The JRB presents an updated version of an essay first published in Jim Pascual Agustin’s book of poems Bloodred Dragonflies: New and Selected Poems in English and Versions from the Filipino.
Bloodred Dragonflies: New and Selected Poems in English and Versions from the Filipino
Jim Pascual Agustin
Deep South, 2022
The Philippines, my country of birth, is an archipelago of over seven thousand islands, so taking to the water has been a necessity and a skill among its inhabitants. Its geographic location made it a natural trading post in the Pacific long before the first Europeans arrived in their galleons. It also sits on major earthquake fault lines and is part of the chain of active volcanoes around Asia known as the Ring of Fire. Typhoons regularly visit the country, often leaving huge devastation.
The Philippines has had a long list of invaders through the centuries. The colonial empire of Spain ruled with cross and sword for over three hundred years. The United States of America, in its roughly fifty years of domination, introduced the public education system along with torture and genocide. Japan staked its bayonets for three years during World War II.
In the late eighteen-nineties, Philippine revolutionaries were fighting to put an end to Spanish rule. The Spanish knew they no longer had the power to keep the country, but they could not admit defeat to people they deemed to be unworthy opponents. America was waiting at the doorstep, laying the foundations for its young empire. It earned the trust of revolutionary leaders by promising to support their new government. A mock battle was staged in Manila Bay in May 1898 between the two colonial powers with Spain ‘surrendering’ to the Americans. But within months this became reality when the Treaty of Paris was signed, declaring Spain’s defeat and the agreement to sell the Philippines for $20 million to the USA.
It was in those turbulent years that Filipino crew members on trade ships passing the coast of Cape Town decided to abandon their posts and stay ashore. They established the first fishing community in Kalk Bay. When I first got here I thought I would be the first Filipino to set foot in South Africa. Much later I learned how inaccurate that was.
I arrived in South Africa in October 1994 knowing only one person. I had met her on my first trip to the Mountain Province in the Philippines in 1993. She was on holiday from teaching English in Japan. She did not have the luckiest time in Manila, losing her travellers cheques soon after arriving. Someone suggested she go up north. We were both trying to catch a bus from Banaue (home of famous rice terraces) that would take us to Bontoc and Sagada. The bus was already full of locals, so we ended up riding on the roof for the hours-long drive on narrow roads right next to cliffs. Being the monsoon season, the roads were slippery with mud and we were told a number of times to jump off the side away from the sheer drop below if the vehicle began to tilt. The shared adventure brought us together. She came back to live with me in Manila the following year, then I followed her to South Africa.
I didn’t know back then that Cape Town would become my home. Each time a stranger approached me—often not in a friendly way—they assumed I was from somewhere else. My appearance somehow drew anti-Chinese remarks. To those who showed real interest rather than veiled animosity, I tried to explain where I came from by identifying nearby countries like Thailand and Malaysia.
I lost both grandfathers when I was very young. I remember very little about them. My mother’s father lived in a room upstairs that had wide windows made of capiz—translucent, flattish shells from a particular type of oyster, cut to fit small squares in a wooden grid. I remember light coming in even when he shut those windows. He had a violin in the corner of the room, but he never took it out of the case. He had been a young widower taking care of three daughters and a son during the Japanese invasion in World War II. There are photographs of me as a toddler sitting in his lap, a rare smile for the camera. He barely spoke to us, but with a single shout he would send the neighbours’ kids running, dropping the guavas they tried to steal.
My father would have gone to university on a scholarship for his soccer playing abilities, but he had to support the studies of his younger sister. Military service seemed a good option, so he joined the Philippine Air Force. When he got called to duty, he would disappear for days. We were never told to where, for what. He claimed he was related to the Marcoses, coming from the same province in the north, and that they shared a middle name.
My mother was a public school teacher. She got up at five each morning to prepare food for the whole family before setting off on foot to the local primary school. Many years after she retired, her former students would visit our house with Christmas offerings, sometimes with their young families in tow.
My parents were active members of a local community organisation which called itself ‘Land for the Landless’—people who put up their own houses and looked after their own needs on land outside the reach of government services. It was a rural area on the outskirts of Manila with rice fields and small vegetable farms by the river.
We lived in a house that had been expanded many times through the decades to accommodate our extended family. Rooms were added or split up with thin dividers, sometimes just with blankets. Cousins and their own growing families somehow managed to make space. The whole house was a patchwork, with new wood nailed against thick old trunks.
In the late nineteen-seventies, the Marcoses wanted to build a highway, naming it after the dictator. Our house stood in the way, as did most of the houses in the community. One day huge machinery arrived, dumping mountains of soil and gravel. My family was paid a measly sum and given a short deadline to move out. The top part of our house was lifted off its base by volunteers and loaded onto the back of a truck which took it a few kilometres down to a new spot. At one point it got stuck on a low hanging power cable. One of the neighbours climbed to the roof to deal with it. He got electrocuted and was rushed to the hospital. Relatives took over our house in that new location, and my family moved to another part of town. Soon grey concrete roads buried the remaining rice paddies in the area. In the regime of Ferdinand E Marcos the Philippines, once South East Asia’s economic wonder, became the country with the worst foreign debt record in the region.
When martial law was declared in 1972, I was a toddler. Curfews remained in force as I grew up—the hushed talk of the adults about protests, arrests and disappearances went on for many years. My parents were Marcos loyalists, the quiet type who didn’t join campaign rallies and believed every word from the government-controlled media. The Marcos family and their cronies took over major businesses and independent media entities. They buried the population in debt while putting on an extravagant show of wealth. The military crushed all dissent and resistance. In 1983 the assassination of Ninoy Aquino, the staunchest critic of the regime, galvanised the opposition. There were protest rallies in different parts of the country, even in the conservative business districts.
Marcos declared there would be snap elections in early February 1986, to prove to the country that he remained popular. Cory Aquino, the widow of Ninoy, became the unlikely candidate for the opposition. My mother, like all public school teachers, was required to work at the polls. As she oversaw the manual counting of ballots which went on through the night, she knew that the Marcos administration had lost. It made her cry in disbelief. In many parts of the country there were reports of violence at the polls, of election officials resisting armed men who wanted to snatch ballot boxes.
During the national counting of votes it became clear the Marcos regime had tried to rig the elections. Cory Aquino called for nationwide civil disobedience. Former military supporters of Marcos declared a coup to oust him, and the Catholic Church sent out a call for people to protect them. Huge numbers responded, filling the major streets and highways of the capital. Fighter jets were sent to threaten them. Tanks rolled down the streets, but people blocked them with their own bodies. The few soldiers who still supported Marcos had running battles with the soldiers who had joined the coup. The military was ordered to fire at the protesters—they refused. Although under siege, the Marcoses declared victory and used state television to broadcast a flag-waving event, but within hours they were airlifted from the presidential palace by US Forces and taken to Hawaii. Soon afterwards, protesters broke through the gates. The groundswell of popular support swept Cory Aquino to the presidency in what would be called the 1986 People Power Revolution.
School was called off just before the elections. I was a high school student then, awkward and out of place in the exclusive Ateneo de Manila, run by Jesuits, where I had been accepted on a financial scholarship. Some of my classmates had joined rallies. I never dared. But in February 1986, I took a jeepney as far as I could, then went on foot to join thousands of people ambling about on EDSA, the widest road in Manila, as if they were in a fiesta. I walked with them for hours, past buildings pitted with bullet holes, and corners where flowers and rosaries had been offered to soldiers.
I couldn’t tell my family where I’d been. My father finally came home after being holed up in the military base. He was incensed because he had to buy yellow ribbons (the colour of the opposition) and tie them to his vehicle to be let through the crowds. He and my mother wept together. In the space of a few days he had lost all his authority. During martial law anyone could get picked up by a soldier or a lowly police officer for the slightest reason. Growing up with a father in the military gave my family a sense of protection. He was often called upon by relatives to help get someone out of trouble.
Under the Marcos regime all senior high school and first year university students were required to undergo citizens military training. We were told we could be called to serve any time to fight the growing insurgency. The new government that took over didn’t remove this policy. I had no money to buy army boots. I got hand-me-downs, two sizes too big. I had to wear thick socks and fold them over. I broke my ankle once running with those oversized boots. We had drills every Saturday morning until noon. One time we were ordered to be at a military base to learn to fire a rifle. That day my best friend got kicked in the side by one of the soldiers for laughing when we were supposed to be aiming at targets.
After the death in exile of the former dictator, the Marcos family were allowed to return to the country. They refused to return the funds they had stolen while they were in power. They never recognised nor apologised for the human rights abuses committed under the dictatorship. They regained their foothold in politics in both local and national elections.
The outgoing president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, elected in 2016, is facing possible arrest by the International Criminal Court for his so-called War on Drugs during which between seven-thousand and thirty-thousand have been killed—not just accused drug users but also political and environmental activists, indigenous people, lawyers, mayors, church leaders, and journalists. Before he came to power, the country had seen an economic boom under the leadership of the son of Cory Aquino, Benigno Aquino Jr. All those gains were squandered by the rampant corruption that Duterte and his officials orchestrated.
In early 2022, just as this book was being printed, the former dictator’s son, Ferdinand Marcos Jr, was running for president. His main opponent was Leni Robredo, who, like Cory Aquino, is the widow of a prominent political leader. Robredo had previously beaten Marcos Jr when they both ran for vice president of the country. She promised to end impunity and corruption.
A few weeks before the 9 May 2022 elections I spoke to some friends in Manila who were among the millions volunteering their time and money for Leni Robredo’s campaign. A new kind of energy was sweeping the country—hundreds of thousands of people, millions possibly, were attending Robredo’s rallies. Crowds showing kindness and solidarity, singing both campaign songs and pop songs even as they walked back home. And not just in the capital, in the provinces as well. There was a deluge of creativity—murals on public and private walls, books, artwork, poetry, songs, handmade posters.
I asked one of my friends if the results could be manipulated. He said ‘They wouldn’t dare. It’s unstoppable now, just look at all the rallies!’
But they did dare. On election day improbable figures flooded social media at regular intervals, spread by paid online trolls. Within days Marcos Jr was declared president and Duterte’s daughter was declared vice-president.
The final report from the UN’s International Observer Mission concluded: ‘The Philippine Elections 2022, especially the Presidential, Senatorial and House of Representatives elections, including for the 20 per cent Party-List seats, failed to meet the international standard of a free, honest and fair election.’
The report was completely ignored by the authorities in the Philippines. Protests were quickly quashed by the outgoing regime. Evidence such as SD cards were erased, and there was an unexplained fire at the offices of the Commission on Elections. Demands for a manual recount were silenced.
Leni Robredo never conceded defeat. She also did not file to contest the declared results. Instead she announced the founding of Angat Buhay (Life Upliftment), a new NGO which drew on the huge volunteer network that supported her campaign. It will continue what she started while she was the country’s vice-president—helping calamity-affected communities, providing housing, setting up feeding schemes for children, making free medical assistance available to those in need.
Meanwhile more books, poetry, and songs continue to be written from the creativity and renewed hope that sprang up during the campaign. The people have not given up hope. They know that no meaningful change can come from those who seek only power.
- Jim Pascual Agustin had published ten books of poetry in Filipino and English—in the Philippines and the UK—by the time his first South African title, Bloodred Dragonflies, was released in 2022 by Deep South. Minimal Press is due to publish a South Africa edition of an earlier collection, Sound Before Water, while two new collections are forthcoming: Blur of a Dog (San Anselmo Press, Manila) and Waking Up to the Pattern Left by a Snail Overnight, winner of the 2022 Gaudy Boy Poetry Book Prize. He has been invited to present the book at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference in Seattle in 2023, but his attendance depends on the success of a crowdfunding initiative that is being handled by the fantastic Tracey Saunders.