The Lovely Ms. Rojo: On F. Sionil Jose’s Ermita

I have been meaning to read F. Sionil’s Ermita for more than a year now. I am a fan of the Rosales Saga. It is something which I continue to reread, every two years or so, since I first read it during my early years in college as an undergraduate and it is one of the works which I dream of doing a critical/scholarly study on. For me, there are no finer novels than Tree, The Pretenders and Mass, except perhaps Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere and Gamalinda’s My Sad Republic. The lovely Ida del Mundo has expressed her happiness and love for Ermita frequently, and she said that if I loved the Rosales novels, I would definitely love Ermita. And indeed I have fallen in love with the novel.

The novel revolves around Ermita Rojo, an unwanted child, conceived out of the chaos that ensued during the liberation of Manila at the end of the Second World War. Shunned and ignored because of her origins, she was placed in an orphanage under the care of the kind and motherly Sister Constancia. When she turned ten, she was thrust back into the life of the Rojos as her aunt, Fely, at the urging of Sister Constancia, sends her to live in the garage of the Padre Faura house of the Rojos with Arturo and Orang, and their children, Mac and Nanet, at the condition that she remains hidden from the scrupulous eyes of the masses, to live as if she didn’t have the blood of the Rojos flowing inside her. Unable to carry the burden pressure of poverty, desperate to take revenge at the Rojos who caused her nothing but pain, she turns to prostitution at the age of eighteen. Under the roof of the Camarin, she begins to sell her body, at a high-price, to foreign dignitaries like “The Great Man,” to senators, journalists and generals. She allows her body to be invaded by strange men hungry for beauty and love, for money and power, two things she required to bring herself out of the destitute conditions of her childhood.  During her career, only two men had the fortune of penetrating the walls she has constructed around herself: Macarthur, or Mac, who was once a brother to her, who owes her his education, and the historian, Roly, a war veteran, who continually tries to make sense of the present by looking at what has already happened.

The novel is characterized by the features which made Sir Frankie one of the most important writers in the history of the Filipino novel. Within the narrative that tells Ermita’s story, we also see a close-analysis of the socio-political conditions which were present in the urban environment of Manila at the end of the war and towards the years leading to the Martial Law regime. It also explores the relationship between the bourgeois, those who live maliciously, indifferent to the woes of the country, inside their houses in “Pobres Park,” as Sir Frankie affectionately calls them, and that with, well, everyone else. It traces the corruption and greed for power inherent in the blood of the Filipinos and carefully shows our ideal nature, how at the face of such tragedy, our reaction is to always satirize it, laugh at its face, pick ourselves up and hope for the better, a virtue that has been laughed at by the Western World, a trait that faced tremendous scrutiny from Western thinkers and writers like Pico Iyer who deemed our “happy innocence” as sad and tragic. It exposes our strife, our woes, our ills and cancers that pretty much did not change since Rizal’s time, but at the same time, it presents our strength as a community, our tenacity, our conviction, our courage and our unwillingness to surrender.  It is both a historical and socio-political novel, following Rizal’s tradition, embodying what a Filipino novel should be. And at the center of it all is Ermita, the lovely Ermita.

Of all the characters I have met in Philippine Fiction, I am convinced that there is no woman more seductive, more attractive, and lovelier than Ermita. Not only she is beautiful, she possesses characteristics which just leaves the reader in utter awe. She is headstrong, she is resourceful, she is clever and intelligent, willful, belligerent and wise, wiser than what the other character in her world gives her credit for. She gets what she wants, she strikes down every single person that stands in her way, but still, she remains compassionate, loving, caring and retains that Filipino trait of having an “utang ng loob” to people who have taken care of her along the way, like Sister Constancia, Arturo, Orang, Macarthur, Nanet, and Diddie, who is now my favorite lesbian character in literature. In the midst of this complexity, she retains her innocence, her desperation for love and affection, her need to be happy and the immense melancholia, the heartbreaking sadness that has always existed within her, the burden of the past that will never set her free. At the end of the novel, I am like one of the men she has ensnared. I would gladly spend two-hundred pesos a night just to sit with her inside the Camarin, over a cup of Irish coffee, musing on history, politics, sexuality and literature.

Quite obviously, Ermita not only represents the Manila of the past and present, but the Philippines that has survived a war, a dictatorial regime, and is in the eternal process of surviving and preserving itself regardless of the endless deluge of travesties and tragedies brought about by the people who constantly use her, the people who are up there, among the elite, the bourgeoisie, the socialites, the rich ones, who continue their attempts to leave our country arid and lifeless, the people who are there on your Facebook feeds posting their latest travel destinations, their latest fashion finds and their latest opinions on how they abhor our country, the people on the street, in the mall, in a party, and beside you in class. Ermita is the land that gave birth to us, the land that gave us her body, and the land we ignore in our day-to-day lives. Ermita is the prostitute that sells herself to the west and to the extravagance and progress of neighboring lands. Ermita is the victim of circumstance, who despite calamities and ordeals, has not yet surrendered to demise and utter degradation. And that is why the novel, Ermita, ranks as one of the greatest Filipino novels, as in one woman, in a single character, F. Sionil Jose, One of our National Artists for Literature, was able to encapsulate a complex nation and a great, problematic, but nonetheless great country, in a single character.