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