03 September 2007

Alejandro "Anding" Roces

I gave this lecture in honor of Philippine National Artist Alejandro "Anding" Roces on 2 September 2007 as part of the Pistang Panitik 2007 at the 28th Manila International Book Fair at the World Trade Center in Pasay City, Metro Manila, Philippines.

“You know you are a Filipino if,” goes a popular email posting, not to mention a bestselling book. You know you are a Filipino if, after having told a joke and everyone has laughed, you tell the joke again. And again. And again. That is the Filipino way, and that is the way I shall handle this afternoon’s lecture on a National Artist. I’ve delivered this lecture before, in various ways and on different occasions, and to some of the same listeners, but I hope that, like every Philippine joke, rumor, or truth, it bears repeating.

We might expect Alejandro Reyes Roces – who once headed the country’s Department of Education (its largest bureaucracy with the biggest share of the national budget), who has won a host of literary and diplomatic awards (such as the 1997 SEAWRITE Award from Thailand, and various decorations from China, Germany, Indonesia, Malagasy, Mexico, and Spain), who has written the definitive scholarly treatise on the unique Filipino phenomenon called the fiesta (which, by the way, will have a sequel soon), who put his life on the line as a guerrilla during the Japanese occupation of the Philippines, and who ran or still runs huge business corporations – we might expect him to be so serious no smile would ever cross his face or those of his admirers. But, no, upon reading his stories, we discover that Roces is one of those rare individuals to which the immortal opening line of the novel Scaramouche applies: “He was born with the gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.”

Roces is one of the very few Filipino writers that have tried to inject humor into their stories. In fact, in a Roces story, humor forms the core, the raison d’etre of the story. The incredible thing is that the humor in his stories stems from real life. Where other writers might distort reality to make it less serious, Roces remains faithful to distorted reality.

Roces is undoubtedly the country’s best, some even say the only, writer of comic short stories. From the widely anthologized “My Brother’s Peculiar Chicken” to the more extended narratives in his books of short stories, Roces has found a novel way to approach the Filipino character. Full of witty lines, as well as accurate historical and ethnographic detail, particularly with regards to cockfighting, his stories paint a portrait of the Filipino as a noble person endowed with innate intelligence, patience, and compassion. In his stories, the Filipino steadfastly seeks the truth and hungers for justice.

Readers of his stories should not be lulled into a false sense of “I can write this, too!” The reason that there are hundreds of Filipino writers that are, as the current uncomplimentary words put it, “grim and determined” and hardly any that try to make their readers smile and laugh is that it is very, very difficult to write a humorous story. After all, it takes a lot more effort to crack a joke than to rage against the dying of the democratic, patriotic, gender, or linguistic light. In fact, it can be said that small minds take everything seriously, but great minds think everything is a joke. Only the intelligent can appreciate humor. Even among those that smile, the ordinary laugh at others, but the truly gifted laugh at themselves.

Comedy is such a serious business that the highly intelligent Aristotle, who could dash off an entire treatise on tragedy in no time flat, could not even finish a short essay on comedy. His followers give the lame excuse that his treatise on comedy has been lost, even if all the rest of his writings have been found. The truth is that even one of the most brilliant philosophers of all time found comedy much too profound to understand. Aristotle could understand everything that existed during his time, but not comedy.

We should not read Roces’s stories, therefore, only in order to have a good time, although that would already be a major accomplishment, considering the seriousness of our country’s situation yesterday, today, and most probably tomorrow. We should read his stories also in order to understand what Filipinos are really like.

For example, we should be able to see ourselves in the ever-optimistic Kiko, who will not allow reality to come between himself and his dream of winning. Or we might see ourselves in his brother Andres, who keeps failing to see that his search for truth has indeed uncovered (shall we say created?) the truth. Or we might be able to recognize many of the big people in small roles, that in a musical would merely form part of the chorus or, as T. S. Eliot might put it, would not be Prince Hamlet.

Speaking of musicals, most of Roces’s stories, taken as a whole, form a continuous plot with discernible themes; in other words, his stories seem naturally to beg to be written into a musical play. And indeed a number of them have been woven together for the musical Something to Crow About, which was successfully premiered to an international audience during the 31st UNESCO-International Theatre Institute’s Theatre Olympics of the Nations in May 2006 and which played to enthusiastic and appreciative audiences in June 2007 in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. In New York, it played at the La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, which as most of you know, started what is now known as off-off-Broadway; through La MaMa America got introduced to such playwrights as Edward Albee, Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, Harold Pinter, and Sam Shepard; such directors as Peter Brook; such actors as Billy Crystal, Robert de Niro, Bette Midler, Nick Nolte, and Al Pacino; and to such plays as Godspell, Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar, and most recently, Something to Crow About. Whatever the usual crabby suspects say about Roces and his musical, the fact remains that his name and his musical now appear on the same list as those of these famous artists and works.

Hovering between modesty about himself and pride in his work, Roces himself says, with a pronounced gleam in his eyes, when he talks about his stories onstage, that his musical and his stories “make every Filipino one inch taller.” Modesty is one of his virtues as a writer. He himself, in fact, likes to say that, when he was young, his biggest failing was that he was not humble, but when he was finally able to conquer his tendency to boast, he says, in his own words, “Now that I am humble, I am perfect.”

Let us take a moment to talk about the musical. Roces’s stories have effortlessly leaped from the page to the stage. In particular, transformed into the musical are these stories: “My Brother’s Peculiar Chicken,” “Of Cocks and Choreographers,” “The King of Roosters,” “Kiko and the Priest,” and “Kiko Goes to Court.” Roces calls Something to Crow About a sarsuwela rather than a Broadway musical. Although theater purists might argue about that distinction, Roces’s intention is clear: he does not want to be coopted by the Americans by using their language to describe his work. He wants the American audience to say the word sarsuwela, to make them borrow a word from our language. In fact, as those that have seen the American production knows, the musical is very, very Filipino, complete with a fiesta, a love story between a poor boy and a rich girl, in fact, two love stories, since the married couple, despite their familiar Filipino sparring, are also deeply in love, a Flores de Mayo and a Santacruzan, all kinds of folk dances, lots of singing and dancing, and of course, cockfights.

In his stories, his numerous public speeches, and in his innumerable newspaper columns, Roces has always focused on the neglected aspects of the Filipino’s cultural heritage. Ever the champion of Filipino culture, even against the globalizing influence of Broadway and Hollywood, Roces brought to public attention the aesthetics of the country’s fiestas. He was instrumental in popularizing several local fiestas, notably the Moriones and the Ati-Atihan. He personally led the campaign to change the country’s Independence Day from July 4 to June 12. He caused the change of language from English to Filipino in the country’s stamps, currency, and passports. He recovered Jose Rizal’s manuscripts when they were stolen from the National Archives.

His unflinching love of country led him to become a guerrilla during the Second World War, to defy martial law, and to found the major opposition party under the dictatorship. Many people have forgotten that he founded the Laban party that fielded the imprisoned Ninoy Aquino in a doomed senatorial election. Young people who know only Garci should research a little bit to realize that elections in this country have long been a joke, though many of us like to think that, with the elections of February 1986, we changed all that. During the campaign for Ninoy, it was Roces that the crowd waited for, because he cracked jokes all night, all at the expense, of course, of Ferdinand Marcos. Although he imprisoned and killed people that did not like him, Marcos could not imprison and kill Roces, because no one kills the jester, even if, in times of crisis, it is only the jester that tells the truth.

At some point in my life, when I had not yet retired and therefore had much less work than I have now, I planned to write a biography of Roces. I sent my research assistant, Carmencita Pascual, to interview him. Since I am now completely swamped with work, I most likely will never get to write that biography. I want to share with you now passages from Anding that would have been and should be in that biography.

These are Roces’s words:

The house that Rizal describes in the opening chapter of Noli Me Tangere, the house of Kapitan Tiago, is the house of my great grand uncle, Balvino Mauricio. He was implicated in the Cavite Mutiny, along with Gomez, Burgos and Zamora. Gomez, Burgos and Zamora were condemned to death. Balvino Mauricio, along with Pardo de Tavera, the two Basa cousins, and Antonio Regidor were deported to Guam. The house was on a street called Anloague, now called Juan Luna Street. I think they should have retained the old name, but you know how we are here. We don’t respect history, I’m sorry to say.

During liberation, Manila was full of bodies. A doctor would say “Ito, patay na.” Once in a while he would find someone wounded and say, “Ito, ambulansiya.” There was one the doctor listed as “Ito, patay na,” but the man shouted, “Buhay pa ko, buhay pa ko.” The doctor’s aide said, “Ito, marunong pa sa duktor.” I learned a lesson from that. When the doctor tells me I’m already dead, I won’t argue. I will accept it.

During the war I was a teenager. It made me grow up fast. Now I appreciate the war. I’m happy that Manila was the second most destroyed city in the world. That’s when Intramuros was destroyed and that erased a lot of my past.

I still hope to write the Filipino Christmas story. I hope to write great stories on Filipino fiestas, but what I’m trying to finish now is four more stories of my collection, a little series of stories that revolve around cockfighting.
[Let me interject here that Roces finished one of those stories for the 1997 edition of his stories, the story entitled “Nine-Nine” (for siyam-siyam). Back to Roces.]

I’m happy because I could not ask anything more from the Lord and I mean that seriously. If I were to die today, I would still be way, way, way ahead, because God has been extremely kind to me. People have betrayed me, but God has never betrayed me. I cannot complain about life and I don’t know how to repay it.

That is why I’m obsessed with the street children. I want to be able to repay that by helping street children. I’ve always done what I could for street children. I work with Father Ben Beltran of Smokey Mountain, a very, very fine person. He could have been the president of the University of San Carlos because of his qualifications, but he chose to be the parish priest of Smokey Mountain and I admire that. Once I saw him say mass on Smokey Mountain and I got the idea like a flash for a poem: “An altar infested with flies / Lord accept this sacrifice.”
[Roces is not a poet, but he has written a couple of these short rhyming verses. He has even written his own epitaph. If I can recall it accurately, it goes this way: “Lord, do unto me what I would do unto you, if I were the God of Moses and you were Alejandro Roces.” Back to Roces.]

I feel like Rizal. If I had the proper teachers in Ateneo, I would have become a Jesuit. I’m sorry to say this because I love the Ateneo: I always say that I was not a good student in the Ateneo. I never criticize the Ateneo, but I had the wrong teachers there. What happened is that in the Ateneo the teachers were Irish and they were from very, very poor Irish people who migrated to the United States. They were supposed to be sent to India, but India did not accept them, so they were sent to the Philippines. I think many of them were culture-shocked, because when they went to the Ateneo, they were told, “Your students here are students from the elite; they have maids to dress them up for school, cars to take them to school.” So they thought that all their pupils were just a bunch of spoiled brats. When I was in first year, I was looking forward to be under American Jesuits, because in grade school I had Filipino teachers. When the year began we had to get subscriptions to the Messenger of the Sacred Heart. It was a magazine published in the States. We were nine brothers in school. Obviously my father could not get nine subscriptions, so my father would get one for Hospicio de San Jose, PGH, and so on. In my case, I would ask my Ninang to get my subscription for me. I never had problems from third grade to seventh grade. I would just tell the teacher, “Today is my mother’s birthday, my godmother will come,” and she always came every year. That year I told the Irish Jesuit, “Father, today is my mother’s birthday and my godmother will come to give the subscription money.” This was interrupted by a one-hour lecture! The Irish Jesuit said, “Don’t brag about your mother’s birthday.” Now, my mother’s birthday was just attended by brothers and sisters with my godmother, who happened to be my first cousin. He said, “Don’t brag, we don’t give a damn about your mother’s luxurious birthday. Nobody gives a damn about the birthday of your mother.” After that I was turned off. After first year, you were supposed to go to second year when you began taking Latin. I was transferred to II-D with no Latin. I was in II-D, III-D, and IV-D. They would always tell us that we were placed in section D because there were no leaders in that section. My classmate was Catalino Arevalo, who is now one of the leading Jesuits. If not for that incident I probably would have followed the footsteps of Catalino Arevalo.

I came for a very dominating family. My father had interests in mining. Although I could never figure out fractions (even now), when I graduated from fourth year, my father said, “We need an engineer in the family; you will take up Mining Engineering in Arizona.” I found myself in this engineering school in Arizona. Of course I flunked all my mathematics subjects. They should have thrown me out of the school, but I won the literary contest, so they allowed me to transfer to Literature. Now, isn’t that God’s will?

I was champion boxer in high school in the Ateneo and college in Arizona. Up to now I wake up at five in the morning and walk for one hour every single morning, and I’ve been doing that for about thirty years every morning. How did I become a boxer? We lived in Oroquieta in Zurbaran when I was about six or seven years old. Every time I went out of the house, because we were the only Spanish-speaking family there, everybody would tell me, “Kayo Kastila, kayong pumatay kay Rizal.” So I got into a fight every day. Later on there was a fellow named Enriquez. He became the coach in the Olympics and he saw me. He thought I had very good reflexes so he trained me.

Those words are from Roces himself. Let me now follow his words with some words of my own. As you may already know, I wrote the lyrics of most of the songs in the sarsuwela. As happens in any musical production, lyrics are revised to suit the music and the directorial concept. But since I am speaking now and not the composer nor the director, I will now read some of the lyrics that I wrote for that musical. Some found their way into the off-off-Broadway production, but some did not. Here are some lyrics taken from his short stories. For literary critics, these are technically what are known as “found poems,” that is, poems that use words originally written by another writer. “Found poetry” is one of the many literary types under the general heading “Creative Non-Fiction” or that strange animal that has become, without anyone realizing it, the fifth genre of literature, after poetry, fiction, drama, and essay. Here are some lyrics inspired by the stories of Roces.

History of Cocking

The very first crime was that of Cain
He plotted to get his brother slain
And what was the reason for their fight
They couldn’t decide which cock was right

To Greeks ‘twas alectryomachy
Temistocles wanted victory
He told his men to copy the cocks
Who fought and fought no matter the shocks

The Athenians hailed Temistocles
Cockfights were decreed in ancient Greece
Cockfights were called winged public games
They’re one of the things Plato disclaims

Severus the Emperor of Rome
In planning Britanya’s hecatomb
Forced his soldiers to study the cocks
To learn how to avoid more deadlocks

The French call themselves the Gallic race
Abe Lincoln had such an honest face
They made him referee cock matches
Called him Honest Abe, sang his praises

Cockers then were Thomas Jefferson
Everybody and George Washington
When they looked for a U.S. symbol
The cock lost by one vote to the eagle.

Those lyrics did not make it to the stage. The next ones did, but after much revision. This was the original love song, based on Roces’s insisting that it is not love at first sight that is important, but love at first insight:

When I saw her that night
‘Twas not love at first sight
‘Twas not my heart took flight
‘Twas love at first insight

My mind knew it was fate
My body lost its weight
My feelings thought it great
I had found my soul mate

Can a man without a soul
Find a soulmate to extol?
Will my soulmate make me whole
If my soul I can’t control?

Before I turn to dust
To find my soul I must
Give her all of my trust
My soul to her entrust

When the music was composed, it became a duet and had a different meter. So I changed the lyrics to these, sung onstage by the two young lovers Leandro and Luningning. Forgive me if I don’t do justice to the music.

Love at First Insight


It’s love
Love not at first sight
It’s love at first insight
It’s love at first insight
You made me see the light

Make me whole
With you I found my soul
A soul that had no goal
And no control

We are one
To me you are the sun
My life has just begun
You are the one

It’s love
Love not at first sight
It’s love at first insight
It’s love at first insight
You made me see the light


We are whole
Together just one soul
Our love at first insight
We’ve seen the light

We are one
This cannot be undone
Our lives have just begun
We both have won


It’s love
Love not at first sight
It’s love at first insight
It’s love at first insight
We now have seen the light

Here is another love song, again with Leandro, the writer that is really Roces, and Luningning, the dancer that comes from the story about choreographers.

LUNINGNING: Not richer things, Leandro, finer things. Like dancing. Like writing.

LEANDRO: When I write, you are my muse.

LUNINGNING: When I dance, you are my music.


You’re my muse when I write
You’re my heavenly light
When the words I can’t find
You enlighten my mind
When I try to create
My soul you liberate
When a poem is my goal
You’re my soul


You’re the music I hear
You’re the one I revere
When I dance you’re the beat
Moving my hands and feet
What I see is your face
While I’m walking in space
When a dance is my goal
You’re my soul


There’s nothing more that I need
When it’s my words that you read


It’s music you are to me


Our art makes us free



You’re the one I adore
I have said this before
You’re my self you’re my goal
You’re my soul

I will shout to the world
All my self is unfurled

{ LEANDRO: When I write you’re the one
{ LUNINGNING: When I dance you’re the one


Now our lives have begun
We are soulmates my love
We are blessed from above


I feel oh so complete


Everytime that we meet


You’re my soul that is true
I love you

Sadly for me, those lyrics did not make it to the stage, either, but the actors promised me that they would record it for a recording studio. Here is the title song, as I first wrote it:

Something to Crow About

When I wake up in the morning
And I hear the roosters crowing
I imagine they’re announcing
That my woman’s come out shining
Every morning the sun comes out
I have something to crow about

When the sun sets in the evening
I get ready to start dreaming
I imagine we are kissing
Me and she I can’t help loving
Every evening the lights go out
I have something to crow about

But there’s someone else I treasure
Also raises my temp’rature
And believe me I am cocksure
That cockfighting has its allure
As a cocker I’m out-and-out
Cocking’s something to crow about

When I watch the roosters fighting
And the people round them betting
I imagine soldiers training
Cocks can teach them ways of winning
Every morning after a bout
Cocks have something to crow about

With my cock I am a cocker
With my woman I’m a rooster
I love one as much the other
For them both there’s no one better
About this there can be no doubt
My cock’s something to crow about

You can tell we’re Filipino
From the way our souls are aglow
We all wake up with the cockcrow
Ready to work, to play, to go
With a country that’s green throughout
We’ve got something to crow about

These lyrics changed considerably, because the music just did not fit them and the composer wanted to write his own lyrics, although frankly, he had absolutely no command of the English language. So in order not to put up Filipino English to ridicule in the United States, I was forced revise his lyrics and the song eventually became this, a combination of his lyrics and mine:

Something to Crow About

The dawn is breaking
Everybody’s out
The sun is rising
We’ve something to crow about

It’s another day
For the men to play
While the women pray
That’s something to crow
That’s something to crow about

The night is over
There can be no doubt
When we’re together
We’ve something to crow about

It’s another day
Let the children stay
They’ll not go astray
That’s something to crow
That’s something to crow about

Come to the cockfight
Everybody shout
There things are all right
That’s something to crow about

It’s another day
For the cocks to play
While the losers pay
That’s something to crow
That’s something to crow about

The cockfight
The cockfight
The cockfight again

Cockfighting’s heaven
No need to explain
All’s fair and even
That’s something to crow about

It’s another day
We will bet today
Happy come what may
That’s something to crow
That’s something to crow about

Please indulge me for just for one more song. Since the highest tribute a writer can give another writer is to write something for him or her, I did these lyrics for Roces’s birthday. I cannot compose music, so I composed it to one of his favorite tunes, Everything’s Coming Up Roses.

Everything’s Coming Up Roces

You’re Anding! You’re the best!
You will always stand out from the rest!
With your books and your looks,
Anding, everything’s coming up Roces!

What a heart! What a mind!
You’re the friend we are so glad to find.
Greet the folk. Crack a joke.
Anding, everything’s coming up Roces!

Your short stories – oh what laughs they can give!
And your columns – they teach us all how to live!
Here’s a toast! Not a boast!
You, my friend, are just really the most!
You’re so prompt, never late.
We all know you are great.
You’ve made us all so proud of what you are!
Anding, everything’s coming up Roces because you’re the star!

Let’s all stand up, let’s all cheer for the man.
Anding Roces, you made us believe we can!
You’re the one! You have won!
What you did we thought could not be done!
In New York or L.A.
When they all saw your play
They knew that what they saw was all so true!
Anding, everything’s coming up Roces and cock and hen!
Everything’s coming up Roces and what a pen!
Everything’s coming up Roces and once again!
Everything’s coming up Roces for us and for you!

For the privilege of working with him on his musical, for all the good things he has done for me in my career as a writer (since he wrote the letters of recommendation that got me all kinds of grants), for being a friend in need and a friend indeed, and for being the human being that he is, I take my hat off, or I guess my hair off, to our one and only, our comic writer, our patriotic columnist, our fiesta champion, our National Hermano Mayor – Alejandro “Anding” Roces.

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