COLUMN: UNDERSTANDING THE FILIPINO

MANILA, December 24, 2003  (STAR) HERE'S THE SCORE By Teodoro C. Benigno - The Christmas season is as good a time as any to seek to understand that baffling, bewildering, befuddling creature of the Almighty – the Filipino. Ours is the only Christian country in Asia. And by all odds, peace should reign here more than anywhere else – goodwill to men. Begorra, the Christians of this not-so-blessed archipelago are all bad-mouthing each other from the President down. Confusion is the rule, verbal bedlam, a plague on your house, you scum, you sonouvabitch.

The Senate – the Philippines equivalent of the House of Lords – sets the supreme example. Behold.

Senators Edgardo Angara and Panfilo Lacson are at daggers drawn. Angara, head of the largest opposition party Laban, supports the presidential candidacy of Da King Fernando Poe Jr. and would have Ping Lacson removed to Hades. Lacson and his camarilla headed by Laban secretary-general Rep. Butz Aquino have "preventively suspended" Angara as Laban’s big boss. So on with Lacson’s rebel pursuit of the presidency in 2004 even if his chances are those of a popsicle in purgatory.

President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo brings this confusion three notches higher. She would now bestow presidential amnesty on all political crimes so "reconciliation" can reign in this only Christian country in Asia. Bejesus! The nation’s most notorious political felons, past presidents Ferdinand Marcos and Joseph Estrada, their heirs and assigns, would go scot-free. The two presidents have been variously charged with looting the Philippines in the approximate amounts of $10 to $20 billion.

They would be amnestied? All their sins will be wiped off the books?

But listen some more. At a time the Philippines needs balance, focus, the hand of courage, knowledge and wisdom on a deeply troubled and divided land, the two Filipinos topping the presidential polls are FPJ and Senator Noli de Castro. Laughter and derision. Either in Malacañang Palace would be like Cachupoy heading the Asian Institute of Management or Babalu assigned as president of De La Salle University. No offense intended. It simply means neither FPJ nor Kabayan has anything in his noggin to justify handling more important than the City Pound. Or the New Bilibid. The Ninoy Aquinos are no more, the Claro Rectos.

We are a nation more obsessed with form rather than substance.

The Pinoy is proud of his democracy but does nothing to move that democracy forward outside of loud talk, and louder vituperation. The nation remains one of the poorest, most unmotivated, most uncreative, stalled and stodgy in Asia. We are proud of our Christianity but our instinct, our Christian behavior, begins and ends in the church. Once outside, it is to each his own, kanya-kanya. There is no sense of Christian compassion, Christian togetherness, Christian communitarism.

We are physically clean in our immediate surroundings, our house, our little lawn. Beyond that, the nation is dirty, heavily polluted, garbage strewn almost everywhere. Smoke-belching is an everyday occurrence in our streets. We cringe, we are ashamed, we are red-faced when Payatas, and earlier Smokey Mountain symbolized our misery to the world outside. And yet, the government, the civic leaders of this country have done little to solve our garbage problem. There is no cultural or moral adrenalin to drive that shame away.

The same is true with our beggars and street children in rags. Pinoys inside their cars wish they would stay away, not rap on the car windows, not shove their dirty faces under their noses. At times, they bear ill-nourished babies in their arms to make us feel more guilty. And we do feel guilty. Often we rap back for them to please scram, to go away. And finally we salve our consciences by giving them a peso or two. Or more. But that doesn’t solve the problem at all. They come back again and again.

We do the same thing again and again. We never learn.

Our politicians, our civic leaders, our elders readily admit these are our problems which the Pinoy must solve. But which Pinoy? The rich, wealthy and powerful Pinoy, even the middle class Pinoy, will pay lip service. But beyond that he shrugs his shoulders. The poor Pinoy, the squatter, the slum dweller, the mass, the overwhelming majority, would do something if they have guns. And leaders. But they have no guns and no leaders. The fear is they may have such guns and leaders some day.

And so they retaliate. How? They give us FPJ, Noli de Castro, Ping Lacson, Erap Estrada. And such political humanoids as Joey Marquez. They make use of electoral democracy to stuff this democracy into our throats. And so the people elect their populist idols like FPJ. But no matter. The rich, the powerful waste no time coopting them. Soon FPJ will be their puppet. And that’s how they get even with the masa. We go through the same rigmarole every three, four or six years.

Yes, we never learn.

So that’s the Pinoy. That’s who we are. But why can’t we learn? Why can’t we be creative? A persistent argument is that our Roman Catholic faith has long mortaged our minds and our souls. Really? The argument goes that differently from the Protestant mind or psyche or culture, the Catholic mind preaches patience, resignation and conformity. After all, sufferings on earth are either expected or predestined.

So what? The real rewards will be reaped in heaven. Life on earth is just a passage.

Quite the contrary, it is argued, the Protestant mind is a whirling windmill on the virtue of work, of education, of getting along, of creativity, of economic productivity. It was the Protestants who invented the clock so work could be better scheduled, refined and structured. That explains – according to Max Weber – why the Industrial Revolution was launched in Protestant England in the 17-18th century and not in Catholic France. Protestants, said David Landes, live to work. Creative work by itself is an achievement. That it produces wealth is only secondary.

But, the counter-argument goes, Filipinos are happy. They are resilient. They sing when they should weep. They make do with the little they have. They are presumably the smilingest people on earth. Watch them even in the slums. They warble and they dance and they play. And even in their rags, they are happier than the rich, wealthy and powerful Pinoys who inhabit suburbia, the exclusive, gated residences where they are walled off from the rest of the world. Where wine glasses tinkle, and clapped hands bring out dozens of domestic servants who do their every bidding. Venga!

Are they really happy?

It is they who support our corrupt political system, the corporate rich, the Spanish-Filipino rich, the Chinese-Filipino rich, the new Filipino rich. They are the seigneurs of our society, la noblesse de richesse, as they were in the feudal age in Europe, the Bourbons, the Romanovs, the House of Savoy. Before the great revolutions erupted largely as a result of the egalitarian writings of the great philosophers, les grandes philosophes, who antedated Karl Marx and Frederich Engels, Metternich and Guizot.

So the Pinoy belongs to a wide spread of the very rich and the very poor. He inhabits two different worlds, each steeped in a culture of standstill and, worse, stagnation. The Pinoy is more Latin-American than he is Asian. The fiesta, maybe more than anything else, stirs him to life, because a saint is venerated in the midst of great rejoicing. The fiesta is the Filipino’s way of communicating primitive village generosity and hospitality before he closes the door to save again for the next fiesta. The next chibug.

Religious statues, icons, carriages, estampitas, beads freeze the Filipino into profound worship. And we are back to Fr. Horacio de la Costa’s triumphant cry that within the rags of the Filipino, there are two jewels. The first is the jewel of prayer. The second is the jewel of song.

The song, the haunting kundiman, is a lilting throb on the loneliness, the irony of life, the beauty and splendor of love, even as it opens up little windows of hope. The tinikling, paruparong bukid brings out the opposite. They are a romp in the sunshine, a frolic into gaiety, swift and staccato, similar to Latin America’s click of castanets, bringing out the superb rhythms of the Filipino, the smile of a girl lifting her skirt in shimmery stabs of dance, the hand flick of a blade flirting with his eyes, even as he too hops and skips.

These are but a few of my images of the Filipino as he enters the 21st century.

But in the end you ask, how much poverty can he take? The tropical setting, the fiesta, the chibug, the ethos of religion, the patience, the resignation can only do so much. As palliatives, they cannot last forever. He now lives by the multitudes, by the tens of millions where before the nation, its agricultural riches, its bucolic beauty, were for him alone to enjoy. Now life is no longer the village, the barrio, but the city, the ugly urban sprawl. His is now the face of the squatter, often the beggar, the panhandler, the job-seeker, the petty criminal.

Still he smiles but now he starts to mutter. Is this the initial clearing of the anguished throat? The carabao’s lowering of its horns? The ocean starting to foam? The elegy of the happy Filipino in search of a angry rattle? A dirge? We don’t really know. Maybe, the Filipino as Filipino does not want to know. He is happy that way.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you all!


Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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