Farewell and thank you, Conrad

Apart from the music of the ‘90s – The Eraserheads, The Corrs, the Goo goo Dolls, and early 2000s, – Limp Bizkit, Eminem and Rage Against the Machine, the columns of Conrado de Quiros filled with brilliant logic, sharp criticism, eloquent mastery of language – proof of his intellect, shaped my formative years in high school and inspired me to take up writing, to speak out and ask the hard questions. So to my classmates back then, this is why I always came to school with a copy of The Philippine Daily Inquirer every day. And yes, also to get my regular dose of Pugad Baboy.

I’ve seen him only once in person when I attended one of those kapihans when after the ouster of Joseph Estrada, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo morphed into the being we call People Power revolutions for.

My sympathies and condolences to the de Quiros family, and to the man himself, thank you for showing us how words are truly more powerful than the sword.

“It is not easy to want to go down to the lower deck of the literal and metaphorical boat the sight and the smell assail you from the very top of the stairs, like the gaseous emanations from a parched earth at the first patter of rain. Society’s answer to that problem in fact has been to make the people in the lower deck disappear completely. It has been to make them invisible. “Invisible Man is the name of Ralph Ellison’s novel about a black man living in the southern United States in the first half of the 20th century. That was the condition of blacks generally then: people who were there but were not there. People who served but we’re not observed. People who spoke but were not heard. People who existed but were not seen.

Invisible men are what Filipinos are in the heart of this country in the first year of the third millennium after Christ. Or invisible women, as the women’s groups are bound to insist, women living even more phantasmagoric lives than men in this country. They are shadowy figures that surround us but which we cannot see. They are strands of insubstantial matter that float around us, but which we cannot catch.

They are emaciated forms that lie on the sidewalks at night, finding temporary refuge in oblivion through the deadly fumes of rugby whom we pass by but acknowledge as there only in the same way that we acknowledge the pavement to be there. They are the blotches we see through the rain tapping on the windows of our cars with scrawny fingers, whom we flip coins to and roll the glass rapidly down not so much to avoid getting wet but to avoid looking at their faces and impaling them with our eyes into reality.

Everywhere, the institutions of society conspire to hide them from sight. The Church does so by turning them into radiant flock, filling up the churches in their Sunday best, their eyes turned heavenward in blissful supplication.

Someone makes a movie about the poor so caught in the clutches of desperation they copulate without shame in front of an audience-no, more than this, fallen in the in the lassitude of despair they laugh without joy at the thought of salvation-and it protests the distortion of the superimposed image. Imelda used to put up huge billboards of her nutrition program on the road used by visiting dignitaries to hide the hovels that lay in the path of their vision. The sensation is not unlike that.

Government makes the poor invisible in a similar way. Except that in lieu of huge billboards of proclaim the divine plan, it erects ones that proclaim the human plan.

“On this site,” say the billboards that hide the jagged roofs made from La Perla Biscuits cans afire from a setting sun, “will rise a new Philippines.” Through the magic of “developmentalese” the poor are the longer the tangle of arms and legs and the mass of consumptive bodies we must extricate from to get to our bunks, they are a statistical aggregate that has been temporarily disadvantaged, dis-empowered, and inconvenienced. But not for long. Growth will eradicate poverty, even if it has to eradicate the poor.

The media make them invisible even if they transfix them into very visible corpses that float on the river or headless bodies that rot in iron drums. The charitable institutions made them invisible even if they transform them into very palpable bottomless pits resembling human bellies that make food and medicine, alms for the body and balms for the soul, disappear. Even the poor themselves make them invisible even as some of them materialize the fog of invisibility to become very visible maids and nurses and forklift operators in strange lands.”

Tongues on Fire, Conrado de Quiros, delivered before the French Business Association of the Philippines, Alliance Francaise, Bel-Air Village, Makati City, April 24, 2001. From 20 Speeches that Moved a Nation, Manuel L. Quezon III, editor.

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