A mentee of the late, great artist and writer recalls years of friendship with Gilda Cordero-Fernando, revealing a very human portrait-in-words
Because Gilda Cordero-Fernando had the knack for putting together good shows, she knew what madness the artistic crew went through for every riveting one.
Quite frequently, she showed appreciation by giving a surprise dinner, calling to table those half-mad crew from the panic room. For some reason, each memory that I have of GCF always involved eating, gorging on the house’s famous oyster pasta, artichoke spread, buko-pandan ice cream, and tsokolate eh with chewy pinipig.
GCF was always game about jamming with the young.
Whether in literature or visual arts, she wondered eagerly what projects fired up her young artist friends. That meant being summoned to her house in interesting combinations. She would host afternoon teas, full of anecdotes but also firing as many questions, eager to find out what her young friends were up to. Several times, she even went malling with some of them.
Gilda’s text messages always sent me running. One midnight thank-you note said: “Ang tamis-tamis naman ng sampaloc na ito!” It sent me praying hard—that the Panay household won’t blame me for her bum stomach the next day. Four years ago, she wanted fiercely to celebrate Rizal Day by eating lamb chops and Greek salad.
After a series of rapid-fire texts, Mariel, Wendell, and I went to fetch her. When we were done with the long and hearty lunch, she dragged us back home to eat fruit cake, drink coffee, and watch operas on cable TV. She was still game about having dinner, save that Mariel had her own steaks to cook.
Gilda gave generously, full of surprises. During one dinner she hosted, a senior writer took great delight in the huge oysters served for appetizer. She simply nodded and winked, sending him a tub of the same delight the next day.
One April, she sent me a set of cards printed from her paintings. But it was the multi-colored ribbons that had me choking. “Rainbow bands from used panty garters. Huwag mo na tanungin kung kani-kaninong panties galing yan!”
One Christmas, GCF called, saying that she wanted to give me one of her paintings. The framed works were lined in the living room. I pointed to a small one and she waved me off right away. “Disqualified ‘yan,” she ruled out with a smile. “‘Yang malaki ang i-take-home mo. Love ko ‘yan.”
In life, GCF was not quite lucky to be voted as National Artist. She was the casualty of a great deal of horse trading, of penis politics, even. Her nomination was callously set aside each time, in favor of someone else.
Not one to be discouraged, GCF simply plodded on, living out her love of things Pinoy. All the books she made were proof of this. And what an impressive row she had, revealing facets of Pinoy pride—from the colorful history of the burgis, to our almost-forgotten turn of the century, to architecture, the aswang, the Pinoy girl, boy, bakla, and tomboy, to bagnet and itlog ng bayawak, Bella Flores, and Pinoy pop culture.
Gilda never apologized for being burgis. Yet, at the same time, she lived out the many different ways that the burgis could be—aspiring to modest nobility and attaining to the dignified best of being Pinoy.
Quite gallantly, GCF put her money where her mouth was.
She was determined to show the way. She had no qualms about spending, greatly convinced that it’s not so bad, after all, to cast all your pearls into boasting about all kinds of abubot so proudly Pinoy.
Mader Gilda, ikaw ang National Artist sa puso ko. Tanungin mo pa sina Wendell, Danton, and Mariel. You know very well kung gaano karami ang boto mo sa heartbeat ng lahi!
D.M. Reyes is a poet and professor of English and Creative Writing at the Ateneo de Manila University’s School of Humanities. This piece originally appeared as a public post in his social media. The text was lightly modified for publishing.