Reunions

I hadn’t seen her in person before, only through photos sent to mom, the latest of which were about a couple of years ago. Thus I was naturally excited when she decided to visit last May after living in the U.S. since the early 70s. I heard she had doubts at first especially that women her age (70-plus) often don’t travel halfway around the world. One aunt said she had even wondered whether air conditioning was already available in a country she left at a time when the dictator had just risen to power and declared martial law. Aircon was a luxury then as it is still largely today.

But memories, and perhaps the specter of mortality, were too strong to resist. Auntie Albina even managed to bring her frail husband, Uncle Ben, along to Bacolod City where the clan gathered. She did notice the heat (who wouldn’t when this year’s summer had been the hottest in decades?) but was far from finicky. On the contrary, I was struck by how “Filipino” she was – ushering us to the table the moment we arrived from Cebu, making sure, with the help of other relatives, we would get a portion of all that was laid out. And, yes, she spoke perfect Bisaya, not a hint of an accent.

What I love best about reunions is that as we rediscover and build ties with aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, cousins and grandparents, we realize how similar they are to ourselves and our families. We may live hundreds, even thousands of miles apart, yet we recognize our parents, brothers or sisters in our kith and kin. A cousin commented bemusedly that I looked like her younger brother more than her other brothers do. A nephew walks like one of my siblings. An elder cousin once entered the nunnery, which my sister is currently contemplating on heading. More clansmen took or are taking up liberal arts courses than science and math-related ones. Most are fun-loving and expressive, love singing (and videoke) and don’t fuss over their looks.

It’s familiarity without the contempt, my brother Florencio once said of the value of cousins and relatives not too long after we had argued over something I already forgot and were just settling back into our old selves, as siblings have been trained to do for ages by their well-meaning parents. His comment brought to mind Plato’s proposal in The Republic, wherein to build a strong state, the Greek thinker recommended that the traditional family setup be replaced by one in which children are brought up by the state so they all come to recognize each other as family (without the contempt). Parents (and aunts, uncles, cousins, etc.) would be non-existent in such a setup since the kids wouldn’t know them from birth. The children would only be loyal to the state and work to protect its best interests, Plato asserted.

Will this odd suggestion work for the Philippines? After all, nepotism is still largely to be blamed for rampant corruption, lack of transparency and a “tayo-tayo, sila-sila” attitude when it comes to politics and governance. For one, the proposal to divide Cebu is more than anything a filial/feudal affair than one about finding the best way to serve the public. “Gloriagate” came in the heels of detailed accusations that GMA’s son and brother-in-law received jueteng payola. At any given time, be it the most peaceful even, one can find dozens of relatives and supporters of elected and appointed officials littering the civil service rolls, from the smallest barangays to the biggest LGUs, doing nothing more than report to the office to log in, snack and wait for 5 p.m.

Given the (re)public’s exasperation at the “state of things,” Plato’s thesis no longer sounds weird and unacceptable to me, though it still seems improbable given how much I (and most Pinoys I think) enjoy family reunions. Anything to stir the imagination and perhaps lead to clear and convincing action is more than welcome in these times of frustration and apathy.

First published in Cebu Daily News, June 16, 2005

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Finding paradise

The sea was as flat as a pan when we set out from the shores of barangay Manay-as in Badian for barangay Lambug, five km or so by land and half that by water. Being the amateur sailors that we were, my brother, a nephew and I stuck close to the shore, never venturing beyond the coastal reef and into the blue of Tañon Strait.

Years of careful management of the area kept the coral beds and reefs intact. Fishes of a variety of shapes and colors as well as every imaginable crustacean darted in and out of their underwater abode as our banca passed by overhead, easily slicing the placid water, which here and there peaked in little waves as a light breeze blew.

A fisherman, bemused with our struggles to keep the banca moving in the right direction, looked at us for a time and then went back to tending his net. Children ran on the shore, chasing each other and their innocence away. Travelers from the city and neighboring towns sought refuge in the cool sand and frolicked in the water, careful not to go too far lest the deep and sea urchins harm them. An off-key voice wafted far off, perhaps that of a half-drunk man going at it at the seaside videoke, whose owner one had to wake late at night with some trepidation for she looked sour (but was in truth as friendly as the natives were).

Typical of small towns, the people one met in Badian on land or on water were unpretentious, happy and positive. A cousin who’s been living there for well over a decade was optimistic that though she and her farmer-vet husband were having difficulty seeing their kids through college, the latter would do just fine.

Cousin didn’t even mind that her household did not have running water until her husband, whose family was rooted in the town, sided with the party that eventually won the polls. They had water after that, she told me, albeit with intermittent service interruptions. Her family coped by building a water tank so they could have access anytime. She didn’t think of the situation as those of us schooled in the Bill of Rights do — that basic services should be made available to everyone, no matter his persuasions and beliefs.

This forgiving attitude of many of us Pinoys is, what I think, made us still poor and powerless even after half a century of being freed from American colonial rule. Instead of asserting, demanding and doing something about things, we simply choose to consign our problems to memory, ignore the suffering or drown our woes in beer, tales and song. But I’m confident we’ll slowly learn to mature as a people. Coupled with the innate skill of involving ourselves with the affairs of our neighbors no matter how trifling or life changing they are, we’ll eventually progress, and make this paradise of a country truly the Eden it’s supposed to be.

First published in Cebu Daily News, April 28, 2005