The day F. Sionil Jose took me on a tour of his childhood in Rosales

Published May 28, 2022, 9:00 PM

by AA Patawaran

A national tribute to the late National Artist for Literature, held recently at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, bumps up my best memory of Manong Frankie

September 2018. I was in front of the Mercury Drug store on Roosevelt Avenue in Quezon City at the crack of dawn. I didn’t know until later, after about 30 minutes, when F. Sionil Jose or Manong Frankie, his daughter Brigida Bergkamp, and their driver picked me up, that I was at the wrong Mercury Drug. Manong Frankie’s instruction was that I should be at the designated meeting place in the corner of Roosevelt and EDSA promptly at 6 a.m. “because at 6:15, with or without you, I leave,” he warned.

Anyway, they found me happy to have witnessed the street wake up to the fresh, new day in a frenzy of commercial activities. I was in the fringes of the market side of Roosevelt after all. By 6:15 we were entering NLEX from Balintawak. Our destination: Rosales, Pangasinan, less than two hours away, thanks to the relatively new Tarlac-Pangasinan-La Union Expressway or TPLEX that took us to Pozzorubio in no time.

Breakfast at McDonald’s at the edge of Rosales, where the National Artist for Literature, then 93 years old, was born in 1924. This was his world for 13 years, during which he explored as much as he could on foot, going as far away as possible from Barrio Cabugawan, where prior to his birth his family moved from Ilocos. “Back then,” he said, “this was all just grass.” Now, it is pretty much a busy modern town, albeit with time-warped ancestral houses and heritage structures here and there, including the two houses where the revolutionary Apolinario Mabini stayed, hiding from the Americans who considered him a more serious threat than the Spaniards did on account of his being crippled.

Manong Frankie also pointed out the creek in which he and his friends swam, where he would leave watermelons submerged for hours to cool them. Rosales is also home to the Agno River, one of the largest river systems in the Philippines, as it runs through the provinces of Benguet and Pangasinan, and I imagine Manong Frankie strolling along its banks, riding along on the current, ideas flowing deep and wild and mighty like the river in his head.

MISSING MANONG FRANKIE National Artist for Literature F. Sionil Jose with the author

Against the Rosales sky was etched the conical shape of the extinct volcano Balungao. It isn’t too much of a challenging trek, or so said Manong Frankie, who would climb the 382-meter mountain as a boy and sometimes sleep on the peak, no tent, no sleeping bag, maybe not even a flashlight, just a sky full of stars and possibilities overhead.

Before he took me to the spot where his childhood home was, now the backyard of some house whose owner he didn’t even know, we stopped briefly to look at where he went to gradeschool, the Rosales Elementary School. Did they have an inkling that among their wards was a future National Artist, whose works would be translated in 28 languages? But thanks to a teacher who opened a library while he was in his fifth grade, this public school was Manong Frankie’s portal to the worlds contained in novels such as those of Jose Rizal, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, Willa Cather… Before the library, his only source of books was his mother, Sofia Jose, who would travel to neighboring towns selling stuff and borrowing books for her son to read.   

His works ignited a fire in many of us to seek and espouse a sense of social justice for our less fortunate brethren and fellow Filipinos. —President Rodrigo Roa Duterte

Soon after grade school, at age 13, Manong Frankie walked away from Rosales, as in literally walked away, at least as far as the train station, from which he traveled to Dagupan, where he boarded another train that took him all the way to Tutuban Station in Divisoria. There he was picked up by an uncle, with whom he stayed throughout his youth in Manila. “I was technically a houseboy,” he said, but it was only customary that, living with relations, you shared in the chores. He went to Far Eastern University for high school and then to University of Santo Tomas in Intramuros, where he took up liberal arts, only to drop out later on, plunging right into writing and journalism.

Manong Frankie never really felt removed from Rosales, as he would go back there every chance he got, like when he took me there with him recently, and also for no reason other than nostalgia, such as when he and his wife, Tessie Jose, would revisit, sometimes going all the way to Cagayan Valley and Ilocos. Also, in his senior year in high school, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and, around the same time, Fort Stotesenburg in Pampanga and the Nelson Airfield in Manila. Through the chaos, catching a train at Tutuban, which he boarded through the window, he fled to Rosales to reunite with his family and then shuttled between Rosales and Manila, sometimes staying in Tarlac, during the Japanese occupation.

BOUNDARY ARC Rosales is the gateway to Pangasinan and the Ilocos region

But his real homecoming was when he made his birthplace the setting of his Rosales saga, his five interconnected philosophical and historical novels—Po-onTreeMy Brother, My ExecutionerThe Pretenders, and Mass—so called because they are all set in Rosales, Pangasinan. These novels, as much as the Presidencia or the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier or the St. Anthony of Padua Parish Church, are a monument to this otherwise little known municipality that is sometimes also called Carmen, a junction town between Tarlac and Nueva Ecija.

On this trip, from Rosales, we went to Binalonan to pay tribute to the English-language novelist and poet Carlos Bulosan and his exemplary works, particularly his 1943 essay “The Freedom from Want” and his semi-autobiography America Is in the Heart. From a family of farmers in Binalonan, he died a sad death in 1956 in Seattle, after many years of working low-paying jobs, mostly as a farm hand, in the West Coast of the US, where he moved at age 17, never ever to set foot in the Philippines again.

Blacklisted for his socialist leanings as a writer and labor organizer in America, Bulosan was denied any means to provide for himself and thus lived his later years in flight and in destitution. Now, though not enough, his Asian perspective to the American labor movement is celebrated, particularly his own experience of what it was like to be a Filipino migrant worker in 1930s and 1940s America.

“You are lucky that you have a mayor who is interested in literature,” said Manong Frankie to his audience of mostly high school students in Binalonan.

On the road back to Manila from Binalonan, Manong Frankie planned a return to the north with me, this time to go as far as Tuguegarao, all the way to Pagudpud. He told me that a sense of place always helped ground any writing in the hearts of its readers. “Dapat alam nila na may pinanggagalingan ka,” he said. “They must know where you are coming from.”

ONE OF THE BEST WRITERS IN THE PHILIPPINES Manong Frankie in his bookshop Solidaridad in Ermita, Manila

Also, as I reserved the last copy of Bulosan’s The Laughter of My Father at Solidaridad, Manong Frankie reminded me to add a few more Filipino works to my reading list. “It’s not because you are a Filipino,” he said. “It’s because you are a writer and you must be curious about your world, but you must start with your immediate surroundings.”

Manong Frankie would tell me never to worry about being egoistic. “All writers are egoistic,” he said. “We all write from life.” But what he meant, I think, was so as not to worry about your ego limiting your writing, you must grow it enough to accommodate first yourself, then your family, then your neighborhood, then your city, then your country.

“You must be loyal to your craft and then you must be loyal to your country,” he reminded me.

Or if there is room to grow, grow your ego further still until it is big enough to accommodate the whole wide world.

That was how big Manong Frankie’s ego was. Still is.