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The Village Society

(Ricardo G. Abad)

In a long Bar on a Metro Manila highway, Jane Gomez, a young Filipino singer commands center stage with Tagalog pop songs, while above to her left, international pianist Cecile Licad, a Filipino of the same generation, plays Rachmaninoff on a television broadcast. Why doesn't anyone notice this cacophonous duet? Probably because to the Filipino patrons, this is just one more of the many juxtapositions of everyday life. What Filipino is surprised by a house that doubles as a beauty shop and a copy center, or a goiter clinic that also sells ice, or a mother who takes a sick child to a doctor, but just to be sure, takes him to a faith-healer as well, or a Catholic procession in which the Virgin Mary is bejeweled and begowned like a beauty queen? None.

These are just some of the improvisations of Philippine social life that date back to ancient times. In the 17th century, for instance, Filipinos, then called indios, were resettled by the Spaniards in inland centers where they all fell "under the bells" and within the reach of law. Eager to please, the natives adapted to their new environment and its traditions as best s they could without giving up their indigenous way of life. When told by the friar to go to confession, they did, but instead of confessing their own "sins", they confessed the "sins" of their neighbors.

Did the indios love to gossip? Perhaps they did, but not in this case. Having been raised in a society ruled by personal relationships, they were not about to bare their soul to a stranger: Besides, they believed their own god, Bathala, was in a better position to take care of their "sins". Consciously or not, they were shunning total conversion to Spanish Catholicism. And from that innocent resistance rose a peculiar blend of folk and formal religion that now distinguishes Philippine Catholic religious festivals and rituals from other Catholics, and continues to affirm the Filipino belief in the coexistence of the Iberian God and the deities of their own spirit world.

The cultural basis of Philippine improvisations finds root in a heritage of accommodation and resistance to colonial and post-colonial rule.

Modem-day Filipinos are essentially Malay, but have a sprinkling of Chinese, Indian, Arabic and Caucasian blood. Their nation, an archipelago of 7,107 islands, from the earliest times has been explored by voyagers, migrants and traders.

Ferdinand Magellan's 1521 landfall on Homonhon Island began over 300 years of Spanish colonial rule in the Philippines. Then in 1898, the Spaniards were displaced by the Americans, who stayed for nearly 50 years. This long colonial experience impinged itself deeply in the Filipino mass culture.

Before Spanish contact, Filipinos lived in scattered villages made up of kin-groups along the archipelago's bountiful coasts. Their villages bore the name of heir largest sailing boat, the barangay, and served as transshipment points for moving goods and people.

Based close to the sea, the spirit of the barangay stressed mobility while de-emphasizing the importance of territorial boundaries - the same spirit that now allows many Filipinos to seek a better life outside the "homeland". But while territorial boundaries were open, social boundaries were closely defined. Social relations within the barangay were based on indebtedness. The village chief, the datu, begot power not only from birthright but the ability to lead. The prerequisites for social survival sprang from the barangay system: among them, close family ties, respect for elders, sociability, sharing, and, because great prestige was attached to persons with a large following, a sense of people as well.

While this social system held the barangay together, it didn't necessarily link one barangay with other villages. The power of the datu was derived exclusively from his relations within the village. Thus the Philippines, at the time of Spanish conquest, was made up of interrelated but separate societal units. This was perhaps the reason why ruling dynasties-political blocs that created kingdoms, empires and nation states in other parts of Southeast Asia - never developed. And because successive colonial governments did little to foster a barangay network of political systems, Philippine society still remains, for better or for worse, a village society with village values.

This village society of 60 million people now confronts the problems of modern life. Rapid population growth, uneven development, political instability, ecological damage and the onslaught of natural disasters have replaced colonial rule as the Filipinos' object of accommodation and resistance. And as before, they continue to improvise, finding unique solutions to restore order and sanity to their otherwise chaotic world. They poke fun at authority figures, watch romantic movies where ordinary men and women triumph over hardship, and dance at religious processions carrying the image of the Child Jesus in one hand and a flask of palm wine in the other.

Sometimes, fed up with the system, Filipinos rally together and explode, like New Year fireworks, in a chorus of protest. Philippine history is replete with pocket rebellions, many of which were sustained through sheer courage. The festive improvisation now known throughout the world as the EDSA Revolution of February 1986 is a modem refrain of an ancient theme.

As in the 17th century, Filipinos today will give in, but they will not give up. Their stubbornness is the source of their strength and their optimism.

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