BY Danton Remoto
May 31, 2010
It has its deep roots sunk many, many years ago. For me, it was when we kicked out a homegrown dictator in February of 1986. Millions massed on an avenue that would later spawn malls and mega-malls. But then it was just an avenue that linked the metropolis from north to south, suddenly becoming a symbol for a revolution powered by the people.
It was on the same week that I received a letter from a university in the American Midwest, telling me that I had been accepted into their Master of Fine Arts program in Creative Writing. The offer was sweet: free tuition and fees, plus a teaching assistantship to tide me over for the next two years. I had been working for two years at the Batasang Pambansa (Interim National Assembly), editing the unimaginable prose of our dear assemblymen.
But to leave meant to leave family and country. Family was okay, since my father had required us to be taught the household chores (cooking, cleaning the house, laundry, pressing the clothes) so that “when you go and study abroad, like what I did, you won’t find life too difficult.” My mother was cool about it, since many of her relatives and their children have crossed the Pacific Ocean, and I would not be wanting for company and counsel over there.
Guess what I did?
I stayed. I stayed, took a Master of Arts in Literature at the Ateneo de Manila University, whose Department of English Chairman – the peerless Fr. Joseph A. Galdon, S.J. – promptly offered me free tuition and fees, plus a job as an Instructor even without a single unit in Education. I stayed because my grandparents were teachers and my parents were teachers and in my bones, I knew that if you want to rebuild a country (almost) in ruins, you have to start with education.
We swam in a sea of yellow and elected a stoic widow into the presidency, but after that, we left her alone. She tried her best, but she is more symbol than substance. Surrounded by people who are not at all as kind-hearted as she was, she was soon fending off one coup d’état after another, one farmer’s strike after another.
We still talked in English, or Taglish, and wore shirts with alligators sewn on the chest and jeans from Levis. All imported, or knocked off and sold in Divisoria or Baclaran. Everyone and his father or mother wanted to leave again, what with the massive brownouts and the general air of despair that gripped the land.
And so when the British Council offered me another graduate-school scholarship to study in the United Kingdom, I left. The BC asked which school should they send my papers to? My friends told me to say Cambridge, or Oxford, or London. But I sent my papers instead to two smaller schools: East Anglia, for its Creative Writing Program, and Stirling, for its Publishing Studies Program. I had begun to read Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, brilliant renderings of timeworn fairy tales, and I wanted to learn from her. But East Anglia’s CW program is full and so my papers were sent to Stirling in Scotland. Why Stirling? Because after the Marcoses fell, there was no publishing industry to speak of, and I wanted help rebuild it.
Halfway through my stay in Scotland, I sent some papers for the Ph.D. program in the United States, to test the waters.
In December 1989, my noisy Brazilian flat mate Carlos knocked on my window at one A.M. He woke me up from my sleep. He said, “There is a war in your country!” I told him to shut up, Carlos, you’re drunk again. He told me to turn on my radio and listen to BBC Radio, and indeed there it was, the clipped accent reporting about a coup d’état in the business heartland of Makati. For a week I listened to the radio and watched the television and talked to my sister on the phone. She was living in New Jersey and I told her I wish the coup would be over soon, because I don’t want to be stranded in Scotland. The coup died down, thanks (or no thanks) to American jet fighter planes that grazed the streets of Makati where the coup plotters and their soldiers were hunkered down.
A month later, I got letters from the American universities, offering me Ph.D. scholarships with all the sweeteners: free tuition and fees, a writing award of $1,000, a teaching assistantship. I did not know what to do. One day, we watched Dead Poets’ Society at Mac Roberts Arts Centre. Robin Williams played a Poetry teacher whose teaching methods are out of the box, and out of this world. He opened doors, windows, and a completely new universe, before the eyes of his students. I will never stand on top of a table to discuss poetry or turn my face to rubber to imitate personas in a poem, but I understood the spirit that animated the character Robin Williams played.
It was no choice. I returned to the country, where my Scottish accent became the students’ butt of jokes. Still we talked in our own kinds of English, or Taglish, and I wore the African vests and fez that I brought home.
Cory’s regime ended and Fidel V. Ramos took over, an administration that restored electricity in our homes, built flyovers in our cities, raised our GNP. Then Erap Estrada took over, with his distinctly nationalist agenda: during his inauguration, he had Mass at Barasoain Church, and was sworn into office at Rizal Park. He wore crisp, cream barongs and spoke his kind of buffalo English. Then he was kicked out of office and an Economics teacher at Ateneo took over, a bookish and studious woman who castigated students who came late to her class.
For nine years she was there, leading us in a rollercoaster ride that gave us 36 quarters of uninterrupted economic growth, which growth never seeped down to the common folk, where it matters most. The protest movement against her peaked in 2005, after she was accused of cheating in the elections. Suddenly there were CDs, songs, shirts, text messages and jokes against her. Love of country was alive again, equated with protests raging against her.
And in August of last year, when people were not sure whether Mrs. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo would leave the presidency or not, the saint of democracy Cory Aquino died of cancer. Suddenly, a new generation of Filipinos became aware of how it was to have a leader who might be a character straight out of boresville, but hey, as Teddy Boy Locsin said, “she never stole a single centavo from you.”
I’ve long been fascinated by the map of the Philippines – a spray of islands like jewels in the sea – and was happy when it became an icon for this newly-rediscovered love for one’s country. It soon found its way on T-shirts, on jeans, on notebooks. It became the protest icon of people who chose yellow as opposed to green, or orange, or whatever. At the same time, another clothes line was putting paintings of our own national artists on their well-crafted shirts. Others chose excerpts from the dazzling fiction of Nick Joaquin, and had them blazoned on their shirts as well.
And recently, a famous brand cut up lines from our Panatang Makabayan and had them printed on their shirts. Made in China those shirts are, of course, and the models are mestizos, but who cares? If they can foster love of country among this text-crazy, jejemon-writing generation, why not?
The idea of involving the youth in the recent elections – as fostered by a big TV station – is also a smart move. It brought the young back into the loop of nation-building. Their parents are in Dubai or Saudi Arabia, they might be dreaming of leaving someday for that golden country beyond the sea, but right now, at this moment, their synapses are wired to the blazing, body electric of loving a nation.
And if we love this nation – these many islands fractured by geography and history – then I am sure we can rebuild it. Now.