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Saint Cory and the Yellow Revolution

The Snap Revolution

by James Fenton
Granta, 256 pp., $6.95

People Power: An Eyewitness History

edited by Monina Allarey Mercado
The James B. Reuter, S.J., Foundation (Manila), 320 pp., $29.95

Bayon Ko!

Veritas (Manila), 191 pp., $32.50

Crisis in the Philippines: The Marcos Era and Beyond

edited by John Bresnan
Princeton University Press, 284 pp., $10.95 (paper)




(Daily Express, Manila)

The most remarkable thing about Lorenzo Tanada’s eighty-eighth birthday party on August 10 was the cake. Tanada, a former senator, has had a long and consistent career as a “nationalist.” Although Filipino wags love to tell you that Tani, as the senator is known to his friends, hardly knows the difference between Groucho and Karl, his brand of nationalism has been defined over the years by such Marxist historians as Renato Constantino, whose books fill long shelves in Manila bookstores. Tani’s nationalism is a struggle for liberation from, among other egregious enemies, the CIA, the IMF, multinationals, the US military bases, in short, American imperialism. As Constantino pointed out in a speech during Tani’s birthday party, the senator was born in the same year that Commodore Dewey sank the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay. He is still battling what Constantino calls “the forces responsible for our lack of independence.”

The nationalist birthday party was organized by a group called Bayan, a nationwide organization of so-called cause-oriented groups with strong links with the Communist party of the Philippines (CPP). The wild cheers that greeted the representatives from the Cuban and Vietnamese embassies were thus to be expected. Even the almost hysterical joy with which a whole row of nuns acclaimed a birthday message from the National Democratic Front (NDF), an organization virtually indistinguishable from the CPP, did not seem out of place. Nor, this being the Philippines, did the entire congregation singing “Happy Birthday to You” in English seem especially incongruous.

It was, as I said, the cake that was most curious. It was a huge slab of confectionary upon which artful chefs had re-created the February revolt. There were sugar barricades in front of camps Crame and Aguinaldo; there were little toy nuns defying little toy tanks; there were chocolate signposts pointing to the US embassy and Subic Bay naval base; there were miniature helicopters hovering overhead. This splendid cake was further embellished with marzipan hand grenades. What was peculiar, however, was the depiction of People Power itself: there were no yellow banners, signifying the spirit of the Aquinos—the late husband and his widow—just red ones representing militant trade unions and leftist groups. This was strange because it was false. People Power was overwhelmingly yellow, moderate and religious. The left had missed the bus in February. History was rewritten in the icing of Tani’s cake.

According to this version of history the leftists are the only true representatives of Filipino nationalist aspirations; the only legitimate heirs to the 1896 revolution against Spain, which, according to received wisdom in leftist circles—and increasingly beyond—was robbed by the Americans and betrayed by the Filipino elite. The February revolt was only the beginning. It is now up to the left to finish the job. As a writer in a left-wing magazine put it, “People Power must be transformed into People’s Power”—as in People’s Republic.

The birthday cake was also an example of the extraordinary confusion, sometimes deliberate, sometimes not, of symbols in the Philippines today. This is partly a question of language. An editorial writer for a Sunday newspaper pointed out that

the top leaders and private educators speak English while the masses speak the vernacular. Because of “the lack of a common language from which flows the soul and aspirations of Filipinos,” we remain today still a divided and weak nation.

Perhaps because no language can properly articulate the national experience, past or present, Filipinos tend to express the common cause in symbols—hand gestures, religious objects, jokes, T-shirt slogans, colors, pictures. This is why it is always dangerous to take words at face value in the Philippines; language itself is so often symbolic, based on borrowed rhetoric, expressing a vision of reality instead of what merely exists. There are now more than twenty daily newspapers in Manila, most of which are in English. From one sensational headline to another, they offer widely different interpretations of the same events. This points to a problem that goes beyond language, a problem hinted at in a poem by Alfredo Navarro Salanga, entitled “A Philippine History Lesson.”

It’s a history that
moves us away
from what we are
We call it names
assign it origins
and blame the might

That made Spain right
and America—bite.

This is what it amounts to:
we’ve been bitten off, excised
from the rind of things

What once gave us pulp
has been chewed off
and pitted—dry.

One is struck by the Rashomon-like quality of almost any event in the Philippines, beginning with the February revolt itself. To some it was a revolt, to others a revolution, to others yet a religious miracle. Jaime Cardinal Sin reminded his flock in a pastoral letter in August that divine intervention brought about the success of the February events. He called it a modern-day exodus that was the gift of Mary to the Filipino nation after the one-year celebration of her two-thousandth birthday. There is an exhibition in Manila of paintings and sculptures depicting the revolt, revolution, or miracle. Most of the works are symbolic: M-16 guns with yellow ribbons tied to them; nuns praying for liberation from the “Marcos-US dictatorship”; ghastly skulls draped in a bloody American flag; nice middle-class people dressed in yellow holding back tanks; rosary beads held up to a vision of Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino smiling from heaven; barbed wire from the barricades in the shape of the sacred crown of thorns; New People’s Army guerrillas marching to a glorious future, arm in arm with workers and priests waving red banners; a wounded Mother Filipinas, raped by American Imperialism, and so on and so forth. The only image lacking in this exhibition was the poster I saw elsewhere of Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile looking like a bespectacled Rambo, bravely leading his armed troops to victory in Manila. After the exhibition I attended a PEN club meeting. Members discussed the topic for a forthcoming lecture. National Renewal and the Filipino Writer, suggested one person. No, National Revival, said another. No, Restoration. No, Reconstruction.




(Manila Bulletin)

The feverish search for symbolic significance, for common cause, for anything to keep the February spirit alive, can lend a mythical quality to the most banal, even sordid events. In July a worker called Stephen Salcedo got caught up in a demonstration by Marcos supporters. Because he wore the wrong colored shirt, or made a provocative gesture, or perhaps both, he got beaten to death by a group of “loyalist” thugs. It caused a huge rumpus in the local press. One letter writer to a national magazine stated that

the innocent and hapless Stephen Salcedo died a martyr. Together with others like him, he is one of the YELLOW MARTYRS of our exodus to the promised land. May the blood of Stephen and his companion hasten our people’s passage to reconciliation.

The same magazine came out several weeks later with a serious article, entitled “What Two Martyrs Had in Common,” comparing Salcedo with “Ninoy” Aquino. Among other things, “both their surnames have three syllables and end with an O.” Perhaps, as an old Philippine hand pointed out, it is their misfortune that Filipinos have to express Malay mysticism in English. A month later a provincial prosecutor and prominent Marcos loyalist called Felizardo Lota was shot dead in front of the Manila Hilton. Several unsavory fellow loyalist types, including two former movie actors, were said to be involved. A sympathetic radio announcer said that “loyalists are proud to produce a real martyr” and that “Fiscal Lota sacrificed his life for the restoration of peace against violence, love against hatred and democracy against slavery.”

I met a former official spokesman for Ferdinand Marcos at a radical chic party, where society ladies looked on adoringly as José Maria Sison, the founder of the Communist party, sang “To Dream the Impossible Dream” at the piano. “Much though I hate to say this about my fellow countrymen,” said the spokesman, “Filipinos are not a serious people.” The wild flights of rhetoric, the instant mythology, the constant jokes, the substitution of analysis with sensational rumor, all these do indeed suggest an extraordinary degree of frivolity. But one should not be deceived by appearances. Fantasy is the last recourse of the dispossessed. And, to quote an old but still delightful cliché, three hundred years in a convent and forty years in Hollywood have left Filipinos culturally dispossessed. One is rather lost for words when a Filipino businessman tells one that “at this point in time we are not yet fully Filipino.” The quest for meaning and national pride may be pathetic but it is certainly serious.

It was to a large extent what the February events were all about. Marcos and his discredited government were the enemy, or in the parlance of the Church, “the forces of Evil”; Cory Aquino and her yellow crusaders were the forces of Good. But the ultimate aim of this moral revolt went further than ousting Marcos; it was the assertion of national pride, the celebration of a common cause, an occasion for feeling truly Filipino. James Fenton in The Snap Revolution caught this atmosphere well. After the fall of Marcos and the chaotic scenes in the Malacañang Palace, Fenton went out into the street with a happy Filipino. “All was quiet again. He had a glass of whiskey in his hand. He had been celebrating. ‘You don’t realize,’ he said, ‘how deep this goes. Nobody will call us cowards again. We’ve done it. We’ve had a peaceful revolution. We’ve beaten Poland.’ “

Earlier on Fenton bursts out to a group of NPA guerrillas:

Well, let me just say this. I think the worst thing the Americans have done recently, but I’m only talking about recently, has been over this election. To push Marcos for reform, to insist on an honest election when he offered one, to watch people go out and risk their lives and actually get killed in the hopes of an honest election—and then to turn around and pretend nothing has happened—I think that’s purely cynical. I think that what Reagan said about there having been cheating on both sides was absolutely wicked.

Fenton was quite right. It was wicked. But I think worse damage was done after the revolt, revealing stupidity more than wickedness. This was the self-congratulatory manner in which Washington officials claimed the revolt as an American success. They were applauded for this by most American columnists. Even Anthony Lewis, not normally a friend of this administration, chimed in by stating that “Reagan and his people responded to realities with great speed and impeccable timing.” Even if this were the case—and conspiracy-crazed Filipinos are quite ready to see the CIA behind everything that moves—it should not have been put in this simplistic way. Such statements were a kick in the teeth of Filipino nationalism. “Nobody will call us cowards again. We’ve done it”—and for the second time since 1898 the Americans were trying to take it away from them.

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