In October 1967, I visited Moscow at the invitation of the Russian Writers Union on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. It was my first time in Russia. I was told there were shortages, but as a guest, I was treated warmly and was never in need. One of the high points of that visit, aside from meeting my translator, Igor Podbereszky, was a session with the editors of the literary journal, Novy Mir.
I had by then, of course, read a lot of Russian literature in translation -- Tolstoy, Chekhov, Gorky, and of course Dostoevsky. I had also read Pasternak. I had compared the two English translations of Dr. Zhivago and was anxious to ask the Russian writers about him, particularly since he had been prohibited by the Soviet government from going to Stockholm to claim his Nobel Prize.
What was Boris Pasternak’s status in Russia? The editors of Novy Mir said he was best known as a lyric poet. And Dr. Zhivago? They said one reason he was not allowed to go to Stockholm was that, from his novel, it appeared he did not love his motherland all that much.
I told them then that his writing showed exactly the opposite, that the most evocative descriptions of the Russian winter and spring, the likes of which I had never read before, were in Dr. Zhivago. It would not be possible for any writer to write with such affection if he did not love his native land.
While I was saying this, I recalled Manuel Arguilla who, to my mind, had written the most beautiful descriptions of the Ilokos countryside. Arguilla's life was cut short at the peak of his artistic genius; in 1944, the Japanese executed him for being a guerilla.
Jose Rizal also came to mind. At 34, at the height of his creative powers, he was executed by the Spaniards. His two novels, Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, vividly illustrate his affection for his country and his disdain for Spanish tyranny.
AND SO WE WRITE THE LAND, celebrate its width and breadth, its foamy beaches, emerald islands, the majesty of our mountains, our golden plains, the cozy lethargy of our villages, the spanking shine and glitter of our sprawling cities. We remember the stench of our slums, the fragrance of newly harvested fields, and the sharp odor of a parched earth drenched at last by the first rain. We give our writing a sense of place, our characters distinct faces, our history its heroism, our people an infallible identity. And with all of these, hopefully, we invoke a sense of nation as well.
But is there enough celebration of the land in our literature? Why are we not writing? Why are we not producing literature as much as we should? Is it because our writers are simply too comfortable to care? Or, distanced as they are from their own kin, they cannot understand or empathize with their trials and their griefs?
I brought these thoughts to a recent visit by Samuel Chua, the poet who now teaches at the University of Oregon. He had just attended a writers meeting at the Cultural Center, and the questions asked led him to realize that Filipino writers are not writing as much as they should. Yet there is so much material around us -- in the very front page of our newspapers, and in our history, where so much is yet to be unraveled. I agreed with him.
We tend to view others in the light of our own perspective, and I told him that when I was thirty, I had already written three novels, all of them serialized in a weekly magazine but not published in book form. I always knew writing would be hard work. I also knew writing does not pay. But just the same, I wrote and wrote and wrote. I was apparently driven, which is not so with many of our brilliant young writers, whose language is superior to mine. Is it because they are comfortable? Is it because their roots in this country are shallow and fragile? Or maybe they haven’t suffered at all, or if they have, they cannot remember.
I do not know; it is for these writers, particularly the very young, to probe deeply into themselves, and realize the reasons why.
ALMOST ALWAYS, literature is remembered pain or sorrow. In all of us is an essential loneliness, a melancholy that is the essence of art and literature itself. In that solitude wherein we immerse ourselves, we come face to face with the transience of our very lives and our puny efforts to live beyond it. What have we made of the life, the poetry, the music, the art that we will leave behind?
Pasternak recorded with brilliant faithfulness the pathos and heroism of the Russian people in that cataclysm that changed Russia forever. So did Rizal record the last years of Spanish domination -- history come alive so we will know what it had been like, and also realize who we are.
And so I ask myself and so should all of us who write – why write at all? I look deeply into myself and find no abiding reason, other than writing seems so natural, like breathing, because writing and reading, thinking and imagining have become my life.
It is all ego and vanity of course, and the hope that somehow someone will read me and appreciate what I have written because they see themselves in it the way I see myself in what I write. And I realize then that I belong to something bigger, something beyond myself, and that by writing I have brought meaning and purpose to my life.
First published in The Philippine Star, May 11, 2019
Gina Apostol’s latest novel, Insurrecto, reminds me of what my Russian translator said: "Not to read Dostoevsky is a crime, but to read him is punishment." Reading Insurrecto is difficult, but to read it is to be rewarded with knowledge and insight not usually available in much of Filipino contemporary fiction.
The narration of the story is not linear, but it is a very clever way of juxtaposing the past with contemporary events, and Gina’s prose crackles all over the place with its freshness and cleverness.
Her characters appear opaque in the beginning, but since every chapter is a revelation they develop solid surfaces. It is obvious that a lot of research went into this book, but the rendition of contemporary happenings also proves that the author is grounded in the often sordid and gruesome realities of this country today.
This book might not be popular primarily because it is not interesting in the manner that contemporary fiction – and its plots – are often satisfying and predictable. But it should be read precisely because it illustrates what an excellent writer can achieve not just with the imagination but also with language.
Insurrecto is a commentary, too, on our relationship with the United States and the suffocating influence of American culture on the Philippines. The historical roots of this influence and the love-hate relationship that Filipinos have with America gives Insurrecto its meaning and significance. But, as Gina concludes, Insurrecto is a misnomer and Revolution is a dream.
My Dear Friend -- You are in your early twenties, you have just graduated from college, you are a writer, and you want to teach. And perhaps, without realizing it, you may have doomed yourself to fail when you decided to be a revolutionary.
It is a very brave and ambitious decision; revolution is nearly impossible to achieve. Not many young people these days talk like you do, aware as you are of our political system and the gross injustices that prevail all around us. Writing is not enough, or teaching, or whatever profession you choose, because there is this entity that’s bigger than us and it is this unhappy nation.
The real objective of revolution is the transfer of power from the oppressor to the oppressed. It is easy enough to see who the oppressed are, but who is the oppressor? This is one of the first things you must realize, that the enemy, the real power holders in this country, are the very rich, the oligarchs. And then you will also realize that we ourselves are also the enemy, and that revolution demands we transcend our clan, even ourselves.
Revolution is often a lengthy process, and you may not even notice it until it is exploding all around you. Here I am, 94 years old, and still wondering why the revolution has not yet happened, when so many of us have long accepted its necessity, its inevitability even.
ALWAYS UNDERSTAND THE OBJECTIVE REALITY. In what condition are we in today? Is it anarchy? Anarchy destroys a people, polarization ushers civil war, and revolution unites a people. We have never really been united. But can we not make use of our own diversity to mount that revolution?
There are many important elements that you should never miss – that revolution requires heresy and conspiracy, that it may be necessary to use naked power and violence to usher it in. One thing is sure – there must be a cabal, an organization of like-minded people to usher it in, to manage it, and to fulfill its promise. Where can these people be? In the army? In academe? Among the business elite? Wherever they are, they must believe in the revolution and, most of all, they must love this nation.
Persevere, endure. It was easy enough fighting the Spaniards, the Americans, the Japanese. They were not us. But now the enemy is our own elite, Filipinos like us. They have inherited the vices of the colonialists, who are now our exploiters and, like the old colonialists, they exploit this nation and salt their loot abroad, in Europe, in China, and elsewhere. Remember they also flaunt the flag and announce themselves as patriots who support noble Filipino causes. But never, never forget that they are very rich, and our people are very poor.
ALWAYS REMEMBER TOO THAT YOU DON"T HAVE TO BE A COMMUNIST TO BE A REVOLUTIONARY. The communists as ideologues are contemptuous of the objective reality. And this objective reality is that the Army is vicious towards the communists because so many of its officer corps and rank-and-file have already been killed in the communist pursuit of protracted war. But this country can no longer be dismembered, either by the New People's Army or the rebel Moro movements. Primarily, the Army is here to preserve this nation and it is an Army of the people, its officer corps and its rank-and file come from the masa, the very poor.
This Army, too, is profoundly aware that it is fighting an enemy from the same class. So ask yourself, when the poor kill the poor, who benefits? It would be wonderful if the army, given its social origins, were to side with the Revolution. It was what kept the country together during EDSA, or else anarchy would have gripped this country, resulting in the deaths of thousands as had happened in Indonesia with the downfall of Sukarno in 1965.
Beware of making revolution fashionable or a cliché. When it becomes popular, then it loses its essence, its sting. You now know the enemy. Work towards its destruction, its emasculation, or help transform it into what is called the modernizing elite. And never, never take revolution for granted. It must be lived, not bandied about in cocktail parties, and discussed endlessly in academic fora.
Learn from history, that revolution is not a modern phenomenon. It is an important element in humanity's search for freedom, for opposing slavery and dictatorship. This search for freedom is almost as natural as breathing. It is the very essence of life, the blood that is continuously pumped by the heart for that is where freedom also lives.
Learn from past revolutions, whether they succeeded or failed. Beware of following the examples of other revolutionary leaders, by other rebelling peoples. The Filipino Revolution must be organic and not an artificial construct. It must grow from our deepest aspirations. This is what history also teaches us -- the unique successes of other peoples because they trusted themselves and were true to themselves. Remember this when your mind is waylaid by foreign examples: We are not Cuba, or France, or Russia, or least of all, China.
In my youth, I also thought of revolution. I read all I could about it, and wandered on its fringes. But it was not until I was 35 years old that I accepted it heart and soul. I remember that moment very well, even where it happened, how suddenly free I felt. Yet with the soaring of the spirit came the realization that I may have to die for it.
But even then I knew that a dead revolutionary is a useless revolutionary. So then, my brave, young friend, live for the revolution, for your unhappy country. Work hard for her, sweat blood if necessary, and always remember, the objective of revolution is freedom, the building of a just and sovereign nation by a people who have finally established their place in the sun.
First published in The Philippine Star, May 4, 2019
Chel Diokno champions the cause of the very poor, the voiceless, and the victims of oppression and injustice as the ever-active head of FLAG (Free Legal Assistance Group) that was set up by his father, the late and much lamented Senator Jose W. Diokno, during the Martial Law years.
He is nevertheless his own man, and has not rested on his father’s laurels. He has won many cases involving teachers, workers, farmers, and fishermen in need of justice. He served on the Commission on Human Rights under President Cory Aquino and Fidel Ramos, and was team leader and private prosecutor in the impeachment proceedings against President Estrada. His voice and his tireless dedication to defending freedom as guaranteed by our constitution are sorely needed in a senate that has become very docile and to rejuvenate a justice system that has decayed.
Bam Aquino richly deserves re-election. He chairs the Senate Committee on Science and Technology. He has been a social activist from his grade school days, and champions entrepreneurship as the basis for abolishing poverty. As senator, he has authored some 50 bills, all of them involved with national and economic development -- promoting universal access to education, macro-financing for the poor, and other laws that promote welfare for the lower classes. He also has an inescapable legacy to keep alive, that of his uncle Ninoy Aquino’s fight against dictatorship.
Sonny Angara, also a re-electionist, chairs the Senate Ways and Means Committee and the Local Government Committee. He knows the crippling problems of poverty and civic decay, and how a government truly responsive to the needs of the people can alleviate these problems. And, like his late father, he champions agriculture, and the development of Filipino culture and education. He is a very good and prolific legislator, and has authored so many laws to to advance national welfare, to protect labor and women’s rights, and to institutionalize transparency in government.
These three are perhaps the most competent and the best-prepared candidates for the senate, the real powerhouse of government. Senators have a national view unlike Lower House congressmen who are concerned more with their districts and pork barrel. All three are honest, sincere public servants, and are the hawk-eyed auditors of governance. They are deeply rooted in our land, and most important, they have a vison of what our future can be, a nation free from poverty and corruption. My hope is they will contribute more to the examination of our foreign treaties and to the deals this government has made with China.
IT IS IMPORTANT FOR US to have the most cordial and warmest relations with China, with whom our historical ties were established long before the Spaniards came in 1521 to colonize us. China is now a world power and all of Southeast Asia will surely be sinicized within the next few decades.
But sinicization should not mean colonization, for that is where our relationship with China is going, with its occupation of portions of our territory. Can we therefore conclude that, for all our respect for China, China is not our friend but our enemy now? How do we deal with a powerful neighbor in its ascendancy and hegemonic reach?
That hegemony is being challenged by the United States with whom we also have strong ties. The South China Sea is now a flashpoint, and it is here where armed conflict between the United States and China will probably start, a conflict neither country wants.
Our senators must concentrate on our basic problem with China and its imperial claim on the South China Sea. It must be firm in its opposition to Chinese intransigence and must pursue our sovereign rights for all the world to see. We are not powerless or voiceless to confront China.
For instance, we can harness the thousands of Filipinos working overseas to demonstrate before every Chinese consulate or embassy all over the world. We can mount an international campaign to make known our stand against China's imperial ambition in the South China Sea. The point is to gain international understanding of our plight.
THE SENATE AS THE INSTITUTION that looks after our treaties with other countries should now look at all the deals that this government has made with China, study them carefully, and nullify them if they are to our disadvantage.
I would like to see the senate examine and strengthen our alliances with the United States, Japan, and Australia, and most important, with our ASEAN neighbors, particularly Vietnam and Indonesia, who have vital interests in the South China Sea.
I would like to see a senate that is truly independent. In fact, if there are going to be changes at all in the constitution, I would like to see the lower house abolished with the senate as the only legislative body. We will be saving billions for education, public service, and the Armed Forces.
As an independent institution, the Senate can abolish corruption in government, by strengthening the SALN law, making it compulsory for all government officials and enforcing appropriate sanctions -- fines and imprisonment -- for those who violate it.
It’s election time. The President knows that thousands of Filipinos are angry at his apparent surrender to Chinese bullying, and he and his people are making small noises to show some form of opposition to China's impositions. It is very obvious that the President himself is the major obstacle in our struggle to enforce our sovereignty. And after the election he will resume his happy accommodation of the Chinese. Yet it is also possible the nationalist in him will truly surface, for his own good as well as ours.
This midterm election is very important. It will illustrate the quality of the candidates and will test the critical faculties of the millions who cast their votes. But no matter how good the candidates are, the ballot is useless if it is not used with intelligence.
First published in The Philippine Star, April 27, 2019
Rebecca Añonuevo, who was my graduate student at De La Salle University, invited me recently to speak before her students at the Navotas Polytechnic College where she is now President. Navotas Mayor John Reynald Tiangco said the town supports the school and tuition is free.
I've never refused an invitation to speak before this country's youth for, I think, as an old writer, I have so much to tell them and at the same time learn from them. This is the youth that will make our future.
I am witness to the coming and going of three generations and I have taken note of the differences between these generations and also mine. There have been many significant changes, even in terms of population growth alone, and its physical challenges.
When I was in college, the population of the Philippines was only around twenty million. We are more than a hundred million today. The solutions to the agrarian problem that were propounded in the 1950s are no longer feasible today. There was so much forest land then that could be opened to land-hungry farmers. Such land is no longer available, yet we still have to produce more food for our own people.
The job requirements in my youth were often basic. Today, to get a good job, applicants must know a lot of technology. There were few Filipinos working abroad then too. Today, only jobs abroad seem more profitable and attractive to today's college graduates.
I'm taking cognizance of these changes because it is important for us not only to adapt to them but also to recognize the reasons for our abject poverty -- what we are all very aware of but don’t seem to care about. That in a region that has quickly modernized, we are the ones who have been left behind
We may have many of the trappings of progress, but certain verities that hamper the process of modernization still remain -- the barnacled attitudes, the landlord mentality of our elite, and not just physical poverty but the poverty of spirit in our people. It is such a tattered cliché, but three generations have passed and not one of them has actually been energized by a nationalism with social goals.
How then can we convince our very young to be Filipinos and, as such, to change themselves and this country as well? All of them are now nurtured by social media. Information is now readily available on almost any topic, much of it through the Internet. How should all this information be processed so that the young people will be more concerned with how their roots in this country should grow, and recognize that there is always something bigger than themselves?
So we come to the basic problem of nationhood. Why we are such a divided people. Why we can think only of our families and our clans. It is important that we do, but we must be able to connect our familial interest to the broader interest of nation.
Nationalism, although it has been debased in the West, is still a great and necessary unifying element in so many of the young countries, particularly those that have just achieved freedom from colonization. While, in many instances, this colonialism gives us an identity and also a purpose for being, it is necessary for us to destroy its vestiges because many of the elites in this country have acquired the motivation of the old colonialist, which is to exploit their own people. Indeed, Rizal was correct in saying that the slaves of today harboring memories of this slavery will become the tyrants of tomorrow.
I tell my young audiences to revive in themselves the old and solid virtues on which my generation was weaned -- good manners and right conduct. There is so much profanity in social media today, and civic discourse is muddied and debased. If the President and those who follow him blindly want to drown in their own cesspool of vulgarity, let them. But we must not accept as fact their rationalization that vulgarity is what the masa understand. That is an absolute lie! Go to any farming or fishing village, listen to the masa talk. It can be earthy but it is never profane or debasing.
I remind my young audiences how our history is tarnished with so many betrayals, our leaders betraying their followers, followers betraying their leaders, and Filipinos betraying themselves willfully, consciously. We see this happen in every election, when the people elect a candidate because he comes from the same tribe, or is a movie personality, or has an easy and memorable name, with no regard for the candidate’s honesty and their concept of public service. For which reason some of our highest officials are actually rapists and murderers, thieves and plunderers. As I said before, only a corrupt society supports corrupt leaders.
It is important for our young people to know our troubled history to recognize the role of betrayal in shaping it, and that betrayal weakens the nationalist impulse. It is our knowledge of history that will educate us. It will at the same time teach us that we are often our own worst enemy, and that to have a viable future, we ourselves must undergo profound spiritual cleansing to see and understand the very core of our problems. Only then can we develop in us as a free people the capacity for critical thinking so that on every occasion that we are challenged we know which path to take.
I tell the young people that I hope with their vast knowledge of what we are, we will also develop within our deepest being a sense of purpose, a creed in life that will make life itself more meaningful. The truth is, this most precious gift from God has no meaning and it is up to us to give it meaning so that we will be different from the hogs that only live to feed on the trough.
First published in The Philippine Star, April 13, 2019
I am sorry I missed Repertory Philippines’ musical, Miong, which is based on the life of Emilio Aguinaldo. It was one more effort to refurbish Aguinaldo’s name. Whatever his failings, Aguinaldo’s exalted position in our history is secure. But like all men, our heroes have flaws that are diminished or banished altogether in their shining hour.
I met the old soldier in the 1950s when I was in my twenties and writing for the old Manila Times Sunday Magazine. I was also working on my novel, Po-on, which is set in 1872, the year the three Filipino priests, Gomez, Burgos, and Zamora, were executed by the Spaniards for their so-called participation in the Cavite mutiny of that year. Some Filipino historians mark this year as the genesis of a conscious Filipino nationalism.
Emilio Aguinaldo was in his eighties then. His eyes were watery. He had a very gentle manner and was soft-spoken. I wanted to ask him several sensitive questions about General Luna and Andres Bonifacio, and the Pact of Biak-Na-Bato. He intimidated me. Here I was, a fledgling writer, and this venerable historical figure always addressed me in very polite Tagalog.
BUT I DID GET A LOT OF INFORMATION when he started reminiscing about the Malolos Republic and the flight of the defeated Filipino army and government from its last sanctuary in Tarlac, through Bayambang in Pangasinan, then all the way to Tirad Pass across the Cordilleras, the Cagayan Valley, and the Sierra Madre, to Palanan on the Pacific coast. I was going to ask him about the death of Bonifacio. But I think he had anticipated my question because he said, “In a revolution, there must be only one leader.”
I've read Mabini's scathing criticism of Aguinaldo and how eventually Mabini was eased out of the Malolos government at the influence of the Federalistas -- Paterno, the Legardas, the Aranetas, the Buencaminos. They were in Malolos in the daytime but at American-occupied Manila at nighttime, negotiating with the Americans to make the Philippines a member of the American Union.
Mabini, Antonio Luna, Bishop Aglipay -- they all knew that the young Republic, with its ill-equipped army, was no match for the Americans who were better armed and supplied. Bishop Aglipay and General Luna went North to reconnoiter the escape route of Aguinaldo and his ragtag army. Their purpose was to mount a guerrilla war against the Americans from bases in the Cordilleras, where they could get support from the Ilocos region and Cagayan Valley.
There are three routes to the Cagayan Valley from the Central Plain of Luzon; the first is Sta. Fe Trail, now Dalton Pass, which is wide enough to permit bull carts, water buffalos, and horses. The Villa Verde trail across the Caraballo range in Pangasinan can only be crossed on foot. Then there is Bessang Pass from Taguddin, Ilocos Sur, and finally Tirad Pass from Candon, Ilocos Sur. If you are in Candon, on a clear day you can recognize Mt. Tirad. Tirad in Ilocano means pointed.
The Americans, however, were well-informed on the movements of the Malolos government. They landed a force in San Fabian, La Union, which then marched across Pangasinan and Nueva Ecija, and sealed the Sta. Fe Trail. Aguinaldo had no other way except Tirad. The Americans had a cavalry, only a few hours behind a fleeing Aguinaldo and his troops. Aguinaldo had already crossed Tirad when Del Pilar turned back to delay the Americans who were closing in. The rest is history.
WHAT WE MUST REMEMBER always is that, in the end, we are our own worst enemy. After that grueling flight across two mountain ranges, Aguinaldo reached Palanan on the Pacific coast only to be betrayed by the Macabebes and captured by the Americans.
In recalling the retreat of Aguinaldo to Palanan, I'm reminded of another classic retreat in ancient history, that of Xenophon, the Greek student of Socrates who went to Persia with ten thousand Greek mercenaries at the bidding of Cyrus, the younger brother of the Persian king who wanted to usurp the throne. Cyrus was killed and the Greeks were demoralized, until Xenophon spoke to them, then led them back across great distances, hostile tribes, from desert to sea, and finally Greece.
Aguinaldo's retreat is not equivalent to that of Xenophon and the Greek mercenary army, but it is one heroic story of how Filipinos endure and surmount adversity. An aide of General Aguinaldo, Colonel Villa, the father of the poet Jose Garcia Villa, describes that epic flight in his journal. He notes that the big towns in Central Pangasinan were still surrounded by jungle, that some of the people in their escape route were hostile.
The flaws of our heroes are described in that great book, "A Question of Heroes," by Nick Joaquin. Character is fate. Aguinaldo was an opportunist, Gregorio del Pilar was a womanizer, and Rizal was a narcissist. But all had their shining hour, which anointed them with greatness -- Rizal calmly standing before the Spanish firing squad that December morning, Aguinaldo hoisting the flag of Asia's first Republic in Kawit, Cavite, on, and Gregorio del Pilar in the Battle of Tirad Pass, heroically trying to stop the flood.
These flawed Filipinos shaped our history, acting out their faults and transcending them in concert with their concept of nation. We must remember so we can compare them with our leaders today and those who are now campaigning to be elected into public office in May. Did these leaders a hundred years ago plunder this nation?
The flaws of Duterte are so blatant to all of us. But he may yet have his shining moment when he mounts that jet ski and, defying the Chinese Navy, he plants the Philippine flag on our Panatag Shoal.
First published in The Philippine Star, March 30, 2019 https://www.philstar.com/opinion/2019/03/30/1905676/our-flawed-heroes-and-their-shining-hour
It was during the early 1950s, when I was writing a series of articles on our agrarian problem, that I met then National Defense Secretary Ramon Magsaysay. Lt. Joe Guerrero, his Ilokano aide, told me that agrarian reform was Magsaysay’s main interest, his answer to the Huk rebellion which was then winding down. With the approval of President Quirino, he had opened the wilds of Mindanao, Palawan, and Northern Luzon for resettlement by the land-hungry farmers of the Visayas and Luzon.
Lt. Guerrero and Magsaysay spoke in Ilokano. It is my mother tongue so I spoke with Magsaysay in Ilokano too, but his Ilokano was far better than mine. He was tall for a Filipino. His manner was urbane but he had a common touch; he could speak to the lower classes in their own idiom, and he was quite direct. His questions were direct too.
His interest in the masa was not a political put on, it was genuine. Sure, he had his faults. He was imperious and impatient, and he often reacted impulsively. But when he committed a mistake, he corrected it immediately. The love of the people for Magsaysay was genuine and deep.
He was also the subject of some jokes – that he was going to repeal the law of supply and demand. My favorite is this: A group of farmers went to Malacanang to complain about the artesian well that Magsaysay had set up in their barrio. It had no water. Magsaysay said, “I promised you an artesian well. I did not promise you water.”
A narrative still current today is that Magsaysay was a CIA creation, that General Edward Lansdale was instrumental in his rise. After working in the Philippines, General Lansdale went to Vietnam to influence the South Vietnamese in the Vietnam War. He failed and the Vietnamese eventually triumphed.
The United States spent billions in the Vietnam War compared with the pittance that they spent in the Philippines to support Ramon Magsaysay. Magsaysay's success, however, is not due to American support. He was elected to office by a great majority. He campaigned personally in the villages. Before him, candidates for the presidency relied on their leaders to do that for them.
When Magsaysay was President, Malacañang was wide open, without the elaborate security arrangements of today. It would have been easy to assassinate him, particularly when he went to the provinces without bodyguards.
Magsaysay also gathered around him the best minds of the day and relied on them for advice. It is with these that he was able to create an honest government, at a time when politicians were already regarding their positions as sinecure. Mark the words of Jose Avelino, Senate President during the Quirino administration, “What are we in power for?”
Sure, we were only 30 million then. We are more than a hundred million now, yet so many of the problems that the Philippines faced in the 1950s are no different from those we face today. Which is why the forthcoming election is important. We must vote for the candidates who will revive Magsaysay's ideals, who will strive for transparency, for honest government, because at the root of our problems is the death of honesty and sincerity in the Filipino.
Magsaysay came from a comfortable middle-class family. He got to know poverty and the onerous tenancy system when, as a guerilla leader in Zambales, he lived with the farmers. He sympathized with the Hukbalahap who were demonized as communist in the beginning of the cold war. He was pressured by the Americans, and Taruc and the Huk leaders were jailed.
He was also shackled in his efforts to free the peasants from their bondage by a landlord-dominated Congress. Had he declared Martial Law, as one of his political allies, former Pangasinan Governor Conrado Estrella said, the people would not have objected. I have a feeling Magsaysay wanted to establish a new political party and a socialist government patterned after Scandinavian socialism. But there are no ifs in history and fate claimed his life too soon.
The day after Magsaysay died, corruption was back. The clean government that was ushered in by Magsaysay had not been institutionalized. It would have been very easy for his successor, President Carlos Garcia, to have continued his legacy, but he did not. This is an important lesson for us, and particularly for our political elite.
I visited President Quirino when he retired in Novaliches. Like Magsaysay, he was also very honest; all those stories about his expensive bed were concoctions to destroy him. He was responsible for plotting our economic recovery after our devastation during the war. And he was magnanimity personified when he forgave the Japanese for killing his family.
He was happy, he said, that Magsaysay had turned out very well. After all, it was he who appointed him Secretary of National Defense. But Claro M. Recto opposed agrarian reform because it was Magsaysay who had made it his major concern: "That ignoramus stole the presidency from me," Recto said.
It was not so much that Magsaysay defeated the Huk insurgency. He got a lot of help from the Huks themselves when their leadership broke up because of their egos. What he did was to show that we Filipinos, given the proper leadership, can have a very honest government.
It is almost seven decades ago that the best president we ever had died in a plane crash. His death anniversary on March 17 went largely unnoticed, and it may seem that he has been forgotten, too, like EDSA I.
First published in The Philippine Star, March 23, 2019
I also read Kit Tatad's last column for The Manila Times, and the rebuttal of the paper's publisher, Dante Ang. It is an undeniable fact there is overt censorship in the media today because of the President's hypersensitivity to criticism.
Kit Tatad is a superb writer and an enterprising journalist. I first met him in the 1960s when he was covering the Department of Foreign Affairs on Padre Faura, which was close to my bookshop. He was an avid reader and often dropped-by.
He became Marcos’s Minister of Public Information in 1969, yet on the morning of the first day of martial law, I was still surprised to see him on TV, reading Marcos's martial law decree.
During the martial law years, Kit kept his office open to journalists. At a recent Philippine PEN conference which he attended as a speaker, some of the writers were angry that he was there. I said Kit was one of PEN's earliest members, and during the martial law years it was he who brought PEN officials and foreign writers to Malacañang so Marcos could hear their plea to release the writers in jail.
A writer, someone I counted as a close friend, had placed me on the blacklist, and for four years I was not allowed to travel out of the country. It was Kit who helped remove me from that blacklist so I could attend a couple of conferences in Dublin and Paris.
AFTER THE LIFTING OF MARTIAL LAW, Kit ran for the Senate and was elected. As a politician, he had the best tutor on opportunism in the country – Marcos. President Duterte admires Marcos, and it would have been logical for Kit to become the President’s comfortable ally. That Kit chose not to be speaks volumes for the man.
I know he has already written a novel and I hope he will release it soon. In the meantime, although he is no longer a Manila Times columnist, I hope he will continue writing even if he is the last writer to rail against this erratic presidency.
All these brought to mind those ten years, 1949-1960, that I worked at the old Manila Times, first as associate editor of the Sunday Times Magazine which was then the most widely circulated magazine in the country. I also edited Progress, the Manila Times’ annual publication. I never took a vacation. Instead, I travelled all over the country, from Sabtang in the Batanes in the north, to Sitankai in Tawi-Tawi in the south. I remember the first advice given to me by Primitivo C. Mauricio, the editor of the magazine. He said: “We don’t own the magazine. It belongs to the people who buy it.”
Joaquin P. Roces, the Manila Times publisher, was a hands-on executive. Every day he was in the newspaper and there were occasions he went to the upper floor where the magazine offices were to talk with me. I was usually there after office hours, working on my novels and short stories. We had protracted conversations about current events, national personalities, and the books I had read. He wasn’t a reader but he kept himself informed by being a good listener.
All of us in the editorial department called him Chino, his nickname because he looked Chinese. But I always addressed him as Sir when he was talking with me as publisher. Chino was warm-hearted and so was his older sister, Isabel, who was the company treasurer. We called her Bebing. I felt she was the paper’s real boss. Both of them never interfered with the work of the editorial department.
NOT ONCE IN MY TEN YEARS at the Manila Times did Chino tell me what to write or criticize what I wrote. I had absolute freedom even when I got to be the editor of the magazine itself. He also gave me the most expensive cameras at the time. He never examined the figures in my travel and expense vouchers. He signed them immediately.
When I left the Manila Times in 1960 to go to Hong Kong to work for the Asia Magazine, I was one of the Times’ ten highest-paid employees, but still I did not have a car. Chino gifted me with a Volkswagen.
His sister called me to her office twice. The first time to tell me she had accepted an award at the National Press Club on my behalf and to ask why I had not been there. I told her outright -- I did not have a barong tagalog. Within the hour I received one.
On another instance, she sounded very anxious and worried because some of her landlord friends had questioned her about my articles on agrarian reform. I told her that if I were to be sued for libel, I would stand by everything I wrote. Not only did I know the libel laws, but my articles were filled with facts. Immediately, she smiled. She then asked me if I had problems writing those articles. They were to win several awards later. I told her I had difficulty because they involved a lot of research. She told me to hire a researcher immediately.
Journalism 1950s was already tainted with some corruption. It was obvious in the lifestyle of some journalists. The Manila Times was the most profitable paper at the time, primarily I think because of the great freedom that its writers enjoyed. The paper had credibility. In remembering those days, I understand why Marcos closed the Manila Times and the other newspapers. It was not so much because media were critical of him but because he wanted the profitable papers, and the radio and TV stations to be in the hands of his cronies.
There is apprehension in the country today that we are on the verge of a dictatorship. I don’t think so but just the same, I hope that the cry, Never Again, is being heard by all those who hold enormous power today.
First published in The Philippine Star, March 16, 2019 https://www.philstar.com/opinion/2019/03/16/1901844/kit-tatad-and-old-manila-times
In Berlin, in June 1960, Raul Manglapus and I had lunch with Robert Oppenheimer, one of the scientists who created the atomic bomb. He was soft-spoken, tall, with sandy hair. We talked about the possibilities of a world powered by cheap nuclear energy. Indeed, further research in nuclear physics had led to so many refinements in the electronics industry and in nuclear medicine. Then, somehow, Oppenheimer reminisced about how the atom bomb came to be. He paused and cried silently. I told him I could not share his grief over Hiroshima and Nagasaki; we had been brutalized for three years by the Japanese.
If anything, that encounter with Oppenheimer impressed me, convinced me of how neutral science is and how it can easily be evil if those who develop and use it are not moored to ethics. All these came to mind as I perused the major events last week -- the failure of the Trump-Kim summit meeting in Hanoi and the visit of U.S. State Department Secretary Michael R. Pompeo, who assured us that the United States will defend us from any attack by China in the South China Sea. China responded that it will not attack us, while at the same time occupying Scarborough Shoal, Philippine sovereign territory just off the coast of Zambales.
IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN OBVIOUS to the Americans that North Korea will not give up its major achievement, a delivery system for its atomic weapons. This small, insignificant country has achieved parity with the United States. A unified Korean peninsula is probably North Korea's eventual goal -- but on its own terms. And North Korea can always argue the atomic bomb had long ceased to be an American monopoly. Russia, China, Britain, France, India, and Pakistan have it. Israel is rumored to have it, too, and soon Iran. Pandora's box has been opened, and cannot be closed.
The Philippines is a mere bit player on the global stage. The world problems that the major powers exacerbate -- their trade wars, climate change -- these eventually impact us but we can do little about them. For us then, a world view is not only a luxury, it can also be a distraction. But not a regional view for we need regional security, and active and profitable interaction with our neighbors. And the domestic view, if anything, this should be our sharpest focus -- our dismal poverty, our dysfunctional political system, our civic decay.
It is in this insecure world wherein we are situated that we must think for ourselves -- what we need to survive and, hopefully, to thrive, unable as we are to participate in developing nuclear power or preventing a nuclear holocaust, and to counter the other threats not just to our country but to humanity as well. We are at the edge of a scientific renaissance that could portend disaster, too. As the scientist, Stephen Hawking, warned, the development of artificial intelligence may usher the end of civilization.
On the very specific threat from a recalcitrant neighbor, it is so easy and simple for the United States to give us more military assistance, yet it has not done so. We can no longer depend on the American pledge of assistance. In the first place, all through history, pledges have always been broken once they are no longer useful. Each country and people must decide on how they should resolve the challenges they face, and their response eventually defines them and their future.
NATIONALISM SPELLS SURVIVAL In my lectures before committees of the American Council of Foreign Relations in the United States in the 1970s, I told the Americans who were embroiled in Vietnam that if they remembered the Philippine-American War in 1898, they wouldn’t have gone to Vietnam. Asian nationalism was their enemy, not communism.
The Vietnamese decided to fight the Americans and they succeeded. Vietnam is now united and doing very well. And the Vietnamese have not sought war reparations from the United States. From this, we may draw insight on the hardiness of the Vietnamese character.
It was the other way around in Thailand. The Thais opened their doors to the Japanese in 1942. I do not think such willful collaboration with the Japanese dented Thai nationalism. Thailand today is doing much better than us.
On those few occasions that I have spoken before the National Defense College, I tried to connect culture and the arts to the development of our national security. I told military officers and government executives that we are a very divided people, riven by geography, language, religion, ethnicity. In our effort to unite the nation, we need to recognize and use the elements that can weld us together -- the water, our history, our culture.
AND SO WE COME TO THE ARTS, to literature. They reveal so much of ourselves, our character, our identity. Our arts give us a profound knowledge of ourselves and eventually and hopefully, develop in us a sense of nation and, most of all, a profound commitment to our Motherland. As a people so committed and dedicated, we are the formidable bastion against any enemy, not the quantifiable weapons that a nation can muster.
I bring to mind the Roman siege of Masada in the first century A.D. This ultimate sacrifice, to my mind, is epitomized by the Jewish rebels who defended the plateau fortress, now part of Israel. When the imperial Roman legions finally captured it, they were greeted by eerie silence. To a man, the 700 defenders had committed suicide.
I always remind the young people of our history that we have a revolutionary tradition and that we are a heroic people. We don’t deserve this poverty, this corrupt government, these incompetent leaders. Our first duty then is to banish all these so we can build a secure future for ourselves.
First published in The Philippine Star, March 9, 2019
I have been watching movies since I was a boy in that small town where I grew up. I saw my first silent cowboy film starring Tom Mix in the early 1930s, in the rice bodega that was also the town cinema. The town's five-piece band provided the musical score. In fight scenes, the band would strike up a jaunty tune and in love scenes, a smaltzy piece.
The first Filipino picture I saw was "Bituing Marikit," starring Elsa Oria. When I moved to Manila in 1938, I saw more American films than Filipino. The major movie theatres in Manila -- the Avenue, State, and the Ideal on Rizal Avenue, and the Lyric and Capitol on the Escolta -- showed only American pictures; Grand and Dalisay on Rizal Avenue and Life on Quezon Boulevard showed only Filipino films. Rogelio dela Rosa, Carmen Rosales, Arsenia Francisco, and Corazon Noble were the stars.
During the war, there being no films to show, these first-class theaters staged Filipino drama, with the movie stars playing the lead roles. The plays in Tagalog were adapted from the popular western classics. Then Liberation, and Tagalog movies were revived, and a new generation of actors and actresses surfaced and new directors as well, Bert Avellana, Gerry de Leon, and Eddie Romero, were followed by Lino Brocka, Ishmael Bernal, but none approximated the brilliance of Chaplin, Kurosawa, or Rossellini.
A new breed of actresses, too. Vilma Santos, Hilda Coronel, Nora Aunor. I think that Nora Aunor is our greatest movie actress ever. No actress in all these years acted roles with such candor and fealty to the character portrayed. And as she ages, her worth increases. She does not need that National Artist Award that was denied her by ignoramus authorities.
IN THE 1950s, the movie personalities, Rosa Rosal and Eddie Romero, and the writers D. Paulo Dizon, Vic Generoso, Fred Munoz, Fred Bunao, J.C. Tuvera, and myself formed FAMAS, similar to the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts, to select the year's best Filipino movies. I remember those many nights that we spent at Premiere studios in Caloocan, at Sampaguita in Quezon City reviewing all those films and evaluating them.
I don’t know what has happened to FAMAS; I hear that it is still around but is now overshadowed by more active organizations. Their credibility is validated by their choices of the best.
I cite this background to assure my readers of my bonafides as a critic of Filipino films. And here is my judgment -- our movies are developing yet are still inferior to what is being produced in Korea, or in Japan. It is not the technology that is wanting, or the lack of skilled workers. In almost all instances, our motion pictures are dreadful because their scripts are.
From the very start, many foreign movies have used the best literary material produced in those countries. Not in the Philippines.
Compare our movies with those Korean global attractions. Their scripts are written by the best Korean writers steeped in both Asian and Western literary traditions. There was a time when Hollywood also got the services of the best American writers like William Faulkner and Scott Fitzgerald.
I saw Gerry de Leon’s film, “Sawa sa Lumang Simboryo,” in Santa Maria, Ilocos Sur. The ravishing beauty, Anita Linda, played the female lead. Gerry worked without a script. But he was meticulous and each scene was fully rehearsed and discussed before it was shot.
KOREA'S TELENOVELAS have gained an international audience because they are well made and they also project much information about Korea itself since many of the stories are based on Korean history. On a recent visit to South Korea, I was taken to a site where one of Korea's novels was made into a film. The Koreans are also sticklers for authenticity.
I can't recall how many films I have walked out of.
The films of Fernando Poe, Jr. for instance, were for ten-year-olds and below. Almost always, they are so unreal and I have to suspend belief to see them.
I WALKED OUT of Abaya's Rizal -- it was well crafted, realistic, but oh-so-boring for a Filipino who already knows the Rizal story by heart. Perhaps it was meant for a foreign audience.
I once talked with Dolphy, whose films were slapstick comedies. He was a Charlie Chaplin fan and I told him I would help him with the script if he did something like Charlie Chaplin's "Limelight," which was both funny and moving. He said he had tried making that kind of film but he lost money on it. If it is mush that the public wants, give it to them.
The films of Kidlat Tahimik are crude and so was Manuel Conde's Genghis Khan. We have gone quite a long way from these primitive efforts particularly with the developments in photographic technology. Producing films now is not as expensive as it used to be. Today we have a slew of independent movie makers whose problem basically is national and global distribution. This will be surmounted by demand, when our moviemakers start producing world-class movies.
The best Filipino moviemakers now are Mike de Leon and Brillante Mendoza. De Leon is a slow worker. His last film, "Citizen Jack" is superb, but it could have had more impact had it not been overloaded with extraneous themes. Mendoza is a fast worker and of his dozen films, half are truly excellent. But like de Leon, he has yet to produce a truly great movie. This will be done for sure, within the next few years. We also now have producers like Wilson Tieng who are willing to invest in quality. But always, they should concentrate on scripts that truly fulfill the requirements of an excellent narrative.
Meanwhile, I would like to see a movie scripted by that genius Rody Vera and directed by that equally gifted Chris Millado.
First published in The Philippine Star, March 2, 2019 https://www.philstar.com/opinion/2019/03/02/1897888/our-pitiful-movies