Tuesday, May 22, 2007


By John L. Silva

Pope Benedict’s controversial statement in a Brazil bishops conference on the ready acceptance by South American Indians of the Catholic faith resonates across the Pacific Ocean to the Philippines.

The Pope’s speech was a rousing call to reinvigorate the local clergy in a country whose Catholic population of 120 million has decreased by over 15% in the past two decades.

The Pope in outlining the history of the Christian faith in Latin America noted the “…encounter between that faith and the indigenous people” and the emergence of the “Christian culture of this Continent” with a “…shared creed that give rise to a great underlying harmony…”

Glossing over the Spanish and Portuguese conquest of the region which entailed the extermination of millions of native Indians to secure this Christian culture, the Pope’s most ahistorical remarks centers on his charge that the early American Indians were looking for “…and welcoming Christ, the unknown God whom their ancestors were seeking, without realizing it, in their rich religious traditions. Christ is the Savior for whom they were silently longing.”

Every Native American Studies Department in the Americas has on its reading list Bartolome de las Casas’ “A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies.” De las Casas detailed the genocide and wholesale destruction of the Taino Indians in the West Indies several decades after Christopher Columbus arrived in those parts. As a priest, de las Casas pleaded with then King Phillip II that the decimation of the Indians which he numbered at three million through wars, diseases and slave labor would end all attempts at converting the Indians. Of course. A dead Indian cannot be converted.

How could a population “silently longing” for Christianity’s arrival be so greeted with barbarism? Pope Benedict conveniently puts aside the conqueror mindset which believed that any lands and people “discovered” were theirs and such ownership included the coercive right to Christianize the natives. If they resisted, and they did, the conquerors had the right to kill them.

A clue to the Pope’s imbroglio can be found in a similar “silent longing” scenario foisted on Philippine history and still reverberates in current tourism brochures and pop history articles.

The arrival of the Spanish Conquistadores in the Philippines just twenty years after their arrival in the Americas is made to look convivial. The natives were reported to be friendly providing food and bartering with the Spanish. There was a mass in Cebu and Rajah Humabon and his queen were baptized, and breaking with Christian monogamous practices, baptized the King’s other wives as well. The acceptance of the Christian god along with the planting of the cross on Philippine soil (the same cross allegedly) still stands now gated, covered, and a tourist attraction. A model of the Child Jesus, the very same one given to the queen by Magellan and found, miraculously forty years later is now enshrined in a Cebu church. One hundred years ago this model was photographed and referred to as the Black Santo Nino of Cebu. Now, miraculously, he is depicted as blonde and blue eyed, another vestige of our ongoing colonial mentality.

The Pope would probably be happy to rest his case on these various proofs of a similar “silent longing” by the natives. Unfortunately, selected historical tidbits don’t make a story.

From various Spanish chroniclers we piece a bonhomie encounter truncated by Spanish objectives. Demands of fealty to the Spanish crown were scoffed at by the natives. Feeling cheated with the bartering and cautious with the menacing swords and guns and cannons, the natives decided not to be too hospitable with sharing their food. The first mass and ardor for conversion by Rajah Humabon and his retinue quickly dissipated upon seeing Magellan’s men go on drunken raping sprees.

Apologists for Magellan’s demise in the hands of nearby ruler warrior Lapu Lapu sympathetically chide the explorer for having gotten in the way of island rivalries. But first hand accounts of the survivors paint Magellan not just a political kingmaker but messianic and obsessive in converting natives. Lapu Lapu though would not submit to a foreign king and god and Magellan’s orders to burn their Mactan village enraged the warriors further killing Magellan and sending his wounded men into hasty retreat.

Magellan’s promise to make Rajah Humabon be top Rajah of all the islands if he converted was no longer in the cards. Humabon quickly dispensed with his baptismal name (Charles after the Spanish King) and chased the remaining Spanish survivors away from his island.

Forty years later, the Spanish ships of Miguel Lopez de Legazpi attempted to anchor in Cebu thinking Christian devotees would greet them. Upon seeing their ships the natives gathered belongings and provisions and went into the interior. Legazpi threatened war if the natives did not submit and feed them. A rare but very clear response came back “ Be it so,” The armed Indians on shore answered boldly. “Come on! We await you here.” The Indians could not be coerced.

The Spaniards torched their homes and in their looting came across the Child Jesus idol, presumably the same one given to the queen. Instead of native defiance against foreign invaders, the tourist brochures and the church historians would weave a miracle story and a testament of Christian endurance.

The first hundred years of Spanish history in the Philippines is replete with native revolts and a persistent return to the old ways including their native religion. Meanwhile the Spaniards systematically destroyed all native idols they could find (several of them called anitos can still be viewed in the National Museum) and persecuted native priestesses and priests who continued their practices. If the Philippines became the Catholic country that it is today ( its current membership also on the decline) it was not without the same decimation of its population as that encountered in the Americas. Filipinos died by the tens of thousands through hamletting in “Christian pueblos,” slave labor and outright massacre at the hands of the Christian invaders.

Pope Benedict’s idyllic rendition of the Spanish Conquest of the Americas is an erroneous and dangerous viewpoint that attempts to expunge any of the more egregious actions committed in the name of Christianity on native peoples. One can make a similar comparison to a recent and also controversial remark by another head of state, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that the “comfort women” of Southeast Asia were not coerced into servicing the Japanese Military in World War II. Even worse, since 2005, any reference to “comfort women” have been removed in Japanese high school history text books. Rape, genocide and plunder are being erased and conveniently forgotten to instill more acceptable and palatable versions of a country’s history. Good for trade and the further conversion of souls.

Accepting the current Papal version of Christianization in the colonies denigrates the religious heritage of pre-Spanish peoples and goes against a previous and most enlightened Papal Encyclical entitled Dignitatis Humanae shepherded by Pope John XXIII and promulgated by Pope Paul VI at the close of the Second Vatican Council in 1965. Its declaration on a human being’s right to religious freedom launched ecumenism and a respect and tolerance for all religions. It was also the Catholic Church’s repudiation of its past coercive and bloody efforts at evangelization.

Most importantly, this current Papal view implies an obeisance to colonial invasion and erases the native revolt against it. This alienates a people to its past and emasculates its will to assert itself as a nation. A nation’s survival and growth rests significantly on a collective knowledge of its true past.

John L. Silva is the Senior Consultant for the National Museum

Tuesday, May 01, 2007


By John L. Silva
(This appeared in the April 15, 2007 issue of Philippine Starweek Magazine)

We were checking out very early in the morning morning in Zamboanga to catch our flight. My porter gingerly carried my laptop and lcd projector to the hotel van asking if I was headed back to Manila. No, I said, I was going to Jolo. The porter gave a pensive look and cautioned me; things were “delicado” there. I brushed off his worry by giving him a smile. I was conducting an arts appreciation workshop in Jolo, the most historical city in the autonomous Muslim region, laden with all the mystery and danger, perceived rightly or wrongly, that accompanies this island.

My porter’s fears were not totally off the mark. When our twin engined plane landed on Jolo’s dusty airfield, armored personnel vehicles, a convoy of trucks with battle ready troops were driving by and Vietnam era helicopters were whooshing overhead. Instead of an airport porter, we had two armed military men (compliments of the Mayor) bringing our donated school books to our van and escorting us the whole day in an open pickup truck. Maybe it was “delicado” in these parts.

But like all the other autonomous Muslim provinces I’ve been to, a menacing military presence has become a fixture. In Jolo, a city that has witnessed insurrections, massacres and bombings for over three hundred years, the prevalence of guns and cannons and camouflage uniforms have become indelible images of the city.

We get to the conference site, I see a welcome sign with my name on it and many smiling women in head scarves and teachers uniforms. Mayor Salip Aloy Jainal of nearby Indanan Municipality who brought these teachers gives me a hearty greeting. I quickly forget my nervous musings and was raring to start my powerpoint.

My day-long program entitled I Love Museums for public school teachers on appreciating the arts has traveled throughout much of the country. Getting to Jolo would almost complete the major cities I’ve covered in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) which included Marawi, Tawi-Tawi, and Cotabato City.

The program has a simple proposition: Give teachers a crash course in arts education, let them pass it on to their students, and see student academic scores increase.

A Stanford University study shows that a child with an arts education is four times more likely to have higher academic scores, three times more likely to be involved in student affairs, four times more likely to love reading and writing, and three times more likely to do volunteer work. These findings have been taken so seriously that California has mandated all high school students to complete one year of arts education in order to enter the state’s university and college systems.

Synergeia, an education reform organization dedicated to raising reading and comprehension scores for primary school children has been working in the municipality of Indanan for close to two years. 767 first graders were tested in the beginning and the reading scores were a frightening 24%. That meant a student could only comprehend two out of ten words presented. The average reading score in the country is 54% making Indanan students, like many other Mindanao students having one of the lowest literacy scores in the country.

With that challenge, Synergeia helped energize the local school board with the help of the Mayor, the teachers were given remedial courses and the parent/teachers’ associations were given after-school mentoring assignments and the students were given one workbook each. Today, they were going to be steeped in the arts.

The Indanan teachers were polite and pleasant trooping into the auditorium and patiently waiting for me to set up. I could see though from the corner of my eye they were a skeptical bunch. The Synergeia testing results were crushing. You aren’t exactly chipper knowing most of your students can’t read making the municipality on the lower rungs of the education crisis scale. And now they have to suffer a culture course from a chirpy Manileno.

I started flashing images of museums throughout the world and their collections. There was the usual titter over Greek male nudes since most in the audience were female and not familiar with Western representational art. I sensed a quiet and the occasional “mmmh” when I began my subsection of Islamic art found in major museums throughout the world: A 13th century lantern from Egypt, the calligraphic signature of Sultan Sulaiman from the 16th century, colorful prayer rugs from Iran, geometric tiles from Spain and textiles from Indonesia. Exquisitely designed gold jewelry created excitement, a craftsmanship that for the mostly Tausug members in the room were quite familiar with.

I ventured into our National Museum’s collection of Muslim art. Gravemarkers, mat weavings, woodcarvings, brass, kris, all detailing their superb qualities evoked excited murmurs. This was the entrĂ©e to the deeper discourse on the following module on Philippine history.

Using old photographs, Philippine history came alive with images of the Yakans, the Samals, the Tausugs, the Badjaos and other tribes in their archipelago, in their finery, on their houseboats, in procession, dancing, and readying for ceremony. There were photographs of proud Sultans negotiating with American authorities, of regal Sultanas with their retinue, of gleaming mosques, and pristine landscapes. These carefully chosen images exorcised the prevailing visuals of Muslims as fanatics and ignoble, living in total abject squalor.

Injecting cultural and historical pride, my powerpoint acknowledged and reminded the teachers of their people’s defiance with colonialism resulting in their culture remaining relatively intact compared to the wholesale loss of culture and norms in other parts of the country.

During Questions & Answers, teachers raised points proving they had absorbed the presentation. “Is it the material or the craftsmanship that gives an object its value?” asked one teacher. Artistic freedom and religious constraints were also broached. There were sobering comments too about the difficulty in setting up their own school museum when they didn’t even have enough schoolrooms.

The National Museum of Jolo was right beside our conference center so we all walked there, the majority of the teachers visiting it for the first time.

How quickly the lessons were internalized. The teachers paused longer to scrutinize weaving patterns and jar designs. They pondered and gushed over the curved and gracious ukil designs in the wood carvings. The second floor was a vast display of Sultanate geneology and historical highlights of Sulu adding further to the breast-thumping pride they had gained that day.

The teachers gave effusive goodbyes and boarded tricycles with painted signs like “Guns and Roses” driving down the main boulevard shaded by century old Acacia trees planted by the Americans. It would be a long trip back to Indanan with military checkpoints at intervals and peeling political posters that have once again uglified their towns.

There was still some light that afternoon so I got a quick tour of Jolo’s historical sights and the public market where I found beautiful woven mats, baskets, pottery, gold jewelry and kris still being made from their area. These Sulu artworks, much admired and treasured for hundreds of years continue to thrive proving the tenacity of artistic creation despite limited resources and an ongoing war.

There are still many outlying islands to visit in the Sulu Archipelago and give my I Love Museum program. There will always be that prevailing warning about how “delicado” the area is. I’ve heard it said since childhood. But whenever I’m there, it’s the teachers’ warmth and their desire to learn about the arts that dominate my mind. Apprehensions quickly disappear leaving me with only the good fortune to visit and teach in yet another beautiful place in our country.

( For information and schedules of upcoming arts appreciation programs please e-mail the program director, John L. Silva at jsilva79@hotmail.com or call/text at 0926-729-9029.)