Sunday, May 31, 2015

Meloto's social blunder

My May 31, 2015 column.
I like Tony Meloto.  My admiration for the guy is notwithstanding the fact that I disagree with many of the ultraconservative advocacies of the religious organization that he leads. However, I have always believed that it is always possible to find something that we can admire or respect even among those we lock horns with on spiritual, political, or other concerns. Thus, I was also deeply saddened by the fact that Meloto is in the eye of a controversy for allegedly being “sexist,” “elitist,” and having a “colonial mentality.” The criticisms were made by officials of the University of Hawaii Center for Philippine Studies who invited Meloto to speak at their 40th founding anniversary in April.
According to various reports, Meloto expressed in his speech his belief that “the greatest asset of the Philippines is our beautiful women” and that the “future of the nation can be advanced by using them to attract the best and the brightest men from the West and enticing them to invest in the Philippines.” Meloto also reportedly shared his views on the need for Filipino women and their white husbands to produce what he humorously called “cappuccinos.”  The remarks are, indeed, outrageously sexist, when taken at face value.  
Meloto issued an official statement denying the charges.  To refute the charges, he offered his many humanitarian activities. His defense is basically that he is a good man trying to do things for the poor, thus he cannot be sexist, elitist, and have a colonial mentality. I am afraid Meloto missed the point. The criticism was directed at the remarks he made - not about Gawad Kalinga and his many other humanitarian  projects, something which even the UH-CPS people have taken care to point out. And yes, stature, previous accomplishments, and even saintly disposition does not exempt anyone from committing the most grievous social blunders. I know of many bishops who are, unfortunately, prone to making misogynist statements. 
Of course social context is also very important. We Filipinos are high-context people - the way we receive and interpret what others are saying is dependent on the occasion, the people who were there, who said what, and how things were said. What may not be said publicly in a formal affair may be allowed during a private drinking spree among friends. For example, the late Senator Juan Flavier was known for being irreverent and for making jokes that were often politically incorrect. But Flavier also poked fun at himself, was quick to admit his lapses, and had no problems apologizing to anyone. The expectations of someone of Meloto’s stature are different, precisely because of what he represents: he is supposed to be a man of wisdom who champions the causes of people. It appears that Meloto’s remarks were intended as light banter, akin to jokes.  On the two occasions that I heard him speak, he did try to inject some humor into his speech. 
But should the UH-CPS people be faulted for taking offense? Of course not. How can the aggrieved party be tasked for having been offended; it is like saying they don’t have a right to their feelings. And this is where Meloto has committed another mistake. Instead of apologizing for unintentionally offending others, he has seemingly put the blame on his critics by telling them they should have talked to him first, or by inferring malice on their part. Had Meloto apologized humbly and accepted that no one is exempt from making mistakes precisely because we are all works in progress, he could have turned the tables around and grown 100 times in stature.
There is indeed a lesson that we can all learn from the incident. The rules about political correctness have become more and more complex, confounded by the fact that things can be magnified many times over by social media. What this means is that people, particularly those in positions of moral authority, have to be more careful about what they do or say.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Slim pickings

My May 26, 2015 column.

Who is your bet for the presidency in 2016? I have been asked this question quite a number of times in the last few weeks and my reaction has been the same – I don’t know yet;  it depends on who is running.  
It’s a copout response, though.  The truth is that no one from among those who have signified their intent to run for president, or who have communicated their willingness or desire to be considered as candidate, has caught my interest.  To be honest, there have been many occasions in the last few months when I felt like putting my hands up in the air in exasperation.  Seriously, folks, isn’t there anyone else more deserving of our trust and confidence that can lead this country forward? I know.  There are people that seem perfect for the role – the likes of Gibo Teodoro and Tony Meloto and even Serge Osmena - but they do not seem interested in becoming president, and I cannot blame them.  Becoming president of this country is like setting one’s self up for self-annihilation; we have not had a president in the last 60 years who did not end up being vilified, demonized, or jailed.  But then again, that has not seemingly discouraged certain people from keeping a moist eye on the highest post in the land.     
The presumed frontrunner, Vice President Jejomar Binay, is supposed to be someone whose heart is in the right place.  I have met many people who root for Binay on the strength of first-hand experiences with the man, citing various incidences where they were at the receiving end of personal attention or service.  I have personally held office in the same building and floor with Binay and I can also attest that he is someone who is approachable, and with a touch for the common tao.  However, it is just so darned difficult to ignore the mountains of accusations that have surfaced against him, and they are getting more and more scandalous each week.  It is tempting to dismiss the accusations as politically motivated, but I firmly believe that the post of president of the country is first and foremost a position of credibility.  Binay needs to clear his name first before he can be presumed to lead this country effectively.  It is almost difficult to imagine how Binay can command moral authority over the whole bureaucracy when he has all these unresolved cases of graft and corruption haunting him.  We’re not even talking yet about the possibility of the presidency precisely being sought as a tool for vindication and redemption; such a scenario would be disastrous for everyone.
The putative candidates of the administration are Senator Grace Poe and Local Government Secretary Mar Roxas.  Both have been playing coy, and we’re all being made to believe that they are not actively seeking the presidency although they have on many occasions communicated their interest in being considered.  There seems to be some wisdom in keeping one’s cards close to the chest; for as long as one has not declared his candidacy, one is still spared from direct and vicious attacks - look at what happened to Binay.  But still, it would be very helpful to get a glimpse of what the two really stand for outside of the motherhood statements about how they would be in a position to perpetuate the legacy of the Aquino administration.  Regardless of how highly the Aquino cabinet regards itself, people do want candidates who are able to stand up on their own feet.
I am not sure the others who are offering themselves as possible candidates deserve serious consideration, particularly those that have resorted to premature campaigning.  The backlash that the TV ads have generated in social media should be more than enough reason to have them pulled out.  Instead of endearing them to the electorate, people are now openly asking where the money that is being used for the ads come from and how these politicians intend to recoup their campaign expenses.  For me, the problem is not just that the ads are premature but that they represent the political version of the Dance of the Seven Veils – they tease and seduce in an almost scandalous way but don’t really reveal anything worth considering.  The ads are an exercise in shameless self-promotion, nothing more.
It does seem as if we are being conditioned to settle for the lesser evil, to accept a compromise.  The technical definition of a compromise is that it’s a situation where nobody wins – both parties lose.  It’s either we settle for someone with experience, but who is corrupt, or go for someone who is a political rookie with very little actual experience in governance but who is supposed to be clean.  Or we can pick a trusted lieutenant who has political experience, but is, for all intents and purposes a wimp who has not been able to prove his leadership and management skills despite many opportunities.  Or we can pick someone who has political will renowned for his no-nonsense approach to getting things done in the city where he has been mayor for decades, but whose human rights record and tolerance for diversity is dismal. 
The question that no one seems to be asking is:  Why do we have to settle for this very short list?  
Someone has said this before but I am going to repeat it just the same.  It is inconceivable that in a country brimming with talent and real leaders, our choices have become almost zero.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Work in progress

My May 24, 2015 column.

I know that some people might find this an exercise in nitpicking, but I still want to ask: Is it really imperative that the public works being done all over the country be done all at the same time now? Put another way, why couldn’t these be spread out over a period of say, four years, beginning in 2013? 

I ask this because the area where I live has suddenly become one giant construction site. Our house is now bordered by all kinds of public works activities. The road fronting our house has been closed off to give way to improvements being done on a major canal – they’ve destroyed the concrete dikes and are building taller ones, which the contractors said will now be covered so that people can no longer throw their garbage into the canal. It’s a great idea. Sadly, the contractors do not seem to be in a rush and worse, do not seem to be familiar with doing work in “phases.” Thus, the whole stretch of road from end to end had been closed off even if construction work is only being done on one isolated part. Further south of our house is another construction site to improve drainage. The construction work on the South Superhighway Skyway is just a stone’s throw away and the drilling and ground shaking can be felt where we are on certain nights. There are at least five others construction sites that I have to traverse on my way to work everyday.
Adding to the aggravation is that most of the work that requires heavy equipment, or hauling of concrete or materials, have to be done at night because of that darned truck ban in Manila! Many people in our area have been sleep-deprived for a month now, and by the looks of it, way until 2016.  
Of course it is good to know that government is finally spending and releasing money for public infrastructure. It’s also very important to note that none of the construction sites have those billboards that were ubiquitous in the past - the ones that featured the smiling mugs of politicians who shamelessly claimed credit for the construction project, as if the money came directly from their own pockets. Yes, it’s heartwarming to know that our taxes are being put to use. But the timing seems suspicious. All these projects could have been implemented in stages in the last four years, so why only now? 
And take note, the construction frenzy is not just happening in Metro Manila but nationwide. I was in Leyte last week. The road trip from Tacloban City to my hometown in Abuyog, which ordinarily takes an hour, extended to about two hours, thanks to the construction work being undertaken in various parts of the Maharlika Highway. There was a construction site practically every 10 kilometers or so. My friends say this phenomenon is happening everywhere in this country; it wouldn’t be inappropriate for government to claim that the whole country is under construction now.
Most of us are willing to live with the inconvenience brought about by the various construction works. But is it true that all these are being done now as part of the preparations for the 2016 elections? It does seem as if the dominant party is hell bent on ensuring massive victory in next year’s elections and is therefore raising funds for the purpose. As we all know, contractors don’t get choice projects by sheer luck; they do so by padding the pockets of politicians through various schemes.
While we’re on the subject of government spending, I must report that there are people in Leyte who are still awaiting the much-ballyhooed financial assistance promised to them when the government, through the Department of Social Welfare and Development, issued green cards to victims of the super typhoon. In my hometown of Abuyog, for instance, many victims have already pawned their green cards to businessmen in exchange for rice and basic commodities to stave off hunger. The catch is that the “interest rates” are beyond usurious, precisely because there is no guarantee as to how much aid they can receive from government, and more importantly, when, if at all. 
What is heartrending is that typhoon victims in the adjacent town of Javier have already received the government support early this year, presumably because the mayor happens to be national president of the League of Municipalities. Perhaps Secretary Dinky Soliman is unaware of the issue, but the longer it takes the DSWD to distribute the government aid, the deeper the victims will be in debt. It’s been almost two years since Yolanda struck - asking victims to wait a little longer is probably no longer justifiable.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Loose change

My May 17, 2015 column.
We were in Tagaytay the other weekend and on our way back we got momentarily confused at the toll gates of South Superhighway because all the gates were labelled “Exact Toll.” We thought all lanes had been turned into “Exact Toll Only” so we rummaged around the car and in our bags to come up with the exact amount.  
It turns out the signs basically asked people to pay the exact toll in each of the gates, an appeal that made perfect sense because people can really prepare in advance and in the process reduce both queuing and travel time. This is particularly relevant for people who use the expressway every day – instead of whining about how the long queues invariably make travel time longer, they can prepare in advance the exact money for their toll, the amount of which they already know anyway. I am told the “request” was triggered by the observation that queuing time in our expressways is significantly reduced when more people pay the exact toll and by the fact that there is now an imminent shortage of coins in this country.
The shortage of coins in this country is aggravated by the tingi (retail) system that is predominant in our culture. There are now many micro-businesses that essentially operate on coins - from the so-called piso-net Internet and gaming machines, to videoke singing machines, and to various types of vending machines that dispense coffee and other types of beverages, bathroom supplies in public toilets, and even snacks. The thing is, the people who operate these machines do not return the coins back into general circulation. They keep the coins for the exclusive use of their machines.
I saw the phenomenon for myself a couple of weeks ago when I attended a fiesta celebration early this month in a remote barangay in Cebu. Our host owned a number of piso-net machines and some coffee and water-vending machines. I was shocked to see bags of one peso coins in his house; he said he needed to stock up on peso coins to ensure the sustainability of his businesses. What happens is that his customers exchange their bills for coins
they use to play games in the piso-net machines, or to buy beverages or snacks from vending machines. I wanted to point out to him that what he was doing was not fair as he was essentially abrogating public resources for personal gain, but I bit my tongue. It’s difficult to argue with people with a paradigm that says being poor gives people license to take certain liberties when they could. 
Add to these the fact that more and more people seem to dislike carrying coins with them and therefore store coins in various receptacles at their houses and offices. I am told most people now empty their pockets or their designer bags of weight-adding coins as soon as they reach their houses or their offices. And then there are those who use coins illegally as material for making jewelry and other decorative stuff.
A clear manifestation of the shortage is the fact that cashiers everywhere invariably ask customers for change at checkout stations in malls and restaurants. If one’s purchases include loose change, cashiers have made it a habit to ask customers to cough up the loose change, often triggering an amusing exchange akin to a negotiation. “Sir, do you have 75 cents?” “Sorry I only have 25 cents.” “Can I have the 25 cents and I’ll give you 50 cents?” And so on.
Coins are actually expensive to produce as they require certain types of metals -resources that are getting scarce as they are not inexhaustible. I wonder when our leaders will address the situation with proactive solutions? For example, retailers can be encouraged to do away with pricing strategies that require loose change. Our legislators can study the possibility of regulating the production of machines that operate on coins rather than specially-designed tokens that can be produced separately and exclusively for such businesses. We can also shift to paper- or plastic-based currency. We can plan to do away with coins altogether although that would require a comprehensive transition plan. Our options are many, but first things first: We need to recognize there is a problem looming in the horizon.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Garin's blanket assurance

My May 12, 2015 column.

“DOH ang bahala sa inyo” (DOH will take responsibility for you), says Health Secretary Janette Garin in the television advertisements that aim to generate public awareness about the importance of knowing one’s HIV status and consequently, submitting to HIV testing.  The DOH is organizing free HIV testing in various centers nationwide next week in an effort to encourage people to get tested for HIV.  The DOH purportedly wants to have a more accurate picture of the real state of HIV infections in the country – supposedly so they can manage better.
There’s a part of me that is somehow heartened by the fact that a health secretary has once again broke the surface to talk about the HIV/AIDS situation in the country.  Media have been raising the alarm button for the longest time now and many organizations have been frantically trying to get government to be a little more proactive and decisive in addressing the runaway cases of HIV infections in the country, to no avail.  The former health secretary played deaf, blind, and mute to the emerging crisis.  It’s actually been quite some time since a top-ranking government official deigned to display empathy and concern for people living with HIV/AIDS and individuals affected by the crisis.  So yes, we’re happy Garin has taken out TV ads to appeal to people not to be scared or ashamed to submit themselves to HIV testing, although more proactive and comprehensive responses to stop the prevalence are required.
I must express serious concerns about Garin’s blanket assurance that government would take responsibility - although I truly, honestly, and genuinely wish government would and could. 
But let’s get real, not since Juan Flavier was Secretary of Health have we seen real and sincere efforts to address the HIV/AIDS problem in the country. Sure, it can certainly be argued that things were completely different back then – the infection rates were really slow.  The tragic truth however is that government has not been in control of the HIV/AIDS crisis in the country and has not shown deliberate efforts to want to assume responsibility – at least not until now, it seems.  In the last five years, the health department has been content with issuing alarmist press releases every month showing just how infection rates have increasingly gone from bad to worse.  Something could have already been done, but no cigar.  So we went from being a best practice in HIV prevention, to being one of only a handful of countries where HIV infections continue to rise.
And now comes the politician health secretary who says government will now take responsibility.  First, I hope Garin really means it and that she has the political will to see her resolve through and that she has the full support and blessings of her boss, who has so far, been impervious to the HIV/AIDS situation in the country.  Second, I really hope the Department of Health has found a way to marshal the necessary resources needed to put in place a decent manifestation of Garin’s assurance that government “will take responsibility.”  Third, I truly and sincerely hope Garin is able to get everyone – the whole bureaucracy within her own department, local governments, community groups, and non-government organizations to rally behind her.  HIV/AIDS is a complex social issue that requires multi-sectoral and collaborative approaches.
The cost of managing high incidence of HIV/AIDS infections can be really high.  And for a developing country such as the Philippines where incidence of tuberculosis, measles, dengue, and a host of other common diseases has remained high, resources spent on managing HIV/AIDS cases can be prohibitive.  Right now, medications designed to prolong the progression of HIV to AIDS have continued to be provided free of charge by government.  We all know this is not sustainable.  
The country cannot afford to foot the bill on medication for hundreds of thousands, or millions, of HIV/AIDS cases.   The official count have remained in the tens of thousands so far, but unless government really gets its act together, the infection rates will soon breach the hundred thousand mark.
It cannot be overemphasized – it is imperative that adequate focus be given to education and prevention programs; not just care.  The best way to stem the rising incidence of infections is to put in place an aggressive, comprehensive, and ably supported education and prevention programs.  And we need to do these now.  We need to move beyond shocking people with headlines.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Manifestations of hate

My May 10, 2015 column.

Racism, bigotry, and the other behavioral manifestations of hate and immaturity had most of us bothered, confused, and confounded in the last few days. 

I am sure many parents who are serious about helping their kids grow up to become better people had a difficult time trying to explain the uproar over the seeming bigoted or racist comments spewed by a Thai national on a social media account, and then by the prejudiced attacks by many Filipinos, including celebrities, directed at Floyd Mayweather in the aftermath of that heartbreaking and infuriating result of the supposed Fight of the Century. To make matters worse, when Philippine authorities did try to do what they thought was right or necessary by deporting the Thai national and showing pictures of the guy in handcuffs at the airport, there was also a corresponding uproar, with many Filipinos calling to task the Philippine government for what they thought was a disproportionate reaction. 
Let’s first talk about the case of Kosin Prasertsri, more popularly known as Koko Narak. The Thai national posted comments on a social media account deemed insulting, derogatory, and racist by many Filipinos. Calling Filipinos “Pigsnoys,” Narak went berserk spewing what he tried to justify later as frankness and attempts at humor on his part.  When we really come to think about it, the things he said did have some basis; they represented some of our frailties as a people. However, Narak went beyond socially acceptable norms. First, he is a guest in the country and guests don’t typically diss their hosts. Second, whatever good or non-malicious intent was overshadowed by the seeming recklessness in how he expressed himself. His observations were coached in ways that seemed to taunt and belittle rather than simply criticize. And finally, anyone who wants to express an opinion publicly, particularly if the opinion aims to assert a certain degree of superiority, must establish a certain degree of credibility. Like I always tell my students, if you must criticize, do it well —argue fairly, express yourself clearly and logically, and please check your grammar and spelling. It’s not exactly the best rebuttal, but it’s difficult to argue with someone who pontificates about how “an author who could not even be bothered to get his spelling and grammar right cannot be taken seriously.” Narak, quite frankly, expressed himself in ways that would give English teachers anywhere a massive coronary attack.
But in the same week that our blood boiled over Narak’s tortured verbal diarrhea, many Filipinos went into a similar frenzy, this time alternately mocking or bashing Mayweather for supposedly being a lesser person, or at least, a lesser fighter.  Many of the comments were shamelessly racist such as those that mocked the color of his skin, or his thick lips, or the way he spoke. And then there were the many comments that clearly reeked of prejudice. For example, relating Mayweather’s supposed predilection for evading punches by “dancing around” and  his strategy of “hugging” Pacquiao as characteristics of gay people was a gross generalization that demeaned and derogated gay people. Why should presumed cowardice, deviousness, and lack of aggressiveness be equated with gay people?  
So while Narak’s comments were infuriating and deserved condemnation (I am not sure though if it was criminal, or if the swift punishment meted out by the Philippine government was fair), it is important that we also examine our own tendencies to indulge in the same behavior.
Quite frankly, I know so many people – many of them people who flaunt their supposed impeccable credentials as professionals or their advanced education – who routinely make reckless, tactless, and often plainly prejudiced or bigoted comments directed at our leaders, certain sectors of Philippine society particularly the socially or economically disadvantaged, and yes, marginalized communities. Someone I know, for example, who ironically claims to champion the welfare of the poor, thinks nothing of belittling poor people for the supposed inconvenience they cause to working people such as overloading public transportation, clogging roads, or flooding the Internet with supposedly inane commentary, as if projecting one’s prejudice and negativity is a better alternative to someone’s jologs commentary.
I agree, this thing called political correctness is something we are still trying to get better at.  
However, while I do think that a large part of the issue has to do with political correctness, I maintain that the more effective and proactive response is not just to teach people the nuances of political correctness but to help them become more sensitive to and appreciative of diversity issues. Merely telling people to tone down their bigotry does not eradicate the problem but helping them get over their prejudices may be a more helpful approach. 
We need to constantly remind people of three things. Before spewing hateful or critical comments particularly when one is emotionally agitated, think first: What good will your comments do to yourself and to others? Second, contrary to what you think, the Internet or your social networking site is not really private – while not all people you hurt or offend will take steps to let you know of their feelings, ugly feelings don’t die. They fester and resurface in far more uglier ways. The universe does know how to return a favor and karma does get around fast.  And finally, prejudice and racism, among others, come from the same source and are manifestations of the same virus – it’s called hate.

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Victimized many times over

My May 5, 2015 column.
Barely a week ago, the whole country was united as Filipinos across demographic profiles—young and old, pro- or anti-administration—prayed that overseas Filipino worker Mary Jane Veloso be saved from imminent death by firing squad in Indonesia.  Veloso was given reprieve at the eleventh hour by the Indonesian government.  What was expected to be an occasion for joyous celebration and thanksgiving however degenerated into a bitter exchange of recriminations.  In what can only be described as very ugly turn of events, it soon seemed as if many people regretted having rushed to the aid of Veloso.  There were those who openly castigated Veloso and her family calling them “ingrates,” among other unsavory names.  Even more shocking, there were those who actually expressed their desire to see Veloso hanged, along with her mother.  How did we all find ourselves in the gutter in so short a time?
What triggered the outrage were the rather intemperate words of Celia Veloso, Mary Jane’s mother.  In a press conference a day after their arrival from Indonesia, the elder Veloso castigated President Benigno S. Aquino III for claiming credit for the Indonesian government’s decision to spare her daughter’s life.  To make matters worse, she let out a mouthful of incendiary statements about how they were out to collect payback, accusing the government of having tricked their family many times.
The statements did not sit well with many Filipinos who felt aggrieved that someone ruined what was for many a spiritual moment; after all, the decision to spare the life of Veloso was being likened to a miracle, it was a victory that was snatched from the jaws of certainty.  The fact that it was the mother of Veloso, no less, that ruined the moment was inconceivable.  Adding aggravation was the fact that most have pictured the Velosos as defenseless martyrs and the fighting stance of Celia Veloso was a jarring inconsistency.  So in a way, it was like being betrayed.
In the first place, I think that the mad scramble to get credit for the decision to spare the life of Mary Jane Veloso was unnecessary.  Saving lives and taking care of the welfare of constituents are inherent in the job description of leaders so the crowing done both by the left and by the bright boys in the Palace was a bit jarring.  As the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said, the best leaders are those who, when the work is done, allow people to say they did it themselves. Unfortunately, this is what happens when partisan politics get in the picture. 
I would like to think that people everywhere likewise prayed for the life of Veloso without preconditions.  I want to think that the value we attach to human lives is not affected by perceptions about what kind of people they or their families and friends are.  And certainly, I would like to think that while we may have expected the Velosos to conduct themselves in a manner that conveyed a certain amount of gratitude, we certainly did not demand that they repay everyone with obsequiousness.  So yes, we can express our disappointment and our anger.  But calling for execution for both the Veloso mother and daughter, and vilifying and demonizing them are uncalled for.  There can be room for empathy for anyone if we rein in our emotions.
It’s too bad our leaders and the political groups who claim to have the Velosos’ welfare at heart do not seem to care about what happens to Mary Jane in the long-term.  The President’s “I did not create your problem” statement and the subsequent attempt of other people to wash their hands of the issue seem to be a portent of things to come, which will be a repeat of the indifference that attended Veloso’s case in the last five years.  The deafening silence from the groups that coddled the Velosos at the height of the crisis is also jarring; surely, they have more experience at crisis management that can be put into effect at this point to help the Velosos. 
I, too, was sorely disappointed at the Velosos, but mainly for allowing themselves to be used as pawns by political forces.  I doubt if Veloso’s cinematic dialogue was something she conjured all by herself; those words aren’t easily strung together.  But then again, like she said albeit belatedly, most really didn’t know what the Veloso family had to go through in the last five years. Nobody really knew them apart from the way they were being forced to fit the poster image of poverty and victimization.  So I feel it would be unfair for anyone to make wholesale judgments about her and her family.   I still hold on to the view that the Velosos, despite the seemingly newfound militant orientation, remain victims in the whole scheme of things. And it looks like they will continue to be victimized many times over.

Sunday, May 03, 2015

Sleeping Saint Joseph

My May 3, 2015 column.
A dear friend gifted me with an image of a sleeping Saint Joseph recently. She was quite pleased with her present because she said she had difficulty sourcing the image—apparently, it’s one of the most in demand religious images in the country today, thanks to Pope Francis who provided a moving testimony during his visit last January on the supposed ability of the image to grant wishes. According to dear Lolo Kiko, whenever he found himself in a fix, he would write whatever was troubling him on a piece of paper and slip it under the image of the sleeping saint for the saint to “dream” about. 
I thanked my friend profusely for her thoughtfulness. What I didn’t have the heart to tell her was that I actually already have three other sleeping Saint Josephs all given to me last month during my birthday. I truly and deeply appreciated each of the four images given to me; they occupy special places in our house and in my office. I must admit, though, that I did wonder what the gifts meant: did my friends think I am in desperate need of a wishing factory? (In case you are one of those who are still in search of an image of a sleeping Saint Joseph, it’s not actually that difficult to find anymore. Most religious stores in major malls already sell them; in fact, they can actually be bought in stalls around major churches such as Baclaran and Quiapo). Did anyone really think Filipino entrepreneurs would let go of a business opportunity? Of course it was just a matter of time before images of the sleeping Saint Joseph would find their way into stores and homes. They are quite pricey at this time though, probably because the demand is still high and the novelty is still fresh.
I am not a very religious person although I do believe in the power of faith and prayers. I was also reared by a grandmother who was a devout Catholic and who was a devotee of several saints. Thus, I could actually distinguish Saint Joseph from, say, Saint Anthony of Padua – two saints that carry the image of an infant Jesus in their arms. Aside from differences in the colors of their vestments, Saint Joseph has always been pictured with facial hair while Saint Anthony, unfortunately, has always seemed in desperate need of hair growing products. Until the recent papal visit, I’ve never really thought saints could be pictured in poses other than either standing up, kneeling, or sitting down. How does one pray to someone who is sleeping or busy doing something else? 
Just last weekend, at the wedding of a friend’s daughter at the Santuario de San Jose in Greenhills, we found a life-sized image of a sleeping Saint Joseph in one corner of the church. I can tell you that the image is really best appreciated in miniature form. 
But what got us transfixed in one side of the Church was an unusual image of the Virgin Mother. It was a life-sized image of Mary nursing an infant Jesus, her right breast and nipple fully exposed. The inscription at the foot of the image said it was an image of the Nuestra Senora de la Leche. I thought of a friend who had just given birth but was having difficulty breastfeeding her baby; she said her body just didn’t seem to be producing enough milk to satiate her child. I offered a prayer asking the breastfeeding saint to help my breastfeeding friend. But a friend who found me in front of the image couldn’t help but snicker and joked about how the image could become favorite saint of virile young men. Of course breastfeeding is one of the most powerful natural phenomena in the world; every mammal in the animal kingdom practices breastfeeding. Unfortunately, malice does exist in the mind rather than in the object of one’s attention. Thus, I also thought of the many religious women from various Catholic associations who would probably find the image of the breastfeeding mother unacceptable. After all, the Virgin Mother is supposed to be the epitome of purity. 
There is some logic in the assertion of feminists that the Virgin Mother must have been a very strong, perhaps even muscled woman. She was exposed to very hard work and based on stories of the Bible, also did a lot of strenuous activities. Imagining her as a woman who breastfed, did work in the field, or carried heavy load would not diminish her worth as an object of worship. In much the same way, the image of a sleeping Saint Joseph is actually quite logical. He was a man who was content with being relegated to the sidelines; someone who knew his place and performed his role silently and without question. 
With the new and growing popularity of the sleeping Saint Joseph, I hope there will come a time when images of saints are no longer depicted in idealized forms but in ways that make them more “relatable.” I look forward to a time, for instance, when images of the Virgin Mother are no longer bedecked in jewels and when saints are no longer made to wear princely vestments complete with sequins and elaborate embroidery. The frills are not really necessary particularly when one’s faith is strong enough to enable him to see beyond the allure of man-made images.