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When the Nation Was an Easy Street

Something tells me the hot, searing days are over. Outside, a heady, heavy wind prevails over the stench of my city. It is not a wind that comments on how diminished or majestic life can be; it is more kindred to the breeze that assures comfortable blanket nights ahead. It is the wind of memory.

I have been reading a lovely book about Paz Marquez Benitez. It is a collection of her letters and writing with introduction and annotation by her own daughter, the equally significant Virginia Benitez Licuanan.

With the book, the clan of the Benitezes and the Licuanans are blessed with the fate of good remembrances. But, if this book can only be useful and important to those related in social class and lineage to Paz Marquez Benitez, then the book is limited in its appeal. But that is not so: The book is filled with guides to a past – a gilded past when politicians had all the chance to becoming statesmen and many did so.

Published in 1995, the book came out when this nation was on a rebound from the tragedies and opera buffa brought about by the dictatorship and the long martial law years. I am reading it – actually re-reading – presently when the country is losing any inspiration, when the huge number of people are at a loss with the impunities committed by the present administration, with the vulgarity and mercenary actions of even those we thought had enough classical education in them to remind them about the goodness of humanity and therefore the command to be good themselves, when the nation and its entire geography is being dissipated not through the mercy of Nature but via the lack of wisdom and political will of the many whose ignorance and vacuity in spirit are organic to their corrupt individual statuses.

The book on Paz Marquez Benitez, the erudite and the romantic behind “Dead Stars,” the first short story in English written by a Filipino, is also history. It is a historical account not saddled by the burden of deconstruction. The book does not pretend to talk about the masses; it tells the story of a small number of families who, by their socio-economic status and intelligence as well, ran the fledgling republic or, to be precise, Commonwealth.

Thank god, I am not a historian. Good history is not always linear. One can discover a material document at a certain point and whatever that material contains will be the beginning of the consciousness of that individual. Only writers who believe in the dullness of linear storytelling are saddled with the angst of imposing the consecutive and the sequential. History is discovered day by day; artefacts are studied and analyzed not in series and but upon discoveries, and, later, serendipities.

Re-reading now the book on Benitez is going into her metaphor of the dead stars. The information and knowledge that had been handed down to us may not be alive anymore when it arrives at our age. But the wisdom shines as bright and as true as ever.

Here is the value of the book: Benitez as recalled by Virginia B. Licuanan through the letters she left behind talks to us about the incipient years, those days when a few intellectuals and leaders were at that intersection between doing good for the country or bungling what destiny had given them in terms of opportunities.

The Philippines through the poignancy of the letters seemed small and manageable. Here are our heroes and heels. Paz Marquez Benitez has all the candor and precision of an observer and a writer.

The President Manuel L. Quezon is always “Don Manuel.” He is temperamental and the stories handed down to us about this man who would not stop himself at uttering the expletive “Animal!” is indeed true, when somebody deserved that. And always, the crime is social – the lack of manners. In one account, walking around the University of the Philippines, the President chanced upon a classroom where one engineering student had his legs propped up on the seat in front of him, Quezon berated the offender and the teacher, a certain Prof. Albert, who did not check on the behavior of his students.

Justice Abad Santos is here. He is “Jobad,” a good friend of Francisco Benitez, the husband of Paz. Abad Santos was executed by the Japanese because he refused to cooperate with the. Here is Sergio Osmeña, scrupulously honest and losing the election to Manuel Roxas because the former refused to make promises he would not be able to fulfil. Here is also Vicente Sotto, Sr. of Cebu, who asks Osmeña to make a public statement of support for him, in exchange for his services of attacking “whomever you say, libel anyone you tell me to libel…”Then there is Quezon.

Paz Marquez Benitez writes in an entry on August 17, 1944 the following: Don Manuel is dead – has been dead for over two weeks…Don Manuel, lover of the dramatic, could not have made a more dramatic exit. From Baler, obscure sea-coast village to a funeral in Arlington – quite an incredible journey. Paz continues: It was time to go; his role in our history is over. The time to build has come and Don Manuel is not the man for that. Irascible, intolerant, impatient, and domineering, he was a destroyer, not a builder of men.

Paz Marquez Benitez’s letters had those years of terror – escaping from the “cazadores,” the Spanish soldiers who were called hunters; hiding from Americans, and; being terrified of the Japanese. When she built her home with her husband, Dean Francisco Benitez, the street where the home was built was to be known as “Easy Street.”

A diary in 1945 contains these lines: Since I last wrote in this book, the world has changed utterly; myself not the least. So many things, sad, bad things, have happened, so many people have died.

Memory, more than the stately narratives of historians about histories demarcated for their grandeur, can tell with ease the plots of the people of any nation. The memories of this great writer, Paz Marquez Benitez, relate paths that are least trodden by pedants and chroniclers and bring us what Gustave Flaubert says of memory – that desire one misses. And desire is what we need when the world has become a sad, bad thing and many people each day die in the hands of an uneasy government.

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