Martial Law Baby

Martial law baby. This is the monicker given to those who grew up under the Marcos Regime. I was 9 when martial law was declared on September 23, 1972. I remember waking up the next day, Sunday, and looking for the newspaper so I could get the comic section. It didn’t come that day. My parents both worked for the radio station as actors and all the media — radio and TV stations were closed. This means both of my parents and two uncles were out of work. We all lived in a two-bedroom apartment, so we relied on my non-showbiz uncles’ paychecks. One worked at the textile factory and the other worked at a candy store. It was rough, but I was just a child and didn’t feel the weight as much as they did. I remember that rice was rationed and my dad would be in line only to get rice mixed with tiny shiny stones.

When we went outside, the metrocom (riot police in blue) would be marching in the streets, and the only time TV would come on was when Marcos was making an announcement. The administration launched the New Society campaign and at school, we sang the New Society song — it’s still in my head actually. I still remember the words:

May bagong silang.
May bago nang buhay,
Bagong bansa, bagong galaw
Sa Bagong Lipunan!
Magbabago ang lahat, tungo sa pag-unlad,
At ating itanghal: Bagong Lipunan!

There’s a new birth/There’s new life/ New nation/ New movement/ In this New Society/ Everything will change toward progress/ Let’s celebrate: New Society.

I was going to a Catholic school, so I don’t know how my parents could have afforded it when they lost their jobs. I just remember hiding from the debt collectors — turning off lights in the house whenever they came. My father would cater food. I know my mother pawned her jewelry; not sure what side gigs she might have done. Wish I could have asked her.

I was a curious child so I would listen to adult conversation and they were always arguing. We certainly had a house divided. Most hate Marcos but were scared to say anything or spoke in cryptic language, lest the metrocom or a spy was listening, but there were adults, sadly including my mom, who were justifying the need for martial law and talking about how smart Marcos was. There was too much violence, they would say. They were referring to protests and rallies, student walk outs — which my eldest sister participated in –and then the bombing of Plaza Miranda in 1971, during a political rally of the opposition Liberal Party.

My mom’s conflicted loyalty was understandable — she needed to work and now it was controlled by the government. People lied or hid their true allegiances to get jobs in the media. My mother was rehired to write and direct a show that catered to the Philippine army fighting against Muslim soldiers fighting for autonomy in the south. She based some of the stories from letters written by soldiers, which I would sometimes read. Mostly, they talked about how they missed their families. Some parts were redacted. She event went to the south to entertain the soldiers. Despite my mother’s supposed allegiance to Marcos, we had contraband books on the shelf along with Barbara Cartland’s romance stories — one was called The Filipino Martyrs by Irish Richard Brinsley Sheridan, which talked about witnessing the unjust Philippine-American war. And all this time I thought the U.S. was our friend. It certainly was the friend of the Marcoses.

When I was woke

As a high school student, I refused to read history books because I knew they were re-written by the Marcos administration. I was an angry and rebellious teen and hungry for knowledge.

In college, I got involved in student organizations and became more politicized. We had teachers who assigned Renato Constantino’s books, the most memorable being The Origin of a Myth and A History of the Philippines, which I’m pretty sure were banned at the time. I went on immersion programs where we lived with marginalized communities like fisherfolk and indigenous peoples. My consciousness was awakened. We started a youth advocacy organization for indigenous peoples called KATRIBU or Kabatan para sa Tribong Pilipino. I was the editor of the newsletter which we called Usok (Smoke). I believe the organization still exists. I remember we would meet in secret and sometimes would have to disperse when the metrocom came or rumors of a raid were rife. We attended countless rallies, especially after Ninoy Aquino was assassinated. I must be really born under a lucky sign because every time it was time for me to go (I had a curfew at home), my friends and classmates would be hosed after I left. They often joked about how lucky I was.

People Power Revolution

We were poll watchers during the snap presidential election that preceded the People’s Power Revolution. We made sure that votes were counted. In some polling stations, goons came to disrupt proceedings. Tension was high.

My mother was adamant that my sister and I stay home during the EDSA revolution, but we managed to sneak out and join the people protesting and eventually taking over the television station. We were ecstatic when the Marcoses left on the third day. A month later, I started working for Letty Jimenez-Magsanoc at Mr. and Ms. Magazine, which was among the staunchest anti-Marcos publications during martial law, and the Philippine Daily Inquirer, which was an underground paper that surfaced after EDSA. I was her editorial assistant, and later on, became the youngest staff writer for the Sunday Inquirer Magazine. It was a heady time taking over the Press Club and displacing the senior yellow journalists. We were such young idealistic journalists who met and drank San Miguel almost every night at the Press Club after the paper was put to bed.

Flash forward to 2022. I couldn’t stop crying after Marcos Jr. “won” the elections. I left the Philippines and migrated to North America in 1991, but I was there on vacation in Manila in 2001 and marched with our people to Malacanang to oust the corrupt Joseph Estrada. Seeing the support that Leni Robredo had during the elections, I am confident that our people will stand up against this Marcos if they want to oust him. But yes, we need to stay vigilant and support efforts to get the Philippine Human Rights Act passed! Enough is enough. The U.S. can’t keep supporting a government that kills and brutalizes the marginalized, the journalists, and the activists.

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I encountered this word for the first time after reading the book Little Prince. It was the fox who said “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” I looked it up in my hardy Merriam-Webster dictionary “es·​sen·​tial i-ˈsen(t)-shəlof, relating to, or constituting essence INHERENTof the utmost importance: BASIC, INDISPENSABLE, NECESSARY.

But what is essential that’s “invisible to the eye”? When you’re an angst-ridden teenager, anything and everything could be a source of agitation, irritation, demoralization, even suicide ideation. Teenagers are such tragic characters. journals are smeared with blood that dripped from shallow bladed slashes on the pale side of the arm where nerves are more sensitive; “not killing myself mom; just manifesting internal turmoil.”

And so “essential” became my safe word. There have been varying interpretations of what this quote meant. I took it to mean: Not everything is important.

I gave the book to my son when he was going through a difficult time. He said he loved it. And yet I wonder if it helped him discern what “matters of consequence” truly are.

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30-Day writing challenge

I’ve been writing everyday since May 1 to take the 30-day, 30-minute writing challenge I signed up to raise money for American Cancer Society. However, I said I’ll only publicly share writing that I think may be worth sharing. And this week I caught some students, including one of my favorites, using AI- generated text, albeit not 100%. I was heartbroken. I get the temptation to cheat this way. It doesn’t even take much effort. A colleague noted that it is “the laziest form of cheating!” Just give it a prompt and it’ll type it away. And why should I be surprised? I had relied on AI to autocorrect my misspelled words. I had asked it to proofread my writing and my students’ essays. And gotten upset with it for auto-correcting my sometimes foul language. Ducking agile??? Well, they have upgraded the thing to write full coherent paragraphs now. It is not only “intuitive”, it is summarizing, deducting, inducting, inferring, and analyzing.

Yesterday, friends revealed they have been using it to write their application letters. Makes them sound so sophisticated. It renders these conventions we English teachers hold so dear, irrelevant. What is the point of learning to write if AI can just whip up some sophisticated lines to impress a would-be employer? I should have just had AI-generated my 30 minutes for me. Seriously.

It’s funny how, beside me, my partner is watching the Rise and Fall of the Borg on YouTube as I ponder upon this AI writing phenomenon. “Resistance is futile,” I remember the Borg queen saying. I feel the same about this whole AI conversation. I do wonder how the newfangled communication technology impacts critical thinking. Is it making us smarter or dumber? I guess writing is not something that comes easy for everyone. So I get it. Just like public speaking is a talent few have. I know I can’t do that extemporaneous speaking that my sister got a first place award for doing in college.

But let’s call a spade a fucking spade can we? If you used AI to write your essay or email or application letter, own it! And if you’re my student, I better not catch you.

I get that some students are disadvantaged by the digital divide, not having laptops or sophisticated cellphones to write their essays with and so they cram at the last minute when they get access at the library and are tempted to cheat (although if truth be told I’ve had students in my class who refuse to buy their books but have the latest iPhone). Can’t deny that the kids that “have” are advantaged by their access to unlimited wifi and AI technology like chatGPT, so why not teach our students to use it the “right” way? In fact, I had a student with clear dysgraphia that I know would probably never get ahead without the costly help of a neurologist, but who could maybe benefit from using AI to coherently put her thoughts on paper. I get that writing essays may not be a priority for students who only need to get a certificate to get a nursing degree, but to make this thing think for you? “Writing is thinking on paper,” claimed William Zinsser, who wrote the seminal book On Writing Well way back when. It seems critical thinking has been eroded by readily available information, albeit suspect, on social media and the internet. Now, this AI chatGPT has practically rendered it out of fashion.

AI is like a book-loving serial killer. You can’t help but love him for intuiting and giving you everything you could possibly need and want. Until the day you find out he’s been cyberstalking you all this time, and you realize that, damn, you better end this before he ends you.

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God-Talk over Margaritas

Last night I hung out with people I feel safe drinking and talking with. What I learned having lived as long as I have is that drinking and talking can be a dangerous combo. There IS such a thing as TUI — talking under the influence — and people can get hurt, both physically, when the talk turns to fisticuffs, and emotionally, when belief systems are challenged or past traumas are triggered.

Last night, the idea of forgiveness and redemption came up from a recollection of a spurned wedding invitation. Two actually. The thing about 20+-year friendships is that there is a deep reservoir of shared memories to flip through and up. And in that reservoir is a plethora of emotions— some forgotten, some forgiven, and some still festering. The questions: Can we forgive old transgressions? And why did they happen in the first place? And if we say it’s between them and their god, what if they don’t have one?

One suggested, from what she’s read, that the act of forgiveness is not really about absolving the transgressor of guilt (if indeed they feel guilty), but it’s more about one’s ability to find peace within oneself despite the transgression. We all nodded and toasted, thinking the concept wise.

I shared that, sometimes, forgiveness is like a hallmark card saying generated by an assembly line of writers in a windowless room. Unfortunately, by now, they have probably been displaced by chatGPT. (Note to self: must write a play about how a hallmark card writer-worker was laid off because of AI. And in fact, as the night aged, talk turned to AI Armageddon.)

As a linguist, I wonder if there is a language where the word forgiveness does not exist. If instead, accountability is learned in the vocabulary early on.

In any case, the conversation is enriched by parents’ quandary over kids making bad decisions or not making decisions at all, overwhelmed by the choices presented to them. Children are depressed, anxious, unmotivated — same things we felt as hormonal teens, but we acknowledged that teens today have more crap to deal with being exposed to so much. Back then, we only have to worry about the dangers that existed in our immediate physical, not virtual, surroundings. What’s good is now, there is less stigma about mental health; in fact, many of my students have openly shared in their writing their precarious journeys toward sanity. One friend echoed a concern she heard about the abundance of these diagnoses. That maybe it’s better if these neuroses are not diagnosed, because then, they can’t be used as crutches. However, we cannot discount the overwhelming number of incarcerated youth suffering from undiagnosed mental health problems. Bottom line is —their brains are still developing. (Read: Primal Teen by Barbara Strauch). Soooo, we asked each other, how did we deal with our internal demons back then without therapy and medication? How did we raise our grades from Ds and Cs to As without Adderal or bupropion? Was it with mom’s (or dad’s) strong and fast backhand against our cheeks (whichever ones)? Was it with prayers?

Last night, we went around the table to candidly share our religious affiliations and beliefs. Again, you can only be this brazen among friends you feel safe with. Otherwise, avoid drinking and talking at all cost! Especially about religion. One friend shared how their child was curious about what’s going inside a serial killer’s mind. What made them kill? What guides our moral compasses for that matter? How do we know right from wrong if we don’t believe in a higher being that constantly watches and punishes? For me, having been raised in a “sinful” home with parents constantly seeking redemption, the idea of god has evolved from this judgy, unforgiving being to a loving presence that exists in all the people and things I love— both animate and inanimate. But yes, that’s not enough. Interestingly, I just saw this article from Rappler; it felt as if the writer were with us last night toasting with her own margarita-filled salt rimmed stem glass. Check it out:

Anyway, where were we? Yes, forgiveness. An idea so tied to Christianity, really. And what is wrong with that? Offer the other cheek, the Bible says. Redemption is presupposed by forgiveness. So that when Jesus died, he resurrected to forgive us and redeem us all from sin, and we lived happily ever after. Or so we pray. But if Jesus died and never resurrected, then the murderers remained murderers. Rapists are still rapists. There is no forgiveness. There is no redemption.

And with that thought, we ordered churros and coffee.

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A Death Moratorium

In the last two years I’ve lost people I know, some more intimately than others. It had been difficult moving from grieving to feeling grateful to be alive and able to enjoy a birthday cake with my daughter or bond with my son while making a vegetarian meal.

For awhile, there was not a day I woke up without thinking about my friend Valerie who died in August 2020, two days before her birthday, our dear Alex who passed away suddenly in January 2021, just a week or two after we FaceTimed with him, and then a few weeks later, my Mango Tribe sister Ann, for whom eloquent tributes have been written that I could not read without bawling, and so I stopped. Then, my sister-in-law Techy, my Facebook friend; we weren’t close but I know she was also loved dearly. My beloved Aunt Belen from COVID in September 2021. She was my second mom, and our family has not recovered from her sudden death. My friend and martial arts guru Chris from a stroke in April 2021, while I was at the airport in Mexico waiting for my flight back to Chicago. Even my favorite frenemy Jeni T, much loved by some and avoided by others for her feisty and judgy nature. Most of them were too young to have been taken, four were fierce women with children left motherless. All of them full of life and love for others.

And then there are the faceless 400K in U.S. alone… mass shootings, senseless gun violence in Chicago… It is difficult not to live in fear that I might lose another human. Come to think of it, I have always had paranoia about losing loved ones ever since I was a self-absorbed teenager. I’m not sure why. Could be a movie or movies I saw. Love Story? Bobby Deerfield? Tagalog tearjerkers? When I was a little girl, I saw my dad die on television, and I cried so hard even though my mother kept reassuring me that it was not true. He’s right there on the sofa! He hugged me tight to prove he was still alive, while I struggled, pummeled him with my puny fists, made him promise to never die again. He did, anyway, in 2009. And then, my extraordinary mother followed, 9 years later.

Now I feel like I’m constantly trying to distract myself from falling into a grief hole and staying there.

I watch mindless movies. I hug and kiss my little doggy. Text heart and smiley face emojis to close friends. Like and love posts. Raise fist emojis to causes I believe in, go to rallies, teach, sing, drink, shop, travel, eat out, clean the house, wipe sticky substance from the fridge door handle left by a son with such a mutant power. All this to keep me from imagining my wrists slashed, the cuts vertical, the flesh raw and bloodless as if I’m already dead.

I think about death and dying a lot while living. I want to say, shhh –be quiet. Be grateful. Stop. I kiss my husband’s lips passionately as if his breath is gold in my mouth because it is. It kills me to think about the five spoons of sugar he put in his coffee, the T-bone steak he ordered at the diner, the stresses he has at work, the kids not knowing their boundaries with him because he never established any. It kills me. I am dead already. But I don’t want to die. Not really. I’ve spent too much on healthcare to just stop wanting to live.

Thank goddess for Wellbutrin, therapy, close friends who check in, some dealing with great losses themselves. And although I am not as brave as I would have loved to be, I am also not weak. I only wish for a moratorium on all the death and dying for now please.

I think about all this as I get ready to go get my mammogram done this morning. Wish me well.

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Writing Femme

I wrote this piece for the 2008 Femme Conference that happened in Chicago, where I was invited to make a presentation. I recently found it on Dropbox while looking for old plays that I hope to revisit. It’s really interesting because I feel I have always had to justify or explain why I see myself as queer femme despite being happily married to a man with whom I have been raising two beautiful children. In fact, “queer” is a term I have lovingly embraced, having always wondered where I and many of my dear friends fit in the gender binary that have been imposed upon us from childhood. Hope you’ll enjoy reading it.

The other day while making peanut butter and maple syrup for a six-year old daredevil, I got a call that made the hairs on the back of neck stand.

“Charie? Charie M?” I asked, incredulous. I almost wanted to say, “Is this Charie? The bad mofo who broke my heart in junior high? The short cherry-cheeked soft butch with a swagger that roused my 16-year-old libido?” I felt the heat rise up my face– a much welcomed hot flash, believe me.

When I think of femme I think of butch. Butches make a femme different from a dyke or a lesbian. In the Philippines we used to call them “mars”– the antithesis of “pars” or butch.

Charie’s call made me smile, secure in my femme sexuality. See, I had been doubting myself for awhile, or more like I feel people have been doubting me. Four years ago (18 years now actually) I fell in love with a man. After being with butches for most of my serially monogamous life, I ended up marrying a man, to the delight of my born-again Christian mother and the conundrum of friends and acquaintances. Not just A man, he likes to qualify — The Man– a hard man with the heart of a soft butch. (Sounds like a teaser for a cheesy action flick.) I didn’t think I should give back the toaster, but sometimes I wonder.


I identify mainly as a queer femme. I will never feel at home in a straight bar where I could never do as a femme does in a dyke bar, moving hips and arms like I’m discovering my body for the first time, eyes closed, sweat swirling in the disco lights. When I write my plays, my heroines are hard femmes. They raise their fists to injustices here and everywhere. They cross borders to be with lovers, defying patrol guards and homophobic immigration laws. They fix broken door hinges, make a mean mac and cheese from scratch, turn into superheroes (or supervillains), and rescue butches from their internalized Gomorrahs.

In my writings it is the femme that makes hard decisions. They move in a straight world that makes oppressive assumptions about who they are. They pass to survive. They pass to win hearts and minds in the battle against small-mindedness and ignorance.

They pass because there is no other way.

In most of my works, being femme is not the central focus. Most of the time, their femme identity is incidental, implied not stated, but it still is at the core of their pain and underscores the decisions they make. In one of my favorite (and most toured) plays titled “Sister OutLaw,” the title character Marina has an expiring visa, but she can’t go back home because her family is relying on her to send money for an ailing mother and to help her sister provide for her son, so she does not have to go back to an abusive husband. But she also wants to stay in America because she is secretly in love with her best friend from high school, Joey. Unbeknownst to Marina, her best friend also has feelings for her (classic best friend-turn lover romantic comedy plot). Marina ends up having to marry Joey’s brother for papers, but in the end, pars and mars get together, and all three of them live happily forever in an overpriced West-Loop condo.

Let me clarify one thing though. My femmes, hard as they come, do fall in love with other femmes, lesbians, men, and trans-folk. Because really, in the end, to a hardcore femme it is all just degrees of butch-ness.

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Why do we love knowing the pain that comes?I pondered this as I listened and felt the ache of a broken-hearted friend.

I remember pondering this in middle school. Twelve and besotted. A girl with curls and a mean spike. One that parts jerseys on the other side of the net.


She had a kernel dimple on the corner of her mouth. I loved her. Wrote her poems and letters that she returned to me in a pile tied with twine. Letters I wrote in my best English, having absorbed Harlequin language. Might have plagiarized from my mom’s dog-eared collection. How could she just return them, careless, like an overdue library book? I did not comprehend. She never said why. Just left me crying in the hallway. My friends rushing around like a curtain.

We’d all been suckered by seventh graders.

Then in high school a few times more. Hash tags on my arms still visible. (I love too much I love too much)

It’s like a high on a rollercoaster. You scream and scream with your gut in your mouth; then, get back in line. Can I fix how I feel? Is there a pill to stem chest pains caused by an unknown biological agent. It’s like a drug I didn’t have to take.

I tell my friend that everything is going to be alright, but that it’ll get worse before it gets better. The stakes are higher when you’re older. Sell the house? Split the kids? Which friends should who take? How about health insurance?

Much messier than a pile of unwanted love letters.

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Reading tonight!! August 8, 7pm CST

Please click on the link below! Please be mindful of your time zone 😜❤️

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Bus Ride

Bus ride

When I was little, members of my family would take me on these endless bus rides. Mostly my grandpa, or apo, as strangers and family alike called him. I remember how comforting, as if I am being cradled and rocked gently, sweetly by invisible arms. I’m not the kid who asked if we were there yet. I never did want to get there, wherever “there” may be. I only wanted to stay where I was, seated on the cushioned bench, leaning against a hard wooden back slatted tightly together, the uneven edges pushing against flesh. I loved it! Watching the sun slowly paint the sky red from behind the mountains, the rice fields glowing, the vendors at every stop hawking food and souvenirs – a keychain, a toy with moving parts… Some too young yet faces already weathered, smiling a jaded smile, skin burnt dark by the unforgiving tropical sun.

I remember my sweet grandfather, so full of love for me and I for him. His face beamed whenever he saw me and all the other cousins were resigned to the thought that I am the favorite. So much unconditional love…

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Midnight Rumination

The promise of rain makes my body ache. Barometric drop. Barometric rise. Humidity that seeps into my skin and wraps my joints in a pin-studded elastic. It’s like a punishment each time. Trapped in a storybook nightmare with no one to nudge me out of my comic frame. Have you had those dreams? When you wake up before your body does and you can’t move a limb, not even a finger? You see the light from the street lamp peering through the curtains, the vague outline of the clock above the door. You can hear the sound of the fan whirring, your husband snoring like the night before. You are in the room with these sights and sounds, and yet you are not there. I remember sitting on a wheelbarrow as a child, watching my friends play, but my old people joints wouldn’t let me. Juvenile arthritis, the doctor said. Well, even diseases grow up, it seems. I’m old but the pain is new each time.

Some days I can’t fake it. This living like I want it. Can’t access my sane brain neath the pain. All you can do is distract yourself. Breath and play scrabble on your phone. Check on IG posts by your family and friends. Summon that smile. But then another kind of pain rises. The kind you can’t really feel.

Sirens sound like ululating ghosts. These troubles in my head are open wounds, throbbing needlessly, swallowing sleep, decapitating time.

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