THE LONG VIEW
Nakpil’s gift to the nation
Published on Page A11 of the December 28, 2006 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer
THE STORY I LOVE TO TELL OF THE DOYENNE of Philippine journalism, Carmen Guerrero Nakpil, is a testimonial she gave to the wonders of Melatonin. She said it worked wonders in helping people sleep–particularly if gulped down with a generous snifter of brandy. But no story about Chitang Nakpil could ever possibly match her own stories about herself and those she has known and loved over the years. This holiday season, she gave the nation a present, the first in what promises to be a trilogy of an autobiography. The first volume, which takes the reader from the year of her birth to the end of World War II, is titled “Myself, Elsewhere.” It’s no recycled collection of old columns; it is all-new, though what it contains is the valedictory of a vanished way of life.
Writes Nakpil of the holiday season of her youth: “If a case for quaintness had to be made for Ermita, the first item would be the ‘Tres Reyes Magos,’ the feast of the Three Kings, the sixth of January, the day children got their presents. Our Christmas season was out of sync with the rest of the Anglo-American world that had recently adopted us. We had never heard of Santa Claus, there were no Christmas trees in our houses and the Christmas presents on the day Christ was born came from our godparents (only one or two each and not droves of politicians) as a carryover from baptism. We observed the novena of early morning Masses, midnight Mass and media noche, but the big day (gifts-wise) was January the 6th….
“We did not care about the new-fangled Christmas trees, because we had the belen, not just a creche of the Holy Family, but a whole landscaped model of the town of Bethlehem, with the focus on the stables below the Star …. I had my own Infant Jesus in a manger filled with straw, by my bed, and spent much time rearranging the swaddling clothes. There were silk banners with long tassels, blue and white and red, hanging from every window that faced the street, so that the whole town looked like a medieval court before a joust. And there were two town fiestas, the Bota Flores and the Fiesta del Pueblo, with Christmas in between.
“The earlier town fiesta, on the seventeenth of December commemorated the yearly campaign, which had been waged for 200 years, consisting of a procession to Intramuros to protest the taking of the image of the Nuesta Señora by Legazpi’s soldiers in May 1571. It was a massive, colorful demonstration, addressed to the Archbishop and the clergy in Intramuros, who had retained the image since and installed it in the Cathedral. Every year, Ermitenses, strewing flowers along the way, marched to Intramuros, pleading for the return of the Virgin and called it Bota Flores (bota being an early form of throw, a pelting of flowers).
“When the image was returned sometime in the 19th century, Ermita continued the tradition of the annual procession within the town, without the march to the Walled City, with the young men in sailor costumes and the girls in Filipino dress …. Instead of Santa Claus or ‘Jingle Bells,’ we had authenticity.”
And it is authenticity that makes her book so powerful; her authentic affection for what must be so alien a way of life as to seem impossible to present-day readers. But this isn’t a book of tales of happy parties, doting parents, dashing, debonaire friends and the gossip, whether amusing or scurrilous, of those prewar years; in other words, this isn’t the book version of an embalmed corpse. This is a look back at the way people really lived, loved, even hated; with details no novelist could have invented and yet we know must have been true.
A Spanish friar who played the Spanish royal anthem in the Church patio every Sunday, despite the Revolution having been fought 30 years earlier; families that marked the Feast of Saint Joseph by bringing out their best silver, and cooking their most luxurious dishes so they could wait hand and foot on beggars brought in from the streets; courtship preceded by what today we would call stalking; and an annual carnival in which the normally conservative would don masks and cloaks, and flirt.
It was a world, a country turned colony aspiring to be a nation, a metropolis, a town, a neighborhood, a family arbitrating between the patriotism of the revolution, the modernity of America, and the sense of tradition and urbanity that was the best hallmark of Spanish influence. In her book, Nakpil tells it not only as it was, but tells it as someone who has lived through those times ought to do: with a sense of the important things that have been lost – the things that may not matter on the whole but the loss of which still seems unfortunate; and the things that shouldn’t be missed and are mercifully long gone.
One passage, in particular, demonstrates this best: how the Spaniards kept their distance from the Filipinos, and how the Filipinos returned their social reserve; how the Americans, too, kept to themselves and didn’t mix socially with their colonial wards; and how Catholics and Protestants eyed each other with mutual suspicion though there were the occasional mixed – yet successful – marriages.
Nakpil looked back on them all and wrote: “Strangely enough, after the war and the destruction of Ermita, bigotry faded and we all became warm and loyal friends. It had only been the diehard Ermita protocol that had kept us revising the Spanish Conquista and the Protestant Reformation and the Filipino-American War, imposing anachronistic strictures on ourselves. I recall, with embarrassment, the frissons of antipathy to Spanish and Protestants that we harbored. Their disappearance was one of the welcome consequences of the war. After facing terror and destruction together, we came to our senses and became confirmed liberals. There were no bigots in the ensuing rubble.”