History, Family and Country

At this time of the year, I always remember history’s repetitions, both the good ones and the sad. It’s probably because Christmas finds us repeating many rituals and seeing old friends. Because it is the last week of the year, we also get to read all of these media summaries of the year that was. Many of the repetitions are wonderful – creative ones, as we used to call them when I was a philosophy student and teacher, which renew both history and biography. But there are also bad repetitions.  To describe these latter ones, Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia-Marquez’s last lines in One Hundred Years of Solitude are most haunting: “races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth.”

These words of Garcia-Marquez, presumably written to describe his home country Colombia or home continent South America, seem to be also appropriate for the Philippines. Look at  our failed revolutions since 1896, the repeated miscarriages of justice as we have again recently seen in the Vizconde and General Garcia cases, the still unresolved conflicts in Mindanao and with the communists, the continuing opportunism of our political elites; and, above all, as I mentioned in last week’s column, the poverty of our people.

But is this really the real meaning of our history? Are we necessarily destined to repeat our history, as a country and as a people, so that we will never have a second opportunity?

For many years now, every Christmas and end of the year, I ask these questions. And no matter what happened that year, my answer is the same. No, this is not true for the Philippines.

Even in our poverty, we can find priceless jewels. For this insight, the words of the great Jesuit Fr. Horacio de la Costa are timeless:

“But as poor as we are, we yet have something. This pauper among the nations of the earth hides two jewels in her rags. One of them is our music. We are sundered one from another by eighty-seven dialects; we are one people when we sing. The kundimans of Bulacan awaken an answering chord in the lutes of Leyte. Somewhere in the rugged north, a peasant woman croons her child to sleep; and the Visayan listening remembers the cane fields of his childhood, and his mother singing the selfsame song.

We are again one people when we pray. This is our other treasure: our Faith. It gives, somehow, to our little uneventful days a kind of splendor: as though they had been touched by a King. And did you ever notice how they are always mingling, our religion and our music? All the basic rites of human life-the harvest and the seed-time, the wedding, birth and death are among us drenched with the fragrance of incense and the coolness of music.

These are the bonds that bind us together; these are the soul that makes us one. And as long as there remains in these islands one mother to sing Nena’s Lullaby, one boat to put out to sea with the immemorial rowing song, one priest to stand at the altar and offer God to God, this nation may be conquered, trampled upon, enslaved, but it cannot perish. Like the sun that dies every evening, it will rise again from the dead.”

The meaning in our history comes to me, with certainty, every December with Christmas as we spend this holiday season with our families and friends – for us it is Manila, Legaspi City or Cagayan de Oro.  As we go from one family reunion to another, as we spend time connecting with old friends, as we rediscover old and visit new places in our country, I could not help but wonder at the resilience of the Filipino people:  our ability to enjoy each other’s company and stories; the capacity to laugh at ourselves and the events around us; the youthfulness of our people (it is really amazing how many children there are in the Philippines); and, above all, the importance of family in our lives.

In the early 1990s, when I was a professor of the law on Persons and Family Relations in the University of the Philippines College of Law, I constantly reminded my students of the constitutional policy behind our civil law on marriage and the family.  The 1987 Constitution (Article 15, Section 1) is actually quite explicit about this:  “The State recognizes the Filipino family as the foundation of the nation. Accordingly, it shall strengthen its solidarity and actively promote its total development.” But while pointing out to my students the legal implications of this policy, it was only much later that I was able to grasp its real meaning.

For better or for worse, the Filipino family nurtures many of us to become what we are and what we will be.  It is through our families that we discover the values that make us live good and decent lives. Unfortunately, it is also because of the welfare of our families, that some of us justify unethical business, professional or governance decisions. It is therefore important to see the family not to be seen as an end in itself: indeed, its exalted role as the foundation of our nation will not be realized where the family becomes an excuse for amassing wealth and power at the expense of the many.

Overall, however, as I wrote in a 2004 column for The Practice, the magazine published by my student and friend Alex Lacson: “The Filipino family is a source of strength, making it possible for us to endure the hardships and challenges our history brings.  As long as we protect and nurture the family, and this is not something that happens by accident, our country should be able to survive, indeed transcend our history’s repetitions.”

In that column, written when I was still an overseas worker, I called on fellow Filipinos working or living abroad:  “We must think of what we can do for our country even for those of us who are far away.  We should not lose hope nor should lose faith.  We must work to ensure that the second opportunity that we continue to be given is not lost and that with it we can build a hundred, perhaps a thousand, years of peace and justice, not of solitude, but of solidarity. And let us start, but not end, with our families.”

Years ago, during this season of Christmas, a friend of mine sent me a card which helped me understand the true meaning of panunuluyan (the Filipino tradition of reenacting Joseph and Mary’s search for an inn). As I look at our history, the challenges of our country, and the role of the family, it is only now that I understand the words, from St. John of the Cross, inscribed in that card: “The Virgin, weighed with the Word of God, comes down the road; If only you’ll shelter her.”

To my readers, I hope you will have a 2011 of many creative repetitions and even more new experiences of grace!

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