The palm trees along Manila Bay finally loomed on the horizon. It was nightfall, and the reflected moonlight on the calm waters illuminated the grey ships berthed there. Pia parked her car and ran up the steps. The uniformed guard greeted her politely and opened the door.

The walls of the restaurant were covered with bamboo poles, and young coconut trees dotted the room between tables and chairs. Among the fronds and slats, Pia spotted her friends, who were already at their drinks, and she made her way towards them. She raised her hand in silent greeting and sat down unobtrusively so as not to disturb the course of their discussion. A waiter came with the menu and she gave her order.

“How can you know where you’re going, when you don’t know where you’ve been?” Kenneth asked.

“Well, Ken, five thousand years ago,” Marites answered, “our people were already present on the islands. They lived in scattered communities, with each area having its own economic and political structure. In the first century BC, we were trading with Arab and Indian merchants; Islam and Hindu culture have left their imprints. In 500 AD, we were trading with China and other Asian countries; their early cultural influence can also be seen. We had venues for artistic and intellectual expression in our literature, songs, and dances. We had an alphabet of our own and a syllabic form of writing. We spoke many languages. We were an affable and honest people. We are still affable.

“Then the Spaniards arrived in the 16th century. For 327 years, the Catholic friars systematically destroyed what belonged to our pre-Hispanic culture. They not only physically demolished what we had, but there was a far worse consequence of this physical destruction. You see, our patrimonial spirit was driven out of our metaphysical being.”

A sudden silence descended on their hearts. It was an ire that could only express itself in acrimonious silence.

“The Catholic Church divided the world between two conquering nations. The Philippines was on the Portuguese side of the demarcation line, but we were unfortunate to have been in the way of Spanish ships, and the Church moved the line in favour of the Spaniards.
“Those who refused to convert to Catholicism were hanged, imprisoned, or had their hand or foot hacked off. Public flogging of women was conducted if they simply failed to attend mass. I wonder, who are the religious extremists?

“So Magellan, a Portuguese in the service of Spain, landed on our independent shores in 1521, and the Rajahs, who knew what their reasons were, gave up our sovereignty. During those three hundred years, the Spaniards effaced our culture to such an extent that the Filipino even today, finds himself a stranger in his own country. The Spaniards did not bequeath us their language because the friars were obsessed with keeping the Filipinos uneducated. Instead, they left us with a fatalistic attitude, the notion of extended family structures, and they fired our imagination with their knowledge of the fine art of abuse of power and special privileges. The unequal distribution of land can be traced to the Spanish system of land distribution, which still remains with us today.”

“They also left us with their architecture and a recipe for paella,” Pia remarked.

“Good to see you, Pia. We are talking about national identity,” Raoul explained. “We are a disunited nation and a national identity is a significant factor in uniting our people, in spite of dissimilar cultures and diverse languages. It would make the task easier for channelling a transcendent sentiment: the ideal of working together for a better quality of life on a nation-wide scale.”

“It is a monumental task,” Kenneth said, “and it can only be accomplished with each and every one chipping at the monolith. There will be obstacles, but you have to
persevere.”

“I wonder if cynics and sceptics have come out with any ideas on solving the problems of the country,” Pia asked. “I don’t think so. You see, they’re too busy shooting down idealists. Do they have any compassion or sentiment? Their tiny minds have no room for it. Do they have any vision for a better world? Their ignorance blinds them.”

“That’s true, Pia,” Kenneth said. “But do not waste your time and breath on common men. They are incapable of great things–small minds have short horizons. The dogs will bark at passing caravans, but dogs won’t stop them from continuing their way.” Kenneth turned to Marites. “Then what happened next?”

“As soon as Spanish colonialism left the Philippines,” Marites continued, “American imperialism took its place. Although American rule was relatively short, less than fifty years, it left a significant impact on the economic, political, and social life of the Filipinos.

“There are, I would say, three major consequences of America’s occupation on the Filipino culture. The first is education, with its effects on the values of the Filipino society; the second is language; and the third is the form of government.”

There was a pause in the discussion as the waiter arrived with their dinner, then Marites picked up where she left off. “The Americans established an educational system that guided Filipino thought towards favouring American interests. They shaped young minds to conform to American thinking and to certain attitudes. They diluted Filipino nationalism by making brigands out of our heroes. Americanisation of Filipino culture is so deep that the un-American Filipino is considered a backward native.

“They left a political legacy that has brought more problems than solutions. They introduced centralised administration, a strong presidency, and the party system. Our country, one of the largest archipelagos in the world, is divided into regions with differences in language, religion, natural resources, and culture. Local governments, which are more aware and more understanding of the diverse aspects of their region, do not have autonomy in decision-making, and that should be done as close as possible to its roots. In other words, a problem is identified and solved by those who are familiar with the local situation. This decentralisation will improve the socio-economic situation of the regions. We cannot have a national identity when the Filipinos cannot identify themselves with a government that does not understand their welfare. We should develop our own political institutions according to the needs of our people, and not to the dictates of a western polity.

“The unlimited powers of a strong presidency hold the potential for dictatorship. Our American-modelled Constitution has provisions for curtailing freedom and individual rights. The institution of a strong presidency was patterned after a 1913 establishment of governor-general during the American Commonwealth. It may work in Bob’s Saloon and the Okay Corral, but in the Philippines this is unsuitable.

“The party system does not articulate nor does it represent the welfare of the majority. It only keeps society in a feudal state. Political parties are personality-centred. They are usually an assemblage of feudal lords who are pursuing their own interests and elected by a paid peasant following from their provinces. The common voter is more attached to a particular individual, rather than a political party or a political precept. It’s quite repulsive, but there it is. Elections in this country are simply a choice of personalities, not ideologies. Party platforms are a list of promises on paper. There is no solidarity within the party as members jump from one party to another when their charisma wanes in their own party. So who runs the government? Clowns, entertaining the masses with song and dance.”

“We are in a mess,” Pia concluded. “But I think achieving the ideal is possible. The Filipinos may be disunited and their loyalties misplaced, but the Hispanised, the Americanised, and the regionalist Filipinos can be brought together. The diversities in culture, language, and religion are not barriers to unification. We can take example from the European Community which has succeeded in uniting the dissimilar peoples of Europe.

“The pre-Spanish culture is irretrievable; it would be futile to redress the loss of our indigenous heritage. Our natural growth as a nation may have been disrupted by foreign powers through negative influences on our social attitudes, our politics, and our culture. But the only possible way that the Filipinos can develop a Filipino conscience is through education, a pragmatic nationalistic education. What is a Filipino? We should redefine ourselves.”

“But,” Marites said, “to redefine ourselves nation-wide, the citizens of this great archipelago of St. Lazarus have to disassociate from the previous assignation and identify with another abstract and symbolic ascription.”

“And this must be accompanied by a radical transformation of government and the educational system,” Raoul added. “A pervasive nationalist movement is a must. We may have just started on the drawing board designing the scaffolding, but in the end, implementation will be the crux of the matter. Words are meaningless until they are translated into action.”

“Do you remember those years, a long time ago,” Raoul reminisced, “when we were students clamouring for change? Nationalism was an incomprehensible concept with the government.”

“I was there,” Pia recalled, “at one of those demonstrations, raising my fist in the air, and shouting phrases that a student with a bullhorn was prompting us to say. But I left early to study for a Trig exam. How did you survive that time, Raoul?”

“You mean the M-26A-1 grenade bombing at Plaza Miranda? It was sweltering hot that afternoon, and I had just nipped in a café for a beer when it happened. There were many students who died that day, and so many more after that.”

“When Martial Law was declared,” Pia said after a moment of silence, “Derps had asked us to refrain from coming to Delaney Hall. Congregating students were immediately arrested.”

Pia looked out of the open windows at the risen moon on Manila Bay. The silhouette of an anchored ship was a calming sight to see. But behind the serene appearance lay a nation in turmoil.

“I read a news item about you, Pia,” Kenneth remarked, changing the subject, “in the Business and Financial section of the papers. They say you’re a competent business executive. What’s your job like?”

“I work for a trading company,” Pia replied. “We have a domestic division that takes care of our domestic products, and an international division, which I’m in charge of. Among the interesting accounts I’m handling, I would say that right now it would be the wine account. We are deciding between importing wine from France or the United States.”

“Not both?” Raoul asked.

“We haven’t decided on whether it should be one or the other; we don’t want to do both. But in terms of quality, French wine is the best in the world. It would be good for the image of the company to be trading in quality products. We should be discriminating. But it will not be easy since it takes time for people to assimilate new ideas.”

“We have a stateside-oriented society, Pia,” Kenneth said. “If you want to change their way of thinking, you would have to begin with the mass media. A country’s culture is so influenced by what they see on television and read in newspapers, and for positive change to take place, this would require an educated class of objective journalists and responsible television producers.”

“What important domestic products is your company handling?” Raoul asked.

“We are buying copra from our farmers.” Pia frowned, and it did not escape Raoul’s attention.

“Is there something wrong with dried coconuts?” he asked.

“No, everything is fine with the copra. It’s just that this is an agricultural product that is being heavily taxed by the Marcos government. Before Martial Law, the tax imposed was a 55-centavo levy for every 100 kilos of copra. The tax collected amounted to a little less than P13 million a year. After Martial Law, the government imposed not an incremental increase in tax, but a huge 60-peso levy, amounting to the incredible sum of P1 billion. The coconut farmer is the most heavily taxed citizen in the country.”

“It is the economically poor and the politically weak who feed the rich,” Marites noted. “Only two percent of the population are paying taxes, and of all people, it is the poor.”

“So the Filipino farmers,” Pia continued, “are either migrating to the city or abroad, or to other regions in the country. One such region is Mindanao, the food basket of the Philippines, an area where conditions are such that agricultural produce grows extremely well. The Americans control a huge agricultural plantation there. Someone is also processing deuterium there. The socio-political situation in this area is unstable, but there are powerful persons who maintain this instability because it is to their financial advantage that no inquisitve person should venture in the area.

“The Mindanao region is predominantly Islamic. The Muslims there practise their traditional pattern of community, called umma, and clan ownership of land. The umma states that you are not a good Muslim unless you work for the unity of the community as well as for its social well being. Under Islamic Law, the territorial abode of Islam is called dar al-Islam, and the territory of non-believers is called the dar al-Harb. So when non-Muslims come with their pieces of paper purportedly proving that they own a piece of earth, scores of Moros have been turned out of their ancestral homes. In some places, they are a minority group in their own homeland. Taking away their land, you take away their religious territorial abode. So bandits roam the area to protect their communities and they have become war-like with the encroachment in their region of paper-brandishing Christians, government land-grabbers, and poor farmers from other regions. There is a clash of religious and political values.

“When the Christian Government speaks of integration, the Moros feel that their religion and cultural identity are being obliterated, and you cannot achieve national unity by obliterating the culture of minority communities. If it were the other way around, would Christians enjoy being integrated with a Muslim Government? Thousands of Moros have fought and died in response to outside aggression, and they continue to demand political autonomy or secession from the Philippine State which was forced on them in 1578 by the Spaniards. The Moro Wars demonstrated their violent resistance. They do not identify with the National Government, nor do they consider themselves Filipino.”

“Is there no end to all our problems?” Marites asked.

“I’m afraid we’ve not quite reached the bottom of the pit yet,” Raoul replied. “But once we’re there, we either wallow in it, or get up.”