Carlos with friend Sally Gutierrez whose house served as venue to his micro-stagings of his one-man-show, Livin’ La Vida Imelda.
Culture Spotlight

Carlos Celdran, portrait of a life in exile: “Madrid has given me some peace”

Some people say the artist and activist died of a broken heart, being away for too long from the city he so loved. But in this portrait of his life in exile, written by his friend in Madrid, the journalist Natalia Diaz, Carlos was beginning to put his life in order and starting to find happiness in the Spanish capital.
Natalia Diaz | Oct 15 2019

In February this year, the artist, activist and tour guide Carlos Celdran flew to Madrid, Spain, to forge a life away from the threat of imprisonment in his beloved country. There, he was starting to make new friends and engage in volunteer work, even reviving his walking tour — although this time leading groups to places Jose Rizal frequented. In Madrid, the once condom-dispensing RH Bill advocate in Manila was this time giving out Chocnut to everyone he sees, staging micro-performances of his one-man-show, Livin’ la Vida Imelda, and in the past few months seemed to have found happiness in the Spanish capital. But death came knocking last October 8.

 

I was reluctant to reconnect with Carlos Celdran here in Madrid. 

I was afraid opening that door would only invite the political circus of the Philippines that was inextricably linked with his personality. After living a relatively tranquil life in Spain for so long, it was just easier to keep the maddening news at a safe distance.

Yet it was impossible to ignore Carlos’ presence in my adopted city — his celebrity transcended social cliques and generational lines that it seemed like every friend, old classmate, tita, tito, Instagram follower, and even Spanish friends who had been on his Intramuros tour knew about his recent move to Madrid. Already it seemed as if the center of gravity had shifted with the arrival of Carlos’ larger than life personality — which also came with admirers, trolls, and political ghosts that followed him wherever he went.

Wearing his signature bowler hat.

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But then, my birthday came around, and though I had wanted to keep it quiet — it was a weeknight — Carlos sent a text message to a shared WhatsApp group to greet me, propelling a deluge of birthday greetings. Carlos convinced me to celebrate with dinner and drinks, and I couldn´t say no. So I met up with him and his cousin Ines at my favorite Indonesian restaurant, where we stuffed ourselves with mixed fried rice and over ten years’ worth of Manila gossip and Pinoy inside jokes. We gave him tips on detangling the Spanish red tape to get his life back in order. He told us he spent his first few weeks in Madrid going apartment-hunting and taking Spanish classes, and that he had already volunteered to teach English to kids. 

Before we knew it, it was 4 A.M. on a Tuesday night. His cousin had gone home and it was just Carlos and I left at a bar, deep into our nth bottle of Rioja, and even deeper in conversation. He finally opened up about his jail sentence, his unsuccessful appeal to the Supreme Court, and his impending arrest if he stepped foot in Manila. He told me about the relentless attacks and daily death threats from trolls. Yet there was not a trace of self-pity or bitterness in his voice.

I could tell, however, that he was tired. To me, it was just unfathomable that the one place he loved the most in this world, his “muse and medium” as he once called it, was what cast him away.

****

Madrid, let’s be real, is hardly Azkaban. The Spanish capital is a liberal, friendly city open to culture and creativity—making Carlos a perfect fit. 

Carlos with author Natalia (in white) and friends.

In Madrid, Carlos built a home away from home, albeit with nostalgia as a pillar. He finally found an apartment in Lavapies, the humble yet colorful immigrant barrio, which he loved because it “reminded him of Malate.” He paired a newsboy hat with a barong to dinners and cooked boatloads of adobo to share with Pinoy friends and international acquaintances. He lamented at how the mangoes here could never compare to the mangoes from home. He staged micro performances of his one man show, “Livin’ La Vida Imelda”, at the apartment of his kindred spirit, Sally Gutierrez. 

In Madrid, Carlos built a home away from home, albeit with nostalgia as a pillar. He finally found an apartment in Lavapies, the humble yet colorful immigrant barrio, which he loved because it “reminded him of Malate.”

He also spent a lot of time in Barrio Tetuán, where a large number of Filipino immigrants lived, so he could stock up on soy sauce and Chocnut — his currency of choice at social gatherings where he actively engaged in what he called “Chocnut diplomacy.” I witnessed this firsthand one night when we were out with a visiting friend from Manila, Kat Lagman. Carlos freely handed out Chocnut to customers and waitstaff, saying “Try this, it’s from the Philippines!” Soon, everyone just started talking to us, paying for our drinks, and even the bartender came out to tell us we could stay even beyond closing time. A group of Madrileñas asked Carlos if he wanted to go dancing with them.

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***

But it wasn’t on these late, wine-soaked nights when I got to see just how big-hearted and kind Carlos was. I got to see a different side of him when he sacrificed his Saturdays volunteering for refugees in Madrid. He became actively involved in Chefugee, a project helping refugee and asylum seeker cooks get back on their feet through pop up dinners and cooking classes.

Volunteering as part of the wait staff for Chefugees, a project helping refugee and asylum seeker cooks get back on their feet through pop up dinners and cooking classes.

In Chefugee, Carlos was in his element. He waited on tables and chopped onions, washed dishes and swept floors, sometimes late into the night after everyone else had gone home. True, he may not have been the best waiter (he had poured too much wine at one dinner event that we ran out of bottles), but it was endearing to see how committed he was to the project. He donated plates. He made his signature, now-famous adobo to feed volunteers at meetings, and poured his homemade tinto de verano at a summer picnic with refugee families. And his artistry shone when he created the most beautiful table setups with only colored napkins, plants and candles.

“Volunteering is a different kind of high,” he told me late one night after we were finally done cleaning up. He joked that, technically, he was a “religious refugee” himself and that maybe he could cook a Pinoy dinner one night and donate all the profits. I loved seeing him so happy like that. We parted ways once more at 4 A.M. On his way home that night, he got mugged and lost his phone.

***

Nevertheless, and in spite of losing his mobile phone — not once, not twice but six times since moving to Madrid — Carlos was back on his feet. So it only seemed fitting for him to finally jumpstart his long-planned Camino Rizal walking tour, tracing José Rizal’s footsteps as an immigrant in Madrid, telling the story of a hero finding his place in a foreign land, where the Philippines was never far from his mind.

Carlos freely handed out Chocnut to customers and waitstaff, saying “Try this, it’s from the Philippines!” Soon, everyone just started talking to us, paying for our drinks, and even the bartender came out to tell us we could stay even beyond closing time.

On the very first free trial tour of the Camino Rizal, Carlos messaged me to come and to invite as many friends I wanted, because he was afraid “only 6 people are coming lol.”

Communing with his walking tour group.

Fifty five people showed up for the beta tour. Upon seeing the phalanx of Pinoys gathered at the Atocha station, I remember my bewildered American boyfriend looking at me and asking, “Where did all these Pinoys come from? Is Carlos famous?”

Our tour group was like a small army walking through the streets and parks of Madrid. At some point I couldn´t even hear Carlos because of the throng. He spotted me in the crowd and joked, “We’re like a brown tidal wave walking through the city. This is our own Reconquista!”

When the tour was halfway over, Carlos noticed he had lost his iPad.

***

Just to give you an idea of how successful the Camino Rizal had been since that trial tour, here is a message I received on September 29: “Ugh I was so exhausted after my tour last night I zoned out...Totally forgot to leave my guests and go to Chefugee. I’m so so sorry.”

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He may not have been the best waiter, one time pouring too much wine the place ran out of bottles to serve, but it was endearing to see how committed he was.

***

Viva Madrid is the final stop of the Camino Rizal. Established in 1856, this historical tavern was one of José Rizal’s old haunts where he dined and sipped wine and people-watched with friends, among them Graciano Lopez Jaena, renowned for being “a man of the world and of wine.” 

Upon seeing the phalanx of Pinoys gathered at the Atocha station, I remember my bewildered American boyfriend looking at me and asking, “Where did all these Pinoys come from? Is Carlos famous?”

Outside Viva Madrid, a plaque reads (translated from Spanish) “Here, the Filipino national hero Dr. José Rizal met with his countrymen to elaborate their joint activity in favor of the libertarian reforms for the Philippines.”

It is here in Viva Madrid, sitting together with a beaming Carlos surrounded by his friends and family, where I choose to remember him. It is here where I remember him telling me, “I´m happy in Madrid...Madrid has given me some peace. You can't imagine what a relief that is.”

Here, I celebrate the memory of my friend, a true revolutionary.

 

Natalia Diaz is a journalist, co-founder of Chefugee, and writer at Lonely Planet.

Photos and videos courtesy of the author.