Reading and Such

Chato Garcellano—‘the weary observer’— connects deeply

Her book comes at a crossroads when the election will either show if the voting population has matured, or if it is still mesmerized by myth-making

Garcellano half buried in newspaper work, 2002


‘Book Haul’ by Cecil Robin Singalaoa, watercolor on cotton rag paper, 2020, 4×6 inches

Photos courtesy of Angelina G. Goloy and Lynett A. Villariba

Connecting. What are words ultimately for… even if initially they burst as though from loaded chambers? Even if they lay the most elegant, and therefore the most dangerous, traps?” –Rosario A. Garcellano in the foreword to the out-of-print Mean Streets: Essays on the Knife Edge

Her instinct was to flee, even from a seemingly harmless instrument like the Proust Questionnaire, named after, and made popular as a parlor game by, Marcel Proust, the French novelist. Banking on over 30 years of friendship and possibly a past-life connection, I imposed the questionnaire on her. The magazine Vanity Fair features this usually on its back page.

Author Rosario A. Garcellano as sketched by her book collaborator Lynett A. Villariba

I’m talking about Rosario “Chato” Abueg Garcellano whose second book of prose, following the National Book Award-winning Mean Streets (Kalikasan Press, 1991), was released a few weeks ago by Gantala Press and Alfredo F. Tadiar Library.

Cover of Necessary Contexts

The wait for her Necessary Contexts: Essays for Our Times has been worth these long 31 years. It is overdue, but I suppose it took a while to compile these political analyses, travelogues and eulogies to her beloved departed because she kept her nose close to the grindstone. I never met a journalist who has driven herself harder than Chato and has set such high standards for the profession.

I remembered a time when she took a rare vacation leave because, according to her, she was committing errors in copy reading (and, by extension, typos that appeared on the print edition of the newspaper), errors which to her are the costly stuff of restless nights. These mistakes indicated that she needed a break.

This is not to say she, the former Opinion editor of Philippine Daily Inquirer, is too damn serious for her own good. But she can be that. I wanted to coax her lighter side out. Among friends, especially the ones who call themselves The Merry Weirdos, Chato has this gift of mimicry that has never failed to elicit laughter from us, an enrapt audience.

That she even deigned to respond to a few of the 35 questions made me want to go “Woot! Small triumph there!” She wrote that “the questions are like what we tossed around when we were in high school and pretending to be worldly wise. But I can dance to Remember When.”

She said she was unable to answer the first two questions on what her ideas were about “perfect happiness” and “greatest fear,” explaining, “Such absolutist terms stump me even after all these years.”

On to Question No. 3: What is the trait you most deplore in yourself? Answer: “That I can’t play at definitions even on a lark?”

Asked about her current state of mind, she said she felt ‘literally ill at what’s going on…’

Asked about her current state of mind, she said she felt “literally ill at what’s going on and also being certain that we must all do what we can to arrest our steep fall from the cliff.”

On to Question No. 14, which words or phrases does she overuse, she said, “I’ve just realized that I overuse ‘vale of tears’ and ‘thorn in the side —perhaps an indication that Ms Ray of Sunshine I’m not.” Told ya she’s loaded with self-irony, too, that enables her to poke fun at her glum disposition.

Regarding Question No. 17, which talent she would most like to have, she recalled “a time in a bar (when) a friend remarked that it would be great to be able to sing torch songs. I agree that it’s a talent I’d like to have, along with a mastery of sign language.”

Question No. 21 zeroes in on where she would most like to live. She replied, “I remember the air in San Francisco and wish I could live there again. But I’d also want to return to the motherland again and again, warts and all—a case of heart in two places.”

Among her travel pieces is Rereading San Francisco, the  author’s love ballad to the city not that far from Stanford University where she was once a John S. Knight journalism fellow. Her mind wanders to the time when she “discussed commitment and praxis” with co-fellows, an Italian and a Palestinian.

Toasting to everyone’s health in 2015, from left, Villariba, publisher Rodolfo T. Reyes, Garcellano and Llamas

Like her partner and interlocutor, the late poet Edel E. Garcellano, Chato is from the political-is-personal, the personal-is-political school of writing. I agree—there is no other, or better, school than that. Playing the role of an objective, non-involved fence-sitter already reveals a stance.

As she makes clear in her introduction, “How tempting to just hang out as an observer languidly chewing on an orchid while political speeches unfold. But our times make it imperative for one to ditch the idea of sitting stolidly in the gallery while the wealthy and entitled, prancing, make a play for victory at the polls as though their audience didn’t know any better.”

Just take a glance at her list of favorite writers, the ones she has read and continues to reread: “Gordimer, Didion, Neruda, Poe, Said, Coetzee… Dami pa (There’s more).” They’re indicators of her heightened awareness and “how engagement makes us avatars of resistance.”

The timeliness of the book’s release cannot be emphasized enough. It comes at a crossroads in contemporary times when a national election will either show if the voting population has matured and is ready for radical change, or if it is still mesmerized by the myth-making of the Marcos and Duterte families.

Chato describes Leni Robredo — ‘She’s strong as hell’

Chato describes Vice President and presidential aspirant Leni Robredo as “no wimp in the face of Malacañang’s unrelenting hostility.”  She concludes, “She’s strong as hell.”

But the author is especially merciless in dealing with erring public officials like the “supercilious and crass” Harry Roque, the former presidential spokesperson with a “flair for histrionics” that includes “posing with dolphins during an out-of-town excursion at a time when the pandemic was severely impairing the mobility of much of the population.”

She singles out Interior Secretary Eduardo Año for his “startling idea” of doing “house-to-house searches for COVID-19 patients.” She calls this “a militarist mindset.” Thankfully, the public raised a hue and a cry that put a stop to the idea.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Teddyboy Locsin is not spared, he who in his incarnation as a formidable newspaperman was fearless in skewering incompetent officials. This concerned his office’s possible breach of privacy that put passport holders’ data at risk.

Etcetera, etcetera or “yada yada” to use Chato’s expression for empty official talk that misguides the public. I imagine her silently weeping at the state of the country that she has to comment on almost daily in an editorial or a commentary piece. She challenges, “Think of our taxes landing in the pockets of the shameless, of the accused plunderers still at it…”

She quotes a warning from former Black Panther Assata Shakur about how benumbing the goings-on in our poor country can be: “The less you think about your oppression, the more your tolerance for it goes. After a while, people just think oppression is the normal state of things.”

Necessary Contexts has an intermission from the political hammer going down hard on the heads of the incompetent and the corrupt in high places. The section There Are Places I Remember compiles a few (sadly, there are only nine here) travel pieces that take us readers from the magnificent Yosemite National Park to the placid waters of Lake Pandin in Laguna.

There is a most memorable line that leapt out of the page in her visit to the national park in California. I found myself this time crying huge tears for the truth it held in the economical but exquisite words. Funnily, the words are enclosed in parentheses: “(Of what use, after all, is love or pleasure if it is not declared?)”

“Exquisite” was the word the critic Edel, a biased source he may be, used to describe his wife’s prose. “Even more exquisite than that of________________,” and he named a Filipino master of prose in English.

Perhaps more than the beauty of the language is the heft, the weight, the substance, the sheer force behind her argument and fond remembering of those who went ahead, including President Cory Aquino, that grizzled lion of journalism Armando J. Malay, Inquirer editor-in-chief Letty J. Magsanoc, Rustie Otico, our drinking buddy after putting to bed a newspaper issue, and Edel.

To this day, I am at a loss for words to describe the void Edel left in many lives. But Chato helps us cope, shapes our grief in an elegant selection of words like when she notes how “he who pontificated against privilege was himself privileged by his gender and his platform to give voice to his ideas and provocations, unlike others so muted by their own circumstances.”

Forgive the pun on the title, but this latest book by the author, who calls herself the “weary observer,” is a necessary accessory to reading and understanding the times and beyond. Heartfelt congratulations!

The Merry Weirdos get together in December 2017 at Cafe Breton, clockwise, Corito Llamas, Lynett Villariba, Ester Dipasupil, the author, Garcellano and Angelina Goloy

Necessary Contexts is available at It will be launched on March 26 at 6 p.m. at the Facebook page of the Alfredo F. Tadiar Library.

About author


She is a freelance journalist. The pandemic has turned her into a homebody.

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