Who are we?: Analyzing our three mentors
- Carmen Guerrero Nakpil () - February 8, 2010 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - Today’s Filipinos are, you might say, the foster children of three volunteer stepfathers, who forcibly took us in hand during various periods of our long trek to nationhood.

The very first, in the 16th century, was the Spaniard, as conquistador and fraile brandishing sword and cross — in our vernacular, the Kastila, named after Castille, one of the small kingdoms that preceded the formation of Spain.

After more than three centuries, in 1898, came the American: the soldiers, politicians, teachers whom we naively believed were our friends and allies during our revolution against Spain, but who suddenly turned around, occupied and annexed our country, setting off the Filipino-American War of 1899.

Our latest mentor, so far, was the Japanese, Hapón to us, who invaded this country during World War II because we were a colony of the US and subjected us to our briefest and most brutal tutelage between 1942 and 1945. 

We owe it to ourselves, as put-upon pupils, to examine the back stories of these unwelcome and unwanted tutors who, against our will (for we resisted fiercely all three times), fiddled outrageously with our lives and our very souls. Rizal raged that “even our defects are those of our colonizers.” I should mention here that, to their credit, all three of them claimed they were doing it for our own good.

We Filipinos need to do this background check, I think, because many of us have been showing signs of confusion and insecurity about our national identity. We really should manage a reasonably accurate view of ourselves by now.

Let’s take Spain first, formally our absolute ruler for 333 years (1565-1898). At the end of the 15th century, when the European Age of Exploration took off, Spain did not exist as the nation-state we know. The natives of Hispaniola were scattered descendants of the Visigoths, the barbarians at the gates of the dying Roman Empire. For 800 years before Columbus, they had been the subjects of wealthy, sophisticated Arab emirates and Moorish kingdoms in the Iberian Peninsula, then a part of the power and the glory of Islamic culture, its splendid palaces, mosques, libraries, centers of learning, arts and sciences.

The oppressed, rugged, backward Visigoth Christian natives (the Spanish) longed to drive out the hated Moors (Moros). Propelled by fierce and cunning hatred of this superior culture, they formed the little medieval kingdoms of Castille, Leon, Galicia and Aragon.

But they were dismally poor and unlettered. Queen Isabella’s handwriting was hardly legible, says one historian, and the Reyes Catolicos, the famous couple of Ferdinand and Isabella, were so impoverished they were often on the verge of having to sell the family jewels or melt the silverware to finance an internal war. But hard times toughen people. And the Spaniards were honed by poverty, war, disease, hatred of the Moors, rich Jews, all foreigners and, finally, the Inquisition into a formidable, fighting force.

Spain had not had the benefit of the Florentine Renaissance or the wealth of the Ottoman Empire. It had a small nobility of peasants, usurers, mercantilists and a huge mass of beggars, vagabonds, bandits and slaves. In Madrid civil servants, captains without companies, soldiers of fortune, adventurers fleeing creditors, all sought passage to the newly charted “Indies” (including Filipinas) hoping to attain, wealth, respectability and a rich wife. (See Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Age of Philip II.) These were the worthies who came to this archipelago to lord it over us. 

And we? Our ancestors were not the pygmies, the naked savages with frizzy hair, as many of us were carefully taught in our foreign-guided schoolrooms by our brainwashed elders. We were one people, of the Malay race, recognized by India, China, Japan and later Arabia as their ancient chronicles attest, possessors of this land for many centuries. They had come between 200 B.C. and 300 A.D. from the vast mainland of Central Asia, from places like Nepal and Johore, in their own boats for they were excellent seafarers. They lived in organized communities, fiefdoms and villages called barangay (the name for their boats and still that of our smallest municipal unit). They were warriors, farmers, craftsmen, traders, exporters (Mindoro exported cotton to Malacca in the 10th century), investors in Moluccan enterprises. (H. de la Costa, Readings in Philippine History, and W.H. Scott, Barangay.)

When Magellan landed in Homonhon in 1521, in the company of his starving, smelly, bearded white crew who had emerged from their tiny creaking, wooden caravelles, they were quickly offered jars of palm wine, welcomed to bamboo palaces and fed roast pork and gravy, rice and coconuts, amid gong music and maidens wearing shiny silk gowns and makeup and attendants wearing heavy gold necklaces, bracelets and anklets. Magellan had to warn his men against showing too much awe of the wealth, and the beauty and the generosity of those early Filipinos. It’s important to remember this scene (from Pigafetta, Magellan’s publicist) because that’s where we’re from.

How did those greedy European desperados manage to subdue and take over this, our Land of the Morning with its mountains of gold, virgin forests, white beaches and endless green fields, deep teeming seas and the greatest flora and fauna diversity on the planet? And vanquish and reduce those proud, happy, burnished Malays of the 16th century to the hapless wretched indios (still carrying the name given all Spanish subjects by a cocky European explorer who, having landed in the Caribbean, claimed he had discovered India) who were sold off like chattel at the end of our Spanish era for $20 million to the USA.

I shall answer that question later in this article, because we must now deal with our second colonizer. In 1898, America was on a roll. They had pushed the frontiers of their tiny Thirteen British Colonies, won their West by disposing of the native American Indians, snatched territory from Spain, England, France and Mexico, taken Alaska, Puerto Rico, Micronesia and Hawaii, industrialized swiftly with the cheap labor of European and Asian migrants (and free labor from unwilling African migrants), won their Civil War and became an economic superpower with the most modern army and navy.

When Commodore Dewey, who had been waiting in the wings in Hong Kong for his cue, entered Manila Bay in May, 1898, and sank the decrepit Spanish flotilla, they crowed about their latest concoction: Manifest Destiny. Now, they were a world power. But they could not land because the Filipinos held all of Luzon and had besieged Manila and the US infantry was still on its way to the Philippines. In August, they faked a surrender scenario so that the Spanish yielded to them and not to the Filipino forces (citing the indignity of surrendering to a colored race). But they still had to wait for the signing of the Treaty of Paris because it would legalize their purchase of the Eight Million Indios. Since Spain no longer held the Filipino territory, it was the inhabitants who were for sale. The opposition in the US, the Democrats and eloquent patriots like W.H. Bryan and Mark Twain mocked the transaction as unworthy of a democratic nation like the US.

The Treaty was signed in December, and in February 1899, an American patrol claimed the Filipinos had fired first (not true) and the Filipino War with America which, to this day, many Filipinos are unaware of, exploded.

Having researched into the natural resources of this country which “had fallen on our laps,” McKinley told visiting clergymen that God had told him in a vision that it was their duty to “Christianize and civilize” people who had been Roman Catholic for more that 300 years, had set up the first democratic republic in Asia, had a university older than Harvard, had been literate and had been writing epics, poetry for centuries, published newspapers and novels and whose artists had won gold medals for classic painting in the capitals of Europe.

Nevertheless, the US conquest of the Philippines became the most successful example of “enlightened colonization” in history. In less than 50 years, the judicious use of “the carrot and the stick” accomplished miracles. Stick: hamletting, waterboarding, assassination, looting, massacre, political detention and exile, racial discrimination. Carrot: fire stations, ice plants, hospitals, schools, Hollywood, a pensionado program, an elected assembly, the appointment of locals to minor positions in courts and agencies. By the time the Japanese invaded, Filipinos (unlike other Asians, who blithely forsook their colonizers) fought and died side by side with the USAFFE. Today, a school survey has reported a majority of young Filipinos yearn to be Americans. The US was and remains the foremost practitioner of the new skill of hoopla or PR (public relations).

Enter: the Third Man. In the 1940s, Japan was the newest, if unlikeliest, member of the Western Imperialist Club. Since the Meiji restoration of 1868, its policy was “capitalism at home and imperialism abroad.” Its economy was dominated by the old families turned into business combines. But Japan was poor in natural resources and needed land, raw materials and markets. Military conquest was imperative. Invigorated by a brilliant victory against Russia and then by a successful invasion of China that led to the establishment of the colony of Manchukuo in 1932, Japan managed to create wealth by exploiting its own people, its work force, neglecting welfare and social services.

“Repression, emperor worship, the drive for discipline and sacrifice to the glory of a powerful state kept the Japanese people under control.” (Renato & Letizia Constantino, Our Continuing Past.) Taking the rest of Asia and throwing out all the other colonizers was an irresistible and eminently possible idea. With their usual technical virtuosity and brutal efficiency, Japanese forces equipped with the latest ships, planes and tanks (whose manufacturers still sell their newer products to hapless, eager Filipinos) hammered their way into the Philippines and set up a new, and admittedly unenthusiastic, government in a matter of months. 

To sum up: During the last 500 years or so, we have been attacked and occupied by three of the world’s most powerful empires and subjected to foreign rule and indoctrination of different persuasions. We succumbed to all three.

What happened?

All three of our colonizers/mentors appear to have used the same formula: a winning combination of ferocity aided by superior technology and a Great Idea. Ferocity they had in common. But their Great Ideas differed. Spain used Christianity, the US employed social justice, which they called Democracy. And Japan, the currently successful Asian Co-Prosperity.

On the subject of those three Great Ideas of our colonizers, I have always held that it was Christ who won the Philippines for Spain. The indios filipinos fell at once and forever for the Holy Child (Santo Niño) who dwelt among us, suffered and died on the cross to save us.

Although the Americans never used the word “Democracy” in their convoluted explanations of their high-handed annexation of the Philippines (see O.D. Corpuz, The Roots of the Filipino Nation), the free public schools, infrastructure, and health care they provided won the Filipinos over, and later Americans made “Democracy” their mantra.

During the Pacific War, because Filipinos were enamored of America, they rebuffed the Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, infuriating the Japanese whose atrocities made them the most-hated of our colonizers. We could at least have imbibed their discipline, devotion to duty, probity. Now we are one of the avatars of ASEAN.

All three colonizations failed to teach us the lesson we most needed: that after all that fretting and fighting, we Filipinos should first know who we are, and next, be true to that sovereign self.

John J. Carroll, S.J., an American priest who has lived most of his life in the Philippines, wrote in a Metro newspaper recently that “Without knowledge of that history… young people would lose their sense of identity and not know who they are.” Perversely enough, that ignorance is not confined to young Filipinos, and is probably more common among the not-so-young and more colonized.

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