as honorary daughter. Only a paranoid drug addict would do that.

Continue reading “P-Noy mentions Laoag twice in SONA but has never visited Ilocos Norte as president”