Arts and Culture

Rosales and Pangasinan: Roots – why they matter

HINDSIGHT - F. Sionil Jose - The Philippine Star

I brought the young writers, Francezka Kwe and her husband, Cris Lacaba to Rosales the other week to show them the barrio where I was born and all the way to the North, to the town of Cabugao, in Ilokos Sur, where my grandfather came from.

I was the godfather at their wedding; both are very talented and I hold for them great expectations. It is not the first time I have brought friends, students and foreigners to these niches I know best. In fact, my wife and I often visit Rosales and the Ilokos as a matter of habit or whim induced by nostalgia, homesickness — whatever draws pilgrims to worshipped sanctuaries. Or, perhaps, what compels moths to seek the votive flame.

In Rosales, I showed them the creeks where I swam, the water tank and the mountain I climbed, and the old buildings that I reinvented in the Rosales saga, and finally the irenic village where I grew up. Then we proceeded to Tayug, where the Colorum uprising erupted in 1931, onwards to Asingan — the birthplace of President Fidel V. Ramos whose father, the late Foreign Minister Narcisco Ramos lectured to me on that peasant revolt. We passed Binalonan, the birthplace of Carlos Bulosan, and Bauang, in La Union, the birthplace of another brilliant Ilokano writer, Manuel Arguilla. I often muse what great literature Arguilla would have written if the Japanese did not kill him the way Rizal was executed at the prime of his life by the Spaniards.

Then onwards to the beautiful Ilokos country, the well groomed fields, the clean orderly towns, and some of the most architecturally wondrous churches in the country. In Vigan, they bought hand-woven Iloko cloth and in Laoag, my wife bought a few kilos of the Ilokano delicacy, bagnet (deep fried pork chunks) with which she flavors her pinakbet.

Then all the archaic rhetoric on literature, history, nation — a boring monologue I didn’t need to repeat but as an old teacher, I always do.

Rosales is close to the borders of Tarlac and Nueva Ecija. My forefathers were Ilokanos who migrated to this part of the province at the turn of the 19th century; they had intended to go to the Cagayan Valley but were enamored of the lure of the verdant plains of eastern Pangasinan and they decided to settle there instead.

In the early Thirties, the Ilokanos came in their bullcarts with their plows, the uprooted posts of their houses and weaving looms. They parked in the town plaza for the night. Not all were Ilokanos; some were Pangasinan traders with coconut candy (bocayo) salted fish, shrimp and salt to sell.

Having read Rizal’s novels in grade school, I got interested in our history, in the Revolution of 1896 after I learned that my grandfather was in it. I read how the railroad to Dagupan was built, the flight of Aguinaldo to Bayambang then on to the Ilokos, and across Tirad Pass after the collapse of the Malolos Republic. In the account of that hegira, Aguinaldo’s aide Colonel Villa, the father of the poet Jose Garcia Villa, described the town of San Carlos still surrounded by jungle. This was, mind you, in 1899. I retrieved such details for Poon, the first novel in my Rosales saga. In that novel, too, there is a girl from Lingayen whose family was killed by pirates off the Ilokos coast. This heroic woman becomes the wife of Istak, the novel’s main character, who follows Aguinaldo to Tirad Pass.

Pangasinan, one of the richest and the largest province in the country, is a focal point of our history. It is here were Limahong the Chinese privateer was based before the Spaniards came, where Princess Urduja — whether real or not — reigned, where Palaris fought the Spaniards. In Lingayen Gulf in 1941, the Japanese landed and the Americans and MacArthur returned to it in 1945.

Pangasinan as a literary language is waning. It should not; there is an effort now to revive it. Santiago B. Villafania who published recently a book of poems in Pangasinan is moving heaven and earth to preserve it. One of these days, there will be a Center for Pangasinan Studies — the cultural contribution of the people of Pangasinan to the national trove. Governor Amado Espino, Jr. is very much interested in this project.

This is most admirable; most Filipino leaders do not consider literature important — to them it is only storytelling and, therefore, mere entertainment. Moreover, although our national hero was a novelist, Filipinos do not read novels.

Writers are historians, too. It is in literature that the greater truths about a people and their past are found. Perceptive scholars read the literatures of societies they are studying for this reason, and more — a people’s culture is best dredged and understood from their literature.

Writers are also the ultimate teachers for it is only in literature that we learn ethics — not in classes in religion or theology. The literary depiction of life and its moral dilemmas compel us to use our conscience, to make those infallible distinctions between right and wrong.

Today, more than anytime in our history, we need to be ethical. More than this vital function, literature in its evocation of time and place anchors us tenaciously to the land. It helps construct that sense of identity and preserve our racial memory without which there is no nation.

What is our history? It is so many centuries of colonialism, of Filipinos oppressed by foreign powers. Colonialism subdues in many dulcet guises. It conquered under the pretext of spreading Christianity, civilization, law and order, to make the world safe for democracy

What is the logic of colonialism? It is very simple — exploitation. The imperialist has no compunction about exploiting a people then sending his loot to his native land. When I visited Spain for the first time in 1955, I saw those magnificent churches, even the humblest chapels, and found their altars gorgeously gilded with silver. I realized then that that silver was plundered by the conquistador from Mexico, from South America.

If colonialism, by whatever devious way it seduces, is exploitation,  therefore, colonialism is immoral. There are so many among us who apologize for Spanish or American colonialism. As Rizal also said, slaves get to love their chains.

The agrarian problem still rankles. From the Spanish regime onwards, peasant uprisings were common all over Filipinas. My forefathers, unlettered Ilokano peasants who migrated to eastern Pangasinan were victimized by the mestizo ilustrados who stole the land my forebears clawed from the forest. In 1931 the Colorum peasant uprising that erupted in Tayug in 1931 was soon followed in 1935 by the Sakdal revolt that engulfed parts of Laguna, Bulacan and Nueva Ecija then, the Huk uprising in 1949-1953. All these were inevitable precursors of the New People’s Army rebellion which exacerbates and torments us to this very day.

Our foreign colonizers have gone. But they left behind their true believers, their enduring acolytes, our elites whom they used, who collaborated with them. It is these elites who are now the holders of wealth, of power, who hold hostage our political system. Verily, a nation does not have to be a colony of a foreign power — it can be the colony of its own leaders, its oligarchy.

This is what created our national malaise, the reason for our poverty. For so many decades, the solution? Patriotism in action, not words. This, the Filipino peasant understands instinctively. Pedro Calosa who led the Colorum uprising in Tayug in 1931 explained it so succinctly, so simply. “God created land, air and water for all men, not just for one man or one family. It is against God’s laws for one man or one family to own all of it.”


Patriotism is to be lived, it is not just the flag, or the singing of the national anthem. The nationalist icons of my generation Recto and Tañada, were merely anti-American; both opposed agrarian reform in the Fifties, the single most important political action that would have provided social justice for the millions who are oppressed.

Patriotism is education, the wisdom for us to elect public officials we can be proud of, not ignoramus movie stars and basketball players. Patriotism means being rooted in this soil and acting out the truth, which is justice in action. This justice is not an abstraction. For our very poor it is three meals a day, education for our children, medicine and medical care for the poor who are sick. When government cannot give these to its citizens, it commits violence.

How long will it take us to turn this country around? Look at Vietnam now; after it had resolved its internal contradictions and defeated the Americans in 1975 — it is well on the way to progress, it could even surpass us. Look at Japan after the Meiji Restoration in 1886 — in 30 years, it had become a major power, defeating Russia in 1901. Look at Korea, Taiwan, even Japan again after World War II. After the rubble of the Korean war in 1953, or the flight of the Nationalists to Taiwan in 1949, in one generation they were able to develop dynamic societies. And Singapore next door—what was it in the 1950s? No more than a backwater port not much different from Binondo. Look at Singapore now, and weep.

It is not just regime change that altered these countries. It is vision, leadership and most important, education, the capacity of a people to lift themselves from the dungheap.

It is not just the oligarchy then that is the enemy — it is us, ourselves. And education will help resolve our difficulties, catapult us towards prosperity and peace. My generation was influenced by barnacled ideas, by Marxism, by anti-Americanism which in some instances is legitimate, but these ideologies are not enough.

Education is not just learning how to produce cheaper and better products as did Korea and Taiwan. It has to do with our insides, our guts. It involves imbibing in our bloodstream iron confidence, deep and lasting pride in our sinews so that our very rich won’t send their moneys abroad. They will then stop erecting shopping malls, fancy condominiums, plush resorts and golf courses; they will start building instead more factories, more research facilities, so that our brilliant young people will stay. How wonderful it would be if our banks do not behave like pawn shops but as sources of venture capital, if our businessmen realize that money must be used for production, not consumption.

We are now a hundred million — just think of this population not as a liability but as an asset, a mass market. Remember, too, that Japan was only 60 million when it challenged the United States in 1941. We don’t need to challenge a foreign power — all we have to do now is challenge ourselves.

We have many things to be proud of, not just Manny Pacquiao. A corrupt leadership? Ramon Magsaysay, Jose W. Diokno, Manny Pelaez — Raul Manglapus — just a few sterling names to wash away that perception. Just think of our history — of our recent past. Remember the Battle of Tirad Pass in December in 1899, where the young general Gregorio del Pilar and 48 of his men died defending it against the invading American Texas Rangers. It is no different from the Battle of Thermopylae in ancient Greece, where King Leonidas and his Spartans died to a man defending that pass against the invading Persians.

We mounted the first Asian revolution against Western imperialism and set up Asia’s first Republic in Malolos in 1898. More than any country in Southeast Asia, we fought the Japanese bravely, in World War II. Not just in Bataan but in a nationwide guerrilla war. All of this is forgotten. And Rizal — what country has ever produced someone like him, a poet, a novelist, a linguist, a medical doctor, an anthropologist and a martyr at 35?

Many of us who think we are rootless spend so much time searching, traveling, seeking ourselves, the very meaning of our existence. But all of us have roots, maybe not in a given place or time, but in ideals which give direction to our lives.

Our traveling then is not across vast distances, but inward, in the mind and the spirit. Many find the self soon enough before they die; for others, it is perhaps in death itself that they find peace and themselves.

Yes, there is indeed a place called Rosales — and though I no longer live there, it is still very much in my mind and heart. As for belief and faith, I am always haunted by that Nietzschean injunction, “that convictions are prisons.”

The imagination and the intellect — how can they ever be caged? And much as I can identify myself with a place, a race, I always meander away from these in search not so much for new experiences or knowledge but for answers to questions both obvious and unstated as yet, questions asked by the ancients and us about ourselves, the unlived life, the unexamined experience, and beyond these — the nature of the cosmos, of infinity, of God. I am secure in what I am and what I am doing, but as long as there is this breath in me, I will continue searching, searching, I hope that my two godchildren have started on this journey, so that in this lonely process of seeking, they will record each mile in .prose and poetry and fulfill themselves as well.

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