A gentler exile (1)

Sometimes I shudder at the thought that so many of my great grand uncles were unceremoniously exiled to the cardinal points of the Philippines. Each one is listed in Jose Rizal’s El Filibusterismo; no one recognizes those names today, but it must have been scandalous and horrifying in 1891.

On my mother side, her elder brother, Leon Maria, became an exile of sorts, not because he locked horns with a powerful religious order like the Domicans of Calamba; he was collateral damage of the Cold War. Somewhere at the back of my mind is a childhood memory which I had never spoken or written about until we celebrated his centennial in March, 2015.

I remember that we were on the deck of a boat sailing towards a ship anchored in Manila Bay, seeing off Tito Leoni and his wife Tita Annie. They were going to England because President Ramon Magsaysay had appointed him first Philippine Ambassador to the Court of St. James’.

Tito Leoni was talking to a gentleman friend it must have been a serious conversation because neither smiled. Then the friend said, “Look back at that shore which you may never see again.” I felt a lump in my throat as I watched Tito Leoni turn around and gaze pensively at Manila’s coastline until we reached the ship that would take him to Europe.

In effect, Leon Maria Guerrero was exiled, all because in February 1954, as Undersecretary of Foreign Affairs, he addressed the student body of the Manila Law School and said that President Magsaysay’s administration was not only Nacionalista (the political party) but nationalist, “it believes in nationalism, not only for itself but also for others. It believes that Asia belongs to the Asians for the same reason that the Philippines belongs to the Filipinos.” He had not cleared that speech with Malacañang.

Those were turbulent times when nationalism was a bad word because it was deemed anti-American. As the Cold War smoldered, the  “Non-aligned Movement,” an audacious Asian initiative, decried Western control of this region and advocated neutralist policies. How times have changed. Today, ASEAN integration and ASPAC cooperation are in everybody’sagenda.  No Filipino diplomat would ever be in danger of exile for echoing Leon Maria Guerrero’s pan-Asiatic, nationalistic sentiments.

After that hallmark speech in 1954, President Ramon Magsaysay suddenly appointed Leon Maria Guerrero, Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary, the first Philippine Ambassador to Great Britain and Northern Ireland and concurrently to the Scandinavian countries (Denmark, Sweden, Norway). In no time, the European community was enthralled by the dashing Filipino diplomat.

In London, “The New Statesman” (1957) described the Philippine ambassador as “a unique member of his profession,” his speeches “so fresh, so sensible, so free from the conventional emptiness of official utterances…” When he addressed the Hammer British Legion veterans he said ex-servicemen like themselves get together, “to assure ourselves it was not really Mr. Errol Flynn who single-handed won the last war.” Ambassador Guerrero was unimpeachably witty.

As soon as he presented his credentials to the Queen of England, he set about to locate No. 37 Chalcot Crescent where Rizal had stayed during a self-imposed mission to London. Ambassador Guerrero said Rizal rescued from the archives of the British Museum the lost history of the ancient Filipinos, to expose the lie that we were child-like savages lately come down from the trees before Europeans came to our shores.

A year later, Ambassador Guerrero founded the Philippine Society of London to promote international trade. It included British businessmen and firms with interests in the Philippines, British subjects interested in our culture,  and Filipino residents in London. The exile was certainly not behaving like one. (more)