Viajero: Our overseas workers and Blas Ople
HINDSIGHT - F. Sionil Jose (The Philippine Star) - August 3, 2020 - 12:00am

My novel, Viajero, published in 1992, is considered by my French translator, the poet Amina Said, and her husband, the editor Ghislain Ripault, as my best single novel. Some readers say it should be included in the Rosales Saga because a major character in the Saga, Pepe Samson, is in it.

Viajero is actually Philippine history unfolded through the lives of Filipinos – from pre-history to the present. It is also the story of an orphan brought to the United States by a black captain, and how this orphan grows and returns to his homeland to regain his identity and realize his purpose.

It is, in a sense, also the story of thousands of Filipino workers abroad and their travail and longing for the peace and security denied them in their own country. With thousands of them coming home, our economic problems are worsened, problems that could have been avoided, if… but there are no ifs in history.

There is in almost all of us this sense of curiosity, of inquiry and discovery achieved by travel, most of the time traversing distance physically, but sometime, we tread new unfamiliar places only in the mind. When we travel, we also end up finding ourselves, who we are, and hopefully, we find our purpose so our lives are ennobled with meaning.

A large portion of the novel is devoted to the contemporary plight of our OFWs. I talked with so many of them in my travels, in Asia, in Europe. I found out, for instance, that they were most at home in Italy. In Como, near Milan, two women who showed me around while recounting how they had gone there and found employment as domestics but were treated as family. It is our women OFW’s in the Middle East who suffer most. Some are raped or treated like slaves and animals, and their passports surrendered to their employers. When we were in Hong Kong in 1961, our maid and driver were from Canton. No Filipino housemaids were in Hong Kong then. Now, there are over a hundred thousand OFWs there, with their fates becoming uncertain as China has taken over the colony.

The plight of Filipinos to other lands has been going on for some time; way back in the Thirties, Filipino musicians were already playing in major Asian cities, all the way to Turkey and way, way back, our seamen that manned these galleons settled in South America. This trickle became a flood when Marcos became President in 1965. Perhaps, the exodus was inevitable, we had so many unemployed but educated Filipinos. They should have stayed, but the Filipino oligarchy failed; with its huge wealth failed to modernize the country.

President Duterte has recognized this continuing massive problem; he thinks creating a ministry devoted to the OFWs will help. Such a ministry is superfluous; more government and more laws will only exacerbate bad government (corruption). What is needed is a strong government (State) with functioning institutions to serve not just the OFWs but all Filipinos. Until that time comes, Filipinos will continue to leave the country. They should be better trained for higher paying positions. In a sense, all OFWs can also be “ambassadors” of this country by being model employees, and yes, they can be organized to promote our national interest – to demonstrate before Chinese consulates and embassies all over the world to promote our sovereignty.

It is not true, as President Duterte said in his State of the Nation Address last week, that we are powerless to counter China’s intransigence. We don’t have to go to war to protect our rights. When it’s time for reckoning, I hope all of us will always think of home.

This is the major theme of Viajero – the travelers coming home. This can be symbolic and allegorical – even the traveler, with all the comforts he has found and the vicissitudes he had endured, realizes and feels that tenacious nostalgia for that place called “home.” It could be an immemorial village like Barrio Cabugawan of an immemorial town called Rosales, or a bustling sweaty neighborhood, Bangkusay in Tondo, a gated village in Makati, whatever, but it is home enshrined in the heart and mind. This is the beginning of that personal sense of place which eventually and hopefully becomes a sense of nation.

This sense of nation has always been in the mind of Blas F. Ople, the primary executor of the OFW program. I knew Blas quite well. We were together in the old Manila Times which I joined in 1949 and left in 1960. He was with the Daily Mirror, the afternoon paper of the Manila Times. I recall our conversations – arguments rather, about nationalism – its rootedness in parochialism, and the contradictory international impulse of Marxism. The Marxism of Blas was not book induced; it was nurtured by poverty in his Hagonoy, Bulacan childhood. This was where we agreed. I was happy for him when he joined Marcos. Now, he could pursue and fructify his ideas.

A Japanese diplomat familiar with Philippine affairs told me, of all the Philippine officials who visited Japan, it was only Blas who spent time studying Japan’s labor and farm organizations and Japan’s socialist program.

My last meeting with him was at Hizon’s, the restaurant behind the bookshop. Being walking distance from the Court of Appeals, the Department of Justice and the Supreme Court, many of its clients are lawyers and friends; if only the tables at Hizon’s could talk!

Blas joined me, I told him that even if he didn’t join Marcos, he would have gone very far because he was brilliant. He was then foreign secretary. I reminded Blas that no President had with him the best young minds of the country but even so, in the end, he failed. I told him, he was close to Marcos, he knew how power worked. I told him we must know the truth or at least the truth as he witnessed it. His narrative will not only be for his grandchildren or mine but for all Filipinos.

Blas hugged me tightly and said, “Frankie, you haven’t changed!”

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