Honor The Dead, Honor More The Living

by Jose Ma. Montelibano


It is that special time of the year again when Filipino families show their attachment to relatives and friends who have passed away. Truly, the dichotomy between life and death is somewhat blurred in the culture of the Filipino. We are forced by physical reality to accept that loved ones are gone. Death creates the separation of touch but does not immediately create the separation of emotion. It will take a much longer time to make us fully accept that. The almost twin feasts of All Saints and All Souls are mechanisms that further prevent our ever forgetting totally. And while we celebrate the memory of our dead, we are actually preparing ourselves and the next generation for our own inevitable experience.

Honoring the dead is an accepted tradition. It is our own way of giving value to lives that had once touched ours. And this tradition is, of course, pre-Christian. In some tribes, celebrating the equivalent of All Souls is even a bigger event that stretches for days. There are among them chosen individuals who go on for days reciting the names of their ancestors, generation after generation. This is a grand ritual, not so different from some practices as reported by the Bible when Jesus’ lineage to David was traced. Life and death are treated as seasons, different but intimately connected. In tropical countries where we do not have such stark distinctions between the four seasons, life and death are even more free-flowing from one to the other.

From ritual, though, I come to view reality in a more graphic manner. Rituals are symbolic or archetypal while reality comes across in more sensory ways. When I see death so religiously honored, I begin to wonder why life can sometimes be so carelessly devalued, especially life that comes through the lives of poor people. The poor in the Philippines are not a shadow that has little impact on material reality, they are in the tens of millions. I estimate the very poor to be 30 percent, and the less poor but poor nonetheless, at another 25 percent. My basis is that during slightly difficult times, the self-rated poor climb to 55 percent. Above them used to be more of the not-so-poor who have actually risen above their poverty by their own efforts, by the efforts of parents who become OFWs.

We have to thank the OFWs for more than we usually credit them for. Their remittances have cushioned the impact of troubled times in our economy aside from directly benefitting their families in a substantial way. In the case of developed countries, they each had to go through their own harsh stages where sacrifice was the recurring theme before their own salvation, so to speak. Our OFWs are experiencing that sacrificial phase of their lives where poor people pull themselves up by their bootstraps at a horrible emotion cost. But that steep price they pay, by not being there in the growing up years of their children, by being absent from spouses in the best years of their lives, they achieve what government could not. They made themselves un-poor, less by the help of government and more by helping government as well as their families.

It is now a 1 percent A & B, 9 percent C, and 35 percent upper D which should be changed to C, the new middle class at 45 percent, the growing backbone of the Philippine population and economy. This figure corresponds with some statistics reported to me about the Internet market of the Philippines. Recently, and this is an upward moving target, the estimate of Internet users in the Philippines is now at 40 percent or roughly 40 million Filipinos. If the traditional A, B and C classes are at 10 percent, the OFW class, and they can be an economic class of their own, make up the rest of the Internet users, or 30 million of them. I think that Internet cafes can provide evidence that more than half of Internet users go through them. And one more interesting detail I was informed about is that 80 percent of all Internet users use this connection to communicate with their families abroad.

My thoughts now run quickly towards those left behind. I begin to wonder what their value is to Philippine society and the Philippine government.  If the upper D and now emerging new middle class together with traditional C had to do it by themselves, and the ineffective trickle-down economic formula had not done much to change the economic configuration before the OFW phenomenon, how will those left behind ever get out of their historical poverty? If the tens of billions of the DSWD’s CCT has not made a dent in hunger incidence, can anyone hope it will get people out of poverty anytime soon?

My questions were triggered by the latest report of the United Nations on meeting Millenium Development Goals. It said that the Philippines was years behind in hitting most of the minimum targets including reducing extreme poverty. Of course, while the report has just been released, Malacañang spokesman Edwin Lacierda was quick to say that the data used to make such a report were based on government performance before the P-Noy administration. I should really hope so. The economy has been picking up and international financial ratings have been very favorable. I hope that translates to a reduction of extreme poverty. But unable to make a dent in our horrible hunger incidence these last two and a half years, despite tens of billions of CCT funds, makes me afraid that government may not score any better in reducing extreme poverty.

If we are to honor the living more than the dead, then a grand plan against extreme poverty ought to be designed. I have yet to be aware of any, just as I have yet to be aware of one against hunger. All I know is that the agencies tasked with reducing extreme poverty and hunger have been in existence before without delivering much success. Without something new and radical, without new people and new perspectives, how can the results be very different?

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