Looking Back

One hard-earned silver coin

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THERE IS something eerie about Malacañang that I cannot seem to place or understand. It grew from a 19th-century riverside country home, a casa de campo transformed by successive renovations and made grand by its architecture and interior décor. Philippine history was made here; thus, ascending the ancient staircase or visiting the other buildings in the Palace complex can be quite an experience for a first-timer because it is literally walking in the corridors of power. I have often wondered what the walls inside Malacañang have witnessed, what stories they would tell if they could only talk.

If history had turned out differently, if the First Philippine Republic was recognized and established, Emilio Aguinaldo would have been temporary Lord of Malacañang instead of a mere “guest” there after his capture by the enemy in 1901, a prisoner in a gilded cage. If Aguinaldo moved into the Palace as president, Apolinario Mabini would probably have been given an adjoining office from where he would direct affairs of state and protect the president, such that he would live up to the title his enemies gave him—“camara negra” (dark chamber of the President).

Rereading Mabini made me appreciate his life and ideals even more. Here was a man who was in the very center of power but was not corrupted by it. A lesser man would have succumbed to all the temptations that come with high office. In the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, I saw documents from the president’s desk that all contained marginal notes in Mabini’s fine, almost feminine, scrawl, as well as Aguinaldo’s initials under Mabini’s recommendations with a note signifying a “yes” or a “no.”

Most people enter office and use power to do good for country and people, some people use the same power for personal gain or prestige, some people use power for both. Power is neutral; how it is wielded makes a difference. When power is used for personal reasons against a greater good, one follows Darth Vader, villain of the “Star Wars” saga, into the “dark side of the Force.”

Jose P. Laurel used to relate the story about a humble silver coin that was found among Mabini’s possessions after his death. His mother sold all her coffee beans in Lipa and walked all the way to Bawan to give her son one hard-earned silver coin. Drenched by rain on her way back to Tanauan, she died soon after, leaving Mabini with a guilt he could never shed. Mabini kept this coin as a reminder of a mother’s love and sacrifice.

I doubted Laurel until I read Mabini’s “Algunos pormenores de mi vida” (Some details of my life), here offered with my clumsy translation from the original Spanish:

“From childhood I manifested a desire to study united with a marked aversion for work in the fields. That is to say that I was not content with the miserable life of a shepherd or labrado, a life that is miserable in appearance but happy and tranquil in the heart.

“My parents decided to spend for my career in spite of their poverty, because when my maternal grandfather began to teach the cartilla to my elder brother, he observed that I learned much faster than he, even if I were no more than a miron, a bystander who was not considered of the right age for primary instruction.

“From then my poor mother set to work with real ardor to spend for my studies. When I was in the segunda enseñanza  (second level of instruction), it occurred to me to ask my parents for some good clothing for Easter just like those of my classmates. To please me, my mother sold all of the coffee that she had gathered during harvest time in the barrio of Payala [Lipa] and brought all the money to me herself so that I could buy the coat I liked so much. This show of self-denial and affection moved me such that I resisted the desire to buy a luxurious coat, and I figured that with this money my mother had given me a part of her life and blood. As a result of this excessive work she was led shortly to the grave.

“Due perhaps to my living away from my family since my childhood because of my studies, I became the most beloved of my parents and my maternal grandmother who died a year before my mother passed away. During vacations with my family, my grandmother, casually from her deathbed and pain, advised that in every moment they should not forget to attend and care for my nourishment. My mother always demonstrated a semblance of serenity in those moments when I was separated from her because of my studies, but one day when I was to withdraw to Manila to celebrate the vacation, I heard from an aunt that my mother had cried much because it seemed that I was indifferent to living with my family, far from her. When, shortly before her death, she saw her eight sons left in poverty, she broke down in tears, but calmed down when I promised to look after my brothers. I was moved to tears when I was called from Bawan to her side in the last days of her life.

“Oh, mother, in the midst of my misfortune your memory is not so painful because I am consoled by the idea that your fate spared you the pain of seeing our lot, but fortunate days were coming and my regret is that fate did not permit you to enjoy my well-being.”

Mabini’s integrity was rooted in the memory of his selfishness in the face of his mother’s selfless love, and one silver coin.

Comments are welcome at aocampo@ateneo.edu

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