Filipinos are islands. They are not a part of nor linked to a common culture or identity much like the seven thousand islands they are from, a country Spain named the Philippines. It is understandable that so many countries have colonized, invaded or conquered the Philippines: Spain and America, China and Japan. It is easier to conquer islands than a continent as a people can unite and fight in the latter. To overcome the negative image of having been colonized by so many for many years, Filipinos have romantized their plight as the Philippines being a ‘Melting Pot” of cultures. Or, applying currently fashionable expression the Philippines is proud of its diversity.
To the Filipino purists, the question remains: Who are we? What are our native values? Or are we truly non-entities in the sense that a Filipino is the island he was born and raised in and the values and dialect that island cultured? An island culture imbedded in his psyche, a DNA that is constant under the layers of colonization.
I am a Filipino and a naturalized citizen of America. I have lived for more years in America than the country of my birth. I have become an American citizen and proud to be one, but always felt being Americanized instead of being an American. On September 11, 2001 I told a friend, “I don’t know what your political persuasion is, but I came to America for a better life and damn if anyone dares to take that away from me! Those terrorists declared war on us several years ago and we paid them no mind. Today, they attacked killing thousands. What are we waiting for?” Was I an American then or did the true Filipino surface?
My heart and mind have traveled and dwelled in so many places and times in search for a home that will give me my identity and culture. I pondered on Philippine history. How credible is it? Who are the writers? Who are their sources? Often the sources are American, English and Spanish authors though respected writers, have never set foot in the Philippines! Who determined which events are historical? Are history books dictated by some Department of Education bureaucrat whose employment is determined by a then-president? Considering that political agendas are at play 24/7 in the Philippines raises serious question about the history books used in its educational system.
Assuming that history was recorded without malice and with best efforts, I learn of young and old brave Filipinos designated as heroes. Unfortunately no criteria were established as to what made a hero. A Filipino who fought in the Battle of Tirad Pass does not necessarily become a hero. He can however rightfully claim to have served in the battle. Additionally, the lives and deeds of these heroes read like a sparse bio-data of no more than a few paragraphs.
Antonio Jose Porcuna was a captain of a Spanish galleon that plied the Spain-Mexico-Philippines route. Because of his strong administrative skills, he was offered and had accepted a high position in the administration of the Philippine colony. He was given a mansion for his residence the size of which he would never have had in Spain. He was provided with numerous servants he never could have afforded in Spain. Having thoroughly enjoyed his stature and luxurious comfort, he considered staying in the Philippines for an extended period if he could substantially provide for himself and his children’s future. He envisioned owning vast lands for conversion to sugar and coconut plantations while his children went to Spain for their education and marry their own kind.
He gambled by writing a letter to the Spanish Court. He stated that he was inclined to return to Spain and cited several reasons among which were the following: the living conditions were intolerable what with the humidity, mosquitoes, flies and malaria, that this was not the place to raise his children among these filthy, brown ‘Indios’ or peasants. More alarmingly he alleged that a rebellion was brewing in the remotest northern point of the Philippines led by Diego. While Diego did exist, he did not disclose that Diego was a town bully who in a drunken binge had spat on a Spanish soldier who had intervened in the brawl.
The Spanish Court recognizing the difficulty in attracting recruits for the colonies responded with the following offer to Porcuna: “Stand atop your horse and point as far as the eye can see and we grant such land your property.” Porcuna won and stayed. Porcuna was not alone. Other Spaniards applied the same ploy. Years later when Philippine History was being compiled, many respected writers –clergy and lay, would refer to these same letters and documents archived by the Spanish Court as their treasure trove. We now have Diego as one of our heroes.
1961, Richard Beard, CFO of the Philippine subsidiary of a U.S. rubber tire company wrote to headquarters at Akron, Ohio. His letter began with, “Conditions here are getting so intolerable…” Truly, history repeats itself! Seriously, it does: Who robbed the Treasury of the Katipunan? Decades later Marcos scraped the Treasury clean.
There were brave and noble Filipinos who challenged the governance and abuse of the Colonialists. But just as Spain gave the Philippines its name, foreigners have designated our heroes including our national hero, Jose P. Rizal. Filipinos themselves never defined their heroes – regional or national. They conveniently accepted as historical truth that which Spain and America had dictated. Perhaps this was a case of colonial mentality and or a case of Filipinos, acting like the islands they are, could not arrive at consensus. Thus in our Parthenon of heroes we have thugs, drunkards and womanizers. Is it any wonder then that centuries later we elect our political leaders who possess similar attributes? Would it not be of significant benefit to the country if our institutions of higher learning – like the prestigious University of the Philippines spearhead a definition of what makes a Filipino hero and do a search of our heroes; at least validate the list given us by Spain and America.
Personally I’ve held Andres Bonifacio as a national hero, not Rizal. I know I’m not alone in that contention. Rizal was a brilliant mind and his writings were masterpieces, which were all against Spain. But where was he in the context of any revolution? He spent most of his time in Europe, in Cuba and his womanizing is well documented. So involved was he in his romantic liaisons, would he have had time to actively participate in a revolution? But his masterful writings, being anti-Spain made it convenient for the Americans to name him as our national hero. Let me state this as clearly as I can: Rizal was a brilliant man, a prolific linguist (therefore was probably our best ambassador to inform the world of our plight), a masterful writer and even a good person. A hero? A National hero?
One of many reasons why I got into trouble at school (and paid dearly) was that I argued vehemently against Rizal as a hero as well as my questions on Philippine history - especially when the "data" is based on the missives of the Dominican friars and Jesuits as these would be slanted or biased or filtered through the eyes of Faith or Religion.
Spain's colonial reach was to spread Catholicism. However as they developed brilliant protégés, Rizal being one of them, they brought these protégés to Spain to show off as one would a trophy. While these Filipinos were celebrated, they became exposed to and eventually won over by the Masons. Rizal then started writing about the abuses of the Spanish friars. Thus, my point is that Rizal did not initiate or actively participate in a call for a revolution for independence and nationhood. This was an issue of religious beliefs. If Rizal had led others against Spain or America with a clear goal for independence, then I would honor him as a hero. I wouldn't care whether he was Catholic, Mason, Muslim, Agnostic or Atheist. This religiously slanted history was what troubled me. The so called rebellion/insurrection was made to appear against Spain by the friars to dupe the Spanish Court to counteract by sending forces to quell the "rebels" -who were essentially Masons or their followers. This 'quelling' only fueled the spread of Masons.
The battle between Masons and Catholics continue to this day. Catholics formed the Knights of Columbus; the Masons formed the Knights of Rizal.
World War II devastated the Philippines – the battleground of the United States and Japan. It was Machiavellian of Uncle Sam to grant the Philippines its long sought independence at a time when the Philippine infrastructure was in ruins and the Japanese had slaughtered thousands of Filipino professionals. While political independence was granted, economic dependence on Uncle Sam was ensured.
However in this critical period of birthing into nationhood in the midst of utmost ruin there came forth a group of strong principled leaders. They diligently worked in rebuilding the infrastructure, in establishing an educational system and who espoused tolerance. Pardons were granted to corroborators who served in the puppet government established during the Japanese occupation and truce was negotiated with armed and organized groups. They were the nation builders, a new brand and band of heroes. Many of these nation builders had their beginnings in the latter stages of the Philippine Commonwealth. Many refused to be members of the Japanese puppet government. These were homebred heroes who to this day remain unrecognized and unappreciated by Filipinos and ignored by historians!
During the late forties and fifties, we had an air of innocence about us, even a swagger. We perceived the Philippines to be the Pearl of the Orient and one of the Asian Tiger economies. Yet there was a subtle indiscernible slip. Due to scarce resources and dollars, imports of badly needed capital goods were prioritized and permitted by the Central Bank by the issuance of Import Licenses. Final approval however rested with the president. The Import Controls era spawned the beginnings of influence peddlers (the 10 Per centers). Imagine print media in need to import paper stock for their newsprint. Import licenses were granted with obvious strings attached. The administration or powerful politicians consequently controlled publishers and editors’ rooms, which spawned of yellow journalism.
It was the beginning of politicians trading principles for political gain. The very popular President Ramon (“is My Guy”) Magsaysay bolted the Liberal Party to run for president under the Nacionalista Party. The United States not wanting a repeat of the violent 1949 Presidential elections of the incumbent President Quirino provided support and funding to Magsaysay, a former Secretary of Defense. My guy Magsaysay was now my hero after Rizal! These were happy days. The Japanese were paying for war damage albeit channeled to the few elite and powerful. Nonetheless these were happy days. America was helping My Guy buy my vote, U.S. and Japanese companies were ‘developing’ our natural resources; in short, funds were coming in and there was tremendous hope that eventually those funds would trickle down. Happy days, indeed.
The lackadaisical period continued with the succeeding administrations of Garcia and Macapagal. However, the cancer had started to permeate through Philippine society. Power and influence centered on the sitting president, his cabinet and cronies. They were referred to as Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves!
The Middle Income class atrophied
Ferdinand Marcos followed My Guy’s path. He too bolted the Liberal Party to be the standard bearer of the Nacionalistas. The early years of Marcos’s presidency raised high expectations. Marcos had all the wished for attributes of a hero president. He had a brilliant legal mind (therefore could not be duped) a brilliant speaker (therefore a great motivator and communicator), slim, youthful looking and athletic (therefore would have the energy to drive the country as one of Asia’s tiger economies). He also had a beautiful wife, who could serenade the masses with songs and shed a tear when occasions warranted. Together they evoked the image of JFK and Jacqueline. This was the Philippines’ Camelot!
The praise of Marcos was deserved. He initiated an aggressive development of infrastructure. Highways, bridges and electric power were virtually stretched throughout the islands. Certainly much of the construction contracts and financing was allotted among Marcos’ cronies. Filipinos knew and had grown accustomed to this from previous administrations. Filipinos wink knowingly at this type of graft and corruption. They see Marcos’ accomplishments and they are pleased no matter that his cronies skim the contracts. The common sentiment was that good was being accomplished by Marcos’ program and that Marcos and his cronies would eventually have their fill and all will end well.
Uncle Sam plays Domino
The United States was mired in a protracted war in Vietnam that had already cost one presidency and many lives. It could not extract itself from the conflict due to a high risk perceived by the Nixon Administration. Nixon and Kissinger believed that U.S. withdrawal would cause Vietnam to fall into a Communist regime. And, with the fall of the Vietnam the rest of Southeast Asia falls to Communism like a collapsing line of Domino tiles. Uncle Sam did not particularly care much for Southeast Asians. For instance, Filipinos were referred to as brown monkeys (“Monkeys have no tails in Zamboanga”). Other Asians were brushed off as “inscrutable Orientals”. The exception and their main concern was Japan for military, political and economic reasons and Australia/New Zealand for being the only white countries in the region.
The fear of the effects of the Domino Theory caused Uncle Sam a proponent for the spread of Democracy to install and support a dictatorship to stem the spread of Communism when the U.S. withdraws from Vietnam. Uncle Sam anointed Marcos and the Philippines, an English speaking, highly literate Christian country and former colony.
Marcos quickly and literally set the stage. A vessel was deliberately grounded in a remote northeastern shore of Luzon which was alleged to have had a vast cargo of weapons and munitions from Red China, anti-government demonstrations were arranged to project the influx of Communists and Leftists in the student ranks and working class, he encouraged the media (which was essentially controlled by his cronies) to hype the chaos. At the crescendo of this well orchestrated turbulence, he declared Martial Law under the excuse of national security. A dictatorship was born.
A calm descended. Initially, it was a respite from the staged riots and loud headlines. But it had the calmness of a wake. For the masses it was a final and official loss of freedom. For the military, the national police and local police they were now judge and jury –and executioners. For Marcos and his wife, Imelda it was an easy but deliberate transition. No longer were they accountable to anyone and were now free to reshape the world to their liking. They named their world The New Society. It had a nice Madison Avenue glint to it. To the masses it offered a promise of a world cleansed of everything from the vestiges of Colonialism to cronyism. Being a ‘new’ society, the masses anticipated a leveling of the playing field and an equal start for all.
Marcos used Hitler’s Mein Kampf (he always had a copy nearby) as the blueprint for The New Society. In that book, Hitler professed that in order to attain absolute power one must court the support of the Military and or the Church. Marcos made the easier choice, the Military, which with exception of the high echelons were made up of a minimally educated, poorly trained and barely equipped and underpaid force. It was a force that could easily be manipulated with funds, awards and promotions. On the other hand the Roman Catholic Church was neither a threat nor a challenge. Its Philippine leadership remained enamored with pomp and circumstance. This would play into Imelda’s ploy as the Cardinal would frequently be seen and photographed with Imelda. This created a win-win situation for both.
Only Marcos with his genius and energy could have undertaken the gargantuan effort of establishing, developing and managing the New Society. Of course it helped to have an attractive wife to spellbind the poor masses, the Church to remain comatose and the U.S. turned insular as it licked its wounds of defeat in Vietnam.
Power corrupts but its corruption does not happen overnight. It accelerates as each abuse of power goes unpunished, unchallenged or condoned. Power attracts, too. Business leaders, members of Congress, the elite, the Church including its Militant Order the Jesuits and the masses gravitate towards power. Power exudes a halo effect. This explains why in addition to Marcos’ guile and genius, his abuses were unchecked. Thus, with a rubber stamp Congress, a kowtowing Church and the Armed Forces as his private army, he attained absolute political power. Other than a very select few individuals he had no need of cronies – especially those Imelda despised or knew to pimp for Marcos. In the disposition of these cronies, their enterprises were acquired. This was now absolute political and economic power in the grandest scale!
The country whispered fearfully, “The Forty Thieves are gone. Ali Baba remains.”
The Violent Pendulum Swings
Dictators are constantly at work and Marcos was as diligent as he was intelligent. He applied another dictum from Mein Kampf: “The broad mass of a nation will more easily fall victim to a big lie than a small one.” Under the glossy veneer of the New Society a program was initiated. Marcos exhorted the masses for a New Society that was patriotic, pro-Filipino and even anti-American (as a stand of Independence). Therefore, he mandated that the national language be developed, propagated and used in education and business. This created a patriotic fervor and a groundswell of support from the masses. Who could argue against it? It was so euphoric that the Militant Jesuits had their elitist Ateneo de Manila University focus on Tagalog playwriting and production. Abandoned were English and Shakespearean plays including the celebrated Ateneo accent. The Jesuits also had more Filipino Jesuit educators. Their support and silence gained them favor. They had frequent and open access to Malacañang.
This strong stand for love of country and language made many grateful for having such a benevolent Dictator. The Big Lie had succeeded. Behind the lie was a sinister purpose. Marcos had deftly used the educational system to mold the children and youth. More seriously, it was a scheme for control to perpetuate the dictatorship. The core objective was to isolate the Philippines and Filipinos from the world. With a diminished ability to communicate in the language of commerce and law, leakage of information on the plight of the Filipinos was sealed. Imagine how Spain and other European nations would have known of our plight had Rizal been unable to speak and write other than Tagalog!
The negative impact however was monumental to this day. High literacy and proficiency in English was the competitive edge Filipinos had over other Asians and other nationalities (including Americans). For years, Filipino expatriates in the U.S. provided assistance to new Filipino immigrants. The help included preparation and placement for employment. While assistance was appreciated, it was really easy. Quite often prospective employers sought help in seeking out Filipinos in particular. Filipinos had developed a reputation as highly skilled, highly industrious and driven employees. This reputation had spread and was common in many areas such as Banking and Finance, Accounting, Engineering, Computer technology, Medical professions. While other ethnic groups may possess similar attributes, our edge can be encapsulated by the comments of pleasantly surprised employers: “It is amazing how easily Filipinos communicate. In fact their written and oral sentence construction, even spelling is better than the average American!”