But What Is Filipino…?

by alex [*the below was also posted on the Kilusan blog]

What is Filipino?

This is the Philippines, so this must be Filipino right?

The guy in all the pics above was born in the Philippines, so he must be Filipino right?

*   *   *

I started really wondering about “Filipino-ness” on this trip.

The damn labels “Philippines” and “Filipino” bother me, we’re a supposedly independent country that’s still named after the crown prince of a country that long-ago invaded us.  Am I alone in this or is this crazy?  [*and yeah I do know that Marcos tried to change the name once, too bad he tried to name it after himself…]

The label “Filipino” didn’t even apply to the natives of this country until the late 19th century, and even then it was appropriated by a mestizo class of native that only desired to take over the reins of power from the foreign colonials–a goal they eventually achieved (a state of affairs that remains the status quo to this day).

I cringe a little inside when I call myself “Filipino,” I wish there was another option.  I’d almost rather still be called an ‘indio’ than to continue to use the name forced on us by conqueror that we already kicked out of the damn country.  I’d be happy to let the elites keep that label though, it suits them.  But obviously this is a completely emotional reaction, not an intellectual one, I realise that, yet these thoughts remain.

“What is Filipino?”

My point of view on that is nowhere near easy, neat, nor completely pleasant…  but the story isn’t finished yet…

Next week the Kilusan collective will be presenting their work at Rolly’s in Toronto.  I am sure that in our own ways, all our work will be explorations in this question…

*   *   *

How would all of you answer the question:   What is Filipino???

~ by alexfelipe on May 8, 2009.

26 Responses to “But What Is Filipino…?”

  1. So wait… you would be rather be called a Spanish pejorative term given by the colonizers than call yourself Filipino?

    Filipinos are diverse. It’s not just about the “indios” and the “mestizos” anymore. It is not black and white. It’s actually complicated a lot by the diaspora too. I am from mestizo class, so that means you think that you are not really like me? But we go to the same Filipino centre? And I may be mestiza but I was born in the Philippines, but you are born in Canada. And now we are both highly educated middle class Canadians. But can I pull rank and say that I am more “authentic” because I was born there? Or can you pull rank and say you are “indio” and because you “look” more “indio”?

    History is important to know, but to still hang on to it like baggage isn’t gonna help any of us. You are now in Canada with loads more privileges and live with more security than any Filipino in the Philippines, even upper class ones. Canada is the great equalizer. You can just hop into the homeland and be down with the poor “indios” because you look like them, but you can hop out when you need to go back to Canada and make more Canadian dollars. Even upper middle class folks in the Philippines don’t have that privilege. Trust me no one in the squatters is even thinking about whether they are Filipino or “indio”. They just are Filipino, and Manny Pacquiao gives them and their nation an international face.

    Dwelling on our differences isn’t helping anyone with nation building. I know Filipinos who are part Japanese (because their Lola fell in love with a Japanese soldier), so are they less Filipino or Indio? How bout the poor Spanish farmer who landed in Cebu at the turn of the 20th century because there was a civil war in Spain. But 3 generations later his family are highly educated light skinned Filipinos in Cebu. Would you separate yourself from them because they exemplify the more historical indentity of “Filipino”? But then again, they look like your brother who came out more light skinned. So where do you stand with mestizo blood in your veins?

    Is it about skin color or class? Old money? New money? I am not trying to take away from the fact that there still is that small ruling class who are generally jerks. The politicians are MESSED UP. There’s a lot of problems in the Philippines that we aren’t going to change in our lifetime unless you and a huge army of educated balikbayans go back and give up your Canadian passports and infiltrate the system there in a big way, or start an armed revolution funded by the US…or something.

    One thing is for sure, creating divisions by regressing through the use of terms from a bygone era isn’t going to support our struggle for unification in the community, in the homeland, and in this white man’s land we are living in.

  2. I think of myself as ‘Filipino’, TOTALLY. (and my vote is that you are too, Alex!)

    Growing up conflicted in Canada was hard enough, I’m just happy to be part of a group that I identify with. I’m not interested at all in rejecting centuries of history that already occurred. This one goes hand in hand with the issue of decolonization — a concept that I can’t accept, at least the way its been presented to me.

    Think about the journey of most self-aware Filipino kids abroad spending their whole lives looking for the definition of what makes them Filipino — only to be told that all they know is a farce perpetuated by the results of colonization eras before they were even born. The concept makes me feel like I’m being robbed of something that’s mine to pursue and own.

    It would mean that I can’t eat Kaldereta ng Kambing, rock my barong and do the todo-todo at the next family party with the Titas – not to mention even use the word ‘Tita’! My last name – Cervantes – null and void once I return it to Claveria and my light skin would probably disqualify me from the tiny group of remaining natives whose ancestors didn’t have sex with a Spanish, American, Hapon or Inchik something along the line. The least diluted most-indio would be the new elite and I’d be on the outside wearing a bahag instead of pants!

    Thing is, I’d still be the same person.

    Thinking we can turn back the clock is silly, unless you’re Marty McFly and you know Doc Brown personally.

    My late Lola said it best when I asked her about this.

    She said, “Once you’ve made a pot of sinigang, you can’t take out the tamarind taste anymore if you find it tastes sour.”

  3. Heh, I thought this might provoke a response!

    Well I did say “almost” with the indio line. 😉 So ya I do call myself Filipino, but that’s just for lack of a better term. It’s the last problem that the Phils needs to change but I really do believe that eventually (when poverty, forced migration, cultural erosion, corruption, and all the big ones are done–which may take a long time) we have to change the name.

    It’s not about turning the clock back. It’s not about us ditching 500 years of history and going back to subsistence tribal life (not that that’s even possible). Obviously we wouldn’t be who we are today (as individuals and a nation) without the Spanish. Our concept of nationhood is a result of colonisation, that is a fact. I am simply talking about the term. When other former colonies achieved independence they changed their names, I would simply eventually like to see that happen with us too.

    So to clarify again, it’s not about the concept, it’s about the term.

    Caroline: I agree with what you say. What I wrote above is merely an emotional reaction, not an intellectual one, to the terms “Philippines” and “Filipino.” It is an emotional response to our history and current socio-political situation. I wrote it basically show the push pull in my head everytime I go back home.

    Again, when I say ‘indio’ I know both that it is a derogatory term (as it was/is in all former Spanish colonies–I’ve also lived in S.America and I know that the rich still use it there too), and that I am not from an ‘indigenous’ group. I’m Tagalog and we’re as colonised as they come. My grandmother and her sisters wear being ‘mestiza’ proudly, so I am familiar with that point of view too. When I used the term it was more of a kind of irrational longing for something that can never be. Also it also demonstrates the disconnect I have always (at least wanted to) feel about the historically privileged classes. The bit in the brackets is there as I realise that coming from Canada I myself am from a relatively more privileged class than my relatives back home, but there remains a definite difference between my kind of privilege and the kind enjoyed by rich Pinoys.

    So ya, I am fully with you that what I wrote about is definitely not the best use of political tact. But I’m not running for office, the above words are simply part of the emotional dynamic of my thoughts when I think about our people.

    No doubt that we need unity to move ourselves along, but it is also true that each of us has to tackle these big questions of who we are individually in order to get to the point of working together.

    Thanks for the responses guys,


    — or and “start an armed revolution funded by the US?!”
    whoa. that sounds crazy, “funded by the US” is never a good way to start a revolution I would think! 🙂

  4. btw, if anyone is interested in reading more there’s a good article about the name change thing here:

    Colonial Name, Colonial Mentality and Ethnocentrism

  5. its an interesting POV though, I think I had the same feeling a few years back when I was in college (ok maybe more than a few years).

    From my own personal experience, it was useful for me to collect those possibilities because its probably why I’m so ‘middle’ these days.

    I can’t say I fully agree today, but I’d never discount it.

    I’d imagine if a name change were to happen, it would be something like… Bombay now being Mumbai? (I dunno, what are other examples).

    One thing I do know, despite all the conflicting issues — I’d probably be sad about it for some reason.

    I’d still be FILIPINO but my country would be named something else. I’m not sure how I feel about that.

    I feel a push and a pull too when i go there, but mine is usually “Filipino” vs. “Canadian” and too often I feel too Canadian and displaced. I can’t imagine the other layer of question the validity of Filipino-ness. That’s too much for me right now!

  6. Alex, there is a A LOT to be said about IRONY. revolution funded by the US is called IRONY. or sarcastic humour? You know how sarcastic I am right?

    And I know all about your prejudices about “rich Pinoys” — We can all be judged by how much money we have, sure that’s too easy. At the end of the day you are on the side of Canadian hegemony. Period. There are a lot of things that you probably don’t understand when you come to the Philippines. I think before you can make judgements about the class struggle there, you should live there for at least 10 years without going back to Canada to work and earn money.

    The thing is if you did live in the Philippines you yourself CAN enjoy the exact same privileges as the “rich Pinoys”. You just CHOOSE not to. Again, that’s Canadian hegemony at work. Just because you REJECT privilege in the Philippines, does not mean you don’t have it. The only difference is, the people who live in the Philippines may not take your perspective as openly especially when it is a critique, because you are still a privileged outsider as a Canadian. You always have to remember your place.

  7. As an impartial outsider to this conversation, here are some observations:

    The question Alex posed of “But what is Filipino?” and his exploration into the past use of terms are symptomatic of a greater historical phenomenon. Post-colonial consciousness and debates over terminological references belong to a particularly bourgeois conversation. It is a conversation that originated in the academy and trickled down to popular culture. One must remember much of our ordinary, common sense language is laced with neologisms coined by various Western thinkers. For example: ‘hegemony’ (Antonio Gramsci – Italy), ‘class’ and ‘class consciousness’ (Karl Marx – Germany and his disciple Gyorgy Lukacs – Hungary), ‘Orientalism’ (Edward Said – Palestine), ‘colonial mentality’ (Frantz Fanon – Algiers).

    The point to be made is that language in all forms is historically and geographically determined. Nobody ‘controls’ language. We make up new uses for old words and use old words to suit today’s purposes. Tomorrow’s meanings will be radically different than the meanings of our contemporary age. The most we ought to strive for is to remain context sensitive and abide by a politics of recognition.

    What is Filipino? Perhaps we should reject the question on the grounds that it presupposes there is something ‘deep’ to be answered. It is akin to the question ‘What is God?’

  8. Jermaine: I agree that labels and terms are historically determined and that meanings change. But language is power, and the labels we call ourselves have deep psychological impact. To change a name is a change that symbolises a peoples control over their own destiny.

    To ask “what is Filipino” is not akin to “what is God” as we can physically point to a Filipino, but we can’t say the same for personal anthropomorphic gods (as in the Judeo-Christian-Muslim tradition).

    Len: As I say, this is not an issue I consider of immediate import. The country has way too many problems that directly affect lives so debates over labels and names can definitely wait–that said, I still think about this now and then and I would welcome a change… but not until the time is right.

    Oh and as for the Bombay-Mumbai thing I think this is quite diff. The parallel analogy there would be Manila-Maynila. The former being the colonial version of an indigenous name. The Philippines is the name given to us with no local history. Other former colonies have changed their former colonial names:
    – Burma to Myanmar
    – Gold Coast to Ghana
    – Upper Volta to Burkina Faso
    – Dutch East Indies to Indonesia
    – North and South Rhodesia (named after Brit administrator Cecil Rhodes) to Zambia and Zimbabwe

    Caroline: sorry bout not catching the irony, it’s tough to do that online, words on a screen just don’t convey tone well… sorry 😉 As for remembering my privilege I do my best to remind myself of that. I would be more suspect of my opinions if only I shared them, but the fact is that my opinions are shared, and often are a result of, the opinions of my relatives, and that of many of people back home. I know that I’m an insider/outsider there, one foot in, one foot out. But I don’t think that means that I can’t have an opinion, or that I have to mind my place. No matter the place of my upbringing I share the same blood as the people of the Phils, and the means I have a say and I have a right to vocalize my opinions about the country.

    Also I think it’s important not to see Filipino-Canadians as a homogeneous group. We may all share a passport (Cdn) but our experiences are varied (just like the people in the Phils) so our views and allegiances vary. To say that one must keep quiet of one’s opinions until one has lived somewhere for 10 years means that none of us can have opinions of anywhere outside of our immediate neighbourhood, and that’s just bull. For example, as a Canadian from Toronto I have every right to have an opinion about what is happening in Quebec—as long as I respect the opinions and greater experiential knowledge of those in Quebec. In that same way are my views in the Phils created: I have my opinions based on my knowledge and experience, I bounce that off of people from the Phils, and I learn from them, thus forming sometimes new, and more often improving my original hypotheses.

    Anyways, I hope you’re having a good trip back, hope to see you soon! 🙂

  9. I am not sure that the labels we call ourselves have ‘deep psychological impact’. Again, this implies that we have to ‘dig deep’ within and reach some Freudian sub-conscious to realize some truth about what we are, as if there is some essence inside us that doesn’t quite live up to an external label. Of course, language is power, but I take that fact to be trivial, for power permeates many aspects of life (e.g. you put yourself within a medical doctor’s power if you are sick). My suggestion is then a matter of priority. Rather than ask “What is Filipino?” I would prefer to ask “Do Filipino’s of whatever country have the privilege of living in a social democracy?” or “Does Filipino culture contribute to Anglo-Canadians’ conception of themselves?”

    And due to my poor perception, I would not be able to point out the physical difference between an Indonesian and a Filipino, or a 1/4 Filipino blooded mestiza from a Francophone.

  10. It’s interesting that you would think I would ever, in all seriousness, suggest a US funded armed struggle in the Philippines. It says something about where you think my politics lie…

  11. I just wanna say that words and labels DO have ‘deep psychological’ impact. Its been researched and utilized. Words can be powerful because they determine what we’re conscious of, its shapes our perception, and articulates our feelings/thoughts. A simple phrase or change of label can have a huge psychological impact on whoever’s involved.

    For example:


    that phrase alone revolutionized mind sets and created an entire movement to inspire the eradication of self-hate in oppressed people around the world. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_is_beautiful)

    We also have witnessed that labels can nurture deep inferiority complexes, and that by changing labels we change the connotation, changing labels can have huge intangible empowering potential. In recent history we’ve witnessed this first hand:

    For ex:

    Underdeveloped -> Developing (AS IN COUNTRY)
    Handicapped -> Disabled
    Poor -> Low-Income
    Negro -> Black

    Ofcourse it works both ways:

    For ex:
    -> there is nothing “new” or “liberal” about these economic Globalization policies, but it sounds better than “Economic Imperialism” or “neo-colonial macroeconomic exploitation” and connotes something completely different, especially to the ignorant and uninformed.

    Thus, my point is that words and labels have extraordinary importance to them, no they won’t change military or economic policy/exploitation immediately, but they can change mindsets and have the ability both to empower and denigrate.

    And sometimes the name is changed but the resulting label is (intentionally) the same:
    For Ex:
    Coloured -> Visible Minority
    (minority – minor – inferior – negative, as opposed to ‘Majority’ – major – superior – positive)

    Its also embedded in the language:

    For ex:
    -A little WHITE Lie
    -Black Comedy
    —->what does the colour white or black have to do with lying, humour, or manipulating people?

    When I was in Zambia it was a huge source of pride to the people I met (especially the academics) that they changed their name from “Rhodesia” (after Brit Cecil Rhodes) to ZAMBIA following their anti-colonial liberation war in the 60’s which many bled for, it reinforced their sense of pride on a personal level and reminded them of their Triumphant victory for Independence against overt oppression (Even if it is more political than economic). They named it Zambia after the Zambezi River, a long and beautiful river that flows through the southern part of the African continent that begins in Zambia, Water symbolizes life and nature and this Natural wonder like themselves roots to a history millions of years old. No this doesn’t stop the neo-colonial exploitation occuring today, but at least it is a source of pride to an under-privileged and disadvantaged people, that are still fighting.

    While IT IS NOT AT ALL the most pressing issue today nor a priority nor even in the conscious mind of many, The name “Philippines” will ALWAYS root to a European King who conquered the lands and subjugated its inhabitants to something called Abject Poverty and cultural genocide. The “Philip pines” name roots to 400 years ago, but the people living in the Archipelago have been around for at least 22, 000. The NAME itself is a constant reminder of historical subjugation by an outside exploitive force. And no escapism or ignorance can change that past, but we can change the present to enrich the future. That’s what Decolonization is, it all starts in the mind and the mind is ruled by perception, perception shaped by consciousness, and consciousness shaped by words and emotions; labels, feelings and consequent understanding.

    I believe that everyone has the right to claim themselves, name themselves and linguistically liberate themselves.

  12. Myk,

    As a point of agreement, indeed words are important. Respect and dignity are due to others, and we ought to recognize them in ways that accord with their self-perception. But haggling over linguistic usage (in abstract, theoretical terms) is itself an escape from real bodies and real people and physical suffering.

    And it is interesting that the focus on history should be told in a tone of continual victimization. We should be weary of making broad generalizations that cast an entire people as ‘victims’. We should be weary of the tone of resentment towards the past. Let us not forgot the conditions in which this conversation is carried out. It is a particularly bourgeois one, among educated citizens of the First-world, fortunate enough to be granted free speech, the right to vote, a charter of rights, etc. which were themselves earned through continuous political struggle. But these struggles were locally grounded and continue to be. Who am I to speak on behalf of those half a world away?

    Insofar as ‘linguistically liberating ourselves’, I leave this to the poets and novelists coming up with new ways for using old words. The Noli was not a historical novel, but contemporary to Rizal’s own socio-politico-econimc milieu (which, as we all know, was written in the language of the colonizer [does this mean he was full of self-hatred?]). It would be a greater loss had the man wrote as his last farewell “What we Flipinos should call ourselves” instead of Mi Ultimo Adios.

    • Jermaine, I think you missed the part where both Myk and I said that this is not the priority issue in the country. That real life hardship comes first.

      Also calling a name change ‘victimisation’ is completely backwards. To do so would be an active exercise in retaking control of who we are, it is empowering and shows that we truly are independent–the complete opposite of a victim.

      It’s as if to say that a wife who was beaten by her husband and so divorced him and changed her last name was acting like a victim!

      As for Rizal, you forget that he himself understood the power of words. It was he and other ilustrados that first used the term “Filipino” to refer to the people native of the islands. Previous to this we were referred to as ‘indios.’ Only Spaniards born in the Phils was a filipino. I suppose that he was playing victim too? <–sarcasm.

      • Alex, yes I did miss that part.

        Perhaps, as an attempt to synthesize our diverging views, it should be said that language and action go hand in hand, where to call for the change in names is ineffective insofar as concrete realities remain the same. Following your example, you might have a divorced wife change her last name, but then inexplicably enter into a new, abusive relationship. If this were the case, neither ‘victimization’ nor ‘retaking control/autonomy’ adequately captures the circumstances.

        Regarding Rizal, you are correct. But it was only when he was studying in Madrid did the idea of using the term “Filipino” to refer to the people of the islands come to him. The Peninsular Spaniards (in Europe) did not make the distinction between ‘indios’ and ‘Filipinos’–they called ‘Filipino’ anyone who came from the islands. So these questions of ‘Who/what is Filipino’ are just ones I don’t find interesting as they seem beholden to a metaphysics of identity that an apparently ‘proper’ definition would solve.

        I think Martin Luther King Jr. had it right when he prioritized the language of justice OVER the language of race/culture/colonization, when he denounced unjust policies (Letter from a Birmingham Jail) OVER the denouncing of power.

  13. Caroline: No I would have responded the same to almost anyone, I am oblivious to sarcasm online. I take everything literally unless accompanied by note or smiley-face… sorry.

  14. Jermaine, I agree that name changes alone are impotent. Action is definitely the first priority. Looks like we did alot of running around just to end up at the beginning eh? 😉

  15. Jermaine,

    Its ironic that you don’t find questions of Who/what is a Filipino “Interesting”…lol

    and, as written above, I said “linguistically liberate *themselves”, not ‘ourselves’ 😀

  16. Myk,

    For any speculative proposition, there are three options for response:
    1) attempt to provide an answer by affirming or refuting it
    2) refuse to answer it (silence)
    3) attempt to shift the conversation in a different direction (perhaps to something more interesting)


    Intelligibility is very difficult.

    • I don’t understand what you mean by “Intelligibility is very difficult.” To what do you refer?

      • Oh, just that “Looks like we did alot of running around just to end up at the beginning eh?”–> It’s not always easy to make sense of what we want to get at. But that in itself is a whole other conversation.

  17. Heh. I still gotta say, I know Philippines is named after King Phil — but I’d be lying if I said I’d be happy to let some of the aspects of the Spanish aspects of what makes up Filipino culture go. There’s a lot of good shit there!

    Jose Rizal was super colonized and I don’t think we can diminish his contributions despite that. Its way too easy to dispel an entire civilizations contributions based on its crimes. There’s just way too much to weed out.

    The act of ‘weeding out’ is the thing that should free us.

    Probably my views might make me colonial, but then again I think we all to some extent — til someone walks into Kapisanan wearing a bahag having changed their name to MAKATUNAW (spelled in baybayin).

    Til then, we’re all varying degrees of colonized/decolonized!

    Put up or shut up, I say!


  18. I stumbled across this blog and I hope you don’t mind I put in my two cents worth. Filipino is love of country, family and community before self. Filipino is embracing another culture yet shaping it into what is readily identifiable as our own. Filipino is enduring all the changes the world has to offer and remain good spirited and hopeful for better things no matter what social strata you’re part of. Most importantly Filipino is adobo, sinigang and bulalo. =). Simply put there’s nothing like a Filipino in the entire world, and everyone wishes they were Filipino, regardless if we as a people were named after some foreign king 400 years ago..

  19. my pleasure.. i’m glad i found this.. =) yup i’m in toronto, mississauga if you want to get technical.. lol!. I think i watched one of your plays last year. it was about Edsa’86? Am I in the right group?

  20. Yes I understand that to an extent we are all varying degrees of colonized/decolonized,

    The question is:

    With the privileges endowed to us, to every individual and their varying degree of privilege (unearned advantage), what is your ultimate contribution and intention? And to where do you devote your time? For the present and future, on a Global scale?

    Beliefs and intentions are manifested through people’s own personal chosen living standards.

    The world will soon wake up to the harsh reality that in the End, Uncle Toms don’t change the socio-economic/political structures that chain our people’s standard of living, and that’s all it really comes down to. The socio-economic standard of living and self-esteem of a people. The same families that the Spaniards and Americans buttered up still own the country, and still oppress the people; physically, mentally and intellectually. The Neo-Colonial problem is world-wide.

    What’s your contribution?

    (This is not to point fingers, this is for everyone, including myself)

  21. Hey Myk!

    One day, I want a BIGAZZZ house and a NICE car and an iPhone! Believe dat.

    BUT — Betcha I’ll still be contributing til my dyin’ day… so what does that say about chosen living standard? I choose not to be poor. And… my privilege might help me promote some change, so HALE no i aint givin that up!

    at least bonifacio tore his cedula and i dont see no one tearing up their canadian passport here son!!!!

    if what you say is right, we are all guilty as charged!

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