Thursday, September 11, 2008

STOP THIS OBSCENE BILL. The Anti-Obscenity and Pornography Senate Bill No. 2464

by John L. Silva

In July of this year, the Anti-Obscenity and Pornography bill of 2008 was introduced in the Senate for deliberation by Senator Manny Villar. The bill has a lofty preamble about the state valuing the dignity of every human person and safeguarding the moral, spiritual and social well being of its youth and women from “the pernicious effects of obscenity and pornography. “ After that sentence, the bill goes downhill.

The bill defines obscenity as anything indecent or offensive to good customs, religious beliefs, principles or doctrine, that will “deprave the human being,” “…excite impure thoughts, or violates the proprieties of language and human behavior.” Specific examples include the showing, depicting, or describing sexual acts, sexual organs, the female breasts, and nude human bodies.

Any writings describing “erotic reactions, feelings, or experiences on sexual acts” or performing live sex acts were also included.

Pornography in the bill are any objects or subjects from film, tv shows to photographs, music, paintings, advertisements, literature and others found in every form of medium from digital to video to film, tv shows, electronic media, print, outdoor advertising and broadcast media that “… excite, stimulate or arouse impure thoughts and prurient interest.”

The draconian features of this bill is in the penalties and punishment imposed. The live sex act performer gets 1 – 3 years in jail and from 100,000 to 300,000 pesos in fines. There are intermediate level punishments for writers but the stiffest is reserved for the artist, painter or producer of any artistic work getting 6 – 12 years in prison and from 500,000 to one million pesos in fines.

Given the bill’s limited definition of obscenity and pornography, the following events and material may now fall under these categories.

In two weeks, for instance, there will be a major retrospective of National Artist Fernando Amorsolo’s works to be exhibited in seven museums including the National Museum.

Many of Amorsolo’s works are females nudes with exposed breasts. If the bill passes, they shall be deemed obscene and the show organizers liable for punishment.

Many museums and private galleries have nude drawings, paintings and sculptures by various artists, some by national artists. These artists, numbering in the thousands are now open to obscenity and pornographic charges and liable for punishment.

The painter get the stiffest sentence of 6 – 12 years and up to 1 million pesos in fines. National Artist Bencab’s nude paintings recently shown at a private gallery makes him, the gallery owner and the gallery staff liable for prison terms and get the full brunt of the law.

In the performing arts, there are theatrical presentations and dance performances whose themes cover sexual expression and sensual vitality. Much of the musical compositions we listen to each day also contain or suggest sexual intimacy.

This bill would interpret such performances and songs as arousing prurient interest and therefore obscene and punishable.

The composers, the recording studios, the distributors, the music halls, the restaurants, the discos, the pubs, all are now liable for playing music “ that depraves the mind.” Deprave means making you wicked.

Publishers, printers and retailers such as National Book Store and smaller stores publishing or carrying titles that “arouse impure thoughts” are now liable for the stiffest sentences.

The movie industry and the indie video industry have and still do make films exploring sexuality. They too will get the maximum sentence.


Advertising companies and their corporate clients are one of the more vulnerable sectors with this impending law. Their billboards, meters high, revealing significant flesh or posed in ways suspected of being immoral will be the first targets of this bill.

The printed media, the broadcasting sector and those engaged in tv productions with their scantily clad girls on noontime shows and overwrought telenovelas will fall under the scrutiny of this bill and will be punished.

This anti obscenity and pornography bill can detour and go after organizations tangential to the bill’s focus. For example an organization promoting family planning, safe sex and condom use will be considered arousing prurient interest (meaning an excessive interest in sex) and can be hauled to jail.

Obscenity is defined as anything against good customs, religious beliefs, principles and doctrines. But who decides good customs, and whose religious beliefs and principles and doctrines are we favoring? There are organizations that do not subscribe to that culture such as indigenous people’s organizations, minority religious organizations, organizations promoting alternative lifestyles such as gay and lesbian organizations and organizations espousing radical and or socialist ideas . Their beliefs can now be deemed contrary to the prevailing customs and punishable.

The bill’s assault on basic Filipino liberties and rights will have serious cultural and economic implications. Arts and Culture deprived of creative expression will be sterile and not saleable.

Suspected books and the printed media will be banned and the publishing industry will teeter and collapse. The manufacturing sector involved in the selling of goods whose advertising pitch depends on exalting the human form will suffer financial loses.

The broadcasting media, the film and video industry and the internet industry, dependent on unfettered information will be curbed and subject to financial ruin.

Our tourism industry will suffer considerably. If our society loses its unique tourist branding as one of the freest and most liberal in Asia to be replaced with a monastic authoritarian state, then who in their right mind would come and visit a poor version of Saudi Arabia?

If this bill passes, the Philippines will be made a pariah in the international community akin to North Korea, and in violation of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights of which this country is a signatory to its principles.

While former authoritarian regimes have long awakened to the benefits of a freer market society, like the People’s Republic of China, our Congress and now the Senate is contemplating the retrogressing of a democratic Philippines to a backward and repressive society like Burma or Iran.

One might question the doomsday scenario I’ve painted. Surely, no reasonable mind would think of an Amorsolo nude as “stimulating impure thoughts.”

Unfortunately, insidious wordings are inserted in the bill to make an obscenity or pornography charge unassailable. For example, an obscenity charge can be made on anyone “regardless of the motive of the producer.” This means if an artist draws nudes to simply learn how to draw anatomy, the government can dismiss his motive outright and declare the drawing obscene and pornographic.

In the proposed bill, the following government agencies are deputized to be arbiters of good taste and must duly inform the law enforcers on people committing immoral acts. They include the Philippine Information Agency, the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board, the Optical Media Board, the National Telecommunications Commission, the National Youth Commission,
the Department of Public Works and Highways, and the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority.

Except for the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board or (MTRCB) who style themselves as the moral guardians of our society by getting aggrieved over swear words and jiggling breasts, the rest of the agencies have no experience whatsoever as to what constitutes pornography. The DPWH can be commended for its efforts in removing illegally placed billboards on our highways but they don’t have the wherewithal to pass judgment on their contents.

How did these legislators in Congress, and now the Senate, become the judge of “impure thoughts,” “erotic feelings” and the corruption and depravity of the human mind? If anything, given their track record, the public wonders about these legislators’ own impure thoughts, their erotic feelings and the corruption and depravity many of them have been involved in. In a word, the public would like to know what right and qualifications does Senator Manny Villar who introduced the bill, to pontificate and judge what we should draw and paint, read, listen to, watch, google, and send at any time?

This Anti-Obscenity and Pornography Act of 2008 violates the Philippine constitution, whose basic tenets are freedom and democracy. The bill likewise insults the intelligence and judgment of the Filipino people.

The bill in particular violates Article II Section 5 stating that the protection of our liberties are “essential for the enjoyment by all the people of the blessings of democracy.” “All” includes people who hold divergent views on what constitutes obscenity and pornography. And in this country, a significant part of this population will take exception to those definitions.

The bill violates Section 6 which states the separation of church and state shall be inviolable. Inviolable means “never to be broken or infringed.” This proposed bill is clearly the agenda of a religious right in this country and if passed, will make this government a handmaiden to the church rather than the separation clearly stated in the constitution.

Section 17 reads the state must among other things give priority to education, arts, culture, and, “the total human liberation and development” of its people. The expanding and unleashing of creative expression, from the arts to culture to sexuality fall under this rubric. This quest for human liberation may be considered obscene in some quarters but is covered, protected and guaranteed by the constitution.

In Article III which enshrines our bill of rights, the proposed bill violates Section 4 which states “No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press…” This particular passage found in the constitution of the United States and of many other civilized countries in the world has been the bulwark against every failed attempt to impose similar draconian anti-obscenity and pornography laws in their countries.

In Section 5, it states there will be no law made to highlight one religion and it allows the freedom to worship other religions without discrimination. The current definitions of obscenity and pornography is Judeo-Christian based and you can find similar if not exact definitions in Catholic catechism books and in the bible. If this bill passes, the state codifies and implements the definition of one religious sector. What happens to Protestant denominations more laxed about sexual mores but still considered sinful to current Catholic teachings, such as homosexual union or condom use. These denominations and even Filipino agnostics and atheists will be deprived of the free exercise of their beliefs and is a violation.

The Philippine Constitution, a permutation from the American constitution through several conventions in the past seventy years is now a mature Filipinized version cherished by its citizens. Inserted repeatedly and stressed in the constitution are the words freedom, democracy, equality, human rights and the common good. These words may have had American antecedents reflective of their own history but we have now imbibed them in the fabric of our own society. Because of these words we do have, in comparison to our Asian neighbors, a vigorous democracy, a relatively free press, a wide latitude in divergent thinking and expression, and a liberal society with access to information and ideas envied by our neighbors.

Our definition now of freedom and human rights has evolved to an even more sophisticated level past that of the American constitution because we endured a period of repression that violated individual rights. The words human rights and freedom take on greater personal meaning and substance to our generation who suffered without them.

What about the basic issue of pornography, the depiction and exploitation of women and children in pornographic materials which may have been the genesis of this bill?

The Philippines earns 1 billion dollars yearly in pornography revenues making it number ten among all countries earning through pornography. Civil libertarians like myself acknowledge this as a serious problem and cite a similar experience in Indonesia.

In 2003, a stringent anti-pornography bill was introduced to protect Indonesian youth from websites they deemed pornographic. But the bill included prohibitions like kissing in public, the wearing of tight clothing, the exposure of any body parts and the banning of artistic shows containing nudity and sexuality. Fundamentalist Muslims, some of them linked to the more extremist Al Qaida groups were one of the proponents. The bill created an uproar with the moderate Muslim majority, the Hindu population on Bali, and other non-Muslim minority groups. The bill was stalled for years and in March of this year, a watered down alternate anti-web porn bill was passed which will filter pornographic websites in public school computers with internet access. All the other concerns that would have violated individual rights were not included.

In the Philippines, if this bill is meant to combat the exploitation of women and children in pornographic materials, it has mushroomed into a much broader all encompassing measure which now infringes on the basic constitutional rights of all. If the legislators are truly serious about combating pornography with regards to women and children, then they should enforce the laws already present, like Article 201 of the Penal Code, and mount a public information campaign on its ill effects. Stiffer penalties should be imposed on those involved with this form of pornography. If we have a one billion dollar pornography industry and there have only been a dozen arrests and trials, it says a lot about the lack of law enforcement in this country.

The exploitation of women, and men, and children in pornography boils down to poverty and they will subject themselves or be coerced into this business for basic human survival.


The Indonesian anti-pornography bill was severely criticized by former president and religious leader Gus Dur and his wife Sinta Nuriyah. They said that rules determining morality only aided Muslim fundamentalist groups and did not help in the creation of prosperity. In fact they thought the bill was funny and told the parliament to cancel it. Sinta Nuriyah added that there were more important issues to address such as domestic violence, discrimination against women, maternal death and illiteracy, all these root factors that lead women to being exploited in pornographic materials.

Right now the Senate Bill has been sent to the Committee on Justice and Human Rights chaired by Senator Francis Escudero. The other members include Senators Benigno Aquino III, Alan Peter Cayetano, Pia Cayetano, Juan Ponce Enrile, Gregorio Honasan, Ramon Revilla Jr., Rodolfo Biazon and Jamby Madrigal.

The full contents of this bill can be read by going to the Senate of the Philippines website and inserting Senate Bill No. 2464 in the appropriate box. If you are opposed to this bill, please call, fax, text or e mail their offices, register your opposition, and tell them to cancel it in their committee deliberations.

The Anti-Obscenity and Pornography Bill is the overturning and undoing of all the struggles fought by our heroes and ordinary citizens in the pursuit of the freedom to be, and the freedom to express.


Jose Rizal’s novels were considered obscene by the Spanish colonial government because they were contrary to Spanish principles and “corrupted the human mind.” His books were banned and anyone possessing them were sent to jail. Rizal’s most ardent foe were the friars who hated Rizal’s membership to masonry an organization which challenged the Catholic version of God’s supremacy, the religion’s belief in miracles, and its aversion to scientific inquiry and alternative thinking. Even today, the Catholic Church bans its members to be masons with excommunication as punishment. And until recently, reading Jose Rizal’s novels were not allowed in some Catholic schools. The current religious right in our country are the descendants of the old colonial order of friars and conservatives who see their version of obscenity and pornography everywhere and are attempting to reimpose their convictions by employing this government to violate the constitutional mandate on church/state separation, and pushing for this bill’s passage.

This bill insults Jose Rizal and all other libertarians that fought for our individual rights. It violates the Philippine constitution and will be used to impose a repressive fundamentalist state. It is anti-art and demeans the whole notion of sexuality. It is not the answer to the exploitation of women and children in pornography. The bill should be cancelled.

Monday, September 01, 2008


This picture was taken by one of my museum guests, whose name I need to search. It's one of a pair of staircases on both of the entrance of the former Legislative Building now the National Gallery of Art. They are quite sensual as the float up the floors. The colonial era building is such an added bonus to my tour. Everyone likes to walk in buildings that have an old world charm.

Come on my tour. It's not just artifacts but architecture too.

Email me for the next dates or look for my posting in my blog that contains the dates.

TTFN

(Tata For Now)

Thursday, August 28, 2008

THE SPOLIARIUM BY JUAN LUNA AND THE MAKING OF OUR NATION. THE NATIONAL MUSEUM TOUR.



"Thanks for the tour. It was truly inspiring! It made me proud to be a Filipino and to be part of a very rich heritage."
April Inocentes


 Tour dates are September  24, 27th,  October 1, 4, 5, 8, and 29th, November 2, 5, 9, 12, 19, 22, 23, 26, and 29th, 2008

There’s a serenity when you enter the Museum of the Filipino People. It’s summertime and the venerable building is quiet with a sprinkle of foreign visitors and balikbayans wandering the halls. You can actually admire the long sun-lit corridors and its peaceful courtyard with an authentic Cordillera tribal hut holding sway at one corner.  

During school days, this museum, as well as its larger companion the National Gallery of Art across the street, are thronged with school children on their yearly field trips. Dozens of school buses are lined up in the parking lot, while chattering and excitement echo through the two colonial buildings, making for a pleasant pandemonium. The children are eagerly learning about their cultural heritage and having a great time.

But on this quiet summer day, I am leading 20 visitors through the Museum of the Filipino People’s 14 galleries, entering each tranquil space and pondering artifacts and artworks. I usually start with our permanent galleries on the third floor, which chronicle the beginnings of our island formation. Through found personal adornment, indigenous pottery, anthropomorphic burial jars and reconstructed burial sites, my visitors intuit the sophistication and living standards of the tribal groups that dotted the archipelago.
In our anthropological galleries, I emphasize the diversity of our country, from its languages and dialects, customary practices, and ways of living. Our artifacts, exquisite brassware from the Muslim south, intricate weavings from the central Visayas to finely chiseled woodcarvings of the Cordilleras, lovingly presented in modern and well-lit display cases, weave a fascinating tale of the island’s richness and kinship to venerable kingdoms and empires in Southeast Asia. Many visitors from these parts, when touring the museum, will remark so often at the similarity of their artifacts and tradition to ours. It takes only a few more “coincidental” artifacts to realize that prior to the arrival of European colonizers, there was a fluidity in trade relations throughout the region and, before we started carving ourselves into nations, were very much connected by trading outriggers large and small, guided only by the night stars. They, in turn, gave the whole region similar epic stories, similar clothing, similar musical instruments, similar words, similar writings, an affinity that is still being reawakened through museums after a lengthy colonial mindset.

My group now thoroughly apprised of their Asian roots is led through the temporary galleries containing exhibitions from abroad, further enhancing our origins. The Museum of the Filipino People has hosted textile exhibits from India, galleon treasures from the Americas, and most recently, the finest collection of gold and brass statuaries from China, further confirming our affinities with old fabled kingdoms. There are still a few galleries in this museum that exhibit our own artistic works and prestigious competitions with their winning entries, like the Philip Morris Arts Awards and the Directory Philippines Corporation Art Competition, grace the walls of this museum. Our young talented artists are given due recognition and their works proudly hang amidst our national masters. Many visitors find them breathtaking because in the midst of our struggling society, we have managed to inculcate a very high level of artistic standards in budding artists today. The museum exalts that genius, and when my group leaves this museum to cross the street to enter the National Gallery of Art, we find clues and answers to such caliber in its seven galleries.

The National Gallery of Art is a recent and second addition to the National Museum’s complex of three buildings given to the public in 1994 by then President Fidel Ramos. The gallery, formerly the Congress Building, was originally designated as the National Library and Museum when it was built in 1916 during the American colonial regime. But it was taken over
by the legislators soon thereafter and became the seat of government, where presidents were sworn in and laws passed until President Ramos reverted the building to the National Museum.

The grand formal entrance of the gallery with its modern and whimsical chandeliers designed by Impy Pilapil was sponsored by Washington Sycip (who sponsored the formal entrance of the Museum of the Filipino People, as well). Its dignified tone lends significantly to the breathtaking feeling when one enters the Luna and Hidalgo main gallery and sees across the room, the massive painting “Spoliarium” by Juan Luna.

The painting’s brooding dark canvas exudes tragedy. The scene is the exit room of the Roman Colosseum called the Spoliarium, hence its name. The injured and dying gladiators are being dragged in. To the far right, a woman is half-sprawled on the floor, with her back turned to us. We do not see her face, but her crouch, her hands seemingly to her face, her head bowed and despondent, reveals only sorrow. To the far left we see Romans cheering on the next batch of gladiators in this blood-letting sport. It is barbarism captured on canvas and the Bellas Artes competition of Spain in 1884 would award this entry the gold prize. To everyone’s happy amazement, the second silver prize would be awarded to another Filipino artist, Felix Resureccion Hidalgo.

This painting inspired the young Jose Rizal, then a medical student and a close friend to both artists. Rizal, in his toast to the two artists at a celebration several weeks after, congratulated them and proceeded to declare the end of colonial patriarchy. After all, he reasons, if Filipinos can now equal the Spaniards in the arts, why couldn’t we be equal in political rights? It was a turning point for young R
izal. He had made a declaration. Several months later, he was involved in campus demonstrations and began to write the first sentences to his anti-colonial novel, “Noli Me Tangere.” The medical student’s career path was irrevocably altered, and he dedicated the rest of his life and even gave up his life for his country. It all started with a painting in front of us.

There is a gallery dedicated solely to the works of our National Artists. In 1972, then President Ferdinand Marcos initiated the award with Fernando Amorsolo as the first recipient. There has been a cortege of artists and sculptors—Manansala, Botong Francisco, Napoleon Abueva, Ang Kiukok and Ben Cabrera, to name a few—given the same accolade and their works hang throughout this exclusive and permanent gallery. What is interesting is the National Museum has secured, through donations, the early works of some of these artists and it is a treat for aficionados to discover the early lines, shapes, and colors that would be the artist’s later imprint.

Several more galleries are on this floor, with the Museum’s holdings stretching from the late 19th-century to the present. The Museum has a bias towards history, so paintings that chronicle the country’s past through Jose Rizal’s sculptures, Manila of the 30s, the tragedies of World War II, People Power, and the continued desire to record the social realism of today have visitors at the end of the tour feeling a sense of wholeness and accomplishment. They had seen their country’s past through the arts and artifacts. They leave the Museum’s grounds with a levity and pride they had not felt before they entered. Jose Rizal once said that the years of colonial domination and the culture imposed made us lose our songs, our way of life to a point that “…we had despised ourselves.”

The National Museum complex, Rizal would agree, returns that life lost to us again.

John L. Silva is Senior Consultant of the National Museum and has the most fascinating stories and insights about the collection. He guides in an interesting and humorous manner and delighting and inspiring his audience to be proud of their culture and history.

A portion of the fees (700 pesos for adults, and 500 pesos for children up to 18 years) goes to John's I LOVE MUSEUM PROGRAM, bringing public school teachers to the National Museum to appreciate the arts and later bring their students. Studies show that an arts educated child raises their academic achievements, promotes love of reading, and become better citizens.

Each tour is three hours in duration, beginning at 10:00 am sharp (ending at 1:00 pm) at the rear entrance of the Museum of the Filipino People, (former Finance Building) Agrifina Circle, Rizal Park. Attendees are requested to wear walking shoes (please no heels) and reservations are strongly encouraged by texting or calling John Silva at 0926 729 9029. Or reach me at jsilva79@mac.com Tour dates are  Sept 24, 27th,  October 1, 4, 5, 8, and 29th, November 2, 5, 9, 12, 19, 22, 23, 26, and 29th, 2008

Please pass this announcement to your friends.

See you at the National Museum.

John L. Silva

Thursday, May 08, 2008

LOST AND FOUND


(printed in Philippine Starweek Magazine, March 4, 2008)

What an incredible year this has been! I liken it to looking up to the night sky and seeing millions of glittering stars. They were all just beautiful stars until October last, when it turned out, one of those stars actually belonged to me.

A woman alights from the hotel van with her two daughters. They’re Australian and it’s their first visit to the Philippines. My sister Marie and I look at the older woman intently. She flashes a smile and says “Finally.” We hug her tightly and cry.

Before October and the sixty other Octobers past, she was an Australian working and living in Brisbane. Today, thanks to my sister Marie’s persistent research and the internet, we are hugging our newly found half-sister named Isabel Castner and her daughters Angie and Jacqui.

World War II is the starting point of this story. General Douglas MacArthur, retreating in April 1942 from the Philippines to Australia said to a reporter upon arrival that he was organizing a counteroffensive against Japan “…the primary objective of which is the relief of the Philippines. I came through and I shall return.”

Three months later, MacArthur set up the Allied Intelligence Bureau (AIB) with headquarters in Brisbane, a combined Australian and American team intercepting and decoding all Japanese radio transmission in the Pacific. A Philippine Regional Section of the AIB was also established to train and send soldiers to the Philippines to collect intelligence, transmit Japanese troop movements and support the resistance.

At the outbreak of the war, our Dad, Saturnino (Tony) Ramos Silva, a graduate from San Francisco State College, was one of seven thousand Filipinos in the United States that immediately enlisted in the US Army to help in the liberation of their homeland. After extensive interviews, he, along with five hundred volunteer Filipinos were chosen and flown to Australia to undergo the AIB’s commando and reconnaissance training for secret missions in the Philippines.

Dad arrived in Australia in May 1943 and was brought to Camp X, (Camp Tabragalba) in Beaudesert outside of Brisbane. They shuttled between that camp and the Canungara Jungle Warfare School where they trained for the next 10 months in infiltrating enemy lines, demolition techniques, sniper fire, and hand-to-hand combat. They also learned to track troop and transport movements and later, radio the information to AIB headquarters, a two-story mansion on 21 Henry Street in Brisbane.
Military historians would say the very demanding espionage course and physical training in Canungra prefigured the CIA and Green Berets training after the war.

Like many soldiers and especially one sent on a secret mission, Dad recounted little about the horror of his war experiences to his children. But on rare nights, after dinner, when it was storytelling time, he talked about his training. They were marched into a jungle with just a knife, a matchbox, and a compass. The challenge was to keep oneself alive. Tempers flared between the Filipinos and the American soldiers and racial slurs erupted. Being called monkeys made Dad furious. In our living room, he’d relive that moment in the jungle, and crouching, assumed a boxing stance. His eyes flared and his mouth tightened as his fists pounded the air knocking down a phantom twice his size. He’d always laugh loud in the end, with his arms akimbo and his chest pushed forward. He’d recall his bloodied face and those of his fellow Filipinos but the moral to his story was never accept prejudice from anyone, intoning this over and over again.

Dad never let on to us children that there was more to the jungle training in Australia. Given the secrecy of their assignment, Filipino privates could not leave camp. As an officer though, Dad was allowed weekend furloughs and, with other officers, made their way to downtown Brisbane. It was in a Chinese restaurant that Lt. Tony Silva first met Private Priscilla Conanan of the Australian Women’s Auxiliary Service (A.W.A.S.) and fell in love. From photos of that period, Priscilla was a very beautiful Filipino-Australian.

It was a surprise enough to know we had additional kin, but even more remarkable that they would be Filipino-Australian. How and when did the Conanans get to Australia? How did they wind up in Brisbane? That’s another remarkable story.

Native men of the Spanish Philippine colony were recruited as deck hands as early as the 16th century for the Spanish fleet that made incursions throughout Asia and for the galleons that plied the profitable trade between Manila, Acapulco, and on to the rest of the Americas and Spain. Small Filipino communities were recorded in the ports of Barcelona and Louisiana by the mid-19th century. By the late 19th century, revolts and uprisings occurred in the colony and, if they were not executed, many Filipino revolutionaries were exiled or fled to Guam, the Marianas, Hongkong and Singapore. There were also Filipinos, given the economic hardships in the colony, who decided to leave and settle in places where their skills could be of use.

The Queensland Australian Filipino Chamber of Commerce cites the first Filipino settlers arriving in the Torres Strait, in Northern Australia in 1880. They bore surnames like Cruz, Cunanan. Caballo, Escobar, Pere, Alfonso, Segovia, Belfonte, Cesar and Tolentino all residing on Thursday Island.

Around 1880, Tolentino Conanan, a pearl diver, settled on Thursday Island around the time pearl, trochus and beche-de-mer industries were being developed in northern Australia. Conanan may have been successful in his occupation for he sailed to Hongkong in 1890 and married a Portuguese woman named Emelia Constantina Da Souza, bringing her back to Thursday Island to raise five children, two girls and three boys. After the required ten years of residence, Conanan was naturalized a British subject in 1892. By 1902 the family had moved to Darwin and one of the boys, Elias, married Lorenza Ceasar whose Filipino father also settled in the Northern territories the same time as Conanan.

Elias and Lorenza had ten children, one of them Priscilla, Isabel’s mother. When Darwin was bombed in 1942 by Japanese fighter planes, a brother of Elias died in the bombing and the family evacuated to Brisbane. A year later, in a Chinese restaurant in Brisbane, the fateful meeting between Priscilla and Tony occurred.

Several people were unhappy about their love affair. Priscilla recounted that both her parents were opposed to Lt. Silva because they had such a brief courtship and he was fifteen years older than her. Priscilla’s friends were not pleased with her choice because of a rule banning Australian privates fraternizing with American officers. And even Supreme Pacific Commander Gen. Douglas MacArthur disapproved of the liaison and engagement. After all, Lt. Silva was on temporary training in Australia and being readied for a dangerous assignment in the Philippines.

Nothing stopped the couple and with a marriage request order approved by the camp’s commander while MacArthur was away, Priscilla and Tony were married on January 8th, 1944 at Canungara Base Camp with reluctant family members and soldier friends in camp. A camp newsletter described the bride dressed in white organdie, looking “gorgeous and lovely.” The camp commander gave the bride away since the disapproving parents threatened not to appear but relented and showed up late.

The marriage was brief. Three days into their honeymoon, Lt. Silva was called and ordered to proceed with his mission. With four other Filipino soldiers under him, they boarded the submarine Narwhal on February 14, 1944, at Port Darwin with 70 tons of supplies, ammunitions and guns, for the underwater journey through the Celebes Sea, skirting Borneo and eluding Japanese ships, crossing the Sulu Sea to reach the shores of Mindanao. Their order stated “an indefinite return date” and their secret assignment “…will not be attached to any recognized military unit while in station.” The Allied Intelligence Bureau would disavow their connection to them if they were caught. He left Priscilla in Australia pregnant with Isabel. She didn’t know where he was going and would not hear from him until three years later.

Tony sent three letters to Priscilla from the Philippines but came to her after the war was over. Army censors delayed or confiscated letters and were much more severe with secret missions. The absence of letters, a mission with no guarantee of survival, and the lengthy days took its toll on their tenuous marriage. Less than a year after arriving in Mindanao, Tony met a young nurse named Ester Peralta. They fell in love, had their union blessed by a guerrilla priest, and lived together.

From all accounts, Lt. Silva distinguished himself in the fifteen months of spying, radio reporting and as an infantry advisor, training a local guerrilla force in Davao. He became a hero in a May 1945 major encounter called the Battle of Ising, named after a river in Davao where Silva led the 130th Infantry Regiment, a combined army of civilians and guerrillas stopping retreating Japanese forces from entering Davao’s northern unoccupied territories. He was wounded in the leg during this battle and swiftly brought to an army hospital and flown back to the United States for extensive surgery.

He left a pregnant Ester who later gave birth to a son named Saturnino Silva Jr.

By 1947, Tony had been in and out of various hospitals and while recovering called Priscilla. It was the first time they would talk since he left Australia three years ago. He told her to come to the United States with baby Isabel. But traveling in a military transport in those days were tedious and Baby Isabel’s frail health wouldn’t allow it. Besides, Australian wives of U.S. servicemen had to draw lots in order to travel and the wait was interminable.

Tony demanded unreasonably that Priscilla and Baby Isabel travel to his bedside in three months. The distance, the inadequacies in phone calls in ascertaining feelings and commitment worked against them. In the interim Dad had a family in Davao that needed to be resolved. In the interim too, Priscilla had lived and taken care of Baby Isabel by herself for three years, not knowing if Tony was alive or dead or even be same man she married if they ever met again.

Tony filed for a divorce that same year. By that time, he had met Elena Ledesma who had recently arrived in the United States from the Philippines to go to college. Dad and Mom were married within a year in a civil ceremony in Arizona.

Dad never revealed his past lives to us four children. But one day, my oldest sister Marie, then ten years old, was snooping in Dad’s briefcase and found a letter with a reference to a girl named Isabel Conanan in Australia. Later, Marie as a teenager would stumble onto a picture of a young boy in Dad’s drawer with the name Saturnino Jr. Fifty years later, we reunited with our half-brother Saturnino Jr., living in Davao and have since visited his family many times.

But Isabel was more daunting to track down. In 1990, while traveling in Australia, Marie pored over telephone books and called every Cunanan listed. She was not successful because Isabel’s family spelled their surname with an “o” (Conanan) rather than the prevalent Filipino spelling of Cunanan.

In October 2006, Marie, living in Manila, and being computer savvy, decided to track Isabel in cyberspace. In the past 15 years, she tried this route many times and had no luck after hundreds of hours of searching. But in the past few years, there have been a host of genealogy websites on the internet. It was in Ancestry.com, searching for Saturnino Ramos Silva, she learned she was the second person to inquire about that name. Several more clicks and Marie found the name Isabel Castner who posted a search for that name. Marie was worried though, for the posting was five years old. More clicks and Marie found the name Angie Castner, Isabel’s daughter with a more recent posting of Saturnino’s name. Marie quickly contacted Angie who gave Isabel’s e-mail. At around two in the morning, when Marie e-mailed Isabel telling her that she might be a sister and Isabel replying yes, she was, Marie let out a shout waking her husband to proclaim “ I Found Her!”

Six months later, there we were at a hotel entrance in Manila tearfully embracing each other, noting the undeniable proof that we all looked so alike. Our rounded dark eyes, the skin tone, the prominent front teeth and that smile were all Dad’s. The resemblances were not faint and as we hugged each other in disbelief Isabel looked at us intently and declaimed softy, “Now I have a sister and a brother!”

For a week Marie and I showed Isabel, Angie and Jacqui the city sites, the best dining and shopping. They were touristy activities but were preludes to a belated bonding that couldn’t be rushed. The getting to know one another, the filling in of unknown years had to be drawn gradually from each other, in between selecting a souvenir, savoring a local dish, or gazing at a painting. As Priscilla’s and Tony’s lives together and apart became clearer, our kinship strengthened. Isabel told us that for many years, two colored photo portraits hung side by side in their dining room. Priscilla in her AWAS uniform. Tony in his US Army uniform. It was love in a time of war and the portraits were Priscilla’s proof while she waited.

A highlight of their Philippine trip was an afternoon visit to the American Military cemetery in the suburbs of Manila where 17,000 American and Filipino soldiers who fought and died in World War II are buried. Huge rectangular slabs of granite etched with the names of the war dead jut outward and form a circle. Beyond the circle, on gentle slopes are the crosses and markers in neat exact rows. There are galleries in the memorial with large mosaic murals showing the Pacific War operations with arrows representing the Allied forces, traversing through the Solomon Islands, New Guinea, heading north for the Philippines and onwards to Japan.

One particular gallery contained a mural devoted to submarine operations. My sister and I had seen this mural many times before but in the company of our newly found sister and her daughters, it had deeper significance. With pointed markers representing submarines, we followed one, the USS Narwhal’s route, leaving Port Darwin, bearing our father and other Filipino soldiers, headed for Mindanao.

We are having a reunion in a restaurant. Seated across me is my half-brother Tony who flew in from Davao. Beside him is Isabel, holding his hand and whispering how wonderful to have yet another brother. Isabel’s daughters are talking to Tony’s daughters, their new found cousins. Marie and I are surveying the scene.

As I look at Isabel and Tony, who never saw our Dad, Marie and I have taken on Dad’s guilt for abandoning them. In the first few weeks of having found Isabel, there were e-mails between Australia and the Philippines. One I sent with a picture was Dad holding me less than a year old. I am fond of this picture because despite the stern military man that he was which pervaded family life, there were many moments of tenderness he gave to us children.

Isabel e-mailed back to share her reaction.

“I loved the photos you sent, John. I rather think that my early baby photos look more like you than Marie. My mother thinks so too.

While I was looking at your photos (I received them at work), a feeling, oh so fleetingly, rippled over my consciousness but then I was back again caught up with the tasks of my ever present work day at the office.

But then this morning sitting patiently on the bus on the way to work, it was back, suddenly flooding me with many, many memories. Memories that evoked that same feeling that I had hidden away deep inside me: looking at other children getting hugs from their Dads; other children being swung up on their Dad's shoulders; being helped with their homework; other girls being eagerly photographed by their Dad's at play, at special times; other girl's having secrets with their Dads, getting special treats from them, dancing with them, having their hands squeezed with pride at graduation, being walked down the aisle, holding their first child... And I realized that as time went on I had steeled myself from this longing, this envy, behind a façade of spirited independence or the old Aussie saying, "I'm alright, Jack!".

But one little photo of our Dad holding you shattered that façade leaving the poor people in the bus wondering why the little brown lady in the seat behind the driver has tears streaming down her face.”


Dad, who passed away in 1987 without telling us his long-held secret, has now given Marie, myself, and our two other sisters the task of sharing his life with Isabel, Tony Jr., their children and grandchildren. If and when they want to. There’s much sensitivity to be employed here presenting a man who was father to some and not to others. Sharing a Dad’s life can satisfy a long-held curiosity or exacerbate a hurt.

Uncovering Dad’s life opened perhaps some childhood pain for Isabel and Tony. But in our week together and now middle-aged, we were able to cast kinder glances on Dad’s relationships with Priscilla, Ester, Elena (my mother) and Letty, the last woman he married after my parents divorced. As for these women’s own lives and feelings towards Dad, that should be their story. Priscilla still lives in Brisbane and Letty lives in Fresno, California.

I’ve rationalized this tangled saga with a war that altered my father’s career, brought him to Australia, later to the Philippines and, injured, back to the United States. Each part of the trip didn’t lend well to love and obligations. It’s hard to think of Dad as totally heartless but then I write this privileged with having known him. Our family pictures, him doting on us, partially vindicates him.

I visited Dad regularly at his Fresno fruit farm in the last ten yeas of his retired life. There were many late afternoons seated on his veranda looking at his pear trees and recalling the good times we had. I was never stingy telling him how he had molded us children to be upright, fair, and hate prejudice. Looking back now, my tributes may have only deterred him from ever telling us his past. He lived in a society where male privilege was unquestioned and hearts broken in the course of bravery and courage were intertwined.

When I was young and war stories abounded there was an oft repeated phrase “Hanggang pier lamang” (Until the pier) describing numerous Filipinas weeping at pier side as their American soldier lovers board their ships homeward bound. The women were always portrayed as loose, as naive if not stupid for falling in love. But were they? What about those who did love and promises by soldiers were made?

Important events in World War II are often centered on the day of the battle, the victorious Allied forces appearing from out of the blue and just at the nick of time. The long awaited date of the American liberation of the Philippines often overshadows the years of preparation leading up to it. In Australia, there were thousands of Australian military and civilians working in the A.I.B. headquarters deciphering enemy codes, thwarting planned attacks and helping the Allied Forces mount counter-offensives. There were bands of radio operators operating mostly in Mindanao sending troop movement reports to Brisbane and tens of thousands of Filipino guerrillas operating around the Philippines sabotaging enemy operations. The combined ground work efforts of countless people, many laying their lives, directed Gen. MacArthur to decide a major naval battle and landing in Leyte Province, instead of Mindanao as originally intended. This was to be a wise decision in the retaking of the Philippines.

On October 24, 1944 a combined Australian and United States force composed of over 200,000 men and women, 200 battleships, aircraft carriers, cruisers and destroyers along with 1,500 planes waged the largest and most decisive Allied offensive of World War II. In three days of relentless sea battles off Leyte the Japanese forces were defeated and their oil supply lifeline cut off from Southeast Asia. Japan’s defeat was imminent. Dad’s own efforts to this victory earned him the Purple Heart received for injuries, the Bronze Medal for valor, and the Philippine Congressional Medal of Honor.

Dad retired with the rank of Lt. Colonel, got a job in the post office and we lived in San Francisco, California. Dad knew this city from way back in the thirties, where he and other farm workers spent their weeks wages in Chinatown, on pool halls and girls. Before college, he was one of over 120,000 single Filipinos who left the Philippines in the twenties to come to America and work the sugar fields in Hawaii, the canneries in Alaska and the fruit and vegetable farms in California.

Dad liked driving his green and white Dodge all over the city and on weekends drove to the fruit farms in Fresno to meet up with buddies that he roamed with years back. They were the unlucky ones who didn’t marry and continued to live in barracks with other Filipinos. His eyes lit up and he’d laugh with his friends remembering those times in Seattle when they’d run from the vigilantes out to kill them for dating white women. Or down in Los Angeles, after harvesting and having a great time with the Mexicanas. Filipino men developed a wandering spirit depending on the season and where the jobs would be. This might explain partially why Dad, like many of his compatriots, couldn’t and didn’t settle down.

When we’d drive home, he loved singing this American folk song. We sang it with him. For us children it was a cheery song. For Dad, it may have been his life story.

“Freight train, freight train
Going on so fast
Freight train, freight train
Going on so fast
I don’t care what train I’m on
As long as it keeps going on.”

Monday, April 21, 2008

PASSING ON THE LUCK. THE GRADUATION OF MY SCHOLAR


By John L. Silva

(Philippine Daily Inquirer, April 21, 2008)

Through the years, I’ve happily attended many of Far Eastern University’s lectures, openings, and performances.

The university’s 80th commencement exercise this April was by far, the most heartfelt of all the events. Our scholar, Ronnie Quiling, was graduating and my partner Jonathan Best and I were there as his adoptive parents.

There was onstage for several hours, a stream of tassels and gowns and the school color green but when Ronnie’s name was called and he strode the platform to receive his diploma, the moment went into slow motion. Like every parent in that huge auditorium, I felt that mixture of tears and happiness for our graduate.

I rewound the days stretching four years back when Ronnie was introduced into my household by Glenn. Glenn, my first scholar and graduate from Emilio Aguinaldo College, was responsible for finding another suitable candidate from his province Zamboanga who would work for us one year as a houseboy. If all went well and there was a desire for college, he would become the next scholar.

Ronnie graduated from a science high school so he came to our lives not with shy rural bearings, but more with a cautious, academic mien. He pondered the world while he washed the dishes or fixed the bed in the morning. He is also of the Iglesia Ni Christo faith, and they possess a discipline and an outlook to succeed, bereft of fatalism.

After a year’s service I told him to choose whatever university he wished. He chose FEU without any prodding. He had visited various schools but loved the serenity of the campus, the friendliness of the students and the competence of its faculty. When he echoed the same feelings I have had about the university these many years, I knew this ward was worth my investment and time.

He was my fourth college scholar and was lucky, for I had turned pragmatic and less demanding. My previous scholars got a direct threat: You get a scholarship only if you signed, in blood, never to leave for work abroad after graduation.

After a decade though of providing scholarships and realizing the snail’s pace by which the job market was expanding, I relented, and with Ronnie, told him his life’s destination was his own after graduation.

To our surprise, he decided to major in Psychology and not the alluring courses that would have been his ticket abroad. In fact, he has never indicated to us a desire to leave the country. I had become the cynic, while he, with FEU’s unremitting idealism, seem to have ingrained in him the possibility of creating a future here.

Since Jonathan and I espouse an American egalitarian philosophy in the midst of a stratified society, Ronnie and the rest of our house-help scholars experienced a dual relationship with us. They did everything demanded of house help but on many occasions, they sat at the dinner table with us, eating the best, learning manners, holding English conversations, and realizing their own worth and dignity. Ronnie reveled in the democracy of our home and I suspect that FEU had much to do with the self-confidence he brought to the table. He was his own strong willed person and his expressions of thanks, for the ballet tickets, the summer outings, the delightful dinners, were always simple but sincere. It was refreshing to take a young man under my wing without the cloying gratitude or feigned cheeriness that Utang Na Loob (debt of gratitude) exacts.

Ronnie mastered the university’s electronic library, and developed strong friendships acutely aware of the network advantages later on. In his senior year, I offered to help find on-the-job-trainings from friends who had companies but he demurred and got it himself. I sense he will need little or no help when he goes out there pounding the streets for his first job. FEU has given him that spunk. Ronnie, like many of the graduates cheerily clutching at their diplomas that day, seem ready to take a swipe at life and become the backbone of a good society we earnestly need. For Ronnie, the first in his family line to graduate from college, poverty is no longer his badge nor lot.

After his graduation, I went by myself to the American cemetery in Makati. My soldier/father is not buried there but I remember him vividly in that tranquil place. I thought about how he got his lucky break, in the thirties. Dad, having graduated from high school, left his poor Pangasinan town and boarded a ship bound for California. He worked the length of that state and, depending on the harvest, picked apples up north and vegetables down south. But he wanted so badly to go to college.

One day, while praying in church hoping to find some way to go to school, a priest named Father Anthony approached him, heard his need, and introduced him to a professor friend at San Francisco State College. The professor, who was disabled, agreed to help Dad through college in return for being his manservant. My dad’s life changed with that diploma. Forever grateful to the priest, Dad made my middle name “Anthony.” And while growing up, he never made me forget to pass on his “luck” to someone else.

Dad would have been proud to see his “luck” continue through Ronnie and even more so through FEU. Its founder Dr. Nicanor Reyes started the school as a night college to allow working people to study and obtain a diploma.

Ronnie’s career path and future is set. My father’s dictum to pass on his “luck” fulfilled. And with the venerable university’s 80th commencement, a founder’s vision endures.

(John is a trustee of Synergeia, an education reform organization which raises academic achievement levels in children through teacher training)