For me, my earliest political memory was the Interim Batasan election of 1978, when the famous noise barrage took place. I was in the hospital, recovering from appendicitis, and I have two fleeting recollections: my father nervously reading a mimeographed leaflet calling for the noise barrage (the nerves provoked by fears of vandalism in the name of freedom), and overhearing him tell someone how, during the noise barrage, Luis Araneta, by his lonesome in the empty silence of his vast mansion, solemnly rang a tiny dinner bell in solidarity.
But my earliest political lessons all took place in August, always a time for seeing the past through the eyes of the present, involving, as it did, two traditions my father followed. The first was the annual combination of two traditions he loved and one he didn’t: the Quezon Day Mass at Letran, the Quezon Night dinner at the Philippine Columbian, and the official government ceremony at the Quezon Memorial Shrine in between. The second was the annual open house of Mrs. Luz Banzon Magsaysay at her Wack Wack home on the birth anniversary of her husband, the late president. Over the course of my childhood, I watched silver-haired but still sprightly veterans of the Quezon and Magsaysay regime grow increasingly stooped and frail, until, one by one, the once familiar elders in turn passed away and the annual commemorations became less and less an opportunity for reunions of the true believers.
Two instances stick to my mind because they marked the tender memories of the past—how warm the glow would be, whenever the elders gathered to hail their departed chiefs—colliding with the harsh confrontations of the then-present. At Mrs. Magsaysay’s, I remember seeing then-Chief Justice Enrique Fernando—trim, dapper in a well-cut but conservative suit, and modestly by himself without any aides—shyly make his way into the house to pay respects to the former first lady. He had been an adviser of the late president, and appointed by him to the Code Commission. At the time, he’d already achieved notoriety most publicly for gallantly holding an umbrella to shield Madame Marcos from the sun but more crucially, repeatedly legitimizing the Marcos dictatorship through the court’s decisions. It struck me then, in my child’s mind, that nice-looking people who once were on the good side could, later in life, defend the bad.
The last time I accompanied my father to visit Mrs. Magsaysay, she recounted how Mrs. Roxas died: she was being visited by Mrs. Macapagal, was in the middle of a story, suddenly raised her arms, and died. What struck me most about the tale was what it revealed about a long-lost because now long-gone era when you could live your political and social life firmly within one political identity: the former first lady, Luz, speaking of the passing of another first lady, Trining, in the presence of yet another first lady, Eva, could do so because they were members of one extended political family, the Liberals (Magsaysay had been a Nacionalista president but prior to that, strictly a Liberal; his son Ramon Magsaysay Jr. would win office and variously run as a candidate, of his father’s old party, the Liberals). In a humbler manner, it used to be said in the old days there were sari-sari stores that only extended credit to Nacionalistas or Liberals, depending on the owner’s affiliation.
The other instance is actually two events close together, when I was already in my teens. I had the chance to be introduced, at two separate but chronologically close to each other events, to former speaker Jose B. Laurel and Fr. Fritz Araneta, both vivid, even volcanic, figures in their time but by then, both confined to wheelchairs and not given to saying much. But when I was introduced to each, both recovered a shred of their former vigor, and upon hearing MLQ, their eyes flashed with fire, and, proudly, they raised their fist three times: here, for a fleeting moment, was distilled the prewar era. What this taught me is the political giants of our youth define our political instincts well into our old age.
We are, each of us, born in a particular political era; some of us may settle on a particular perspective when it comes to politics, at a particular stage in our life; or, put another way, an era may have such an impact on our lives, it affects our political choices ever after. The Vice President recently put it best: “Colors do not define us. We are defined by the choices we make.”
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