I was never a fan of Juana Change, who to me is not Mae Paner—not to say that I ever knew enough about the latter to actually be her fan either.
Not that I didn’t appreciate Juana Change of course. She was after all such a part of the narrative that was the unraveling of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s reign as president. In late 2010, I said of Juana Change that +g . . . we’ve come to expect an amount of creativity given the past two years that we have known her, she who is both Pinoy everywoman but also her harshest critic, she who seems to always know to take a tone that isn’t easily offensive to anyone because it hits a truth that’s in the back of our heads, or just that one that’s a dull feeling in the pits of our stomachs.+h
And while I valued the function of Juana Change in this way, I also knew that many like me thought it too . . . loud, too over-the-top, for comfort. I’m not sure how those sketches were received by the younger generation, but Juana Change was also up against my memories of critical sketches by Nanette Inventor, Mitch Valdez, and Tessie Tomas—rare as the female comedienne of that calibre was. Of course that she was even on that level of comparison, was a measure of Juana Change’s relevance.
It was no surprise to me that she would choose to support Noynoy Aquino in his bid for the presidency in 2010—he was after selling a platform of change unlike anyone else, and Juana stood for exactly that.
Of course that unraveled quickly and believably enough, as Mae realized that while candidate Noynoy might have stood for many things, while the words on the page said he was for change, in reality, he was surrounded by more trapos than she could count. In reality, whatever notions of volunteerism Juana thought the Noynoy campaign stood for was eaten alive by the political patronage system that is our default.
This system is what would bring me to the same room as Juana Change in 2013, though now I know her as Mae Paner. In August, we sat around a table crowded with volunteers for the anti-pork rally that would later be known as the Million People March in Luneta. It was one meeting turned into two— the latter being the emergency meeting about PNoy’s speech that said he was abolishing PDAF—but not the system of disbursing funds to congressmen and senators. Across those two meetings I realized that for Mae the level-up to the anti-pork barrel discussion is the fight for the Freedom of Information Bill—one that very few in that group even knew to discuss. And as we all agreed to keep our eyes on the ball that is the pork barrel in its various forms, I had new-found respect for Mae beyond Juana Change, because her level-up is not one that many would take on.
I also found myself sitting beside her at the Abolish Pork Movement meeting for the Pork Day the 13th rally in Luneta in September. In that meeting, we were the only two people who had come from volunteering for the August 26 Million People March, and along with musician-teacher Monet Silvestre, that made three of us the only individuals with no organization. We were mostly quiet, even as we whispered about pushing for say, a weekend rally, or the statement including a line about the Freedom of Information Bill, or the call to prosecute the guilty.
For those two anti-pork gatherings, Mae was on Juana Change mode as expected, over-the-top and spectacular, adding color and curiosity to the events. When we were arguing about the call to wear white for the August 26 rally, Mae kidded that she’d go to the rally wearing a barrel and nothing else. She did a bigger version of that by coming as her version of Miss Piggy, with a pig mask and blonde hair, a bright read skimpy top and pearls, carrying a barrel labeled Scrap Pork Barrel on her shoulders. It was beyond what Mae had promised Juana Change would do.
At the September 13 rally she came in a costume inspired by the pig—the strangest of red creatures you might ever see anywhere at all. She got onstage while someone was singing a song that I failed to hear—I was backstage helping with the Rock And Rage Against Pork free concert that would follow the rally’s program. It’s unclear to me the effect of that performance—or the dress— but as I as looked from the back of the stage, I asked a co-organizer: +g’Yan ba yung performance art?+h And she said: +gHinde, costume lang.+h
It would be in light of that comment that I could only be thankful for two things at the October 4 Million People March in Ayala. One, that I was not organizer of this rally and therefore could actually watch the performances and speeches that night, especially since two, Mae’s performance as Juana Change went beyond all expectations.
Because for this one, Juana Change was back on every-Pinay mode, this time as the familiar manang we all know of, living decently on very little, hoping for change but first to think it impossible because of her own poverty. This Manang Juana was talking about a son, one who put his hopes in PNoy in 2010, and thought change possible through him. This Manang Juana was now angry, that her son had been given false hopes, that her son had been lied to. She was in tears, both out of anger, but more importantly, out of hopelessness.
By the time it became funny, it was also absolutely touching: Manang Juana turns her back on the audience to face Ninoy Aquino’s statue, which had looked over the rally all this time. She speaks to him to knock some sense into his son, PNoy. That it was Manang Juana who did this, she who had cried as mother, who had lost all hope as a citizen of nation, just allowed this to work. It might also be the most brilliant I’ve seen Juana Change.
Without the pomp and pageantry, without the costume and wig, without a huge barrel around her body, or a pig’s mask or headdress covering her face, Juana Change allowed for the pork barrel issue to be about the every Pinoy, the ones who remain distant from it, the ones who have yet to understand how they are affected by it.
In the middle of that huge stage, Juana Change shone in a daster and apron, and probably one of her most powerful character sketches ever, because unique, because simple. Because real.
It was a lot like magic.