BEING the son of an unlettered sharecropper, believe it or not, enabled me to watch and appreciate many (not one or two but many) beautiful women early in life, including one who still generates global headlines, Isabel Preysler. We were peasant-tillers of Arrastia-owned land and my late father and I would regularly go to Lubao’s poblacion and into the Arrastia home to advance money for the next crop. And during town fiestas, as dutiful tillers of Arrastia land, we would hitch our carabao to the cart to bring firewood that would fire up their giant vats.
The young girl about my age who often came to visit, and moved with nymph-like grace in and around the big house, was Isabel – before she stole the hearts of a member of the Spanish royalty, Julio Iglesias and now Nobel winner Mario Vargas Lllosa. The first wife of Steve McQueen was also an Arrastia on her mother’s side. The Arrastia women, who were descended from a Basque adventurer who settled in Lubao and became the town’s biggest landowner, were always called “ the beautiful Arrastia women” and that was, to many, an understatement.
Dona Juanita Arrastia-Vitug, the kind woman with whom the tenants like my father dealt with, was herself a Carnival Queen in her youth. And her escort — just to show you how Lubao then scored in the metrics of physical looks — was a distant relation, the late actor-director Gregorio Fernandez, the father of Merle and Daboy. I will give you more. Less than 500 meters from the Arrastia house was that of the de la Rosas’ (Rogelio, Jaime etc.)
Watching and appreciating great beauty and being struck with awe came to me very early despite the direness of our life’s circumstance. Yet, my exposure to great beauties from my town who married globally famous names, has never been part of my conversations with the younger generation (at least those who have the patience to listen to me), and skipping that part about beautiful women has been a deliberate thing.
The reason? The obsession with beauty and beauty pageants (and boxing and basketball and AlDub) gives the illusion that the country and our society have been achievers of some sort, which sadly is not the case. While every society needs beauty queens and boxing champions and Tweeter crushers, our version is not just a tangential preoccupation but a virtual obsession with these things. And this has practically hamstrung what should have been our urgent national pursuit, raising and training world-class tinkerers that would change lives and alter – for the better – life in this planet.
I am a Scrooge and I will say this with passion. In the Philippines, this is very true, not-so-life-changing- pursuits have been the opiate of the people. We are a laggard society expressing hollow triumphalism – and seeking comfort – in minor triumphs.
OK, what does an old like man say in conversations with the younger generation. The latest is this. I tell them to read the letter Mark Zuckerberg wrote to her newly-born daughter Max. It says in part:
“Like all parents, we want you to grow up in a world better than ours today.
“We will do our part to make this happen, not only because we love you, but also because we have a moral responsibility to all children in the next generation.
“We believe all lives have equal value, and that includes the many people who will live in future generations that live today. Our society has an obligation to invest now to improve the lives of those coming into this world, not just those already there.”
In that letter to Max, Zuckerberg vowed to use his wealth, some $45 billion at the current estimate, to “advance human potential” and “promote equality.”
The general theme of the letter is the pursuit of a better world for this generation and the generations to come.
Previous to that, I told them of Bill Gates’s efforts to improve the technology of raising cassava in fields of Africa. Or, his funding of Philippine rice research. Or the massive funding by his foundation of researches on tropical but stubborn diseases, malaria for example. Gates has promised to use his wealth, definitely bigger than Zuckerberg’s at this point, to improve human lives on a global scale.
That is the great thing about tinkerers. They come out with great ideas, services and products that profoundly change how the world conducts its commercial affairs and personal interactions. After they have amassed great wealth from their tinkering, they pledge that wealth to better the lives of the current generation and the next one and the one after that. Not just in wiring the world to the Net but in other endeavors – improving cassava and rice technologies – as well.
Just one tinkerer with a sense of humanity, can do more for the planet than what 100 beauty queens, no matter how well-intentioned, can do.
It is the season of good tidings and I don’t want to be a Scrooge and spoil the victory of our new Ms. Universe. But I have to say this. The greatest gift that our sorry country needs now, now should come in form of a great tinkerer and life-changer, not a hundred beauty queens.