Many, many years back, when I first saw the Boxer Codex at the Newberry Library in Chicago, I was very pleased and relieved. The Boxer Codex is the earliest written and illustrated record of our people. They were elegantly dressed, with footwear, jewelry and bladed weapons — not the illiterate savages that some of our colonizers had pictured us.
Five hundred years ago, as the Spaniards found out, we were already a divided people fighting one another. And today that divide still exists. We are still fighting one another, sometimes as ferociously as our ancestors had.
We Filipinos are also fond of self-flagellation that I sometimes think there is a streak of masochism in the Filipino character. This is particularly true of so many intelligent Filipinos. If they are asked about this country, they start with a long list of negatives, condemning their leaders, themselves, their history, their culture.
Sometimes such views are confirmed by perceptive observers like James Fallows, who more than thirty years ago wrote an essay about our “damaged culture,” about “a nation not only without nationalism but also without much national pride.”
Within the intellectual and academic community, the debate on this characterization of our culture continues until today. For instance, in the current tensions with China, there is a derisive conclusion that there is not enough nationalism in this country. Where are the radicals who demonstrated in front of the American Embassy, Congress, Malacañang?
I SOMETIMES TALK with foreigners who have had experience in this country and can look at us with great objectivity. They agree that our elites have to change. But the great difficulty of Filipinos confronting their own elite is not only because the elites are brown like ourselves but because they are “very nice people.”
Indeed so many of these foreigners find it so easy to break into Philippine society, from the bottom to the very top, because Filipinos are so hospitable. This can be a virtue but it can also be the door to exploitation.
So many journalists who have covered the Philippines for decades have spoken warmly of us. One of them is Greg Sheridan of Australia. I asked him why.
He said he had covered many countries, particularly in Southeast Asia. At the conclusion of the Vietnam War in 1975, many Vietnamese were expelled in old rusting boats. These refugees were denied entry by all countries. It was only the Philippines, poor as it was, who welcomed them.
The late Robert Shaplen of The New Yorker wrote perceptively of the Philippines, and identified with this country. He first came here with the American Liberation Army in 1945. He was also at EDSA I. Like so many Filipinos at that happiest of events, he was in tears. He said we Filipinos are resilient; we will survive disasters like Marcos.
WAY BACK IN THE 1960s, I read the bestseller, The Italians, by Luigi Barzini. I was struck by how similar the Italians are to us. I had since then made Italian friends, among them Tiziano Terzani, the Asia correspondent of Der Spiegel. Tiziano believed in our faith healers. The Philippines, he said, is blessed with miracles.
Then there is the Jesuit, Hector Mauri. When the Jesuits were expelled from China in 1949, he came to the Philippines and chose to work with the sugar workers in Negros, who were the most exploited agricultural workers. Once he told me that he preferred working with the communists in Negros. He said they were sincere and got things done.
I remember an old Malaysian friend, Ismail Hussein, who told me he envied us because we are a heroic people. Malaysia got its independence on a silver platter; we fought the Spaniards, the Japanese, and the Americans to be free.
Indonesian writer Mochtar Lubis recalled how, during their revolution, they were inspired by Rizal’s Mi Ultimo Adios. It was translated into Bahasa by Rosihan Anwar. And so today, there are some Indonesians named Rizal.
When he was martyred at 35, our national hero was a novelist, a poet, a scholar, a sculptor, and a medical doctor. What country in Asia has produced a man like him?
Once, on a flight to Europe, I sat beside a Boeing engineer. He was going to Teheran, and when he found out I was Filipino, he sang the praises of the Filipino technicians at Boeing. He said, if not for them, Iran Air would not take off.
And so I look back at our revolutions that failed, and at our dismal leaders. Marcos, Duterte – they are all minor incidents in our history.
The French poet, Amina Said, translated my Rosales Saga and also my novel, Viajero, which she considers my best work. Viajero is about our history, long before the Spaniards came. It is a story of the Filipino as traveler, in search of himself and of freedom.
It is the story of our people building cities abroad, as professionals and as menials. It is also a record of past rebellions and of our tenacity in our search for truth, justice. And so the Filipino today is all over the world, finding his identity.
What does history tell us? Asia’s two great religions, Hinduism and Buddhism, did not take root on our soil. We would have been Islamized if Christianity had arrived later. As Christians then we are heirs to the Christian and Western tradition – this is the core of our identity.
We are a very young nation striving to preserve our republic – the first established in Asia. We are also heirs to a revolutionary tradition.
All the problems of growing up bedevil us now. They are sometimes compounded by difficulties beyond our control. But we have shown unity in our aspiration for freedom and justice. Previous generations have shed blood for the survival of this republic. We will perhaps continue to suffer for it, but as our history has shown we are a people that endures and prevails.
First published in The Philippine Star, July 28, 2019