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Wednesday, April 05, 2006

yonder is the star: the political underpinnings of manuel arguilla’s “how my brother leon brought home a wife”


The canonical writer Manuel Arguilla is deemed one of the best writers of Philippine literature in English not only during the prewar period but also of all times. It is interesting to note how Arguilla was able to handle the colonial language so dexterously that some critics both local and foreign were moved into acclaiming that in Arguilla’s fictions, English seemed like a Philippine dialect. It is likewise noteworthy that Arguilla tended to create a-world-of-its-own setting—no external factors whatsoever, only the characters existing in rural isolation—for some of his literary works, including the short story under study, “How My Brother Leon Brought Home a Wife.” This short criticism will take a departure from that vacuum world by attempting to explore the political undertones of the fiction in question.
The context in which Arguilla produced “How My Brother Leon…” was the point of the American Occupation when the Philippines was being granted the transitional Commonwealth government. It is not a hidden fact that American Imperialism always suspected that colonies are inferior lots, the self-rule of which will throw them into sure chaos, hence the American’s cynicism over giving them the autonomy. The Philippines, for that matter, was not an exemption, despite the ills of American Occupation far outweighing the difficulty of administering a newborn republic. This political underpinning is metaphorically commented in “How My Brother Leon…”
When Baldo was commissioned by Father to fetch his brother Leon and his pretty wife Maria, the party did not proceed the usual, shorter, more comfortable route of camino real but in the longer, rough, inconvenient Waig with its “rocky bottom.” Upon Leon’s interrogation, Baldo told that it was Father who “told [him] to follow the Waig.” Father also dismissed “Castano and the calesa” and had the couple ride the slow cart pulled by Labang the carabao. With the Father figure being the American Father, the newlyweds (the Philippines) were made to travel a jagged road toward their home in Nagrebcan because the independent married life they were leading was not going to be smooth. The country’s independence from the American Father was not going to be a walk in the park (actually, a tumultuous journey across the shadowy, bumpy fields) and to answer Leon’s question to Maria “why…Father should do that, now,” it was because the Father colonizer did not think it was time to free the colony.
Another manifestation of the same political undertone was when Maria exclaimed, “yonder is [her and Leon’s] star,” meaning the way to reach the embodiment of a fulfilled dream, say the Filipino nation’s colonial liberation, was still a long way to go. The colonizing Americans set the star of independence beyond the Filipinos’ reach—hence the training period Commonwealth government—because the country was not yet equipped with political maturity. Later, she also asked, “Have we far to go yet,” which was an appropriate question of a colony regarding her dependent condition. Whereas Baldo replied, “so near already,” the lost laughter of Baldo’s sister-in-law showed that the tedious journey across the fields has wearied Maria. The state of American independence for the Philippines was far away, and that was one not worth smiling about.
It may not be overt but considering the setting in which “How My Brother Leon…” was written, the political atmosphere of that time and space somehow emanated.

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