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Requiem For A Patriot: Remembering Carlos P. Celdran And His Love Affair With Manila

Every great city in the world has had their legendary gadfly, their iconic downtown denizen, a repository of history and lore and with an infectious, magic personality. Manila had that in her now departed son, Carlos Celdran

On the 19th November 1595, twenty-four years after Spanish conquistador Miguel Lopez de Legaspi proclaimed the “City of Manila” atop a formerly Muslim citadel located where the Pasig River meets Manila Bay, the Spanish King, Philip II, officially granted his new Asian colonial capital the rather immodest title, “El Isigne y Siempre Leal Ciudad” (The Distinguished and Ever Loyal City). 

Who could have foretold then that four centuries later, Philip II’s grandiose moniker for his Islas Filipinas capital would not only endure but would turn out to be incredibly prescient—and deeply appropriate in fact—when describing the now late Carlos Celdran?

The Filipino-Spanish descended, Manila-born, Colegio de San Agustin, Rhode Island School of Design trained, New York-lived—and hundred other cities  traveled—man of the world loved so many things: art, history, culture, politics, food, men and women—in particular, one woman, Tesa—but he had only one muse above all and she was a faded and worn city: Manila. 

In particular, Carlos was in love with one specific district of the capital, the 47-hectare, granite and tufa stone walled, ancient heart of Manila known as Intramuros. Therein, behind its moat, its seven gates, seven churches, palaces, existed a place later described by National Artist for Literature Nick Joaquin as the very heart of not only Manila but was a place from where the modern Philippines was born. 

Joaquin would famously write of the walled city, “and from childhood no amount of familiarity could dull for me the mysterious wondrousness of Intramuros as the very vitals, the hid heart, the secret soul of my city. Every going into it was a penetration—and in there, for a Manileño, it was always like coming home. He was back to his original, essential, eternal island. He was back to roots. Sa loob ng Maynila. 

Intramuros - sa loob ng Maynila. Sa loob ng Pilipino. Sa loob ni Carlos Celdran. 

Intramuros penetrated every fibre of Carlos’ being, irrespective that the district we know today was practically leveled to the ground by US bombs and Japanese artillery in the waning days of World War II. Nonetheless, where stood ruins, slums decay Carlos still saw cobble-stoned streets bordered with piedra china sidewalks and by the sombre facades of austere mansions from where Spanish grandees and later, American overlords ruled. 

Yet more than the physical romance of the walled city, the Intramuros of Carlos’ mind and imagination was populated by heroes. Filipino heroes that for the most part never actually lived in Intramuros but in the arrabales (suburbs) around it. 

The heroes of Carlos' mind and soul were that amazing generation of late 19th century young twenty-something Manila and Spanish educated, Chinese and Spanish mestizo Filipinos (called illustrados then and now), young men and women who recognized the need for dramatic change, formed secret societies, contributed funds to publish Jose Rizal’s seminal novels attacking Catholic Church corruption and hypocrisy and caused the outbreak of the first revolution in Southeast Asia against a colonial power. 

I think Carlos’ many friends and family will concur—he was entranced by this revolutionary generation of Spanish-speaking young Filipinos, a class whom to this date has not been equalled and must surely must rank as amongst the most amazing millennials of any millennial generation, ever.

For in those now long-dead heroes Carlos found solace, sustenance and despite the morass of today’s Philippines, hopes in the future promise of the Filipino people. Those were young men and women who became legend, renown for clear morals, whom attempted to live high values, many of whom who stood up, spoke up and literally died for their nascent Filipino nation. 

Where these heroes had trod, inflamed by a collective passion for a free and modern and western-inspired democratic Philippines, Carlos found inspiration for his art, blogs and now famed tours and a million discussions. There are many who can recall good nights with Carlos imparting tales of an elegiac, halcyon Manila, now long dead except in his mind.

There is something that I want to make clear about my now deceased friend, in case there is any misconception. He was passionate about politics in as much as anyone is passionate about the current trajectory of the Philippines—except he paid a huge price for his passion. 

In private, he was much more nuanced than many of his public utterings. Carlos understood, as many of us do, the dichotomies and dysfunctions of the Philippines’ recent history. He was deeply disturbed that an insular, myopic elite had not just forgotten Intramuros but also the needs and wants for the masses of the Filipino people. 

We discussed it for hours, how the nation’s social contract was being rewritten here and indeed across the world. Like many of his friends, I tried to encourage him not to engage those who attacked him online and in a myriad of social media forums for his beliefs, denigrated his political choices, or painted him as a superficial, light in the heels artist. But Carlos couldn’t not but engage even some of his ugliest detractors: To be part of the action, to be a participant in the discussion was in his DNA. 

There was no way Carlos could not but remain engaged, even in recent months after he had exiled himself in Spain. Even when walking Madrid’s elegant streets or spending beach time in Sitges and later with his family his family in Spain, Carlos was never very far from the Philippines or his heroes. 

Because as should have been apparent to us all, he was every bit a contemporary Filipino hero—certainly an idiosyncratic one—who nonetheless believed and acted towards one sure thing: That every controversial and difficult step forward was a step towards a better country.

I don’t make the claim that Carlos is a hero without basis. After all, who else since Jose Rizal so declaratively and stridently was willing to take the fight—a protest against the church—in the way that Carlos did on the 30th of September 2010, in front of the local Church’s highest mandarins? 

Even more amazing when Carlos went to jail the first time for that protest. I believe we all should feel a collective shame that a man who only sought to speak up for so many, in the same tradition that our heroes have taught us to do, eventually fled his beloved Manila one  one night early this year, for fear of being jailed again. 

It is front and center in my mind now and I hope it will be for so many others what a tragedy it is for our capital city and our country that we lost this man to exile. That he died ultimately—in my own view anyway—of a broken heart. Imagine all that this tour de force of Carlos could have done had he been able to partner with Manila’s new dynamic Mayor Isko Domagoso Moreno and many of this government’s progressive agency heads. Every great city in the world has had their legendary gadfly, their iconic downtown denizen, a repository of history and lore and with an infectious, magic personality. Manila had that in her now departed son, Carlos Celdran. And now we don’t any more.

It should be our job going forward, to not lose any more Carlos Celdrans. 

We will always walk with you, Carlos. We shall do our best to continue the walk for you.

Please say “Hi” to Jose Rizal, Apolinario Mabini, Emilio Aguinaldo, Marcelo H. del Pilar, Juan Luna, Melchora Aquino, Gabriela Silang, Mumhamad Kudarat, heroes all of them and now you. Tell them now is not the time to roll over in their graves—not yet, at least.

Photo from @binibiningmanila