Sunday, May 21, 2006

Our outrage as theater

Unfinished post, but I thought I'd put it up anyway. Still evolving my argument.

Peer into recent history and recall these names: Flor Contemplacion, Sarah Balabagan, Angelo de la Cruz. All of them fall represent the modern Filipino hero, the Overseas Foreign Worker. All of them have stories which mirror the lives of so many of their countrymen. All of them were focal points for outrage.

Angelo de la Cruz was driving a truck in Iraq when insurgents snatched him and two of his of companions. For weeks he lived under threat of execution as his captors used him as a bargaining chip for the only concession they could manage from the Philippines, early withdrawal of Filipino non-combat engineering troops. Between furor in Manila and pressure from the United States, Mrs. Arroyo capitulated to local pressure. The engineering battalion pulled out and the insurgents released de la Cruz, who then came home to a hero's welcome.

Sarah Balabagan was an underaged domestic helper in the United Arab Emirates. Her employer attempted to rape her, and in self-defense, she stabbed him dead. She was arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. Local outrage prompted appeals from the government. Blood money ultimately secured her release. She came home to a hero's welcome.

Like Balabagan, Flor Contemplacion was a domestic helper, but in Singapore. She was accused and found guilty of murdering a fellow domestic helper, Delia Maga. For the five years while her case was tried, we heard nothing of her; and in the last few months after sentence had been handed, we heard nothing except about her. The nation held its breath as the Singapore government denied appeal after appeal from the Philippine government. Unlike Balabagan, Contemplaction was not so fortunate as unforgiving Singapore strung the noose around her neck.

During their moment in the limelight, de la Cruz, Balabagan, and Contemplacion were simultaneously heroes and victims in the Filipino mind, tragic figures in a world that offered only harsh realities.

Yet: why did we care so much for them? Why were we so outraged at their plight?

After all, how much do we really know about Angelo, Sarah, and Flor? Was Angelo a devoted father, or a drunkard? Was Sarah virginal, or a vixen? Was Flor motherly, or mad? Or somewhere in between? What did we truly know about their characters? Would it have mattered either way?

If we really cared about them for who they were, then we would continue to follow their further adventures as they make their way through life (or in the case of Flor Contemplacion, of the children who survived her). But what do we really know of the whereabouts of Angelo de la Cruz and Sarah Balabagan? Or of the condition of the kin of Flor Contemplacion? That shows the extent of our caring.

Or was it sufficient that they were Filipinos? And by virtue of such, worthy of our outrage?

If so, that raises another problem. What of Guen Aguilar, Marilou Ranario, Noel Tarongoy, and all the other Filipinos whose stories followed the pattern of Contemplacion, Balabagan, and de la Cruz? Where was the outrage for them? That these names should elicit mere puzzlement only serve to highlight the contrast.

Would it have helped if the cases of Aguilar, Ranario, and Tarongoy had come before the cases of Contemplacion, Balabagan, and de la Cruz? What then would have happened to Contemplacion, Balabagan, and de la Cruz?