The story of us

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Friday, February 7, 2014

A COUPLE of weeks ago, I assigned mini-biographies for the graduate class I am handling on rural-urban Sociology. Apart from getting to know my students and them getting to know each other, the telling of life-stories is a good way of grounding lessons on Philippine society to the common narratives we all share as Filipinos.

Often, we take for granted the interconnectedness of our fates, trapped as we are in the personal bubble of our personal lives and the twists and turns of the saga that is the story of our immediate families. But as my graduate students shared their narratives, there are common threads that weave us all together in a single socio-historical tapestry.

One is that their stories as individuals always unfold within the bosom of their families. Even if my students are all gainfully-employed, and most of them married with their own children, there seemed to be no clear break from where their stories separate from that of their parents and siblings. Life choices were made and are still being undertaken within the general narrative of the families of their parents.


Instead of interpreting this as evidence of Filipinos having strong family ties – considered by most to be an essential and enduring cultural trait, I regard this as an upshot of feudal relations whose base remains an agriculture economy where the family remains the primary economic unit. In the case of the landed class, the family is the means by which the spoils of property ownership are passed from one generation to another. In contrast, for majority of the population who belong to the landless class, the family is the social unit that primary functions as a social mechanism for economic survival.

In more complex developed economies for illustration, young adults when they reach the age of 18 leave the coop of their parents’ homes largely because it is possible to do so given the highly diverse economy offering greater chances for their economic survival. But that is not the case in backward economies such as ours. The landless class where many of us come from continue to operate as an economic unit where the little resources available to some members of the family continue to be shared to parents and siblings who are not so fortunate.

Another feature that is consistent among the stories shared by my students is their families’ fates, and consequently their own, were by and large determined by how they fared when it came to their fortunes in relation to land ownership.

All of them were from migrant families whose roots went as far as Ilocos and the Visayas which, upon probing, meant that they were eased out from their places of origins by landlessness as well. When their grandparents arrived in Mindanao, some, through various means, were able to acquire land from the lumads and the Maranaos. At present, the enterprising now have a foothold in local trade and politics.

But the rest of the stories revealed a common narrative that is the rule rather than the exception. A student told of his own father figuring in a violent land dispute versus powerful land-owning clans causing their family to move anew and settle in the city.

Another belonged to an indigenous tribe driven from place to place because of landlessness with the encroachment of multinational corporations into their ancestral domain. There is so much land but none, so it seems, for the landless migrant and the native lumad and Maranao.

This is the story of our rural and urban spaces as well. The economy that drives our urban centers is not industrial manufacturing. Here, there is a dearth of gainful employment that ensures that families are independent and economically viable from the previous generation like that of developed economies. Instead, what we have in our cities are trading hubs for agricultural products of the landed class and multinationals; as well as retail outlets for consumer goods for the growing urban population who descend from the uplands because of the push and pull forces of underdevelopment.

Meanwhile, our rural spaces remain as they were during the period of colonization. Under the control of the few, the land produces profit for only a few while driving away the many who seek their fate elsewhere, this time away from the elusive piece of land that they can never seem to call their own.

Like my students, they struggle to eke out a living by entering private enterprise, gain an education, or enter government bureaucracy still burdened by the economic weight of their parents and siblings. In a final masterstroke of this unjust social order, many are finally driven off this land by being forced to work abroad just to make their respective families survive.

Which is also the story of our own families, of Mindanao. And the story of the nation, for that matter. All of which are defined at the core by two related conditions – land ownership for a few and landlessness for the rest of us.

Published in the Sun.Star Cagayan de Oro newspaper on February 07, 2014.


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