Food, fiestas and Filipino vision

HINDSIGHT - F Sionil Jose (The Philippine Star) - December 14, 2014 - 12:00am

The other evening, I was with Senator Loren Legarda and the maverick commentator Boy Saycon at his fabulous Spanish restaurant near the Senate. Between mouthfuls of marvelous black paella, lengua and bacalao, we talked about leadership, folk crafts and weaving, and the old Manila Times and its editor, Jose Bautista, who was Senator Legarda’s grandfather. I was Sunday magazine editor of the Times from 1949 to 1960 and, on occasion, wrote for the daily, too.

I came to Manila in 1938 at the behest of a kindly uncle, Andres Sionil, who sent me to the Far Eastern University High School. We lived in an accessoria close to Requesens and Avenida Rizal. A botica on Rizal Avenue was owned by Joe Bautista and his family. The botica was right in front of the Apollo theater — I remember that theater very well. It was not air-conditioned and it showed double features. My most memorable movie there was Wuthering Heights starring the young and handsome Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon. The Bautista residence was not damaged during the war but the Apollo theater had long disappeared, together with other second-run movie houses in the area.

I first met Joe Bautista at the University of Santo Tomas in 1948. I was taking a course on literature, and decided to include a journalism subject. He would start the class with the question, “What is news?”; then regale us with stories of events that he had covered in the past. He was a lousy teacher but a brilliant raconteur.

For those of us who were in the old Manila Times editorial department, he was not just editor — he was also a kindly moneylender who jotted down our debts in his calendar. Boy Saycon confirmed my story, but added that one day, that calendar disappeared.

I told them of Joe Bautista’s favorite cuss word which usually exploded at around 10 p.m. when the paper was being closed and the tension at the desk was close to breaking.

Those were the days, indeed, when Florentino Torres adjacent to Rizal Avenue was really Newspaper Row. The Manila Times and the Daily Mirror and their magazines were side by side with the Manila Bulletin. Closer to Azcarraga (now Recto) was the Evening News. Across Rizal Avenue was the Philippines Free Press, and close by in Calle Soler were the Ramon Roces vernacular magazines.

The Chronicle was at Dasmariñas within spitting distance from the other newspapers and the Philippines Herald was in Intramuros. The wire services, the International News Service (INS) and the Associated Press (AP), were in Florentino Torres, too.

We solved the problems of the nation and humanity at large in those cheap coffee shops in Florentino Torres and Santa Cruz, and if we had an extra peso, at the mezzanine coffee shop of Botica Boie at the Escolta. The atmosphere was cozy and that kind of camaraderie extended beyond Newspaper Row when many of the writers and journalists became top honchos in government and business, Blas Ople of the Mirror was Secretary of Labor; Joe Aspiras of the Evening News was Tourism Secretary; and today there’s Speaker Sonny Belmonte, who started as a Chronicle reporter.

Loren told us she grew up with an Ilokano nanny from Paoay, Ilokos Norte who taught her Ilokano as well as austere Ilokano cooking. She likes dinengdeng, appreciates the Ilokano pork specialty bagnet, which my wife uses in cooking pinakbet.

But I doubt if she had tasted the weeds the Ilokanos eat, the papait, the tabtabocol. Saluyot — and marunggay — they are not just Ilokano signal veggies now; they have become national.

Boy Saycon’s restaurant should be in a more accessible location. I suggested that it should also have gazpacho — that famous cold Spanish soup since we have so many tomatoes, particularly when they are in season.

Maybe as a lawmaker, Loren should help establish Filipino restaurants in cities abroad where so many Filipinos live and work. This is what the Thai government does: support Thai restaurants abroad, which explains their presence in major cities all over the world.

Loren’s office in the Senate is a veritable museum of folk craft and the finest examples of indigenous weaving. She wears the stuff herself and this evening, she wore a magnificent vest that I recognized as Mangyan; my son, Tonet, who photographed them way back in the Sixties, confirmed that, indeed, it was of Mangyan design.

It was her interest in folk culture and crafts that drew my attention. It is seldom that our leaders manifest this affection which she said started when she was young, and with it, an interest in art as well. Though she took up mass communication in Diliman, her graduate thesis was on National Artist Vicente Manansala.

She has plans to set up folk art museums all over the country. They need not be grand institutions, or awesome structures — they can be simple rooms in public buildings, in a town’s municipio, in a high school or college. They should contain the folk craft (old and new), Philippine traditional peasant artifacts, the looms, the local weaving. She said that Rizal himself was a collector of Philippine weaving, that the old specimens are in a Berlin museum and after much needling, they will soon be exhibited at the National Museum. She also introduced to the Senate an act strengthening the conservation and protection of the national cultural heritage. She is now working on a cultural mapping program that she hopes will cover the whole country. She is assisted by University of Santo Tomas professor Eric Zerrudo, who will lecture on the subject “Heritage: Makakain ba? (Can we eat it?)” at the National Museum, 1 p.m. on Dec. 19.

I told her how such indigenous weaving could be understood and appreciated more if there were demonstrations in the malls as is done with folk crafts in Japan. But above all, the weavers must be financially compensated for their skilled labor. The masterpieces take months of patient labor to finish and yet they are unappreciated and sold cheaply.

The best of our folk craft and art should be displayed during the different festivals all over the country. These festivals depicting history/culture are now choreographed and costumed imaginatively — they have become tourist attractions as well as successful community bonding. As a student of indigenous culture, in the Fifties I saw the Maranao dance, singkil, and the Manobo harvest dance, the dugso, performed by the natives themselves, not by university folk dance troupes. Such dances are now modernized and, I hope, institutionalized. Loren did not know that the Ati-atihan in Panay, for instance, was an invention of the late Anding Roces when he was Secretary of Education during the tenure of President Diosdado Macapagal. Anding was a fastidious cultural worker who concentrated on fiestas. Another of his super cultural creations was the Moriones Festival. These innovations, however, were all based on local inspiration.

The cultural mapping will promote not just our crafts; for so many of us, we will then be securely anchored to a sense of place, and we will also get to admire what we have.

I suggested that the National Commission on Culture and the Arts be transformed into a ministry — a Department of Culture. It will then be able to do so much to unify a fractured nation. Loren said she has filed a bill precisely on that subject, but it is sleeping in the Senate. She said one reason there is not enough enthusiasm for it is because some think the department would create a new bureaucracy.

I argued — and she agreed — that it needn’t. It is just a matter of putting all the agencies and commissions involved with culture together so that there will be greater impetus and clearer direction in our cultural development.

So many changes can be introduced by such a ministry. On the lowest level, it can enact rules about the naming of streets. Why should they be named after crooked politicians who have contributed nothing of value to the commonweal? Why should old historical names be changed and replaced with those of local leaders? Historical names are important because they remind us of the past about which we do not seem to care. History is history — portions of it were written by the colonizers, which glorifies them, not the colonized. We must live with this and use history to remind us of the travail we endured and what we must vanquish in our minds and hearts.

Why should monuments to non-heroes be built in public spaces? If a family wants to honor a patriarch, build his monument in the family lot — not in the town plaza. Almost every town has its own historical icon — he/she should be revered to illustrate not just the nobility of our people, but our genius as well.

All these may seem trivial and inane but in their entirety, they contribute to our self-knowledge, to the appreciation of a place and our identification with it. In this way, we realize the Filipino in us.



e went through the list of cultural agencies. I commented that some of these are run by people who do not deserve to be there, that some of these cultural bosses in government have little or no understanding of the creative process. I recounted how I talked with two such leaders at the start of the Arroyo administration. I told them not to be angry with me because I had to tell them frankly that they were not fit for their jobs, but because they were already there, they should strive to succeed. They followed my advice and we became very good friends.

Some of these bureaucrats are always traveling, wasting public funds that should go into creative programs. There should be a limit to such useless traveling so that they could do their homework.

Finally, the conversation veered to politics, to leadership in particular. This was Boy Saycon’s long-explored territory and he had already formed conclusions about the vacuity in the highest niches of power, the inutile advisers surrounding a President whose skills and whose intelligence are sadly limited. He unfurled political history, described President Elpidio Quirino as one of our great visionary leaders.

In this, I readily agreed, remembering as I do my conversations with him. I was then in my 20s. I felt most comfortable talking in Ilokano with an Ilokano president. He tolerated me; he knew my generation was different — totally different from other generations of Filipino writers. Those three years of vicious Japanese Occupation had matured us far ahead of our time.

Vision — this is what so many of our leaders never had. Judging from the performance of most of our leaders today, that vision is still so sadly wanting, not just in government but in business and industry, where corruption is just as rife.

Right in Manila, we can see where vision is denied. Intramuros, battered during the Liberation, could have been restored into a premier residential and shopping area. And that beautiful Metropolitan theater, destroyed during the war then restored to its original magnificence — look at it now, crumbling, desolate, a monument to our neglect and lack of appreciation of Filipino culture. The Pasig river, polluted and unsafe — before World War II, my classmates and I at the Far Eastern University High School, at one in the afternoon, we would rush to Quiapo, disrobe behind the Quiapo market and jump into the water — green, alive, with fishermen on its banks.

And on a much loftier plane why didn’t we industrialize, build our own ships, a strong navy, or develop agriculture-based industries? All the signals were hoisted: the impending agrarian unrest as actualized in the Huk uprising in the late Forties and the NPA rebellion in the Sixties; the Moro rebellion as started by Kamlon in the Difties — I was in Jolo for a month reporting on it and I knew even then that it had no military solution. Why oh why, did all these things happen?

Knowing how so many of our presidents performed, from Quezon onwards to P-Noy, I volunteered the observation that President Magsaysay was the best of them all and it was just too tragic that his presidency was abruptly ended when he died in that air crash in Cebu. He didn’t possess that vision that we were talking about but he was obsessed with setting up a government that would alleviate poverty and bring justice to the masa. That was vision enough. In the post-Marcos era, I think it was Fidel V. Ramos who was the best. In his time, as now, there were clear unmistakable signals that we were on the “takeoff stage.” But that was aborted by Joseph Estrada and exacerbated by Gloria Arroyo.

EDSA 1, which threw Marcos out of Malacañang, could have been a real revolution had not Cory Aquino, unable to understand what had happened, turned it into a restoration of the oligarchy that Marcos had emasculated.

Overall, Marcos was the worst president we ever had. His regime killed, imprisoned and tortured thousands and remnants of his and his wife’s impunity still litter the landscape. And a people without memory have welcomed his wife and children back.

Next to Marcos is Gloria Arroyo; like Marcos, she wasted 10 years during which she could have turned the country around, continuing the reforms Ramos had initiated. Why did she — and so many of our leaders — fail?

I attribute their tragic performance to one simple fault: they could not translate their articulated patriotism into action, they did not understand that it is culture grounded in an iron sense of nation that unites a divided people, and gives them the sinew for freedom and progress.

A writer’s major purpose is to emphasize the obvious. In this case, we need more Loren Legardas.



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