(Appeared on Davao Today 12 September 2017)
In the Philippines, students are not created equal.
A high school student of the special section gets to use a flush toilet in a tiled and well-maintained bathroom which he shares with his just two hundred fellow honour students.
But a regular high school student has to pee in a cubicle made of rotting wood – sometimes simply an outhouse – that she shares with the six thousand seven hundred other regular and heterogeneous students, flushing with a tabo if she’s lucky to have running water. And she has to pay for using this latrine.
The stratification of the Philippine caste system begins in school. Like breeding livestock, we separate the goats from the sheep, our teachers handpicking a small and exclusive portion of our studentry from a young age and grooming them to aristocracy. The vast majority who weren’t anointed would have been culled if they were pigs, but instead they’re simply neglected.
The select, privileged cadre of students are lavished with resources and opportunities almost entirely denied from the rest of the student body: more and better materials, newer and better furnished classrooms, more competent teachers, more chances for involvement.
My girlfriend Nal, who was moved (demoted, really) in high school from the special section to a heterogeneous section in Koronadal Comprehensive National High School, relates to me the sheer unfairness of the system: while their old, pre-war classroom continued to have holes on its rotting wooden floor, the school administration planned to aircondition the special sections’ tiled, concrete classrooms. (as a silver lining, Nal would later cherish the fact that her dilapidated school building was an historic Gabaldon building).
When I was in elementary at Boys (what people in Kidapawan call the Notre Dame of Kidapawan College long after it had ceased being exclusive), I was not handpicked to write on the school paper, and it was only when the school paper moderator in high school – I was already third year – liked my writing that I got my chance. Now I’m writing for this column, while those who had an early start abandoned writing altogether and are busy microscoping stool samples.
In private schools, it’s a matter of common practice among teachers (one they do often get in trouble with), but in public schools the pyramidal stratification is institutional. There isn’t even any of that Animal Farm pretense at ‘some being more equal than others,’ being a public school student meant you had to fit into the rigid caste system. You knew your place and you stayed there.
And the public school caste system is defined by sections: at the top of the pecking order are the students of the special sections (SpEd, Pilot classes, Sci-Cur, STEM, the elite come by different names). Just below them are the regular sections, students who don’t quite qualify as elite but are still relatively decent. At the very bottom of the hierarchy are the heterogeneous sections, what the previous two orders call the “lower classes”, “the stupid students”, “the bulay-ogs”. The delinquent, dimwitted urchins in elementary who grow up to become rugby or Sukarap boys, Three-Rounder girls or teenage mothers in high school. “A basket of deplorables,” to use the Ivy League graduate Hilary Clinton’s language.
This discrimination is systematic, but more seriously it is cultural.
I had recently served to train student publication advisers of the public elementary and high schools in Kidapawan, and I saw this culture first hand. From DepEd district superintendent to the teacher-facilitators, the whole public education machinery was bent on winning student press conferences. Presscons, if you don’t know, involve around twelve student publication staffers per school: in a school of around seven to ten thousand students, DepEd is focused on investing its energies on developing the skills of these twelve privileged students. With the battlecry of “Kidapawan, always number one,” teachers were enticed to make their thoroughbred, showdog students win presscons so they can go to places like Baguio and Boracay. The rest of the student body hardly mattered.
Kidapawan, always number one: the number twos and number threes and number seventy eights do not matter.
Just the simple recollection of names is visible (and to a student, lasting) sign of favouritism and discrimination. Like a farmer naming her favourite piglets but not bothering to name the rest, teachers in Boys will call their favorites by the first names – sometimes even nicknames! – and the rest of us by our family names (if they remember our family names at all).
And of course, where teachers lead, students will follow, but in their own more horrible way. In KNCHS, Nal shares how the culture of special section elitism worked. When a regular student managed to get high enough grades to get into the privileged classes, she is met with hostility: “she’s not one of us!” Doubly so if this happens when a special section student suffers demotion into the realm of mortals, as the other special students will defend the worthiness of their brethren to remain over this lucky stranger. In high school proms, there are proud traditions maintained for the special section students that do not apply to mere commoners. In all programs the special section students sit up front while the mortals sit at the far back. And of course, all the student council seats, varsity team places, and graduation awards are tacitly reserved for the special sections.
When I was a student in Boys our prejudice was against the non-Notre Dameans (I grew up thinking all schools other than my own were lowly public schools), who when they trespassed their way into our walled world of a campus we called “outsiders.” Young women from Notre Dame would agree to always walk together when passing by a public school, lest the lawless public school kids come to include them in their anarchy, while young men were advised to avoid public school campuses altogether because the gang-boy students there were prone to picking fights with strangers. When a classmate found themselves having to transfer to another school, we pitied them. When a transferee from another school entered our ranks, we expected them to be some miraculous prodigy emerging from the wilderness.
The school is a microcosm of the country, and what an accurate microcosm the Filipino school is: run by teacher-bureaucrats preoccupied with promotions and lakbay-laags, dominated by a subservient, self-entitled elite in a teacher-student padrino system, while the vast majority of us are denied of opportunities.
Inequality is a natural result of a healthy society, the best emerge on top while the inefficient lose out as everything works in Darwinian order. I would be the first to point this out.
But school should not be some Hunger Games where you pit student against student until the most toxic wug kills the rest and emerges victorious. School is where we develop our children, give them the skills and opportunities to grow and be prepared for the challenges of a competitive life.
But our schools are limiting opportunities for a select few, justifying it as “rewarding hard work.” How can you reward hard work when you limit the students’ chances to actually try? Non necesse habent sani medicum.
“Rewarding hard work” is far too often an excuse made by schools to justify their misplaced priorities: abandoning quality education for all by limiting their resources to a select few to increase their chances of getting higher accreditation and quantifying success with Sports Meet wins and NCAE high scorers.
What is happening to our schools isn’t simply inequality, it is unfairness. These pilot class students – these oration contest fodder and varsity players – do not become the elite because they excel on their own merits in a leveled playing field. More often than not they’re privileged because of initial advantages. Many of these students have been teachers’ pets since pre-school, and a substantial bulk of them are the children or relatives of teachers and principals (how my mother often deplores the ugly kagid scars on the legs of majorettes from public high schools during city fiestas. “Anak ng teacher, kaya pinasali,” she would mutter in condescension.) A student with no such connections and who is too shy to display her intellect or skill will stand little chance of getting the opportunities and awards.
And there is even less hope for the defiant student, because of course the pecking order is all about compliance and subservience to teachers. I said something my high school chemistry teacher did not like, and she badmouthed me in all the high school sections until I graduated (thank goodness I did not rely on teachers’ opinions for my success as a student). I stepped out of the line, I was banished from Olympus.
This, incidentally, is how we have killed Filipino criticality. Our political thought is mind-numbingly orthodox because we have taught our kids what to think, complete with mandatory Jose Rizal quote. The little actual criticism our people exhibits is more the result of sourgraping (the salutatorian who was sidestepped from being valedictorian) than of any genuine ideological objections.
Instead of producing well equipped, critically thinking intellectuals, what we get from these privileged cadre of “young leaders” are self entitled snobs who thrive by complying and conforming.
A lifetime of being given the privilege of opportunities allows them to grow up subconsciously thinking that they alone have the society’s agency – “l’etat c’est moi,” as Louis XIV would have put it. When they hear (and quote ad nauseam) that Rizal aphorism of “the children being the future of our nation,” they understand that quote to be referring to them specifically. They are the world, they are the children.
And why shouldn’t they think so? They’ve been handpicked since elementary (kindergarten even!) by tita–teacher to compete in inter-school orations and quiz bees, participant in Leadership camps and Youth fora, go to Tagaytay or Dumaguete to join NSPCs. In high school they were the chosen few anointed by tita-principal to take the UPCAT so the school gets a high passing rate. They are the student leaders (in Ateneo’s case, the inadvertently elitist label “sui generis,” oh how special they are). The elect of God. The future of the nation.
It is a point of profound irony that this is the background of many progressive-leaning, “pro-poor” student activists that serve as rally fodder (remember that their schools allowed only them to take the UPCAT or groomed only them to get high enough grades for a DOST scholarship).
In college, they encounter the plight of the urban and rural poor and the displaced tribal peoples, see this as part of their natural enlightenment, and understand it to be their God-appointed duty to take up Marxism and call for equality. The rest of us who do not fall within the protectionist, nationalist, socialist mould they envision – well, we’ve always been stupid even back in elementary, we were never in the honors lists! They’ve immersed in poor communities for months, interviewed a few victims of landgrabbing and EJKs, joined in many rallies. Of course they understand inequality better than us.
Self-entitlement is the easy precursor of self righteousness.
While Philippine education is becoming more and more accessible, the pace at which it moves to become more inclusive is still deplorably glacial.
And it just goes to show how utterly blind these elitists are to their own self-righteousness when, in spite of this more chronic problem, they called instead for free higher education (and when Duterte signed it into law, claimed full credit for it). It would be being uncharitable to insinuate that they had been rallying to get tuition fee incentives for their own university education, but one does wonder.
Because far from free higher education, what our country urgently needs more is better and more inclusive basic education. High education should be optional in a society where quality education is given in the primary and secondary levels.
The budget that could have been allocated to the improvement and greater accessibility of our basic education services will instead be eaten up by the free college subsidies.
And for what? Because there are no mechanisms to ensure that state-funded education results in national service, the country is not earning back what it is spending: most graduates work in the private sector, with many even going abroad, so at most we’re just adding taxpayers, something the private schools are already doing. Even among that vocal progressive portion of our privileged student activists, most of them that I know are in well-salaried private jobs, their ‘call for social justice’ reduced to angry tweets and quarrels on Facebook.
We will simply be subsidizing – as we always have – the self-righteousness of the elitists we have created.
I daresay we are not only breeding our next generation of snobs, but also our next generation of graft and corruption perpetrators. I so dare because I have at least one case to cite: in 2014, the student president of Negros Oriental State University (where I was teaching at the time) was expelled for failing to account for almost three hundred thousand pesos worth of funds. I’ve seen the culture of “student leaders” in that state university, and it’s just as described: the president of several clubs who has been valedictorian since elementary and who is running for magna cum laude couldn’t even pronounce “voila” correctly. In this case, the word was that the missing funds were used by the president for a weekend outing with fellow student officials to Siquijor. This is just one case, there are many others out there of our “promising youth” pilfering money for themselves.
September will be National Teachers Month, and like our long-established school culture of unfairness and inequality, of elitism and selectivity, we will celebrate it the way we always do: praising our teachers for doing what they’re paid to do, requiring our students to make surprise greeting cards for their class advisers and even pitch in from their meager allowance for a lunch kumbira that they or their mothers cooked – all while their creaky old classrooms remain riddled with holes in the floors and leaks on the roofs, their bathrooms still no more than urine-stained holes in the ground, their battered old books still grossly not enough.
Not the special section students, of course. Why should they cook when they can always ask for budget from tita-principal for catering.
(Appeared on Davao Today 10 September 2017)
Last week I wrote a review here of Leoncio Deriada’s novel, “People on Claveria Street.” With the nomination process underway, readers will forgive me if I will be a fanboy again this week as I push for the man’s declaration as National Artist for Literature.
To those who don’t know, Leoncio Deriada is a prolific writer of fiction, drama, essays, and poetry, writing in English, Tagalog, Hiligaynon, Kinaray-a, and Cebuano. He has won the Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Award – the Philippines’ version of the Pulitzer prize – so many times that he has been named a Hall of Famer (and he holds the distinction of winning it in the most number of languages). He is also an influential literary activist, organizing lectures and workshops for the past few decades.
The Order of National Artists is the highest honor the Republic of the Philipines can grant to any artist, a recognition of a lifetime of relevant work promoting the country’s arts and contributing to national consciousness. National Artists are named for music, dance, literature, theater, film, visual arts, and architecture.
And these are the reasons why I think Deriada should long have been named National Artist for Literature.
1. He’s a great writer. The awards should be indication enough that Leoncio Deriada doesn’t just join contests a lot, he wins them a lot. Deriada’s fiction manages to strike that difficult balance between good writing and gravitas of theme (far too often, well-written stories are shallow, while socially relevant ones are boring). Deriada’s plots are clever and original (just read stories like ‘Dam’ and ‘The Hunt’), and his language is easy and accessible but often throws out startlingly fresh phrases (I and my girlfriend Nal love how he describes one character’s crossed eyes as ‘a facial calamity’). But at the same time they deal in an insightful manner with some very serious realities: the urban-rural divide in Mindanao, landgrabbing of tribal ancestral domain, the horrors of the war in the countryside, the dehumanizing impact of modernity.
2. He’s the local writer par excellence. The bulk of Deriada’s fiction is set in Davao, with the rest set in his ancestral home of Panay. One of my first exposures to literature set in a locale familiar to me was his work (I started my college life devouring the Ateneo de Davao’s copy of his short story collection “Week of the Whales”). Deriada represents best the power of literature to elevate the local into the realm of creative imagination: the lingering horrors of war in Guerrero Street, the deep knowledge of life among frontier settlers in Mawab, the clash of classes in Artiaga.
3. He created the literatures of two Philippine languages. Deriada has been nicknamed ‘Father of Western Visayan Literature.’ But as grand as that moniker sounds, it doesn’t fully capture the monumental achievement of this man in Philippine literature. Before Deriada, Akeanon (the language of Aklan) and Kinaray-a (the language of Antique) did not have literary traditions. This was largely because these two languages were treated as inferior to the local lingua franca Hiligaynon – which in turn was considered inferior compared to Tagalog and English. In a span of a few decades, Deriada went about looking for young writers who speak these languages, and mentored them to write in their mother tongues. These young writers have gone on to achieve international recognition (“Kinaray-a is now an international literary language,” as Isagani Cruz put it). No other Filipino writer can claim to have started the tradition of one language, and Deriada single-handedly did it with two. In a country where only English and Tagalog are considered prestigious languages, Deriada managed to convince government agencies to give grants to writers in languages which have long been marginalized twice over.
4. We need a regional writer as National Artist. The Order of National Artists fails ridiculously to represent the diversity of Philippine cultures. The rostrum of National Artists for Literature in particular is the crowning institution of Tagalog Imperialism: of the twelve awarded National Artists since the honour was first granted, only one, Edith Tiempo of Dumaguete, is not from the Tagalog area (although she ultimately comes from Luzon). And all awardees were or are writers in either English or Tagalog. Deriada is uniquely positioned to address this gross cultural injustice, being prolific in the most number of languages among the country’s many literary figures. Seriously, the Order of National Artists needs him amongst its ranks to fully deserve the label ‘national.’
5. A Dabawenyo President deserves a Dabawenyo National Artist. Digong’s election as President threw all your Manila imperialist expectations of what is likely in the Philippine halls of power out of the window. There is no better time to name a regional writer and regional literature advocate to the National rostrum of artists than now. And what better way to fulfill this timeliness but with a writer who hails from the same frontier town as our hillbilly president?
(Appeared on Davao Today 6 September 2017)
Few Kidapawanons know the official motto of Kidapawan city, much less understand what it means.
‘Nakapangyayari ang sambayanan’ is banderoled on the city’s official seal, just below the escutcheon. The seal, designed by then Tourism Officer Benjamin Mallorca, was adopted by Kidapawan when it became a city in 1998. I have yet to find any official documents pertinent to the motto, but because I cannot find any use of it before 1998 I’m assuming it was also adopted upon cityhood.
The rather lofty Tagalog motto officially translates to ‘the people are sovereign’ (see the first few words of the Constitution’s preamble in Tagalog: ‘Kami, ang nakapangyayaring sambayanang Pilipino…’). It’s a metaphysical statement of nationhood: the word for sovereignty, ‘nakapangyayari,’ is rooted in the word ‘yari,’ ‘composition,’ but the morphology makes it an active state, ‘we who constitute.’ Sovereignty in Tagalog is implied to be active composition, thus making Kidapawan’s motto more literally ‘the people can constitute.’
But ‘nakapangyayari’ has another possible morphological derivation, leading to a more interesting alternative translation to the motto: ‘pangyayari’ also means ‘happening.’
The motto can thus also be translated: ‘The people can make it happen.’
Lovely idealism, you might think, one of those DepEd or DoH mandated themes that far too often are more the stuff of essay-writing contests for public school students that of any actual practice.
Kidapawan, in particular, has often shown that it is not the people but its government – the detached bureaucracy headed by the winning oligarch of the day – which makes things happen. The environment and natural resources are managed by the government. Law and order is the exclusive responsibility of the government. Festivals are organized by the government. The bulk of the education sector is run by the government. We rely, for everything, on the government, and so the government does everything.
But one recent development shows that, when they try, people can and often do make things happen.
This development, quite remarkably, is in another of those hollow principles we so often take for granted: the city’s history.
While Davao celebrated August with the Kadayawan festivities, on the other side of Mt Apo there were two celebrations in my hometown: the annual Timpupo Fruits Festival, and the town’s foundation anniversary.
The fruits festival was muted owing to the meager harvest (Kidapawan’s fruit industry is still picking up from the poor yield of the past decade), but the foundation was specially poignant. Not only was it a celebration of Kidapawan’s seventieth year, it was a celebration made possible by the efforts of its people.
You see, for the past decade or so, Kidapawan’s local government celebrated ‘foundation day’ on February 12. On this date in 1998, Fidel Ramos signed into law Republic Act 8500, declaring the Municipality of Kidapawan into North Cotabato’s first city. Earlier this year, posters from the City government promoting celebrations of the date called the day ‘Kidapawan’s 19th Foundation Anniversary.’
I had heard of negative reactions from Kidapawanons about this years before. Many people (including myself) still remember Kidapawan before it was a city, and so feel that this putting of the town’s foundation on the declarion of cityhood is a form of whitewashing. One friend pointed out that he was born in Kidapawan, and he was already in his thirties, so how could Kidapawan be only nineteen years old?
The more accurate foundation date being advocated is August 18, 1947. On this date Manuel Roxas signed Executive Order No. 82, creating ten different municipalities from existing municipal districts. Among them was Kidapawan, which was then a municipal district of the Cotabato province.
For much of Kidapawan’s history as a city, the only festivities held around that date were Fruit Festivals (which date often changed depending on the caprices of the harvest). During such events there was hardly any mention of the municipality foundation, and if there were no festivities during that month, the date passed unnoticed.
Much of the complaints about the February 12 celebrations were unaired, merely murmured at home among the city’s old timers.
That is until I made a blog post about it. In the post I called for February 12 to be called ‘cityhood day,’ and calling for August 18 to be celebrated as Kidapawan’s real foundation day. I lamented the whitewashing (specially if it was inadvertent), and decried the city’s disregard for its past.
I did not expect the post to go viral, but it did, eliciting rather strong reactions. On social media it was shared and reacted on. There were those who agreed and denounced the LGU for forgetting all those who came before them, but there were also those who called on me and those who agreed with me to move on because the municipality is gone.
But in the end the online sentiment (at least from what I saw) became overwhelmingly one of recognition for August 18. At the very least my post raised awareness about the date, and about its undeniable neglect. Informative posts like mine were easily shared on social media. And this made the neglect of August 18 all the more glaring.
I must have seen right, because by the time this year’s August came nearer, the City Tourism Office proudly declared that preparations for the city’s ‘70th Foundation anniversary’ were underway. The Tourism Office under Mallorca’s successor Joey Recimilla, has been very responsive to public sentiment.
But in this case, at least, the people of Kidapawan made it happen.
The celebrations also showed a strong appreciation for the city’s history – a complete reversal from the apathy I decried.
As early as 2010 (when I was still a student) I had been writing about Kidapawan’s colourful but long ignored local past. In 2010 I published a write-up on the destruction of the Sultan Omar Kiram mansion and the colourful life of its architect. In 2012, I and Vincent Cuzon (who had started being aware of Kidapawan’s history through my work) started the Kidapawan of the Past Facebook page, giving wider public access to old pictures of the town. A bit later I came up with another blog post, one on the obscure World War II martyr Eliseo Dayao Sr.
I received some responses from these efforts, but I never fully appreciated how much impact these efforts were making. I did not know that I and Vince (and later fellow Kidapawan of Past administrators Paul Gumanao and Clyde Vallejo) were slowly creating a demand for more information about Kidapawan’s history.
By the time the August 18 celebrations were held, the City Tourism office opened an exhibit of old pictures of Kidapawan, including portraits of the city’s mayors, of the city landscape in the distant past, and some domestic snippets (like my grandfather’s oathtaking as teniente del barrio of Baranggay Lanao). For the first time ever, historical figures like Siawan Ingkal and Eliseo Dayao was publicly remembered, and Rita Gadi’s poem ‘Kidapawan in my heart’ (which before then was unheard of in Kidapawan) was even displayed prominently.
Again, it was ordinary people who made it happen.
There will be – and in my work promoting more historical awareness there indeed have been – those who will dismiss such efforts as disruptive. I have been accused of ‘twisting history’ simply because I’ve presented versions of it that people are not used to.
But all change will be uncomfortable, specially change that is necessary.
I advocated for August 18, 1947 to be celebrated as Kidapawan’s foundation day, but now I am seeking to further problematize that: Before becoming a municipality, Kidapawan was first a Municipal district during the American colonial period. The question now is when that happened. I have yet to get hold of the law creating the municipal district, but I’ve ascertained it to be somewhere between 1906 (when the Department of Sulu and Mindanao was created, and Kidapawan is not mentioned) and 1917 (when the Cotabato province was created, and Kidapawan is first mentioned as a municipal district).
There will again be change, yes, and many people will again have to adjust. But as the President and his hoarde of devoted minions like chanting, ‘change is coming.’
And I like to believe part of that change will be this empowerment of people to take governance – whether it be something as concrete as the running of a festival or as abstract as local history – into their own hands, to have a country that works bottom-up.
We need to see a smaller government and a bigger society. One where fiestas are organized not by the municipio from the poblacion but, like the neighbourhoods of Gion in Kyoto, by each of the Baranggays altogether. One where local communities play active roles – and even compete with other communities – to keep their public spaces clean and attractive. One where local businesses work together to revitalize the local industries.
Just as locals are used to having the local government do everything, the local governments are used to receiving directive and funding from Imperial Manila. The imminent prospects of a shift to Federalism – essentially breaking apart the top-down unitary state into more localized spheres of administration – will hopefully make change more likely and more lasting.
There are qualms about the shift as it is a fundamental and radical change that is, rather ironically, being imposed on localities from top down. Critics will say that such a top-down introduction will create artifical reform, just another foreign concept introduced to the locals.
But then again, ‘nakapangyayari ang sambayanan’ is a sentence just as foreign to the Kidapawanon as Federalism would be, and yet we have owned its foreignness and, far beyond our own expectations, we are learning to live it. The foreignness of Federalism is the foreignness of self agency to those who are used to having their destinies defined for them.
And it will continue to be foreign if local people do not take an active role for themselves in making it their own. Federalism is a change that must be owned if it is to work.
But if anything, Kidapawan history teaches us to trust the people. With little help from the colonial government the Obo Manobo started the municipal district. With little help from the Commonwealth government the district slowly grew commercially until it had to be declared a municipality. In the 1960s, they were so ambitious that they planned to build an airport, and while that has not yet materialized, nothing is preventing Kidapawan from still realizing that dream. And with little help from Manila, the municipality petitioned (for decades) to be elevated into a city.
Will Federalism happen and work for Kidapawan? Only time will tell. But of one thing I am sure. Its people can definitely make it happen.
(I had recently started a column on Davao Today, Davao’s first online news site. Under the column title ‘The Left-handed Snake,’ I hope to contribute about two articles every week. Below is my first article, which appeared last August 29. )
Filipinos may be the most judgemental people in the world.
When a man has long hair, he is either gay or a dissident. A homely looking Filipina dating a Caucasian is probably one of those internet ‘success stories’ (or as my brother calls them, ‘jackpot girls’). The Tagalog for Caucasian is ‘amerikano,’ just as the Cebuano for Indian is ‘Jaiho.’
As a people it is almost cultural for us to conclude immediately based on the little that we see, and form judgements based on our ridiculously primitive set of principles. Just as quickly as we are dazzled by appearances, we are prone to quick condemnations.
I am hardly the first to remark on our gullibility when it comes to facades. The revolutionary Emilio Jacinto’s short essay ‘Ningning at Liwanag,’ metaphorizes the Filipino folly with the images of light and bedazzlement.
‘A dazzling carriage passes by, drawn by a swift steed,’ he writes. ‘We pay our respects and immediately assume the person riding it is a great man. We do not consider that he may be a thief, that behind the greatness he exhibits is hidden a vile man. A poor man likewise passes by. We smirk in response, thinking, “where might he have stolen that?”’
Prophetically, Jacinto cautions: ‘we are prone to worshiping bedazzlement. Let us not be surprised that those who would seek to live by the blood in our veins would come in guile to impress us. The broken shards of glass when hit by the rays of the burning sun will glimmer and shine, but those who seek to touch it are cut.’
Our culture of worshiping fine appearances runs deep, and continues to this day, manifesting in all aspects of daily life. In our education system a student may be very intelligent, but if he has bad handwriting he is considered stupid (and if he does not follow the prescribed haircut he cannot even take the exam). In our politics we continue to vote for candidates who are ‘trustworthy’ and ‘with a heart for the poor,’ standards we of course judge by mere appearances. The whole narrative of the ‘disenteng tao’ that the Liberals promoted to put down the foulmouthed Duterte is rooted in the importance of appearances in our culture.
And so comes with this shallowness, almost mirror-like, our tendency to quickly condemn and dismiss. Nobody paid heed to Jacinto’s eloquent warnings: the no-nonsense, Duterte-mouthed Antonio Luna was assassinated simply because he offended too many people’s feelings. That prejudice effectively cost the Filipino people their independence from the Americans.
You would think that we would learn. But over a century later we are still just as narrow-minded and just as prejudiced. Manilenyos reacted to the recent string of board exam topnotchers from the Visayas and Mindanao with speculation that these board exams may have been rigged by the government, currently dominated by officials from Davao. These uncivilized barbarians from the south could not possibly outdo civilized Manila, they can’t even talk Filipino properly, they must have cheated.
This column’s title will probably elicit this exact same narrow-mindedness and prejudice.
Left-handedness has always been considered an evil trait – the very English word ‘sinister’ has origins in the Latin for ‘left’ (just as the word ‘dexterous’ traces its origin to the Latin ‘dexter,’ ‘right’). Filipinos of the previous generation will remember being scolded by their parents or teachers for using the left hand to write or do anything. The Tagalog for adultery, for some reason, even refers to the left hand, ‘pangangaliwa.’
Likewise, there are few animals as vilified as the snake. The biblical serpent’s temptation of Eve is routinely attributed as the cause of Mankind’s demise (people will never blame themselves, of course). Snakes are automatically considered deadly, even though only a fraction of all snakes cause harm by venom or strangulation. The very word for snake in Tagalog is synonymous with traitor.
What else then could be worse than a snake but a left-handed snake!
And the column title, of course, also highlights how arbitrary much of our standards are. Snakes cannot be left-handed when they do not even have hands. And yet these two negative images together seem twice as negative in spite of the oxymoron.
As absurd too as our sinister (of course) association with left-handed snakes is our worship of the intelligence of the fluent English speaker (or conversely our ridicule of the hard-tongued Bisaya), our insistance that our male students should have their hairs above their ears or that our female students ought to be virgins.
The tri-peoples of Mindanao should know prejudice well. For over a century, Lumad, Moro, and Settlers have lived together in this shared space with suspicion, resentment, and a lot of stereotypes – the landgrabbing settler, the violent Moro, the primitive Lumad. It is time once and for all to dissect, discredit, and denounce such prejudices and mock them for the absurdities that they are.
I write for this column intending to look at things and present them from the other side, breaking down perceived truths and ridiculing them for the sanctity with which they have been enshrouded. I have been writing for almost two decades now, and much of that writing has been contrarian and polemic in nature.
On a more literal level this column will also serve to provide news and views from the other side. While still meaning to write about matters concerning Davao, I intend to use the space Davao Today has provided to feature matters about my hometown of Kidapawan, the city on the other side of Mount Apo. I am currently writing a history of the city, so expect a lot of historical tidbits and views. Little attention is paid to Kidapawan, which, in response to the violent protest there of farmers from other parts of the province, the National and international news outlets have called ‘impoverished.’ Oh how people can be so erroneously judgemental.
I am Karlo Antonio Galay David, and I look forward to changing such perceptions.
(Appeared on Davao Today, 3 September 2017)
People on Claveria Street, Leoncio Deriada’s second novel, is far from his best work of fiction. But it nevertheless demonstrates the value of this living literary legend to Davao and its people.
Set in Davao City just after the Second World War, the autobiographical novel chronicles Deriada’s first few months as a boy in the city where much of his fiction is set. His family has reunited after the War, having left their hometown of Dumangas, Iloilo to join his eldest brother Gener in Davao. Much of the novel features scenes from daily life in the house of the Pagunsans (distant relatives and family of Gener’s love interest Isang), where the Deriada children are made to live to study in the city. The house is located along Claveria Street, then a quiet bajo de campanilla neighbourhood with mangoes, mansanitas, and cheap theaters.
The novel is chronologically set shortly before Deriada’s first novel, People on Guerrero Street, and is intended as its prequel. But unlike his National Book Award winning debut novel, Claveria Street does not seem to have a coherent plot, and it could hardly be considered a novel. There are episodic story lines featuring young Leoncio’s student life in Ponciano elementary school, his supernatural encounter in San Pedro church, his involvement as go-between in the romance between Arnold Espejo and the opera singer Crescencia Pagunsan, his experience seeing elephants in Davao, and his missing his grade four final examination. But these experiences do not seem to be fully introspected on, their human implications not polished into revelation, and overall they do not form a coherent whole. The reader is left wondering what ultimately is the point of all these narrated experiences.
The avid reader of Deriada will find this novel falling short of expectations. There is none here of the cleverness in his stories like ‘The Hunt’ and ‘Phonepal at Padre Selga Street,’ the novelty in ‘Dam’ and ‘Pigpen,’ nor the subtle but profound gravitas of ‘The Road to Mawab’ and ‘Day of the Locusts.’
Which is not to say it is entirely without its merits, for there are many glimpses of Deriada at his best in this novel. The descriptions of his first encounter with the Durian, his impressions of Calinan, and his descriptions of the Ilonggo recipes are written with the signature simplicity with which Deriada portrays the wonders of his locale without exoticizing them. His subtle reaffirmation of the Catholic faith when he encounters reading materials from the Jehovah’s Witness shows how a skilled writer renders to concise but by no means diminished concreteness a complex and cerebral theme with imagery. Where the late novelist Antonio Enriquez would choose to violently romanticize ‘the Mindanao wasteland’ in the harrowing story of Bibang, Deriada instead chooses to show the human and domestic sympathy of his mother, reducing her incident to an isolated tragedy.
But at most points one gets the impression that much of the book is the linear but random reminiscing of an old man, Deriada merely recording his distant memories before he forgets them.
That is until one realizes the value of such reminiscing. For in spite of its shortcomings as a novel, People on Claveria Street offers a rare glimpse into Davao as it once was. To the Davao old blood, the novel is a nostalgic book that harks back to the smaller and more rural Davao of their or their parents’ past. To the more recent Dabawenyo, it defamiliarizes familiar corners of the city by showing us the sheer recentness of what we know of it (Mangoes growing in Claveria!).
Ultimately, what Deriada has done is chronicle the bygone domestic history of this rapidly changing metropolis: the primate city of Mindanao is ruthlessly abandoning much of its colourful past. The episodic scenes of Claveria Street serve as historical vignettes, little reminders to Davao’s collective soul of the quaint and quiet frontier town it once was. In the novel’s preface Deriada calls himself ‘a relic of the last century,’ and with this novel he has given us a glimpse of that century from whence he comes.
Despite the surplus of wannabe Davao writers, there is in fact precious little literature about Davao. Claveria Street is only the fourth novel about the city, and of the four Deriada has written two (don’t worry about not knowing the other two, most of Davao’s writers don’t either).
And this is Deriada’s true value to the city of his childhood. No other writer has charted Davao’s literary map as he has. Most of this Palanca Hall of Famer’s large body of work deals with Davao at various points in its history and from diverse perspectives. If Davao had a diary, Deriada has written a substantial portion of it, and for all its shortcomings Claveria Street is another big part of that.
Published by Seguiban Press, the novel’s printing and layout is homely and far from sleek, almost DIY. Deriada played a very active role in its layout, with the cover illustration drawn on his instructions. Between People on Guerrero Street and the present novel, his former novel was more competently laid out, but I like this one better because it’s more colourful. It may seem clumsy and amateurish, but the book design has Deriada’s personality all over it.
Hardly anyone in Davao knew when the novel came out in 2015. As much as I try to keep myself updated with the news from Davao’s exclusive and prohibitive literary scene, even I did not hear about it. The local literary establishment did nothing to spread word about the book and make it more available (so much for promoting Davao literature). It did not help that the book was published in faraway Iloilo, and even there had a limited circulation. I only got my copy – probably the last copy available – earlier this year when my girlfriend came back with it from a workshop in Iloilo.
When I got the copy, the first thing I saw when I opened it was the preface, where Deriada, now nearing eighty, announces that he is planning to write thirteen more novels, at least five of which are about Davao. The last time I checked he was already done with another one, and it was now with the publishing house. So while I am not too impressed by this latest novel (I’ve seen him do better), it is still delightful to know that the Grand Old Man of Davao Literature is at it writing Davao’s sould own for posterity.
(The following translations were made based both on the original Japanese and from translations to English by Clay MacCauley and Joshua Mostow)
Wala na tingali’y
Mulabaw sa kabugnaw
Sa kaadlawong buwan
– Mibu no Tadamine
Wala gayu’y makasuta
sa kahiladman sa kasingkasing.
Apan didto sa amo,
ingon ato gihapon ang kahumot
sa mga katsubong
– Ki no Tsurayuki
Gisumpo ko na intawon
ning tangbo kong gugma
silong sa kawayanan,
Apan nganong bisag unsaon
– Minamoto no Hitoshi
Sama sa mananagat
nga mitabok sa pakiputan
ug nabalian og gaod,
Natanggong ako sa kadagatan ning gugma,
Pa-diin ako mubugsay?
– Sone no Yoshitada
Sama sa hanging gahapak
og balod sa mabuakay’ng bato –
Ako ra pud ang maoy
gabalikbalik og hapak
sa iyang panumdoman
– Minamoto ni Shigeyuki
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