Everyone is relative

HINDSIGHT - F. Sionil Jose - The Philippine Star

This Saturday, I’ll miss a very important social event; I should be in the old hometown to attend a reunion of the Meimban clan. Last month, the former Mayor of Rosales, Ricardo Meimban Velo Revita, and INC Minister, Adriel Obar Meimban, Ph.D, came to the shop and told me about this reunion. My uncle, Andres Sionil, my mother’s older brother, was married to Pura Meimban and the present Rosales Mayor, Susan P. Casareno, is also a distant relative. But this pandemic won’t allow me to go and Rosales – with the new express way, it is just two hours away.

I must apologize to my readers for being very parochial and personal in devoting this column to my hometown.

Here’s a little background of the five novel saga I named after it. In my late teens and early twenties, I was writing short stories using my boyhood as a major theme – that boyhood spent in a village of the town, Rosales. I had, by then, read Rizal’s novels and Willa Cather’s, My Antonia, about boyhood in a small Nebraska town. Then, during the Liberation when I was in the US Army, I read Steinbeck’s Salinas novels and Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha series. Steinbeck’s “The Wayward Bus” was particularly instructive. With these models in mind, I arranged the chronological sequence of the saga to portray and dramatize a hundred years of our history.

Rosales is so ordinary – it can be any town in the country that has no historical or even economic importance. And my boyhood, too, though deprived as it was, was also so trite to be celebrated. It was not my ambition to hoist Rosales from obscurity, but I hope I did just a little.

The officials of old Rosales were conspicuous; like all pre-war government employees, they wore white suits except the two mail carriers – “carteros”; one served the town, the other on horseback, the villages. Important announcements and storm warnings were made by the town crier – the “bando.” He went to the barrios and around town with a snare drum. Rosales is bracketed by two creeks spanned by wooden bridges. I used to swim in both. May – the rains of the season had fallen. I’ll always remember the smell of the dusty and thirsty earth welcoming the rain and us children, running and laughing in the shower – a healing benediction as well. The brown and fallow fields start to green with the weeds – papait, kalkalonay, etc. which only the Ilokanos eat. Grasshoppers are on the wing and the farmers now plow the fields for the rice planting. This is where the carabao is so important to the farmer.

Village social life pulsates the whole year in communal activities, the fixing of the grass roofs, baptisms, weddings; even the wakes for the dead are social events. For the town as a whole, the Holy Week, the Christmas season, and holidays like Rizal day are occasions for gatherings, and finally, the town fiesta on June 12 – the feast day of Rosales’s patron Saint, San Antonio de Padua. The villagers go to town to watch the side shows. To cap the festivities, the coronation of the fiesta Queen in the public market transformed into the auditorium. As a boy, I liked best the comedia in the public plaza – the folk dance drama of the Moro-Christian wars. A rich, distant uncle hosted the comedia players. They ate in his house and from there, accompanied by the town brass band and me, we marched to the plaza. He also ran for Alcalde, and he fed the voters in his house. He had to sell some of his lands for being a politician and patron.

In the 1930s, Rosales was a rice center of Eastern Pangasinan for which reason the railroad line from Paniqui was extended there, and close to the railroad station were three huge rice mills. Almost all the houses then were roofed with thatch, with two major exceptions, the Castillo and the Pine houses, both of which I used as settings in the Rosales saga. Rosales had no historical importance, except for Mabini’s brief sojourn there after the retreat of Aguinaldo from Tarlac. This is the core incident in Po-on, the first novel in the Saga in chronological time. The highest government official produced by the town was Conrado Estrella who was a Ramon Magsaysay ally. He was provincial governor and Marcos’s Minister of Agrarian Reform. The Meimban reunion is scheduled to be held in the town stadium named in honor of Conrado’s son, Robert, who was a Congressman.

Many years back, the Canadian cinematographer, Arthur Makosinski, was in Rosales with me and the Der Spiegel Asia correspondent, Tiziano Terzani. We were in front of the municipio, and a small crowd was there. As Arthur was shooting, Tiziano asked the crowd if any of them knew me or read me and all of them said no. Well, I now have a bust in the municipal building. Years back, too, I brought my La Salle student, Booboo Atayde, to Rosales; she was writing a paper on my work. Her driver had commented, there was nothing spectacular to see in Rosales. As they say of homely children, they have faces only a mother could love. And that is all there is to it. 

My town has changed. Most of the streets are now asphalted. There’s not a single house in Rosales now that is roofed with grass. Of the old shops, only the Shing Tai bakery remains. Both the Roman and the Aglipayan churches have been enlarged, and the town has a high school now to which I’ve donated a few books.

I used to walk to the barrio of Carmen five kilometers west to watch the cars and buses go north, and I used to swim in the Agno river close by. Carmen had a solitary gasoline station. Now, it could very well be a town with an SM mall, and the hallmarks of all growing Filipino towns – first, the Mercury Drug store then followed by McDonald’s and Jollibee. If Carmen has any recent distinction, it is because it has an airfield where, in December 1941, an American bomber hid for a few days; General MacArthur also paused there in 1945 before proceeding to Manila.

Like all Philippine towns, Rosales faces urbanization problems, such as unemployment, most of which are beyond the capacity of its officials to solve – hence the hegira to Manila and beyond. But even if they leave, I am sure there’s always a niche in their hearts for the old hometown. Of this, I am sure, because I do.

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