There’s a specter haunting Filipinos today. I came across its presence when I stumbled upon a Facebook post by Gio Caligiua, a fellow scholar in the university, one September evening.
He was analyzing the emergence of #Filipinx and #Pinxy. This month, media was abuzz about Dictionary.com’s standardization of these words as the name, term, or signifier for all native inhabitants of the Philippines. Supposedly, we would need to call ourselves Filipinxs if we wanted gender-neutrality.
Gio observes that Filipinx is rooted in US multiculturalism, where gender neutrality is part of the culture’s consciousness – implying that we shouldn’t be surprised at all by the popularization of such a word because Filipino Americans are battling the system of gender oppression and racism in the United States. He adds that the suffix of -x can be read as an homage to the gender-neutrality of Filipino culture (doubtable because we are still haunted by the specters of patriarchy, misogyny, and gender discrimination from the Church and the State). The US just made it more explicit. Then, he says we should not act like purists in a country crazed by the conflict between national and regional languages, a country where some think calling Filipino a language is problematic because it’s really just Manila Tagalog.
It is quite unsettling at first to encounter new words. And to read them on a Facebook post critical of “Filipino” itself as a national language (because Gio sees it as Manila Tagalog) and conflicting it with our identifier of ethnicity, seems quite a lot to handle. So I put on my glasses, opened my libraries, and read up on why this word seems to be popular among Twitter users today.
The practice of gender-neutralizing all gendered words began in the 1960s, with the purpose of supporting gender equality in the United States of America. Filipinx /fi-li-pin-eks/ was a new term that emerged in this decade, as somehow relevant to the Filipino American experience that is uniquely different from our Filipino/Filipina experience in the Philippines. Though we may see Filipinx as something to be celebrated, for its obvious acknowledgment of gender-neutrality borrowed from the Latinx and Chicanx communities in the US, we must resist such adverse essentializing of our identity, for it is not us. Filipinx might have the Filipino in it; it is almost the same – but it is not quite us.
If we use Filipinx here in the Philippines, many people, referring to the 110 million Filipinos (named and recognized by Catriona Gray during Miss Universe Philippines 2018), would bat an eyelash. Probably in shock of such a strange word, they would immediately resist such naming. Think of it too when applied to the department where I graduated: Departamento ng Filipinx at Panitikang Filipinx (the millennial child in me might even ask, “Is Filipinx the Pinoy version of Winx?”).
Absurd as it may seem, these Filipino American digital natives have proven once again the power of the American establishment to co-opt identities in their own sense. Haven’t we learned from history? The Philippine revolutions…the massacres…the campaigns for sovereignty…our fight to wield the Philippine flag, sing the national anthem, and freely express, “Ako ay Filipino.” To legitimize Filipinx as gender-neutral is to efface and silence Filipino as gender-neutral.
Filipino, despite the letter o in its spelling denoting maleness, is not quite the same as before. Especially in 21st century Philippines, the ethnic identifier denotes a collective identity, a mass of people — the indigenous peoples, women, peasants, fisherfolk, working class, unemployed, youths, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, non-binary, and many more. Filipinx alienates us who produce and reproduce language on Philippine shores.
I told Gio that Filipino transcends binaries and should be acknowledged as a gender-neutral word. Even though we have other gendered words such as Filipina, Pilipino, Filipina, Pinoy, and Pinay, Filipino instills that collective consciousness, which ties us to our fellow Filipino by mere ethnicity.
The Filipino is inscribed and involved in the conditions of crisis throughout history (colonization, Martial Law, pandemics, extrajudicial killings, US and Chinese imperialism, and the global war on terrorism).
The Filipino endures as our local way of seeing, despite the term’s origins in King Philip II of Spain. Proponents, users, and reproducers of Filipinx must acknowledge that it is Filipino American and should be redefined in Dictionary.com under Filipino American usage.
The Filipino also sees that she/her or he/him is “niya” and “siya.” The same words are also found in Bisaya and Hiligaynon. In Ilocano, “kunana.” Across society we hear a common sentiment: What could be more gender-neutral than the Philippine languages spoken by our fellow Filipinos?
Scholars on linguistics have also pointed out, however, that we must defuse this social media fury or gigil over Filipinx. According to Prof. Tuting Hernandez of the Department of Linguistics at UP Diliman, we must not give too much credit to the Filipino language itself because it also has exclusively male and female words for gender.1 He gives as an example the mere existence of babae and lalake as codes to identify biological or gender differences. Along with these distinctions are expectations that must be performed and are involved in the production of sexist language here in our country.
Despite its arbitrariness, sexist language still proliferates today. And despite the emergence of Filipinx in America, here in the Philippines, we are still battling the vestiges of patriarchy and colonialism. To think that a trans woman was murdered by an American GI and still hasn’t gotten justice. On social media, we would even hear how biased the arguments are against her, with people emphasizing her biological maleness. Sometimes it makes me wonder why we have to fight for these other Filipinos.
What is clear in this polemic is that American culture attempts to invade our linguistic agency. However, I am not dismissing the fact that we need a language in our own lived experience that battles sexism. I also believe dictionaries have the agency to codify and define arbitrary words from popular usage. In the same way, the Filipinx community has the right to organize, mobilize, and identify themselves with that movement because their needs began from their specific struggles to be assimilated into American society.
Yet, isn’t it much more empowering if we own the word Filipino than recreate a post-postmodern name that alienates many of us? I lodge this question to fellow Filipinos in the virtual world to be more nuanced in sharing or engaging with something as viral as #Filipinx.
I noticed that in America today the term for people of African descent has returned to “Black.” They previously used African-American as the more neutral term. However, with rising cases of police brutality towards members of Black communities, we see how they are again owning a word that used to be oppressive.
Why can’t we own Filipino like that? Filipino also used to be uncomfortable for Spaniards who saw its nationalist agenda, forwarded from two fronts by the Propagandistas and the Katipuneros, as contradictory and dangerous for the Spanish hegemony. Today, we own Filipino as an ethnic identifier that represents our imaginary connection with our fellow kababayan.
Why can’t we use the words Filipino, Filipina, and Filipinx in equal measure? Despite the deeply rooted conflicting debates on national language, the resolution is simple. Acknowledge that language is fluid/arbitrary and that it is lived and constantly shaped by a community of speakers.
After a string of comments on his post, I wasn’t able to talk again to Gio. But this message responds not only to Gio. We, the Filipino virtual community, have to resist Western hype and empower our languages in the Philippines to reproduce a more nuanced and non-sexist consciousness.
We are all Filipinos. Our concerns are deeply rooted in our social realities. Isn’t it much more important that we battle today the rhetoric that our mother nation is a province of another nation?
Have we really broken the chains that oppress and colonize us even in language, or are we seeing another symptom of what is yet to come? – Rappler.com
John Toledo, 27, is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Humanities, University of the Philippines Los Baños.
1 From Prof. Tuting Hernandez’s essay, “Ekis: The Gigil over Filipinx.” Facebook. 9 September 2020.