Filipinas/Pilipinas: A national identity crisis

Cate de Leon (The Philippine Star) - July 6, 2013 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - Recently, there has been much commentary on the Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino’s decision to change our country’s name from “Pilipinas” to “Filipinas,” most, if not all of it, disapproving. People have made fun of how “Filipinas” sounds like a gender description, or how UP should now be known as UF, or University of the Filipinas (Fine with me, boys), and how this entire motion is actually “fretty useless.” Even the sound of it is off. I personally think the “P” gives a certain kick and passion that evaporate within the soft and airy “F.” But more than not wanting the extra confusion, the seemingly laughable spelling crisis reflects how to this day, we still struggle with our national identity.

The reason for the name change, KWF stated, was because this was the original name given to us by our Spanish colonizers, who from a historical standpoint were the ones who first brought our ancestors together as a country. But at the same time, KWF is eager to eradicate “Philippines” first, because it’s a symptom of “American colonialism prevailing in our minds.” And while the nuances of this are understandable, overall you just want to say, “Ano ba?”

I’ve heard far too many times that our culture is dead, or damaged, or at the very least is something we need to figure out with difficulty. And in the next moment, the people who say so point to colonialism and post-colonialism as the one to blame whenever the question of who we are is brought up — like our “true” identity has been covered or wiped out by the effects of hundreds of years of foreign rule and their continuing influence, and we must unearth it to find our center. And so, “Filipinas.”

My problem

My problem with such views is that they tend to reach a point which wouldn’t be so different from me looking back at my baby pictures to figure out the woman I am today. There’s too much analysis paralysis, and not enough owning it and moving forward.

Don’t get me wrong. Our history has the power to inspire and give us something to aspire to. For instance, learning that our pre-colonial ancestors actually had extensive commercial and cultural relations with other Asian countries gives a whole new perspective on how desperately grateful we are to English for being our bridge to the world. We learn that we can be thankful for having another language to speak without relating to it as some sort of crutch or validity stamp — to find freedom and pride in the fact that even before we were introduced to Uncle Sam and his twang, we were already people of the world — and to take that knowledge with us even as we speak English today. As crucial as it is to know where you came from and what your story is, I don’t think it’s a place to stay or a self to keep trying to resurrect. It is there for context.

What is ours?

I also do not get the obsession with trying to find what is originally and traditionally ours. It’s an absurd matter to try to figure out because there is no such thing as a clear-cut beginning or a pure culture. That’s why it’s dizzying to try to trace it back. We all have our influences. We’ve all been irretrievably altered.

Thailand, for example, is the result of an outcast group from Southern China capturing the Khmer city of Sukothai in 1238. But strangely enough, the Khmer culture (most popularly portrayed in The King and I) captured the Thai. So their strong display of culture today from the moment you walk into the Suvarnabhumi Airport, to their ancient architecture, their prayer houses, and the numerous religious accessories found in their taxi cabs actually belongs to their ancient captives.

To be fair to the Philippines, capturing and being captured are different situations that produce different sensitivities. But the end result is the same in that we are changed. When you study world history, it’s a challenge to find what is original and exclusive to one country. Cultures bleed into each other through different means and scenarios. And in the end, there’s just who you say you are today and what you call your own.

A complex issue

Nevertheless it is worth acknowledging that bodies like the KWF propose what they do because there are many issues related to our culture that deserve to be tackled. To name a few, there is the impact that the “wrong grammar” stigma has on how many Filipinos perceive themselves.  There is the attitude of being beholden and failing to take care of our own; or how many of our musicians today seem to miss the fact that the biggest hits in this country are in the vernacular — even our biggest international hit, Freddie Aguilar’s Anak. But I believe it is for these reasons that culture should be valued — because it resounds, is what speaks to people, and because it is what works. I’m honestly not so interested in legalistic historical accuracy. I’m not even interested in trying to have an identity, which is such a contrived way to go about it. I’m of the belief that people should dig deep into themselves, keep doing their thing, and then realize that they’ve grown into something. 

There are many other questions that I’d like to ask. Why struggle to be “pure” when you were given an interesting story that infused you with many different layers? Does being a far cry from who your ancestors were and having been influenced many times over mean that you’re not being the real deal right now? Is our vast cultural and linguistic diversity a pain in the ass of wanting to have something to declare as common and “national?” Can’t we just let it be what it is? Is our inability to agree on issues, such as our name, that big of a threat or is that just people being people? Isn’t it fun to live in a country where everyone insists on having their own say, even down to how they season their food in a restaurant? Is national identity really something you can concretely pin down? Can’t it be as simple and personal as a warm community back home that doesn’t know how to appreciate sarcasm?

Isn’t it absurd to call a culture dead when the people are very much alive? And lastly, is it possible that an idealized image of how we ought to be is getting in the way of being able to see and appreciate who we are today?

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Tweet the author @catedeleon.

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