Monday, September 25, 2006

Walking backwards

I CAN think of only two reasons why this should be attempted. One is to retrace the way to uncover a mistake. The other is to come face to face with blind faith.

Notoriously difficult, walking backwards should be unpopular.

The three million Filipinos working abroad don’t think so.

All are scattered farther than the wind blows, or in more than 200 overseas destinations.

Some like Jane Parangan La Puebla were not just driven away by our economy, which the President described in her 2005 State of the Nation Address as “on the verge of take off.”

La Puebla ended up in many places in Singapore: her head and extremities were stuffed inside a bag left at an MRT station; her torso, in another bag left on a footpath.

If you put together the dismembered pieces of a Filipino migrant, can you still see the person before she left?

All photos of the dead look the same: arrested, bleached of something vital, a whiff of a secret that will not hold the attention of the living for long.

Who was La Puebla before she became a jigsaw puzzle to the Singaporean authorities?

The answer comes in fragments.

She is the granddaughter of the woman caught weeping by a TV camera. If technology can impassively record and convert anguish into an evening news spectacle, we the audience can be just as rational and cold to her pleas: what else is more efficient than cremation for sundry body parts?

First and foremost are weightier concerns like national interest. Who has time to reflect beyond this broken woman’s soundbite, that perhaps for their family, much worse than the insult of La Puebla being cut up is her obliteration, the many selves of a beloved—daughter, mother, wife, granddaughter— returning home as ash.

But unless a migrant changes into a Flor Contemplacion, recognizable as front-page martyr and box-office draw, many of us are incapable of really seeing migrants as Filipinos who could be, if not for the grace of circumstances, our loved ones, even us.

We sneer at the neighbor whose hair highlights are brassier and louder than her shrill complaints about how much poorer and dingier is the country upon her return.

With glee, we repeat how we’ve seen this teenager hang out every night with a gang of young thugs. We save the juiciest detail as morale: how his parents, buried under mounds of dollars in Dubai, are unable or unwilling to save their son.

We gnash our teeth when we lose a promising student. One three-unit subject shy of graduating with a mass communications degree, he shifts to take up nursing. We wish he will write short stories in between slow shifts in some remote land.

There is a recorded 3.12 million Filipinos working overseas. No one knows exactly how many are the others: the ones without papers.

Adding the official and the ghost lists, there are enough overseas Filipinos to comprise a small nation.

For that is what the migrant workers really are: random, dispelled, alien.

And the only thing we have in common? A reflex for walking backwards.

( or 09173226131)

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