I want to tell a story. I am part of the story, but the story is much bigger than me. It is a story as seen through my eyes and written through my words. It is the story of the Filipino, the story of my people.
Of course, the story of the Filipino cannot be told by one person alone, and cannot be told completely even by all the storytellers put together. But the story must be told, especially when the story often points to Filipinos who have no voice to tell their own story.
This will be an emotional story, truthful but emotional. There is just so much pain in the story of the Filipino people, and so much shame, too. There are over 90 million Filipinos closer to 95 million, I am told. The growing number deepens my sadness more than anything else, simply because instead of many more celebrating life and the abundance of creation being hosted in our motherland, I see tens of millions in horrible misery. Poverty takes on an added dimension because of its massiveness. It is not just economic, it is social, political and moral as well.
Whatever the story of my people, poverty will grab the limelight, and it should. Even if I submit to official measures and statistics of poverty, I know it is much more. We cannot be assuaged by $1/day or $2/day figures as though $1.10/day or $2.10/day eases the pain of fear, hunger and cold by any significant difference. I would like to be awed by our fantastic beaches, by our native hospitality and entertainment advantage. I would like to brag about Manny Pacquiao, Lea Salonga and Charice Pepengco, about the thousands of Filipinos who make it anywhere, everywhere. At some point, though, I cannot escape the face and reality of poverty in the tens of millions.
In the days of the datus, it was not that ordinary Filipinos had autonomy from the autocratic or dictatorial system of rule obtaining at that time. But the various styles of governance did not disrupt the relationship between man and land. From land and its sense of permanence came the security of man. It allowed a family to plant its roots and then the time for roots to grow deep. From that depth, the Filipino developed the capacity of understanding the future, the faraway future.
Landlessness as dictated by the king of Spain not only robbed Filipinos of their security, their sense of permanence and understanding of the future, it also removed their entrepreneurial skill and management capacity. Landlessness and the loss of freedom forced enterprising Filipinos to become subservient to a greater physical force and disabled their power to think, create and initiate. From gifted human beings responding to a rich land, natives of the islands now called the Philippines began their reverse journey to animal-hood and mere survival.
Recently, there was an article on the shallowness of my people as posed by the question of a former senator and commented on by a well-known writer. I shuddered as I read the article, not at the shallowness of the Filipino people, but that of those who are among its elite in society. Can they not see that the leadership of four centuries have forced our people to be shallow as their only form of survival? And I hope they will not point to the rare exceptions of once-hungry Filipinos who make it, as though the spectacular talent or luck of one would justify calling one hundred thousand shallow, or lazy, or stupid.
Under the circumstances that have co-opted their lives from the advent of foreign dominance and the extension of that dominance by an elite who knew about freedom and more about exploiting the forced weakness of a long enslaved people, Filipinos have done well enough. When poverty took over the lives of many, the beast in them went into submission but did not turn to violence and genocide. Or, should they have turned on the minuscule few and cut off their heads a la Marie Antoinette instead? Would have turning violent been the more refined reaction against oppression?
A new middle class is emerging, large chunks of the population rising powerfully from almost nowhere – at least nowhere from the intelligence or kindness of elite governance. The migration to America and other developed countries, the Overseas Filipino Workers – these are not born from the vision of leadership. Rather, they are coping mechanisms of desperate Filipinos and desperate countries whose native populations cannot or will not do what Filipinos remain willing to do.
Half of the total population must be directly benefited by remittances that boggle the imagination – in the $20 billion level annually by now. That same half of the population, though, pay a high price, from the absentee parent or sibling, to the children growing in a family with a missing mother or father, or both. But the sacrifice of a generation breaks the slavery or poverty which had been a family heritage. It may be a weak new middle class, born of allowance rather than hard work, but they will have more opportunities to grow as time moves on.
The other half though, especially the poorest third of our population, have no such luck. They have no relatives living and working abroad. They have no documents, no permanent address, no education enough to pass the barriers of immigration laws and labor requirements. Our very poor are very hopeless, too.
Unless we, Filipinos in motherland Philippines and around the world, remember we are one people, one Filipino race, brothers and sisters all. Unless we embrace that fraternity, that brotherhood of race, and hold the suffering and despairing close to our bosom and tell them that they are family, that we have not forgotten, that we care and we shall share.
There are so many stories to tell, and many more must tell them, too. I shall not stop telling the story of my people, if only to make them feel that I have not forgotten, that I am Filipino, as Filipino as they are.
— “Let us be our Brother’s Keeper.”