Sunday, August 31, 2008

Veneer of language

MY sons’ school required students to come in Filipiniana for a day to usher the month celebrating the national language.

This year he broke his personal record and chose to go as a farmer: plain white shirt, denims and my old slippers (that are not made of rubber harvested from some South American rain forest).

I considered but later abandoned voicing out my suggestion that a field-battered native hat and a Made in China cotton towel slung around his neck would make him look more like the Filipinos, male and female, who turn the soil and raise the greens we eat.

Due to some star-crossed accident, my son, a fastidious dresser, happens to have a laidback, sartorially clueless mother. Since nursery, when August rolled into view, I always sent him off to school dressed as a farmer while his classmates came in barong.

During those years when I could dictate to him, I mounted an elaborate song-and-dance to convince him to choose comfort over appearance. I could think of no more horrible torture than to be stuck the whole day in an itchy top that took itself so seriously.

Who has a better job than the farmer? I expostulated to my son then. To have all those sun-drenched fields to yourself and a placid colleague, who, if he gets too warm, will simply cool off in a mud pool? In a barong, all one can do is to look honorable, which is of not much use if you want to shuck off your slippers, look for guavas or catch fat frogs.

For a couple of years, my son complacently marched to school as a farmer. I don’t know when he stopped making concessions to me and ushered in Buwan ng Wika in a barong. It must have been at about the time I grew up myself, and stopped deciding what he should read, how he should structure his free time, etc.

So I was not just mildly surprised when he chose his farming “threads.” I speculated on the reasons: was his crush going as a barrio lass? Days earlier, his younger brother left for school in a barong, looking like a pure, unblemished acolyte of new politics. When Juan came home, his barong suggested that he must have spent the rest of the day cooling off in a mud pool with carabao chums.

When Carlos, my farmer, came home, he looked as fresh as ever but a tad sheepish. He had debated calling home to ask me to send his barong, formal pants and shoes after he learned that his particular garb was forbidden by the school. He and a few others of the same bucolic fashion were excused only after it was learned that a teacher had failed to communicate this policy.

I was furious the way a carabao, creature of legendary placidity, becomes a frothing element of red wrath when he finds that his pool is being converted into a mud spa for tourists.

When did the country become an archipelago of barong wearers? Sure, piña and jusi confer dignity but you only have to watch three minutes of the House and Senate in session to realize how thin a veneer of intelligence and honor the costliest barong can guarantee. If all of us stayed inside a barong, would we have any rice to shovel down our throats? Would you be drinking dalandan juice right now? I asked my befuddled son.

I was still mumbling that ukay-ukay (used clothes) and cheap Chinese imports were drastically changing the way many Filipinos dress when the TV news showed footages of civilians caught between the conflict between the military and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in Kauswagan, Linamon and Kolambugan,

Widows no longer seemed to cry. After losing partners and breadwinners, these war widows draped themselves over coffins and bodies in the timeless, wordless posture of uncertainty. On their children’s faces was the blankness of shock. What future can we expect if our hatreds rob the young of their hope?

A few days ago, I was crossing the college quadrangle when the public address system aired the noontime angelus. I paused in the shade of a mango tree and looked at a blinding blue sky.

Language is not just about words. It can also be the wordlessness that constricts the throat. In the presence of a particular shade of blue and tolling bells that summon grace. Or under the mercy of an open, ambiguous sky.

When we honor the Filipino this month, may we never forget one word, garbed in whatever language: kalinaw (peace). 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Aug. 24, 2008 issue

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