Imagining ourselves

FROM A DISTANCE - Veronica Pedrosa - The Philippine Star

On a day when we mark a milestone in becoming a nation, I can’t help thinking that we are more than the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. I mean that every action is an act of imagination and will, but it is also an opportunity – a kind of doorway to further thought and action to be the kind of individuals and community we want to be.

It’s been 122 years since a few good men (and they were all men) gathered to sign a document under “the protection of the powerful and humanitarian North American nation” and in Spanish. Nevertheless that Declaration of Independence in Kawit, Cavite is what we continue to celebrate every year on 12 June. But is it the end of the story?

“…We do hereby proclaim and declare solemnly in the name and by authority of the people of these Philippine Islands, that they are and have the right to be free and independent; that they have ceased to have any allegiance to the Crown of Spain; that all political ties between them are and should be completely severed and annulled; and that, like other free and independent States, they enjoy the full power to make War and Peace, conclude commercial treaties, enter into alliances, regulate commerce, and do all other acts and things which an Independent State has a right to do, and imbued with firm confidence in Divine Providence, we hereby mutually bind  ourselves to support this Declaration with our lives, our fortunes, and with our most sacred possession, our Honor.”

It clearly did not end there. The debate and discussions continued. The idea of an independent Philippines was further developed over the next seven months till the revolutionary Malolos Constitution was agreed without mention of either Spain or the North Americans. It was the first constitutional republic in Asia, framing a document approved by a partially elected congress; declaring:  “We, the Representatives of the Filipino people, lawfully convened, in order to establish justice, provide for common defense, promote the general welfare, and insure the benefits of liberty, imploring the aid of the Sovereign Legislator of the Universe for the attainment of these ends, have voted, decreed, and sanctioned the following…

Article 1. The political association of all Filipinos constitutes a nation, whose state shall be known as the Philippine Republic.

Article 2. The Philippine Republic is free and independent.

Article 3. Sovereignty resides in the people and all government authority emanates from them.”

The 1898 “Acta de la proclamación de la independencia del pueblo Filipino” mentions Dr José Rizal for his last poem written before he was shot to death by a Spanish firing squad. It seems appropriate to be studying a Tagalog translation of another poem Rizal originally wrote in Spanish for my Filipino class this week.

As I study “The Song of the Traveller,” “El Canto del Viajero,” or “Awit ng Biyahero” as it has been translated into Tagalog by national artist Virgilio Almario, there is a sense of the generations that have lived since it was written. I feel that I am only the latest to read the poem and other works by Rizal and other figures who made the first dramatic steps toward the formation of a nation. There is a  a continuity in the march of time and struggle toward nationhood in the act of understanding the poem and the times in which it was written. They also cast a light on the current situation and what it is to be a part of the Philippines project in 2020.

The political historian who is probably best known internationally for his deep exploration of the roots of south east Asian nationalism is Benedict Anderson who argued that the concepts of nation, nationhood and nationalism are not so much part of a political ideology like liberalism or fascism but more “cultural artefacts.” He proposed the definition of the nation as “an imagined political community – and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.” It is imagined, he wrote, “because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.” Surely, the accounts of what happened in Kawit and Malolos are described with this definition?

Indeed, Anderson cites Rizal’s writings to explain how the idea of a nation is made so strong that people are willing to make colossal sacrifices for it including their own lives. He does so by examining the cultural roots of nationalism. Quoting the beginning of “Noli Me Tangere,” he asks the reader to “note that right from the start the image (wholly new to Filipino writing) of a dinner party being discussed by hundreds of unnamed people, who do not know each other, in quite different parts of Manila, in a particular month of a particular decade, immediately conjures up the imagined community.”

As the coronavirus has spread, Filipinos have rallied to help each other on the basis of our shared sense of belonging to the same nation. “Mahirap mag-isa at mangailangan ng tulong. Minsan di mo alam san ka pupunta. Kung kailangan mo ng karamay tumawag ka at maaring si ate or si kuya ay naghihintay lang para sayo. Call 0xxxx0 xxxx000.” Support groups are being created and appealing to the Filipino concept of “bayanihan,” described on one website as “derived from the word “bayan” which means town. The bayanihan concept initially started when a man sought help from his neighbors to move, not only their belongings but their whole house. Traditionally, a Filipino house is made of bamboo and can be moved from place to another. The spirit of community service is embedded in the culture of all Filipinos. Thus, at this trying time, we wish to amplify the culture we all raised from, and to resonate this culture in our adapted mother land and for our children to know, to continue now and beyond the pandemic, and demonstrate how we Filipinos tackled the adversities.”

So I would suggest that marking Independence Day, even as far away as I am in London where indeed Rizal himself studied intensively at the British Library, is not just about those distant days at the end of the 19th century. It is also about helping each other as a community to imagine and conjure into being the nation we, the people, wish to be.

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