PH artist behind Washington Post story a Pulitzer finalist

PH artist behind Washington Post ‘human zoo’ story a Pulitzer finalist

By: - Desk Editor / @ruelsdevera
/ 05:40 AM May 08, 2024

VISUALIZING PAIN Renee Galeno, 27, is part of the Washington Post teambehind “Searching for Maura,” a report revisiting the ordeal of the Igorots put on “display” at the 1904 St. LouisWorld’s Fair. At right is one of her illustrations of the teenager at the center of the report. —WASHINGTONPOST.COM

VISUALIZING PAIN Renee Galeno, 27, is part of the Washington Post team behind “Searching for Maura,” a report revisiting the ordeal of the Igorots put on “display” at the 1904 St. LouisWorld’s Fair. Photo below is one of her illustrations of the teenager at the center of the report. WASHINGTONPOST.COM

MANILA, Philippines — A Filipino comic book creator made it as one of the finalists in the 2024 Pulitzer Prize as part of a Washington Post team that revisited the controversial 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, where Igorot folk from the Philippines, then an American colony, were shipped to the United States for display in a “human zoo.”

Renee “Ren” Galeno, 27, shared the byline with Post reporters Claire Healy and Nicole Dungca for a collaboration that produced “Searching for Maura (Paghahanap kay Maura),” a story published on Aug. 16, 2023.


READ: Filipinos’ innate humanity shining through on world stage


“Searching’’ was among the three Pulitzer finalists in the Illustrated Reporting and Commentary category. It also has the distinction of being the first illustrated story to appear online in the Washington Post both in its Filipino and English versions. (The prize in the category went to “The Diary of a Rikers Island Library Worker” by The New Yorker’s Médar de la Cruz.)

A teenager’s ordeal

“It was an honor to work on a story like this,” said Galeno. “I didn’t know much about the 1904 World’s Fair and what happened there. I learned so much so fast but I had to continue visualizing these horrible accounts. But I also saw the strengths and curiosity of our ancestors. So it was a joy and also upsetting.”

“Searching for Maura” recalls the ordeal of the Igorots in the St. Louis expo as seen through the accounts about an 18-year-old girl named Maura. Based on scant information available on the girl, the story said she was believed to be from a family of high social rank in Suyoc, Benguet province (based on her tattoos), and belonged to the Igorot Kankanaey ethnic group.

Shipped to the United States along with her people under terrible conditions, Maura died of pneumonia in April 1904 before the fair opened. She had requested to be buried in her homeland but her body was reportedly autopsied and a part of her brain was acquired by a Smithsonian anthropologist named Dr. Ales Hrdlicka.

“Few people would know what Hrdlicka did until over 100 years later,” the Post piece said, noting that through the decades the Smithsonian had collected thousands of brain samples in its controversial “racial brains collection.”

The Post project arose from the discovery made in 2021 by St. Louis-based Filipino activist and artist Janna Añonuevo Langholz regarding the fate of the human exhibits from the Philippines. Gathering material first through newspaper articles of that period, she began searching for the Igorots’ burial sites and chronicled her quest online.


Langholz was in Benguet in 2023 when the Post reporters informed her that they had confirmed Maura’s remains had been shipped back to the Philippines along with five other bodies through an old newspaper clipping.

“In Suyoc, overlooking the hills where Maura once lived, (Langholz) stopped to honor her. The search for Maura’s burial site in the Philippines continues,” read “Searching for Maura,” which appeared as a piece separate from a front-page banner story about the Smithsonian brain collection.

A panel from "Searching for Maura,"

A panel from “Searching for Maura” WASHINGTONPOST.COM

“Months after reporting on this story began, the Smithsonian contacted the embassy of the Philippines to inform it of the human remains in the Smithsonian’s possession,” it said. So far, four brains have been returned while 255 remain with the museum.

Working via Zoom

Galeno, who hails from Davao City, finished magna cum laude with a degree in fine arts, majoring in painting, from the University of the Philippines-Diliman in 2019. Aside from being a visual artist and teacher, she is an accomplished comic book creator.

An email from Healy and Dungca (a Filipino American) in February 2023 got her on board the Post project. She received the script for her illustrations in April, coordinated their work via Zoom, and was finished by June.

In an interview with the Inquirer on Tuesday shortly after the Pulitzer announcements, Galeno said she was “amazed by the reporting” done by Healy and Dungca, and that being the first Filipino cartoonist to be a finalist in the prestigious media award “feels very weird, very surreal.”

“I don’t know how to feel. But in this community I work in, I’m sure I will be just the first of many,” she said. “(I’m) very proud of everyone on the team. I don’t think I’ll ever work on anything like this again so I will always be thankful.”

Galeno joins a list of Filipinos who had either won or made it as finalist for the Pulitzer, such as photojournalists Ezra Acayan and Romeo Gacad, reporter Manuel Mogato, and the military general, statesman and journalist Carlos P. Romulo.

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The Inquirer first featured Galeno and her body of work in 2022. In 2023, she produced the graphic novel “Sa Wala (Nothing to Lose),” published by Komiket Inc., whose German translation is set for release later this year. She is currently working on another graphic novel, “Full of Grace,” for which she received a Philippine International Comics Festival Grant.

TAGS: 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, 2024 Pulitzer Prize, Renee “Ren” Galeno

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