Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Pinay First Lady of East Timor

She was called Jackie S. in the Inquirer report, which made me chuckle for the name clearly refers to Jackie O., as in Jacqueline Onassis, who, as Jackie Kennedy was one of the most glamorous First Ladies in United States history.

Of course, in the eyes of most politicians and other members of the Philippine elite, there was nothing glamorous about what Jacqueline Siapno did. What on earth was Siapno, the first lady of neighboring East Timor, thinking taking a public bus and then a tricycle from Manila to Pangasinan?

The Inquirer was right to contrast Siapno with the rich and powerful in the Philippines for whom political power means extensive protocol and traveling with an army of servants and assistants. But the attention Jackie Siapno attracted for her low-key homecoming should also extend to her own standing as one of the most accomplished Filipina intellectuals in the world, and an expert on a part of the world that Filipinos and the Philippines should really be paying more attention to.

I got to know her in the early 1990s when we were students at University of California Berkeley, where she eventually got a PhD in Political Science and we both got involved in a conference on the Philippines. She had moved to the US as a teenager and eventually pursued a career in academe, earning degrees from prestigious Wellesley College and the University of London before going to Berkeley. She speaks, writes, or reads eight languages: Pangasinan, Tagalog, English, Indonesian, Portuguese, and Acehnese.

And she has written a book on Aceh, “Gender, Islam, Nationalism, and the State in Aceh: The Paradox of Power, Co-optation and Resistance.”

These credentials may make Jackie sound like a highly-intelligent but boring egghead. But Jackie Siapno is anything but boring. The attention she attracted with the unusual bus rise to Pangasinan proves that. And one thing I’ll always remember from our days in Berkeley was her passion whenever she tackled a subject she felt strongly about, whether it’s the plight of the Timorese people, Indonesian culture, Philippine politics, or women’s issues.

During the Berkeley conference, she told the Malay folk tale of Putri Babi, the Pig Princess, who married a rajah who fell madly in love with her despite her being different. But the rajah wanted to change Putri Babi so he burned her skin and called a healer to turn her into his ideal wife. “In burning her skin,” Jackie relates, “she is transformed into a princess, identified with the aristocratic ruling class and hence no longer able to represent the Bangsa which she was supposedly to continue. In becoming identified with the aristocratic class, the representation of their own Bangsa is foreclosed.”

She continued, “The rajah saw an imperfection in her body, a sign that marks her difference and he wants to burn it to make her body more normal and to make it conform. The treatment of Putri Babi is symbolic control, symbolic of male control of a female body which he does not understand, so he kills her.”

I remembered her telling this story when I heard about the stir Jackie caused in taking a bus from the airport to Pangasinan. She’s had an unusual journey—from young Pinay from Pangasinan to US immigrant to academic to activist to Indonesia expert to first lady of East Timor. But while we haven’t talked in years, I have a strong feeling that her own transformations did not involve any skin burning. I suspect Jackie took on, absorbed, and incorporated the knowledge and cultures of the places where she has traveled and lived, and eventually built on all these without having to shed her past as a Filipino woman from Pangasinan.

Before telling the story of Pig Princess, she explained that “Bangsa” in Malay could mean race, sex, class, or group, but is now commonly means as nation. Jackie pointed out how the story was originally told in a language similar to Maranao. “Any of you who speak Maranao or Tausug, Indonesian or Malay will probably understand it,” she told the audience.

I can’t help but think of how much someone with her background and passion can contribute at a time when the Philippines is still wrestling with unrest in the southern part of the archipelago involving Muslims who have suffered for generations under Christian rule from Manila.

We last communicated via email a few years ago and by then we were both parents. Jackie spoke fondly for her son Hadomi. Hadomi, Jackie explained to me, means “love” in the East Timorese language of Tetum.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Old Man With the Helmet

Friends at Tanghalang Pilipino in Manila remember the old man with the helmet. Wenceslao Rodriguez Sr. wore his military headgear during the gala of a play about men like him, soldiers who fought bravely for his homeland, but whose sacrifices have largely been forgotten.

Mang Wenceslao kept his helmet on for more than two hours during the premiere of “Mga Gerilya sa Powell Street.” I had missed the gala last November. But the Tanghalang Pilipino folks described it as a moving and meaningful event, and a big reason for its success was the old man with the helmet.

He was from a poor community in the University of the Philippines area, and graciously accepted Tanghalan’s invitation to attend the first performance of the play based on my novel about World War II veterans (and beautifully adapted for the stage by Rody Vera and directed by Chris Millado).

The Tanghalan folks, led by creative director Nanding Josef, later became close to Mang Wenceslao. When the equity package was recently passed by the United States government, they thought he would at last get some financial assistance for his sacrifices. Unfortunately, he ran into a problem—there was another person with the same name and that had to be sorted out.

My friend Nanding said it’s not clear if Mang Wenceslao ever received the benefit which recognizes the courage and service of thousands of Filipino veterans. One day, he and other Tanghalan staffers got a text message from Mang Wenceslao’s family. He had passed away late last month. They were inviting his new theater friends to the 40th day commemoration of his death.

Before he died, his family told the Tanghalan folks, Mang Wenceslao often talked about “the tribute given to him at the CCP”—“iyong parangal na binigay sa kanya sa CCP.”

* * *

“Mga Gerilya sa Powell Street,” which starred veteran performers such as Bembol Roco, Tommy Abuel, Joe Gruta, Dido Dela Paz, and Lou Veloso, focuses on the plight for veterans who moved to San Francisco after they were granted citizenship by the US government. But the production itself exposed me and others from Tanghalan to the broader world of the beteranos.

For while thousands of Filipino veterans took the opportunity to move to America hoping to provide a better life for their families, many more remained in the Philippines.

Some of them belonged to the Defenders of Corregidor and Bataan, whose members survived the bloody battles at those historic places. Some of the group’s leaders and members came to watch the play last year. Some of their leaders enjoyed the show so much that they invited me and other members of the Tanghalan staff to their regular luncheon. When we met they also mentioned the plight of other veterans like Mang Wenceslao, who was struggling against poverty and whose contributions have been ignored.

The Corregidor and Bataan veterans later helped bring “Mga Gerilya sa Powell Street” to the Armed Forces of the Philippines Theater last month, as a way to honor the beteranos, both those who now endure loneliness and isolation in cities such as San Francisco and Los Angeles—and also the seniors still living in the Philippines, battling illness, poverty, and in many cases neglect.

Unfortunately, I also missed that performance. But I was happy to hear that, like the run at the CCP, the show was also well received. “Crowd loved it,” my friend Maricor Baytion, director of the Ateneo Press, which published the novel, said in a text message shortly after the performance ended.

“This is a funny yet tragic, sentimental, yet soul-stirring story all rolled into a two-hour musical play that portrays the vicissitudes of the aging, sickly, dying— and dead—Filipino veterans of World War II during their final years in their Powell Street hangout in San Francisco,” former President Fidel Ramos wrote in an op-ed piece for the Manila Bulletin.

If only Mang Wenceslao had been there too for another tribute to men like him. It would have been another proud moment for the old soldier, the warrior who fought bravely for his country.