By Alma Anonas-Carpio
Published in the Philippines Graphic magazine
When Filipinos talk of a "national icon," that person is, to our minds, the very image of who we are. He or she is the embodiment of our lives, our struggles, our successes, our very humanity—and, yes, our art.
Which is why there is such a strong clamor over Malacañang's snub, intentional or not, of actor Nora Aunor. Aunor was dropped from the list of National Artist nominees—glaringly so, for she was the only nominee not proclaimed a National Artist.
This is a Filipina with prodigious thespian talent, with a powerful yet sweet singing voice: La Aunor, as she is called by her star-struck following. In a nation where fame is fleeting, Aunor's fame comes with a longevity that few achieve and even less can begin to aspire to.
More to the point, La Aunor is the very image of the common tao: She is dusky, what we call "morena," in a sea of celebrities hawking skin whiteners. She speaks from the heart, in the vernacular where other celebrities capitalize on their accented twang. How much more "national" can you get?
Add that to the established fact of her innate artistry: God-given skill and talent she has honed over the course of several decades without cease. Add, too, what she has given the country's actors in terms of support and, where they sought it, mentorship. Is this not what a National Artist is supposed to do? And she has been doing this without the title for many years.
Where others rest on their laurels, Aunor takes risks to push the envelope, to add her voice to the people's voices, to tell their stories and take on social issues that need resolution. Is this not what our nation seeks to be, what every Filipino reaches for every day? And she does this using her exquisite talents paired with skills built to the pinnacle of excellence.
Hers is a fame that is, thanks to her dedication to her craft and choice of difficult but very meaningful roles, well-deserved despite all the pop culture and political addenda to her resume. Hers is not paparazzi-driven fame that burns bright and dies in the burning. It is the old-world kind of fame that is built, brick by brick, to withstand the test of the ages, as art should.
All those things should have made for a solid case to confer the title of National Artist upon La Aunor. But, wait, there is more: Both the NCCA and the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) said Aunor passed all hurdles in the selection process, too, including the most difficult part, the peer review.
As Trixie Cruz, legal counsel for the National Commission on Culture and the Arts (NCCA) put it, Aunor's “works were reviewed by experts, peers and national artists. We recognize Nora’s genius, artistry and contribution to the field and her remarkable body of work.”
No less than National Artist for Literature F. Sionil Jose nominated Aunor for the honors Malacañang has decided not to confer upon her. So why the snub?
Speculations on the whys were rife over social media and on the very streets of the capital. Some said Aunor was snubbed because she was too "masa," too "bakya," too morena. Yet others blamed her political choices: She sang and danced for former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo back in the day, and was romantically linked with outsted President Joseph Estrada during their careers as actors.
That, and a statue of Aunor from the iconic movie "Himala" was erected on the Ilocos Norte site where that memorable scene was shot, something that may link Aunor to the Marcos family that is rooted in the solid north. Politics, like bird's eye chilies, is best used sparingly. In cases like the creation of National Artists, it should be eschewed completely, for there is little to no art in politics—at least of the Philippine variety.
Yet others think it was the drug charges brought against Aunor in the United States for possession and use of methamphetamine hydrochloride—charges which were cleansed from her slate when she proved that she had kicked that destructive habit. “Morality is not part of the criteria," filmmaker Joel Lamangan had told GMA News. "It’s the body of work that matters.”
Really, the whole kit and caboodle of declaring someone a National Artist should have nothing whatsoever to do with that candidate's political choices or personal moral code or practices.
In an ideal world, in the kind of Philippines that Filipinos seek to create, the National Artist epithet would be conferred upon an artist who is exemplary at his or her craft, and has contributed to the national patrimony of art continuously, greatly and steadily.
Were that to be the basis, then, yes, Aunor would be a National Artist, no question.
Such speculations, in true showbiz fashion, run rife in the absence of an explanation from the authorities that did the snubbing. Silence on the matter only throws more fuel onto the fire.
As of the last week of June, Malacañang has yet to provide any solid statements on the question of why Aunor was not included in the list of newly-minted National Artists.
All the Palace had to say on the matter was that it does not know the reason behind President Benigno Aquino III's decision to exclude Aunor from the list of newly-proclaimed National Artists.
Both the Palace and Cruz pointed out that the choice of National Artists is, and always has been, the prerogative of the President. That said, presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said he is not privy to the President's reason for excluding Aunor from the list.
"As far as we know, the President acted within the prerogative as laid down by the law and as laid down by the Supreme Court decision on the Almario case," Lacierda told the press.
Speaking in a phone interview with the Philippines Graphic, Jose concurred with Cruz and the Palace on the President's prerogative in the selection of National Artists: "Do not make the President a rubber stamp. Do not dismiss the President, because he is the highest elected official."
The National Artist for Literature went on to say: "Since its inception, the National Artist award has been a presidential award by its very nature. The final decision rests with the President."
IMPROVEMENTS IN PROCESS
Jose went on to list some changes that he believes would improve both the prestige and the integrity of the process of naming the nation's national artists.
"The charter of the Order of National Artists should be changed," Jose said. "The selection process has to be improved."
"The committee in charge should make a list of at least three to five names per category to submit to the President," Jose added. "Don't remove from [the President] the right to include a National Artist in that list."
As Jose pointed out, "there are so many National Artists. My suggestion is that there should only be seven National Artists—one each from the seven arts. Only on the death of a National Artist should the committee convene to select a new set of potential
awardees for the President to choose from. This will make the awards even more prestigious."
It will also make it possible to grant larger emoluments to the National Artists who are given these honors, Jose added. Such a move will ensure that National Artists can carry out their tasks of mentorship and continue to excel in their chosen fields on the funds they are allocated.
"You have to make it really prestigious. The emolument should be more. The National Artist should have a monthly pension akin to that taken home by the justices of the Supreme Court," Jose said.
He added that National Artists should also be given ceremonial functions: "The National Artist for Literature should be named as librarian of the National Library as a ceremonial figure with no say in the day-to-day running of the library. The NCCA should be headed by a National Artist. The CCP should be headed by a National Artist."
"I want these cultural institutions to be led by people who understand the creative process," he added. "The bureaucrats should have a cultural background and should be respected by the cultural community."
Jose also tipped his hat to the issue of delicadeza that hounded the 2009 proclamation of then NCCA director Cecille Guidote Alvarez and komiks writer and massacre film director and producer Carlo J. Caparas as National Artists despite the fact they were not included on the CCP or NCCA lists of candidates sent to then President Arroyo: "Artists who are in government should not be excluded, but they cannot participate in the selection--as in they cannot vote."
Alvarez and Caparas have since been stripped of the National Artist title by the Supreme Court, which, nonetheless recognized the President's power and discretion to proclaim "all or some or even none of the recommendees of the CCP and NCCA boards" without need to justify such actions.
The High Court also ruled in this decision that the President may remove names from the CCP and NCCA selections of National Artist candidates, but the Chief Executive may not add to the existing lists from either cultural agency.
The NCCA stands by Aunor, despite the legality of President Aquino’s decision to exclude her from the roster of National Artists.
In fact, Cruz stated that the NCCA would simply use its option to resubmit Aunor's name in the next batch of National Artist nominees.
It is a tactic that the President himself uses. When the Commission on Appointments fails to confirm a member of the Cabinet, the Chief Executive merely re-appoints the Cabinet member who was not confirmed. Something, perhaps, that Mr. Aquino learned from his much-reviled predecessor.
This effort to confer a much-deserved honor upon an actor who, more than most, embodies the self-image Filipinos carry of themselves, is going to be elemental: Water dripping on stone, used in a fire to fight fire kind of way.
Push will come to shove and, while the President may have the prerogative and the authority to name the National Artists of his choice, he has also reiterated on many occasions that we, the people, are his bosses.
It is clear that many, perhaps even an overwhelming majority, of the people want La Aunor as their National Artist. It is clear she has the chops to hold the title and the responsibilities that go with it.
It is time, Mr. President, to put your money where your mouth is.