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The Nation: 1965, June 12, 1965

The Nation: 1965

By Quijano de Manila

The profile of the controversial present becomes incontrovertible, set against the past.

June 12, 1965—MID-DECADE of the Seething ’60s finds Philippine society knocking itself hard. We glance at the state and say that, politically, we are a failed society. We study the prices and say that, economically, we are a bankrupt society. We peruse the crime figures and say that, spiritually, we are a violent society. We devour the latest scandals and say that, morally, we are a sick society.

Some may wonder how anybody so sick could knock himself so vigorously. Others may argue that the seeming vigor is the delirium of fever.

Are we in excelsis or in extremis? Neither. We are in transitu.

The 1960s will go down in our history as the decade during which we finally got off the ground and saw everything with fresh eyes. The transition has been from earthbound to airborne, and is a transcending of the peasant. This has nothing to do with politics or economics. In fact, the reason we have no clear picture of today is that we’re always being offered either a political picture—good or bad, according to which faction is the painter—or an economic picture, again either happy or gloomy, according to whose statistics we are citing. But a nation is not its politics or economics. A nation is its people. And a nation changes only when the people change.

We are all agreed that we have to change our basic viewpoints and attitudes if we are to become progressive and dynamic; at the same time we fear the dynamics of change, we dislike the risks and uncertainties that the modern industrial nations have accepted as a way of life. We cling to the static society, where today is just like yesterday and tomorrow will be just like today. And we are so fearful and so furious today because that society has exploded from under our feet; we are up in the air; and nothing will ever be fixed again: not prices, not morals, nor ideas, nor creeds.

That’s the revolution we’re undergoing at the moment.

Ours has hitherto been an earthbound peasant-oriented society. Our values were peasant values; our attitudes, peasant attitudes. It’s not merely sentimentality that impels us (the politicians especially) to glorify the peasant and profess an obsession over his lot; we think thus to preserve the peasant society which is a static society, because we long for security. But the revolution we are now engaged in is against peasantness: against routine meekness, resignation, fatalism and provincialism. To change, we have to kill the peasant in us, because it is the peasant mentality that has kept us earthbound, mean and poor through the ages. Of a great American writer, Willa Cather, who grew up among the now-vanished peasantry of the American Middle West, it’s said that her novels represent “the triumph of mind over Nebraska.” The 1960s may signify our triumph over peasantness, our liberation from the peasant mentality.

The liberation is evident in our changed attitudes to everything from money to morals. Our money notions today are especially illuminating.

The older generation still winces when buying what yesterday were regarded as “luxuries”—say a car or a TV set or stove and oven: it’s the peasant in us that winces. At the grocer’s, when told that a kilo of grapes costs four pesos, the peasant in us shudders and we repeat the peasant’s classic expression of horror: “Naku, kuwarta na ang kakanin mo diyan!” This is the money notion we inherited from the peasant society: the idea of money as something solid, fixed, sacrosanct, a thing in itself. But as modern physics began only when matter was viewed not as “inert” but as energy, so capitalism begins only when money ceases to be a feudal token for barterable goods and becomes an expression of energy. A peso in the hands of a peasant is only a hundred centavos; in the hands of a potential Rockefeller it’s a wealth-producing wand, the wand of a wizard. So the figures in a chessboard vary in value according to who is handling them, expressing, in the hands of a chess master, that master’s skill and quick wit and genius.

Philippine society has not yet reached the Rockefeller stage but has already shed its peasant-society inertness—which is why we are so outraged by the insensibility of our young to the “value” of money: “When I was your age, my baon to school was only two centavos; and how I clutched those two centavos, how carefully I spent them!” Now we give them a peso or two and they handle the money with none of the reverence we had for our two centavos. The difference goes beyond the difference in value between two pesos today and two centavos in the old days, because it’s a difference in cultural attitude. The emphasis has shifted from money as a value in itself to the values of comfort, of the good life.

This is amusingly illustrated by the problem of prices.

One mother groaning over high prices fell to reminiscing nostalgically on the days before the war, when eggs cost only so much, fresh milk could be had for a song, butter and canned goods were ridiculously cheap, the prices of meats were a joke, and apples, grapes and oranges didn’t cost a king’s ransom. Whereupon her children exclaimed that their mother must have enjoyed quite a table when she was young; with everything so cheap, she must have had eggs, fresh milk, butter and canned goods, lots of meat, and apples, grapes and oranges every day! That brought up the lady short. Thinking back again, and comparing her children’s table with her childhood table, she realized, with a shock, that what was ordinary fare for them had been “luxuries” for her, though she had been young in supposedly cheaper times. She had tasted apples only during Christmas; the poorest urchin on the streets of Manila today hardly regards an apple as an event. Yet she had not come from a poor family; they were reasonably well off but had lived as meanly—from today’s viewpoint—as though they were impoverished: a movie once a week; new clothes only on one’s birthday; new shoes only on Christmas. And though she now looked back on those days as a heaven of low prices, what she actually remembered were her parents groaning over the prices and the hard times. What she found herself having to admit was that her children ate better, dressed better and lived better than she had done as a child.

That lady’s second thoughts overtake all of us. We understood the value of money all right in the old days, but not the value of living as well as we could. The good life is not a matter of prices; it’s a state of mind. We lived meanly in the days when prices, as we realize now, were low; but the nation in general, in this year of grace and high prices, 1965, lives much, much better than it did then. Examples can be piled up.

If we dare to vaunt that first-run movie houses before the war cost only 45 centavos, if you went to the matinee, only 55 centavos if you went later, the inevitable question is: who went to first-run movie houses in those days? One went there, all dressed up, maybe two or three times a year, on special occasions like a birthday or an anniversary or a first date—and the going was really an “occasion” in itself, for only the foreign community and the rich went to the first-run movie houses. Today everybody goes to first-run movie houses, on any day of the year, and thinks nothing of it. There has been a breakdown here not only in money values but in class barriers.

The same can be said of Baguio, which used to be practically just an American resort before the war. Today the people you meet there in summer include the janitor in your office, the boy who delivers your morning paper, the fishwife you buy from in Quiapo, the waitresses in your downtown restaurant, and your former housegirls. How come the masses have taken over Baguio only now, when it costs so much more, and not back in the days when it was presumably cheaper to go there?

Thinking back to restaurant prices in Manila in prewar days, one can only wonder why we didn’t “eat out” oftener in those days. A couple of times a year—again on special occasions—we did go to the famed old Chinese restaurants with the kundol and the hot towels; but “eating out” became a Filipino custom only in these more expensive times. A restaurant like Max’s can cater to the hoi polloi and flourish, though the price of the chicken there has gone up to three pesos, the price of the steak to four pesos (served with a bowl of tossed salad). Would Max’s have been possible in prewar times? People then would have fainted if asked to pay three pesos—or whatever the equivalent price would have been—for a fried chicken; and the reason would not have been that they had chicken, for cheap, every day at home, or even every Sunday.

Comparing ourselves then with ourselves now, we see the change, we appreciate the difference, and all talk about having been better then, of having lived better in those days, becomes so much eyewash. We were clenched into ourselves then, cramped and timorous; we have opened out now—and the change shows in the houses we live in: bright open houses designed for living, through which the air blows.

The houses we developed during the Spanish period had nobility and grace, besides being efficient dwelling places, with their tall spacious rooms and generous windows; but from the 1900s through the 1930s there was a very obvious debasement of taste: our domestic architecture produced mostly monstrosities, of which the flimsy, dingy, stuffy accesorias that became prevalent in the 1920s were the most squalid. But even people with money didn’t know how to build for comfort. The lower middle class was then putting up those horrors called houses which seemed to be all sala—one vast sala edged with hot little cubicles of bedroom and a space of outer darkness: a drab kitchen, a dim bath, a dank toilet. As for the rich, they were confecting those wedding-cake mansions that may still be studied mirthfully in provincial capitals and along Manila’s Taft Avenue. The change in our character shows in the shift of emphasis from the showplace sala (which, in today’s houses, has all but melted into the dining room) to the more vital areas of bedroom, bath and kitchen. When we build now we build for our own convenience; we don’t stint on the space we really use (like bedroom and bath) just to have as much space as possible for a sala that will stagger visitors, which was the basic principle of prewar architecture.

Today’s Filipino house is more functional, more sensible, and bespeaks a more casual society. Even the rich have learned the elegance of understatement; even the poor have learned to discount façade. The need for face comes from a lack of self-confidence. We have become more willing to be taken for what we are. And this is the second big change wrought by the revolution of the 1960s: the Filipino had lost his timidity.

The Verve of Independence

That timidity is best illustrated by the way we used to dress. From the 1900s through the war, a sartorial cowardice possessed the Filipino as it was impressed on him that, because of his dark skin and hot climate, he shouldn’t dare to wear colors. We know that the Spanish-era Filipinos—the men as well as the women—dressed with more spirit, dared the flamboyant in hue, and to hell with the hot climate; but throughout the American era the Filipino meekly submitted to the white-drill uniform. There were a couple of revolts, very late in the era: the Hawaiian shirt, for instance, and the McCrory style; but by and large we hewed to the Puritan line and stuck to prim white.

Our timidity affected even our women (though the terno continued to be gorgeous) and inhibited them from colors supposed to be not proper for brown folk. As late as the 1930s, society girls in Manila were debating whether a Filipina could wear such colors as red, yellow and orange, and the hesitant opinion was that maybe she could, if she “moved” in the dress. Today’s Filipino girls would find the mere argument hilariously incredible: they dress with verve, in any color they please. And the Filipino male likewise now runs the gamut of the spectrum with the aplomb of a peacock. Our clothes are a declaration of independence—and the hell with the hot climate.

The importance of such social manifestations cannot be underrated because they express radical changes within the society. The fashions of an era may tell us more about that era than its politics. In this instance, the testimony of prewar male fashions controverts the usual political interpretation of the American era: that it liberated us in spirit from musty medievalism. What we actually read in the fashions is a long spell of inhibitedness—that notorious “inferiority complex” of the Filipino—expressed during the Empire Days in the puritanical americana cerrada, a white coat chastely buttoned up to the jaw (note that the Filipino associates this garb with America) and later on in the white-drill uniform, which bespoke national docility, submission, conformism and conservatism. The timidity expressed by these fashions was broken only in the present time. Black suits, multi-hued knitwear and the Beatle shirt testify to a spiritedness in the contemporary Filipino that makes his prewar paisanos look, in retrospect, like white mice.

This spiritedness spills over into manners—and here we are on more controversial ground. The complaint is that today’s Filipinos, especially the young ones, are toughs, rowdies, boors, drones and donkeys; and the front pages daily seem to offer proof of this. Yet harking back to the days when the young were “seen and not heard,” one feels, while admiring the manners, that the old policy of gagging and reining in the young was partly responsible for the Filipino’s timidity. What it produced was generation after generation of Filipinos who knew their place, who were prim, gentle, sheepish and rather sissified. Any mother of today will say that the difference between her young and herself young is that her children are not afraid of company, are not afraid to speak up, unlike in the days when the young were, yes, unworldly but only because they were kept from the world. It was not a wise policy, as we all learned when the war came. The disillusions we suffered might not have been so excruciating if we had been less naïve. But our children today are, as we ourselves say, tough: they know it’s a violent world.

Well, okay, the parents will argue, we don’t mind if our children are wild if only they were as good in school as we were. And the parents will fetch out that old chestnut about a college student today being only the equivalent of a seventh-grader in prewar times. How true is this? The prewar scholar was very bright indeed; at the drop of a report card he could spout the Gettysburg Address, tell you about Washington and the cherry tree, or quote from Longfellow and Tennyson. But it was all a rather bookish brightness, smelling of the schoolma’ams of New England and that little red schoolhouse. Even in those days, the older generation was uneasily aware that something was wrong: that the young, though seemingly so educated, had become ignorant and provincial in a fashion that they of the older generation had not been in their more barbarous day. They had been conscious of Europe, of Rome and Greece, on the one hand, and of the Revolution, of Rizal and Bonifacio and Aguinaldo, on the other hand; but the little parrot products of the public school system seemed to know only America, had no history but American history, had no literature but literature in English, had no knowledge but book knowledge. The bright minds were one-track minds.

Today, alas, the average student can’t spout the Gettysburg Address, has never heard of Washington and that cherry tree, and couldn’t quote any poet at all; but he can drive a car, ride a scooter, repair a radio, tinker with the TV, master a machine, tell you about satellites, learn any dance, pack a gun, and mix a birgincoke cocktail. If he’s not as bookish as his forebears it’s because education has moved from lessons in a classroom to practical experience of the world. Far from the prewar seventh grader being the equal of today’s collegian, it may be that, in actual range of knowledge, in sophistication, yesterday’s college student is not even the equal of a ten-year-old boy today, unless we equate knowledge with book knowledge. If the young seem such dullards to us, it’s because we expect them to spout the Gettysburg Address like we did; if they seem so wild, it’s because we still cling to the standards of a timid past. Yet we, too, are trying to disengage from that past—and the best proof of this is the rise of drinking in the Philippines.

This, again, is controversial ground; anybody who tries to justify today’s heavy drinking as part of a cultural process is bound to be pulverized; but the fact remains that the drinking Filipino is advancing into territory he timidly skirted before. Who of us drank in prewar days? The old men, with memories of a noble tradition distilled in their bottles of Domecq; and a few garrulous old crones, nursing asthma and a cup of ginebra. We had two beer factories, but the product was mostly consumed by the American soldiery, in saloons with swinging doors, foot railings at the bar, and brass spittoons. We natives never ventured in there; we played it genteel, with our limonada and sarsaparilla. Our not drinking was part of a timid culture—which is why a revolt against that timidity was bound to involve machismo drinking, to prove to the world and to ourselves that the Filipino is as capable of drink, too, as of anything else on earth. From the inhibited society in which so many doors were closed to us, we have moved into a society in which we demand our right to enter every door—and that includes the bar’s swinging doors. Today the Filipino knows his beer, his martini, his stateside, his cuatro cantos, his long-neck, his marka demonyo, and his birgincoke. The bar is still not an item in his society, but the beer hall is. And he has jumped onto the cocktail circuit, once sacred only to whites. For our drinking marks our emergence into the great world. We are no longer afraid of “company.”

Recall Philippine society in prewar days. The Filipinos kept to themselves. The Americans kept to themselves. The British and Europeans kept to themselves and to the Americans. The Chinese and Japanese kept away from themselves. And each social world was a closed world. When war loomed, some Manila ladies tried to bring Filipinos and Americans together socially but found the social gulf impassable. This now sounds absurd but it was fact then. And the irony is that today, when Americans and Filipinos are no longer “related,” they have come closer together, at the cocktail party. For the Filipino, cocktail glass in hand, has invaded the worlds formerly closed to him. This is a very minor example of the third big change that has come over the contemporary Filipino, a change that has become most evident during the 1960s: the Filipino has gained in mobility.

The Nerve of Freedom

This mobility is aside from the economic migrations—like the influx of Visayans into Manila or the trek to Cagayan and Mindanao—that have marked the postwar period, though these migrations too, or, rather, their stepped-up rate, reveal increased adventurousness in what used to be a very stationary folk. But need rather than nerve may explain the migrations, whereas what could be called a cultural mobility denotes a change in the nature of our society.

The average Manileño of prewar days, for instance, got no farther away from his city than Antipolo in May or a parent’s hometown for the fiesta. Foreigners raved over Baguio and Mayon and Zamboanga and Sulu; but Filipinos felt no itch to see their land for themselves. The lack of transportation, roads or money does not explain this lack of curiosity. One could grow up in Makati and never have attended the river festival in nearby Pateros; and Manila seemed, even for provincial Tagalogs, so faraway that a trip to the city was in the nature of an expedition.

Today, though it’s supposed to be hard times, the provincianos have made Manila a commuting point; the masses join the gentry in Baguio for the summer; and more and more of us are traveling to Mayon and Zamboanga and Sulu to see the marvels there with our own eyes. We now think nothing of motoring to Batangas just for a dip, or to the Hundred Islands just for a picnic, or up to the Ilocos coast just for an overnight rest. On weekends last summer, on the highways, as the crowded palm-bedecked buses and family cars sped out past in endless file on their way to excursion spots, one had the feeling of watching a nation on the move. It’s quite an exhilarating feeling for one who remembers this as a most stay-at-home nation.

The mobility comes from greater curiosity, which in turn springs from an aroused interest in our country and people and history. One reason we didn’t bother, in the old days, to go see a nearby festival like, say, the Pateros river ritual was that to do so would have been “backward” of us, indicating a most unhealthy interest in the past at a time when we were all so anxious to be very American and modern. One was better occupied memorizing the Gettysburg Address or reading Washington and the cherry tree than watching superstitious processions and wasteful fiestas. Only when this imported Puritanism gave out did we get around to discovering Pateros, which, now, we show off to diplomats and tourists. And now it’s the intellectuals who head pilgrimages to Capiz, to experience the ati-atihan, and to Marinduque, to enjoy the moriones. It’s no longer backward but, rather, highly fashionable to attend an interesting procession, and to hunt for old churches, and to collect saints’ images. The “past” we despised is now very “in.”

This reversal of old attitudes has naturally made us skeptical of all the other ideas we once thought permanent. The skepticism underlies our current resistance to involvement in Vietnam, a resistance that may be contrasted with our reaction to a similar calamity in the 1930s: the Spanish civil war. Then we were all militant republicans eager to get involved. Bishop Aglipay offered to organize an expeditionary force to fight in Spain for the Loyalists, and aid-to-Spain centers sprang up in Manila. The bell that tolled in Spain tolled for us; and Mr. Hemingway’s bridge was no farther away than our doorstep. Today we couldn’t care less if all the bridges in Vietnam were bombed. As Mr. Johnson says, “There’s no blood in a bridge.” And nobody quotes Donne or Hemingway about Vietnam. It’s not that we have become less fervent about democracy, only more cynical about war in general, especially wars of liberation and wars to end war. We have become cynical about bells that, we are assured, toll for all mankind but turn out to have been tolling only for us. Once bitten, twice shy. The others get postwar booms; we get bombs. So, though no man is an island, we’d rather cultivate our own garden.

Faith is the flesh of freedom but skepticism is the nerve; and as we stand in midyear, and in mid-decade, to ponder, on our new freedom day, the state of the nation, we may realize that we are so critical of ourselves because we have come so confident of ourselves. We can take anything, even self-detraction, so we throw the book at ourselves. It’s a healthy attitude. As the saying goes, it’s when you begin to think you’re safe that you’re in danger.

The prophets that cry havoc do us a service by impelling us into self-examination. Have we really become degenerate? Is the country really going to the dogs? Is our condition really disconsolate compared with happier times? Or, the handicaps notwithstanding—like rising prices, rising taxes, rising crime rates, rising impatience—are we not living better today than at any other time in our history? An honest look at prewar times, for instance, can only force us to admit that we didn’t even know how to live well then, when we could afford to, because we prized money not as a means but as a thing in itself.

But the main point about the 1960s is that we have been responding to the challenges of the decade with changes in our character. The changes have been detailed above: the shift from a respect for money to a respect for our own well-being; the shedding of the peasant’s timidity and of the puritan ethos; and the consequent increase in self-confidence, mobility, curiosity and cynicism.

If these changes have resulted in civic unrest, a fractious young and general turmoil, they have also resulted in the events which will go down in history: the change in our Independence Day, the nationalist revival, the Borneo claim and Maphilindo, the land reform act, the agitation against the bases and parity rights, the various rallies against the American embassy, the fight for an independent stand on Vietnam and other Asian questions, the salary-equity strikes against foreign firms, and all the other insurgencies of the last four years that are explicable only if we assume radical changes in our character.

From the steam and smoke of the turmoil emerges a profile of the Nation in this year of grace 1965 that’s clear-cut enough and far from depressing. At no other moment in our history, not even in the 1890s, was the profile of the Nation so definite, so precise, as during these Seething ’60s.

The rest of the decade may show us the full face, the discovered identity.