At a Christmas carnival in Makati, I met Susan and a fellow teacher and her husband. They’d talked me into going with them to a movie at the opulent Rizal Theater. The three of them had been shopping. It was Susan’s idea that we hook up with another American couple. It was my first chance to talk to someone who worked for a large American corporation in Manila.
Jeff turned out to be a tall, smart New Englander. He had an equally bright wife. She was teaching her second year at the Manila International School and didn’t have to work if she didn’t want to. He loved his job.
I asked him about his world.
“I am not an executive at OMB,” he said, emphasizing OMB. “I’m not essential. I can easily be replaced. Why then am I here when I can’t hold a managerial position over a Filipino? At least official, I can’t. Per an agreement OMB has with God-knows-who, there can be only so many of us here in Manila, but they tell me I’m essential when I’m not. I guess I’m essential because … because the company has a bias. The will not admit that they have a bias, but they do. The company doesn’t like to admit that there are as many of us here … as many Americans as there are and would deny that they had any Americas working for them here if they could. I detest the charade. I do my job. I like to think they can’t do without me. I came over here two years ago expecting within a year’s time to train myself out of a position, but the way it’s going I expect to be here another two years. We’re contributing to this country, and I’m training people who should be able to someday run the whole show.”
I asked him about how he felt about the recent unrest in Manila.
“It’s unfortunate. But it’s the same back home. I however think it’s safer over here. Over here we live in a gated community. Back home I don’t think we could afford it.”
They happened to live in Forbes Park and in a nice house on a lot with a swimming pool. Should the need arise, they not only had around-the-clock protection of security guards but also the protection of an army.
Marcos had just detained Vincente de la Cruz, the award winning Philippine filmmaker, actor, director, who was known for his hard punches. They questioned him harshly before they let him go. It wasn’t generally known that he was picked up but few people would’ve been surprised. He had a reputation for being tough on the aristocracy and critical of the president.
In his most recent film, shot almost exclusively in Quiapo (he wrote it), society was depicted as degenerate and corrupt. Expensive cars were seen crawling down narrow streets. It was always about money, an obsession of the rich and the poor … about the obscenities of the rich as they snubbed the poor, with the Pasig as a metaphor … the polluted Pasig. But the most damning part was Vincente’s focus on the hypocrisy of politicians, particular those in power. But to point a finger at Marcos was dangerous.
To catch up with Vincente, I went to a tenement building in Tondo, a neglected, half-completed structure, where he was shooting a documentary with a small crew and a hand-held camera. Children were playing nearby. In front of the building, more children were playing soccer with a ball that had seen better days. (Vincente never missed small details and would certainly capture this one.) Inside was a dark, hollow lobby. It was once a palatial place but now felt like a tomb with dirt and graffiti all over the place. All over the floor were piles of trash and here and there junk. In one corner, a couple of men sat on the floor, asleep or drunk, which I half expected to see. Down two halls were stairs to other floors and doors to small apartments. They had a few windows and kitchens and bathrooms, and bedrooms, but no running water. This was home to thousands of people.
I asked him how he was received. I assumed that people living there were not thrilled with their plight.
“People generally want to be in movies. From the number of movie theaters in Manila, over 400, you can see how popular movies are. Since I’m well known, and because of the kind of stories I tell, I’m a kind of a hero. Almost all of my films have been successful, and that was why I think I wasn’t detained any longer than I was. Marcos wants to gag me, but he knows that he has to be careful. He’d like for me to be on his side…have me betray myself and betray the Philippine people. I think people here realize that I’m on their side.”
I asked him what he intended to do.
“It’s obvious that Marcos intends to hold onto power and that he’ll do anything to hold onto it,” he said. “People here are symbolic of our nation … poor, struggling, and oppressed, and by and large forgotten. But they see how students are standing up to Marcos and may even have children involved. They know about the general strike at UP. I want to see what impact this has made. Are they thinking of joining a much bigger struggle? Or are they too embroiled in their day to day struggles to care? I think Marcos is a fool, and I don’t have to say why I think it.”
As he continued to shoot his documentary and we continued to talk, it became clear that Vincente had joined the ranks of radicals and that he was far from complacent. Yet one thing set him apart, and this was that he had a huge following.
“I had my own awakening when I was very young,” he told me. “My father was a bigamist. He was charged with bigamy and afterwards chose his first wife over my mother. She then had to raise me on her own. I saw how she struggled. Now aren’t the contradictions apparent?”
The Congress building on Burgos Drive, opposite a parking lot and a grassy sidewalk that formed an embankment above a mini golf course had housed both Houses since it opened in 1950. Built in the neoclassical style, the edifice was remarkable for Corinthian pillars that line a vast colonnade and pilasters that supported every wall. The design of the nearby Manila Post Office was considered superior with its channeled Greek-Ionic columns.
Vincente, a chunky Filipino in his late twenties with a constant frown wore a loose fitting Hawaiian shirt and khaki shorts. Because of the bright sun he wore sunglasses. “The post office was almost totally destroyed during the war. This building didn’t open until 1950.” Vincente said, as he shot footage of the area around the Congress building. “Manuel Roxas became our first president when independence was granted, as scheduled, on July 4, 1946, and yes, it was on the 4th of July. But in my estimation, true independence never occurred. It was then that we signed a military assistance pact with your country, giving your country a 99-year lease on existing military bases. Since then your country has helped itself to a huge slice of our economy. And as presidents came and went, not much changed.”
I wanted to argue with Vincente but I couldn’t. I am of medium height, lean, clean-cut and normally not very hard to get along with. “Although to a certain degree I agree with you, I don’t think you can honestly blame all of your problems on the US.”
I then asked him how he became an activist.
“My mother sent me to a private Catholic school, run by American nuns, and it gave me a taste of honey-sweet brutality,” Vincente said. “The nuns ruled with rulers, and after that experience … well, after that experience … I was radicalized. I’ve since portrayed fascists and heroes, crybabies and big shots. Our problems aren’t going away anytime soon. Say we want to buy toothpaste, why don’t we have more choices. Colgate, that’s our word for toothpaste. Thus I make the films I do, of themes about petty and gross injustices, with popular movie stars, and perhaps popular melodrama, but I stay away from pure propaganda. The minimum requirement for me is realism.”
”May I ask,” I asked. “What are you doing now, and why, to the extent you have, have you concentrated on this building? The thing I’ve noticed is that you’ve avoided photographing people. I don’t see where you’re going.”
“No, no. I don’t talk about my films until they’re in the can.”