Saturday, July 28, 2012

The original Ms. Congeniality

I SYMPATHIZE but have to agree with Sen. Joker Arroyo, who told a national daily that he wasn’t attending last Monday’s State of the Nation Address (Sona) because: first, no one called the roll; second, he would not be missed; and third, he would stay home and do what everyone else did, watch the beauties parade in what is now The Filipiniana Sona.

Let it not be said that Filipinos don’t appreciate beauty. They even marry them. The rest of us live vicariously through beauty pageants, vote by SMS and Facebook for favorites, and even name our children after slant-eyed embodiments of beauty’s universal, even inter-stellar, appeal.

Actually, I have no proof that Martians watch as avidly gown and swimsuit competitions. Our Pinoy obsession with “Ms.” titles has colonial roots.

In January 1908, when the First Assembly was just inaugurated, Governor-General James Smith needed a celebration to further melt local resistance. According to Alfred McCoy and Alfredo Roces in “Philippine Cartoons,” the first organizer, Captain Langhorne, asked for P50,000 to build a cockpit, exhibit half-naked Igorots, and hold amusements.

Horrified by the prospect of a freak show that would congeal hostility, Smith turned to his Secretary of Commerce, Cameron Forbes. The Boston financier asked only for P15,000 and raised another P15,000 through subscriptions to pursue a “ritual celebration of Philippine-American progress”.

Forbes proposed a carnival. Its highlight would be a beauty contest to select a Queen of the Occident and a Queen of the Orient.

The American community chose the sister of Customs Collector, G. R. Colton.
The Filipinos, though, initially recoiled. Elite Manileños felt it degrading to parade their women. When Smith asked Mariano Limjap to allow his daughter Leonarda to join, the business leader and founder of the Federalist Party said he “did not want to be talked about”.

Lipag Kalabaw and the Philippines Free Press denounced the Americans’ debasement of Filipinas. Lipag Kalabaw, which skirted stringent libel laws by having no masthead and using only pen names for artists and writers, ran a satirical cartoon, entitled “Paghanap ng Reina (Buscando Reina),” showing Americans bringing lanterns and conducting a search in the city’s brothels.

Yet beauty melts all hearts. Manileños voted with cash for their candidates. On February 1908, a maritime parade in Manila Bay climaxed in the meeting of the Queen of the Orient and the Queen of the Occident, complete with garlands of cadena de amor, flowers that creep among and cover tombs but was ironically used by the American colonials to show how fate “unites eternally the countries of East and West”.

The Queen of the Orient, Pura Villanueva of Molo, Iloilo, was smashing in a “stunning gown of flowing folds draped with strings of pearls”. While bands played and crowds cheered, the Queens “opened seven days of bread and circus”.

The Carnival became the two-week highlight of Manila’s social calendar. Daughters of the wealthiest families competed fiercely, in their demure, well-bred ways, for the title of Carnival Queen. Aside from sating vanity, the title guaranteed good marriages. The 1920 Carnival Queen, Trinidad de Leon, married Manuel A. Roxas, future president. After her 1922 reign, Queen Virginia Llanas married her escort, Carlos Romulo, future foreign minister.

Even the press lapped up the Carnival. Except for a brief salvo of anti-Americanism, the prickly Free Press and other papers got too busy printing ballot papers for the beauty competition. In 1926, the Carnival Committee replaced the Carnival Queen with a nationwide search for the first “Ms. Philippines”. Only World War II halted Manila’s annual Carnival.

Our love for beauty contests endures. Then and now, it is difficult to weed out the seeds planted in colonized hearts. 09173226131

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s July 29, 2012 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

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