SAN FERNANDO CITY, LA UNION–Poverty which concerns the stomach stalks the land where food crops could grow abundantly. On the other hand, graft and corruption in which millions, nay billions, of pesos go into greedy pockets of lawmakers and other individuals is draining the economy.

The country is bleeding. What exactly is ailing the only Christian nation in Asia?

It was a Saturday that a P.E.N (Poets, Essayists, Novelists) International Conference was held at the Oasis Country Resort here. We were one of the panelists that included F. Sionil Jose, writer Charlson Ong, Star columnist Isagani Cruz, Alejandro Roces, Ilokano mannurat Juan S. P. Hidalgo, Jr. In attendance, too, were University of the Philippines English professor Nieves Epistola; Elmer Ordonez, more than 100 Ilokano writers and English and literature teachers in Ilocos.

Hidalgo gave the keynote address of the conference, while during the open forum, Jose, the 1980 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee for Journalism, Literature and Communication Arts, delivered acidic comments on the country’s political and economic state.

What Jose, who traces his roots to Cabugao, Ilocos Sur, said then is still true today.

The country is not only suffering from poverty where people get hungry, Jose said. It is suffering from spiritual poverty which is worst than poverty of the stomach.

He said that in the village (Tomana, Rosales, Pangasinan) where he grew up, “parents are proud that their daughters are going to Japan when they know fully-well that many of these young women would become prostitutes in that country.”

He claimed that in Pagsanjan, Laguna, parents pimp for their young boys who sell their young bodies to pedophiles.

“The degeneracy of our people illustrates too well the failure of the established churches,” he said. “If it is true that we are the only Christian country in Asia, then such Christian values of honesty and integrity and belief in God should be imprinted in us.”

Nothing of the sort happened, he said. He deplored that the country’s priests live like princes.

And poor men’s churches like the Iglesia ni Cristo and El Shaddai do not have lower class ideology, according to Jose, the Ilokano literary icon.”What do they really believe in?” he said.

Jose said that he envied the Iranians who ousted the Shah of Iran in the 1970s. “They, the Iranians, are not Catholics. They are Muslims. Their God is a fighting God.”

“If we are interested in building the country, it is very important to look at ethics as solution to our problems,” Jose said in Ilokano.

“We got the worse from our former colonial masters–the Spaniards, Americans and the Japanese.”

Jose said that what we inherited was racism, the attitude of superiority and the attitude of people in the Iberian peninsula: that it is not honorable to work with one’s hands.

From the Japanese, we did not get their high point that enabled them to become the great nation that they are. What we got from them was the sense of brutality and hierarchy, Jose said.

It was a verdict that should assail us all–the failure to imbibe the work ethics and democratic ethos of the Americans that made their country also great.

Jose, the most translated Filipino author, then hit the great disparity between the wealthy Filipinos and the poor.

“It is obscene for one family to own a whose district of Manila wherein are built mansions and skyscrapers,” he said. GUERRERO COLOMA/NorthboundPH