On Identity

Or, Can I really call myself a Filipino?

By: N. Mozart Diaz

(This is just an existential crisis waiting to happen, isn’t it?)

The term ‘Filipino’ has gone through a number of etymological changes since its conception. First used as a term to denote the Spaniards who were born in the Philippines — the sole difference being that those born here failed to uphold the limpieza de sangre (purity of blood) simply because they were born on the other side of the world. The term was used interchangeably with creoles and insulares. The natives were called indios, which essentially means ‘indians’, following the tradition Christopher Columbus started.

The native population did not call themselves Filipinos yet, we didn’t even have a word we could use to identify ourselves. We were Tagalogs, Kapampangans, Ilocanos, Bisayans, and this and that, but never Filipino. The term was reserved for the Spanish elites who were born in the archipelago. But, like everything else, this changed as well.

In an oversimplification of Philippine history, three events changed the way Filipinos and indios looked at themselves: the passing and repeal of the Cadiz Constitution, the execution of three Filipino priests — Gomez, Burgos, and Zamora — and, ultimately, the 1896 revolution which culminated in 1898.

With a stroke of a pen in Malolos, Emilio Aguinaldo made all the people once called indios into Filipinos. We were the first constitutional republic in Asia, until America’s dream of empire strangled the newborn, fledging republic of the Philippines.

And this is the part where I get confused. While it is easy to trace the meanings the word took on, it is much harder to think about what it means to be a Filipino especially after our Americanization, People Power Movements, and the increasing diaspora of Filipinos around the world.

Before 1896, it meant that someone was a Spaniard born on the other side of the world; by 1898, it was a title bought by the blood of the revolutionaries. In 2016, it is a loaded word that anyone can attach meaning to. It is a lump of clay that anyone can mold, sculpt, and display for the world to see. Much like any country that went through the pains of colonialism, the Philippines went, and is still going through, an identity crisis; the question of identity differs slightly for the Filipino, since the term was forged through colonialism.

Although the question ‘Can I call myself a Filipino?’ can be answered in terms of the role of nationalism and identity politics in the age of globalization, the question feels extremely personal to me. (And people smarter than me can answer the former better than I ever could .) Personal since I consider myself a Filipino, personal because I am trying to make sense of the world around me, personal because I am a student of the University of the Philippines — Iskolar ng Bayan. It is a question posed with overwhelming significance.

The significance of this question is imposed upon everyone who believes that national symbols, pledges, stereotypes, and ‘Filipino Pride’ is not enough to define what it means to be a Filipino.

The answer is something which can only be found in hours and hours of reading the literature, on socializing with fellow Filipinos, in being socially aware of the things that are happening within and around the nation.

But can I call myself a Filipino? Had I asked myself this question a year ago, I would have answered with a loud, resounding ‘Yes!’ I was a Filipino by every definition of every dictionary and every constitution used in the country. I wrote in Filipino every now and then. But was I? I could barely speak the language, I could not even bring myself to finish Noli me Tangere or El Filibusterismo. I studied in a school that could not be any more American.

I see it now that I cannot, other than in its most basic definition, call myself a Filipino — but I’m on my way. Like every other person born and educated in a time of global connectivity, in a time of cultures clashing and mixing, I must find my identity in the Filipino — lest I wish to disown our long and tumultuous history, vibrant culture, and native tongue.

So until then, let me study the literature — fiction and non-fiction — , let me marvel at the art and paintintgs of artists, old and new. Let me read and reread the Kartilya, the surviving articles from the Kalayaan, and the speech by Carlos P. Romulo: I am a Filipino. Let me be guided by those who know better, by those who are Filipino. That although I am not a Spaniard born in the Philippines, or a revolutionary who painted the most vivid pages of Philippine history with their blood, I may find myself a Filipino.

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