The setting of Rizal’s Noli and Fili is a fictional town called San Diego (possibly in Laguna), but the issues transcend the locale of the novel. It depicts the general struggle of the Filipino against abuses by the friars and the ambivalence of the ruling class. It is set at the time when the Philippines was still a province of Mother Spain.
Sionil Jose’s Po-on, on the other hand, is set in Cabugao in Ilocos Sur, my home province, and ultimately in Rosales, Pangasinan, the author’s birthplace. It initially describes the plight of the Ilocanos at the hands of the abusive Spanish rulers during the later part of their rule in the region, and the start of the American conquest, following the Spanish-American war. But toward the end of the novel, it conveys a message that deals with nationalism or the question of our identity as Filipinos.
The novels of Rizal and Sionil Jose both deal on poverty, poor governance and human rights abuses during the Spanish time, with emphasis on the lecherous, potbellied friars who rule the land and oppress the people. But while Noli and Fili are seen through the eyes of an ilustrado (Crisostomo Ibarra a.k.a. Simoun the Jeweler), Po-on is seen through the eyes of a poor indio named Istak (Eustaquio Salvador/Samson), who went with his family in exodus from Ilocos to Pangasinan to escape from the wrath of the Spaniards after the grisly killing of a parish priest. The journey of the family filled with tragedies is comparable with that of Tom Joad’s family in John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, who also got to their Promised Land but in the end, something had to be sacrificed in the name of duty.
Having moved by the powerful and intense narration of the Po-on, I felt a pang of conscience and regret for having read only a few emotionally charged fictions written by our own nationalist authors that really speak about us—our past, our present, and our future. Before Po-on and Rizal’s twin novels, I have read Gagamba also by F. Sionil Jose, Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco, and an anthology of short stories by Mindoro native NVM Gonzales. But none that I have read so far, other than Po-on, speaks the history of the resilient and frugal Ilocanos.
We Ilocanos are well scattered to other parts of the country and to foreign lands, where we account for majority of immigrant Filipinos. They say it’s about our land. Ilocos Region, or Ilocandia, is one of the smallest regions in the country. Add to this fact that the region is sandwiched by the sea in the west and by the rugged mountains in the east, a condition that has made for a very limited amount of arable land for a very industrious people. It was a tough geographical location for us Ilocanos to live in. No wonder, we are stereotyped with regional traits vital for survival, such as tenacious industry, perseverance, resilience, frugality, and pioneering spirit. Because of so very little space in the region, Ilocanos seemingly are duty-bound to move to other places in search for better opportunities not only for their own sake but for the whole clan.
In Po-on, Sionil Jose shows us the other reason for this diaspora, which is the persecution of the Ilocano indios under the Spanish regime. But prior to Istak’s story, the Spaniards weren’t particularly lucky with their conquest of Ilocos. The Ilocanos were one of the first ethnic groups to revolt against Spanish officials. Two of the Philippines’ most notable uprisings were the Basi Revolt in 1807 and the one lead by the lion-hearted Diego Silang of Aringay (now part of La Union) in 1762-63, which was continued by his wife Gabriela Silang. The Silangs’ revolt, which is also well mentioned in Po-on, was fueled by the grievances against Spanish taxation and abuses. The uprisings were short-lived and never duplicated until the twilight of the Castilian rule during Istak’s time.
These abuses by the Spanish rulers subsist in the province up to the last decade of the 19th century. Although one exceptional friar is very kind to young Istak and takes care of him like his own son, that is, teaching him how to pray, write and speak Spanish and Latin, Istak and the rest of the indios are not generally allowed to become priests. So Istak, in spite of his advance education, has to go back to his family and help in his family's farm. Ba-ac begs the new priest to send his son to the seminary, and while they are arguing, Ba-ac realizes that the priest is the one who ordered him to be arrested and hung up by the arm because of an accusation that he was malingering from the duty to offer compulsory road building work for the Spanish. In a fit of fury he kills the priest with a crucifix. Ba-ac’s family has to leave hurriedly, taking the back roads to avoid the Spanish guards. They go with other relatives who have also been expelled from their lands. So the families escape like fugitives and along the way, they encounter the much feared tulisanes and the atrocious Spanish officers. Amidst their adventures are poignant episodes of love and devotion, particularly between Istak and Dalin, his devoted wife and savior, and family solidarity and values.
At the end of the story, we see Americans now taking over but, soon the Filipinos found out that they are as bad as the Spanish. American soldiers would torture and rape the poor natives. Don Jacinto, the local landowner who helps them set up a small village in Rosales town, is very much involved in the independence movement and Istak soon starts helping him, particularly when a man known as the Cripple (Apolinario Mabini) stays at the house of Don Jacinto. Finally, Istak is sent off on a dangerous mission to take a message to President Emilio Aguinaldo but ends up at the last brave stand of El Presidente's loyal soldiers at Tirad Pass, where Istak was shot dead by the Americans.
Istak, a martyr in a very real sense, is aglow with patriotic fervor until his death. He understands that love for country, which involves sacrifice, is essential to discovering the meaning of his own existence. And true enough, he gave honor to the country by proving to the white invaders that Filipinos are capable of offering their dear lives, not only for their clan, but for our country's freedom. Sadly, this is all in the past tense. We now live in a curious era where most Filipinos wanted to be Americans or Europeans, and most of our politicians are bereft of patriotism in their service to the nation.
The Cripple in the novel says it with fire and ice: "There is so much that the past can teach us… Diego Silang—more than a hundred years ago, what did he prove? That with a brilliant and selfless leader, we can be united the way he united the north. And united, we can then make Filipinas strong, formidable…”
Of course, today there are no more colonizers to contend with, but we still have many wars to fight. There is the war on poverty, rampant corruption in government transactions, poor governance, and the never-ending struggle for national unity. Po-on clearly tells us that our dream to have selfless leaders, who know the value of self-sacrifice, and citizenry that is truly united for the country remains a dream.
I must say, Po-on is a must-read for every Filipino if we only want to educate our countrymen about our glorious past.