I was born and I grew up in an Ilokano village in eastern Pangasinan. In that part of the province and from there all the way to the Northern tip of Luzon, Ilokano is the lingua franca. In 1938, I moved to Manila for high school and it was here where I learned Tagalog, but the everyday Tagalog of Manila.
Tagalog and Spanish were taught while I was in college back in 1946. I almost flunked Tagalog with its “Balarila.” I came to realize the difference between my Tagalog and the Tagalog being taught in schools, and why it was not widely accepted as the national language, not only for ethnic reasons but also because it was purist.
Language is organic; it either grows or dies. The Oxford English Dictionary does a quarterly update with new words, colloquialisms. If you read the original Beowulf, the English epic written a thousand years ago, you will not understand a single word. I think President Quezon, because he was Tagalog, made a very big mistake in electing Tagalog as national language. Earlier, Spanish and English were accepted by us because both languages made all of us equal.
In the 1950s, I travelled all over the country, from Sabtang in the Batanes group in the north to Sitangkai in the Tawi-Tawi group in the south. In those days, Tagalog was not spoken in non-Tagalog regions. I communicated in English. Thank God, English was already understood by many Filipinos, especially those in official positions. But in the past 50 years, media – particularly movies, radio, and television – and the public schools, have turned Tagalog into a real national language. And during the recent senatorial election campaign, I watched non-Tagalogs give speeches and debate in a Tagalog far better than mine.
THE FINAL RULING of the Supreme Courtmaking Filipino (Tagalog) no longer a required college subject is absolutely correct. I think now is the time to make Tagalog the sole language of instruction from grade school to graduate school, and also the official language in government and in the courts. This Tagalog will be understandable, and will not be the Tagalog espoused today by the Commission on Language.
I know that such a monumental change will cause many difficulties and expense, and it is for these reasons why the transition will have to be carefully calibrated for at least 25 years. This will mean the gradual rewriting of textbooks and of procedures in government. Business will follow inevitably.
English should be phased out slowly to become like any of the foreign languages – Spanish, German, Japanese – taught in special schools. This change will be a daunting job for our Tagalog teachers. Many of them must change their mindset in order to turn Tagalog into Filipino. Many non-Tagalog words like balay (house), taytay (bridge), and bulan (moon) should be incorporated into the national language as mandated by law.
When I was with the old Manila Times, I received a copy of the Tagalog newspaper, Taliba, every day. I could not read it. I told the publisher of the Manila Times then, Joaquin P. Roces, to make Taliba more understandable with the use of Manila Tagalog, not the archaic Tagalog of Balagtas. When that change was made, the Taliba circulation surged from a few thousand to more than twenty thousand.
Twenty years ago, I managed a translation program wherein books in Japanese were translated into Tagalog. The books did not sell as indeed even today Tagalog translations of books – including mine – are not selling. This does not mean we should stop trying. Look at how successful the Indonesians and Malaysians have been with Bahasa.
LET ME RECOUNT how Bahasa became the national language of Indonesia and Malaysia. It was modernized and also made literary, and broad and rich enough for intellectual and scientific discourse. Takdir Alisjahbana, the Indonesian writer and scholar, and a significant influence on the modernization of Bahasa, told me how it came to be Indonesia’s national language.
When the leaders of the Indonesian independence movement were discussing their national language in the 1920s, they could have easily opted for Javanese. Most of the leaders themselves were Javanese but were educated in Dutch. But they realized that if Javanese became the national language there would be objections from the other language groups. So they elected Bahasa, which was used mainly in trading centers. They accommodated international words – ethnography became etnograpi, anthropology became antropologi, science became sains, and so on. This is a very good model for us to emulate, to use widely accepted terms instead of words like lungsod, pamantasan, mataas na paaralan, aklat, and so on.
I can think of no people more nationalistic than the Japanese, but they have Japanized many foreign terms.
In the 1950s, the writer, Rodrigo Perez, knowing the Indonesian example, suggested Tausug as our national language. Like English and Spanish, it would have been accepted because Tausug is such a tiny minority language spoken only by the Tausug of Sulu. It would have brought us closer to Indonesia but most important, it would have dampened or banished altogether the Moro separatist movement.
The first Tagalog novel I’ve read in its entirety is Lualhati Bautista’s Dekada 70. I am very happy with her translation of my novel, Mass. She uses “alarm clock” instead of “relos ng panggising.” This is how it should be.
I’m only too aware that language carries with it a lot of cultural baggage, but this cultural baggage should enrich our language, not diminish it. As a writer in English, I hope that much of what I have written can be translated into Tagalog, so too the works of those writing in Filipino languages such as Bicolano, Cebuano, and Ilokano. This is a formidable task particularly for our Tagalogs who despair over the Supreme Court decision. Then Tagalog shall have become truly “Filipino” and no longer a euphemism.
First published in The Philippine Star, June 17, 2019 https://www.philstar.com/opinion/2019/06/17/1927069/tagalog-all-way#SxXwqWDsydmFy7Mz.99
Let us pause and recall on this, the 121st anniversary of the Philippine Declaration of Independence in Kawit, Cavite, in 1898.
I have recently been re-reading ancient history – about Alexander the Great, the building of Rome, the Renaissance. I can see how human the ancient politicians were, how they built institutions that survive to this very day. Motivated by power and glory, they built empires that lasted centuries, then decayed. The decay of these empires is just as interesting as their rise; it illustrates how the character of leaders decide as well the fate of their power, their imperial reach.
Looking back at Asia’s First Republic and the ilustrados who shaped it, I wonder if it would have been able to escape the American hegemony, or Japan’s Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. Even the Germans were in Manila Bay, waiting, when Admiral Dewey arrived.
But there are no ifs in history. We are what we have become because we have not really learned from our past, that we were easily subjugated first by foreign colonizers, then by our own elites because we are a weak and divided people, because we didn’t have the institutions that support a sovereign state.
The sneering, lying response of some readers to my recent column, “Why it is difficult to love this country,” informs me, alas, why we rot in this swamp. We refuse to learn from our history. There is even a conscious effort now to deny this past and revise it, and to denigrate those who remember. These revisionist efforts are the termite mounds we have to identify and demolish before they destroy our country.
WE CAN NEVER EVER alter history or rescue Marcos from the ignominy which he created. Did he do anything good? Sure, his first decree freeing the peasant from his ancient yoke. I commend him for abolishing tenancy in the rice and corn areas, and replacing it with leasehold. No Filipino leader, not even Magsaysay who championed agrarian reform, could have done that with a Congress dominated by landlords. Marcos as dictator did it and reaped political largesse.
I also applaud him for abrogating the 99-year US Bases lease. This could have led to perpetuity. And, finally, for opening our country to new diplomatic relationships as, for instance, with China and Russia.
But all that good is nullified by the massive corruption and the brutality of his martial law regime. This is known not only in our country but internationally, and no matter how much his champions strive to remove this stigma, they cannot because the whole world knows it.
We need not speculate if the United States was involved with his staying power or his ouster. The big powers, China included, always interfere with the destiny of other countries, particularly the weak. This to preserve their hegemony and to enlarge their markets and sources of raw materials. Always keep this in mind as the rationale for the origins of war. But the big powers can do little when countries are strong, their people unified.
How, for instance, did Cuba survive American overt incursions? The Cubans did because their leader, Fidel Castro, was credible. How did tiny Vietnam humble the United States, the world’s most powerful country, in the Vietnam War? Ho Chi Minh, the Vietnamese leader, too, was credible. More than anything he personified Vietnamese nationalism.
It was not communism that the United States fought against in Vietnam. It was nationalism – the strongest element that binds a people, the sturdiest bastion for survival that, alas, is woefully absent in this country.
How can we possess it? Imbibe it in our very blood, the air we breathe?
We must know our history, nurture our memory, and love this ravaged homeland.
OUR HISTORY DEFINES US, confirms us as a heroic people, but we have to look at ourselves and our past honestly, realize that we want a strong leader who is willing to make sacrifices, and this we should ask of ourselves as well. We must always beware, however, of leaders who claim kinship with the poor but whose actions deny that claim.
Looking back, Marcos had every good reason to declare martial law. But he failed to use that power to modernize this country. He was going to create a New Society and was surrounded by our finest technocrats. He grabbed power when we were next to Japan in prosperity; we were then in the take-off stage. His rhetoric was democratic even noble, but alas, he was crippled by his ego, by insatiable greed, and lust for power.
So now, we seem to be on the verge of the same old scenario. The emerging portents are ominous. I recall us welcoming Marcos who was then vastly popular with a landslide election victory. Will history repeat itself?
To conclude: The grievous problems that plague our people were already evident more than a hundred years ago and were described by the ilustrados, most of all by Rizal. How do we learn from history?
How do we create a just society and abolish poverty? We have arable land three times that of Japan. How can we use this to produce enough food for our people?
The vast wealth in this country – how do we use it to develop the economy? Our very rich must undergo tremendous change, transform themselves from landlords to producers and industrialists. We are now more than a hundred million – a mass market and at the same time a vast labor pool.
How do we bring back the thousands of talented Filipinos abroad?
At the bottom of all these and perhaps the most important question for us all -- how do we truly love this motherland sincerely enough to sacrifice for her?
First published in The Philippine Star, June 8, 2019
All of us know how finite life is, that nothing in this world really lasts. But though this knowledge is with us every moment of our lives, we often fight it because it is very difficult to let go.
Many politicians, used to privilege and power, can’t let go; if they lose an election, it is almost always because they were “cheated.” Political power is an aphrodisiac, an addiction, so they cling to it to their dying day. Women – many of them cling to a past when they were beautiful, their faces unlined with wrinkles. And the rich dream of bringing their wealth to the grave but that narrow pit cannot contain all their loot or their corpulent corpses which turn to dust.
There are those rare individuals who lead quiet, useful lives, moral lives even, who should linger a little longer, not for themselves but for others. But they let go quietly, silently. I knew three of them.
My father-in-law, Antonio Jovellanos, was a government doctor who, for much of his life, worked with lepers. He was on call day and night, not only for hospital patients but also for the people of the surrounding barrios. He reached his patients on foot or horseback. He encountered ignorance, superstition, and crushing poverty. He was often paid with chickens and eggs, which he would always decline.
He belonged to a middle-class Ermita family. His father, Cesareo, was an Ateneo classmate of Rizal, who used to visit the Jovellanos home in Padre Faura, the same place where my bookshop now stands. As recounted by my father-in-law, Rizal was very judicious. He was already being watched by the Spaniards as a filibuster and he didn’t want to jeopardize his friend so they would go somewhere else to talk.
MY FATHER-IN-LAW was quiet and appeared distant, but was actually very warm. He read a lot, particularly history. He resented me at first because I eloped with his daughter, but we eventually made peace, well enough for him to agree with my politics. It was pleasurable talking with him because he was insightful. With his background, he would often trace how perverse family relationships and character leads to social decay.
Like his oldest brother, Jose, parish priest of Tondo, and his sister, Bernarda, who was a Benedictine nun, he was almost saintly. He was the epitome of hard work and honesty. He was a great influence in my life. Once, he came upon my wealthy acquaintances in the bookshop. After they left, he asked about them and my revolution which would sweep them away; he was aware of moral dilemmas. My reply was ambiguous. I said, I’ll cross the river when I reach it. He died without a fortune other than the fondness and respect that I and the others who knew him kept in our hearts.
When President Elpidio Quirino retired in Novaliches, I visited him a few times. His retirement home was on the way to Tala, where the girl who became my wife was staying with her parents. President Quirino was magnanimity personified. He was a great President, honest, with a stern eye to the future. It was he who planned our economic recovery and development with the assistance of superb technocrats like the late Cornelio Balmaceda.
He was, however, portrayed as weak. It was a very wrong perception – he was very strong but was the traditional Filipino patrician, well-mannered, without bombast. He did not have the common touch of Ramon Magsaysay, the man he selected to be his Defense Minister to fight the Huks.
He had a land reform program, his answer to the Huk demand for agrarian reform, which Magsaysay followed. He was so charitable, he forgave the Japanese who massacred his family. He said to bear anger is to bear a heavy and useless burden. I always addressed him as “Apo,” the Ilokano term for someone venerable or in authority. And as Apo, he let go of that primal anger and declined the arrogance of those who hold power.
I was out of the country when Luis Taruc, the heroic guerrilla and Huk leader, died. I watched the old rebel grow old, and saw how much he loved his people and how hard he worked for them. He even accepted the Marcos dictatorship so he could get assistance for them in return. To the very end, he was vocal in stating and reiterating his socialist faith, that he was never a communist. His communist critics and colleagues reproached him for that: he fought with the communists, therefore he was one of them.
HE LIVED SIMPLY, FRUGALLY, and let go the many opportunities that would have improved his income. He was vocal and emphatic about what he believed in – democracy, social justice, land reform. He might have sounded like a broken record, but he meant every word. At one time, we visited a poor village where he had followers. They crowded around him, some of them weeping. He said, I have no more tears to shed.
I cite these three men who I admire very much because to my mind, they illustrate the fortitude and truthfulness that make ordinary existence more meaningful. Many of us strive to live morally, but human as we are, we commit mistakes, we sin, and are mortified.
We try to be honest with ourselves so we can be true to others and find that we are sometimes “persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” How true what Rizal said, that it’s the honest man who has enemies. Jesus’ sermon on the mount should comfort us, but even if it doesn’t, we must remember that tattered cliché, virtue is its own reward.
It is really difficult to let go when we have a job left undone, an unfinished novel, a debt unpaid, or we are engaged in an effort that fulfills us and lifts our spirit. But time is running out. So then, let go gladly, peacefully even, but never, ever let go of the dream.
First published in The Philippine Star, June 1, 2019
In November 1987, I attended a seminar on Asian security in Bangkok, courtesy of the Ramon Magsaysay Memorial Foundation. For three days we discussed the problems affecting peace in the region.
To my left sat the eminent Henry Kissinger of the United States and to my right was Goh Keng Swee, Singapore's economic architect. I listened to these two men and the other participants expound on their ideas about how peace in Asia and elsewhere can be nurtured.
Kissinger was obsessed with power and how it should be used, saying that only powerful nations are secure. It was Goh Keng Swee from miniscule Singapore who empathized with the weak Asian countries and their aspirations for the good life.
In adhering closely to the power principle, North Korea's Kim Il Sung is therefore correct; he had achieved parity with the world's most powerful nations by possessing nuclear weapons with a delivery system.
Goh Keng Swee argued for political stability as a major requirement for the survival of the state. He explained to me the fragility of the prosperity of Singapore and why it was necessary to enforce strict discipline, to keep away from the rambunctious freedom such as what we have in the Philippines.
All the discussions at that meeting now come to mind as recently there have been discussions in media and academe on the future of peace, particularly in Southeast Asia, why ASEAN is relevant, and why we must all look at the new bully on the block -- China -- with apprehension and, perhaps, with understanding as well.
WE MUST LOOK AT CHINA from the perspective of the Chinese, its four millennia of continuous civilization, and its brief humiliation by the imperial powers. All the countries of Southeast Asia are heirs to the cultural legacy of Asia, much of it Chinese. With the exception of Singapore, all are struggling with economic problems exacerbated by divisive diversities, often tribal in nature. All are in great need of economic infrastructure, as well as a stable and competent government.
Given this condition, they are often competitors in trade rather than partners. Being poor and often divided, they were easy prey to the imperial West and now to China. In these countries, China already has an elite presence through its ethnic immigrants who, in almost all instances, control the national economy.
In the Philippines, for instance, 70 percent of the economy is effectively in the hands of ethnic Chinese. It is well-acknowledged that China is enforcing an important role for its overseas Chinese in influencing national opinion and promoting China’s global ambitions.
As Malaysia's Prime Minister Mohammad Mahathir defines it, China is practicing a new form of colonialism. This is perhaps inevitable. And as the law of nations succinctly states, if a country is strong, it expands and looks for raw materials. If a country is weak, it contracts and looks for markets.
At the moment, China's economy has apparently slowed down. But China has already saved billions of dollars in its ascendancy and it must use that vast capital to further its reach and influence. It has to use it imaginatively: its Belt and Road program is a major attempt to gird the globe with its financial web. This includes us, our ASEAN, a most fertile region in need of investments in infrastructure projects.
The Philippines, with its very cooperative president, is easy to penetrate and exploit. And so today, a massive influx not only of Chinese money but of Chinese nationals are already in place. The Chinese flood has inundated the country and there is no stopping it.
HERE WE ARE, TRYING VERY HARD to shake off the crippling American influence and China, with its intransigence, is pushing us to welcome the American embrace. The reality in Asia, and particularly in the South China Sea, is that only the United States can counteract China's imperial ambition. And China knows this and is responding with increasing bellicosity.
It is ideal for us to be neutral in this United States-China contest but we cannot do this for the simple reason that we have an alliance with the U.S. And also because Filipinos trust America more than China.
I don’t think we can rely on the United States with great certitude. It is up to us to develop our own defense potential, not so much with a bigger Armed Forces, but to infuse in ourselves a sense of nation that will unite and strengthen us in our defense of our sovereignty, knowing that if we lose it, we can never regain it.
On those few occasions that I was asked to speak before the National Defense College, I have been asked how culture can contribute to security. It is easy to quantify a country's defense capability, but not its spirit. As the late Russian dictator asked, how many divisions does the Pope have. What art and culture does is endow a people with pride, a strong sense of nation and patriotism to stand for their country, even die for her. The Spartans of ancient Greece, for instance, built their society on a martial foundation; they trained their youth in the arts of war and gave them the valor and the skills with which they fought their enemies.
In the end, a nation's security is premised on several important factors -- the first is the national interest, its survival. Having established this, that nation must then be very precise in identifying the enemies that threaten its survival. And, finally, that nation must be able to look at itself honestly and realize whether or not it has the determination, meaning the patriotism and the unity, to protect its national interest.
It is extremely important that a people or a nation, particularly its leaders, must have the answers to these questions. Otherwise, it will be easy prey to the machinations of its enemies to colonize it or transform it into a failed state.
First published in The Philippine Star: https://www.philstar.com/opinion/2019/05/25/1920755/our-national-insecurity
Ask any of the new college graduates about their plans for their future, and you will find that most of them want to leave this country. They do not see their future here. I had the same feeling way back.
When Marcos declared Martial Law in 1972, I was not allowed to travel. I lost my journal Solidarity and, now censored, I lost income as a publisher, and was also harassed with fictitious lawsuits. But I should not complain too much. What I suffered was trivial compared to those who were imprisoned, tortured, and killed.
When I finally got my passport back in 1976, I went to the United States to look for a job. At the time, several Filipino expats in the United States were actively opposing Marcos. I was invited to one of their meetings in the Chicago area. I was amazed at the vociferousness of the meeting and I found it ironic and even comic -- these Filipinos shouting revolution in the comfort and safety of the United States.
In Washington, I saw Raul Manglapus, an old friend, who was in Tokyo when Marcos declared martial law. From there, he went to the United States knowing that, like many of his colleagues, he would have been arrested and jailed had he returned to Manila. He was anxious to go back to Manila but I said he was safer in the United States.
I looked up acquaintances in Washington and found out that Pat Kelly, the secretary of Henry Miller when he was Public Affairs counselor in Manila, was now the wife of General Edward Lansdale. I was asked to give a talk to Americans who had served in the Philippines.
They were anxious to know what it was like under Marcos, and I told them how it was to live under a dictatorship, that Marcos’s best supporter in the United States was President Reagan himself. They told me there were those in the State Department, however, who knew the score. When I was through speaking, General Lansdale came up to me and said affectionately, Frankie, you are not leaving the Philippines. You are going back.
And, indeed, I did go back. I walked away from two jobs and from a future with my family in either Washington or New York. I don’t want to call myself a patriot for returning to my home country. That was farthest from my mind. I recalled the two years I was with the Colombo Plan in Ceylon and my brief stint with the Asia Magazine in Hong Kong. In these places where I had the most comfortable job, I had not produced a single story. So back to Manila I went to suffer Marcos and witness his end, and to see the promise of EDSA I squandered and lost.
Marcos did something very important for us. He drew a very clear line for the country's cultural workers and identified those who were on the side of freedom and those who were not. For those of us who opposed Marcos, the choice was very difficult and hazardous. We felt so abandoned and helpless and, thank God, we had an organization like PEN to bond us together and help us survive. We also had visits by writers who sympathized with us and who understood our plight. Among them Mochtar Lubis, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Norman Mailer, who expressed admiration for all the Russians who defied their government. He said he would have conformed because he liked his comforts.
When I reached seventy, I decided to forgive all those who had done me wrong. It was a lifting experience, as I freed myself from a heavy, almost unbearable burden. It filled me with peace. I told a good friend, the writer Teddy Benigno, and he said I should not have done this for those who did us wrong would be unburdened of their guilt.
When she was on her deathbed, Kerima Polotan sent one of her daughters to me. She wanted to see me. Kerima became an aide to Imelda Marcos, and her husband became Marcos’s executive secretary. He was the old friend who put me on the black list.
It is difficult to love this country – thus lamented a young lawyer who was considering a future in politics. And, indeed, looking closely at this country and us Filipinos, how can anyone love this country? Look at the result of the senatorial elections last week, how unthinking Filipinos elected nincompoops. Look at how Filipinos themselves are their own worst enemies, look at them despoil their country, and betray and kill one another. Indeed, there are many good reasons why Filipinos today are leaving; it is not just for economic reasons for there are comfortable middle-class Filipinos who have joined this diaspora.
It is difficult to love this country. But it is easier to do so if we think of her as our motherland, the way our mothers nurtured us, embraced us, and gave us their warmth, their loyalty, and caring. Perhaps, it was this realization that made me return to a fate closely entwined with the land where I was born.
Every so often, I meet someone who has returned "to give back." Indeed, some have come back as masochists perhaps, to share the agony of their countrymen. As romantics, they take pride in their history of valor, they live with nostalgia, and see reason for optimism.
And so I go to the old hometown often, to look at immemorial vistas of well-cared fields and a people made enduring by work. I go there to listen to a language to which I was born but which I don’t really use anymore. Listening to it, I wallow in memory and I feel alive, keen to the sound of living, of memories of the past that I have read about which I know are now entwined with every fiber of my being as a writer who belongs to this unhappy country.
First published in The Philippine Star, May 18, 2019
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