Carlos Celdran, the people’s cultural activist
THE CORNER ORACLE - Andrew J. Masigan (The Philippine Star) - October 16, 2019 - 12:00am

Minutes after the Celdran family announced Carlos’ death, social media outlets were flooded with posts  from friends and strangers alike, each expressing sentiments of shock, grief, regret, admiration and gratitude.

Some people loved him while others scoffed at him -- regardless of how one felt about Carlos, his patriotism, love of Manila, artistry and courage were irrefutable. 

Through his walking tour and theater performances, he made us remember history, challenged us to question the status quo and incited discussions for better government policies. He believed that art had the power to change the nation. After all, he said, political acts and firey words are eventually forgotten -- but art always endures. Art has the power to make a society change without forcing them to. The Guernica, and how it impacted the Spanish Civil war, is a supreme example of this.  

For those that didn’t know him, Carlos was an artist of multiple dimensions.  He was a cartoonist, a visual artist, theater performer, writer, historian and tour guide. He is best known for his “Walk this Way” Tours of Intramuros and for being the driving force behind the Manila Biennale of 2018. He gained infamy for standing up against the catholic church during the height of the reproductive health debates. 

Theater personality Gabe Mercado aptly described his close friend, saying: “Carlos was an extraordinary storyteller with an unmatched love and passion for Manila. He cared too much, loved too fiercely and thought too bravely. But he would not be Carlos if he had toned it down”. Indeed, the man never failed to provoke, shock, delight, repulse and charm anyone who would care to listen.  But make no mistake, all these were done with a patriotic agenda in mind. Art was his medium and irreverence was his style. It proved to be a potent combination to get his message across. He was a cultural activist in the truest sense.

Carlos believed that  the enactment of the reproductive health law  was the silver bullet that could curb poverty and improve the quality of lives of Filipinos. This is why he fought tooth and nail to give  marginalized women access to  free sex education and options to prevent unwanted pregnancies. And so, on that faithful evening of September 2010, he interrupted an ecumenical service at the Manila Cathedral clad in an outfit resembling his idol, Jose Rizal, and a poster in hand that read, “Damaso”. The gesture was meant to remind the clergy to keep out of national affairs.  

He knew the risks but did it anyway. His convictions were stronger than the specter of imprisonment. For this, he was convicted for violating Article 133 of the Penal Code and sentenced to 2 months to one year in prison.  I reckon that in this instance, the Supreme Court ruled as if the Philippines was still a theocracy.

While certain quarters mocked him for his theatrical act and called it futile, in reality,  it sparked an earnest conversation about the pros and cons of the RH Bill.  Two years later, the bill was passed.  Carlos may have lost the battle but he certainly won the war.

Just to be clear, the man was never anti-catholic, says friend and food author, Guillermo Ramos. He honored his religion and was spiritual in his own way. It was the hypocrisy of the clergy that repulsed him.

The city of Manila was his greatest love. Despite its squalor and grime, he looked upon its walls, highways and byways with romantic eyes. Childhood best friend, Jamie Wilson shared that in their teens, Carlos would take him on long walks around Intramuros, Malate and Ermita where they would admire the colonial architecture, discuss history and chat with the locals about the olden days. Little did Jamie know, those strolls would be the foundation of Carlos’ work as a champion of Intramuros.

He saw the walled city for what it once was -- the genesis of Filipino culture. It was where ideas were discussed, where philosophies were challenged and where the Filipino way of life was born. It is the country’s cultural ground zero. To him, Intramuros was still a place where every Filipino could freely speak his mind. This is why he felt safe to speak his.

Carlos dedicated his life to bringing art back to Intramuros.  He once told me that if only the art scene were to be restored in it, Manila would regain its soul. In 2018, Carlos worked alongside Atty. Guiller Asido, the Administrator of the Intramuros Administration, to mount the Manila Biennale, 2018.  The Biennale is a grand exhibition of contemporary art that happens every two years. 

During the early stages of organizing the Biennale, Atty Asido admitted being  warned by fellow workers in government about working with such a headstrong artist like Carlos who they described as being loyal only to himself. After months of collaboration, Atty. Asido shot back at his fellow bureaucrats saying, “I beg to differ, Carlos was loyal to Intramuros.”

It was the first time for Manila to host a Biennale and while it had its share of critics, it succeeded in establishing the city as a cultural hub. In fact, Carlos had plans of producing the second installment of the Biennale in 2020. Its fate is now uncertain.

His “Walk this Way” tours was staple for anyone visiting Manila.  He told Manila’s story with the end goal of providing context on Filipino culture.  While educational and entertaining, the tour was also brutally frank. He didn’t mince words about the horrors wrought by the colonists. It was clear that he was still smarting over how the Americans allowed Manila to be the battleground of the Japanese-American war. America’s decision caused our once beautiful colonial city to be razed in a war that was really about protecting American interest. I am not sure if Carlos ever forgave America for what it had done to his beloved Manila.

Early this year, when exiled in Spain, a common friend, Francisco Milan, asked why he chose to seek refuge in the land of our former colonial master he supposedly resented. Carlos replied by saying that we should not blame Spain for everything that is wrong with Philippine society. Many of it is our own doing. In his heart, this grandson of Malaga loved Spain and recognized all its positive contributions to Philippine society.

Its been a week since Carlos passed and netizens are still posting messages of grief. I suppose deep inside, we all know that we lost an true patriot, one with the courage to speak out. He was the people’s  cultural activists and his passing left a hole in the national heart. He will be missed.

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