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Political Tidbits is the prestigious column of Belinda Olivares-Cunanan that ran for 25 continuous years in the op-ed page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the newspaper that she helped put up with its multi-awarded founder, the legendary Eugenia Duran-Apostol, in December 1985, just two months before the EDSA Revolution.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Epitaph for Alejandro Roces: “Lord, do unto me, as I would unto Thee; If I were the God of Moses and You were Anding Roces”



Admittedly there are things we Filipinos don’t do right, and the media are there to constantly harp on them. But I daresay that one of the things we Filipinos do right and well is to say farewell to our distinguished citizens. I have watched a few “Parangal”  to some of our National Artists who have journeyed on to the Great Beyond, and I found them quite impressive and moving---never mind if at times their selection in the pantheon of our cultural heroes had been shrouded in controversy.

 The State’s “Parangal” last Friday at the Cultural Center of the Philippines for National Artist for Literature Alejandro Reyes Roces, which was capped by a high- noon funeral at the Libingan ng Mga Bayani in Fort Bonifacio, was indeed something to crow about. Congratulations to the CCP led by president Raul Sunico, and those who had something to do with the ceremonies, including my radio partner Cecile Guidote Alvarez, to whom Anding Roces had been a surrogate father (she lost her biological father, a guerillero, in the war).

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The Parangal for Anding, who died at age 87 last May 23, had the right mix. Set amid the grand CCP stage bedecked with white orchids and greens, and complimented by elegantly uniformed military honor guards, it exuded elegance and grace. Even the urn that contained his ashes was housed in a wooden sculpture by Toymee Imao, son of National Artist Abdul Imao, depicting---what else?---a rooster.
There were reminiscences on the various facets of this National Artist’s colorful life and personality and offerings of flowers by his fellow National Artists and personal friends, (I note how most of our “Pambansang Alagad ng Sining” are now much slower in gait and a number of them are on wheelchairs, e.g., National Artist for Sculpture Billy Abueva); the intermezzo from Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana played by the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra---solemn but not mournful; scenes and music from Anding’s works, complete with fighting roosters and music by the UST Liturgikon Vocal Ensemble;  a taped interview of him in better days, talking about his love affair with cocks and fiestas, the Spanish language, and how he got to be a writer instead of a mining engineer; and song medleys by Cocoy Laurel (such as “Impossible Dream” as translated into Filipino by Pete Lacaba, and “Bayan Ko”)  and a “Fiesta Extravaganza” based on Anding’s iconic book, "Fiestas,” by the Bayanihan National Folk Dance Company.

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The State tribute was exactly as Anding would have wanted it---a celebration of life and not a dirge. For he was a man blessed with a mountain of humor and a sardonic wit, always ebullient and charming, and all these attributes spilled into his writings, creating his own niche as the inimitable writer of “humor literature.” As Star columnist Baby Orosa recalled, Anding was always the life of the party---a born ranconteur and a walking encyclopedia--- and “wherever he sat, it would always become the head of the table.” Cecile and I had invited Anding a number of times to our dzRH Sunday program and it was always rollicking fun and dripping with cultural and historical minutiae.


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I laughed as I listened to his fellow National Artist for Literature, F. Sionil Jose, seeking, as he said, to compress in a few assigned minutes of speech a friendship of 50 years with the man. He recalled that back in 1960 they were in a junk shop in Indonesia and Anding bamboozled him into buying some Chinese scrolls complete with chops, as these were “very good buys.” Sometime later, Frankie took them to Hongkong to check them out, and they turned out to be menus for a restaurant!  He recalled how this man, who was to the manor born, suffered so much seeing how the poor were hurting from the war years, that once he was actually moved to tears. Frankie then bade his friend farewell in the Ilocano language in which he was born.


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 Former Sen. Heherson Alvarez spoke about a facet of Anding few know about: his role first as a guerilla in the war against the Japanese, and then later as a “subversive” and a “freedom fighter” in the martial law years of the Marcos regime. Alvarez recalled how his expatriate group that included Raul Manglapus and Boni Gillego were in the US running the resistance movement vs. the dictatorship, while Anding’s group in Manila provided them with the critical update on what was happening here, who was being jailed and who were dead, and logistic support.
After Ninoy Aquino’s assassination, recalled Alvarez, Rome-based sculptor Tomas Concepcion was asked to do a sculpture depicting Ninoy with stretched arm and a finger pointing forward, to indicate that ”either you’re with freedom or you’re not.” Anding worked to have that statue shipped here via Japan, but at Customs it was held up and slapped a gargantuan fee. Anding, recalled Alvarez, quickly began a “piso-piso” campaign to raise money in street corners to get that statue out, but pretty soon the regime realized that he could encourage more “subversives.” Concepcion’s statue was promptly released (today it’s located at the Edsa Shrine near Camp Aguinaldo).

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Anding’s book of short stories on cocks and cock-fighting, titled “Something to Crow About,” became the basis of his zarzuela successfully shown in New York and the West Coast years later. Frankie Sionil Jose, who wrote an introduction to the book, recalled how Anding defied Marcos by not voting in the sham elections of 1971, for which he was hailed to court. But after he defended himself by saying that “the right to vote is given by the state, but the right NOT to vote is given by God,” Judge Consuelo Ynares-Santiago (who later became SC Associate Justice) threw out the case.
Just before he died, Anding wrote out his own epitaph: “Lord, do unto me as I would unto Thee; If I were the God of Moses and you were Anding Roces.”

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At the wake it was recalled that Anding flunked all his freshman engineering subjects at the University of Arizona, where his father had sent him to study mining engineering. Facing expulsion, he was summoned before a panel of humanities professors who realized that he spoke English very well and that he was quite familiar with popular American writers of that time, such as Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck and Mark Twain. They asked him where he learned the language and he pointed out that the turn-of-the-century Thomasites had left it as an enduring legacy to the Filipinos. 

They also learned that the Pinoy freshman had written a short story titled “My Brother’s Peculiar Chicken,” which, to their surprise, ran away with the first prize that year in the university's literary contest, besting entries of Americans with MA's and Ph.Ds. Soon after, another of Anding’s short stories, “We Filipinos are Mild Drinkers,” made it to Martha Foley’s prestigious annual anthology of “The Best American Short Stories.”  As Sionil Jose wrote, Anding was allowed to remain in the university, but only if he shifted to literature.  But, said Frankie, “if he was a failure as a prospective engineer, it was at the university that he discovered what he was good at---he had found his soul.”  

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Actually, long before I met Anding Roces, I had already read “We Filipinos are Mild Drinkers” and I loved it more than anything he had written, because to me, that story captured the Filipino soul.  When Anding passed away, I re-read it and it was great as ever. The story is set in a barrio after the war, with an American GI named “Joe,” straying into a rice field where a local boy lived in a nipa hut. The GI had a half-bottle of whiskey but was looking for more to drink.  The Pinoy invited Joe into his hut and gave him some lambanog in a shell (bao), which was all he had; in turn, the Pinoy mixed some of Joe’s whiskey into his own lambanog, spicing it with a slice of  calamansi dipped in rough salt, and they began to drink.

Let’s allow Roces to do the telling, from “We Filipinos are Mild Drinkers”:

Joe, after drinking the lambanog, took his drink in a peculiar way: his eyes popped like a frog’s and his hand clutched his throat. He looked as if he had swallowed a centipede.
“Quick, a chaser,” he said.
I gave him a slice of calamansi dipped in unrefined salt.  He squirted it in his mouth. But it was too late. Nothing could chase her.
“What’s wrong, Joe?” I asked.
“Nothing,” he said. “The first drink always affects me this way.”
He was panting hard and tears were rolling down his cheeks.
“Well, the first drink always acts like a minesweeper,” I said. “But the second one will be smooth.”
I filled his shell for the second time. Again I diluted my drink with Joe’s whiskey.
I gave his shell. I noticed that he was beaded with perspiration. He had unbuttoned his collar and loosened his tie. Joe took his shell but he did not seem very anxious.
I lifted my shell and said: “Here’s to America!” I was trying to be a good host.
“Here’s to America!” Joe said.
We both killed our drinks . Joe again reacted in a funny way.
His neck stretched out like a turtle’s. And now he was panting like a carabao gone berserk, like a carabao gone amok.
He was grasping his tie with one hand. Then he looked down on his tie, threw it to one side, and said: “Oh Christ, for a while I thought it was my tongue.”
Then he complained about the damned drink loosening his bridgework.
Then another drink which he refused at first, but I handed it to him. “Here’s to the Philippines,” he said. “Here’s to the Philippines.”
Joe took some of his drink. I could not see very clearly in the flickering light, but I could have sworn I saw smoke coming out of his ears.
“This stuff must be radioactive,” he said.
He threw the remainder of his drink on the nipa wall and yelled: “Blaze, goddam you, blaze!”
Just as I was getting in the mood to drink, Joe passed out. He lay on the floor flat as a starfish.

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At this juncture, before this blog gets too long, allow me to summarize the rest of  Anding Roces’ inimitable "We Filipinos are Mild Drinkers" and point out that the Filipino story character decided to get help from four neighbors, so he could bring GI Joe back to his airfield barracks. They slung the stone-drunk Kano on top of the Pinoy’s carabao. Once in the barracks, Joe was laid out in his bunker and his colleagues wondered what he had imbibed to get that way. 
 As the Pinoy worked his way out, an American soldier thought of offering him some beer, but the Pinoy replied dryly, “No, thanks, we Filipinos are mild drinkers.”

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I hope you enjoyed that story as much as I did (you can read it in the internet). By the way, don’t fail to listen tonight at 8 pm. to the dzRH program Cecile and I co-host---another paaralang-bayan.  IT expert Edmundo “Toti” Casiño of the Philippine Computer Society will tackle the topic: “PCOS: A Tool for Honest or Fraudulent Elections.” It’s an eye-opener.


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