Thursday, June 7, 2007


Manila: Root of Stagnation

Manila, by Federico Licsi Espino is a poem wrought with symbolisms about the Filipinos’ sufferings and plight. At the very start of the poem is a quotation from Nick Joaquin’s “The Woman Who had Two Navels.” But its relevance is yet unclear, so one would quickly move on to the poem itself. Reading the first few lines of the poem incites images from the past, from a time when the Philippines was recovering from the Great Depression which depleted its economic resources. Because of this impression, the opening lines seem to pertain to the post-Japanese-war period. Manila is described as “A hermit crab beside the tide of times,” but this description may not be limited only to the ruined city for it can also be attributed to the Filipinos who had also become fragile, like the soft-bellied hermit crab, due to the chaos and series of transitions they had just been through. The “tide of times,” or the anarchic war times had left the hermit crab washed up on the shore, where it does not safely belong. This parallels how multitudes of Filipinos were left impoverished especially in the provinces, and had to endure migrating to Manila in the hope of better living conditions. This is further explicated in “she bears the traces of her former homes.” On the other hand, the persistent crisis on national identity may be the dramatic situation described by Manila’s (Filipinos’) bearing “the shells of foreign cultures and the slime.”

From here, the poem transcends to the present. Its content and message suddenly don a sort of prophetic cloak, for one will realize that the poem is not merely speaking of the post-war conditions. Filipinos, still carrying their “shells,” continue to flock to Manila with their illusions of fame and fortune—residue from watching so many Hollywood movies. At the initial stages of reading the poem, one can feel this pitiful hope, but images of disappointment quickly seep in, as the same sad fate meets the hermit crab. The shore is filled with many opportunities for the tide washes up many good things. Yet, after combing the shoreline for food, the crab manages to scavenge only disappointing “bits of driftwood.” Thus, Manila is only the beginning of the Filipinos’ disillusionments. This is because just like in the provinces, jobs and homes remain scarce in the city, and those who move to Manila are left scavenging for whatever is left available.

But the problems do not stop with the lack of good opportunities in the city, for even the hermit crabs are a problem to themselves. This could be why Espino used the hermit crab image in the first place. He did not simply use a crab, but a hermit crab, which can be said to be the inferior version of the true crab because it lacks a protective shell.1 The hermit crab serves as an unpleasant, but accurate metaphor for the Filipino. Like the Filipino, the hermit crab is fragile because of its soft abdomen. This weakness of Filipinos can be their persistent colonial mentality.

Filipinos continue to protect themselves with the “shells of foreign cultures” in their hope of becoming more globally competitive and acceptable. But these shells are weak and simply do not fit right. A hermit crab cannot grow properly if its shell does not fit. In addition, it can be preyed upon more easily if it hides in a weak shell. Yet the problem worsens, for like hermit crabs competing for one another’s shells, 1 Filipinos actually compete at becoming more foreign or western in particular. Rather than searching for and nurturing a unique national identity, Filipinos foolishly try to copy the so-called modern American lifestyle through city (Manila) life. But they cannot escape the fact that they cannot live up to western glamour. Multitudes of Filipinos remain poor even in the urban areas. And such a situation has forced many to migrate to other countries. This must be why the hermit crab hears “the raucous seagull’s cry.” The seagull may be the image used for the foreign countries. This is because like seagulls, a known predator of hermit crabs, 2 foreigners feed upon and benefit from the Filipino migrant workers. These “seagulls” continue to “mock” the hermit crabs or Filipinos who are forever moving sidewise, never forward.

To add, this sidewise movement may not simply pertain to the Filipinos’ lack of any real economic advancement. It could also refer to how Filipinos have been holding on, though hesitantly, to their past traditions. This may explain the allusion to Joaquin’s novel. This allusion has added even more layers of meaning to Manila in just one brief line. Basically, Joaquin’s “The Woman Who had Two Navels” is about Filipinos who are struggling to maintain their national identity in a foreign setting (Hong Kong). The characters have attained a better life, and have sought to forget their past. But one of the characters, Connie, maintained a sense of nationalism although she was born in Hong Kong. She, like many Filipinos today, continue to long for their native land. Bearing in mind this basic storyline, the Filipinos who carry the “traces of her former homes” may not be solely those who are from the province. They could also be the Filipinos who are settled in foreign countries, Filipinos who have become homesick and cannot wait to return to the Philippines. But the poem is actually quite ambiguous about this point on national identity. It oscillates between letting go of the past and holding on to it at the same time, as seen in the natural vulnerability of the hermit crab. The crab may decide to leave its ill-fitting shell (of foreign cultures), but then it would be left weak. It cannot be denied that the Filipino remains highly dependent on foreign jobs and culture, so why should it leave its shell? Not only is the naked crab an easy prey while it searches for new shells, it is also uncertain about finding the shell (national identity) that it actually needs.

So what must the Filipino do?The poem does not provide any real answer. It goes on to criticize its subject matter, but serves only despair as an answer. Manila remains ambiguous until the last four lines as it alludes to the famous poet—Dylan Thomas. The last lines go back to what once was expected as a haven of opportunities—Manila or the city. The city is known for better food supplies, sanitation, jobs, and educational opportunities. But the ambiguity holds, fulfilling what Bradbury and McFarlane stated in “The Name and Nature of Modernism,” that the image of the city is that of a “new possibility and an unreal fragmentation.” Manila, the so-called haven of opportunities, also remains an “unreal fragmentation,” for despite the promising technological, social, educational, and medical advancements, the city system remains seriously inadequate. In likening the city to a “pair of claws,” the poem even seems to blame the city for the stagnation of the Filipinos. And the poem then ends with a sense of time-surpassing hopelessness as the crab continues to “[creep and crab] with all its tragic flaws.” The time-surpassing quality comes from the use of “crabbing,” a verb Thomas used in one of his poems, Especially When the October Wind, to describe the passing of time (“caught by the crabbing sun I walk on fire”). It is a very saddening conclusion, for the poem seems to prophesy that the inadequacies or “tragic flaws’ of the city will endure, and that the Filipinos will remain stagnant for many more years to come.

Truly, Manila is a critical look into the conditions of the Philippine city and culture system. While keeping much of the subject matter ambiguous, Espino was able to provide a multi-layered understanding of the Filipino through consistent use of the Hermit crab image. Filipinos have been seeking to be at par with their foreign conquistadors by discarding their native heritage and assimilating foreign cultures. But they cannot be blamed entirely for such behavior since, for the most part, they are merely victims of their history. Filipinos will remain vulnerable for as long as they remain afraid to search for a unique identity and dependent on foreign help.


1 The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition.2003. Columbia University Press.
28 March 2007

2 “Why does my crab act the way it does?” Your Hermit Crab Care
Headquarters. 2005. 28 March 2007

The Purdue OWL Family of Sites. 16 March 2007. The Writing Lab and OWL at Purdue
and Purdue University. 28 March 2007

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