While having dinner with my grandmother this evening, table talk went to their era, that (in my opinion) wonderful, if tragic, time in the Philippines called by her generation as “Pre-War.”
Of course, as a history nut, this was an extremely interesting conversation for me; ever since getting bought a copy of Marvin Perry’s excellent “History of the World” (that thick, black, book with the red image on the front) in the summer before I entered Manila Science in 1990, I’ve been a lover of history. And, I guess because of one’s gender, military history is one of the things I take a great interest in, to the point that I buy books on it, like John Keegan’s wondrous “First World War.”
One of the things I’m sad about this love of mine is the… dearth of excellent reading material on MY country’s history. My first Philippine History book was this old, hardbound, Zaide (a property of my dad’s so I was told) with a nicely illustrated cover. At the time, I had no idea about the criticisms on Zaide’s treatment of Philippine History; I was just happy to READ something on my country after the rather uninteresting treatment of it in Grade School. How uninteresting? I was a science nut in Primary, to the point that I was correcting my teachers. Didn’t endear me to them – what self-respecting middle-aged teacher wants to get corrected in front of class by a pre-pubescent know-it-all pipsqueak? – but at the time I thought I wasn’t doing anyone any harm, haha.
Then, I got my hands on Agoncillo’s history book, two of them, in fact (since I bought one, forgetting the older brother had one, too). I also wasn’t aware of the… political lens in which Agoncillo told our country’s history, only that someone told me Zaide was wrong, and Agoncillo was preferred.
But then, these are TEXTBOOKS, essentially. I have nothing against textbooks, of course, having read, on my own free time, so many of them when I was a kid and in high school. In college, one of my favorite books is a textbook: Hector De Leon’s “magnum opus” on the Philippine Constitution, where even a pedestrian can learn the intricacies – and even some historical tidbits – on the Organic Law of the Land.
Still, textbooks sometimes leave much to be desired, and being a treatment of Philippine History from mythic founding (what? aren’t we entitled to OUR mythic founding? Hah, we have COOL heroes. Wish I could find a good book on them, too) to our recent past, one must understand if certain details are… lacking.
Which is why I enjoy conversations like this with my grandmother. After all, she lived through the whole thing called World War II in the Philippines. This was FIRSTHAND information, EYEWITNESS TESTIMONY to what went on.To a history nut, this is akin to a major find.
One of the stories she loves to retell is seeing Pres. Manuel Quezon when makes his rounds. Apparently, the country’s second President loved to go around, and this before someone built a bridge spanning the Pasig River at Nagtahan. But then, I guess, Pres. Quezon would have enjoyed a leisurely boat ride from one bank of a then-clean Pasig to another. My grandmother recalled that he went around sometimes on a horse, and carried a walking stick of some sort when on foot. She also recalled how… I guess “dashing” is the proper term for her description of the President. I also found out in these conversations that my first grade school, the J. Zamora Elementary School here in Pandacan, was ordered built by him.
Cool, that: so my learning institution until Grade I has a certain sort of pedigree.
There’s also her recollections of time under Japanese rule. These retellings are a little… embarrassing for me because it makes me realize that here was my grandmother, who “only” graduated from high school and was a labandera, knew how to speak two additional foreign languages conversationally at least. Her Japanese is better than mine, someone who took SIX UNITS of it in COLLEGE. At THE Ateneo de Manila. But then, I’m damned proud of my lola.
It also speaks highly of her generation. Everytime she meets some of them on the streets here in Pandacan and I’m with her, or when they have a little chit-chat in front of the house and I’m off to somewhere, my impressions of them were of nice, kindly old ladies who went through hell I can only read about but still manage to smile so brightly at the world and remain wonderful people.
Based on her stories, life for workers under Japanese rule, at least where she worked, was filled with long hours and hard work, but relatively decent. She never mentioned any beatings, much less about any abuse of the female workers. In fact, the Filipinos working for this particularly Japanese company – she called their product, “katadodai” (or something like that), which is the traditional underwear of Japanese men – were pulling a fast one on the Japanese. Of course, she has little good to say about the Japanese, but I really can’t blame her.
This evening, she told me about how she witnessed the legendary defense by Capt. Jesus Villamor. As history told it, five – yes, FIVE – Filipino pilots in only P-26 Peashooters – yes, P-26s – fought an air flotilla of Japanese in their A6M Zeroes. My grandmother said she wished she had a camera then, as they could clearly see Capt. Villamor dogfighting the Japanese. According to her, it started above Sta. Ana and went all the way to Luneta. She told me how the Japanese would pursue Villamor, who’d give them the run-around with his wingmen (she mentioned three of them fighting the Japanese) before blasting back. Her grandmother was scolding her the whole time she watched, haha. This is all complete with hands showing me how the dogfight went, so you can really visualize at least the excitement they felt then.
Another wonderful tidbit she told me was how, yes, the guerrillas DO mingle with the populace. And were well-supported by them. She talks of a “dughouse” (dugout? small enclosure, around the size of a typical studio-spec room, I think) where the freedom fighters would hide, complete with supplies and food. And it was RIGHT HERE, in the center of Manila. Do you have any idea how near the Palace is to where I sit here at Narciso Street, Pandacan, Manila? My grandmother even talks of how… slabs, I think, of tocino (sweetmeats?) were prepared by them, ready to be cooked in case some guerrilla came calling anytime.
She also told me a story about the Liberation, how you could see the shells – I suppose she was talking about tracer rounds – in the evening as the Americans… well, let’s call it a spade: SHELLED Manila. According to my grandmother, the Japanese mingled with the civilians, so you can see that the concept of human shield isn’t a modern invention, in case you have that kind of an illusion. In fact, according to her, that corner lot in the T-junction of our street, Narciso, with Hilum was where a couple of Japanese were buried. I had the notion they died there, too.
My grandmother stated that the Japanese were holed up mostly at La Concordia and gave back really ineffective return fire to the American artillery. Residents of Pandacan, including my grandmother’s family, reportedly fled to the Church of the Sto. Niño here (since it was the sturdiest structure around) but people, including several of her elders, got hit by shrapnel from all the shelling. One has to remember that all the way straight down from Nagtahan Bridge from Pandacan… is the University of Sto. Tomas. You have to thank God that nobody decided to torch the Pandacan Oil Depot, because I probably wouldn’t be here right now if they did, given that my grandmother at least was at the Church of Pandacan. Which is, to this day, beside the Depot, thank you very much to the Fred Lim-led City Council of Manila. One of my great-(great?)-granduncles on her side supposedly died of most likely lead poisoning from a shrapnel wound, as the Americans didn’t have (enough?) medicine for all the wounded.
Everytime my grandmother and I get to sit down and chat, these conversations on her past are some of the things I actually hope for. This is REAL, not information concocted or distorted by some academic with an agenda or a bias. Its colored by the person that my grandmother is, and her biases, of course, but she’s an EYEWITNESS. To a period of time quickly being forgotten or increasingly devalued by today’s generation.
And that’s sad. Because, as one writer (was it De Quiros? I can’t remember) put it recently, we lack a national soul. In my readings of history its the collective experience of a people as they build their nation – the dreams of a people and the striving to realize these that are a country’s bedrock, the struggles and pain of a nation being born and built – that creates this soul, this identity. And because ours is so confused, our national soul is a mess. And when your national soul is a mess, do you have to wonder why your own country is a mess today?
My grandmother is 81. Her Torres genes have given her an astounding longevity – she remains physically and mentally active at that age; she can beat ME in debate, and loves watching the news – and I foresee as well as hope she stays long with us, at least enough to see her first great-grandchildren born (from others of her five grandchildren, certainly not from me).
But how many of her generation are still alive today? How many have died? And with each one that passes away, or suffers from mental incapacity that sadly comes with old age… so many stories are lost. So much of what made the Philippines a great nation – and, TANGINA, we ARE a great nation! THREE of the most powerful empires in the world couldn’t break us, and we bloodied their noses good! – is being lost with each and every single one of them that goes.
And these are the stories we need, now that the collective consciousness of the Filipino people is slowly realizing its been shafted for so long and wants to change the situation.
You know one crazy idea I had? Its to go to every single Filipino alive today who was alive between 1910 (geez, that would be hard… he or she would be… nearly 100 years old) and 1948, just around two years after the war officially ended and better recording could be done… and just let them talk. We’d have mp3 recorders and digital cameras recording the whole thing. We just let them talk. We let them lead us down that wild, wonderful ride that shows us a time we only read, distortedly, in history books but THEY lived through.
And this would be true, those stories would be real. Because its them telling it, the greatest generation of this country, who look at the Flag with teary eyes and sing the anthem lustily and not in parody like some schmuck who spent decades here in the country and still couldn’t speak Filipino and decided to do a lame-ass rendition of a song thousands of people DIED for, just so we can sing it today.
Damn, I envy them, my lola and their generation.
The mere fact she personally saw Douglas MacArthur is reason to be envious enough. I only read about the guy; my grandmother regularly saw him when he visited the Palace.