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Who Can Redeem Mother Filipinas?

Sitting in Darkness: Americans in the Philippines

by David Haward Bain
Houghton Mifflin, 464 pp., $24.95

Revolution in the Philippines: The United States in a Hall of Cracked Mirrors

by Fred Poole, by Max Vanzi
McGraw-Hill, 357 pp., $18.95

The Philippines After Marcos

edited by R. J. May, edited by Francisco Nemenzo
Croom Helm (London and Sydney), 239 pp., £17.95


The view from the small church in Calamba, a village about fifty miles south of Manila, is spectacular: on one side is a large lake called Laguna de Bay, on the other is Makiling, a sacred mountain with many caves which peasants believe to be the portals of paradise. Between the mountain and the lake lie the rice fields of Luzon, a relatively prosperous region, traditionally hospitable to rebels and bandits, including some now fighting against the regime of President Ferdinand Marcos.

The church itself is unremarkable—it is more like a ramshackle town hall. The walls inside are covered with murals depicting scenes from the Passion, the usual thing in Philippine churches. But there is one peculiar twist: “Christ” is a dapper little man with a mustache, wearing a dark suit, cut in the nineteenth-century European style. And instead of being nailed to the cross on Golgotha, this Christ is executed by a Spanish firing squad in Manila in 1896. He is Dr. José Rizal, a medical doctor and nationalist writer, worshiped by many as a Filipino messiah.

His twelve apostles, all depicted on the church wall, are fellow nationalists and revolutionaries who fought against Spanish rule at the end of the nineteenth century. There are the Fathers Burgos, Gómez, and Zamora, native priests who challenged the power of the Spanish friars. They were publicly garroted for their alleged leadership of an anti-Spanish mutiny. There is Andres Bonifacio, a warehouse clerk from the city of Tondo (now part of Manila and one of the worst slums in Southeast Asia), who founded the Katipunan, a secret society dedicated to violent revolution. (Imelda Marcos would later use the society’s initials, KKK, to lend an aura to one of her “people’s development” projects.) There are Marcelo H. Del Pilar, the brilliant propagandist for reforms, and Apolinario Mabini, the main political thinker behind the Philippine revolution. (Their names now grace the two streets in Manila collectively known as the “strip,” the center of go-go bars, massage parlors, child prostitution, and VD clinics.) And there is also Ferdinand Blumentritt, an obscure Austrian schoolmaster, who never set foot in the Philippines, but who owes his holy eminence to his lifelong position as Dr. Rizal’s intellectual pen pal.

This particular church dedicated to the worship of Rizal—there are many others like it—is called the Iglesia Watawat ng Nahi, Inc., or Banner of the Race, Inc. It was founded in 1936, when American colonizers required all organizations to be incorporated. The founder, Arsenio de Guzman, claimed to be a new Rizal with the power to lead his followers to the land of promise. A church pamphlet explains that the sect was “purposely organized for the Filipinos to have a Christian religious sect of their own, independent of foreign domination.” Rizal, the same pamphlet informs us, was sent to earth as a “Malayan Avatar who was appointed by Divine Power and ordained to earth in this new cycle to redeem His people from slavery.”

In more prosaic versions of history Rizal was the highly educated son of upper-class Filipino parents, who, like all members of the elite, were a racial mixture of Spanish, Indio, Chinese, Malay, even Japanese. He lived much of his life abroad, mostly in Spain, where, like many ilustrados (enlightened ones), he picked up novel European ideas such as nationalism. Through his writings, the most famous of which are two novels, Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, both compulsory reading at Philippine schools, he propagated these ideas. He was opposed to the power of Spanish friars in the colony, and wanted the Philippines to be represented in Madrid’s legislature, not as a colony but as a province. More than anything else, he wanted Filipinos to be treated as equals by the Spanish.

Rizal’s holy stature lies in the manner of his death. As the church pamphlet puts it (referring both to Christ and Rizal), with slight historical license: “Both their martyrdom marked the beginning of the end of two once powerful and ruthless empires in the world—the Roman Empire in the case of Christ and the Spanish empire in the case of Rizal.” Or in the words of a more conventional though no less reverent historian, Gregorio Zaide: “Rizal’s home-coming in 1869, the last in his life, was his saddest return to his beloved native land…. Gladly, he desired to meet his enemies and to offer himself as a sacrificial victim to their sadistic lust and unholy designs for he knew that his blood would water the seeds of Filipino freedom.”

There is a pattern in this kind of language which has been little studied. It disturbs middle-class Filipino notions of modernity. But like a primary color which endless paint jobs cannot quite hide, it has a way of shining through even the many layers of American-style education. Catholic imagery of death and redemption, the main legacy of three hundred years of Spanish rule, merged with Malay beliefs in spiritual power, or anting-anting. Great leaders have such powers because they are the spiritual incarnations of former leaders. The cult of Rizal is, as it were, a Christian form of national ancestor worship. The dominance of Christian forms shows to what extent native forms were wiped out.

One of the few historians to have taken these nationalist beliefs seriously is Reynaldo Ileto. He traces the forms of peasant rebellion back to folk versions of the Passion, in which the Spanish conquest of the Philippines is likened to the fall from Paradise, and Mother Filipinas must be redeemed by faith and sacrifice, by death and resurrection. Such acts of redemption have been led by a succession of messiahs, not usually from the upper class as was Rizal, but peasant rebels promising paradise and freedom. New Filipinized Christian faiths have come up, rejecting the false colonial prophets. Rizal himself is said to be waiting in his cave in Mount Makiling for the right moment to emerge and redeem the motherland. Filipinos are still waiting. In the meantime many messiahs have come and gone.

General Douglas MacArthur came in October 1944. He was nothing if not a good PR man, and knew more than most Americans about the Philippines. “I shall return,” promised matchboxes and leaf-lets dropped from American planes. After wading through the surf at Leyte, corncob pipe clenched in his determined jaw—a scene made eternal throughout the country by hideous sculptures—he made a remarkable radio speech to the waiting Filipinos: “I have returned. By the grace of Almighty God our forces stand again on Philippine soil—soil consecrated in the blood of our two peoples…. The hour of your redemption is here.” This year a newspaper columnist commemorated the event by stating that the landing “finally brought about a completion of the Fil-American cycle of setback and triumph, of Calvary and Resurrection.” There is something extraordinary about a colonized country receiving the general of the colonial power back as a savior. And indeed the spirit of MacArthur hovers around the Philippines as much as Rizal’s. But more about this later.

Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino returned to redeem his country from Marcos in 1983. He was perhaps the most Rizalesque of modern messiahs. The ilustrado son of a wealthy family of landowners, he was hardly a revolutionary, more a pro-American reformer. At the beginning of his career, he was a typical macho politician, tough enough for Marcos to respect him more than any other politician. Part of being typical was to be a womanizer (so, incidentally, was Rizal; the church pamphlet gets around this by stating that women were attracted by “his virtues”). Only during his seven years in jail during the martial law period did Ninoy become more introspective, spending much time reading the Bible, and Rizal. In a letter from jail he wrote: “I now realize why Rizal reserved a little book by Thomas à Kempis, ‘The Imitation of Christ,’ for his beloved Josephine…. It was from this little book that he drew the strength of his spirituality.” He then went on to say that if Rizal had been alive today he, too, like Aquino, would have been arrested, and “maybe, reenact his martyrdom…. If I, however, understand the truth of our tragedy and have been wanting in my denunciation of the tyrant who dragged back Mother Filipinas to her dungeon in chains, I hope God will forgive me for failing to rise up to the occasion.”

He did of course rise to the occasion. And whoever had him killed at Manila International Airport on August 21, 1983, made the same mistake as the Spaniards who ordered Rizal’s execution. His death released an extraordinary wave of popular energy. Hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated in the streets of Manila for months. It was one of the rare times in Philippine history that the many disparate forces of society came together in a kind of nationwide fiesta. “Ninoy you are not alone” was one of the most popular slogans on T-shirts, key rings, bumper stickers, and banners. “A Filipino is worth dying for” was another. It was as if only a martyr’s death could unite this divided, fractious society; as if Ninoy’s death proved to Filipinos their worth as a people; as if this image of suffering briefly gave the nation a sense of identity.

Opposition papers made much of this image. One of the more imaginative ones, called Mr. and Ms., had Ninoy’s death mask on the cover. In one issue in late 1983 was the following passage: “Gazing at his blood-soaked chest and his wounded face still bearing its bullet-marks, …a grief stricken people were actually gazing not only at Ninoy Aquino but at themselves, bloodied and wounded by a long history of colonial domination, still suffering from foreign and native suppression.”

It is a typically Filipino kind of hyperbole. The empathy with suffering and death, sometimes bordering on a morbid fascination, is part of everyday life. The visitor stumbles across it in the most unexpected places. Not long ago a bar girl in Manila, after about ten minutes of desultory conversation, said she wanted to show me something and proceeded to fish a photograph from her bag. It showed an open coffin, elaborately decorated with flowers. “My mum,” she said matter-of-factly, pointing at the waxen face peeking out of the flowers.

In Escalante, a village on the island of Negros, where twenty-seven people were recently shot dead, during a street demonstration, by paramilitary troops sponsored by a local landlord, a group of nuns passed around a sheaf of color photos of the “martyrs,” taken at the local clinic. People casually leafed through the pictures, commenting on the more gory wounds. One person arrived with a little bottle, which elicited much interest. It contained what looked like a raw meatball: it was the eye of one of the victims.

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