Remembering: the rock that grew into an island

Remembering: the rock that grew into an island
The author in 2006 photo in his hometown —RODIL FAMILY PHOTO ALBUM

Last of five parts

The rock lay rooted deep on top of a mountain/ A stone’s throw away stood our little farm hut/ The farm was the homestead father acquired in 1940/ The mountain was broken by two rivers/ From the north and from the south/ The two rivers intersected at the east/ Beyond the river at the east was a little valley town/ Encircled by more mountains/

From this town of Nuro snakes out a road/ That worms itself into the mountain opposite of where I was born./ I was born in that little hut.

When I was big enough to run around by myself, possibly 5 or 6 years old, my only elder sister went to high school at the eastern end of the valley, stayed at the dorm and was seldom home. My three brothers went to the same school, lived in the cottages on campus, and were also seldom home. Two more brothers attending grade school at the southern part of the valley left early each morning and returned in the afternoon. A sister was born when I was 6, a brother when I was 10. My father tilled the land from dawn to dusk. My mother attended to her domestic duties, and to me.

Six days a week, my daylight hours were spent with my mother and, mostly, by myself. Our nearest neighbors were kilometers away. Their children did not go to school and therefore helped in farm or house work. I was forbidden to venture even to the nearest neighbor. Once or twice, I escaped and succeeded. But the other children were busy grinding corn. And as soon as I got back home, I was scolded.

Very early in life, from that little rock, I wondered: What lay beyond my little world? Once, my eldest brother came home with a camera. I was so scared when he aimed it at me that I cried helplessly. Other times, my other brothers burst out laughing at my ignorance. And when my mother at last took me by bus to the city by the huge Pulangi (which means “big river” in the communities in Bukidnon and Cotabato) river, into those mountains and beyond, she bought me my first ice drop. Unable to comprehend hot and cold, I threw it away.

Mother’s lessons

With Kuya Marino family in 1952 photo. —RODIL FAMILY PHOTO ALBUM

Like any good mother at that time, my mother tried to teach me the prayers “Ama Namin” (Our Father) and “Aba Ginoong Maria” (Hail Mary). I never learned them fully. But the ama got me curious, and I asked her who He was. He is the father of everyone, she said. And since I was to go to school like my brothers, my mother who got as far as the fourth grade in her own schooling, also taught me the numbers, first in Tagalog and then in English. 

My wonder grew and my desire to see, explore, and know what lay beyond intensified on that rock overlooking the valley and the mountains. In the afternoons when the sun was at my back, I stood on that rock for hours, wondering, longing. It was there that I concluded: Since God the Father of Ama Namin is the father of all, then all men must be brothers. It was my first conception of universal brotherhood. It was on that rock that I memorized my numbers. Whenever I forgot the next number, I ran to my mother, then ran back to the rock. Day after day, until I reached 1,000.  In Tagalog, then English. 

When my brothers and a sister were away in school and my parents were busy working, that rock was my constant companion. I never tired of gazing at the valley below and the sky above.

But when I turned 7 and went off to school with my brothers, I forgot about the rock. My world had grown.

Long way home

The first grade was only a half-day session for me. Five days a week for a year, I walked the five or so km home alone. What took my brothers and me an hour or less to get to school took me double or triple the time on the way home. I was free to explore, and I did.

There were edible fruits along the way and I never had to go hungry. Several times I napped under the tall cogon grass to escape the noon heat, at exactly the place where a sow gave birth to her piglets (bunbun, we call it). 

In first grade I learned what justice (or injustice) could be like. There were times when my classmates were late and they were not whipped with uway. But I was never spared the uway when I was late. I could not understand why, but, understanding perfectly the shame and pain of the uway whipping, I learned to be absent. My classmates who were absent explained the next day that they had to help in the farm, and were excused. I also did that, but got whipped. I learned to lie to escape painful punishment. 

But school was fun. My classmates were Teduray, Ilonggo, Ilocano, Chavacano, Maguindanao, Tagalog. We spoke each other’s languages with ease. There were factions, but in the early grades these did not matter. It was in the fifth or sixth grades that these became factors in fights, but not really serious ones. Generally, the fights were due to personal rather than ethnic differences. Nor was religion a factor between Christians and Muslims.

One daily occurrence we enjoyed most was the regular ration of milk at the assembly line, courtesy of the United States Agency for International Development. How we loved the Americans for their generosity. We talked endlessly about it. There were movies, too. Among the rare ones that we saw, some by companies advertising soap, were those shown by the US Information Service presenting the Huks and the communists as the bad guys. 

How we hated the communists then. Imagine delighting in the massacre of babies and disposing of old men who have ceased to be productive. To see these movies, it did not matter that we had to wait till nightfall, without supper, and hiked home three km in the dark afterwards.


Contemporary Muslims in Maguindanao

We did not like the Muslims in theory, but only because they never fought alone. One of them, Tondok, stood apart from the rest; his name and image remain deeply imprinted in my mind. He was a good boy, obedient to authority, and never fought unless pushed to the wall by the Ilocano bullies among my classmates. He did not flinch when our teacher punished him with the uway, nor did he ever run away from a fight (even if losing). He never cried either. On weekends he helped his mother (I think they were only two in the family) with household chores. 

He was my only hero throughout grade school. After we graduated, I never heard of him again.

I had an Ilonggo friend, too—Timo, who lived more than two km away from our house. Since we had much in common—the lack of daily baon (allowance), for example, and the insatiable urge to get a taste of the candy, biscuit, or whatever sweet treat our little valley town had to offer—we alternated bringing a fresh egg or two to school, sold these for five centavos each, and bought what we desired. Or we brought an orange, and shared it. 

He made a name, too, for opposing those whom no one wished to fight. He sometimes lost in the exchange, would cry, but never gave up the fight. I never saw him again after graduation. But towards the end of 1978, I heard that he was in jail. He allegedly became an “ilaga” and had taken part in the killing of some Muslims.

Among the elite

High school was a different story. At the prime Catholic high school in the whole province of Cotabato, Notre Dame High School Boys Department, with the elite of the big city for classmates, I became ashamed of my family’s poverty. 

For four years I had only four pairs of pants as uniform, one for each year: laundered without fail every Saturday morning, ironed in the afternoon, worn for the Mass on Sunday and daily afterwards until Friday. At least I had two T-shirts to go with them. I had four pairs of shoes: one pair for each year, the least expensive rubber shoes for the first three years, black shoes for the senior year—and four pairs of socks. 

When graduation came, I was so ashamed of being poor that I insisted on a completely new outfit. It did not bother me that my mother had to borrow money for it; I was concerned only with my pain and depression. 

Several times I had to beg the principal to let me take the periodical examination despite my failure to pay the monthly tuition of P7. Several times my name was called out in public at the morning assembly, and I was detained after everyone else had gone home, for not being in proper uniform. But I had the best education in the family, and it kept my dignity in place.

Still, I learned from our religion teachers that no non-Catholic would be saved, that all other religions were false, and that Islam was a false religion. I learned that alongside Americans, we Filipinos were backward, lazy and poor. I learned to share the triumph of our Catholic American administrators when a Protestant or a Muslim became a Catholic, a member of the only true church in the whole world. I learned to hate communists who, we were told, were the worst kind of people. 

I gloried in being a student of the best school in the province.

In Manila

College brought me to Manila and three and a half years in the seminary, under the Jesuits’ firm and expert guiding hands. My provincial English improved with daily drills in grammar, composition and rhetoric. Twice a day, five days a week, lessons in Latin, Greek and Spanish gave me a more systematic foundation in the languages—Latin in particular, for it was to become the principal medium in the study of scholastic philosophy. I had 24 units of it. 

The scattered bits and pieces of anti-communism was systematized for me (for all of us, actually) by the all-knowing Jesuits. The communists’ supposed godlessness was repeatedly pounded into our innocent heads. How indeed could any sensible man be happy on this earth without a God? The Jesuits expressed deep sympathy for the poor people of China who, with the communist takeover in 1949 and the expulsion of all missionaries, Jesuits included, lost all chances of being won over into the Catholic fold.

With scholastic philosophy, all the world’s problems were examined, and opposing ideas easily demolished with the usual Thomistic logic. With Thomism, we acquired the absolute certainty of a scientist that we knew what was bad and what was good for the world. And one desire was born in me at that time: to be a missionary to Russia, wipe out the communist ideology from the face of the earth, and win souls for the only true church. 

Among the budding theologians in the higher classes, moral issues were dissected and judgement passed. From them I heard more sophisticated explanations as to why there was no salvation outside the Catholic Church. This time, convincing arguments were presented to include non-Catholics—poor souls—in the concept of the church. It would have been a cruel God indeed who would exclude more than three-fourths of humanity from His kingdom.

When I left the seminary, humbled by the thought that I was too inadequate for the gigantic task of the priesthood, I rejoined the secular world, secure in my decision but no less arrogant because I was armed with Thomism and equipped with a Jesuit education.

Back in my home province, and to poverty (because life in the seminary was a life of plenty), I became a working student at Notre Dame College (later University). Putting thoughts of poverty aside, I joined the only English-speaking group in the entire school, the ROTC officers, the writers, the elite Delta Sigma Omega fraternity, and the student leaders. 

I enrolled in but slept through courses whose teachers I likened to the best educators of the land, the Jesuits, and fell below par in the latter’s shadows. My grades were not too good, and I excused myself in the thought that I didn’t learn much from them anyway. I could have made good but doing so would mean I respected them, and I did not. 

By the time I graduated from college, I had grown into an islet, cut off from much of the world. All the time I was convinced that I was a solidly grounded island. You bet, I was proud of my education and myself. Work and struggle with the forces of the world changed all that.

Teaching Philippine history

Jolo, that land where, I heard, no Christian entered and left with his head on, was my first assignment. I was made to teach courses I did not take up in college, or did but hated. Torn between studying and losing face, I never studied more seriously in my life. 

Philippine history in college was nothing but Gregorio Zaide. I took it twice in college, and dropped out in the first course because the teacher was bright but did not know any better. I slept through the second course but passed because I was wise enough to purchase a copy of Zaide; the teacher never said anything more than what was printed in it. (Read Zaide and you win!) 

But not knowing any better either, I passed Zaide on to my students, 99 percent of whom were Tausug Muslims. I taught them that Muslims were, among other things, no better than pirates. Imagine my shock when my students rose one after another and angrily argued that their ancestors were not pirates. Drawing on oral tradition, they related how their forefathers fought the Spanish conquerors (whom I had credited with having heroically brought Christianity to the Philippines’ benighted peoples, stressing that if not for them, we would all have been Muslims) and never submitted to foreign will. 

I deftly extricated myself, shielding my teacher’s authority with the argument that such were not recorded in our books and therefore could only be accepted conditionally. “Why don’t we keep the subject open for future debates and move on? And write our own stories,” I said.

What saved me in Jolo was not my arrogance but the only good thing that I got from my elite education: a reliable grasp of English and excellent study habits. My arrogance was slowly eroded by people I met — some younger, some older, all better equipped than I. And they were not all Jesuit-educated. I discovered, rather late in life, that there was intelligence, too, beyond the Jesuit camp.

But anti-communist I certainly was, convinced that only men of evil could be communists. Once, Jose Maria Sison spoke to a Zamboanga audience. The occasion was hooked to a radio station and was heard clearly in Jolo. I promptly dismissed a friendly suggestion to listen to Sison, saying: “He is a communist; what good will I get out of his talk?”

I discovered that Jolo was not the bad place I had heard it to be. The Tausug were not what I was made to believe they were. Among all the friends I have made, it was only in Jolo where three Tausug (who did not belong to the same group or barkada) expressed willingness to offer their lives to protect me from harm. And in all three instances, I could not offer the same terms. But I was deeply touched.

I learned later that mine was not an isolated case. Aripin, Nasul, and Ricky Adjawie—what became of them I do not know, but they certainly epitomized for me the best that any man could offer a friend. They call to mind Christ’s words in the Bible, repeated to us seminarians many times over: “Better friend no man has who gives up his life for a friend.” 

My relationships with other Tausug showed them to be gentle, courteous, friendly, generous, dignified. But don’t be their enemy! Don’t violate their dignity!

I left Jolo because I was made to. Not by the Tausug but by the powers that be, the ruling Christians in the Christian school where I taught. In their hands, I received my baptism of fire: Oppose and get fired. My work contract was not terminated, just not renewed.

Growing roots

Ateneo de Davao University —ADDU WEBSITE PHOTO

My experiences were more than rewarding. My islet was growing roots; some have reached the solid bottom. In Jolo, I learned how little I knew of my country and there a desire was born: to teach each year in a province, learn the language, imbibe the culture, from south to north until I reach Batanes. Then I can say to myself: I know my country, I know myself. In Jolo, I shed the institutional church within me and became a freedom-loving Catholic, practicing it as I thought I should. 

Davao threw me back into Jesuit hands again. I went there voluntarily, to rise (I told myself) up the academic ladder. New people, new friends, I thought. But this time I found them stale, except for one who took me on an academic tour of Mindanao, teaching me about Mindanao and its people. (He is not a Jesuit, nor was he molded in Jesuit hands.) 

In Jolo, I discovered there was more than Zaide to take oneself through Philippine history. In Davao, I outgrew him, and when I finally took the trip up the academic ladder, putting myself deeper into Jesuit hands at Ateneo de Manila University, they killed Zaide for me. Yet, save for two Jesuits, academically well-heeled, humble despite their sterling scholarly accomplishments, no one else caught my attention. The gap was filled by non-Jesuits. 

But my self-respect as a Filipino did not grow in the classroom, for illusion piled atop illusion there. It was the student activists and the library that shook my moorings and blew my illusions away. My very foundations trembled. The roots that took over from the dead dangling ones reached bottom, and not even I succeeded in pulling them out. 

Martial law became the reason for the roots to go deeper and the rest of me to blossom.

With disdain for the academe, fury in my heart, anger in my mind and fire in my mouth, I flew back to Davao. A year and a half of volcanic eruptions, marked by my total lack of subtlety and sophistication—just anger, with my students captive recipients of burning lava and suffocating ash—I decided that life in the academe without free thought, the hawks of martial law constantly hovering overhead, was the life of a dying weed amidst drought. Later I would learn that I had become known as the lone fearless critic of the martial law regime at Ateneo de Davao.

Falling and rising

I moved to a job that took me to all parts of Mindanao. I rubbed elbows with the least of my brethren, the Lumad and the Moro, and through them I found that the state system, too, had gone dry. The people should create their own to survive.

Where to now? I had shed the collected load on my back. I was no longer afraid of communists, academicians, statesmen, Christians, Muslims, I had taken on an even heavier load: the burden of my people. I was prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice, or so I thought.

But I did not know myself enough. I thought my foundations were solid, that my balance was correct. I thought I had discarded my original load. But I was thrown off balance and fell, face first. Someone who fell before I did and partially regained her footing gave me a hand. And that was how I managed to get back on my feet. But I needed to use crutches for a while after that.

Limping along, I thought of my little rock. Off I went, on my bare feet, without my timepiece. I hiked to the land of my birth—which I left in 1965 and came back to in 1978—along the path of my boyhood, tarrying where I used to linger, chatting with an old-time neighbor whose husband I knew well and had died. In a minute or two I was home. 

That night, I spoke with an uncle who lived alone with a daughter. From him I learned of the poverty that drove my parents, paga destino, to Mindanao. 

Teduray land

Teduray women

That little government homestead for which my father applied was the land of the Teduray. According to my mother and everyone else who knew the story, when I was being conceived, a Teduray, pale with hunger, came to our little hut. My mother took pity on him and told my father who had just butchered a cow to give him its head. That was how, I was told, I came to look like a Teduray. 

I had always wanted to meet him but missed him each time he was around. I am the first in my family to be born in Teduray land. 

When my birthday dawned, I walked to where our little hut once stood, then to where the rock lay. It took some time to find it among the tall cogon, but when I found it, my whole being was enveloped by the past. I stood on it, my feet almost covering its whole surface. It was so big when I was small, but the bigger portion lay buried in solid earth. Now that I’m a grown man, it seemed so tiny.

The morning sun found me standing there, facing the east of my childhood, under the sky of my childhood, in the valley of my childhood. Motionless, I relived the past until the sun seared my skin.

The last time I was there, it was dusk and the sun was on my back. I have crossed many mountains, so many rivers and seas. Now it was morning, and the sun was on my face.

When I walked away, perhaps never to see the rock again, my steps were light, my footing sure, my mind clear. A new consciousness was born. My roots have found their mark.

I have discovered my own people, imprisoned by mountains. I shall set them free, as I have set myself free.

The rock has grown into an island.

Related: Remembering: Growing up in ‘Little Baguio’ in Mindanao, Remembering: ‘Tao po’ and invitations to a ‘pintakasi’, Remembering: From Cavite to Upi to greener pastures, Remembering: logging concessions brought drastic change

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