On Nick Joaquin’s “Language of the Streets and Other Essays”

JoaquinAlthough Nick Joaquin is best known for his short stories and poems, his plays (“A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino”) and his novels (The Woman Who Had Two Navels), and above all his tropical-baroque prose, not a few of his admirers rank his essays among his finest, most representative work.

Far less self-consciously ornate, often written with an eye on the deadline and a finger on the mood and pulse of the moment, many of these essays appeared in the Philippines Free Press—in his twilight years, he would be editor of the Philippine Graphic—under the nom de plume Quijano de Manila, Quijano being an anagram of his surname.

Anvil has reissued four volumes of his most notable reportage—Reportage on Crime, Reportage on Lovers, Reportage on Politics, and Reportage on the Marcoses—along with two other books, A Question of Heroes and Culture and History, that demonstrate his range as cultural historian and critic (though no doubt Joaquin, who eschewed a career in academia, would have hated being labeled thus).

But of all the essays Joaquin has written, my favorites are the ones collected in the book called Language of the Street and Other Essays (1980). The abiding preoccupation of these pieces is ephemeral, protean, fickle fashion. Joaquin speaks of fashion trends and changing mores, evident in the ways Filipinos have used (and, in the case of Spanish, discarded) language; the way they eat, dress, and worship; the propensity of their politicians to change street names; the towns in which they made history and to which they invite tourists to travel; the “cines” they watch movies in, the schools the rich and influential send their scions to, the highlands missionaries traverse to bring the Word to; and the way they (mis)read—or don’t read at all—the novels by Jose Rizal that they are required to read since 1956.

The bulk of the essays first saw print in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Reading them now, fifty years later, is like encountering a trove of snapshots from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Things that we now take for granted were not always there from the beginning, and things we thought would be with us forever have now disappeared.

The street that my parents used to call Azcárraga is now Recto (just as the old Rosario in Binondo is now Quintin Paredes, and Buendía is now Gil Puyat), and not many will have remembered that Marcelo de Azcárraga was not only prime minister of Spain in 1897, when the Philippine Revolution against Spain was already under way, but a Filipino of Basque ancestry who was born and raised in Manila, even though Jose Rizal’s friend Ferdinand Blumentritt, to whom Azcárraga had written after Blumentritt published a defense of Rizal’s novel, Noli me tangere (1887), had only this to say about Azcárraga: “I did not know he is a Filipino, but it seems he is that only by birth.”

It is good to know that the word sipsip, meaning sycophant or brown-nosing, dated back to the Commonwealth era, and came to Tagalog via the Ilocano sipsip buto, as did siga-siga (tough, show-off, gangster), which now survives in truncated form. I remember a time when people dressed in their finery were called spooting, but pejorative terms for prostitute (jige), pimp (kuekong), peeper (bozo), and cuckold (torotot), despite their longevity in Joaquin’s time, have been replaced by other slang. Students no longer required by the state to learn Spanish may be surprised to learn that arbor (to dupe or ask someone for something with no intention of returning it) is just a syllabic inversion of the Spanish robar (to steal).

Barkada (a group of friends or members of a gang) goes back only to the 1950s, even though its usage recalls the precolonial concept of the barangay. Joaquin muses:

The Spanish word for gang is pandilla; but when we preferred to adapt  barkada, which means boatload, were we unconsciously moved by the memory of a time when being together in a boat made people not simply co-passengers but near-kinsmen, almost brothers, pledged to live and work together, to fight and die for each other? That was the idea of the barangay; and our young folk have expressed, in a Spanish word, an ancient Malay concept.

In another essay, Joaquin writes about Ernest Hemingway’s two brief visits to the Philippines, and leaves readers with a strong impression of Hemingway’s courtesy to fellow writers, and this bit of assessment and advice he gave to his starry-eyed writer-fans in the Philippines: “That you should write at all (and so well) in this intense heat makes your achievement truly marvelous. You should do all your important writing before six o’ clock in the morning.”

There are fashions, as well, in devotions, Joaquin tells us. San Nicolas had enjoyed the patronage of Manila’s Chinese. But not anymore. Altar tables at home used to be crowded with saints like San Rafael, who is depicted holding a fish; Santa Barbara, who clutches a tower with three windows; San Antonio, who is always accompanied by his pig; and Santa Lucia, who holds aloft a silver tray containing her two eye balls (complete with lashes, as Rizal describes her in the Noli). Not anymore either.

There was even a time when diplomats could not wear the baro (now called barong Tagalog, because the best baro were made in Bulacan), the formal Philippine wear, when they presented their credentials to Bangkok or Tokyo. Joaquin speculates on the origins of the baro, noting that Mexico’s Vera Cruz has a folk costume consisting of a white shirt with embroidered front, worn with a neckerchief: “Did the baro come to us from Mexico, or is it the other way around?” He insists, though, that the “Chinese” look of the collarless camisa, worn with loose pantaloons by Filipinos as housewear and by Mexicans in public as their peasant dress, points to the camisa’s origins in Manila.

But the essay that I love most, and read over and over, is “Fashions in Food.” Joaquin tells us that food habits and practices migrated between the city and the countryside, and ran up and down the ladder of socioeconomic class. Coffee, served in large bowls and mixed with dark-brown muscovado sugar (in addition to evaporated milk for city people), used to be “plebeian, the drink of servants and provincianos.” Middle- and upper-class Manileños always served hot chocolate, made from sugar-powdered cakes that were stored in jars and then boiled in milk and “beaten to a froth” in a chocolatera. But by the 1960s, it was the ordinary folk who made chocolate, and even then, the practice of making really good chocolate using the chocolatera was no longer so prevalent.

Joaquin goes into mouth-watering detail about the traditional breakfast. The paterfamilias liked carne asada (also Rizal’s favorite comfort food)—thinly sliced beef marinated in lime juice, cooked in soy sauce, and served rare, oozing pink juice, with calamansi halves. For children, there was already oatmeal in the 1920s, followed by the proverbial tapsilog—black tapa, fried eggs and sinangag (leftover rice fried in garlic and lard)—with longaniza de recado (spiced meat) or de jamón (pork) substituting for tapa. Once or twice a week, there was champorrado, sticky rice cooked in chocolate and drizzled with milk and sugar, paired always with dried tuyó, tinapá, or dilis.

In those days, there were different kinds of bread for different kinds of food. The flat, mushy pan gaseosa was toasted with emparedados, “flaked fish or ground meat sautéed with onions and crushed tomatoes,” while the sweet, plump pan de limón went well with habichuelas, “beans cooked with a ham bone, salted pork and lots of chorizo—so different in taste, being non-cloying, from the American pork and beans.” The pan de leche, ensaymada (still a favorite now), the white-bread pan americano, and the reddish-brown, bonnet-shaped pan bunete (which I still remember being sold in panaderia in old Santo Cristo and San Nicolas, where I grew up) all had their own places in the Filipino menu.

Lechon, now a national dish and a staple of Manila parties, was something one ate in the provinces. The menus for formal banquets of yore followed a standard, set form: “entremeces of ham, sardines, olives and pickles, a sopa de menudencias (or, very rarely, a consommé), and a fish loaf with white sauce. Then came the array of meat dishes: the morcón, the pastel (individual chicken and meat pies), the lengua, the galantina and the relleno. For dessert there was flan or cake (brazo de Mercedes) with ice-cream, followed by platters of turrón, yema, tocino del cielo, candied fruit peelings, and mazapán.” Menudo was a festive dish for the working class but ordinary fare for the wealthy, who were more than happy to serve Jello to their guests.

Joaquin attributes the Filipino “apathy to greens” to the fact that local vegetables tend to be of poor quality, a result, perhaps of poor infrastructure that inhibits quick delivery from the highlands:

During the debut days of the sandwich in the 1930s, hostesses, following the American custom, inserted a lettuce leaf in each sandwich; the guests, mystified by that wilted leaf in the bread, surreptitiously pulled it out and threw it away. The great Filipino horror of greens proved stronger than even the fear of starvation during the war years, when Manila mothers at the markets could be heard wailing in chorus that, even though there was nothing to eat, their children refused to eat gulay!

And until Max’s popularized the crispy-skin fried chicken, gravyless and accompanied by French-fried camote, in the postwar era, Filipinos “eked out” their chicken in broths and vegetables (tinola), with chunks of liver and pork (adobo), or rice and broth (pospas), or with stuffing (relleno). Barbecue made its first appearance in the suburban gardens of the 1950s before becoming street food, dipped in native vinegar and crushed garlic.

As this and other essays in Language of the Street show, the things we thought we knew are not always as they seem. Rizal’s Maria Clara is not some “prim, dull, lifeless and sexually repressed colegiala,” but a lively, precocious girl, capable of a “frank display of sexual rapture” and a steely resilience that enables her to defy her father and his matrimonial plans when she is parted from her first love, Ibarra.

This magic lantern of a book, with its vivid slide shows of Philippine fads and fashions, reveals the important role that the thoughts and actions of ordinary, anonymous Filipinos play in making and remaking Philippine history and society.

Note: This essay was originally published in “Letters to Narcissus”

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