The Bicentennial

by Cesar Polvorosa Jr.

“All things are subject to interpretation. Whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth.” ― Friedrich Nietzsche


Earth sparkled like a jewel in space. Its blue green turquoise seas shimmered in the velvet black void that was sprinkled with the sequins of stars. The continental land masses appeared like obtrusive stains on the surface of a gem. Imperceptibly at first, then slowly, ever so slowly, the clouds crawled like microscopic rivers of cotton on the planet surface. The planet loomed larger until they filled the wide viewing windows and the clouds became swirling masses. The shapes of the continents became sharper and after awhile, the mountains, forests and urban areas became clearer. I was going back to earth and to my home in the Philippines.

It was such a majestic sight that it was with some hesitation that I walked out of the observation deck and lounge of the space liner. I joined the others going back to the passengers’ quarters as the ship broke cloud cover. I had been away from the Philippines for three years spending most of the time in the European Union, the Armstrong Space Station and the moon which I left yesterday.

As I settled in the comfort and security of my seat to prepare for the descent to earth, the VR gear of my seatmate switched off and retracted to the ceiling. He was an Asian in his thirties. A grin crossed his face. He obviously enjoyed his virtual adventure.

“That was really great!” he exclaimed as he clenched his hands into balls of fists. “I was a spy in a Martian espionage adventure story. I still have the goose bumps…it was as real as it could get,” he added emphatically.

“You are an Asian from the Philippines right?” I replied as I noted his accent and demeanor and I added, “I am Filipino myself.” He had salt and pepper hair, deeply wrinkled face and yet a trim body which probably was from working long hours in the lunar fields.

“Yes, I am a fellow Filipino. I am Ruben,” and he even grinned wider. ”I am with Lunar Tech. I supervise a team of construction robots but I supposed you guessed that,” he nodded at his red and blue thermal jacket with the company name and corporate emblem of stylized moon and arrow. He was an OSFW- Outer Space Filipino Worker. I always see at least one during the earth-moon shuttle flights that I frequently took before this last assignment.

“How about you?” he asked me. “What do you do?” he said as he stretched his arms.

“I am George and I am a journalist of the Solar System Times. I had been assigned to the moon for the past year.” I smiled back at him.

“I have not seen you in the Lunar Filipino Asian community but I think that’s because I spent most of last year at a construction base in Mars” he replied. That also explains why he doesn’t look familiar to me.

“I heard they use only robots there,” I commented. It is conventional knowledge that the life support systems made human labor expensive and Mars in the popular imagination was a dangerous frontier. My journalist’s instinct was trying to tease out a story.

“Mars is very safe now for people, besides for tasks requiring decision making, it is still cheaper to get human labor. It is mining in the Jovian moon Europa which is still an inhospitable region of space where work is completely performed by robots. Anyway, I am going to San Francisco to meet my family for vacation. We will see the sights in the West Coast up to Vancouver and then later in the month we will return to Manila. How about you?”

“I was assigned to cover the Bicentennial Conference in Kawit City, Manila Megalopolis,” I informed him.

His face frowned and his moustache twitched slightly as he was obviously juggling his memory banks. “I heard about that but what is it exactly?” he managed to blurt out.

“It’s the day we commemorate the declaration of our independence from Spain two hundred years ago or June 12, 1898,” I stated as a matter of fact.

There was a quizzical look in his face. “The state of Spain of the European Union?” he queried. I answered in the affirmative. “That’s a long time ago,” he noted, “was that before the days of the Union of East Asia?”

“Yes, but don’t ask anymore. I don’t know much either,” I confessed and laughed self consciously from embarrassment. I should have done some background research but the assignment was given at short notice. Ruben asked why I did not just use the direct lunar flights to the Philippines and I told him that this flight to San Francisco was the only one available given the short time to book. Both of us as well as the other passengers lapsed into silence as we felt the pull of earth’s gravity which gradually gained urgency as we neared the surface.

We touched down at the San Francisco Spaceport a few hours later. The OSFW, Ruben Makalalang proceeded to rendezvous with his family in Disney Universe while I took the connecting Trans Pacific Air Boeing 919 for the two hour flight to Luzon.

I barely finished a VR Saturn adventure story when the VTOL jumbo jet plane made its descending maneuver, hovered and landed at Aquino City Airport, Isabela in Cagayan Valley. The airport was also the main Luzon spaceport and appeared to be even busier than before. Exiting the gleaming spaceport complex I breezed through the robot sensors of customs as I carried a microchip embedded journalist I.D. and personal data. I also travel light with only personal effects and my electronic gizmo in a shoulder bag.

I then entered the vast, cavernous steel and glass Aquino Station which was in the same spaceport complex and functions as the principal rail hub in the Cagayan Valley. I walked briskly past the kiosks, various hologram ads, interactive screens and shops, multitudes of arriving and departing tourists, students, businessmen and families with the L5 space stations, the Lunar and Martian ports being the most popular destinations and sources of arrivals. I was guided by my e-assistant and easily located and boarded the South Luzon maglev train. The train lifted off a few inches from its single metal track and zoomed with frictionless effort towards Manila an hour away. I was looking forward to this as given a choice I still prefer the smoothness of a maglev train to that of an airplane though the former generally makes stops. Mount Arayat loomed in the horizon but it wasn’t well defined because of cloudy skies and soon disappeared from view reminding me that this would be a short trip. I had bleary eyes from lack of sleep but this is not the time to catch a nap.

Beside me was a student who was glancing at me furtively. At almost six feet he was average in height but was lanky and wore tight pants that glowed with various hues that appeared to be the youth fashion of the time. He was not holding the usual VR head gear. As we reached San Fernando, Pampanga at the edge of the Manila megalopolis he started a conversation.

“You’re a journalist, sir?” he nodded at my eyepiece. I became conscious of his stare and absentmindedly splayed my hands on the thinning hair of my forehead.

“Yeah, it’s the tool of the trade,” I said and I showed him my slightly larger and thicker looking eyeglasses with the electronic housing in its wraparound. From force of habit I kept it on even if I wasn’t reporting.

I explained to him that it was in reality a camera which he apparently knows. It takes and transmits pictures and films of my assignment live exactly where my eyes are focused while recording my voice leaving my hands free. I can reproduce with the gizmo in holographic form together with my necessary commentary. I can also embed documents and information from the uni-net to enhance the contents of my reports. Handling these sophisticated instruments is rewarding enough for me. In the meantime, the massive multistory buildings in the Central Plain of Luzon where they cultured rice and other crops with rooftop collectors zoomed by.

In turn, he related that he is a student of Exobiotech at the U.P. Cagayan Valley. He explained that he was also taking courses in different campuses depending on their specializations- information economics from ANU in Australia, bioengineering from the University of Tokyo and strategy from Fudan University.

“It would be best though to actually visit them,” I suggested, “instead of just the traditional way of obtaining your degree through the edunet” I opined.

“I made it a point to visit Shanghai. I was impressed by its wide boulevards, its brilliance and opulence especially its huge and modern spaceport. It’s truly deserving of its reputation as the grandest city of the world. I also visited Nanjing and saw the birthplace of Wang Wei Dong, the Great Unifier of Asia,” he related reveling in the wonders he has seen on that visit.

I knew what he was talking about. I had been to Shanghai first as a young man and had been mesmerized by the sights and wonders of Asia’s commercial center and what is now widely recognized as the most fabulous city on the planet. I also visited Nanjing like so many other Asians and it was truly awe-inspiring to walk down the path where the founder of the Union of East Asia once grew up in wisdom and understanding.

“You have of course visited the Great Wall?” I am enjoying this exchange. I looked at him and saw myself twenty years ago.

“It’s the most stupendous that I have seen. It made me very proud of our rich Asian heritage.” He was obviously still relishing the memory of that special day.

We reached the Central Manila station an hour after leaving Cagayan Valley. In the distance, the skyscrapers of the Manila Megalopolis aching to reach the sky glistened in the brilliant noon day sun. We had left behind the drizzle and hazy skies of the Central Plains of Luzon. To my left I can see the biotech farms of Laguna de Bay which ended as a blur of green in the horizon.

We disembarked and the student and I parted ways. The student took a sky bus to go home to his parents in Sta. Cruz, Laguna. I had a quick lunch of pork adobo with rice and vegetable side dish served by robot attendants at the cafeteria. I then transferred to a waiting sky bus bound for Kawit. Our vehicle lifted on near silent jet thrusters to a height of a few hundred meters and followed the aerial electronic highway from Manila to Cavite. We flew over production pods and pockets of greenery while earthbound heavy cargo trucks continued to roll down the ancient highways below- which have disappeared completely in North America and China. The landscape was interspersed with soaring 100 story buildings for middle class housing and huge ventilation shafts that indicated the underground slums.

All around, the sky up to an altitude of half a kilometer was dotted with sky vehicles following their designated aerial paths- there that’s latest Shandong 500 the world’s most luxurious sky limousine which I heard has its own VR lounge and bar. Soon, the sky bus veered to the right as it made its slow descent. We flew over Pasay which had been the site of the climactic battle for the liberation of the Philippines in 2050. We celebrate that victory on October 10.

There, on my window to the right was the city of Kawit with the China Sea on the horizon with the Manila Bay complex system of levees that held back the rising sea. My family came from nearby Silang City but with all the members living and working in other parts of the world and a sister in an L5 space station there seems to be no reason to visit. I am more familiar with the backstreets of Tokyo and Shanghai than the seemingly endless urban landscape of Cavite.

The sky bus landed at the Kawit terminal and disgorged its passengers- a motley group of locals, tourists, businessmen and, as I found out later, fellow journalists. Using the holographic map of my e-assistant, I walked for a few minutes and was guided to surprisingly, an ancient mansion that was dwarfed by the city cyber center as its next door neighbor. I found out that it was called the Aguinaldo shrine. It was supposed to be at this very spot that Philippine independence from Spain was declared. Somehow, like other forgotten places deemed to have historical value, this site became protected by law and the house continued to stand even if it did not exist in the collective consciousness. It was now mid afternoon of a sultry day.

There were dozens of people milling around. I first thought that they were holographic images until my sleeves actually touch one shoulder and I was able to smell the body sweat! This was a strange assembly indeed. I sat on a foldable chair on the open square in front of the house feeling a little uneasy. I managed to feel more comfortable when I noted a few other journalists present. None was a friend so I just nodded to them. I understood immediately the expression in their eyes borne from my years in the industry and it simply said: “what’s going to happen next?” It was the same for everybody. The quizzical expression on the faces of the participants indicated the same concern: “why are we here?”

Finally, a gaunt old man wearing a Barong Tagalog spoke at the front just below the balcony of the old house. His voice was raspy and his shoulder hunched from the weight of his decades but there was fire in his eyes.

“We invited all of you to gather here to observe the bicentennial of the declaration of our independence,” and he gestured grandly with both arms to the assembly.

The majority of the participants sat with a vacant expression on their faces. “What’s that?” queried one man in his thirties in light gray suit and blue shirt unable to contain his curiosity.

The old man who I found out was Daniel Magtibay, President of the Philippine Independence Association was about to answer when he was interrupted by another participant who stood a few seats away from my left- a short and dark avuncular man in his sixties in brown suit and wearing thick horn rimmed glasses.

“I am a historian. We don’t observe anymore our so–called independence day. What we celebrate is United Asia Day on October 10. Why are you doing this?” he said in a rising tone and with a note of disdain.

“We are Filipinos and we should celebrate our national independence day!” an ancient looking fellow rose from my right side and replied with a quavering though rising passion in his voice. He was thinner and of lighter complexion than Daniel.  It was Jose Kaunlaran of the Association.

“We are Filipinos before we are Asians!” added Daniel Magtibay with all the forcefulness that he could muster and making eye contact with several in the audience. He must had been an imposing speaker in his time.

The participants looked at each other with shocked expression. “What a ridiculous idea!” I heard at least one murmured. There were shaking heads and a chorus of whispers. More than a few said “dangerous” and “stupid.”

“Preposterous! This is a throwback to the ancient days when we considered ourselves primarily as Filipinos,” the historian who remained standing retorted with almost righteous indignation. He was taking the cudgels as it appeared that he was the only knowledgeable participant on the subject. “Left to ourselves we have voted incompetent actors and actresses, imbeciles and corrupt politicians into office. After we have booted out an actor politician a century ago through people power we have instituted an IQ test, required university education and tightened the qualifications for elective office.”

That much was true and I can see the senior citizens cringing at the infamy of those days. Those decades of corruption and bad governance were simply called the Age of Filipino Misrule by contemporary historians. I flagged that exchange so I can easily embed it later into my report and I presumed my other fellow journalists were doing the same.

“The Filipino nation is the identity that courses through our veins. We should look back at those heroic days two hundred years ago during the birth pangs of our nation so that we may realize that those noble men and women were compelled to act, sacrifice and die if necessary for the cause of the Filipino nation,” explained Daniel Magtibay in a more subdued tone.

As if on cue, VR visors were distributed among the crowd and we were told to wear them immediately so we will start and finish the program as a group. Almost immediately as I wore mine, holographic images appeared and my immediate physical reality was locked out of my senses as I entered the realm of virtual reality.

I was transported to a grassy field in the early morning. I was informed that it was December 30, 1896. I was there and the information stream allowed me to immediately understand the significance of the event. I allowed the information and data inflow as implanted microscopic sensors in my brain will alert me if there were attempts at mind control.

The sensations were very palpable. The cool, morning air was softly caressing my brown skin and was a relief compared to the afternoon sweltering heat of Kawit City in the real world. The scent of grass assailed my nostrils. I can hear the birds singing and the rays of the rising sun was a glorious sight.

A young man in dark suit was being led in front of a firing squad. There was a drum roll. Shots were fired. The bullets from the ancient rifles tore into his back but with one supreme effort etched in his face he turned around to face the firing squad. He uttered consummatum est and I was informed that it’s Latin for “It is finished” as the life ebbed from him. He died facing the rising sun of a new day. He was Jose Rizal and was once the national hero of the Philippines. The Spaniards gathered in the field exulted and shouted “Viva España!” while an ominous pall of gloom descended on the rest of the crowd. A stream of information made me understand the accomplishments of Jose Rizal. He was a Filipino patriot and a multi talented genius. I found out that the field stained with the martyr’s blood, Bagumbayan is at present the Orient Space Industries complex along Asian Unity Boulevard that once fronted the Manila Bay. The Rizal monument still existed although it was half forgotten in the maze of tall structures in the area.

The scene became hazy. The changing VR settings informed me that I was travelling through space and time.

It’s the same place of the actual present proceedings – the Aguinaldo Shrine but I was told that this is June 12, 1898. Based on the dialogue and costumes, they appear to be re-enacting the historic event of that day. I was there. I was in the milling crowd. Again, my sensory nerves were flooded with waves of sensations that mesmerized my being. I was part of the expectant throng below the large window. A crescendo was building. General Aguinaldo was there at the large window of his ancestral home. The first President of the first Republic in Asia was a slim and robust young man. I suddenly know the entire story as information streamed into my brain.

The passion was welling in the crowd and the language that I recognized as Spanish was commonly spoken. The culmination was the reading of the declaration of independence by one Ambrosio Rianzares Bautista, the raising of the Philippine flag and the playing of the rousing Philippine National March. The cheers were deafening and I saw tears on smiling faces as the flag fluttered in the light breeze. Red and blue equal horizontal bands and a white equilateral triangle with the sun and three stars – that’s how the Philippine flag looked like! I felt a stir inside. I initially felt suffocated in the great crowd but this is how it must have been to be part of the making of history! It was now late in the afternoon. I took a deep breath and exhaled.

The VR visor switched off and I was immediately transported back to the present. I felt disoriented as I went through the rigors of vertigo after that immersive experience. It was as real as present technology will allow but what made it so gripping and realistic was that instead of the usual entertainment fare, I was being made to witness important moments in my country’s history. I was actually there. Everybody sat in stunned silence.  I guess nobody except the historian knew about these events. A full minute after the VR event I can still feel the tremors pulsating through my being.

Daniel Magtibay was again discussing the heroism of Jose Rizal as a Filipino when he was interrupted by the historian.

“That’s the ancient and obsolete way of viewing Jose Rizal and it is a dishonor to his memory. Rizal was a universal man, a renaissance person. He was the quintessential Asian who galvanized Asian consciousness. To simply say that he was a great Filipino is a parochial and outdated perspective. He taught us to fulfill our potential as a nation and that is as a member of the Union of East Asia- and this is the final step in our evolution as a nation.” The furrows on his face deepened as he tried to emphatically explain his side.

“But our heroes struggled to unchain Filipinos from the bondage of the Spaniards,” reasoned Daniel to the historian and turned to the crowd to plead his case.

“That was only the first step in the struggle to free Asian peoples.” The historian as it turned out was the renowned professor Pedro Kasaysayan who continued eloquently, “before we became Filipinos we were various tribes of Tagalogs, Warays, Cebuanos and Ilocanos and so on. We transcended this tribalism to assert our identity as a nation. But being a Filipino is not yet our defining historical identity. We had a revolution two hundred years ago that set us free from Western imperialists but it was just the start. Each major epoch too is accompanied by upheavals just as the advent of the great Union of East Asia forty years ago. After the sacrifices of our fellow Asians – the real patriots we have attained our dream as a nation. Now, we have achieved our destiny as Asians.”

After several minutes, the major survey organization monitoring the event informed the participants that they will conduct a test on the allegiance of Filipinos. The rest of humanity who cared naturally stayed on with the proceedings but only Filipinos will be subject to the survey test. The mother server probed the minds of Filipinos who logged in on the meeting and posed the questions directly to the minds of the participants on the possible secession of the Philippines from the Union of East Asia and related issues. Within minutes, the results came in and it was overwhelming: approximately 50 million Filipinos who were tuned into the conference from all over the earth, the space stations, moon and other outer space settlements voted to remain in the Union while only about 2 million preferred that the country secede. The results were even more convincing than the 2092 victory of the present Supreme Governor of the Philippine Region. A quick scan showed that as expected the dissenters were the senior Filipino citizens active during the height of Philippine nationalism in the first half of this century.

The old nationalists were defeated resoundingly. The old men gathered below the large window of the ancient mansion wept and their gaunt faces were like the crumpled state of their Barong Tagalog.

I stood up to leave. There’s nothing more for me here. On my way out I was surprised to see Antonio Uy, the son of the famous Taipan.

“It’s been a long time, “I greeted him as we shook each other’s hands. He was grinning and taps my stomach to tease me about my growing paunch.

“How are you George?” he responded. We were good friends and classmates in university. I told him about my lunar assignment. He narrated that he just got back also from a one year stay in Beijing on business.

“How’s the capital city?” I queried.

“Impressive developments as usual. They just refurbished the Space Museum with a focus on East Asian achievements in lunar colonization. I think you should see that,” he suggested to me.

I replied that I will certainly remember that next time I am in Beijing and I asked him about the results of the concluded survey.

“It was expected. It is obvious that the old nationalists will make a desperate attempt for their lost cause on the occasion of the bicentennial,” he responded with a smirk.

“I half expected the authorities to have them rounded up and jailed,” I blurted out. It was an open secret that the family of Antonio was very close to the military and that he was privy and helped to shape national security policy.

“What for?” he laughed sarcastically and gestured to the huddled crowd of wispy white hair, a large number of bald pates and all with ancient faces. “In a few years they will die out,” Antonio continued. “It’s literally the dying gasp of nationalism.”

“Yet you are here and obviously, the organizers were given permit to hold the meeting,” I replied also out of curiosity and I took off my glasses with camera to assure Antonio that everything was off the record.

“We want to see for ourselves who are the leaders and we want to make sure that nobody from the younger generations gets involved and so far we haven’t seen any. Filipino nationalism is a movement of old men. It will die a natural death but we don’t also want their misplaced idealism to corrupt the youth of the land,” he added with certainty.

“Well, overwhelmingly Filipinos identify first as Asians,” I told him matter of fact. “That much is true,” I concluded.

“Call it Asia if you wish. You and I know better,” he answered firmly. I know what he meant. He made a signal to his cyborg security detail nearby and turned to leave.

“I have to go, Mr. Cruz and give my regards to your wife.”  There he was with his usual formal self. I nodded at him in parting. Many participants also left and I know that most of these were connected with the government.

I decided to stay. I was prompted by my e-assistant that I had new documents that just came in sent by the organizers of this Bicentennial Independence Conference. I checked and it was an essay about the Propaganda Movement of the late 19th century and the Philippine Revolution. There was a copy of Jose Rizal’s novel – “Noli Me Tangere.” I paused as I visualized his last moments in Bagumbayan and I felt a quiver and my eyes moistening. I resolved to read it during my trip back to the moon. 

I saw the crowd of the old nationalists. A number of them were openly crying. Then, to my surprise and probably to the others as well, I saw that initially, with some hesitation, singly and then in groups of twos and threes, participants began to approach the nationalists. Eventually, about two dozen mostly young Filipinos from the crowd mixed with the group of the old nationalists. They wanted to know about the revolution and the events that led to the declaration of Independence on 1898. They wanted to know who the Illustrados were. They wanted to know about Bonifacio and Mabini. The nationalists were still crying but now joy and amazement were written into their faces as they sought to answer the questions of the young generation. I went over to them and searched for Daniel Magtibay. There was a lot to talk about. There was so much I wanted to ask him. Who was Jose Rizal and what was really his role in Philippine history?

The sun gradually descended into Manila Bay across Kawit. The fiery rays became flickering embers that disappeared beneath the waves and beyond the afterglow a blood red moon arose. The stars glowed in their places in the firmament. It was night but it was never totally dark. What awaits at dawn?

Editor’s Note on The Bicentennial

The Bicentennial is not Cesar Polvorosa Jr.’s first piece in Eastlit. The following pieces of work have appeared in earlier Eastlit issues:

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