Of names and typologies

LODESTAR - Danton Remoto (The Philippine Star) - April 10, 2021 - 12:00am

My name is supposed to be Dimas, after the Catholic saint on the day I was born. But Dimas was the good thief hung on the cross beside Jesus Christ, and my mother didn’t want me named after a thief. So she asked my father to go to the encyclopedia at home and look for a name that began with the letter D. The first name that my father saw was ‘Danton,’ a lawyer and leader of the French revolution. So my father went to my mother and said my new name. If he only checked down the encyclopedia entry, he would have read that George Jacques Danton was later decapitated, victim of a power struggle with Robespierre.

When I was studying in the UK, my classmates’ eyes just widened when they learnt of my name. They surely knew their European history. But when I went to school later in the US, my classmates could hardly remember my name, so in the US, I changed my name to “Dan.”

When the British colonized the Philippines in 1762, they should have stayed for more than two years. If they did, the colonizers would have been more trade-based, but they would have taught us English as well. And British English.

Because even if I were still young, I already knew that the British were more elegant than the Americans. The Old World was always better than the New World, class versus crass. The British also had Her Majesty the Queen, even if her children didn’t look as good as her.

The Americans, they only had First Ladies who were also crystal gazers. Remember Nancy Reagan? She was just a slimmer and older version of our crystal gazers and clairvoyants who plied their trade outside Quiapo Church, in deepest, darkest Manila.

And how did I know that the Queen’s children didn’t look as good as she did? actually saw them. Not just in pictures, as many people did, but in real, living colour. When I was studying in the UK, I was at the library when I heard a public announcement that everyone should now leave the library. Princess X, the Queen’s daughter, was visiting to give a grant to the university or something.

But I was then doing research in the library, that was why I didn’t leave the library. After one hour, torn by pangs of hunger, I stood up from my library carrel and began leaving. I was walking down the carpeted stairs when I met someone going up. Her cold, blue eyes were directed at me, her head tilted to the right. As if she was waiting for me to greet her, or to curtsey. Her pink suit was lovely and tailored well, and the way they teased her hair was not bad. But, yes, her mum was way lovelier than her.

But even if I fancied myself as a rebellious, I did follow everything that my parents told me when I was young. I folded my blanket and plumped my pillows and flattened my bedsheet every morning that God had made. I always sat at the breakfast table with my face already washed, my teeth brushed and my mouth gargled. My father was a soldier. He liked us to be clean in face and clothing the moment we sat down to eat. And the posture should be as straight as a ruler.

And so, I straightened my posture, studied hard from grade school to the uni, and prayed the Hail Mary every day, before I went to sleep. My father’s smile was always brighter than the day every time he attended my graduation ceremonies, when I got several medals in school.

The medal in English was easy to get. I’d been reading encyclopedias since I was young, a complete set of the Encyclopedia Brittanica that my uncle bought for my father. I read everything, from Aardvark to Zygote. I concentrated on the British writers, from the entries on Sir Gawain of the Green Knight up to Graham Greene. I also read avidly the pages on the theatre of the war, where the British pillaged countries during their colonizing moments, and later fought with the United States to save the Free World.

The medal for the Best in Deportment (or the Most Behaved), was also a breeze to get. I just didn’t show to them my sharp elbows and my sharper tongue.

And how about the medal on Best in Community Service? I taught reading and English to the children of elementary schools in the city. I would go to the village center every Saturday morning with my books, and read to the children. I also prepared peanut-butter sandwiches for them, as well as jugs of pineapple juice. So after our lessons, they would have their snacks, which they admit to me they didn’t have in their hovels made of plywood nailed together and topped with a galvanized-iron roof.

Moreover, I always prayed every night not just to ask the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, to bless me. I also prayed to her to protect me, since even in Grade One, I knew I was different. To my right sat Elizabeth, who was pretty in an Ariana Grande sort of way, but I don’t know. I always looked at Roberto, who sat on my right. Now Roberto looked like the young brown version of Paul Newman. You should see his screen test with James Dean. It’s in YouTube, and the comments were a hoot.

But how would I know? I was then a young and closeted Catholic in a conservative country. People like me didn’t exist, for even if young, we were already told we would be thrown in the pits of hell, surrounded by people with horns and pointed tails, there to burn now and forever.

It took a lifetime to change that mind-set, to reclaim identities and banish typologies. The young ones are luckier, for in YouTube they now have Boys’ Love series as well as books that tell them there is nothing wrong with the love that dares to be different.

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Danton Remoto’s latest book is Riverrun, A Novel, published by Penguin Random House South East Asia. Copies are sold at Shopee Philippines and globally at Amazon.

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