26 March 2011

A homecoming — for someone who never left

Commencement Speech, 63rd Commencement Exercises, UNC High School, March 26, 2011.

I’M HONORED to address the 2011 Graduating Class of the University of Nueva Caceres in this most important occasion in your student life. I can certainly say I understand the mixed feelings that go with the occasion, having been in your shoes 25 years ago.

Which is quite something, isn’t it? After all, our batch, UNC High School Batch ’85, was the last of the so-called “Marcos babies”: in bidding goodbye to high school life on March 30, 1985, we were the last of our kind to graduate with the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos as sitting president.

Less than a year later, a snap election would be held on February 7, 1986, pitting Marcos against Cory Aquino, the widow of opposition Sen. Benigno Aquino, Jr. who was assassinated two years back in August 1983 — when we were still in third year high school, in our classroom there in the Engineering Building. It would be the beginning of the end. In two weeks time, the People Power Revolution would take place in Edsa and sweep the Marcoses out of power. And the rest is history.

Yet, all these would probably be unimportant to you, as a generation who grew up on gadgets like the ubiquitous cellphone that cannot be separated from your body, or social networking technologies like Facebook and Twitter that bind groups and communities together. I will not be surprised if for most of you, the Edsa Revolution of 1986 — whose 25th anniversary the country celebrated this year — is only stuff of textbooks, a boring but required reading to get you through school. (Although nowadays, you can also google it on the internet and download commemorative video clips on Youtube, something we didn’t have back in our days.)

But boy, were they tumultuous years for our generation, those four we spent at UNC High! Looking back from hindsight two and a half decades later, I still cannot figure out how my parents, an ordinary farmer and a plain housewife from Sagrada, Pili, were actually able to send me and my brother (who is two years my junior) to UNC. Most probably it was because they’re into farming that our family livelihood was mostly shielded from the tremendous economic difficulties of the time. Moreover, many farmers have no choice but to continue farming, because they actually don’t have any other option available.

Nonetheless, this singular opportunity to speak before you, as a “young once,” I therefore owe them. In the same manner that your presence here must have been made possible by having parents, guardians or benefactors by your side. But that is not what I want to dwell on today.

Nowadays, it’s easy to lose hope, especially in these difficult times. For someone who has practically seen our country swing from the extremes — from a repressive regime under Marcos to a restored democracy under Cory, from the dull but gung-ho days of Ramos and his technocrats to the false populism of Erap and his midnight cabinet, followed by yet another People Power uprising in 2001 (and a planned coup d’etat by military backers, just in case) that installed Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and her regime of broken promises, which left in its wake equally broken democratic institutions, and now another Aquino back in Malacanang, propelled by the Biblical metaphor of “tuwid na daan” — I would like to think I’ve seen it all.

It’s as if the country has just wasted a quarter of a century hurtling from one crisis to another, fighting and containing fires of our own making, so much so that 25 years later, our democracy project remains a largely unfulfilled promise. Meanwhile, our neighboring countries in Southeast Asia have gotten their act together, moved on and sped ahead — iwinalat na kita sa baybayon.

It pains me because I am reminded of, and now feel chastised by that vigorous debate I had with a lovely lady at the Provincial Capitol, where, fresh out of college, I worked from 1989 to 1991. It came during the time Gringo Honasan and his RAM cohorts have just launched another coup against Cory Aquino — I think it was the one that almost killed Noynoy. The Capitol lady, clearly talking from experience, opined that she doesn’t anymore care if Cory is ousted; it’s all about power, and whoever wins, it’s the country that actually loses. I, on the other hand, passionately argued that the newly restored democracy will weather these challenges and a better future awaits us because we will have learned from the lessons of history.

It turns out I am both right and wrong. Right that Cory would survive the coups, and eventually exited the presidency with the grace and goodwill her successors never had. But I was terribly wrong about the more important thing — we cannot seem to learn from history.

And she was right on what really matters most — it is the country that loses. Filipinos do not seem to have what it takes to succeed as a nation. Other countries have snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, and bounced back when they fall down. We, on the other hand, don’t seem to know how to win, which starts with getting our act together under a president who can inspire and draw the best from every Filipino. We instead revel in our infinite capacity to laugh at our own misfortunes, mistaking it for the legendary resiliency of the bamboo. But repeated many times over without ever learning, these are really failings that bite, very much like that ancient Bee Gees song called “I Started a Joke” that is probably alien to your Lady Gaga-Taylor Swift-and-Justin Bieber generation. Even then, these failings are no longer funny — because mothers are dying during childbirth; children are growing hungry and stunted, eventually dropping out of school; our population is exploding; and poverty continues to prey on our benighted land.

But there is hope, because there is a better way. What our batch did is probably instructive — we simply ignored the national government and moved on with our lives. Like many Filipinos today, a number chose to vote with their feet and went abroad. Many of them are doing well. In a decade or so, they should be coming home and contribute more directly to community building. Others chose to leave and try their luck in other places of the country, including Metro Manila. But most opted to stay in Bicol, particularly in Naga, like myself and many others who have built their family, career and living in this city we call “maogmang lugar.”

The bottomline is this: We have cut off the static and the crap that came from a central government and its parade of post-Edsa administrations that have failed miserably, and upon which we have very little influence — and decided to rechannel our energies to more productive pursuits.

This process is called re-centering. Here, I take a leaf from literature, by way of the experience of Merlie Alunan of Leyte and Abdon Balde, Jr. of Oas, Albay as described in an article entitled “Center away from the center” which appeared in the March 12, 2011 issue of Manila Bulletin.

Balde, one of the most outstanding Bikolano artists awarded by the city government in 2009, especially came out with this gem: “Centers are not permanent places. I suppose I am just like any writer who creates his own center, and it doesn't matter whether it is in the center or in the margins. What matters is that I am comfortable in my own center.”

By pretending as if the national government did not exist, our batch effectively created their own centers and became comfortable with it. These centers are not constrained by geography — for some, it was Hong Kong or Singapore or Malaysia in Southeast Asia; Dubai, Saudi or Qatar in the Middle East; UK, Austria or the other countries in continental Europe; Australia down under; and of course the good ol’ US of A in North America. For our seamen, it can even be the seven seas of Sindbad, or wherever their ships would bring them.

But for the less audacious ones like myself, who by force of choice or circumstance decided to stay, Naga became our center. And for the past two decades, I had the opportunity to contribute to its growth, its development, its continuing effort to be the “maogmang lugar” its citizens dream about — in the best way that I can.

But more importantly, our batch never forgot we are all connected — that once upon a time, we spent together four colorful years of high school life within the walls of this university, making it our veritable second home.

Which why I am both honored and happy to be here to refresh the landscape of our memories. It is during times like this that we yearn for things that were, and those that never were and didn’t come to pass. Seeing you today reminds me of the very things that make high school that unforgettable, once-in-a-lifetime experience. Like many of you for sure, it was in high school when we fell in love for the first time, so much so that some of our “love teams” survived both the juvenile traps and the temptations of college life and actually ended for real and for keeps. Most others weren’t so lucky, and I’d like to believe it was because they would eventually find someone better. Others chose to be on the safe side and decided to keep the feeling to themselves, and had all the pimples to show for it. Still others would bide their time, and like Ramon Fernandez, my hardcourt hero from the fabled Toyota Corollas, or his counterparts from the much-hated Crispa Redmanizers, would opt to launch their attempt in the closing seconds of the game. But the better ones would cast their net wider, choosing either someone younger or older, depending on their taste and skills.

So, thank you for indulging me and my juvenile reminiscences in this homecoming of sorts — for someone who never really left. You see, I was supposed to be here last December 29, 2010 when Batch ‘85 hosted the traditional alumni homecoming of the university. That was until a virulent illness felled me five days before the big event, and kept me under house arrest for the next three weeks.

Three months later, I am finally home and thoroughly enjoying your company.

And a decade or so from now, my batchmates with hairs graying like mine will come home too, for good — because at the end of the day, there is no place quite like it. And we will have this little big university to thank for, not only for the cherished memories of youth but for a life well lived. And it will be for the greater glory of Naga, and in the best interest of our beloved Bicolandia, that these centers will converge — for good and for keeps.

But enough of the melodrama! Again, thank you and may Jehovah God bless wherever your feet will carry you, and choose to create your own centers.