It was with real sadness that I read the news of the death of Carlos Celdran in Madrid this week. As the story broke, there was recognition and regret on the Facebook page of every friend I had in Manila, be (s)he Filipino or foreigner, who had ever had the good fortune to meet the Philippines’ very own National Treasure.
Consistently a thorn in the side of the Powers That Be, Celdran was renowned for his seductively sacrilegious tours of Intramuros, and his equally seditious, often scandalous and inevitably slanderous one-man show about the nation’s first lady Imelda Marcos. And how we laughed. This funny little man in the Turkish slippers with turned up toes, and top hat covered in stars and stripes like some unlikely Dr Seuss character, bravely turned a mirror on the history of his beloved country, daring to display its past, warts and all, yet with the humour and love that is only possible when we love someone without reservation or pretense. With mimicry and mockery, he spoke the unvarnished truth of a country mired in all the horrors of colonial occupation, dictatorship and religious oligarchy, while still exhibiting love and respect for the country to which he owed his allegiance with every ounce of his being.
Tour guide, cartoonist and writer, artist, actor and activist, Carlos has had a finger in many pies over the years. Promoting Philippine tourism through his walking tours, his theatre, and his writing, he was a passionate advocate for Manila, its history and culture. The last time I spoke to him, he was heavily involved supporting the Mayor of Manila to clean up and improve the city. Most recently I heard about his involvement in the art and cultural Manila Biennale in 2018 or as it was touted ‘bringing the soul back to the city.’ Set within the walls of Intramuros. An expansion of his own Intramuros walking tours, it was designed to expose the darker side of Manila’s history, while celebrating its creativity. And to make people think.
This review from Josephine Vi. Roque in ArtAsia Pacific, issue 108:
‘Filipinos are often criticized for their selective memory and collective forgetting that allows the son of a former dictator to run for the second-highest office in the country, and for corrupt politicians to return to public service. Controversial issues from the Second World War remain unresolved. The drug war continues unabated despite protests and an alleged death count of more than 12,000. Given this context, the biennial succeeded in exposing the horrors of past and present, no matter how painful. Perhaps this dialogue with history is enough to encourage change and question political systems. For what is the use of commemoration if not to save us from ourselves?
Loving the Philippines though he undoubtedly did, Celdran was nonetheless determined to expose its underbelly – those issues he felt should not be swept under the carpet and forgotten. Yet in bravely drawing attention to one such issue in 2010, he would find himself being forced into self-imposed exile in Spain – eight years after the publicity stunt he pulled at Manila Cathedral, to protest against the interference of the Catholic Church in the Reproductive Health Bill.
Despite popular support, the Supreme Court last year convicted Celdran of blasphemy and offending religious feelings. After an unsuccessful plea to overturn the penal code that convicted him as unconstitutional, he moved to Madrid to escape a potential prison term. Even in exile, he was irrepressible, continuing to work on his art and his writings. In August, he was quoted by journalist Luis H. Francia as saying, ‘The irony that an antiquated Spanish law somehow sent me to exile in Spain? It’s just part of the delicious absurdity of being Filipino.’
This week he died there, aged only forty six, reportedly of natural causes. He will be much missed in Manila, as a tourist attraction, a cultural icon and a rare soul prepared to stand up for what he believed in, whatever the consequences. Articulate, yet elusive, intense yet entertaining, quirky and spontaneous, Carlos Celdran was irrepressible, and forever passionate about the city of his birth. I feel blessed to have met him.