July 2007
Alien Nation

Tisoy kasi!

ASKED WHAT Filipino culture is like, we sometimes answer, “Three hundred years in a convent and 50 years in Hollywood,” suggesting a hybrid culture.

AMERICAN and Chinese influences blend well in Manila’s Chinatown. [photo by Jaileen Jimeno]

There’s an element of ambiguity when we use that description, due in part to the connotations of hybridization or, even more drastically, of “mongrelization.” Often enough, I think it’s not so much the mixing itself that upsets us than the ambiguity of it all: just who is the father? With our mongrel culture, maybe the question should use the plural.

Our fear of ambiguity comes, too, with our unresolved angst with the Spaniards, with the Americans. Our colonized mentality wants to believe we can be proud of what Mother Spain and Mother America left us. We point to Catholicism, to democracy, to English (and sometimes to Spanish), attributing all that to our colonizers. We bring visitors to look at our Spanish churches, drive them through Manila so they can see the grand old buildings built by the Americans and tell them the city was one of the most beautiful in the world before the Second World War.

Then we explain Manila got all bombed out by Americans when they tried to liberate us from the Japanese and then we talk about the military bases and the bars and the Visiting Forces Agreement and Nicole. As for the Spaniards, we love the fine church architecture but we complain about Catholic conservative moralism. We whine about colonialism and colonial mentalities, but do this in English (like I’m doing right now), fretting that we’ve been kept linguistically retarded, unable to develop a national language and, by extension, a national consciousness.

We yearn for purity, for an authentic Filipino, and it’s not surprising one area we’ve tried to do this is in language. In the 1960s and 1970s, an era of emergent nationalism, we tried to reconstruct a “pure” Filipino, coining words like salumpuwit (chair), Apo Tiktik for senior police detectives and suggesting that names use “Ama” and “Anak” to designate “Senior” and “Junior.”

In the 1980s we sort of settled down but still felt uneasy about anything “foreign.” Was anthropology “agham-tao” or could we settle on “antropolohiya”? Should our colleges be called “dalubhasaan” or “kolehiyo”?

From language we’ve moved into the area of pedigrees, with attempts to reconstruct or even reinvent family trees. An Internet site called the Labor Law Talk Dictionary includes an intriguing IMSCF Syndrome, which means “I am Spanish-Chinese-Filipino syndrome,” described in the Labor Law Talk Dictionary as “ethnic forgery amongst overseas Filipinos.”

The preferred ethnicities tell us again something about our collective anxieties. It used to be that we would create status by invoking mestizo-hood through putative Spanish and American ancestors. But lately, and especially after Corazon Cojuangco Aquino (emphasis on Cojuangco) became president, it has also become useful to have a Limahong or two as well. (Note that a one-syllable surname like Tan or Lim doesn’t quite count.)

CATHOLICISM courtesy of Mother Spain. [photo by Jaileen Jimeno]

THE TIDE of nationalism beginning in the 1960s — which was when we tried to coin a pure Filipino language — also led later to a search for a kind of precolonial purity, preferably with datus, as Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has done.

The historian Benedict Anderson writes about how Filipinos seem to have gone through a lobotomy, a removal of a part of the brain responsible for memory. The amnesia is selective of course; we leave out bits and pieces of our colonial history, and practically all of our precolonial past.

Most Filipinos know little about the precolonial era. In part, this is because of colonialism, both Spanish and American, and the way the precolonial period was depicted as a kind of Dark Age, of ignorant pagan natives running around naked. With the nationalist period of the 1970s, the pendulum swung to the other end as we romanticized the precolonial period in our search for The Authentic Filipino.

It is important, certainly, to go back to our precolonial period, but not to look for a pure Filipino culture. In the first place, the “Filipino” did not come into existence until the 19th century, and initially, it was a term reserved for Spaniards born in the Philippines. Later, it was expropriated by Rizal and other ilustrados, the illuminated bourgeoisie, who could see a Filipino as a loyal subject of Spain.

The roots of what we call Filipino culture today do date back to the precolonial period, and there is still much to do here around archaeology, anthropology, and linguistics to reconstruct that period. But what we have so far is already fascinating, including the way it reflects how our cultures were constantly being hybridized during that time.

There is a persistent myth — unfortunately propagated by early anthropologists — that Philippine culture evolved out of several “waves” of migrants: the Negritos, the Indonesians, the Malays, with suggestions that each wave came in and transplanted, in toto, a whole culture superior to the previous one. This image of our cultural past became even more colorful with stories of the 10 datus of Panay and the Kalantiaw Code, an elaborate if not rather sadistic prescription of punishments for various crimes supposedly formulated by some great datu, possibly of the “Malay” wave.

Kalantiaw and the 10 datus have since been proven to be fabricated, although the Philippine government discontinued its Order of Kalantiaw award only in 2003. The wave theory is no longer accepted by most anthropologists and historians, and is now seen as simplistic, even racist, with its insinuations of “superior” and “inferior” cultures. Filipino culture(s) is an amalgam, the result of different cultures interacting with each other, rather than distinct pre-assembled waves.

WE SEE this certainly in our languages, which are in constant flux. The Cebuanos today rightly complain about Tagalog imperialism and the attempts to impose Tagalog as a national language. Linguistic research tells us Tagalog actually evolved out of older southern languages, including Cebuano.

Our local languages were dynamic, absorbing new words from each other and from outside. Today our languages have many words borrowed not just from Spanish and English but also from Malay, Javanese, Sanskrit, and Chinese. Words didn’t just float in; they came in the context of different cultures eating together (mami and siomai, noodle soup and steamed pork dumpling), trading (we share numerical terms with Malaysia and also borrowed wholesale from the Spaniards), talking about philosophical and religious issues (dukha or poor is a Buddhist Pali term, guro or teacher is Sanskrit, and the Filipino word for soul, kaluluwa, is probably derived from the Arabic “ruh”). We fell in love, too — sinta is used in the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia to refer to a loved one. (Curiously, sayang means both a loved one and what a waste in Indonesia and Malaysia, but only what a waste in the Philippines.) Some of those intercultural exchanges led to, well, babies and families and kinship terms borrowed from the Chinese (for example, ate and kuya) together with the emphasis on filial piety.

In the postwar era, as we began to build a national language, we found Tagalog — the foundation of that language — slowly being enriched by other local languages. For example, we use the Cebuano suroy-suroy, which means to wander around without any specific destination in mind. And as we suroy-suroy around, we might suddenly take a detour to avoid someone we call dugyot, dirty and shabby, the term borrowed from Ilokano.

Let’s return now to our trip to the past. Archaeology and anthropology — the archaeologists dig while the anthropologists interpret what they find — offer other tantalizing glimpses into precolonial culture. Many archaeological sites are actually old graves, which now speak to us through the goods they had, literally allowing the dead to tell us stories. The graves reflect stratified societies — some were buried with gold masks and other jewelry and pots, while others had nothing. The grave goods tell us, too, of an appetite for foreign goods. Graves have yielded Chinese ceramics dating back to the Tang dynasty (7th–10th centuries AD). The quality of many of these ceramics is quite fine, coming from kilns in northern China, telling us that our indio ancestors had accumulated wealth to be able to afford these importations, the wealth almost certainly generated from trade with our neighbors.

The assortment of imported goods is also fascinating. There are the utilitarian plates and bowls (literally, the indios were eating off fine china), as well as a large number of what at first sight would seem like figurines, of flora and fauna, and of humans. Some are charming, like a little boy on a water buffalo; others are, well, quite risqué, as in coupling couples. The Filipino’s love for imported abubut — knick knacks and curios — including pornographic ones, does seem to date back several centuries, but what’s intriguing is that so many of these figurines were actually water drops, originally crafted by the Chinese to hold water, which would be mixed with ink slabs for calligraphy and Chinese painting.

Eventually, the Chinese recognized the potentials of an overseas Southeast Asian market, and ceramics began to come out of Fujian and Canton in huge volumes. These were not as fine as the ceramics from northern China and so could now be afforded by less wealthy indios. Imagine again the impact on local aesthetics as we imported more of these ceramics, some of which were like the stuff you get these days in 168 and Divisoria, mass-produced and cruder versions of the original. Later, the Vietnamese began to produce even cheaper versions, and again, we imported them. Mass production, and imitation, probably democratized these ceramics to some extent, leaving its imprint on today’s Filipino.

THE TERM “syncretism” is used to refer to a mixing of cultural elements; in the Philippines, this is particularly glaring in religion. We embraced Catholicism (and later, Protestantism) but often retaining precolonial “pagan” practices. The result is a cacophonous fusion, bringing together what might even seem to be contradictions. The religious culture of Quiapo yields many examples of this syncretism. On the surface we have devotions to the Black Nazarene, one that is endorsed by no less than a Papal bull dating back to 1650 establishing the Cofradia de Jesus Nazareno, and Pius VII’s granting of indulgences to those who pray before the image. A novena is patterned after the stations of the cross, commemorating Christ’s passion and death to redeem humanity.

But beyond these “authorized” devotions, there is a whole set of beliefs and practices that one might still call folk Catholicism, but which purists might label as “pagan.” Outside the Quiapo church are assorted amulets, many religious medallions with pidgin Latin, mixed with various forms of flora and fauna said to have protective powers. Vendors also sell candles of different colors, each representing a particular kind of wish. All the vendors have a sheet of paper where the purpose of each color of candle is explained, from peach for studies to black for “conscience.” Ask the vendors and they explain “pang konsiyensiya,” a way of getting an adversary to come to his or her senses. For extra insurance, you can buy black candles shaped like people.

The Nazarene devotions are also a mix of animism and Catholicism, with people lining up to rub one of several Nazarene images with their handkerchiefs, hoping they can bring home part of the potency of the image for healing, for good luck, for household harmony and peace. Each year on January 9, this devotion explodes into a frenzy when one of the Nazarene statues is brought out in a procession through Quiapo’s streets. Thousands of people, mostly men, jostle to try to get to the image, to help pull the carroza, or to try to get on it to touch the image. Most will be content to just throw a towel to the ones already on the carroza, who will then rub the towel on the image for them. This devotion, some social scientists suggest, go back to a precolonial concept of the male warrior who must go through trials to gain favor.

It is not just Quiapo’s devotions where we find this syncretism. From the Batanes islands, down to Muslim Mindanao, we find precolonial animist beliefs and practices blending in, or sometimes clashing with, the world religions that came later: Christianity and Islam.

OUR RELIGIOUS syncretism also shows how dynamic the process is, involving many different settings. Our Spanish colonial churches carry the imprints of different cultural interactions. There may be religious images carrying a distinct Chinese imprint, in the eyes for example of images of the Virgin Mary or even the Santo Niño. These come from Chinese artisans who had migrated to the Philippines and ended up working for the friars.

The elaborate details in our churches, which we sometimes refer to as “borloloy,” is actually a variation on “arabesque,” the term referring to the penchant, in Islamic art, for filling up spaces. Since Spain itself had once been under the Moors (Muslims), that “borloloy” instinct was transmitted to them, and eventually to the Philippines.

Syncretism is found, too, in other cultural spheres, in particular health. Filipinos will not hesitate to combine Western treatments with traditional ones, including the use of therapeutic massage (paghihilot) and medicinal plants, a favorite source in Metro Manila being the Quiapo church. Traditional concepts of health and illness are pervasive — an example is grown men and women still having a handkerchief covering their backs, based on an old concept that a back with perspiration, when exposed to the wind, predisposes the person to illness. There is no medical basis for this practice, but it remains widespread.

We could go on and on with other examples of syncretism, from food to clothing. Most of the time, the result is a rather harmonious blending but even in cases where there may be conflicts — as in Quiapo’s religious culture and its flirtations with the occult, or a patient delaying treatment for an illness because of a folk healer’s advice — there seems to be enough room for accommodation. Rather than look for a non-existent “pure” precolonial Filipino culture, we should marvel at what we have, recognizing that all cultures are the result of interactions of people, in different situations and circumstances. Today Filipino culture remains in flux, many of the changes occurring outside, as millions of Filipino work and live overseas, borrowing some of the practices of their host countries and bringing them home, modified and transformed, ready to be absorbed into local culture.

We need to avoid two extremes: One is to continue wallowing in a colonial mentality that sees only Western influences as good. The other is to attempt to look for a pure precolonial past. All cultures are hybrids and it can be fascinating unraveling all the sources and processes involved in this hybridization. Once we recognize that we are all mestizo, the product of more than one culture, we might better appreciate ourselves — and humanity.

Dr. Michael L. Tan is a medical anthropologist. He is currently chair of the anthropology department at U.P. Diliman, Quezon City. He also writes an op-ed column, “Pinoy Kasi,” for the Philippine Daily Inquirer.