Here, the hottest days end always in the most spectacular play of light. The sun is a disc of deep red as it sinks into a bed of the most beautiful colors from the visible spectrum. And even before the colors fade completely into the dark blue night, you begin to see pin points of light, stars. But long before that, the warm golden light of late afternoon, captured best by the late great master painter Fernando Amorsolo.
Inside this afternoon light Amorsolo might paint a beautiful country maiden washing her hair on the banks of a creek or holding an orange umbrella astride a carabao, an ancient acacia in the distance. Amorsolo’s world is pastoral, idyllic, not unexpected in the 1950s when the country was only recovering from the war and doing its best to revive its war-ravaged agriculture. Hacienderos bought these paintings, hanging them in their urban mansions to announce the provenance of their fortunes, the fact of being old family with roots.
We are less inclined now to Amorsolo’s vision of rural Philippines. It now appears to us like a sad half-cynical reminder of a failed dream. We, who lived through the post-war collapse of Philippine agriculture, tell ourselves this vision is too far from true.
But perhaps not entirely so. The colors of the summer afternoon are still as beautiful as ever, perhaps even more so now that the planet has become warmer. It is harder to find a creek that would be as clean, and women do not bathe as scantily clad as Amorsolo’s ideal. But they would still be just as beautiful if they are young enough.
There is something about the rural Bisaya child that universally appeals. Amorsolo was not idealizing this beauty. He would have seen it. It is actually there. Consider the wide roundish face, darkish supple skin, soft baby cheeks, tiny nose, and round eyes as dark as the seeds of the tamarind.
It is ephemeral beauty at best. Before the first year, the rural child will have to face malnutrition; and a bit later, overwork. Even before they are teenagers they will have developed the muscles required to fetch water, to climb trees, to use the bolo to cut firewood. Their bodies become tight and sinewy. They mature before their time. And just because few go beyond grade 3 in school, this doesn’t mean they are stupid. Even as children they learn to cook, do farm work, plant seeds, plow fields, handle livestock, take part in the harvest and carry on their shoulders whatever needs to be moved. In return for this work, what do they get? Rudimentary survival and very little promise for a better future.
But life is not always sad. The rural countryside is a good place to grow up. Children are always among friends. There are few fences and the walls are not as thick. Nature is everywhere. And life is ordinarily tolerable unless, of course, a parent dies or becomes incapacitated or runs away to another barrio to start another life. And then there would be new additions to the number of abandoned children in the world. Life becomes impossible.
In time, the beautiful young child washing her hair by the creek will grow into a woman, marry and have children of her own. By then, her skin would be wrinkled and weathered by the hot rural sun until it becomes rough and leathery. The eyes eventually set deeper and glaze for whatever wisdom might be derived of this harsh pitiless life. Her husband would most likely be a construction worker in the city. He might come home only in the weekends. Chances are he would be drunk and not bring enough money to buy food for the coming week.
In time, she might waste away from tuberculosis. Most likely, she will find the disease diagnosed only to find she cannot afford to buy the medicine. And so she will go to the local faith healer or buy some cheap miracle medicine at the local wet market. She will look like an old hag before she even goes into menopause. Hers is a picture and story that will not find its way into the canvases of contemporary art. If it did, it might look too awful for the market.
The true picture seems immediately far from the idyllic landscape Amorsolo painted for us and yet we may still see Amorsolo’s masterpieces as pictures of a dream that is not entirely impossible. Now, after all, is a time of tentative expectations for reviving the country’s agriculture. It is worthwhile to contemplate the truer picture of Philippine rural life and how real people go about their lives here. If only it will move us to see beyond what is immediately apparent, the views from the roadside, the beaches, the resorts, the town centers. True people live and die here. They deserve a better dream than we are now capable of.