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From cradle to grave, the family is the Filipino's rock of ages. In childhood and youth, it is his rock of support and security; in adulthood, it is home when he marries too early and cannot cope, an insurance for times of need; and then in old age, it is the hearth to which he returns, however far he may wander.
The Filipino may contract other bonds in the course of his life with the company he works for, the church he worships in, the neighborhood he lives in, even the foster nation he swears allegiance to - but the foundation of his strivings is first and foremost his family. And by family is meant the veritable tree that includes under its shade relations up to the third degree as well as in-laws. This explains why the Filipino orphan who does not know his genes is the most popular figure of pity in Filipino soap operas.
If there is one institution that truly works in the Philippines, it is probably the Filipino family. Not even the Roman Catholic Church or the State, for all their power and influence, can rival it in claiming the loyalty and allegiance of Filipinos.
There are three basic family systems the nuclear family which consists of a husband, wife and children; the polygamous family which consists of a husband or wife and several spouses and their children; and the extended family which brings together several generations in direct line and kinship ties built by marriage. The extended type best describes the Filipino family.
The extensions can be mesmerizing. Almost every Filipino thinks of his family as consisting not only of the nuclear cell of spouse and children; it includes for him the innumerable relations of grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews. These are further extended to include kin acquired through marriage and the institutionalized compadrazo system by which godfathers and godchildren come to be regarded as kinsmen.
And what tradition and custom have sanctified, the legal system has reinforced. The State sees the family as a basic social institution which public policy cherishes and protects. This is elaborated in various provisions of the Civil Code which treats marriage as inviolate, prohibits divorce, extols the rearing and education of children, obliges couples to live together and in fidelity to each other, and emphatically states that in case of doubt, all presumptions favor the solidarity of the family.
This sanguine view of the Filipino family is by no means shared by all. As Mao did in China, so some scholars and social scientists see the primacy of the family as a monkey on the nation's back.
The Hunt study of 1963 opined that the Filipino family system may have deterred national modernization and nationhood and suggested that the shortcomings of the Filipino family may be the defect of its virtues. This has since been echoed by many social scientists, including the Jesuit sociologist John Carroll, who believe that family loyalties impede the development of wider loyalties and cooperation.
Some contend that the Philippines may really be no more than an assemblage of millions of families that mirror the country's fragmentation into islands. That behind the division of the republic into cities, provinces, towns and barangays, there is the truer division of society into families.
The studies pin on the elemental Filipino family such diverse ills as the prevalence of dependency, nepotism, graft and corruption, lack of initiative and self-reliance, parochialism, and the flabbiness of Philippine nationalism. There is no lack of evidence to back the lament.
When President Aquino is criticized for the activities of her relatives, her critics are merely continuing a long tradition of excoriating national leaders through their kinsmen. Certainly, the Marcos regime did much to show the nation how macabre is the adage that blood is thicker than water.
Yet, like the conclusion that prizes the family above everything, the knock against the Filipino family is also facile and tendentious. It reflects the vain attempt to find one simple explanation of why the Philippines has proven so slow in developing, when in all likelihood many factors have contributed, with the mystique of the Filipino family only one of them. One could argue as well that the problem of Philippine modernization is not a matter of making the family less the focus of individual loyalty, but of trying to transform its obvious strengths and values into a force for shaping a modern and progressive society.
One instance in which these virtues can work for the whole society is to be found in the contemporary phenomenon of Filipino migrant labor. In recent years, because of lack of jobs and opportunities at home, many Filipino families have been wracked by separations as family members have had to venture abroad to work. Overseas Filipino workers, now numbering 1.5 million, endure long years of labor in hardship stations to give their families a little more of welfare and comfort. What they send or bring home from abroad runs in the billions of dollars every year - an undeniable boon to a nation strapped of cash.
This says something also about the adaptability of the Filipino family to changing times.
It is a popular notion today that modernization, whether fast or slow in coming, will erode family ties and prune the extensions of the Filipino family. But stresses on family life are hardly unknown to Filipinos. They have known their share of urbanization, colonization, modem lifestyles, broken marriages, desertions, the generation gap, and homegrown versions of the communes, but their basic family system and its values have survived.
Amidst the challenges of a changing world, the Filipino family will simply continue to adapt and make adjustments, abiding as the essential place of refuge for the Filipino.