I’ve been reading the comments on Jesse Robredo these past days and two things stand out.
One is the question of why Jess was lionized only in death and not in life. Or why his virtues were discovered only when he was no longer in a position to regale the world with them and not when he still could. Strange how death has a way of making people larger than life.
The commentators particularly zeroed in on the iniquity that was the Commission on Appointments (CA) refusing to confirm Jess as interior and local government secretary but now showing eagerness to do so. An offer, they said, that Jess’ wife, Leni, had every reason to spurn, however she put it ever so politely by saying she doubted that would greatly matter now to her husband. Indeed, by saying she doubted that really greatly mattered to her husband even then as he seemed perfectly content to just do his job. One might add whether feebler minds approved or not.
What can one say? The CA has never distinguished itself for the commission of enlightenment, it has always distinguished itself for the commission of benightedness. It has never really distinguished itself for the admission of high-mindedness, it has always distinguished itself for the assertion of pettiness. Proof of which is that only some months ago it flatly rejected Gus Lagman continuing to serve as a Comelec commissioner. The one person who has had a long history of ensuring clean elections as a pillar of Namfrel. The one person who knows about computerizing canvassing as a leading exponent of electoral reform in that respect.
The CA has much to answer for.
Two is Jess being a hero. “Bayani” was how many people called him. “Bayani ka, Jesse,” one said, “Hindi lamang ng mga Bicolano. Hindi ka namin makakalimutan.” (You’re a hero, Jesse. Not just of the Bicolanos. We won’t forget you.)
There’s something almost biblical about it, which Jess himself, a devotee of Our Lady of Peñafrancia (also called “Ina”), might have approved of: “And the exalted shall be humbled, and the humble exalted.” Jess might have approved, but with much embarrassment. In life, he seemed, if not the antithesis of a hero, at least the not very, well, heroic embodiment of it.
To begin with, heroes are supposed to be saviors, as we know from the movies of Fernando Poe Jr., the hero materializing out of nowhere and singlehandedly freeing the villagers from the clutches of an oppressor who looks a lot like Eddie Garcia. Jess did not do that. What he did was to inspire people, specifically the folk of
Naga, to free themselves from the clutches of poverty, indifference, smugness, mediocrity; and, not quite incidentally, from those who had made it a career to oppress them.
It was not that he did not perform feats of courage. He was always at the forefront of relief efforts, plunging into flood and fire, storm and strife, earlier and farther than his staff, to the chagrin of aides who worried for his safety. But more than that, he brought out the best in people. As mayor of Naga, he created a template for good governance, which was not government doing things for the people but government doing things with the people. The office of the mayor did not pluck out Naga from its long years of want and obscurity, the office of the mayor, the NGOs, the Church, the newspapers, the schools and the ordinary Nagueños did.
It was sublimely poetic justice that the effort to retrieve him from the clutches of the sea bespoke of his own accomplishment. It wasn’t government that did it, as our editorial last week pointed out, it was the divers, the police, the fishermen, the volunteers, the townsfolk of Masbate along with government that did. There’s something biblical about it as well, with its suggestion of what you sow you shall reap, and Jess might have approved of the divine humor with a Bicolano chuckle.
Just as well, heroes are supposed to cut a larger-than-life profile, to gesture with exaggerated flair and pose with dramatic ponderousness. Well, Jess did not lack for an imposing figure physically, but he was not given to calling attention to himself. He did things quietly, like waking up at the crack of dawn to shovel muck and the other leavings of a night’s storm from the door of a church, like giving credit to others, particularly to his kabanwa, for work well done. He did things honestly: His enemies did threaten to charge him with falsely claiming to be a Filipino, a ridiculous charge that would have reflected more on them than on him, but they never threatened to charge him with falsely claiming expenses that were not there. No whiff of corruption came near his person.
And he did things simply. He lived a simple life, rushing home to family and friends whenever the opportunity presented itself, taking the tricycle (or “trimobile,” as it’s called in Naga) when that seemed the easiest course, carrying out his duties as best he could without fuss or, as the CA insisted on, acknowledgment. He was in every sense a public servant.
“Hero” is abstract, “bayani” is not. “Bayani” comes from bayan, which can mean anything from village to country, from barangay to nation. What it means is a sense of community. Jess had that, as most Nagueños do, Naga being the only city I know that has no traffic lights, that directs traffic only according to the rules of neighborliness, according to an oido for getting along. But Jess had that more plentifully than others. In a world where people like to do things only for themselves, he did things for his bayan. In a world where people like to stand out by looking down on others, he stood with others, trying to bring out the best in them. Which made him stand out in the end.
The commentators are right, that is what he is.
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