Monday, June 21, 2010


Yesterday being Father’s Day, I am bringing back an old article I wrote when my now-39-year-old son was only three months old.


In times like these, to paraphrase Brecht, a conversation about trees is almost a crime—because it includes a silence about so many misdeeds.

So here I am again, back on the beat after a year at the desk, back with a vengeance, or is it off on another ego trip, at any rate eager to prove to one and all that neither domestic bliss nor the kiss of cooptation has blunted the sense of rage—and what is the first thing I do? Something tantamount to starting a conversation about trees. It’s better than talking about the many varieties of wine, or sunset on Manila Bay, or Image and Archetype in the Poetry of Rolando Carbonell; but fatherhood is still an unlikely topic, however you look at it, for anyone who wants to announce a new lease on his writing life, I mean, in this day and age, when the wit and urbanity of the so-called familiar essay are a drag, an anachronism, if not the equivalent of fiddling while Rome burns, can any reader be bowled over by a light piece, written off the top of one’s head, on the subject of fatherhood?

If I weren’t the author of this article, I probably wouldn’t even bother to proofread it.

But this is, in case you haven’t noticed, our Valentine’s Day issue and an occasional (“belonging or suitable to some special occasion”—Funk & Wagnalls) article was called for, something connected, however remotely, with love. I chose fatherhood.

I chose fatherhood for the plain and simple reason that I became the father of a six-pound, twenty-and-a-half-inch baby boy last November, and I feel I can at least fill up a page or two of this issue with the bits and pieces of nonsense and common sense that I have picked up since then.

The very first thing I learned was to disabuse my mind of the many comic-book notions of fatherhood that the petty-bourgeois mind has absorbed in all the years of cultural conditioning by Hollywood and Reader’s Digest. We all have this picture of the worried father restlessly pacing a waiting-room floor littered with cigarette butts. I never did get around to that. Like Macduff, my boy was not of woman born but was from his mother’s womb untimely ripp’d, and so there simply was no time for this father to make like a smoke-belching PUB. In the time it took me to finish a stick of regular-sized Marlboro Red, a new Lacaba came howling into this wicked world , another helpless creature to be sapped with Original Sin by the Almighty.

The next frame in our comic-book consciousness shows the doctor coming out of the delivery room, peeling off his surgical gloves, while over his head hovers a balloon on which is written: “Congratulations! It’s a baby.” In my case, when the nurse wheeled out a kind of pram from which arose tremendous howls of protest, the doctors (there were two) remained in the delivery room to calibrate the Mrs. with fourteen stitches. I didn’t see where the pram was wheeled into, I couldn’t see the bundle of flesh and bone responsible for all the caterwauling, and none of my anguished importunings could make the nurse reveal the secrets of the delivery room. Was it boy, girl, or what, was all I wanted to know; and all she would say was, “Wait for the doctors.” It made me wonder if my baby’s gender was classified information (had my baby perhaps disclosed who blasted Plaza Miranda with fragmentation grenades?) or whether the heart between the nurse’s ribs was a transplant from a United Fruit banana. I mean, there oughta be a law against keeping first-time fathers in suspense.

Well, it turned out to be a boy, which is supposed to be a rarity in these days of Women’s Lib. Seems that nine out of ten babies being born today is a potential Makibaka activist, and only one is a potential male chauvinist, so that the arrival of a boy has the same effect on earth that the return of a lost sheep has in heaven.

Happiest of all were half the relatives who had won their bets. When the baby was still a fetus in the sinapupunan, everybody had turned Delphic oracle. Some predicted it would be a boy because the mother’s features had grown sharp, others were certain it would be a girl because the mother hadn’t lost her looks; boy because it kicked like vodka, girl because it leaned to the right of the womb; boy because the mother always stepped with left feet first, girl because she stepped any which way; boy because the mother’s neck and armpits had grown slightly darker, girl because the mother was paler than usual. Nobody bothered to see if the father had lost a tooth or grown prey to constipation. The only thing the father was sure of was that his child wouldn’t be a tuta.

So we got a boy, and suddenly a whole new world opened up. Yesterday, I was just padre de familia to a brood of younger brothers and sisters and a widowed mother. Now, I was an honest-to-goodness erpat myself. It was a thought to give one pause, and mythopoeic visions ran through my mind—you know, all that business about Oedipus and the slaying of the father.

But more mundane matters soon banished all fancied terrors from my mind. The Delphic oracles had metamorphosed into Dr. Spocks and were liberal with advice on baby and child care. You don’t want to spoil him, said an aunt, so unless it’s feeding time don’t pick him up, however pitifully he cries. You don’t want him to get gas pains, said another aunt, so be sure to pacify him the moment he cries. If you want a baby girl next time around, said still another aunt, you might try changing places in bed when you go to sleep: ikaw naman ngayon sa kanan…

Sleep, however, among other things, was a luxury we would have very little of in the days to come. Two years ago, I was vice-president of a labor union which counted among its demands a paternity leave of a week or two, if I remember right. The demand was laughed to scorn by Management, and since most of the Union officers were then bachelors, there was nothing we could do but blush in the face of derision. I know now that the demand was not only reasonable but absolutely necessary, and it can be mocked and made fun of only by the rich, by those few who can afford to have their babies cared for day and night by governess, nursemaid, amah, or yaya.

I am by no means destitute, and there is a maid to wash bottles and diapers, a refrigerator to store prepared formula in. I don’t even keep office hours. And yet I haven’t had a good night’s sleep since the baby came. I can just imagine how difficult things are for the typical working-class father who has to put in eight hours of backbreaking physical labor a day, and then goes home at night to a baby who wakes up and wails once or twice in three hours, complaining of a wet diaper or asking to be fed. He’s lucky if the mother has ample milk in her breasts at all times. If not, he must, with superhuman effort, shake off the grogginess in his head, pick up his tired body, and prepare the baby’s formula or change its diapers. Sure, the wife usually has a major share in this task, but in the first few months after birth, and especially if she has had a cesarian, he cannot expect her to do everything all by herself. And the day after each night when he can only sleep in snatches, he has to go back to work, back to the infernal factory, to the emotionless machines, to the foreman who bawls him out for being sleepy on the job. “If conditions make the human being,” it has been said, “we ought to make the conditions human”—and the paternity leave, no less than the maternity leave, is one of those things that make the conditions human, though of course it’s bound to affect profits.

Not only has fatherhood aroused one’s social conscience, it has pricked one’s national pride. This article has taken an unexpected turn, but one might as well pursue the topic to its logical conclusion. All roads, after all, lead to economics: “mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion, etc.” Man may not live by bread alone, but he cannot live without something to put into his stomach.

So, once you get to be a father, you cannot help but reflect on, if not accept, the truth of the activist charge that the national economy is in foreign hands. The higher up on the social scale you go, the more you are likely to realize just how great imperialist control of the economy is. I look around at all the “necessities” that I, like any good burgis father, provide my child with, and I see nothing but foreign, mostly American, labels. On the recommendation of doctors, relatives, and friends, all of whom have been brought up within a colonial social structure, the baby subsists on Mead-Johnson’s Enfamil (“closest to mother’s milk”), obtains his vitamins from Mead-Johnsons Poly-Vi-Sol and United American Tiki-Tiki, is helped out in his bowel movements by Glycerin suppositories, wears Curity Diapers, is bathed with Ivory soap, and smells of Johnson’s Baby Powder, Johnson’s Baby Oil, Johnson’s Baby Lotion, and Johnson’s Baby Cologne, which are supplemented by Fissan Baby Powder, a German product. He used to take his formula from Freflo bottles, British-made and of transparent plastic, which cracked after a month of use, and so we shifted to Sanifeed, also of transparent plastic and apparently of local manufacture; these last have the advantage of wide mouths which make formula-preparing a bit easier, but they leak and the nipples that go with them either have no holes or have holes so big the formula flows like tap water, choking the baby; friends who have had babies of their own are therefore suggesting another shift, this time to Evenflo, which they say enjoys the recommendation of Good Housekeeping or something.

Erpat, fancying himself a nationalist of sorts, ends up in a quandary: the imported is definitely better than the local, so where does that put his nationalism? How is one to have pride in things Filipino when things Filipino are so shoddy? The same realization has led many others to despair of the nationalist alternative altogether, and has given rise to the reactionary conviction that it is silly to protest against all those abstract isms, since the fault begins with the Filipino, who is his own worst enemy. Before blaming others, so the argument goes, let us first blame ourselves. If we are enslaved, it is because we have allowed ourselves to be enslaved.

It’s an argument that negates our own history, which is a history of resistance, of uprisings, insurrections, revolts, all brutally and ruthlessly suppressed. It is an argument, moreover, that confuses effect for cause, that sees the weaknesses of the Filipino as the cause of all his misfortunes, without bothering to inquire into the historical circumstances that have given rise to those weaknesses. Rizal has already demolished, for good, a similar argument in the essay, “The Indolence of the Filipino,” the point of which is that we do not blame ourselves first, because what we are has been shaped by others, by our conquerors.

The thing is to understand why the imported is better than the local, why there is a general lack of national and social progress. The imported is better than the local because the imported will never allow the local to improve and develop; to allow that would be to lose a profitable market for the imported. In other words, the colonizer will never allow the colonized to achieve progress, because such progress can only be to the detriment of the colonizer, just as the progress of the many will unavoidably, inevitably cut into, and if not entirely abolish, the wealth of the few. It’s as simple and as complicated as that.

Once you grasp this truth—unless you are so hopelessly mired in cynicism that you see no solution to anything, or have privileges to protect and therefore instinctively reject any solution that will sweep away those privileges—then it is possible to advance. Once you see that the misery of so many Filipinos is not foreordained but a result of backwardness of the national economy, and once you understand the reason for this backwardness, the conclusion is inescapable: it is not enough to feel a sense of outrage at the sight of so much misery; it is necessary to join in the fight against the abuses of such misery. And you must be prepared to share in the misery, the better to eradicate it.

To get back to our point of departure, you must be prepared—and be willing—to do away with the imported even if the only alternative is to put up with the local, because only by rejecting the imported is it possible for the local to improve and cease to be shoddy. You must be prepared—and be willing—to accept inferior locally made substitutes to come into existence. In the same way, you must be prepared to assume the condition of a peasant if you want to help in the betterment of the peasant’s lot. The idea is to be ready to sacrifice personal (including familial) comfort and ease for the sake of the greater good, now and in the future.

I can almost hear the cynics sneering: here’s another one of those propagandists for paradise, in love with abstractions more than with life itself, championing humanity to the neglect of the human. Some other time, I will narrate the stories of some workers I know, members of our union, men and women of flesh and blood, whose sufferings and aspirations are abstractions only to those who are not even aware that these men and women exist. For the moment, I must be content with generalities.

All too often, those who prate about the quality of human life, those who proclaim their devotion to what is true, human, and abiding, mistake the pimples of their sensitive petty-burgeois souls for the more mundane concerns of the great mass of their fellowmen, whose “anguish” is usually tied up with painfully concrete realities – how to stretch eight pesos a day in order to feed a family of six three times a day, and have enough to spare for the rent, the light, the water, and a new pair of shoes for the school-age kid. I think particularly of Camus, that exquisite existentialist, the humane observer who was so caught up in the contemplation of the eternal verities that when his countrymen in Algeria rose up in revolt, on the very concrete issues of “bread and the land” (in the words of Frantz Fanon), he was taken by surprise, and ended up rejecting, repudiating, virtually condemning his people’s struggle, which didn’t fit his definition of what was true, human, and abiding. “Neither victim nor executioner” was his personal slogan; but he failed to realize that, by refusing to be a victim, or even simply to speak up for the victim, he had aligned himself with the executioner.

I have gone off on quite a tangent, I am afraid, and now I must get back to my son. All I can offer him now, besides his daily dose of imperialist milk, are a few words of advice. Let him always remember that there is “plenty to protest against but nothing to despair about.” For despair, which is the other face of cynicism, “is typical of those who do not understand the causes of evil, see no way out, and are incapable of struggle.”

Asia-Philippines Leader

February 11, 1972

Saturday, June 19, 2010


From the Philippines Free Press, June 12, 2010.
Artwork by Danilo Dalena.

Thanks to Ricky S. Torre, associate editor of the Philippines Free Press, I rediscovered this old article of mine that I had almost forgotten I wrote. This first came out in the magazine’s issue of January 11, 1969, and Ricky thought of reprinting it in this year’s June 12 issue, in time for Jose Rizal’s 139th birth anniversary.


He’s alive and well and living in the minds and hearts of men!

By Jose F. Lacaba

THIS doesn’t seem to be the right time—it’s either too early or rather late, depending on how you look at it—to be writing about the Pride of the Malay Race, especially for a periodical that feeds on the topical. The proper time for pieces of this sort is either early June or late December, which is when they do appear, in horrifying profusion, in every single organ of the Philippines press, without exception; it’s a ritual gesture, the publication of these pieces, like putting out pictorials on flagellants during Holy Week, a ritual propitiation to the gods of the season, and more often than not a pointless exercise in homiletics.

Why, then, write on José Rizal at all, and at so late a date?

The lateness cannot be helped, and will have to be blamed on deadlines and human imperfection; had I known early last month what was to happen on December 30, 1968, the 72nd anniversary of the national hero’s death, I would have lost no time putting down the events on paper; but, alas, I have not my subject’s gift of prophecy, and must be content with dwelling on what’s past. At any rate, Rizal is a man for all seasons; let us not confine all talk of him to the day he was born and the day he was killed. That is the way of politicians.

As to why write on Rizal at all, that is the subject of this dissertation, which should properly be titled, as in grade school compositions, What Rizal Means To Me.

“Like most Filipinos,” Leon Ma. Guerrero writes in a preface to his biography of the hero, “I was told about Rizal as a child, and to me, like to most, he remained only a name.” So it was with me, with the difference that the name was mine, too; the first name, that is. I was named after my father, who is not alive to say if he was named after the hero. Anyway, there it was: José Rizal was my tocayo, and I was not too happy about it. Sometime in grade school, in a subject then (and I believe still) called “social studies,” we were told that one of the hero’s early nicknames was Uté. I remember it, even if I have not found the information corroborated by my meager readings, because for the rest of the school year it was to become the sobriquet by which I was teased and tormented by my classmates. They had been happy enough, until then, to play with the sound of my surname, which yielded such abominations as kalabaw and kabag; now even my first name became a joke. Uté: it had such a repulsive sound; with one letter added, it became a dirty word, and this must be the reason my classmates took such a delight in it. If Rizal remained a name to me, he was a name to be wary of, if not to hate.

The situation was not helped any by an unruly forelock that kept falling in a curl a few inches above my right eye, the exact shape and position of that famous forelock that captivated Josephine Bracken. In later years, before pounds of pomade and years of conditioning raised and flattened my less distinguished forelock, it would be called a Gilopez Kabayao curl, which I found even less flattering. But this was before that accomplished violinist gained fame, and there was this snaky, sneaky lock of hair, and everybody pointed to it as evidence that I was trying my best to look like Rizal. I don’t know why being compared with the Great Malayan annoyed me, but it did, terribly. Rizal was a traumatic experience. Small wonder that I grew indifferent, if not outwardly hostile, to anything that had to do with the man whose statue I would see every day in the town plaza beyond the school walls.

But there was no escaping Rizal. I think it was about the time I became Uté that I read his two novels, in Tagalog, for those were the only copies we had at home, abbreviated, expurgated versions for school use, with a set of questions at the end of each chapter to serve as “study aids.” I was to learn later, in high school, from our religion teacher, that it was forbidden for good Catholic boys to read the Noli and the Fili, they were “bad,” irreligious, and incalculably harmful to youthful morals; and having read the emasculated versions, and not knowing they were emasculated, I could not see why. I do not remember if the prohibition, as prohibitions are wont to do, enticed me to take a second look at the old moth-eaten paperback translations we had. Maybe not; the books stayed in the varnished aparador where they were kept with the Katon and the Pasión and Martir sa Golgota.

And now I must make a somewhat embarrassed confession: in high school I took part in an oratorical contest on Rizal, and won it. It was sponsored by the Knights of Rizal—that was the first time I learned such an organization existed—and was, if I remember right, supposed to be a nationwide tilt. But first, there was an elimination contest to determine who would represent the province of Rizal in the semifinals. I was picked, by the principal, to represent our school. An English teacher was assigned to write the speech; for some reason or other, he chose, from the list of topics suggested by the Knights, the formidable subject of “Rizal and Economic Nationalism.” What solemn pseudo-profundities I mouthed then I am glad I have forgotten, but I was well coached in public speaking, or so the judges must have thought, because they gave me the prize and sent me off as the province of Rizal’s representative to the semifinals in San Pablo City, where, to the disappointment of my mentors and to my immense relief, I merely placed second, making me ineligible to vie for the top prize, a university scholarship or something.

The point of this little tale is that, though no authority on Rizal, economics, or nationalism, and in fact thinking of myself as an antagonist of sorts of the hero whose name I bore, I could invoke his name and his words with a clear conscience, and well enough to impress the judges. This is the way Rizal is invoked to this day in millions of speeches and articles, unthinkingly, as a mere occasion for rhetoric. I must have made an effort, in memorizing my speech, to understand what I was saying; but, onstage, all that mattered was the elegant enunciation, the emphatic gestures, the studied pauses. More than once I lost track of my text; then I would walk slowly to one corner of the stage, or stare with supreme insolence at the hushed audience, while I desperately racked my brains for what came next. When the words finally came, they exploded in the silence with a strength and a force worthy of Cicero. Thus was Rizal won.

I like to think that my blithe disregard for the matter of my speech was an unconscious projection of my lack of respect for the national hero. The secret iconoclast, that was me. I even wrote little verses, in Tagalog, in which I professed to find some contemptible motives behind certain well-publicized acts of Rizal. Like that story about the slipper that fell into the lake. What made us all so sure he didn’t deliberately drop it, and then throw in its partner on some noble pretext, so his parents would buy him a new pair? Things like that—in meter and rhyme. Remember it was a high-school kid, fed up with all the adulatory anecdotes, doing these take-offs in verse. I even had something on his real reason for marrying Josephine—and you can imagine my surprise on learning, much much later, that what I suspected in my boyhood nastiness about Joe and his dear Miss J was true after all!

My quarrel with Rizal was not to end in high school; it only diminished in intensity, for which I have the university to thank. Though it prided itself on being the hero’s alma mater, it was not insistent about its honors, as far as I can remember. My first year in college was the year of the Rizal centennial; there was an exhibition, precisely of what I cannot recall, except that the prize exhibit was the statue of the Sacred Heart Rizal had carved as a student. It made no impression on me. That was the year I was discovering modern art, and so, of course, Rizal was hopelessly corny. And then Rizal was a one-unit course in senior year; I am told his Life and Works are worth three units now, but in my day one unit was all they were good for, and this single unit I didn’t even get. I didn’t write the term paper on Rizal which was practically the only requirement for the course. The result was a grade of “incomplete,” which, unless the grading system has been radically revised, must have with the lapse of time become a shameful 5.

I have gone into this disgraceful history of My Life with the Father of the Country because it is, I think, in many ways, typical. I was not alone of my generation to consider Rizal irrelevant: he was nothing more than the monument on every town plaza of the archipelago. He could even be a pest. Familiarity breeds contempt, and it was easy for adolescents to denigrate the man in whose name our elders exhorted us to nobility and patriotism. It can be irritating to be perpetually referred to as “the fair hope of the fatherland.”

It was my generation, the generation that came of age in the early part of this decade, that was most profoundly affected, whether consciously or not, by the intellectual movement in the ’50s to downgrade Rizal in favor of Bonifacio. Did it start in the ’50s? I do not know my history; what I know is that it was in college that I began to be aware of the myth that Rizal is an American-made hero, chosen by a colonial master as a safer symbol than the revolutionary likes of Bonifacio and Aguinaldo. Where or how I picked up this theory I cannot tell; it was in the air, and it seeped into my generation’s consciousness by osmosis, secretly coloring our outlook and shaping prejudices. In the age of Marx and the proletariat, Bonifacio the Great Plebeian, the man from the masses, was the supreme hero.

In the mid ’60s, Bonifacio, too, got demythologized: he was a failure, said the icon smashers, he had won none of his battles, and he virtually invited liquidation by his high-handedness in Cavite. And that was that. It was no time for heroes. But no, this time it was Aguinaldo’s turn to be resurrected and saved from oblivion. June 12 became Independence Day, and after a little initial skepticism we gloried in the change; many of my contemporaries began writing poems and short stories, for their school organs, about The Revolution, The Republic, The General—always spelled with those respectful capital letters. As an earlier generation had been obsessed with recreating Rizal in their existential image, so, enamored with the romance of The Revolution, we took The General into our hearts, the young Emilio, dashing in his rayadillo, on horseback, and doing his best to make life difficult for the hated Yankee. It all fitted in with the new nationalism of a generation too young to remember MacArthur’s “I Shall Return,” but old enough to be painfully aware of parity and military bases. Aguinaldo, as much as Claro M. Recto, was the hero of the moment.

But now, it seems, Rizal is back with a vengeance.

I may just be imagining this; perhaps Rizal never really left the national consciousness, and only my willful blindness prevented me from realizing the fact. What I see as a sudden interest in Rizal could be just my sudden interest in the subject, my discovery of Rizal. All along, I thought he was as dead as the Spanish regime in the Philippines. Now it turns out, and permit me to announce my modest discovery: Rizal is alive and well and living in the minds and hearts of men!

I made the discovery last Rizal Day, December 30, 1968.

It all began when I was given this assignment, to cover the Rizal Day celebration. The National Historical Commission had lined up a series of lectures, one in the morning in Calamba, by Austin Coates, another in the afternoon in Fort Santiago, by Leon Ma. Guerrero, and a third that same afternoon in Dapitan, by Armando J. Malay. In the evening, in Fort Santiago, the Philippine Educational Theater Association was to present a dramatization of “Elias and Salome,” the chapter that had to be deleted from the original edition of the Noli. I didn’t have to go to Calamba, really, because Coates had written a biography of the hero—Rizal: Philippine Nationalist and Martyr (Oxford University Press)—and all I had to do was read that; but out of sheer curiosity, and because I had never been to Calamba, I decided to go there. If it was at all possible to go to Dapitan and be in Fort Santiago at the same time, I would have gone to Dapitan, too.

The Calamba lecture was at nine, and at 5:30 a.m., by a supreme effort of the will, since I had gone to bed at two a.m., I was up and raring to go. Did I expect any earth-shaking revelation in the town where the hero was born? There was none. Mr. Coates, son of the well-known composer Eric Coates, and a genial, voluble Englishman whom the Historical Commission had somehow knighted (he was “Sir Austin” in the invitations), spoke on the Ultimo Adios. It was a brief talk, scholarly without being stuffy, about how a fairly accurate biography of Rizal could be deduced from the lines of the poem. The small-town folk and the scattering of Manila visitors who had come to listen may have been expecting the usual platitudes as they sat there under the heat of the sun, in the yard of the reconstructed Rizal house; how they received the talk, which seemed more suited for a classroom or a gathering of scholars, is uncertain, but they must surely have been impressed by Mr. Coates, who did not have a prepared speech, but spoke with the facility of one born to the language.

The Coates lecture was a salutary departure from the usual run of Rizal Day addresses, and it mattered little if it got across or not. The amazing thing, to me, was that there were so many people at the Rizal shrine, who were not there under compulsion. I had not realized Rizal was still so popular. When we arrived, there was this small group of men, women, and children, peasants by the look of them, in front of the wreath-surrounded marker, singing what sounded like a long Tagalog epic or dirge about Rizal and what he had done for his country; it sounded like a secular Pasión, and some of the old women, as they sang, were weeping! I couldn’t believe it. Somebody said they were members of the Iglesia Watawat ng Lahi, a sect that worships Rizal as a second Messiah, but the Watawat bishop we would meet later would deny it. A municipal official hushed up the singers when it was time for the program to begin; the leader of the group then laid down their own floral offering, calachuchi stuck to a banana-stalk cross, accompanied by a card that said: Alay sa Sagrada Familia ni Gat Jose Rizal.”

In the Rizal house, we were to see other women kneeling outside the room where, according to a bronze sign, Rizal was born. They were weeping, too. A strange sight, but stranger still was the community formed by the members of the Watahat ng Lahi. After his talk, Coates led the way to Lecheria Hill, where lived the bulk of the Watawat brethren. Atop the hill was a statue of Rizal, a dynamic Rizal, facing west and moving purposefully forward; and a few meters away from the monument was the wooden chapel consecrated to the martyred hero. Portraits of Burgos and Bonifacio flanked the main altar, over which there was a huge painting, obviously by a folk artist, of Rizal being crowned by angels under a triangle from which stared an open eye, the eye of the Lord. “This is historically accurate, you know,” said Coates, pointing to the pictures of Burgos and Bonifacio. “The precursor who inspired Rizal, and the follower inspired by Rizal.”

The visitors from the city had a brief chat with the sect’s head bishop, Luis F. Fabregar, who handed out calling cards. National Library Director Serafin Quiason, who came for the talk and tagged along to Lecheria Hill, requested for any written records the Watawat might have, for the National Library’s files. But there was not much time for a longer conversation with the bishop. Soon we were all on our way back to Manila.

At 4:30 p.m., I was in Fort Santiago for the Guerrero lecture, “Rizal and the Faustian Generation.” Again, the surprising thing was the attendance. Who would have imagined that a talk on Rizal would command an SRO audience? There was an even bigger crowd outside the enclosure where the talk was held. A crush of sightseers packed the building that housed the cell where the hero spent the last night of his life. Even if they had come only to promenade in a beautiful park, they could not help but be exposed to history, they could not help but learn about Rizal.

Part of the crowd that came for the lecture may have been lured there by the renown of the speaker, a celebrity in his own right, especially since Bangkok. If they expected to be bowled over by the eloquence that put the Malaysians to rout, they must have been sorely disappointed. The Guerrero who spoke on the Faustian generation kept mumbling, and lowering his voice to the point of unintelligibility at climactic moments.

Guerrero began his address with a summary of a play that he said he had sometimes thought of writing “in my more mischievous moments.” The play would be called “Rizal Runs for President”—a hilarious, but ultimately tragic, account of how the hero would fare in local politics. “What,” Guerrero asked at the end of his political fable, “is the point of this frivolous fantastication? Am I suggesting that not even the honors and storied glories of Rizal could survive the hazards and rigors of a Philippine election? Or am I perhaps trying to say that Rizal is no longer relevant to this day and age, that he has nothing to say to us?”

What, in the first place, had Rizal to say to his day and age? “Endure, work, and wait for the hand of God.”

“One wonders,” said Guerrero, “how acceptable this message is to a generation that I would describe as Faustian, Faustian partly in the sense that it has sold its soul and thrust aside spiritual values in the race for riches and success, but Faustian also in its other sense of a discontent with the human condition, a restless search for a meaningful life, its anomie.

“Rizal can hardly be a hero to a generation that will not suffer gladly, will not work for nothing, and only half believes in divine intervention or even interest in human affairs. It must have some significance that young Filipino intellectuals seldom, to my knowledge at least, quote Rizal or look upon him as an exemplar.”

But simply because Rizal “shrank from the proclamation of independence and the recourse to arms, because he was an intellectual elitist, skeptical of the instinctive wisdom of the common people, because he was silent on social justice,” was no reason to discard Rizal as a national hero. “The relevance of heroes to other generations should not, after all, be assessed on the basis of what they said or did in some specific and unrepeatable historical situation,” said Guerrero. And “the value, the usability, the relevance of heroes is to be found in a quintessential elan, quite separate from the dross of historical circumstance, a capacity to inspire in quite a different crisis, what succeeding generations have discovered again and again in the compassion and inflexible resolution of Gandhi and Lincoln, the broad vision of Bolivar, Nelson’s dash and Wellington’s imperturbability, the loyalty of the forty ronin [a ronin is an outcast samurai; the reference must be to something in Japanese history], the faith of Isabella and Philip, the moral courage of José Rizal.”

In “his uncertainties, his disconformity and discontent, his anger,” Guerrero concluded, “Rizal is for the young.” He would never have become President. “But he is as durable a hero as we are ever likely to get.”

And so I thought, too, after December 30, 1968. My curiosity now thoroughly piqued, I began the education in Rizal that I had never had. I read the Noli and the Fili, this time in Guerrero’s English translation, and found them fascinating, entrancing, funny, exciting, powerful. I went on to a recently released book, Rizal: Contrary Essays, edited by Petronilo Bn. Daroy and Dolores S. Feria, which is fitfully interesting but on the whole a disappointment. It begins with Unamuno’s perceptive essay on Rizal as the Tagalog Hamlet and ends with a perfectly abstruse piece on “Rizal and the Human Condition” by Epifanio San Juan Jr. Feria contributes a stimulating study of the parallelism in the writings of Rizal and Mark Twain; S.P. Lopez and Carmen Guerrero Nakpil are represented by two essays that sparked the Maria Clara controversy in the 1930s; and Recto’s well-known essay on “Rizal the Realist and Bonifacio the Idealist,” which I had more than once heard of before, gets reprinted (it was originally written in Tagalog, according to the introduction, and I cannot believe this English translation is Recto’s, it is so wretched).

My reading jag extended to two of the more recent biographies of the hero: Guerrero’s The First Filipino and Coates’s Rizal: Philippine Nationalist and Martyr. Both are extremely readable and percipient, but I prefer Guerrero’s. Coates’s is hagiography: his Rizal is almost too perfect to be true; but since his book is for an international audience that must be informed of the existence of an extraordinary, but relatively unknown, Asian, he may be forgiven his enthusiasm. Guerrero’s Rizal seems to me more human, and a Filipino may be forgiven for preferring a biography that places the hero more solidly in the context of Philippine history.

The Coates biography, incidentally, is sure to revive one of the more persistent controversies on Rizal, and this is the question of whether or not he retracted the night before his execution. Coates’s position may not please either side in the controversy. He holds that there was no retraction, and supports his theory with some shrewd deductions. In the course of his argument, he accuses the Jesuits of perpetrating, and perpetuating, a fraud, which is how he brands Balaguer’s account of Rizal’s last hours. What the anti-retractionists may not find to their liking is Coates’s contention that, though Rizal may not have retracted, he remained a deeply religious man to the hour of his death. In fact, Coates uses this as an argument against retraction: “in terms of true religion it would be difficult to say precisely what he had to retract.”

Guerrero’s position is that the inflexibility of Rizal’s views cannot be used as an argument against retraction: “The rationalist will not be convinced by the arguments that failed to convince Rizal. But no one can assert that Rizal could not have humbled himself or that he would not have cancelled with a stroke of the pen the convictions of his scholarship until he himself stands on the brink of eternity, and, beating the feeble wings of human reason, wonders if they will carry him safely across.”

The question of Rizal’s retraction is one of the things about his life in which I have little interest, so I leave the disputations to those with the stomach for it. Discovering Rizal was troublesome enough for me.


First published in the Philippines Free Press, January 11, 1969. Reprinted in the Philippines Free Press, June 12, 2010.

Friday, June 18, 2010

St. Martha's Duckyard

Noong 1988, humigit-kumulang sa 25 taon pagkaraang sulatin ko ang tulang “Awit sa Ilog Pateros,” sinulat ko naman ang isang maikling artikulo tungkol sa Pateros para sa isang magasing wala na ngayon, ang National Midweek. Ako pa ang editor ng magasin nang lumabas ang artikulo sa isyung may petsang Abril 27, 1988.

Ang sumusunod ay isang slightly revised version na nalathala sa antolohiyang Writing Home: Nineteen Writers Remember Their Hometowns, edited by Ruel S. de Vera (Anvil Publishing, 2002).


TOURISTS often have to pass some kind of native test to prove that when in Rome they are quite capable of doing whatever repulsive thing the Romans can do. For political tourists in Manila, the test these days is climbing Smokey Mountain; but for the general run of squeamish visitors the usual test is still eating balut.

Balut is what my mother’s hometown, Pateros, is known for. Pateros is Spanish for duck raisers or duck farmers or duckers, if there’s such a word. It was formerly part of Rizal province; now it’s part of Metro Manila; but it’s such a small town the local joke is that, from the poblacion, when you turn one corner you’re in Pasig, when you turn the opposite corner you’re in Taguig, and when you cross the bridge you’re in Fort Bonifacio, Makati.

Among neighboring towns Pateros is known not only for balut, which we normally pronounce and spell as balot, but also for its bright felt-covered slippers, known as alfombra (which the local gentry wore even to church and formal occasions), its cenaculo, and its Holy Week processions. Pateros still has all those attractions, but these days the balutans, or balut factories, have to import all their duck eggs from Laguna. That’s because virtually all the duck farms are gone, and that’s because there’s virtually nothing left of the Pateros River.

For more than a decade now this tributary of the Pasig River has been dying a slow death from the poisons and chemical wastes and the garbage dumped into the Pasig. The strip of water that remains in Pateros is choked with waterlilies the whole year round. It’s such a thin and shallow strip you can almost wade across to the other side. Political candidates always promise to have the thing dredged, but the last time I looked, the land borders of Pateros and Fort Bonifacio seemed about to meet.

I can still remember when the river was big enough to swim in. It was already dirty and smelly back then, but the dirt and the smell came from the ducks and the laundry and the human waste, which prevented finicky souls like myself from learning to swim but which, at least, were not river-killers. It was a river big enough for the the annual fluvial procession to St. Martha.

The official patron saint of Pateros is San Roque, but for some reason it is Santa Marta whose feast day we celebrate. The feast day of Santa Marta, the biblical virgin who attended to the household chores when everybody else was listening to Jesus, is in July, but again for some reason (probably because July is rainy season) we insist on celebrating on the second Sunday of February.

The story is told that when one of my mother’s forebears, Lorenzo Quiogue, was swimming or perhaps performing his morning ablutions in the river, a huge crocodile appeared and threatened to make duckmeat out of him. He prayed posthaste to St. Martha (I don’t know why he didn’t pray to St. Roch; perhaps virgins make better intercessors), and she obligingly zapped the crocodile. This is, of course, the story told by Lorenzo Quiogue’s descendants, who in eternal gratitude converge on Pateros from all over the world for an annual celebration in August.

Another version of the story is that the crocodile was decimating the ducks when the duckers prayed to St. Martha. As in the first version, she answered the prayers by zapping the crocodile. Ever since then Pateros has honored the virgin saint with a river procession.

When I was a boy the centerpiece of the fluvial procession was a floral arch mounted on a platform carried by three or four bancas lashed together. On this makeshift but elaborately decorated vessel, known among tagailogs as a pagoda, women in balintawak and men in kundiman pants (those red pajamas that Katipuneros wore) would be dancing, and for many of them it was a fertility dance, as in Obando. I can still recall fragments from an early poem I wrote:

Martha, Martha, friend of Jesus,

intercede for us and bring

bring the surge the sway of dancing

into flat bellies and dehydrated skins.

Directly in front of or behind the pagoda was a large colorful wooden crocodile atop a towed banca, and above the crocodile danced, in hieratic frenzy, an old man in harlequin’s costume. In one hand he carried a wooden scimitar; in his other hand, a fishing pole. From the pole hang, like bait, a little plastic doll, obviously a fertility symbol.

A procession of bancas sandwiched the pagoda. The bancas were loaded with goodies bought along by people who had had their prayers answered by St. Martha and who had therefore made a panata, a vow, to express their thanks by showering the watchers on the shore with mangoes, turnips, boiled saba bananas, candies, suman, even balut and red-dyed itlog na maalat.

The river procession was always in the late afternoon. By the time it reached the river’s end darkness had set, and the virgin saint’s image would be taken down from the pagoda and taken back to church in another dancing procession: literally dancing in the streets! an orgy of dancing in the streets. I once thought of writing a short story with the Pateros fiesta as backdrop, but was afraid it would sound too much like Nick Joaquin’s story on San Juan’s tatarin.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have abandoned the project. Unless the Pateros River gets dredged, the pagoda could die like the tatarin, and be remembered only as an element in a writer’s story. On the other hand, if the river does get dredged and the pagoda is restored to its former glory, there is danger—now that the original religious and ritualistic impulse of the fiesta is gone and only its mercantile possibilities remain—that it would be transformed into a commercialized tourist undertaking like Aklan’s ati-atihan and Marinduque’s morion.

I don’t know which prospect I dread more.

-- Jose F. Lacaba

From: Writing Home: Nineteen Writers Remember Their Hometowns, edited by Ruel S. de Vera (Anvil Publishing, 2002).