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Why we don't remember

This month 40 years ago, Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law — a conjugal dictatorship that plundered this country, killed hundreds, imprisoned and tortured thousands, reduced to penury so many businesses and abolished basic human rights. Just 40 years later, and we have forgotten this nefarious regime. The Marcoses are back, gloating over our credulity, unabashed and preening in media and in the murky corridors of power. Why have we forgotten what they did? Have they and their shameless toadies really succeeded in deodorizing their past? With Filipinos who have no memory, maybe they have. But they will never triumph for in the archives and libraries of the world their crimes against us and humanity are forever embedded.

Still, we must ask ourselves again, and yet again, why did we allow them to return? Why were they not punished? These are the questions friends abroad ask me to which I can only shake my head in embarrassment and shame. To tell them that they returned because we have no memory would denigrate us further. So I repeat, why can’t we remember? What is it in our genes that blots out our collective memory? Is the answer in our history?

I will now try to answer these questions with a personal reminiscence and hindsight.

My nephew, Associated Press correspondent Jim Gomez, is the son of my first cousin, Josefina Sionil. He dropped by the other afternoon and we started talking about our relatives. He suggested that I, being the oldest in our clan, should try and build a family tree.

I told Jim that tracing our lineage to as far back as I could recall was close to impossible. I was about seven years old when both my grandparents died. I can’t even remember their first names. As a child, I listened to their stories but as grandchildren, we called them affectionately by their nicknames — Ba-ac was my grandfather’s and my grandmother was Imbet. I knew they came from the Ilokos, that my grandmother’s family name was Villedo, and Sionil was my grandfather’s.

In the mid-1950s when I was with the old Manila Times, I journeyed to Cabugao, Ilocos Sur, where my grandfather came from. At the Catholic church there were still records of the births, weddings and deaths all elaborately handwritten in Spanish. I avidly scoured them but found no Sionil.

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Much later, in the ‘90s, I met the brother of Jose Maria Sison, the communist leader now in exile in Holland. He is a very successful doctor in Beverly Hills, California, and was writing a history of Cabugao. There is no Sionil in that town, he told me. But there was a Saunil.

Sometime in the 17th century, to simplify identification of Filipinos who, at the time, had only one name, the Spaniards assigned letters of the alphabet to each town. For Cabugao, the letter was “S”; hence the natives there were baptized with family names like Somera, Soliven, Salazar.

What had happened to my grandfather’s name? I can only surmise that when he reached Rosales in their journey to Cagayan Valley, the clerk who registered his name probably heard it as “Sionil,” not “Saunil.”

Like so many poor Ilokanos, my grandparents left their village for it could no longer sustain them. The Ilocos is a narrow coastal plain where, so often, the mountain drops to the sea. Land hunger had always afflicted the Ilokanos and made them migratory.

At the turn of the 19th century, the Ilokano migration was well underway and the closest haven for them was the Central Plain. Read the diary of Colonel Villa who was the aide of General Emilio Aguinaldo. When they were fleeing to the north after the collapse of the Malolos Republic, they paused in San Carlos —that vibrant and progressive city in Pangasinan. Colonel Villa wrote that San Carlos then was still surrounded by jungle.

Another popular destination of the Ilokano settlers was the Cagayan Valley. They reached it by sailing to Aparri in the north, or they crossed the Cordillera at Tirad Pass or Bessang Pass some 20 kilometers below. These passes would allow only horses and carabao because they were too steep and narrow. The most convenient route was through the Santa Fe Trail in Nueva Ecija, wide enough to permit their bull carts. That was where my grandfather was headed — but he settled in Rosales instead for like San Carlos, Rosales was still surrounded by jungle for the settlers to clear.

Ateneo’s Fr. Bienvenido Nebres explained that one reason for our lack of memory, particularly among the lower classes, is the nature of our family system. Both father and mother are important in our lineage. This will then involve so many names, unlike in other societies where only the father is recorded.

I think it is more than this. Christianity doesn’t demand that we worship our ancestors. If we don’t remember our ancestors, then, in all likelihood, we cannot also recall the distant past.

Countries where ancestors are fastidiously worshipped are often afflicted with a tenacious caste system which orders that “people are born unequal, they live unequal and they die unequal.” Their lineage as recorded often obstructs their mobility. As it often happens, when couples get married, their origins are traced and such origins can easily prevent a marriage, ascendancy. This is the curse of ancestor worship.

Among the lower classes, particularly the peasants, the agrarian economy dictates their fate. A farmer who owns only a hectare of land will eventually be unable to support even a small family. When the children grow and start having families of their own, they have to leave the village for places where there is land for them. This was true for so many of my own relatives —the capitlo (third cousins), the capidua (second cousins) and even the casinsin (first cousins). Some went to Mindanao and I have lost contact with them. Some went to Manila in the continuing urbanization of the country, and thus, I am able to nurture my familial relationships, for instance, with Jim Gomez, and another niece, Fil Sionil of The Bulletin.

It is not so with the upper classes who manage to stay together as families, as clans, because they are landlords or wealthy urbanites. This is true of my wife, a Jovellanos, who has an ongoing family tree that is probably traceable to the Spanish playwright, Gaspar Jovellanos.

Another reason why we lack this historical memory is because we are a very young nation, with so many islands, so many ethnic groups. The process of amalgamation is ongoing; as the late Princess Tarhata Kiram of Sulu said, our problems —in her case, the continuing Moro recalcitrance — “will be solved in bed.” She married a retired military officer.

We forget even the injustices committed against us. Are we too forgiving? This is not necessarily so. We are just being pragmatic; those we loathe today may be the people who will be in power tomorrow, people who can help or harm us. This is elemental — it explains the segurista — during elections wherein one branch of a clan may support a candidate and the other branch will oppose him.

Not all Filipinos, however, follow the segurista code. Some of us are burdened with memories nurtured in blood. Such explains the ancient vendettas in the Ilokos, among our Moros — generational hatreds that could be resolved by marriage or political and commercial alliances.

We never had royalty, which explains the dynasties in Europe, regimes that sometimes bind a people together. At the most, we have affluent clans where intermarriage among them is common. They are sustained by memory that may be dissolved when the patriarch of the clan dies and a battle for inheritance ensues. If there is no such internal contradiction, the clan grows and prevails. Some of political clans have been intact for generations. How could they exist for so long? Patronage answers this question. Patronage also explains why most of them are corrupt, and in turn, why they corrupt their constituents.

How then do we build memory? How do we learn the lessons of history? A stern caveat here is necessary. Much of the history as we know it from textbooks is written by the victors, the powerful and the rich vindicating themselves. We should know history from below as written by the poor, the lower classes who, as my fictional Mabini said in Poon, are “the body, the corpus of a nation.” They are the shapers of history — “the farmers who produce the food — the foot soldiers who die in battle, not their generals who always find ways to save themselves.” In other words, we must know history as it is written in the soil, in the travail of the common man.

The educational system can do so much. Writers like Ambeth Ocampo should be supported in their popularization of history so that even schoolchildren can get to appreciate our past. Establish museums even in small towns — a public repository of artifacts, documents, records, so that even those not interested in history itself can connect to the larger community that is the nation.

Let our people be constantly reminded of our trials for it is these trials that all of us have experienced, which also unite us. Know our heroes — and there are so many of them from each ethnic group.

A Filipino diplomat — certainly not Rigoberto Tiglao — who served in Athens for many years, told me that the Greeks are hobbled by their past; that to this day, they wallow in “the glory that was Greece” and are numbed by their own history. I understand our diplomat’s insight. As a writer, I would most probably be shackled if I considered that Confucius, Chaucer and Homer were all looking over my shoulder. Thank God — we are a young nation, not paralyzed or beholden to the memory of ancient achievement and greatness.

How then may a laidback country or, for that matter, an empire in irreversible decline, recover and renew itself? Way back, I heard my South Korean acquaintances always declaring, “We will beat Japan!”

The Russian leader, Boris Yeltsin, told the Americans upon the dissolution of the Soviet Union, “I pity you. Now, you have no enemy.”

To rise from the rubble of history, we must fight this most insidious enemy — not with guns, but in the wider arena of competitiveness, in intelligence and creativity, in the building of institutions that promote justice — this malevolent creature is right here — for without knowing our past — and ourselves — we are our own worst enemy.

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