My Uncle Pepo didn’t want to take us to the farm. It was too dangerous, he said, and he didn’t want me kidnapped on my first trip back to the Philippines in 22 years.
Our family had owned the farm since the end of World War II, when the US government granted the land to my great-grandfather for his service as a guerrilla fighter resisting the Japanese occupation. Uncle Pepo, my mother’s cousin, a dentist of modest means, was the farm’s de facto manager because he lived closer to it than anyone else in the family. From his home in Iligan City, a bustling industrial town on the northern tip of Mindanao, the southernmost island of the Philippines, the farm was less than an hour's drive up the mountains and into the jungle. Yet even Uncle Pepo hadn’t been there in years.
With eight major languages spoken across its 7,000-plus islands, the Philippines is a fragmented place, and even the dangers vary by region. On the northern island of Luzon, communist insurgents attack from base camps hidden in the mountains. In the Visayas, a cluster of touristic islands in the center of the country, military forces recently warded off an attempted terrorist attack by Abu Sayyaf, a jihadist group pledging allegiance to ISIS. In Mindanao, the threat comes from the Islamist rebel groups determined to form an independent state for the country’s Muslim minorities.
These rebels carry on a war that their ancestors had waged for centuries, resisting the Spanish colonizers who arrived in 1521 and the American occupiers of the early 20th century. In 1989, the Philippine government granted the rebels partial autonomy over a crescent of land along the eastern coast of Mindanao. Today, the region is a hub of militant activity. Communist guerrillas, Muslim separatist rebels, and jihadist terrorist groups have all made base in the area. The fighting got so bad this May that President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law over the entire island of Mindanao.
My Uncle Pepo and other locals consider the rebel-controlled land off-limits, and the area just outside its border a danger zone. Our farm sits 5 miles from that border.
In this danger zone, and even further into the island, the rebels sometimes ambush military forces on patrol and bomb electricity towers and churches. To raise funds, they kidnap — and my American-looking ass dripped with dollar signs.
“What they do is they kill the Filipinos to show they’re serious and hold the Westerners for ransom,” Uncle Pepo said to my mom and me, after we arrived in Iligan City in mid-April.
But my mom, stubborn as cement, thought her cousin had inflated the risk in his mind. She had visited the farm often when she was young; her mother managed it back then. My mom didn’t believe the tensions could have gotten so much worse in the years since. And, she asserted, this was our family’s land! Were we simply to abandon it now, because of political tensions that had existed for hundreds of years and would maybe exist for hundreds more? She was persuasive. This might be our last chance to see the farm, she told Uncle Pepo.
Our family was trying to sell it. The land yielded few crops, was barely profitable, and had become a burden. All but one of my mom’s seven siblings had moved to the US, and they had little interest in dealing with the responsibilities of a struggling farm an ocean away. Her cousins who remained in the Philippines, all busy with professional careers, wanted the farm off their hands too. It was only a matter of time before Uncle Pepo found a buyer.
“I should check on the farm anyway,” he conceded.
And so, on the 10th day of our two-week journey through the Philippines, we boarded a gray van with tinted windows and headed up the mountain.
“At least it’s safer now that Duterte is president,” Uncle Pepo said.
My mom nodded knowingly.
Uncle Pepo supports Rodrigo Duterte, of course. Most Filipinos do.
A year into his presidency, with nearly 8,000 extrajudicial killings linked to his war on drugs, polls showed that around 80% of Filipinos approved of Duterte — this authoritarian strongman executing criminals, cleaning out corruption, cursing like an uncle, joking about rape, reviled by the West yet beloved by his countrymen.
Over my two weeks in the Philippines in April, hitting more than a dozen big and small cities from the northern tip to the southern edge, I spoke to scores of people — vendors, farmers, professors, drivers, politicians, cops, writers, business owners, lawyers, dentists — and nearly all of them, even those who voted against him, said they believe that their president is making the country better.
I struggled to understand his popularity. From the start, I thought Duterte was a madman. Under his rule, the Philippines would revert to a police state, I feared, a return to curfews and crackdowns on all who opposed. Murder as official state policy. Hadn’t the country moved past this? It was only a generation ago that its people toppled a dictator, and now this new president would burn to ash the democratic freedoms established in the three decades since.
I assumed my family agreed with me. Our kin were on the front lines of the 1986 revolution, when the streets of Manila filled with protesters and dictator Ferdinand Marcos fled into exile, his 20-year rule ending without a shot fired. “People Power,” we called it, as homemaker-turned-heroine Cory Aquino stepped into the presidency, restoring order to the nation that had been the birthplace of modern democracy in Asia.
My mother raised me to despise Marcos. She and her seven siblings had grown up during his martial law years. Her uncle, Tomas Concepcion, was an activist and congressman who spoke out against the killings and torture committed by the Marcos regime. Her cousin, Joe Tale, worked as a legal aide for Cory’s cabinet as they worked to repair the economic devastation wrought by Marcos’s crony capitalism. Her aunt, Mary Concepcion, was an inaugural member of the committee assigned to track down the billions of dollars pilfered by the Marcos family. Her mother’s best friend was the sister of Senator Ramon Mitra, a political opponent of Marcos's jailed on phony charges. Her father, Manuel Concepcion, was a lawyer and entrepreneur whose career was stifled by his refusal to pay kickbacks to the Marcos government.
Our blood had been on the right side of history.
But somewhere over those three decades, we had drifted. I realized that one afternoon last June, eating chicharon and drinking San Miguel beer with four of my uncles on a patio in Vallejo, California. I was in town for a nephew’s baptism. The talk turned to Duterte, who had been elected president of the Philippines a month earlier; over that first month, already more than a thousand people had been killed in his drug war. Most of them were poor. Many were merely addicts. Some were innocent of even that.
All four of these uncles loved Duterte. My mother and two of my aunties, in the living room a few steps away, loved Duterte too. I couldn’t believe it. I decided, in that moment, that it was my responsibility to shift our family back toward righteousness. I dropped statistics on the rising death count and news reports on the human rights groups calling the president a mass murderer. I cited the commandment about not killing, the parents and children of the victims, the role our bloodline had played in defending the rule of law against authoritarian excess. I raised my voice, flailed my arms, stood from my chair. My uncles met my indignation with restraint and calm.
Our blood had been on the right side of history.
“Albert, you make good points,” one uncle said, “but you don’t understand.”
“What’s there to understand about extrajudicial killing?” I said. “The courts should determine guilt and punishment.”
“The courts are corrupt,” said another uncle. “The judges cannot be trusted.”
“Then the answer is to fix the courts,” I said. “To reform the system, not to go around it.”
“Albert,” said a third uncle, still calm, still sitting, still swirling the beer in his bottle like he had all the time in the world to hear me out. “You’re from America. It’s different here.”
“You don’t understand what it’s like in the Philippines,” said the fourth uncle.
They were right. I hadn’t been there since I was 6. My mom and I had lived in a condominium in Manila while she awaited her green card. My memories of the country were distant and random. I remembered a litter of kittens in a box in a yard; a Lego city sprawled across my bedroom’s hardwood floor; a birthday party at Jollibee's. And I remembered my family’s farm — banana trees, chickens, bamboo huts with no electricity or hot water. My mom and I spent two weeks there after my kindergarten school year in Manila ended.
Sitting with my uncles that June afternoon, I couldn’t have told you what city the farm was in, or even which island it was on. But that farm was the setting for my most vivid memories of the Philippines. In most of those memories, I was playing with a boy named Sargento. He was a few years older than me, and he climbed the tall, thin trunks of coconut trees, chopping down the fruit with a machete. He taught me to not touch my face after touching a butterfly. He laughed when I ran screaming from a spider. He rode with me on a carabao — and the photo of us small boys together on that big animal still hung on the wall of my mom’s house in San Francisco.
That summer, after those two weeks on the farm, my mom and I moved to the States. Over the years I often wondered what Sargento’s life was like — whether he was still on the farm, whether he had moved to the city, whether he had left the country, whether anything horrible had happened to him. On that afternoon in Vallejo last June, Sargento again popped into my mind: I wondered what he thought of Duterte.
Several beers down and I was back in my chair, voice calm, unsure about positions I had been certain of hours earlier. The rise of Duterte had caught me off guard, exposed my distance from a culture I claimed to have pride for.
“Duterte is just what the Philippines needs,” said my Uncle Joey, the oldest of my mom’s brothers. He went on about the president and the renewed hope he felt for the country, and he had so much faith in this tyrant that soon his eyes welled with tears.
It was then that I decided to go back to the Philippines. Nine months later, I landed in Manila.
On the third day of the trip, my mother and I sat in traffic on a bright day thick with smog and heat. I had invited her as translator and cultural guide. While I understood Tagalog fluently, I did not speak it. My mom never taught me, and I sometimes gave her a hard time about this. She reasoned that the language had no practical value in the Western world.
This was true. Even in the Philippines, everybody spoke English. Teachers lectured schoolchildren in English. Street signs and food menus were in English. Language options at ATMs were limited to “English” and “Taglish.”
But Tagalog was still the language of the people, the language Filipinos had preserved through 400 years of colonial rule. It was the language my mom and our taxi driver, Danilo, were speaking to each other while I was looking out the window at the traffic, and past the traffic, at the slums. These unpainted, precariously built, two-story cinderblock shacks sat just feet from the main road, a dense row of teetering shanties that seemed to go on for miles. Slums like this were all over the country, which is geographically smaller than California yet has a population that exceeds 100 million. In front of one roadside shack, a small child bathed in a plastic bucket. In front of another, a man killed a rat with a broomstick.
What is corruption but a bastard brother of the free market — a drive to get all you can get from all you have to offer?
These were not merely homes. Many residents had converted their bottom floors into stores, with snacks and cheap umbrellas hanging from their windows. Hustle is woven into the fabric of the Philippines, an intersection of developing-world desperation and American-inspired commerce. Vendors in slippers shuffled through the crawling traffic, carrying bags of straw hats and bottled water. Massive billboards, maybe 30 feet tall, looked down on us. Motorbikes with side carriages zipped paying riders through gaps in the traffic, their engines squealing. Fruit sellers waved down drivers, hawking mango and durian and papaya. Skyscrapers, many of them housing call centers that employ thousands of English-speaking Filipinos, loomed in the distance.
This hustle has its dark side. What is corruption but a bastard brother of the free market — a drive to get all you can get from all you have to offer? I overheard Danilo tell my mom that earlier that day a police officer had pulled him over for making an illegal turn. The officer told him the ticket would cost 2,000 pesos, which is about $40. But the cop offered an out: Danilo could simply hand over the payment and avoid the inconvenience of dealing with a ticket. Danilo told the cop he didn’t have that much cash on him. They negotiated until the officer agreed to 450 pesos. “It was all I had,” Danilo said, throwing his hands up in exasperation.
“That criminal cop!” Danilo exclaimed. He was worked up now. “I’m sorry, I keep thinking about it. If I had a camera I would have filmed him and sent it to President Duterte! He’d have that cop fired.”
My mom sucked her teeth and shook her head. “So corrupt!” she said to Danilo. Then she turned to me and whispered in English, “See, that’s why I left.”
My mother left the Philippines in 1983. She had been a flight attendant for Philippine Airlines, learned she could make more money with Saudia airlines, and moved to Riyadh.
During those years, many Filipinos were leaving for work in Saudi Arabia, Australia, Hong Kong, the US, and elsewhere. With the economy in decline and the job market shrinking in the 1970s, Marcos had signed agreements with other countries that opened opportunities for overseas work. This became a pillar of the Philippine economy, and by 2015 nearly 2 million Filipinos were working in other countries, sending back close to $30 billion in annual remittances, 10% of the gross domestic product.
On one of her flights in 1984, my mother met a Lebanese businessman: my father. They married in Las Vegas a year later and traveled the world together. After she got pregnant with me, she quit her job and went to Vallejo, where her sister lived, and in 1989 I was born. For the first few years of my life, my mom and I spent equal time at her condominium in Manila, her sister’s house in Vallejo, and my dad’s apartment in Paris, where his energy company was based.
My mom expected that we would build our lives in Paris, but that never happened. My dad’s family didn’t approve of her, and he never told his parents about their marriage — or me. So in 1995, she and I settled in San Francisco.
I’d see my dad about once a year, when business took him to California. My mom made efforts to keep me in touch with my Lebanese side; she learned to make labneh and manakish and insisted that I study French. But I always felt fully Filipino. I knew only my Filipino family, the cousins and uncles and aunties in the Bay Area with whom I spent holidays, played basketball, and watched cartoons and Super Bowls.
We bounced around Northern California, following the trail of affordable housing east to Sacramento, where I went to middle school and high school. Most of my friends were white, black, or Mexican, but inevitably there’d be a few Filipinos in my circle. We were drawn together by the magnet of shared culture, as if by better understanding one another we could forge a clear vision of our Filipino identity from the disjointed remnants our parents had left us, which we had cobbled into a genuine but superficial pride. We bragged about Filipino food. We dropped stray bits of Tagalog into our conversations. We convinced our white friends that we personally knew the Jabbawockeez. When Manny Pacquiao began his rise to stardom, we gathered at bars to wave Filipino flags and taunted our Mexican friends about our hero knocking out their heroes.
But we were a generation bred to assimilate, just as our parents had. They had not fled their homeland out of desperation, nor had they been brought here in chains. Our parents had left middle-class lives for the glittering promises of America, to become Americans — or rather their perception of what Americans were supposed to be.
Our parents had left middle-class lives for the glittering promises of America, to become Americans — or rather their perception of what Americans were supposed to be.
Filipinos are the fourth-biggest immigrant group in the US, but you’d hardly notice. All across the country there are Chinatowns, Koreatowns, Japantowns, visible enclaves of Jamaicans, Indians, Dominicans, Mexicans, Ethiopians, Egyptians, Puerto Ricans, Persians, Haitians, Russians, Vietnamese. Not us, though. This became a running joke in my circle of Filipino friends. We concluded that there were three kinds of Filipino-Americans — a theory I had learned at age 11 from a movie called The Debut, an indie flick starring Dante Basco that was my first experience of seeing multiple Filipinos on a screen. One of the film’s teenage characters, who listened to rock music and was embarrassed by the Filipino artifacts his parents displayed in their house, was teased for being a “coconut” (brown on the outside, white on the inside). Another character, a new immigrant who missed basic pop culture references and dropped his F's and Z's because of his thick accent, was dubbed a “fob” (fresh off the boat). A third character, who wore puffy jackets and used to have cornrows, was criticized for acting black. Where did I fall on the spectrum? Closest to the third one, I guess. I sometimes wore a du-rag in eighth grade, and my college dorm room was decorated with posters of Tupac, Ken Griffey Jr., and Muhammad Ali (though, to be fair, the latter was an image of Ali fighting in Manila).
One of the dominant genes of Filipino national identity, I have come to believe, is the ability to blend in. It’s a trait that I imagine developed out of necessity over centuries of imperial rule, and one that became especially valuable for the Filipino workers navigating distant lands and unfamiliar cultures. The cost was a diminished reverence for the homeland. As far back as the late 19th century, José Rizal, the national hero whose writings helped inspire the revolution against Spain, had called for a stronger sense of national unity. Without that collective pride, he argued, a people would struggle to break the colonial yoke and build their own nation. Yet even he recognized the irony of his message: He wrote mostly in Spanish, the language of the elites, which the majority of Filipinos could not read.
But what can be done about it now? We embraced our colonizers, shaped our culture and our government in their image, landed on their soil so babies like me could be gifted this promised land as birthright.
Well, not all embraced the colonizers. In Mindanao, the resistance continued. The night before we went to the farm, a bomb exploded at an electricity tower 100 miles away, killing three police officers.
The morning we left for the farm, the island was on red alert and traffic clogged the mountain road. Ahead of us, a long line of vehicles snaked toward the military checkpoint, where guards with machine guns peeked into windows and trunks.
Tensions had been thick all over the Philippines in recent days. Government agencies reported terrorism threats. Security guards checked underneath cars at parking garages in Manila. Masked police forces patrolled mall parking lots. The US issued a travel advisory discouraging people from visiting the country. At a hotel in Cebu City, the biggest city in the Visayas, staff called the police to report that 10 men from Mindanao were checking in. A SWAT team arrived, only to discover that the men were actually just government workers in town for business.
Worry was running especially high in Iligan City. A local waterfall, normally a big tourist attraction, was closed to the public because it powers the hydroelectric plant that keeps the lights on for much of Mindanao — making it a conspicuous target for potential rebel attacks. “SORRY WE ARE ON RED ALERT STATUS,” read a big sign at the gate.
We rolled slowly to the checkpoint. Because we were headed south, out of the city and toward rebel-controlled land, the guards on the road took only a passing glance before waving us through. Across the road, the northbound lanes were at a standstill.
The barricades behind us, traffic cleared and our bulky van chugged up the mountain past thickets of coconut trees and banana groves and wooden shacks. Pepo and our driver, his friend Clelan, seemed on edge, sitting stiffly and silently in their seats at the front. My mom’s mood was lighter.
“Will I look like too much of a tourist if I wear this hat?” she asked Uncle Pepo in Tagalog, trying on a straw hat she'd bought at a market.
“No, you’ll be fine,” Uncle Pepo said. “There won’t be many people around once we’re on the farm.”
“OK, good,” my mom said, before adding with a chuckle, “I don’t want it to get us kidnapped.”
Nobody else laughed.
Fifteen minutes after we left the checkpoint, Uncle Pepo told Clelan to pull over.
“This is where our land begins,” he said.
There was no marker indicating that this portion of land was any different from all the other land we had driven past. Just another thicket of coconut palms and banana groves along the highway. A wooden shack sat under the shade of fat leaves. In front, almost acting like a makeshift fence, damp clothes hung from a rope tied between two trees.
I felt a rush of excitement, but by the sullen look on Uncle Pepo’s face, I could tell he felt differently. I’d barely cracked open the door when Uncle Pepo said, “Stay inside the van.” This was not yet the farm, he said. That was still further up the mountain. This was just the edge of our land. He pointed to the shack, where an old woman sat on the porch and a teenage boy stood beside her, and said, “They’re not supposed to be here.”
I felt for those squatters. In a country with astounding economic inequality, and with very limited resources for the have-nots, you scratch for everything in reach. And if you find a patch of unoccupied roadside land, with trees bearing fruit you can sell, you jump on it and build a home.
Several of my relatives in the Philippines told me that this mindset is more like a guiding principle — an ethos of taking all you can get away with. People might complain about squatter camps popping up near their neighborhood and politicians skimming off the top, but they have little faith that the rules of engagement will ever change — so what else can you do but play along?
The way I began to understand it, these were not acts of deception, but of tacit understanding, an ongoing state of negotiation beneath the surface of Filipino society. I saw it most clearly every time we drove through chaotic streets crowded with buses and cars and motorcycles. Lanes were meaningless, every inch of space an opportunity for advancement. Drivers zigged and zagged, hustling, but when you cut somebody off, you warned them with a quick honk-honk and they acknowledged you with a honk-honk reply that seemed to recognize that it’s all part of the game. There was none of the shouting and steering-wheel slamming so common in America. There was no pretense of courtesy on these roads, no expectation that everybody else would follow the official rules.
My family is an Aquino family. Ninoy Aquino is our hero.
It is not so much a selfish mindset as a team-first mindset. People look out for themselves and take care of their own. More than anything else, the Philippines is a collection of family units jockeying for power and wealth at every level of the class hierarchy, from the impoverished strivers to the oligarchs. At the top, you see the same last names running for office now that your grandparents saw decades ago. The three top vote-getters of the 2016 presidential election each had politician fathers.
At a dinner at his home, Felipe Antonio Remollo, the mayor of Dumaguete City in the Visayas, whose father and grandfather were also mayors, told me that politics is the “national sport.” Indeed, Filipinos follow the game as they would basketball, well-versed in the names of the players, loyal to the dynasties of their region, antagonistic to their rivals. The biggest rivalry is still Aquino versus Marcos. It persists to this day: Cory’s son, Noynoy, was president before Duterte, and last year Ferdinand’s son, Bong Bong, was runner-up for vice president (which Filipinos vote on separately from president).
My family is an Aquino family. Ninoy Aquino is our hero. The leader of the resistance against Marcos, he was imprisoned for eight years and then exiled to Boston. He returned in 1983 and was shot dead seconds after stepping off the plane. The images of his body lying on the tarmac shocked the world and pushed the revolution into a higher gear. His widow Cory’s ascension to Malacañang Palace — the White House of the Philippines — three years later was etched into my mind in stark moral terms: Good had finally defeated evil.
So, shortly after we’d arrived in the country, when a relative heard that my mom and I were planning to visit Marcos’s hometown on the fourth day of our trip, he was sure to remind us: “Don’t say anything bad about Marcos when you’re in Ilocos.”
In Ilocos Norte, an isolated region at the northern tip of the country, boxed in between a wall of mountains and open ocean, they love Marcos as much as we hate him. My hate is rooted in historical knowledge, based on stories I’ve heard and books I’ve read. My mom’s is personal. To this day she blames Marcos for our family’s inability to climb the country’s ladder of power.
I worried she’d let her tongue slip and talk some shit. She often spoke of the Marcos years with disgust — the abuses of power, the cold indifference to the plight of Filipinos, the immorality of it all. A church-every-morning Catholic, she sees the world in black and white, and the expression on her face often speaks for her.
But in Ilocos, she kept her wits. We hired a local guide we met at the airport, Ray, to take us around the region. His thoughts mirrored that of every Ilocano we spoke to that day: Marcos was a great leader who was ultimately betrayed by his generals. When we approached Laoag City, the capital of the region, Ray pointed out that we were crossing the bridge that Marcos had built in 1969. “He took care of us,” Ray said.
The Marcos name remains pristine in Ilocos Norte, and the family still runs these streets. The infamously extravagant former first lady Imelda Marcos — whom Ray referred to as “Madame Imelda” — is a member of Congress. Their son, the aforementioned Bong Bong, was a senator and will likely run for president once Duterte’s six-year term is up. Their daughter, Imee, is governor of the region.
The Marcos name remains pristine in Ilocos Norte, and the family still runs these streets.
So highly revered is Ferdinand that the region boasts three museums dedicated to his life, which we visited under a spell of grotesque curiosity. His mother’s old home, where he was born, is a shrine to the humble countryside beginnings of the first Ilocano president. His father’s old home, where he grew up, honors his meteoric rise from the top of his law school class to the halls of government, where he became the youngest member of Congress in Philippine history. The lakeside mansion constructed during the height of his power, nicknamed “Malacañang of the North,” showcases the highlights of his reign: modernizing infrastructure, luring international investors, and bringing the Philippines to the world stage with his savvy diplomacy. On a wall, in big letters, is a quote from his first inaugural address in 1965: “We shall make this nation great again.”
Marcos understood the West well and saw opportunity in the American disaster unfolding in Vietnam. He positioned the Philippines as a bulwark of democracy in the East, a defender of American interests, home to three major American military bases. He used the threat of communism to justify ordering martial law a year before his final term as president was set to end. Four US presidents pumped billions of dollars in economic and military aid into the Philippines during the 14 years of martial law. Much of that money went to Marcos’s family and allies, and over the course of his 20-year rule the Philippines tumbled from the second-strongest economy in Asia to one of the poorest.
The museums mostly displayed a collection of carefully selected truths. As we wandered through the exhibits, my mom playfully questioned the museum tour guides, feigning ignorance, shooting me wry smiles when they answered with canned lines of propaganda. “How can they believe all this?” she whispered to me.
It was all laughs until we got to the exhibit about Marcos’s war medals. The placard on the wall, and the tour guide before us, said that Marcos had been the most decorated soldier in the nation’s history, with more than two dozen World War II medals to his name. This lie had been a staple of the Marcos biography until journalists checked the records in the 1980s and discovered that he had actually been awarded zero medals during the war. And yet there they were, lined up on a wall behind glass casing. My mom was incensed.
She furiously took photos, determined to capture evidence of this injustice. She began interrogating the guide, attempting to hide her anger beneath a fake sheen of awe.
He really won all these medals? Where did these medals come from? How do you know he won all these medals? Did they tell you he won these medals?
Her cover was slipping. The museum guide, a skinny college kid working this part-time job for some side money, stuttered something about how there was “controversy” over the medals, and before the exchange could spin out of control I jumped in with a softball question to change the subject.
My mom was still fuming after we left the museum.
“That is not right!” she said. “How can they spread these lies? Why doesn’t anybody correct this? How can they do this? These Marcoses are so shameless!”
And suddenly she was back in 1972 and the years that followed. When police officers cut the hair of men who’d illegally grown it to their shoulders. When you had to be home before midnight — or at least at a party you could stay at until sunrise. When journalists and activists vanished, rumors of torture and death whispered in their wake. When newspapers and television stations were shut down, and nothing was reported that the state didn't want seen. In those years, fear soaked through the country like rising floodwater, carrying with it a choice that floated at the knees of every Filipino: to submit or to suffer.
In 1972, my mother’s family lived in a big house on Scout Reyes Street in Quezon City, a booming suburb of Manila. They’d bought the home, the first one built in a sprawling subdivision, a few years earlier. Raised and educated in Mindanao, my mother’s parents were of the postwar generation of new money flowing into the fast-growing, increasingly cosmopolitan metro area — from 1940 to 1960, Manila’s population nearly doubled to 1.1 million.
My grandfather traced his family’s lineage to a sultan who ruled the land around the city of Marawi in northern Mindanao. During the 1800s, the island’s inhabitants were nearly all Muslim, fighting off Spanish armies and friars who had brought Christianity to the rest of the country.
The sultan had a daughter, Princess Bato Bato, my great-great-grandmother. One day in the late 1800s, a Spanish soldier named Juan Fernandez arrived in the city and married Princess Bato Bato. She converted to Catholicism. By the time my grandfather was born, the Americans had taken over. He grew up on an Army base in Marawi, where his father was postal commissioner.
He met my grandmother, Rizalina, in school there. Her father had come to Marawi for a job as a police officer for the US forces overseeing the island, battling the Muslim rebels. His family line had originated in southern Luzon. His grandfather was a brother-in-law of Andrés Bonifacio, leader of the rebellion against the Spanish. The revolution was ultimately successful — the Philippines became the first Asian country to topple its colonial rulers, declaring independence in 1898, a short-lived freedom that did not survive the American conquest. But Bonifacio did not live to see even that freedom. He was killed in 1897 by a rival revolutionary faction. His death sent his family, all allies in his cause, on the run. They changed their names and dispersed across the country. His brother-in-law — my great-great-grandfather — ended up in the Visayas, which is where my grandmother’s father lived before coming to Marawi.
As history would have it, the descendants of the sultan and the revolutionary went to a school with an American flag fluttering out front. The curriculum cultivated a deep interest in the West. While the Spanish had sought to control the colony with force and religion, the Americans preferred indoctrination through education, culture, and the allure of capitalism — seeds that would bloom years later in households where parents raised my mother’s generation to see the United States as the finish line.
After the war, my grandparents, college-educated and taught to aspire to leather-shoe careers, left for Manila. My grandfather specialized in civil law, and my grandmother was an accountant, hired to work at the country’s Central Bank, which was headed by the father of her best friend, Baby. My grandparents made good money and had eight children. The big house on Scout Reyes was a social center, buzzing with everybody's friends, several maids on hand to feed them.
As history would have it, the descendants of the sultan and the revolutionary went to a school with an American flag fluttering out front.
My mom was 12 when Marcos declared martial law in 1972. She saw over the next few years that the lives of her parents were changing. After the Marcos government replaced Baby’s father at the Central Bank with an ally and then arrested Baby’s brother, a senator, for his political opposition, she and Baby quit their jobs in protest. They opened a clothing store that limped along through the increasingly monopolized economy.
My grandfather’s law practice ran into a blockade of corruption. Money did not always guarantee that a judge would rule in your favor, but the court filings submitted with an envelope of cash were slid to the top of the docket, ensuring indefinite gridlock for the rest. Having mostly represented poor clients, my grandfather made his living through commission from monetary verdicts, which slowed to a trickle. He refused to pay the bribes.
He tried to start various business, but a business permit also required a bribe. So he turned to ship salvaging, investing his savings in boats and equipment he needed to prowl for sunken vessels to sell. The family’s money dwindled. My grandparents had sent their older children to the most expensive, elite private schools in Manila. But there was not enough to fund the same education for their younger kids.
They transferred my mother midway through high school. Later, she dropped out of dental college because her parents could no longer afford the tuition. They sent her three younger brothers to live with an aunt and uncle in Dumaguete City, where education was cheaper and they wouldn't be exposed to the stress and bitterness that now filled the big house on Scout Reyes.
At least one of my uncles resented his father for his stubborn righteousness: He had put principle before family and they all suffered for it. When I brought this up with my mother, she turned angry and adamant. “Your grandfather was a man of integrity,” she said. “I’m so proud that he never gave in.”
The knockout blow came not from Marcos, but from the only force more powerful than him in the Philippines. During an expedition at sea, my grandfather pulled in a massive sunken ship, a huge score. On the way back to land, a storm hit and wiped him out. As if by act of God, he lost everything. Shortly after that, sheriff’s deputies evicted our family from the big house on Scout Reyes, repossessing it and everything inside.
My grandfather moved back to Mindanao, to the northern city of Cagayan de Oro, where he focused his energies on hunting for the hidden treasures rumored to have been buried by Japanese generals fleeing the country at the end of the war. He paid the bills, barely, by representing poor farmers in land dispute cases. My grandmother began spending more time in San Francisco, where my grandfather’s sister lived.
The 1986 revolution came and went, and the struggles persisted. The courts remained corrupt, and my grandfather’s cases stalled. Most of his clients were tenant farmers who had been granted land through an agrarian reform program intended to redistribute the country’s stratified wealth, one of Cory Aquino’s first big policy initiatives in 1987. But the law was filled with loopholes and weakly enforced. Many landowners refused to abide not just out of greed but principle: After all, Cory’s family, old-money oligarchs who owned a massive sugar plantation in central Luzon, had been able to keep their holdings intact.
My grandparents died with barely a peso to pass down. The only meaningful possession to their names was the farm.
As my grandparents clawed through the final years of martial law in the ’80s, their children began their exodus. My Uncle Joey went to Australia. Six of his siblings ended up in California. The only one who stayed was my Uncle Paul, whom we visited on the eighth day of our trip.
Paul had been the brightest among his siblings, they all said, the one with the best grades and the sharpest wit. As a kid, I often overheard my mom and aunts talking about him. They recalled how he got perfect scores on tests he never studied for. They discussed how to bring him to America. They debated how much money to send him. In their voices, I sensed guilt: They had left him behind.
As a young man, Paul had become addicted to shabu — Filipino meth — and ruined his life. The drug ravaged communities across the country after arriving from mainland Asia in the 1980s. Filipinos talk about the drug’s impact the way Americans talk about the crack epidemic; every one of my uncles had stories of friends lost to shabu. Most Filipinos blame widespread use for the high crime rate — the addicts who robbed, the meth-fueled aggression that sparked murders and rapes, the politicians who protected the powerful drug lords funding their campaigns.
Uncle Paul is clean now. He lives in a small nipa hut in a remote bed-and-breakfast my mom’s cousin, Earl, owns in the dense jungle outside Dumaguete City. My mom and her siblings pool money to cover his living expenses and medication.
Uncle Paul was standing on the side of the dirt road, waiting for us, when we pulled in. He held a mug of black coffee and was dressed in a crisp blue button-up shirt and pressed black slacks. He wore nonprescription glasses with a Batman logo on the side. We hadn’t seen him in more than 20 years.
As a young man, Paul had become addicted to shabu — Filipino meth — and ruined his life.
My mom greeted him with a long, loud, warm “Hiii Paaauuul!” but Uncle Paul could muster only a soft “Hi.” From the decades of shabu and the pills he now took to keep his mind calm, he was a faint echo of whatever he had once been. Sitting in his small hut, beneath a thatched roof covered in spiderwebs, I asked him many questions, just small talk and family gossip, and he answered them with short, simple sentences. It was like talking to a well-behaved but bashful child. Yet below his numb demeanor I sensed a warmth stirring, bits of his old humanity piercing the surface. He asked me only one question that afternoon: He asked me how my father was doing.
My mom brought up some of their old neighbors on Scout Reyes. She grasped for their names, which Paul recited quickly and surely, as if they were lyrics to a favorite song. Many of those old friends had also fallen into addiction. Nearly all of them were now dead.
“How lucky we are to still be alive,” my mom said, and Paul smiled slightly and nodded.
We took him to Jollibee's, where we ate fried chicken and spaghetti. Afterward, we went to a mall and my mom bought him a T-shirt. He picked one that said “Brooklyn” across the front. When I asked him why, he said he liked the design.
Then we dropped him off, said goodbye, and drove away. The next morning, we flew to Iligan City to visit the farm. When we came to the squatters’ shack, I thought about something my mom had said after we left Uncle Paul. “Thank God he has a place to stay,” she said. “At least he has a home.”
There wasn’t much Pepo could do about the squatters. He told them they had to leave and offered advice on where they could move to, but he knew they were unlikely to give in. They had a far greater stake in the land than our family did.
We continued up the mountain until we reached another wooden shack, this one bigger than the last. It was a small general store whose tin roof connected to a small cinderblock house in the back. A family of tenant farmers who worked on our land lived here, Pepo said. The plan was to wait for the head tenant farmer, from another family, who would lead us to the heart of the farmland, which was still further up the mountain, through dirt roads that cut deeper into the jungle, across land that didn’t belong to us — land where a local face was necessary for safe passage.
When we got out of the car, we were greeted by three barefoot women in headscarves. One offered us a tray of Coca-Colas and chips from the store. Another brought us plastic chairs, which she placed in a narrow dirt alley between the store and the house. The third woman was much older, their mother, and she sat, hands folded in her lap, beside the doorway of the home. The day was sunny with a cool breeze to take the edge off the heat, and from the shade of the alley I could see inside the house, which was dark and sparsely furnished.
The women said they had known our family for many years. When their family first began working on the land, they were the only Muslims for miles. Now, perhaps more than half of the families living on this part of the mountain were Muslim. Most, if not all, had sought to escape the tensions roiling further south, where jobs were limited and young men were joining the rebels not for ideology but for stable employment.
The head tenant farmer, Felix, arrived a few minutes later. A short fiftysomething man with a weathered face and a firm handshake, he teased us that of all the days to visit, we had visited on a red alert day. We thanked the three women and turned back to the van, where Clelan had waited with the engine running.
A few feet behind the van, two hard-faced young men sat on a motorcycle, watching us. I did a double take and when I looked again, I saw that the young man in the front of the motorcycle was watching not us, but me specifically. He wore a white shirt, black shorts, a black hat, and when he turned on his engine, he pulled a black scarf over the bottom half of his face. I quickly looked away and got into the van. Felix hopped in next to me.
A few feet behind the van, two hard-faced young men sat on a motorcycle, watching us.
Uncle Pepo waved to the young men. He said they were there to escort us to the farm. The motorcycle took off and we followed.
The young men made me nervous. I kept thinking about that guy in the white shirt and his intense, deliberate stare. I wondered if it was a look of resentment — at this young American in his bright green polo shirt, eager for a taste of the authentic Filipino jungle experience, fancy phone filled with photos of slums and banana trees, stories of adventure to share with his affluent friends over $40 bottomless mimosa brunches in New York City, so brave to have ventured through exotic dangers, so cultured to have spent such time in the far reaches of an underdeveloped nation.
Insecurity and self-consciousness do a lot to the brain, and that’s the excuse I’m using to explain why, as we drove farther up the mountain, I wondered, fleetingly, if these young men on the motorcycle planned to kidnap me. They were strangers to me, after all, leading us through remote roads that twisted deeper into the jungle. This was their land and I was at their mercy and people are capable of wild things when they’re desperate.
There was poverty all around us. There had been poverty all around us every day of our trip, juxtaposed against the gleaming skyscrapers and crowded malls and pristine beaches and wondrous mountain vistas and unending natural beauties that dominate every square mile of the Philippines. Over the course of those two weeks on the island, I drew closer and closer to the realization that the 1986 revolution had been a failure. It had not been a revolution to upend the social order, but a revolution to return the gears of power to the oligarchs who had felt cheated and helpless during the Marcos dictatorship.
Even my relatives who had fought for the revolution and worked in the administration that followed acknowledged this. “Everybody was euphoric,” said my Uncle Joe Tale, who worked as an attorney for Cory’s cabinet. Once they had finally defeated Marcos, they seemed to assume that progress was inevitable. But they had no vision for the country beyond ending the dictatorship. “We weren’t thinking about the business of government.”
This failure explained why, even outside of Ilocos, Marcos was not the universally despised figure I had assumed he would be. The dictator’s remains were recently moved to the Heroes’ Cemetery, to lie alongside the bodies of soldiers and dignitaries — a decision approved by the country’s Supreme Court, despite protests. It was in this climate that Bong Bong, Ferdinand’s son, ran for vice president, falling less than 300,000 votes short of victory. He filed papers for a recount. There was a real chance that he might win the appeal and become second-in-command to a 71-year-old president with questionable health and threats of assassination against him. At dinner with Dumaguete City’s Mayor Remollo, I had asked, “So we could be pretty close to another Marcos presidency?”
And the mayor replied, “I don’t think that would be such a bad thing.”
He added, to my surprise, that he still believed Marcos was the nation’s greatest president.
“Sure, he had 20 years to do it, but he accomplished far more than anyone else,” he said. “In the Philippines, we need a benevolent dictator.”
Of the four presidents between Cory Aquino and Rodrigo Duterte, two have been prosecuted on charges of corruption; one of them was impeached.
Thirty years of liberal democracy, he pointed out, had not fixed the country’s deep-rooted problems. And while I disagreed with his assessment of Marcos, I had seen no reason to think that the progress since 1986 had been anything more than incremental.
Of the four presidents between Cory Aquino and Rodrigo Duterte, two have been prosecuted on charges of corruption; one of them was impeached. Over those years, there have been promises of spreading resources outside of Manila and the handful of other urban centers, bolstering the agricultural sector, developing the strained farmland that covers much of the country. Instead, the farmland has continued to deteriorate, lacking irrigation systems and paved roads — which all helps explain why a country with so many farmers remains the world’s biggest importer of rice.
Uncle Pepo understood this reality well. The conditions of our family farm made it unappealing to potential buyers. There was its proximity to conflict, of course, but perhaps just as troubling, there was no way to get to the crops by car. A narrow dirt path, accessible on foot or motorcycle, was the sole artery to the main road 2 miles away — an imposing obstacle to anyone hoping to boost the farm’s profitability with modern equipment. Building a road was a nonstarter without government support: The path crossed land that did not belong to us. So our farm remained in the past, tilled and picked by hand.
The young man in the white shirt driving the motorcycle turned up the dirt path and stopped at the top of a hill. He hopped off, and his partner accelerated ahead toward the farm. Clelan parked our van on the shoulder and we stepped out, onto the dirt path. The young man walked down the hill. I saw that he was still eyeing me. He walked toward my mother, glancing at me every few steps.
“Is that Albert?” he said to her.
“Yes,” she replied.
Sargento had worked on the farm all his life. By the time he was 10, he had mastered the harrowing craft of shimmying up coconut trees, machete in one hand, bare feet gripping the rough trunk, 20 or 30 feet high in the air, knowing just how to drop the fruit so it did not crack and splatter all over the grass.
He was born into a family of tenant farmers who lived on our land, but our farm didn’t make them much money. They worked the field hard, the three oldest brothers plowing and harvesting, their sister tending to the chickens, goats, pigs, and carabao.
His father, Felix, was well-respected in the area and my grandmother’s most trusted worker. She gave the family extra pay when tough times came and taught Sargento how to read. When he was 9, she encouraged his parents to send him to school. Soon Sargento dreamed of leaving the farm, and my grandmother promised him that if he graduated high school, she would pay for the vocational school he hoped to attend. Sargento wanted to become a mechanic and travel the world, working in the US or Hong Kong or Saudi Arabia, sending back money to his family.
Then, in 2010, when Sargento was 24 and two years away from getting his high school diploma, my grandmother died. He left school. He found a second job, enlisting with a private army tasked with guarding the electricity towers from rebel and terrorist attacks. They trained for 45 days before going into combat. Firefights broke out every few weeks. In 2016, 17 towers in Mindanao were bombed. Sargento would work 15 days on duty, then get 15 days off. He made 4,500 pesos, about $90, each monthlong cycle.
By now he had a wife and two kids, a 10-year-old and a toddler. The army salary was barely enough to provide for them, and certainly not enough to support his parents and siblings. On his 15 days off, he worked on the farm, and during one of those mornings, his father told him that my grandmother’s daughter Lucy — my mother — was visiting. He remembered my mother, and when he saw the young man next to her, he wondered if this was the same boy he had ridden carabaos with 22 years ago. He stared hard, trying to match the face before him with the murky image in his memory. He made eye contact, looking for any sign of recognition.
“Is that Albert?”
My heart damn near burst through my ribcage. My eyes bugged out and my mouth opened wide. Sargento, sensing that I indeed remembered him, smiled. We hugged. Even as we began walking up the trail, we kept patting each other on the back.
On either side of us, fields of 40-foot coconut trees seemed to stretch into eternity; it felt like we were ants crawling through tall grass.
On either side of us, fields of 40-foot coconut trees seemed to stretch into eternity; it felt like we were ants crawling through tall grass. Sargento and I caught up as we walked far ahead of the rest of the group. After maybe 40 minutes we came to a barren dirt patch. This, Sargento said, was where my grandmother’s farm started.
We cut through a thick grove of banana trees, past the pigs feeding in a tub of slop, and came to a wooden shack with an aluminum roof. It was Sargento’s family’s house. Out front, in a dirt yard encircled by a rickety fence, chickens bumbled around and roosters crowed, their legs leashed to fence posts so they didn’t fight each other.
The vast expanse of the farm surrounded us — the banana grove on the left, the durian trees beyond it, the empty corn fields across the center, the giant coconut trees to the right in the grassy fields where the livestock grazed. Sargento pointed to a patch of yellow grass near where the corn grew.
“You used to run around there,” he said.
As he showed me around the farm, he recalled the same stories I remembered. He asked me if I still liked coconuts, and when I said I did, he climbed the tree just as he had for me long ago. He climbed to the top easily, casually, within seconds, then twisted the coconut off the branch with one hand while his other wrapped around the trunk. I ate at least eight or nine coconuts that afternoon, drinking the juice from the hole he sliced into the top with his machete, scooping the meat with a chunk of husk he’d carved off.
I asked him about Duterte, and he said he liked him, but we didn’t talk politics beyond that. There was too much else to discuss. He still hoped to leave the farm. The money was much better overseas.
“I don’t want to be a farmer forever,” he said, as we trudged through the soft dirt along the cornfield. “I want to make my family comfortable.”
He planned to go back and finish high school, he said, but he worried about taking time away from working the farm, which would put more strain on his parents and siblings. And anyway, he didn't make enough money to save for vocational school, which he believed he needed in order to get a job overseas. He felt stuck. He had been stuck for years.
After a few hours, it was time to leave. We walked back down the trail slowly, savoring the moment. As we neared the road, he mentioned that he’d felt a heightened responsibility to take care of his family after what happened to his older brother.
Two years ago, his older brother was killed by thieves who stole his motorcycle. There was no use going to the police, he said. Nobody trusted the police. This part of Mindanao adhered to old traditions of justice. His father, Felix, went around the area, talking to people until he learned the names of the three men involved in the murder. He went to the families of the men. Two of the families apologized and offered cash in compensation. A local politician oversaw the settlement. The third suspect, the one whose family did not join the negotiation, was soon found dead, fatally shot. The identity of the gunman is no secret around the area, but I won’t be the one to say it out loud.
Sacrifice, I think, is the virtue most respected in the Philippines. In the years leading up to the revolution against Spain in the 1890s, José Rizal believed so deeply in the power of sacrifice that when he returned to the country after years living in Europe, certain he would face execution, he wrote a letter to a friend, with orders that it be opened only after his death. The letter explained that his death was necessary to spark the uprising, which it did, just as Ninoy Aquino’s did for the revolution that came in 1986. These days, overseas workers are extolled for their willingness to provide for families they almost never see. And Duterte supporters sometimes note that even if they don’t condone the drug killings, they see the rising death toll as a necessary antidote to poison that has long corrupted the nation, calcifying in its bones.
I can only assume that the Filipino reverence for sacrifice is rooted in the Catholicism so many of us were raised with, faith that carried the country’s people through centuries of oppression and poverty. Blessed are those who suffer.
The Spanish left a deep mark on our people. By the time they relinquished their colony, more than 85% of Filipinos were Catholic. Good Friday was the most sacred day in my home growing up. From noon to 3, the hours Jesus hung on the cross, my mom didn't let me watch TV or read anything other than the Bible. Even now, with me off in my adult life, my mom is sure to text at noon every Good Friday to check that I am properly honoring the moment.
Yet over their three centuries in power, the Spanish colonial masters barely made a dent into Mindanao. The farther south they went, the more resistance they found. It was not until 1848, more than 300 years after Magellan landed on the islands, that the Spanish finally conquered the Davao region on the southern tip of the country. The people of Davao take great pride in this fact — so much so that in the 1960s, officials of the region’s biggest city, Davao City, named its highest civic honor after Datu Bato, the Muslim warrior who led the fight against the Spanish.
Rodrigo Duterte, a Davao native, the first president from Mindanao, seemed to embody this spirit of resistance. Unlike the populism sweeping through the West, his truly seemed a populism of the oppressed, a rejection of ancient hierarchies rather than a return to them. In a country whose rulers have, without exception, aimed to appease and impress the US, Duterte has detached from the West. In a county so devoutly Catholic, Duterte, himself a Catholic, has accused the church of being “full of shit.” In a country where the rules of political engagement encourage corruption, Duterte has threatened to kill crooked officials.
Trust me, Duterte tells his people, and hold on for the ride. And so the people have placed their faith in a demagogue.
Less than a year into the president’s term, several business owners told me they were no longer paying the bribes that were once customary. One frequent traveler said he stopped worrying about extortion by customs agents, who have long held a reputation as the most reliably corrupt slice of government. I lost count of all the Filipinos who told me that they saw fewer drug dealers in the streets and felt safer walking outside at night.
It is change built on fear — and powered by force of will rather than reform of laws. But in a country where people don't trust their institutions, where the law's grip is loose and shaky, where the legal system has been used to hide corruption, justify authoritarianism, silence the press, and jail dissidents — in a place like that, who better to turn to than a man who goes out and says what so many have been thinking for years: Fuck your laws. Trust me, Duterte tells his people, and hold on for the ride. And so the people have placed their faith in a demagogue.
They trust him not because he is righteous, but because he resists the old order. Perhaps they are wrong to do so. Already, Duterte has admitted that his drug war spiraled out of control, giving cover to rogue cops, vigilantes, and drug lords who kill to further not public safety but their own interests, targeting rivals and enemies. Already, the president has announced that he is considering expanding martial law from Mindanao to the whole country — but who even needs nationwide martial law when you have the mandate of overwhelming public support? This is the most troubling aspect of Duterte’s rise, the way he has reached this popularity even while openly undermining democratic principles. But the more desperate a people, the more they are willing to sacrifice. What Filipinos crave is not an executive but a savior.
That reverence for sacrifice and saviors is what brings thousands of Filipinos to the provinces to watch the literal crucifixions of men re-enacting the anguish of Christ on Good Friday every year. On Good Friday of this year, the fifth day of our trip, my mother and I traveled to the Pampanga region north of Manila to watch one of these ceremonies. Hundreds of us stood in an open field beneath the harsh afternoon sun, packed against a railing along the dusty path on which a man dressed as Jesus would carry a wooden cross up a hill.
Behind the crowd stood dozens of tents, bearing the logos of Gatorade and Smart Communications, a local wireless provider. Vendors sold food, drink, religious memorabilia, and umbrellas for shade. As we waited, a group of men passed through the grounds, lashing their raw, skinned backs with whips embedded with razors. Their blood splattered onto the cars inching through the narrow road toward the parking lot.
Early that morning, two other men had gone up on the hill. Their hands and feet were nailed, and the crosses were raised as their faces twisted in pain. Our crucifixion, though, was the 3 p.m. showing, which felt especially meaningful because it was the hour of Jesus’s death. A few minutes before the hour hit, there was our Jesus carrying the cross up the hill, his legs wobbly, his chest heaving. An entourage of worshippers followed behind him. We all took photos.
As our Jesus dragged the cross slowly up the dusty incline, I felt a rush of anticipation. What was going through this man’s head? Was he dreading the moment to come? Or was he embracing it, cherishing the purpose it instilled in him as hundreds of us watched under the hot sun?
Many of these Jesuses were repeat performers. I’d heard the story of one of them, who after surviving a 30-foot fall in the 1980s, after having accepted his imminent death in the long seconds before hitting the ground, decided that the only way to properly thank God was to feel nails pierce his hands and feet on every Good Friday that followed. My mother saw this as an extreme act of faith, a recognition of the immense debt of gratitude we all owe. But I saw something else. I saw a man who had run out of options, a man searching for greater meaning in the new life God had gifted him, a poor man with nothing to give but his pain. Only desperation, I concluded, could drive a person so far.
I thought a lot about what happened on that hill over our final two days in the Philippines. My mind was on sacrifice and belief and the ways our beliefs dictate what we are willing to sacrifice and where we draw the line. I was thinking about all this after my mom and I got into our most intense argument of the trip.
After leaving the farm, we spent a day in Davao. The city, as Duterte supporters eagerly note, is indeed cleaner and more orderly than any other city in the Philippines I’ve been to. Duterte’s daughter is the mayor. His name and image are all over: life-size cardboard cutouts in stores, stickers on cars, placards by roads, posters on walls. His home, a green two-story house in a middle-class subdivision, is something of a pilgrimage site; visitors leave their IDs at a military checkpoint and walk to the end of the block, where a life-size cutout of the president stands at the house’s front door. Nearby, I saw a vendor selling shirts that riffed off of Nike catchphrases, perhaps unintentionally morphing them into somewhat dark, cryptic allusions: “Duterte Knows,” read one. “Duterte Never Sleeps,” read another. Taking it all in like a fangirl, my mom had me snap photos of her next to Duterte cutouts on two occasions, her hand proudly held out in a closed fist, the president’s campaign emblem.
Davao's city museum honors Duterte no less than the museums in Ilocos honor Marcos. A bust of Duterte’s father, the former governor, stands prominently at a second-floor exhibit. There, our tour guide mentioned that the father had stepped down from his seat to accept a cabinet position for the Marcos administration. My mom hadn’t known this. She looked bewildered.
She was aware that Duterte was friendly with the Marcos family. He supported Bong Bong’s recount attempt and deemed the dictator’s son a worthy successor. But my mom had chalked this up to political expediency. Ilocos and the regions around it voted as a unit — the “Solid North,” people call it — and a Marcos endorsement guaranteed this valuable bloc. She hadn’t considered that the ties might run deeper. Was there loyalty there? Reverence, even? A history? Suddenly, my mom was pondering the possibility that the Duterte clan was, in fact, an adversary.
“I thought he was a man of integrity,” she said in the museum. “But what about this?"
I replied that much of Philippine politics seemed to exist within a vast gray area between right and wrong, and nobody’s heart was pure, and there were no saviors — only people navigating an entrenched system. While Duterte might be willing to kill in an effort to upend that system, he had still come up through the same old passages to power. “If I grew up here and became a politician, I’d probably be a little bit corrupt,” I said, in a tone that suggested I was kidding.
But my mom must have sensed a thread of truth, because her face froze into a mask of shock and disgust. Before she could find the words, I preemptively laid out my defense. “I’d do all I could to help the poor, of course, and make the country better,” I said. “But I’d also make sure our family was comfortable and I was comfortable. I wouldn’t do that in America, but here it’s part of the game, right?”
She shook her head feverishly, and when she finally found the words, she delivered them sternly. “I’m so disappointed you would say that,” she said. “I’d be so ashamed if that were the case! I wouldn’t want any of that money.”
As the sun dipped, the sky turned pink over the shacks and skyscrapers. The air smelled of fish and fumes.
This argument carried on the rest of the day and into the next, when we were back in Manila, on our last afternoon in the country. We rode through the city in the open side-carriage of a motorbike, flying through the seams in traffic, exhaust blasting our faces, veering recklessly close to the buses and semis jockeying for position. Over the din of the engine, my mom and I went back and forth.
“What use is righteousness if it adds nothing to the greater good?”
“There is nothing more important than morals. If everybody stood up for their morals, the Philippines wouldn’t have these problems.”
“But what if some of those problems could be solved by good-willed people who do what they have to do to get things done?”
“God will always know that you sacrifice your morals. You will always have to answer to God.”
As the sun dipped, the sky turned pink over the shacks and skyscrapers. The air smelled of fish and fumes. We passed some small boys playing basketball with a rusty hoop perched on a wooden beam fastened with electrical tape to a cinderblock wall. Seeing this, my mom brought up that her father had been very good at basketball and even in middle age had played with men much younger.
“You know, he could have been rich, but he refused to sacrifice his morals,” she said. “We could have been millionaires.”
I lingered on this alternate reality for a moment, imagining how the world would have unfolded for us, for me. Perhaps my mom and her siblings would have stayed in the Philippines. Perhaps the Concepcion family would have risen to one day compete with the Aquinos and the Marcoses. Perhaps we would have developed the farm into a lucrative enterprise, built a big house for Sargento and his family, and paid for all of their schooling. Perhaps Sargento and I would have grown up as friends.
When Sargento and I parted ways at the farm, we vowed to keep in touch, even though he had no email or Facebook and his early 2000s-model Nokia phone didn’t always get reception. I felt guilty as our van rolled down the mountain. The questions I had pondered during my trip — about Duterte, about corruption, about sacrifice — had little bearing on my own life.
The farm, whether or not my family sells it, served its purpose for me — as a memory to keep, a reminder of what I left long ago. For Sargento, it is his family’s livelihood. A month after my visit, Mindanao again went into red alert. In Marawi, the city of my grandparents, police forces fought militants linked to ISIS. Over the first week of shootouts, at least 129 people were killed. Sargento would be called into battle. His family would live under martial law, though nobody was quite sure what that would look like under Duterte.
“It would not be any different from what President Marcos did,” Duterte said in a late May speech explaining his decree. “I’d be harsh.” I wondered what my grandfather would have thought — if he would have seen Duterte as an indulgent despot charging toward his aims no matter the cost, or as an uncompromising force against corruption and disorder. In other words, if he would have seen in Duterte a reflection of Marcos, or of himself.
He could have been rich, my mom said to me in the motorbike carriage, but he refused to sacrifice his morals.
“Don’t you kinda wish he had?” I said.
“Of course not!” she said. “All the riches of the Philippines would not have been worth it.”
Days earlier, in that grassy field in Pampanga, we had watched our Jesus reach the top of the hill.
He placed the cross on the ground and laid himself on it, arms extended. His entourage formed a circle around him. We craned our necks to see our Jesus amid the crowd of bodies. He was still. His head tilted back against the wood. His chest rose and fell slowly, as if he were breathing himself into serenity.
Several men stood right beside the cross. Their task, I assumed, was to hold our Jesus down in case the pain caused his body to flail. The others in the entourage got down flat on their stomachs. A man went around the circle and whipped them on their backs and on the bottoms of their bare feet. Another man went to the head of the cross and knelt down. I took it that he was in charge of putting the nails in. My heart raced. We waited.
The questions I had pondered during my trip — about Duterte, about corruption, about sacrifice — had little bearing on my own life.
A hush fell over the grounds. Every eye was on the hill. Some in the crowd stood on their toes. Small children sat on shoulders. Birds chirped in the distance. A gust of wind rustled the tents. A few people peeked at their watches — about five minutes to 3. We waited some more.
Eventually, the man in charge of the nailing stood and walked to the edge of the hill and looked over the crowd, into the parking lot, gesturing with his hands. A staticky message came over the radio of a security guard standing next to me: They had forgotten to bring the hammer.
The hour of Christ’s death was nearing, two minutes and counting, and a hammer still hadn’t come. The entourage gave up and raised the cross, no nails or blood or anguish, just a tired man, his wrists tied to the bars, his feet on a ledge. We took more photos, but it felt like a letdown. Jesus hopped off a few minutes later. The crowd began to disperse. Some went up the hill to take photos. One teenager got up on the cross and posed as Christ.
As the man who played Jesus in the ceremony walked down the hill on the dusty path, a group of onlookers argued about what they had just seen.
“He didn’t do the nails!” one man said.
“No, no, he did! They hammered it! You just didn’t see it,” said another. He pointed at the Jesus, about 20 yards away. “Look, on his hands, there’s blood!”
But there was no blood. ●
Albert Samaha is Inequality Editor at BuzzFeed News and author of two books, "Concepcion: An Immigrant Family's Fortunes" and "Never Ran, Never Will: Boyhood and Football in a Changing American Inner City." He is based in New York.
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