Monday, February 26, 2007

The New Gods of EDSA

It is now twenty years ago when I came back from Rome to work as a formator at San Carlos Major Seminary in Guadalupe, Makati City. Coming from Cubao, approaching Guadalupe, one immediately notices the statue of our Lady atop the roof of the Our Lady of Guadalupe Minor Seminary. This statue although of the Blessed Mother is reminiscent of a familiar landmark in South America, the huge statue of Jesus in (Rio de Janiero in Brazil….?????)

But that was twenty years ago. Today, the statue of the Blessed Mother has disappeared behind a giant billboard dubbed the mother of all billboards. Just before I left you saw star American black basketball players promoting some sports equipment. The ad company who owns the billboard pays the Archdiocese of Manila for the use of the land above and below the side of the Guadalupe Minor Seminary compound. Below is a Café and above is a humongous steel frame that holds tarpolin billboards. God knows how much the ad company pays the Archdiocese of Manila. But it must be an amount big enough to justify the disappearance of an important image in the Makati skyline.

Somewhere about ten kilometers north of Guadalupe, also along Epifanio de los Santos Avenue or EDSA is a building housing Radio Veritas. Shortly before I left for China last year, one still saw the building and a sign that says “Radio Veritas.” A year later, the building is hardly visible as billboards seem to wrapped themselves around the buiding like hungry constrictors slowly strangling their prey.

Along the entire stretch of EDSA, on both sides rise billboards of various shapes and sizes. There is little art or creativity to see on the billboards, only the faces or near naked bodies of celebrities endorsing products from food to underwear.

In October and December of 2006, the Philippines was visited by two killer storms, Reming and Milenyo. The killer storms took several lives and destroyed properties and buried farmlands. In Metro Manila, although no lives were lost, the environment seemed like a resurrection of post-war Manila. Broken, bent, distorted and contorted steel frames once supporting billboards have become ugly reminders of a complex of abuses from the legal, aesthetic, moral and environmental. A debate immediately ensued in the Senate. One senator opined that billboards should altogether be removed from main thoroughfares. Billboards are not only unsolicited impositions on taste and sensibility but are also quite dangerous as they can distract a driver and cause a deadly crash.

Nothing happened to the senator’s proposal. The companies which owned the various advertising sites and facilities are quick to repair the damage and put back the billboards. The concern for profit has once more overtaken the need for public safety and a more beautiful, wholesome and less materialistic environment.

But billboards with the models and the products they endorse are the new gods of the roads. A few days ago, police were deployed to control a crowd that had flocked to a new shop in Hong Kong with a giant billboard of Madonna who was supposed to be available to autograph products that were sold that day. I happened to walk in front of this shop with a friend who comments, “if only people would also cue up to see Jesus…”

But isn’t this precisely the problem. We don’t exactly see Jesus or Mary in the same way as we see Madonna or NBA players on a billboard. Jesus or Mary are not actors, basketball players or commercial models paid to promote a product. Signature food, clothes and cosmetics are external. Jesus and Mary speak of and remind us of God.

What happens if the very institutions who are supposed to speak of and remind us of God disappear behind layers of advertising? At this point, would God need an ad in order to be seen and heard? If so what kind of ad and where? What kind of endorser? How then could God compete with the new gods of EDSA?

Fr. Roberto P. Reyes
February 26, 2007