By KAT AVANCEÑA MONSOD
Images courtesy of RICKY QUEZON AVANCEÑA
In the Philippines, Buwan ng Wika is celebrated every August. It is a month long celebration of the Filipino language that coincides with the birth anniversary of the Ama ng Wikang Filipino, former President Manuel L. Quezon, who was born on Aug. 19, 1878. It was President Quezon who issued a proclamation declaring the adoption of a national language in 1937.
In celebration of Buwan ng Wika and the birth anniversary of the late President Quezon, I sat down with my uncle Ricky Quezon Avanceña to pick his mind on his thoughts about Buwan ng Wika, the role of President Quezon in Philippine Independence, his own thoughts about the recent movie Quezon’s Game (which was about how President Quezon saved a 1,300 Jews from the Holocaust), and the loves, life, and death of the late President. Tito Ricky’s mother, Maria Zenaida Quezon Avanceña, who I fondly call Lola Nini, is 98 years old as of this writing and she is the only surviving child of President Quezon.
What can you say about Buwan ng Wika? How is it different from before, especially with the advent of social media?
RICKY: Growing up, there was a stigma attached to the use of Filipino. I still remember a time when we were punished for using it in grade school. It was thought to interfere with the proper learning of English and considered an inferior dialect instead of a proper language.
But Lolo Quezon was correct. An independent people must have a means of expression unique to their culture and heritage—language, after all, is a mirror of the soul.
Many opposed Filipino because it is largely drawn from Tagalog, after a National Language Commission established by Quezon determined that it had the most extensive and evolved literature and body of work. Understandably, others objected. All the arguments are now water under the bridge, however, because the exponents of popular culture like FPJ, Dolphy, Nora Aunor, Rico Puno, Juan Dela Cruz Band, Eraserheads, Sarah Geronimo, and today’s rap and hiphop artists express themselves in Filipino. And today, wherever you go in the whole archipelago, we are able to communicate with each other in our own tongue.
‘My father brought me along to a trip to Sulu so he could meet with the Moro Datus and royalty. He had to use an interpreter to communicate in Spanish or English. He thought it was not right that fellow Filipinos had to do that,’ my mom says. But in a trip to Banawe, Ifugao in the early ‘80s, my mother was amazed when we got lost but were able to get directions from an Ifugao in a G-string. We spoke in Filipino. It was then we both marveled at what her father, my lolo, had done.
Have you seen the film Quezon’s Game? How much of it is true to fact?
RICKY: Quezon’s Game, as every historical fiction claims, is ‘inspired by a true story.’ The facts are accurate: President Quezon allowed the entry into the country of around 1,300 Jews, mostly from Germany, Austria, and Poland just as they were being rounded up in ghettos and placed in Nazi death camps.
Quezon did this when no other country would allow them in, including the US. We were still under their control at the time, as a Commonwealth country, like what Puerto Rico is today.
It required great political skill and maneuvering from President Quezon. His political opponents, led by Pres. Emilio Aguinaldo, were highly critical of this plan, accusing Quezon of giving jobs to foreigners instead of prioritizing his own countrymen. But Lolo believed so much in his ‘game’ to save the Jews from Hitler’s ‘final solution’ that he offered his personal land to house the refugees who arrived.
In a speech he gave to welcome the refugees who had settled in his property in Marikina, Lolo Quezon said, ‘Let it be forever said that when it came to your time of need, we provided aid… In the ancient scriptures of the Torah, it is written: You save one life, you save humanity.’
The nation of Israel that emerged after the war and the Holocaust was so grateful to us that to this day no visas are required of Filipinos to enter Israel.
Would you consider this his greatest accomplishment?
RICKY: It is the greatest act of a Filipino statesman to underline a country and a people’s love for a shared humanity, to the truth that nobility and greatness transcends national interests and boundaries. That in the end, the sanctity of life is paramount—regardless of race, color, belief, or creed. What greater example is there than saving lives that were considered worthless by all other governments?
I would like to think it ranks up there with his accomplishments for his people: Filipino as a national language, the independence that he secured for his country, the creation of Quezon City.
The incredible thing is that he managed to fight all these battles at the same time and was successful in all of them, except with his personal battle against tuberculosis, the illness he contracted as a poor boy in Baler. Moments before Lolo Quezon passed away in Saranac Lake on Aug. 1, 1944 as President in exile, he was listening to reports on the radio about how Gen. Douglas MacArthur was leapfrogging to retake the Philippines, 600 miles away.
Lolo died in a foreign land, away from his beloved country for which he fought all his life to liberate from the clutches of foreign domination. He missed seeing his country free and independent
by months. Ironically, medicine against tuberculosis was discovered not very long after his death.
To know more about the life and times of President Manuel L. Quezon and his contributions to nation building, catch Ricky Quezon Avanceña at the Quezon Memorial Circle on August. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for inquiries.