IT is, I think, lamentable that the public knows so little of presumptive President-elect Rodrigo “Digong” Duterte’s background. There have been colorful “profiles” or caricatures that highlight aspects of his character, but almost no attention is given to the 71-year-old mayor of Davao City’s personal story. “Behind my epithets, my curses,” he says time and again in interviews, and to the thousands who flocked to his campaign rallies and sorties, “there is a sad story and it is really the story of the Filipino people…Look at my back, you will see a Filipino hungry and sad.”
Of course, Mr. Duterte knows how to play to the crowd and his words here smack of campaign hyperbole, expertly delivered by a man who has been a professional politician for 40 years. But now that he is poised to govern the country for the next six years, it is really quite baffling to me how his personal past, which he repeatedly refers to as being one full of pain and sadness, has remained largely unscrutinized and unquestioned. Surely delving into the story of his past might shed some light on what drives the country’s new President?
Duterte is a trained lawyer and obtained his qualifications from San Beda College of Law in 1972. He joined Davao’s prosecution office in 1977 where he made a name for himself handling cases of abuse perpetrated by both military personnel and Communist rebels. His father was Vicente G. Duterte, a Cebuano and a lawyer, who was elected provincial governor. In 1966 Ferdinand Marcos appointed Duterte, Sr. “Secretary of General Services,” which was a Cabinet-level post created by Marcos. His mother was Soledad Roa Duterte, a schoolteacher by profession. She was from Agusan, in Mindanao, and descended from the Maranao and Camayo indigenous peoples.
Duterte is clearly proud of his heritage. When he campaigned in Cebu, he spoke in fluent Bisaya and reminded his listeners how Visayans have long been relegated to playing second-fiddle to politically dominant Tagalogs. “Their view in life, their dimension, is Manila-centric. We were not able to get a taste…” he opined. But he also lays claim to his mother’s Maranao roots, a maternal Chinese grandfather, and his Christian and Muslim grandchildren. It is a gene pool that speaks of the complexities of our fragile nationhood, and which Duterte smoothly capitalizes on.
Soledad allegedly fought with and whipped her young son. Nevertheless, Duterte seems to have remained close to her. It is always a shrewd, though clichéd, tactic for politicians to refer to the plight of ill-paid schoolteachers in their campaign speeches, and Duterte is no exception. “My mother was a teacher until her retirement days,” he says, although some accounts assert that she gave up teaching when her husband assumed the governorship. Recent images have shown Duterte weeping at her sepulcher.
Duterte also lays claim to a migrant experience whose history is richly intertwined with that of US colonialism. At the age of 5, Duterte moved with his family to Mindanao, for reasons not known. But moving south from the Visayas is a well-worn migratory path that Bisayans have been taking since at least the turn of the 20th century. They were joined by US settlers who, arriving in central Mindanao, gazed in awe at the great rolling grasslands, ridge of mountains, and scattered tribal peoples, thought of the expansive US plains and native American Indians they’d left behind, and energetically took up homesteading in the tropics. Recalling the same sort of rugged, cowboy-rancher ethos, Governor General William Cameron Forbes, in 1911, enthusiastically set about opening up this perceived “virgin” frontier. “I can see its empire-making possibilities,” he said, referring to the road he was constructing that connected the coast to the interior. Forbes blithely disregarded the riverine trading networks that had long brought together ancient Muslim communities, the Bukidnon and Manobo peoples who cultivated crops, and the Bisayan and Chinese-mestizo merchants who traded in sugar, textiles, and liquor.
Dean C. Worcester, Secretary of the Interior from 1900 to 1913, was just as enamored. He had no patience for what he dismissively called the “peanut politics” of lowland Filipino elite politicians of the Tagalog regions. Rather, Worcester happily embraced the American colonist frontier experience and pushed hard to establish cattle-ranching, an industry that would, for generations after, enable Filipino migrants to Mindanao to climb the social ladder.
I am not suggesting, through this brief foray into early 20th century Mindanao history, that cattle ranching and the Duterte family are linked. I have no idea if they are. What I am wondering about is how much of the cultural qualities and values that defined and energized the rugged and romantic American frontiersmen of Mindanao, so thoroughly fantasized by Forbes and Worcester, might explain Duterte.
The historian Ronald K. Edgerton has intriguingly argued how American rancher cultural values—hard work, pride in self-sufficiency, high levels of management skills and entrepreneurship, self-reliance, inner-directness, and a love of the simple life, came to exert a radical influence on, and shaped the contours of, the lives of many Filipino civil servants—the school teachers, government employees, sanitary inspectors, and nurses, who migrated to Mindanao to start a new life during the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s. Tough and fearless, straight-talking and plain speaking men such as Manuel Fortich, Jr., who emerged in the late 1930s and became the patriarch of a prominent cattle ranching dynasty in Bukidnon, was once described as a “real cowboy.” People said: “If you want a cowboy, go see Maning.”
Something of this pioneering frontier spirit might be discerned in Duterte’s father. In an interview, Duterte disclosed a little of the family’s ambitions and early difficulties in their new home: “We came here [Mindanao] in 1949 and we had to hack practically ourselves [sic]to make a living. And my family even suffered the demolition. Right at the back of the Ateneo de Davao used to be a swampland and nobody would really imagine that somebody owned it. My father, a lawyer at that, he thought that nobody owned it because it was a swampland, a wetland. It turned out that everything, every inch of the island of Mindanao was already covered with so many titles and owners. So, in that sense, I grew up very conscious of the barriers of life.”
Here, Duterte recalls the hopes of his migrant family, the industry of his father, and the trauma of a great injustice done to them, which he feels they suffered. It is an intimate vignette that got the interviewer eating out of his hand.
Duterte has swaggering allure, makes hubristic claims, and grabs headlines with his outrageous quotes. What drives him? I am not yet the wiser. I only know his side. But he has told his story masterfully, with an earthy, myth-making charm that is devastatingly effective.
“Do not fuck with me,” he warns.