Tuesday, February 22, 2022

UBEC: CEBU REIMAGINED Talk by Cecilia Brainard, Cebuano Studies Center & YOUTUBE

 Cecilia Brainard's Talk: UBEC: CEBU REIMAGINED (Feb. 19, 2022) is streaming in the FB site of the Cebuano Studies Center:

Cecilia Brainard's Talk can also be viewed on YouTube:

The complete 1 hour 41 minute program with Introductions, talk, and Open Forum can be viewed here:   



Following is the transcript of her talk. 


Cecilia Manguerra Brainard

Copyright 2022 by Cecilia M. Brainard

Cebu, the Facts:

Cecilia Manguerra Brainard here to give a talk entitled: “Ubec: Cebu Reimagined.”

As a writer of numerous short stories and three novels, I use the setting Ubec, which is Cebu backwards, in many of my fictional stories. Ubec is a lot like Cebu, but it isn’t Cebu. This talk is about how I created this mythical setting, which freed me to reimagine Cebu and its inhabitants in my fiction writing. I will also talk about some of my stories and fictional characters and how they were inspired by Cebu. You will find “Ubec” in many of my short stories and my three novels: When the Rainbow Goddess Wept, Magdalena, and The Newspaper Widow.

I’d like to start by giving some facts about the Cebu I grew up in before I go into the reimagining part.

I was born after World War Two, the youngest of four children. My parents were Mariano Flores Manguerra and Concepcion Cuenco Manguerra. My father had been in the guerrilla movement in Mindanao, where he, my mother and their three children lived during wartime. When Liberation came, and because my father’s house in Manila was completely destroyed, my parents decided to settle in Cebu where my mother’s family, the Cuencos, come from.

We had a house in back of the Capitolio area, along a small road that was named to honor my father, Guerrillero Street, but the name has since been changed.

            The Second World War had left my mother malnourished with malaria, and I in turn was born in 1947 with beri-beri, which almost killed me. I survived, and my mother credits her prayers to Cebu’s beloved Santo Niño. She had danced her prayers to him so I would live.

I went to school at St. Theresa's College in Cebu, ran by strict Belgian nuns. We are talking about the early 1950s, when the sirens would go off at 7 in the morning, noon, and 5 in the afternoon. As a little girl I saw evidence of the war, I remember the ruins of the Veloso-Paterno mansion across St. Theresa’s College, its magnificent columns hinting at the grandeur of the place. A rusted World War Two landing barge sat in the sea in Liloan. I even remember snatches of stories that my parents told to friends: they had been in Malaybalay; they had a horse named Robino; Papa would disappear for days on end without Mama knowing where he was, only to find out later on that he had gone with the Americans to Australia. There was a doctora who was killed by the Japanese, another person killed for owning a radio. There were so many war stories, and I did not know that I had tucked them away in my young brain until I would write about that war later on.

Mama, who grew up in the Parian, liked to buy her tablea (chocolate) and hojaldres from her suki there; she also shopped at the Carbon Market. On Sundays, we used to have picnics in Talisay, where we would had lechon and puso, and consilba. We swam for hours until our skin turned wrinkly. We also went clamming.

We bought our rosquillos from Titay’s in Liloan. And we went to fiestas in Mactan and Carcar, and various places. Whenever we were in Carcar, Mama would always talk about how her mother’s family, hailed from that place; my grandmother Filomena Alesna Cuenco had two other sisters, who of whom married a Montesclaros, the other a Noel. the Alesnas who came from the place. I also learned about my mother’s paternal side of the family, the Cuencos. My mother’s father Mariano Jesus Cuenco had been governor and senator; her brother Manuel Cuenco had been governor of Cebu. I heard stories about my mother’s grandmother, Remedios Lopez Cuenco who ran the printing press, Imprenta Rosario after her husband died and was said to be the first woman publisher in Cebu. I also heard about my mother’s great-grandmother Juana Lopez who came from Naic Cavite and whose business brought her to Cebu and to Leyte.

And so at a young age, I knew about my family in Cebu.

There was no television at the time, and radio soap operas and storytelling were popular activities. After work was done, out in the dirty-kitchen, our household help would tell stories and I would listen. Stories about the supernatural abounded: sigbin, santelmo, dwende, agta – in fact, our jackfruit tree in the back yard was supposed to have an agta. And ongo—witches too; there was a local woman who wore black and used an umbrella to cover her face when she walked around; she really made an impression on me as a child. As did the woman who had puffed hairdo and was said to have horns.

There were so many other aspects of Cebu that impressed me when I was a child. The Big Dance on Friday or Saturday nights; the Amateur Hour at the Fuente Osmeña; the evening processions with carosas during local fiestas; the fiestas themselves with open houses, dancing in the plaza under streamers, and the local queens. Our evening rides after school included a stop by a small restaurant near Magellan’s Cross where we bought Coke and M&Ms, we would drive on toward the pier with a stop at Slapsy Maxie’s bar, where my parents would talk to the owners and we children stayed inside the jeep. I used to stare at the colorful women hanging on to sailors. The return ride from our paseo always included a stop by Monay’s where we bought pan Monay and pan frances. I also remember the violent typhoons that would leave the house in darkness because there was no electricity; and the good thing about this was there was no school.

The most traumatic time that happened to me was my father’s sudden death when I was nine. Fortunately my mother had a business acumen to hold the family together but this was a scar that haunted me for years.

In fact my father’s death nudged me to start writing. As a young girl, I started writing him letters to update him of my life. From writing on stationery and scraps of paper, I went on to keeping a journal—my sister had given me a lock-and-key pink diary—and I never really stopped writing.           

How I Became a Writer

            For high school, I attended St. Theresa’s in Manila, in San Marcelino, and I went to Maryknoll College for my B.A. in Communication Arts. At the time, I wanted to be a film maker, which was why after I graduated from college, my mother sent me to California to attend Film School at UCLA.

            As things turned out, I married a former Peace Corps volunteer who had been assigned to Leyte, and we settled in Southern California, where we have three sons. For many years, I was busy being a housewife and mother until the children were in school and I discovered I had some time to myself. I filled that time by writing. I wrote essays for a bi-monthly column, and I started writing short stories, very clumsily at first, and so I took creative writing classes at the Writers’ Program at UCLA Extension where I later taught for many years.

Cebu Into Ubec

            I’d like to talk to you about how Cebu ended up Ubec in my fiction. I’ll focus on some of my short stories and all three of my novels.

            Short Stories

            One of the difficulties I had when I started writing was “writer’s voice.” By this I mean that my early stories lacked a definitive Filipino voice. The stories were somewhat generic, so much so that a workshop participant told me that a graduate from Sacred Heart College in New York could have written my story, a critique that stunned me, but which led me into deeper thinking about “voice” and the various elements of fiction writing.

            To try and capture a Filipino voice, I deliberately set my stories in Cebu. I turned to my memories of the place and its people, as well as its history and culture. This was my “palette” if you will.

            Even though I knew how to construct stories and had some published stories, I would get blocked. Using what was “real” compelled me to tell the “truth” which drove me to paralysis.

            One day, while doodling on a piece of paper, I reversed C-E-B-U into U-B-E-C. I stared at those letters on the piece of paper and fell in love with how it looked and how it sounded. I decided to use Ubec as my mythical setting for my stories.

            Suddenly I could transform the woman from my youth who was said to have horns, into the sensual widow Agustina in my short story, “Woman with Horns”.

            This particular story is set in 1903, during the American period. I deliberately explored Cebu’s history in my writings. Of course this was not be Ubec’s history, although many times, their histories ran parallel. The characters changed however. That woman of my youth who was said to have horns became the sensual widow, Agostina.

I should mention that not all of my fictional characters are based on real people. Sometimes, they are amalgams of characters; or sometimes the characters just come to me, that is, they just appear in my imagination, after which I flesh them out in order to be able to use them in my work. 

In my stories, the geography of Ubec has changed and stopped being the real Cebu although some landmarks remain: the old church, the Spanish fort, the Plaza Independencia -- the Spanish Colonial part of the city. As I write, I make changes to avoid getting bogged down and to move the story along. What is important are my characters: are they fleshed-out and believeable? Do they have conflicts? Does the story have tension? Do my characters change, that is, do they develop as the story moves along?

            Some of my stories were inspired by real people and events: “The Blue-Green Chiffon Dress” about a teenager named Gemma who has an encounter with an American soldier from Mactan sprung from that time when the Vietnam War was raging and there was an American Air Base in Mactan. Those who were around then will recall the young American soldiers on R & R from Vietnam who roamed the streets of Cebu and who were welcomed, somewhat tentatively, by Cebu’s society.

            Another story inspired by real people is “The Virgin’s Last Night.” Some Cebuanos may still remember the two old maids who lived on Mango Avenue. They were my mother’s sisters, Lourdes and Carmen Cuenco. Lourdes didn’t get married so she could take care of younger Carmen who had health issues. These two hosted family celebrations, they gifted me and my cousins money on Christmas; Tiya Oding (Lourdes) gave me family pictures when she found out I was interested in family genealogy; they took care of the family mausoleum, which in my child’s eyes looked like a three-tiered wedding cake.

The “Old Maids were a large part of my childhood.

            When Carmen passed away, followed by Lourdes, I felt the loss, but from my sadness, this story started shaping up in my head. The germ of the story was that when Lourdes was young, she had an ardent suitor whom she rejected, but this suitor still came back when they were older, and Lourdes still rejected him.

            Perhaps as a way to give them life again, the story, “The Virgin’s Last Night” came about; it is about an old unmarried woman, whose old suitor Mateo, long dead, visits her as a ghost, on the night when she dies. 

            I also wrote a short story inspired by my father’s sudden death, “Waiting for Papa’s Return.” This story about Remedios parallels my own story as a young girl who was informed by Mother Superior at school that her father had died of a heart attack in Hong Kong, and the shock that the girl goes through so that she suspends reality and still believes her father will return so they can “sip tea under the cool shade of the lush star apple trees.”

            Novel: When the Rainbow Goddess Wept

            I’d like to talk now about my novels because these were challenging to write, and they reflect, in my opinion, many aspects of Cebu’s culture and history, albeit “reimagined.”

            My first novel, first known as Song of Yvonne, later known as When the Rainbow Goddess Wept, was written after my first short story collection, Woman with Horns and Other Stories was released. I wanted to challenge myself. I wanted to write a novel.

            So I began, typing out so many pages every day. And following the writing rule to “write about what you know” I wrote about the time of my life when I was young, maybe eight years old, and my father was still alive. I was trying to write about happy moments of my childhood, for instance the visits my mother and I used to make of her best friend Mercedes Rodriguez. While my mother and Mommy Dingding (as I called her) chatted, I played with her niece, Esperanza, and we used to play near the Barba Press, and sometimes we watched movies for free at the Avenue Theater.

            When I had around 200 typewritten pages, I declared I finished my novel. I even had the nerve to send this out to literary agents, all of whom rejected the work. Discouraged and depressed I set aside my work. But one day, my husband and I saw the movie Hope and Glory about a boy during World War Two in London, and I had an epiphany. That movie had a connection with what I was trying to write.

            I looked at my draft and realized several things:

a)      My work had no conflict; it had no tension whatsoever. It was boring.

b)      Nothing happened to the characters in my draft. The characters meandered from one place to another and remained the same characters. They did not undergo character change, which is essential in stories.

c)      When I read carefully, I discovered the characters talking about their past during World War Two: “Do you remember when … so-and-so was killed? Do you remember the Doctora who was hacked to death? And so on.”

I thought about all these and realized that the work was demanding to be a World War Two story. It wanted to be a coming-of-age story just like the movie Hope and Glory.

            I was frightened then, because of the writing rule of “Write of what you know,” and since I was born after the war, I felt I didn’t know this war. But at the same time, it was becoming crystal clear that this was what the story wanted to be.

            So after I had accepted the idea, I metaphorically rolled-up my sleeves and started rewriting the draft. If it was going to be a war story, then it would start when the War began.

And so now, the reimagining of Cebu took place.

My mother and father and the child that I was were moved back in tome from the 1950s to 1941. I had to flesh them out because now they had become different. The young girl stopped being me and I named her Yvonne. Her father was a man like my father, a former university professor of engineering who joined the guerrilla movement in Mindanao. I named him Nando Macaraig. And the girl’s mother was like my mother, a beautiful somewhat high-strung woman; I named her Angeling. Yvonne had a first cousin, named Esperanza, daughter of Angeling’s sister. Esperanza had traits like my real life friend Esperanza who was somewhat naughty but a lot of fun. They all lived in a big house like the bahay-na-bato houses in the Parian. And they had a cook named Laydan, modeled after our real-live cook Menggay, except Laydan was a former epic singer.

            Thus I worked on the novel, following characters as they responded to the external pressures of the war surrounding them. I added characters or modified the existing characters as I felt needed. I mostly followed my instinct and I had to use my imagination because I had not actually experienced that war. I had not actually traveled by boat to Mindanao during wartime. I had not really felt the intimidation of Japanese soldiers; I had not actually witnessed war deaths. I used many of the stories I had heard from my parents about real-events that they had experienced during wartime, from the horse they had owned named Robino to the doctora who was hacked to death, to my mother’s actual loss of a baby boy during that war.

            By the time I embraced the idea that the novel wanted to be a war story, the pages started to flow. That was how this coming of age story of a young girl during World War came about. The book was first published by Song of Yvonne by New Day; US rights were picked up by Dutton Penguin, then by the University of Michigan Press. And a Turkish publisher did a Turkish translation. And later on, when the Philippine rights reverted back to me, the University of Santo Tomas Publishing House did a Philippine edition.

2nd Novel: Magdalena

            After my first novel was published, I felt a bit cocky thinking I knew how to write a novel. I set about writing my second novel, which in its final form is the story of three generations of women whose lives have been affected by various wars in the Philippines.

            It started with the story of one woman, Magdalena, a married woman, whose husband has a querida. While Magdalena is dealing with this husband, she meets and falls in love with an American soldier from Mactan. Here, I drew from the period of around 1967 when the Americans had a base in Mactan.

But then I found myself writing about her mother, whose life was affected by World War Two, then her grandmother, whose life was affected by the Philippine-American War. The first draft was quite messy—sprawling confusing, and boring. Regardless, I sent this to agents, only to be rejected, then eventually I accepted that I didn’t have a novel. Since I had put all that work into it, I decided to try and salvage what I could from all those pages; that is I worked to turn chapters or excerpts into short stories when I could.

            I started to do that. I would take one chapter and cut off unnecessary parts, clean it up, hone it so it read like a short story. Then I would get another chapter and do the same. After a while I had the realization that these pieces, these short stories were really telling a bigger story, which was the novel. I understood that this work wanted that form, which was fragmented and non-linear.

The end product of my second novel, Magdalena, is a fragmented piece about the lives of three women affected by the various wars in the Philippines, including the Philippine American War, World War Two, and the Vietnam War.

This second novel taught me something important, and that is that no one really “learns” how to write a novel, the character-driven ones at least, and that is why it’s called a “novel.” Every novel has its own demands and the writer has to go with those demands rather than to impose what he or she thinks the novel wants to be.

This novel was first published in the US by Susan Bright of Plain View Press and later by PALH (Philippine American Literary House). The Philippine edition is published by the University of Santo Tomas Publishing House.

3rd Novel: The Newspaper Widow

After the second novel, I wanted to see if I could write a murder-mystery, something fun and maybe easier.

There is a non-profit site online called the NaNoWriMo, short for the National Novel Writing Month, which hosts a writing event in November. You sign up online and per the informal agreement, you try to write 1,700 words every day of the month of November. If you meet this self-imposed deadline, you will have around 50,000 words, which is the length of a short novel.

It’s not easy writing 1,700 words of your novel daily, but what happens is that you stop thinking and just work like crazy at achieving that number count.

To be honest, even though some participants believe they have completed novels by the end of the November, you end up with mish-mash, not a novel. But what does happen is that in that mad race of getting the words out of you, you kick out some good ideas, stuff with potential. Those are the parts to explore and develop.

For this novel, I had a notion that I would start with a dead body since it’s murder-mystery after all. And as sometimes happens with me, images or scenes will pop up in my head that suggest to me the direction of my work. Sometimes voices talk in my head too, which may seem weird to others, but which I have learned indicates to me that my work is more or less writing itself.

And while the draft of my NaNoWriMo was all over the place, the parts of the novel were surfacing. I knew the setting was during the American period, 1909 in Ubec, with a woman detective as the protagonist.

When creating, my mind is not operating in a logical way all the time. It’s like juggling logic and instinct and these images or nudgings that come to me. For whatever reason, I decided to make my great-grandmother the model for my detective.

Her name was Remedios Lopez Cuenco, an ancestor whom I found interesting. I had many pictures of her with her family, photos from my aunt and from books. She was the matriarch of the Cuenco family. She married Mariano Albao Cuenco when she was only 13 years old. Thirteen. She bore 16 children although only five survived past infancy. Her oldest son, Jose Maria Cuenco because Archbishop of Jaro; her second son, Mariano Jesus Cuenco, because Cebu’s Governor, then senator, at senate president at the height of his political career; her third son, Miguel Cuenco, became a Congressman; a daughter Dolores was known as a storyteller; another son, Jaime, died in his teens.

Remedios was widowed at the age of 39, which seems very young to me. Daughter of a woman who had a good head for business (Juana Lopez), Remedios invested in real estate and built homes to rent out. The rentals kept her and children afloat. But she did something else. Her husband, Mariano Albao, who was a writer and publisher, owned the Imprenta Rosario, a press that occupied the first floor of their place in Colon Street, Parian. With her husband gone, this 39 year old woman decided to keep the press. She ran it with the help of her three sons who had various newspapers and publications.

My third novel, The Newspaper Widow, is set in Ubec in 1909 during the American period, the time when America was testing the waters at being a colonial power. My character in The Newspaper Widow, Ines Maceda, is a widow in her late 30s who inherits her husband’s failing newspaper business.

In the novel, I followed this widow who’s trying to make ends meet and make the newspaper business successful. She has one son (not many children as Remedios had), and Ines’ son ends up in jail as a suspect of the priest’s murder. Ines, with the help of her friend, a French dressmaker/couturier, solve the crime in order to free Ines’ son. While the fictional character Ines Maceda was modeled after my great-grandmother Remedios, by the time I fleshed-her out for the novel, she ceased being Remedios. But maybe, and even though I had never met my great-grandmother, maybe I captured her tenacity and determination and humanity.

I had to do research to be able to imagine Ubec wherein my characters moved around.

The real Cebu seemed quite lovely during this period because the Americans did pump money into the Philippines.

Cebu’s train for instance – while I had seen postcards of Cebu’s train station, I was fascinated to do research and details about the Philippine Railway Company in Cebu.

For example here’s researched information about Cebu’s trains from the 1909 Report of the Philippine Commission to the Secretary of War:

“In the island of Cebu practically all the railway has been completed, except that across the island from Carcar to Barili and south to Mualbual, which is under investigation and survey, and 60 miles are in operation. The line now connects the norther and southern terminal points of Danao and Argao. There are 22 stations on this line, 20 of which are constructed of reinforced concrete. Four mixed trains are run daily each way, giving an excellent passenger and fast-freight service.”

I also discovered that the train cars were exactly like the train cars in San Francisco: teak wood for first-class and parlor coaches, yellow pine for second-class

I did not necessarily include all the researched information I found, but they helped me make the scenes for my novel clearer in my head. And since my characters’ world is Ubec, not Cebu, I can tweak things as needed for my novel.

The Newspaper Widow ended up a literary-mystery, rather than a regular murder-mystery. It has been praised in the Manila Times as “definitely crime fiction that’s a cut above the usual whodunits.” And the Library Journal also said, “The mystery elements are competently plotted, and the characters appealing, and there’s a charming long-distance romance, with a hint of another yet to come. The book’s signal virtue, though, is its bighearted look at Filipino culture and history and society in 1909.” 

It seems paradoxical, but in reimagining Cebu into Ubec, I am able to inform readers about Cebuano history, culture, and society. It is gratifying.

~end of talk. Slideshow and Open Forum follow~



Cecilia Manguerra Brainard is the writer and editor of over 20 books. She is the youngest daughter of Mariano Flores Manguerra and Concepcion Cuenco Manguerra. She was born and raised in Cebu City, a place that inspired her mythical setting of Ubec in her writings.

Her first novel, When the Rainbow Goddess Wept, draws from stories she heard of the guerrilla experiences of her parents during World War Two. Her third novel, The Newspaper Widow, was inspired by her great-grandmother who was the first Woman Publisher of Cebu.

She has written another novel, Magdalena, and short stories collections: Selected Short Stories by Cecilia Manguerra Brainard, Vigan and Other Stories, Acapulco at Sunset and Other Stories, and Woman With Horns and Other Stories.

Her work has been translated into Finnish and Turkish.

A graduate of St. Theresa’s College and Maryknoll College, Cecilia has received a California Arts Council Fellowship in Fiction, a Brody Arts Fund Award, a Special Recognition Award for her work dealing with Asian American youths, as well as a Certificate of Recognition from the California State Senate, 21st District. She received the prestigious Filipinas Magazine Arts Award, and the Outstanding Individual Award from her birth city, Cebu, Philippines. She has received several travel grants from the USIS (United States Information Service).

She has lectured and performed in worldwide literary arts organizations and universities, including UCLA, USC, University of Connecticut, University of the Philippines, PEN, Beyond Baroque, Shakespeare & Company in Paris, and many others. 

As former Executive Board Member of the writers’ group PEN, she represented PEN USA West in International meetings in Barcelona ad Santiago de Compostela. She also served as an officer in such groups as the Midnight Special Cultural Center, Pacific Asian American Women Writers West and the Arts and Letters at the Cal State University, LA.

Her official website is ceciliabrainard.com.


Tags: Philippine literature, Cebuano Literature, Cebu Literature culture society arts

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