Sunday, November 08, 2009

Jesus in yellow

Method To Madness
By Patricia Evangelista
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 22:50:00 11/07/2009

THE GRASS IS YELLOW OUTSIDE THE GATES OF HACIENDA LUISITA. Jesus walked here once. His father watched him die, almost five years to this day. Nov. 16 was when close to 15,000 tenants gathered to protest their treatment under the Cojuangco-owned Hacienda Luisita. Dispersal units charged with a thousand soldiers in full battle gear. The Northern Command numbered over five hundred. Stones and shouts, water cannons, tanks that barreled into gates. It was three in the afternoon. The sun burned yellow. The father heard it first: rifle cracks, a barrage of bullets punching through bodies. Jesus died that day, one of seven reported union deaths. They tell me there are more whose names were never reported.

They called it a massacre. Sen. Benigno Aquino III called it propaganda.

On that day, Federico Laza and other farmhands loaded the 38-year-old Jesus into a tricycle. The father wept and Jesus bled. It was too late when they brought him to the hospital. The police claimed they found powder burns on Jesus’ hands, proof he, too, had a gun. The autopsy said otherwise.

Today, Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III runs for president of the country his father died for.

I believed in him, not very long ago. I believed in him in spite of a long-ago interview on Hacienda Luisita, on his first run as senator. As it happened, I was standing by Federico Laza, looking at a death certificate, while Noynoy claimed the dead were Manila radicals shipped to Tarlac for the purpose of terrorizing the hacienda. He said the farmers were content, and that all I knew were left-wing lies. The Cojuangcos still own Luisita, even if on paper they are meant to share profit with the same starving farmers who are worse off now than before they were made to sign land meant for them into stock market shares.

And still I was glad Noynoy was running, believed his mistakes, and his mother’s, were a result of their class and could change in the lead-up to 2010. I believed he could bring together a scattered field of candidates, pare down the fight between administration and opposition. I believed that the myth of the Aquinos behind him would be enough to convince his rivals to throw their support behind one candidate, and allow him to prove he was not just a paper doll hero, a crudely-cut outline of his parents. I was afraid he might lose. Now I am afraid he may win. I wish I still believed in him, because without him there’s very little left in the rogue’s gallery of would-be leaders.

For months he has been leading headlines. The Aquino son, soaring on the wings of heroes. His rivals have not stepped back; the field is still open. A fever sweeps through the media, crowning Noynoy, the man who has yet to say anything that is not an echo of the old revolution. Remember my father. Remember my mother. Vote for me, and you vote for them. And that is all. It has been months since he became suddenly the nation’s moral choice, and there is little resembling platform, policy or position. Miracle, they call him. This is the revolution, say his supporters. This is Edsa. So he may not be as intelligent. So he may not be as articulate. So he may not have proven himself. And because we are faced with the usual array of the corrupt and the devout, we wait, we believe. And we are rewarded, in all its cinematic splendor, by a music video.

The scene is a forest, in the dark of the night. Yellow shirts and soft yellow light, Regine Velasquez by a fire in the woods, singing of togetherness and unity and a farewell to fear. There is the small child, offering a bamboo torch to the senator. There is talk show host Boy Abunda, standing on a boat manned by a young boy. There is Kris Aquino, Noynoy’s sister, who is rumored to have been wining and dining A-list celebrities to support her brother. It is national unity via television ratings: the top stars of the warring networks linked by yellow. ABS-CBN’s darlings of prime time television are lit beautifully in the flickering firelight, holding their bamboo torches, hair bouncing as they walk, smiling soulfully into the distance. The camera lets GMA7’s number one love team Dingdong Dantes and Marian Rivera look lovingly at each other as they walk on, a smiling Sharon Cuneta raises a lantern, Ogie Alcasid marches with torch. There is the odd farmer and soldier, but it’s clear who the stars are. And so the full shot, a great phalanx of torch-bearing, yellow-clad men and women marching to battle, the celebrities at the front lines. Through it all, Noynoy smiles at children, at people, at the camera, smiles blankly, and you can almost hear him count in his head the seconds before he has to turn to the lens. In the end, he leaps awkwardly up to a mound of soil, surrounded by his beautiful constituency, and a sun explodes behind him in shattering brilliance.

In a nation where government responsibility has shifted to the media, and calls for aid are directed to newsroom desks instead of the hotlines of the National Disaster Coordinating Council, this sort of move isn’t particularly surprising. A united GMA7 and ABS-CBN may seem like the best of metaphors for a united nation, but it says very much about the sort of man Noynoy Aquino is. Flanked by stars, surrounded by celebrities, content to ride on the waving banner stamped with his parents’ faces. There is no message, other than that personality is king. There are no voices, not even his. His defenders say it’s not the time for campaign—and yet that video rolls on and on in prime time television. You are not alone, they say, but who stands with you? Anne Curtis? Ate Shawie? Marielle Rodriguez? Just recently, Noynoy promised to give up his share of Hacienda Luisita, and yet denies knowing of eviction notices to farmers even while the case sits in the Supreme Court. Laza continues to march in rallies, five years after a bullet ripped a good man away. Nothing has changed, the same songs, the same names, the same injustices.

They say the miracles are colored yellow now—the yellow of thick lengths of ribbon, the triumphant swags of bright flag, the inside edge of a flame on a bamboo torch held up to a camera lens, the same yellow of grass outside the gates of Hacienda Luisita, where a man named Jesus once walked with his father.