‘Down with philistines!’: David Medalla’s protest at the 1969 CCP opening

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During the inauguration of the Cultural Center of the Philippines in September 1969, artists, dissidents, and defenders flocked around the institution. Photos from PHILIPPINES FREE PRESS

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the September 20, 1969 issue of the Philippines Free Press with the original title “IF IT’S WEDNESDAY, THIS MUST BE THE CULTURAL CENTER: The Art of Politics and the Politics of Art.” This is republished with consent from the author.

Manila (Philippines Free Press) — First there was pre-opening night, really a dress rehearsal with an audience, the audience in this case being the workers who had built the Cultural Center, their families, and a handful of reporters who would later give warning about the bore and the botch that was dularawan. The next three nights were all, according to the calendar of events, “invitational opening nights.”

The first invitational opening night, Monday, was I think supposed to be for provincial governors, small-town mayors, and minor government bureaucrats, but the people at the Center weren’t too strict about invitations. I should know because I was there, though the invitation I got was for the third night, the black-tie-or-formal-barong night. I was with some friends, and we had come from a cocktail party where the drinks really flowed; royally smashed, and seeing the glittering lights of the Cultural Center up the boulevard, we decided to give the old gatecrash a try. As it turned out, there was no need for gatecrash. When we walked into the chandeliered lobby, nonchalant as you please, we heard a loudspeaker blaring out the good news that the show was about to begin and would everybody please go on in and find a seat, there was plenty of room and no invitations were necessary —“hindi na ho kailangan ang tiket!” We got ourselves good seats, right in the orchestra, and during the intermission, we disappeared: nobody could introduce us to the lovely usherettes, and Salakot na Ginto had given each of us the craving for a stiff drink.

On gala night, Wednesday, cold sober, all dressed up, and armed with the determination to be fair and give the dularawan a second chance, a fair hearing, I was back at the Cultural Center. This time I sat the dularawan through to the end. The least said about it the better. The craving this time was for five stiff drinks.

The real drama on gala night occurred off the stage, before the show.

My ticket said the show was to begin at 8:30 in the evening. At eight, when I arrived, there was a knot of demonstrators on each side of the doors. To the left of the Center were the dissenters, to the right the defenders, their positions seemingly indicative of ideological leanings. There were some writer friends on the left, and I was trying to stop my taxi before them but a policeman waved it on to the right, where I recognized nobody and nobody noticed me. Everybody was staring at the jewels disgorged by the air-conditioned limousines with tinted windows.

The same lovely usherettes who had graced the first invitational opening night were at the lobby, tearing away ticket stubs and distributing programs, one on the Center itself (reproduced on the cover was the Hernando Ocampo painting reproduced on the outer curtain of the stage), and inside this program a smaller one on the show to be presented. Completing the handouts were two loose-leaf pages, one of acknowledgments, the second defining a dularawan.

“The word dularawan combines three words: dula (drama), awit (song) and larawan (picture). The term signifies a concept of Filipino theater which is at once radically new and deeply traditional.

“A dularawan is basically the presentation of Filipino myth and history in drama, poetry, music, dance, and spectacle. In other words, it is total theatre. It is radically new in the sense that it brings together for the first time various elements of indigenous Filipino culture in an integrated composition of grand scale. It is deeply traditional in the sense that it appears to be the logical outgrowth of the development that flowered in the moro-moro and continued to prosper in the Filipino zarzuela.”

Since I couldn’t find the word awit in dularawan (maybe it should have been dularawit?), I looked around. The first thing I saw, shining on the first balcony above the lobby, was David Cortez Medalla’s bright orange shirt. What I didn’t see right away was the Muslin malong that covered his legs. David himself was flanked by two thin young men, Marciano Galang, the painter, and Jose Lansang Jr., the poet. Both were in everyday wear, Mars Galang in a long-sleeved button-down printed polo shirt, Jun Lansang in a white T-shirt and a green jacket.

Uncomfortable in the barong Tagalog I had not worn in ages, I asked enviously: “How did you get in?”

“We’ve got invitations,” said Mars.

Touché. So I said: “But you’re not dressed.”

“What do you mean we’re not dressed!” said David, indignant. “For your information, this elegant malong I’m wearing is the authentic kind used by Muslim royalty, and it’s a gift from the wife of your editor.”

That shushed me up for a while. Then, I said: “Well, what are we standing out here for? Let’s go in and sit down.”

“Stick around,” said David, his voice charged with promise and portent, his manner suggestive of mystery.

“What’s up?”

“Basta stick around,” said Mars.

“Me pakulo yata kayo, ah.”

“Maghintay ka lang, pare,” said Jun.

I was curious (and would be yellow later). So I stuck around and waited. I still didn’t know what was up, but the real drama was already beginning.

At about 8:30, there was a flurry of activity beyond the glass doors, the sequins and diamonds in the lobby perked up, and the rumor spread that Imelda and her guests, California Governor Ronald Reagan and his family, the American President’s representatives to the grand night, had arrived. It was a false alarm, but it galvanized the three in the balcony into action, if galvanized is the right word for the very languid, very leisurely way in which they pulled out some folded cartolina sheets from the traveling bag that Jun Lansang always has with him. With a hint of a flourish, they unfurled the cartolina like banners down the sides of the balcony.

“WE WANT A HOME NOT A FASCIST TOMB!” read the red letters on Mars Galang’s placard, for a placard it was, painted in the style of psychedelia.

Jun Lansang made a Joycean pun with “RE: GUN — GO HOME!”

And hanging between these two standards was David Medalla’s cartolina, the most elaborately decorated of all, aswang with rich dark colors, primitive and messy like his paintings; you could barely make out the letters that snaked in and out of the surrounding hues: “A BAS LA MYSTIFICATION! DOWN WITH THE PHILISTINES! (A columnist who wasn’t there would later report that the sign read “Down with the Philippines!” which gave a rather sinister cast to David’s playful protest.)

Earlier that day, Mars Galang had decided to go to Jet Snack on Mabini for a drink. Jet Snack is a favorite hangout of some young writers and painters who go there for the delicious river snail known as kuhol. When Mars looked in on the restaurant, however, he saw David Medalla and Jolico Cuadra; David, who has been converted to Buddhism, was having a glass of kalamansi juice, and Jolico, who prides himself on his drinking prowess, was having a beer. Galang knew that if he joined the pair he would be drawn into either an argument with the Buddhist or a contest with the drinker. His wife was waiting for him at home, with the new terno she had had made for the gala opening of Imelda’s Cultural Center, and Mars thought it might be wiser to forego that drink. While he was trying to make up his mind, however, David came out. Unable now to get away, Mars walked David to Indios Bravos, where the latter stays, and it was then that Mars learned of David’s plot to infiltrate the citadel of the philistine (for that is how David saw the Center) and strike at its nerve center.

California Governor Ronald Reagan and his family alongside then president Ferdinand Marcos during the opening of the Cultural Center of the Philippines on September 8, 1969. Photo from WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

The painter was a reluctant accomplice: in the first place, he was thinking of his waiting wife; in the second place, he had joined only one demonstration in all his life and, because he had fled in panic at the first sign of trouble, he had since then kept away from public protest, preferring to experience no reprise of his cowardice. But at the door of Indios Bravos, waiting for a jeepney, was Jun Lansang, who is even more leery of flamboyant display than Mars Galang, and when the poet quietly gave his nod to David’s plan, Mars felt ashamed of himself and his fears. Anyway, the idea was to stage the protest before the show; he still had time to go home, pick up his wife, and catch a substantial portion of the dularawan. So they had worked feverishly on their posters, which, when dry, they carefully folded and tucked away in Jun’s traveling bag; then they took a cab to the Cultural Center, and now here they were on the balcony with their masterpieces on display.

It was an instant demo!

And in the lobby below, instant commotion! I had gone down to read what was written on the placards, and was shaking with silent laughter and secret admiration when I noticed Kokoy Romualdez authoritatively jerk his white head sideways. A signal; and before you could say Shazam! a policeman in khaki, his face a mask of grimness, the potbelly that is a trademark of his profession shaking above his belt, was half-running towards the escalator.

Cigarette dangling from the side of my mouth, I pretended to be a suave but hardboiled private eye and tailed the cop across the lobby, up the escalator, down the corridor, toward the three musketeers of the arts. When the cop adjusted his holster, I became aware of his gun for the first time, and I slowed down to a dead stop five full steps away from Mars Galang, feeling the skittish flutter of a Judas heart beneath my shirt’s embroidery, a humiliating circumstance I justified to myself with the reminder that I was here as a reporter, therefore not as participant in the event but as an impartial, objective, uninvolved spectator.

“Doon sa labas ’yan,” the cop whispered menacingly.

“Bakit?” cried David in a voice as loud as the thunder that said data, dayadhvam, damyata. Those in the lobby who had not noticed the demo now looked up in astonishment and alarm. “Isn’t this supposed to be a home of the arts?” David asked. “Isn’t this supposed to be a home for artists? Do you know who we are? We are artists, and we have come here as artists. This”— raising his placard and pulling it away like a bullfighter’s cape when the cop tried to make a grab for it — “is a work of art, and I have every right to exhibit it here in the home of the arts!”

The cop tried another tack. “May permit ba kayong mag-demonstrate?”

The three slowly brought out their invitations from Malacañang. “I am a guest of the First Lady,” said David imperiously, “I have been invited to this gathering as an artist, and as an artist I have come to exhibit my work.”

The cop now grabbed David by the arm, the cop was embarrassed now to be the center of so much unwanted attention, and he would allow no wisp of a boy, long-haired and unwashed, to make a fool of him. “Sa labas sabi, e,” he growled between clenched teeth.

About this time, some demonstrators for the Center, men in T-shirts and sombreros, had been allowed into the lobby by a husky man carrying a bullhorn and wearing a denim jacket with the letters F.D.W. stitched on his back. “MABUHAY ANG CULTURAL CENTER!” said their placards. “MABUHAY ANG PHILIPPINE CULTURE!” “MABUHAY SI IMELDA!” The signs were neatly lettered, and down in a corner of each sign were the initials of the labor unions to which the demonstrators belonged: PAFLU, NATU, FDW.

“E, bakit ’yong mga iyon,” cried David, pointing to the counter-protest, “Bakit sila pinapasok? Mga artista ba ang mga iyan? Bakit hindi sila pinapaalis? Papaano sila nakapasok? Kami, mga artista, at ito’y bahay daw ng mga artista — bakit kami ang inyong pinapaalis?”

The cop tightened his grip on David’s arm.

“Huwag mong pilipitin ang kamay ko!” David screamed in the most regal manner at his command.

The three spokesmen of the apocalypse were now completely surrounded by security men in dark suits. Juan Ponce Enrile, secretary of justice, signaled the uniformed policeman away. The pro-Center demonstrators, about ten of them, were now directed to go up and stand with their placards on both sides of Mars, David, and Jun.

“Mabuhay ang Philippine culture!” the bullhorn roared.

“Mabuhay ang Philippine culture!” David yelled. “Down with the philistines!”

“Ano ba ito,” whispered one dark-suited man to another, “Kabataang Makabayan?”

“Ang Pilipinas para sa Pilipino,” came the bullhorn, “hindi kay Mao Tse-tung!”

“At hindi rin sa Kano!” bellowed David.

“Iyang si Reagan,” Jun Lansang now interposed, “'Yan ang nagsara ng Unibersidad ng California,” but his was a gentle timid voice, Jun Lansang was not used to raising his voice, so David picked up the cry. “Reagan is a fascist!” he screamed. “He closed the University of California, he gassed students, he jailed artists! Why is he here among us? What has he done for Philippine culture? I have gone around the world to spread Philippine culture, and what have you done to me? You twist my arm! You want to drive me away! It is Reagan you treat royally!” And now David lost his cool and ended his polemic with “Putang inang Reagan ‘yan!”

Reagan wasn’t around yet, the First Lady had not arrived, and after cooling off a little, David turned to the gaggle of glitter in the lobby. He said something in French; then: “You don’t understand that? You’re supposed to be cultured people and you don’t understand that? Let me translate it for you. Yea, I have bathed myself in the finest perfumes from Paris, but what do I know of culture?”— and then: “Baka hindi n’yo pa rin naiintindihan ’yan? Tatagalugin ko na!” And he did.

Meanwhile, officialdom was in a fluster, Kokoy Romualdez gritted his teeth, Ernest Maceda’s eyes blazed like a Byzantine ikon’s. Ponce Enrile shook his head. Andres Cristobal Cruz was at David’s side, trying to calm him down, still trying to convince him to hold his protest outside. Reminded that he had been David Medalla’s comrade-in-arms in one of the very first demonstrations staged in this country, Andy Cruz replied, “Oo nga, pero Kano naman ang kalaban namin noon, hindi Cultural Center.” Finally, Andy gave a weary shrug, grabbed a poster from the PAFLU delegate and positioned himself between David and Jun. When he saw that his placard read “MABUHAY ANG CULTURAL CENTER,” Andy grew thoughtful, muttered, “Siguro ‘yong MABUHAY ANG PHILIPPINE CULTURE ang dapat kong kunin, ano?”

David had by this time grown tired of yelling and was content with greeting the guests who, he said, “used to come to my barong-barong when my barong-barong was the only Cultural Center of the Philippines.” Some of these friends, like Adrian Cristobal, he taunted openly: “Oy, Adrian, sumama ka rito! Noong araw, kasa-kasama ka namin! Ngayong me atik ka na, hindi mo na kami kilala!”

Finally, the First Family arrived with the Reagans. Flash of bulbs. Applause. Cheers. The spotlight shifted. Nobody heard what Jun, Mars, and David shouted in protest. Imelda saw the posters on the balcony and turned away with an embarrassed half-smile. Ferdinand, ever the skilled practitioner of the art of politics, gave the picketers a wide grin and raised his fingers in a victory sign. Reagan read the posters and never once lost the hearty smile of an embalmer which made his face a sea of wrinkles.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong in any artist’s proclaiming his political allegiance (Michelangelo did magnificent masterpieces for the Borgias, and there is no reason why Filipino artists cannot serve, or simply sympathize with, the present dispensation, whose reputation is surely better than that of the Borgias), what’s wrong is the use of art and the artist by politicians to serve their own ends.

It was now past nine o’clock.

The unique demo was over, but there is more to our drama, this drama whose theme could very well be the politics of art, or of artists. For politics so pervades our life that even art cannot escape its taint, even culture becomes a political issue, and dissent in whatever form, nonconformity however innocuous, is immediately interpreted as obscene, or subversive, or partisan.

David Medalla may flout conventional morality, but can anyone accuse him of being an agent of Mao Tse-Tung or a hack of the Liberals? Yet Mao Tse-tung somehow got into the picture during the gala opening, and the Liberals earlier: if the formal protest outside the Cultural Center was small, part of the reason is that many who planned to join it kept away for fear of being identified with the Opposition. (If the American beat poet Allen Ginsberg had made an attempt to send the Cultural Center levitating with his all-purpose incantation, “OM,” he would surely have been branded a tool of the Liberal Party and an alien meddling in Philippine affairs, for is not his magic syllable made up of the initials of Osmeña and Magsaysay?)

Yes, politics so pervades our life that even those artists who shun it like the plague find themselves stricken by it, which is precisely what happened to Jaime Arevalo de Guzman, the painter, who suddenly woke up one morning to find his name in a full-page newspaper ad as part of a Committee on Arts and Sciences making a declaration of support for Marcos and Lopez — this, as he wrote in a strong letter of protest, “without prior notice and consent.”

There is nothing intrinsically wrong in any artist’s proclaiming his political allegiance (Michelangelo did magnificent masterpieces for the Borgias, and there is no reason why Filipino artists cannot serve, or simply sympathize with, the present dispensation, whose reputation is surely better than that of the Borgias), what’s wrong is the use of art and the artist by politicians to serve their own ends. This is as bad as the use of political power to force the anti-Establishment artist into submission. The political propagandist who has so little regard for a man’s name that he can use it as freely as toilet paper in a public lavatory is just one side of the coin whose other side is the cop who twists the arm of anyone rude to the established order or contemptuous of it.

The moral of our story having been spelled out, let us get on with the final act of our drama.

On the second floor of the Cultural Center is the art gallery (where hang paintings by Jimmy de Guzman and Mars Galang), and here, at the door, David Medalla listened a few minutes after the demonstration to a gentle reprimand from the Center’s soft-spoken deputy director, Antonio Quintos.

David was incorrigible. “Look,” he said, “they let in all these other people with placards, these paid hacks. Were they even invited? I am a guest here, and I have come to exhibit a work of art!” — here, the placard in his hands shook like a shirt on a clothesline during Typhoon Signal No. 2. “Why should they twist my arm? I am not armed, I am not a criminal; why should men with guns surround me?”

“You call yourself a guest,” said Tony Quintos, repressed anger showing in flare of nostril and flash of eyes. “Is it your custom to insult your host?”

“Did I insult Imelda? Did I even attack the Cultural Center? I said, ‘Down with philistines!’ You are a cultured man, Tony. Do you find anything wrong with that?”

“You should at least have behaved.”

“I did behave,” “said David. “I behaved as an artist should.”

The lobby and the balcony were empty of glitter now, only the security men were around, the guests were in the auditorium, the program had begun. Jun Lansang was nowhere in sight (he had gone in), Mars Galang wanted to go home to his waiting wife, and David himself was all set to leave the Center to his philistines; but I had overheard one dark-suited guy whisper to a T-shirted fellow, “Paglabas ng mga ‘’yan, barugin n’yo,” and fearful for their safety, I persuaded Mars and David to sit out the dularawan; it is better to suffer through a new art form than suffer at the hands of men whose loyalty to Philippine culture is unquestioned, and whose hatred of “all things counter, original, spare, strange” is beyond doubt.

At the door of the lower balcony, the pretty usherette accepted my proffered ticket with a gracious smile, but a security man with a crew cut barred the way when the shaggy-haired pair tried to go in after me. David had his ticket in hand; Mars had lost his sometime during the demo but still had his printed invitation; the security man at the door was as impassive, as immovable, as the Colossus of Rhodes.

Before David could open his mouth, Tony Quintos was at his side. “David, David,” he said, “we’ll let you in, but only if you promise not to make any further disturbance.”

“I never make any disturbance when I am before a work of art,” David replied.

“What if you don’t consider this a work of art?”

“I consider any performance that contains singing and dancing,” David said grandly, “a work of art — no matter how bad.”

“Okay,” Tony Quintos wearily told the security man, waving him away. “I’ll sit with them.”

Inside, Jun Lansang was already quietly and snugly seated. We took our seats in the same row, Tony Quintos between David and Mars: the atmosphere was as tense as a Central Luzon town’s on an election day. On the stage, the director of the Cultural Center, Jaime Zobel de Ayala (who had earlier greeted David from the lobby), was winding up his opening remarks. Very soon, Imelda was walking up the stage; the audience gave her a standing ovation.

And then the dularawan began. In Europe, Maria Callas on a bad night has been booed off the stage; the dularawan was quietly tolerated; the patience of the Filipino is as renowned as Job’s. After a stiff, uneasy silence that lasted for about a quarter of an hour, David could no longer stand it, and began to give a running commentary on the show, in discreet but steadily-getting-indiscreet whispers. If Tony Quintos was annoyed, he said nothing.

“Look, that’s just like a Noh play ... Now this one is a Balinese dance ... It’s a balagtasan ... But that’s a Viking ship, not a barangay! ... If our ancestors were as inert as these people, they could never have crossed from one end of the Pasig to the other ... That dance is straight out of Martha Graham ... That’s the kind of acrobatics they have in Chinese opera … Now we have Cecil B. DeMille … They have a vaudeville act at the Place Pigalle which is just like that …. Why do those Jewish slaves never get up? What are they doing, taking a shit?... Is that Reli Estanislao? Hey, he’s good. He’s the only good thing so far … That’s a Senegalese dance, complete with headfeathers … This is just like the imitation of the Folies-Bergere they put on in Japan, but at least in Japan you see a lot of legs …. Hey, there’s the Teahouse of the August Moon! ... Don’t you find the music monotonous? ... Walang life, walang joy, walang adventure — all the elements that make theater!”

Actually, on the basis of David Medalla’s remarks, you can describe the dularawan as very Filipino: for do we not say of the Filipino that he is a hodgepodge of cultures and styles?

Down the escalator after the show, David said: “They’ve got a better program at Cine Dragon on Ongpin.” Out of the door a few minutes later, David shouted to the waters of the gigantic fountain and the scattering of the people around it: “It’s a great big bore! The dularawan is a great big bore! There, that fountain is more beautiful, more exciting!” In the taxi on the way to Indios Bravos, David clucked his tongue: “That was 300,000 pesos? Why didn’t they just give Nick Joaquin 10,000 to write another masterpiece?”

Jun Lansang had walked out before the intermission; did he perhaps worry about his newly acquired job at the National Library, where his immediate boss is the assistant director, Andres Cristobal Cruz? Mars Galang stayed behind after the show; had champagne in the art gallery and a discussion with a security man (“I don’t blame you, you were just doing your duty, just as I was doing my duty”); hitched a ride with Bobby Chabet on the way home and had a really heated argument this time, the upshot of which was that he was told to get out of the car (“I lost my best friend”); and thought of his wife at home, his wife who had a new dress made, waiting like Penelope.

And now, an epilogue.

At Indios Bravos later in the night, a student who had demonstrated against the Cultural Center had a story to tell.

“The U.P. student council had voted to picket the Center, but then there was this meeting in Malacañang with the President and the First Lady. I wasn’t there, but they told me umiiyak daw si Imelda. She implored them not to embarrass the country before its guests, you know. And the councilors naman, naawa. So the student council had another meeting, and this time they voted that there would be no formal picket. If anyone wanted to demonstrate, he could do so, but he would be there as an individual, not as representative of the U.P. The council chairman, Jerry Barican, did just that.”

And a folk dancer who had demonstrated for the Cultural Center spoke of the experience.

“We walked down the boulevard, all dressed up, and with the torches yet. Then this band of kids came toward us — aaah! — and we dropped our torches and we screamed. Nagtakbuhan na po! Look, I still have mud all over my shoes and pants. But afterwards everything quieted down, and then finally there was nothing more to do, so we decided to go in and see the show. There were I think 35 of us. After the intermission, 34 had disappeared, I was the only one left.”

He must have liked the dularawan, if he stayed behind?

“Ay naku! Before, I was pro-Center. Now, I don’t know any more. Tinulugan ko! Talaga. Mabuti na lang may nakatabi akong lalaki.”