The Apolitical Quezon
by Monina Allarey Mercado
The Philippine Graphic magazine
August 18, 1965
THEY ALWAYS recognize him. He looks just like his father, they say.
And they always want to know what he is doing now, how he is, and will he ever marry. And even before the queries are phrased, they want to know as well why he is not in politics.
Churchgoers know he is very much around: at daily Mass early in the morning at the Ermita or at noon at the Ateneo. But even so, few could resist a covert glance at him, sitting at a side pew, eyes inevitable shrouded in dark glasses. Home at breakfast, few could stem the studiedly casual tone either: “Do you know who I saw at church this morning?”
The diplomatic cocktail circuit, in whose guest list he is a must, is familiar with the spare, dark suited figure. And occasionally, even strollers in the Luneta are startled by the hauntingly familiar face of the man with a camera, shooting away at the fairy tale scene of the sunset and ship lights on the bay.
Still he insists: “I am nobody. Nobody knows me.”
Or perhaps he wants to think.
But with the face and the name Manuel L. Quezon, who can escape notice? Certainly not the late President’s son whom, acquainted or not, has learned to call Nonong.
The same dark and bushy eyebrows, the same part of hair, the same probing eyes, the same finely proud nose, the same finely proud nose, the same lower lip with a pout– people say his father lives again in his face and wreathe him a legend. They would have him fiery again in the halls of Senate, grandiose again in Malacanang, heroic again in Malinta, sorely missed in distant illness and exile.
A Monumental Task
But the son and his reality would rather elude and it is task monumental to find him or worse yet to get hold of his telephone number. But it isn’t legend who finally opens the door, a small tiny crack, and ushers you in, at once with disarming gallantry –the same, the same Quezon!– and apologizes for this visit, he can’t even wash his face: “There is no water in the apartment!”
He looks tired, he is tired. “I have just come down from Baguio, a crazy trip. I hardly stayed a day, went up at three a.m. and came back at one p.m. of the same day. And Baguio’s miserably foggy in this weather.”
The apartment is dim in the twilight. He seems to blend with its dusk, a shirt of dark blue madras and even darker pants, but his way is sure and certain as he leads the way to a grouping of Danish chairs upholstered in apricot and a giant L-shaped settee, round a table of dark wood.
“I won’t bother to put on shoes, if you don’t mind.” he says and then reveals that he is shuffling about in leather slippers, but who really noticed? He slips on the other end of the settee, darting a watchful eye as the houseboy whisks off the afternoon’s dust from the table and then waving him off to buy some Coke.
The water problem still bothers him and it reminds of the fire tat razed the area more than a year ago, leveling with deathly certainty the flower shops and the boutiques, the pseudo-art galleries, and the Maranao craft boards, all along Isaac Peral and down A. Flores.
Though blocks away, the fire signed at the veranda of his apartment and his sister was frantic over the phone: “What is happening down there? Do you need our help? What are you doing?”
“The fire is under control, Nini.” he assured her, watching as the firemen trained their hoses on the blaze and wincing as the hoses flared up only to collapse when the water pressure surged and was gone.
Fire and smoke billowed again and his sister agitated: “What do you mean it’s under control? I’m watching on television –and it looks wild!” His sister was distant and safe in her Gilmore home in Quezon City but she wanted to dash down and cart his things to safety.
He stayed where he was in the reflected heat of fire around his veranda. Watching and waiting till the firemen dipped their hoses into the bay and so quenched the flames.
“Things haven’t changed,” he says. “We still have no water.”
But his apartment is pleasant and hushed with the quiet of bachelor life. Footsteps are silenced on a gray-green rug and more often than not, even the stereo set is mute.
Tan curtains riffle in the breeze, white shaded lamps wait till dark is full and then are turned on singly, never in the blaze of light. There is a Dresden china doll atop a side table, a Maranao brass vase on a wicker pad on the coffee table. Twin plants, towering but lean, lend greenery where no flowers are and an oil of dancers –Are they doing the Tinikling? Is it a Japanese dance? –splashes color on the wall.
The Blue Seal
The only other furniture in the living room is a dark wool commode, atop which are three pictures one is of his father, commanding, dignified, the President’s official portrait. It bears word to “my wife, the dearest, sweetest, most wonderful wife, with my everlasting, ever increasing love. Your loving husband, Manuel. Monrovia. Jan. 1, 1930.” The other is of his mother, gentle, smiling, also her official portrait. But side by side with it is still another picture, again of Dona Aurora, but at age 18 or perhaps 20. It is a rare photograph: a pristinely beautiful young girl, eyes large, soft, and dark, hair curling about her forehead, mouth tender and vulnerable. For all the soul caught therein, it might have been a portrait done by a painter enamoured of the model.
In the hush, even the doorbell never intrudes and it is only the houseboy, padding noiselessly to the door, who is aware of a caller. He opens it a crack and then announces to the room, ” Mr. Avanceña, sir.”
Bert Avanceña comes in, quiet too in voice and smile. “This is my brother-in-law,” Nonong introduces.
Handshakes and pleasantries: “How’s Nini?” brings a reply: “She’s fine, but tired. She just arrived from a campaign tour in Quezon.”
Nonong laughs and says, “Yes, I dropped by this morning and she was telling me about it. She enjoyed it!” he inflects wonder in his tone. “She’s never done it before, you know.”
Bert Avanceña hands him some papers, murmuring about being around the vicinity, bringing these in for him. Nonong watches him puffing away at a tiny pipe and asks enviously, “Where do you get your mixture 79? I’ve run out and can’t find anymore. Look at me, smoking cigarettes?”
Bert says someone gets them for him.”I’ll try and get some for you too,” he says “but its blue seal.”
There’s a ripple of guilty laughter, guiltier still because Nonong’s cigarettes are “blue seal,” too.
“You know,” he chuckles, “before I had dinner with the President [Diosdado Macapagal] the other night, I carefully took my cigarettes out of the pack and put them in my pocket. But before he could join us, I ran out of cigarettes so I sent the Malacañang houseboy to buy me a pack from nearby. Well, the President was already with us when he returned with the cigarettes. I opened the pack, pulled out at couple and offered them to the President who, it turns out, doesn’t smoke. And then I remembered -–the blue seal!”
Nonong reddens at remembering and in the aftermath of laughter, the talk turns to smuggling. Bert Avanceña remembers a sojourn in Bacolod where he was plied with blue seals and someone remarked how in Quezon province, the unloading is openly done on beaches.
There’s comment on the plan to sell blue seals in Namarco: “If you can’t lick ‘em, join ‘em.” And Nonong leans forward to say “You can’t really stop smuggling. Not unless you patrol all the shorelines of the country and install radar detectors everywhere, not unless you reform the peace and order officers, not pay them more but change them entirely.”
Serious About PPP
Bert Avanceña must go, there’s a friend waiting for him downstairs and he’s bade goodbye with remembrances to Nini. Hardly is the door closed behind him when the query is tossed, “Well, what about Nini really? She seems to be very serious about the PPP.”
“She is,” Nonong replies. “Look at her, she’s gone campaigning –even if she can’t do that much of that because her family and because of her health.”
Nini, after all, not only joined the Party for Philippine Progress (PPP) but also accepted the position of national recruitment chairman. For a person avowedly nonpolitical and who had assiduously kept in the background all these years, the move was entirely a surprise from which many had not entirely recovered when she forthwith sat at the presidential table of the PPP P100-a-plate dinner, was photographed for the papers on television, and if that wasn’t enough, embarked on this campaign tour that her family still hasn’t stopped talking about.
It’s gotten so that Nonong found himself being addressed as “Kayong mga PPP”, “you, with the PPP.”
But it wasn’t to be so. Fortnight ago, the papers came out with pictures of him at dinner with President Macapagal. The only other guest was LP senatorial candidate, Alejandro Roces. Ostensibly, the occasion served as a discussion of celebration plans for the late President Quezon’s birthday on the 19th. But some people saw otherwise and not a few thought that it was Nonong Quezon’s way, subtle and discreet, of saying who he is for.
He isn’t for the PPP then? No.
Certainly he isn’t for the NP? (President Quezon was in the NP, but not today, his heirs have filed a criminal libel suit against NP presidential candidate Ferdinand Marcos for insults against the late President as written in the Marcos biography, For every Tear a Victory…) Certainly not.
Then he is an LP! No and then no again.
As Nonong recounts, nothing was mentioned at all of his political loyalties or those of his sister at dinner with President Macapagal. Of course,”Anding reported about the progress of the campaign and the President discussed the continuity of Philippine politics from Aguinaldo to the present. Political topics, yes; but we had to talk about something and that was all.”
Not Much Difference
The President’s discretion –Nonong calls it finisimo-- is not only well-admired but also well-appreciated. Nonong, after all, is the first to say: “I am apolitical. I cannot even conceive of loyalty to a party, despite what my father said ‘My loyalty to my country ends where my loyalty to my country begins’ at least, not to the parties as they are now.”
There is hardly any difference between parties, Nonong thinks, as to platform, issues, and even promises –not even with the so-called third force. “In a democracy, I don’t think there could really be much difference among the parties –unless there is a Communist or Marxist party offering contrast. Then you must make a choice between democratic or communistic platform. But as it is now, you can’t really say because their objectives are the same.”
There are yet some more serious aspects to the current party scene, as Nonong analyzes it.
The Nacionalista party seems to be disintegrating: “Where else will you see leaders of the party disappearing one by one and a campaign manager who says he is accepting the job only ‘on principle’?”
Although he admires Sen. Raul Manglapus, the launching of the PPP just now, he calls ill-timed and ill conceived. They could have waited till a coup de grace is dealt, on one party and then fought the remaining one. As it is, they are fighting two parties and might be fighting two all the way to the future. “I think they should have started little by little, fielding congressional candidates, tying up local offices, sinking in the foundations.”
The LP, he thinks, has not kept all its campaign promises but campaign promises should be taken at a discount anyway.
It is a calculated risk every time, Nonong thinks, that a man votes for a President in a democracy. “You can’t find a man who will solve all the country’s problems. The best you can have is someone who will at least try to govern well,” he says.
“There was only one man I had ever looked up to as some kind of a God, someone who would do everything: he was President Roxas. I was only 19 then and very idealistic. But since I’ve begun to vote, it was always a matter of taking a chance.”
For the apolitical Nonong, for the man who is totally nonpartisan, joining the Liberal party is out of the question, campaigning for President Macapagal rather remote, although he makes no secret of his support. And thus far it seems that if Nonong Quezon is going into politics at all, it will only be for one man: Anding Roces.
First Class Scholar
“But don’t think that I am for him because we are friends. He just happens to the kind of man, with the kind of capabilities, for whom I’d vote even if I don’t know him.” And so he matter-of-factly expects of friend, “You are helping Anding, of course,” as he himself could think of nothing better than ferrying the candidate Roces in his cabin cruiser to water-edged towns. This week, he has plotted a trip down the Pasig River to the towns bordering Laguna de Bay. But still: “While Anding is making speeches. I’ll stay in the boat and take pictures of the lake.”
The paradox is that the attitude doesn’t stem from indifference to or even disgust for politics –for unknown to many, Nonong Quezon is a first class scholar of political theory and ethics. Rather like a moth fascinated by the flame, he has darted and licked at the bright lights of political thought and acts, through world history and through Philippine history, and is staggeringly qualified vsa studies nurtured at the University of Santo Tomas and the Catholic University in Washington DC. Indeed, if asked what he is, the reply is swift, if modest: “I am a political philosopher.”
Gifted with keenness for public affairs and honed with studies from the Scriptures to St. Thomas Aquinas and even Walter Lippman, he is cognizant of issues and controversies. Despite what he calls himself –”a hermit in a hole”– he is acutely attune to the problems of the times. And if there is anything certain about him, it is that he is not isolationist.
“If a citizen isn’t interested in what is going on in his country, of what good is he?” he says.
This citizen Quezon thinks nothing of disrupting a leisure Baguio vacation to protest the passage of the bill authorizing troops to Vietnam.
“There I was prepared to enjoy a few days to go of no schedules and no appointments when, on the first day, I opened a paper only to read that the Lower house had passed the Vietnam bill. I am vehemently against it. There seems no legal reason for it, the moral side seems vague and it seemed to me that were the reason at use in favor were purely emotional and psychological. I felt I just had to protest.”
His first impulse, he said was to pay for space in the papers. But with the draft of protest growing longer and longer, he discovered it not only impossible but financially unwise to wire or phone it to Manila where he wanted it published posthaste before the scheduled Senate voting.
“At some ungodly hour, I drove down to Manila, completed writing the protest by hand, had two copies typed, and sent one each to Senator Tañada and Senator Sumulong who were opposed to the bill.”
Pushed by the same restlessness, he has roused friends even out of bed just so they would register anew and fulfill the sixty per cent quota needed for the new voter’s list; schedules TV viewing time for his domestic help when political programs of any color are on, but doesn’t tell them who to vote for; reads, reads, reads relentlessly on public affairs and just as well “talks about it till I bore my friends to death.”
But there is one thing he wouldn’t do: run for public office.
In 1959, then Vice President Macapagal sought him out to offer him the candidacy for governor of Quezon Province under the Liberal Party. Since it meant joining the Liberal Party –or just a party for that matter– Nonong declined.
“Then again in 1961,” he remembers, “I hitched a ride with Vice President Macapagal from a party. In the car, he asked me if I would like to run for the Senate. I merely laughed and didn’t say a word. Someone else in the car said, ‘Nonong is just smiling; he isn’t saying anything — I think he means ‘yes’.” What Nonong really meant was No and stayed so even when, for the third time, President Macapagal, already elected as chief executive, offered him a plum: an ambassadorship.
No Club Joiner
“I cannot imagine anything more wonderful,” he insists, “than being a private citizen.” You don’t know how much I dread being in the limelight.”
Yet he is paradoxically often pushed by a burning interest in people to seek out companionship. “I like people,” he says and doesn’t limit himself to social horizons of cocktail parties.
“Sometimes I walk down Luneta and join a group of people –even if I don’t know them– for a conversation. You’d be surprised how much I learn from them. Once, I remember, I was trying to take pictures of the bay with my new telephoto lens and pretty soon, there was a group around me and we were chattering away like old friends.”
Although not a club joiner, he has pet civic activities about which he insists on a thorough knowledge first. He was the first chairman of the Work-a-Year-with-the-People Committee, which sends out doctors, nurse, and teachers to rural areas. He is vice chairman of Friendship Inc., which works for the rehabilitation of released convicts. (A few years ago, he made weekly trips to the Bilibid Prisons in Muntinlupa, teaching catechism to inmates of death row. Says the condemned: “They were a cheerful lot, I am amazed at what a normal set of nerves can do to adjust.”)
He helped to start Pamana Inc., which publishes books for children. “Imagine me a bachelor with such a group: I said I know nothing about children!”
But his interest in youth has bolstered his enthusiasm for this group, and indeed, when talk is of young people, he is set afire: “The greatest catastrophe of this country is when leaders do not realize that 76 per cent of our population are young, all below 30, with potential resources up here,”he taps a finger on his forehead.
“I think our young people are more intelligent now than the young people of my generation. They are more aware of what is going on and, being better nourished, they have better gray matter up here. And they are good and wonderful kids. If they go wrong, it is only because they don’t see us, adults, doing any better.”
As a young boy, Nonong had at intimate range of knowledge of an adult who was doing tremendously well: his father. Today his memories of President Quezon are as succinct and as vivid as only those of youth could be. If there is anything he suffers most acutely, it is what he calls, “the caricatures they make of Dad.”
“They call him mercurial, they talk of his Spanish temperament, they make much of his Castillian ways –but how many people know that for every outburst, he apologized readily? They say he was very Spanish, very Castillian and unfortunately, he did look Caucasian. He had the pinkish-white skin of a Caucasian, even if his hair and his eyes were dark.
” But my father was very Filipino –I cannot imagine a man more Filipino. Sure, he spoke in Spanish a great deal of the time. He was better in Spanish than English or in Tagalog. But look at us, we speak in English –but does that make us any less Filipino?
“And they speak of his Spanish habits and tastes –what were they? Even now I have to suffer through some of his Filipino tastes. When I am invited elsewhere, people inevitably serve me sinigang na isda: ‘This was your father’s favorite dish,’ they say. Unfortunately, I don’t like sinigang na isda but I have to sip it anyway!
“How many people know that Dad was a very devout man?” and here Nonong chuckles. “I remember once on a Good Friday and we were praying the Seven Last Words. It meant reading one of the words from the Cross, followed by meditation and then a short prayer. Well, it became 14 words because the leader repeated ‘I thirst’ seven times and we, the children, started to titter. Instantly, my father was at us, shushing away, his eyes flashing.
“And people also say that my father retracted from Masonry because of my mother. It wasn’t so. He retracted because he had lost his belief in Catholicism –and this all began when, after reading a book as a young man, he began to have doubts about hell.
“Well after he renounced masonry, he wanted to study various religions in order to join one. He wanted to call for Gregorio Aglipay and all the other leaders to talk to them. But then one day, he just gave up and said,’Why should I talk to them. I probably know more than they do’ and so he called my mother, saying,’Pero Aurora, que stupido yo. Soy Catolico!’ And that was it: my mother didn’t push or nag him into it.
“It was always that way with my parents: they had mutual respect for each other. Oh, they disagreed –but never, never in front of their children. With us too, it had always been that way. Look at Nini and me –she’s with the PPP and I don’t agree with the PPP, but we still get along.
“Another thing that they don’t always say about my father: he worked hard. He sat up nights, reading the bills and you can see how well he studied them by the comments he made whether endorsing them or vetoing them. He worked so hard that his officials were not surprised to be called at odd hours of the night, if that was the only time he had for them. And yet nobody says much about this.”
More often than not, Nonong has known through these years, the image of his father –as presented in the August 19th birthday celebrations or elsewhere– are monotonous or idealistic caricatures and if he bears with them, it is only because he is making arrangements for the gathering at present of all the data, documents, and records about his father to be assembled in a biography.”I want it to be done now, right away, because so many people who knew him and his times, so many of them are dying!”
Other than this biography and his civic interest, Nonong lives to the hilt the luxury of his privacy. He’s a Baguio-hopper, dashing up one day to photograph the mountain falls, another to escape Manila’s schedules. He calls himself a “camera fiend” and has all sorts of gimmicks for his favorite hobby. Recently, he acquired a powerful cabin cruiser “I want to take it as far as Marinduque and Mindoro” and, much delighted with it, often calls up friends for impromptu cruises on the bay.
Is the door forever shut up to politics? It is only this, the privacy he wants and the scholarly preoccupation with the affairs of men and the events they shape?
Out of his memories, Nonong often tells a disarming story.
“When I was a little boy,” he remembers, “Daddy used to bring me to meetings where he made speeches or to inspection trips. I do not know exactly why he did that –was he was trying to acclimatize me or if he merely wanted to have me by him, since we hardly saw much of each other. But there I’d sit, not understanding the speeches, hemmed in with so many people, for such long, long times- -and all I really wanted was to be among my friends and play.”