Pinoy diversity in a hyperconnected world

Erin Sinogba
From the cultural imagination to national policy, there is a constructed idea of what 'Filipino' is or should be. So what happens when 'Filipino' isn’t always consistent?

“This nation’s more than a hundred years old. We should feel confident enough about ourselves to accommodate a range of expressions about who and what we are. If we’ve failed to cohere as a nation, it isn’t the fault of the anthem or of its singers, or because we’ve failed to sing the anthem to the one lawful beat, or flown flags with the prescribed shade of blue. It’s more likely because we haven’t been open and inclusive enough as a society in more significant and more material ways” – Butch Dalisay (The Philippine Star, May 18, 2009)

Erin Sinogba

MANILA, Philippines – Who is Filipino?

More than 100 years of independence have passed, yet the people who inhabit these lands still feel the need to ask the question and define who gets to embody the word “Filipino.” Many of us are entitled to legal evidence of our belonging to a “Filipino” people, through birth certificates, passports, or a driver’s license. Many of us are “Filipino” in heritage or by blood.

But what about the more subtle definitions of what unifies us as a people? Do we speak a common tongue? Do we share similar physical features? Are our family names easily predictable? Do we worship the same spiritual beings or hold the same values in our hearts? Do we call the same spaces home or pledge allegiance to the same flags?

Pinoy ‘preoccupation’

The creation of what we now know as the Philippines has historically been the result of unifying disparate groups of people under a common government.

The governing Spanish class united the vast lands of the Crown – inhabited by a multitude of indigenous people and merchant classes – under the name Filipinas. In the struggle for independence, numerous leaders and revolutionaries attempted to define a collective Filipino people, in order to assert its agency in overthrowing its colonial masters and actualizing its own distinct identity – a post-colonial phenomenon that theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak described as “strategic essentialism.”

Indeed, creating an essential “Filipino” persona or ideal has been a preoccupation for its people. Since the Philippines’ independence from its last colonial power, laws have been set in place to define “Filipino,” from the declaration of a national language out of many widely used regional languages, to the proper way to sing the national anthem. Strict rules about Philippine ancestry determine who can participate in politics, athletics and industry.

The embodiment of the Filipino, Juan de la Cruz, is shown consistently as a brown-skinned man in farmer’s clothing. Former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo spoke of the “deep Catholicism of the vast majority of the Filipino people,” while National Artist for Literature F. Sionil Jose has written about how “art always has nationality,” specifically referencing US-based National Artist for Literature Jose Garcia Villa when he said, “He’s not Filipino. There is nothing Filipino in his writings, in his thoughts.” 

‘Inconsistent’ Filipino

From the cultural imagination to national policy, there is a constructed idea of what “Filipino” is or should be. So what happens when “Filipino” isn’t always consistent?

What do we do with a Philippine passport holder whose first language is English and has lived half of her life outside of the Philippines? What about the football player whose last name is Younghusband, or the beauty queen whose last name is Raj? 

What about the young, dark-skinned Amerasian girl with dreadlocks or the tall, light-skinned man who speaks Spanish at home and Bisaya at work? What about the millions in the diaspora that have established their lives globally but still support the families they left behind? Do we have room in our spiritual landscape for a family that has embraced the Buddhist faith or for indigenous communities to practice traditional animistic beliefs, while participating in an overwhelmingly Catholic culture?

People with seemingly unconventional backgrounds have been met with mixed reactions. Some are embraced as part of the rich cultures of the Philippines. Others have been met with skepticism and even rejection. Recent comments by some public figures show that many people still hold on to stubbornly to rigid ideas of what “Filipino” is. One of these is the statement of GMA-7’s Arnold Clavio that members of the Philippine Azkals are not really Filipino.

Diverse culture

Views similar to Clavio’s are in stark contrast with reality. Over hundreds of years of history, the backgrounds and experiences of the people who identify with “Filipino” have been as diverse as the islands that make up what is now the Philippines.

Over 180 indigenous ethnic communities live throughout the country, speaking almost as many languages. Migration led Malayo-Polynesian and Negrito people to permanently settle in the islands. Eventually, Chinese, Indian, Arab, and Japanese merchants and traders arrived. Spanish and American settlers stayed following their respective occupation periods. In more recent years, immigrants from South Korea, Australia, and Germany, among others, have settled in the country.

At the same time, outward migration of Filipinos has occurred on a large scale. In 2010, an estimated 11% of the Filipino population, or 12.5 million people, was based outside the Philippines. Overseas Filipinos can be found in almost every corner of the globe, from next-door Hong Kong to the streets of Queens in New York City; from the oil rigs of Saudi Arabia to the main stage of a Hawaiian cruise ship. Many have also left the country for greener pastures abroad, whether to start life anew or to pursue long-distance loves, while maintaining ties with the Philippines.

Their children may not think of the Philippines as home, but they are endowed with opportunities to explore their rich heritage. All of these people are part of the Filipino experience and remain connected through global modes of communication and migration. Excluding them from any definition of “Filipino” leaves behind an incomplete picture of our people’s history.

Our cultural panorama is rich with the diverse backgrounds and experiences of people who are proud to identify themselves as Filipino, and they are an integral part of our everyday lives. They are our classmates and colleagues, the artistas that capture our hearts, the basketball star who scores the winning lay-up, the musicians blasting from our speakers, the merchant selling us our favorite food, the journalist who gives us the daily news, and the dreamers who work hard to improve the quality of living in the Philippines.

Our experiences may not be the same, but they all contribute equally to “Filipino” life. –

Erin Sinogba is a writer, anthropologist, development worker, and third culture kid advocate, based in Quezon City. She is working with an international NGO in Quezon City and volunteers with TCKid, an online community dedicated to people who identify as third culture kids and cross-cultural kids. She earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in Anthropology and Global Development Studies at Grinnell College in Iowa, USA and is currently pursuing a Master of Development Communication degree at the University of the Philippines Open University. She has grown up and lived in South Korea, the Philippines, Grenada, and the USA.