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Sunday Lifestyle

A heroic heritage

- Inez S. Reyes - The Philippine Star

THIS WEEK’S WINNER

MANILA, Philippines - Inez S. Reyes is CEO of a barbecue food chain founded by her husband, Frank Reyes. She spent more than 20 years as a corporate marketing executive in Jollibee Foods Corporation, The Coca-Cola Export Corporation and Ginebra San Miguel. She believes F. Sionil Jose is the greatest living Filipino writer today and suggests that every Filipino leader imbibe his wisdom. She avidly follows F. Sionil Jose’s column in The STAR, collects his books and adores his essays.

How does one define and understand the typical Filipino character? Why are we so resilient? Why do we elect actors and actresses to our legislature? Why are we so emotional in perspective? Why are we so often influenced by rhetoric and drama rather than reason? Why do we sacrifice ourselves to help our families and keep this burden solely on our shoulders? Why does self-pity come to us so easily? Why do we laugh so easily? Why are we generally a laidback nation?

I have found myself, many times, in a quandary trying to understand what we are, and why we have become what we are.

Thankfully, I’ve been somewhat enlightened on this matter by a wonderful book of essays by National Artist F. Sionil Jose entitled We Filipinos: Our Moral Malaise, Our Heroic Heritage.

Written in 1999, it is the first of a series of books that collected his essays on various topics, but with a strong skew towards his social commentary. What I enjoyed most in my reading of F. Sionil Jose is how he incisively puts the mirror in front of our faces, makes us confront our past and our present, and stacks up what we see as our experience against what he has seen in, and analyzed from, other Asian cultures, in his seven decades of writing and travel.

Explained in the context of our own national history, his social commentary has been really illuminating for me, and has really helped me understand a little bit more why we are what we are.

He says, for example, that a strong sense of honor has eluded us as a people, unlike for example, the Japanese and even the Americans. The Japanese culture values honor highly, as seen in their belief in harakiri and in Bushido, the code of the samurai. The American culture also values honor, as seen in how their judicial system operates solidly by the principles of due process and innocence until proven guilty.

Sionil Jose points out that the Japanese character has been shaped by the ancient wisdom of Buddhism, one of the great Asian religions that unfortunately failed to reach our shores. And while Americans seem to be so much more socially liberal than we are, their sense of honor as a people is rooted in the Puritanical values of their English forefathers, reinforced and forever inspired by Abraham Lincoln’s defending to the death the moral principle of racial equality, that same principle which, 150 years later, today, resounds even more strongly in American nationhood.

Sadly, Sionil Jose points out, four centuries of Catholicism did not instill in us Filipinos a sense of honor. A bit shocking, but I think he couldn’t have put it better.

We see politicians mock the law and still get reelected. We read about how local government officials and even citizens disregard the orders of our trial courts. And very recently we saw how issues in a SALN could be used against one government official, but not against another. And worst of all, we accept all these as part of the normal course of things.

Something seems very wrong.

I think what we need is heroes to emulate, among our current crop of leaders. Real heroes, honorable ones. Men and women who act on the basis of what is right, who respect the rights of others, and yet who stand up for their own principles, however unpopular, never compromising them with political exigencies. Who could these people be? In this day and age in Philippine society, is it at all possible to constantly act on the basis of what is honorable? It should be.

Sionil Jose’s heroes were Jose W. Diokno, to whom he dedicated his book, and Ramon Magsaysay, whom Sionil Jose considers the best President the Philippines ever had.

Sionil Jose recounted how former Senator Diokno, then a practicing lawyer, would journey all over the country and spend his own money to defend penniless tenant farmers and workers from their tyrannical landlords and employers.

During his homily at my son’s recent grade school graduation, La Salle president Brother Felipe Belleza read a beautiful poem written by former Senator Diokno about what it means to have a son. I was so touched my tears just flowed. I attempted a search of this poem on the Internet, but to no avail.

Nevertheless, I resolved to research more on this great man, who I previously thought was simply a brilliant lawyer and senator.

I wasn’t in the world yet when Ramon Magsaysay was our country’s president. But he and Sionil Jose held a common bond as champions of the masses. Magsaysay as president, Sionil Jose as artist and writer. The personal stories Sionil Jose shared about former President Magsaysay made me want to understand more deeply who he was, what he accomplished and fought for, as our country’s president, and why Sionil Jose so admired him above others.

In reading Sionil Jose’s essays, there was a point where I was losing hope for our country. There was just so much pointed out about our weaknesses as a people — our politics, our blame culture, our inability to save, our desire to show off, our extreme capacity to forgive and forget, our internal colonialism, etc. In the author’s words, we are our worst enemy. Is there any saving grace for us? There should be.

What do we have, historically incarnate in us as a people, that we could draw deeply from, to help us, all of us, rise from where we are today?

Sionil Jose says it is our heroic heritage, a heritage of fighting against oppressors, whoever they are, a heritage we should take pride in, because it produced a man like Jose Rizal, who personifies the countryman we can all be proud of.

Rizal was raised in a 19th-century colonized country, but when martyred at age 35, he was a medical doctor, poet, novelist, linguist, artist, sculptor, philosopher, cultural anthropologist and educator. No other country, according to Sionil Jose, has produced a national hero of Rizal’s stature.

May Rizal’s revolutionary spirit be our inspiration to do our own share, within our own sphere, to change what needs to be changed in our country. May we all strive at all times, to live and act with honor as Filipinos.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN

BROTHER FELIPE BELLEZA

COCA-COLA EXPORT CORPORATION AND GINEBRA SAN MIGUEL

COUNTRY

FRANK REYES

JOSE

RAMON MAGSAYSAY

SENATOR DIOKNO

SIONIL

SIONIL JOSE

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