The Filipino Culture: What Is It?

A Question of Identity (Excerpt)
     Conrado de Quiros

....There are of course pitfalls (to the study of Philippine History) that we must avoid. Chief of them is the temptation to romanticize the pre-colonial past that tends to hound propositions like this. There were two particularly strong varieties of this some time ago.

One was the tendency to belittle or even scorn the Western influences, to see them as having had only a superficial effect on us. This particular viewpoint, which sparked a debate in the 1960s, said that if you scratch the Filipino deeply enough, you will find a pristine non-Western core inside. This was soundly refuted by the Institute for Philippine Culture, which called this the "onion skin theory of Philippine identity." The problem with peeling off the layers of onions -- which represented the various "external" influences on the Filipino -- is that you end up with nothing. There is no core, the onion is its layers. From another direction, which was the creative one, Nick Joaquin showed how deeply Spanish and American culture lodged in the Filipino psyche. You took them off, and there was no Filipino. Other experts say that using "Halo-Halo"(Filipino mixed cold dessert) as a metaphor instead of the "onion skin" is more appropriate because the Filipino culture is a not a 'layered' but more of a mix or mestizo culture).

The other, though far less well known, the pitfall is exaggerating the wonders of the pre-colonial past. That was the impression one got from reading F. Landa Jocano’s anthropological works. Not quite incidentally, Jocano entitled his foremost book on the subject "Philippine Prehistory," suggesting himself that what happened before the Spaniards came was largely a prelude -- doubtless a long one, but a prelude nonetheless -- to Philippine history. But clearly, our mummifying techniques and engineering feats such as the rice terraces notwithstanding, we had no culture or civilization anywhere resembling China’s and Japan’s, or nearer home Thailand’s and the Indochinese countries’. These excesses aside, the project of looking at Philippine history as something that stretches well beyond 1521 is eminently valid. Indeed, the project of looking at Philippine history resolutely from our point of view and not from those who colonized us is eminently necessary.

Its merits do not lie only in the difference between insurrectos and revolutionaries, which was the difference in the way the Katipuneros were seen by the American occupation force at the turn of the 20th century and the way they saw themselves. Though that is an incalculable merit enough as it is. Its true merits lie in that it allows us to understand ourselves by seeing ourselves from our own eyes, from the perspective of our own dreams and purposes, and not from the judgments and expectations of others. That is the stuff of which identities are made.

In the past, as I’ve said, the question of identity has been snagged by the problem of romanticism. But there is really no reason to idealize the past to see things from our point of view. We do not have to imagine a glorious past that was somehow devastated by the colonial horde the way Peruvian civilization was. We do not have to believe that Spanish and American colonial rule, which lasted for 400 years, did not alter our consciousness in a thoroughgoing way. We need only to see that we were not the savages that had to be delivered spiritually and physically to the light. We need only to see that the process by which we became "westernized" was not a simple one of pouring things into an empty receptacle but a complex one of mixing many things(resulting in a unique hybrid or mestizo Filipino culture that is a mix of various influences)

We do this, and a lot of things become intelligible to us. We see why our Christianity is the way it is: It is not merely that a primitive people resisted foreign influence and so made its effects incomplete. It is that a people who believed in anitos assimilated a different belief into their own. We see why our democracy is the way it is: It was not merely that a people who did not know the meaning of liberalism were unprepared for democracy. It was that a people’s struggle to be free was aborted midstream, and replaced by the letter rather than spirit of freedom.

But what’s the big deal about identity? Well, look at countries like Thailand, Singapore, and Malaysia, and look at us. With nations as with individuals, you have no sense of self, you will never know, and do, what you want. You will only know, and follow, what others tell you to.

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