Ang bugal sang Cabatuan...  

Reprinted from Magasin, the on-line magazine of

Nov. 12, 1999


If it were up to F. Landa Jocano, elementary school history classes would be very different.

"We need to revise history. Our history is the only one in the world where we concentrate on our faults or defeats rather than whatever success we have, or if we ever succeed, we never talk about the valor of the warriors."

As I was listening to him, he made a lot of sense. "What happened," he said, "After the Battle of Mactan..." A statue was built for Magellan, and as for Lapu-lapu, well, a fish was named after him. "This," he remarks, "Is how we 'honor' people who were prepared to die for the people."

After the Revolution against the Americans, it was the same. Our ancestors fought for every inch of our land, but afterwards, the Americans were glorified as heroes and Filipinos just labeled as 'insurrectos'. Notice how every street and bridge seems to have been named after the Americans, especially during that time.

This, and many other factors, Jocano says, made us grow up hating our own culture. Another major factor was the system of education introduced by our colonizers. The Spaniards, of course, provided no education but for the elite, and even when the Americans introduced an organized system for even the barrios, the things that were taught were not healthy for our national pride.

"We were taught that "A" is for "apple" and I thought I was a good pupil because during my formative years I kept running to the board and writing "A" is for "apple" but I had never seen one!"

"Maybe it was not intended," he adds, "But they never thought of teaching us our traditions. In our geography lessons, they reminded us of the smallest things in the world: the smallest fish in the world? Pandaca Pygmaea; the smallest monkeys? Tarsiers; the smallest deer? Mousedeer. Sometimes the lessons would end: Who are the smallest people in the world? Of course, it is us. We are negritos."

Modern psychologists, he suggests, might call it conditioning. There were subtle hints. "Ano ba'ng national flower natin? (What is out national flower?)"

"Sampaguita," I answer.

"Maliit (small)," he points out.

"Ano'ng national bird?"

"Maya," I breathe a sigh, thankful I remembered my grade school lessons.

"Everything is maliit (small) so Filipinos grew up with that concept. Even our roads our bridges are all narrow because our mindset was already formed. And there is an admiration of the bigness of the other. We became brown Americans. We are disgusted with our own culture."

“Makasulat kaya

ako ng ganito?”

"Our ancestors built megalithic structures and used the mountains to ensure human survival, not to document human sufferings."

“When I am so concentrated, I get tired. All I do is get myself immersed in the canvas.”

“Poverty is good. We should all suffer so that we will make good.”

This possibly inadvertent kind of conditioning also came out in the songs the American educators taught our young children. They taught "My nipa hut is very small", "Planting rice is never fun" and "I have two hands", which ends with "...clean little hands are good to see". "Think," Jocano urges, "who would like to go back to the farms because planting rice is never fun and clean little hands are good to see?"

Indeed, Jocano is no stranger to that image. He was born of a poor family that lived off a farm in Iloilo. His parents had twelve children, four of whom died. "We were very, very, very, very poor," he says. "Alas singko pa lang, ginigising ka na ng Tatay. 'Hoy, ang kalabaw, pakainin mo na.' (As early as five o'clock, Father would wake me, saying 'Hey, feed the carabao already.)"

Early in the morning, the young Jocano would take the plow and work the sugarcane field. Of course, he would get all wet from sweat and splattering mud, and he ended up feeling very cold. But looking back, he feels no reproach. "There were times I thought my father was very cruel, but now I realize it was good I did that. Those are experiences I love to recall."

There wasn't enough money to send every child to school. Jocano relates they went to school by batches. Some would study while some would work on the farm. By the time he finished Grade VI, his father refused to send him to school and urged him to work on the farm instead. The rationale was, if he knew enough to keep from being fooled at the marketplace, he had sufficient education. Jocano, however, wanted to continue his studies, so much so that he ran away from home.

The brave young boy became a stowaway on a boat bound for Manila. He had no money, no food, and no clothes other than those he had on. He could not beg for food for fear of being caught by the police, so "I just turned left," he says, and he just kept walking until he came upon a kind benefactor. She was a laundrywoman who worked for a Spanish mestizo. He showed her what he thought would be his passport to success: a good elementary school report card.

The lady, who had a young son and was from Iloilo as well, took Jocano in and introduced him to her employer as her cousin who had just arrived from the province. He was hired to do menial jobs like scrubbing the floor and cleaning the arinola, and he was happy to do it for a mere PhP 10.00 a month.

His contentment, however, never led him to complacency. On his second month away from home, he bought a copy of Gregg Shorthand and memorized all the strokes in one and a half months. For practice, he paid the laundrywoman's son PhP 1.00 to read him the newspaper or he listened to the radio. When he was in grade school, he had been excellent at typing. These two skills would come in handy later on in his quest for success.

His daily schedule allowed him to look for a job during the late mornings and afternoons. Jocano recalls he walked up and down the entire Rizal Avenue and went into all the buildings looking for a job. No one hired him, the boy wearing old rubber shoes and loose clothes he had borrowed from the laundrywoman's son. Besides, he did not even know how to speak Tagalog.

Persistence paid off when he found a job in the Santa Cruz area. As the manager of one company was leaving, he again presented his report card. He was hired as a janitor and messenger and received a salary of PhP 15.00. He, however had no problems with rent. He got a police clearance and asked for permission to sleep in the office. This presented another problem for the young lad: he was afraid to sleep alone at night when all was dark and quiet.

To pass the time, he roamed around the city until he came to a place that was bustling and bright even in the wee hours of the morning. This was the press of the Manila Chronicle in Dasmariñas. He would just stay there and lie around while everyone else was busy doing there jobs until he started to get their attention. They took a liking to him and made him do small errands like buying food and drinks. Pretty soon, he got entrusted with more jobs like delivering galley proofs. They never paid him, but he says it was a lot of fun. All the while he was thinking to himself, "Makasulat kaya ako ng ganito? (Would I be able to write like this?)"

Jocano's report card was about to get him another break. He took a chance and ambushed Don Eugenio Lopez as he went to work one day at about 6:00 a.m. Jocano told the story of how he ran away from home and longed to study but lacked the money to do so. When he showed Mr. Lopez his report card, the old man was impressed and told him to come back to the office at 9:00 o'clock.

The young Jocano came back at the set time, only to find that a board meeting was taking place and Mr. Lopez' secretary would not let him in. But he never lost his determination and chose to barge into the board meeting while the secretary was distracted by a telephone call.

Mr. Lopez kept his promise and asked his Comptroller to give Jocano a job. He was given a job in the accounting department and a salary of PhP 80.00 a month. This was the first time the young stowaway wrote home. He started sending his family PhP 50.00 a month, and kept the rest for himself. After all, he still had no need to pay rent. He was still an office boarder.

With the money he earned, he was able to enroll in high school, never losing his desire to make something of himself. His first literary endeavor was a piece on the life of a working student, written for the school organ. Boldly, he again approached Mr. Lopez and showed him the article along with a poem he had written, and declared he wanted to be a reporter.

From his job in the accounting department, he was assigned to the paper's morgue. He bound papers and filed pictures for a year.

His first journalistic experience was covering a fire in Villalobos, Quiapo.

"What happened?" he was asked as he came back to the office. Even before he began to tell the story, he was rudely interrupted.

"Don't tell me, you WRITE it!" And this man proceeded to tear up Jocano's earnest attempts at journalism, not only once, but five times.

He cried, he says, but like all things in his life, he now sees that incident in a positive light. "That's how you harden," he says, "You destroy your image of yourself."

This kind of life, however, did not have the best effect on such a youth. Jocano took to drinking and hanging around with the tough crowd of Tondo. He tried to enroll for college, but ended up hardly attending class.

This was a low period in his life when he got sick and had to go home to Iloilo. The year was 1954.

However, what was one of the lowest times in his life also became one of his greatest turning points. While going on hunting trips with his friends, Jocano developed an interest in folklore.

His work got the attention of several people, including The National Museum's Robert Fox. Fox was the one who invited him to work in the national museum. Wherever Jocano was placed, he did not refuse to do the smallest or dirtiest of jobs. He says when he was working at the museum, he was essentially a janitor who was assigned to clean the toilet. Jocano determined to be the best janitor in the building and got the attention of the director, who asked that Jocano be assigned near his office on the fourth floor.

Another chance incident, when he was again able to show his typing skills to the director, got him transferred into the typing pool. There, he remained the humble servant to all. He was tasked to throw remains from specimens used in the museum. But his exposure to this kind of work led him to conceptualize a series of articles on Philippine legends surrounding plant and animal life. This was published in the Manila Times and got the attention of the Department of Education.

Education officials asked if the series could be included in their next edition of "Diwang Kayumanggi", which was used as a teaching aid in secondary schools. Jocano agreed, on the condition that they would also publish his position--janitor. The DECS immediately gave him a higher pay and new position: from "research aid" he was now named "scientist one", but his job description remained the same.

This new position, however, gave him more confidence the woman who would soon become his wife. Jocano is reluctant to tell their love story, but admits she determinedly avoided his advances before eventually falling in love with him. To see the two together is testament to the love that has prevailed throughout all the tough years.

Jocano did not promise her the moon and the stars. In fact, he warned her, "You are living with an author. Do not expect the easy type (of life)."

For several years, the couple lived in the slums. They chuckle as they recall how they seemed to have "ringside" seats to all the fights in Tondo. This, however, was where they learned the Filipino value of pakikisama or camaraderie. Even the "thugs" in the area were helpful and kind to them because of the relationships they built with their neighbors.

This, again, proved a valuable experience for Jocano, who took advantage of his situation to study and record life in the slums.

By making the most of everything that was dealt him, the young boy who came to the Philippines clutching his elementary school report card got his Bachelor's Degree at the Central Philippine University in 1958 and was given a grant to study at the University of Chicago, where he taught for a while. When it seemed he was not going to earn a tenure, he decided to come home and teach at the University of the Philippines. There he remained for 31 years.

Even then, life was not easy. With his accomplishments, Jocano entered the University as Associate Professor, something his colleagues resented. As a result, he was not given a teaching assignment in his first semester at the University. Soon after, he was sent to the province. Others may have resented this, but Jocano took the opportunity to write two books. His peers at the University had no books to call their own, but by this time, he had already published three.

From studying ethnology, Jocano has ventured into international relations, rural research, and then urban research. He then turned to urban communities and studied the development of the corporate culture.

Jocano says he has covered virtually all aspects of Philippine life. His great interest, however, is the 500 years of pre-colonialism. He reveals he has artifacts that will prove that Filipinos had an advanced civilization before our colonizers came.

"When you say civilization, people are looking for big structures like the Angkor Wat but why look for these big structures? Why look at other cultures to rediscover ourselves? There are other indices for civilization: science, writing, a big population, megalithic strucs, etcetera... when our ancestors manufactured stone tools the changes from rough stones to polished stones already indicate a kind of intellectual development.

"From there: ceramics/pottery... then we started to use metals... to get metal out of the ore is no problem but to transform the metal into tools involves metallurgy...

"We had science... to be able to preserve the beloved in the form of a mummy involves a mastery of embalming... using the principles of organic chemistry...

"Before the turn of the millenium we had (trade with) India, Thailand and China...

"(As for) megalithic structures we had (the) rice terraces."

Jocano points out, though that such masterpieces in engineering like the pyramids, the Taj Mahal and the Angkor Wat can also dampen the spirit once we recognize that these were products of slave labor. He explains hundreds of thousands of people suffered when these were built. "In other words, these monuments are living testimonies of man's inhumanity to man.

"Our ancestors built megalithic structures and used the mountains to ensure human survival, not to document human sufferings."

Colonization, he says, is indeed a nightmare, but he asks why do we keep looking back at it? When will we stop? Who wants to remember that (she has) been raped? That's the past. Go on and find strength!"

The long hours of research do take their toll sometimes. When that happens, Jocano turns to a relatively new hobby: painting. "I easily get bored," he explains. "Everytime I get bored, I go there," he points toward a small nook where he has set up his artist's easel. "When I am so concentrated, I get tired. All I do is get myself immersed in the canvas." He says it is not for the sake of art but for the sake of venting his frustrations.

His subjects are images he recalls from his trips to the mountains and his life in the slums. Someday, he says he'll enroll in Fine Arts, but for now, he's content to exhaust his own natural talent. His chosen subject? Not the madonna and child, but man and child.

Jocano himself has two children. His son took after him and is also teaching at the University. His daughter is still studying and actually designed the covers of her father's books.

All the time I was at their home, the interaction between Jocano and his family showed genuine love and concern. His wife served us homebaked goodies we had never tasted before--like cornflake and mango flavored cookies. These, she said, were products of her cooking class.

Behind the man was a loving and caring homemaker. She took up Chemistry and taught at the Philippine Women's University. She did not speak much, but when she spoke, she was as her husband, having nary a tinge of bitterness or resentment at the hardships they endured in life.

Maybe she, too, shares her husband's belief that "there are no biktima (victims)" in life. "Poverty is good," he exhorts. "We should all suffer so that we will make good." Part of me wanted to react violently to that statement, but poverty seems to have brought a lot of good to this man. In fact, it is what makes his story amazing.