The Renewed Life Of Robert Alejandro: “I Am So Incredibly Thankful For This Cancer—It Is Indeed A Gift”
In December 2017, Robert Alejandro posted this picture on Facebook with this message: "2017 was the year I was diagnosed with cancer and it was my best year because of it. I am finally living the best years of my life from now on (hence trying out some clothes with some color)."
The artist Robert Alejandro has always been one to see the good in everything, and to catch every opportunity as it arrives. But now, more than ever, he believes he’s living his best life. He just finished working on a line of wallpapers. He is set to do a series of summer workshops with the Christian media group iShine this month.
This after just having wrapped up facilitating The Papemelroti Artisans Workshop—where for a fee of ten pesos, people can walk in and pick a project to create. This last one is overseen by the family-run Papemelroti, of course, the chain of craft and gift shops which Robert is also constantly creating new products for (he has 50 in the pipeline). “Every day, there is something wonderful new to do. I am blessed,” he says.
And before you can say that the handsome 54-year-old does have a ton on his plate, he adds, “Despite telling myself that I need to take it easy and slow down, I have to admit that I really do enjoy my work and so I find myself still doing a whole lot of work—I am so grateful!”
The big reason for Robert’s constant gratitude is his newfound lease on life. He was diagnosed with cancer in 2017. The bout began when he started to experience bowel problems, which he largely disregarded until the physical symptoms became too alarming.
“I had a colonoscopy and when I woke up from the procedure, the doctor told me I needed to get chemotherapy for cancer. I didn’t ‘do’ chemotherapy. My brother-in-law had chemo and he passed away incredibly quickly,” he narrates. “And so I thought, this is it. My main concern was where all my books will go when I’m gone.”
If Robert himself seemed at that time resigned to his fate, the people around him were not. His friend Jetro Rafael, chef and owner of the wellness-attuned restaurant Van Gogh is Bipolar, urged Robert to change his diet and lifestyle completely.
“I was always a voracious eater—buffets, steak, Spam, hotdogs, ice cream—everything! I hardly ate vegetables,” the artist explains. He slowly came to terms with the knowledge that all the sugar and processed food he was consuming were the ones that made him sick.
"Art was my escape"
Robert’s journey as an artist and illustrator is well documented: His parents owned Papemelroti (he’s the ‘Ro’), the quirky yet cozy stationery shop that has become a fascination for many Filipino high schoolers over the years. Growing up, Robert knew that his future was in art.
“I feel as if I never ‘decided’ to be an artist. I was just born into it. I was just drawing at a very young age, scribbling on the wall, scratching drawings into furniture.” He was blessed with parents who supported his love for drawing and creating. “And so this just kept me doing what I love most. Art was my escape, the one thing that I enjoyed and was good at, I suppose,” he says. “When you do this one thing constantly, day in and day out, I guess you become quite good at it and I suppose that makes you ‘successful.’”
At the Papemelroti art workshop
Robert is known for his joyful, whimsical style, an aesthetic he says was influenced by the art he was exposed to in his younger years. “I grew up in the apartment where Papemelroti started. My mother would have art books everywhere. She used the pages and prints to frame or decoupage,” he recalls.
He and his sisters would play a game with the art books, trying to name the artists featured and the name of the works as they flip each page. “It was hilarious because most of the artworks that were not used by my mom for selling were the very sophisticated modern art, like Charles Demuth’s ‘Figure 5.’ My mom usually used or sold the mainstream Matisses, Van Goghs, Winslow Homers, etc.”
Robert also dabbled in terra cotta sculptures, copying what he would see in magazines. “Aside from the art books, we also had these books for young people—Precious Moments, books by Joan Walsh Anglund, etc. I would copy these books… I guess this continued [up to present]—creating wholesome and inspirational art. I naturally leaned towards art for children´s books as well. I particularly like old children’s books from Russia, Czech Republic, and other Eastern European countries.”
His art still graces the family’s chain of stores. “In all honesty, I just create what I like. I have so many ideas in my head and I am so grateful I have Papemelroti—a venue for all these ideas to come to reality.”
Accidental TV host
Through the years, he’s worked on children’s books, advertising, and television work. “That was one of the strangest things that happened to me,” he says of his stint with the respected media group of Cheche Lazaro’s Probe. “I was the cliché quiet artist hiding in a corner just doing his own thing.” Until the Probe-produced children’s show 5 and Up came along. “[They] did a real amazing job of creating an episode on me and my art. I remember that they were so incredibly thorough and professional. So I got to know Probe and they got to know me.”
With monks in Bhutan, where he gave an "art tour." As he did with the subjects of his stories for Probe, Robert likes to sketch his travels
The production then called him to ask if he could be a guest reporter for the sports magazine show Gameplan. “Everyone else said 'no' because it was a story on Ifugao games and it involved a trip to Mayoyao, Ifugao the next day.
“I asked if I was to be paid and they said 'no.' I said ‘good!’ I felt I didn’t need to ‘perform’ and so I decided to take a break from Manila and go for it.”
Robert fell in love with Mayoyao. He learned how to ignore the camera and let his competitive streak in sports take over. “I was trying my best to compete against these Ifugao gods and I guess it looked funny on video. The Mayor's wife said I needed to wear a bahag if I were to compete. Not thinking about being on TV, I agreed. And so the next thing I knew I was on national TV wearing a bahag. I was so fat and white compared to the bronze Ifugao competitors. I could not believe what happened. It was freaky horrible.”
Pleasantly surprised with the results of that first assignment, the bosses at Probe offered him a job as a reporter. “Which I didn't want but I prayed about it and I said I will try it out,” the artist recalls. “Probe became family and I stayed for more than 15 years.”
The company soon offered him another show. “I did Art is-kool because I do art workshops for kids who live in poverty and doing the show would give art education for kids who had no access to it,” he says. “Doing Art is-kool was difficult but it was important to do it... It is good to say 'yes' even if these situations are out of your comfort zone.”
Teaching kids has always been a big part of Robert’s pursuits. This summer, he’ll be one of the facilitators at the iShine Talent Camp. “This is the second time I am working with iShine. This year, I am conducting a real honest-to-goodness 10-session art camp. I’ve never done this before. Normally, I give half a day workshops, so this is a huge thing for me. It’s an opportunity to create bigger things with the kids. I would like to share everything I know.”
A diet of exercise, happiness, love
Had he surrendered to the usual life of the cancer-stricken, this positivity may not have been possible. Thank heavens for friends and family who insisted on alternate possibilities. And thank God he opened himself to their propositions.
Robert (leftmost) with Jetro Rafael (shirtless) and their yoga class friends
Now, Roberto watches what he puts into his body, and that doesn’t just mean food.
“I have a diet—Jetro calls it a ‘Bio-the oxygen food’ diet. Cancer´s enemy is oxygen and so that’s what I am trying to get into my system. No sugar, no processed food. Lots of vegetables and fruit.” It’s a diet that he says includes “breathing deeply, less stress, [a lot of] sunlight, exercise, happiness, love, and positivity.” Jetro’s guidance and personal diet helped Robert a lot. “I know I would not be here if not for him,” he says. “I am glad that my family supports my choice of treatment, which is not traditional at all. I am glad that I have my art which gives me joy.”
Indeed, the brush with cancer completely changed his outlook on life.
“I am so incredibly grateful for this life now. I used to hate myself. I used to think about taking my life all the time. That has completely changed now. I realize that life is short—I don’t have to rush things. Before you know it, life is over. I am now living the best life I´ve ever lived.
“I am so incredibly thankful for this cancer. It is indeed a gift,” he says.
“People ask if my cancer is gone-—some tests say it's gone and some tests say it's still there. It does not matter to me. I am living a wonderful great life now and that's all that is important to me. If I die tomorrow, it's fine because I´ve lived the greatest life I´ve ever lived and I attribute that to my cancer.”
To Robert, it feels like he’s a different person these days. “The best part of my journey is how happy and positive I am right now—the complete opposite of who I was before my cancer. Not a lot of people know this about me but it's the truth,” he says. “Jetro says that I am more carefree about my art—I don't erase my ‘mistakes.’ I don't strive for that perfection anymore. I love that!”
Right now,Robert is taking it easy—at least as easy as a professed workaholic can be. “I live one day at a time,” he says. He hopes to travel more. He hopes to take more naps. But more than anything, he hopes to keep doing what he’s always loved to do. “I love that I am able to create. It is such a pleasure, a joy… Money and career is important but passion is equally as important. Pursue your happiness.”
Robert in January this year