Pinoy in the mirror

(This article was written four years ago but I guess it is still relevant to this day.) 

If you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and then make a change.  (Man in the Mirror)

I am a Filipino, born and bred in the Philippines, and I am looking at myself in the mirror. Do I like what I see?

That is a conundrum difficult to ignore lest hypocrisy set in or indifference get in the way of pseudo-nationalism. But there lies the rub, or the ambivalent feelings, if you will. Charles Dickens must have had in mind this fateful country of ours when he wrote the opening paragraph of his famous novel, published in 1859 –

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

Prophetic words, those, and ever so close to the paradoxes of our own befuddling times. Neither here nor there, almost hither but going thither, aiming for the sky but getting stuck in limbo, choosing the straight path but ending up wedged between a rock and a bump-laden place. Are the best of times way past us now? Have the worst of times only just begun? I shudder to think as I ‘poke’ the mirror discombobulating in front of me.

Would Rizal have been proud?Would Rizal have been proud?

It is nice to say, I am proud to be Filipino – with nationalistic fervor burning inside – but is the feeling of pride deeply embedded in my bones? Without batting an eyelash, would I proclaim myself an inheritor of Rizal’s race to anyone who would ask at risk of being discriminated against? Would I solemnly swear upon the now-ancient fields of Bagumbayan that I am Filipino first, citizen of the world-wannabe far second, and that I won’t leave it for greener bucks when the opportunity beckons?

Twenty-five years ago, the answer would have been quick and simple. The bloodless revolt that threw out an overstaying usurper brought the Filipino people global acclaim and admiration heretofore unthinkable for a country mired too long in subservience and complacency. For the first time in recent memory, pride in our own skin was non-negotiable. We, as a nation, shone like silver and glittered like gold. It was hip to be Filipino, in the eyes of the freedom-loving world – all because we did in three days what took Gandhi eight times as long to accomplish – that is, do the Salt March across India and jumpstart the civil disobedience movement that eventually set his country free.

It was one moment in time that the country basked in reflected glory. Proud Pinoys we were, and deservedly so. Sadly, though, the afterglow did not linger long. Whatever goodwill we earned in a flash of the L-sign (remember Jane Fonda at the Oscars?), dissipated in a blink. Democracy, Philippine-style, was born, and we are now none the better for it. Coup d’état became the catchphrase of the era. ‘Plain housewife’ vs. ‘macho men’ in uniform made like the real-life ‘80s’ incarnation of ‘plants vs. zombies’. Political demagoguery started to rear its ugly head, spawning a new breed of politicians bereft of ideology and full of themselves.

Back in '86, the Filipino stood proud and tall.Back in ’86, the Filipino stood proud and tall.

Where has pride in our own skin gone, obsessed as we are with whitening the same skin, trying hard to look like bleached imitations of perceived gods and goddesses on glossy magazines and movie screens? The Great Malay must be tossing and turning in his grave for the wanton desecration of his beloved race. ‘Dark’ skin is ugly? Try pretense, or superficiality. Beauty, or what goes out of derma clinics and is fashioned by doctors’ scalpels, has never been more truly skin-deep – Filipina beauty, even more so. Define present-day Filipina beauty, by the way. Even Venus Raj is starting to look, um, different.

Who’s to fault Juan and Juana de la Cruz for doing the diaspora, the brain drain, the e-mail order marriage? Who’s to begrudge the family breadwinner and ordinary wage earner for packing their bags and toiling in strange lands, for risking life and limb to hook up with strangers, armed with just a dream and a prayer? The mighty foreign currency, the prodigious lands of milk and honey, the life of comfort and plenty so far removed from that of near-penury and scarcity – they are too tempting to refuse, too impractical to pass up, too foolhardy to decline in the name of, what…patriotism?

In the process, have we become too worldly and too materialistic for our own good, too covetous of things and fixated with situations that are oftentimes beyond our reach, living way beyond our means and sinking deeper into holes we created for ourselves because we can’t tell when enough is enough? There is nothing wrong with working hard to improve one’s economic status, but amassing money through no dint of honest toil should at least give one the shivers. If you are a ‘lowly’ bureaucrat, and you live in a huge house with a fleet of SUVs, suspicions of unexplained wealth are par for the course. Corruption isn’t the sole domain of whoever sits in Malacanang and their minions. Just go to the nearest gated subdivision in the poorest of provinces and a new mansion-like structure will tell you someone recently received a hefty kickback from some government contract or other. Scruples are a thing of the past; venality is the new ball game. Blame half-Filipino crooner Bruno Mars: I wanna be a billionaire so freaking bad… 

Cheating happens.Cheating happens.

So now behold the spectacle of brazen officials holier than thou and chronic agitators itching for appointive positions – digging up ghosts of elections past to pin down the most demonized president in Philippine history, as if the Little Lady had done nothing but line her pockets while warding off coup attempts and dealing with turncoats and opportunists. In so doing, they rattle skeletons in other people’s closets, point dirty fingers at ‘cheaters’ but never own up to their own dubious schemes. Who hasn’t machinated their way to election victory in this country, anyway? How many election losers beat their chests and proclaim they didn’t lose but were cheated?

Since they’re already at it, why not dig as far back as ’92 and find out if it was really FVR who won and not Miriam, as the latter had alleged? Then we can put the all-important asterisks, posthumous or not, beside everyone’s names and live smug with the thought that those who lost were cheated and those who won were cheaters. If, by some funny joke or something, there are actually incumbents who will say they never cheated in elections, please come forward, be recognized and make your tribe increase. You are a rare species. But remember, vote buying is a major, major form of cheating and any candidate, down to the lowest barangay kagawad, who doesn’t buy votes must be living in the time of Amaya.

Seriously. We seriously disrespect our leaders by calling them names that will make even the Devil flinch in embarrassment. (Calling your enemies names does not necessarily dishonor them, it only diminishes you and brings you to a level much lower than where you think they are.) But we vote them, and their children’s children, into office anyway. We install those whom we derisively call thieves, crooks, frauds, idiots, dwarfs (intellectual or otherwise), bitches, drunkards, womanizers and what not, into positions of authority. The Filipinos’ penchant for nicknames, when used as a term of endearment, makes us unique like that, but using the same to degrade other people with impunity is nothing but a misplaced sense of self-righteousness. Not much different from the sloganeering and empty oratory that come out of official pronouncements, day in and day out, on the airwaves and in the corridors of power. We do deserve the kind of leaders we get, don’t we, hecklers and all? A reflection of our shared will as a people? Rizal couldn’t have been more right: Tal pueblo, tal gobierno.

 It's all about the money, money.It’s all about the money, money.

 Not too long ago, we convicted a former president of plunder based on evidence, and not on the mere say-so of a few angry birds; the same one ‘magnanimously’ pardoned by his successor after spending a few months in ‘rest house arrest’. Now ‘Jose Velarde’ (not to be confused with ‘Jose Pidal’) acts like a pristine soul and has joined the bandwagon in accusing ‘Pandak’ of the crime he was in fact proven to have committed and of feigning illness to evade prosecution. Déjà vu. By all means, let’s ride the carousel and do it once more, though it doesn’t look like ‘Pandak’ will enjoy the same ‘magnanimity’ given the vindictiveness now prevailing at the Palace by the Pasig. ‘No let-up’, is what they’re saying, as if the country’s future rests solely on putting the former Beelzebub Family behind bars. Never mind if the horse is almost dead, why not let’s all shame and hound the former Beelzebub Family if there’s nothing else we should do, no matter the cost to life and limb (two suicides, so far), until a new Beelzebub Family manifests itself, and the nasty cycle starts all over again.

Media glossing over personalities and highlighting the trivial rather than the substantial doesn’t help paint a pretty picture, either. Giving prominence to showbiz gossip on prime time news in the name of ratings; propagandists masquerading as columnists to advance the cause and self-interest of their not-so-hidden clients, corporate or political; arrogant talking heads and condescending mouthpieces babbling motherhood statements that have seen better days, recycled to fit new egos; providing lame characters a round-the-clock platform (15 minutes are not enough, Andy) to perorate without ceasing and spew forth nothing but hot air and blather – should we blame them for giving us schmuck, or do they give us schmuck because schmuck is what we want?

The tabloid mentality that we have all sank deep into is turning us into a nation of escapists and scapegoats, spectators and spectacles, fishwives and fishy tales. The medium is the message, indeed, and the message has become just an afterthought, delivered in a language that is a hazy mish-mash of interlocking tongues, because it has become increasingly difficult for a good number of the populace to speak and write either in straight English or pure Filipino. Three or four decades ago, we were fluent in English and Spanish plus Tagalog and the local dialects that we spoke as children. Rizal the linguist would have been proud. But we struck off Spanish from the school curriculum for being ‘irrelevant’ and English has now become, er, the lingua franca of rich kids showing off their pedigree and college graduates training to be call center agents.

Politics and showbiz: All form, no substance.Politics and showbiz: All form, no substance.

Honesty, self-discipline, sacrifice, hard work and perseverance – there was a time in our grandfathers’ world when such traits embodied the Filipino heart and soul. Mutual respect, gentility, tolerance, decency and honor were virtues that they lived by. What happened since then? What happened to that era not too long ago when we were actually second only to Japan as Asia’s economic power? Gone to the ill winds of change…

But then I look at Manny Pacquiao and my faith in the Filipino is revived. I look at this big little man – all heart and no pretensions, with a palpable naiveté that is at once endearing and not off-putting – who has single-handedly brought Filipino-ness in the global spotlight purely on grit and strength of character; whose rise to fame rested on his sturdy shoulders alone, with scant help from high-profile politics-driven sports officials; who was initially jeered for being ‘just a boxer’ with a thick Visayan accent, but is now greatly admired by great men the world over. Thank heavens for this guy, and other homegrown sportsmen like him, whose fighting spirit literally lifts this country from the pits of hopelessness and oblivion.

I look at the Honest Taxi Driver who goes out of his way to return money and valuables left in his cab, without so much as a handshake and a few minutes’ worth of sound bites to recognize his integrity. I look at the Police Officer who toils under the noonday sun and pouring rain to give some veneer of order in unsafe and chaotic streets, even when he is maligned for the dastardly deeds of a few rotten eggs in his organization.

Mean fists.Mean fists.

I look at the Doctor in the Barrio who climbs mountains and crosses rivers to bring aid to forgotten villagers in remote areas deprived of hospital care, and the Volunteer Nurse who endures exploitative pay just to be able to meet the required ‘hospital experience’. I look at the Underpaid Teacher who deems it not beyond her dignity to instead serve as Domestic Helper on foreign shores, caring for other people’s children and leaving behind her own, so she can earn a little above minimum wage and send dollars home to prop up an economy that has become dependent on the brow of Overseas Filipinos.

I look at Efren Penaflorida and the countless unsung heroes in our midst who, in spite of poverty or because of it, have managed to extricate themselves from the curse of illiteracy and pass on the gift of knowledge to those similarly less privileged, with little or no aid from so-called philanthropists (they came in droves after he was recognized by CNN) and just a wooden pushcart serving as their classroom. I look at the Homeless Kids, considered by some as dregs of society, who turn to sports to make a difference in their lives and do their country proud in the little way they can – plucked by kindred souls out of their miserable plight to kick balls across dirt fields, so that their orphaned existence might acquire new meaning and they can tell the unbelievers with unspoken pride: We’re playing for the country, what about you?

I look at Janela Lelis, the 12-year-old school girl whose singular deed of carrying the Philippine flag to safety at peril of her own life amid rising floodwaters in her hometown, reminds us jaded adults with an awe-inspiring realization that nationalism, be it accidental or unenlightened, is not lost in the young, after all.

Bless the beasts and the children.Bless the beasts and the children.

Famous or nameless, they make being Filipino much more bearable for bringing to fore the qualities that truly define us as a people: courageous and indomitable when confronted with difficulties, hopeful and resolute in the midst of adversities, cheerful and hospitable almost to a fault, conscientious and trustworthy when the opportunity presents itself, with the word ‘survivor’ written on their forehead because they are nothing less than that.

Patronage politics and apathetic politicians be damned, as well as the noisy minority who rant and rave with no rhyme or reason, every single God-forsaken day. They certainly do not speak for the rest of the law-abiding, tax-paying citizenry who plod through life without the discordant sound and mindless fury coming out of inveterate hecklers, but who love their country nonetheless by choosing to slug it out come hell or high water, in the Motherland, the only way they know how, quietly, painstakingly – without fear and recrimination, with much pride and not much prejudice; subscribing to the tenet that justice should take its normal course, where even the most hardened criminal is entitled to due process in a court of law and everyone else is presumed innocent until proven guilty; adhering to democratic principles and all that holy crap, including the freedom to express oneself and the right of others to express a contrary point of view.

Damaged culture or not, identity crisis or confused state of flux, pseudo-nationalists or true patriots, incompetent government or naïve electorate, this country right or wrong, love it or leave it alone.

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