What is history without a story?
Jorge Vargas (1890-1980) is best remembered as the executive secretary to Manuel Luis Quezon. Shortly before the Japanese Occupation, Vargas was appointed mayor of Greater Manila by Quezon, using his emergency powers. It was hoped that the capital, as an “Open City,” would be spared by the enemy. Also, that the enemy would follow international law, which meant Vargas should not be subject to seizure as a national official, but, as a local official under the occupation, would be allowed to administer from Malacañang not just Manila proper but the areas of Caloocan, Makati, Mandaluyong, Pasay, Parañaque, San Juan, and what is now Quezon City. Greater Manila, the ancestor of our Metro Manila, was born during the war.
Vargas was in Tokyo as Philippine ambassador when he was thrown into Sugamo prison together with wartime President Jose P. Laurel (1891-1959), Speaker of the wartime National Assembly Benigno S. Aquino (1894-1947), and Camilo Osias (1889-1976), a politician best known for the Philippine Readers textbook used by generations of schoolchildren. Aquino, by the way, was Ninoy Aquino’s father, and grandfather to Noynoy. These four men were imprisoned as “collaborators,” a term I put in quotes because it was an issue that divided postwar Philippines. Washington dictated that everyone who collaborated with the enemy during the war should be tried for treason in a People’s Court, and if found guilty be barred from holding public office. Laurel and others who served in the wartime government insisted that they strictly followed Quezon’s final instructions to cooperate with the invader, both to save their lives and those of their countrymen. Manuel Roxas, who had served in the Laurel government during the war, was considered by many a collaborator, too, yet he defeated Sergio Osmeña in 1946 to become the third and last president of the Philippine Commonwealth, and the first president of the free and independent Philippines, a.k.a. the Third Republic.
For a deeper appreciation of the issue, you have to read beyond school textbooks and seek out the prison diaries of Vargas and Laurel to see how they defined their legal and moral positions. The issue faded out when Manuel Roxas declared an amnesty in 1948 covering all persons charged with collaboration, except those also charged with crimes like murder, rape, or arson.
Calculating the Body Mass Index or BMI of these historical figures from data taken in July 1946 reveals that Laurel and Vargas were in the normal range, while Aquino and Osias were overweight. Osias was overweight by two pounds and Aquino by a whopping 20 pounds, which explains why he was the most sickly in the group. Historians with a fetish for unreadable diachronic or synchronic expositions of Philippine history will ignore the BMI as trivial, not realizing that such details move the narrative forward by bringing historical figures down to earth, making them significant to us who now live in the Philippines we inherited from the past. What is history without a story?
Laurel and Aquino’s BMI led me to a vain search in my library and online sources for an obscure book so timely for my time in lockdown: Narciso Cordero’s “To while away an idle hour” (University of the Philippines Press, 1971). Cordero is but a name of a hall in the UP College of Medicine, but to me, Dr. Cordero will always be the father of Gilda Cordero Fernando, who immortalized him in her short stories “People in the War” and “A Quiapo Childhood.” A slingshot sharpshooter, he sent trespassing neighborhood boys scampering off with red welts from especially made clay pellets. Dr. Cordero is famous as the lead author of an important medical essay: “Philippine physiological standards: body weight in relation to height and age for adults” (Acta Medica Philippina, 1956). Gilda remembers that part of the data was generated in Quiapo church. Dr. Cordero positioned a height and weighing scale at the end of the stairs from the “pahalik” of the Black Nazarene. As the devout filed out, he motioned them onto the scale, saying curtly, “utos ng pari”—a white lie that produced Filipino weight and height standards.
Cordero’s book contains a forgotten essay about sungka. Bored during the war, he studied all variations in the number of shells that could go into holes on the boardgame, and found a system to win sungka all the time. It was a great way, as the title goes, “to while away an idle hour.”
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