Manila is burning. On fire, like Ray Bradbury’s dystopian vision in Fahrenheit 451. The difference here however, is not that books are being burned, but the city itself is in flames. Pasay hits the summer heat of 42° c, the water shortage crisis is still turbulent across the majority of the metro, huge fire hit households in Quezon City and Manila, and it is 2019—the year of senatorial elections. Thus, the political fiasco amplifies the heat; and that perhaps, orchestrate most people to cool down and this 9th of April, a holiday celebrating the Day of Valor—or the Araw ng Kagitingan, has been taken advantage for rest. And it is an acceptable reason, of course. But the date is more than a holiday, of course. Because valor, in soul of heroism and sacrifice, has become the most distant ideal the people have in mind. Who is to judge the working class heroes if they have to complete eight hours of sleep once in this month? The young, if culture and history is already contained in their devices? Now, what does valor means amidst all these? The questions come. A long walk it is to find the answers, but the gates of Libingan ng Bayani is open. In summer and in solitude, in the tree-laden burial of the dead, I find myself searching.
Cemetery of Forgotten Heroes
The Heroes’ Cemetery, or the Libingan ng mga Bayani as it is called when it has consistently hit the news, welcomes the visitor through a slightly high slope of dark, asphalt road. A man, broad in shoulders, dark-skinned and suited with the green and black blotted military uniform asks the vehicle to stop. And the windows slide down for inspection. This soldier placed at front of the high and edged-walls of the cemetery, can be the de facto gatekeeper—highly reflective that the place is strictly of governmental property. Knowing that all is clear to enter, he smiles and waves his hand, like a salute gone to whimper. Perhaps, he is too accustomed in saluting people here and there, that even outside the military circle, his hand is swift to be punctual. But he quickly realizes that he inspected is not a general, and thus, the hands curl, retreating to give a full and formal welcome.
The cemetery is an open road, an open public place. At first, a jeep passes by, awkwardly. It is full of passengers, and the smoke it belches is both violet and violent. The cemetery must be solemn, but it is otherwise, as bikers too, and several people walking are found in the area. No one can resist the shade and sight provided by the trees, and the absence of commercial development which makes the cemetery a spot on to find one’s soul in the city. Or at least, breathe a dash of fresh air just once. Among the trees of thin trunks, a battered dog is laying down and his tongue is out, begging for a drink. His—because I noticed his body, the mammal glands are flat on his stomach, and yes, the genitals are there. He is brown and has been striped with black, perhaps the soot colored his fur and his life. The summer heat has never been this critical, that the trees hovering above me and the dog, their leaves, once faltered and fallen from the twigs, immediately redden and become crisp. And yes, the dog is the testament of this heat wave ravaging the metro. Although I have the heart to be near with the dog and pat him for a minute or so, I check that the sun is already whirling with the clouds above, ready for the fall—as the hands of the night in the form of the silhouette of the buildings in the metro are all risen—ready for the taking. I have to leave and check the place still.
I settle by my road at the right, and the white crosses spring before me like white mushrooms after a long rain and sunshine hits across the land. Crosses, innumerable—too many to count, and in this 77th celebration of the Day of Valor, I see no one except one group of family on one cross. The ratio seems imbalanced which should not be because it is the day of remembrance. Still, I notice signs of true valor in this day of valor. A family is praying. Behind them is a black van, parked. The cross marker of the grave they are at, is at the edge of the large open graveyard; while I am at the other side of the gravesite overlooking the serene moment where each heads are bowed, hands clasped below the belts. The eyes are closed. As I wait for them to finish, I check the site and the details that I may miss once I approach those people. There is a long arc on the gravesite at the side where I stand and I go there to read the information availed to me. A gust of wind runs over me, so dry and so hot, that when it touches my pale cheeks, I feel the very flame of a fire licking my skin. I see what is on the arc which is only as tall as my knee, and sigh knowing where I am. If only I have that time and strength to visit each grave. But no matter what, here is the shot, fulfilling the reportage: I am in the place where the fallen of the World War II and of the Bataan Death March are laid.
I brave my way towards them, the family praying. This is the first time I will talk with the ones left by the soldiers who served in the war. When I see that their hands are now in movements: in the name of the father, the son, and the holy spirit—I rush towards them. I rush to the people that I do not know.
This family is comprised of three people: one huge man in black shirt, a woman in her early 50’s and a man in yellow polo shirt, tucked in some Levi’s blue jeans. I notice his glasses—a typical tito pormahan here in Manila. I introduce myself, and to what purpose do I have. The first two, the huge man in black shirt and the woman seeks an early refuge in the van, maybe seeking the comfort given by the vehicle’s air conditioning system, or maybe they went in because they are in rush for an important affair. The man in the yellow polo shirt notices my present, and put on hold setting his foot in the van.
There is a bouquet of flowers before the grave. Leaves of fern crowned the set of flowers, and I begin to read the names carved on the crosses right after a short review of the offering. The blank paint is precisely stroked on the serif of each letter. The full names of two soldiers in one grave, their birthdates and the day they died are bold enough. Although the white paint of cross is already fading due to the moss and mess from the soil, all the information of the deceased is still readable. I give a humble nod on the grave, and to the stranger before me. I introduce myself, and explain rightly why I have to talk with him. He is polite to respond, even if I am stranger still to him.
The man says that they are visiting his father, Col. Eriberto B. Adan, a ‘Death March survivor’ as he puts it, also a prisoner of war, then as a World War II veteran in his last years. He adds that the visit also pays homage to his mother, Lt. Angelina P. Adan, who also served as a nurse during the war—which even in his calm speaking, the man highly notes the valor of the women behind the curtains. “Guerilla nurse,” as he gives stress on the first word, “That’s how she met my father.” On that line, I can feel my heart piercing off from my chest. Such story is reminiscent to Hemingway’s entrance to literature, resembling much the context of his first novel, the World War classic, A Farewell to Arms. One thing, my father also had been a soldier and my mother was also a nurse.
On knowing further, my enthusiasm widens, I am eager to ask and respond—or vice versa, but I feel that our talk will only range for less than five minutes or so—so I know that I have to inquire mainly the essence of valor today, in the age of modernity and for the youth.
He says that, they came here to remember their sacrifices, and also for the future generations to come, shall remember that his parents fought for freedom. I ask if they, the generation who came next after his parents, him as one, is in pursuit to tell the valor to the younger generation of their clan. “Ah, kinikwento namin. They (my parents) served selflessly for the country. Pinakita nila ang tunay na pagmamahal sa bayan—at the risk of their lives.” I sense no machismo on the voice of the man—calm without any force or authority to voice out how brave they were, and instead he flourishes his rhetoric serenely, very much observant of the place and of what day it is. On asking if the millennials are observing the holiday right and honoring the heroes well, the man breaks, only in slight, high tone:
“Palagay ko, kulang. Kailangan pa nating i-propagate ang sacrifices ng ating ninuno, forefathers—ng ating parents. Kung hindi dahil sa kanila, hindi natin tinatamasa ang…”
He is grasping to find the right word, and to end his sentence well in the right note, I reply to help him.
“Kalayaan,” I say.
“Kalayaan! Yun. Kalayaan…Kung wala sila.”
Edilberto Adan is his name: the man who is kind enough to be interviewed. The son of the two war heroes. When he gives his hand after the interview, he emphasizes on his position:
“General Edilberto Adan.”
Before I leave, he asks back who I am really, and to where do I work for. I explain my part on this holiday beat, and my post as a writer. I get my calling card and give two pieces to him, expecting that he will give his own.
“Wala akong calling card, pero meron ako nito!” he replies in surprising joy.
He pulls his leather wallet off from his jeans pocket in the back and gives a calling card-sized of a calendar. “Meron akong kalendaryo. I am part of ONE Partylist. Iboto ah!” he says. I look at the calendar: the months and each dates forced to fit in a small size of paper. I nod, only to show that I am happy I met him and his parents. I thank him, and move away, as General Adan, slides the door of the black van. I hear as it closes, the large metal door sliding into a slam.
The Libingan ng Bayani is deserted, except the army on guard on almost all parts of the hill. Vehicles pass by, rarely in a span of 30 minutes or so, then a family happens to visit on the other side of the gravesite, divided by the road currently where I am walking. Aside from the family that I have approached, I see another one, with children this time. They are busy taking pictures in front of the cross—among the crosses—the graves of the fallen and the forgotten. Perhaps, they have the eagerness to inform that they visited their loved ones on the social media.
As the cemetery is on a hill, the road is on slopes: at times, I walk going down, and at times, I have to carry my feet up on a high path. In spite the vastness of the cemetery, the number of trees that can help breeze away the powerful summer heat, and in spite that there are many fallen soldiers—prisoners of war—dignitaries, patriots in need of remembering, I see no one laying flowers, praying or even a mere visit. I do see one of the cemetery’s caretakers, holding up a green water hose, sprinkling the dry grasses, already brown and lifeless. I ask where are the National Artists are and she replies without turning an eye, “Section 13.”
A Question of Heroes
Can a hero be defined? In this age dominated by Hollywood produced-blockbusters, a hero can only be recalled by the superpowers they have, and if they have been iconic in their latex suits, long capes and one-liners much like the Marvel Studio has provided since their first installment of the MCU—or the Marvel Cinematic Universe through Iron Man. It has been the most competitive film genre nowadays, with DC Comics also setting up their own universe through their parent studio, Warner Bros., and tried, or still trying their best to keep up with MCU—in spite that Wonder Woman has been the most potent role model as she embodies the spirit of feminism; relevantly, Gal Gadot who played the role, has surprised everyone in this time of toxic masculinity. Because checking both of these studios invested in superheroes, it is an honest truth, that yes, we are fooled by the handsome faces of Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, and Tom Hiddlestone, compared to their direct competitors, or compared to the films in social realism context, which should be more deserving in viewership. Because the CGI effects of these superhero movies are so amazing, we indeed fall flat and instead, be lured to watch them, rather than aspire and create our own. But with this generic run in Hollywood, are the moviegoers inspired of this sudden shift of the genre, its outcome, its straight influence in defining heroism—or at least, they or we—can have a mild hope, a redeeming consolation which familiarizes us that there is a hero within each one of us? Is the superhero genre enough to fill the void of the missing valor for this generation? Is the boom of the genre, incites politically, the age of heroes for all of us?
In reality and in this country, the age of heroes has always been recalled, especially by the landmark literature of the National Artist Nick Joaquin: A Question of Heroes. Whether it is a strong historical document, or it is confined as a blazing collection in literature—Joaquin’s essays delved in who and what are our Filipino heroes in true nature. But did he define straight what is a hero? Because heroism today is rare—and this generation is really in need of guide to who are the heroes and what is one, if we are to disregard the current fanaticism that lead to a mass indifference due to the emergence of political brandings which has divided the nation. Are you a dilawan or a DDS? If so, if one sides with either of these options, Joaquin has never been this right that it is indeed, a question to whom one believes.
I then find the site where Joaquin’s grave is. The site is more in the length, compared to width, as there is only two column of white crosses stretching far to the other side of it. The site is open, not yet completely filled, and construction materials, like the sand, gravel and the hollow blocks are scattered behind the crosses. In the far edge of the site, is the mortuary of the army, their vehicles in grey and green camouflage parked.
As I begin to check each graves, I stop to a very catchy cross: a yellowed one similar to the others, perhaps by time, by the weather or the mismanagement of the administration behind the cemetery; however, in the verge of contemplation, two cute rooster sculptures are present, animated and colored which are placed at its both sides. The grave belongs to Francisco Fronda. If I am to complete the courtesy, the details of this forgotten genius are:
Francisco Fronda, PhD
National Scientist for Animal Husbandry
22 DEC 1896 – 17 FEB 1986
It appears that his grave is being taken care of, as seeing the grass that envelopes the wholeness of the grave, it is precisely cut and green. Its entirety is rectangular, signifying where the body has been buried. But the others, and unfortunately, are the same; like the disregarded areas I have seen, as if the family has moved on, complacent that the people working for the cemetery will take care of their deceased loved ones. Walking further, stepping on pile of leaves and plastic cups, I see more graves of the National Scientists, then some National Artists, then some of the National Scientists again, and then I stop. I see the great Filipino baroque writer’s cross.
Advent of the Anti-Hero
Nick Joaquin was also noted as a journalist and biographer; by which he was known for his name in wordplay that was used for his pen-name: Quijano de Manila. Working for the media, de Manila had produced an epic of reportage—from the Marcoses to lovers, politics and crime. In Reportage on Crime: Thirteen Horror Happenings That Hit the Headlines, he reported mostly the underground crime mythos of the Philippines, and one person that he presented was both the famous and infamous mobster, Asiong Salonga.
Salonga is credited as the Robin Hood of Tondo. A wicked gangster in the slums, he delved into crime to give back to the poor—in true Robin Hood fashion. Only difference is, the 1950’s era is no medieval times. There was no longer an arrow and bow for security. Thus, Salonga used street-style prowess, and had greased guns instead to threaten and kill the abusers, rob them, and give all that has been taken and maybe more, to the powerless people of Tondo. Weighing the scale of heroic deeds, does the end justify the means still? For some, especially men, Salonga is considered the real hero. But a hero is expected not to have such flaw: fighting fire with fire, and yet be able to save the people trapped in a house being devoured by the fangs of large flames. It can never exist—neither the people can be saved, unless we allowed ourselves to have one, or to let someone take the place of becoming the anti-hero. In 2016, Rodigo Roa Duterte became the 16th President of the Republic of the Philippines. There can never be another bared comparison of the anti-hero than the one seated in power who has resemblance to a mob, a trash-talker in the street, or to Salonga himself.
Valor in the time of Vendetta
The anti-hero has only been concrete in the comic books, rather than in life. In spite that the Greeks, the Romans, and even the Americans—or us, having a handful, one in the person of General Antonio Luna, or Heneral Luna, as he was and now, fondly called due to Jerold Tarrog’s Heneral Luna Universe—or his film trilogy, the people has long been divided to their conquerors and diplomats if they are indeed heroic. Because at the end of their day, they still had the good intentions over the worst actions ever done in history.
The anti-hero wave then hit the popular culture, very much the word has been coined from. Many critics and avid followers of the sequential art medium say that it is Alan Moore who cemented the anti-hero concept: human, flawed, political, and at times, wicked—but yet a savior in this bloody times. Moore has written Watchmen and V for Vendetta in the 1980’s. The first is a group of superheroes existing in a post-Beat American generation—in the time of Cold War where the murder of one of their colleagues leads to a wider problem that has affected not only the U.S. itself—but of the world—unless stopped by these so-called ‘Watchmen’. While V for Vendetta is definitely the second most memorable from the ‘most influential comic book writer,’ as critics recognized Moore. Who does not have a hint of the line, “Remember, remember…The fifth of November”?
V has been an anti-hero in his own accord. He enters the political and criminal circle to help people survive and be liberated against from a fascist taking control in an English dystopian setting. Equipped by two, sharp daggers, V becomes the testament of anarchy, radicalism, and valor—no matter how hard it is to gulp the means of his doing—or undoing the damage of the fascist has brought to England. In strict discussion of ethics, legality aside, does V’s actions considered as acts of valor rather than as acts of vendetta? If so, relating it to the Philippines and the harsh storm of extra-judicial killings which ravages innocent of lives and the morality of the majority, does the actions and decisions of President Duterte acceptable, or at least ethical—a compromised move but heroic nonetheless? And based on his controlling and demeaning leadership, isn’t he the fascist and not the V we are looking into?
The anti-hero, being the cool, bad-boy modernization of a hero, still has a range of philosophical paradoxes—an irony if collated. This is the case for the U.S. The reported number of open gun-firing in schools, churches and parks has increased over the years, and it is highly attributed to their futile laws on guns and registration. However, if one has the sharp eye, Marvel’s own anti-hero, perhaps, the one that has become more popular than Moore’s pioneering works in this ‘sub-categorization’ of the superhero, The Punisher, can have some relevance on the nation’s problem on guns. The Punisher is a human—an anti-thesis from Marvel’s X-Men or DC’s Superman and their demi-gods. He is Frank Castle, an ex-military that is in pursuit to end all crimes through guns, explosives and all the high-wired, manly takedowns on criminals. Kill, before they kill: that is the driving force. And kill—if they have already done wrong. Now, does this ring a bell?
In the country, the prominence of Duterte becomes the most shocking fact. Imagine the 16 million count, the people who voted for him, and as a Christian nation in the southeast Asian region, the trust for this acclaimed strongman is still strong—albeit in verse. But as time goes by, people realizes. An anti-hero, who has paved way against the ideals and values of the aged hero, is not substantial to equate to reality, and be the answer in a time of questions, in a time one country needs saving. And if valor is on the line, remember, remember, no one can fight fire with fire, and save the people trapped in a building, away from the long fangs of flames, and be honored, same with the act that is pushed as equivalent as to heroism.
Day of Valor in 2019
It has been a long day, but it is still April, and the year has never been this long. 2019 has more surprises to give. In spite the daily dread of this year, another Day of Valor has been celebrated in the Libingan ng mga Bayani and across the archipelago, I know that the valor of the fallen is not purely disregarded, or worse, forgotten. I am not alone, I hope. But there is a weight I have on my shoulders, knowing that more days of forgetting again is ahead of us, and more problems to spring before us. But having visited the fallen, there is a spark of regeneration in my heart. I have the fulfilled feeling of going home after work. I walk away from the crosses, and see the very flag of the Philippines waving itself via the weak wind despite that the cruel heat of the season has hindered it so. Gazing upon the cloth bearing the blue and the red, “the three stars and a sun”—as Francis Magalona puts it, another master of verse comes into my mind. José Garcia Villa once re-worked prose into poems. One was taking an excerpt from The Journals of Jean Cocteau, re-structured it into poetic form, inserted certain words and I, remembering it, shares the same longing of his soul with the archipelago. In spite that Villa, the elite Filipino New Yorker poet, have ‘americanized’ the very name of the ‘Sublime Paralytic,’ ‘the Brains of the Philippine Revolution,’ I see through the words what he wanted to tell. The found seems relevant for this day—for this Day of Valor. It has never been this melancholic, not until now. Here is the poem, the “Death of Apollinaire” as Villa labeled:
His small room was
Full of shadows and
Shadowy figures: His face
Illuminated the linen
On the bed. A laureate
Beauty! so radiant we thought
Of young Virgil: Death,
In Dante’s robe, pulling
Him, as children do, by the hand.
I begin to wonder about the poem as the night is near to rise from slumber, ready to cloak the country whole with its long, dark cape blistering with stars. Before I set foot outside the cemetery, a drizzle falls on the land burnt by the weather and suffering. I look back—the flag surfs along with the remaining light of the day.
Text by Ramzzi Fariñas | Photos by Nicole Zaide