News and Features

The Myth that is the Filipino


Photo by Mark Sherwin Bayanito

The 25 January 2015 incident in Mamasapano, Maguindanao and the debate on whether the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) should be passed or not has stirred public opinion on where accountability for what has happened should lie, and on matters concerning the Bangsamoro people in Mindanao. Comments in online social media as well as in print commentaries included how the BBL will result to the separation of the Bangsamoro to the country, how the Bangsamoro as an identity was only made-up, and how the peoples of the Bangsamoro are not Filipinos.

But what does Filipino really mean? How could we tell apart Filipinos from  others who have lived and have ancestral claims in what has eventually become part of the Philippine territory? It may be timely to revisit the roots and evolution of the Filipino identity.

The Filipino Narrative: The Creation of a Myth

The Filipino identity is not entirely indigenous; it had to be imagined by our prime revolutionaries. Upon the arrival of the Spanish expedition led by Miguel Lopéz de Legazpi the separately independent barangays comprising the archipelago was unified as part of “the empire on which the sun never sets,” which was first attributed to the Spanish Empire under King Charles I and King Philip II, Felipe el Prudente, the latter of which our country has been named after. While certainly the derivation of the word Filipino finds its roots to King Philip II, it is not part of the main Filipino discourse, and neither was its original definition: the insulares, or those of pure Spanish descent born in the Philippine Islands.

…the Filipino began to evolve into what it meant today, that what Emilio Jacinto referred to as liwanag is to return and replace the painfully long centuries of dilim through the cry for kalayaan.

The narrative of the Filipino identity was built upon the resistance to the colonial regime, the heroism triggered by the  thirst for freedom from oppresive foreign rule. It took to the final decades of the Spanish colonial rule, when the Suez Canal opened opportunities for rich mestizos and fortunate indios to be schooled in Europe, and when the consciousness of European Enlightenment was brought back to the country by these students – the Ilustrados – that the Filipino began to evolve into what it meant today, that what Emilio Jacinto referred to as liwanag is to return and replace the painfully long centuries of dilim through the cry for kalayaan. The Katipunan established the revolutionary government of the Haring Bayang Katagalugan, thereby creating a discourse of a national identity called Tagalog for the assumed preference of the original inhabitants of settling in the riverside, and in contrast to the colonial associations the Filipino as an identity would bring. Nevertheless, it is through such revolutionary sentiments and aim to achieve independence that the Filipino identity evolved, expanded to include those who live in the Philippine Islands of different ethnicities and share the same longing for freedom from colonial rule, and consciousness of a nation – an “us” against “them” – was raised on a grander scale.

Nation-building and the Realization of the Myth

The Philippine Revolution and the 1898 declaration of independence by Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo was immediately followed after by the American rule over the country, newly delineated by the Treaty of Paris of 1898. There had been not enough time for the task of a purely indigenous nation-building, and thus has to be aided by the current ruling power at the time. Only by the time the Second Philippine Commission was established in 1901, Filipinos were granted the opportunity to take part in nation-building, albeit only composed of three men (Legarda, Pardo de Tavera, Luzuriaga) since and were followed by three more (Palma, Sumulong, Araneta) when the legislature opened in 1907 with the first national elections for the Philippine Assembly. A fully Filipino Philippine Legislature followed in 1916 with the creation of a nationally elected Senate through the enactment of the Philippine Autonomy Act or the Jones Law. It was only until 1935 that the United States Congress granted Filipinos the right to craft their own constitution as a precursor for full self-governance starting 1945.

Prior to independence in 1945, legislations have already been enacted concerning nation-building. As early as 1901, the shaping of nation-building in the Philippines started with identifying national heroes when the province of Rizal was created out of the Politico-Militar Distrito de Morong, with Jose Rizal set as a hero by the American administration; in 1918, the Philippine Legislature enacted a law on the creation of national monuments, especially one in memory of Andres Bonifacio, leader of the Katipunan; In 1921, November 30 was declared Bonifacio Day to commemorate his birth; and in 1931, a law declaring as National Heroes Day the last Sunday of August. Aside from the identification of national heroes, the National Assembly also enacted in 1936 the creation of an Institute of National Language, and complemented by President Manuel Luis Quezon’s Executive Order no. 134 proclaiming a national language based on Tagalog. This was later on to be strongly reinforced during the Japanese Occupation; and in 1934 Governor-General Frank Murphy declared sampaguita and narra as national symbols. Fast forward to 1995, President Fidel Ramos declared the Philippine Eagle as the national bird. The list goes on.

Through these legislative and executive issuances, Philippine nation-building is being solidified and Filipino as a national identity is being realized. Thus, Filipino self-determination is being further reinforced.

The Politics of Identity and the National Imagination

The Philippines was not able to experience a “natural” form of nation-building. Even during and after the colonial period, people still differentiate themselves through their ethno-linguistic affinity: Ilokano, Cebuano, Tagalog, Maguindanao, Hiligaynon, etc. The delineation of the Philippine territory in 1898 was not enough to naturally coalesce what would comprise the Filipino nation. National heroes and symbols have to be identified, and a national language have to be established in order to reinforce what would be considered as Filipinos into what would be a familiar and collective narrative.

The Filipino as an identity was collectively founded on the struggle for freedom from oppression,  and sped up by the need for nation-building by the turn of the 20th Century.

Indeed, there are still debates among ourselves on who comprise the Filipinos and on the appropriateness of our national symbols, and even questions on the national-ness of Filipino as a national language. The ambiguity in the Filipino identity may indeed be a result of the type of nation-building that we had, that the Filipino nation is what Benedict Anderson called an “imagined community,” a social construct. The Filipino as an identity was collectively founded on the struggle for freedom from oppression,  and sped up by the need for nation-building by the turn of the 20th Century. Those who do not seem to fit in the mainstream narrative are subjected to “othering,” oftentimes resulting to ethnic discrimination.

The myth of the Filipino identity prior to full independence has been our complex reality, arguably in a similar way that the Bangsamoro and the Moro struggle is a myth-turned-reality. It is an identity alien to those who have not been part of its narrative, and until we successfully define what the Filipino identity now is, we are still to face the long and continued process of nation-building.

Mark Sherwin Castronuevo Bayanito is a boy perpetually amazed of the stars in the night sky. He has varying degrees of complexities. Mark is an aimless graduate student of Political Science in UP Diliman, and is also an accidental peace advocate working at the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP). When you can’t find him, he’s most likely to be lost in his own mind again.