F. SIONIL JOSE: TALES OF THE ILOCOS
MANILA, FEBRUARY 2, 2007 (STAR) By Tonette Martel - Contemporary life seldom allows us to take a trip down memory lane, defined as it is by forward movement and expansion. It seems as though writers, particularly those who have gone on in years, are among a rare breed who probe the memory to take us back to times and places unknown or otherwise lost.
National Artist for Literature F. Sionil Jose is always ready to share his tales of life in the Ilocos – of the hardy men and the industrious women who forged their land and later took their customs and traditions beyond the northern provinces to the central plains. The migratory nature of Ilocano life and the hardships Ilocanos endured in the final years of Spanish colonial rule are the central themes of Dusk, one of the five novels of Jose’s seminal work, The Rosales Saga. It spans 100 years of Philippine history and marks pivotal points in our nation’s story – from the first stirrings of national consciousness following the Cavite Mutiny of 1872 up to the declaration of martial law in 1972.
Of this and his other novels, the French newspaper Le Monde observed, "the literary work of Jose is inseparable from modern politics and the history of the Philippines." The Rosales novels are largely a tribute to the common men and their oppression in the hands of colonial powers and their own leaders. Here, Sionil Jose tells of the flight of a man and his clan from the narrow coastal plains of the Ilocos in Northern Luzon to the central plains. Over the years, the Ilocanos would share a similar fate with the characters in Jose’s novel eventually becoming the most migratory of Filipinos. Many cleared the land around eastern Pangasinan, Nueva Ecija, and the Cagayan Valley. The Ilocano landscape with its narrow coastal plain forced many of its people to seek land in other parts. These people had to live with the reality of migration and building new beginnings even as they held on to old ways.
Jose’s forbears eventually settled in a village in Pangasinan that they named Cabugawan after the town of Cabugaw in Ilocos Sur from where they came. From the tales of his elders, he learned of their exploitation by their landlords and the dispossession of their lands. In their search for a new life in other parts, the Ilocanos brought everything with them. As a child, Jose recalls the sight of as many as 10 covered wagons – making their way down the Santa Fe Trail from the Ilocos to eastern Pangasinan – fitted with solid molave wheels and covered in nipa. The sturdy vehicles carried weaving looms, farming implements, wooden posts made of sagat that were uprooted from Ilocano homes, tied together and placed underneath the carts. There were the bamboo baskets and cloth for weaving needed to make the abel Iloko crafts that are still being produced today. Most of all, they took with them the traits of industry, frugality and independence – virtues that the Ilocanos are widely known for.
These days, Jose recounts, most of Northern Luzon has been " Ilocanized." He says: "When I was a kid, you would never hear Ilocano spoken in Paniqui, Tarlac. Now you hear a lot of Ilocano spoken in that place. As a matter of fact, that is where Danding Cojaungco comes from and that’s why many Ilocanos like him because he is the only Cojuangco who speaks Ilocano." Although Jose’s forefathers came from Ilocos Sur, he grew up in eastern Pangasinan, which is populated today by more Ilocanos than Pangasinenses. Only the central parts, says Jose, remain pockets of Pangasinan. "All of the Cordilleras, Sierra Madre, Caraballo are Ilocano and down below that range." Jose rarely gets the chance to speak in his native tongue when in Manila, so he returns to his old hometown to listen to this rich language which he seldom uses but informs his thinking. "There are so few people I can speak to these days. There was the late Max Soliven who would visit my bookshop, and there are a few Ilocano friends who hardly speak the language anymore. When I go back, I do nothing but talk – to the market people, to all kinds of people. Then it all comes back," he says.
Jose visits the public markets where familiar aspects of Ilocano life abound; old tools and implements, cooking utensils, local vegetables and weeds that are a part of the Ilocano diet. He never fails to bring home kilos of bagnet, the Ilocano version of the lechon kawali, and basi, the sugarcane wine he offers to those who visit his bookshop in Manila.
Jose routinely takes friends, writers and diplomats across the Ilocos on a grueling four-day trip. From Manila, the group heads to the town of Rosales, the setting of his novel; then to Tayug, the site of the Colorum Uprising of 1931; then on to Binalonan, the hometown of poet and writer Carlos Bulosan and to Bauang, La Union, to visit the town of writer Manuel Arguilla. From there they proceed to the churches of the Ilocos in Candon, Santa Maria, Bantay, Vigan, Magsingal, Sarat and Paoay. By the time they reach Paoay, Jose says, "My visitors suffer from church fatique!" In the 300 years or so that the Agustinians were in the Philippines, they built some of the most fabulous churches in the country, Jose points out. Of these, the churches of Paoay and Santa Maria are National Heritage Sites. The Church of Bantay has special meaning for him as it is cited in the opening pages of his novel, Dusk. Bantay, where the old Agustinian friars went when they retired, is situated across the river from Vigan. It is an unusual church, Jose recounts, with the belfry a distance away from the hill overlooking the church. An old friend, eminent Spanish historian Father Isacio Rodriquez, told him that most of these churches served as forts, offering refuge and shelter to the locals against invading Moro pirates who came to capture slaves for their trades and their homes in Sulu and Mindanao. "That is why in these churches the walls were thick and the belfry was positioned so that the riflemen could repel these invaders as they attacked," Jose points out.
In Ilocos, one or two watchtowers were built along the coast during the Spanish times, an established practice in those days. Along the road that leads to the coastal towns, the Spanish brickwork emerges. Again, Jose reminds me that the Ilocos is a very narrow coastal plain, where the mountains like the Cordilleras drop right down to the sea. Sooner or later, because of the scarcity of land, the Ilocanos had to seek land and the promise of a better life elsewhere. That took them far beyond Northern Luzon to Mindanao, to the islands of Hawaii, to the west coast of the United States. "There were no rich Ilocanos before Marcos came along. There were comfortable Ilocanos or what we call, bacnang – well-to-do, but not like the hacienderos in Negros or the central plains. Wherever they went, they took the language, the old customs and the culture with them," says Jose. "The Ilocanos are clannish, and much of that, according to Jose, accounts for the internecine clan wars and killings witnessed in the Ilocos."
Those who were reared in traditional ways learned the values of patience and industry. Jose grew up with the knowledge that the Ilocano worked from dawn till late into the night. The women sat by their looms all day long and the farmers of times past harvested their rice stalk by stalk. Such virtues, however, would not manifest in Jose’s life until much later. His boyhood memories were filled with stories of fun-filled days. Of watching silent movies from the early 1930s that came to his town, and being one of the boys that rode around town beating drums aboard a kalesa to announce the showing of a new movie. He remembers the four-piece band in the theater lobby that would play jaunty or romantic tunes to signal the start of an action-packed movie or a love story. "Boys like myself had to clean the movie houses and sweep the floors to be able to watch these films," Jose recalls.
There were the memories of making toy guns out of wood or bamboo, or fashioning toys from sardine cans even as other boys played with real toy guns. Those were carefree days spent swimming in the river or playing with farm boys in the fields and coming home with bundles of fish and vegetables. "You know, when you are a kid, you don’t feel injustice as much. You know you are deprived; you don’t have the goodies other kids have; you know you are different. For young people in the province in those days, social barriers did not exist," says Jose. "There was no such thing as harsh reality – just reality."
In grade 5, his teacher, Soledad Oriel, introduced him to the novels of Jose Rizal and later to Don Quixote and Willa Cather’s My Antonia. "If you pass by my village, I can still show you that electric post which had one bulb at the time. It was one hundred meters away from our house. I’d walk to that post and read under that light late into the night until my mother would come at one o’clock in the morning to take me back home." He enjoyed the adventures of Don Quixote. "I was eager to find out what that crazy old man would do next," Jose recalls. Yet it was the novels of Rizal that moved him the most. "When I reached the part when the two boys were wrongly accused by the friars, I really cried. I felt that they were punished unjustly."
Rizal’s novels and the tales of his forefathers were to leave an enduring impression in the consciousness of Jose. During the war years, he had a full dose of the novels of William Faulkner, John Steinbeck and Eugene O’Neill. "I was writing so much poetry then I got to thinking that I should write novels and stories and set them in one place. I remembered the stories about my grandfather and the revolution, so I went back to Cabugaw in the 1950s to do my research. I wanted to write about my life, my memories and my people." It took him three decades to write Dusk, a novel that would win him international acclaim.
In the 1930s, peasant rebellions were rife in the Philippines – much of it was a reaction to the oppression wrought by landlords and colonialism. Jose has vivid memories of the Colorum Uprising of 1931. It was then when the municipal hall of Tayug was set ablaze by peasant farmers while a contingent of soldiers from Manila traveled by train to Rosales before reaching Tayug to quell the rebellion. The scene is described in his novel, The Pretenders. Jose explains that such rebellions had religious underpinnings and many who joined these movements believed that the land was the property of all men, not just the province of a few. Their leaders claimed to have the spirit of Rizal in them and the uneducated peasantry fell prey to their god-like messages and exhortations. If there is a single message in Jose’s novels, it is that our revolution has not come full circle. The democratic ideals that sparked the Philippine revolution, Asia’s first revolution for independence in 1896, have barely touched the lives of the rural and urban poor. It is an underlying theme in Jose’s writing and works its way into his conversations, even in lighthearted or unguarded moments.
Now in his early 80s, Jose still writes novels and is a regular columnist for the Sunday Lifestyle section of this newspaper. His books are published in 28 languages and his novels have been adapted for the Philippine theater. Somehow he never tires of returning to the Ilocos, to his beginnings, where like much of the nation, things have changed but have also stayed the same.
Back in his hometown, he tells me that Ilocano homes today, although still humble, are well-maintained and more substantial-looking. Gone are the thatched-roof and tin dwellings of his youth. The province of Laoag is clean and progressive whereas in Vigan he notes," there is an air of decay about the place." He hopes that the local government will give due attention to the reinvigoration of Vigan, the most progressive town in the Spanish regime during the 18th and 19th centuries and the center of the indigo trade. Some of the old houses there, he says, were the result of that very prosperous trade with Europe. As for the village of his youth, school children no longer walk barefoot as he once did; they now sport rubber slippers. But widespread poverty still remains a fact of life in so many villages; so many left behind by progress. This saddens Jose whose heart still resides in his native village. "My tradition is the village with its filth and poverty, its agony and confusion of our striving to be free from it and yet be a part of it."
On the way back to Manila, Jose stops in the famed spots of Ilocos: Fort Ilocandia, the hotel where the legendary sand dunes have been replaced by lowland pines. Pagudpud, a locale of long white sand beaches known for its raw beauty. Batac, the resting place of President Ferdinand Marcos, who is a polarizing figure for most but one who is beloved by the Ilocanos. Although he has been a critic of the Marcos regime, Jose readily concedes that Marcos brought progress to these parts and improved the lot of the farmer, abolishing the old system of tenancy and granting them leasehold rights and security of tenure.
"I wish I could take you to the Ilocos someday," Jose tells me. He could have spent all afternoon telling me countless stories, but nothing takes the place of being there. There is something about walking through the well-trodden paths of history where ordinary men and heroes meet, where the tales of life abound. After our conversation, he makes me think about the memories of youth and how our lives are invariably shaped by the place we call home.
Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi
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