Sins of the Fathers: The Elite in Philippine Literature

Caroline S. Hau

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Caroline Hau critically locates the place of class in Philippine literature

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Gun Dealers’ Daughter
By Gina Apostol
Mandaluyong: Anvil Publishing Inc., 2010

The Feet of Juan Bacnang
By F. Sionil Jose
Manila: Solidaridad Publishing House, 2011

If the poor are always with us, so, too, it would seem, are the elite.¹

Apart from “oligarchy,” the term “elite” has often been closely linked with words like “upper classes”/“haves”/“the rich”/“mayaman”/ “maykaya”/“masalapi,”“makapangyarihan,” “cacique,” “ilustrados”/“may pinag-aralan,” “principales”/“principalía,” and even “the middle classes.” “Elite” correlates wealth, power, influence, status, education, ethnicity, leadership, talent, and lifestyle. Their sources of wealth, power, and prestige may differ, and they may have multiple, competing interests. They are not monolithic, and yet, for decades, they have conveniently been lumped together as a cohort whose membership may change over time, but whose presence can be seen and felt and whose actions have real consequences. The issue has been less a question of who they are than of the fact of their socioeconomic and political dominance.

What matters, above all, is that the dynamics of their relations with each other and with the rest of the Filipino people have an important bearing on the fortunes of the Philippine nation-state. In a sense, “elite,” along with its cognate “elitist” (elitista in Tagalog), is the name that scholars, students, media practitioners and other professionals, and activists give to the human agency behind the problems and failures besetting the Philippines. Deemed traitorous, colonial-minded, opportunistic, predatory, mayabang (arrogant), and indifferent to the plight of less privileged others, “elite” is one element of a politically potent binary system of values, with the “the poor,” “the masses,” and “the people” constituting the opposing element.

“Elite vs. masses” has been an important symbolic and ideological weapon for mobilizing segments of the population, providing critical ammunition for a succession of political movements—most notably from the Left—that challenged the American, Commonwealth, and Philippine state. Its political value is incontestable, but its conceptual underpinnings have long been subject to debate. While few scholars dispute the narrative of “ilustrado ascendancy” to the commanding heights of the Philippine economy, politics, and culture, they strive to offer more textured analyses of the historical context out of which people who would be called “elite” have emerged. Jonathan Fast and Jim Richardson famously argued, for example, that Katipunan founder Andres Bonifacio had a father who had once held office, and his employment in a foreign commercial house in Manila, along with his marriage to the daughter of a gobernadorcillo, put him in a “position closer to the center of the social pyramid than to its base, closer to the petty-bourgeoisie than the proletariat.”

Norman Owen tells us that in the Spanish era, the most commonly used word in official documents to describe the upper tier of what was essentially a two-tiered native society was principal, which was a legal-political category that covered no more than 2-5% of households. A principal had the right to vote and participate in local and municipal affairs. Membership in the principalía offered a set of privileges—exemption from polo and other forms of compulsory labor—but wealth alone was not enough to earn one the courtesy title of “Don.” A Chinese merchant was only ever “el chino,” never a Don Quiroga. Some Spanish mestizos were called “Don,” but others were not. Owen points out that some form of transmutation was necessary to turn wealth into “political and social currency.” Even then, there were Dons who owned far less land than non-Dons. One could be renowned for being a schoolteacher or killing three crocodiles. There were reports of cabezas de barangay who were unable to collect taxes or draw on their own funds to cover the deficit. On average, a “principal” did not own more than 20 hectares of land, governed less than 50 families, and did not speak Spanish (indeed, some cabezas were illiterate).

The rise of what Owen calls the “super-principalía”—people with great wealth, power, and education, and able to move and operate beyond their localities, a group that accounted for no more than three or four families out of a population of 10,000—was possible only in the 19th century, through opportunities that arose with the transformation of the Philippines into a domestic trade-based colony that exported sugar, abaca, tobacco, and coffee. This trade was not primarily with the colonial metropole of Spain, but with Great Britain, the United States of America, and to a lesser extent China, through pathways that moved the products and money through the port cities of Canton, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Singapore.

John Larkin noted the appearance of new names among the ranks of the principalía whose fortunes derived from trade, money lending, and later, landholding in provinces like Pampanga from the mid-18th century onwards. This “infusion” of the (mainly Chinese) mestizo element, however, would introduce a politics of skin color in discussions of the elite. Nationalist critique of the elite targets the pigmentocracy—consecrated in fact and in the popular imagination—that places a premium on the lightness of skin color. The geographical concentration of mestizos in Tondo, Bataan, Bulacan, Pampanga, Pangasinan, Batangas, Cavite, Laguna, Cebu, and a few other places translated into their visible presence in government, as these were among the areas that rose in revolt against Spain and would go on to supply the top officials in the post-colonial national government.

Although there were some wealthy Spanish and Spanish mestizos in the late 19th century, it was the Chinese mestizos who most visibly embodied the newfound economic clout: with a “penchant for display and ostentatious living” (as Edgar Wickberg put it), they helped set trends by gambling, arraying themselves in rich clothing, and spending huge amounts of money on fiestas. The word “mestizo” in the 19th century in fact referred mainly to the Chinese mestizo, who outnumbered their Spanish counterparts by as much as seven to one. By the 20th century, however, “mestizo” would be stripped of its “Chinese” reference and come to refer mainly to Filipinos of Spanish/European or American ancestry.

Another word that is often used in tandem with elite is “ilustrado,” but here we encounter again some problems with equating educated people with the rich and powerful. The term “ilustrado” was not widely used in the 19th century. Cesar Adib Majul tells us it only later came to denote a Filipino “who had a profession, spoke and wrote Castilian well, and had been educated in any of the colleges.” It has remained slippery throughout the years, touching on issues of mobility, education, geographical location (provincial or urban, regional or national), race and ethnicity, socioeconomic standing, professional occupation, social network, and critical stance that were by no means convertible, let alone conflatable. For how do we categorize people like Apolinario Mabini, whose father held office but was unlettered, who himself held high office in the revolutionary government, who never went abroad (unless one counts his forced exile to Guam by the Americans), and who possessed neither land nor capital and was therefore far less well-off in comparison with urban and provincial elites? Not all who completed university in Manila were rich, even as being wealthy or highly educated did not automatically make one an ilustrado. Not all Chinese or Spanish mestizos were rich or ilustrado, and not all ilustrados were mestizos or creoles.

Because enormous fortunes could be—and were—made outside the sphere of public office and the state, through regional and global commercial networks that Filipino entrepreneurs forged with foreign firms and Chinese middlemen, the idea of the 19th-century Filipino elite as simply “Hispanized” needs to be revised. The cultural ramifications of Philippine participation in the Anglo-Pacific trade that was not centered on Spain meant that although Spain remained an important source of cultural validation, and although the ilustrados (beneficiaries of educational reforms in the colony from the 1860s onward and, for the more affluent, education in the Spanish metropole itself) looked to Spain as a site of learning and activism, there were wealthy families and a middle sector (employed in foreign firms and other occupations as messengers, warehouse keepers, scriveners, even cocheros) that could understand and speak some English, the regional lingua franca required to do business with the British and Americans in Asia. Larkin speaks of American officials encountering to their surprise, early in their occupation, Filipino families with children who could already speak English that they learned from schools in Hong Kong.

Elite ascendancy would be consolidated in the American era with the installation of an electoral system that created a political network linking politicians and their families at the local, provincial, and national levels. Moreover, the state would emerge as a key agent for creating and disbursing “rents” that formed a significant share of the national economy, which would be effectively tied to the American metropole through a system of preferential access for Philippine agricultural products (sugar being the most important) in the American market until well past the middle of the 20th century. Under these arrangements, the “oligarchy” would have a socioeconomic base outside of the government bureaucracy, yet have sufficient political clout to influence, if not “penetrate,” the state’s administrative departments.

Some of the landed elites lost their fortunes with the collapse of the sugar industry in the 1970s, while others diversified their portfolios by investing in urban-based industrial and commercial ventures (telecommunications and media); power, water, and other utilities; real estate, finance, manufacturing, and retail trade. There was some elite circulation, as old families either made way for or had to share their privilege with the new elite, often through alliances cemented by intermarriage. New players, many of them non-landed (including so-called “technocrats”) and the most visible of whom were “cronies,” emerged during the Marcos era. A “new middle class” of professionals, technicians, and managers also emerged in the post-Marcos era of liberalization, privatization, and foreign direct investment. More recently, the now-visible ethnic Chinese entrepreneurs and the new “middle class” of Filipino professionals (Overseas Filipino Workers and Filipino migrants abroad) have come to constitute an important part of the new elite whose actions, decisions, and money have reshaped the economy and physical landscape.

Philippine literature, particularly in English (the language of privilege and power), has offered memorable depictions of the elite. Its literary forefather is, of course, Jose Rizal, whose Noli Me Tangere (1887) and El Filibusterismo (1891) were published at precisely the time when the (super)principalía was in the process of acquiring the massive fortunes that brought them newfound social prominence. The most memorable character is Capitan Tiago. The richest man in San Diego, he owns a big house in Anloague Street, Binondo, where he holds parties attended by the crème de la crème of colonial society. His obscure origins (he is rumored to have been born poor) do not pose any obstacles to his social ascent. Aided in no small measure by his enterprising wife, Capitan Tiago has enough clout to get himself elected to the presidency of the guild of Spanish mestizos, even though many of its members do not think of him as one of their own kind.

Other than Rizal’s novels, however, there have been relatively few Filipino novels that focus on this class.²  Most writers come from the ranks of the “middle-classes,” and their portraits of the elite reveal more about their anxieties concerning the elite than about the elite themselves. It was not until the early 1960s, with Nick Joaquin’s The Woman Who Had Two Navels (1961) and Bienvenido N. Santos’s Villa Magdalena (1965) that a body of writings offering fine-grained portraits of the Filipino elite became available. What is striking about these novels is that it is the Spanish mestizo who most often appears as the quintessential elite, notwithstanding the numerical superiority and social, economic, and political visibility of the Chinese mestizos.³ Incarnations of the Spanish mestizo range from Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters (1990) to Azucena Grajo Uranza’s A Passing Season (2002) to Miguel Syjuco’s Ilustrado (2010).

F. Sionil Jose offers perhaps the most extensive and sustained account of the Filipino elite in a career spanning 50 years.4  In Sins (1996), the antihero, Carlos Cobello, prides himself on tracing his “pristine origins to Castille in the late 18th century,” never mind “some dilution with a bit of Indio and Chinese blood into our line.” Raised by his father to fraternize only with the rich, preferably mestizo, Carlos is enjoined to “never marry below my class,” and to look for his wife in Europe or Spain. The family fortune is built on crime and opportunism. The grandfather enlarges his land by fiddling with cadastral surveys, practicing usury, and remitting his money to Spain. The father runs a whorehouse staffed with mestizas to service the Japanese during the Second World War, and his friendship with Commonwealth President Manuel Quezon enables him to acquire substantial chunks of Quezon City following the partitioning of that estate on the eve of the war.

Cobello follows the same career path as his fellow elite: Law school, antique collecting, championing the causes of ethnic minorities (although it turns out that his forays into their territory are made for the purpose of mapping their mineral and timber deposits). A stalwart “nationalist,” he boasts of being able to “buy” the leaders of the “puny rebel movements.”

But in his son Delfin, he encounters resistance, as Delfin alarms his father by consorting with “the rabble, the lazy, stinking Indios.” Delfin’s idealism is shadowed by the “sins” of his father; one in particular, incest, ultimately destroys the family and Carlos himself. Delfin falls in love with Carlos’s niece Angela, who is actually Carlos’s daughter by his sister Corito. Carlos succeeds in separating them, only to find Delfin in bed with Corito.

Delfin’s affinity for the nonmestizo Filipinos is highlighted symbolically by his skin color. Although mestizo by birth, and looking “exactly like” Carlos, Delfin is “a little bit darker.” Delfin is, in fact, one of a long line of brown mestizos who populate Philippine literature, beginning with Rizal’s Juan Crisostomo Ibarra. The brown mestizo’s story is invariably a tale of innocence lost. To have white skin is to conjure up the history of Spanish and American colonialism and does not sit well with any nationalist project. The latest incarnation of the brown mestizo as tragic hero is F. Sionil Jose’s Juan Bacnang (The Feet of Juan Bacnang, 2011). Jose borrows freely from the life and career of Juan Ponce Enrile, to conjure this description of Juan:

As a boy in that distant barrio in the North, he was dark like most Northerners, but not as dark as the Aetas and certainly not short like them. It was from his Ilokano peasant mother that he got the tone and color of his skin, and from his mestizo father, the aquiline nose, the sculpted face with high cheekbones, the wide brow and the arrogant jaw.

Bacnang is a byproduct of sexual violence, born of his guerrilla father’s rape of his peasant mother. His father finds proof of paternity in his son’s smelly webbed toes, a condition known as syndactyly, passed from father to son. Inheriting a physical defect that recalls the cloven hoofs of the Devil in goat disguise, Bacnang finds himself transmogrified into the devil by the end of the novel.

Juan Bacnang’s fall from grace begins with his official adoption by his Spanish mestizo father. His journey away from boyhood in Nalipatan and to the capital city is marked by the progressive lightening and later re-darkening of his skin: “He had become so fair, so patrician in visage but now, as if it was the embalmer’s doing, he would be dark again. His face would retain its sculpted features, the wide brow, the aquiline nose.”

Juan, now calling himself Johnny, acquires a reputation for “humility…natural good humor and charm, his cultivated carefulness not to hurt or demean anyone by rash and improper language.” Yet, by the end of the novel, he is so contaminated by his work for the dictator—he has been complicit in burning villages, in kidnapping for ransom, and the murder of his own brother-in-law—that, as the sins pile up, they reveal themselves in the epidermal changes that Juan and his Boss the President undergo. Just as Juan finds himself becoming progressively fair-skinned, the Leader whose dictatorship he engineers is afflicted with vitiligo. A visit by Juan to the herbolario yields the diagnosis that “skin is not just turning white as you see it, it is the skin being torn away.” Like Carlos Cobello, Juan Bacnang pays a high personal price for serving as the dictator’s henchman.

If the sins of the fathers are visited on the children, Gina Apostol’s Gun Dealers’ Daughter (2010) focuses on attempts by the children of the elite to (re)gain their lost innocence by striving for social and political relevance. Apostol uses the doppelgänger, the twin or double, to dramatize Soledad Soliman’s desire to heal the split in her soul and the rift between her and her people. She lives with the guilt of having parents who derive their fortune from buying and selling arms—their fortune is criminal in every sense, as they deal in violence and death.

Sol seeks meaning in two important relationships: with a university classmate, Solidaridad Soledad, and with her Spanish-mestizo boyfriend Jed Morga. In Soli Soledad, Sol Soliman finds not only her “tokayo, my provocative eponym,” but a soul sister whose approval she craves. An activist, Soli represents for Sol a life rendered meaningful by patriotic action. Soli’s authenticity is written on her body, epidermalized by her having skin “the color of rare Philippine mahogany”: a “creamy betel nut of a radical.”

Unlike Soli, Sol is alienated from her country in both physical and linguistic/cultural terms:

I had grown up a stranger in my country, living in my parents’ landscaped cocoon in Makati when we returned in the seventies from America, and my discovery at the university of my potent and irrefutable dislocation from it, when I could not respond to even the most ordinary of moments in what should have been my native tongue, sickened me.

Sol blames herself for what is happening to her country:

The state of the country was enough to condemn me, of course; I did not need Soli’s discourse to know that, under a military dictatorship, guns, goons, and gold were not just tried devices in a slogan but a percussive note that, in my case, dogged my every domestic good—my books, my souvenirs, my clothes, my homes. And it was not the first time I had felt this nausea, an elemental eruption: this split in my soul (78).

Being elite engenders an existential crisis. Rather than seeking refuge in solipsistic guilt, Sol seeks relevance by becoming socially relevant, helping her lover Jed organize the assassination of a well-connected American who was instrumental in crafting the Philippine anti-insurgency campaign.

But Sol quickly learns that privilege has its perks, even in activism. Caught painting slogans in the streets, her boyfriend Jed nonchalantly flashes his ID card before the police, who let him off with abject apologies. Sol tells Jed: “We live outside of the country’s rules. We do whatever we want. We can commit crimes. We can play at revolution. We could kill people, for all we knew. And then in the end we will always get away. We’re cockroaches. It’s we who are the problem, Jed. Don’t you see?” Their “adventurism” proves predictably costly. Sol’s psychic disintegration takes the form of reverse amnesia that forces her to remember over and over traumatic events and prevents her from creating new memories out of the present.

Gun Dealers’ Daughter explicitly repudiates the elite claim to represent the country and serve as the main agents of its transformation. The injustice of elite persistence is best captured in Elías bitter words, hurled at Ibarra:

Miradme bien, mirad si he sufrido, y vos vivís, amais, teneis fortuna, hogar, consideraciones, vivís…¡vivís¡

Look at me closely, see how I have suffered, and you live, you love, you have fortune, home, esteem, you live…you live!

If the elite have proven difficult to dislodge from their entrenched positions in the social hierarchy, it is not for want of trying, at least symbolically on the part of Philippine literature. There have been fictional attempts to do away with the elite in one blast: Simoun plants his nitroglycerin-filled pomegranate lamp on Paulita Gomez’s wedding table. Where Simoun fails, communist guerrillas in Ninotchka Rosca’s State of War succeed in detonating the bomb, Plaza Miranda-style, near the main stage of the festivities in the island of K–, where the President and his wife are scheduled to appear. In Charlson Ong’s An Embarrassment of Riches (2000), Jeffrey Tantivo, a stateless Chinese mestizo who becomes president of his country, carries the bomb inside his father’s urn.

One recalls Jose Rizal’s narrator, in the Epilogue of Noli Me Tangere, stating that because “many of our characters are still living and others have been lost sight of,” it is impossible to write a “true epilogue”:

For the satisfaction of the people, we would have gladly killed off all of our characters, starting with Padre Salvi and ending with Doña Victorina, but it is not possible…Let them live! The country, not us, has to feed them…

Rizal’s novels continue to cast a long shadow over Philippine literature because of their memorable, often scathing portraits of assorted members of the elite, but also because of the question of revolutionary violence they pose. Shying away from the implications of revolutionary violence, novels like Gun Dealers’ Daughterdepict the social crisis in terms of an existential crisis, a crisis of identity conveyed through images of exile and dislocation, through feelings of alienation and despair, through the fatalistic anhedonia of the elite’s stated irrelevance and non-consequence. They highlight the economic inequalities and sociopolitical divisions that haunt Philippine society, but are unable to offer any terms for imagining the elite other than as tragic figures of guilt and betrayal who continue nevertheless to live on the largesse that inflicts its own forms of everyday violence on the less privileged.

History teaches us that words and actions do matter. The loss of elite legitimacy—no happy endings here—may induce paralysis, but some members of that “elite” (including a good number of intellectuals) have sought to break ranks with their own kind, to reach across the chasm of “elite vs. masses” and make a difference. This warrants a different kind of novel beyond current representations of the Filipino elite, perhaps no longer anchored in either a triumphant or tragic hero/ine, but one in which the character takes her place in a web of social relationships as one of a multitude. The epilogue to the novel that is the Philippines remains to be written.


  1. In 2009, the top 1% of Filipino families had an average income of PHP 1,857,000, and commanded a 9% share in the total national income. Classified as having a lower-middle-income economy in transition to a possible upper-middle-income economy, the Philippines had a Gini index of 43 (with 0 representing perfect equality and 100 perfect inequality) in 2009 in terms of the share of income held by the top 20% percent of the population, and 33.6 in terms of the share of income held by the top 10 percent, with the index hovering in the mid- to upper 40’s between 1985 and 2009. The uneven distribution of wealth has a spatial dimension, since economic growth is overwhelmingly concentrated geographically in Metro Manila, the Calabarzon (the provinces of Cavite, Laguna, Batangas, Rizal, Quezon), and Central Luzon. In the past year or two, the Philippines has attracted worldwide publicity as part of the so-called TIMPS (Turkey, Indonesia, Mexico, Philippines) emerging economies, thanks to good GDP growth, a booming stock market, a first-ever investment-grade credit rating, a favorable demographic, an expanding service sector, and remittance-powered domestic consumption. But poverty incidence has remained relatively unchanged since 2006: 23.4% in 2006, 22.9% in 2009 and 22.3% in 2012.

  2. Gemino Abad has noted a similar paucity of elite portrayals in the Filipino short story in English.

  3. The exceptions are Nick Joaquin’s Monson family in Woman Who Had Two Navels and Ninotchka Rosca’s Anna Villaverde in State of War (1988)

  4. His novels include The Pretenders (1961) and My Brother, My Executioner (1973), which are part of the Rosales Saga; the novellas in Two Filipino Women (1981); Ermita (1988); Gagamba (1991); and Sherds (2007).