A FIFTH LIBERAL
Liberals let you discover the values of liberalism for yourself. They will not convince you immediately, as appreciating moderation requires playing with fire first.
MY GRANDMOTHER, RITA ESTRADA, WAS A PHILOSOPHER
and psychologist, while my grandfather, Horacio Estrada, was a pharmacologist. Both taught at the University of the Philippines. And although Lolo Horacio was a natural scientist, he shared Lola Rita’s broad interest in philosophy, history, and the social sciences.
I knew them well, growing up in their faculty housing at UP’s sprawling Diliman campus. They were my second parents, doting on me as their first grandchild. Through them and my parents, I experienced a childhood canopied by acacia trees, embraced by familial warmth, flanked by liberal intellectuals. We lived in a bungalow with a large porch and a modest backyard. The house, on the far end of Agoncillo Street (a five-minute walk from the university infirmary), was one of the oldest on campus, built shortly after the university relocated to its sprawling grounds in Quezon City, in the north of Metro Manila. My fondest childhood memories are of Sunday mornings watching my grandparents playing bridge with neighboring professors from different colleges, my grandmother serving dishes like baked beans or a New England broiled dinner.
Since they died before I became a historian, it is only belatedly that I have started to understand them as intellectuals. My grandparents, though decades younger, were of the same liberal ilk as the intellectuals [in my book, Liberalism and The Postcolony: Thinking The State in 20th
Century Philippines]. I will never know for sure, but they were likely raised on Osias’ Philippine Readers; they most definitely would have lived through the economic debates of Salvador Araneta; and more importantly, they were professors in the university run by [Carlos P.] Romulo and SP [Lopez]. (Mama tells me that Romulo was once their dinner guest.)
As a pharmacologist, Lolo Horacio spent his career testing the efficaciousness of local herbs and plants reputed to have medicinal properties. In many ways, his work was the medical equivalent of Osias’ Filipinismo: Lolo was involved in a collective effort within UP to create a canon of local medicinal plants. Early in his career, he was offered a tenure track position at the University of Pennsylvania but he turned it down, believing that his medical research needed to benefit Filipinos. Like other doctors of his era, he saw himself as part of the nation-building project. And he imparted some of what he learned to us. Until now, upon contracting a minor cough, I buy tablets made from the lagundi plant—an herb tested in Lolo’s UP College of Medicine lab— instead of the cough medicines peddled by international pharma.
Rita Maurat Domingo was born in Manila on March 29, 1925 to Vitaliano Domingo and Julia Maurat. Neither my mother nor my aunt remembers what Vitaliano did for a living (he died when Lola was young), but Julia was a fishmonger, and she raised Rita in poverty. Julia did not value Rita’s education much, insisting that selling fish was more productive than reading. The teenage Rita, in fact, had to hide in her closet to read Tagalog fiction and komiks from the weekly magazine Liwayway. When she was caught, she would be made to kneel on monggo seeds. At times, she would even be physically restrained, tied up so she would be unable to grab books. Later in life, when Lola hoarded cheap romance novels purchased at book sales, she would remind Mama that pleasure reading still felt like a privilege.
Rita did not have to become a scholar. She was mestiza, with round eyes, thick brown hair, a narrow nose, and slender lips—features probably inherited from her maternal grandfather, who was a deserter from the French army. Before the war, Sampaguita Pictures—the largest film studio in the country—offered her to join their stable of actresses. And during the war, she received numerous marriage proposals from
G.I.S who wanted to take her to America. Her numerous admirers also included scions of Manila’s wealthiest families, most notably the son of Maximo Viola—the funder of Rizal’s novels. Yet high society life did not interest Rita, who wanted to become a scholar.
Julia agreed to send Rita to high school, but refused to spend a cent on college, forcing Rita to look for a scholarship, which she found at the Far Eastern University (FEU). But the scholarship was competitive, and a tuition waiver was granted to only the top student of the cohort. Rita had to be number one lest she lose her financial assistance. So she remained at the top of her class until graduation.
She completed her undergraduate studies in Philosophy and English (disciplines reflective of her love for reading) in 1948, and moved on to complete an MA in Philosophy (also at FEU) in 1954. While a graduate student, she met and married a medical student, Horacio R. Estrada, a member of Central Luzon’s landowning elite, whose family looked down on marrying below one’s class. Lolo was a low-level class traitor, and academia would become his refuge from his family. As for Lola, academia would let her read. She believed so much in the joys of reading that she put her two younger siblings through college.
After teaching philosophy in FEU for 15 years, she was recruited by the chair of UP Diliman’s Psychology Department—then a very young department that was only beginning to establish its disciplinal boundaries. That a philosopher would be hired to work in a psychology department only reflected the porosity of the two disciplines at the time. I suspect Lola read William James, because pragmatism provided a common discourse for experimental psychology and philosophy.
Lola would become one of the department’s institution builders, serving in various administrative positions. She also became a beloved teacher. Even before meeting my mother, my father, then a Maoist student activist, already considered Rita Estrada one of his favorite teachers: She sat on her desk, spoke off the top of her head, digressed, and cracked a lot of jokes. Despite what initially felt like rambling, Papa learned a lot.
Papa remembers how Prof. Estrada looked kindly towards student activists (perhaps because her own daughter was one), though she never publicly proclaimed support for the Maoists. Even if her favorite philosopher was the anti-Communist Bertrand Russell, this did not prevent her from feeling the same elderly beneficence that SP felt for his students. In her old files, my aunt found a jailhouse letter from Lean Alejandro, one of the great martyrs of the Communist Left, calling Lola a “fellow traveler” in the struggle against Marcos. She was one of Alejandro’s favorite teachers, and, in his letter, he recalled meals in our house, where they spoke of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and of national liberation. Marcos, for Alejandro, was the Sauron—the Dark Lord—of their times.
Lola’s sympathies for her students were evident to anyone who lived through the dictatorship. Like SP, Lola took the students’ side against Marcos during the Diliman Commune. Like SP, she lived on campus, and saw the police assault as an attack on her community, the Diliman Republic. And like SP, she visited her students in the barricades, offering them encouragement and support. As a skilled cook and baker, she had the additional advantage of being able to offer them sandwiches and juice.
Lola was primarily a pedagogue, and the pressure for Filipino academics to publish during her time was not as pronounced as it is today. As a consequence, my family does not have a lot of her written work. I have, however, found a very strange document in our shelves: her 1981 MA Psychology thesis entitled An Inquiry into Sexism in the
Tagalog Language. She was 56 when she completed it.
By the late 1970s, the Department of Psychology began to have a greater sense of its disciplinal boundaries, which must have forced Lola, a philosopher, to earn credentials in the discipline. She had already commenced a PhD in Psychology at the University of Kansas in 1963, but returned to the Philippines after a year of missing her three kids.
The MA was just a box she had to tick. It must have been strange for her being taught by peers and colleagues whom she had worked with for so long. When she began work on the thesis, she was already an Associate Professor and Assistant Chair of the Department. Her adviser, moreover, was someone almost 20 years her junior: Virgilio “Ver” Enriquez—the man who would later be called the father of Filipino indigenous psychology.
Even intellectually, Enriquez was of a different generation. In the field of psychology, he was the personification of the inward-
looking nationalism of the Diliman Consensus. Filipino indigenous psychology—Sikolohiyang Pilipino—like its sibling, Pantayong Pananaw, sought to discover and liberate “Filipino” subjectivity by unshackling it from “Western” categories. It is a disciplinal orientation that continues to dominate UP Diliman’s Psychology Department.
Ostensibly, Lola’s topic fit into the ethos of Sikolohiyang Pilipino, as it mined linguistic structures for insights about the “Filipino psyche.” In a significant way, however, it did not. For one, the work is explicitly, if crudely, feminist at a time when no work in Filipino indigenous psychology (then a very young undertaking) had attempted to merge the subfield with feminist critique. Lola’s work itself did not have ambitions of revising Sikolohiyang Pilipino’s foundational theories to include gender analysis. That would come more than a decade later when, in 1996, Lola’s daughter, Sylvia (Mama), completed her dissertation “Sekswalidad, Pagkababae, at Pagkatao: Isang Panimulang Pagsisiyasat sa
Konstruksyon ng Pagkababae sa Kulturang Pilipino” (“Sexuality, Femininity, and Personhood: A Primary Investigation into the Construction of Femininity in Filipino Culture”).
Lola’s thesis, unlike the jargon-laden pseudo-scientific works of contemporary psychology, was written like an essay, and its “methodology” was the well-written argument. Its prose was unencumbered, since it did not have a ghastly section called the “theoretical and analytical framework.”
More importantly, the thesis was bereft of the nationalist earnestness of other works in Sikolohiyang Pilipino—including her daughter’s. Mama wrote her dissertation only a few years after leaving the Maoist underground; she also completed it in the year that Lola died. It is, thus, a serious and scholarly treatise that dissects constructions of Filipina femininity in newspaper rape narratives and popular love stories. Its goal was explicitly emancipatory, seeking to challenge Filipina femininity to forge it anew.
Lola’s goal, however, was not liberation. The thesis had a clear audience and a clear intention of what it had to tell this audience:
The audience I had in mind, for this thesis is (I hope) the literate, U.S.-type-educated Filipino of this era who may find this work interesting, even enjoyable and afford him/her insight, through language, into the workings of the Filipino psyche and perhaps laugh with the author at ourselves.
Laughter, indeed, was part of her work. To wit, one section of the thesis makes a point about finding a unique worldview offered by Tagalog. She does this by jesting about the impossibility of translation between two languages:
Translation, of course, between such disparate languages as English and Tagalog is not for the faint-hearted or the weakminded [sic]. Someday, some brave soul may tackle “I told you to not and then you again” or the present horrors “kadiri to death” [gross to the death] or “how baboy naman the pig” [how pig-like the pig] and relate it all to a
Weltanschauung peculiarly Filipino moderne!
When Lola allowed herself some of Sikolohiyang Pilipino’s nativism by romanticizing “native” culture, she did so through the lens of a 20thcentury Filipino liberal. She celebrates, for instance, Tagalog’s capacity to express “events sans a subject-predicate formulation” (“umuulan” as opposed to “It’s raining outside”). Using terms practically lifted from pragmatist philosophy, she claimed that:
…Tagalog hews closer to the modern physicist’s conception of the reality—that this is indeed a world of events, processes and continually changing phenomena. One can imagine Heraclitus, five centuries before Christ, would have found Tagalog his language of choice as it can express realistically his universe of eternal flux.
Forgive the bias, but Camilo Osias could not have phrased an argument for the world’s dynamism better. Indeed, Lola’s point is a kind of Osias-style internationalism: The beauty of the Tagalog language is not only a function of what it says about Filipinos, but what it allows us to say about the world. Like Osias, Lola, too, made mention of “narrow nationalism” and its blinders.
The broad point of the work, however, concerned female empowerment and rights. In “the civilized world,” she claimed, “we demand the right of human beings to be treated strictly according
to their merit without regard or reference to such accidents as race, creed (religious or political) or place of origin.” “To this list,” she added, human rights discourse has “added sex, and, in the wake of homosexual and ambisexual revolution, sexual preference.” These values “are, for the most part, the values of the West…” This fact, however, was a not a concern since they are values that “educated Filipinos accept, or at the very least, pay lip service to.”
Tagalog passes this liberal criteria. Unlike Western languages like English or Spanish, Tagalog, which has very few gendered signifiers, “need not go through” a “tortuous purge” in order to remove a “heavily masculine bias.” “There is something to be said,” she joked, “for a childhood where one’s concerns did not include the sex of water (el
agua) or table (la mesa) [sic].” “This is really innocence!”
The thesis makes a modest, even simplistic, point about equality (“As such, Tagalog qualifies as a communication medium for an androgynous society where sexual egalitarianism, at least in language, is realizable as an ideal”), and the work has no revolutionary implications; in fact, it distances itself from Marxist rhetoric through what I suspect was a snide rephrasing of stale Maoist slogans: “Whether women of this nation are disadvantaged or not in the present semi-technological semiagricultural more than semi-colonial country we live in is for other disciplines to establish.”
The modest point of the thesis was to begin a dynamic conversation about a dynamic nation, in order to “forge a society that embodies all the goodness of its past and the lessons, painful and otherwise of its present and the promise of realization of its aspirations and visions of its future.” It was a future-oriented view of nation and state building.
My reason for writing about Lola is as modest as her thesis. I do not think she impacted Filipino intellectual life the way Osias, Araneta, Romulo, or SP did. She was a humble professor, tucked away in the Diliman campus. She was also a woman in a masculine intellectual world. But her story exemplifies how liberalism suffused the lives, thinking, and actions of an entire generation of intellectuals. And her relationship with her daughter, my mother, reflected the elderly beneficence of her liberal generation: Mama was allowed her forays into radicalism and nativist nationalism, because liberals let you discover the values of liberalism for yourself. They will not convince you immediately, as appreciating moderation requires playing with fire first.
Recently, Mama has started to resemble the Lola I remember, not just physically, but also intellectually. While writing this, I have pressed numerous books into her hands, most of them tracts on liberal politics. Interestingly, the ex-Maoist has had a very congenial relationship with these works, and has begun quoting them in her own writings. They are familiar to her because they are vestiges of her youth. As the daughter of Rita Estrada, she has liberalism in her political DNA. In the past few years, she, too, has come out as a liberal, while maintaining her roots in the women’s and reproductive health movement.
A part of her never gave up on liberalism anyway. She has always parented as a liberal, raising me in a house bereft of a party line (she even let me attend what she considered a conservative Catholic university, and paid for it to boot). But now her private liberal parenting coincides perfectly with her outward liberal politics, making her personal truly political.
The shift is most perceptible in her writing, which these days has been increasingly funny—unsurprising for someone whose first writing teacher was Rita Estrada. Last year Mama published her second book—a series of essays on her life as a rape and domestic violence counselor. The topic is, naturally, grim, but the prose is ebullient, warm, joyful, and transparent. A humanist text, it is about the moments of laughter, even humor, amid suffering. It is called And Then She Laughed.
We may kill our Marxist fathers, but we become our liberal mothers.