Musings On History And Identity By A Filipino In The Diaspora

by Rose Churma

I left the Philippines in 1976 when I was in my mid-twenties. Although I don’t “celebrate” Philippine Independence Day, I try to spend the day – or the days leading to it –in introspection about Filipino identity and what it means to be a Filipino in the Diaspora.

Identity is our collective self-image and a sense of who we are, and a system of memories, experiences, relationships and values that define us.

As the eldest grandchild, I had the privilege of spending time with my maternal grandparents in a small town in Zambales, Philippines.

In that time and place where there were few distractions (no TV, no phone and limited electricity), my “entertainment” consisted of reading whatever was in the house’s bookshelves and listening to my grandparents stories. In a way, my sense of identity was formed there.

Both my grandparents lived history as young witnesses to the Philippine revolution against Spain and the American occupation, to the horrors of World War II.

I was a young child spending summers with my grandparents when President Magsaysay died from a plane crash. They even brought me with them to his funeral. I was a teenager and my grandparents’ de facto caregiver when Martial Law took root.

We lived close enough to U.S. Subic Naval Base and observed how it had affected our surroundings and values. Their stories and the experiences with them influenced how I view the world but also my self-image, and thus my identity as a Filipino but using an American passport whenever I want to go home again.

One of the stories shared with us was about Felix Magsaysay, my grandmother’s father who became the presidente de municipal from 1898-1901 of San Antonio, Zambales.

During this time, American soldiers had taken over the Philippines. We were told that the Spaniards tortured Felix into revealing the names of the katipuneros who were hiding in the mountains of Pundaquit.

When he refused to cooperate, he was subjected to the infamous “water cure” wherein he was forced to ingest large amounts of water. And I remember what my grandmother, Lola Sitang, had relayed to me about her early childhood.

One of her stories was when her papa (Felix Magsaysay) hid some “insurgents” in the baul (these are wooden trunks) during the Philippine-American war.

I also remember the stories that Lolo David shared about his childhood. His father, Marcos Jocson who eventually joined the revolution and became physician to Aguinaldo’s army in Cavite wanted him to witness the execution of Dr. Jose Rizal.

He was still a toddler and had to be carried on his father’s shoulders. I remember that evening vividly when he shared that story. I was reviewing my Philippine history lessons, and here he was telling me that he was a witness to this event.

Lolo David’s paternal grandparents were Mateo Jocson and Gregoria Asuncion who were residents of Bangculasi, Navotas, Rizal – long before the end of the Spanish regime.

Mateo Jocson, known in Navotas as “Matandang Matio” was a well- respected man of substantial means. He had a widowed sister who doted on his son Marcos, so much so that she sent him to medical school at the University of Santo Tomas. The young Marcos Jocson had married early to Pia de Guzman of Malabon.

During the early years of their marriage, they lived with their prosperous aunt in Bancalusi, Navotas. It was at his grandaunt’s house that my grandfather, Lolo David, was born.

While in medical school, Marcos Jocson boarded at a dormitory in Intramuros, close to the school. On the weekends, he would take the ferryboat in Malabon to reach Navotas to be with his family. While still at medical school, Marcos Jocson already had three children – his oldest daughter Trinidad (Trining), Fabia and his son, David.

By the time his son David was born in 1896, the discontent regarding Spanish colonialism was palpable, and it can be surmised that young Marcos Jocson was not immune to it.

He talked about a young brilliant student at the university who left for Europe and published two seditious novels that were circulating underground. He had read the first one and could not agree more with the underlying theme of the book that the nation’s colonial masters must go.

Time and again, his father and his aunt would remind him that his first responsibility was to his family. It was important not to jeopardize their futures by getting messed up in the growing insurgency by joining this underground movement called the Katipunan.

On May 1, 1898, the American fleet headed by Admiral Dewey sailed into Manila Bay.

The town of Navotas, located at the edge of Manila Bay, had a front row seat to what would be the Battle of Manila, the first major engagement of the Spanish-American War. This battle was a decisive naval battle that marked the end of the Spanish colonial period in Philippine history.

At this time, Marcos Jocson and his family evacuated to Cavite during the “Takbuhan” at the start of the Filipino American War, to be near his station as physician to Emilio Aguinaldo’s army, and was there on June 12, 1898 to witness the declaration of independence from Spain.

The family traveled overland to Cavite, he rode a horse while his family – his wife and three children rode in a cariton with their household items. His second son, Nicanor Jocson, would be born in Cavite in 1899.

When the Philippine-American war finally ended with the capture of Aguinaldo in Isabela and the collapse of the resistance, Marcos Jocson returned his family back to Navotas by sea, using a small sailboat.

The sailboat was overtaken by sea bandits who took all their valuables including his father’s pistol and gold watch – as narrated by Nicanor Jocson in his memoirs where he recounted the stories by his elders and what he experienced.

My grandfather David, was a packrat at heart, which my mother inherited. When my mother passed away, she left behind two suitcases filled with correspondence, pictures, documents and all sorts of ephemera collected from several generations which I am still trying to read and sort-out to this day.

My grand-uncle Nicanor Jocson loved to write in English, the language he inherited from our American colonizers, which he took to heart, and wrote his memoirs in a language I can read. These printed items serve as my historical sources and is pieced together from the narratives my grandparents shared with me.

With the onset of COVID-19 in 2020 and with mandatory quarantine, my research went online. This is where I discovered that my great grandfather was a signatory to the June 12,1898 Declaration of Philippine Independence.

He was one of 176 signatories of Filipino descent (and one American army officer). And for the first time, I saw how he signed his name, and I understood why he took pains to bring his toddler son from Navotas to his dorm in Intramuros so they can both witness the execution of Dr. Jose Rizal on the early morning of December 30, 1896.

Since then, June 12 took a special significance to me. The search for freedom and independence are abstractions that are hard to fathom and we try to distill that by “celebrating” an event that happened more than a century ago in ways we know how: we gather and raise the flag, sing the national anthem while dressed in Filipiniana outfits and eat cuisine we believe is Filipino enough.

Independence Day should be a day of remembrance and recollection, where we commemorate history by ensuring that it is not revised to suit the present, but rather that we learn from it.

It is a day when we can pause from the rush of everyday living to appreciate what our ancestors have done, the stories they’ve shared, the heirlooms they left behind (including facsimiles of their signatures) so that we can form the elusive thing called identity.

As a nation, we are not limited to the geographic boundaries of the archipelago. Wherever in the world you have one who identifies themselves as Filipino – is our inang bayan – the Philippines. And it can only be “free” if at some point in our future we can collectively adhere to honest, transparent and competent governance. 

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