He introduced himself as Alex, but in our naturally irreverent way, we’d already branded him “Lolo PX” or Imported Grandfather by the end of his first day at the PCIJ. It was a label he would only find out about much later, by which time it was a label hopelessly irreversible.
To break the ice, we asked him if he liked having a bottle or two after work. And yes, even during. And he cracked that grin that usually begins from the left side of his mouth until it takes over his face. Yes he did, and the world was fine.
So for the next few months in 2009, Alex Tizon would be a mentor and older brother of sorts for many of us at the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism. He was on a one-year fellowship with the PCIJ from the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ), and while he liked to say that he was here in the land of his birth in order to learn, in the end he gave away much more than he took.
Alex was a five year old child when his family migrated to the United States, yet he always looked back to this country for his roots. He lived his life fully as an American, even if many times, in his quest for his identity, he felt like he lived a life in exile. He would later write a book about it, Big Little Man: In search of My Asian Self, and Jaemark Tordecilla and I would later joke about how only Alex could write a book about Asian men and penis envy and turn it into a best-seller.
When he was here, Alex would speak wistfully of his mother’s hometown of Tarlac, or his desire to one day travel to faraway Cotabato where a grandparent originated. I remember during his first week in-country, and he had to go to the Immigration Bureau to fix some paperwork. I asked him if he wanted to apply for dual citizenship as well, and his eyes lit up like wildfire. The day ended with me taking a cellphone video of Alex swearing allegiance to the Philippines underneath a grimy staircase of the Bureau of Immigration. In looking for his roots, he also found his flag again.
He brought with him a quiet intensity that helped him work with PCIJ’s then Research Director, Rowena Carranza Paraan. Alex was officially seconded to Weng to work on a data project to map poverty in the Philippines. He traveled with Weng to some parts of the country tagged as the poorest provinces. This was where Alex was in his element, traveling with a backpack and talking to people. Even though he struggled a bit with the language, people could see how much he wanted to learn about them, how much he wanted to understand. This was what made Alex such a rarity – he was the philosopher-journalist who could write about the extraordinariness of ordinary people.
Midway through his fellowship here, the Maguindanao Massacre happened. Fifty-eight people, including 32 newsmen, were murdered and hurriedly buried in huge pits in Maguindanao province in the worst case of election-related violence in the country. We hurriedly put together a quick-response team to fly to the site, and Alex was chaffing at the bit, wanting to fly in too. But there was a problem. His sponsors, the ICFJ, had banned him from traveling to Mindanao because of the security situation there. The ban puzzled Alex. He was on a journalism fellowship, and this was the perfect time for him to be a journalist in the Philippines. He got on the phone with his sponsors in the US, and you could hear the voices rising and tempers flaring. In the end, Alex came back deflated and angry. The sponsors had just pulled the plug to make sure that Alex does not set foot near Maguindanao. He was being recalled home, his journalism fellowship cut short by his desire to do journalism.
This was all in 2009. He flew back to the US, where he finished his book, and started teaching journalism at his old alma mater at the University of Oregon. We kept in touch via Facebook, mostly with his and hellos and how are the kids. Then, last year, Alex wrote that he was coming back for some unfinished business.
He was flying back to the Philippines to meet his relatives from his mother’s side in Tarlac, and to bring home the ashes of a grandparent (If you don’t ask how he brought home the ashes, I won’t tell. Suffice it to say that he did it the way a lot of Pinoys probably would). And, finally, he was doing a story on the Maguindanao Massacre and its aftermath. So in July 2016, Alex finally flew to Maguindanao, to trace his roots, to write his story, and perhaps, also, to find some closure. In the end, the man we at first branded Lolo PX turned out to be more Filipino than many we know.
When you think about it, he didn’t have to do these things anymore. After 58 years of a life well-lived, with a loving wife and two children, and a Pulitzer Prize, he was fully an American. But he was also finally and fully a Filipino once again.
Over the weekend, we heard news that Alex had died in his sleep in Oregon. He was 58.
I found a quote from an old interview with him that best describes that fiery intensity, that thoughtful way he would hang his head, and that manner by which he cracks that grin:
“Read, read, read. Think, think, think. Write, write, write. Go into the dark places and write about them.”
Go into the dark places and write about them. If we journalists only remember that, then Alex would never ever write 30.
(Note: Ed Lingao is a news anchor of TV5. He previously served as head of PCIJ’s multimedia desk.)— PCIJ, August 2018