Thank you all for coming today. You honor not only the lives of five Filipinas by your presence but also the possibilities of a future that remains veiled but which we hope will be favorable to the lives of young people today who, as the novelist Barbara Kingsolver once wrote, dream of a world where children grow up neither as destroyers nor the destroyed.
We hope viewers of the paintings and those who listen to the lectures that accompany the exhibit will discover the links between the lives of the women depicted in Alas ng Bayan and current topics under intense public debate, such as violence against women, LGBTQ+ rights, extrajudicial killings, global warming, and national sovereignty.
Our intention is to inject history and feminism as fundamental elements in the way young people respond to the worsening state of national forgetting and the climate crisis.
The paintings, we hope, will shine a light on the great and growing intersections between women, history, and climate change.
Our goal is to mobilize people not normally active in the climate debate by offering different approaches to citizenship, memory and nationalism that are responsive to the multiple emergencies we face today. In particular, we wish to challenge prevailing notions of heroism, which have debased the meaning of the term as well as prevented recognition of ordinary individuals responding with extraordinary acts of resistance, courage and selflessness in furtherance of popular, community, ecological, and national interests.
The political theorist Hannah Arendt quoted Plato in a November 9, 1964 interview with Joachim Fest for Das Thema, a program of SWR TV in Germany.
Plato, Arendt pointed out, said “It is better to be in disunity with the whole world than with oneself, since I am a unity.” Arendt’s reference of course was the deep dissonance, or lack of it, among German citizens, especially in Germany’s bureaucracy, during the time of Nazi rule.
Arendt’s work on totalitarianism is of course widely known, including her thesis on the banality of evil, using as an example the acts of Schutzstaffel (SS) Obersturmbannführer Otto Adolf Eichmann, working under the command of SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Tristan Heydrich.
Many have since contested Arendt’s views, saying Eichmann was not the unthinking bureaucratic functionary that Arendt had made him out to be. Instead, it has been asserted, he truly was an ideologically motivated anti-semite who, as a life-long committed Nazi, knowingly set out to help exterminate Jews and others they considered sub-humans, such as gypsies and Muslims.
One insight worth our pause here is the notion of ghastly people, who carried out acts of inhuman cruelty, including genocide, that has created for the public images of demonic figures.
On this Arendt counseled extreme caution, saying the monsters we fear are likely to our eyes just ordinary people, common bureaucrats, hopelessly uncharismatic boring officials and charming politicians who appear so handsome or beautiful or so ordinary one would never suspect them of barbaric wrongdoing and heinous crimes. This includes people who choose to look away, which was described as an act of violence by Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was hanged 25 years ago by the Nigerian government in collusion with the multinational company Shell.
But the point I wish to make here is not about how Arendt considered Eichmann, which is contested by scholars such as Christopher Browning or Bettina Stangneth, who both assert Eichmann did indeed coldly plan and oversee acts of mass murder.
It is not even the concept of the banality of evil that I’d like you all to chew on but what we might consider a notion from the other end of the spectrum, the banality of heroism, which we almost always neglect.
The way heroism has been extolled in this country has caused us to regard heroes as figures beyond the reach of the vast majority of our people or on the other extreme as people whose acts are so pedestrian we have ironically lowered the bar so much that we reward mere decency while recreating acts of citizenship as today’s high bar of national and community service.
We have been taught to look up to heroes who are always bigger than us, smarter than us, braver than us, wiser than us, more daring than us. As a result we know only of a handful, whose true physical and heroic stature is so disconnected to working class Filipinos they appear distant and abstract and discombobulating.
The other end is just as problematic.
When a person returns to an owner wads of money she or he accidentally left behind in a vehicle or sidewalk, there is often a rush nowadays to give awards, official recognition and the title of modern day hero.
It makes acts of decency performed so frequently across the country throughout the year as extraordinary heroic feats. Are we not supposed to return what is not ours, whatever our financial circumstance? Instead of giving away medals of heroism for simple acts of decency, we should give out Karaniwang Tao Awards. By doing so we communicate to the public that decency is the minimum act we expect of one another, and that decency will always be one of the most fundamental pillars of citizenship.
By raising the maximum bar, which is heroism, we end up placing our nation’s ideals further out of reach of ordinary citizens. Instead, we must raise the minimum bar, in order that we can define and refine what constitutes both national and global citizenship.
When decency, which remains commonplace in this country, becomes accepted by the youth as something rare and elusive, there will be deep trouble in the horizon.
So long as we lower the minimum bar on citizenship, we will end up diminishing individual and national self-esteem, and we will end up delighted in trafficking self-inflicted injuries, and ultimately we will end up believing we are simply incapable of living up to the sacrifices of our ancestors, who fought for the future enjoyment of the most elementary of rights so that others after them may expand the scope and definition of the freedoms we are obliged to pursue today. What are these? Let us spell them out:
Kalayaan, kalayaan sa pambansang pambubusabos, kalayaang magsarili, kalayaang umunlad nang hindi winawalanghiya ang kalikasan at ang kakayahan ng mga musmos na mabuhay na ligtas sa pangamba sa nagwawalang klima, kalayaan sa pandarambong, kalayaan sa pang-aapi, kalayaan sa panggagahasa, kalayaan sa karahasan, kalayaan sa kamang-mangan, kalayaan sa kahirapan, at ginhawa para sa lahat! Hindi materyal at limpak-limpak na yaman kundi kaginhawaan. Ginhawa. Sapat. Sakto lang.
These are among the reasons why we commissioned in 2007 what is now called the Constantino Murals, two large scale paintings that for a decade were on display in two government facilities, at the old San Juan City Hall, which has since been demolished, and at the Ospital ng Makati sa Pembo.
Art has a unique way of providing us angles that, when done well, trespass boundaries of time and space. Art can help us understand life in all its complexity, and by doing so it helps us think for ourselves and sometimes to take action.
The location of the murals was of special importance, because the paintings were created in commemoration of the lives of two ordinary Filipinos who to this very day are considered by the establishment as controversial figures, if they are even recognized.
The slides you see on the screen are mere details of the murals, which are today on permanent display at the Constantino Foundation’s gallery named Linangan in Quezon City.
Leandro Alejandro was a leftist, a socialist, a brilliant and courageous student leader who fought against the depradations of the accursed Marcos dictatorship. On one of the murals, Alejandro can be seen conferring conspiratorially with Emilio Jacinto, which is an improbability considering both lived during different periods of Philippine history. Lean was murdered in 1987, a year after the brutal Marcos tyranny that he helped bring down was replaced by a new more open government.
Macario Sakay was an armed revolutionary who fought against Spanish colonialism and American imperialism and was one of our country’s first presidents. Sakay, as he is correctly depicted here, was an original Katipunero who fought with Bonifacio. He established was is known as the Katagalugan Republic. Sakay was hanged in 1907, a victim of American treachery, putting the lie to American imperial scholarship that continues to insist the Philippine-American War ended in 1902.
On the screen you will also notice on one side another incongruity — a young student wearing a bandanna while waving a flag.
The artists who created the mural did exactly as they were requested, which initially posed serious difficulties. They were commissioned to create two murals in commemoration of the death anniversaries of Alejandro and Sakay, but they were also told the murals should not be about them. As well, the artists were requested to paint subversive murals instead of militant paintings. And they succeeded magnificently.
One section of the mural shows Lean holding on to a little red book. When the painting was launched in Makati, a group of doctors and nurses approached us anxiously. They were visibly nervous. They asked if the book Lean was holding was Mao Tse Tung’s red book. Another said it was Joma’s PSR. We told them quietly to approach the mural and to tell us what they saw.
They huddled around Lean and together looked closely at the painting. They then turned around, each with a wide smile on their face. What did you find, we asked. They said the title of the book is “Araling Panlipunan” and we all laughed.
This next detail shows the hand of Lean holding a flower. One doctor asked what flower it was and what it stood for. We said it’s a rosal. The doctor disagreed vehemently, saying this cannot be. The rosal does not have thorns. We said, ah, it is indeed a rosal, and what would you say if we told you Lean was murdered in Rosal St. in Cubao?
The doctor nodded quietly and with his other colleagues turned around to look over all the details in the mural.
The murals represent the artists’ way of telling us to look closer at history and art for we might see something different from the obvious.
This is Julian Beever, a Belgian chalk artist who creates drawings on sidewalks that are easily washed away. This image is what he wants you to see.
In reality, this is what he drew…
When we think of history, memory, climate change and citizenship, what angles do we take to understand what may be unrecognizable at first glance?
This is a sculpture by Jae Hyo Lee. It looks celestial. It looks like a constellation. It looks cosmic. And yet…
It is made only of a material common to all of us. Mga pako. Nails.
This celestial picture by Jessica Lopez was on display recently in FEU. It conveys a cosmic canvas. And yet what is it?
Art forces us to confront new angles.
On research I once hunted down in Caloocan a fellow named John Stotsenburg. He was a decorated commander of American imperial troops, who led the US invasion force to confront Filipino forces in Bulacan.
I went through what is named Calle Heroes del 96, through to Vibora St corner Aglipay, and took a turn towards Del Pilar whose street sign, like his life, seemed to have been stolen.
I interviewed a lot of people that day and not one person remembered who Stotsenburg was.
Stotsenburg was killed in action on April 23, 1899 by Filipinos resisting the US occupying forces. As US military traditions go, they erected a memorial in Qingua, Bulacan using an upturned cannon surrounded on four corners by battle field cannon balls. (The orange photo shows the actual street sign at night, taken years ago in Caloocan)
The bizarre thing – but not according to Philippine practices, with significant swaths of land still named after McKinley and Taft Ave and for a time, Plaza Lawton — the Stotsenburg memorial was the only monument in the town that is now called Plaridel. That is, until over a decade ago.
A wise mayor of the town could not understand and could not stomach the fact that an invader had a memorial in her town while the resisting forces were left unhonored and unnamed. So she commissioned a great artist by the name of Toym Imao to build another monument honoring the resistance forces led by Juan Evangelista and Pablo Maniquiz.
Mayor Vistan did not do what others are often tempted to do. She ensured the Stotsenburg memorial remained intact and behind it now lays the grander Filipino mural. Rather than erase history, the mayor ensured the conversation between the two monuments, and the dialogue of history, would be sustained. Every 23rd of April they still celebrate Stotsenburg getting gunned down in a non-working holiday to commemorate the event.
Another place was actually named after Stotsenberg in 1902, which you can see through the pylons on both sides of the screen, in place that was also the site of countless raging battles, including one waged until 1991.
The pylons were toppled during World War II when the Japanese invaded the Philippines.
Today, the pylons again stand. The place formerly named after Stotsenburg is called Clark, or previously Clark Air Base, virtually owned and certainly controlled and used by the Americans before 12 majestic Philippine senators voted to abrogate the US Bases treaty and return the land to Philippine jurisdiction.
Interestingly, rather than name one of Clark’s largest parks after some of the illustrious senators such as Lorenzo Tañada who helped defeat aggressive US intentions to retain their bases in the Philippines, the Philippine government named it after… Stotsenburg.
They even commissioned an artist named Toym Imao to build a grand bronze colored monument of Stotsenburg and his officers astride their horses, all of them looking even more handsome.
But Mr Imao has always been a staunch and naughty nationalist. He agreed to the commission on condition that they allow him to complete history.
And so he built right across Stotsenburg and his horse a monument for Evangelista and Maniquiz loading a cannon pointed at the Americans. Go see it in Clark for yourself!
Colleagues, history is never boring, and with art, it becomes even more gorgeous. This is a photo from the North Cemetery, showing Gen. Licerio Geronimo. He was in command of the troops that killed US Gen. Lawton in a place near what is known today as Fairview. Lawton by the way was the US general whose forces captured the Apache chief and Native American icon Geronimo. On June 12, 1902 the Manila Times reported that Macario Sakay was captured by Gen. Licerio Geronimo under the Sedition Act. Sakay was released shortly after and swiftly resumed his revolutionary activities.
I am what you call a graver, which is the term used to denote a person who is incredibly fond of cemeteries. Among the many I’ve been visiting often is this one from Arlington in Washington DC. This is the tomb of Howling Jake Smith, court-martialed for war crimes but received a slap on the wrist, having been sentenced only to early retirement.
His offense? He was the guy who was asked by his subordinate, Gen. Littleton Waller, to designate who exactly their enemies were in the Philippines. They were then in the theater of what we call today Region VIII, in the province of Samar. Jake Smith gave his infamous response: I want you to transform Samar into a howling wilderness. The more you kill and burn, the better you will please me. Smith said everyone from 10 years of age and above was an enemy.
Tourists who have visited this area know this place as Golden River. Many locals call it Sojoton. But some still call it by its old name, “Pinaghulugan”, named after the act of Filipinos hurling down US invading troops massive rocks from on high.
This place should be considered a national historical monument and not just a natural beauty.
This is one of the many caves in Samar, where my colleauges are busily training and equipping communities to use, assemble, deploy and train others into using renewable energy. The caves were used as shelter by locals against Spaniards, Americans, Japanese, and the military intent on enforcing martial law during the Marcos tyranny. Today, these caves serve as shelter against super typhoons. They saved countless during Yolanda.
We live in a time when the currents of national history are colliding with the tides of natural history.
Instead of using the past just to win an argument, do as John Berger counsels. Use it as your companion.
Today we grapple with a fact that too few have yet to come to terms with. We have been trained to think the planet revolves around anthropogenic timelines. It is a particular kind of human conceit, one that is blind to the fact that human time is but a blip to geologic time, and that what we consider national history is merely current events for nature.
The extreme weather events we are experiencing today — we remember them by name: Yolanda, Pepeng, Ursula, Ondoy — are all merely the result of emissions we failed to prevent thirty years ago. This also means everything we do today will matter to the children of our children. Everything counts. Everyone matters.
The tides of natural history and our national past are colliding in ways that are not just fascinating but also menacing, if only we pay closer attention to what is happening around us and to our history.
This slide shows you photos of a memorial under repair. The town is named Balangiga in Samar, famous for humongous bells recently returned by the US, which stole the church treasure as part of war spoils and in reprisal for the worst defeat they encountered at the hands of Filipinos.
How interesting to see both natural and national history on the same page. It makes me wonder what’s waiting ahead of us, with the same United States government responsible for forcing upon us in 1898 the Treaty of Paris which bought three peoples for a bargain being the same government that is trying to deny its heavy climate change responsibility by walking away from the Paris Climate Agreement.
How do you read the clouds?
When ancient wisdom no longer holds
Is left behind as time unfolds
Star of the morning
Light our path
Take us away from calamity.
So goes a fragment of a poem from poet Grace Monte de Ramos, who wrote the original in Cebuano for the book Agam: Filipino Narratives on Uncertainty and Climate Change, composed of 26 images and 24 narratives in verse and prose written in eight languages. Another way of injecting art into engaging the climate crisis, where communications from science and policymaking has largely failed.
The last five slides are of the five women depicted. There is enough literature to read on the exhibit panels. Go and see them and read the text and the paintings more closely. But don’t just look for the clues in the paintings, excellently rendered by young artist Johnny Guarin in the aesthetic of tarot cards, to symbolize the way the fierce Alas women bet on the common good.
You must remember their names. Because there are far more out there, but let us begin with our first five.
Gloria Capitan, fighter of coal plants, an activist fighting against dangerous climate change, and the first EJK victim under the current government.
Lorena Barros, one of many icons in the struggle against the the brutal Marcos dictatorship.
Remedios Gomez-Paraiso, or Kumander Liwayway, the fighter of grace who resisted Japanese fascism as a leader of the Hukbalahap and who, as a ranking leader of the PKP, rebelled against the puppet Philippine governments under the sway of the Japanese and the Americans. Kumander Liwayway represents one of the countless colors of the feminine, preferring to wear lipstick and makeup before riding off to battle, a pistol in hand astride her horse.
Apolonia Catra, the only named woman officer who served under Macario Sakay’s command, who was reported to prefer wearing men’s clothing. She was described as a woman of reckless courage and exceptional cruelty by an American writing on the Philippine Constabulary.
We have included two interactive panels that I hope students and faculty will gladly take on. One asks the viewer to reconstruct Apolonia by rendering for her a fictional face.
And lastly, Oriang, fabled, loved, and still too often forgotten. We remember her name, but which individual or institution commemorates her birth or her death regularly? She is the ace of aces.
Let the women guide us. Let us give thanks to them by getting to know them more. For by knowing our heroes we ultimately get to discover more about ourselves.
A lecture delivered by Renato Redentor Constantino
Managing director of the Constantino Foundation and executive director of the Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities at The Libraries, Henry Sy, Sr. Hall, De La Salle University, 27 January 2020