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Maid of Cotton



(written circa 1996)
It was neither Estas, nor Dimas, nor Jesus nailed on the cross that captured my imagination, these statuettes surrounding a coffin were normal in a Philippine wake. ‘Twas neither the flowers, nor the cigars hanging from the lips of men, nor men playing poker, nor boys serenading girls, nor old women gossiping, nor farmers drinking coffee and Ginebra put me under spell, for these, again, were normal in a Philippine wake. It was not the rented lights against the black mantle hanging in front of the house that took my delight, I may sound redundant now, but this was normal in a Philippine wake. Neither did the black dress nor the black veil covering the salt and pepper hair of Aling Rosita stole my breath away, everybody wore the same, in a Philippine wake. The wake for Isidro, the most honest and reliable gay in the barrio was not one that I’d describe ordinary. The statuettes around his corpse were fashioned out of pure gold. The flowers displayed around his lifeless body mimicked a garden in Italy. Aling Rosita appeared and talked in a way that could teach Imelda Marcos a lesson or two. Tandang Sepa, the septuagenarian gossiper, after extolling the virtues of Isidro took a sip of Ginebra gin, spat it out of the window and exclaimed, “I wish I’d die today so I could join the splendor of Isidro’s wake.” Then, her eyes traveled to the bowl of rolled peso bills, contributed by gays for Isidro’s burial.
His gay friends were the ones who demanded that statuettes were not enough, they should be the finest in the archipelago. Flowers were not enough, these must be arranged by the best floral decorator of Guagua. Who happened to be gay. That the black candles be designed with red and silver dragons coiled around them, hand sculpted in the famous Chinatown of Manila. Aling Rosita, IsidroÂ’s sister, must not wear any black dress, it must bear the name of Cordero. The mantle should be a quilt detailing the life of Isidro, with roses and sunflower buntings. It should be made out of cotton for Isidro was the ultimate Maid of Cotton.
The wake was to last three days, his gay friends, scattered all over, demanded that his burial waited for their returns. And when the casket maker brought in its glass lid, one of the local gays broke it, saying he would never let Isidro be displayed like a Barbie doll for sale. Indeed Isidro never looked so beautiful in his entire life, thanks to the expertise of the nationally famous make-up artist in the local mortuary. Who happened to be gay. The old women shook their heads, saying, “He looks as beautiful as his mother.” Which saddened many a hustler saying, “If he were this beautiful then, he could have been my boyfriend …for half my regular price!” The two days passed and his friends arrived with their local, French, British, Japanese, Australian and American lovers. On the day of his burial, you’d think an international gathering was sending Isidro to his grave. On the first two days, Aling Rosita did not leave the side of Isidro’s corpse. She wept unstoppably. On the second day, all her children, ten of them, her grandchildren, thirty nine of them, her great grandchildren, two of them all came. Her eldest, Satur, wailed the loudest, he was after all, the most cruel to Isidro.
On the third day, Aling Rosita, as was customary in a Philippine wake, pulled up the transparent veil over her face and began to speak. This was the eulogy that began all the other eulogies, people hailed these speeches as the best ever spoken in the entire history of the barrio. The drama surrounding the death of Isidro, they said, was worthy of Famas nomination.
Aling Rosita’s Eulogy
“Isidro… Isidro,” she whispered, “Flesh of my flesh… blood of my blood.” She stared at nothing in particular through the window… and I thought rice stalks stood still. Water buffalos stopped wagging their tails. Cats and dogs rested on their hinds. Why, even the insects and birds withheld their daily business among the river lilies. Even the runny noses of children seemed to have run dry. Aling Rosita continued:
“In 1944, Isidro and I became survivors in a war that killed both our parents. Our town was devastated and we had no place to keep. Deprived, we roamed among our relatives all the way from San Simon to Sesmoan, I made sure Isidro tagged along. When I reached sixteen, Constancio Poblete proposed marriage to me. I accepted only with one condition – that Isidro, my little brother, live with us. Constancio hated Isidro for being a bakla, a malas to any livelihood. I demanded that Isidro stay with us without ifs and buts. Constancio relented.
“The three of us pioneered this barrio… I remember those days… we carried rocks on wheelbarrows and stripped bamboos to build our home. With our small beginning, the barrio grew as the rest of you followed and built homes as well. I produced ten children. How I could have raised those children without Isidro, God only knew. He was my companion everyday while Constancio was out in the fields. When my love for Constancio faltered, Isidro bombarded me with love stories from Liwayway Comics until I fell in love with my husband all over again. When I was too tired of my children, he huddled them away and played with them until I recovered my bearing. He retold all the stories of Lola Basyang to them until they became knowledgeable so that they all graduated at Lubao Highschool with honors and went on to acquire college degrees in Manila. Isidro did more than create intelligent children, oh he did more than that! With the fifty centavos I gave him once a week, he spent his Sundays in the capitol town San Femando to read all the available newspapers there, and secretly collected disposed magazines from the tenements of the marketplace. Occasionally, he bought bargain dressmaking books and studied these day in and day out. You see, he cherished the only property left to us after the war – our mother’s Singer sewing machine – you see it now, all black and rusty, occupying a special spot in his shop. He started cutting dress-patterns from cement paper bags and created paper clothes before me while I giggled. Life went on like this until the worst catastrophe happened. Satur, my eldest child, broke the heart of Isidro forever.
“You Satur, who have sired children yourself, probably understand better than anyone the cruelty you subjected your uncle Isidro to. During one fiesta, you brought home your college fiends from Manila. When the time to introduce your family came, your finger pointed at us one by one, beginning with your youngest sister up to me and your father. But when your finger pointed at Isidro, you blushed and called him the maid of the house. You, my son, introduced the uncle who brought you up as your Maid! How dare you!”
Satur’s Eulogy
Satur was weeping while listening to his mother’s eulogy. When she was done, he stood up and stared at the dead face of Isidro. Satur, an engineer from the Department of Public Works, was no longer young. Wrinkles on his face were deep, the muscles in his temples and jaws pulsated. He was sweating profusely in the midst of hot rented lights. He began to speak:
“Forgive me Bapang Isidro, I may be too late to say this but please, forgive me. What my reason for introducing you as the maid to my college friends was explainable only by my youth. I was ashamed of you – that’s the truth. If only the society in which I lived in then, if the generation I belonged to could have been more accepting to persons like you then, I may not have done what I have done to you. In my eyes, you were so weak, you stayed by my mother’s side while everybody else was marrying and having children. And when I peeked into your room and found dressmaking magazines and kits and the old Singer sewing machine, I concluded you were useless. Because you were gay. How old were you then, twenty five years old? Thirty years old? As a child you made me dream of becoming an engineer, building roads and bridges. What did you dream of when you were a child? Did you dream of nothing, contented in scraping the left-overs of my parents? You had muscles – you had brains – you had legs – you had arms – at least, you could have picked up the plow, like Father, and farmed a piece of land. I wish you were something then, perhaps a custodian, a mason, a carpenter, a peon somewhere, yeah, I could have proudly presented you. But to see you in an old hand-me-down t-shirt and old, gray pants smelling of onions, the only thing I could think of was you being a Maid. Forgive me Tiyo Isidro if I hurt you. Let me announce this now to all those who hear, to all my friends and to my wife and children – the dead man lying here beside me is Isidro Samaniego. He spent the best years of his life taking care of me and my brothers and sisters. He lived with nothing because he was dedicated to us, his only family. Despite the pains I inflicted upon him, he went on loving us – in the years that followed, most of our college allowances and tuitions came from him. For that, I am shamefully grateful. Tiyo Isidro was the greatest uncle in the whole world. I wish I’ve said this to him before he died. Forgive me.”
Indang Sayong’s Eulogy
“For many years I envied Rosita for having a dedicated and industrious brother. Isidro was very handsome, though his complexion was pale due to his lack of outdoor life. He was always inside the house taking care of his sister’s children, cooking, cleaning. He rarely talked in my sari-sari store until one solemn night, after the monsoon rains had just stopped. Isidro sat in front of my store carrying a blanket containing his clothes. He was also dragging a Singer sewing machine. He was crying and begging me to provide him a place to stay, albeit temporarily. He said his nephews and nieces were ashamed of him and he didn’t want to come back to them anymore. He said he would work for me, do my laundry, clean my house and take care of the store (as you all know, Pedro and I are not blessed with children) in return for a place to stay and food to eat. Oh how pitiful this young man was, all alone, rejected, no place to go. But I could not take him home. I told him to return to his sister’s house, his pain would pass away, he was needed there more than here. He said he would rather go to San Femando, beg in the Cathedral rather than go back. He stood up and started to leave. Guilt overpowered me so I ran after him. I was aware that by letting him stay in my house, I’d run the risk of putting Rosita in a bad light. What would people say? In letting him in my house, I would appear better-caring than Rosita. And I would offend her. Besides, my husband Pedro was not exactly accommodating to people like Isidro… this barrio never accepted the likes of him. Yet, if I let this young man Isidro leave, and God forbid, something happens to him up there in San Fernando, I may not live in peace for the rest of my life. I was suddenly facing a very difficult decision – I would be jeopardizing my friendship with Rosita, offending my husband, losing my customers in having Isidro in my house, but… Come what may, if Rosita and my husband got mad at me, their anger would pass away, but if this young man got murdered in a place strange to him, that I couldn’t undo… To my surprise, I made the right decision. Rosita came to me the following day thanking me for keeping her brother. She said, “Take care of him, someday his pain will fade and he will come back to me. Just don’t let him leave the barrio, keep him close to me.” It was however a different story with my husband. He wanted Isidro thrown out of the house immediately. I pleaded, saying that Isidro would stay only for a short while. Isidro was actually the one who convinced my husband. Pedro found him not only resourceful, he was intelligent. I could not have been blessed by a better company. During his tenure in my house, Isidro delivered more than what he had promised. The house never had been more sparkling, the food never had been more delicious. He bought a piece of cloth in San Femando and whenever he had free time, he stooped over this cloth and carefully cut many patterns for a dress he’d been dreaming to create. I’d never seen a more perfect dress when he finished it. I tried it, the other women in the barrio tried it, and it fit all of us alright. All the women in the barrio coveted the dress. Being kind, Isidro offered it to me as a gift. I wouldn’t take it. I told him he had a talent and that talent should not be given out as a gift. Being a businesswoman myself, I put the dress up in my store for sale. And to the highest bidder it was sold. The implication of that sale went beyond my wildest imagination. Suddenly, every woman wanted Isidro to cut a dress for her. In just one week, fourteen dresses were measured and made. Money and work came pouring into Isidro, confining him in his sewing machine day and night. He never complained, sewing a dress for him was like a mission, like an addiction. When he could no longer do his house duties, he begged for my understanding. Who was I to stop him? I said, “Isidro, do what you want to do and be happy for it.” After two weeks, many ladies began visiting my house. Pedro and I decided to build Isidro a shop, just adjacent to my store. Isidro and I discussed what name we would give to this shop. At first we thought that since his first dress was made of cotton, the shop should be named Made of Cotton. Isidro thought about that but after a few minutes, his voice broke, he said, “You are right, my first dress was made of cotton, but that dress came into being after I was hurt by my nephew Satur and I never stop hurting because my heart is made of cotton. Why not Heart of Cotton?” I told him it was too sentimental, not good for business. He suddenly beamed and said, “Let the people be reminded of what I am in the eyes of my family, I am their Maid. Their Maid of Cotton.”
Jose’’s aka Josie’’s Eulogy for Isidro
When Jose arrived from Paris, people were shocked. He came home as a She, with boobs and lined eyebrows. Well, Josie had metamorphosed from an ugly cocoon to a flamboyant butterfly -former titlist Miss Gay Paris International – she was the total reincarnate of Rita Gomez, voice and all. She made Isidro appear like Mohave Desert. Josie was the initiator of all the splendor for Isidro’s burial. Leaving her French husband -a hunk in leather called Pierre or something- she spoke on behalf of all the other gays in this wake, their good looks and lovers and all.
(“Is this Jose?” whispered the septuagenarian Indang Sepa. “Dios por santo the world is nearing its end!”)
These were JosieÂ’s words:
“The Maid of Cotton shop was my hiding place, my refuge, the place where all my hopes began. In my youth, I heard my father comment about Isidro all the time, comparing him to a plague, he often said, “Don’t get near that homosexual. Look, he is the joke of the entire barrio.” It just so happened that my father and his drinking buddies were the only ones who made it so. I tried to heed my father’s rules. I tended to manly duties, plowed the farms, tended the carabao… But it is not easy to change one’s inborn preference. I am gay through and through since the day I was born. Switching orientation is not as simple as changing one’s clothes. The more I tried to hide my true self, the more awkward I became. I felt like a woman trapped in a man’s body. One day my father caught me wearing my mother’s wedding dress in the bathroom! He beat me so hard I had to run out of the house, and no other place was open for me but the shop of Isidro. Inside the shop, I probably shed three glasses of tears. After that, Isidro became my closest ally.
“Under Isidro’s wings, I slowly regained my confidence, he was, in the first place, a role model. He dedicated the best years of his life to the uplifting of the family he loved and successfully recouped himself after being rejected. For that alone, I found a reason to go on living. It was Isidro too, who told me about the world beyond this barrio – other countries teeming with people, with sophisticated cultures, with philosophies far more liberal and even accepting than the constrictions of this barrio. With that hope I dreamt of going to those lands.
“I am not saying that I never had any disagreement with Isidro – I found him a hypocrite sometimes. He’d say I should not be too flamboyant when all the world sees him flamboyant himself. And when I’ started talking about men, he’d shut me up like the nuns in Lubao High School when we both knew gays think of men no matter what their stations in life are, I guess he thought less of men, especially with the bulk of work he did nevertheless… Isidro never had a sex life, his only consolation was his morning biking to Concepcion, his only form of exercise. That’s why gays called him Mohave Desert.
“My youth belonged to ‘Marcos’ baby’ generation which was blessed with nothing but misery. Marcos was the only leader we knew under repression and poverty. Before his dictatorship’s meltdown, as we all know, we found our incomes shrink while the prices of commodities expanded. In order to forget our misfortunes, we did all funny things. Fathers became drunkards in order to forget their impotence in providing food to their children. Children roamed the streets in Manila to sell their bodies so they could help feed their families. And people like us, yes, homosexuals like us provided escapist entertainment by parading as women into the streets for a laugh, and how you laughed. Isidro loathed us – especially when all the cross-dressers gathered in his shop – and would lecture us about the bad impression we were promoting. I defended my drag. I said, “How can you deny this simple diversion, it’s the cheapest form of entertainment for people who can’t even buy a TV. Understand this: not all gays can resort to high caliber entertainments. A drag show is a poor man’s show; it is the language of gays who can barely express themselves through sophisticated means which well off gays can afford. Coming out for us means being flamboyant in our mothers’ clothing.
“Isidro was full of contradictions. Despite his loathing, he would finance these drag parades. He would condemn us for bringing men in his shop yet would provide us room to make love. We tempted him countless times, but once he closed his bedroom, not even the handsomest man would make him open up.
“His loathing about our drags eventually faded. In one of our shows, a talent scout from Manila saw us, invited us, signed us contracts to dance in the city. From Manila we flew to Tokyo, Hongkong, Singapore, Amsterdam, New York and now, Paris. Isidro provided the extra money we needed in going to these far off places, giving us means to pay him back and later on, support our families. Look at us now!
“Isidro look at me now. I am as brilliant as a star! Oh if only you’ve seen me win the title Miss Gay Paris, with tears in my eyes I was shouting your name. To Isidro! To Isidro! “
Mang TebanÂ’s Eulogy for Isidro
“I am the proud father of Josie. I admit my own misgiving at first. The first time I saw Isidro set up Maid of Cotton shop beside the store of Indang Sayong, I got mad – we Filipinos have had a masculine culture since the time of our Muslim beginnings, we’ve been masculine through the three hundred fifty years of Spanish colonization, we’ve been masculine through the US Commonwealth, we’ve been masculine through wars even through Marcos dictatorship – why would someone like him destroy all that masculinity? I feared he would demoralize our children and worse, turn them like himself. My fears became real the first time I saw my own son wear his mother’s clothing. I said – This is it! – I beat up my son until only his eyes were free of whip mark. I talked with the other men in this barrio and we all agreed, either we killed this fag Isidro or we turn him into a butt of jokes. The goal was to warn each child of even daring to be like him. This was how we punished Isidro: every time he passed our way, we whistled and addressed him, “Oh sexy fox, why don’t you suck all of us.” We intimidated him, I broke an empty San Miguel beer bottle one night and threatened him – “Be a man like us or else…” I brandished the broken bottle in front of his eyes. Far from getting frightened, he pushed my weapon away and said, “Sleep this off Mang Teban, you must worry more about feeding your children than paying attention to my unmanliness.” I was so embittered since my son became close to him. I called them all faggots.
“Isidro had a way of fighting back, and when he did, he shredded me to pieces. He hit me hard when I learned from my wife that he lent her money regularly to supplement the meals of my children, No wonder we were debt free in Indang Sayong’’s store while I was out of job. Oh how I cried . First I demanded that she return all the money to him because I couldn’t stomach a fag feeding my children. But when my wife asked me for the money to return to him I could not produce it. And the most painful truth was this: his charity was going on while I was abusing him on the street. What other man could do that? Though I am a proud man all my life, I confess all the cruelties I bore upon Isidro – in his heyday, I never gave him peace of mind. This man who built this barrio, who fed other people’s children, who supported my gay son until he could provide for us – is now here dead. He died being a friend without expecting a return. Oh Isidro forgive me.”
The Priest’s Delivery
Isidro’s casket was brought out from his sister’s house. All the windows and doors were closed as is customary in a Philippine funeral so the Spirit of the Dead would not strike for the time being. Ave Maria beamed from loudspeakers. As the limousine carrying his casket passed by, people along the road bowed their heads and threw coins to its direction – a bribe to the Devil – so it won’t attack them. The funeral proceeded to the chapel for its final rite. The priest spoke to honor Isidro:
“It is time for us to take a last look at the man who changed the face of our barrio. Isidro was a beautiful man. At age 45, as years had taken their toll on him, he slowed down his work in his shop and became a religious man. He swept the chapel at night and provided the altar flowers every Sunday. I heard him weep many times, when he learned some of our precious children had gone to Manila to work to help feed their families. He released his own savings and lent it to many of you to make your ends meet. He helped pay the exuberant recruitment flees for our men and women who opted to work overseas, without interests , and when paid he used the same amount for another and another and another.
“Now we are witnesses to the outcome of his kindness. Many of us have crossed world boundaries, worked lowly but decently, adopted other cultures and languages and were able to fight starvation.
“I am a priest and my vows condemn any form of sexuality outside of marriage. Isidro, contrary to the accusations of some of you, had lived and died clean. He lived like a monk, a saint, and for that, I exhort you to bless him. Pray may he rest in peace.”
From the chapel, the casket was laid at the center of the cemetery. People began passing by his coffin for viewing the last time. Children were lifted over his corpse, as was customary, so he could take a glimpse of new lives before departing. When the casket was sealed, hysteria and wailing took over. Aling Rosita fainted and was immediately revived with ammonia. Tandang Sepa, the septuagenarian gossiper tried to steal the scene by screaming and pounding on the casket with one eye closed the other opened. She yelled, “Take me with you Isidro!” which pissed a lot of the mourners. “Go ahead”, they said, pushing her toward the open tomb. Realizing her show wasn’t taking its desired effect, she pretended to faint. For five minutes no one picked her up. She rose up by herself and walked away. The foreigners couldn’t figure out what to make of this spectacle. Some were solemn, some were laughing.
The Greatest Eulogy
I’ve seen all these because I lived close to the cemetery. I was with the cemetery caretaker who placed the last brick to cover his tomb. I helped the caretaker put back his tools in his jeepney before going home.
All said and done, I decided to go home. But then, just before darkness enveloped the cemetery, a solitary figure emerged from a bicycle and went toward IsidroÂ’s tomb. I hid behind one acacia tree and watched the man. He was the age of Isidro, tall and muscular. I recognized him, he was the bachelor in barrio Concepcion. I heard him speak:
“Isidro, my love, it’s over now. I cannot live another day without seeing you in our hiding place. For thirty years you made my mornings beautiful.” (I sighed, I had this intuition before: Isidro would not be biking to Concepcion everyday for nothin’!) The man knelt and kissed Isidro’s tomb so tenderly, picked a flower from the mountain of wreaths and sat beside the tomb until darkness.
You see my friends, Isidro revealed his most beautiful secret to me only in his death – his love and passion, not the customs and traditions. These were the ones that took my breath away.
After death, his name continues to spawn many stories circulating in the barrio. A mother sees his ghost sitting beside her hungry children; the ladies invoke his opinion before buying clothes; men are more accepting of gays. These stories turn into myths- Isidro is still found sweeping the chapel every night; flowers bloom in May because he will come down to pick them for the fiesta; people lend money easily because Isidro did so; and so on and so forth… the Maid of Cotton is now a legend.
2020-11-22 18:40:05
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