A funny encounter with F. Sionil José

Several days ago, historian Guillermo Gómez Rivera informed me that he received an email from Mr. César Quinagan of Solidaridad bookshop who was inquiring about his latest book, “The Filipino State and Other Essays“. Solidaridad was interested in distributing them. Unfortunately, since Señor Gómez has been wheelchair-bound for the past few years, he couldn’t attend to this matter himself anymore. I gladly volunteered to meet up with Mr. Quinagan, if only to help Señor Gómez.

La imagen puede contener: Andreas Herbig, texto

This book of historical essays is now available on Amazon. It will soon be on the shelves of Solidaridad.

But then, at the back of my mind, I had to be cautious in visiting the famous Ermita-based bookshop because of a scathing blogpost that I wrote against the owner last year. Before that, I was friends with F. Sionil José on Facebook. No, I have never met him in person. It just so happened that I found out that he has an FB account years ago. Since he was a close friend of my favorite writer Nick Joaquín, I just thought of clicking on “Add Friend” and was lucky enough to be accepted. That blogpost I wrote earned for me an unfriending. 🤣 But it was to be expected, of course.

Close friends know that I appreciate F. Sionil José’s fiction but not his opinions on Filipino History and other matters. That is why I developed a disliking of him, even if he’s the best friend of Nick. Besides, the two have been known to be at loggerheads against each other. How many times have we been told about the famous story on how Frankie and Nick debated about our country’s Spanish past? Nick would usually say that if not for the Spaniards, Frankie would have been an Igorot. Frankie would then claim in interviews that Nick would always fall silent whenever he replied with this:

“Don’t forget the Spaniards killed Rizal.”

* * * * * * *

Last November 16, a Saturday, I attended an art-history lecture at the National Museum of the Philippines which was curated by my famous comadre Gemma Cruz-Araneta (a great grandniece of Rizal, if I may add). I brought with me a few copies of Señor Gómez’s book to be delivered to Mr. Quinagan afterwards. I tagged my family along (except for my two eldest, Krystal and Mómay, who were already busy with other things).

La imagen puede contener: 4 personas, incluido Jennifer Perey-Alas, personas sonriendo, personas sentadas

Juanito, Yeyette, Gemma, and Clarita after the lecture (photo: Jefe).

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Thankfully, Jefe, Juanito, and Junífera Clarita are inclined toward the arts. They always enjoy their stay at the National Museum.

After the museum event, Yeyette decided that we just walk all the way to Calle Padre Faura where the National Artist’s bookshop was located. The move surprised me a bit, but it delighted me as well because I really prefer walking through the streets of historic Manila. It was also an opportune time to familiarize our three younger kids to the Manila of our college days (Yeyette and I were classmates in Adamson University, and we used to ramble around the place) as well as to observe some of the newsmaking makeovers that Mayor Isko Moreno did since taking over City Hall last June.

La imagen puede contener: 3 personas, incluido Pepe Alas, personas sonriendo, personas de pie

Just passing by our alma mater‘s iconic walkway along Taft Avenue. 😊

We didn’t know what happened, but after several minutes of walking along the (surprisingly clean) sidewalk of Taft Avenue, we suddenly found ourselves facing the vehicular traffic of Quirino Avenue… we missed Padre Faura by several blocks! The new establishments must have disoriented us, or perhaps we have not been to that part of Manila for a long time (besides, I was busy doing Facebook live during our urban jungle trek, hehe). We had to cross Taft and walk all the way back to Faura. It was already dark by that time.

After trudging back, we turned left to Calle Remedios to avoid Taft’s polluted air, then turned right to a quieter Calle Pilar Hidalgo Lim. Yeyette was very annoyed at my miscalculation, so I kept my distance from her by walking several steps ahead. Junífera Clarita got tired with all the walking, so I had to carry her (but she kept on talking and talking and talking). That is why I was soaking wet when we finally reached F. Sionil José’s famous little bookshop. Unfortunately, the sign on the glass door says it was already closed. I didn’t know that they close at six in the evening, and it was almost seven when we got there (I’ve passed by the place numerous times but have never bothered to go inside because of my dislike of the owner). However, we could see a female cashier who was still at her desk, busy with her android. My wife tapped on the door to see if we could still continue our meeting. The young lady was not smiling but she still opened the door for us.

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Solidaridad at night.

Yeyette told her of our agenda, but she informed us that César had already left; we missed him by about an hour. However, she took two copies of the book and gave me a calling card. During this brief exchange, a man in his thirties appeared from behind the shelves. I assumed, perhaps, that he was César, but he didn’t look the type who manages a bookshop although he was wearing what seemed to me a guayabera. He grabbed one copy from the lady, went past the shelves, then watched him ascend a stairway at the farthest end of the store.

I asked the unsmiling lady if I had to sign anything before we leave, but she said to just contact César on Monday (so that’s it, guayabera dude was not César). Yeyette then engaged her in small talk. I took that opportunity to rummage around the shelves while shooing away Juanito and Junífera Clarita who were already all over the place.

Moments later, Mr. Guayabera went back to us with some unexpected news: “Aquiát dao po cayó sa taás, causapin dao cayó ni Manong.

Of course I knew who that Manong was. I felt a surge of apprehension, half wanting to leave and meet F. Sionil José at the same time. Really, I was only after César Quinagan, not him. But then, I thought of Señor Gómez’s book. Months before all this, I went to National Bookstore’s main office to inquire about the possibility of them distributing The Filipino State and Señor’s other book, “Quis Ut Deus,” a novel in Spanish. They made me wait for almost a month, only to inform me that they were not interested! Their explanation that Spanish books will not sell was understandable, but to say that they’re not focused on selling books about historical essays at the moment puzzles me up to now. So this, perhaps, was my last chance to have at least The Filipino State to be distributed by a major bookstore. Whether or not I didn’t want to go face to face with the 2001 National Artist for Literature, I really had to.

The problem was my shirt was really wet. I hurriedly went to Yeyette, who by then was fixated with her android, to ask for an extra shirt (I always have an extra with me because I perspire easily due to hyperhydrosis, another bane from childhood). While changing clothes at an enclosed corner near the stairs, my mind was struggling whether or not to tell Manong Frankie my real name. He’s in his nineties, I thought. Perhaps he has forgotten that blogpost of mine? I was trying to assure myself that I was not really that well-known of a troll, that I’m just another unknown basher of his.

After changing in a rush, I hurriedly reached for the stairs. I didn’t want to make Manong Frankie wait; I heard that he is such a character. When I was all set, I saw that Junífera Clarita, my annoying five-year-old baby girl who kept on talking and talking and talking, was already at the stairs! My golly, there was no more time to bid her to stay at the ground floor, lest she made a scene. I whispered to her, while trudging the wooden stairs, to just stay put and behave.

Manong Frankie, wearing his trademark beret, was seated on a wooden bench at the top of the stairs. Far to his right was another elderly lady behind a desk; I immediately recognized her as the wife, Manang Teresita José. The upper floor was not as well lighted compared to the ground floor, but the light coming from Manang Teresita’s desk made it bearable. The upper floor was actually a mezzanine, so the light coming from the first floor also contributed to the lighting.

After the greetings, I was not able to shake his hand because Junífera Clarita was all over the place again. Before I could even scold her, Manong Frankie immediately interrogated me as he bade me sit down in front of him.

“Are you the author of this book?” he said in his booming voice.

“No, sir! I’m just, uh, … an assistant. The author’s assistant,” I said, groping for the right words.

“I see. But do you also write?”

“Yes, sir,” I replied. “Actually, I already have a book under my name. But it’s nothing big, really. It’s a project by our local government, a biography about our city’s local hero. That is why it cannot be sold in bookstores.” I was of course referring to “Captain Remo: The Young Hero“, a book which catapulted me to fame in our apartment building.

We then discussed a few things about the consignment of the book, and of course its author. “You know, I find Guillermo a very radical writer! How is he now?” he asked while holding a copy of The Filipino State. I suddenly remembered that they both know each other personally. I described to him his fellow writer’s condition, then he boasted that at 94, he could still walk around. “I’m turning 95 next month!” I feigned surprise. “I’m older than him by several years and yet I can still walk around. How old is he now?”

I suddenly forgot Señor Gómez’s age, so I just told him his year of birth: 1936. Because I’m bad at math. Humorously, Manong Frankie still made me count. “O, 1936. ¿Eh ‘di ilang taon na iyón?“

My golly. I saw Jefe behind him taking photos of the room. I called out to him. “Jefe, 1936 si Señor. So how old is he now?” I asked while counting nervously with my fingers. I turned my head back to the National Artist. “See? I’m bad at math,” I chuckled. I was irritated at myself as to why at that moment I totally forgot Señor Gómez’s age. And doubly irritating was that Jefe couldn’t do the math too. De tal palo, tal astillo. 😆

La imagen puede contener: una persona, sentada, interior y texto

I didn’t know that my son Jefe was taking pictures of my impromptu meeting with a living legend.

 

The small talk ventured to other topics: his life, his writings, and my most favorite topic of all — his best friend Nick Joaquín. And when I told him how much I idolized his friend, it made him all the more joyous.

He then repeated the oft-told story of how he beat Nick in arguments. “He tells me that if not for the Spaniards, I would have remained an Igorot. Ang sagót co namán, eh di más mabuti pa ñgâ, ¡hahaha!” I faked a laughter. “Whenever he loses in a discussion, he takes his handkerchief from his pocket and waves them at me as a sign of surrender!”

I’m familiar with the story, but that is very contrary to Nick’s biography written by his late nephew Antonio “Tony” Joaquín. According to the biography, Nick would blow his nose and shove the snot-filled handkerchief to his Frankie friend. 😆 This funny scene was also discussed in Sari Dalena’s documentary “Dahling Nick”. I almost raised the issue to him, but I thought better.

“There was never a week when he was not here,” he declared proudly. I was waiting for him to tell me that Nick used to sit on the same stool that I was using. I would have embraced it right there and then. But he never did. “Nung namatáy si Nick, napaiyác talagá acó, eh.” I told him that I already saw Dalena’s documentary where a footage of him crying while delivering his eulogy at the Cultural Center of the Philippines was shown. That scene made me tear up, too.

“Actually, sir, I almost met Nick twice.” I saw a shimmer in his almost half-closed eyes, rendered as such due to more than nine decades on earth. “Señor Gómez was to introduce me to him many years ago, but on both occasions they didn’t materialize.” I noticed that both husband and wife were listening intently, so I continued. “And then a few years after that, I found out on the Internet that Nick already died. I was at the office when I read about the sad news. I then left my office cubicle, went to some isolated corner, then cried my heart out.”

Upon hearing that I’m an office worker, he suddenly changed the topic by asking me where I work. I told him that I’m a technical support representative at Mærsk (Manang chimed in that she knows the company), and that I’ve been working the night shift for fifteen years already. I sensed a hint of pity on Manong’s countenance upon hearing my predicament. For a fleeting moment, I remember his writings on social justice, about the toils and challenges of Filipinos belonging to the lower rungs of society. One unforgettable line that really struck a chord in me was from an impoverished character of his from his most famous novel, “The Pretenders”…

I really don’t ask for much. Just a chance to have my wife and children go through life with the least physical pain. That isn’t much to ask, is it? But in this bloody country, when a millionaire has a cold he goes right away to a fancy clinic in New York. And me, I can’t even afford to have my head examined. Hell, there’s justification in the old class struggle — I don’t care what you call it, but does a rich man have more right to live simply because he has more money?

I could relate to this very much. It seems that Sionil José, himself a victim of social injustice, has a soft spot for people like me, people with dreams but had to become wage slaves just so that they could keep their heads (and dreams) above water.

“Where is your office?” he said. I told him that it’s in Pásig, and that I live in faraway San Pedro Tunasán. Daily commuting to and from the office takes up more or less five hours of my life. “What?!” both husband and wife gasped in horror upon hearing this. I’m sure I heard one of them whisper “Dios co“.

“But at least,” I said, trying to reassure them, “I am still able to read a book during the commute, hehe”. The concerned look on Manong’s face was genuine. For sure, a man like him knows that a writer shouldn’t experience the kind of life that I’m enduring. I also shared to them something personal: that I couldn’t read or write well anymore the way I used to, that my attention span has gotten short, that I couldn’t finish a chapter in a book in one sitting, and I attribute all these ills to my night toils.

“I think you should go see a psychiatrist,” Manang said from her desk. I didn’t know if I should laugh or comment back. I just muttered “a psychiatrist” while looking at her with wondering eyes. Her husband then called my attention to another topic.

We talked about many other things: the Spanish language situation in the country (he was delighted to hear that I teach my kids the language and expressed his sadness that it did not become widespread in our country), his celebrated arguments with his friend Nick, and a host of other subjects. But I couldn’t stay the whole night. Manong looked at his wristwatch and politely told me that he and his wife had an appointment. So that’s why both were dressed up. “We are going social climbing!” We all laughed.

Before leaving, I asked if I could have a photo op with him. He was very accommodating. Jefe was already gone, so I rushed downstairs for the cellphone camera. She didn’t want to go up as she was busy with her phone (“kids” these days). I had to ask my son Jefe to take our photo. I rushed back up. Juanito and Junífera Clarita were still all over the mezzanine. My golly! Manong Frankie was just gazing at them while telling something to his wife. Upon seeing me, he then asked me about my kids, my family, and other personal stuff. Before our conversation could turn another half hour, I heard Yeyette finally climbing up the stairs. Seeing Manong Frankie, she tactlessly said: “O, ¿ayos na cayó?” She was aware of last year’s online vitriol that I had with the fictionist, but she didn’t know that I did not tell anything to him that it was I who wrote all that, haha!

The jolly and candid person that she is, Yeyette proceeded on greeting the esteemed couple, asked for their age, showed surprise when she got the answer, then asked for tips on what diet we should take for longevity, much to my embarrassment (no wonder why Junífera Clarita kept on talking and talking and talking: she got it from her Mamá). She didn’t have any idea of Manong Frankie’s literary worth, so I told the latter to excuse her for her forthrightness of character because she doesn’t read books. Manong was laughing heartily. My wife really amused him.

We then had the obligatory picture taking. I was asking for only one, but my wife had wanted more. Goodness gracious…

La imagen puede contener: 5 personas, incluidos Pepe Alas y Jennifer Perey-Alas, personas sonriendo, personas sentadas y calzado

Me, Junífera Clarita, F. Sionil José, Juanito, and Yeyette. Photo by Jefe.

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Manong Frankie and Yeyette.

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Manang Teresita and Yeyette.

As I shook his hand, I said to him: “I may not have met Nick in person, but I feel that I have already met him through you.” He looked very, very pleased.

 * * * * * * *

It was hard for me to contain my amusement and excitement as we went downstairs. There I was, planning only to see Solidaridad’s manager, but I ended up chatting with the owner himself who also happens to be one of the country’s greatest literary figures alive today (and a dear friend of my favorite writer). As we were about to leave, the corner of my eye caught a glimpse of “Mass”, the last of Manong Frankie’s five-part Rosales novels. I have an embarrassing confession to make: I have not yet completed my collection of Manong Frankie’s famous Rosales saga until that night. I already have in my possession for years the first four novels (Po-on; Tree; My Brother, My Executioner, and; The Pretenders), but Mass was the only book missing. Whenever I chanced upon it in bookstores, I always didn’t have money. Now was the perfect time, I thought. What better way to cap off my collection than to buy the book from where it was originally published and sold! And perfectly still: I will have it signed by the author himself!

After the unplanned purchase, I excitedly ran upstairs for an autograph, but I saw that the José couple were already descending, assisted by Mr. Guayabera. I just waited for them at the book store’s lobby. They were trudging slowly due to old age.

At Ms. Unsmiling Girl’s desk, F. Sionil José wrote a message on my purchase. It was there when he finally asked for my name.

I froze.

La imagen puede contener: Pepe Alas, sonriendo, sentada y texto

Photo: Yeyette Alas.

“What is your name?” he repeated.

“Ummm… Pepe.”

“Pepe?” He was waiting for me to tell him my last name.

“Umm… Pepe… Alas?”

¿Ha?

“Pepe Alas, sir.”

¿Anó?” he said, drawing his right ear to my face.

“You have to speak loudly,” called his wife who was already at the door, looking amused. “He is already hard of hearing”. But I was very close to him. Besides, we didn’t have that aural problem upstairs, even if we were about a meter or two apart from each other. He was able to hear me well during that tête-à-tête.

“It’s Alas, sir. A-L-A-S.”

“Alas?” he asked, almost frowning.

“Yes, sir.” He gazed at me for several seconds. I could have sworn he recognized the name (“Aha! It’s that bastard, trying-hard, sonuvabitch of a blogger who was hoping to go viral at my expense!”). But he proceeded to sign the book, anyway. I must have seen a scowl on his face, but I could be mistaken. He didn’t say anything to me after signing the book. He had another cheerful talk with my wife before we all said our goodbyes (Yeyette later told me that Manong was just inquiring if we are teaching our kids Spanish, she said yes, and it delighted him). They were going somewhere else, to social climb, as what he had told me upstairs.

As my family marched towards Taft, F. Sionil José, with bastón in hand, was still sending us off with a gaze.

* * * * * * *

I read the book immediately upon arriving home. I was amused to learn that the protagonist’s name was also a Pepe. Pepe Samson.

Had I known about this before, I would have told Manong Frankie that Samson was my last name.

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2019 Seal of Good Local Governance (Region IV-A)

Congratulations are in the offing to the winners of this year’s 2019 Seal of Good Local Governance (SGLG) for CALABARZON (Region IV-A). It is an award given annually by the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) to outstanding local government units (LGU).

But what exactly is the SGLG all about? The DILG Region IV-A’s official Facebook account has a succinct explanation:

The SGLG is a progressive assessment system that gives LGUs distinction for their remarkable performance across various governance areas such as Financial Administration, Disaster Preparedness, Social Protection, Peace and Order, Business-Friendliness and Competitiveness, Environmental Management, and Tourism, Culture and the Arts.

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Out of all the cited LGUs on October 17, two are close to my heart: San Pedro Tunasán in La Laguna and Imus in Cavite. San Pedro Tunasán (simply known today as the City of San Pedro) is where my family has been living for the past fifteen years. I was once its consultant for historical, cultural, and tourism affairs as well as its historical researcher from 1 December 2015 to 12 July 2017. On the other hand, I’ve been with Imus as history consultant as well as a translator of their Spanish-era documents from 9 November 2016 up to the present.

But in citing favorites, I cannot exclude Santa Rosa and nearby Biñán, both of which are also in La Laguna Province. Santa Rosa almost never fails to invite me whenever its historic Cuartel de Santo Domingo holds an important event, and for that I am truly grateful. As for Biñán… well, let me just put it this way: I have something exciting cooking up with its LGU, and I’d rather keep mum about it for now. Because the last time I got too talkative with a historical project, it only went up in smoke, haha. 😞😂

It is interesting to note that both San Pedro Tunasán and Imus are consistent recipients of various DILG awards. Having said that, congratulations to Mayor Baby Catáquiz and Mayor Manny Maliksí (including their respective teams) for a job well done! Congratulations as well to all the other LGUs for this citation! May your tribes increase throughout the archipelago!

Click here for the complete list of awardees nationwide.

¡A Dios sea toda la gloria y la honra!

 

50% administrator, 50% politician

I’ve been long cynical against politics, until I met Mayor Calixto R. Catáquiz, the beloved former chief magistrate of San Pedro Tunasán, La Laguna and the architect of its cityhood (now known as the City of San Pedro, Laguna Province). It was he who opened my eyes that politics cannot be all that bad, and that there is more to it than what we usually hear from the news. A businessman first before he got involved in politics, Mayor Calex’s strategy of being a “50% administrator and 50% politician” worked wonders for the congested former municipality. In 1995, for instance, he was able to raise the coffers of the municipal treasury from ₱6.41 million to a staggering amount of ₱70 million. This, despite the lack of industrial sites.
Critics and other cynics will of course easily shrug him off as just another traditional político. But Mayor Calex cannot be categorized as such. A born realist, the soft-spoken mayor’s honesty during private conversations will stagger his listeners. His matter-of-factly manner of sharing his political ups and downs will elicit surprise, laughter, and tears. His biography is not just about the story of his life and political career but also the story of San Pedro’s journey from a mere rural municipality to a bustling city.

Lunch at Bricx Café & Bistro Bar. Mayor Calex holds the draft of his biography.

I’ve been chronicling his life story for more than ten years already. Finally, it’s done! It is now on its final stages of review, and will be edited soon by his friend, veteran journalist Chit Lijauco. Another friend, multi-awarded photographer George Tapan, will take care of photography and the book cover. God willing, Mayor Calex’s biography will be published and launched sometime next year, just in time to wrap-up our city’s Road Map 2020, a long-term development plan that was conceptualized and launched in 2010.
If my other writing gigs will not prosper soon, then Mayor Calex’s biography might just well become my second book after 2017’s “Captain Remo: The Young Hero“.

¡A Dios sea toda la gloria y la honra!

Garbage collectors: today’s unsung heroes

It was a weird morning. As our bus entered La Laguna, the sun was all up and bright. The next minute, it rained so hard as if all heaven had poured out whatever Greg Martín “Gretchen” Diez had been hoarding up in his bladder for well over a month.

The unexpected downpour happened in an instant, at the exact moment that I was alighting from the bus on my way home. Tough luck. My wife and kids forgot to put the umbrella in my backpack.

So there I was, stuck in a narrow sidewalk with very minimal cover from the rain. Good thing I had my mobile phone with me, with a playlist to accompany me in my boredom.

When the rains gradually decreased to a drizzle, I saw them: the ever-familiar yellow truck with its pile of bagged filth and near-robotic collectors handling them, stuck in rain-drenched traffic, but still on the go, picking up garbage bags from stores along the busy national road. I just had to take their photos.

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La imagen puede contener: cielo y exterior

Even at this godforsaken weather, they are working, unmindful of the cold and rain. What made their situation worse was that they are soaked on top of a pile of muck, grime, dead cats crushed by vehicles, a little excrement here and there, and all the other disgusting things you can think of inside a garbage truck. But a job’s a job.

According to Salary Expert, “an entry level (sic) garbage collector (1-3 years of experience) earns an average salary of ₱131,256. On the other end, a senior level (sic) garbage collector (8+ years of experience) earns an average salary of ₱198,811.” That’s just less than ₱20,000 per month. If you think that kind of salary is barely enough for a single person, what more for a garbage collector with dependents. And since they belong to the lowest tier of capitalist society, we can easily imagine them raising a family of more than three (sickly) children. And because of the type of job that they have, it’s impossible not to think that they aren’t sickly themselves.

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Out of that measly salary, they will have to set aside money for medications for various illnesses contracted from their filthy job — that is, of course, if they don’t ignore them (many of them do because medication is as expensive as food). In case they don’t, then that is an additional burden for them, considering that they had to buy meals for their families, pay for the schooling of their children (it is a myth that public school students need not shell out money to go through schoolhood), pay for rent, and many other expenses. If we middle-class income earners are continuously complaining about rising prices of commodities, oil price hikes, and other cost of living expenses, have you even stopped for a brief moment to think what kind of life these hapless people who collect your daily waste have? Most of them live in dilapidated areas, in shanties standing on land they don’t even own, or along polluted rivers that overflow during heavy rain. And they don’t have job security since many of them are only given “job order” designations by their respective LGU employers.

If you think eating out in Jollibee is already corny, for them feasting on Burger Machine on Christmas Day is an experience.

They have one of the most difficult jobs in the world — who would even want to pick up garbage collecting as a career? Not even them. But due to uncontrollable circumstances in their lives, they had no other choice. Yet our government treats them lowly. If they have the most difficult job in the world, why pay them minimum? In all seriousness, they had to be paid more than double their monthly wage. Or even higher than that. And with more benefits. Without them, our daily routine would be paralyzed.

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La imagen puede contener: coche y exterior

Remember the Great Pacific garbage patch, the North Atlantic garbage patch, and many other humongous marine debris sprouting in many oceans in our planet? They have been in the news lately, and they would have been bigger and disgustingly plentiful if not for these unsung heroes who, rain or shine, regularly pick up your generally unsegregated waste. Yes, unsung heroes, because that’s what they really are. How many of you are even willing to dispose of your own waste just to keep your homes and your neighborhood spic and span?

(We may also add that that they are accidental unsung heroes, for they didn’t want to be garbage collectors in the first place).

That is why it is infuriating to note how our top government officials waste too much time on attention-seeking individuals like Mr. Diez when more sectors of society are in dire need of assistance. Garbage collection and disposal is fast becoming a world epidemic, a plague that is almost rarely discussed nor prioritized as evidenced by those aforementioned growing garbage patches across the seas.

It is high time we honor these unsung heroes and give them the due recognition that they deserve.

Come to think of it, when was the last time you heard that a garbage collector was awarded by their national government?

 

 

From excited foreword to grateful afterthought

A couple of years back, I excitedly announced in my now defunct Spanish blog that I was chosen to write for a coffee table book about the history of La Laguna Province. After almost two years of sleepless nights writing and doing field research, promoting it on social media, incurring trouble at the office because of several absences and tardiness, and capped by a press release on my accidental discovery of the province’s foundation date as well as defending it from the National Historical Commission of the Philippines’ “board of academic censors”, nothing came out of the said project. The publisher and I had a falling out while the provincial governor who was supposed to fund the project was  unceremoniously booted out from politics. That book was supposed to be my big break to become a well-known writer-historian. But it seems that bad luck is an unwanted twin of mine. Whenever my dreams are within arm’s reach, they start slipping right from my hands and crash down to the floor like fine chandelier.

When publication was nearing, I had my mentor, Señor Guillermo Gómez Rivera, write the book’s foreword. I couldn’t think of nor imagine anyone else to write one for me. He is, after all, the epitome of an authentic Renaissance Man: a journalist, historian, poet, playwright, fictionist, linguist, folklorist, cartoonist, recording artist, and Spanish language teacher as well as instructor of Spanish dances (considered as the only “maestro de flamenco” of Filipinas). Few people may know this, but he is also a polyglot: aside from his mastery of Spanish, Hiligaynón, Quinaráy-a, English, and Tagálog, he also has a working knowledge of Chabacano Zamboangueño, Cavitén (Chabacano Caviteño), French, Hokkien, Cebuano, and Portuguese. In spite of his personal problems and health issues, he still manages to continue the difficult fight for the recognition of our true national identity. A great man like Don Guimò only comes once every one hundred years. That is why I call him as the GREATEST FILIPINO alive today.

La imagen puede contener: Pepe Alas y Guillermo Gómez Rivera, personas sonriendo, selfie

Unfortunately, my coffee table book will no longer see the light of day. So I thought of just publishing here Don Guimo’s foreword for that book. I am not a decorated writer nor historian, but his words for me are worth all the medals of the world.

     Having known José Mario “Pepe” Alas since his college student days at Adamson University, we never expected him to be capable of writing a history book with such serene impartiality and with the taught discipline of a seasoned historian. And more so the complex history of La Laguna, a province that means so much to the development of this country. We always thought that only a Nick Joaquín would be able to do that considering the uniqueness and the vastness of the latter’s accumulated knowledge and profound understanding of Philippine history, the Spanish language, the Filipino national identity, and the Filipino culture that encompasses all these intellectual disciplines.

     But Pepe has somehow been able to acquire the necessary conocimientos which is more than knowledge, to grasp and reproduce what is Filipino. He did take for granted, as is the case of many Filipino college students, his Spanish language subjects at Adamson University, but after he graduated and was faced with the challenges of survival, he accepted the casual job of a typist and was given the assignment to type a whole book in Spanish on the history of the Primera República de Filipinas, a thick compilation of documents, with their respective comments, by Spanish language academician, novelist, historian, and professor, Antonio M. Abad from Barili, Cebú.

     Although we know that this is not the only book in Spanish that he was forced to read, because he had to type it, Pepe must have had read some other books in Spanish on what is Filipino aside from those available in English. To our surprise, Pepe could speak to us in Spanish about Philippine History after going through this old Abad book and the other books, works, and literary pieces in this language that were found in our library.

    As an old teacher of the Spanish language, we know that the student, to acquire this language, needs to master four basic skills: the skill to read it, the skill to understand it, the skill to write in it, and, later, the final skill to speak it. And Pepe Alas from Parañaque City had sufficiently mastered the four enumerated skills. To top it all, he also mastered to a high degree the literary, historical, and cultural content of Spanish in the Philippines which, as a culmination, has formed his firm conviction as a Filipino, free from the current maladies of a colonial mentality vis-à-vis the present colonial master lording it over our country.  In short, Pepe is no longer a stranger in his own country which is expectedly miseducated, therefore ignorant of its true culture and true history. Pepe has freed himself from these maladies and anomalies of the mind and soul, and, because of this newfound freedom of his mind and his soul, he now loves his country in a much deeper way than most other Filipinos of his generation ever did or do.

     As he advanced in the field of employment, he settled in San Pedro Tunasán, La Laguna, with his wife and children and immediately identified himself as a native born lagunense interested in the history and prosperity of his adoptive province. From there, he realized that he had a new world to know and write about which is La Laguna. His research on the history of his adoptive province led him to discover the real founding date of La Laguna. He went through all the old and pertinent Spanish documents with great ease and discovered that La Laguna started as a Spanish encomienda under conquistador Martín de Goití in the sixteenth century.

     What is funny, if not something to be highly indignant about, is that the government office that supposedly works on the history of this country flatly denied and rejected this discovery because of an old U.S. WASP induced prejudice against the Spanish encomienda. Some employees in that government office on history had this prejudice against the encomienda because of the falsities taught to them in their history classes by an Americanized history teacher that never learned to see through the 1900 American sectarian propaganda against what is Spanish and Filipino in these islands. These de-Filipinized elements wrongly labeled an encomienda as a system of slavery and oppression when it is in the encomienda that our native Indio forefathers learned not only the predominant religion of Filipinos today but also learned a more advanced system of agriculture, a sophisticated cuisine, basic arts and trade, and all that a people needed to later form a pueblo and a municipio as we know them today.

     But the La Laguna Provincial Board, being open minded, quickly saw that this Alas discovery was logical and, therefore, correct. It eventually approved and recognized the date of the founding of La Laguna as a Spanish encomienda to be also the beginning of the legal entity that is this province today. An Inquirer article called Pepe an achiever who, as a young historian, discovered what others blindly ignored for so long. Kudos to the provincial governor and the La Laguna Provincial Board!

     Reading Pepe’s general history of La Laguna is a pleasure. The language is easy and all that is historical data are neatly interwoven to give an accurate picture of how La Laguna developed and how its people progressed through the years in spite of the vicissitudes that would disturb such advances. Credit is given to whosoever deserves it. As an historian, Pepe will never say, like Teodoro A. Agoncillo says on his “History of the Filipino People”, that it is “difficult, if not impossible, to define what a Filipino is”.  Pepe gives us the sensation that he exactly knows what is Filipino and that it is neither difficult nor impossible to define what it is. Because of his mastery of Spanish, Pepe Alas agrees with Teodoro M. Kálaw’s definition of what is Filipino, a definition that is, evidently, not “politically correct” nowadays, but which is accurate anyway you put it. Wrote Kálaw, and we quote him in his own language to avoid any mistranslation:

“Cuando se discute la capacidad de una raza para la autosuficiencia, todos los elementos y factores que intervinieron en su cultura, todas las generaciones anteriores, se someten a prueba. Y entrelazadas en esa exégesis está la obra de España y la obra de Filipinas indígena, dos civilizaciones que han venido uniéndose en una misma civilización que llamamos filipina sobre este suelo por casi cuatro siglos para luego constituir una vibrante nacionalidad, la que dio espíritu a la revolución y a la primera República de Filipinas.”

     La Laguna is, indeed, one of the oldest provinces of the Philippines because many of its original families have branched out to other places in this country. As a mere example and modesty aside—, this writer’s family, on both the paternal and maternal sides, traces its roots to La Laguna. Gómez comes from a 17th-century Spanish alférez from Pagsanján, Francisco Gómez, who married a Tagala named María Dimaculañgan, while Rivera traces its roots to nearby Pila. Upon a recent visit to the parish church of Pagsanján, this writer saw, from a list of donors, individuals that carried both surnames: Gómez and Rivera. There is always that inclination to come to Pagsanján and upon viewing the old and majestic arch at the beginning of what was Pagsanján’s Calle Real, a sensation of having been there becomes overpowering.  And then, there is the now almost abandoned Gómez mansion near the river while it is also at the rear of the old Church of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, the advocation of the Virgin Mary that merited the Pontifical titles of “Emperatriz de las Américas, Reina de México, y Patrona de Filipinas”. Aside from the famous Pagsanján Falls, the arch, the old bahay na bató houses, and the parish church are also tourist attractions.

     The attraction of La Laguna in general is great, and tourism is not a new phenomenon for Pagsanján. There is this bilingual sing-song of long ago that attests to what we say:

Muy bienvenidos
Sean ustedes
A nuestro pueblo
De Pagsanján.
Aquí tenemos
La maravilla
De veinte saltos
En un bancal.
Sobresaltante
Pero seguro
Es el paseo
En un raudal;
Porque las bancas
Son de arbol duro
Y los banqueros
De mucha sal.

–o–

Maganda nawâ
Ang ‘yong pagdayo
Dito sa amin
Sa Pagsanján;
Magarang arco,
Magandang bahay
Gawá sa tabla
At sa bató.
Ñgunit ang tunay
Na pañghalina
Ng bayan natin
Ay ang talón
Casama’ng daloy
Ng mananañgcang
Sanáy sa tulin
At sa tinô.

     La Laguna, as a center of Filipino culture, as expressed in song, dance, ritual, poetry, cuisine, and hospitality, is bound to advance. More so with the new crop of leaders it presently has to steer this vision onward.

La imagen puede contener: texto

 

Robinsons Galleria South and mall culture

La imagen puede contener: coche y exterior

Yesterday was my first time to witness the grand opening of a major mall, Robinsons MallsRobinsons Galleria South, the 52nd Robinsons Mall and only the third in its flagship Galleria brand (the other two being Robinsons Galleria Ortigas and Robinsons Galleria Cebú). I’m not exactly a fan of such establishments but I thought of checking out the event because it’s just a stone’s throw away from our place here in San Pedro Tunasán (other than the fact that I’m chronicling our city’s history). Besides, it’s not every day that one gets to witness how a major mall opens to the public for the very first time.

La imagen puede contener: 2 personas, multitud

The four-level Robinsons Galleria South sits on a 3.8-hectare property which was once owned by a popular soft drinks manufacturer. Robinsons Land Corporation, the parent company behind Robinsons Malls, had been planning to put up an ordinary mall on the site. But former Mayor Calixto Catáquiz, in a meeting with officials of Robinsons back in 2012, insisted that the corporation should instead put up a bigger Galleria brand owing to the fact that San Pedro is a dormitory area for thousands of workers in southern Metro Manila and northern La Laguna. In fact, many nearby malls such as SM Center Muntinlupà, Ayala Malls South Park, Festival Alabang, and SM City Santa Rosa are patronized by throngs of San Pedrense residents on a daily basis.

(As an aside, it was on that same 2012 meeting where Mayor Calex last saw Jesse Robredo, former Secretary of the Interior and Local Government, for the last time [They were once colleagues in the Mayors League of the Philippines]. Robredo was also wooing Robinsons for a mall to be setup in his home city. He died in a plane crash a few days after that meeting, but his efforts brought forth Robinsons Place Naga which opened five years later).

La imagen puede contener: una persona, multitud e interior

As per observers, the above-mentioned malls, plus many others nearby, are in danger of losing profitability because of this new major player. And according to the grapevine, SM Center Muntinlupà, the smallest of them as well as the nearest to Robinsons Galleria South, might end up becoming a mere warehouse for SM. But if these hugely popular malls are to be adversely affected, what more the smaller establishments all around them? For sure, they will be displaced as consumers would rather troop to malls where there are hundreds of smaller establishments to choose from in an air-conditioned setting. This is what many economists and other concerned sectors have been complaining about with regard to the proliferation of malls. Nevertheless, it will then be the responsibility of stakeholders involved (particularly the local government units) on how to protect the smaller players from economic marginalization. It will also, of course, test the resiliency of these smaller entrepreneurs. After all, in a capitalist economy, it’s a dog-eat-dog world. Mátira ang matibay.

I remember years ago what a former officemate of mine, a resident of San Pedro for many years, told me about the day when the first Jollibee outlet appeared at the población (town proper). This happened sometime in the late 90s. It was like a huge event for months on end especially since San Pedrenses were still of rural folk demeanor. It was then when people started to realize that their town was starting to progress. Actually, fast food giants such as Jollibee are almost always the measuring stick of a municipality’s economic robustness.

I have interviewed a lot of seniors in our city. Through those interviews, I was able to picture how San Pedro Tunasán —now called the City of San Pedro— looked like in the past. Despite its proximity to Metro Manila, it was a bucolic Lagunense town, no different from my wife’s hometown. It used to be surrounded with farm lands and sampaguita plantations. Its coasts by the lake teemed with ducks, quails, and vegetable plantations.

La imagen puede contener: cielo, nubes y exterior

Laguna de Bay and the mountains of Rizal Province as seen from the topmost floor of the newly opened Galleria South.

Today, all these appealing rural features are almost wiped out by modernization. However, this phenomenon is happening not only in San Pedro but in almost all rural areas where there are cities nearby. Malls have a lot to do with all these changes. Whether they are good or bad is still up for debate. What cannot be denied is that it also changed behavioral patterns in once rural societies. For instance, they have taken people away from parks and plazas. Even museum visits have been left in peril.

Through the years, malls have evolved from being mere shopping centers into something bigger, with far-reaching consequences to the Filipino social psyche. Today, one can virtually do almost anything in a mall other than shopping and eating. A myriad of activities could be done here like watching a concert or a flick, paying one’s bills, booking flights, working out, holding a family reunion or celebrating birthdays (in fact, we are going to celebrate my eldest daughter’s 19th birthday there today), playing electronic games, a rendezvous for a casual breakup, and even attending Mass (Robinsons Galleria South has a chapel at the fourth floor dedicated to Mother Teresa of Calcutta). Some have even built their own parks and museums. Other bolder ventures have malls with condominiums and office spaces (such as call centers) attached to them. Due to their massive number of patrons, terrorists have since targeted malls (don’t wonder anymore why security has become super tight). And quite recently, not a few broken souls have chosen malls as a place to take their own lives. Love them or hate them, malls have become a crucial part of the Filipino way of life.

 

La imagen puede contener: texto y exterior

Has anyone written a scholarly article yet regarding the social and even cultural impact that malls have towards Filipinos?

Captain Remo

La imagen puede contener: una persona

 

Abelardo Remoquillo (1922-1945), known among his peers, war enemies, and admirers as “Captain Remo”, was a young guerrillero from San Pedro Tunasán, La Laguna (simply known today as the City of San Pedro, Laguna) who fought against the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II. He is known only as a local hero. But I contend that he be declared a national hero. Why? At a very young age, he joined the Hunters ROTC guerrillas not to defend his hometown but to help defend his country. He fought against the invaders from different fronts of Southern Luzón and even participated in the famous Raid at Los Baños.

He died not in San Pedro Tunasán but in faraway Bay, La Laguna while attacking a Japanese garrison.

When he joined the Hunters ROTC, that is when his being a San Pedrense ended, and the exact moment when he completed his being a Filipino, a Filipino warrior to be exact.

Today is his death anniversary.

Copies of my bilingual biography* of Captain Remo are still available at the San Pedro City Hall. For inquiries, please contact the San Pedro Tourism, Culture, and Arts Office.

*The Tagálog translation is by Linda Sietereales. Her dear friend, famous novelist Lualhati Bautista, has a blurb for the book. This book is a project of the San Pedro City Historical Council headed by Mayor Lourdes Catáquiz.