(In which one dared to be different.)
When I see a barong-barong neighborhood in the heart of war-torn Manila;
When I behold beside the Pasig sudden lean-tos defended against sun and rain with salvaged sheets of tin;
When I take a truck ride through Suburbia and find nipa huts clustered within the shell-punched walls of former mansions of stone –
I do not look away in shame or throw up my hands despairing for my people.
I fill my chest with the bracing breeze of this my country and say:
Though my race has been pushed around in his own land for nearly half a thousand years,
Though my people have been double-crossed again and again by foreigners,
Though my race has been pitted against themselves down the centuries;
I joy to discover that they are whole and remained unbroken in spirit;
Building them makeshift huts of nipa and salvaged tin and standing straight with heads against the stars.
The poem was written shortly after the Liberation of Manila, (March 4, 1945) when bombed areas of the city were renewed by the sprouting of sorry-looking ensemble of rags, sacks, wood and tin comprising makeshift homes for struggling, impoverished Filipinos. The striking local color embodying a large percentage of the poem was the barong-barong, or makeshift shanties. This type of housing was commonly seen along riverbanks or under the bridges, put up by “squatters”, a rather offensive term for illegal settlers. This type of image isn’t a source of aesthetic inspiration for the general population. Instead, it is considered a ground for disapproval, disgust even, for dwellers and makers of such offense to beauty.
However, the poet Maximo Ramos described the poor and struggling side of Manila without contempt or ridicule. The verisimilitude of the depiction was executed for the sake of truthful presentation and nor of mockery.
In line number three, Ramos gave a glimpse of what used to be on the ground before the barong-barong was built. On that spot used to stand a mansion of stone, whose only remnants were fragments of walls. It shows, therefore, the effects of war to property and to the once-glorified beauty of a city. It creates an image of people in ragged clothes, rummaging the pile of materials in search for some still-useful pieces of scraps with which to build their shelter. It was indeed a pitiful thing. But Ramos saw it differently.
Out of expectation brought by the obvious negative connotation of the title, readers may be struck by Ramos’ audacity in saying that there is nothing pitiful in the sorry state of the barong-barong. Instead of feeling pity, he was filled with pride. This unordinary attitude was defended by the remaining lines of the poem. To provide evidence as regards to the strength of character of Filipinos living in these houses, Ramos cited the abuses his people experienced throughout history – the slavery and injustices of the Spanish conquerors, the treachery of foreigners as proved by the treachery of America and Spain during the Mock Battle of Manila and the Benevolent Assimilation, and the and division of Filipinos with other Filipinos due to differences and religious orientation as well personal interests.
Despite all these, Ramos pointed out that Filipinos remained whole in spirit, not giving up easily on life and its bitterness. Instead, Filipinos were strong enough to stand in the midst of a crisis and start from scratch,
The poem depicts a strong sense of nationalism, showing a positive regard for one’s fellowmen during times of great depression. However, although the image portrayed by the barong-barong in this poem was a symbol of strength and honor, it is just fair to think that Ramos didn’t celebrate poverty. The poem was a post-war literature. Therefore, the respect he manifested was driven by the admiration for people to continue living despite the heavy aftermath of the war. A complete application of the poem in the modern context may prove to be inappropriate due to the difference of setting.
One of the reasons why we take our hats off to poets is that they see things in a different light. More often than not, they see beautiful things in an object that would usually be ignored by the common eye. Maximo Ramos’ When I See a Barong-Barong was a defiant piece of literature in such a way that it challenges people to look at ugly things in their country and manage to see the beauty of their race as well as to rise up from the ashes and continue living.