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Biography of Nick Joaquín (1917-2004)

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http://www.rmaf.org.ph/Awardees/Biography/BiographyJoaquinNic.htm

Nicomedes "Nick" Joaquín

This is the best biography of Nick that I’ve encountered so far…

The 1996 Ramón Magsaysay Award for Journalism, Literature and Creative Communication Arts

BIOGRAPHY of Nick Joaquín
Resil B. Mojares

He was the greatest Filipino writer of his generation. Over six decades and a half, he produced a body of work unmatched in richness and range by any of his contemporaries. Living a life wholly devoted to the craft of conjuring a world through words, he was the writer’s writer. In the passion with which he embraced his country’s manifold being, he was his people’s writer as well.

Nick Joaquín was born in the old district of Pacò in Manila, Philippines, on September 15, 1917, the feast day of Saint Nicomedes, a protomartyr of Rome, after whom he took his baptismal name. He was born to a home deeply Catholic, educated, and prosperous. His father, Leocadio Joaquín, was a person of some prominence. Leocadio was a procurador (attorney) in the Court of First Instance of Laguna, where he met and married his first wife, at the time of the Philippine Revolution. He shortly joined the insurrection, had the rank of colonel, and was wounded in action. When the hostilities ceased and the country came under American rule, he built a successful practice in law. Around 1906, after the death of his first wife, he married Salomé Márquez, Nick’s mother. A friend of General Emilio Aguinaldo, Leocadio was a popular lawyer in Manila and the Southern Tagalog provinces. He was unsuccessful however when he made a bid for a seat in the Philippine Assembly representing Laguna.

Nick Joaquín’s mother was a pretty, well-read woman of her time who had studied in a teacher-training institute during the Spanish period. Though still in her teens when the United States took possession of the Philippines, she was among the first to be trained by the Americans in English, a language she taught in a Manila public school before she left teaching after her marriage.

Leocadio and Salomé built a genteel, privileged home where Spanish was spoken, the family went to church regularly, had outings in the family’s huge European car (one of the first Renaults in the city), and the children were tutored in Spanish and piano. Salomé (“who sings beautiful melodies and writes with an exquisite hand,” recalls a family member) encouraged in her children an interest in the arts. There were ten children in the family, eight boys and two girls, with Nick as the fifth child. The Joaquín home on Herrán Street in Pacò was a large section of a two-story residential-commercial building —the first such building in Pacò— that Leocadio had built and from which the family drew a handsome income from rentals. In this home the young Nick had “an extremely happy childhood.”

Leocadio Joaquín, however, lost the family fortune in an investment in a pioneering oil exploration project somewhere in the Visayas in the late 1920s. The family had to move out of Herrán to a rented house in Pásay. Leocadio’s death not long after, when Nick was only around twelve years old, was a turning point in the life of the family.

Reticent about his private life, Nick Joaquín revealed little about his father. In the manner of fathers of his time, Leocadio must have been a presence both distant and dominant. He was already an accomplished man when Nick was born. One has a glimpse of him in the character of the proud Doctor Chávez in Joaquín’s short story “After the Picnic,” the father who lives by a strict patriarchal code and yet is all at once remote, vulnerable, and sympathetic. In an early poem, Joaquín vaguely alluded to what in his father was somehow beyond reach (“the patriot life and the failed politician buried with the first wife”). Yet he mourned the void his father’s death left: “One froze at the graveside in December’s cold, / childhood stashed with the bier. Oh, afterwards / was no time to be young, until one was old.”

The young Joaquín dropped out of school. He had attended Pacò Elementary School and had three years of secondary education in Mapa High School but was too intellectually restless to be confined in a classroom. Among other changes, he was unable to pursue the religious vocation that his strictly Catholic family had envisioned to be his future. Joaquín himself confessed that he always had the vocation for the religious life and would have entered a seminary if it were not for his father’s death.

After he left school, Joaquín worked as a mozo (boy apprentice) in a bakery in Pásay and then as a printer’s devil in the composing department of the Tribune, of the TVT (Tribune-Vanguardia-Taliba) publishing company, which had its offices on F. Torres Street in Manila’s Santa Cruz district. This got him started on what would be a lifelong association with the world of print.

Through this time he pursued a passion for reading. Sarah K. Joaquín, Nick’s sister-in-law, recounts that in his teens Nick had a “rabid and insane love for books.” He would hold a book with one hand and read while polishing with a coconut husk the floor with his feet. He would walk down a street, on an errand to buy the family’s meal, with a dinner pail in one hand and an open book in the other.

Both his parents had encouraged his interest in books. When he was around ten, his father got him a borrower’s card at the National Library (then in the basement of the Legislative Building in Luneta) and there he discovered Bambi and Heidi and the novels of Stevenson, Dumas, and Dickens (David Copperfield was his great favorite). He explored his father’s library and the bookstores of Carriedo in downtown Manila. He was voracious, reading practically everything that caught his fancy, from the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay and Vachel Lindsay to the stories of Anton Chekhov, to the novels of Dostoyevsky, D. H. Lawrence, and Willa Cather. He read American magazines (Saturday Evening Post, Cosmopolitan, Harper’s Magazine) and discovered the fiction of Booth Tarkington, Somerset Maugham, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway.

Joaquín’s choice of early readings was not exceptional. Joaquín and other writers of his generation who were schooled in the American era discovered Dostoyevsky and Hemingway before they did such Tagalog writers as Lope K. Santos and Rosauro Almario. Yet, it can be said that Joaquín never really lost his sense of where he was. He read Manila’s English-language newspapers and magazines for what Filipinos themselves were writing. (He had read the José Rizal novels in the Charles Derbyshire translation before he was thirteen, Joaquín said.) He always had a strong sense of place, a virtue that was to become a hallmark of his body of work. “When I started writing in the late 1930s,” he would recall many years later, “I was aware enough of my milieu to know that it was missing from our writing in English. The Manila I had been born into and had grown up in had yet to appear in our English fiction, although that fiction was mostly written in Manila and about Manila.”

His first short story dealt with the vaudeville of Manila, “The Sorrows of Vaudeville,” and was published in Sunday Tribune Magazine in 1937. (The editors changed its title to “Behind Tinsel and Grease.”) Earlier, in 1934, he published his first poem in English, a piece about Don Quixote. The story is told that when this poem appeared in the Tribune, Serafín Lanot, the Tribune’s poetry editor, liked the poem very much and went to congratulate the poet when he came to collect his fee, but the shy and elusive Joaquín ran away.

Very early, Joaquín was set on crafting his own voice. Writing in 1985 on his early years as a writer, he said that it appeared to him in the 1930s that both an American language and an American education had distanced Filipino writers in English from their immediate surroundings. “These young writers could only see what the American language saw.” It was “modern” to snub anything that wore the name of tradition and, for the boys and girls who trooped to the American-instituted schools, Philippine history began with Commodore Dewey and the Battle of Manila Bay. “The result was a fiction so strictly contemporary that both the authors and their characters seemed to be, as I put it once, ‘without grandfathers.’” He recalled: “I realize now that what impelled me to start writing was a desire to bring in the perspective, to bring in the grandfathers, to manifest roots.”

This was Nick Joaquín recalling in 1985 what it was like in the 1930s. Back then, the young Joaquín was just beginning to find his way into a literary life. He was gaining notice as a promising writer, publishing between 1934 and 1941 a few stories and over a dozen poems in the Herald Mid-Week Magazine and the Sunday Tribune Magazine. The literary scene was vibrant in the Commonwealth years, as writers and critics debated the role and direction of Philippine writing and formed feuding groups such as the Philippine Writers League and the Veronicans. Joaquín stood at the periphery of this scene. He probably had little time to be too reflective. He was already trying to fend for himself while quite young. He was also growing into a world that was marching toward the cataclysm of a world war.

The period of the Japanese occupation was a difficult time for the Joaquíns who, at this time, had moved from Pásay to a house on Arlegui Street in the historic San Miguel district of Manila, where Malacañang Palace is located. Like other residents in the enemy-occupied city, Joaquín scavenged for work to help support the family. The Japanese had closed down the Tribune and other publications at the onset of the occupation. Joaquín worked as a port stevedore, factory watchman, rig driver, road worker, and buy-and-sell salesman. Seeing corpses on the street, working for a wage in rice, demeaned by fear and poverty, Joaquín detested the war. He later said in an interview that the experience of the war so drained both his body and spirit that when it was over, he was filled with the desire to leave the country and go somewhere far. He dreamed of pursuing a religious vocation by going to a monastery in Spain or somewhere in Europe, “somewhere where you could clean up.”

Through the war years, he continued writing when and where he could. He finished “The Woman Who Felt Like Lazarus,” a story about an aging vaudeville star, and the essay “La Naval de Manila.” Both appeared in the wartime English-language journal Philippine Review in 1943. A monthly published by the Manila Sinbun-sya and edited by Vicente Albano Pacis and Francisco Icasiano, the Review also published Joaquín’s story “It Was Later Than We Thought” (1943) and his translation of Rizal’s Mi Ultimo Adios (1944). Readers were beginning to take notice. He cultivated a persona inaccessible and mysterious. When he was asked to fill up a biographical form for the Review, he simply wrote down: “25 years old, salesman.”

“La Naval de Manila” tells of a Manila religious celebration built on the tradition that the Blessed Virgin had miraculously intervened in the Spanish victory over a Dutch invasion fleet in 1646. Already it sets forth a major theme Joaquín would develop in the years ahead: that the Filipino nation was formed in the matrix of Spanish colonialism and that it was important for Filipinos to appreciate their Spanish past. He wrote: “The content of our national destiny is ours to create, but the basic form, the temper, the physiognomy, Spain created for us.” The article triggered an angry response in a subsequent issue of the Review from Federico Mañgahas, then a leading intellectual, who testily inquired why the Review was “building up” this young writer who would have readers believe that precolonial Philippine society was just a primeval “drift of totem-and-taboo tribes” and that Catholic saints can be the country’s unifying national symbols. Joaquín declined to reply but he had raised an issue that would continue to be debated after the war.

After the Americans liberated Manila in February–April 1945, Joaquín worked as a stage manager for his sister-in-law’s acting troupe and dreamed of getting away. In the meantime, he continued writing and publishing. He obviously did not sleepwalk through the years of the war but was writing out stories in his head. In heady years right after the war, he published in rapid succession such stories as “Summer Solstice,” “May Day Eve,” and “Guardia de Honor.” These stories have become Nick Joaquín’s signature stories and classics in Philippine writing in English.

The opportunity to leave the country came in 1947 when he was accepted as a novice at Saint Albert’s College, a Dominican monastery in Hong Kong. The story is told that the Dominicans in Manila were so impressed by his “La Naval de Manila” that they offered him a scholarship to Saint Albert’s and had the Dominican-run University of Santo Tomás award him an honorary Associate in Arts certificate so he would qualify. His stay at Saint Albert’s schooled him in Latin and the classics. He enjoyed the pleasant diversions of the scenic port city and the occasional company of his brother Porfirio (Ping) who was in Hong Kong on a stint as a jazz musician. It seemed, however, that he was too restless for life in a monastery. He stayed less than two years and returned to Manila.

Back in the Philippines in 1950, he joined the country’s leading magazine, Philippines Free Press, working as a proofreader, copywriter, and then member of the staff. At this time, Free Press was so widely circulated across the country and so dominant a medium for political reportage and creative writing, it was called “the Bible of the Filipinos.” Practically all middle-class homes in the country had a copy of the magazine.

Joaquín’s Free Press years established him as a leading public figure in Philippine letters. In its pages appeared the stories and essays that made him known to a wide national audience. The publication of Prose and Poems (1952), a collection of short stories, poems, a novella, and a play, cemented his reputation as an original voice in Philippine literature. He mined a lode of local experience that no one had quite dealt with in the way he did. He summoned ancient rites and legends, evoked a Filipino Christianity at once mystical and profane, and dramatized generational conflicts in a modern society that had not quite come to terms with its past. His was a vision that ranged through a large expanse of history in an English so full-bodied and a style sensuous and sure.

In 1955, his first play, A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino: An Elegy in Three Scenes, was premiered on stage at the Aurora Gardens in Intramuros, Manila, by the Barangay Theater Guild. He had written the play sometime around 1950 upon the urgings of Sarah Joaquín, who was active in Manila’s theater circles. Though it had been published in Weekly Women’s Magazine and Prose and Poems in 1952 and had been aired on radio, the play was not staged until 1955. It proved to be an immense success. It was made into an English-language movie by the highly respected Filipino filmmaker Lamberto V. Avellana in 1965, translated into Tagalog, adapted in other forms, and staged hundreds of times. No Filipino play in English has been as popular.

Using the flashback device of a narrator who recalls the sad fate of a prewar family as he stands in the ruins of postwar Manila, the play sets itself not only in the divide of war but that of past and present in Philippine society. Tracing the disintegration of an old and proud family in the transition from past to present, Nick Joaquín explored what had been abiding themes in his writing across the years.

He did not see the premiere of the play since, in 1955, Joaquín left the country on a Rockefeller Foundation creative writing fellowship. The prestigious award took him to Spain, the United States, and (with a Eugene F. Saxton Fellowship from the publishers of Harper’s Magazine) Mexico. In this sojourn, which lasted more than two years, he worked on his first novel, The Woman Who Had Two Navels (1961), a short and early version of which had appeared in Prose and Poems. The Woman Who Had Two Navels is a many-layered and less-than-perfect novel that teases out universal antinomies of truth and falsehood, illusion and reality, past and present, and locates them in the context of the Filipino search for identity. Though Joaquín had been criticized for a romantic “nostalgia for the past,” this novel and his other works, including Portrait, showed that he looked at the past always with the consciousness of the need for engaging the present world in its own terms.

Joaquín enjoyed his travels. He traveled all over Spain, lived in Madrid and Mallorca, visited France, stayed a year in Manhattan, went on an American cross-country trip on a Greyhound bus, crossed the border to Laredo, and had fun exploring Mexico. Spain and Mexico fascinated him (“my kind of country,” he says). He would, in the years that followed, take trips to Cuba, Japan, China, Taiwan, and Australia. Yet he was clearly in his element in his homeland and in Manila, the city that has been his imagination’s favorite haunt.

From the time he rejoined Free Press in 1957 until he left it in 1970 (during which time he rose to be the magazine’s literary editor and associate editor), Joaquin was as prominent in his persona as Quijano de Manila (a pseudonym he adopted for his journalistic writings when he joined the Free Press in 1950) as he was the creative artist Nick Joaquín. He churned out an average of fifty feature articles a year during this period. He wrote with eloquence and verve on the most democratic range of subjects, from the arts and popular culture to history and current politics. He was a widely read chronicler of the times, original and provocative in his insights and energetic and compassionate in his embrace of local realities.

One of his contemporaries remarked: “Nick Joaquín the journalist has brought to the craft the sensibility and style of the literary artist, the perceptions of an astute student of the Filipino psyche, and the integrity and idealism of the man of conscience, and the result has been a class of journalism that is dramatic, insightful, memorable, and eminently readable.”

He raised journalistic reportage to an art form. In his crime stories—for example, “The House on Zapote Street” (1961) and “The Boy Who Wanted to Become Society’” (1961)—he deployed his narrative skills in producing gripping psychological thrillers rich in scene, incident, and character. More important, he turned what would otherwise be ordinary crime reports (e.g., a crime of passion in an unremarkable Makati suburban home or the poor boy who gets caught up in a teenage gang war) into priceless vignettes of Philippine social history.

As Free Press literary editor, he virtually presided over the country’s literary scene. Free Press was the standard in Philippine writing in English because of its wide circulation and Joaquín’s editorship. Its weekly publication of short stories and poems was avidly followed. Joaquin was generous in encouraging young writers and exerted an influence on writers not only in English but in the Philippine languages. In a Filipino generation that had seen outstanding fictionists (N. V. M. González, F. Sionil José, and others), he was fondly spoken of as primus inter pares.

Since he joined the Free Press, he had been a full-time writer. The only other “job” he took was an appointment to the Board of Censors for Motion Pictures, from 1961 to 1972, under both presidents Diosdado Macapagal and Ferdinand Marcos. He took the post because, in large part, he loved the movies and practically did no cutting or banning of films, believing in the intelligence and good sense of moviegoers. He described this stint: “I was non-censoring.”

Philippine society was going through a period of deepening social crisis. The high hopes engendered during the popular rule of Ramón Magsaysay began to dissipate after Magsaysay’s death in 1957, as corruption, factional politics, and economic crisis buffeted the administrations of presidents Carlos García, Diosdado Macapagal, and Ferdinand Marcos. The Vietnam War politicized the Filipino intelligentsia, the economy floundered, a new Communist Party was established in 1969, and a new wave of militant nationalism swept through such institutions as universities and the media.

In the highly charged days leading up to the declaration of martial law on September 21, 1972, Joaquin maintained his independence as an autonomous voice in Philippine media. He wrote articles that were current, stayed close to the events, and were deeply fired by liberal sentiments. In a time polarized by ideological conflict, he continued to speak in his own voice and not in those of others. This independence had always been a signal virtue of his writing career.

In the 1930s, when he started writing, he was already a writer apart. At a time when the United States was viewed as “the very measure of all goodness,” and “history” and “civilization” in the Philippines seemed to have begun with the advent of America, Joaquin invoked a deeper past. At a time when to be contemporary was to be “secular,” Joaquín evoked the country’s Christian tradition. At a time when “proletarian literature” was the “correct” line for young writers to follow, Joaquín was the skeptic who felt it was one more instance of local literary hierarchs’ “parroting the Americans, among whom ‘proletarian’ was then the latest buzzword.” He wrote: “I can see now that my start as a writer was a swimming against the current, a going against the grain.”

He had always been a writer engaged but apart. Part of the explanation resided in his character. Engaged in a public profession, with a very public name, he was a very private person. His reclusive character was formed early. In a rare, affectionate piece his sister-in-law Sarah Joaquín wrote about him in Philippine Review in 1943, she spoke of the young Nick as a modest and unassuming young man who was ill at ease with public praise and shied away from being interviewed or photographed (“he hadn’t had any taken for fifteen years”). Even then he lived his days according to certain well-loved rites. He loved going out on long walks (“a tall, thin fellow, a little slouched, walking in Intramuros, almost always hurriedly”), simply dressed, shoes worn out from a great deal of walking (which helped him cogitate), observing the street life of the city, making the rounds of churches. “He is the most religious fellow I know,” Sarah wrote. “Except when his work interferes, he receives Holy Communion everyday.” He was generous with friends and devoted to the family with whom, even in his teens, he shared what little money he earned.

A person of habit, he scribbled about himself many decades ago:

I have no hobbies, no degrees; belong to no party, club, or association;
and I like long walks; any kind of guinataan; Dickens and Booth Tarking-
ton; the old Garbo pictures; anything with Fred Astaire… the
Opus Dei

according to the Dominican rite… Jimmy Durante and Cole Porter tunes…
the Marx brothers; the
Brothers Karamazov; Carmen Miranda; Paul’s
Epistles and Mark’s; Piedmont cigarettes… my mother’s cooking…
playing tres-siete; praying the Rosary and the Officium Parvum… I don’t
like fish, sports, and having to dress up.

Though he cut the image of one gregarious with his loud, booming voice; his love for San Miguel beer (a product that turned him into an icon for Filipino beer drinkers); and his joy in belting out Cole Porter and Frank Sinatra songs in intimate gatherings in his favorite Manila cafés, he stuck close to the company of a few friends and hated making formal appearances in public. He grudgingly gave interviews and revealed such scant detail about his personal life that there are many gaps and contradictions in his published biographies. He was not above making mischief on unwitting interviewers by inventing stories about himself. He refused to give the exact date of his birth (May 4 and September 15 in 1917 have been cited) because, he said, he hated having people come around to celebrate his birthday.

He had zealously carved out private space in his home where he wrote reams in longhand or on a typewriter. Though he gave strangers the impression of someone careless and even dissolute, Joaquín was a very disciplined writer. He woke up early to read the newspapers, took breakfast, and, from 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 noon, retired to his library on the second floor of his house where no one was allowed to disturb him. In his clean and spare study, with books on shelves lining the walls and, in the center, a chair and a table with a manual typewriter, Nick did his work. From 1:00 to 3:00 p.m., he took a siesta and, often, his second bath of the day, and then from around 4:00 p.m. onward, he was out of the house to go to the editorial office or explore his favorite haunts in Manila.

The turbulent days of political activism, as the 1960s came to a close, did not leave this very private person unaffected. In 1970, he joined a labor union organized by the workers of Free Press and agreed to be its president. This was the first union to be organized in the sixty-two-year-old publishing company that was widely regarded as a beacon of libertarian ideas. Organized at a time when Manila was seething with civil unrest, the appearance of the union sparked a bitter fight in the company. When management cracked down on the union, Joaquín resigned. With Free Press editor-writers Gregorio C. Brillantes and José F. Lacaba, artist Danilo Dalena, and close to thirty personnel of the administrative and printing departments, Joaquín launched the weekly Asia-Philippines Leader in 1971 and served as its editor-in-chief. In the pages of the magazine he wrote a regular column, “This Week’s Jottings,” where he continued his trenchant commentaries on the Philippine scene.

Martial law closed down Philippine media, including Free Press and Asia-Philippines Leader. The Marcos government subsequently allowed the publication of a few favored periodicals controlled by the Marcoses and their cronies. Joaquín refused to contribute. Among many intellectuals, silence became a form of protest. Joaquín’s irrepressible pen, however, could not be stilled. “I was never silent during martial law,” Joaquín declared in an interview in 1980. “I’ve never been silent.” He continued to write, worked independently, and contributed to both the underground and aboveground alternative press, the small newspapers and news sheets that came to be referred to as the “mosquito press” during the martial-law period.

Ironically, there was probably no other time when there was as much publishing of Joaquín writings as in the 1970s. These publications showcased his boundless creativity and versatility. In 1977, the National Book Store started issuing popular compilations of his Free Press human-interest features and crime stories (Reportage on Lovers, Reportage on Crime) as well as articles on local icons of popular culture (Nora Aunor and Other Profiles, Ronnie Poe and Other Silhouettes, Amalia Fuentes and Other Etchings, Doveglion and Other Cameos, Gloria Díaz and Other Delineations, Joseph Estrada and Other Sketches). Such was his readership that, between 1979 and 1983, more collections of his journalistic articles were issued: Reportage on the Marcoses, Reportage on Politics, Language of the Street and Other Essays, and Manila: Sin City and Other Chronicles. A selection of his speeches and articles appeared in Discourses of the Devil’s Advocate and Other Controversies (1983). It is not disingenuous to say that such burst of publishing may have been fueled by a certain nostalgia for the colorful, rough-and-tumble years before martial law imposed an order of repression and dull conformism.

Mr. & Ms. Publishing published Nick Joaquín’s Almanac for Manileños (1979), a coffee-table book that turns the form of the old almanac into “a weather chart, a sanctoral, a zodiac guide, and a mini-encyclopedia on the world of the Manileño.” Almanac is a romp for a writer whose knowledge of the country’s capital city —from churches to brothels, politicians and criminals, fashions high and low, past and present— has not been matched by anyone. In 1978–1979, the same publisher also commissioned Joaquin’s children’s stories and modernized fairy tales and put them out as independent titles as well as in an anthology, Pop Stories for Groovy Kids. Some of these stories also appeared in a volume entitled Joaquinesquerie: Myth á la Mod (1983). He had been asked to write just one story in the beginning, but he so enjoyed doing it that more followed (“it’s like eating peanuts”). That this writer of metaphysical thrillers also had a deft hand writing for young readers is shown in his essays on Manila for young Manileños, Manila, My Manila (1990), and his retelling of the biography of José Rizal, Rizal in Saga: A Life for Student Fans (1996).

He translated Spanish works into English, something he had done intermittently for years. His most important in this field was The Complete Poems and Plays of José Rizal (1976). Nick also returned to theater. He adapted the stories “Three Generations” and “Summer Solstice” as the plays Fathers and Sons (1977) and Tatarín (1978), respectively. In 1976, he wrote The Beatas, the story of a seventeenth-century Filipino beguinage, a religious community of lay women, repressed by a male-dominated, colonial order. The subversive message of the play, in the particular context of martial rule, lent itself to a staging in Tagalog translation in the highly political campus of the University of the Philippines in 1978. These plays later appeared in the volume, Tropical Baroque: Four Manileño Theatricals, published in Manila in 1979 and in Australia in 1982.

In 1972, the University of Queensland Press in Australia published a new edition of his fiction under the title, Tropical Gothic. An important feature of this edition was the inclusion of three novellas that originally appeared in Free Press, “Cándido’s Apocalypse,” “Doña Jerónima,” and “The Order of Melkizedek.” These novellas are powerful, historically resonant narratives that probably best represent the inventiveness and depth of Joaquín as fictionist. They are among the most outstanding pieces of Philippine fiction that have been written.

He went back to writing poetry, something he had not done since 1965. El Camino Real and Other Rimes appeared in 1983 and Collected Verse, the author’s choice of thirty-three poems, was published in 1987. Ranging from light verse to long narrative pieces, these poems —robust, confident, expansive, elegant— are markers in the development of Philippine poetry. They demonstrate, says the poet-critic Gémino H. Abad, a level of achievement in which the Filipino is no longer writing in English but has indeed “wrought from English, having as it were colonized that language.”

That the Filipino writer wrote in English was a virtue that seemed self-evident when Joaquin started his career in the 1930s. English was the language of government, the schools, and the leading publications. It was, for young Filipinos, the language of modernity and the future. In the late 1960s, however, the use of the English language in such fields as education, literature, and publishing came under serious question as a Marxist-inspired nationalism sought to establish a radical, popular basis for the national culture. Those who wrote in English either switched languages or felt called upon to defend their use of a foreign tongue. Arguing out of his favorite thesis that the Filipino is enriched by his creative appropriation of new technologies, Joaquin extolled the fresh values of temper and sensibility that English had brought into the national literature. As for his own writings, Joaquin’s response to the issue was more blunt: “Whether it is in Tagalog or English, because I am Filipino, every single line I write is in Filipino.” In a more jocular vein, he had written about how the local milieu was irrevocably present in his works: “I tell my readers that the best compliment they can pay me is to say that they smell adobo and lechón when they read me. I was smelling adobo and lechon when I wrote me.”

In 1976, Nick Joaquín was named National Artist of the Philippines in the field of literature, the highest recognition given by the state for an artist in the country. Conferred in Manila on March 27, 1976, the award praised his works as “beacons in the racial landscape” and the author for his “rare excellence and significant contribution to literature.”

Joaquín had reservations about accepting an award conceived by the Marcos government as part of First Lady Imelda Marcos’s high-profile program of arts promotion in the country, but he decided to accept it on the advice of family and friends. He also felt the award would give him leverage to ask Malacañang Palace to release from prison José F. Lacaba, a close friend of his and one of the country’s best writers, who was imprisoned for his involvement in the anti-Marcos resistance. Lacaba was released in 1976.

Joaquín kept his distance from power, studiously resisting invitations to attend state functions in Malacañang Palace. At a ceremony on Mount Makiling, Laguna, attended by Mrs. Marcos, who had built on the fabled mountain site a National Arts Center, Joaquín delivered a speech in which he provocatively spoke of freedom and the artist. He was never again invited to address formal cultural occasions for the rest of the Marcos regime. He was too unpredictable to suit the pious pretensions of the martial-law government.

The fact that government had conferred on him the honor of National Artist did not prevent him from criticizing government. In 1982, he put himself at the forefront of a public demonstration to protest government’s closure of the oppositionist newspaper We Forum and the arrest and detention of its publisher and editors. The newspaper had just published a series of articles exposing Ferdinand Marcos’s fake war medals.

The street appearance was not characteristic of the man. It was in the field of writing that he engaged power. Joaquin was the provocateur who delighted in debunking what was politically and intellectually fashionable. One such “fashion” was the interest in the “ethnic” and “indigenous” during the Marcos era. A legitimate expression of post-Vietnam Filipino nationalism, the return to the “native” was appropriated by state nationalism during the martial-law period. In the attempt to clothe with legitimacy Marcos’s “experiment” in Philippine-style democracy (and authoritarianism) and blunt both the insurgent opposition to his rule and Western criticism of human-rights violations, the Marcos government appealed to “nationalism” based on an indigenous and Asian heritage. In the intellectual field, this found expression in many intersecting ways: the glorification of barangay democracy; the promotion of Tagalog as the national language and the downgrading of English writing; the “Filipinization” of scholarly disciplines; the romancing of the 1971 discovery of the allegedly Stone-Age Tasadays; and the state-sponsored Tadhanà project started in 1975, in which a group of Filipino historians wrote a “new history” of the Philippines under the name of Ferdinand Marcos.

Addressing this trend, Nick Joaquín wrote articles attacking nativism and the glorification of the indigenous and the ethnic. Describing the Filipino as a “work in progress” whose national identity is the dynamic product of the various cultural influences in his history (in particular, he stresses, the Spanish-Christian experience), he debunked the idea of a “pure” native culture and lamented the denigration of Western influence. A vigorous polemicist, he taunted the “new” nationalists with statements such as “Asia, before 1521, was conspicuous by its absence in Philippine culture” or “Those who want Philippine culture to be what it was 400 years ago are afflicted with the Dorian Gray illusion: the illusion that innocence can be frozen or that a personality can be kept from showing the effects on it of time, space, nature, society, the outside world.”

The terrain had changed but Joaquín was fighting a battle he had started to wage as early as the 1930s. Then he was reacting to an intellectual establishment that, infatuated with America, wanted to wean itself from the past much too quickly. Now he was responding to leaders and intellectuals who, desiring to break away from the West, were invoking a golden past he felt was not there. In the years of the Japanese occupation, he was writing against the grain when he wrote the seminal essay “La Naval de Manila.” Then he was responding (whether deliberately or not) to the trend, encouraged by the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere,” for Filipinos to return to their “Asian” and “Malayan” roots. Now, in the 1970s, he was interrogating the scapegoating of the West and the romancing of “Asianness.”

Polemical rather than academic, he simplified the terms of the debate, drew dividing lines much too sharply, and couched arguments in hyperbolic terms. He was impatient with the either/or rhetoric of indigenists and nationalists. “Why isn’t it enough to be just Filipino?” Quoting James Joyce, he declared of his own work: “This country and this people shaped me; I shall express myself as I am.” He was, as always, the writer apart but passionately engaged.

In A Question of Heroes: Essays in Criticism on Ten Key Figures of Philippine History (1977) and Culture and History: Occasional Notes on the Process of Philippine Becoming (1988), he showed himself an insightful historian and vigorous cultural critic. Addressing a general public rather than specialists, he said that it was his aim to “open up fresh viewpoints on the national process” by asking “those pesky questions which, though they seem so obvious, have somehow never been asked about our history and culture.”

In Question of Heroes, a series of articles on Filipino heroes that first appeared in the Free Press in the 1960s, he demystified the heroes associated with the birth of the nation in the late nineteenth century. He humanized them, thickened their lives with sharp and telling detail, and situated them in the living context of their times. The result was not just a critical reevaluation of historical figures but a coherent picture of a nation in formation. Culture and History offered a more varied fare of fifteen essays that developed Joaquin’s ideas on what he called “the process of Filipino becoming.” Underlying these ideas was an evolutionary and optimistic confidence in the Filipino capacity to invent himself out of the constraints and opportunities of his historical experience. Attacking the syndrome of shame over the colonial past and guilt over being “neither East nor West,” Joaquín celebrated hybridity. Attacking nativism and other forms of exclusionism, he said (quoting Oswald Spengler), “Historic is that which is, or has been, effective,” and he gloried in what the Filipino has and will become.

There are conceptual gaps in Joaquín’s view of Philippine history. He tended to be too dismissive of precolonial culture (even as it figured in his own fiction), overstressed the transformative role of technology, and was perhaps too apologetic of the Spanish and Christian influence in Philippine culture. There was no denying, however, the intelligent passion with which he embraced his people’s culture and history. Few in his time played as effective a role in the public discourse on the national culture.

The shaking loose of the structure of the martial-law regime after the assassination of Benigno Aquino Jr. in 1983, and the eventual collapse of the regime in the “People Power Revolution” of 1986, saw Nick Joaquín right in the public stream as the country’s premier chronicler of current history. A book that he started writing before martial law was declared in 1972, The Aquinos of Tarlac: An Essay on History as Three Generations, appeared in 1983. His chronicle of the People Power Revolution, The Quartet of the Tiger Moon, was published in 1986.

Twenty-two years after The Woman Who Had Two Navels, Joaquín came out with his second novel, Cave and Shadows (1983). He jokingly remarked at its appearance: “Now, I’ll be known as the man who has two novels.” Fervid and dense, Cave and Shadows was Joaquín’s “objective correlative” to the Crisis of ’72. Set in Manila in the steamy month of August 1972, just before the declaration of martial law, the novel weaves a plot around the discovery of a woman’s naked body in a cave in the suburbs of Manila. The search for answers to the mystery of the woman’s death becomes a metaphysical thriller in which past and present collide and reality is unhinged as a social order breaks down in division and revolution.

A deep fount of creative energy, Joaquín was a much sought-after biographer. From 1979 to 2000, he authored more than a dozen book-length biographies of prominent Filipinos, from artists and educators to business people and politicians. These include the biographies of diplomat Carlos Rómulo, senators Manuel Manahan and Salvador Laurel, technocrat Rafaél Salas, businessmen Jaime Ongpín and D. M. Guevara, artist Leonor Orosa Goquingco, educator Nicanor Reyes, civic leader Estefania Aldaba-Lim, and Jaime Cardinal Sin. He also wrote local and institutional histories—such as San Miguel de Manila: Memoirs of a Regal Parish (1990) and Hers, This Grove: The Story of Philippine Women’s University (1996)—and authored or edited diverse other volumes.

He was criticized for “writing too much,” producing commissioned biographies of uneven quality, and forsaking creative writing for journalism. While his Aquinos of Tarlac was a masterful interweaving of the life of a family and that of a nation, May Langit Din Ang Mahirap (1998), his biography of former Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim, seemed like a hurried, paste-up job. While his talent could be quite profligate, there was no mistaking the genuineness of his appetite for local life and drive to convert this to memorable form.

Nick Joaquín’s stature in his country is demonstrated by the numerous prizes he received for his literary and journalistic writings. His contributions to Philippine culture were acknowledged by the City of Manila with an Araw ng Maynila Award (1963), a Patnubay ng Sining at Kalinangan Award (1964), and a Diwa ng Lahi Award (1979). The national government conferred on him its highest cultural honors, the Republic Cultural Heritage Award (1961) and the title of National Artist of the Philippines (1976).

In 1996, he received the Ramón Magsaysay Award for Journalism, Literature, and Creative Communication Arts, the highest honor for a writer in Asia. The citation honored him for “exploring the mysteries of the Filipino body and soul in sixty inspired years as a writer.” Accepting the award on August 31, 1996, Joaquin did not look back on past achievements but relished the moment, saying that indeed the good wine has been reserved for last and “the best is yet to be.” This from a man who was about to turn eighty when he received the award.

In his 1996 Ramón Magsaysay Award lecture, Joaquín addressed what, he said, had troubled his critics as his “Jekyll/Hyde” personality as journalist and litterateur. He had never been the hothouse artist, he declared, and had always felt there was no subject not worthy of his attention. The practice of journalism nourished his populist sympathies. “Journalism trained me never, never to feel superior to whatever I was reporting, and always, always to respect an assignment, whether it was a basketball game, or a political campaign, or a fashion show, or a murder case, or a movie-star interview.” Journalism exercised his powers of storytelling. “Good reportage is telling it as it is but at the same time telling it new, telling it surprising, telling it significant.”

Though he largely played his life and career “by ear,” Joaquín relished how he had moved in the right directions. On the one hand, he could trace himself back to the times when Plato and Cervantes or the Arabian Nights and the Letters of Saint Paul were all “literature” and there were no fine distinctions as to which mode of writing was belle and not belle enough. On the other hand, he had foreshadowed current trends that had broken down the generic boundaries of fiction and nonfiction or “journalism” and “literature.”

With the mischievous glee of one who enjoyed what he was doing, he said that such Joaquín reportage as “House on Zapote Street” and “The Boy Who Wanted to Become ‘Society’” antedated the American “New Journalism” that writers such as Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, and Gore Vidal made famous. Moreover, the fiction that he wrote—from “May Day Eve” and “The Mass of St. Sylvester” to “Doña Jerónima” and “Cándido’s Apocalypse”—bodied forth “magic realism” long before the Latin American novelists made it fashionable.

While Nick Joaquín wrote in English, was published abroad, and had some of his works translated into foreign languages, he did not quite receive the high attention he deserved outside the Philippines. This was something probably of no great moment to Joaquín himself. He was firmly rooted in place and in active dialogue with his Filipino audience. This speaking to and about his people had always framed his writing life. Though he spoke from a specific location—writing in English out of Manila (he had not lived for any significant amount of time outside the capital)—his voice carried far among Filipinos.

In the Philippines, Nick Joaquín was a keeper of tradition and a maker of memory. He grew up in what he called an “Age of Innocence” in Philippine history, an era when Filipinos, seduced by the promise of America and modernity, distanced themselves from their Spanish colonial past and slipped into a kind of amnesia. He saw—having grown up in a home where his father told stories about the revolution and his mother encouraged a love for Spanish poetry—that it was his calling “to bring in the perspective, to bring in the grandfathers, to manifest roots.” In his writings, he traced a landscape haunted by the past—pagan rites in the shadows of the Christian church, legends of a woman in the cave, strange prophets roaming the countryside, grandfathers who seem like ghosts who have strayed into the present. He conjured a society stranded in the present and not quite whole because it had not come to terms with its past.

The problem of identity was central in Joaquín’s works. In an impressive body of literary, historical, and journalistic writings, Joaquín was a significant participant in the public discourse on “Filipino identity.” What marked the positions he took was his refusal of easy orthodoxies. An outsider to government, the political parties, and the universities, he kept his space to be an independent thinker on the issues confronting the nation. From the 1930s to until his death, he was consistent in his role as the critic of what passed for the politically “correct” of the day. In this manner, he opened up spaces for the Filipino to imagine himself in novel ways and act on this basis.

Nick Joaquín lived through eight decades of Philippine history and witnessed the slow, uneven, and often violent transformation of the nation—the American idyll of the prewar years, the violence and degradation of an enemy occupation, the Communist insurgency and the hard choices it confronted the Filipino with, the dark years of martial rule, the waxing and waning of hopes for a better nation. It is history that tempts many with despair. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Nick Joaquín, the writer, was that his was always the voice of a deep, inclusive, and compassionate optimism in the Filipino.

He had always—as Joaquín himself would say, quoting one of his favorite literary lines—raged, raged against the dying of the light. This was true not only of what he had written but how he had lived his life. When many of his contemporaries had long faded into the background, Joaquín continued to speak of his craft with the verve of a young writer. Well into his eighties, with close to sixty book titles to his name, he was working on more. He also continued to practice journalism. He wrote the regular columns “Small Beer” and “Jottings” for the Philippine Daily Inquirer and the Sunday Inquirer Magazine from 1988 to 1990; served as editor of Philippine Graphic magazine and publisher of its sister publication, Mirror Weekly, in 1990; and continued to contribute to various publications until his final days. When asked once if he ever intended to retire, Joaquín was said to have responded, with typical mischief, “I’m not retiring and I’m not resigned.”

NICK Joaquín lived in the city and country of his affections and continued to write until his death in April 2004 at the age of eighty-six.

*******

Culled from the Ramón Magsaysay Award Foundation website.

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La Naval de Johannesburg

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The World Cup fever may have already subsided, but I just couldn’t ignore one glaring trivia related to last month’s Spain-Netherlands tussle.

Only a few people today know that last month’s 19th FIFA World Cup™ wasn’t the first time that Spain faced and defeated the hardy Dutch boys. In World History, the Netherlands used to be a part of the huge Spanish Empire under King Charles V. The subjugation continued up to the reign of the king’s son, King Philip II (yep, we got our country’s name from him). During the revolt against Spain, the Dutch also sent their naval force to battle the Spaniards in another Spanish colony: the Philippines.

There were five great battles which occurred right here on our turf, mostly in 1646:

16 March — Five Dutch fleet attacked Isla de Mariveles (near Isla de Corregidor). There were only two Spanish galleons at that time, but, through the intercession of the Holy Virgin Mary (thanks to the frightened crew’s recitation of the Holy Rosary, as written by chroniclers during the said event), they were able to ward off the Dutch invaders.
29 July — The Dutch returned with seven large vessels and almost a thousand men. The battle, fought in the waters between Romblón and Marinduque, was said to be one of the bloodiest naval battles during that time, lasting from seven in the evening up to four in the morning. Again, the Dutch lost the battle.
31 July — The escaping Dutch were pursued by both Spaniards and Filipinos, catching up with them in the waters of Mindoro. Much more damage were inflicted on the supposedly battle-ready Dutch.
15 September — In Manila, one more Dutch squadron remained. The Spanish galleons who figured in the preceding battles against the Dutch invaders had been reinforced a newly constructed galleon that was intended for México, but now prepared for war. The three galleons sailed from Cavite and saw their parley in Cabo de Calavite (Calavite Point). The Dutch were overwhelmed after a five-hour battle, forcing to escape the scene.
4 October — Coincidentally, the Dutch were defeated a final time during the month of the Holy Rosary. But the following year, the Dutch returned for a vengeance (particularly in the Spanish port of Cavite). They, however, faced the same humiliating defeat.

In all these naval victories, all the men –both Spaniards and Filipinos– fervently prayed for the intercession of the Virgin of the Most Holy Rosary. All these victorious naval battles against the Protestant Dutch were considered miraculous since most of the ships which defended the young nation were not intended for battle. They were galleons in the first place, ships intended for trade. That is why the once mighty city of Manila (Intramuros) used to celebrate an extravagant feast during October called the La Naval in thanksgiving for Mother Mary’s intercession. And up to now, the city of Ángeles in Pampanga still holds a feast in honor of its patroness, Nuestra Señora del Santíssimo Rosario de La Naval de Ángeles.

Some wise guys claim that these great battles should never be taught in the study of Philippine History because it was not part of Philippine History at all but of Spanish History in the Philippines. Really now. But they fail to recognize that these naval battles were indeed crucial to the study of Philippine History. The Philippines was still young, still fortifying itself into becoming the nation that we know today. Although we always say that there are no ifs in history, it is still interestingly scary to note that if the Dutch did defeat the gallant Spaniards and Filipinos, then the Philippines would have been a Protestant nation rather than Christian. Or worse, there would have been no Philippines (i.e., Luzón, Visayas, and Mindanáo) to speak of.

From naval battles to soccer, it seems that the Dutch are no match for the Spaniards. History does repeat itself sometimes, albeit in a different setting. =)

Ikon, Friar and Conquistador

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Ladies and gents, I proudly present to you Ikon, Friar and Conquistador, one of my favorite essays from the country’s best English-language writer, the late great Nicomedes “Nick” Joaquín (National Artist for Literature and a good friend of Señor Guillermo Gómez Rivera). If I’m not mistaken, this essay was written and published during the 1960s. It was recently included in CULTURE AND HISTORY, a collection of Nick’s essays published by Anvil Publishing, Inc. (2004). Ikon, Friar and Conquistador explains most of what we have been fighting for all these years…

IKON, FRIAR AND CONQUISTADOR
Nick Joaquín

The Filipino is most Christian when he doubts that he is, just as the saintly are those who know they are not. A saint thinks himself the blackest of sinners; the moment he thought himself a saint he would cease to be saintly. What a Christian culture creates is a self that’s forever examining, questioning, doubting, denying and confessing itself. The paradox of the Christian is that he must achieve selflessness through maximum self-consciousness. There must be a self before it can be denied. The will must be strong that has to be curbed.

The Christian Filipino is self-conscious, is intensely, tormentedly aware of himself in a way that, say, the Igorot and the Moro are not — and may the statement give no offense, since its point is not that the Christian Filipino is better but, rather, that he sees himself as worse. He winces when he hears his country described as “the only Christian nation in the Far East.” He looks around him and sees only greed, graft, vileness and violence, and he sneers: Is this Christianity? He questions the value of religious instruction for his children; he deplores the folk pieties of the ignorant; he concludes in despair that the Faith is a foreign irrelevance that hasn’t touched his people. Some may see in such attitudes a decline of Christianity. Others may hail them as a triumph of the Faith, for the Christian affirmation is not, after all, Thank God, I am not like this Publican here but O Lord, I am not worthy.

If the Christian religion were to disappear, from the land, we would still remain Christian, not necessarily by being good but even in the way we are not good: that is, in the quirks and qualities of our character. The Faith has so formed us that even those of us who have left it still speak and write within its frame of reference, still think in terms of its culture, and still carry the consciousness of a will and a conscience at war that so agonizes the Christian. For good or evil, our conversion to Christianity is the event in our history.

We might be happier if we had remained within the tribal obedience (as the highlanders of the North and the Muslims of the South have done to this day) but we ourselves deny this when we argue that, even without Spain and the Faith, we would sooner or later have emerged from tribalism. The Conversion shattered for us the Magian cave of Tribe, from which we emerged Faustians, still infant Faustians it may be, but already evolving the infinite I within, which we call soul, and the infinite we without, which we call nation. Lapu-lapu was a patriot in the old reasonable sense, defending a local habitation he could personally encompass. But the nationalist is a madder chap. He worships and will defend a mystical extent of space that ultimately has no boundaries.

It would take some explaining to make a Badjáo see how he is bound to defend the waters of faraway Bolinao, or to make an Ilongot understand that Pagadían is also his homeland. These things can be taught in school, but they come by instinct to those born to the culture. The Christian Filipino who has never seen either Bolinao or Pagadían, who may not know even where they are and couldn’t care less, will still, without question, go and die in their defense, as he would die for his own home, because they, too, are his own land. He will even, in defense of the homeland, fight outside the homeland, as Filipinos have fought in the Solomons and the Marianas, because the nationalism he carries in his blood is boundless. This seems starkly clear to us, but it’s mysticism gone mad to a tribesman, whose loyalties coincide with the boundaries of his tribe. If he fights beyond, he fights as an ally, but not for a nation.

When we argue that, left to ourselves, we would, nevertheless, have evolved a confederation of tribes that in time would have become a nation, the testimony of 400 years is against us. In the last 400 years, the Philippine tribes that were left to themselves have never even approached the idea of union. The highlanders of the North, for instance, did not fuse into one nation in the mountains vis-à-vis the Christians in the lowlands. Nor did the Cagayán Valley become the empire of the confederated Ilongot tribes, whom we find, instead, to this day, still at war among themselves. And in Mindanáo, even Islam, a potent unifier, failed to unite the tribes that turned Muslim, though the Spanish campaigns against them should have made confederation inevitable. The Greeks, whose tribal city-states were similar to ours, and who suffered from an equally disjunctive localism, almost became a nation when forced to unite against the might of the Persian Empire. But the Moros stuck to the private small-scale raid. We try to ennoble those raids today as efforts on the part of our Muslim brothers to liberate us from Spanish rule, though the evidence is that, then as now, the raids were purely for slave and booty, and were thus resisted by the folk supposed to be rescued; but how glorious if there had really been a countercrusade from a Mindanáo organized under one leadership to liberate the land, and sending a mighty fleet northward for a new Battle of Lepanto! But the native aversion to the large effort made such a dream impossible, and the Moros, instead of confederating, have merely split smaller, until we hear of tribes that must have begun as one shredding into as many as 33 sultanates within a single province.

This should tell us that a will to unite and a sense of nation do not evolve inevitably, “sooner or later,” not even when spurred by the force of circumstances. Considering the 400-year failure in this matter of the tribes left to themselves, and considering also the local diversity of tongues and cults, the unification of the rest of the country must seem nothing less than a miracle, and that achievement the basic fact of our history, since any historian would regard the epoch during which that labor was undertaken as our most crucial moment, when the Conversion made us this people and this nation. But we find ourselves being told today that those years of conversion and unification —the 300 years of Spain in the Philippines— are not our history, are of no import to us, are irrelevant and can be omitted from a true history of the Philippines, with the example cited, to prove the point, of the omission by certain Spanish historians of the Moorish period from their histories of Spain. But this example, instead of proving the point, disproves it.

Despite 800 years of the Moros, Spain did not become a Muslim nation but rather emerged from the occupation more fiercely Catholic than before, and can therefore be justified in ignoring the Moorish period as irrelevant since it wrought no radical reformation of Spanish culture. But let us assume that Spain did become Muslim because of the Moros — Muslim in faith, Muslim in culture: would a modern Spanish Muslim historian dare ignore as irrelevant the event in his history that made his nation the unique thing it is — the only Muslim nation in Christian Europe? Would he dare call the Moorish occupation, however hated it may have been, irrelevant to the development of his Muslim people? Or would he not rather say that the invasion was the starting point of his Muslim people’s history and the Christian years that preceded it the irrelevance?

Or to cite a closer example: If a historian finally emerged among the Philippine Moros, would he dare say that the coming of Islam to the Philippines was of no import and the conversion of his folk to the Crescent an irrelevance in the history of his tribe?

If we had emerged from the 300 years of Spain not Christian in faith nor Christian in culture we could dismiss those 300 years as an irrelevant interruption of our history. But since it was those years that shaped what we are today, it’s as impossible for us to reject them as for a tree to cut off its roots. This is the vital difference between the Spanish era and the American interlude. The latter was, like the British and the Japanese occupations, an interruption, which we now seek to annul, because we know that’s possible, having realized it’s not mainstream, as we used to think. But even the nimblest of historical wizards may find it hard to skip Spain and the Conversion and still tell a coherent Philippine history, since he would have, at one moment, a welter of warring pagan tribes and, in the very next moment, a people calling itself Filipino and fighting for its nationhood under the banners of the Cross, the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and the Constitution of Cádiz.

What happened in between is too vital to skip, as vital as the forces —religious, cultural, political— that made it happen, and which may be represented by the three figures that loom on the stage of conversion: the Santo Niño, Fray Andrés de Urdaneta and Don Miguel de Legazpi. When we started to take off as a nation, after ages of static tribalism, we had for propulsion the triple thrust of Ikon, Friar and Conquistador.

The Santo Niño icon of Cebú.

The Santo Niño makes so perfect a symbol of Philippine Christianity because it came with Magellan, became a pagan idol, was reestablished by Legazpi, and has become so native that native legends annul its European origin by declaring it to have arisen in this land. The process was already in motion even in the days of Rajah Tupas. Within 44 years after its arrival, the Ikon had become so accepted no one remembered it any longer as having come from outside. The Cebuanos sent to Legazpi to ransom the image, offering any amount of gold for it, declared that it had been with them for ages and had been their god from time immemorial.

One legend has it falling from the sky; another has it rising from the sea; but both sea and sky are Philippine. The legend that recounts how futile were the efforts to hack it to pieces may be mythic shorthand for the vain war waged against it by native priestesses during its 44 years as the last and greatest of our pagan gods. The translation into Christian worship of the rituals with which it was worshipped as a pagan god, and which survive to this day, is the first and still the best example of folk Catholicism, a fusion of the Christian and the pagan that reveals how the Church triumphed in the Philippines: by assimilating and preserving (as it did in ancient Rome and heathen Europe) whatever of the old cults it could Christianize, so that not only the Pit Senyor of the Santo Niño but similar pagan rites like the tatarín of Manila, the turumba of Páquil, and the ati-atihan of Aclán have survived under the auspices of the Church. It’s ironic, therefore, that those who look back with such reverence to our pre-Hispanic culture should be the loudiest sneerers at Christianity in the Philippines as being mere folk Catholicism, or superstition. They mourn for being lost what they attack for surviving. When they decry the town fiesta they are decrying the old pagan harvest festival, which, as may be observed in the highlands of the North, also entailed open doors, loaded tables and a lot of conspicuous consumption.

That Christianity in the Philippines, like the Santo Niño, adapted itself to paganism, to reach our pagan minds, should cause no surprise, since history shows that the Faith becomes primitive again with every primitive people. It carried all Greek learning within it when it reached Europe, but in Europe, during the Dark Ages, it became a magical nature religion. To the Gauls of the time of Clovis, Christ was not the highly metaphysical Greek Logos but simply a great witch doctor, who proved the potency of his magic by rising from the grave. Centuries has to pass before Christian Europe could produce an Aquinas, a Francis, a Teresa. The Faith respects the human process; and even as Christ himself began as a baby, so every Christian nation begins in spiritual babyhood, with naïve faith. The Philippines, too, had to undergo, is still undergoing, this spiritual childhood, because human processes are gradual, and we cannot, in the wink of an eye, shed all the previous pagan ages. So, the Santo Niño was willing to become a pagan god for us. Yet we hear the charge that violence was done to the Filipinos when a faith alien to his culture was thrust upon him.

Rizal lamented that his people were converted to a religion they did not understand. It’s absolutely sure that the early native converts understood the Faith no more deeply than did the Gauls or Goths of Europe; but if the same argument had succeeded in stopping the introduction into Europe of an alien Oriental religion the world would not have had Chartres or Giotto or Chaucer of Michelangelo. We complain that our forefathers suffered in assimilating forms of culture not native to them. Absolutely. Learning is not an easy process, as our proverbs (“Burning one’s eyebrows”) warn. But if man had limited himself to what was easy because familiar, he would still be in the caves. It’s the accepting of the challenge of the new, the unknown, the alien, the mysterious, that has unlocked wilderness, ocean, the atom and outer space. None of these things came easy; why should Christianity?

We sneer that the Filipino is no more virtuous today than 400 years ago, and that the Faith has had, not only no moral, but no social effect on us. But even the gradual evolution of the Faith in the Philippines has been in the nature of a revolution. The Filipino woman of today, for instance, is not quite the same as the women that Pigafetta and the other early explorers described. And even the modern Filipina who asserts that her pagan ancestress was actually nobler, because uninhibited, would balk at restoring the old uninhibited practices, like getting a daughter deflowered at puberty or making her little boy wear a nail through his phallus. The Filipina may still try to keep men under the saya, but not in such literal sexual subjugation as symbolized by the fettered phallus.

That there was a revolution can be seen by comparing our Christian and pagan arts. When the Club Filipino organized such a comparative exhibit of our pagan and Christian arts in juxtaposition, one could see at a glance how the static forms of paganism —stolid, squatting, expressionless figures— were succeeded, in Christian times, by forms in dynamic motion: gesturing hands, advancing feet, upturned heads, vivacious faces and whirling draperies. The most startling juxtaposition of forms was of the Pregnant Woman, an immemorial Philippine motif that evolved, with the Conversion, into the Pregnant Virgin. But glancing from the pagan to the Christian version, one was amazed to see how forms so similar could be so different. What one saw was not evolution but revolution, the static becoming ecstatic. For the pagan Pregnant Woman —stolid, squatting, expressionless— seems rooted to the ground, earthbound; while the upright Pregnant Virgin, so graceful though so gravid, and leaning impulsively forward, as though about to run a race or take off for the sky, seems the very epitome of the liberated spirit. The testimony of yesterday’s art refutes today’s reading of history. Our folk art records a transfiguration as remarkable as that moment in Greek art when classic serenity, disturbed, became Byzantine rapture.

In this, the Philippine folk artist is not a solitary witness, for our reception of the Faith was indeed not uniformly naïve. Within a century after Magellan, an authentic mystical movement had already appeared in Manila, contemporary with and of the same spirit as the metaphysical movement in 17th-century Europe. The lives of these natives anchorites and contemplatives who founded the beaterios, organized the Third Orders and formed the confraternities, indicate how deep and swift the impact of the Faith was. Yet no study has been made of this movement as a whole, fascinating and significant though it is, because we scorn our own history. The history of the beaterios is surely not the history “of Spain in the Philippines” but of the the Filipino as Christian; and it reveals the revolution being wrought in his country, in his society, in his character.

The testimony offered by folk artist and folk mystic should cause second thoughts among those who assert that the Conversion was no event in our history. It was —and is (for it’s still in progress)— an event not only in our history but in our very souls; and when we confront it we confront the friar, who started the act that’s still transforming us. But the friar also played an earthier role in our history than as missionary, and could just as well be portrayed with wheel and seedling as with cross. Economically he was our culture hero.

The Augustinian friar Andrés de Urdaneta.

Urdaneta makes so perfect a symbol of the friar in the Philippines because he could just as well be depicted raising the Compass as the Cross. To the Conversion, as to Legazpi, he was Chief Pilot; and he was Renaissance Man in all his awesome vitality: sailor, soldier, explorer, adventurer, and yet combining with the man of action the man of thought, otherworldly and God-haunted, afflicted with his epoch’s ‘fever of the marrow’ and suddenly abandoning the world, like so many adventurers of his time (Charles V, John Donne), to vanish into the cloister and there start still another adventure, another exploration, this time in the realms of the spirit. Summoned from the cloister by his king, he willingly set out on a final expedition, though already in his 60s, and guided Legazpi’s armada to the Philippines, where he built the first church, enthroned the Santo Niño, baptized his first converts, was the colony’s first spiritual head. Then he performed a final feat: discovered a safe return route across the Pacific to Mexico, after which he vanished again into the cloister, where he died in obscurity, a man whose voracity for experience the whole world could not satiate, and who therefore yearned beyond. Plus Ultra!

Only heroic ages can produce a clergy in the grand style, not dainty curates, but warrior-priests like Urdaneta, men of the world and of their time, though transcending both. But the challenge of the Philippines, of the Orient, was picked up by a host of such mystic men of action. The Franciscan Pedro Bautista came to the Philippines during the Conquista, built the first church in San Francisco del Monte, ranged Southern Luzón, then dashed off to new frontiers in Japan, where he was martyred; is now honored on the altar as a saint. The Dominican Francisco de Capillas explored the wilds of Cagayán, evangelized the North, built and baptized, then went off to dare the perils of China, is now honored on the altar as a martyr. Of such steel were the athletes that evangelized the Philippines.

Into our soil, the friar poured his blessings. He shaped our economy by what he put in; and our history to this day, and our daily lives, are determined by the crops that he brought in: tobacco, maize, cotton, coffee, cocoa, naranja, guava, melon, sincamás, achuete, avocado, pineapple, chile, peanut, squash, cabbage, tomato, industrial sugar, and so on, and so forth, ad infinitum. We hear of convent yards that were veritable plant nurseries, where imported seed was tried out, nurtured, bred, crossbred, developed, and then given out for general culture.

The revolution here can be appreciated if we imagine that most typical of Philippine scenes: a carabao pulling a plow. We think this “immemorial,” but it isn’t. The pre-Hispanic carabao was a meat, now a work, animal. Tilling, planting, gathering then were all done by hand, which necessarily limited what a farmer could produce. The friar brought wheel and plow here and he turned the carabao into a draft animal, to pull the plow, to pull the cart. This lifted a mountain of labor off the farmer’s back and expanded his ability to produce.

If this had happened in an earlier age, myth would have turned the friar into a generic culture hero depicted, like Ceres, with a crown of vine leaves, seedlings in hand, and enthroned on crop sheaves. Thus the Greeks developed a generic figure, Dionysus, for the culture hero (probably from Asia) who brought them the culture of the grape. Thus the American Indian developed a cult to the god who introduced corn and tobacco to his land. Thus might we have had a culture hero called Parecura, a nature god that came out of the sea to bring us corn and roses, beans and spices; who gave us the wheel and the plow, the horse and the cow, the goose and the turkey; who built dams to check our rivers and canals to irrigate our fields; who flung roads through jungle and mountain and bridges across rivers; and who fixed on paper the turmoil of our tongues and scripts. For Parecura was not only a god of agriculture; he was also, like Apollo, a god of art, music and learning. He trained our wood carvers and painters, taught us architecture, developed our singers and musicians, gave us books on our flora and chronicles of our land, showed us how to dress food and how to tailor clothes, and gathered us together, made us one, with the magic sound of his bell.

The marvel here is that this is not myth but history, our history, though we now insist it’s only the “history of Spain in the Philippines.” But was our entrance into wheel culture an event in Spanish or in Philippine history? Was the introduction of corn and tobacco, of horse and cow, an event in Spanish or in Philippine culture? Was the rise of the native baroque church and house (which are neither Spanish nor Mexican) an event in Spanish or in Philippine society? Was the romanization of our script and the introduction of printing an event in Spanish or in Philippine letters? Was the native santero and event in Spanish or in Philippine art? And was our learning of the guisado an event in Spanish or in Philippine life?

We contend that we would have gotten or learned all these things anyway, eventually, sooner or later, even without Spain and the friar; and we point proudly to the international contacts we had even before Magellan. But what’s so noteworthy about those contacts is how little they did for us. We hear of ships from Siam or China or Java or Arabia sailing to Cebú to trade, but we don’t hear of ships from Cebú, or even from Manila, going to Siam or China or Java or Arabia to trade. This international trade we boast of was so one-sided it can hardly be called trade, since our role in it was purely passive: the folk to whom the trade happened, to whom the traders came, and from whom the payment exacted were slaves or the right to work local mines. Not until the Galleons was our country to play an active role in trade, on a global scale, for Manila became the point of exchange between East and West.

All these cultures we were in contact with were already wheel cultures, but none of them seems to have had the charity to introduce us to the wheel. We had to wait for the friar to do that. They were already building in brick and stone; did any of them care to instruct as in the art? Was a Javanese-style or a Siamese-style temple ever built in the Philippines to serve as model? Not untli the friar came and discovered the possibilities of our adobe did we develop an architecture of our own. We are age-old neighbors of the spice islands, yet never had a spice culture of our own until the friar tried to give us one. The Chinese, we have always had with us. They killed our pottery with their porcelain; did they at least have the goodness to teach us their ceramic secrets? They have always been famed for their cooking, did they teach us how to dress food? They sold us silks and other fabrics; did they ever teach us how to make them? The Arabs were then, vis-à-vis Europe, in the position of Russia today vis-à-vis America – that is, the rival culture. Yet what of Arab culture, aside from its faith, ever actually reached us? The Arabs had great armies and navies then. We say we were in contact with them; but we were still fighting with bow and arrow — with bows of poor tensile strength and arrows unshafted with feathers. Couldn’t the Arabs have trained us in their style of warfare? Or they could at least have brought us the horse, for which they were famous. Did they? Only in the present day has the mother realm of our South deigned to establish cultural interchange with our Muslims.

All the things that the Javanese and Chinese and Siamese and Arabs could have brought us, could have taught us, we had to wait for Spain and the friar to bring us, to teach us. If we had relied on the Javanese, Chinese, Siamese or Arabs to help us advance, we might still be — as indeed the highlanders of the North and even the Moros of the South still are — in a prewheel, prestone, pretrade and prebook culture.

Moreover, Spain’s economic legacy was as nearly disinterested as any act in this selfish world can be. We cannot say that sugar was developed here because Spain needed a sugar bowl, or that tobacco was introduced here to give the Carmens of Seville employment, or that the copra and hemp industries were established to feed the mills of Madrid and Barcelona. In the nearly four centuries under Spain, we never had what might be called a colonial economy, tied to the factories and markets of the mother country. When we broke away from Spain we did so with no fear of economic upheaval, because we were economically independent of her. But in the next years this independent economy was to become a colonial economy, so tied to the markets and factories of the United States that, even today, several decades after political independence, we are still, economically, an American dependency, and tremble to think of the upheavals that separation would cause.

The funny thing is that the Americans introduced into this country not a single crop that may be said to have transformed our economy and affected our history, like the crops that Spain brought. Nor was the existing economy developed save to serve the interests of the American market. During the war, the Japanese here ostentatiously planted Virginia tobacco, asking us, with a leer, why the Americans never developed a Virginia tobacco culture in the Philippines. It was then that a prewar vaunt —“More progress in 50 years under America than in 300 under Spain”— became so hollow as to make one wonder how it could ever have been believed. For we are, today, still vexedly trying to undo the effects and solve the problems caused by that “progress” made under America; but on what Spain brought and planted here depend our lives, trade, culture, progress and history for all time to come. The wheel brought here is in permanent revolution, is dynamo.

The friar planted crop after crop with no thought of how this might be to the benefit or detriment of the mother country on the other side of the world. He was not thinking of the mother country, he was thinking of “this republic,” as he loved to call the Philippines. “Esta corte” and “Esta república” resound repeatedly from his pages. He was —consciously or not— creating the idea of an independent realm. And everything he did increased that independence. Those crops he planted created economic independence. His revolt against the authority of his superiors in Spain resulted in independent friar provinces for the Philippines. His propagation of the dialects instead of Spanish — whatever his reasons for disobeying royal orders in this matter — bred an independent Philippine Christian culture that’s not merely a mirror culture of the Spanish or the Mexican. He organized our dialects into grammars; opened up and mapped our lands; and pulled us out of the mists of folklore into the ear of written history. The churches, roads, bridges, dams and irrigation systems he built, we are still using today. From any viewpoint, his is one of the great civilizing labors in the history of mankind.

But the friar as culture hero shared the fate of Dionysus, who was destroyed by the same folk that hailed him for his gift. Like Dionysus, the friar was, in the end, torn to pieces by the women. They were his first foes when he first came; but in subduing them, he succumbed to them, and perished. But culture heroes all have a tragic end — Prometheus, the bringer of fire culture, chained forever and forever devoured; Noah, the inventor of wine culture, castrated; and Osiris, the introducer of agriculture, rent limb from limb and scattered. Like these, Parecura suffered a mythic doom — which is, most improperly, a stealing of the show, since his role in the Conquista was, properly, that of Sancho Panza (the practical one, the realist) alongside the Conquistador’s egregious Quixote.

Which brings us to the last and most poignant figure in our trinity.

El adelantado y gran conquistador, Señor Don Miguel López de Legazpi.

Legazpi makes so perfect a symbol of the Conquistador in the Philippine because, when he came here, he was over 50 years old and a grandfather. Quixote, too, was an old man when, the Age of Chivalry long past, he rode forth on knight-errantry; but Quixote in India is an even older man, and even farther away from when knighthood was in flower. Quixote in India is a gaunt, grave, grizzled grampa riding forth to conquer the Orient. He took Cebú, he took Manila, he extended the empire up to the Ilocos, and he died poor. But in less than a decade he had established a base, a springboard, for Oriental operations.

Quixote, however, was too old to conquer Cathay and the Indies, and died of his mad dream. But for a moment the dream flickered with wild brilliance and it seemed that the Conquistador, who had welded the Americas into one empire, would repeat his feat in the Orient and bring under his flag and the Cross all the region from the Himalayas to the Antipodes. For a moment, greatness of realm seemed the destiny of the Philippines, potential heart of an Asian empire.

In those alarums and excursions, which we bewail for the blood and labor they cost us, the prize at stake was our own magnitude; for if the Conquistador had succeeded, the Philippines might have extended from Indo-China to Australia. Even up to the middle of the 17th century, it seemed certain that the Philippines would at least include Formosa, the Moluccas and Borneo. Restored to his throne with the help of Spanish arms, the sultan of Borneo had sworn fealty to Spain in the person of Philippine Governor-General Francisco de Sande. The Moluccas were conquered in the early 1600s, Formosa in the 1620s. Our geography was still fluid, still in formation.

The Dutch wars (through the first 50 years of the 17th century) posed another big If. Was the Philippines to become Spanish or Dutch domain? Would Philippine culture have a Catholic or a Calvinist accent? Or, the Dutch being no gospeleers, were we, with the Spaniards kicked out, to continue, under the Dutch, the interrupted process of our Islamization?

Such questions show how these wars, which, we huffily say now, were no concern of ours and therefore not our history, were actually decisive in history, since they determined our fortunes and even the shape of our land. But for the Moro wars, which stopped the Conquistador in Mindanáo, Borneo might have been definitely annexed — and we would have had a deeper South, plus oil and ore. But for the Dutch wars, which nailed the Conquistador to the Philippines, Formosa and the Moluccas might not have been lost — and we would today enjoy larger boundaries, plus granaries of rice and spice. But for the 50-year resistance of the Philippines at all today: we would be a province, under another name, of Indonesia.

On the positive side, the battles of the Conquistador had, for us, one tremendous and profound result: the formation of a native elite in close alliance with and practically the peers of the Spaniards. Imperilled by Dutch and English from without, and by Moro and Chinese from within, the Spaniards in the Philippines had to turn to some section of the population for help and support, and they got both from two tribes, the Tagalog and Pampango, but at the price of yielding part of their power and authority to the principales of these tribes. For the Tagalog and Pampango barons, or principalía, the Dutch wars were Runnymede. The Conquistador got the men, timber, provisions and ships he needed; the Tagalog and Pampango barons got, in return, municipal power and government, military authority, more and more of the old communal lands, prestige and privilege, and a liberal education. They could rise to captain and colonel, or maestre de campo, in the army; could be placed in charge of a garrison in the Moluccas; traveled from Borneo to Formosa to Acapulco and got a taste of the great world; and in their collaboration with the Conquistador, in dealing with him as his equals, developed a sense of destiny as a chosen people, as the ruling class. They were addressed as dons.

It’s significant that what used to be our greatest local feast, La Naval de Manila, which celebrated the termination of and Philippine victory in the Dutch wars, was most fervently observed by the Tagalogs and the Pampangos. (It’s still the main fiesta of Ángeles.) the feast had a double meaning for those two tribes. On the one hand, they celebrated the power and privilege they gained because of the Dutch wars. On the other hand, they celebrated the continuance of their ally, the Spaniard, in the land and the consequent continuation of their own power and privilege, which had created a grand style in them, the lordliness they have become noted for. The feast of La Naval encloses the first sprouting of native nationalism; the dynamo was already turning mass into energy, matter into spirit. (The rise of the Tagalog and Pampango principalía in the 17th century coincides, not so incidentally, with the native mystical movement in the same region.) One of the most staggering moments in Philippine history is that day in 1662, when, after a Chinese uprising, the Spanish government, in a symbolic act, turned over the walls of Manila to the Pampango armies, under the leadership of Don Francisco Laxamana, maestre de campo.

Throughout his sojourn in the land, the Conquistador held the Philippines only at the will of the Tagalog and Pampango barons, who exploited their position. Whenever the country was in peril and the seat of government had to be moved from Tagalog domain, the alternative capital was, significantly, always on Pampango soil: Bacolor, as during the British invasion, or Arayat, as Governor-General Basco proposed 30 years later. During the 17th and 18th centuries, the Philippines was actually controlled by a triumvirate: the native-born Spaniard, the Tagalog and the Pampango. As long as the first had the other two with him, all the rest of the country could rise in revolt: the government stood firm. But when the Tagalog and the Pampango abandoned the Spaniard, as in 1896, the Spaniard could have all the rest of the country behind him to no avail.

When the Revolution broke out, it was precisely in that region —the Tagalog and Pampango provinces— that had, through three centuries, formed the elite of the land, that had acted as coruler, and that had developed a sense of destiny. (Old folks in Bulacán refer to the revolutionary days as “ang panahóng Tagalog.”) And the reason for the Revolution was the breakdown of the old triumvirate and the reversion of the Creole-Tagalog-Pampango “republic” into a colony in the modern sense, the mishap that marked the final phase of Spain in the Philippines. For the almost 400 years that we lump into one era, the “Spanish era,” were actually three distinct eras.

The first one, roughly the last 35 years of the 16th century, was the era of conquest and conversion.

The second, from the 17th century to around the beginning of the 19th century, was the era of a commonwealth quite independent of its alleged European metropolis, being ruled vicariously, at one remove, by the government in Mexico, which was also too far away to exert pressure.

The third, through the 19th century, was the era of a colony in the classic pejorative sense, controlled directly and oppressively by the mother country; and therefore also the era of the revolt against that status as colony.

A study of the second era, which forms the bulk or our history, clears up a lot of mysteries. Why, after almost four centuries of Spain, is the Philippines so little Spanish? And how could the Spaniards here disregard so flagrantly such royal orders as the teaching of Spanish to the natives? The great distance from Spain was merely an excuse, not the reason. What one finds is a departure from the Spanish policy in America, where a ruthless Hispanicization was pushed. But in the Philippines both friar and conquistador seemed intent on creating, not a New Spain, but an independent Indian Christian culture. In this, they were influenced, in one way or another, by the Laws of the Indies, a product of the American experience. Philip II would not even allow the term conquista to be used here, lest the word justify the use of force against the native or be an insult to his feelings. Certainly, the Spaniard in the Philippines showed more respect for the native cultures than he did in, say, the Caribees — a respect that explains the survival of our old cults, dialects, place-names, and barangays.

In the second place, the Spaniards who came here, came here to stay; and their sons, already born here, knew of no other mother country, could only pay lip homage to Spain, and would, in fact, later show as vehement a hatred of the Peninsular as any Propagandist. This attitude was displayed even by the friars of this epoch, who, though not native-born, had also come to stay, and therefore shared the Creole’s antagonism to the governors-general, as transients and reminders of outside authority. So, there was a stressing of “this court” and “this republic”; a declaration of independence from the old friar provinces in Spain; cruel inquisitions of the governors at the end of their terms; and, among the Creoles, the establishment of the alliance with the Tagalog and Pampango leaders. Though still subsidized by the silver of the Americas, the Philippines was developing economic and political independence; and might have become, if this state of affairs had continued, a more or less sovereign commonwealth with a viceroy of its own, appointed directly from Madrid, but merely a figurehead in a government controlled by Creole, Tagalog and Pampango.

That this was in the offing is indicated by the increasing use of the term Filipino. We hear of an archbishop called a Filipino, of delegates to the Cortes styling themselves Filipinos, of a Manila Cathedral priest fighting for the Filipinization of the clergy — which was what secularization really meant. We reject the claim to being Filipinos of the archbishop and the delegates, but dare not reject the martyred priest, though Burgos was a Creole like them. But if Burgos was a Filipino, then the Creoles who regarded themselves, not as Spaniards, but as Filipinos, had a right to the name. The delegates to the Cortes were indeed proclaiming a new idea to the world: the existence of something called a Filipino. And once the idea had been proclaimed, the Creoles could no longer keep it to themselves. Within a generation, their age-old allies, the Tagalog and the Pampango, were appropriating it for themselves.

The vexed debate over what is a Filipino crashes against two extremes: one, that the idea has existed from time immemorial (as the Cebuanos came to believe they had had the Santo Niño from time immemorial), and two, that the idea sprang full-grown with Rizal, like Athena from the brow of Zeus. But no idea, alas, ever springs full-grown in this world of process. Every idea is like man himself, whose origin we trace through near-man, protoman, ape-man, and missing link. Similarly, the Creole archbishop, the Creole delegates, Burgos and Rizal, the Propagandistas and the Revolucionarios, were all equally stages in the evolution of the Filipino.

During the first half of the 19th century, Mexico and the rest of Spanish America broke away from Spain; this, plus the opening of the Suez Canal, doomed the comparative independence of the Creole-Tagalog-Pampango “republic” in the Philippines. Madrid took over direct control of the islands, and to them were diverted the bureaucrats, officers, friars and other parasites that had hitherto been dumped on America. The Creole in the Philippines found himself being elbowed aside by the Peninsular. For the first time, the Philippine colony found itself being actually used as a colony. The reaction was instantaneous: the revolt of Fathers Peláez and Burgos in the Church, the revolt of Novales in the army. The first would set up a “Filipino” clergy, to oust the Peninsular friars; the second would set up a “Filipino” empire, to oust the Peninsular officers who were taking over the posts held for centuries by Creole, Tagalog and Pampango. These latter two, on the other hand, also elbowed aside by the Peninsular, now found the Creole of no more use and abandoned him. The Tagalog and Pampango principalía was now ready for its own revolt, and the Conquistador lay on his deathbed.

While possessed by a sense of destiny, the Tagalog and Pampango rose to greatness and captained a nation — but they have been rather confused of late.

It’s not yet, however, time for the oration by the graveside. Ikon, Friar and Conquistador were but the Sacrament of Baptism. The Filipino has yet to advance to the next stage, the Sacrament of Confirmation, when, having come of age, one makes a conscious act of faith and receives the Holy Ghost. Is that what we are doing on this fourth centenary of our converstion?

Whatever our qualms, may the cry today be: Plus Ultra!

The Filipino is still in progress; the dynamo still throbs.

The purported elusiveness of our national identity

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“To accuse the Spanish, over and over again, of having brought us all sorts of things, mostly evil, among which we can usually remember nothing very valuable, ‘except, perhaps,’ religion and national unity, is equivalent to saying of a not very model mother, that she has given her child nothing except life, for in the profoundest possible sense, Spain did give birth to us — as a nation, as an historical people. This geographical unit of numberless islands called the Philippines –this mystical unit of numberless tongues, bloods and cultures called a Filipino– was begotten of Spain, is a Spanish creation. The content of our national destiny is ours to create, but the basic form, the temper, the physiognomy, Spain has created for us.

Towards our Spanish past, especially, it is time we became more friendly, bitterness but inhibits us; those years cry for a fresher appraisal. –Nick Joaquín (La Naval de Manila, October 1943)–

So many writers and scholars have claimed that our race has no identity of its own. They say that we are still seeking an elusive national identity. Most of them somehow have this “warped” view of the subject, stating that more than three hundred years of Spanish colonization hindered the development or natural evolution of our identity. Some say that the Filipino identity started to exist only when the Philippines revolted against “Spanish tyranny and oppression”. And some argue that we still have to develop it.

“A definite national identity has continuously eluded the Filipino peoples,” declared Gabriela Network. “Colonizers and imperial powers have thwarted fledgling attempts at nationhood, redefining the archipelago for their own benefit.” The late statesman, Carlos P. Rómulo, wrote intrepidly that “our history is a record of the search for the Filipino identity,” implying thus that there is an absolute absence of it. “The examination is urgent because we are witnessing a resurgence of the spirit, expressing itself in a boldness with which we like to conceive our politics, our social organization, our intellectual and artistic tradition, our system of education, and, more significantly, the assertiveness with which we like to regard ourselves in relation to the larger context of Asia,” he continued.

Retired colonel of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (and author of the History of the Armed Forces of the Filipino People) Dr. César P. Pobre even tried to explain why there is a lack of such an identity: the country’s archipelagic nature, a deficiency of unity and unifying symbols other than the national language and flag, colonial policies, the protracted terrorism of local communist and separatist groups, and demographic diversity.

But to say that we do not have our own identity is tantamount to declaring that we have no country, that we are not a unified network of nations. Or that perhaps we are a nation of fools. From Aparri to Joló, aren’t we all proud and united in joy whenever boxing hero Manny Pacquiáo waves the three stars and the eight-rayed sun in victory over a devastated (and pre-match loudmouthed) opponent? Our nationalistic pride is always stirred up whenever a kababayan receives honors abroad. And we are angered in unison whenever we receive news that one of us is harmed overseas. Our nationalistic fervor is alive. We acknowledge each other’s united presence even in other countries. Doesn’t this prove that we already have an identity? We already have a concept of nationhood, but the problem is that this concept is somewhat bigoted and not wanting in atavistic blindness. In this age of information and ecumenism, we are no longer finicky toward racism. It’s (supposedly) a thing of the past. Why then are we still behind in identifying our very own identity as a people?

We do not need to seek nor build our own identity. It’s already here, ready to strike us in the face. What needs to be done is to simply identify it. It is already within us. We just need to tap it. And make it known among ourselves.

But what is national identity? It is generally accepted that this concept refers to a group of people’s distinguishing characteristics or specific features, making each of its member feel a warm sentiment of belongingness to that group. Sentient commonality is present regardless of racial origin (i.e., regional attributes) or creed or regional peculiarities. Its importance thus cannot be taken for granted.

“A nation strongly built is a nation secure,” remarked Dr. Pobre. “To be strong it must have unity. And to have unity it must have, among others, a national identity. Hence, the quest for national identity is an imperative to building a strong national community.” It is so true. Therefore, if we already have a national identity, why are we still a weak and blighted nation, blind with rage toward our past, particularly at our glorious Spanish past? Because we haven’t been able to identify this controversial identity. Or we refuse to do so.

The words “glorious Spanish past” has to be mentioned and even emphasized because it is exactly from that epoch that our identity was first formed and forged. Before the Spaniards came, there was no Philippines and no Filipino people to speak of. The Filipino identity is the product of the Filipino State that began to exist in Spanish on 24 June 1571. The Filipino State was founded together with Manila on that same date, with the government having Spanish as its official language. It’s as simple as that; no more need to use effusive language and pretentious arguments.

With the birth of a nation follows the birth of its people’s own unique identity. Before 24 June 1571, each tribe (called indios) living all over what is now known as the Philippine archipelago had their own petty kingdoms, languages (including a system of writing), culture, traditions and customs, beliefs, and identity. Technically speaking, they were divided as various independent states or countries. That was all changed when Spain occupied the islands and united all of them into one compact and homogeneous body (that is why those who refused this generous Spanish act should not consider themselves as Filipinos in spirit).

In nation-building, the people has to be united first and foremost. And in order to be united, its peoples should acknowledge a shared identity among themselves. Our forefathers, the first ones who synthesized the concept of nationhood back in 1571, avowed to this shared identity through concepts and newfound knowledge brought about by Spanish culture. “In our orthodox history education, it’s regrettable that the core appears to be lessons in history with a ‘nationalist’ attitude,” wrote fellow nouveau “propagandist” Arnaldo Arnáiz. “That in order to glorify the homeland, we must acknowledge that colonialism was entirely immoral and therefore never produced any meaningful transformation, that we have an obligation to focus on ways to remove its influence, and that we must to go back to our pristine origins — that the more aboriginal our mindset is, the more Filipino we become. Along this line of thinking, there are those who argue that to be a Filipino, the correct attitude must be above all that of an Asian. This essentially puristic approach is an attempt to undo the path of our evolution as a society. The trouble with this is that the Filipino’s base can only be traced in its mestizo genesis. Even the formation of its name, ‘Filipino’ and ‘Filipinas’, is the outcome of that merger.”

This is not to say that the Spaniards were pure saints and that they didn’t do us any wrong at all. “Colonialism has its faults,” says Arnáiz. But it should be noted that the Spanish takeover was mainly for evangelization because unlike other colonies, the Philippine archipelago had no spices nor any major gold deposits (save perhaps for a few places such as the one in Paracale, Camarines Norte). This country, in fact, developed into a progressive nation through the latest technologies and economic breakthroughs coming from the West. And this economic progression later on paved the way for former US President William McKinley’s infamous “Benevolent Assimilation” proclamation in 1898, thus shaming and mocking the precepts of his own country’s Monroe Doctrine.

Such a fact prompted another “modern propagandista” and foremost Filipinist/Hispanist of our time, the great scholar and 1975 Premio Zóbel winner Guillermo Gómez Rivera, to observe that “the Filipino State became so rich and so vibrant that from a mere missionary outpost it went on to become a colony, in the Spanish sense of the word. It went on to become an overseas Spanish province under a Ministerio de Ultramar until it graduated into the 1898 República Filipina which the invading American forces of the 1900s literally destroyed with an unjust war by murdering one-sixth of its total population.” Señor Gómez further adds that “the Americans claimed the Philippine Islands as a ‘territory of the United States of America’ but never gave any American citizenship status to the Filipinos as Spain did from the start of her rule. Thus, while it was the Spaniards who started for all Filipinos the organization of what was later to become their own Filipino State, the basis of their national patrimony and rights, the American WASPs* took away from the Filipinos, their own STATE.”

If only today’s generation are still Spanish-speaking like our ancestors, the abovementioned facts would have been very easy to grasp. And more facts would have been uncovered, especially those that were twisted by today’s educators who are under the influence of WASP neocolonial policies. Another colleague of ours, José Miguel García, correctly ascertained that “many of our documents, records, and literature were written in Spanish. These are records of our past. Without records of our past, we do not have access to our common origin as a nation. Without our common origin as a nation, we do not have a common identity. Without a common identity, we do not have anything to do with each other as a nation…”

Once our true Filipino Identity, an identity based on our glorious Spanish heritage, has been correctly identified and made known to all, nationalistic pride and patriotic love will have more sense and meaning. That is why it is imperative to bring back the Spanish language in this country. It is the key to identify and recover our national identity.

“Only when we become aware that we have an inheritance and how and where it was taken can we recover our national identity,” wrote García. “Only then can we recover our beautiful stock. Only then can we recover our national genetic code and regenerate once more our beautiful stock from which development of not only the once glorious Manila will again spring, but our once glorious Filipinas.”

Ladies and gents, the ball is now in our hands.

*White Anglo-Saxon Protestant

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