Should we decolonize the Filipino identity?

When we look back on our colonial history, there’s a sense of trauma and loss. We mourn our slain ancestors, lament the corrupted indigenous heritage and curse the repeated pitfalls and defeats. 

Decades after the last foreign fleet has sailed, traces of colonial imprints are still weaved into Filipino culture. Many of us regard this with shame and guilt. There’s guilt in writing in English than Filipino, shame in craving for pizza than adobo, embarrassment in using whitening cosmetics. With this fury and remorse in mind, there’s a pursuit to vilify the West and reject their ideals in order to favor what is purely Filipino.

But what happens to our identity when we peel off the Spanish and American layers? Is what’s left then, the true Filipino? Take for example our cuisine, decolonizing that means rejecting the use of the fridge and microwave since these technologies were brought by the White Man. It also means junking dishes like the adobo and kaldereta because the practice of guisa is a culinary technique brought by Spain. Decolonizing Filipino arts would result in wiping out film, photography, and painting as these were brought by the West. Before that was introduced,  we primarily practiced oral tradition and pottery.  We wouldn’t have books, cinemas, universities, and noche buenas

Colonial imprints are part of our identity whether we like it or not. But this does not mean that the West is responsible for the creation of our identity. What they provided were only tools. The ref, the camera, the crucifix are all considered tools. What we made out of it is the Filipino identity—the adobo, the Sharon Cuneta, the Black Nazarene. That is no longer theirs, it is ours. Invasion has changed the course of history, but we authored the Filipino identity. To bury our colonial past would risk a fractured identity – if we remove those layers then what’s left is no longer Filipino. 

Gift or weapon

There’s no reason for us to be in gratitude to invaders for the tools they’ve shared with us. Tools exist for better or for worse, as gifts or weapons. They could help one but harm the other. For instance,  English opened our doors to a global field, but it also exists as a status symbol, a barrier that separates the ‘intellectual’ from the ‘ignorant’. A glance at your phone or textbook would tell you that English is overhauling our local language.

As for Catholicism, it deepened our sense of reverence and service. It created fiestas, a unique fusion of faith and frenzy. On the other hand, it introduced hierarchical values that legitimized the abuse of power. Friars maintained control by portraying an almighty God that cowered over natives and demanded their resignation and obedience. 
Another gifted and weaponized tool is the camera. Photography has been a truth-telling instrument, capturing our lived experience and recording history. But when American scholars pointed the lens towards our ethnic groups, it was used to categorize, define and dominate them. As photography expanded, it painted the image of beauty under the Western eye. TV and Hollywood told us that beauty is a slim figure with fair skin, round eyes, and a straight nose.

Negrito man and woman with Dean Worcestor. Photo used with permission from Massachusetts Institute of Technology

This is where the work of decolonization begins. It asks us to confront our colonial past rather than bury it. It’s not an outright rejection of Western ideas. But, a reexamination of history with a critical eye, a responsibility of dismantling invader-imposed systems that continue to oppress us today.   

Colonialism isn’t only about what was brought to our shores but also how it was enforced and for what purpose. Conquerors used Catholicism and public education systems as vehicles to pacify, and transfer colonial ideals. It eventually enabled friars to steal land, impose tributes and command forced labor. A hacienda system prospered the few and exploited the many. Agriculture was positioned for export, binding us to be a resource base for high-powered industrial countries. Education was limited to the elite. But once it expanded, it was supervised by a false teacher conditioning its students to believe they were a lesser folk that depended on the shared tools of a much superior nation. It cultivated a consciousness of inferiority and resignation. Any movement to oppose these schemes was branded an act of subversion and terrorism. 

Ghosts of a colonial past

The grips of Spain and America affect us generations later. Independence did not release us from such conditions, it only transformed it. You don’t need to rummage through history books to know that land is still being robbed from farmers and indigenous tribes, the economy is still in favor of the elite, and education is positioned to export our labor. We strive for international recognition before applauding our own work. We desire to entertain the foreigner and mimic their aesthetics. Then there’s Catholic conservatism keeping us from legalizing divorce and abortion even after the outsider that banned these have long moved on from those ideals.

If ghosts of a dark colonial past haunt us today, so does the spirit of resistance. The struggle for a better life has always been part of our historical memory. It’s alive in the consciousness of activists, unionists, and indigenous people just as much as it was alive in Bonifacio, Burgos, and Lapu-Lapu.  We can never reverse the ugly history but, we can break free from the social inequities that remain to impede our development; disarm the cursed weapons and benefit from the gifts. 

Such movement can never be done in isolation. Decolonial thinking has to be accompanied by decolonial action. It is not only an individual pursuit but, a collective effort. An act of dialogue and activism that aims to build a self-reliant community free from the clutches of the paralyzing colonial hand. 

This would mean reckoning with history but also uncovering the gaps in popular narratives. It is valuing Christianity but also amplifying ethnic belief systems. It is embracing our culture instead of chasing after the Western model. It is having no shame in craving for pizza but choosing to buy from the local businesses over the towering multinational corporation. It is using English to explore the world beyond our shores but also using Filipino to discover the knowledge seated in our 7,000 islands.  It is challenging colonial systems and, organizing towards a  people-centered paradigm of our own. The work of decolonization requires everyone’s participation, no matter what field or sector.  If we’ve authored our identity, so should we dictate its destiny. It cannot be done by one voice but the united chorus of sectors that have forged alliances under the same objectives of resistance and restorative justice. Resistance in Western superiority and restoration of true sovereignty that colonizers still owe us. It’s not only in the hands of scholars to question Western perspectives, workers to claim the fruits of their labor, or Lumads to reconcile their silenced history. It is a conscious and collective effort of relearning and rebuilding welcomed to you. [P]

graphics by Jase Manatad

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