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Coping mechanisms

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Ruins of Legislative Building

Tony Abaya's column Stability from Failures, got me thinking the other night. A country that has undergone repeated national traumas: the defeat of the 1896 revolution; the defeat of the First Republic and the Filipino-American War; the Japanese Occupation; the depredations of the Hukbalahap; the First Quarter Storm and Martial Law, including the economic collapse of the early 1980s; and so on.

In Dusk and dawn in the Philippines: memoirs of a living witness of World War II, the late Antonio Molina recounted two jokes that made the rounds during the Japanese Occupation.

The first:

“A Filipino asked another, ‘Suppose you see Our Lord Jesus Christ and the Emperor of Japan both approaching you. Whom will you greet first?’

“‘The Emperor.’

“‘Why?’

“‘Because Our Lord Jesus Christ would understand.’”

The second:

“Thus, during the buy-and-sell boom, an activity engaged in by almost all the unemployed and idle professionals, it is said a man went to confession.

“‘Father,” he said, ‘ I accuse myself of having stolen a dynamo.”

“The confesor asked him, ‘Big or small?’

“‘Well, not too small. It was a four-horse power.’

“Quickly the priest told him, ‘Sold! I have a buyer!’

Here's an extract from one of the drafts of the late Enrique Zobel's memoirs, in which he recounts the immediate effects of the War (as background, his father, Jacobo, was at the time in Bataan, as an officer under Gen. Vicente Lim's command):

Exactly as father predicted, a few days later, Manila became an open city and much to the surprise of everybody, the banks were all closed. And I wondered: where would we get our next meal? We had some money left over, but not enough to last us for a week. Even Ayala y Cia – occupying Filipinas Building, at the foot of the Jones Bridge, had no money to pay its employees. All the banks were closed.

The Japanese, as expected, came in, and took over most of Manila. At first, they were peaceable. They did not treat the Filipinos badly because Manila was an Open City.

My mind was constantly on how we were to survive. With what we would eat. Mother was in hysterics. She had never bothered about where the money came from and only knew how to spend it. A thought occurred to me that I would get my father’s horses from the Manila Polo Club and put them in the harness, hitching them to carretelas which Floren and I would drive. At least we would get a daily cash income.

First, I negotiated the sale of father’s stamp collection to a friend of Mascuñana, head of Archives. This friend was a Jewish trader of stamps in Ermita. With that money, I went to Pasay, Calle Zamora, to a carretoña, which was owned by Mang Sendong. (Today, the children of Mang Sendong make jeep bodies; but then, they only made carretelas.)

I negotiated for two carretelas using as down payment the stamp collection and later on, some silver and ornaments that mother had in the house which were sold to pawnshops and different small stores in Ermita.

I went to the Manila Polo club, Floren and I. It had been taken over by the Japanese cavalry and I asked to see the commanding officer who was a lieutenant. I explained to him that I was a Filipino and wanted to get my six horses back and bring them to my house. He stared at me, laughed in my face, and then he asked me why. First he asked me to prove that I was a Filipino. Of course, I had no proof. I said the fellow with me knows me; we were raised together – Florentino de Lara, who today lives in Calatagan, retired.

We had a heated discussion. I mean heated, as I started to shout my lungs off. Although I was 14, I was taller than he was. I don’t know how but between his anger and some persuasive talk, I was brought to Fort Santiago. I did not know what the hell Fort Santiago was. But when I realized this was where they kept all the prisoners, I started getting worried.

I was introduced to a major who interviewed me. I explained that the only way we could make a living, my mother and I, were those horses. (I was lucky it did not occur to them to ask: What about your father? I would really have been in hot water then.)

He asked me to tell him the horses’ names and describe them. That was easy. I described my father’s grey pony, Sultana, whom when you tickled her nose, would raise her lip. She had a scar on her left front leg. I went down the roster of horses: Sultana, Panthera, Rumba, Mani, Pal-o-Mine and Bobby Shot.

While we were talking, I noticed a little chap staring at us. After a while, he got involved in the conversation. Of all people, he was the head of the Kempeitai. He was Gen. Ota. Kempeitai was the Japanese Gestapo. And he asked me why, who was I; was I American? I said no, I was Filipino. He said: You can’t be. So I explained that my mother was Spanish. So he said: Oh Spanish! I know some Spanish. And he started dilly-dallying – “buenos dias,” etc. And then he said: What are you doing for lunch? Nothing. So he invited me for lunch, at his house.

He was occupying the house of Juaquinito Elizalde (he was in exile, saerving as the U.S. Resident Commissioner when the War broke out) on the Boulevard, beside President Quezon’s Roberts Street residence in Pasay, which was also occupied by a Japanese general. (Juaquinito Elizalde’s house became the U. S. Ambassador’s residence after the war; then it was demolished and now Sunset View towers stands on that lot).

Of course, in those days, a meal was rice and fish or rice and chicken, if you could get chicken. Otherwise, it was rice. Well, he had fried eggs, he had Japanese steaks, etc. And then he asked me if I could make it every Thursday, and I could have lunch in exchange, I could talk to him in Spanish. He just wanted Spanish conversation for one or two hours. Obviously, I amused him. So we made a pact. In fact, after about three or four times, I brought my mother along who also ate there. Hence, we spoke Spanish. He was a very nice, quiet person, considering the title and position he occupied; at least with me.

What is funny was, towards the end of say, three months, one day, during the lunch, he said: Enrique, you are alone, do you want to pick up your father at Capas? I turned white. And he said: Why haven’t you brought up the subject of your father? I answered back: You never asked me. So after lunch, he offered the use of his car to pick up my father in Capas. So you can imagine when I went to Capas, a young boy of 14, getting off in his car, that every goddamn sentry saluted Gen. Ota’s car. I went to pick up my father, carried him bodily into the car, and brought him back to Manila.

A fellow prisoner, Ernesto Rufino, asked me: Enrique, how the hell can you come in that Japanese car? He was there in line when I picked up my father. He was simply amazed. Where did I get this thing? I did not answer back. I just smiled, you know, and said: Someday, I’ll tell you.

I brought father back, and he had improved from dysentery; he was 86 lbs. He could survive only on soup because anything else would just come out.

Anyway, that first day at the Manila Polo Club, they gave me the horses at the end of the long argument. They said: At such a date, go pick up your horses. They did not give us the saddles. They gave Floren and I the horses and the bridles. So bareback, we took the six horses back; one boy on each horse, and one horse on either side, to Malate, where the stables were, empty by then.

The problem arose of how to feed the horses. Every afternoon when the sun came down, we would bring them to the Boulevard and spend three to four hours there and have them eat the grass before training them with the caretela.

Part I of the training session was getting two bamboo poles and having the horse trotting around with a long rope on his rein and us driving him from behind, getting him used to the bamboo poles on each side.

Well, everyone did very well except for Pal-o-Mine. He started kicking, and got loose. Floren and I were training them in bathing suits and shorts. I ran after the horse in a bathing suit and finally caught him near the bomberos in Azcarraga where the children play “sipa.” So I found myself holding a tired horse, crowd around me, in a bathing suit, and how can you explain the situation? Anyway, I rode the horse back to Malate.

We got those horses taught. My first customer was my grandfather, Don Enrique. We delivered him to his office every morning and then brought him back in the afternoon... Then in the evening, in the last “pasada,” we would end up every night in Pasay, near the Polo Club, Pasay Market to buy “zacate,” which had been cut in Makati.

So we would fill up both caretelas, paid in cash naturally. After delivering the load to Ayala, it was back to Pasay, then to Escolta, back to Pasay, I made about four rounds a day. With Floren that’s eight rounds, total. That was a lot of money then. But with that, I fed my mother and we all survived. (Lunch was rice with whatever Belen, our cook, could put in. Floren and I both ate the same food.)

We traded Mani for a mestizo horse. Floren had a funny experience with that horse. One evening he got a family of Sikhs up the Jones Bridge and the weight was so much that it pulled the mestizo pony up in the air and the caretela fell on its rear, until the Sikhs shifted weight to the front, and horse and caretela came back to earth again.

Consider the effects of the tremendous inflation that took place during the War (see Charle's Mock's September 2, 1943 diary entry). Now this requires further study, but what we do have by way of accounts such as the many diaries recently published of people who lived through World War II, is that they were immediately faced with the problems of inflation, a breakdown in law and order, and a situation where old skills weren't necessarily relevant to the current situation.

The whole point of these stories from the Wartime generation (and middle and upper class voices at that) is that it might be useful to explore the coping mechanism of society viewed as an organic whole and less by means of its component parts. To do that requires exploring common behavior.

Some notes, based on a discussion about a week ago with friends online.

  • For some time now, you often hear observers bewailing the behavior they notice among OFW's, that their purchases go towards consumer items like appliances and jewelry, then vehicles and land. Previously, they were criticized as follows: that they did not save, were obsessed with appliances and other items, with jewelry, and so on. But all the consumer items are actually, in a sense, portable wealth: appliances can be pawned, houses may not have been completed but land bought or occupied... so the coping will take place.
  • This actually points to how entrenched across classes crisis coping mechanisms are. Coping mechanisms constantly revalidated over time, and most recently by the collapse of banks, the predatory political class' scraping the public barrels, etc.
  • You could even argue these lessons go back to the formative years of our nation-state: the Philippine Revolution and the War (both within living memory during the War itself) taught people not to trust banks, and governments, with the old middle and upper classes survived the way many intend and are doing it now: pawning portable wealth, and retreating to the land when possible, trusting, not in currency or institutions but the family.
  • This crisis is like the 1980s economic crises, serving the same purpose in transmitting from one generation to the next, the coping mechanisms that saw the older generations survive their eras' crises. In the 1980s, those who lived through the war and the years of terror and uncertaintly during the depredations of the military and the Huks, instinctively knew what would carry them through. Same lessons as during the War. Do not trust banks, government institutions.
  • The amassing of appliances is no different from the purchase of pianos and phonographs prior to the war and the pawning for emergency cash... it will tide the new middle class through just as it tided the old middle class through the war.
  • We don't realize how extended the formal economy is, and how it meshes with the informal one: for example, many fancy shops in Makati do most of their real business in Tupperware Party style gatherings, in part because the wealthy do not want to be seen purchasing in public, but also because it takes place in a style reminiscent of the underground economy. Another example is how the "Multiply.com economy" is already fairly large, tapping into behavior similar to the buy-and-sell economy that began in WW2 but which has never ever really gone away.
  • The salaried class is not like salaried classes in other countries again because of the buy-and-sell sub-economy. Note the prevalence of rackets, even among salaried individuals or their spouses, or their extended families, in good times and bad.
  • The so-called hoi polloi, the urban and rural poor, are an integral part of all these economies (formal and informal), whether as the staff, or in many respects, the consumers and providers, too; so the informal economy goes all the way to the top and all the way to the bottom, buy and sell, barter and exchange is as much a habit of the wealthiest classes as they are of the poorest, as is the hoarding and land-obsessed (for security) mentality.
  • A good example of enduring wartime habits is that from the wealthiest to solidly old middle class villages, converting empty lots to food growing has been a feature since the 1950s, with a portion for the family and the rest for the employees.
  • In the first place the system of extended families always includes a cross-section of society as even the wealthiest will have poor relations, they are bound together in terms of behavior that overlooks wealth in some aspects and accentuates dependence in others.
  • This brings up feudalism both as safety net and as a code of behavior that won't go away, because crises reinforces it; if feudalism is as much about obligations as it is about privileges, something again overlooked by academics in the case of the family system although it's broken down in all other non-family respects (e.g. among tenants and landlords; but as Kerkvliet pointed out, the tension vs. landlords since the 1930s has been as much due to peasants' desire for landlords to return to their old feudalism and less to a truly widespread demand to overturn feudalism, as it about the wealthy maintaining only a sense of impunity while abandoning traditional expectations of them by the poor).

I think the insight to pursue is in the same manner that anthropolgists are finding more and more of the prehispanic culture having survived, you will find that we have been conditioned by the great traumas of our national existence to deliberately pursue what you find people pointing out to be our national consuelo de bobo: we missed out on the boom, but we muddle through the regional busts. We have been conditioned by our great national traumas to keep our goals limited, and our options unrestricted to those that the formal economy expects.

This also suggests that instead of unrest, what we might see happening, as the economic crisis wears on, is, instead, an increase in underground economic activity, combined with both increased pressures on the government for patronage, and with that, increased clout on the part of the government, since people will be grateful or at least, calmed down, by favors granted.

This ties in with an observation by a former Metrocom officer, who I once asked about conditions during the rice shortages of the early 70s. Were there riots? No, he said, people as a whole do not go berserk; small groups might, and individuals do; but what was remarkable then, he said, was how people accepted harsh conditions.

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This page contains a single entry by Manuel L. Quezon III published on March 20, 2009 3:31 PM.

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