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The Bartered Bride

In Our Image: America’s Empire in the Philippines

by Stanley Karnow
Random House, 494 pp., $24.95

The US and the Philippines: In Our Image Neudel, KCET, Los Angeles

A three-part television series, produced by Andrew Rearson and Eric

Ermita: A Filipino Novel

by F. Sionil José
Solidaridad Publishing House (Manila), 258 pp., Pesos 120

I heard the story from Francisco (“Franky”) Sionil José, the foremost Filipino novelist in English: a group of American and Filipino friends at a smart dinner party were discussing the US bases in the Philippines. One of the Americans mentioned the increasing number of AIDS cases among American sailors. “That’s what you guys get for screwing us,” said a young Filipina, quick as a flash.

The image is apt. It is hard to discuss what Filipinos call the Fil-American relationship honestly without resorting to sexual imagery. Screwing, literally and figuratively, is the operative word. Filipino accounts of their national history leave the overwhelming impression of a people that has been screwed by powerful foreigners (and their local mimics) for centuries. The picture of a beautiful woman in native dress being raped by the alien conquerer has become a cliché of Filipino iconography. You come across her everywhere, in movies, cartoons, novels, and on posters displayed in street demonstrations.

Power often contains a sexual element, but the Philippines is somehow special. It is hard to think of the Dutch subjugation of the East Indies or the Spanish conquest of South America in terms of screwing; exploitation, certainly, large-scale killing, yes indeed, but not screwing. Is it perhaps because of a masochistic streak in Filipino behavior, a willing submission to superior might, which is degrading and at the same time almost voluptuous? As an American character in F. Sionil José’s latest novel, Ermita, observes to his Filipina girlfriend: “Filipinos get screwed because they like being screwed.” One of the best descriptions of the Fil-American relationship I have ever read is a Playboy magazine article about the US navy base in Subic Bay, by the American novelist P.F. Kluge.1 An unforgettable passage describes the ramshackle pleasure town called Subic City, “Home of the three-holer”:

And now, here you are, and it looks like a Mexican town, something the Wild Bunch might ride into, everything facing a main street, with jeepney after jeepney of sailors tumbling out, the smell of barbecue mixing with diesel fumes, cute, lively, incredibly foul-mouthed girls saying hello and asking what ship you’re from and offering head, and the juke-boxes from a dozen bars playing all at once, and the song you notice is Julio and Willie doing “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before,” and you climb to King Daryl’s, where dozens of girls await just you, and you take a chair right at the edge of the balcony, with a King Shit view of the street, and you have a beer in one hand and a pork-satay stick in the other, and a woman between your legs, which are propped up against the railing, and you know you have come to a magical place, all right, a special magic for a nineteen-year-old Navy kid, the magic of a place where anything is possible. And cheap.

Offering head to whoever happens to be king of the mountain seems to have become second nature to many Filipinos. To be down there, between the legs of the Spanish friar or Uncle Sam, or Ferdinand Marcos, or whoever, has become the natural place to be. But screwing has another meaning as well: that of betrayal. Philippine history is also a story of betrayal; those who offer head so willingly usually end up being screwed in both senses of the word, the bitter and seemingly ever recurring experience of a submissive people that expects too much in return.

How did this gifted, humorous people get into such a sorry state? Stanley Karnow’s highly engaging history offers us many pointers. It is rich in facts as well as lively description. The astonishing thing is that no American, to my knowledge, has written such a book before; astonishing, considering that the Philippines was America’s only major colony, but then again, that might explain it: the Land of the Free ought not to have had any colonies. Still, as Karnow points out many times, the United States, after a bloody campaign to take control of the Philippines was, on the whole, a benevolent and enlightened master. And José likes to remind one of the days, not long ago, when “Bangkok was a backwater, Jakarta a big village and Singapore a sleepy colonial outpost, while Manila was the richest and most cosmopolitan city in Southeast Asia.” Why, then, has the Philippines, which had everything going for it, turned into such an unholy mess?

The first encounter with the West, in the shape of Magellan, who arrived in the Philippine archipelago in 1521, went smoothly enough. A tribal chieftain called Humabon was converted to Christianity on the spot. Magellan named him Charles in honor of the Spanish king. But soon disaster struck: Humabon asked Magellan to go and punish a rival chieftain called Lapu Lapu. Lapu Lapu, a fierce-looking character with feathers in his hair, didn’t take kindly to this and his men hacked Magellan to death. Jeane Kirkpatrick tactfully reminded newspaper readers of this event in 1986, just as Marcos was digging his heels in, as a warning to Washington not to get involved in native squabbles. As for Lapu Lapu, his portrait now hangs in the presidential palace in Manila. He had been forgotten for centuries until, as Karnow notes, “contemporary Filipino nationalists revived his memory in an effort to endow the Philippines with a historical continuity that never quite existed.”

A famous Filipino historian, Teodoro Agoncillo, once said there was no Philippine history before the end of the nineteenth century. What he meant was that there was only Spanish history, written by Spaniards, mostly about Spaniards. There are no great pre-Spanish monuments, no pre-Spanish literature, indeed not even many pre-Spanish names, and certainly few pre-Spanish heroes, except, of course, Lapu Lapu. The nineteenth-century Filipino elite, educated in Spanish, was quite literally the product of Spanish screwing, the so-called mestizo offspring of friars, soldiers, and local girls, whose charms had also attracted many a Chinese trader. The great national hero José Rizal, a reformer who pleaded for equality with Spain in the 1890s, was, according to the historian Gregorio F. Zaide, a mixture of Negrito, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, and Malay—“a magnificent specimen of Asian manhood.”

To seek equality with the alien power is of course not the same as overthrowing it, although it could be dangerous enough. Another national hero, Father José Burgos, a mestizo and not as Karnow calls him “a full-blooded Spaniard,” was publicly garoted by the Spaniards for allegedly instigating a rebellion. What he actually wanted was emancipation of the native clergy.

There is, however, a revolutionary tradition in the Philippines, which occasionally finds common cause with the mestizo elite, but usually does not. It is a tradition of peasant revolts, led by messianic figures, usually many shades darker than the mestizos. In Vigan, formerly the Spanish capital of the northern Luzon, I recently visited the old house of Father Burgos. There was a display of pictures of a peasant revolt, sparked by the imposition of a Spanish government monopoly on a locally brewed alcoholic drink called basi. The pictures showed bands of small, dark men fighting the government militia, identified in the captions not as Spanish troops but as mestizos. This ethnic divide still exists, although it is easy to make too much of it in a country where most people, like Brazilians, are a mixture of something. José, himself a dark-skinned man with native “Indio” features, is fond of saying that “the higher you go up in this country, the whiter it gets.” A look at Mrs. Aquino’s cabinet would seem to prove his point. Compare this to the rather miserable position of mixed bloods in other former colonies, like India or Indonesia, where screwing the natives was not comme il faut.

It was the mestizo elite that, so to speak, offered head to foreign powers in exchange for which service they could rule their darker brothers and sisters. This is the way it has been and, so many say, this is the way it still is. Hence the sense of betrayal. According to Filipino nationalists (often a code word for leftists) the educated mestizos, called “ilustrados,” betrayed the revolution against Spain by cutting a deal with the Americans, after the Spaniards had been driven out by the US Navy in 1898. As soon as the old one was deposed, the new king of the mountain was appeased.

Things are of course never quite so simple. General Emilio Aguinaldo, who fought the Americans bravely for three years after Commodore Dewey’s navy blasted the Spanish ships away, was a typical ilustrado. And even though he cooperated eagerly with the Americans after his surrender, he wore a black tie until the day of Philippine independence in 1946, on which occasion he ceremoniously took it off. His house in Cavite is a showcase of Filipino ambiguity. The ceiling is decorated with the Philippine flag as well as the American eagle. And pictures of Filipino heroes and American presidents hang side by side, like old friends, or, more appropriately in the Filipino context, relatives.

Karnow quotes Aguinaldo’s foreign affairs adviser, Pardo de Tavera, to illustrate the ilustrado mentality. Partly educated in Europe, Tavera was a nationalist and a liberal who believed in universal education, civil liberty, and capitalism, all encapsulated, as Karnow says, “in that magic term of the time: progress.” Not the sort of thing admired by left-wing revolutionaries, or, for that matter, right-wing autocrats. But what truly damns a man like Tavera in “nationalist” eyes is his approach to the Americans. He wrote to President McKinley, who seems to have spent much of his time on his knees asking God what to do about this new colony, which he had barely heard of before hotheads like Roosevelt (Theodore) and MacArthur (Arthur) urged him to acquire it.

Providence,” wrote Tavera, “led the United States to these distant islands for the fulfillment of a noble mission, to take charge of the task of teaching us the principles that…have made your people the wonder of the world and the pride of humanity.” To MacArthur he wrote that “all our efforts will be directed to Americanizing ourselves” in the hope that “the American spirit may take possession of us,” infusing the country with “its principles, its political customs and its peculiar civilization.”

Although it is Karnow’s thesis that these principles never took hold in the Philippines, some of the political customs and at least the forms of the peculiar civilization certainly did. Teodoros became Teddies, Juans became Johnnies, Corazons became Cories, and Franciscos became Frankies. American public education was to change the Spanish-speaking elite into an English-speaking one within a few decades. Nick Joaquin, a writer educated in English and Spanish, once lamented the fact that

the cultured Filipino of the 1880s… intellectually at home in several worlds…had a latitude unthinkable in the “educated” Filipino of the ‘20s and ‘30s, for whom culture had been reduced to being knowing about the world contained between Hollywood and Manhattan.2

  1. 1

    His latest novel on the Philippines is MacArthur’s Ghost (Arbor House, 1987; Lyle Stuart paperback, 1989).

  2. 2

    The Aquinos of Tarlac: An Essay on History as Three Generations (Manila: Cacho Hermanos, 1983).

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