May 22, 2003
N.V. M. GONZALES
Incorrigibly optimistic, I keep gazing into crystal balls. In one, I see a bright future: if we stay with the English language just a bit longer a decade or so perhaps, we might make our mark in world publishing. The signs are there: we are developing a readership of our own in English. You may not be aware of it, but we are the object of a not inconsiderable admiration and guarded envy of writers in Malaysia and Singapore; they think we have it made, proud vanguards that we are of American culture in our part of Asia. Their Commonwealth literature is in English but very much bound to London; we, on the contrary, have begun not to mind New York.
But there is one hitch. How long will this audience we are building here last? Is there, in fact, an audience? Can we expect to raise the level of support that we believe exists? What is this talk about the reading and writing of English in a country gone kaput? Hasn’t our bilingual language policy brought about a massive slippage in English and dormancy in Filipino?
Filipino can grow only if we create as Filipino, a community, and this we are not doing. The billboards in, say, Quiapo tell you outright that you are on a typical Third World street that colonialism has continued to plunder, and in a style improvised to accommodate nationalism and ideological tensions in a seemingly new social order.
What our 97 years of America have created are two cultures. In the first, our best writers in English may achieve renown, but at the risk of alienating themselves from their native roots as progressively as they gain repute. In the second, creativity gives priority to coping with new kinds of poverty and powerlessness, the consequences of the neglect and mishandling of our natural and cultural resources, eventuating in the emergence of a population whose first wish is flight and escape.
This crystal ball is foggy after all.
Not too long ago, walking in hallway past a few students, I overheard one girl ask her companion about a talk I had given earlier that morning: “Did he have new stuff to say this time?” she said.
What is there new to say? The generation is impatient, and brightly so. As you shuffle on toward nine-and-seventy, about which I am getting rather embarrassed, you either have something to add to the day’s grief or nothing. We are in the middle of a cultural “red tide,” the kind that people who make their living by fishing dread, when mussels in the flats are poisonous, the beaches abominably dirty.
I came home from the United States several months ago terribly uneasy about how to let friends know, how the Philippines has been attracting the worst press ever. To my relief, this was nothing new hereabouts. And more more bad news has been coming. It’s impossible to dine at a decent Manila restaurant now and not feel guilty about your left-overs, if only because the sight of them recalls to you how, judging a recent newspaper article, it’s a no-no to ask for a doggie bag on London. Your waiter won’t understand you unless you say instead , “ Can I have a Filipino-housemaid bag?
“Today,” to quote from the article, an estimated 3.5 millions Filipino work abroad as servants, seamen, construction workers, musician, and bar girls. They remit U.S. $3 billion annually-roughly 15%of the country’s national budget. That’s no mean figure for a country that exports only $8 billion a year.
I remember watching a TV talk show host and her four guests- important gentlemen dressed to the nines-discussed education problems, such as our involvement with English. The discussion was heated, although larded enough with good humor.
But what I heard was Taglish. I have said this a little too often for comfort, but Taglish has become our national language. It is what 90 years of English have created in our country.
If we are the words we speak, we are in fact many nations. Under Spain, there had been a try at making us into Spanish-speaking people, but three centuries did not suffice. Then America came and also failed. Worse, Apo Mallari of Mt. Pinatubo did not appear too to approved the effort either. He had reasons of his own.
There are not too many countries whose futures are determined by volcanoes. Volcanoes delineate the area we might call Philippine American culture.
Taal erupted during the early part of this century, killing 1,500 or so Batangueños. We do not see the connection instantly. Consider, however, that around the same time, about the same number of Americanos had been fielded to teach Filipino boys and girls “Ole Black Joe” and “Down Upon the Sewanee River.” There must be something to Mt. Pinatubo’s eruption almost 90 years later and the eventual dispersal of American troops and the closing of both Clark and Subic Military bases.
Alas! Even this intervention by Apo Mallari has not changed the drift of events too much. Aren’t there rumors about welcoming a new batch of Peace Corps? If you include Frank Sinatra’s concert in Manila, what is the over-all picture created by this demonstrated commitment? What is behind the hugely primal participation of geology and the continued maintenance doses of American culture? Is American hegemony not after all succeeding?
In an Independence Day speech, Pres. Fidel V. Ramos could not have been more sanguine about our breaking free of our many kinds of enslavement. There was no mention, however , about our enslavement by the culture of commerce and consumerism into which we have been drawn. The English language, at the level we could receive it, provided a most appropriate preparation for it. The hesitations over the years and policy confusions were related to the development of a national language. You do not need to know Balagtas or T.S. Eliot to be a flag waver for Coca-Cola or McDonalds.
Our vocabulary has been enriched by pensionado (government scholar), balikbayan (returning overseas Filipino), trapo (traditional politician) and of course, DH (domestic helper), who has become the backbone of our remittance economy.
We recognize the trapo in relation to the ideal public official of our imagination , the balikbayan in contrast to the less venturesome neighbor or friend who has stayed home instead of trying his luck in Saudi Arabia or on board a Norwegian freighter; we think of the DH, say in the popular song, were the daughter back home sings, “Mama is a maid in London”.
Great Filipino literature will emerge from the anguish derived from this new form of slavery. It will be written in some of the vernaculars and should keep English in an English that shall become our vernacular. Our policy fiasco will be forgotten. Forgetting appears to be in our generic structure. We should be asking: “How did it happen?”
The answer is in the native culture that we overlooked, that at nearly every point we disdained unless for a purpose of display of a claimed authenticity, as in our stylized tourist-trade-oriented dance performances, and our attempt to assuage nostalgia by using the vernacular from time to time. The word verna is Latin for “home-born slave”, a native! So it is, in a very real sense, the hewer of wood and drawer of water coming to our rescue. One vernacular, Tagalog, the much-approved basis for the national language, now already serves as the true and real national language today-as Taglish.
The national treasure trove remains accessible in Tagalog and small languages like Kiniray-a, Aklanon, and Tausug, with untold wealth in proverbs, riddles, and legends. Their diversity has been saving essential story that we should be telling about ourselves- the saga of our occasional triumphs, our frequent defeats, the chronicles of our celebrations and growth. Beneath the debris of colonialism, disguised economic reforms, cultural movements and complimentary activities are pillar-images that hold us together and provide the self-esteem with which we confront the challenges of the moment.
The first pillar-image is the strength and steadfastness symbolized by the molave tree. In his expressionist way the Commonwealth Prize-winning poet Rafael Zulueta da Costa made of this in his book Like the Molave, which today could read as more celebratory than poetic. But the shrewd reader, once aware of the traditions of the Balagtasan, would know how to accommodate and judge its value.
Our second symbol is the bamboo, mistakenly bandied about as indicative of resiliency and hence capability to compromise. This reading is a colonial concoction which, alas, we thought was flattering. The more significant fact about the bamboo is its rhizomatous quality, and its longevity for that reason. It is mimicked by the cogon grass, whose durability has been misunderstood. Next time you see a stretch of cogon, execute a generous and respectful salute. You have come in the presence of a hero.
And for our third image, what would it be but also bamboo-related? For the bamboo is brother to the outrigger, the banca of our littoral and rivers. We have no handier symbol for balance and our unending search for balance.
And now our forth pillar-image: two pieces of wood, Kalutang, musical sticks, if you may, which are important to Hanunoo folk when gathering food in the forest. From time to time they pause and play a tune by beating sticks one against the other, creating a haunting and lilting rhythm. Should my soul be left behind, they would tell you, then it would know where I am.
The last time I heard the musical sticks was when I was in New York, when, after a reading that I did of my story. “ A Warm Hand” at the American Academy Poets, what should come from the far end or the hall and head for the lectern, playing all the while, but Harold C. Cocklin. An old friend, he had heard of the reading and borrowed the sticks from the Peabody Museum of National History, of which he was curator. I thought it was a most dramatic, not to say timely demonstration. But under the circumstances, I could not explain what it all meant to my American audience.
For this is what happens: there’s a treat of my alienation at the end of the trail. My friend Cocklin was wise in coming, and his Kalutang was a reminder that while you may refuse to remain a hewer of wood and drawer of water, you should know where you are in the larger scheme of things.