Oscar Tan had some thoughtful observations in his commentary last Monday. They had to do with some Ateneans flashing the “V” sign in Imelda Marcos’ “selfie” during the Ateneo Scholarship Foundation’s 40th anniversary. The incident had older Ateneans protesting the sacrilege and wondering what happened to their favorite school’s values.
While this reaction is justified, Tan proposes, it also lacks perspective. “[It implies] that today’s students who were not yet born in 1986 should feel guilty because they do not share [their elders’] emotional response to People Power. How can one tell students to ‘never forget’ what they do not remember?”
It is one thing to read about the past, it’s another to get an emotional connection to it. A purely critical attitude toward the Ateneans’ attitude toward Imelda can succeed only in alienating the youth from Edsa.
A good point. My own first reaction to the incident was to wonder what Imelda was doing there to begin with. After reading Ateneo’s explanation that she was invited because she started the Scholarship Foundation, which quite incidentally is not an official Ateneo entity, I reacted even more violently. Wherever she got the money to initiate it, I thought, it wasn’t her money, it was our money. And what little she gave, if at all it could be called that, was nothing compared to what she took.
But thinking it over, I began to wonder if we did not have a similar experience during our own time. I entered high school in 1964, which was only 20 years after the end of World War II, but which seemed as distant to it as the moon. The Japanese Occupation felt like the American one, a thing my classmates and I beheld only in FPJ’s movies, largely a caricature of what it was like, and I couldn’t for the life of me understand why the previous generation held the Japanese in such contempt and hatred. Later, I would meet a guerrilla who never forgave them till the end of his life.
Of course we heard stories about the kalupitan ng mga Hapon, the viciousness of the Japanese, and about Intramuros, then already a tourist attraction, being once a hellhole for prisoners which had at its gate the invisible sign “Abandon all hope, you who enter here,” but they didn’t carry any emotional resonance. There were no books and movies and memorials and rituals and a robust oral tradition (they have them in Vietnam) to pass on the experience, however vicariously.
Arguably, there are differences between the Japanese and the Marcoses. Chief of them, the Japanese subsequently apologized and made reparations for their incursion, or were made to by the Americans. The Marcoses never have, to this day. And secondly, the Japanese have not threatened to reinvade us, though they sporadically threaten to rewrite history not just in terms of muting the atrocities but even of suggesting that their occupation produced beneficial effects. (This was violently protested a decade or so ago by the other Asian countries.) The Marcoses do.
But for all this, they share the same quality of being removed by time in a place where time expands to make yesterday seem like the last century. They share the same quality of being a tale told, if not by an idiot, at least by one who has nothing new to say.
But there’s another important element that makes the experience of today’s generation in relating to the Marcoses not unlike ours in relating to the Japanese. That is the element of Edsa.
What has taken the luster out of Edsa over time is not just time, it is also the power of the story. Tan’s question, “How can one tell students to ‘never forget’ what they do not remember?” has a corollary. That is: How can one tell the students to “never forget” when they are not particularly clear on what it is they should remember?
If the Marcoses are like the Japanese, Edsa is like the “Liberation” in my generation’s experience. Both partake of very strong mythical elements. To say that they are mythical doesn’t mean that they are false, it merely means that they overlook a great many things.
The “Liberation” tells the story of the Americans coming back, as Douglas MacArthur promised, to, as the word says, liberate the Philippines from the Japanese. It overlooked the fact that when they came back, the Filipinos had done a pretty good job keeping the Japanese at bay—indeed of rescuing the Americans who had stayed behind from torture and death. The “Liberation” never told their story. What it told, in movies in particular, was that the guerrillas were mere sidekicks doing the bidding of the American command in Australia—a Pancho Magalona to John Wayne.
Edsa tells the story of Cory who rose like Joan of Arc to challenge a tyrant. She was joined by the strangest of allies, who were Juan Ponce Enrile and Fidel Ramos, who lived up to their duty to protect the people rather than their oppressor. Edsa has never told the story of those who fought martial law during the pit of martial law—the priests and bishops, the activists and rebels, the human rights lawyers, the professors and their students, the more politicized sectors of the public itself, who kept the embers of defiance alive and turned them into a raging fire when the time came.
By the 1960s, the “Liberation” caught the imagination only of an older generation, and not a good deal of them at that. By the 2010s, Edsa at least threatens to do the same, if it hasn’t done it already. Certainly, every celebration of it sounds more muted than the last, the very last gaining better decibels only by being held outside of Metro Manila.
A thing to think about when the most seemingly bizarre things happen, like Ateneans flashing the “V” sign while being photographed with Imelda. We don’t just need to tell the story to the kids, we also need to tell it right.
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