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The Artist Abroad

Where lies the country’s capital?

/ 04:59 PM July 19, 2011

NEW YORK—In Eddie Romero’s 1976 classic Ganito Kami Noon, Paano Kayo Ngayon? (As We Were), set during the confluence of the 1896 Revolution against Spain and the 1898 Spanish-American War, the question of who is Filipino pops up at certain moments, seemingly in casual conversation. But by the end of the film, the question has been transformed into a weighty meditation on a burgeoning national identity. Expressed mainly through the evolving proto-nationalist consciousness of its young and naive protagonist Kulas (played by Christopher de Leon), it reflects the growing aspirations of a Spanish colony now awakened to its potential place in the community of nations.

Prior to 1896 and the Propagandists’ appropriation of the term, “Filipino” referred mainly to Creoles, mestizos or insulares, those of Spanish descent who had been born in the Philippines, socially above the Indio, but below those who had been born in Spain (the peninsulares) and now stationed in the far-away archipelago. In the film, the definition is loosened somewhat to include a few of the indigenous class who were affluent, worked with the Spanish, and were sufficiently Hispanicized to move easily in the upper reaches of colonial society. Thus, Eddie Garcia as the lawyer representing a wealthy friar remarks to Kulas that he is a Filipino whereas Kulas is not.

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In another scene, this question of identity is brought up as a Binondo Chinese merchant (perhaps the noblest character in the film), replying to Kulas’s tentative assertion that all those born in the Philippines might be Filipino just by virtue of birth, concludes that he too must be Filipino even though he belongs to the Han race—a statement that prompts skepticism on the part of Kulas.

At the film’s conclusion, with Kulas set to leave Manila, he comes across a small group of boys and asks them where all the Filipinos are. One boy pipes up that they all have left. Kulas smiles, and gently tells them that they too are Filipinos, and they should not forget this fact.

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I am constantly reminded of this film whenever, on my periodic homecomings to Manila, someone asks me if I am in fact Filipino. In the past I’d always respond in the affirmative, in Tagalog, causing the questioner’s eyebrows to be raised and the rejoinder: “Pero hindi ka mukhang Pilipino! (But you don’t look Filipino)!” This in turn often prompts a brief summary on my part (though not always; I pretended once to have been an ex-Peace corps volunteer who had learned the language), of having colonizer genes in my blood—on both sides.

Doubly damned in the eyes of those with a fetish for purity—or doubly blessed, to those who, like Doña Victorina in Noli Me Tangere, aspire to some distance, if not complete separation, from the indio.

In Popeye’s immortal words, I yam what I yam, and I’d rather be blessed or damned by what I do and not by my antecedents which include not just Hispanic, Irish, Malay, but Chinese DNA as well. At any rate, on my last visit this past month, I underwent the expected interrogation albeit friendly in places like Basco, where the kids at a beach spoke to me in English and assumed I was a “Kano,” the automatic assumption being that all fair-skinned visitors must be foreign and therefore from the U.S. of A. Once I had established my bona fides as a Pinoy, the discussion quickly turned to the NBA Finals, with most of them favoring the Miami Heat—because of the overrated LeBron, naturally—and only one savvy enough to pick the Mavericks, I decided to turn the question around. What did the questioner mean by “Filipino”? I felt like Kulas as the kids regarded me in a puzzled, somewhat pitying, manner.

Clearly the assumption was that to be Filipino one had to look Filipino. This of course excludes as much as it includes. For to look Filipino is taken to mean above all appearing to be predominantly of one ethnicity: Malayan. To be brown-skinned, black-haired, with a nose that is not as sharp as for instance mine. And yet the term, or category, if you will, of “Filipino” strictly speaking refers not to ethnicity but a nationality. Complicating the matter is the fact that there are passport-wielding Filipinos who do not truly consider themselves Filipino, or downplay it due to any number of reasons. I am sure this is the case with some or many Malay Muslims, for instance, owing to the tangled history of Mindanao.

And to this day so many Filipinos of Chinese ancestry, who have been in the country for generations, aren’t considered fully Filipino. Filipinos with an asterisk, their affiliation somehow seen as suspect, Tsinoys have long been the butt of racist jokes. I cringe now when I remember the crude remark I’d hear and repeat as I was growing up: Intsik beho tulo laway. The assertion that they weren’t tao, or fully human. That the hygiene in their restaurants, that their personal hygiene, was non-existent, that the meat in siopao was cat meat. Undoubtedly this unease with, and no small amount of resentment at, their presence goes back to the days when the Intramuros Spanish so distrusted the Chinese residing across the Pasig in the Parian district (present-day Binondo) that they had cannon trained on them from the parapets of the Walled City. Bloodbaths would erupt from time to time when the distrust on both sides grew to fever pitch.

Then there are the indigenous peoples who fit into this idea of being “Filipino” with varying degrees of awkwardness, largely contingent I suppose on the extent to which they have been Christianized or at least indoctrinated into the largely Christian mainstream. Such indoctrination comes at a price, certainly—as has always been the case when a dominant culture by its sheer weight transforms (mutilates?) a minority culture. Identity, tradition, collective memory can easily become commodities and thus negotiable at a time when the gospel of globalization is really about the flow and reach of capital.

How Filipino do the Ati, the Sama, the T’Boli, the Manobo, the Tagbanua and other such groups feel? By the same token, how Filipino do the upper-crust mestizo families—the Zobels, Ayalas, Ortigases, Elizaldes, et al—feel? I have no doubt they speak impeccable Spanish, but how do they fare with Tagalog? With their capital, the latter, as with the taipans and other fabulously wealthy inhabitants of the archipelago, need not be constrained by nationality (or nationalism) in moving between borders unfazed by pedestrian demands of earning a living. On the other hand, capital, or the lack of it, has been a hugely influential shaper of identity for those who labor in the global vineyards. Abroad, “Filipino” translates into nanny, seafarer, caregiver, mail-order bride, domestic worker, club entertainer, and other similar occupations: identity pegged to labor-for-hire.

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And their labor is our capital.

Clearly, the concept of “Filipino” has changed over time, from the colonial haves to the 21st century have-nots, and one element that has played a crucial role in its various transformations is capital. It should be a fascinating study, to examine precisely how the flow of capital, often like a toxic river, has wound its way through cultural and national definitions, not just for the Philippines but also for other similarly situated countries.

Copyright L. H. Francia

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