MANILA, Philippines – On the day he was convicted for “offending religious feelings,” activist, reproductive health advocate, and prominent tour guide Carlos Celdran simply tweeted: “Guilty.”
Celdran had been found guilty of blasphemy, after staging an impromptu protest in September 2010 at the Manila Cathedral. Celdran, dressed as Jose Rizal,held out a placard with” “Damaso” written in big bold letters, surounded by Catholic clergy and Protestant bishops who were gathered there for a meeting.
The sign referred to Padre Damaso, a villain from Rizal’s novel Noli Me Tángere who stood for the ills of the Catholic Church in the Philippines while under Spanish rule. Celdran was, aptly, protesting the church’s interference in efforts to pass the much-needed reproductive health law. (READ: [Q and A] Celdran: ‘I’m Catholic until it is taken away from me’)
The bill passed scrutiny and was signed into law in late 2013. Celdran, however, was unable to claim a similar victory. Years later, in 2018, the Supreme Court upheld the Court of Appeals’ guilty verdict rendered to Celdran for “offending religious feelings.”
Months later, Celdran left the country and moved indefnitely to Madrid, Spain.
In what is perhaps a painful coincidence, the activist and performance artist would die while in former Philippine colonizer Spain, the same country where Rizal was once educated.
Celdran died of natural causes, said wife Tesa. He was 46.
Other than “offending religious feelings,” Celdran was also one Manila’s champions. His “Walk With Me” tours of Manila were favored by both tourists and locals alike, for weaving gossip, urban legend, and actual historical data into one engaging story of the city. The tour allowed people to see Manila as they never have before.
Even in exile he found to bring his homeland with him, hosting a Jose Rizal Tour in Madrid where he retraced the hero’s steps around the Spanish capital.
Manila – or what he made of it – it seems, was Celdran’s biggest legacy, fighting to keep city and its culture alive even before it became en vogue for the local government to be part of the capital city’s resurrection.
In February 2016, he, along with Viva Manila and the Intramuros Administration, spearheaded the Manila Transitio 1945, a multimedia art event to commemorate the Battle of Manila. As with most of Celdran’s endeavors, the event was “pay-as-you-can” – an effort to reach out to a wider group of people.
Whether he was guiding tourists all over Manila, doing a performance on stage, or simply having a random conversation about Manila, Celdran’s flamboyant air is irresistible.
Perhaps his best-known one-man show, Livin’ La Vida Imelda, exemplified this the most. The show, performed on multiple stages in the Philippines and abroad, was dishy, dramatic, scandalous, hilarious – and perhaps it was only Celdran who could have told the enraging story of Imelda Marcos’ life in a way that makes the audience laugh their beehive hairstyles off, while also making them reexamine that part of Philippine history.
Soon after he began living in Madrid, Celdran wrote a note on his Facebook page called “Manila Man in Madrid.”
“There are many reasons why I left my beloved Intramuros, but it is mostly due to an aggressive political climate and the personal risks upon my basic right to freedom of speech and expression,” he wrote.
He thanked those who have supported his advocacies over the years, and said “Abrazos fuertes (big hugs) and hope to see you all in Madrid where I begin a new chapter of my life.”
Like a 19th century Bohemian, his new life in Madrid proved challenging. A fundraiser for Celdran on Go Fund Me read “Carlos was compelled to leave the country, because of death threats, harrassment, and relentless barrage of internet trolling and disinformation about him, which has resulted in loss of his carreer and livelihood inside the city he loves, Intramuros.”
“Today, Carlos is by himself in Madrid, learning the language and adapting to the culture of his refuge nation with no livelihood. He does not have the security of a job nor a local supportive community, as he did in our beloved Philippines,” it said.
They appealed for donations to help Celdran out, and help him create his performance art again. At the end of the appeal they wrote: “Vivir Carlos Celdran!” – Rappler.com