To many, Carlos Celdran was the activist, the guy who “offended religious feelings” by way of performance art. He was the man so impassioned about Manila he found a vocation in making people fall in love with the city the same way he did—through his walking tours. But to Nash Tysmans, he was simply a friend she lost, her “Tito Unicorn” with whom she would recently cry buckets with over many bottles of beer in Spain where Celdran has been living in exile. “Sometime in August, Carlos and I were messaging because I had wanted to move to Madrid and possibly try to make a life there,” Tysmans told ANCX. She just finished her masters on governance and development at the University of Antwerp (IOB). In the Spanish capital, they drank, talked about everything from the Damaso protest to the Manila Biennale, which he put together courageously, despite discouragements even from friends, in 2018. Through several nights, Tysmans got to see a side of Celdran that wasn’t a caricature or a performance. In a tribute posted on Facebook, she writes about the private side of the man they called Damaso.
Two days after my graduation, I woke up to the smell of coffee in your apartment. I couldn’t remember the last time I slept so well, minus the anxiety. This morning, I had another restful night of sleeping that turned into a nightmare. Messages poured in and I didn’t want to believe that any of it was true. I still don’t believe it and I spent all day away from my phone because what would be the point? Why bother reading people speculate about you and your life and how you lived it?
On our first night together, we went to a bar on top of a hill in Lavapies, behind us an artist had scribbled “sin papeles” on the walls to protest the way migrants, those without papers, were treated. You and I spoke at length about what brought us so far away from home, worried that the home we knew would never be the same again. It was illuminating and refreshing to be with you without anyone watching, without you needing to perform. Yet I was enthralled.
We were in stitches five minutes into our first drinks laughing about hypocrisy after hypocrisy at home. When you let my muscles relax, you turned somber and asked me what it would be like if we had come here on a boat, instead of freely, like we did. I couldn’t answer.
The second night, I sat on your unloved sofa and watched you putter about, cleaning and fixing your apartment meticulously. “Imagine what people might say if they saw you as you really are, Carlos?! I mean, Jesus! You’re cleaning and scrubbing and making me drinks and what the hell is this?!” We laughed so much that night but also cried bitterly.
Slightly inebriated, I asked you about the Damaso stunt. I grilled him, people. I had a bit to drink and I wanted to know why he had done it, why he had been so stupid—but his response floored me, made me feel stupid myself for even asking. “I didn’t plan any of that. Or more truthfully, I crowdsourced it by asking people what I should do. I didn’t want the stunt to be about me alone. Some people helped me decide to dress as Rizal and I was only supposed to stand outside, but on a whim I went inside the Cathedral and someone took a photo. It was just me and I didn’t think it would explode like that but here I am.”
Always a people’s artist and a naive believer in the power of art to force us to think and be critical, he just did what he thought would made people think. For that we allowed him to be the fall guy, the person who would bear the cost of all our bullshit because we couldn’t stand up for what we actually believe in.
On our third night we went out and ended up having midnight snacks at the plaza near his home. A man in a ratty T-shirt walks up to him to sell him a beer and without flinching, he pulls out 2 euros and pays the guy. “He lives in my building.” The next day another guy begging comes up to him and without batting an eyelash, another euro went out of his pocket. “Jesus, Carlos. Don’t be stupid. You’re not allowed to work here and how are you going to survive if you give everything away?!”
I was on a roll. “What were you even thinking letting me live with you for nothing. I could’ve been crazy you know? What if I came to you in the middle of the night and got all cray-cray on you?! Seriously! We don’t really know each other and you’re just too nice! Why are you so nice?! I honestly expected you to be bitchier and less sweet and loving! God, you’re a Care Bear! WTF?!”
“Relax, I know your parents. They seem nice. And honestly, why shouldn’t we just give?” That night I begged him to tell me about all the ways he gave—from the years he spent living in Old Manila, investing time and love in Intramuros, to the earlier days of his apprenticeship with Santi Bose in Baguio. He had a lot of regrets but he also had far too many dreams for the Manila he loved and the Baguio he felt he could retire in.
Those four nights that I spent with him were permission to see him as he really was and I was so deeply touched by the soul I’d come to know. I forgot how terribly intoxicating it is to dream of a future for one’s country, for our people. When we got to talking about the Biennale he hosted in Intramuros, I listened to how much he allowed his heart to break, to his humility (a word I never thought to use to honor him ever) for being hasty and not thinking things through “but Nash listen, the people on the streets were manning the show and people fought me for that but one guy made enough money to keep his horse! Can you believe that?!”
“You want to do an ethnography? Why not study the art world in the Philippines and discover how the rich launder their ill-gotten wealth through art?” *cackling* “Jesus Carlos, I’m not a cat. I only have one life and it’s precarious enough as it is.”
One life, one chance to make it all worthwhile, to make it mean something. That’s all we have and with you I only had five days and you know what? You made everything, every ache and tear worthwhile. On our last night together we coined the phrase “crying in Madrid” as a way to call ourselves out on our bullshit. Of course it’s hard to live away from home. It’s a terrible thing to not feel safe in a place you call home but one thing you taught me was not to bitch about that— “Look at us crying in Madrid, worrying about how to make money and eat when so many people at home are just trying to stay alive and not get shot. Do you get that?”
“Carlos, that’s really you isn’t it? Here I thought you’d be more pa-bebe and burgis but please pass that dinuguan and can I have some of your rice please?”
Nothing makes home taste better than the thought of being so far away from it, unable to say when one returns. We ate without apology, with gusto and tremendous bouts of laughter over having to “cry in Madrid.”
Now I really can’t stop crying. I waited to post these photos to commemorate the moment when our plans would come to fruition. I wanted people to know that while they were busy protecting their asses and gossiping about each other, you and I had become friends and that I was deeply, profoundly proud of you!
We didn’t deserve you, Carlos P. Celdran not even Mar Roxas or the Liberal Party, or the Manila you loved so, so much. “Oh basta ha? The opportunities are here for you. Just don’t fuck it up. That will be our new motto: Don’t fuck it up.”
Yes, Tito Unicorn. You who brings magic into our drab lives and you who proved to me that there’s so much that’s still in the realm of the possible. I hope Bogart came to fetch you and that you’re now wearing bunny ears, dancing in a Duterte-free heaven. Can’t thank you enough for offending religious sentiments and for teaching me to keep believing in the best of us. Love you very, very much.
All photos by Nash Tysmans