The state of our communities

Instead of a highly partisan speech by the incumbent president on the state of the nation, our country might be better served if the mayor in every town, and the barangay captain in every barrio, were required annually to face their people and give a report of the state of their respective communities.  The nation, after all, cannot be equated with the central government. The nation is the body politic itself – the people as they constitute themselves into the various communities of this archipelago.

The state of the nation therefore is not “a strong economy,” as Ms Arroyo boasts in her 2009 State of the Nation Address.  The real state of the nation is the state of its local communities and of the households that form it.  And these communities are dying and disintegrating from benign neglect, the casualties of a historical process that has completely replaced the autonomous organs of communal life with the administrative instruments of a centralized bureaucracy.  The barangay and the munisipyo, under current circumstances, are experienced not so much as organs of community life, but as structures belonging to an external authority. Unless, we begin rebuilding our communities by restoring local initiative, there is little we can do to ensure the development of our people.

In the last few years, I have traveled to some of the remotest communities of our country on a motorcycle. I think it is the best way to see the country and to meet local people.  Despite the years of unabated plunder of our mountains and degradation of our water systems, the landscapes that surround our communities remain stunning in their beauty. But, this natural beauty is almost everywhere contradicted by the pathetic condition of our town plazas and markets.  The markets show nothing but the inroads of unbridled consumerism.  The old plazas have long surrendered their serenity to the anarchy of tricycles.  These are not at all the historic villages from which a visitor might read the narrative of a nation’s beginnings. They are more like border towns without character, human settlements without memory or sense of collective identity.  Sometimes they bear faint traces of the strong communities they once were, but these appear to hold no meaning for the rootless individuals that now inhabit them.

But I have seen, apart from the well-preserved community of Vigan, small towns that eloquently project their residents’ unmistakable pride of place.   Their streets are regularly swept and lined with potted plants.  No billboards, streamers, or tarpaulins obstruct the grand vistas by which they seek to be remembered.  Their monuments are scrubbed and properly marked, documenting the distinct spaces they occupy in the nation’s memory.  The church and the plaza are clean and well-lit, and do not become the playground of stray or grazing animals.  The public school and the municipal house mirror the distinct character of the place.  The old homes are rebuilt to become repositories of local craftsmanship.  Many of these are converted into bed and breakfast inns, where local cuisine, crafts, and other products may be found.

Sometimes this transformation happens through local government effort in collaboration with civic groups and the parish council, but most of the time it is the product of a constellation of private initiatives in various spheres of culture.   Filipinos who have traveled everywhere are coming home — initially, to rebuild the abandoned homes of their ancestors, and then later to reconstitute the various material and non-material fragments of their heritage.

In my home province, Pampanga, which, for several decades, paid a heavy price for the exodus of its professionals and artisans, there is a cultural rebirth that has been taking place for some years now.  It is visible not only in the reconstruction of heritage houses and churches, but also in the revival of artisanship, of local cuisine, and of the arts. There is renewed interest in local languages, geography, and oral history.  These private initiatives have been greatly enhanced by the establishment at the Holy Angel University in Angeles City of the Center for Kapampangan Studies.  The Center maintains a museum, organizes lectures and workshops, and most importantly, publishes books and a regular scholarly journal and a magazine that can rival the best in Metro Manila’s universities.

One can see clearly in all these a revolt against an overarching national government that has become estranged from the lives of its people.  Filipinos are reclaiming their autonomy and their heritage from a state that still treats them as if they were its colonial subjects. But, it is as well a revolt against an insidious consumerist culture that has substituted plain utility for meaning, and which promotes a way of life that downgrades local achievement in favor of everything foreign. The question is: how do we multiply these isolated local initiatives so that they may form a new template for nation-building?

The answers provided by the Jesuit scholar, Fr. Horacio de la Costa, are so precise one would think they were written only yesterday.  He said, “We can only go back to the basic ideas:

  1. Build communities;
  2. Link the communities with common goals; and
  3. Recapture the bureaucracy.”


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