Coco Martin leads his fellow ABS-CBN actors last February in one of the rallies asking government to renew the ABS-CBN franchise. Photo by Alec Corpuz, ABS-CBN News
Culture Spotlight

How Coco Martin became the face of the resistance

From waiting tables at Max's to being a janitor in Canada. From Masahista to Probinsyano. From reluctant star to the loudest voice fighting for ABS-CBN's employees in the current franchise renewal controversy. Whether he planned it or not, the actor’s journey through life has led him to this point. By ANDREW PAREDES
ANCX | May 10 2020

“Wala po akong talento. Ang liit ko. Ang pangit ko. Itim ako. Bulol ako. Hindi ako marunong mag-Ingles. Wala akong kapasidad, walang katangian para maging artista.”

Most of us who—in the old, pre-COVID world—couldn’t make it home in time because of traffic or post-work drinks would snigger at Ang Probinsyano, the post-TV Patrol, five-years-running-and-counting teleserye remake of a Fernando Poe, Jr. intellectual property. Isn’t that show done yet? At this rate, even cockroaches won’t outlive that show. Often, we would turn our snark on the show’s lead star Coco Martin who, as the ne’er-do-well Cardo Dalisay, takes his dead twin brother’s place in the police force and ends up becoming a one-man demolition army against drug lords, terrorists and corrupt politicians. When is he going to learn to pronounce his sibilant “s” sounds? Hasn’t he run out of showbiz has-beens to cast in his show yet?

Coco as Cardo Dalisay in Ang Probinsiyano.

And once again, those of us in the hoity-toity middle classes have been caught flat-footed, underestimating the indefinable power of quotes such as the one above, which he delivered on May 8 during a protest gathering streamed live over Facebook.

Long before this government decided it was okay to turn its constituents’ lives into its own personal playground, long before COVID-19 turned each day into a stark life-or-death contest, there was Coco Martin. It takes a lifetime to become a revolutionary, but it only takes one accident to become the face of the resistance. And long before his explosive May 8 tirade against the government protesting the obliteration of ABS-CBN from the airwaves, Coco Martin was already an accident waiting to happen.

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You can call ABS-CBN whatever you like in your most fevered DDS dreams. But what you can’t call it is stupid. And the network knew what it had in the star known beyond the klieg lights as Rodel Nacianceno. In internal research shared only within the top brass, when the ABS-CBN research department asked its carefully selected sampling of the audience which of the network’s stars they most related to, they identified two: Angel Locsin for her morena beauty, her simple femininity and her charity efforts, and—you guessed it—Coco Martin.

Playing a lagarista in Brillante Mendoza's Serbis.

That’s because Coco never kept his humble beginnings secret—in fact, he wears it like a badge of honor. In a 2012 interview with the defunct showbiz magazine YES!, he recounted how, 20 years ago, while a Hotel and Restaurant Management student at the National College of Business and the Arts, he was spotted by a Star Magic scout waiting tables at a Max’s restaurant; but being a lola’s boy, he followed his grandmother Matilde’s advice and put his showbiz career on hold to get his degree. 

With the woman who raised him, his grandmother Matilde. "Ikaw ang naghubog sa akin kung paano lumaban sa buhay." Photo from @mr.cocomartin on Instagram

How, desperate to start earning money after graduation, he took the lead role in 2005’s Masahista without even knowing what the role would demand of him (“Dumating ‘yong time na mayroong pinakamalala na eksena, ‘yong kailangan ko maghubad ng brief. Sabi ko, ‘Kaya ko ba ‘to?’”) because he thought the film’s rounds in foreign film festivals would give him an opportunity to be a TNT. 

How he finagled his way into the good graces of the Filipino expat community in Locarno, Switzerland; how he worked the graveyard shift as a janitor at an all-night bingo joint while busting his ass cleaning houses on the weekends in Alberta, Canada. 

The indie years: Coco topbilled Kinatay for which Brillante Mendoza won Best Director at Cannes.

How he came home and slowly made a name for himself, gaining his footing as an actor in such indie titles as TiradorSerbis and Kinatay, and how network TV refused to come calling, denigrating him as just another bold star. 

How one impromptu acting decision playing a second-tier villain on the set of the 2008 teleserye Ligaw na Bulaklak (“Babarilin ko lang ‘yung pulis na kasama ni Sid Lucero… Pagbaril ko sa pulis, tinutukan ko si Sid. Hindi tinuro ‘yon sa akin ng director. Instinct ba.”) got his foot in the door at ABS-CBN.

Coco would spend seven years working his way up the teleserye ranks as supporting actor then romantic lead in such shows as Tayong DalawaMinsan Lang Kita Iibigin and Walang Hanggan. But he really hit his stride in 2015’s Ang Probinsyano. In Cardo Dalisay, Coco had found a character that seamlessly combined a heroic persona with his grounded, real-life history. (In a nod to the star’s devotion to his grandmother, the show even cast Fernando Poe, Jr.’s widow Susan Roces as Cardo’s Lola Flora, the glue that holds the orphaned Cardo’s makeshift, community-based family together.)

And in Cardo Dalisay, the TV-watching masses found a perfect melding of star and character. While the upper classes make sport of Ang Probinsyano’s longevity, the show’s lower-C, D and E demographic keep it going because they cling tightly to the show’s reassuring message that good will triumph over evil, that there are heroes still willing to do the right thing. And this isn’t a wild editorial opinion, either. Coming at the dawn of the Duterte regime and hitting its ratings peaks—at one point, a little under half of the country’s households were tuning in—at the same time as extrajudicial killings started occurring at a horrifying pace in depressed communities, Ang Probinsyano has proven through internal research what network management has long suspected: That the terrified, huddled masses welcome Cardo—and by extension, Coco—into their homes night after night as a figure of safety, an avatar of long-promised justice.

***

Even though he maintains a folksy demeanor, Coco is no fool, either. After Ang Probinsyano catapulted him to the front ranks of ABS-CBN’s stars, he leaned into the FPJ mystique by directing his own version of Ang Panday. And when he ventures into movies, he never strays far from his Everyman image nor does what John Lloyd Cruz—another box-office force with hard-knock origins—did: include high-class characters in his repertoire of roles. Instead, he always chose movie roles that emphasized his unpretentious, up-from-the-street persona: You’re My BossMaybe This TimeFeng Shui 2Beauty and the BestieThe Super Parental Guardians.

This meant turning his back on the meaty indie movie roles that got him noticed in the first place. But Coco sought fulfillment in other ways, such as contributing more creative input on Ang Probinsyano, and installing his grandmother and five siblings in different, lavishly appointed houses within one sprawling compound in an exclusive Quezon City gated community. In a guided tour the star gave of his home to YES! Magazine not long after its first profile on him, I remember being startled to read that his huge front door featured carving detail by National Artist for Sculpture Abdulmari Imao.

Allowing his fans a peek of the private Coco in this house feature in YES! Magazine.

But no ostentatious display of wealth or subtle exertion of power could convince the masses that Coco wasn’t one of them. In fact, if that YES! home profile proved anything, it’s that it would be hard to begrudge someone of a little luxury when they had worked so hard for everything they had, especially when he lavishes it on his family. Even more: Seeing their idol living the high life gives them an aspirational thrill—if Coco could do it, maybe I can too.

* * *

Of course, wielding such influence meant occasionally bumping into some monumental egos. The Philippine National Police criticized Ang Probinsyano last year for peddling the stereotype of the corrupt cop. Coco promptly attended a sit-down meeting with the top officials in the pecking order to smooth over ruffled feathers, and even got the members of the Manila Police District Dance Fitness Team to perform with him on ASAP. Also last year, when the network’s franchise renewal deadline was coming up fast and Duterte was declaring in no uncertain terms that he wanted ABS-CBN off the air, Coco lent his star presence to the employees’ daily rallies around the Mother Ignacia compound, asking the President in measured tones to reconsider. Showbiz, after all, is an occupation built on addition, not subtraction.

He has been increasingly participative in the creation of Probinsiyano. Photo from @mr.cocomartin on Instagram

But the National Telecommunication Commission’s abrupt issuance of a cease-and-desist order last May 5, despite a pledge to Congress that it would allow the network to continue operating on a provisional authority, gave Coco something that his idol FPJ never had: A real-life obstacle to prove that he really is made of the right stuff.

As soon as ABS-CBN signed off last Tuesday—right before the time slot normally occupied by his flagship teleserye—Coco sprang into action. On May 7, he took to Instagram, and in rapid-fire successive posts basically declared war on Duterte supporters who had gleefully declared victory: “Pag balik namin pag sasapakin ko lahat ng tuwang tuwa ngayon na sarado na ang ABS CBN!!! Baka pag balik namin sasabihin ng mga Bushers [sic] namin miss na miss nyo kami at makikipila kayo sa showtime para manood ng live at sumali sa contest. Try nyo manood ng Probinsyano sisipain ko muka [sic] nyo!!!”

Appearing in last Thursday's Laban Kapamilya Facebook Live program, a very angry Coco addressed his fellow actors: “Binarubal na tayo eh! Tinatarantado na tayo eh! Kinuha na ang bahay natin eh! Iparinig ninyo kung ano ang nawala sa atin! "

With the advent of social media, where fans feel they’ve been granted direct, God-given access to their idols, celebrities have had to slap their followers’ hands away once they cross a line. Still, it was breathtaking to see Coco not only swatting them away, but basically taking a blow torch to the bridges he had painstakingly built. And in all caps, too—the text equivalent of shouting: “GANITO KASIMPLE LANG YAN MGA KAIBIGAN LAHAT NG MGA AYAW SAMIN AT NAGDIDIWANG NGAYON WAG NYO KAMI IFOLLOW HINDI NAMIN KAYO KAILANGAN SA BUHAY NAMIN PARA LAITIN KAMI AT PAGTAWANAN SA PINAGDADAANAN NAMING LAHAT!”

He then urged his fellow celebrities to follow his lead, because—to paraphrase what he said in another Instagram post—having no more f**ks to give is actually liberating: “KAYA PALA MASAYANG MASAYA YUNG MGA BASHERS AT TROLLS SA GINAGAWA NILA E! KC TAYONG MGA ARTISTA WALANG MAGAWA KAPAG NILAIT NILA KAPAG KINUTYA NILA DI TAYO MAKAPALAG, NGAYON WALA NA TAYONG TRABAHO PANTAY PANTAY NA TAYO PWEDE NA TAYO LUMABAN WALA NA TAYO DAPAT KATAKUTAN!!!”

And then he gives them a sage piece of advice born of observing the showbiz ecosystem: “SILA GUSTONG GUSTO NILA BASAHIN KUNG ANO ANG MGA POST NATIN NGAYON NA ANG PAGKAKATAON PARA MAKAGANTI TAYO AWAYIN NATIN SILA AT WAG BASAHIN ANG MGA COMMENTS NILA HAYAAN NATIN SILA MAG COMMENTS PARA MAG MUKA [sic] SILANG TANGA!!! SA LAHAT NG BASHERS NAMIN LIBRE LAIT WALANG MAG BABASA!!!”

But on the Laban Kapamilya Facebook Live event the following evening, Coco had bigger fish to fry. As the program started and Boy Abunda officiated over the Zoom gathering, Coco could be seen fidgeting with pent-up energy in his chat box, raring to go. And when his turn to speak came, he had a lot of things to unload from his chest.

On misplaced priorities: “Ngayon po, ano po ba ang uunahin natin ngayon? Tanggalin ang kumpanya na tumutulong sa ating kapwa, sa lahat ng Pilipino? O ‘yung sugal na pumapasok sa ating bansa? Buti pa ‘yung POGO, ‘di ba, ipinaglalaban n’yo! Itong kumpanyang tumutulong sa lahat ng tao ngayon, pinasara n’yo!”

On name-checking Presidential spokesman Harry Roque: “Ano’ng sabi ni Harry Roque? ‘Di ba, ano’ng sabi niya? Pumila kayo sa DOLE, ‘di ba? Huwag kayo mag-alala, bibigyan kayo ng ayuda. Eh kung buong Pilipinas nga, hindi ninyo masuplayan, pati kami dadagdag?”

On the disastrous crisis response of the government of someone who will not be named: “Sabi ko, anong klaseng tao ito? Sa gitna ng pandemya, sa mga nangyayari sa ating bansa, nauna pang isipin ipasara ang ABS-CBN kaysa tugunan ang lahat ng pangangailangan ng ating bansa… Kung manonood kayo ng balita, halos lahat ng artista, nasa labas. May mga artista na kumikilos kahit hindi ninyo nakikita sa TV o sa social media. Kasi ito po ang pagkakataon para kami naman ang tumulong. Kasi po, ‘yung mga hindi nagagawa ng iba, kami na po ang gagawa. Kasi nakakahiya naman po sa inyo!”

On his fears for supporting his family in a time of financial uncertainty: “Ano’ng ipapakain ko sa pamilya ko? Kapag ang pamilya ko kinante, makikipaglaban ako nang patayan sa ‘yo kahit patayin mo pa ako!”

On his call to his fellow ABS-CBN celebrities to be more vehement in letting their sentiments be heard: “Binarubal na tayo eh! Tinatarantado na tayo eh! Kinuha na ang bahay natin eh! Iparinig ninyo kung ano ang nawala sa atin! Kasi kung lahat tayo mananahimik, aabusuhin tayo n’yan!... Pero kung hindi po namin gagawin ito at hindi maririnig ng mga tao ang nasa dibdib namin, ang mga hinaing namin, ang nasa isip namin, sino po ang gagawa? Lahat kami, matatakot? Ano’ng gagawin namin ngayon sa bahay namin? Magti-Tiktok?”

* * *

This is why sentiments like so-called National Artist F. Sionil Jose’s will never prosper beyond the bubble of snobbery in which the author and columnist now solely functions. In a social media post, after enumerating a laundry list of alleged sins committed by the Lopezes, Sionil Jose said that “The Filipinos do not really need ABS-CBN. It does not produce goods or food. It has certainly entertained millions but it did not diminish poverty. Again, freedom worked for the rich—but not for the Filipinos.”

In one of the "No to ABS-CBN shutdown" rallies in February. Photo from @DZMMTeleRadyo on Twitter

Setting aside the ridiculousness of tasking a media organization with the eradication of poverty (why not absolve governments of their responsibilities then?) or the production of grocery items, there is a lingering stench of arrogance in his post, as if entertainment that reaches millions is beneath him. It’s a shining example of why dinosaurs should not be allowed access to the tools of expression of the 21st century: Their awkward word vomit only ends up reinforcing their flawed argument that the right to expression is not for everyone.

But expression is a right, not limited to but especially for those who bravely express the thoughts and grievances of so many. But being able to speak the language of the majority, now that is a gift. And Coco has that gift in spades: “Sa lahat ng mga troll d’yan, kamusta po kayo? Magpapaka-jologs na po ako. Bakit po? Kasi sabi ko nga, sa lahat ng mga taong naninira sa amin, hindi kayo puwedeng labanan o kausapin nang mahinahon. Ngayon, kakausapin ko kayo sa sarili n’yong lengguwahe.”

True enough, Coco’s raw talk got a rise out of Duterte’s base: He was pummeled for being crude, his indie cred was used to cast doubts on his sexuality, he was pilloried for being privileged and hypocritical. But what undoubtedly drove them crazy was the idea that they were screeching into a void. Coco had robbed them of their ability to rile him up.

Whether he planned it or not, Coco’s journey through life has led him to this point. Hopefully, he can use his platform moving forward in this war to educate people about their civic duty: That it is their obligation every day to participate in the running of their country. That elections are more than circuses that come to town every three years; they are opportunities to make informed choices about what is best for their lives and their future. That votes have actual life-and-death consequences.

If he can use his being Coco Martin to drive those ideas into people’s minds and hearts…now that would be revolutionary.