Heights Ateneo — The Official Literary and Artistic Publication and Organization of the Ateneo de Manila University
Revisiting a 50-year-old Call for Revolt Against Imperialism
Allianza O. Pesquera | Mar 22, 2021
The Ateneo’s official literary magazine underwent several, significant changes from 1922 to 1949 before it was finally named ‘HEIGHTS’ in 1952. Characterized as a hub for the Ateneo’s writers, HEIGHTS had shifted towards a more political slant in the year 1957 as an acknowledgment that politics cannot be separated from art and literature.
At this time, the country was riddled with social unrest as former President Carlos P. Garcia sought to maintain traditional ties with the United States government, which was closely followed by the progressive-minded presidency of Diosdado Macapagal. Anti-American and nationalist sentiments gave rise to a call for ‘Filipinization’ as an attempt to develop a cultural identity in the Philippines. HEIGHTS heeded to this call through its release of literary pieces written in Filipino for the first time in 1965 with the launch of the Bagay Movement.
Along with this rise for Filipinization, President Ferdinand Marcos was reelected in 1969. In the span of two years, the former president placed the country in deeper debt and ignited civil unrest with his increasingly authoritarian policies. In 1971 then, HEIGHTS changed its name to ‘Pugadlawin’ as a way of upholding the radical student activism that occurred throughout the First Quarter Storm its times had called for. HEIGHTS momentarily changed its name to Pugadlawin—referring to the Cry of Balintawak where the Katipuneros ripped apart their cédulas personales—to signify their defiance against Spanish rule, which then ignited the Philippine Revolution.
This was a brazen move from HEIGHTS’s end in light of the danger Marcos’ opposition faced as evidenced by the Plaza Miranda Bombing, followed by the media blackouts. To further stoke the flames, Pugadlawin had invited the Communist leader Jose Maria “Joma” Sison who helped found the New People’s Army as their guest editor for their January-February issue in 1971.
Joma Sison, an Ateneo de Manila University and University of the Philippines alumnus, founded the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) in 1968 following years spent as a member of the Partido Komunista ng Pilipinas as well as a founding member of Kabataang Makabayan. Sison slowly rose to prominence through his politically-entrenched past as a youth leader, labor and land reformist, and supporter of Marxist-Leninist-Maoist Thought.
In light of the declaration of Martial Law, the publication was forced to shut down on September 21, 1972, making “The Need for a Cultural Revolution”, Joma Sison’s first and last guest editorial for Pugadlawin.
American Imperialism in the Pearl of the Orient Seas
Joma Sison’s editorial, rather than a commentary on Marcos’ authoritarianism, was a call for radical change, with particular emphasis on the need for the youth to unite against a common enemy—that being: imperialist culture.
Sison wrote a series of historical revolutions that sparked a change of culture; beginning with the Liberal Revolution in Europe that brought along with it secular thinking and freedom of thought. He linked this to the Philippine Revolution of 1896 that furthered the concept of national-democratic ideals. Sison also highlighted the importance of Jose Rizal’s Propaganda Movement which he believed was key to developing an awareness of a national culture that could be fit to replace the rampant colonial culture in the country.
From there, Sison’s anger against any and all colonial attempts to suppress Filipino patriotism lead him to greatly doubt the sincerity of the American government’s efforts to aid the Philippines. Sison remarks at a time of post-war recovery, “Until today, many of our youth and elders are deprived of the memory to remember the national-democratic struggle of our people. They have been made to forget. How is this possible even if there seems to be no open coercion anymore to prevent us from reviewing our national history?”
Sison asserted to us that the foisting of English as one of the Philippines’ official languages was an attempt to impose control on the country’s culture and education. He tells us that the American presence in Philippine education was something to be highly critical of as the public school system the Americans had introduced was known to brainwash the national-democratic revolution from the students’ minds.
Sison then aimed to convince us of the consequences of U.S. imperialism on Philippine culture, namely the complete alienation of the educated Filipinos from the masses, which only further aggravated the class struggle. He uses the pensionado mentality—named after the Pensionado Act of 1903 that established a Filipino scholarship program in the U.S.—as an example of putting undue importance on American scholarship grants where the students are taught lessons that are far removed from our countrymen’s lived realities.
Another aspect of the prevailing imperialist culture in our country he claims is hindering cultural revolution is the persistence of Filipino professionals who insist on working in America for higher pay, which we have now dubbed as the “brain drain”. He declares that these types of people are deserters for choosing to serve foreign people over his own.
Sison also tells us that the Peace Corps makes use of counter-insurgency efforts to hinder the development of his national-democratic movement. He insists it is an extension of the American government’s plan to “perpetuate its long-standing cultural power and influence” in our country, going so far as to say they are the “new Thomasites.”
He ended his editorial with a call to us, the Filipino youth, to “go to the countryside to learn from the people and to reawaken them for the national democratic revolution.”
Sison was imprisoned during the Marcos dictatorship for nine years and was released in 1986 soon after Marcos was overthrown. Since 1988, he has been recognized as a political refugee in the Netherlands where he has then been living with his wife.
While the debate on the virtue of Sison’s tactics and beliefs is still ongoing, we nonetheless learn from Sison that indeed, culture lacks permanence amid constantly shifting milieus and ongoing institutional reforms. His sentiments and convictions serve as a reminder that we can look forward to continuously shaping our culture in such a way that we become more unified than alienated from each other.
One thing we can take from Sison’s editorial is that language should not be the divisive tool it has so long been used as in the past. Now more than ever, as we remain isolated under strict lockdowns due to the pandemic, we, the Filipino youth, shoulder the responsibility to use our words to bridge the gap between this class divide if we want to inaugurate building a more progressive society. Similar to HEIGHTS’s Pugadlawin era, artists and writers can convey political messages through their tools and mediums that can bring more attention to the problems faced by the Filipino plagued and victimized by police brutality, red-tagging, and discrimination.
Especially prevalent in the Ateneo community is the elitism that perpetuates the socioeconomic divide, which manifests in the way we think to the way we act. Just the mere fact that many of us think in English rather than the vernacular, local languages divorces us from others’ realities.
This sort of disconnect between the elitists and the middle to lower class is aggravated by the artists and writers who have dehumanized the poor by using them as a backdrop or prop to success. As opposed to self-aware art and literature, the romanticization of poverty and struggle ultimately does not advance the interests of the economically and politically marginalized.
The imperial culture Sison warned us of also encouraged us to lend credence to the notion that our own country is beyond help because it does not fit into the mold of the Western ideal. We have seen our culture change drastically over the years due to invasion, colonization, and imperialism. Though this call was made by Sison 50 years ago, perhaps now is the time to bring about a cultural revolution by our own means, through our intent to ground our society on social awareness and community-building.
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