A morality tale on how one copes and recovers from a major national challenge
posted March 25, 2020 at 08:10 pm
By Ambassador (ret.) Virgilio A. Reyes, Jr.
In the midst of what the American government now calls a war against the coronavirus disease or COVID-19, it is heartening to view a picture of postwar Philippines of three women who had emerged triumphant from what had been a traumatic global conflict, World War II and the Japanese occupation of the Philippines in 1941-1945.
These were, my mother, Erlinda (“Linda”) and her sisters, Aurora (“Nene”) and Vilma (“Vil”) in the 1950s, piquantly posed in the Dior fashions of the day in front of their aunt Sarah Tempongko-de la Paz’s home in Banaue Street, Quezon City.
They had enjoyed the normal prosperity of middle-class Filipinos living in Manila before the war. Since their father, Dr. Vivencio Alcantara of Capiz, was a physician practicing at the Philippine General Hospital and their mother, Professor Esther Tempongko-Alcantara from Manila, an accomplished homemaker, they had belonged to a secure home in Pasay City and had the reassuring presence of their relatives in Malate and Ermita.
They schooled at Philippine Women’s University, which was a nonsectarian alternative to the many Catholic girls’ colleges which dotted the city. This represented the modern trend away from the Catholic Church and towards the liberal democracy and capitalism introduced by the Americans.
Along with Tagalog and a sprinkling of Spanish, they also spoke with fresh aplomb the language of the Yankees, which had been bolstered both by school and media. This was the heyday of Hollywood in Manila, when art deco cinema theaters dotted the city and its denizens were up-to-date with what was trendy on the mainland. Manila was on the route of opera companies and symphony orchestras which also docked in Shanghai and Hong Kong.
The ‘30s had been a heady time for the Philippines, whose Commonwealth was inaugurated in 1935 and which looked forward to Independence in a decade. Though there were political rumblings from the peasants, President Manuel L. Quezon and his elegant wife Aurora and family were proud symbols of the up-and-coming Republic and its aspirations.
Manila was one of the finest capitals in the Orient, with its blend of Asian, Latin American, European, and American architecture. Conflict seemed to be far away, even when Hitler and Mussolini were making their presence felt on the European continent, and the Japanese had begun their stranglehold on the Chinese mainland. Filipinos still felt reassured by the presence of the American Governor-General and General Douglas MacArthur, compadre of President Quezon who now occupied the penthouse of the Manila Hotel as one of his perks as the main military consultant of the fledgling Philippine Army.
Filipino cadets were doing regular military drills and even nighttime blackouts were practiced by civilians. And yet shockingly, the highly vulnerable Philippines did not figure in the US master plan of protection. The Japanese attack in Pearl Harbor and in Clark Field in December 1941 was to catch all of them off guard in that “day of infamy.”
What followed was what COVID-19 became in 2020, everyone’s nightmare made flesh. The sudden occupation of Manila and the Philippines in January 1942 brought the Filipinos down to their knees and to a harsh reality, with acute scarcity; limitation to freedom, movement, and expression; and oppression.
The year 1941 had also been a turning point for Linda since, having precociously graduated near the top of her high school class at age 14, it was also the year in which she had wed my father Virgilio Reyes, Sr., at age 15 as a virtual child bride.
The advent of the war had also prompted similar couples for pledging their troth at this time. The new couple was to move in with her parents in a house on Bautista Street in Singalong. Their eldest boy was to be the apple of their grandparents’ eye, a small boon in those hard times. My grandparents who had never had a boy, now had a surrogate son and a grandson with them.
With their father’s stroke, their mother Esther had become the breadwinner of the family. She became a home economics teacher at her grade school alma mater, the Assumption Convent, on Herran Street, where the daughters of President Quezon also became her students. At one time, she brought her grandson to show them how to bathe a baby.
As Manila came into a normalcy of sorts, she began baking cakes and selling them at her Tempongko aunts’ restaurant. At the end of the war, she had $800 in hard currency and not in “Mickey Mouse money” (as they called the inflationary pesos printed at that time, with which one shopped in bayongs or straw bags.) Some of her brothers were busy selling goods to keep body and soul together, others were in the guerrilla movement.
What kept people busy was the new dispensation. Japanese was taught in the schools. One had to bow to sentries or be slapped. American movies and books were available but highly censored and controlled, with sections blacked out or removed by the authorities. Tagalog was encouraged as a way of replacing colonial English and names of major streets replaced by either Japanese or Tagalog names. Theaters were packed as Pugo and Tugo made fun of the Japanese or as English classics were translated into the vernacular. Schools began to re-open and it became possible to study once more.
As food became scarce in Manila and with two children by 1944, Linda and Virgilio (or Heyo) decided to evacuate to his home province of Batangas. This turned out to be fortuitous for them as the worst was yet to come—the rape of Manila, with carpet-bombing by the Americans and the massacre of civilians by the Japanese.
Barely in their teens, the younger sisters Vilma and Aurora were left with their parents and grandparents in Paco as their main support when the holocaust began. Their father had been lamed by a stroke and their grandfather was no longer the pillar of strength that he had been.
Their grandmother Leocadia L’heritier Tempongko had prayed that should anything happen to her family, it should be her alone who would suffer and it did happen that way. As the first bombs exploded in Lanuza Street, she was the one whom a shrapnel hit directly in the upper body. However, she did not expire immediately and was still carried in a carretón or rolling wagon as the family fled their burning home towards the north shore of Pasig, which the Americans and their Filipino allies already controlled.
Fortunately, the Japanese in their area had not been as cruel or as vicious as they were in Ermita and Malate, where they had brought the women of the crème de la crème to be raped in Bayview Hotel.
This small band of refugees, with a dying grandmother and two suffering old men, would learn to surrender prize items of their belongings to passing Japanese or to look away when menaced by their stares, as a matter of self-preservation. The difference between survival and annihilation would sometimes be a matter of inches as bombs fell around them, or depend on the choice of where they had sought temporary shelter. Just as in places like Syria or Marawi today, the young girls became adults overnight as their world changed before their eyes. The victims of war would be just as arbitrary as those of a brand new virus.
Yet, Manila—which had been levelled from end to end and one could see from Pasay to Rizal Park—was to recover from this devastation. People would pick up the pieces of their life and begin again. One would learn not to dwell on the past and speak about the unspeakable horror or of the barbarous practices and the bad habits that had been learned during that period.
Eventually, Linda would finish her studies, though not with the medical degree she’d hoped to finish in the footsteps of her father. Her crowning achievement was as the wife of Virgilio Reyes, Sr., Press Secretary; as Speech and Drama professor and chairman at the University of the Philippines; and as mother to five children.
Her youngest sister Aurora or Nene would be the one who would finish M.D. in the same field (Eye-Ear-Nose-Throat) as their father while the middle daughter Vilma would remain unmarried and work as a P.E. teacher at V. Mapa and R. Avancena high schools and at the Far Eastern University, where her mother was also a professor. As fate would have it, she would be her widowed mother’s companion and mainstay for the rest of her life. She would live on to be 89 years old, about the same age as her mother when she passed away in 2018.
As one gazes at their photo in another era of national challenge and international threat, one sees a portrait of three muses, in fashionable dresses and wearing fresh, innocent smiles. The worst is over and they look ahead to a bright future. Their adult lives have barely just begun, but they have experienced the worst of a lifetime. They have yet to conclude that this is the eternal cycle of life that keeps one going. As in the story of Pandora’s box, hope remained in it when all the rest of the pestilence had flown away.
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