Ethnicity, language and so called nationalism

“Ano ba yan? Wala akong maintindihan!” such was the reaction of the person sitting behind me and my dad on a play at the Pasundayag Northern Mindanao 2011, held at the SM Mall of Asia. The person, who I would assume was Tagalog, was complaining because she couldn’t understand a single word of the play written by a person from Gingoog City, set in pre-colonial Northern Mindanao. Another guy left his girlfriend in the audience and told her he’d come back later because he couldn’t understand the language which was being used. The language, in an effort to exhibit authenticity, foster patriotism and the feel of the pre-colonial Mindanao, was in Gingoog Cebuano.

Bedecked in clothes based on Northern Mindanao’s Higaonon tribe, the play was about the beginnings of Gingoog City and how its fertile land, bountiful waters, and forests, made the place suitable for families and livelihood. The tranquility of the place however, was disturbed by another tribe which wanted to seize the territory as part of their conquests. The play would end with the people of Gingoog defending themselves against the invaders and preserving the way of life they had prior to the attacks of the other tribe.

While I did pay attention to the play and relished the use of pre-colonial settings and the use of old Cebuano terms commonly used in Gingoog, I could not ignore the reactions the play was getting from the Tagalog audience at the mall who were complaining and making fun of the presentation just because they could not understand it. They probably expected a play about pre-colonial Northern Mindanao to be written in Tagalog and presented in that language for them. I guess that’s the problem with a play written in another language, it does not show subtitles like those in a DVD movie.

A couple of weeks earlier, when Agnes and I went on our trip up north to Ilocandia, I myself was in that situation of bewilderment with the language which was being used before me. As soon as we boarded the bus at Cubao, Quezon City, Ilocano was already being used not only by the driver and conductor, but also by every passenger in the bus, and we had not even left Metro Manila. Instead of complaining, I sat down and observed the people around me and tried to pick some words which I think stood for those used in Tagalog and Cebuano. Agnes, being familiar with Ilocano, would also help me understand those which left me confused. I would later be able to pick some words which I used in talking with some people in Laoag and Vigan.

In Samar, I encountered a man with a bolo who had gone berserk after he had an argument with a neighbor he found arrogant. Apparently his neighbor was a dayo to the place who he considers to be condescending. From a distance, you would not want to get near the guy, especially if you see the blade he was holding. But being that the farmers I was accompanying would be passing through the stretch of road he was standing on, I and my fellow video documentor Paping, had to talk to the guy as the farmers walk by. Since this was Samar, the guy was spewing out words in Waray and neither Paping nor I knew the language. But sensing that Waray had some common words with Hiligaynon, we spoke to him with words we knew would calm him down and explain who we are and why we were passing through. And we did just that.

I have always found it fascinating that the Philippines’ archipelagic composition has given it several ethno-linguistic identities, each one speaking for the different indigenous communities which have long thrived in the country. These communities with their languages and traditions have survived the efforts of foreigners and even fellow Filipinos to make them abandon their ways for political, social, and economic reasons. They have withstood Christianization, colonization, and even “nationalism.”

In a country which has been blessed with more than 7,000 islands, 100 languages and dialects, it is our various ethnic traditions and culture which give us our unique flavor of national identity. And this rich multi-cultural heritage will only be preserved if we learn to appreciate these different ethnic and linguistic identities. This is the reason why I could not understand some Filipinos who tend to equate the use of language, more particularly Tagalog, to evoke the so called feelings of nationalism. 

In my experience moving along the national highway from Mindanao to Manila during the Sumilao March, I have been able to observe that while the use of Tagalog is useful in initiating communication with locals, it is more helpful and respectful to learn and use some words and phrases used in the local language.

To believe that one is a Filipino nationalist when one uses Tagalog instead of any other language is to ignore the fact that beyond the Tagalog speaking areas, the language is hardly used by other Filipinos outside the classroom. In fact, progressive activists, despite their preference for Tagalog “nationalist” songs, speak in Waray, Hiligaynon or Cebuano when speaking to the crowds in Tacloban, Bacolod, and Cebu. The use of these other languages is their way of professing their sympathy with the masses and nationalism.

I always find it disturbing when I see and hear TV shows, movies, and radio programs which poke fun at other Filipino languages. In the same way, I find it myopic that some Filipinos consider you a nationalist only when you profess your love of the country and the people in Tagalog. While at the onset, the former idea may seem bad and the latter admirable, they are actually the same animal coated in the different forms. Both ignore the fact that the various provinces and cities in the country have different languages which when used in their older or purer form evokes feelings of nationalism for these Filipinos outside Metro Manila. 

The idea of a Philippines moving as one country out of varied ethnic and linguistic communities can only move forward if we Filipinos do away with the feelings of condescension against our own countrymen from the areas outside Metro Manila. And this can start with developing an interest in the different ethnic and linguistic communities of the country. So long as Filipinos judge other Filipinos’ love of the country and the people on their proficiency in Tagalog, there will always be a great divide between the Metro and the rest of the country. There will always be Filipinos who are made to feel that they are not Filipinos just because they don’t use words like po and opo.



Author: ellobofilipino

Admit it, my last name's quite difficult to pronounce. It's read as kee-ling-ging.

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