BREAKING NEWS: Diplomatic Sentiments

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A brief journey inside one ambassador's vivid imagination

Tomas Javier Calvillo Unna doesn't exactly fit the stereotype of a diplomat. His manner and speech strike the newly acquainted as belonging to a professor, which he is. Or rather used to be. He even founded a school (The Colegio de San Luis).

These days, Ambassador Calvillo is the steward of warm diplomatic ties between his country, Mexico, and the Philippines. While economic interdependence hasn't been felt since the galleon trade, the Philippines has more in common with Mexico than other countries in Asia. The ambassador's academic background leans heavily on political science (international relations, history, social sciences), though his private life is balanced between painting and verse.

“When I was a student in Mexico, I remember we read a lot of the Generacion del 27,” he says, carefully enunciating veintisiete in accented English. He is referring to a seminal group of Spanish artists from 1927, before they were engulfed by Franco's civil war. “That was Federico Garcia Lorca, Rafael Alberti Merello, Pedro Salinas, Jorge Luis Borges [an Argentinian],” he enumerates.

As a Mexican, however, he cites the other half of his literary foundation. “Starting in the 1950s, there was Octavio Paz, Carlos Fuentes, Alfonso Reyes,” he says. “They started a resurgence in Mexican letters and are an inspiration for the young generation.”

Ambassador Calvillo is by himself. None of the invited guests and media had arrived yet for the ribbon cutting of his solo exhibit. The PA system is blaring string music. He is free to ponder his work.

It's the opening night of his exhibit at the RCBC Plaza, where an entire wing of the Yuchengco Museum features his paintings. The ambassador explains that it's “the texture of color” that compels him to take up the brush every night after work.

He often spends three hours recreating scenes that flicker in his mind's eye. The collection of poems and art book-ended by the theme 'Traces of Sadness' is quite grim.

“The concept is the landscape of sadness,” Calvillo says. His style borrows heavily from the modernism that defined Picasso and Matisse—all vivid color but, this time, blurring into smudged figures. In his hands, the retrogressive modernism becomes intertwined with Mexico's own early-20th century heritage. “Like what they did with the color or texture,” he says.

He recalls, “while watching the Olympic games, came the news from Aleppo [Syria].”

“The very disturbing images caused me to think 'What is happening?' So you had the emotion and joy of the Olympic games and at the same moment you had this tragedy.”

This contradiction of “night and day,” as the ambassador puts it, is what he's trying to address. In doing so, he revisits atrocities as diverse as a shooting spree in Norway, missing political activists, the bus hostage fiasco that tarnished the Aquino administration's first year and, of course, the Middle East turmoil.

Balancing his peculiar take on recent events are his more candid 'Sentimientos Filipinos,' a body of work inspired by his local experiences. It's quaint, colloquial, and broad—a hundred oil and acrylic paintings of his were on exhibit for the whole of October.

Then there's his poetry. The ambassador's last collection was published in 2010. When it comes to writing, Calvillo reveals it's because he likes meditating first, then scribbling his thoughts down.

For Traces of Sadness and Sentimientos Filipinos, the ambassador produced 15 poems translated into English (by his son) and Tagalog (Marlon James Sales). One of them, called We See Faces..., reads:

There's no single
Nor collective history
There are many histories
Comprehensive or not


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