Don Ramon and the Filipino family

Don Ramon Revilla may be the archetype of Filipino machismo, having sired more than 50 children by different women. He may have built a legendary movie career and accumulated a sizable fortune as an actor and film producer. He may have tasted political power and gained social stature by winning a seat in the Philippine Senate. But, I am certain, only a few would care to trade places today with the old man, given the heart-breaking domestic problems he is facing.

His 23-year-old son, Ramgen, the eldest of his nine children by Genelyn Magsaysay, a woman several decades younger than him, has been brutally murdered. The prime suspect is another son, RJ, 18, who is now in police custody. A daughter, Ramona, 22, under investigation as a possible accomplice to the crime, has fled to Turkey to escape the charges that are about to be filed against her. The most prominent among his children by his first wife, action star and incumbent Sen. Ramon “Bong” Revilla, has been drawn into this gruesome family affair by the unflattering and resentful remarks made by Genelyn. His promising political career is in danger of being tainted by the controversy.

So fragile is the image of our nation’s public figures that it doesn’t take more than one nasty incident to lift the cover that permits them to conduct their colorful and complex lives in relative privacy. Suddenly, everyone is asking what kind of family life is possible under these conditions, and what kind of values the children acquire while growing up.

One is shocked to read that each one of Don Ramon’s kids by Genelyn receives an allowance of not less than P30,000 a month.  While they have no income of their own, they live in a big mansion in a middle-class subdivision, and have multiple cars and drivers. The mother, Genelyn, who is not much older than her children, gets her own monthly allowance and relies exclusively on the old patriarch she calls “Don Ramon” to foot the household bill.  Herself reportedly the love-child of a former senator, she could well be the governess of an exclusive boarding house for privileged kids. But these are not anybody’s kids. Don Ramon’s children are her children, and she thinks of herself as the matriarch of the mansion he had built for them.

Despite the affluence, or maybe because of it, this heinous crime appears to be rooted in a dispute over money. It is enough to make one think that having so much money may be just as bad for a family as having so little of it.

I am suddenly reminded of the dire circumstances of the young rural couple I have previously written about. Rosalie and Dodoy were dirt-poor, but so long as there was trust and mutual respect between them, the family could draw strength from the shared struggle for survival. But when Dodoy, the husband, reached a point of despair and sought relief in the company of another woman, the wall of trust that kept the family together promptly collapsed, and nothing could bring it back together again. Poverty appears to be the proximate cause, but in reality, it is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for the family breakup. In contrast, Don Ramon’s family troubles tell us that one can pour all the money in the world into a family’s needs, and still fail to realize that it takes more than money to make a family functional.

One can assume that Don Ramon, like the macho men of traditional society, treated his children and the woman who gave birth to them in much the same way he regarded his house: as property. He loved them as someone who loved what belonged to him. This type of order works for as long as the patriarch is able to enforce his will over his dominion. But, an aging and sickly Don Ramon would hardly be able to assert his rule over young people who are just beginning to experience the liberties of adulthood.

More than this, something is happening to the Filipino family on its way to modernity. Instead of maturing into an institution that is rich in personal ties, it is weighed down by the preoccupation with material things and by notions of property. This kind of milieu offers little space for the growth of personal commitment among its members.

We don’t know what kind of relationship Genelyn had with Don Ramon. Despite the nine children produced by the relationship (Don Ramon apparently did not marry her after the death of his legal wife), we cannot presume that the kind of intimacy and mutual respect that modern spouses expect of one another ever existed between them. When Genelyn spoke recently to the media about how she tried to be both mother and father to her nine children, she could barely conceal her disdain for an absentee father who, for all his generosity, could not supply the steady guidance and parental love that she felt her growing children needed. Though she seems like a willful person in her own right, it is doubtful that she wielded the same authority over her children as Don Ramon.

This is not so different from the situation that many families of overseas Filipino workers confront today. The children grow up very fast without much parental guidance, except that which is managed through e-mail and text messages. The parents compensate for their absence by sending home, on top of the remittances, a steady flow of balikbayan boxes filled with all the aspirational markers of the good life: clothes, shoes, bags, electronic gadgets and appliances, etc. A semblance of family ties is maintained in this manner, but, without anyone being conscious of it, the family sheds off one of its most basic functions: the formation of children into responsible human beings.