For the past few months, Manny Villar’s “humble origins” were laid into question by pundits and commentators. The likes of Billy Esposo and Solita Monsod – and recently, Conrado de Quiros – have refuted Villar’s statements about being poor, illustrating the many different disconnects in what he’s presenting on television, and documented evidence. It seems that from death certificates to places he lived in, right down to mosquito nets and sleeping mats, Villar is anything but poor.
On the one hand, the critics of Villar’s personal history may be right: we all expect a modicum of honesty from the personal histories of our leaders, and that blur between fact and fiction – between literary license and the honest sense – makes it difficult for some people to interpret Villar’s story as truth or myth. On the other hand, maybe Villar really did pull himself up from the bootstraps, swam in his sea of garbage and slept in a bench in the market, and wants us all to be inspired by that rags-to-riches tale that turned him from fishmonger to (probably) the nation’s next leader.
The rags-to-riches tale captures the imagination of people from all over: from Sir Gareth to Aladdin, from Dick Whittington to Philip Pirrip, from Cinderella to the Ugly Duckling, we regale people with the tale of survival to prosperity. The problem is that these were always founded on what is agreed to be poor, rather than cachet. Fiction often takes extreme, fantastical situations to illustrate reality, however; that’s what literary license is for.
Why single out Villar, then? A friend says that other people have taken up dichotomies and spun entire messages out of them. Take Noynoy Aquino, for example, whose supporters took a “good-against-evil” division and made it the centerpiece of their campaign. Yet as I said some entries back, when you take something that hits people in the stomach and can easily identify with without even intellectualizing it – like, say, “rich against poor” – you’re bound to raise a lot of discussion and passionate debate.
When you say “poor,” there’s much more to poverty than charity wards and watered-down sauteés of corned beef, drawing a dramatic, decontextualized monopoly of meaning and experience from it. Many more people, perhaps not as famous as he is, have gotten themselves out of the gutter in ways that Villar, perhaps, will appreciate himself. A boy sold “bote-dyaryo” once, like Villar did his shrimps and fish, and we all know him today as Lucio Tan. A boy lived in cardboard boxes once, like Villar did his bench, and we all know him today as Manny Pacquiao. A boy quit school once and rolled tobacco in a cigar family to support his family, and he was Toribio Teodoro (the man behind the “Ang Tibay” shoe brand). Heck, there was Diosdado Macapagal’s story of his shoes that we all know from elementary school.
Granted that Villar was poor, but the here-and-now says that he isn’t: a certified billionaire may be poor among a group of multi-billionaires, but is more than well-off than the poor he speaks in behalf of. Granted that Villar was poor when he was a young man, but he certainly does not hold the monopoly of poverty among those who experienced it, and he most certainly does not hold the monopoly of the solution, as he proclaims himself to be in every advertisement, and in every spiel. The play of Villar’s signifier revolves around a very bizarre, if not screwed-up context: that his experiences are the definitions of poverty in the Philippines. Throw a brick into those claims, like columnists and critics do, and it all falls apart. Not because it isn’t true, but because the context is lacking.
His story falls apart not just on facts, as his staunchest critics and opponents do, but on the context. In trying to capture the imagination of voters, Villar’s message falls into an unintended consequence: that he is the quintessential poor, that his poverty trumps anyone else’s, that his days of poverty should be enough reason to vote for him. It removes and dislocates life-experience from the contexts of things that we can all boil down to our own experiences and good sense. Sure, Villar was not rich, but he wasn’t poor either. In the grand scheme of things, Villar is the everyman who struggled and made good. To claim that badge of poverty as yours is to disregard others’ knowledge of it or empathy with it. It’s akin to the developing world-view of a brat in the corner of a playground, where knowledge, empathy, perception, experience, and everything else doesn’t matter, because it’s your side of the game: it’s all as if he’s the only poor person in the world, every other name and experience just an accessory.
Is it so wrong for Villar to capitalize on a rags-to-riches tale? Certainly not: a man who brought himself out of the gutter should be given all the leeway in the world to brag and to tell his story. Yet rather than eat the story with every grain of salt in an ocean of literary metaphors and licenses, I guess it all boils down to knowing what exactly that gutter is made of.