Patterns by Elsa Martinez-Coscolluela: An Analysis

“Patterns” by Elsa Victoria Martinez-Coscolluela chronicles the vicious cycle of compelled marriages suffered by three generations of women of the haciendado Vasquez-Diaz household, focusing mainly on Isabel Vasquez-Diaz, who suffers what her mother Juana once suffered and sees her own daughter Isabelita going through the same suffering.

Isabel Vasquez, one of the most eligible bachelorettes among the landed gentry in the city of Tanjay, was being touted to be the wife of the most eligible bachelor, Jose Luis Diaz. But she was secretly in love with Filemon Castro, a young lawyer from a respectable Iloilo family but who nevertheless had to suffer the fact that he was an Indio, or that he had Filipino blood. Isabel’s father, Don Miguel Vasquez, did not approve of Filemon because of this but was partial to giving his daughter’s hand to Jose Luis. When Jose Luis, impetuous and arrogant as he was, demanded Isabel to marry him, Isabel drove him away, inadvertently disclosing her secret love affair with the more agreeable Filemon. Don Miguel, hearing from Jose Luis, was furious at this revelation. His wife Juana brought up the past: she too was forced upon him at the price of a love affair with an Indio. Although still determined, Miguel felt defeated to some degree, and he offered Isabel the option of going with Filemon at the risk of being disowned. Isabel, filial by nature, obeyed her father and left Filemon to marry Jose Luis. The story begins and ends with her trying to comfort her daughter Isabelita, who herself is being compelled by Don Jose Luis to marry a man she (Isabelita) does not love.

The story’s discussion of the “pattern” of compelled marriage is told against the backdrop of deep issues in contemporary Filipino culture: the sometimes oppressive relationship between parent and children especially with regards to choice in marriage; the relationship between the colonial elite and the native middle and lower classes; and the role of women in society.

Foremost in the issues the story discusses is the at times oppressive control of parents over their children. The story demonstrates how, in Filipino culture children must show deference and absolute obedience to their parents. This sees highest expression in the story with the daughters’ obedience to their fathers’ will to marry men they do not love. But to a higher extent the story also shows how children in Filipino culture ultimately owe their identity to their parents, and disobedience is almost tantamount to a violation of natural law: Isabel chooses to give up her will to be with Filemon when threatened to be disowned by her father (we can rule out fear of monetary instability, as Filemon is a lawyer and has a stable income). The Filipino then is first and foremost an offspring to her parents before she is anything. And this ultimately means parents have a say – often the final say – on the most important decisions in children’s lives. While cases of parents deciding the marriage of their children have decreased in recent years (although the practice still occurs), important decisions such as academic and career choice are still at times entirely decided on by parents. Giving up lovers may be rare these days, but many young people still have to give up their field of interest to obey their parents. As such, the “pattern” in this dimension still continues to this day.

The story is also told in the context of Colonial and socially stratified Philippines. Filemon is derogatorily labeled as an Indio, a Filipino of native blood. This discrimination against the natives is the more negative manifestation of Colonial mentality, a mentality which, while matrimonial restrictions are now almost inexistent, still pervade in the Filipino chagrin for dark skin (the distinction of being native). This endo-racism (for that is what it is, discrimination against someone of the same race) occurs vis-à-vis a highly stratified society. The pre-colonial stratification of the ruling, middle and enslaved classes was retained to some extent by the coming of the Spanish, who granted land to their favorites and to themselves. The stratification was such that even with the introduction of democracy Filipino society remains dominated by the landed elite. Don Miguel is the typical condescending haciendero, and his interaction with the servants and obreros reveals a bit into how the upper classes dealt with lower ones. The element of race complicates this as social standing may be in fact independent from race but the two are perceived to be interrelated. Filemon comes from a family of good social standing, but his being an Indio makes it difficult for Don Miguel to accept him. While the “pattern” of classist-racism seems to have been ended with Isabelita, it is safe to assume that an underlying aversion led to Jose Luis forcing her daughter to marry someone against her will (perhaps the fear that she may end up marrying an Indio as well?). In any case, the “pattern” in this dimension continues to this day as well.

Then, the story is told in a context where women are subordinate to men. Juana surrenders not only to the will of her father, but to her husband’s as well, and she is rendered powerless at Don Miguel’s repetition of paternal oppression. The same happens to Isabel when Jose Luis forces Isabelita to marry. The women have tobe resigned to their fates, it is their fathers and husbands who decide for them. The very problem in the story is to some extent founded on the powerlessness of the women. The story can be said to be a primarily feminist story, as it tells the plight of women in the face of a masculine dominated society. The “pattern” is the continued robbing of will from women.

And yet, in spite of these different contexts, the story has a singular subject matter, expressed in its title. The repeated “pattern” of daughters controlled by their fathers and powerless before their husbands is central to the whole story. The focus on Isabel’s experience with this “pattern” reveals all its painful details, as we see how the “pattern” tears her away from the man she loves.

Tangent to this pattern is the ultimate fate of the women: resignation. The women of the story all end up accepting their fate, retaining a recollection of everything they suffered but recalling this with almost ambivalent numbness. “There are things which come with surrender and resignation. And once the heart has grown too weak to rebel, these things become too deeply etched in the memory, so that while there is a forgiving, there can be no forgetting.” The resignation happens when the women accept their powerlessness as a fact of life, encapsulated in Juana’s line “there are things we cannot alter. Such is life!” and reiterated in Isabel’s line to Isabelita, “We must accept whatever comes to us with resignation. Do not feel so bad, for you cannot change things.” The story ends with a beautiful demonstration of this resignation, when Isabel dismisses her tears as the rain. Her grief, like the existence of storm clouds is a fact of life she must accept, and the falling of her tears is as natural as the rain.

An interesting point however is revealed in Don Miguel’s reaction upon hearing Pomposa reveal Isabel’s love affair with Filemon. “This was a defeated man,” the text describes him as he reflected on the reality just revealed to him. He had earlier recalled how he too had taken Juana from an Indio lover by her father’s coercion. What brings about this sudden defeat? We can speculate that Don Miguel saw himself as the unwitting agent for the repetition of this vicious cycle, that the role of villain once played by Juana’s father was now made his role. He too is a victim of this vicious cycle, for as he forces Isabel to play the role of good daughter, he too must force himself to play the role of good father. We must recall that he is only thinking of the name of his family in his insistence against Filemon, and he must have seen how happy Isabel was with him. As a father it is not easy. And so he decides to present Isabel with a choice (something Juana did not seem to have), freedom at the price of disownment or filial piety for the price of her happiness. Man too is human, and the story subtly captures how the “patterns” dehumanize him and reduce him to a villain.

All these problems are presented by demonstration, and the reality emerges in the story and is not stated. This gives readers the freedom to react to the truth presented. While it is true that the patterns are a reality, the suffering (which is as accessible to us as the reality itself) makes us realize that does not mean that should remain a reality. “Patterns” presents a reality against which the reader is compelled to struggle against, and while the women in the story are defeated and resigned, the woman in the reader is definitely not. There is a Brechtian utilization of the distance between reader and character, and the character’s unresolved suffering motivates the reader not to suffer the same.

The story is also plot and dialogue driven, presaging Martinez-Coscolluela’s future success as a playwright. The story begins with the setting, Casa Blanca, then introduces the dramatis personae. The whole story is composed of several flashbacks, each flashback deftly introduced within a scene that fulfills the three unities of space, time and action. As such the reality being presented emerges from the predicaments of the characters, on which they land with inevitability.

The story is also characterized by a rich local color. It is set specifically in the city of Tanjay in Negros Oriental, a city with a long history of Hispanic society. The dialogue is organically interspersed with Spanish and Cebuano words. But what makes the dialogue most authentic is how Filipino the English is. For instance, at some point, Juana tells Don Miguel, ““Por Dios, Miguel, what’s the matter? You are red with anger. Remember your illness. What’s the matter?” The observation of Miguel’s facial coloration and the reminder to mind his health (although I cannot here cite a linguistic study to confirm it) is barely an American tendency, but is perfectly Filipino. In any case, there is no mistaking the local specificity of the story.

“Patterns,” as far as I can trace, has only appeared in the 1965 issue of Sands and Coral, literary folio of Silliman University. It was written when Martinez-Coscolluela was only a student. This might well be the first work of criticism on the story, and as such I have delved into the story here into detail.

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