A thought for Christmas
HINDSIGHT - F. Sionil Jose (The Philippine Star) - December 23, 2019 - 12:00am

En me hambre, mando yo. In my hunger I command.

I came across this phrase way back when I was in college and reading about Spain’s tragic civil war. It sums up a condition wherein hunger empowers, not emasculates.

This Christmas season, many of us will have before us a wondrous spread of food, much of it traditionally served only during Christmas time. Even the poorest in the country, I know, look forward to this meal. It should not be difficult to prepare for – in the rice planting communities, the rice harvest is already in, and the farmers have money. The days are cooler, brighter with decor and cheer.

We must not forget, however that today, in spite of our bloated shopping malls, the magnificent condominiums and the chi-chi gourmet restaurants the likes of which were never seen before in Manila, the grim reality is some Filipinos, both in the rural areas and in the cities, eat only once a day. In case you don’t know, this single meal at noon is called Altanghap, short for almusal, tanghalian and hapunan.

This is a measure of how this nation has become impoverished. When I was a boy in that farming village where I grew up, the poorest villager ate only twice a day, at ten in the morning and at four in the afternoon. This only during the planting season – the gawat as the Ilokanos call it, “Spring Hunger”  is how the Koreans define it. It is usually from July to September, for the first rice harvest is already in late September.

Why are many Filipinos still hungry? This is a phenomenon not only in our country but in so many regions of the earth. Even in the United States, so many are hungry now. It is not possible however to die of hunger in America.

I was amazed to read about a Japanese couple dying of starvation, and it is not because there was famine in Japan. The couple was just too proud to beg for food.

Indeed, to be hungry is one of the most humiiating conditions any person can get into. It is when hunger afflicts an individual that, in many instances, he also loses his dignity.

There is an old saying that if a man steals rice, he is not sinful. But if he steals good, then that is a sin.

Many people go hungry because they have not been trained to work, to raise food.

There is another old Chinese adage – if you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day; If you teach him how to fish, you feed him for life.

Sometime, hunger occurs not only because a man has not been trained to fish but because a greedy fisherman has emptied the rivers and the sea of fish for himself alone. It is when such injustice is done that the hungry have every right to protect the sources of fish, and even kill that greedy fisherman himself. This is a basic human right. It confirms the Spanish saying I quoted: the hungry will command.

Ricky Soler, the psychiatrist-writer, recounted that during the martial law years, he was very apprehensive when Marcos asked to see him. Instead of chastising Ricky who was then a critic of Martial law, Marcos thanked him for Ricky gave a job to a staunch Marcos critic. Marcos said that a hungry tiger is far more dangerous than a tiger who is well fed.

What often aggravates the agony of the hungry is the callous response of the satiated elites. In 1789, when the French complained about how expensive bread was, their queen retorted, let them eat cake. The other week, when Filipino housewives noted how expensive galonggong had become, a rich senator said, then don’t eat galonggong. Is the deluge in sight?

In old tribal societies, justice is observed in the distribution and production of food. When a tribe succeeds in its food gathering and hunting, the food is equally distributed to all members of the tribe. In feudal agrarian societies, communal farms are equally distributed under a codified traditional system handed down from generations.

Our own agrarian problem, however, worsened when rapacious hacienderos and oligarchs grabbed the farms of others. This has happened in feudal societies all over the world, resulting in peasant revolts. We have experienced this – our history is indeed a history of failed peasant uprisings and land grabbing to this very day.

Why are we hungry? Our farming is not intensive enough. Land use is not maximized and a lot of land has been transformed into golf courses, housing developments or are simply kept idle for speculation.

Working in agriculture is strenous, for which reason farmers will sell their last carabao for the education of their children so that they will not be farmers.

The best example of this farming decay is the famous rice terraces of Ifugao. They are doomed because taking care of them is hard physical labor. They cannot be plowed by machine or water buffalos, and the walls that sustain them must be  repaired all through the year. It is for this reason why many Ifugaos leave their villages for jobs in the cities and elsewhere.

I am no killjoy, so let us give more meaning to this gladsome season of giving. Even with these niggling thoughts, we should not forget that Jesus was born poor. He was a master fisherman, a teacher and healer. He knew what hunger was. He made wine out of water, and multiplied the loaves of bread for the hungry.  Remember, too, that He drove the money lenders from the temple and was eventually crucified. We must never forget the profound symbolism of the last supper, ritualized in the Holy Mass. Jesus was a revolutionary whose creed is valid and is humanity’s greatest need to this very day. Love.

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