Penman No. 338: Back to Balangiga

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Penman for Monday, January 28, 2019

 

THE RECENT return of the fabled bells of Balangiga from the American West to their home in Samar reminded me of my fleeting involvement years ago in the effort to draw renewed attention to that traumatic episode of the Philippine-American War.

Sometime in 2001, the late film director Gil Portes called to ask me to work with him on a project that would focus on what people—echoing the American view—were then calling the “Balangiga massacre,” culminating of course in the loss of the bells (hardly the event’s most tragic outcome, considering the slaughter of innocents that the Americans undertook in the attack’s aftermath).

I suppose we were still basking in the afterglow of the Philippine Centennial, and directors were eager to take on historical subjects, long before Heneral Luna would prove that history artfully told could do well at the box office. In fact, our project ran alongside a similar one being put together by the formidable tandem of director Chito Roño and screenwriter Pete Lacaba. (Pete and I were good friends and knew what the other was doing.) The main difference was that our version was going to be a Filipino-American co-production, with the script in English, for a global audience.

I can’t recall now who our producer was, but I knew that Gil was in conversation with US-based financiers, and I did get a down payment for the sequence treatment and the script itself, so we were seriously engaged in the project—seriously enough that Gil and I went on a reconnaissance visit to Balangiga.

Balangiga is a small fourth-class municipality in Eastern Samar, reachable by surprisingly good roads (at least that long ago) from Tacloban across the San Juanico Bridge and past Basey. When we went there, we were billeted in the only “hotel” in town, where the rooms cost P100 a night and I tried to read my notes under a 10-watt lamp. But we were able to find and interview the descendants of Valeriano “Bale” Abanador, the town’s chief of police who led the attack in retaliation against American repression. I was even shown the wooden stick that Abanador was supposed to have waved as a signal to begin the attack that morning of September 28, 1901.

Sadly, after all the research and three drafts of the script, and despite rumors that Sony was going to be involved and that the likes of John Malkovich were being considered for the lead roles, our project fell through, as did the other one. One reason I heard was that in the wake of 9/11, it was proving difficult to bring a battalion of American actors over. Years later, Gil asked me for a copy of the script, thinking to revive the project, but then Gil himself died suddenly two years ago.

I don’t pretend to be a Balangiga expert, although I drew heavily on the writings of such real Balangiga scholars as UP Prof. Rolando Borrinaga and writer Bob Couttie, who have sorted much of the fiction from the facts of the event. I did fictionalize my treatment, as I was expected to do for dramatic purposes, without altering the basic facts as they were known to me. My chief conceit was to create a character named Ramon Candilosas, the fictional son of the bell ringer Vicente, who was a teenager when the attack happened.

My treatment opened this way:

SEQ. 1. Intro. EXT/INT. Fort Warren, Wyoming. Day.

 An old man, around 70, walks across the yard in Fort Warren, Wyoming, to where they keep the Balangiga bells. He pauses before one of them, takes off his hat, and reaches out with a trembling hand to touch one of the bells.

 Later, we see him signing his name with a scratchy fountain pen on a guestbook; a CLOSE-UP reveals his name: RAMON CANDILOSAS. “I do not know everything,” his voice begins to intone. “This is only what my father told me, and what I imagine to have happened in our hometown, in a war over a hundred years ago. It is a war we have forgotten, a war we find difficult if not impossible to believe.”

 Indeed, as I often remark to my American friends, I can understand if few Americans remember the Philippine-American War (downplayed for the longest time in American annals as the Philippine Insurrection). What’s sad is how few Filipinos do. At least writers like the US-based Gina Apostol are reviving that memory through her most recent and highly acclaimed novel Insurrecto, a complex and contemporary take on that century-old event.

But I’m glad for history’s sake that the bells are back, and that, for once, the fact has overtaken the fiction.

Penman No. 199: A Bell from Bauang

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Penman for Monday, April 25, 2016

 

 

SANTIAGO “SONNY” Busa is one of the most remarkable people I’ve met. I was introduced to him when I spent some time in Washington, DC on a fellowship a couple of years ago, and from the very first time we sat down for a chat in the backyard of his home in the DC suburb of Annandale, Virginia, we hit it off. He possesses a hilarious, self-deprecating wit, is fascinated by history, and speaks, among other languages, Spanish, Ethiopian and Chinese. Ironically, though born in Eastern Samar—he was practically just a baby when his family moved to the US—Sonny doesn’t speak Filipino (or, we keep joking, pretends not to, so he can listen in on what everyone is saying).

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A retired diplomat who served as consul general at the American embassy in Manila, among other postings some years ago, Sonny had also been a US Army Ranger and parachutist, and taught International Relations at his alma mater, West Point. For all that, he’s a flaming liberal (like me), doesn’t believe in keeping an armory or packing a .45 to feel masculine or secure, and devotes much of his time to promoting the Philippines and Philippine concerns in America along with his lovely wife Ceres. Last year, he was a key figure in the commemoration of the Bataan Death March in New Mexico, where 5,000 soldiers and civilians marched across the desert for more than 26 miles—and they’ve been doing this for 27 years now!

But Sonny’s recent messages gave me a special reason to smile. He’s been a staunch advocate for the return of the three bells taken as war trophies by American troops from Balangiga, Samar in 1901—two bells remain in a “Trophy Park” in a military base in Wyoming, and another is in a military museum in South Korea. Despite the strenuous efforts of both Filipino and American activists to have those bells returned, it hasn’t happened yet.

As it turns out, the Balangiga bells weren’t alone. In 1899, during the Philippine-American War (which the Americans insisted on calling an “insurgency” for the longest time), a Lieutenant Tom Berry took a bell from the Church of St. Peter and Paul in Bauang, La Union and shipped it to America, where it languished for over three decades in some Army warehouse. In 1933, the same soldier—now General Berry, the superintendent of West Point—had the bell taken out of storage to be displayed at the Catholic chapel of the academy.

Last January, acting on an inquiry from Fr. Ronald Raymund Chan of the Diocese of San Fernando, Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen, Jr.—the current superintendent of West Point and a friend of Sonny’s—wrote Fr. Chan back to say that “The bell currently displayed on the grounds of our Catholic Chapel here is apparently the bell in question. According to our own records, the markings on the bell itself matches all the descriptions you provided. While we have been honored to guard and display this bell for the past several decades, we would be glad to return the bell to its rightful home. We are currently in the process of making arrangements for the return of the bell to your Parish.”

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Aside presumably from Fr. Chan and the people of Bauang, no one was happier about this outcome than Sonny Busa, who had married Ceres in that chapel in 1977 in a military wedding, and had looked with fondness at the bell every time he visited the academy. He alerted me and some friends about the San Pedro bell last February, but asked us to keep quiet about it for the meanwhile until the return arrangements were finalized, fearing that Americans opposed to the return of any war booty—especially the Balangiga bells—would torpedo the move.

Last month, on the 29th, the send-off finally took place at West Point, with Sonny Busa, Philippine Consul General in New York Mario de Leon, and prominent members of the Filipino community in attendance. Another good friend of Sonny and mine, the Filipino-American historian Sharon Delmendo, stood as both proud witness and photographer. Another special participant was Filipino exchange Cadet Don Dalisay—to whom I would be glad to claim a relation, because Sonny says that he’s at the top of all his classes at West Point.

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In his message to me, Sonny—who had been put in charge of the turnover ceremony—emphasized that Gen. Caslen had “ordered the bell returned to La Union because it belongs in its rightful home. West Point above all stands for high morals in all that it does and teaches and keeping looted war booty is not part of its ethic. The people of La Union are hyper-excited and have already built a display stand. Once the bell arrives it will be big news in the whole of the Philippines as you can imagine.”

That truly is wonderful news, Sonny, and many thanks from your kababayans for your tireless efforts to help right the wrongs of the past and to remind us of our precious heritage.

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But sadly—as I write this on the eve of one of the most important and contentious elections of our modern history—I fear that too many of us have forgotten how valuable our democracy is, and what artifacts like the San Pedro bell stand for. At war with ourselves and with foreign invaders long gone, we seem far too willing to squander our votes on mindless whimsy and puerile petulance.

I so desperately pray we can prove ourselves deserving of that bell, Sonny. How hollow its ring would be otherwise—a death knell for sanity and decency, rather than the vibrant peal of freedom.

(Photos by Sharon Delmendo and Sonny Busa)