Exploring what makes a Filipino tick (Part 2)

Ian Gill
Two artists are exploring the national psyche in fresh and different ways. Carlos Celdran is a performance artist who leads walking tours around Manila’s historic areas. Dante Mendoza is an independent filmmaker who uses ‘ultra-realistic’ docudramas to portray social issues.

THE ULTRA-REALIST. Brillante Mendoza calls a spade a spade, showing the reality of Filipino life like it is. All photos by Andy Maluche

[Continued from part one published on January 23]

MANILA, Philippines – Myth number 3: Jose Rizal is a Filipino-inspired National Hero

In fact, it was Uncle Sam who wanted to mould the Philippines in his own image and backed the idea of enshrining Rizal as a national symbol, erecting a statue of him in Luneta Park in 1912. “The idea of a national anything, whether it was a flower or an animal, was an American concept,” says Celdran. 

If it had been up to Filipinos, Celdran asserts, they would not have chosen a man who was “elitist, moneyed, over-educated, had spent half his life away from the Philippines, a writer, artist, doctor, poet, metro sexually ambiguous, and an accused heretic.” The Filipino masa would have much preferred a man with a gun, not a pen; a military hero like Andres Bonifacio or Emilio Aguinaldo. 

However, the Americans backed Rizal, who was “less controversial, less westernized, and very dead,” says Celdran.

To their credit, however, the Americans separated the functions of church and state and, by transferring the Kilometer Zero marker to the Rizal statue in Luneta Park from Manila Cathedral, they symbolically replaced the values of the church with the secular values of Rizal, says Celdran. 

The Manila Cathedral in Intramuros

The United States also ushered in Manila’s era of neo-classical architecture in the style of Washington DC. Architect Daniel Burnham drew up plans for a new government center in the capital, together with a long seafront boulevard ending in a park with a grand hotel. Although the plans were never carried out to fruition, Manila was adorned with several grand civic buildings as well as Dewey Boulevard (now Roxas Boulevard) and the Manila Hotel, all within walking distance of Intramuros. 

Together with the elegant buildings of the Spanish era along the Escolta and in Ermita and Malate, Manila was praised as Asia’s loveliest city, the “Pearl of the Orient.”  

Along with Hollywood movies, ice cream parlors, hamburgers and French fries, elevators, toilet paper, and toothpaste, the Americans brought huge infrastructural improvements, including a public education system (in English), electricity, telephones, and transport systems.

Myth number 4:  General Douglas MacArthur was the savior of the Philippines

Filipinos are a smiling people

After a ride by calesa (horse-drawn cart) through cobbled streets, the group reassembles in another quarter of Intramuros, outside the ruins of St. Ignatius and Ateneo de Manila, the church and college built by the Jesuits.

In his MacArthur role — wearing a peaked military cap and holding a corncob pipe — Celdran waters down the image of the man many Filipinos still regard with reverence for liberating their country in World War II.

In fact, in a costly miscalculation, MacArthur failed to move his planes fast enough after Pearl Harbor, allowing the Japanese to destroy the US air force in the Philippines and subsequently march into Manila. 

MacArthur, whom his Bataan troops called “Dugout Doug” because he stayed in Corregidor while they were at the front, had a monumental ego and insisted on fulfilling his “I shall return” pledge and re-taking the Philippines instead of leapfrogging the islands and proceeding to Taiwan, as other US military heads had proposed.

As a result, with the Japanese holed up in Intramuros, the bloody battle of Manila in the closing months of the war – with bombing and shelling as well as intense fighting on the ground – saw the massacre of 100,000 Filipinos and also the near-total destruction of the Pearl of the Orient. In Intramuros, the only church left standing was San Augustin. 

San Agustin church in Intramuros

Spiritually, too, the obliteration of “Asia’s Vatican” left a deep wound in the Filipino psyche that has never healed. “This was our heart and soul, carved out of volcanic ash to honor our faith, and it was extinguished by someone else’s war,” says Celdran.

“When you destroy the heart, the body will die. To cope with the pain, Filipinos closed their eyes and ran away.” He is referring to postwar reconstruction that focused on secular, not religious, buildings and the development of other parts of the metropolis while Intramuros was left to decay. From the ruins, only Manila Cathedral was restored.

While Celdran uses humor and charm to help people re-assess the past, movie director Brillante (Dante) Mendoza employs graphic images of the worst aspects of Filipino life – the impact of soul-destroying poverty on crime and violence, drug addiction and prostitution – to provoke rawer emotions of outrage and disgust.

Much has changed since the Philippines gained political independence from the United States in 1946 and, as importantly, reduced its economic dependence on Uncle Sam in 1991 by ejecting US troops from their military bases at Clark and Subic.

More than 6 decades of self-rule have included an often shaky democracy, along with a period of dictatorship. As importantly, the postwar era has seen the reinforcement of a Filipino ruling class, an oligopoly that originated with the Ilustrados – elite that cut across racial lines – and is manifest in more than two dozen clans that control every sector of the economy.  

Casa Manila in Intramuros

One of the main issues is that the Philippines’ population has soared from 18 million in 1946 to over 95 million today. With Asia’s highest population growth rate consistently swallowing up economic gains, the gulf between rich and poor has only increased. With growth – and jobs – constrained by a few ruling families, 10% of the population has gone aboard in search of work.

Mendoza, who has won several international awards for his work, spotlights the issue shockingly in his 2007 docudrama Tirador (Slingshot).  Using hand-held cameras to follow a police raid and several thieves on the run, Mendoza takes viewers through the squalor of makeshift shanties and congested alleys of a slum in historic Quiapo.

His style, described as “ultra realist” by European critics, dispenses with story lines and in-depth characterization and focuses on dramatic reportage, usually in the form of vignettes showing how hopelessness breeds desperate acts. In one sequence, a woman is caught shoplifting, wails histrionically to persuade the store manager not to press charges, and promptly steals from a street stall.

Back in her shanty, comic retribution arrives when she drops her false teeth down a sink hole and this time she sobs genuinely as she rummages for her dentures in an open sewer. (To be continued) – Rappler.com


(Ian Gill is a freelance journalist who has lived in the Philippines for over 25 years. He is a former staffer of the Asian Development Bank’s Department of External Relations, Oil and Gas News, the Asian Wall Street Journal and Asiaweek. He is writing a book and plays golf, struggling with both.)