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In My Eyes: Tata Celis

By Edward B. Antonio

This is the true story of Tata Celis, fellas.

Tata Celis is an old man who is considered wise by his barangay mates. Celis is short for Celestino, but he doesn’t like to be called Tino or Tinong. He prefers Celis.

He is one of those “elders” whose opinion on any issue is respected, whether one agrees or disagrees. He is soft-spoken but his voice is commanding. Children in the barangay like him very much.

Tata Celis is also a good story teller. Every evening, after dinner, his favorite siesta seat is that concrete bench under the street lamp near his house. Children would flock around him to listen to his stories. He would mesmerize the kids with his stories.

At 72, he would recount to the kids the exploits of some of the most notorious men who terrorized the different towns during the pre-Martial Law years. His favorite story tells of a notorious killer in a nearby town. He said that during a fiesta in that town, squatting movie gypsies would show movies inside an area enclosed with split bamboo fence.

I was one of the movie goers at that time,” Tata Celis said. “We were enjoying the show when suddenly, a shot rang inside the movie house. This notorious killer, let’s just call him Juaning, fired at a man but he missed the mark, so he commanded everybody to get out. Everybody rushed to the door, but we could not get out immediately at the same time since the door was very narrow.

He was pushing us out, shouting, “Hurry up!”

In a state of panic, I climbed the split bamboo fence, but he saw me, grabbed my pants and pulled me down. He pointed his gun at me, I thought it was my end! He ordered me to get out through the door. I was so lucky that night he did not kill me. But he did not see his target among those who got out of the door. In anger, he fired several shots in the air. Everybody scampered for cover and safety.”

How many people did he kill?” the kids would ask.

Oh, lots of men,” he said.

Really? Who were those men, Tata Celis?”

And Tata Celis would tell more stories.

The group would only disperse by 10:00 PM when Tata Celis himself said he was already sleepy.

Every evening, Tata Celis told different stories about different people. The kids were always struck with awe at his stories. They would praise the old man no end.

You are really very wise, Tata Celis,” the kids would mumble after each night “session.”

On Saturdays and Sundays, Tata Celis would sit under the mango tree beside the concrete road as early as 7:00 AM. Many kids would flock by his side and urged him to tell more stories. Then he would repeat his previous stories and although they were replays, the children enjoyed them as much.

At 9:00, Tata Celis would dismiss the kids because he was going to the river to catch fish and shrimp using his net. He would come home before 12:00 noon, had his lunch, slept until 3:00 PM, then watched the boys playing billiards at the billiards hall near his house.

Then, after dinner, it would be storytelling time.

Tata Celis is a semi-bald old man. He is an amputee. His left hand was blown away one day when the dynamite he was holding exploded before he could throw it into the river. Further research revealed that Tata Celis was a college dropout. He was fond of the good life while studying. Because he came from a well-to-do family, he had lots of money. He would spend his money in beerhouses with his friends. He also ventured in smoking marijuana. Because he had many failures in his subjects, his parents decided that he stopped studying. When his parents died, he realized his mistakes, but it was already too late.

He got married and in order to support his family, he accepted all kinds of odd jobs — like gathering firewood for sale, doing masonry works, planting and harvesting rice and even dynamite fishing.

One of those who fondly listened to Tata Celis’ stories was Michael.At 24, he is now a CPA working at an accounting firm in Makati. He was in the elementary grades when he started listening to Tata Celis’ stories. Like the other boys, he would listen to him on weekends and weekday nights.

Last month, Michael applied for a 1-week vacation to attend to his ailing father. His father had a ruptured appendix and he needed to be operated to avoid complication. The operation was successful.

While Michael was visiting his relatives and friends, he learned that Tata Celis was still himself — storyteller to kids on weekday nights and on Saturday and Sunday mornings and a fisherman at the same time using his net.

But Michael was no longer mesmerized by his stories; in fact, he considered them unfit stories for kids because he was glorifying notorious killers. He found no values in them. They were stories of his youth that was marred with violence. They were stories of a man who dropped out from school to prioritize the good life without graduating in college first.

He has also come to realize how much time Tata Celis had spent sitting there under the streetlight every night and those times spent under the mango tree on weekends. They were times that should have been spent to more productive endeavors for him and for the kids. And to think that Tata Celis had been doing this since Michael was in the elementary grades!

Before he drove back to Manila that Sunday morning, he dropped by the mango tree where Tata Celis was telling stories to some kids. He handed the old man a P500-bill saying, “Pang-meriendayo, tata.”

Tata Celis pocketed the bill, let out a big smile and thanked Michael.

Then Michael called on the kids to the store nearby and bought them softdrinks, bread and biscuits.

After eating your snacks, you can go home and help your parents, okay?” he said.

Yes, uncle,” was the chorus.

Before he boarded his car, Michael saw Tata Celis walking home, perhaps to get his fishnet. That was his usual routine, to go to the river to catch fish and shrimp after his storytelling activity every Saturday and Sunday.

Michael watched the old man in pity. How he wished he spent more time with him so he could have told him his stories, too.

But Manila is a 12-hour trip by daytime and he had to hurry up.#