Ten Nights at The Newsroom

For ten days and nights straight, I have been working at a major newsroom here in the Philippines. With the adrenaline that rushes every minute ticking too close to the deadline, I come face-to-face with a side of journalism I am yet to unravel.

I entered journalism school aching to be a writer. I dreamed to live a life filled with words to write, to say, and to read. Admittedly, I stepped into j-school not fully understanding the difference between creative writing and journalism, or its similarities and overlaps. After five years of sleepless nights and caffeine in my system, today I pride myself of understanding not just what, but why journalism is–and what it is for.

But the beauty of journalism is that the learning never stops.

I think one of the most difficult, yet often underrated, transitions in life is the period of moving from university to the work force. The pressure to make life decisions comes crashing in, like a deadline set for us to beat; decisions to quickly make and paths to choose. We’ve been cradled by school life for more than half of our existence, that once we step out to the so-called “real life,” we become exposed to our uncertainties. As many millenials would say, “adulting” is hard.

I came out of j-school simply wanting to get out there and tell stories. Stories of people, of places–a journey that I hope can also help me find myself. I admit that everyday I am unsure, almost frightened, of what lies ahead. I am scared of falling into a routine, or staying too much in my comfort zone, or not being able to grow and stretch out as I promised myself I would.

Today, I find myself in the newsroom of a major daily broadsheet. I work almost without rest, starting at hours when people would usually end their day. I work for a print publication, still sticking close to traditional ways of how we did the news. Pens and paper flying around. Technology makes some work easier and more accessible, but it is still the people that make the magic happen.

And that’s what really happens: magic. Except that now, I understand more than ever that a lot of hard work, sacrifice, and passion takes to get there. I see the people who have labored over the years–the gatekeepers, as they are called–work their way through the wrap-up of the day for someone to consume it first thing in the morning.

Coming close to the end of my college years, I never thought that I would work at a desk (at least, not so soon), but here I am, furiously typing away, editing, reading, editing, checking, working at the sidelines and in the bleachers. The constant churning of the dot matrix printer keeps us in place. News is coming, and it’s coming fast.

History unfolds fast when you are in a newsroom.

When you work on an edition for a newspaper, you are almost always assured that there is a tomorrow. More often than not, you welcome tomorrow at your desk. The irony is still you don’t know what tomorrow brings.

I am still in the stage of transition. It’s not as hard as I thought it would be, maybe because I have not lost sight of goals I set for myself. I hope I never will. Today, ten days and nights in, I welcome this new chapter in my life. It may not be the fastest route, but I am learning. Everyday.


(Views expressed on this post or on this blog are all mine, and does not reflect my employer’s views in any way.)

A Lumad wearing their traditional garb and carrying a traditional instrument.

Manilakbayan: Lessons from the People

They say the best way to know a person is to live a day in his shoes. But to live the lives of the Lumad – indigenous peoples hailing from southern Philippines – like they do today is frightening, to say the least.

But it wasn’t always that way.

“Lumad” means “indigenous” or “native” in Cebuano. Composed of 18 tribes and with countless cultures and traditions that they are defiantly proud to call their own, the Lumad are rich beyond measure, beyond ancestral lands that generations before them patiently tilled and their ways of simple living. But it is because of this same stretch of land – rich with gold and metals – that they are driven away from their homes, that their loved ones and elders are being murdered. With their ways of living different from the city – the so-called “civilized” life – many of them are tagged as rebels and insurgents; their schools closed shut in fear of learned people.

It wasn’t always this way, and it shouldn’t be.

Last week, more than 700 Lumad journeyed from Mindanao to voice their struggles in the imperial seat of the country, Metro Manila. Travels are not new to the Lumad; many have been constantly on the move when driven out of their lands since the 80s. But this year, the Manilakbayan is a loud banging against the ivory tower, a demand to be heard and to be given justice for their dead.

During the welcoming program in the University of the Philippines Diliman, where they were welcomed and housed for a week, a datu or tribal leader said that this is not just the fight of the Lumad, but of all Filipinos. Because once, we were all katutubo. Natives. Sons and daughters of the land.

These horrible killings. Children out of schools, living in fear. It should never be this way.

A datu or tribal leader raises his fist in protest and in solidarity.

A datu or tribal leader raises his fist in protest and in solidarity.

A Lumad wearing their traditional garb and carrying a traditional instrument sits quietly as he listens to students ask questions about their struggle.

A Lumad wearing their traditional garb and carrying a traditional instrument sits quietly as he listens to students ask questions about their struggle.

Details of a traditional Lumad cloth is seen beside a framed photograph of a Lumad boy.

Details of a traditional Lumad cloth is seen beside a framed photograph of a Lumad boy.

Stop Lumad Killings - the call of our Lumad brothers and sisters.

Stop Lumad Killings – the call of our Lumad brothers and sisters.

Stop Lumad killings!

HENERAL LUNA: A film that Filipinos deserve

If you walk out of the movie theater muttering expletives after seeing HENERAL LUNA, it’s a completely warranted response.

Not because the film is a flop. Or a waste of time. It is the absolute opposite. There is something about Antonio Luna – his uncontrollable rage yet surprising lyricism, his refusal for compromise, and his almost endless stream of puñetas. And there is something about this film – its remarkably planned cinematography, its resistance to create unreachable heroes, and its almost truths that allow vision to come alive.

This is where HENERAL LUNA stands – and stands out. It captures your attention. It requires your rage.

The only real general the Philippines ever had. Photo from HENERAL LUNA Facebook page.

The only real general the Philippines ever had. Photo from HENERAL LUNA Facebook page.

No doubt, there is trouble with our history textbooks and the way we are taught about our past. We remember names and memorize dates and places, but rarely recall meanings and understand significance. Our past remain in the past, immortalized in sepia tones, overcoats, and a bolo in the air. Heroes and heroines remain in our currency and street names, wrung out of humanity.

HENERAL LUNA offers no pretense. It thrusts Luna in the spotlight sans the intention of glorifying him as a hero. Instead, we are given a man so incredibly flawed, with twisted humor and questionable decisions, but here he is: Antonio Luna in blood and flesh.

We have been offered very little of this man in our history books. Many only know him because of his famous surname; one, of course, that he shares with his brother Juan, the painter, veiled also in greatness and grandiose. While the film allows for artistic vision and therefore not completely based on real events, it allows Luna to rise and come alive.

The allowance for creativity, however, did not take away from the film’s goal. The flawed man takes center stage. We see the comedy and end with the tragedy. While many films tend to side with the protagonist, HENERAL LUNA does not, because there isn’t necessarily one. Sure, it is named after the Heneral but it is also easy to see where his weaknesses lie – his fits of temper, his stubborn doggedness – essential to grasp at reasons for its ending. But there is no mistaking the villains that lurk in corners. When vested interests come to play, the water clears and intentions become a tangled mess.

In the rare moments that shouting subsides and rifle shots quiet down, the visuals speak louder. There is very little wasted space and time. Cheap frills are cut away from the edges. Everything is executed to plan to show the facets of the characters that dialogue cannot convey. Luna’s guitar playing in front of a full moon. His silhouette against sundown. Emilio Aguinaldo’s hand over his eyes. Apolinario Mabini’s side glance to a bloody sword. A quick montage of a necessary flashback. The layers that both visuals and dialogue create – carried out by a director that knows what he wants and needs, and a cast that understands and delivers – can be both breath-taking and satisfying.

HENERAL LUNA offers several challenges. It represents a much-needed fresh air in Philippine cinema: a break from the clichéd roles and worn-out formulas. It showcases what the Filipino filmmaker can do: an artful creation that forwards a significant story that can still connect with the Filipino people. It dares the Filipino audience to steer its attention back to the crucial: a look at the past to further understand the present and struggle toward the future.

There is no doubt that the film comes out during a time when it is most needed. Our people might not be carrying rifles and bolos against a White colonizer, but the struggle for independence as a nation has never been so real and so felt as it is now.

HENERAL LUNA presents harsh truths that disrupts the comfortable and reinforces the learned. It leaves a stinging realization that we have not come far as a nation. Freedom is compromised due to personal interests of few, and the struggle is still continuously looked down on. Our sense of nation is still crippled by individualism and regionalism; our lack of self-discipline and identity mercilessly shoved daily down our throats with just a sweeping gaze of Manila’s muck, more so our politicians’ filth. Who would have thought this was the Manila, the Philippines, so fiercely battled for, only for its soil to be irrigated by the blood of our men by our own hands?

The curtains do not close; it is only the beginning. This is where HENERAL LUNA leaves us: burning with questions about ourselves. The answer is in our past, though whitewashed and ruled by traitors. It requires from us the courage to look back in our history. And perhaps, just as it was with the tragic, flawed, and human Antonio Luna, love and rage can be fuel for the same flame.

Test of faith: Feast of the Black Nazarene 2015

The Philippines is one of the largest Christian nations in the world, with the Roman Catholics dominating more than 80 percent of this population. Out of the year-round festivals or fiestas in the country, perhaps nothing beats the Feast of the Black Nazarene as the most intense and dangerous act of professing the faith of Filipino devotees.

Since 1787, the image of the Black Nazarene, believed by many to be miraculous, takes on its slow journey or translacion in the streets of Manila to its home in Quiapo Church. This annual feast on January 9th is flocked by millions of devotees in a sea of maroon and yellow, most of whom walk barefoot from their homes, as part of their pledge or panata. They all come from different regions and can be as young as little children, but they all come with one goal: to get close and touch the statue of the Black Nazarene, which many believe will atone them from their sins.


This is my first time attending the Feast of the Black Nazarene, though like many Filipino Roman Catholics, I grew up listening to unbelievable experiences of participating in this event and watching its highlights each year on the television. I never thought that one day I will be with this crowd — though it was more like in the sidelines, climbing barricades and standing on top of a firetruck.

I consider this event as my great litmus test in photojournalism. I have covered and reported a lot of events (though usually just writing about them), from crime stories to impeachment cases, but never have I been so immersed in an event like the Nazareno coverage.


I left the house around 5 AM, and arrived at Quirino Grandstand where a million devotees wait for the translacion to begin. Some have even camped out, and many hold their personal statues of the Poon (Lord). Now and then, between prayers, they shout “Viva Poong Nazareno! Viva!” and twirl their white towels in the air, which are later thrown to the statue to be wiped on its image.


There is difficulty to fully describe the event, as I watched and took photographs from amid the thick crowd, then later, from the top of a firetruck and the center island of the road. There is an ebb and flow of 12 million devotees from every direction you can imagine. Many hawkers took advantage of the event, selling towels, cigarettes, bottled water and other event memorabilia to people sitting and lying down on the streets in fatigue. During down time, in areas in the 6-kilometer route where the carriage or andas has not yet passed, the crowd seemingly disperses, until the statue finally arrives, signaled by a simultaneous waving of white towels in the air.


There is a distinct low rumble as the carriage comes close, coupled by an intense heat wave emanating from millions of bodies. Almost out of nowhere, the crowd becomes increasingly compact. The devotees, mostly men, become rapidly aggressive, eyeing their target to either grasp the ropes that pull the carriage or to the braver-at-heart, crawl to the statue itself. Just being in this sea of devotees, however, is already an act of courage and incredible faith, an undying belief for salvation and redemption from worldly sin.


Every now and then, I look beyond the camera viewfinder to take in everything that was unfolding in front of my eyes. I saw people who have already fainted in the crowd and just letting the wave of people take them. Some men who have managed to hold the rope immediately closed their eyes, their lips muttering fast in prayer. Many leapt on people’s shoulders and stepped on others’ heads in attempt to crawl up to the statue, and fall back in desperation. I heard so many cries for help as men and women get stuck in the crowd, their arms reaching up to others, “Kapatid, tulong! Tulong, kapatid! (Brother, help me! Help me, brother!)” And from others who took their arms, I also heard the refusal of many.

In the midst of the chaos, it is easy to forget that this is a sacred, religious gathering.


The Feast of the Black Nazarene have always ushered the debate of faith among many. Issues of idolatry, misguided faith and fanaticism surface as people continue to die and suffer several injuries from this yearly event.

For many, however, participating in the feast is the only ray of light in their lives. In a country still deep in poverty and in a world filled with hate and greed, the people, ironically both hopeful and hopeless, desperately hold on to what they believe is their source of salvation, for the better life waiting for them than the lives they live today.


But, imagine, just imagine, how much change we can do in this world if these millions of people can unite and work together beyond this feast for active social change, not just for oneself but for everyone’s gain.

It is overwhelming, just like this feast, to think of what collective action can truly do.

There and Back Again*

Let's welcome 2015 with lights.

Let’s welcome 2015 with lights in our eyes.

2015 is here, and I feel like this is another great year for writing. I must admit that I have left this blog quite empty in the past months. 2014 has been a great year for adventures and for finding home, and while I did not get to write as much, I want to make this year something different.

By circumstance, I know 2015 will be a big year for me. And I hope it will be a great year for my writing, too.


*borrowed from the great JRR Tolkien. May his writing brilliance rub off me, even just a little.

The year that was

Today, August 20, marks an official year of my first flight out of the country to pursue my education in the United States of America. Interestingly, it was also August 20 last year when I first landed on the American soil – after basically traveling back in time after being in the air for 20 hours.

What a year that was.

THE BEGINNING of many adventures: taking the first step

THE BEGINNING of many adventures: taking the first step

Exactly last year, rain poured heavily down in Manila as my family and I braved the floods of España Boulevard to get to the Ninoy Aquino International Airport around 3 in the morning. Drenched in rainwater and avoiding puddles along the way, my parents sent me off up to the immigration area. I still remember my mother’s hands clasped on her chest as she watched her eldest walk farther away, and disappear from the glass walls that separate us. Tears filled my tired eyes that lack sleep. My father, who bid me a quick farewell, stepped away and behind a wall, watching me wave goodbye.

From the immigration area, I was alone. I pulled my roller bag closer to me as I walked past establishments, the bright lights and the wide open spaces. I remember that there was no fear in my heart. There was sadness, definitely, but mixed with anticipation of what is waiting out there for a little girl like me.

I boarded the plane DL630 amidst the howling winds, but through the jetbridge and inside the Boeing, they were nothing. Only the captain’s refusal to the take-off reminded us of the terrible weather. I clasped my hands together as we all waited. Thoughts of family, friends and loved ones – the life that I’ve known – filled my mind in those crucial moments. Sandwiched between strangers, eyes closed, I was alone.

Soon, with almost zero visibility, we decided to take off to the skies, through air pockets and turbulence that shook us all greatly. Soon, we soared.

It has already been a year since a lot of firsts in my life. Yet, I still vividly remember the scenes that take me back, from the bright sun that shone through the glass windows in Japan to the feeling in my feet when they first landed on American soil. Manila-Nagoya-Detroit-Memphis. More than 20 hours. In Detroit, Michigan, I watched the future come alive in this country of convenience and development. In Memphis, Tennessee, I saw Elvis Presley everywhere. And I found myself in an elevator with a Japanese, a Dutch, a Korean and a Serbian – all going to Ole Miss with me, on adventures that awaited our tired eyes and dazed spirits.

I remember a lot of them vividly. When I freaked out when the sun was still up at 7:30 in the evening (and my German bus seatmate, who became one of my dearest friends, laughing at me). When I first laid my eyes on Oxford, the city that will cradle me. When I first saw the green “University of Mississippi” highway sign. When I first saw my apartment complex that soon became my home for nine months. Where tears were shed, laughter echoed, and stories came alive. It all began on this day last year.

IN LOVE at first sight: my first photo in Oxford, my apartment building (Number 8)

IN LOVE at first sight: my first photo in Oxford, my apartment building (Number 8)

WELCOMING to the new home: I became synonymous to 8101C

WELCOMING to the new home: I became synonymous to 8101C (I soon corrected the misspelling)


I fear sometimes that the farther I look back in time, the more hazy these memories will be. I fear that I will forget. I fear that I will be forgotten.

But on this day last year, I only knew courage. I took off to the skies; free, unfazed and brave, despite the uncertainty of the world. I was a little bird out on my own. This day last year, I learned how to fly.

What a year that was.


Watching people and life pass by in the famous Café du Monde in New Orleans, Louisiana two days before I bid farewell to my teenage years. I miss the smell of the rain-soaked concrete, the early morning by the mighty Mississippi River.

Watching people and life pass by in the famous Café du Monde in New Orleans, Louisiana two days before I bid farewell to my teenage years. I miss the smell of the rain-soaked concrete, the early morning by the mighty Mississippi River.

It’s been almost three months since I have returned home from a long journey of education and self-discovery in the United States.

It did not take too long for me to realize that the Jhesset who left almost a year ago feels different. Experience builds character, and I’ve had plenty of those to attach myself to in the months I was away from home. What matters now is trying to move forward without turning my back to who I was and who I am going to be.

Today, I enrolled back to my home university, on an academic year where I was supposed to be out of it already, if not for wonderful twists of fate. It feels good and strange, at the same time. The familiarity was there – from long lines to long walks – but so was the strangeness of unfamiliar people (and weather – a rainy/stormy enrollment is definitely not more comforting than a scorching one). In two days I will begin my classes again. Build routine. Gain experiences. The cycle continues.

A lot of beginnings in my way. Sometimes it does tend to overwhelm me. Maybe that’s why I’m coming back to write here. Picking up from where I left.