The people of the Philippine archipelago, with its 7,641 islands, are always asked this question: are you Asian or a Pacific Islander? Whereas this confusion can be attributed to the geography of the Philippines being in both regions of Asia and Pacific Islands, another confusion in its identity is intertwined with the history of the country and its people.
According to an anthropological study by Robert Bennet Bean in 1910 titled “Types of Negritos in the Philippines”, the inhabitants of the Philippines were of Australoid type characterised by kinky hair, black skin and diminutive stature. Here, it is observed that the “Negritos”, Bean’s term for the indigenous people of the land, “have been losing their identity” and noted that these indigenous people were once found in all parts of the archipelago but now can only been found in two remaining centres: Mariveles mountain and the Easter coast of Luzon. It is important to realise that this study was published in 1910 after a gruelling history of colonisation by the Spaniards.
“I’ve experienced from people and even my family that I’m supposed to be bleaching my skin and growing up, I hated the fact that I was dark-skinned” - Jane Carr, aged 21, brought up in the UK, explains the colonial mentality being very prevalent in her home life.
The comparison between the natives in the Philippines and Americans in Robert Bennet Bean’s study.
These depictions of the indigenous people of the archipelago could not be more unrepresentative today of the physical appearance of the Filipino people, and worse the ideology has evolved to pushing out those features in the part of the population that still inherit our beautiful origins. Today, Filipinos, like many other people of colour, are indoctrinated to the idea of fairer skin and western ideals which form a social hierarchy within society, with those adhering and conforming to the “western” ideals of having whiter skin and living a “western” life at the top. Often, these damaging ideologies are distorted to the point where it is idolised and uplifted. Perhaps a lifelong conundrum for many dwells on why the culture of the Philippines is what it is today and how we have adopted the beliefs and ideologies we have . The answer can be found in the history of the country and its people, and the unravelling effects of colonialism during then and less surprisingly, now.
“I think it’s a way of oppressing the connection to our ancestors because they have labelled their colour and identity as being negative.”- Mary Bacani, 26, Filipino, born and raised in the UK.
Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan first arrived on the islands in 1521 and claimed the islands for Spain. However, Magellan was killed at the Battle of Mactan, in the same year, led by the native Chieftain of Mactan, Lapu Lapu. Colonisation did not begin for another 44 years until 1565, when Spanish explorer Miguel Lopez de Legazpi arrived from Mexico and established control of Cebu, Panay and Luzon. These were prominent and established areas of trade and commerce by large coastal settlements that emerged in the 1300s where they developed substantial trade contacts with other nations such as China and Southeast Asia.
From 1565, these groups of islands found by Legazpi were named ‘Las Filipinas’ (The Philippines) after King Philip II and the Spaniards established Manila as the capital of the Spanish East Indies in 1571. Under Spanish rule, Catholic missionaries converted most of the inhabitants to Christianity and Spaniards founded many schools, hospitals and churches.
Religion was the choice weapon for the Spaniards to familiarise themselves with the natives and to gradually champion their own ideology for colonisation. Education was reserved for only the elite and those of Spanish origin, however it became further segregated to only those that spoke Spanish. . Controlling access to education and opportunities through the compulsory adoption of a coloniser language is a common theme in colonisation. The effect of Spain’s exertion of its soft power here has been successful even to this day in the Philippines.
The Filipino people, however, did not surrender at once. During the 377 year-long colonisation (1521 - 1898), at least 15 official rebellions occurred with the last one being led by a group called the Katipunan that rebelled until the ending of the Spanish rule of the Philippines in 1898. The liberty movement of the Flipino people was then aided by the United States during the 8-month Spanish-American war but it was without the liberty of the Filipino people in mind. The subtle irony of the American colonisation is still being debated by many Filipinos.
“A heroic depiction of Andres Bonifacio.” Bonifacio is considered the “Father of the Philippine Revolution” after he spearheaded the establishment of the secret revolutionary movement “Katipunan” to fight Spanish colonisation in 1892. Source: Philippine News Agency, 2018.
In the wake of the American triumph over the Spanish in December 1898, the annexation of the Philippines was achieved, and a Republic was born - The Republic of the Philippines. This was not the liberty that the Filipino people wanted and Emilio Aguinaldo, referred to as the first President of the Philippines, led the country into war that lasted 3 years, the Philippine-American war (1899 - 1902). Due to the lack of quality in military equipment against the US, the Philippines stayed under American control with the brief but brutal 4-year Japanese occupation between 1941 and 1945. On the 12th of June 1946, the Republic of the Philippines was granted independence by America and for the first time its people were free from its colonisers, politically speaking at least. Although the Philippines has been an independent nation since 1946, the colonists remain within its people in their mentality, behaviour, language and culture.
“There's a shame that comes with the fact that I cannot confidently define Filipino identity and even talk about the history and traditions of my culture to other people.” - Gim Osorio, aged 22, who was born in the Philippines and raised in the UK.
The various twists and turns of the Philippines and its people has clearly left its mark, existing even after 74 years of independence and reaching out to the generation of today. When we, as Filipinos, are asked about the identity of our people, many can’t help but flounder and look for words to truly describe what and who we are. Is it our language that defines us? The religion, customs and traditions that paint colour in our culture? Or is it the food that we most define our identity with? There is not one clear answer. The diverse cultures and identities that Filipinos posses have been added to and influenced by the various times that we were colonised. Filipinos have such diverse cultures and identities because of the long history of colonisation that has influenced our identity.
When asked to reflect on Filipino identity, R.H., aged 19, who was born, raised and living in the Philippines defines it as a “hotpot of different cultures….making the current Filipino identity not very original”. It is unsurprising that this is a response that represents a sizable amount of the population as we have been colonised thrice in the last 4 centuries. Because of this, another response from Mona Baldomero, aged 22, who was raised in the UK reflected that “...being Filipino is a melting pot of different identities and this is because of all the colonialism we have experienced, and I don’t really know who I am”. When the history of a country is such that it has been colonised and ‘modified’ more than once, it is easy to only see the negative effects. Although we do not have a deep-rooted idea of what our identity is, many have defining ideas of what makes them a Filipino. Jhobelle Alzate, aged 25, who came to the UK when she was 12 from the Philippines has said that “...family is first which makes me a Filipino, not just immediate family but my extended family too” whereas L.D.J., aged 20, who lives and studies in the Philippines has defined it as being “...our food, culture and landscapes”,
In listening and observing the Filipino language, it is easy to see the effects of colonialism on the country and its people even today. We speak numerous dialects within the country, but the main official dialects are Tagalog and English; Tagalog being heavily influenced and borrows a lot of words and grammar from the Spanish language. Chiara Sanchez, aged 21, who was brought up in the UK has said “...the news report and official documentation are rarely in Tagalog… and the language of authority is in English..” which reiterates the unacknowledged presence of colonial impact.
It goes as far as forgetting and erasing knowledge in our pre-colonial language, Baybayin. Baybayin is a form of Sanskrit present in the archipelago before it was colonised which was effectively lost in the written form. Although you can still see some remnants of this pre-colonial language in Tagalog today, most Filipinos are detached from Baybayin. This is through no fault of our own as most literary works and writings were destroyed during the colonisation period. It has become more of an artefact for the purpose of learning about the indigenous people of the archipelago, a time capsule of the past that Filipino people can reminisce but not enough to fully connect with.
“The Baybayin language” by Jacob Vijandre.
What we concurred from many of the people we interviewed is that there seems to be a hunger for identity in the midst of the confusion. Gim Osorio, 22, born in the Philippines, raised in the UK, admits that in her experience it came to a shock finding out that “..most young Filipinos living in the Philippines cannot speak Tagalog fluently..”. This fully exemplifies the continuous disconnection of modern Filipinos from not just the language but the cultural and its submission to western ideals.
“It [Spanish colonialism] was still somewhat negatively viewed because the colonisation of the Spaniards marked the beginning of the Philippines' loss of their own identity” - Franchesca Villaruel, 18, born and raised in the Philippines, and studying in the Philippines.
What people may perceive as one of the greatest gains that the Philippines had from their sentence with the Spanish colonisers is the inheritance of the foreigners’ religion. The Philippines is still the only Catholic country in Asia. Colonisers used Christianity, Roman Catholicism and Protestantism as their most powerful tools to conquer the Philippines not for the Filipinos’ benefit or spirituality but for the advancement and power of their colony. Catholicism is by far the epicentre of modern Filipino identity; in any Filipino household you will see small religious antiques, such as the Bible or ornaments of Jesus. Catholic influence goes even further to have a significant influence in the Philippine constitution. Perhaps a vital religious influence in the constitution is the lack of legal Divorce which is continuously dwelled upon by Filipinos.
“Divorce would probably be available to us if we weren’t Roman Catholics.” - Renz Marie Cauton, 24, who was born and raised in the Philippines.
Renz Marie Cauton, 24, who was born and raised in the Philippines, understands and expresses that “Divorce would probably be available to us if we weren’t Roman Catholics”. She goes further to say that “Without introducing Catholicism into the Philippines, Filipinos would probably still be diligently practicing animism..”. Animism is the belief that the objects, places and creatures all possess a distinct spiritual essence.
When asked as to why the Philippines is so heavily influenced by Catholicism, a religion that was forcibly imposed by the colonisers, those who have researched would conclude that it was because choosing not to be a devoted Catholic was seen as a rebellious act. Fray Diego del Villar, in 1595, reported that after seeing many men and women continue to seek the guidance of the Catalonan (a priest or priestess in Tagalog pre-colonial religion), the Spanish forced the Natives to burn all their idols in the village. Strategically, the Spanish tortured and forced Catalonans alongside other religious leaders to submit to Catholicism. Most Natives willingly surrendered and converted to Catholicism. The imposition of fear and violence is the colonisers’ most trusted dagger.
“Natives burning their idols” by Francisco C. Mendoza
The pain of colonialism is further emphasised and brought to the surface when learning that pre-colonial history is rich in traditional beliefs, customs and tales. Myths and folklore have been passed on through generations by word of mouth. As a Filipino, I am sure one would have heard many superstitions from relatives, mostly the older generation. These are actually small trinkets from our rich history of Philippine mythology which coincidentally has a very strong resemblance of Greek Mythology. The contrast between Roman Catholicism and pre-colonial belief depicts the wealth of history and culture lost due to colonialism.
It is evident that some of the most significant influence that the Western colonisers brought to the Philippines is that of their own Language and Religion. But by having to keep and uphold these ‘gifts’ from our colonisers we consequently are forced to give up our own.
In gathering and representing the views of many Filipinos in today’s generation, it is worth noting that it is not just the Philippines and its people that have been affected by this issue. Colonialism was a global catastrophe that happened hundreds of years ago, and still happening now in some parts of the world, that we are still recovering from. Present-day Filipinos, although having inherited more western lifestyles, still seek what being a Filipino really is. Even though colonialism in the Philippines is over, we are still constrained by the boundaries of colonial mentality and the devastating toll on our identity that we will never recover. It is an artefact that exists now only to be admired and remembered, but unfortunately not lived.
ROBERT BENNETT BEAN (1910) 'TYPES OF NEGRITOS IN THE PHILIPPINE ISLANDS', American Anthrologist, 12(2), pp. 220-236.
The Aswang project (2019) PHILIPPINE RELIGION: A Curious Thing Happened on the Way to Christianization, Available at: https://www.aswangproject.com/philippine-religion-a-curious-thing-happened-on-the-way-to-christianization/
FIlipiKnow (2019) An Ultimate Guide To Philippine Mythology’s Legendary Deities, Available at: https://filipiknow.net/philippine-mythology-gods-and-goddesses/